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It Had to Be You

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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.

Chapter Text

The first day of Akihito’s dancing lessons with Sumie Hasegawa sensei is made up of some variations of this:

“You don’t need to look at your feet,” she would say, and slap a ruler against her palm, indicating how it is only a matter of time before she slaps it on Akihito’s person depending on just which part of his body he’s involuntarily tensing up and throwing his weight on again. “They’re your feet. You know where they are.

Akihito can probably lift her with one hand she’s so tiny, with severe looking glasses and a ballet bun studded with serviceable bobby pins, but she has a firm belief that backs can be straightened with a ruler and has shown him over and over that her belief is hardly blind faith, so by the end of an hour, Akihito’s inspired to stand taller from the click of her kitten heels alone.

And to think he was excited to meet her, if only because after pushing and pushing about who she is, Asami supplied that she was both his own dance teacher as a child and served for many years as his father’s secretary.

There are no childhood photo albums hidden away in Asami’s apartment, no hint of the man he is or used to be, but Hasegawa sensei has a little Asami stored in her head, rolls and rolls of negatives in drawers as exact as her steps, and Akihito aches to get at it, take them out of their neat manilla envelopes to spread over a light table, hungry for every little frame he’s allowed a glimpse.

But he’s never going to get anything if he keeps stepping first with his right instead of his left, all that dancing he’s already done molding him to follow instead of lead the way he’s molded to Asami’s body, constantly looking for that absent tap on his back just behind his heart, a hand to guide him into a turn.

“Men lead,” she says, and she paradoxically leads, standing to his left, calling out instructions that Akihito struggles to follow. “In a Foxtrot your body stays upright the whole time. Open up your shoulders — good. You are the foundation, a pillar of strength,” and she snaps her ruler at Akihito’s knee because he’s stepped to his left with the weight on the right again. “Commit your weight. You can’t afford to be wishy washy when you lead.”

Akihito’s spent most of his day stationary behind a tripod, sequestered in an air-conditioned studio waiting for models to stop complaining about their jobs so he floats into his dance lessons winged feet, but after two hours with Hasegawa sensei his limbs are filled with lead — even his insteps hurt.

“Why is this so hard?” he asks, genuinely baffled; he’d woken up more well rested than he has been in weeks and dancing the night before hadn’t felt like work but now an ache’s settling between his shoulders from the sustained tension of making like the spread wings of a crane. “Is it supposed to be this hard?”

“Leading? Oh yes,” she says, and she smiles so hard for a second that her eyes get lost in a mess of wrinkles, made finer by her glasses. “Ryuichi was worse on his first day — but he was only nine.”

In her empty, airy studio, burning private lesson hours, the south-facing windows lets in a hazy slant of sun, Akihito can feel those negatives developing in the light — a whole strip of them rolling out, with a little Asami caught in each frame, face serious and eyebrows all bunched up, stumbling through the same steps Akihito’s learning now. Akihito sees him like a shadow at his side, and he has no experience watching Asami learn anything — he knows scant little of Asami, period, though it was amusing watching him try to take pictures with a lens cap on — but he must have had subjects he didn’t like too, ideas he sneered at for being impractical, going apoplectic at having to learn to follow and then the much more difficult role of the lead.

It’s hard for him not to see Asami as someone that has always been and always will be, came to him fully formed like the moon; something that is larger than life and impossible to know close up, a force of nature at a distance, all the waters on earth following in its wake. It’s hard to imagine a future with someone whose past is shrouded, unknowable. This new information, as little as it is, feels like a lonely spotlight at the end of a long hallway: an unsmiling boy staring back at him with a stretch of unfathomable darkness between them.

It’s fascinating, and it makes Akihito overwrought to think of him that way — spilling over with tenderness — that Asami was once a boy that kept staring down at his feet, that sensei used to snap at, that stubbornly repeated and repeated the steps alone so he wouldn’t look incompetent.

“What was he like?” Akihito asks, curious.

Hasegawa sensei, being a most sensible taskmaster and the best dance teacher Asami can recommend for obvious reasons, one of which being able to negotiate like she spent far too much time with mobsters, says to him,

“You master the lead for basic and turn today, and I will tell you one thing.”

His face falls. “Just the one?”

“I will make it a good one,” she says, tips her chin down and stares up at him over her glasses, the way old ladies do — reassuringly uncompromising.

Akihito practices through the burn in his calves until sensei turns the studio lights on, learns the language of the push and pull and minute gestures of the turn and spin for Foxtrot, and sensei tells him two things:

One, tiny Asami Ryuichi liked sweet things: salt water taffy. She used to keep a bowl of candy on her desk for his visits. His father never forgot to order a case of Shimizu peaches in July — Ryuichi would come down from his room at dawn so he could be the first to see them arrive.

Two, he was tiny. Growing pains was a killer.

“He was adorable.” Sensei’s looking past Akihito then, like she’s travelled to the past, a golden and strange world she was once part of, nearly magical, and Akihito doesn’t dare interrupt lest she stop describing the peony garden, the overflowing camellias in Asami’s childhood home.

Akihito wonders when it was that Asami shed that past — discarded the child — to make room for the man who looks over Akihito’s shoulder, walking him away in elegant steps just before he bumps into furniture and walls. It makes him feel an out of body loneliness for him, the child living amongst adults in a palatial home. Akihito wonders if Asami used to wander the vast gardens, if he used to lie in the moonlight, if anyone cared when he went off on his own on the rare night that a party’s being hosted in the ballroom that no child’s supposed to attend, if Asami was young enough to like sweets still, would swindle desserts from the kitchen staff, sneaking it up to his rooms.

Akihito thinks of all the things Asami’s had to give up along the way, all the things he took for granted that Asami’s never had, and aches for the past and present of him; he feels it deeper than the soreness in his muscles, the tiredness in his bones — a cold hollowness like grief for the missing.

He wonders if there’s a language for that — being homesick, for someone else’s home.

When Asami comes in at his usual time of three in the morning, sliding into the empty spot next to Akihito without disturbing the covers, Akihito waits until Asami’s breathing evens out before he scoots over, presses his ear against Asami’s heart. And as he lies there, feeling helplessly restive, he’s filled with a need to be there, to reach through the years — as impossible as that sounds, as impossible as it is — to the empty rooms Asami used to haunt, to hold his hand, fold Asami into his arms so he could have someone to rest against.

He could never tell Asami this, and he’s not sure words exist for it, either; there is only the language of softly knitting their fingers in the night, over the steady rise and fall of Asami’s chest, and it feels like hiding his message in a bottle, putting it out to sea.

By the end of the first week Akihito’s mastered the international Foxtrot to the amazement of Hasegawa sensei who praises him with, “You have no talent, Akihito, but I must admit you do work very hard.” But sensei’s generous with her ruler and her criticisms and a cheapskate when it comes to her praises so Akihito counts it as a win.

Asami decides to celebrate Akihito's mastery by teaching him something harder and puts him through the frantic paces of quickstep, teaching him the footwork on double time over an angelic voice singing something romantic sounding, sweet, low and honeyed, so many strings in the background it could tangle up a universe, or at least, it’s doing a damn good job tangling up his legs.

“The name of the song is Bewitched,” Asami tells him in between a compendium of instructions — slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, what, oh no, back to the top — that sounds impossible to memorise.

Because he thinks he loves how liquid and slow the vocalist drawls over the notes, Akihito asks, “What’s it about?”

“Intoxicating oneself on brandy, mostly,” Asami tells him, tangles their legs when Akihito forgets it’s his quarter turn, and they have a near miss with a vase.

Well it’s awfully pretty for a drinking song, Akihito thinks, as he lets Asami park him right hip to right hip. It’s a closer stance than a Foxtrot and made entirely of turns, plays at a breakneck pace even set to a slow song and it goes sideways and forwards and back, and Akihito feels giddy on it, winded, makes him feel like an overtired child too stimulated to sleep — the ache of his evening lessons fading away into a familiar ache the colour of a yellowing bruise, mostly forgotten.

It’s hard to imagine anyone doing this in public, how with all these complicated steps they don’t barrel into one another like galaxies spinning out of control, colliding into black holes and sucking all the joy out of the dance floor. Every spin stepping in and stepping out feels like it has a life of its own, ecstatic, too joyful to keep track of trivialities like furniture and people, but Asami laughs when Akihito brings it up.

“What’s so funny?” Akihito pouts, and it could be a testament to how tired he is that he’s taking this so seriously — this fantasy of his, of pairs of dancers running into each other on the dance floor like bumper cars.

It’s later still then, Asami’s come home early to have dinner with him and Kirishima’s probably having hysterics back at the office over his overflowing inbox, but all his plans of leaving for work afterwards Asami has exchanged for mapping out every last one of Akihito’s new bruises instead, as if he can’t stand how dancing has marked him when he’s always been so keen on being the one to do all the marking like a fucking tomcat.

He’d rub at them leisurely, go over each with his mouth, suck a bruise on top of them to make them his own, making Akihito shiver as Asami kisses his left ankle, says the words into his skin, “I was just thinking how you’ve really learned to love dancing.”

Akihito’s not sure if that’s entirely true; dancing with sensei is like running an obstacle course. The challenge and the eventual mastery is a high, a thrill, like watching lines emerge over photo paper submerged in developer. He may be in love with watching his clumsy stepping in the mirror turning into something halfway graceful over the days. Sensei explains that this is the joy of mastering an art, and Akihito thinks he could become addicted to it. But he loves the pure happiness, the irrepressible giddiness he feels taking quarter turns around the living room with Asami, watching his face light up so vibrantly, as Akihito has never seen him.

“You’re a good partner,” Akihito says, biting his lip.

Asami’s working his way up and up, flashes his eyes towards Akihito long enough to say, “Maybe I should take you as my plus one sometime.”

There can be no meaning behind those words, it’s just Asami teasing him like he always has, running off at the mouth when they’re in bed just to make Akihito blush, but maybe Akihito’s had occasion for altogether too much hope lately; he’s seen women on Asami’s arm at these events before, watched them from a distance in his plain clothes feeling inadequate, and he’s thought about how ridiculous he would look on Asami’s arm, but he fears the yearning the most.

Akihito knows he has so much already, it would be greedy to want more — but his need for Asami only expands and grows as time goes on, like having more only increases his capacity for more, and there has to be a limit to this, he’s probably hit it already, already bumping into impossibilities.

What he hasn’t found is the limit to which he can want; Akihito isn’t any good at being content the same way he’s never been able to sit still, and all these living room dancing lessons are probably spoiling him beyond repair.

Akihito sighs when Asami pushes his chin into the back of his leg, over a particularly sore spot, luxuriating, and he hears Asami’s laughter, a soft and indulgent thing, and he can’t tamp down all the butterflies in his chest, in his stomach — it feels like the hope in Pandora’s jar, making its way out in a grin he has to hide behind a mask he’s making of his hands.

Ten days into his daily dancing lessons, Hasegawa sensei stops him after he stumbles on a chasse, following his momentum instead of changing direction like he used to, and says to him begrudgingly, “You are getting better.”

“Really?” Akihito knows not to take her praise at face value by now. (Sensei has a tendency to backhand him in the same sentence.)

“Thankfully you won’t need much more than the bronze syllabus. Most of the evening will be swing anyhow — it’s what’s in at the moment,” she says, and Akihito gets a bit suspicious at that — he’s picked up American swing in about one day, it’s easy and loose and the rules are meant to be broken severely — and he’s wondering if Asami’s been influencing things without his knowledge again when she drops the other shoe, “and you are quite stubborn, which helps when your talent for this is minimal at best.”

But they’re not doing swing right now; sensei never lets him settle into anything easy, anything he’s comfortable with for long. He’s still learning what quickstep she’s trying to teach him (which she assures is at the beginner level) and Akihito scoffs at that, because he’s sure there’s no such thing.

“You are acting far too stiff,” she complains, well, whose fault is that? He’s making a tall teapot with his arms for hours and the tension in his shoulders are killing him. It’s like tightrope walking, where the rope lies in spirals all over the wooden floors, and he’s holding out his arms for balance and the whole time sensei’s reminding him to smile because dancing is supposed to look like fun.

Maybe it will be one day, when he doesn’t have to count out the steps in his head, when dancing comes as naturally as breathing, the way Asami’s mouth curls like the corner’s tugged by the rhythm as they pivot around a corner avoiding the wall so narrowly Akihito can feel the cool of it brush against his elbow.

“Oh, it probably doesn't come easy for him,” Hasegawa sensei tells him later, as some sort of a reward for not giving up halfway through learning something called a natural turn that’s anything but. “You see, Ryuichi has no talent at this either. He was just an exceedingly stubborn child.”

“You mean he’s an exceedingly stubborn person,” Akihito says, and someone told him once — maybe it was Yama-san, he can’t remember — that as we grow older, we become more fully ourselves, and if that’s true then Asami Ryuichi must have been a little old man, or a spoilt child, there can be no in between. “He’s no less stubborn now.

“Ryuichi was good at — how do I put this — individual sports. As long as he could excel alone, then he would excel. Dancing requires being considerate of another person, and let’s say he was-” sensei spreads her hands, gives him what can be read as a meaningful look. “Forceful. If he was going to lead this way, he led that way. No amount of hints from his partner would steer him otherwise.”

Akihito blushes, sensei in turn hides her mouth behind her hands and giggles at him, so he says, “I didn’t say anything!”

“You didn’t have to,” she grins, puts a hand over his and pats him twice, softly. “Well, I’m very glad.”

The truth is, the person that Hasegawa sensei is glad for Akihito to know, he doesn’t.

When Asami Ryuichi was nine years old, when he was a little young master that called everyone by their first name, shut away from the world in a mansion with its own ballroom, gardens and high walls like a flower in a greenhouse, Akihito’s parents were still strangers in separate high schools.

Akihito thinks he’s by and large a practical person, not given to whimsy or impossible dreams, so he’s not sure what to do this new ache: the want to reach across time and distance, to find out about the Asami Ryuichi he’s never met. All of those years Asami had as a child, as a teenager, as a university student are all lost to him, maybe even lost to Asami himself, cut away to make an impervious man.

It doesn’t help at all, he thinks, that Asami doesn’t talk about himself — that Asami never wants to share. Whenever he sidesteps a question the gap only widens.

“I’m not anyone important,” Akihito says, unwraps a salt water taffy — after all these years, after having a bowl of it in her office for the young master, it’s become a habit. Now she hands them out to students at the dance studio, fills Akihito’s pockets with them after a lesson. “I just — keep his house clean and make sure he eats.”

They’re sitting with their backs to the mirror, watching the sunset paint watercolours, blooming into wisteria purples and camilla pinks on the parquet. Hasegawa sensei speaks in flowers; Akihito’s beginning to feel it bleed into his subconscious like learning his steps by rote.

She raises her head to look at him then, stopping her task of folding a candy wrapper into a rose. “But it is not only that, is it?”

"I — " Akihito doesn’t know how to tell her, whether he could tell her, he’s never told anyone. He says, so quietly that the only reason she hears him at all is because the studio is by a park, in the quiet parts north of the ToDai campus, far from the sounds of the roads, “I guess not.”

“I did that for his father, you know. Kept his desk at the office clean. Made sure he had lunch — and dinner when he worked late. He always worked late.” There’s a wistfulness in her eyes as she says this, and Akihito only thinks to glance at her left hand then; there’s no ring or the impression there ever was one on her ring finger. “If I didn’t intervene he would have died of a heart attack by fifty. Leave an Asami alone and he’d live on cigarettes and whiskey and nothing else. They’re awful.”

“Were you —” Akihito’s too curious not to ask, but once the words are out of his mouth he hears how personal they are, wants to take it back immediately.

She’s already wrinkling her eyes at him. “Sometimes, life doesn’t give us a choice,” she says, but contrary to her words she’s unravelling her rose, folding it in halves into a kite fold — the beginnings of a crane. “Some people can only love one person. And Akihito, you are very lucky indeed when that one person happens to be you.”

He doesn't believe it, he can’t, doesn’t dare believe it, but the hope builds in him like the folding of paper in her hand, like the steps he’s memorising, spinning into a crescendo — like it has come alive, the flutter of it knocking around behind his ribs, and it has grown beyond what he dares already, that if there were choices, they have fled from him long ago.

Chapter Text

At the end of three hours with Hasegawa sensei, Akihito feels as though the ache in his arms are bricks tied to his wrists — it takes so much effort to use chopsticks that he's reduced to whining at Asami over dinner, foregoing manners to sip at his bowl like a cat.

“I’m surprised you managed to make dinner,” Asami says, looking concerned because Akihito eats like a trash can most days and he’s barely managing three bites tonight — a combination of being overtired and snacking all day like sensei suggested and attempting to soak out his pains in a bath before making dinner — and then excusing himself from the dining room to sack out on the couch, curling his upper body over the armrest to stretch his shoulders.

Asami’s moved the sukiyaki pot to the coffee table, something Akihito would never do (there are rules to these things, shoes at the door, sukiyaki at the dining room table or a kotatsu if it’s winter) and it makes him wonder whether sensei is right, that part of Akihito is too attached to the steps, rigid and unyielding, and the thought makes his shoulders tense up all over again.

“Assembling a sukiyaki is hardly cooking,” Akihito says, cranes his neck to watch Asami sink into the opposite end of the couch, rearranging Akihito’s legs so he could run his hands casually over him, a bowl balanced precariously on his knee.

This is probably the kind of life other couples get to have, but Akihito can never be sure — living with Asami is a study in surrealism — and it makes the panicked excitement that's practically their version of normal feel like jumping off points. As much as he wants to bask in it, Akihito keeps thinking about when disaster may strike next, and he's mildly aware that he may be putting off normality because normality means he has room to think about what to do with his life.

This must be what the dog that caught the car feels like.

“Want me to feed you?” Asami asks, looking perfectly at home with domesticity.

“The answer to that is always no,” Akihito says, arch, but when Asami crawls over the couch to cradle his shoulders, lift him up so he can feed Akihito a spoonful of broth and a dumpling, he doesn’t bother fighting it.

He’s never been in a relationship before, the kind where you make time for dinners together, and Akihito’s not sure if he’s putting in enough effort at all; Asami’s the one coming home early so they can have these quiet interstitial hours between his time at the office. If he’s learning the rules of how to navigate the borders of another person from Asami, who has no qualms at all invading his space and would happily watch them dissolve into each other, Akihito thinks he may be fit for no one else — that maybe Asami’s the only one for him, that how entrenched he is in Asami’s life is just the natural order of things.

Maybe this, too, is like dancing; Akihito’s been following Asami’s lead the whole time, learning the steps by mimesis until they’re in lockstep together, the turns becoming natural and they zigzag along, backlock, run together towards the finish.

Akihito thinks of Asami looking over his shoulder, his eyes ever alert, and asks, “Don’t you ever get tired?”

“I’m human like everyone else, if that’s what you’re asking,” Asami says, leaning over the other arm of the couch, kneading out the knots in Akihito’s thighs, reaching beneath the bathrobe to rub tantalisingly behind his knees, working his way up. “Of course I do.”

Long before they were more than passing acquaintances, before he’d considered Asami anything more than a menace he had the misfortune of running into on an uncannily punctual bi-monthly basis, most of Akihito’s memories of Asami was of him looking tired and entirely passed out on his bed; all of them in the stillness of quiet mornings, staying long enough to commit him to memory. He’s had a lot more time to spend in his head since then to mull over the sleeping image of Asami: dark beneath the eyes and softly drooling into his pillow and arms reaching out towards the spot Akihito’s just vacated. It’s not like Asami’s underestimated him ever since their first meeting, he knows well how Akihito can be as destructive as one of those angry rubber balls you can get out of a gachapon, and he’s the kind of man that would weigh the risk and reward and has evidently found closing his eyes and drifting off next to Akihito worth the risk. It hasn’t occurred to Akihito at the time how rare that was, what a privilege to be trusted so deeply, to be allowed to see Asami’s bangs loose and his limbs loose and to sleep curled up in his arms.

These days, the only time he sees Asami so tired anymore is after a business trip, and he likes to think he makes a difference by being here, making sure he has breakfast waiting every morning. He’d accused Asami of wanting to cage him up before, but it’s all gone backwards; Asami’s probably never spent so much time at home before Akihito started sleeping in it.

When he first moved in, Akihito spent weeks astonished at the general lack of the penthouse, like a model home with designer furniture artfully placed and not meant to live in; there wasn’t even soy sauce in the pantry.

It takes some great effort — fuck, even the muscles he didn’t know he had hurts — but Akihito makes his way to Asami’s shoulders, crosses his arms behind Asami’s neck and sinks his thumbs into the muscles of his back, testing, finding them stiff and knotted all over.

He lies there draped over Asami, breathing in the fresh smell of bath-flushed skin for minutes, feeling the scrape of Asami’s stubble on his hairline. Akihito thinks he really does have the best and the worst luck; even if he is allowed to be as close as this, to be considered part of Asami’s private life, one he’s spun out of thin air since they met, he wonders when he’ll be close enough that Asami would complain about his pains to him, the aches he’s built up from leading.

“Hasegawa sensei would tell you to stretch,” Akihito says, pushing his fingers in — immediately wincing at the sharp pains he gets in his own biceps. “You’re all knots.”

He’s too close to see anything but the very mean corner hook of a smile, Asami saying, “Oh, are you offering to rub them for me?”

Sometimes, when Asami wants something he thinks he can’t have, he’ll either take it by force or make a joke of it, pretend he doesn’t care. That is to say sometimes Asami behaves like a spoilt child and Akihito is caught between calling him out on it or giving in, and he almost always ends up giving in — watching Asami brighten in surprise, in unexpected pleasure, to watch the smile come into his eyes is fantastically gratifying.

“Maybe I am,” he says, and presses his lips to Asami’s pulse.

“Your arms are sore,” Asami says, even and reasonable, but his hands are already pulling at the ties of Akihito's bathrobe, turning his head so he can lick at the seam of Akihito’s mouth. “But I know what isn’t.”

“Dirty old man,” Akihito accuses, grinning into the kiss.

There’s a hand in Akihito’s hair and it’s lovely and comforting until it isn’t; Asami goes from a soft hold to possessively gripping, blunt nails digging into his scalp and yanking his head back so Akihito’s gasping, arching into him, and like in one of the pre-dance stretches, his spine curls into a perfect parabolic curve.

“Do you have any interviews tomorrow? Anything that requires —” Asami’s mouth is beneath his chin, tracing downwards with his breath, “— talking?”

Akihito feels blood rushing into his skin, the tingle of his nipples coming to points as though they’re anticipating the electric, overwhelming heat of Asami’s tongue. He manages to say, “No — but since when have you cared about what I do the next day?”

He’s had to limp through the day before, thankful for not having to sit, had to take Asami’s offer of a driver and a limo so he could stretch out in the backseat, wore black pants because he was fucking leaking lube from a morning round. It’s strange of him to sound so considerate while at the same time looking so mean, and Asami proves him right as he lifts him under the arms so he can drape him supine over the armrest of the couch, coaxing him to leave his neck and his head hanging over the edge.

“I don’t,” Asami says, smiling wickedly and presses his weight over Akihito so his heat’s a provocation as well as a warning, folding Akihito’s arms away at his sides. “But if you are, I’ll make sure you look suitably wrecked.” He bites down then — enough to make Akihito gasp — in the middle of Akihito’s throat, over the soft skin where it hollows in, saying, “You’ll have to pretend you’re sick and write down your questions instead of asking them — but anyone who knows where to look will see the bruise on your mouth and know exactly why you can’t talk.”

Akihito will look wrecked anyway, he’ll feel every twinge and ache holding up his camera, and that must be the reason behind that sharp glint in Asami’s eyes — if Akihito’s going to be sore anywhere, he’d want it to be from him, remember every word spoken here when he tries to swallow. It’s viciously possessive and it makes Akihito want to deny how that makes him feel a twinge in his dick, filling up, a familiar ache in his ass, wanting.

“Don’t —” Akihito grits out between gasping as Asami thumbs at his nipples, his tongue dipping into the divot between his collarbones, and as the protest leaves him, Asami bites down again — soft, like a warning — over his throat like a wild beast. He wants to call Asami names, push at his shoulders, but he doesn’t. He just listens to his breath coming in fast, his heart beating faster, all the tension wound up ready to be sprung.

Any retort Akihito may have is lost to him when Asami wraps a fist around his cock and tugs, dipping a thumb into the little slit, sliding away frictionlessly so Akihito can tell he’s dripping, wet enough to coat the crown in slick. He’s so soaked with it the sharp scrape of Asami’s calluses against the tip of his cock feels velvety soft and Akihito bucks up to it, his complaints turning into a wordless whine.

“Don’t?” Asami enquires, amused, every syllable dribbling saccharine sweet. He makes a ring of his hand, squeezes tight at the base of Akihito’s cock, forcing him back down to earth. “Don’t what?”

Now that the pleasure isn’t so immediate and overwhelming, Akihito mouths off, “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Such a mouth on you,” Asami chides, pushes his fingers into Akihito’s mouth so he can taste bitter salt on his tongue.

Akihito’s not sure what happens there, can’t fathom the chemistry surfacing his desires, making his eyes glaze over, stretching his skin hot and tight, setting off a buzz running underneath his scalp like a fever.

“Want me to fill you up that badly?” Asami teases, his gaze hot on Akihito’s mouth.

Shut up already, Akihito thinks, his mouth busy nursing at Asami’s fingers and wordlessly saying yes please around them. He can feel two digits probing the back of his throat, a thumb stroking his lip, pushing in to trace the contours of his teeth.

He’s not sure how long they stay like that, but the whole time he’s staring out through the fringe of his eyelashes, he’s warmed by the way Asami’s looking at him, heated and fixated on Akihito’s bottom lip, at the open, wet pout of his mouth as he keeps thrusting in, sliding the rough underside of his trigger finger along Akihito’s tongue. It’s hazy, easy, feels nice like a hand stroking through his hair, except better. Here, Akihito can feel Asami’s cock through his robe, hot and unyielding between his muscular thighs, and every once in a while he’d see Asami suck in a quick breath and throb against him. It makes Akihito want to pull his knees up and beg for it, but he’s hemmed in, held down, Asami’s legs caging and hard on either side of him.

Asami makes a noise like a hmm, considering as the corner of his mouth quirks, and gets up from the couch so Akihito has to feel his loss all at once, inside and out, heat and pressure lifting away. The noise Akihito makes is awful — somewhere between a gasp and a cry, panting after him, shameless.

“Shh,” Asami shushes, circling around the couch like a shark. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Akihito hasn’t noticed how hard he’s been getting; his cock’s a hot brand across his stomach, and wet beads at the slit keeps dripping down — the cold tickle of it on his skin making him shiver.

Lying down on their couch like this, he can only register movement in upside down, indecipherable shapes. All the living room lights are haloed through the clumped wetness of Akihito’s eyelashes, so he feels Asami’s hand in his hair before he sees him; close enough for his eyes to be a blur and his lips soft on Akihito’s hairline, pressing down kisses. He combs through Akihito’s hair, smoothing his bangs back, fingertips leaving tingling trails on his scalp and it’s too sweet — he’s not getting enough skin, not getting the sting of Asami’s fist in his hair, so he keeps whining, “Asami —” and the ache in his back alerts him to how he’s rolling his hips, bouncing his cock off his stomach. He has no idea what he’s asking, “— please.”

“Careful what you wish for,” is what Asami says, his upside down expression perfectly unreadable, his hands smoothing over Akihito’s shoulders and holding down his arms, thumbs digging into the tightness there, rubbing in. “You’ll complain about it being too much in about a minute.”

Give it to me, Akihito thinks, and he probably says it out loud in between the pleas; he’s feeling fit to burst out of his skin, wants Asami to fill up this hollow ache in him, touch him anywhere, everywhere, press his body all along him so not an inch of him would feel cold, would go without his heat.

“Keep your hands right where they are,” Asami says, and undoes the ties to his robe.

Akihito’s left to clench his fingers into the cushions, his arms and shoulders one tense mess with his head hanging backwards over the edge of the armrest and making a strangled sound at Asami’s fist wrapped around his own cock, dusky red and glossy at the tip. His ass twitches and he wants so badly he can feel a pulse counting away the seconds at the end of his dick.

The robe falls around him like a veil and Asami’s chuckling softly above him, then the heat and smoothness of his cock’s brushing at Akihito’s chin, drawing a line of slick on the ripe red edge.

“Open up,” Asami says, salty and hot on Akihito’s mouth. He doesn’t really need to ask, Akihito’s hollowing his cheeks to suck him in, struggling to lick his way around the head and he feels Asami grip finger shaped bruises into his arm like it’s taking all his self-control to not push his way in. He sighs, just a note of strain when he says, “That’s...lovely.”

That makes him flush all over. Akihito really doesn't want to examine it — if it’s the approval or the way Asami’s voice is pitched low and loose, how Akihito’s been able to strip the trappings of control off of him with his mouth. Asami’s shallowly scraping at his tongue, working him open, making him wetter; Akihito’s eyelashes are already beaded with tears, and now the inside of Asami’s thighs are brushing at his temples and smearing it into his hair, murmuring and sounding gratifyingly scratchy and frayed, “Let me in,” he says, pushing the wide head of his cock at the back of Akihito’s throat.

Akihito’s done this part before, he can fit Asami down his throat when he wants to, but he’s never done it quite like this, on the bottom and backwards, his neck and chest exposed and his mouth and throat in a line, and Akihito can feel Asami’s eyes on him, his hands on him, and the thought of him losing himself makes Akihito’s cock jump.

“Just keep yourself open, Akihito, relax — this is easier than what you usually do,” Asami tells him, and moves his hand to Akihito’s throat where it sits warm and eclosing, a reassuring weight.

Ah, this is bad, Akihito thinks — the moment Asami’s hand strokes down his throat, thumb and forefinger on either side like he’s trying to feel himself, find himself inside, Akihito relaxes like he’s made for him and swallows him down easily with a barely there sharp pain and the flared head of his cock pushes through.

A muffled moan vibrates through him, a plugged up shout, and Asami leans over him, his breath a tease at the head of Akihito’s cock; he rakes his fingernails down Akihito’s chest, slides through the slick collected in his belly button and smears the lot of it down and down past his balls to tease at his hole. Akihito clenches up over the tips of those fingers, please, the muscles in his legs jumping, pushing against Asami’s arm and he swallows until Asami pushes his cock in deeper, until it goes past fitting, until Akihito can’t breathe at all, his chest seizing up — until pinpricks of tingling pain breaks hot all over his skin.

His head buzzes and he feels foggy and he can’t tell if he’s blacking out or it’s just dark from the robe falling like a curtain around him, blocking out the light, and Asami’s thighs are over his ears, his body claustrophobically encompassing, so all he can hear is his own humming like he’s underwater. When Asami slides his way out, he gives him a few seconds to take deep breaths — and Akihito fills his head too quickly with oxygen, gets all light-headed and giddy on it — he’s dizzy, and chases after him, licks beneath his cockhead with the tip of his tongue.

“Unbelievable,” he hears Asami say under his breath, stubble scraping the inside of Akihito's thigh, and then he’s pushing him harder this time so each slide gives Akihito a scratch of hair on his lip and the slap of skin on his nose, and Akihito thinks, finally, and his eyes roll and the strain rolls out of his muscles as he loosens up and falls into the lazy lassitude of giving Asami a space to fuck into.

Akihito feels intoxicated; drunk on the nonsensical sweet words coming out of Asami’s mouth with the intimate babbling he does, praising Akihito on how well he’s taking to it, how tight and soft he feels on the inside. There’s skin hot on Akihito’s skin, arms wrapped around his thighs, a tongue running along his cock, tracing a vein; that’s all far away though, a distant thing compared to the immediate pressure in his mouth, desperately swallowing so Asami could feel him, and Asami grows harder and bigger in his throat, the muscles in his thighs going taut over Akihito’s cheeks, the air between them turning to steam.

They’ve never gone at it this fast and this hard in his mouth, but Akihito doesn’t really mind it. Like Asami’s said, it is easier upside down even though he’s not sure why; he’s never on the edge of gagging even when he’s all plugged up, Asami deep enough in him to take away his air.

“You like that,” Asami tells him, like it’s new — like Akihito hasn’t always gone half-lidded and painfully hard when he gives head. “Every time I thrust all the way in you tighten up back here.”

It’s not an answer, but Akihito thinks he must twitch in Asami’s hands, cock throbbing against his tongue because he feels Asami’s laughter rippling through his belly, sending it rumbling up to Akihito’s ribs.

“Akihito,” he hears Asami say, but he can’t be sure what he’s hearing anymore, his shoulders are finally loose and all the tension has drained out of every part of him to coil up like a snake in his belly. Asami’s walking him in inelegant steps towards the roiling centre of them, backwards through the tightening loop of a spiral; all Akihito has to do is trust in his solid, certain hands.

There’s probably a hand rubbing over his balls and fingers up to the knuckles in his hole, but Akihito can only feel a distant pressure, his cock enveloped in so much heat he’s immolating, burning away in a bonfire. But closer and immediate, all the sensations are jagged and sharp as Asami pushes all the way in his mouth, flared out and lodged in there like he’s in there permanently, belongs there bulging in Akihito’s neck. This can’t possibly be what Akihito wants, let alone what he needs, he’ll never be able to ask for this, what did Asami say? To make him feel suitably wrecked, but he’s lying there all filled up, his throat fluttering around Asami’s cock and his ass fluttering around Asami’s fingers and he hears his own whine of a moan, his whole body shaking, shivering apart as he comes and comes.

He’s tremulous on the come down — all seismic shuddering down his spine — and he’s only now becoming aware of how Asami had his mouth wrapped around Akihito’s cock, how hot the inside of him feels. Asami’s running his tongue just beneath the lip of his cock, wet and rough and desperately out of sync so Akihito knows to brace for it, letting his mouth go completely slack just as Asami’s shooting spunk down his throat, spilling out of side of his mouth, and then burying himself to the hilt so Akihito goes entirely mute. The slip of it makes the going easier but none of it helps him breathe. Asami’s whipping a hand up his cock, slippery from his mouth and cum, and it can’t be possible that he’s hard again but he is, half passing out and floaty with a cock still down his throat. Akihito’s flying the out of body high and remembering how Asami would fuck him, a hand clasped tight on his neck, squeezing, so when he comes again it’s with a memory of Asami looking down with the weight of weeks of missing him, the tight sleeve of his mouth pressing on his cock on all sides, and when he moans brokenly, seeing the afterimages of stars as he squeezes his eyes shut, it feels like a surrender — the capitulation of giving himself over.

He’s still feeling faint when Asami’s right side up in Akihito’s vision at last, kissing the corner of his mouth where it hurts, where it’s probably split and bleeding, the entire inside of his mouth raw and bruised.

“You okay?” Asami asks, but Akihito just nuzzles at him, turning his reddening cheeks into Asami’s neck, too sore to say anything and too shy to admit how good he feels, tasting blood on his tongue. He’s far from okay, he’ll hurt all over tomorrow, inside and out, and remember. He croaks something incomprehensible at Asami as he picks him up off the couch, Asami’s hands sure and solid behind his shoulders and beneath his knees.

“‘Mm fine now,” Akihito says, as Asami pulls the covers over him and presses gentle kisses to his neck that feels apologetic, and no wonder because Akihito can’t understand what he just said either.

“I have to go back to work,” Asami says to him and sits by the bed, his fingers lingering in Akihito’s hair like he wishes he could stay, so it feels natural then — no, necessary, as pertinent as getting a breath in just a minute ago — to drag him down and demand kisses, feel the sting of pressure over the cut on his lip.

It feels too indulgent, exploratory the way they’ve never found the time for. Akihito lets his mouth fall open so Asami can lick into him, soothe the swollen, sore pout of him, the urgency of want fading into something warm and sweet. He must fall asleep like that — because it’s hours later that he wakes in the dark in time to watch Asami pluck at the buttons of his white shirt.

Akihito blinks up at him, sleepy, and croaks out something like a “Hi” that doesn't sound like that at all. The soreness in his throat’s full blown now, sharp. It’ll hurt him more than all the other marks Asami’s left on him, more than all the accumulated aches from dancing, make him press fingers at his lip, remember him every time he swallows.

“I’m home,” Asami says, sitting at the edge of the bed to stroke the back of his fingers over Akihito’s cheek, his jaw, over his throat, looking at him fondly.

It’s too dark to see more than the suggestion of shapes, but Akihito makes out two coal black glittering spots, barely lit by slanted shafts of moonlight coming in through the slats of their vertical blinds. He’s not sure what time it is, but there’s a smile tugging at Asami’s mouth, and Akihito reaches out with tired arms, drawing him in — to touch his chin and whisper, mouth moving against his skin in words he hopes Asami would understand, “Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

Akihito spends a full ten days learning International Quickstep, with some minutes set aside for the cha-cha and East Coast Swing because even Hasegawa sensei, who has no qualms at all admitting she’s a demon, can see Akihito will be useless at this gala he’s learning dancing for if she breaks him for good. Even so, his legs are more bruises than skin and he’s curled up on the dance floor in the fetal position for upwards of five minutes in silent protest at the evil that is quickstep before sensei declares enough is enough. He’s just barely adequate, it’s not like Akihito’s going to be entered into competitions — and starts teaching him the rhumba and the cha-cha.

They did draw up a syllabus list on the first day of lessons and followed it for the most part, but Asami ended up vetoing a quarter of it because he’s a fucking tyrant and a control freak, and wants to teach Akihito the Tango by folding him up against every wall in the apartment.

This is largely due to Asami having one too many over dinner and having opinions, declaring International Tango soulless, that it may as well be a foxtrot, and that if they’re doing this for fun, they may as well go for the real thing.

Argentine Tango is composed of a series of vertical fight picking that gets progressively aggressive with the way Asami leads it, yanking akihito in until they're chest to chest and turning him out to dips that are just dressed up frotting. Whomever invented it must have had the self-control of a bottisatva, because Akihito barely gets the basics before Asami gives up on ignoring the erection in Akihito's pants and abandoning evening practice completely.

“Now do you see why I said you don’t need to learn it?” Asami says while throwing Akihito’s legs over his shoulders, balancing Akihito’s weight painfully, the points of his shoulder blades digging into the wall. “There are going to be kids there so the band’s not going to play a Tango — you’d traumatise them for life.”

“Nobody’s going to dance with me the way you did,” Akihito says, eyes flashing from adrenaline and getting incrementally glassy as Asami trails kisses down his chest.

“No,” Asami says, dipping his tongue into Akihito’s navel, grinning wickedly. “I should hope not.”

They don’t get more dancing practice in after. Akihito’s never going to have much use for the follower part, and all of Asami’s insistence of helping does nothing but fuel Akihito’s fantasies, lingering dreams sweet as candy floss that he actively ignores, letting them spin into cobwebs in the recesses of his mind.

There is no way he’s ever going to be able to do a Tango — not even with Asami, or especially with Asami, he can’t quite decide — in public. The more time he spends dancing with Asami, the more discontent he feels; it gnaws at him like a monster in his chest, as if whatever feelings he’s been having that he’s been nursing that’s grown glossy feathers and watery eyes also has claws, and they rend at him incessantly, makes him imagine things and ask questions he’s never even dared form sentences for, as though by thinking them he would be admitting to these proprietary feelings he has, when he’s always been so adamant that he doesn’t belong to anyone.

Later, when both of them are too tired out for anything but to lounge in bed yet still too early for sleep, Akihito thinks of all the invitations that arrive in their mailbox, every oversized foil stamped envelope that goes to Asami personally, all the ones he gets as CEO of Sion that Kirishima keys into his agenda at the office that Akihito never gets to see. His brain is probably overloaded with his day so he doesn’t think much of it before the words tumble out of his mouth, “Do you dance at all these things you go to?”

It’s so brazen, so possessively embarrassing, that Akihito instinctively snaps at himself, oh no, and he’s suddenly glad that the lights are off so Asami can’t tell how hard he’s blushing. He squeaks out a nevermind and turns his cheek into Asami’s elbow as if that’d save him.

“Not...necessarily,”Asami prevaricates, and Akihito feels his heart sink with every syllable. That’s worse somehow; Asami’s trying to make him feel better when he’s done nothing wrong. “Akihito —”

“I said nevermind,” Akihito bites out, and tries to extricate himself from Asami’s arms — but Asami’s not in the habit of letting him run away at times like these.

Asami’s hands are as firm as steel, his palm a warm anchor behind Akihito’s neck. “It’s strategically prudent to dance with a business partner’s daughter when they ask, but usually I’m too busy networking for the dance floor,” Asami says, and Akihito expects him to do that thing where he changes his tone to tease, make it sound like he’s explaining the birds and the bees to a five year old. “Sometimes I use it to figure out if a politician’s wife shares her husband’s views, if they can be influenced.”

It sounds as terrible as all the other times Asami talks about people — Feilong, Sudoh, the ‘whom’ matters far less than the ‘how’ — like they’re Koma on a Go board to be used or discarded at will. A year ago Akihito may have called him out on it, but he’s seen enough and had enough close calls to appreciate Asami spending every minute outside of their home being strategically prudent.

Akihito doesn’t go with his first retort of “You’re terrible” like he’s done before, and says, instead, “That doesn’t sound like fun at all.”

“It’s fun like a chess game is fun,” Asami says, overtly bored.

Dancing should be fun, and even without her death glares and slapping at his back with a ruler, he thinks sensei is right: it is fun, even with her, copying the way she shifts her weight with intentional, purposeful ways, learning how to move his body gracefully, making the extension of his arm look effortless, feeling his muscles strain and tense and the release as he double-steps and taps, every squaring of his elbow choreographed in a flow of geometric patterns. He can see why Hasegawa sensei has dedicated her life to cultivate it in children, to plant the love of the dance in a country where stillness is valued and the jittery energy of his childhood considered taboo.

With Asami, dancing is a singular experience, frictionless, all the joy and effervescence of drinking, the soft buzz he gets at two flutes of champagne, laughter bubbling out of him as the world spins.

Akihito doesn’t like to read himself too closely, but he’s only certain he knows how to read Asami when the music’s playing — all his pages riffling in between the notes, going by at triple time. He knows that Asami doesn’t think of dancing with Akihito as a chess game, but Akihito only has a nebulous idea of it, abstract, gauzy like everything else that hangs between them. It seems a trifling thing to ask a man who values Akihito’s life over his own how he feels about dancing, but Akihito knows this: Asami had an empty fridge and an empty hallway and an empty bed before they met, only knew how to smile like the sharp edge of a knife. And now at two handspans away, as he leads Akihito through a Foxtrot on all the wood floors of the house, he ends every song with a laugh that rumbles in his diaphragm, that Akihito can feel through the press of their bodies at the far end of a dip, Asami’s hand splayed protectively, possessively on his lower back.

It has to be ungrateful to find this much insufficient, to feel cheated that they could never be more than this when this makes him tongue-tied, out of sorts, in the presence of something ineffable that heats him from the inside out like he’s swallowed a star.

But there is that tiny hollow inside him that has no name, growing colder and bolder by the day, asking for all the things he can’t have. In it, he’s always chasing Asami’s back, watching him smile at people he shouldn’t, people who think they could have him if they clung hard enough — tried hard enough. When Akihito thinks he’s hoping too much, he retreats to the gelid comfort of this space where none of the heat Asami pours into him can reach, where he can remind himself of who he is, what they are, where he’s not tempted to ask those questions he has no right to at all.

“Do you ever dance the Tango?” Akihito whispers, mouths the words against Asami’s collarbone.

Akihito’s never certain how Asami can read him like this, maybe he really is an open book, but Asami must know how empty he feels waiting for an answer, his hands aching from the cold.

“Not since I learned it,” he says, knitting their fingers together and feeding his words into Akihito’s mouth so they can sit in his stomach like hot coals.

The cha-cha is easy to lead and hard to follow. Akihito watches sensei go through the spins, surprised at how many steps she makes up for each simple pull of his wrist.

There is an artsy waist-down photograph of her in the foyer of the studio, her legs clad in stockings and Mary Janes, the metal glint of a tap showing on the edge of her shoe and her skirt blurred by movement. Sumie Hasegawa must have been a stunning woman once, still beautiful when she dances, running through the gauntlet of steps with each pull of Akihito’s wrist in the blinding, celestial spins of a cha-cha.

“The lead is like a sun in cha-cha,” she tells him, trying to convince him not to utilise some of the steps that would move them across the floor, but it’s so intimidating when the form isn’t written out for him. “The follower is a planet — she revolves around you, turning both in her own orbit and yours.”

“It doesn’t sound like I have much to do,” Akihito says, not understanding this one bit. “The sun just sits there, doesn’t it?”

"Only from where you're standing, dear," she says with a cryptic smile, one eyebrow raised, and demonstrates a turn-step for him to follow: when she spins back in, she lands in a different place, her steps inexact and flexible and bend their way back to him. "See? It's easy to follow if you lead well — if you're subtle, your partner barely notices."

Akihito’s not sure how good he is at being subtle, but he thinks he likes the way hands work when doing the cha-cha, the clasp at close quarters woven and tight like a knot; the way they have to pull apart into a bare pinch on three fingers to go into a spin, heavenly bodies in loose formation, held together by gravity. Even when they part to turn in sync, in opposite directions like drawing out the figure for infinity, an eternal braid, their hands would clasp back together as tightly as before and seem impossible that they were ever apart.

He gets home too late for dinner and finds Asami leaning back in his armchair drinking scotch on an empty stomach, insisting that Akihito must learn ‘real’ cha-cha and not that 1950’s American washed out travesty arranged for big bands.

By the end of one song, Akihito falls into the sofa in a heap. “Let’s not do that again,” he huffs out, breathless, his legs as worn out as an old dishrag. “I’m pretty sure the Awards show hired a big band, anyway.”

“I did see Tea for Two on the set list, yes,” Asami says, having already passed that list to sensei for last minute adjustments to his schedule.

American cha-cha: a playful clasp of two hands, playful spinning around one another, some mild bopping and an occasional brush of the hand. Akihito can sort of see Asami's point, but it's easy, and Akihito could use more easy right about now.

Asami makes a face that’s as close to a sneer as he gets, a smile with a line between his brows, “What a terrible perversion of Latin dance.”

“You have opinions, I see,” Akihito says, raising himself off the couch to watch Asami stand there with one hand on his hip, one hand over a tumbler of scotch and a sickened, disapproving look on his face. It’s a riot.

“Big Band music is just watered down jazz,” Asami downs the rest of his drink, and by the looks of the bottle, his fifth. “So it would be perfectly reasonable, of course, that the great American bandstand also watered down Latin Dancing into something so sanitary you can go through most of it without even touching.”

“Why are you like this?” Akihito says, but it’s with a grin behind the slits of his fingers, with barely contained laughter.

It’s funny the way Asami can throw each and every societal rule out the window and be a stickler about the most specific things, gets attached to brands of whiskey or cigarettes, or goes to the same tailor for all of his suits. He’d probably quit smoking if Dunhill goes bankrupt.

Watching Asami pour himself a drink out of bottle with a familiar label makes Akihito hopeful for things he probably shouldn't want — that if he sticks around long enough, Asami would become habituated to him the way they've become a part of him; Asami has made room for Akihito as easily as if there was already empty space here: an empty room for Akihito’s things, empty shelves for his collectibles, empty cabinets in the pantry for his favourite snacks, an empty side in a gigantic bed he has claimed but always ends up tangled up in Asami’s side by morning. Akihito's always switching their pillows around so they’re never quite Asami's, or Akihito's, they're just theirs, and Akihito can turn his head into them whenever Asami's late home and breathe in like Asami is his home. Their lives have woven together like all the variations of the quickstep into the International syllabus, and it makes him wonder if maybe Asami won’t ever switch him out for anything new, either, that he’s become as attached to Akihito as he had to all the other details in Asami’s life.

He can’t help how fond he feels as he stares at Asami’s hand over his glass tumbler, and says, “You always did strike me as a bit of a purist.”

“Some things are worth enjoying just the way they are,” Asami raises his glass. “Like scotch.”

“Or sea urchin sashimi?” Akihito suggests.

“Yes,” Asami says emphatically, and Akihito must have miscounted because he’s just a hint flushed and far too talkative. Asami goes on, pointing a finger and half holding his glass at Akihito, nearly spilling his drink. “And that is why I’m never trying those uni-flavoured potato sticks.”

It leaves Akihito no choice but to defend the honour of the Calbee potato chip company, “They’re good!”

“Would you eat your sea urchin off a slice of potato?” Asami asks, in the same tone as Akihito’s mother did that one time he nearly put a spoon of sugar in his green tea by accident, supposedly.

“No.” Akihito admits that sounds disgusting. “But a flavour is not the same as the real thing.”

“And why would I have the flavour of something if I can have the real thing?” And he reaches out a hand, palm up, so Akihito can give him his — to weave their fingers together in the stance of a real cha-cha.

Akihito didn’t plan the playlist, it’s just something random off Niconico and no one must be dancing to this, because it goes from hip-dislocation fast to maddening, up-against-the-wall-sex slow, but Asami seems too tipsy and happy to notice, he’s counting it to the double so Akihito can keep up. He likes it a lot better than the swing version of the cha-cha but he can’t do this in public, either; it’s too intimate, the words he can read now in hands and hips and the way Asami pushes him on the back for a spin-out borders on caresses. When Asami pulls him in for that triple-beat so their arms are crossed and locked and he rolls his hips, he whispers words to Akihito’s temple, “Weight on the balls of your feet, Akihito,” and Akihito’s heart goes rattling in his chest so fast Asami has to be able to feel it through his ribs, a tapping pulse in his fingers.

They get to the fourth song — tops, neither of them are keeping count — and it’s a slow one, so it’s tempting to follow the tempo and close the distance, turn all the steps into shifts of the hips, let their orbits collide, let himself be drawn in like a falling satellite.

His kisses are full of addictive, terrible habits, scotch and lingering smoke, seasoned with salt on his lip over the sweetness of skin, and Akihito doesn’t know what it says about himself that he finds the taste on his tongue to be chemically reactive, that he feels lit-up, temperature rising between them over sweat-soaked skin already set to immolate.

“Bath?” Akihito asks, fully knowing that it’s a lost cause with the way Asami’s grinding against him already, sinking his teeth in and leaving marks that Akihito will be thankful he’s going to be wearing a winged collar shirt in mere days now.

He really means to drag them both to the bathroom, but Asami’s kissing him sloppily, scraping his teeth over Akihito’s chin. It’s unfair, Asami always runs a bit hotter so Akihito’s at a disadvantage, and to stop himself from kissing him back is like fighting through an upstream, trying to push Asami away as his hips want to press tight against him again, squeeze all the air out between them while all the time getting too hot for these clothes.

Asami’s saying something crazy, narrating the way Akihito’s nipples are pushing at his shirt, the noises he doesn’t even know he’s making, and Akihito catches the ending part of a sentence, “—best enjoyed the way they are.”

It leaves him slapping at Asami’s chest, embarrassed beyond words, getting flushed when Asami’s the one that’s been drinking, and he asks incredulously, “Are you drunk? How do you even say that with a straight face?”

Asami gives him a perfectly blank look, considering, actually thinking about whether he’s intoxicated for a breath, for maybe half a song — too long — and finally comes to a decision. “I don’t think I’m drunk enough to drop you,” he says, as if that’s the issue here, and throws Akihito over his shoulder and heads for the bedroom.

Two days before the Awards gala — the horrors Akihito has had nightmares over for days, the possible biggest recorded humiliation of Akihito’s life, whatever — Hasegawa sensei certifies him fit for a dance floor, and reminds him that she’ll be catching him on TV Asahi (because he’s not jittery enough already and she’s a monster), and sidesteps all of his remaining questions about Asami the way she sidesteps his feet when he forgets that he’s the one leading. In parting, she gives him a little bag with parchment paper wrapped taffy, tells him to “convince Ryuichi to have one”, and gives him a hug that lasts forever.

“I’m sure Ryuichi will send you back for more lessons at some point,” she says, patting his back. “Don’t cry now.”

“I’m not crying,” Akihito says, wiping at his eyes. “And why would he do that?”

Hasegawa sensei plays the doddering old lady card, giving him a wide-eyed look. “Oh, I don’t know. He looks so happy when he’s picking you up from school.”

Thankfully Asami isn’t there to pick him up from school so he’s not there to witness Akihito’s flushed cheeks and the pout he wears all the way to the izakaya where he’s meeting his friends, but still. Akihito wonders if everyone who chooses to willingly work for an Asami is doomed to be terrible; it has to be a curse of some sort.

It's pandemonium in progress when he gets to the room his friends reserved at Robata-Sho, that one intern he knows but can’t for the life for him remember the name of — Daichi? Daisuke? — pouring drinks for four tables full of people Akihito only knows from drinking parties: Kou’s friends he’s known since design school, Takato’s old university friends plus a couple of suits from his new office, some tall model Akihito met at one of his jobs named Fumihiko that everyone calls Bun.

There’s a tatami mat left empty just for him across from Takato, and as soon as he sits down there’s Daisaku — Daisaku helpfully supplies — who’s apparently everyone’s intern, plopping a glass down in front of him and pouring for him like he’s about as senior as an assistant editor and not reduced to conference photographer.

“I am the youngest person here,” Daisaku shrugs when Akihito suggests he sits down and get a drink for himself.

“It’s the man of the hour!” Kou flings his arms around Akihito, effusive with leering in the throes of beer. “How’s life with Momohara Ai?”

“There is no life with Momohara Ai — those are baseless rumours,” Akihito says, wrinkling his nose.

Everyone else is well lubricated three beers in. When sober, all of their sharp edges grates at Akihito like sandpaper. He doesn’t remember feeling this way at the last New Year’s party nor the one before that with mostly the same people, but tonight he thinks he’d rather just have a drink with his two oldest friends and not the rest — but even then he may still feel out of place, foreign.

It’s never jarred this badly, how everyone else is different than him, or rather, he’s the one that’s different now. People are after all defined by our experiences, and maybe he’s seen too much. Like all young men in their twenties, Akihito holds out hope that everything will work out if he isn't sober, or at least that’s his excuse for chugging his beer too fast.

“Woah, slow down,” Takato says, pushing a plate of shashimo in front of him.

Akihito handles the questions well enough until he starts on his second beer: “That’s some great luck, eh? Going to a ball with a girl like Ai-Chan,” and, “Is your dance instructor hot?”

To which Akihito doesn’t even have to lie about, “Sure, maybe like forty years ago,” and the drinking's making this worse because he wants to talk about Asami the way Kou's babbling about his girlfriend, the way everyone gossips about the person they're with even if it's something as mundane as the last movie they saw together. He only has to start lying around three drinks in, as drunk as everyone else, but it doesn’t take away that cold ache of being alone in a room full of people, following rules he set out that could only apply to him.

“Is Ai-chan as cute in person as she is on TV?”

“Are you sure you’re not going out with her? I mean, if she’s asking you to go to these things, she certainly thinks so.”

“What’s it like to rehearse dancing with Ai-chan? She’s a pro, right?”

“Her fansite is pretty sure you two are going out with each other —”

And Akihito mostly deals with it fine, he’s used to the same teasing at work by now, so he just nods along with non-committal answers until Kou says, “She does seem to like you though, if I were you I’d totally take advantage —”

As if Takato can read Akihito’s face twisting up, he tries to cut Kou off, “Kou, don’t —”

“Well, I don’t like her,” Akihito says, plops down his beer a little too hard, sloshing it over his fingers and leaving a puddle on the table.

It’s fine that no one else gets it, he’s fine, it’s all fine, and it takes him seconds before he realises that the room’s gone silent and everyone’s looking at him.

But then Bun, who’s been pretty quiet all this time, just starts refilling Akihito’s glass and says to no one in particular, “Nothing wrong with having a thing for older women, right?”

Akihito gets forgotten in the ensuring wolf whistling and he gives Bun a grateful look and Bun returns a small smile — private and conspiratorial, setting off all sorts of alarm bells that if Akihito isn’t already tipsy he’d bolt over.

Later, he follows Bun outside on a smoke break, spends the time staring at his phone desperately trying to broach the subject as Bun lights up, the tip of his cigarette glowing bright orange against the dark alley behind the izakaya, while flies kamikaze overhead at an atmospheric lantern and its open flame.

“You could just tell them,” Bun says, blowing smoke rings into the warm air where it hangs like fog in winter. “They’re your friends.”

“And what am I telling them?” Akihito laughs, but even to his ears it doesn’t sound like his heart’s in it.

Bun just slants him a look, narrowed eyes and a sneer that doesn’t really look as mean as he thinks it does. “Are you fucking serious?”

Akihito first met Bun at his first temp studio job, holding up light panels at a perfume ad while Bun posed in various stages of undress, and he hasn’t noticed it at the time and thought he was just being friendly, but in hindsight, Bun was definitely making overtures.

It’s been literally two years and Bun’s invited him to go clubbing in Nichome (which he turned down), to meet him in dingy karaoke private rooms (which he also turned down), and Akihito hasn’t said anything out loud. Besides, he's not sure if he qualifies when he seems to have a single target, despite everyone else he's technically been with, he thought about Asami the whole time anyway.

“I’ve only ever been with one person,” Akihito admits, appends willingly in his head, the full breadth of what he’s able to say out loud even while heavily intoxicated.

In the middle of a haze of smoke, Bun’s saying with suicidal glee, “That’s easily amended.”

It’s one thing for Akihito to think he could leave Asami any time he wants, how there are no actual words of commitment between them, and knowing that it’s on offer — he really could leave, he’s attractive enough and young enough that men basically offer themselves to him on a daily basis. It makes a difference like a puzzle piece sliding into place when he realises he’s choosing not to. “No,” is out of his mouth before he can think it, and Bun shrugs like he already knows the answer.

“Best luck or the worst luck, I guess — finding the one on your first try,” Bun says, stamping out the filter. “I can see why it could be confusing, though.”

Akihito overcompensates for the pinkness in his cheeks by getting riotously drunk along with everyone else, and it’s Takato that ends up taking his phone to avoid any drunk dialing, and then using it to dial Asami after, who ditches the last hour of his work so he can sit on the bathroom floor to stroke a calm, reassuring palm over Akihito's neck while he throws up into the toilet.

“That’s what he said,” he confesses to Asami, after, sitting on the cold tiles of their bathroom floor, all the lines of grouting and his head swimming even though he has Asami’s shoulder to lean on. “But it’s not like telling my friends would help, would it?”

"It wouldn't?" Asami says, with a little questioning hmm trailing after, casual and not at all like he's trying to put Akihito on the spot. "Why not?"

There's a clink of glass on tile, heavy and harsh-sounding with lingering echoes, and Akihito realises Asami must be drinking too.

“You talk about things — about things — because when you get stuff out you find things you have in common, you know?” Akihito can’t even tell if Asami is really here or if he’s talking to himself; he’s just a presence, a warm body by his side, his cheek cold against Akihito’s forehead with his hair all matted from sweat. “And what do I tell them? Share the story of how we met? Maybe that one time you rescued me from the Russian mob and I got shot? Or the other time you saved me from being sold by the Triad. What do I say when they ask, ‘What does your boyfriend do?’”

“You were stalking me and I granted your wish for an extensive interview,” Asami says without a pause, the excuse tripping off his tongue smoothly like he’s used it before, a hint of laughter in his voice, all the ends of his words slurring into the next. “And I am a legitimate business owner.”

“Stretch the truth, much?” Akihito raises his head enough to smile at him, catching just a hint of dark hair and a halo of light behind Asami’s head. “You are not a legitimate business owner.”

“Hotels are legitimate,” Asami repeats, slanting a look down sideways. “And I own them.”

“That’s not...the point,” Akihito says, pointing vaguely in one of Asami’s general directions. “The point is that you’re asking me to lie. I’ve —” he thinks of the story he’s had to spin for his stint in Hong Kong, for their long stay in Bali, “— lied enough to my friends already. I don’t want to lie about you.”

“So you’d rather tell them nothing at all.”

Akihito stays quiet for minutes, letting his thoughts spiral, letting them cloud up his mind like an olive in a dirty martini. “I don’t know.”

“Hiding’s exhausting. You’ll get tired of this.” Akihito finally gets a visual with the clink of glass on the floor; Asami’s drinking from a half empty whiskey bottle, slurring at him, “you’ll get tired of me, and you’ll try to leave again.”

“I didn’t —” Akihito says, but he can’t quite remember what Asami’s talking about, if it’s about that time he was made to choose between his career or Asami, so to clarify, he asks, “— what are you talking about?”

“You kept leaving. I’d sleep with you and then you’d leave. I’d bring you home and then you’d leave. So I moved you in here — moved everything of yours so you’d have no choice but to stay and then … you still left, you left everything here.” Asami’s squinting at the bottle, setting it down slow and carefully like he can’t tell where the floor begins. “My people are loyal to me because I give them what they want — what do you want? What made you stay this long this time? What can I offer you so you’d never leave?”

“I think I just forgot I was supposed to leave,” Akihito thinks, and when Asami turns from his study of the ceiling to look at him, stricken. Akihito knows he’s said it aloud.

“Not. Helping,” Asami says, points at Akihito with his hand mostly around the neck of the bottle, and takes a swig.

Akihito stares at that, thinks “fuck this,” or rather, he moves before thinking and he’s prying the bottle out of Asami’s hands, pushing it across the floor and crawling in Asami’s lap to wrap his arms around him, bury his face in the pulsing line of Asami’s neck.

“Are you trying to tell me I’ve had enough?” Asami wonders aloud. “No one’s ever done that before.”

“I think, this time around, I got more of you,” Akihito mumbles the words into Asami’s collarbone, like burying a secret in the hills.

He feels Asami’s warm arms come around him and his lips moving against his forehead, “Is that all?”

Akihito makes a sound low in his throat, comfortable, sighing into the embrace. He’s not sure how long they stay like that, how long he mutters a wishlist of things he wants to know and another list of embarrassingly insecure questions that he’d be glad to forget by morning, but the last is, “Why me? Why not someone else more... you know?”

He’ll remember the firm touch of Asami’s hand on his brow, wiping him down with a soft, warm towel, and he’ll remember being surrounded by him, sitting between his knees and the smell of his aftershave and too much whiskey, but the words are gone like smoke — curling into soft indistinct halos, fading out.

“I didn’t believe my mother when she told me this,” Asami says, his breath hot on Akihito’s scalp and everything rumbling through his chest like distant thunder, like nature, inevitable. “But she did warn me that you can’t choose the person you fall in love with.”

Chapter Text

Unlike Asami, Akihito’s not one of those people blessed with terrible old man memory, able to sleep with a clear conscience in full sun, so when he opens his eyes to nothing but whiteness around him, blinding in its intensity, it leads him to think that either a) an earthquake has toppled their building and he’s died in his sleep, or b) Mount Fuji has erupted at last and he’s died in his sleep, or c) Asami has left the vertical blinds open because he’s a fucking sadist and he wanted Akihito to suffer for his foolishness and Akihito’s left to regret all the times he could have smothered Asami in his sleep and didn’t.

He hasn’t been this hungover since the New Year’s party, and Akihito can’t say he isn’t fully expecting pain, but he hasn’t taken the entire day before the gala off to rest his legs for the sake of going sunbathing in their bedroom first thing, either.

“It’s too bright,” Akihito whines, pushing his face into Asami’s ribs. Maybe if he pushes hard enough he can burrow under Asami and use him for shade. “How did this even happen?”

He remembers Bun sliding flavoured sake in front of him after finishing his third beer, swearing up and down that it’s amazing and the night’s behind a gaussian blur filter after that. It’s a tragedy that he can’t even remember what flavour the sake was.

It’s either mackerel or lychee. He hopes it was lychee, but considering that they were in an izakaya it was probably a blowfish fin in sake set on fire and he’s lucky he woke up at all.

“If you can’t hold your liquor,” Asami says, making room under the covers but otherwise showing zero sympathy. “Don’t drink.”

“But I’ve been so good,” Akihito says, mumbling into Asami’s side. “I didn’t do anything for three weeks.”

Twenty days of lessons and Akihito feels his tendons stretch over him like his body’s a giant rubber band ball, nerves wrapped tight as a drum so thin and fragile he could snap, aching in all the places he didn’t know one could ache. It was only after the second drink that his limbs started to loosen, and that had felt so nice until he started fielding questions —he had no idea how hard it was being on the other side of a press conference — and ended up drowning for other reasons.

Akihito’s never known what to say when his mom started asking him when he’s getting a girlfriend and Kou begged him to fill out that last seat at a goukon, but it used to be easier — he’s always managed reasonable excuses that were close enough to the truth to not be outright lies. It’s not a lie to say there wasn’t a girl he was interested in, or that he’s too busy for a relationship at the moment, but the guilt that ate at him letting his friends toast his lucky stars for his soon to be televised (oh my god) date with Momohara Ai felt so much like bile in his throat he had to keep tossing back drinks to keep it down.

His brain dials back to the night before and he has vague memories of Asami cussing at him, himself clinging to the solid, wide span of his shoulders, the cool leather seats of the limo. He asks, “Did you come to pick me up?”

“Of course,” Asami says, pressing a kiss to the corner of his eye.

You could have sent someone, but Asami’s only ever sent Kirishima the one time, always showing up on his own, pulling up in a limo and making a scene as if he has nothing better to do than to fish Akihito out of an Izakaya on a Friday night during business hours.

“Say, do you —” He nearly bursts out with “do you think my friends remember you from New Year’s, when you picked me up last?” but he’d really rather not think about that; who would remember things from months ago after a 24-hour bender? “Do you— remember if everyone was wasted at the party last night?”

“I would assume so,” Asami says, careful and diplomatic but doesn’t assuage Akihito’s worries any. “How’s your head?”

“I’m never drinking again,” Akihito says sincerely, and meaning every word, at least until this headache passes.

"If I was with you, I would have started giving you water three drinks in." Asami's lying flat on his pillow, thrown an amr over his eyes against the sun, so he doesn't notice Akihito turning his gaze on him — jaw dropping open in sudden, imaginative wonder.

Until now, Akihito’s never had this fantasy, didn’t dare dream of it. It just seems so improbable: Asami sitting at a low table by his side, knees touching, and he’d just be there talking to his friends about nothing in particular, like... normal. A possessive want wells up in his chest at the thought of it, makes him see the night before with the blurry glow of a double-exposure, an impossibility he can only achieve in a darkroom.

He doesn’t look up to see if Asami has noticed his heart going haywire in his chest, that desire in him clawing at his seams, ripping out threads.

Momohara Ai shows up in her agency supplied limo, dressed in her agency approved satin dress in black and pink made entirely of ruffles and whatever room left mortared over with tiny beads and bows. Her look is vintage Licca doll, circa 1985, the gaudiest thing Akihito has ever laid eyes on, but it suits her the way pillow shams and stuffed animals suits her in every frame in her idol dramas, making her look forever seventeen.

As usual, she’s curious about his everything.

Akihito has tried on multiple occasions to hint at how uninteresting he is as a person and how she’s already exhausted his repertoire of adventures he’s able to share. From the moment he gets into the limo she’s curious about the neighbourhood, this upscale part of Shinjuku, the building with its private gardens, and if Akihito isn’t secretly a prince to be able to live in a place like that. He spends the whole ride regretting not having her pick him up from his workplace instead, at the one address she already knows, nevermind that he’d be standing at the Weekly wearing a bespoke tux with fire opal cufflinks and hand-cobbled leather shoes with his hair and eyebrows professionally styled at Asami’s insistence. He can just imagine the teasing.

It’s easier to brush off her questions with moronic answers as if she’d ever believe that Akihito was just staying with a friend.

“Must be nice.” Ai’s grinning at him with that dreamy look he swears is just her resting face, huge eyes blinking up at him, but this time it has a knowing glint to it, her head tipping to the side, and a muscle in his cheek start to twitch in the force of her full attention. “I live in a dorm right now but one day I hope I can afford an apartment in a building like this.”

Out of pure pathological curiosity, Akihito had looked up the average price of an apartment in the area, since none of the units in Asami’s building is listed on the open market — he does recognise the name of one of Asami’s shell companies listed as the property owner, well — even though he’s sure the floor below them is empty. Needless to say the price of 2LDK real estate around here has enough zeroes in it to buy luxury, three storey mansions in Paris and it makes all his gestures of making up rent by buying groceries and cooking for Asami increasingly ludicrous.

“But you’re so popular,” Akihito says, his knowledge of the idol industry skin deep. He’s worked on photo books as a side job, manipulating waistlines and the colour of beaches, but his is a passing interest, unlike Kou’s.

“There are a lot of idols, Takaba-kun,” Ai explains. In the dark of the limo, privacy screen up and all the windows tinted, Ai takes a break from her usual energetic persona to look wistful. “Hopefully you’ll hear about me as an ‘actress’ soon. Pop-idols don’t last.”

Her low-key mood lasts as long as they’re in the limo, but as soon as the flashbulbs go off and a camera’s shoved in her face, Akihito realises she becomes a different person; she’s difficult in the same way that hyperactive children are difficult, fully expecting him to match her energy. Despite having a clear list of things he knows he has to stick to — offer her his arm so she has no chance of falling, lead her up and down the stage steps when she has to present the awards, fend off overly enthusiastic reporters as a traitor to his profession — Akihito still feels lost whenever she turns her smile up at him at a thousand watts, like turning one’s face towards a shaft of sun.

It takes walking half blind on the wrong side of the viewfinder and too many flashbulbs down a red carpet and stumbling into their seats for him to see that maybe she makes him feel a bit guilty; he gets a pang in his chest whenever he sees her with the megawatt fake smile. It may be envy, too, for the poise she has at twenty to smile in front of a crowd when she’d taken that deep breath just before the limo’s door opened, bracing for it: that she could love something so wholeheartedly, so dearly and with such devotion that she’s willing to endure stalkers and rabid fans and dogged journalists like himself.

It’s a mercy that the six hour event is two hours of awards ceremony that Ai smiles through with professional grace, Ai pinching him beneath the tablecloth to keep his smile decoupaged in place, because he’s sure to careen into other couples if he tried to dance right now.

“You are so good at that,” Akihito says to Ai, after the award presentation portion of the night is finally over and the overhead projector stops showing zoomed in framed clips of the two of them with Akihito smiling like a deer in the headlights. “My cheeks are starting to hurt.”

Ai’s picking at her agency approved salad, checking out Akihito’s tiny shrimp and fish pastry doused in white sauce with practically prurient desire. “I’m not nearly as good at smiling as you are at photography,” Ai says, and there’s a camera not two metres away, that intern named Daisaku — Akihito has forgotten again, but thank press passes for name tags — clearly listening in, “You have an actual skill and all I do is ham for the camera so I had better be good at it, you know?”

If the idol industry creates stars, then Akihito supposes the gossip industry destroys them; Ai is allowed to effusively love her profession, but never to profess her proficiency at it, to boast that she’s a more than adequate actress on top of being a dancer and a singer, perfectly competent as a presenter, knows her own best angles in front of a camera. It's been ages since their last interview, but they've chatted off the record enough times to becomes friends of sorts over more than her unrelenting hero worship of him; they come from respective sets of absent parents so there's plenty of latchkey kid stories to trade, both of them tend to over empathise with people they shouldn't, still reeling over Aoki Mayu. They can laugh about it now, had a good drink or five over their tendency to take cute girls at face value but only because Akihito's still alive to to do it.

He knows about Ai in bullet points heaps more than what he knows about Asami, whose past is not detailed in interviews in the side columns of gossip mags and has no photos collected into books, heavily manipulated or not. Being close to him doesn’t help at all — if anything, Asami is like a coastline, details hidden away in fractals, and Akihito doesn’t have the kind of resolution to pick up more than surface textures; maybe that’s what Bun means when he says it can be confusing to have only ever wanted one person — that knowing anyone, or wishing to know anyone, feels exactly like this: every human being is a continent unto itself. He could spend a lifetime learning the borders of him, traverse all his hidden topography one step at a time if he’s interested enough.

“I guess they’re expecting us to hit the dance floor,” he says to Ai, and tries his best to plaster a smile back on his face. “Daisaku over there looks like he’s about to have a panic attack if we don’t do something for him to photograph.”

He holds out his left hand (as theatrical as Hasegawa sensei’s taught him, extending at waist height) and she touches his palm with three fingers and lets Akihito pull her into a Foxtrot stance, gliding in easy diagonals moments after they step onto the dance floor.

The heat of a halogen bulb’s beating down on them like an artificial sun, and couples are spinning all around them already like a garden filled with solar pinwheels. It occurs to him that dancers on a dance floor is just like an umbrella seen from above in June; one of many, unremarkable. But Akihito is astonished how easily they fade into the throng of dancers even if one half of them is a Momohara Ai.

She may be an idol and the cameras may never leave her alone, but here they look like just another ordinary couple among other ordinary couples, each made up of a tux and a dress, bow ties and bows, just another star among a myriad of constellations.

“You’re pretty good,” Ai compliments him, impressed.

With his left hand he tugs, and the fingers resting over her shoulder blade guides Ai into a corner turn. They miss another couple going double time, pass one that’s obviously just swaying, lost in each other without any knowledge of steps or turns or spins. “Were you worried?”

Playfully, she leads herself into a spin, turning her fingers in his hand to match his rote steps as she says, “Oh, I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me.”

It makes him laugh, so surprised he nearly stumbles; Akihito didn’t know you can do that, how even when you dance the follower part you’re not entirely trapped in a geostationary orbit, the fixed point in the eye of a lead. Hasegawa sensei would have a fit, but she’d understand too; dancing is supposed to be fun.

When Akihito pulls her back against him, arms in a weave to give the camera a perfect photo-op and he gets blinded by the subsequent flashes, Ai uses the slowed-down sway and promenade afterwards to whisper into his ear. “What do you say we lose them?”

“The cameras?” Akihito asks, and at her enthusiastic yes he wonders aloud, “Why?”

“Why, Takaba-kun, we’re going to commit a crime, of course,” Ai says, all glossy-eyed innocence.

Akihito has had this thought before, how they really shouldn’t be friends — like cops and robbers shouldn’t be friends, that Asami and him shouldn’t be lovers, Akihito is far too empathetic to stop at casual with the enemy — and this is reason plenty, because after all this time his response to that is, “And what am I aiding and abetting here?”

The next song is slower than the last so the camera's just eating up the way she steps in close, and as she whispers suggestions to him he has to laugh — it’s hard to say no to that.

They weave through the crowd, taking three songs, one of them the breakneck rhythm of a quickstep, and take joyful, joint-aching spins into the centre of the dance floor where no camera wielding intern may follow, emerging on the other side at the deserted dessert buffet and Akihito gives Ai a swing of his arm for momentum and she kicks off her heels and slides under the table in one smooth half-spin, utilising all her skills of an action actress to full advantage.

Over the roaring drum solo of ‘Sing Sing Sing’, where the crowd is obligated to face the stage and clap along like monkeys in Rhythm Tengoku, Akihito stands guard and passes no less than three plates of cake beneath the table cloth, sliding them gingerly over the carpet with a foot so the tiny and perfect filigree of chocolate curls don’t crumble on their way to her.

“Thank you, Takaba-kun.” Ai ducks out at his signal, fixing her hair as she goes but doesn’t notice the dots of buttercream around her mouth nor the lack of lipstick — a lost cause. She says with a solemnity beyond pastry, “You’re my hero.”

"This is leaps and bounds easier than facing down a gunman," he says, laughing as he pulls his pocket square out of its fold and stuffs it into her hand. “And to think all I had to do to win over Momohara Ai was to feed her cake.”

"Accurate," Ai agrees, her smile less dazzling for the lack of a camera but sparkling with childlike joy; she has a dreamy, blissed out look on her face as she wipes at her mouth and when she leans toward him she’s quiet and secretive though there's no one else here in this corner of the hall. "Totally worth it."

Akihito feels sorry for her. “You’re not allowed any cake?”

“I’m not even allowed any rice,” she says, looking a little crazed. “The last time I had cake it was for a commercial. We only had to do one take — everyone praised me for the acting, but,” Ai boggles at him, “that look of pure happiness was not acting.”

We all sacrifice for the things we love, he’s dumpster dived for evidence and ran from yakuza, been shot at, been shot, and he’s loved the thrill of it, the journey as well as the destination. Ai hides away from the cameras so she can be herself — so she can have quiet moments where her smile isn’t as wide, her movement isn’t as graceful, her meal isn’t rabbit food — and Akihito can't decide whether he is himself all the time now, or if he has lost the thread of who he is entirely.

“You must really love your work.” Akihito digs into a slice of cake for both cover and because the cheesecake in caramel sauce is seriously good. “Performing, I mean. Enough to put up with...all that,” he says, waving a hand around ambiguously at the trappings of the place — chandeliers and spotlights and interminable flash photography.

“I love it more than anything,” she says, making him wish he has her intensity, then she adds in the way of merciless youth, “You don’t love your job, Takaba-kun?”

“I...did,” he says, and now she’s looking at him with her usual interest so he’s forced to elaborate. “When I was...younger, all I wanted was to do anything with a camera. And then I found this, and,” Akihito sighs. It strikes him oddly how he’s never talked to anyone about this, not even to his photographer of a father. “I guess I liked the thrill of it? But now it’s needs something else.”

Meeting Ai and covering Ai for the Weekly's what taught him this about himself, like a bolt from the blue: between getting an exclusive or saving a life, Akihito would choose saving a life each and every time.

Ai gives him a strange look, squinting a bit, “You’re looking for the meaning of life in your work?”

“No. Well,” Akihito glances to one side in denial, but maybe she has a point; looking for the meaning of life in a job is a cultural ideal, and it’s taken him three years to realise maybe that’s all it is. “I thought I was making a difference — exposing the underbelly of Tokyo and all that. But all I did was drive a girl into a corner.”

“I don’t know about that.” Ai reaches over and squeezes his hand, “you saved me—"

"—great example of why I’m bad at this,” he interrupts. “Ended up on the news myself.”

"—and Mayu was being exploited in the first place,” Ai ignores him. “None of that is your fault.”

He’s had this conversation with the mirror before, that as an observer he can do little to influence things, but it doesn’t make Akihito feel any better, any less lost at sea since he came back to even less meaningful work. You either get into journalism for the glory or think you can change the world, and Akihito suspects he may have grown too much for that kind of egoism; the only certainty he still has is in the love of the colours in his viewfinder, the excitement of capturing a target. It's left behind a wide gap in his chest, he thinks, still bleeding — this overwhelming feeling that he needs to do something worthwhile.

“Is it stupid of me to think I should leave the world a better place than when I found it?” Akihito asks no one in particular.

“It’s not stupid at all.” Ai’s staring off at the crowd, at the embarrassment of cameras, lights, the press. “But maybe you shouldn’t...worry about that so much. I do what I love, and I seem to make a lot of people happy doing it.” She turns to him, her smile fond and real. “Does it help to say that you’ve made me very happy for keeping me company tonight?”

It catches him off guard, and he has to tell her, “Yes,” because it’s true. “Thanks,” he adds, raising their linked hands. “Shall we?”

A man on stage is singing something fast that swings and Akihito figures if he can’t solve his mid-twenties crisis over cake, he may as well do something that does make him feel better: East Coast swing.

They wind around the empty tables, make it back to the middle of the dance floor in sixteen bars and a series of outside turns and cradles, work through half the vocabulary of swing Akihito knows. It’s like they’ve never left, and Ai says to him as they slow to a sway to catch their breath second song in, “Thank you for doing this, Takaba-kun.”

“What, for the cake?”

“That too,” Ai beams, as if she wasn’t already as bright as she can possibly be, all her incandescent glow fueled by sugar. “I mean thank you for learning how to dance. You’re really good.”

Akihito pulls her right hand up then for a turn so they’d be out of the way of a couple that’s obviously had too much champagne and careening through the crowd like a spinning top, should be escorted to the lobby any minute now. It’s gotten crowded in the short time they were gone; the traffic of pleated skirts in billowing fabric thin as dragonfly wings are as busy as the scramble at six. It looks magical, a beautiful rare thing to be a part of, like falling seed pods spinning down to earth from the tops of maple trees, and Akihito recognises a heated lump in his throat, an ache in his chest as he sees himself surrounded. He’s felt it often enough lately to know it for yearning, like walking alone through the busy streets of Shinjuku teeming with hand-linked couples at Christmas to meet Asami in an empty lounge at Sion for dinner.

Even if he learns to dance, even if he could glide on wood floors in dexterous, precise steps, he could never fade in and out of a dance floor with Asami like this, like he did now with Ai — and that’s with Ai — like diamonds in a sea of rhinestones.

But without Asami — without their evenings with Asami likely playing hooky from work to put on a playlist so they can putter through the apartment on socked feet — he’d never have wanted to learn this badly, to work this hard, to get this good. Akihito hasn’t wanted anything with such an intense need before, never tasted anything as sweet as this, as though dancing is ambrosia and he’d climb mountains to have another sip.

“I had fun learning it,” he says to Ai, finding that he doesn’t need to force a smile at all as long as the music keeps playing. “And now I can add it to my rather short list of skills.”

“Is there someone you wanted to learn dancing for—" Ai seems to pause as if winded by the chorus, the quickstep demanding quarter turns and spins in succession; all the couples on the dance floor around them like gyroscopes each with its own well of gravity, graceful, never colliding. Ai’s cheeks are rosier now, glowing beneath her dusted on blush, “— if you learned because there’s someone you wanted to dance with, I mean.”

Akihito wants so badly to say both, to make that as uncomplicated as this; this is pure happiness, the unvarnished joy of twirling on a dance floor, no feelings attached.

“Yes, there is,” Akihito says, without elaborating.

At the end of that one song — horns blasting on the end, the one lead trumpet throwing in a lip trill on the last note and the dummer tossing his sticks, making everyone wonder if he’s actually drinking water — they’re both tired out, but he helps her into a spin, Ai’s skirts twirling around her knees and she laughs so loud he can hear her over the music. And he’s about to suggest they head back to the tables for a break so she can poke at her salad some more when the band segue into something slow and haunting, with a blast of horns with woodwinds quickly following, and Ai stumbles in close, clutches at the back of his tux, mulishly leading them into a slow foxtrot.

“Well, one more can’t hurt,” Akihito's thinking, and freezes as a hand taps him on the shoulder.

It’s the exact signal he’s been told by Izumi to ignore, after all, Akihito’s playing chaperone as much as date but he’d know that touch anywhere, through three layers of fabric, know that whisper by his ear too close, asking, “May I?”

Chapter Text

Passing a partner is as much a part of social dancing as the footwork, choreographed and familiar to Akihito theoretically like the shuffle backstep in East Coast or the side-side-together of a Foxtrot. It’s simple: a step to the opposite side, taking your partner’s right hand and placing it in the left hand of the man requesting the next dance, bow lightly, and step away. It’s slower and easier than all the other routines he knows, so it should be easy, it should come off as fluid and natural as dancing, effortless.

In reality, his fingers touch Asami’s hand for a fraction of a second, hot and lingering, and Akihito sees the world splitting into two: one where he turns his body to close the gap over, the two of them flowing across the dance floor in much the same way they have in their home, in the dark, out of sight.

And the other: they twirl away from him, Asami leading Ai towards the stage where a woman in red sounds woeful in a language Akihito can't understand. They look like roses standing in a field of clover — a rarified kind of beautiful — and Akihito probably stands there too long watching them, thinking about how right they seem together.

Akihito knows what jealousy feels like now from all the times he’s felt subsumed by it hot and clawing hidden behind his heart; jealousy is like lava — demanding action, making him petty and idiotic, making him retreat to the cold and making all the words he doesn’t mean come tumbling out. And he’s not so petty as to feel jealous over this; Ai is his friend and Asami’s probably already vaguely threatening her life and career, whichever he deems more effective, like society ladies do at luncheons with laughter and good natured jibes and nothing that could get him arrested. What Akihito feels is dreadful, as formlessly sad as a torch song in a foreign language, a nagging illness languishing in his lungs, but it’s cool and removed and palpably, objectively worse.

When Akihito winds through the thinning crowd to their table — camera crews conspicuously absent since the moment Asami appeared — Izumi’s already sitting there, raising quizzical eyebrows at him. It's a typical Izumi tactic: he just sits there like he knows something when he doesn't and hopes Akihito will spill the cake.

The first time they met, Izumi had pulled him aside and looked him up and down for like five minutes before muttering “I’ve got my eye on you” and stomping off to do whatever managers do, whipping his head around to glare at Akihito with comic exaggeration just before he’s out of sight. He reminds Akihito of Kirishima a little: he has the glasses and efficiency, an air of competence and a mother hen streak. But unlike Kirishima, in Izumi the reflection of his glasses hides a constant internal screaming panic typical of his entire industry.

And now Izumi’s pushing a flute of champagne across the tablecloth, saying, “I thought you may want a drink after all that.”

Which probably means Akihito’s not perceived as a threat any longer, and he takes a sip before asking, “You’re not worried?”

“She’s dancing with the biggest donor of the evening and the media’s been cordoned off outside, so it’s fine.”

Now that Akihito thinks about it, there has been a conspicuous lack of Cha-cha on the set list, most notably ‘Tea for Two’ which was supposed to play sometime during the first set. Figures, Asami would pull something like that, what's an extra couple of million if he can thumb his nose at a pet peeve, but Akihito wishes he could maybe find out ahead of time so he wouldn't have spent three days learning it.

Contrary to his words, Izumi's watching the dancefloor like a Hawk, leaving Akihito to twist in the dust devil of his meandering thoughts that he'd rather not. “Are you going to dance?”

“Me? No,” Izumi dimisses with a wave of his hand. “I’ve only been summoned 'cause Ai may need a chaperone for the next little while.”

“But that's why I’m here,” Akihito thinks he must have heard wrong — he can't be drunk already. "What?" he asks, "Why would she need two?"

Apparently she needs three, because as his brain does a backflip, Ai's coming back already on Asami's arm, careful and poised and carefully not clinging. She looks agency-approved happy, a trifle smitten the way women in Asami's presence often are, and as Akihito tries his best not to stare, Asami's leaning in to whisper words to Ai, something quiet and private that she giggles at before releasing his arm.

If he gulps down his champagne in one go it’s to avoid looking like a statue while Asami does the gentlemanly things: pulling a chair out for Ai, offering a hand for her to hold as she smoothes her dress and sits down. This time he does feel himself bristle like a patellar reflex, a hammer to his sternum that makes him jump, so he doesn't notice Asami until his hands are on his shoulders, the heat of his chest radiating through Akihito’s back, his mouth by his ear. “All I said to her was that I’ll be borrowing her date for a few minutes.”

"What?" Akihito swivels around in his chair and finds Asami too close — his eyes are at level with the amused curl of Asami's mouth. Akihito turns away, reflexive, just hates how he blushes so easily since Ai's definitely noticed, hiding her pinched smile behind a hand. Akihito repeats, sounding stupid even to himself. "What?"

His mind goes a bit blank when Asami laughs, his breath a caress over the shell of his ear; he smooths his hand down Akihito's right arm to cup him at the elbow, and nudges. "Come on."

Akihito’s no stranger to award shows, as nameless photographer for the Weekly in a cheap suit and a tie he buys two for a thousand yen in random stripe flavour. Usually, that’s enough: fundraiser shows like these tend to cut corners to inflate the ticket price, take place in dressed up convention centres with built stages hung with black curtains to divide up the space, hiding equipment boxes and cables.

From the second he stepped out of the limo with Ai and stared down the red carpet at the ornate double doors and the vertical antique marquee with its faux filament bulbs, Akihito’s figured out that this isn’t one of those events; the Children’s Awards rented out a dinner theatre stroke banquet hall, one giant cavernous space that opens up to empty box seats going up three floors, each hung with a chandelier. It has a dance floor that spills out to carpet and enough room for fifty tables besides. There’s a gold curtain shimmering behind the band, all the lighting’s permanent, and the space has none of the temporary look that these events tend to have. It’s so expensive that when he first came in his eyebrows shot up at the extravagance, the journalist in him suspiciously questioning how a charity can afford all this as well as a big band.

The answer is of course Asami; Akihito’s afraid to ask how much money he’s thrown at the awards committee to get called its biggest donor.

“Where are we going?” Akihito asks.

Asami turns to look at him for a beat with a heart stoppingly lovely, mischievous smile that goes all the way up to his eyes. “So many questions,” he prevaricates, and takes Akihito’s hand.

There's a moment of indecision there, his hand held loosely like Asami expects Akihito to shake him off.

The tables they're winding through (heading somewhere to the left of the stage) are all deserted, jackets and handbags left behind in anticipation of a lively song; the band's moved into something new and upbeat a minute ago and Akihito saw everyone take a mass exodus from their seats so no one's here to see them.

“That’s because you never answer any of them,” Akihito says, glares at Asami and closes his hand over Asami’s — clasps them together for the look of pleased surprise — and they walk up to a couple of killers in shark suits that’s obviously Asami’s security.

Asami nods at the guard opening the door for them. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

They arrive at a messy room with old, worn out furniture and mossy green walls, every surface covered in instrument cases and sheet music and clothes, and Asami traps him against the back of a couch. The curved spring of a wire hanger from a dry cleaner's digging into his back and the flat of Asami's hand’s palming his neck and Akihito freezes, grips the threadbare velour cover behind him. It’s quiet aside for a noisy monitor strapped to the wall — all the bass in it blown — that swing beat continuing, and he glances down in the second he’s overcome by shyness and gets fixated on Asami’s cravat. Akihito has just enough time to think, ah, it matches my pocket square — before gasping in surprise as Asami kisses him soft over the corner of his eye.

Akihito never knows what to do when Asami does this, when he’s so damnably gentle, dotting kisses over his cheek and lingering so long with their foreheads touching it feels like a question. There’s only one answer, and Akihito has always given that, because some choices are taken from us and Akihito doesn’t think he’s ever had any when it comes to Asami. He slides his hands up the back of Asami’s jacket then, winds his arms around the familiar lines of him and closes the last few millimetres.

It feels like a lifetime ago now, that Asami used to kiss him like they’re at war, like he’s an invading army and Akihito’s a border he needs to breach, a wall to scale. Akihito’s not at all certain when that changed — when all the walls between them turned into rubble.

Asami still kisses with his teeth, still holds Akihito down with fingers bruising on his hip and a fist in his hair, but it’s almost tender, scraping over Akihito’s lower lip, sucking on it until it’s swollen, beestung. He’s thorough instead of ravenous, and when he seals their mouths together he teases, wedges a thumb between Akihito’s teeth and licks into his mouth until he’s slack jawed and clinging, until he’s so sensitive with it he shivers when Asami pulls away, so filled with wanting he’s the one that dives back in, pulling Asami back to him.

“I should head back,” Akihito says, breathless, moving the words against Asami’s mouth. “Ai’s going to send out a search party.”

Akihito’s used to Asami driving him to distraction, not so used to him being distracted himself; they've probably spent three songs kissing already. There's music like an old record player coming through a single channel speaker, tinny and crackling. Akihito lets it fade out like the rest of the room, lets it bloom into soft focus in favour of savouring the perplexing sweetness of Asami's mouth.

The perfect bow of Asami's lips are swollen to a pout by the time they stop, and Akihito rests against him, foreheads touching, too close to focus on anything but the way Asami's tongue darts out to wet his lips. Akihito pulls away just far enough so their eyes can meet, and finds Asami looking both sheepish and a bit smug, and that’s so endearing he doesn't jump out of his skin when Asami drops the bomb, "I think Momohara Ai knows you're with me."

“What?” Akihito says for the fourth time in maybe forty minutes, apparently all the vocabulary he has these days. He tries again, naturally sounding like a moron once wasn't enough. “What?”

“It may have something to do with the way you were looking at me,” Asami says, barely audible over Akihito silently freaking out, “well that’s ridiculous,” because Akihito can’t remember what he was looking at, if he looked at Asami at all, if he wasn’t, as Hasegawa sensei told him, far too invested in staring at his feet.

Akihito’s breath is coming in short, like someone’s just punched him — like a hole has opened up beneath him and he’s freefalling.

“It’s alright,” Asami’s telling him, making no sense whatsoever.

“How can it be alright?” Akihito says, pitched high and uncertain, searching Asami’s eyes for...something. He’s never been good at hiding so he’s probably radiating distress, and if he looks half as panicked as he feels then that’s all the reason Asami’s hands are sliding up to Akihito’s ribs, holding him up, like he could stop Akihito from sliding into the newly opened hole in the floor.

“She’s your friend, isn’t she?” Asami gives him a peck of a kiss, just a touch of lips on his cheek. “Trust her a little.”

“I —” he hasn’t known Ai all that long and he hasn’t even told the friends he’s known for twenty years. Not too long ago he thought about how Ai and him can never truly be friends, how their worlds oppose one another, “— I don’t know.”

“Akihito.” Asami’s voice is so sharp and so cold suddenly that Akihito snaps up from his internal battle, the way he tends to let his thoughts spiral until they have nowhere to go. He doesn’t see anything — whatever Asami had written there moments ago is closed over, shut out, schooled into nonchalance. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“No, what —” Why? Akihito stares and stares, but he hasn’t a clue. Sometimes Asami looks so young and unsure that Akihito wants to pull him in and hold him, press Asami’s ear against the rapid beating of his heart, let Asami have all of his secrets, hold Asami the way he may never have been held.

It’s far worse when he tries to hide it, folding it all under: the horrors of the deep.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Asami goes on to say, still looking flippant. “But I’ve never been ashamed of you.”

“I’m not —” Akihito protests, but he has no excuses, wouldn’t even know what to give Asami so it’s a mercy when Asami cuts him off —

“— You haven’t told anyone about me at all,” Asami’s saying, biting his lip like he’s holding back, like he has a million other things to say, his eyebrows knotting up. Akihito’s expecting more, expecting a tirade, but Asami just sighs, meets his eyes and breathe through his nose in a hum, saying, “It’s fine if you say you are, it’s not going to change anything.”

It’s only then that all of Akihito’s inchoate ideas, all the bitten off sentences and half formed words he hasn’t been able to tell himself coalesces into something halfway coherent, and the answer has always been so simple.

“It’s not about you,” Akihito wants to say, but it's all about Asami, so it’s as contradictory as everything they are. They’re not at equilibrium, they never have been; they’re constantly moving, a living mixture of chemicals, a photo that develops backwards and forwards revealing a separate and discrete set of details along the way — but they’re together.

Akihito could go tell his parents tomorrow, tell all his friends, tell the world he’s gay, and it wouldn’t matter if they all reject him, though he has an inkling — feels, no, knows —that they would be more accepting than not. But if they reject Asami, Akihito has no idea what he’d say, or what he’d do; he would turn his back on the world if that’s what they need, if that’s what he needs to do to keep them together.

“I love him,” Akihito thinks, staring at the knot between Asami’s eyebrows. He rests a hand on the side of Asami’s face and brushes a thumb over his cheek, and the words feels immense in his throat so he says instead, voice breaking like waves over an impossible cliff, “I’m not. I’m really not. Why would you say that?”

“Cards on the table, Akihito?” Asami takes Akihito’s hand off his cheek then, pressing a kiss to the centre of his palm. “Because I’m constantly weighing my chances — and with you—” he says, tucking Akihito’s hand away in his own so he can hold them to his chest, his heart thunderous through a three-piece suit, “—it feels a lot like I’m doing it all blind.”

That’s ludicrous, Akihito thinks, if theirs is a card game then Asami must hold all the cards, doling them out as he sees fit. “But you know everything about me.”

“I know everything about you on paper,” Asami says, and he grins lopsided, adding, “And I know you went missing from video feed for a sum total of fifteen minutes, that when they found you again your pocket square was missing and Momohara Ai lost her lipstick.”

Both eyebrows on Akihito go up, “That sounds terrible, but —”

“I know you didn’t.” Asami squeezes his hand, still wrapped tight. “But you looked so...happy. And I got to wondering — if I hadn’t done what I did to you when we met, would you be as happy with me?”

“You idiot, I’m happier with you,” Akihito doesn’t say, because he feels all the hair behind his head stand on end in premonition. He knows where Asami’s taking this, and the words he does say are, “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Shh,” Asami presses a finger against Akihito’s lips, shushing him. “I’m not in the habit of denying myself, and I’m not given to regrets —”

“— I said I don’t need it,” Akihito says, pushing Asami’s hand aside. “Don’t you dare bring it up.”

“—But our meeting was the worst thing that ever happened to you,” Asami says, his intonation all flat like he’s reading the stock index.

Akihito knows that Asami is verifiably older, he should have more life experience, but Akihito has had the kind of life that he suspects Asami's been denied, knows it from reading his emotional vocabulary, so sparse as to be barren. Only the pinched corner of his mouth betrays any hint of guilt; Asami apologises like a man who's never before been contrite.

Akihito doesn't want to hear it; he wants to hammer wherever this is going back into Asami's chest, scream at him — but his words come out quiet, his hands balled to fists at his sides, shaky, "well, you can't take it back."

“I know I can’t—" Asami’s saying, still flat and all logic and no emotions.

The worst part of this is that he’s right. Akihito’s life has been an unrelenting disaster of near-misses since they met, but he lives for the moments in between; the accumulated hours feeling Asami’s warmth by his side, draping his body over Asami in bed as they chat about food, work, nothing, having breakfast and dinner together, bringing Asami lunch when his own work starts late — they sustain him. Even if this is the rest of his life, if nothing changes, if it never gets any less dangerous, if he dies tomorrow, if the world ends — none of that matters. They’ve established long ago that he can’t leave, and now he knows for sure: he won’t leave.

If the world ticks down to the last minute, he’d spend it by Asami’s side.

“No. You can’t. And I don’t want you to.” Akihito can’t say it, he can’t tell Asami “I’d do it all over again, if it leads me here,” and his eyes are hot, his throat is burning, closing up so it hurts to speak. “Getting shipped to Hong Kong in a crate? The worst — no, wait, being roofied by a girl I thought I was going to save? Also the worst. Yama-san pointing a gun at my head? The worst.” He’d rather not remember any of this, he’d rather stuff it all back into the drawer he keeps it all in. But if it’d make Asami stop apologising for how they met — they’re Akihito’s memories now, he’s spent so much time hoarding them and mulling over them when he’d been alone, trapped, hidden away, they’ve all become gold-tinged, cherished, his, and Asami can’t take them away from him — he’d dredge up every single one of them even if they make his heart hammer at his ribcage, make him feel like he’s drowning all over again.

Asami only says he can always tell what Akihito’s feeling, what he’s thinking, says he’s an open book but evidently Asami’s shit at reading him, because he just laughs all sardonic, huffs his words out at Akihito, “Arguably, all of that is my fault.”

“Yeah — all of that — your fucking fault. You getting shot? That’s my fault. I —” Akihito turns his fists on Asami’s lapels, probably twisting the weave out of shape, “—you know what? Watching you get shot? The literal worst. Not knowing whether you’re alive or dead. That’s — I’d do anything.” He’s not going to cry damn it, he’s fucking furious, all of his anger turned inward in recrimination. He repeats, “I’d do anything to not see that again. Meeting you? Meeting you was a cakewalk.”

Their first meeting's become a splinter in his hand, closed up and healed over, a sting that he can feel just beneath his skin; when Asami's gone from his side he'd be able to push at it, luxuriate in the pain just as well as the sweetness of what they have, and if he goes digging it out it'd be gone. Asami's a man and a lover and a concept that get all mixed up, goes muddy, and Akihito can't find the right words that don't give away everything.

Whatever he manages to say over the jumbled up images in his head must get through to Asami somehow — because Asami relents and folds him in, his arms almost too tight around Akihito, making him feel small. It reminds Akihito that he belongs here, enveloped and protected in the circle of him, and the rage boils out of him in an instant, leaving him with the shivery aftermath of too much adrenaline. He breathes in with his nose buried between Asami's jacket and his shirt, and he doesn't even care that his actions makes him seem like a child; this is the one place he can feel greedy and spoiled, safe — the consequences of their life together fades out compared to this, the long shadow Asami casts becoming a comforting, warm cloak.

“Okay. I get it,” Asami says finally, goes to adjust Akihito’s hair and his bowtie, makes a face as he dusts powder off his shoulder. “It’s too late to start over so you’d rather not.”

“No shit,” Akihito snipes with residual anger. “It was too late as soon as you fished me out of a fucking dungeon in Ikebukuro. We were even.”

“I don’t think that’s true, but I didn’t come here to argue with you tonight,” Asami says, turning to glance at the clock and asks for quiet with a finger over Akihito’s lower lip, listening — like he’s trying to make out the name of a song. “And that’s my cue.”

“I thought you just happen to be here because you’re a donor.” This is becoming one of those surprising, whirlwind dates they’ve had where he gets on a plane and has no idea how long they’d be on it or when they’d get off, like a dream in mad wonderland, and they haven’t gone more than fifty metres. “Did you have a teenage fantasy of making out in a musician’s green room or something?”

“Or something.” Asami quirks an eyebrow at him, impassively not taking the bait. “We have a band that I bribed quite dearly to play exactly what they’re going to play in three minutes. Shall we?”

Akihito’s lost count of how many times he’s said this already. “What?”

There’s a toothy smile on Asami’s face as surprising as a shower of cherry petals in mid-winter, and Akihito stares in wonder at the unbearably fond curve at its corner and misses what he says entirely, the words mixing into an exuberant piano solo. By the time he has the presence of mind to start panicking about what he thinks he heard, Asami’s already tugged them out into a hallway, deserted and greenly lit overhead.

He’d probably heard wrong, Akihito thinks, just more wishful thinking brought on by bright lights and loud music and starting to hear things he wants so dearly to be true. “Asami, what —”

Asami may never speak of his childhood, but sometimes Akihito can see it: his one eyebrow going up all mischievous like a kid with a secret to share, eyes bright as he takes a few steps backwards, pulling Akihito along.

Out here in the quiet hush of a carpeted corridor, where the music is but a whisper, a muffled memory, Asami says to him, his voice clear and echoing, “We’re in a dance hall. Naturally, we’re going dancing.”

Chapter Text

All the pretense of an old theatre is lost back here in the long, wide hallways lined with plaqueless doors, plum coloured walls and the quiet hush of berber carpet beneath their feet as Akihito lets Asami take him past three corridors opening up to yet more offices; a person can get lost back here, get turned around without a map.

“You know your way around.” If Akihito lets go right now and he’s asked to find the green room again he doesn’t think he could; none of the doors are labelled, each as opaque as the last.

They finally stop in front of a door that looks exactly the same as all the other doors, painted a deep eggplant and just as glossy. Asami places his hand on the knob, turning it without needing a key and he says to Akihito, “I don’t go into a building unless I know where all the exits are.”

And still he’s wearing that smile, but there’s something new there, a hint of nervousness, a tightness around his eyes. Akihito only notices it because it’s so out of place on him, an aberration as oddly placed as an upturned collar. For a moment, Akihito just stares, wants to smooth it away the way he would fix Asami’s tie before he leaves for work, move a lock of hair out of his eye when it’d just fall right back down anyway.

But he’s opening the door, stepping through — into a void, and Akihito finds himself transfixed by the spectacle of it, like magic.

Akihito’s not sure what’s happening at first. The space behind the door is like, well, outer space: no light reflecting off anything to ground one to a place — even the floor seem to drop away. Asami’s black tux melts into it as he steps inside like he’s devoured, so Akihito doesn’t so much follow him in as stumbles, desperate to grab a hold of Asami’s suit, to find him solid and dependably real, letting out a breath when he feels Asami’s arm come behind him, softly guiding by his elbow.

“Where are we?” Akihito asks as the door behind them closes.

The music he’s been hearing muffled through layers of doors sound exponentially closer here, but it’s rougher and has none of the polish heard in the banquet hall, drumsticks hitting the hi-hat in soft metallic and wood thuds before it clangs. There’s no bass at all. The piano sounds distant, and a flash of old memory surfaces: he’s in high school standing at the end of the hallway down from the music room after hours, sunset streaming through the windows lighting up laminate tiles, drawing sharp geometric shapes in bruised citrus.

Here, it’s the full darkness of five minutes after sunset and he hears a voice by his right, an arm steering him forward into the void. “They’ve placed the band in front of the curtain because that’s where a big band belongs. We’re in the wings.”

It probably comes to everyone, but Akihito grapples with exploratory excitement, the thrill of being in a place he shouldn’t. It’s heady, makes him lose his balance, and his hand behind Asami’s jacket — over Asami’s spine, the line of a seam on the whorls of his fingers — claws in, but only just. Asami grips him tighter too on his elbow, and Akihito hears the swish of fabric close and soft above the music, chorus going into a crescendo, a cacophony of excited brass, distant applause and the crackly, far away sound of an announcer. It arrives in echoes, speakers pointed out and away from the stage and fragments of speech getting lost in the fabric lined lushness of empty box seats.

“And now we’re backstage,” Asami says.

Akihito hears his smile before he sees it, limned in the blue white glow of a single bulb hung high up above after Asami moves a heavy curtain aside. There’s a complete, absolute illusion of darkness surrounding them as if they’re on an old disused movie set, the edges vignetting to black, and Asami lets him go, stepping forward into a pool of diffused light on a painted, scuffed floor.

Akihito squints up at it, but he can’t tell at all how high that lamp hangs overhead; lines of metal are in the way, rails and wire probably holding up stage lighting, the ceiling beyond disappearing into nothingness.

It’s like no place he’s ever been, but the light reminds him of the moon — at a far and indeterminable unreachable height.

“The man behind the curtain,” Akihito says, taking in the way their limited lighting teases out Asami’s features, carved out like an image with slow exposure. He stares at the shadows cast by Asami’s eyelashes and his broad shoulders sharply dusted in blue, details blooming into focus in their dark room. Even as his eyes acclimates, Asami’s still the only thing he can see. “How like you.”

He thinks Asami shrugs; it could be a trick of the light. Maybe he favours Akihito with a meaningful look but it’s impossible to read in black and white. “So are you, now.”

Asami’s voice is echoing too, reverberating through the catwalk, thudding into sandbags and vibrating through thin, metal trusses, confusing direction so Akihito can’t tell stage right from left. Akihito was brought up in the light, knows the practical application of limited exposure, but his knowledge of darkness is academic here and a glance behind him leads to the infinite — like falling into the night sky.

Akihito laughs nevously, his hands in his pockets, not sure what to do with them. He admits, “I’d get lost back here.”

He’s followed Asami here, and now he’s — lost. Asami will lead him out if he asks, if he wants, but when Asami crooks a finger, “come here,” he doesn’t spend a second hesitating. Akihito can’t count the number of times he’s blindly followed Asami already, and it’s never in blind faith. When he steps back without looking, it’s with Asami’s hand holding his, Asami touching his back, Asami looking over his shoulder, trusting him to know which way they should go.

And then, like clockwork — like a hand letting go after winding up a music box, it begins.

Akihito hears the clarinets first, a quartet of them with a lead on melody pulling into the first few bars and the muted trumpets following with their counterpoint, so familiar now he can’t help brightening all over, something in his chest hot, welling up, and he raises his right before Asami offers his left.

They meet in the middle, fingertips just touching.

“May I have this dance?” Asami has on a muted grin that projects nothing but uncomplicated happiness, the same one he wears at home over dinner, when he stares indulgently at Akihito’s mouth as he babbles about his day, and he curls his hand around Akihito’s before needing an answer.

Someone in the trumpet section’s tapping out each beat with a foot, and one of the trombones is perpetually on the flat side; this is what being backstage is like, Akihito thinks, stripped of the expertise of a sound board where every instrument’s balanced, the piano is barely audible and the drums are too close and too loud, every flaw gets amplified, raw in their unvarnished intensity.

The first time Akihito worked in a dark room, he had, in no particular order: exposed a roll of film to red light, spilled a bottle of fixer, destroyed a stack of photo paper by leaving the box open when he worked the enlarger. It’s not the easiest place to navigate, but once he spent enough time in it and started smelling of darkroom chemicals full time, he’d found it’s the only place his mind stays quiet, none of the babbling stream invading his thoughts between timings. It’s easy to let himself get lost inside out here— let the sheer giddiness of dancing fill up the corridors of his mind.

Asami leads them into the very corners of the room, where Akihito can feel the bump of cables and the rubbery snag of electrical tape beneath his soles, the whisper of velvet brushing against his hair as though the darkness reaches out for him.

“Were you born in the dark?” Akihito wants to ask, “What was it like — to find out there are other ways to live, to know what’s denied to you?” There are too many words bottled up with those, and if he lets open the floodgates the rest would spill forth. Akihito doesn't know if Asami needs a light to find his way home, if he wants to cover Akihito in his darkness, dye him in his colours — he's fine with either; he's held back the second worst, before: Akihito would hate to be left behind again, unneeded, treated like a liability.

“You learned a lot in three weeks,” Asami tells him as they circle the light, never quite reaching the centre of a spiral. “Sumie is a good teacher.”

“She may have bribed me,” Akihito confesses, instantly going from longing to bashful as he realises he’s making more than one confession.

Asami grins, teasing, “Did she give you candy?”

“For every move I memorised,” Akihito says, his cheeks flaming, “she had to tell me something about you — when you were, you know, a kid.”

“Oh?” They turn back together into their spot of moonlight then, so Akihito can watch the corner of Asami’s mouth twitch, pursing his lips to wet them like he’s anxious, gone dry in the mouth.

Asami doesn’t ask, “And what did she tell you?” as though he’s afraid, and Akihito is so unused to Asami afraid that it makes him brave. “Would you have told me anything, if I’d asked?”

It’s a slow Foxtrot to begin with, but after he aired that question he feels the air go syrupy, like the moment’s suspended. Asami’s eyelashes flutter like a moth’s wing, unsure. The smile he has on is forced, too frozen to look natural. “I don’t have any nice stories.”

They’ve slowed to a sway, and the distance between them has closed so Akihito can feel the proximity heat of him through the vee of his waistcoat, and he can tuck himself beneath Asami’s chin if he feels like it, but he just tilts his head, closing his eyes against the soft scrape of stubble at Asami’s jaw.

Hasegawa sensei had told him, over a break, “He used to be so sweet. Fell out of a tree once putting back a baby bird.” She’d put three sugars in Akihito’s tea then, as if bracing him for the next part of the story, but then she’d said nothing — just, “he cared too much. And then it’d hurt too much to care. So he stopped.”

Asami has been accumulating ghosts since before Akihito was born. Sometimes his eyes are so ancient in his young face that Akihito can stare at them and feel his heart shatter. They don’t have to be nice, he thinks.

Being with Asami is like walking into a theatre where a movie's already playing; it's full of the resolving second halves of plot points with no one to explain to him how they began. Asami has had a life before him — family and friends and lovers who called him by his given name, dreams he turned into reality — and Akihito feels inadequate against all of his years; he is a flawlessly put together puzzle, fully formed, and Akihito wants to take him apart, see all the possible combinations, find all his frazzled edges jagged enough for Akihito to cut himself on.

“They don’t have to be nice,” Akihito says, and how simply that gives away everything — how it tells Asami what little he has of him isn't enough for Akihito anymore.

Akihito wants Asami’s first memory of snow, why he stopped wanting sweets, what the first person he called ‘friend’ was like, a recording of his laughter. He wants this dance to go on forever, and serve roasted mackerel in miso in the morning, make weekend plans for them to see that horror movie that’s coming out next week; he wants this evening to end so he can take Asami home.

He can’t stop thinking, I love him, he chants it in his head, and his love is entirely, overwhelmingly irrational. It’s all-consuming, makes him greedy for more than what he has in his arms, to have all of the things that’s impossible to have, that even Asami, with all his wealth and power, can’t give. It’s being angry at the years he’s missed, hot and burning like an open wound in his chest, missing all the years before he was born that Asami’s already lived and all the hours he’s been away on his business trips so Akihito comes home to no one like the first few months before they learned the contours of each other, all the ways they can fit. Akihito’s not sure how other people love, but his is terrible, single-minded, possessive even of memories when they’re at their worst, when he’d hated Asami, had been afraid of him, when the thought of him made Akihito shiver in his bed, in his little run-down 2LDK built in the 70’s.

Akihito lifts his head, raises his eyes so he can shake his head where Asami can see him, could read him for everything he doesn’t know how to articulate. “They don’t have to be nice,” he says again, so small compared to the enormity of the overflowing emotions trapped behind the bottleneck of limiting, human vocabulary, “they just have to be yours.”

“You’re sure,” Asami says over the last notes, climbing and climbing in pitch until they find that landing, and he lifts Akihito into an under the arm spin.

When Akihito lets himself be dragged back in, he feels weak and dragged under until he’s suspended in a deep dive, vision blacking out at the edges as though the water’s surface is far, far above him, as if he’d drown if he breathes — at how that’s not a question at all, that Asami knows exactly what he means.

There’s a blank there, going on for seconds and seconds piled on top of each other like sand in a glass, filled with the white background noise of things being shuffled around on the stage just past the curtain as the band goes on break. Between the shifting of sheet music and stand lights clicking off, there’s Asami’s hand on Akihito’s chin, holding him in place — slanting down a closed-mouth kiss.

He hopes that humming sound he makes against Asami’s lips is affirmation enough.

“Akihito,” Asami says, the back of his fingers stroking down Akihito’s cheek so gently that it aches all the way down his chest. “Meeting you—" Asami hesitates a beat like he could see how Akihito’s on the border of overwrought already, that his hands are cold, and if he says any more Akihito’d be answering through chattering teeth, but he’s choosing to ignore that today, barreling on, "meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

If this was any other time, in any other place they’ve been, at home, out at an empty restaurant reserved for just the two of them, he thinks Asami may make a joke, lighten the mood; he’s good at that: ironing out the deeper, fathomless, harrowing feelings Akihito has, like a man pulling an origami crane out of shape, lovingly pressing out the indelible creases he has made — to lay into Akihito’s palm the pretense of the infinite possibilities of a blank sheet of folding paper.

Akihito’s clapped his hands over his mouth, as if the flutter in his chest are actual, real butterflies, winged things made up of newly formed thoughts broken out from their chrysalis at last, but his feelings have to go somewhere, so it’s through a blur that he sees Asami’s smile, his hand cupping Akihito’s jaw, both thumbs wiping at the corner of Akihito’s eyes.

“Don’t cry,” he’s saying, and even through a veil of tears Akihito can see the crinkling by his brow, how fond he’s looking in their celluloid dream of moonlight. “Well, not yet,” Asami sighs and laughs all at once, “this is not going as planned. You are impossible.”

“Are you trying to kill me,” Akihito’s not sure what he’s saying, but he pushes the heels of his hands at his eye sockets, trying to stop the tears, trying to stop himself from feeling so on the verge of a heart attack, trying to stop himself from feeling, “Because if you are, congratulations, mission accomplished I’m going to —”

That’s when he hears Asami mutter something vile from Akihito’s regular vocabulary, and Akihito’s wrists are dragged away from his face and Asami’s mouth is hot and slanted over his own, invasive — consuming. He loves me. It emerges suddenly, without warning, one of those magic images that only comes into focus when you’re not looking, a continuous autostereogram of words and touches and scars. Learning to follow and learning to dance is learning to trust; trust that Asami’s not about to let go — that he has solid ground beneath his feet and Asami’s not about to leave him with nothing but these memories he gathers close to his heart. And he has gathered, collected and braided them to bind, and then suddenly, focusing on a distant point, it coalesces. 

“You’re not going to die,” Asami says, but certainly he doesn’t mean it, because he’s taking a step back, dropping to his left knee, and it’s all Akihito can do to stare down at him in wonder — at that perfect, tiny spotlight they have above them shining down on the contours of Asami’s face he knows so well. “You’re going to marry me.”

“That’s not a question,” Akihito snaps like a reflex. He doesn’t know where he finds the strength — pretty sure he’s reeling from holding his breath too long, facing down a telescoping tunnel of light.

Akihito’s father was one of those old fashioned people that didn’t quite propose, as he had reached across the table at the library to whisper if she wouldn’t mind making him miso soup for the rest of his life like he's a scholar from the Taisho era, and Akihito’s mother had squealed at him, leading to a swift rejection from the premises and a sternly worded but amused warning from the librarian. They’d never had a ring or a yuino, but any requisite wait for a wedding was postponed in favour of a dekikon when Akihiko’s mother got pregnant that last year of university like a heroine from some daytime drama.

He has no formative experiences with grand gestures. He doesn’t understand them, but Asami’s apparently made of them.

So somehow, in all of Akihito’s multi-channeled fantasies — there are many, most of which he wouldn’t even admit to himself, far too many sex dreams — this moment always came with a ring he couldn’t ever wear; Asami’s one of those people who do not do things by degrees, all his gestures are grand and most of his plans go off without a hitch, with the illusion of them being wholly extemporaneous, so he’d imagined a prohibitively gaudy, giant rock that’s worth its weight in islands.

In his fantasies, Akihito’s figured out a million excuses as stand-in for ‘No,’ because saying ‘Yes’ in his head to imaginary proposals would be tantamount to hoping.

In Asami’s hand there’s a small gold and silver band twisted up like a vine with a diamond set in the centre of a flower, not looking expensive at all; its metallic sheen has a soft matte patina and the lived-in feel of something older than anything that anyone has a right to own, emanating an air of being obviously and terrifyingly an heirloom.

“No, it is not,” Asami says with that absolutely incorrigible smug grin that threatens to stay permanently if Akihito agrees, propping his arm up with his right knee, the ring glittering like a gauntlet between his thumb and forefinger, throwing off slivers of shattered light onto Asami’s chin. It shines like history, whispered secrets, all the sunlit summers they hadn’t shared.

Akihito’s about to scream, “You are doing this wrong!” but Asami seems to be thinking the same thing — his hand’s still out and his knee’s going to hurt (because he’s an old man, with old bones, Akihito reminds himself to jab) whenever he figures out that he can only command people to do things when he’s at least standing vertically; uncertainty’s creeping back in between his eyes, oh for fuck’s sakes.

Asami’s always had all the faith when Akihito spent his time doubting Asami’s motivations, his own, his choices — if Asami wavers, Akihito doesn’t know where to look, which way to leap; he feels like a top spinning out of control without Asami’s reassuring arms to hold him still.

If he goes back looking punched in both eyes, it’s because he’s digging the heels of his hands in them again, wiping his tears into his hairline to clear his vision. Ai’s going to know he’s been crying when he gets back since Asami can’t read him for shit and he may claim to be competent in all things but he’s abysmally incompetent at anything remotely human, and when he opens his mouth again it’s to make sounds that make even less sense than proposing.

“No matter what you do, you belong to me, this just —” And Akihito hasn’t ever heard Asami babble before, it’s as bad a look on him as would a polyester tie, and necessitates an intervention.

“Oh shut the fuck up I’m not going to say no you idiot,” Akihito says in one breath, still wiping at his face and soaking his sleeves. “You are so fucking bad at this —” and Asami has the nerve to look astonished up at him, the bastard. “Why don’t you trust me?”

“I —” Asami starts to say, but he deserves to be cut off so Akihito does.

“I already make miso soup for you everyday,” Akihito says, increasingly arch as he lists off the particulars of their entwined lives, “we have the same mailing address, you’re my medical proxy,” and it suddenly dawns on him, fuck, we’re already most of the way married, and the panic hits him hard enough he forgets the rest and just closes out with, “But what am I supposed to say to you if you don’t ask?”

Because somewhere in there he can be a smart man when he needs to be, and Akihito looks to be at the end of his high-strung tether, Asami formally asks, “Will you marry me?”

They’ve taken so long over Asami’s failure of a dragged out proposal that the band’s come back without their noticing, shuffled into their places and blasting off into something fun with horns that fall off and their one baritone singer dipping into deep bass and trombones getting out their plunger mutes.

“Yes!” Akihito shouts over the din, and he feels the crash of adrenaline rush over him, the first wobble in his knees. He says, quieter, not expecting Asami to hear him, “Of course.”

The only thing that could make this more awkward would be a ring that doesn’t fit — but Asami’s always managed to surprise them in how they fit together so the ring slips onto Akihito’s finger like it was made for him, and not an old relic that’s seem through generations after all. Asami’s still on one knee, staring at Akihito’s hand in wonder, and finally presses a kiss over the ring, breath tickling his knuckles. He turns Akihito’s hand over so he can crush his mouth slow and open to his pulse before getting back on his feet, sweeping Akihito into his arms.

“You are going to be insufferable, aren’t you,” Akihito says, as Asami presses his unwavering curve of a smile to Akihito’s forehead and he ends up talking into a silk cravat, wrapping his arms around Asami’s back, his palms flat against Asami’s shoulders. “Even more so, I mean.”

“The engagement ring began as a proof of ownership in ancient Rome,” Asami tells him with obvious, unmitigated joy, evidently wanting to set a new definition for insufferable.

Being with Asami — choosing him — means Akihito will always have moments he can’t share, but in this shared world they have behind heavy curtains, in darkness he’s barely adjusted to, Akihito doesn’t think he minds so much anymore. He’s said yes. There is no applause, no onlookers, no crowd to gawk at them, but the song is riotous and fun and sounds exactly like it’s telling them, Congratulations.

“Did you choose this song too?” Akihito asks, wondering how far the planning goes, how many weeks back, when Asami even got the ring fitted.

Asami lifts an eyebrow at him. “If I tell you how the trick is done, it wouldn’t be magic anymore. Do you like it?”

“It’s loud. Snappy,” Akihito nods, thinking about how happy Asami looks. He hasn’t stopped smiling for a full two minutes now. “What’s it called?”

Seconds drifts by and Asami’s just gazing down at him, dreamy and utterly charmed, his hand running over the panes of Akihito’s face. He touches the back of his fingers to Akihito’s cheekbone, traces the top of his ear, and finally, when enough time has passed that Akihito thinks he may be avoiding the question altogether and he’s going to have to figure it out himself by listening to hours of jazz later, Asami tells him over the last riffs of guitar and the singer going into a drawn-out note, looking away sheepishly, pink-cheeked as though he’s been drinking, “It’s called, ‘We Are in Love.’”

Chapter Text

Akihito knows he has to get back to the dance floor eventually, to the lights and the searching cameras on dollies with shiny /tv asahi and NHK plates screwed to the sides, dance in front of Daisaku looking too grateful to be allowed to nervously perspire in his polyester onesie of a loose-fitting suit. There’d be questions from Ai, probably, knowing looks from Izumi (who admittedly has known for a while that having Akihito around Ai was a perfectly safe bet) and well-meaning and polite calls from his parents about his performance and a lack of questions from them, and it’d just be terrifying chaos all around. But here, while they’re still cradled by the darkness and the hush of velvet curtains, sequestered away from the world, all Akihito feels is an overwhelming sense of peace, as though he’s been standing at the edge of a cliff and he’s just jumped, that teetering feeling resolved by having taken a blithe step forward into the void.

“I bought you a chain,” Asami says, producing a thin silvery rope chain from the inside of his jacket and looping it around Akihito’s neck without asking. “In case you’re not ready to wear the ring in public.”

When worn, the chain ends at the base of his sternum. If he chooses to wear it, the ring would hang over his heart and it can be easily hidden — a secret. Asami’s still holding his hand, his fingers rubbing the underside of Akihito’s and his thumb running over the ring like he needs to feel it, as if he can’t quite believe it. It’s easy for Akihito to make up his mind.

“I’ll wear it,” Akihito says, and squeezes back on Asami’s fingers. “What about ... yours?”

“The one asking doesn’t wear an engagement ring where I’m from, so my family only passed on that one,” Asami explains, seems to consider it. “I can have one made — for the yuino.”

A wedding would take a year to plan, and Kirishima may shorten that time to six months, but a yuino could happen as soon as next week. Akihito imagines his family sitting around a table with Asami’s family having a formal dinner and Akihito reels — does he even have one? A war table worth of Asamis? What’s that like? — he may faint. “We’re having one of those?”

“For a man of my status it’s expected. We’ll make it formal and public. Maybe I can rent out this theatre banquet hall here —” Asami says, before his words collapse into a chuckle as Akihito watches his own soul leave his body, the rest of him turning green, “— I’m kidding. We don’t have to have one if you don’t want to.”

Akihito scowls at him, annoyed. “I’m regretting this already,” he says, but he’s raising his hand — his left, throwing off faint glimmers — towards Asami’s face so he can cup his jaw and press a thumb into that no longer rare dimple Asami gets when he smiles just like this, when he’s happy and smug and full of himself and as certain and constant as a sunrise.

When the music starts again, it’s a sweet melodic duet, sung with a bounce as though the two singers are bantering with each other, trading barbs — perfect for a Foxtrot. But as Asami leans into his palm, Akihito follows his jaw line, combs his fingers into Asami’s hair through to touch his nape to curl a palm round the back of Asami’s neck, they both forget all their steps. He does put his right hand in Asami’s left, weaving their fingers together to feel the slide of them side by side, warm and electric. Through the melancholic sax solo and the brassy, airy hand-off of a trailing note to the trumpet, it’s all Akihito can do to process this in hotspots, overwhelming his other senses; the touch of Asami’s forehead on his, a hand on the back seam of his tux jacket, his thumb stroking through to his shirt where the fabric splits, swaying in place and occasionally taking a sip of a kiss from each other. Their rhythm doesn’t falter, it’s insulated in the space between them, softly luminous, out of sync from the drums vibrating beneath their feet.

Akihito doesn’t forget any of his swing steps when he’s back on the dance floor with Momohara Ai, but he does almost topple her, once. She had commented on the ring and congratulated him on becoming a bride and asked if he would be inviting her to that public engagement announcement party since they’re friends now, and he’d pushed her for a spin-out after a Charleston hard enough to make her lose her balance. She’d wobbled and caught his hand and bounced back like one of those weighted daruma dolls, and with her back to the camera, stuck her tongue out at him.

“You are a bad person,” Akihito accuses, after, when the music moves onto something slower and they have enough face to face time for him to give her a piece of his mind.

With a smidgen more bounce in her step (just enough to be annoying), she says, “You can’t expect me to keep quiet when you go away for half an hour and come back with a ring.”

“Why not,” Akihito narrows his eyes, itching for a fight. “If I can keep quiet about us going away for twenty minutes and you wearing buttercream for lipstick, I’m sure you can be quiet about my ring forever.”

“Touche,” Ai says, and proceeds to interrogate him with questions that are on their face, not.

Akihito has known for a while now that even when they don’t carry rohypnol in their purses, women can be just as terrifying as men, but Akihito’s the professional journalist here and Ai’s been playing the ingenue for so long that he forgets how she can be a little shit for being twenty. Having grown up in the arena of child actors vying for the spotlight, she knows exactly how to push all his buttons and it’s a waste that she did not decide to go into investigative journalism.

Unlike him, she’d be absolutely ruthless.

“It’s very pretty,” she says, staring and sighing at his ring when they’re back at their table after dancing through six songs, shooing the cameras off — “That’s enough, I’m not a dancing machine,” she tells them — and makes a face that manages to be simultaneously wistful and homicidal like housewives at a supermarket timed sale. “I wish I could be in love too.”

Akihito turns five different colours, unaccustomed to talking about feelings, let alone someone to talk about feelings with, and his tongue gets rewired somewhere while channel switching between red and green and he blurts out, “I’m — I don’t — oh god.”

“I see that it’s not at all like a dorama,” she says, and sips diet soda while studying him like he’s an opened frog specimen.

“You’d be surprised,” Akihito confesses with a groan. “Sometimes I think we’re nothing but drama.”

“Maybe it’s all you,” Ai says, throwing him a savage squint. “Do you remember how we met? You tackled a gunman while unarmed. Oh, I know! You must have saved him from an assassination attempt or something. Tell me tell me tell me.”

Forty-five minutes of non-answers later, she’s unsatisfied with the skeleton of a romance he feeds her and goes right back to teasing: about the apartment he must share with Asami, how good he would look in a white tux, if he’s going to wear a veil.

It gets him quietly babbling excuses, so she drags him back to the dance floor, sparsely populated now near the end of the evening. Akihito still feels flustered, but focusing on a quickstep takes away some of that. He glances at their joined hands, at the underside of a gold silver entwined vine sparkling in the bright spotlights and doesn’t look at her when he finally asks, thinking of what Asami said earlier, “Am I so easy to read?”

“Just awful,” Ai scolds, winking at him, “but that’s alright,” and her dimples are on display as she leans in like she’s telling him a secret. “Asami-san is far worse.”

It’s not the mention of Asami’s name that makes his attention snap to, make him brighten — he hopes. “Oh?”

“So hostile,” Ai says, dramatically raising her eyebrows at him, “his eyes were scowling the whole time. It’s the most combative Foxtrot I’ve ever experienced. Then when I asked him how long you two have known each other he got distracted. It’s adorable,” she half smirks, and since it’s Akihito’s turn to be distracted, she backleads herself through the next sixteen bars, twirling her skirts.

“Did he really?” Akihito cheeks are hurting, and this time around it’s not because he’s hamming it up for the camera. “What did he say?”

“‘Far longer than you have,’ he said.” Ai flattens out her smile in an effort to try for an Asami impression. She gets pretty close. “You’re both ridiculous. You looked like the world would end if he danced with somebody else and he looked at me like he was about to commit murder.”

“I’m sorry,” Akihito says quietly, and what’s the world coming to now, that he would grin while Ai tells him Asami looked murderous. “That’s pretty typical of him.”

He has a feeling that he’ll end up apologising a lot on Asami’s behalf in the near future, but Akihito nearly takes it back, because the next garbage that comes out of Ai’s mouth is, “Hey, so since I’m the only girl slash friend you have, does this mean I get to be your maid of honour?”

Akihito’s not sure if he really looked as though the world was going to end when Asami started dancing with Ai, but he’s sure of one thing by now: between the two of them, he’s always been the petty, possessive one; if it’d been Asami that was out all night dancing with a pop idol and having segments of it broadcasted on two separate channels, images of him smiling and leaning into a woman peppered throughout evening variety shows, Akihito would have spent it either dead drunk or stone cold sober beneath five layers of blankets and the AC turned up, his thoughts a coalescing dark cloud with a high chance of flooding.

He certainly couldn’t greet Asami like this — leaning half on the wall of the genkan, taking Akihito’s hand so he can ghost a kiss over the ring, press his lips against the raised knobs of his knuckles, giving him such a doting look Akihito has to clutch at the door behind him for balance.

Usually he’s either home before Asami or he gets home when Asami’s already asleep, so it takes Akihito a minute to say, “I’m home,” hesitantly, meeting Asami’s eyes over the top of his hand.

Asami takes that as a cue to pull him in, tells him, “Welcome home,” his lips moving against Akihito’s temple. He’s taken off his vest and cravat and the jacket with the slim tailoring so Akihito can trace his back as they linger in the genkan — luxuriating with his face in Asami’s neckline, the opened collar of his shirt, breathing in.

That’s always been what Asami wanted of him, Akihito thinks; no matter how complicated Akihito may find him sometimes, how many secrets he hides, happiness for Asami comes speciously simple. As long as Akihito comes home to him, that will always be enough.

As he leads Akihito into the house like they’re still on the banquet floor, a hand at his elbow, still wearing his ballroom manners, Asami asks, “How was the rest of your evening?”

“I got interrogated,” Akihito says, rolling his eyes. “If it weren’t for your puppy eyes —”

"—There are no puppy eyes,” Asami warns.

"—I’d have worn the ring on a chain like a smart person,” Akihito wonders if that’s how Asami works his silver tongue. Whenever Asami looks remotely sad about anything Akihito feels his IQ drop twenty points. “Needless to say, Ai had questions.”

They’d gone home in separate limos to head off paparazzi and rumours, but that gave Akihito ample time to snoop around on Ai’s fansite on his phone. There are a dozen screencaps of his ring already, pixels magnified into blurry, glowing balls like Christmas lights. So now, Ai had questions, the internet has questions, and Akihito has regrets.

“And did you tell her you were spoken for?” Asami say, overly coy for him.

Akihito considers telling him that 1) Ai is secretly a conniving, evil ex-child star and she only plays a dumb cute thing on TV, and 2) Asami’s already effectively telegraphed that by dragging him off halfway through the night and bringing him back in a condition Ai described as thoroughly kissed, so telling her that he’s spoken for seems rather redundant.

“You let me go out there with that ring on purpose,” Akihito settles on accusatory.

Asami has the nerve to grin at him, incorrigible. “That goes without saying.”

“She wants to be my maid of honour,” Akihito says, exceedingly arch. “And said she’d introduce me to her designer who has a collection of antique lace.”

“Shouldn’t that be Kou?” Asami says, looking pinched — like he’s about to explode with a full belly laugh. “And lace looks good on you.”

Akihito gives Asami an indignant glance. “I thought we agreed to never speak of that again.”

“Did we now?” Asami pulls him around the corner, unrepentantly unconcerned. “Here I thought we agreed on what you’ll be wearing underneath your white tux.”

“You are a terrible person. I am surrounded by terrible people,” Akihito says, but his words are undercut by the sight that greets him as they come out of their bright hallway with its recessed halogens into a candlelit dining room, his heart seizing up in his chest.

There’s a bucket of ice on the table, its metal surface burning with refracted flames from collected late June humidity, holding two bottles of champagne destined to go warm, because the last thing Akihito has on his mind is more drinking. He feels bubbly from dessert wines, intoxicated on the roller coaster of an evening Asami dragged him through already, nursing a pressure headache from laughing too much. He’s drunk. He’s perfectly, terrifyingly sober — he has no filter and he’ll remember everything. “How much time did you spend planning all of this?” Akihito asks.

The seismic shifting beneath his feet has come to a complete, total stop, but he doesn't feel off-kilter spinning in the centre of Asami's palm. Even if Asami's one step ahead of him the whole evening, this month, from the moment they met, his plans leading Akihito exactly where he wants him to go like a Foxtrot that meanders through every room in the house and ends beneath the stars, he feels on the cusp of something revelatory. There may be strings wound round his wrists, but he’s followed them to the end and only found Asami on the other side, every thread fading into his veins. They're tied to each other, and Asami may never tell him, even now, but he's been telegraphing that distress signal for an age — all his threats boiling down to a plaintively whispered stay with me.

Planning with you is a fool’s errand — better to be prepared and watch for an opening,” Asami says, and it may sound nice, gentlemanly, smooth, but it’s rather obvious he’s dissembling as he runs his hand through his hair. “Would you believe me if I told you that most of this was spur of the moment?”

Akihito says, “No,” and snorts at him, since he knows sidestepping when he sees it.

“I had the ring fitted. And then,” his hands slips from Akihito’s elbow to his waist, pulling him closer, “I made plans. But they were drastically different plans.”

“Oh?” Now Akihito’s curious. “What were they?”

“I have been advised that they were inappropriate.” Asami seems bemused and exasperated and pleased all at once, looking at Akihito like he’s just jumped off of a building — dangerous and desiring. “Let a man keep his secrets.”

“Really,” Akihito maintains, but he lets that look draw him in and hooks a finger into Asami’s undone collar. “You have far too many of those.”

If he’s to examine himself, shine a light into all his dark corners and rooms full of excuses as closely as he would his own targets, Akihito would know he’s felt proprietary towards Asami since their eyes met. Anyone else — anyone sane — would have run after the initial apocalyptic warnings he was given from multiple sources, but he’d wanted to go after Asami in wholly illogical, counterproductive ways, to shine a light on all his secrets. Akihito had his reasons, but all his reasoning withers in the shape of his longing, the objective reality of having given his heart away, the abject despair of not knowing if he would always be the only one drawn by this gravity.

Akihito strokes his fingers over the open vee of Asami’s shirt, keeping the tips of them there to track the beat but it’s useless; it’s blended and arrhythmic, and he can’t tell which of them carries the back beat, the two-four of swing. With a hand open like a claw he pulls Asami down to him by the hair at his nape, crushing their mouths together to force them into a perfect fit. Asami can keep his damn secrets, Akihito will cut him open down from his collarbone and take what he needs to fill the hollow in his own — it’s only fair.

Love isn’t finding your other half, Akihito thinks, at least for him. Love is nothing like the little philosophical details that escape his friends over drinks, nothing like Kou’s wandering serial monogamy and Takato’s claim of finding the one, nothing like a missing jigsaw piece and a soulmate. They’ve been wrong in exactly the right way for each other and it’s only worked because each of them were too stubborn to care; they just kept filing away at the other’s rough corners, sanding away the edges until they’d fit — until they’re flush and raw and messy and fit for no one else.

They don’t step on each others’ toes anymore — Akihito knows the minute tap of a forefinger on his back, the raising of a left arm, the tightness on the right side of his ribs — and he can read the jump in Asami’s muscles like a secret language. When Asami scrapes teeth over the corner of his mouth, Akihito knows to open up, give himself over, and Asami would tip up his chin and lick into him, his hand sliding down to Akihito’s throat to hold him warningly still. He’s memorised Akihito like all the steps in a dance, all the notes in a clarinet solo, a vocalist reciting every word in a jazz tune sung with different embellishments in progressive choruses. Asami moves them through the footwork with sentimental fondness, with a conversant confidence that leaves Akihito breathless, wanting, impatient.

“You taste like strawberries. Ice wine?” Asami says, the low buzz of his voice humming through Akihito’s pulse in slow, wet kisses. “I’d planned on opening a bottle of champagne.”

The hand on his throat’s loosening the pinch of a top button, tugging Akihito’s bowtie off, and he laughs, effusive with something other than alcohol. “You’d planned on getting me drunk?”

Asami’s lost his game face when he came home, the first hint of it he thinks he first saw was on their balcony on Asami’s first night back from Europe, and it’s wonderful how that’s familiar, that he’s seen it so often it doesn’t startle, how that’s like a tight knot unravelling. Akihito hooks his thumbs behind Asami, stretching out his belt loops and doesn’t think about how off his head he feels, how wanton he looks, just arches his hips up, curves himself against the thick heat of him, rubbing their cocks together over four layers of fabric.

He gets Asami hissing at him, biting down hard over the juncture of his neck and shoulder, over the upturned winged collar enough to sting, snag the seam with his canines that’s no warning at all.

“You’re forward when you’re drunk,” Asami says, and every time Akihito frots them together his words halt, vacillating, and it’s a rush.

“You like it when I’m forward, do you?” Akihito feels the tug of a smile that begins in his cheeks, stretching up to his brow, chasing off his shyness, and he reaches down then, rubs his palm hard over the shape of Asami’s cock and rakes his nails over the head through his pants.

Asami’s eyes flash wide in warning, the darkness in his pupils startling, and then they narrow and Akihito gets to enjoy that — the way his lip curls and his eyebrows twist as if he’s angry — for exactly a second before he’s lifted, his thighs going around Asami’s hips, and the dining room recedes away. How irresponsible of him, to leave candles unattended, but Asami’s growling into his neck and leaving blooming bruises, so it’s no object at all for him to test fate too. He crosses his ankles behind Asami’s back and digs his heels into the meat of Asami’s ass, grinding them together. If Asami sounds winded, if he sounds suffering, stumbling so they fall into the bed, all the better.

Candlelight’s dancing in his eyes here too, and Asami nips at Akihito’s bottom lip, chiding, “Cheeky,” as if that’d get him to stop.

The candles are nice, distant with vanilla and honey, but what he has at hand is better: eye-watering gun grease, a hint of cigarettes, oiled leather, prohibitively expensive aftershave, the clean lavender of starch at his collar, something remote and seeped through like watching the fireworks at a riverbank in high summer that’s the gunpowder sting sunk into his skin. It hits Akihito like a drug and takes the edge off of reality, throws his perception for a spin — reminds him of the air after a gunshot. Some part of Akihito’s terrified, but he’s so miswired by this point it only makes his skin tighten all over, his breath juddering out.

He voices his thoughts aloud, but only the part he can, “It’s only fair. Can I?” asking for permission for — he’s not even sure what, and he doesn’t wait for an answer before he settles on the first thing he feels like having, with Asami stretched out above him with his throat bare like a banquet.

His eyes follow the golden line of Asami’s skin, bare three buttons down and appallingly unmarked, a sheen of sweat shimmering on his throat. Akihito fists both hands into Asami’s hair to better lick down the long elegantly exposed line of him, press the flat of his tongue against the sharpness of his stubble, slowly turning that into a bruise. Asami tastes of salt: late June, early summer, dancing in stuffy rooms not meant for air conditioning and filling up their bedroom with open flames. It makes Akihito want to tear him open for his trouble, leave marks that’d show past the sleek buttoned up line of his collar. Another two buttons down and he ignores the first warning, “Akihito,” his brow knotting as Akihito closes his mouth over one nipple.

“Enough,” Asami snaps, and he’s finished with being permissive and obliging and he catches Akihito’s wrists, pins them above his head. “What did I say?”

Akihito’s left to stare up at him, rolling his hips into the negative space trying to close the distance. “And why should I listen to you?” he challenges, and Asami’s answer is to use his free hand to undo the buckle of Akihito’s belt, yanking his pants down and pushing them off the bed.

“I’ll let you play some other day,” Asami says, and he doesn’t give Akihito a chance to snap back, “when the fuck is that?” and reaches down for Akihito’s underwear with the growing wet spot and snaps the elastic down so he’s trapped, flattened out against his stomach, and Asami rubs the tip of a finger lightly, teasingly over the slit. “Have you been wanting me since earlier?”

It didn’t help that he pushed Akihito up against a row of light switches backstage, and he’d been so nervous about what they do he’d held perfectly still as Asami devoured his mouth. “As if,” he says, but his entire body’s strung tight, straining to get more, get Asami to wrap a hand around his cock instead of literally stringing him along.

“You must have thought I dragged you away from your date so I could remind you who you belong to,” Asami says.

Asami has him pinned up and down, hooked his legs over Akihito’s knees so he can’t move an inch, and he swears, makes desperate, whining sounds at him, at the whorl of Asami’s thumb dipping into the slit and tracing the vein all the way down. He denies, “I did not —”

“You certainly looked like you needed a reminder. Less likely that any of my people would think you were kissing an idol if you look like you’ve just been fucked in the mouth.”

So he was jealous, the bastard, and what’s the world coming to that Akihito finds that hot. Asami kisses a line up his stomach, breathes over the tip of his dick tantalisingly close and laughs at him as he bucks up, straining so hard he’s liable to pull something. “I was sorely tempted. But I wouldn’t stop there —” Asami then says, and his hand disappears, sliding south, and there’s a knuckle pushing in behind his balls, grinding over the fabric, “— I’d make sure you were properly filled up so I’d be leaking out of you, drying on your thighs.”

“Asami —” rationally he knows he can’t die of wanting, but it feels like it, like he would expire if his cock keeps on going untouched, but when Asami’s hand is back it doesn’t linger — just drags through the drops of precome collected on his stomach, up and up, until he’s pushing it at his mouth. It’s salt and sex and electricity, rough with Asami’s calluses, and it makes him think of all the times Asami left him in a daze, his ass twitching and still swollen, drenched, pushing at the corner of his lips with a thumb to feel the sting the way he would his other bruises, his body a mess of reminders.

“And you’d love that. It’d be a little secret between us. Your friends would wonder why you look so preoccupied and that sweet innocent idol will complain how you’re stepping all over her toes. And when you come home to me—” Asami wipes his thumb over Akihito’s lips then, swiping fresh salt over his teeth and teases at his tongue, tickling, "—and you’ll always come home to me now — what might I do with you?”

Then the fingers are out of Akihito’s mouth and he has nothing stopping him from begging, his tongue feeling thick between his teeth, and he whimpers, inarticulate and messy with lust and an overwhelming want for Asami to fall apart as much as he is, as much as he always has, and he gets out, “Fuck me,” between crying out as Asami snakes his fingers between Akihito’s thigh and his briefs, the slicked up tips of them too carefully circling the tight furl of his hole.

Akihito tries to push himself down against Asami’s fingers, tries to spear himself on them, but all he gets is the flat of them sliding up on the cleft and Asami biting down over his nipple, sharp, over his shirt. But even that’s good, “More,” he says, more anything is fine as long as it’s him. He’s off his head with wanting, arching his back and raising his chest to get Asami to bite him harder.

If I’d done all that I’d turn you around at the door and fuck you against it,” Asami says, his breath ghosting over the cooling, wet spot on his white shirt, stretched over the taut skin of his nipple, his teeth a tease, and finally — finally, Akihito gasps, bearing down, pulling him in — Asami’s pushing both fingers into him at once rough and burning all the way, just how he likes it. “I wouldn’t even give you time to take your shoes off.”

There’s dirty talk, Akihito thinks, and then there’s Asami; he’s carved a shared vocabulary into his skin. He’s pinned Akihito to the wall in the genkan, jeans pooled around his ankles and underwear stretched halfway down his thighs. So he’s there by the door too, hips snapping into Akihito with a frenzied, impatient rhythm, barely enough lube so it stings and burns and never a smooth glide, Akihito feeling himself turn inside out on every thrust, and Asami’s here in their bed, bent over him, holding him down, methodically and thoroughly fucking him open on two fingers.

“That’s enough,” Akihito whines, after who knows how long, ages, an hour, a literal minute, after Asami adds another finger and stretching him open too slowly for how frazzled, impatient he’s feeling. “I’m ready, just — inside.

When Asami’s hand loosens over his wrists, Akihito’s first instinct is to wind them around Asami — needy with the need of him, wants to drag him up by the hair for a kiss — but he’s mouthing at the bottom side of Akihito’s ribs, digging his teeth in, saying, “Unbutton your shirt for me.”

It takes two tries to get at five buttons, he’s feeling so numb and clumsy in his hands, but then he could loop them around Asami and rest them behind his neck, because Asami’s on him, the buttons of his shirt — how is he still clothed — scraping down Akihito’s chest, his mouth hot and wet and sealing him up. Akihito’s been gasping, yelling, making whispery noises in his throat so he’s dry when Asami slips a tongue inside him, soft and wet and tasting as sweet as a ripe peach, like water in a desert. Akihito begs — “no”, “please”, “no”, ad infinitum — when he leaves, takes his mouth elsewhere to bite marks into Akihito’s chest, sucks on his nipple hard enough that it must bruise, leaving a mark that’s purpling, but that just makes his cock jump, setting all his nerves tingling like he’s completed a circuit; his entire body turned into a conduit, caught between Asami’s fingers, the heat of his mouth, the fiery weight of his gaze.

Akihito’s wrapped his fingers into Asami’s hair, tightening, digging into his scalp, and he feels soaked through and ready to fall apart. His shirt tails are wet and his stomach is wet and as Asami finally takes pity on him and pulls his briefs down, it goes off the side of the bed sounding heavy and Akihito chooses to blush at that instead of everything else.

“So adorable,” Asami says, stroking his fingers over Akihito’s chest where he’s pink and flushed. He takes Akihito’s hand and presses his mouth to the knuckles. “Not that you haven’t been gorgeous the entirety of the evening.” And when it’s said, heartfelt like he means every word, Akihito thinks he’s run out of excuses to disbelieve him now. Dear gods but he is insufferable, Akihito thinks and mumbles something close to, "Stop it." He feels the heat tingling down his chest and it glows in his shoulders like a sunburn. “Why must you talk all the time.

Asami makes a ring with his fingers at the base of Akihito’s cock and squeezes, his mouth a taunt, so close to the tip and his eyes challenging as he says, “Then maybe you should tell me to make better use of my mouth.”

He must go even more red all over, makes such a face, because Asami laughs, and doesn’t try to coax him to talk dirty ( impossible, he’d immolate on the spot.) Asami actually does make better use of his mouth instead by wetting his lips and sliding down Akihito’s dick in one go, the flat of his tongue a rough ride all the way down.

He’s not sure what’s worse, getting held back at the moment of orgasm or getting a blowjob with a cockring. Possibly the second with the added visual of Asami within reach, brows furrowed in concentration and staring up at him through a fringe of dark lashes, his lips flush against the skin of Akihito’s hip and his throat tight and tightly swallowing.

“Oh fuck, no no no,” Akihito complains, the rest coming out in teary, frustrated gasps.

Asami’s alternating swallowing Akihito down with licking a circle around the head of his dick, dipping the tip of his tongue into the slit, rough and mean, squeezing down whenever he’s anywhere close — every other second. It’s crazy, he’s going crazy, so when Akihito grabs fistfuls of Asami’s hair and crushes the shells of his ears against his skull, he isn’t wary like he usually is, that Asami’s staring up at him through a fringe fallen across his brow, and he’s just sucking at the head, room enough in his mouth to smirk and Akihito can’t take this, it’s impossible to have anything in his head except want and he throws away all his caution and shoves Asami down on his cock.

They don’t do this because he doesn’t like it; Akihito likes taking it, likes feeling Asami bulging in his throat and Asami’s fist in his hair, that stinging tightness in his scalp as he’s fucked, but he’s too far gone to think about if he’s hurting him, if he’s giving Asami bruises, scraping the inside of his mouth raw. His rhythm’s solely based on what feels good, instinct taking over as he thrusts unsteadily into Asami’s mouth, thighs shaking, revelling in being inside him. Asami loves him; Akihito’s free to do whatever he wants, he can pull on Asami’s hair and mark his scalp, dig his nails in hard enough to draw blood, and as he grinds himself in and in, buried to the hilt, lodged in Asami’s throat, he feels the pressure at the base of his cock disappear abruptly and the pressure that’s been building all this time erupts.

It’s hard and so sudden it’s painful, the muscles in his thighs his stomach his chest tightening. He’s about to burst out of his skin and become someone as lustful and lewd as Asami tells him he is, knows him to be, and he loses the rest of his rhythm, the rest of his strength. When Asami pulls at him from the inside out, hooking his fingers, and his throat closes up as he swallows, Akihito closes up on himself too like a fist, the whole of him collapsing inwards. Everything else is his body wanting all over — the obscene wet sounds as Asami mouths at his softening cock, his body shaking the rest of the way as Asami licks him clean, hollow and empty and missing the exact shape of him, fucking himself on Asami’s fingers as he comes down.

In the aftermath of an orgasm Akihito can’t think much, over-sensitised, feels his body turning to water and pooling heavily into his limbs, moaning in minute aftershocks. He lets Asami tug him out of his jacket, his shirt, and he touches the side of Asami’s face after, thumbs the plush corners of his swollen mouth and runs the pads of his fingers over the smooth column of Asami’s throat where his stubble ends, adorned with a red mark already going dark.

“Sorry,” Akihito mumbles, and Asami takes his hand and folds Akihito’s fingers over his knuckles, mouthing the words “Don’t be,” into his skin, and turns Akihito onto his belly.

It hasn’t escaped Akihito’s notice that Asami still has all his clothes on; he’s probably developed all kinds of weird fetishes, spending so much time with him, and Akihito’s sure he likes this far too much: to feel the muscles of Asami’s thighs through thin linen pants, the chiselled panes of his chest and his abs a line of heat against him, smooth, cool buttons scraping down his back. When Asami pulls him up by the hips, putting a knee between them to urge him to open up, part his legs, thumbs digging into the divots there, Akihito lies languid over the pillow of his crossed arms and goes boneless in his limbs — his entire body loosening.

“You should see yourself,” Asami says, and he should hear himself; wrecked and hoarse and so deep it sends a shiver down Akihito’s spine.

Asami’s pushing fingers in him again, scissoring him open, and Akihito’s so sensitised now from coming, so soft and loose behind his balls that he can feel the calluses at the corners of Asami’s nails. The ache’s gotten so bad, he feels so empty that the rough way Asami’s playing with him — rubbing at the rim, putting two thumbs in him so Asami can stretch him open, making Akihito want to cover his face — still doesn’t feel like enough.

“Please ... I can’t —” it surprises Akihito that he’s hoarse too, sounds so desperate he can’t stand it. He juts out his ass so he can get more of Asami’s touch, shameless. “Put it in.”

Asami lets out a hum that passes for a groan for him, like he’s angry, barely holding together. The little wild moments that leak out of him like steam from pressurized pipes sounds amazing, and Akihito wants more of it so he stretches like a cat, pushing back until the back of his thighs meet Asami’s hips, rubbing himself against Asami’s cock — throbbing hard by now — trapped in his pants.

He gets a hard smack on the ass for that, making him yelp, making him clench down tight over the fingers knuckle-deep in his hole, but Akihito hears the clink of a belt buckle and the metallic sigh of a zipper and the tell-tale sound of a plastic cap and he thinks, finally, and gasps out loud when Asami’s fingers are replaced by his cock, just barely rubbing at the edges, slicking him up.

“I’d planned on being gentle with you tonight,” Asami says, his body curved over Akihito’s back so Akihito feels Asami’s shirt tails, Asami’s hands gripping his hips so tight they would pinch and leave red marks to show between his shirt and his waistband, and the hot brand of his cock brushing his entrance. “But you keep provoking me.”

"—am not,” Akihito protests, and it must be because he’s come once already, because his voice sounds shivery, getting out single syllables between shuddering at the way as Asami’s opening him up wider than his fingers could; he’s ready and soft and wide open and yet every touch feels like too much.

That unbearable ache is turning into a burn, and Asami’s gripping his ass now, holding him open, and he does think about how he’d look, remembering how he’d looked in mirrors; hungry and spasming and stretching tight and thin over Asami’s cock, shiny with slick, his back curving into an exaggerated dip, the blush that Asami’s always telling him about spreading down from his cheeks to a dusting at his neck, going pink all over. Akihito’s not sure if he’s provoking him but he doesn’t want gentle, he wants to feel split open and joined to Asami, like dancers that know the space around their bodies so well they flow across a dance floor. Akihito pushes back, hurries him along so he can grate the rim of him on rough hairs, feel the jut of his pelvis, the scratch of a zipper against his spent sac.

Asami obliges and snaps his hips, hard, scraping over every bit of him on the inside that makes him melt away, makes his whole body jolt, surrendering, so Akihito goes mute — his mouth gaping in silence until he mouths at the sheets and a moan comes out in a whine.

“What do you call that then, hm?” Asami asks, and Akihito can hear the way his words are shaped like a snarl.

“You were taking too long,” Akihito complains, getting up on his elbows so he can push back even more, get Asami deeper, show Asami he’s good at taking it.

“Spoiled brat,” Akihito thinks he hears him say, and the perspective shifts; Asami’s putting hands under Akihito’s arms so he can lift him up, pull him up so Akihito’s balanced on his knees, sitting on Asami’s lap. His ass flattens out over Asami’s hips, his thighs laid out over the flat, strong muscles, over the good strength of him, and when Asami grinds up into him he feels as if he’s shifting inside, falling apart and putting himself back together, fitting around Asami like a mold forming anew.

Akihito tilts back so he can kiss him, sloppy at an odd angle, scrabbles at his side until he finds Asami’s hand, and he folds that to his chest so he can feel held in as he sinks as far as he can go, get Asami so deep in him he can feel Asami in his ribs. His hand’s a claw in Asami’s pants, damp with sweat, his cock’s filling up again, the twinge of it coming as a tingle of skin tightening. Akihito’s like an elastic pulled to its breaking point all over, a spin that’s gone on too long, a planetary body in a cha-cha. He feels worn out, scraped open, and he’s carelessly letting Asami fill him in, to remake the perimeters of him.

The corners of his eyes are wet, and Asami’s holding him up, whispering something sweet that he can’t understand. He could come like this, just let Asami take him there, but he can’t help begging, either, and Akihito fills up the air with his pleas as Asami holds him down so he can slide slow, punishingly long strokes into him. He’s pulled taut as strings in a harp, tuned to sing all the notes Asami wants, and when Asami sinks his teeth into Akihito’s shoulder, into hot, sweat soaked skin, telling him, “I’ve got you,” Akihito feels himself cracking open, a sweet ache in his chest filling up his lungs, so all he can do is lean on him, let Asami get at the shell of his ear, let Asami have him however he would have him.

“I’ve got you,” Asami says again, between Akihito’s teeth, sucks it into his tongue. Akihito feels Asami’s hand skim over his hip, a hot palm rolling across his balls and up his cock and Akihito grinds down, desperate to feel them together, so he could close over Asami as he flies apart.

As he comes, shouting so hoarsely he barely recognizes himself, Asami’s arm is over his chest, holding him upright; the quaking in his limbs feel unending and all his aches from dancing feels sweet, prickling in his bones. Akihito stares down at his thighs, the mess he’s made of Asami’s pants, at the bruises up and down his own legs, the new pinch marks blooming on his hips and the marks of teeth on his chest — Asami’s hand whipping up his cock as Akihito spurts all over himself. His cocks’s still drooling when Asami slams him down onto the mattress and Akihito’s breath gets punched out of him, one hand fisted in his hair and snapping his hips, like he’s pulled away the restraints and Asami’s giving him everything.

Asami’s hair is wild and his eyes are wild and Akihito thinks, he’s mine, and claws into the sheets, his body closing up around Asami, stubbornly hanging on through sharp pains so he can drink in the lassitude of tension breaking in that moment Asami holds still. Akihito feels Asami’s breath hitch and his sweat running down his back, then the heavy weight of asami’s head dropping between his shoulder blades, the heat of him sinking in, holding him down with a familiar, searing tenderness.

Akihito’s taken the next day off, for media avoidance reasons— three weeks of wearing his legs down to the bone and one televised evening later, he’s not sure why he ever agreed to this, save for his pathological inability to say no. It hasn’t escaped his notice, in the light of day, that he’s said “Yes” to Asami without considering the logistics. There are his friends he’s known since the cradle, the adults around them literally taking turns to cram them into the same playpen so the others can catch a break. He really has no excuse at all for not coming out to them by now, and to come out and announce his engagement at the same time feels kind of rude. There are also his parents, one half of which may actually be concerned about his marrying an arms dealer.

A rational person may at this point question how unconcerned he is about his own engagement to an arms dealer, but even with his propensity to second guess all things concerning Asami, he can’t find a shred of fear in his heart. Maybe he feels a twinge, but that’s likely a physical thing, starting midway down his lower back, radiating out in a good, used up ache, making him shift in the covers and closer to Asami and so glad about not having to leave the bed that he sighs happily into Asami’s ribs.

Asleep, Asami is a contradiction of lax muscles and soft skin over his good bones, and now he’s sticky with the night before, pillow marks on his face; Akihito thinks he likes him just like this — mussed up hair and all. He’s probably looking too adoring when Asami opens his eyes, instantly smug, and says to Akihito, “Hey.”

“Um, hi,” Akihito says, his words gone hibernating.

Akihito feels appalled at how nervous he feels, though he supposes he’s never woken up next to someone he’s pledged his life to before.

A small line appears between his brow as Asami’s face closes over, and Akihito adds, “Don’t worry I’m not having second thoughts or anything,” in one breath, which is probably like saying “I didn’t do it” while picking up a baseball in his neighbour’s backyard in front of a broken window when he was six.

“I didn’t say you were,” Asami replies, his business face dissolving into something intentionally relaxed, and Akihito can tell he’s lying at a glance. “Then what were you thinking about?”

Akihito’s life is built around a passion and a series of rash decisions, like running after Triad limos or attempting a jump into Kowloon Bay or holding the gaze of someone dangerous while he climbs off of a building. Choosing Asami is the least of these; there is no one else, and maybe like anyone in love he feels there would never be anyone else, that he can only feel this way about this person, but just because it happens to people all over the world everyday doesn’t mean it’s not true. And now —

“Just, well,” Akihito prevaricates, and then decides to just be out with it. “I should tell my parents.”

“I suppose they should have some say in the wedding planning,” Asami says, shrugging as well as he can lying down. “They may want that yuino you don’t.”

“I thought I’d tell them I’m gay first.” It’s probably the thought of the yuino that does it, anything to delay the inevitable, but as the words tumble out of him, Akihito realises it’s the first time he’s said it out loud. Akihito says, “Hah,” meaning to laugh at himself, but it comes out quietly wondering — comes out sounding like an epiphany.

Asami’s expression has gone unreadable again. “I’m going to tell you something,” he says, and takes Akihito’s hand so he can enclose it in his, ring and all. “And you must promise me not to —" he pauses a beat, as if looking for the right choice of words, as if the right choice of words matters when he’s looking so solemn and bafflingly calm, "— freak out.”

“I’m already freaking out,” Akihito sits up half in bed, and it’s probably a delayed reaction from everything but he’s just skin holding in hysteria at this point. “But go on.”

When his phone chooses this moment to ring, Akihito gives it the barest glance, catching the word DAD on the screen with the profile image of his parents dressed up for a friend’s wedding in India last year, and hesitates a beat before turning his attention back on Asami, letting it go to voicemail. He’d forgotten to put it on mute; his brain refuses to deliberate on why pulling it out of his jacket pocket and setting it on the nightstand was the most attention he was willing to lavish on it the night before.

“Maybe you should answer that,” Asami says, nagging like he always does when Akihito lets his dad’s calls go to voicemail. “Make an exception today.”

As soon as Akihito’s phone stops ringing, another ringtone’s going off; Asami’s personal phone he had in his pants, flung haphazardly onto the nightstand next to Akihito’s, serendipitously face up. It’s gratifying for Akihito to see he could be careless, for once, lose himself enough to forget that even the names flashing across his screen could be dangerous information when he’s living with a journalist, but instead of the leader of the LDP or some shady head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the name flashing across Asami’s phone reads Takaba Makoto and Akihito’s brain’s so busy losing its shit he just stares with his mouth wide open as Asami reaches past him.

“Yes, he’s home, but he’s still sleeping. He’s a bit tired from the event,” Asami’s saying smoothly, sitting up against the headboard. “Ah — you noticed. Thank you.”

It’s an exceedingly polite conversation even if Akihito can only hear it from this side. Akihito pick up his jaw off the bed when it’s over and yells, “Did you just — no, you did just talk to my dad — why were you talking to my dad? Oh my god when did you start talking to my dad?”

“You are failing the not freaking out portion of this conversation appallingly,” Asami says, dry as the surface of the moon, but he reaches out to muss Akihito’s hair, and drops the phone so he can hold him steady with both hands. “Everything is fine.”

“Everything is,” and Akihito’s about to tell him, “not fine,” but it’d be the second time he tells Asami the same thing in twenty-four hours and things are different now in a way he cannot explain: he has made certain promises that goes along with saying ”Yes” to a proposal and one of those is to trust Asami a little, too, the way he’s demanded that Asami trust him. “Fine. But I ... is he?” Akihito nearly asks, “Is he fine with me, the way I am?” But hope always gets trapped in the tight neck of a jar, and what he ends up saying probably makes no sense, “I mean, am I — is what I am okay?”

“Akihito,” Asami says, his eyes soft on Akihito’s face, the thin corner of his lips turning up. “I have your parents’ permission to marry you.”

Oh, and he thinks this will be funny later, he’ll laugh at himself for years, how he’s been carrying this around without somehow knowing. Howsoever Asami may praise him for his resilience, Akihito knows he’s weak. He’d startle at a word and read too much into things and live on a glance; he’d be asked how he is and he doesn’t know any answer other than that he’s fine, that there’s nothing to him anyone needs to worry about; he’d shrug off any sign that he is loved for fear of hoping too much. All these scars of abandonment he's been ignoring are surfacing on his skin, as ugly as jealousy, the insecurity and guilt he pretends never weigh him down, but behind them, all his fears are dissolving.

Akihito doesn’t know why his face is wet, why Asami looks at him with such concern and affection even as Akihito feels a crack open within himself, a world of imperfections spilling forth. It feels like Asami’s reached into his chest and pulled something loose, and he’s laughing and crying and his chest aches so much his heart may stop.

If the landing feels gentle, light with warm, assuring arms around him, it's because Asami would never let him fall. It suddenly dawns on him with a momentous start that all this time, Asami's been the one waiting for him: to turn around, to see him, to stay.

He's not sure what he wants to know first: how long have you been sure? How long have you been planning this really? Not to mention the question that won't leave him even now: how long have you loved me? It takes ages to get his words past the lump in his throat, but it’s so vague that he can't be sure which question Asami's answering after he manages to ask, "How long?"

“Last summer. Before I went to get you … from Hong Kong.”

Chapter Text

The first time Asami speaks to Akihito’s father (Takaba Makoto, 44, Travelogue Photographer; no police record) it’s on an international call taken at 5am. He remembers very little of it, because he was, in order of inversely proportional to the effect on his psyche:

  1. On a continuous, self-administered morphine drip;
  2. dizzy from blood loss;
  3. getting most of his calories through an IV;
  4. trying — and catastrophically failing — to deny that he’s fighting what’s probably the first and worst anxiety attack of his life.

Four is a pretty consistent thing these days, and Asami feels it like a low-grade migraine that only reminds him of its existence once in a blue moon, at dawn, leaving him sweat drenched and startled awake. The last time he remembers waking from horripilating, recurring nightmares, he was twelve or somewhere thereabouts, so he’s blindsided; ever since that near gun-fight in Ikebukuro, digging Akihito naked and in obvious pain out of a converted-basement-dungeon of a warehouse, he’s lived in constant, simmering worry that flares into a bonfire whenever Kirishima approaches with that look he reserves for Akihito related news. Fortunately he’s an exceptional compartmentaliser and he’s able to treat it as no more or less important than a million other things that should worry at him more: attacks along his trade routes in the Tsushima Basin, a new cake cafe in Nagano still in the red after sixteen months, one of his hostess clubs in Kabukicho unfortunately named Powder possibly being used by its manager to deal low quality drugs, Takaba Akihito having his apartment broken in twice by the Triad and stubbornly staying put.

Akihito’s getting known by the Triad the way petty criminals are said to be known by the police. The best thing Asami can do for him is to stay away; the less attention drawn to those rumours of them being an item (they are not an item) the better. You’d think that in a city with a population count as massive as Tokyo, crowded to the jowls with high rises pushing up against each other and claustrophobically narrow alleys made narrower by soba carts, it’d be easy enough to avoid someone from a completely different social stratus — but alas.

The frequency with which they run into each other defies all of Kirishima’s carefully calculated statistical analyses, and he gives Asami looks of disapproving suspicion every time the boy shows up at an interview stroke one of his clubs stroke a political fundraiser as if he could have planned a chance meeting, as if every time they have a run-in, it’s his fault. If Asami believes in fate or any of that superstitious nonsense, he’d voice his own egotistical suspicions out loud: that finding Akihito has been like finding a stray key that fits his house lock, the one in ten million coincidence of finding out Akihito fits perfectly in his arms, that he’s chanced upon the one person made for him.

So here he is, twenty-four hours after getting hit by a peashooter — Thank you, Feilong, for being as terrible a marksman as ever — and most of that spent anaesthetized as they wheel him in and out of surgery, the rest sleeping on Kirishima’s motherhenning insistence, he’s on Akihito’s discarded phone spinning a conch shell of a story about sending Akihito to the mountains of Chengdu to take scenic photographs.

It’s sheer mulishness that makes him dial down the painkillers so he can be lucid enough to form coherent sentences, ordering Kirishima to put him on speakerphone as soon as he hears the name. In the space of five minutes he’s given Akihito a contract that lasts six weeks, a temporary personal assistant to field all of his domestic calls (Suoh, so sorry about this), an NDA with the Sion corporation and a conspicuous lack of communication with the world outside of rural China.

Takaba Makoto’s voice bears the weary, long suffering resignation of someone who is Akihito’s parent. “What do you mean he can’t call?” he says, rightfully incensed that he can’t get ahold of his son for their monthly phone call. “Satellite phones exist.”

“They’re illegal in China,” Asami says, while checking with Kirishima via eyebrow semaphore, making sure it’s not a lie. “I offered to get him a local cell phone but you know how he is — he said it’s a waste of money.”

There’s a long pause in between the end of his sentence and Makoto speaking again, the lie hanging like a tight rope snapping taut. In the interim Asami gets to feel like a child, his own father staring him down from the great beyond.

“He’s very responsible, isn’t he?” Makoto says, finally, with the intentional lightness of a man who says this to himself a lot hoping that one day it may come true.

Running off chasing top Triad on your own with no backup is the height of irresponsibility, so Asami opts not to agree — he digresses, “The last time I heard from him he was at the base of a mountain because he could just see a monastery at the top, and he thinks he’s found a path that may lead him up to it. I told him Wenshu monastery is fine — but you know how he gets when he gets an idea into his head.”

It sounds plausible enough; the boy is headstrong and determined especially when his plans are disastrous. His father seems to agree, mumbling something about his idiot son getting into trouble again before he says, “Could you ask him to call me? I mean, please ask him to call the next time you speak to him.”

Maybe it’s the morphine, but he feels curious suddenly, like he’s standing at the edge of the ocean at high tide, knees deep in the water feeling the drag of the undertow — its depths unknowably murky and deep with secrets. Would he? There’s a lot about Akihito he doesn’t know.

He must have said it out loud, because Makoto’s sighing, “No,” over the Pacific, all the way from — where did Kirishima say he was calling from again? Brazil? — with exasperation, a common thread among those whose concern is tied up with an Akihito, it seems. “That boy never calls.”

He drunk dials, Asami thinks, feels a smile pulling at his cheek. It gets blurry after that; he remembers feeding Makoto a series of comforting platitudes he’s memorised for politicians who complain about their wayward sons and the call ending on a calm, polite and somewhat depressing note.

On reviewing the recording, it seems he remembered things wrong. It went exactly like this:

“Do you get used to being worried all the time?” Asami feels a strange twinge then, nerves flaring back to life warning of oncoming pain. There’s a jump in the timestamped graph to match, a little spike as he ups his painkillers.

The line crackles, and Makoto says, “It’s like a limp with that kid — you live with it,” then there’s a series of soft cussing from Asami himself that he muffles with the pillow so it passes for mumbling as he laughs himself into permanent damage thinking of the limp Akihito may have inadvertently given him. “You would not believe the number of times I’ve had to get on a plane because he got in trouble.”

“Five times in juvenile counselling,” Asami says, smiling. “I know.”

“He told you?” And Makoto’s chuckling sounds just as pained. “And you still hired him?”

“Akihito is … good at his job,” Asami says, closing his eyes. The name slips out of him without forethought, but he stops to think about it: how soft and right it feels on his tongue; how the sweet of it clicks behind his teeth, lulling him towards sleep.

The last time Asami ran into Akihito and ended up taking him home (probably what made Feilong bristle and come all the way to Tokyo in the first place) he’d spent his valuable time watching Akihito work.

He’d finished his meeting early, leaving his clients in good spirits, and he’d had the choice to go back to the office but he was held captive by how much Akihito was willing to pour his heart into his work even when his work’s like salmon swimming upstream. It reminded him of what having dreams felt like, and he must have had dreams once; he remembers them the way a cold candle remembers the flame.

Akihito is good at his job, has a good eye for composition and a sharp eye for deception, but Asami wonders what came first — whether he has a tendency to follow trouble because trouble and excitement go hand in hand, or if he just by chance went into a line of work that landed him in hot water as often as possible.

Makoto helpfully answers that question, jarring him from near sleep. “My boy’s a magnet for trouble — I hope he didn’t cause you any.”

It comes out rehearsed, like Makoto’s used to apologising for his son. A lot.

“Not as such,” Asami lies — what’s another one, bullet holes notwithstanding. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

There’s a click as Kirishima turns off the speakerphone, taking over the conversation to inform Takaba Makoto that Asami’s just came out of surgery not a day ago and should not be straining himself, his tone curt and distant with a note of worry he doesn’t bother to hide, no doubt leaving Akihito’s father to wonder if his son did cause a lot of trouble regardless of Asami’s casual denials.

Despite his earlier gut feeling that none of them are getting out of this alive (he’s stayed up staring into the plain white ceilings of the Intercontinental rooms, business class, recalculating and coming to a failure rate of 78%) and he’s come all the way to the lawless International waters outside Hong Kong to stuff Feilong’s ship full of C4, Asami didn’t have to call Takaba Makoto to inform him of his son’s untimely death, but it’s a damn near thing.

Asami spends all five hours of their flight from Hong Kong to Bali awake, holding Akihito’s hand — their fingers laced together on his thigh, armrest folded away so Akihito can press himself in close, where Asami can whisper soothing words to answer the fitful pleading Akihito mutters in his sleep. He’s not looking forward to dealing with whatever trauma Akihito’s picked up on this trip, but he finds himself guiltily loving the way Akihito clings to him, that he could smooth away the line between his brows with a kiss, that he seems to only rest at all in Asami’s arms.

In the quiet of the cabin, the only sound is of air recirculating, the constant rush of his thoughts quietened to a soft hum. It’s the first time he’s felt calm in weeks, first time he’s not chain smoking to ward off a headache, and Asami tries hard to ignore that information — that he hasn’t been sleeping well without him, either.

Asami waits until Akihito has recovered enough to proceed to bounce off all the walls, grumbling at the boundaries of the shore and the ring of trees at their beach house before he tasks Suoh with handing Akihito ‘The List’ of hastily constructed lies. It’s taken no time at all for Akihito to go from obviously suffering from his rough handling to suffering from cabin fever, from the listlessness of nightmare riddled sleep to the restlessness of boredom. It makes Asami wonder what kind of parents Akihito has that he feels the need to throw on a face of resilience, why he thinks he has to act strong all the time.

For minutes Akihito just stares at ‘The List’ with his eyes bulging out of his head, and when he finally tears himself away long enough it’s to say, “And they believed this ?”

“Your parents did,” Suoh says, and Asami thinks, “Well, maybe.”

“Your friends, not so much.” Suoh’s expression doesn’t change at all, his tone remaining neutrally flat. “You should call them. They were concerned.”

“It says here that you’re my personal assistant,” Akihito says, still delightfully amazed.

Suoh, to his credit, pulls off a wonderful deadpan. “I will be officially tendering my resignation today.”

Behind the cover of his newspaper Asami breathes out a small sigh of relief. It’s not often that a mess of this proportion gets tied up neatly with a bow, and they’ve hit upon the best and least likely outcome: he has Akihito safely back, mostly unharmed, his employer thinks he’s taken a contract job and will be back at his freelancer work shortly, his friends know he’s alive, and his parents should be satisfied once they finish speaking to their son. This particular aberration in his and Akihito’s life will soon be concluded.

He hears Akihito mumble over the phone the next room over, “Oh I’m on vacation right now but I should be back in Japan in … I don’t know, a week or two? Right. Let me check,” and Akihito’s not bothering to cup the receiver before he starts yelling, “Kirishima-san — what’s the number here?” Making Asami pull the paper closer in what he supposes is an approximation of putting his face in his hands.

The things that attracted him in the first place are varied but a pretty short list, and by no means cogent even to himself, but Asami likes to think of Akihito as a decently sharp kid, exceptionally perceptive for someone so young. But when it comes to people he feels safe around — any of his attachments, dangerous when Akihito’s so easily attached — Akihito has a tendency to scaffold himself a giant blindspot, settles in, and gets comfortable.

It’s what made Asami decide to keep him; Akihito is clear as pure crystal and bares his emotions to people he trusts, anyone he chooses to love. But he doesn’t seem to realise his parents are capable of puzzling out his entire life from his lack of brain to mouth filter.

Asami’s back and neck are so flagrantly tense that even Suoh becomes concerned, and he leans in to say, “Sir?” as if Asami’s just had a stroke.

It certainly feels like a heart problem.

“If they figure this out,” he says to Suoh, since Suoh’s the only person around to say this to, “I am not going to know how to fix it.”

The Takabas are indulgent parents, secretly guilty for being absent in their son’s life, and make up for it by letting him get away with murder and taking tropical vacations with someone famous enough to make it into the gossip section (it’s all gossip) of their son’s paper, which they must read. So instead of interrupting Akihito in the middle of their phone call to interrogate him for lying through his teeth, they call Asami at 9am the next morning to interrogate him instead.

Kirishima, being the insightful, efficient and close to perfect assistant that he is, makes some noise about needing to transfer them to another line, to another country where Asami’s at his office hopefully, and puts them on hold for a minute before settling the phone on the nightstand so he can wake Asami with a finger over his mouth to signal quiet.

Nine o’clock in the morning is more of a time he’s adjusting to for Akihito’s sake than his own rest, so when Akihito decides to sleep in late, to linger in bed, so does he. He suppresses a yawn and extricates Akihito’s fingers where they’re making grooves in his arm, and pushes away without waking him to take the call in the sitting room, trying to sound as bright and diplomatic as possible, “Good morning, Takaba-san.”

“Good morning, Asami-san. I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time?” Takaba Makoto sounds too cheerful for the hour. There’s music in the background, a rhumba beat, and laughter cutting out abruptly like he’s ducked into an alley or a storefront. “I had no idea CEOs go into the office this early — I was under the impression that they arrived later than everyone else.”

Asami’s about to say “It’s not early” until his brain catches up and he realises Makoto is fishing him on the time difference. Sharp kids come from sharp parents, and reminds himself to be more careful before recovering enough to say, “It’s not a habit of mine, no. I just happen to be in early today.”

Kirishima’s already spun a plausible cover story: he’s only there for one day to make sure Akihito is settled in, making sure he’s paid for the contract and getting all the papers signed. The ruse is pretty thin but it still could work. Makoto’s profusely thanking Asami for his generosity, how rare it is for a Japanese employer to respect an employee’s vacation time and their need to rest these days, and Asami is politely returning the speech in customary humility when Akihito bursts into the sitting room and starts talking too excitedly for someone who was asleep only ten minutes ago:

“Asami! Let’s go out to get breakfast today, there’s this restaurant past the beach that’s supposed to be really good and it’s only a five minute walk — oh.” Akihito’s eyes get wide for a second, lowering his volume (too late) and says, “I didn’t know you were on the phone. I guess I’ll go for a swim and we can go later?” and leaves without waiting for an answer.

It’s gone all quiet on the other side of the line, only background, party noises left to fade in and out like a door’s continually opening and swinging shut, and Asami hits the speakerphone button. His guards are outside so there’s no one to witness him pushing his hair away from his face, rubbing his cheeks with his palms — privacy enough to have a silent, minor breakdown.

There’s no way to fix this. He’s already lied about it, had Kirishima lie about it. Akihito wouldn’t have mentioned him so that’s another lie by omission, and no matter what excuses he comes up with now will have to explain the lying. If he’s sure Akihito can handle his parents finding out in his state (not right now, not on top of everything else he’s had to go through) Asami would consider a conference call. Get the kid in here and get it over with.

But he figures he may as well start talking, “Let me explain —”

“You really can’t,” Makoto says, casually icy. “You especially can’t explain the part where he spoke to you without any honorifics.”

“Ah,” Asami says, and for the first time since his father passed away, he feels like an idiot. “He’s not one to stand on formality.”

“You see, Asami-san,” Makoto says, reasonable and calm like a parent used to catching his son lying, “unlike my son, his friends are far more responsible and willing to update me on the kind of trouble he’s getting up to.”

There was only a single paragraph in Akihito’s file concerning his parents, and Asami recalls both of them having a B.A. in journalism — it was, after all, how they’d met — and unfortunately mismatched families that never got along despite having been forcibly joined in the family registry. Takaba Makoto had struggled to find work before taking a contract overseas, his wife Kaede stayed at home and did ghostwriting work on the side until about ten years previous, when she joined her husband on the road and the couple began publishing a line of niche travelogues with panoramic fold out pages of busy side streets and out of the way restaurants, ethereal historic neighbourhoods like time capsules juxtaposed against backgrounds of skyscrapers. They have a cult following and are quite well off, yet Akihito would rather subsist on bread for a lean month than ask for a single yen from them. What the boy lacks in sense, he makes up for in pride; Asami finds that both troublesome and endearing.

None of this warned Asami ahead of time that, just like his son, Takaba Makoto finds being underestimated an asset, and will play at harmless until he kicks your knees out.

“Takato is especially helpful. Last they saw him it was after him and Kou were kidnapped by the Triad,” Makoto goes on, twisting the knife, “and then my son ran off after an unmarked limo with diplomatic plates. The next time they called his phone, he got your people.”

Asami drums his fingers on the table, stalling. “I notice you didn’t question Akihito’s story.”

“Aki lies about his work all the time. I’m used to that. He hasn’t lied about his personal life for … a long time now.” Makoto sounds contemplative, weighed down, a man used to picking his battles and hates getting into it. It’s not accusatory when he asks, point blank. “What is your relationship? He’s lying about you. You’re covering for him. What are you to each other?”

If Makoto had asked, “What is he to you?” then Asami has a clear answer.

It was written in Akihito’s blood on a ship’s deck, the moon painting him with crude brush strokes in black and white. Asami remembers it becoming dreadfully quiet — the waves and the wind and the gulls that never stopped screaming, all of it going still like time had stopped flowing — and his blood ran cold. It’s still summer, in sweltering subtropical heat, but he’d felt a frigid ache in his bones.

It was the most clarity he’s had on the subject of Akihito since they met, since the very second he laid eyes on the boy, but it’s nothing he can tell anyone — Asami can barely admit it to a mirror. To put it artlessly: when he thought he was too late, the world fell away and he stopped breathing. It’s like nothing he’s ever felt — like he’d come out onto the deck into a silent film, until he’d touched Akihito with his hands and felt his pulse a steady, drumming beat against his thumb, and the heat of him seeping onto the screen in vivid colours. Akihito had opened his eyes and said Asami’s name, and his voice filled in the silence, the piercing scream that’s a constant background, fading into the unending loop of waves, the life in his eyes thawing out the strange coldness that’s been encasing Asami, like a shaft of sun.

Asami’s not sure how he lived this many years and still takes so long to puzzle out the mystery of what he feels, but it’s simple once he has the boy back in his arms: Asami’s heart’s been torn out of his chest, and Akihito walks around with it.

To Akihito, he’s probably only a lifeline, someone he thought about in captivity to while away the hours, someone he relies on because he has no one else. Asami plans on taking advantage of his misplaced guilt for as long as possible, but he gets no closer to answering Makoto’s question.

“He’ll distance himself once we go back to Japan, so you needn’t worry,” Asami says, and thinks “And I won’t let him” but it still pains him to admit it.

“You know, you don’t come highly recommended — as a person,” Makoto says, conversationally, as if he hasn’t just implied that he knows all about Asami, at least he knows as much as the rumours, the whispers of the darker side of his business. “But my wife hasn’t talked to her parents since we married and I’m not keen on repeating their mistake.”

It’s unexpected clemency, an offering of a ceasefire before he’s even started thinking of this as a fight. There’s a jump in his pulse, the odd sensation of nervousness of surprise catching in his throat. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“If you’re lying to protect my boy, certainly you’re not betraying him at all by telling me how you feel about him,” Makoto says, bypassing Asami’s defenses, pulling aside all the excuses he’s about to make. “This is your chance to win me over.”

There are secrets, they say, that one keeps from the public, another to keep from family, yet another buried deep in one’s soul that must be kept from ever reaching the light. By any reasonable definition, Takaba Makoto belongs in the first category, but he’s someone Akihito keeps things from, too, so Asami feels a kinship that joins them in secrecy — their little club of people who knows and cares about Akihito more than they’re willing to admit.

“For your son,” Asami says, meaning to make this count — he can charm a head of state, he can easily charm a parent, but as the words tumble out they taste startlingly true, “I’m decently sure I’d throw myself in front of a speeding train.”

There’s a long stretch of silence, like Makoto is afraid of asking the question, like he’d rather not know. “The last time we spoke, you just came out of surgery. Did you already throw yourself in front of a train for him?”

In the cabin, as their boat sped away, Akihito had looked haunted while he told Asami how he’s become a burden, a liability, his fingers lingering on the blood-soaked bandages on Asami’s shoulder. Akihito is too soft hearted to understand that none of this is his fault. If anything, Asami is the burden on his life, throwing him out of balance, weighing him down heavy as a yoke around his neck. If Feilong was a speeding train then Asami was the one that set him into motion in the first place.

All the guilt is his, but he takes too long to tell Makoto, “No.”

“You’re still covering for him, I see.”

Asami thinks he sounds less distant now, as though he’s passed a test; in the Venn diagram where Makoto sorts Akihito’s acquaintances, Asami feels himself moved closer to ‘friend,’ deserving of direct questions and not a journalist’s got-cha.

“Akihito is blameless in all this,” Asami tells him.

“Fine. Give me your home address so I can send you a thank you card. For bringing my son home, I’ll send you some souvenirs from Salvador.”

Takaba Makoto sends him a package of coffee beans, honey bread, a wooden carving of a dove that’s found new life as a paperweight on his desk that Kirishima tsks at — telling him that it’s probably a sacrilegious use of a Divino de Espirito Santo. That should have been the end of their interactions but not a week after that, Akihito goes on the evening news and gets a fifth page story in the Weekly and Makoto calls again, in a tone that can only be labelled Akihito-weary, “What is this about my child tackling gunmen now?”

“Why are you calling me about it?” Asami doesn’t say.

Instead, he imagines the years of parent-teacher meetings, both of Akihito’s parents so jarringly young that their neighbours must have fed them platitudes about their only child that they can’t compare to any other child — who cannot be compared to anyone at any age. When other children were climbing jungle gyms floored with rubber mats, Akihito would have been the kind of child that climbed beneath bridges to get at birds’ nests, wind in his hair, mesmerised by the height. Akihito is doomed to have an extraordinary life for his tendency to run headlong into other people’s problems without any sense of self-preservation, and anxiousness between parents and a child being the zero-sum game that it is, Akihito’s lack of anxiety guarantees an overabundance for his parents.

Asami just feels bloody all the time now; he knows for sure that he’s had his heart tied up in Akihito for at least a month — he can’t imagine twenty-three years of the same, and he’s not sure if the pang he feels for Makoto is sympathy or camaraderie.

So he gets it, Makoto’s just glad to have someone else who understands, and there’s not much left for Asami to say other than, “I’m trying to stay on top of things,” leaving off “I’m worried sick, too.” After too many close calls, it’s a toss-up whether he’d find a dead body or a live one whenever Akihito slips his surveillance, but he’d call anyway — if Akihito’s alive to heap on the insults, then he’d take the abuse.

It’s hardly the least he can do for them, but Asami picks up the phone every time Makoto calls his son and his son can’t get the phone and tries his best to assuage his worries. Over no time at all, the calls get longer; he tells Makoto about the one time he nearly got thrown halfway across the cabin of his own limo when Akihito had thrown himself into the street — forcing his driver to brake, tires squealing. He listens to the story of Akihito’s first chore, what started off as a simple milk run turned into a rescue mission for a stray cat, then getting lost after following said stray cat out to a shrine. He was only saved from sleeping outside for the night because first chores are always shadowed by adults at a respectable distance.

In between the calls he pulls Akihito out of fires that, admittedly, Asami’s set — funnelling Akihito towards him in a rapidly shrinking maze, making sure in the end he’d have no place else to go.

For the most part, the first weeks after Akihito moves into the penthouse it’s calm like a storm’s eye has moved into the second bedroom, and Akihito is so bored he picks up his phone whenever his parents call, glad to have someone to babble at, so Takaba Makoto leaves Asami alone until they hit the four-week point and he dials the home office phone after things (and Akihito’s work schedule) go back to something resembling normal.

Asami has to marvel at how they’re familiar enough with each other now that they’ve dropped all the polite small talk. They just get right to the point, and Makoto starts with a casual, “So,” before casually accusing, “My son seems to have changed his mailing address to yours.”

The doorman seems to think he’s changed his last name too, which isn’t a half bad idea, but first Akihito will have to tell his parents with his words instead of dropping giant hints. There’s no way for Asami to know if it’s intentional, but it makes him feel a little smug.

He tells Makoto, “I had an extra room.”

“Takato told me that an ‘Asami’ emptied out Akihito’s apartment and left a key taped to the wall.”

“That place was broken in twice,” Asami says, equivocating, “by the same people who kidnapped this particular friend you spoke to.”

Either Makoto’s learned to read Asami much better than his son has, learned him through what little he’s willing to divulge, or he’s just easy to read in matters concerning Akihito. It would be dangerous if the latter was true. Either way, he says to Asami, “You want to keep him with you.”

His home office has soundproofed walls and Akihito’s finally back at work, but Asami is quiet when he finishes mulling over his words, choosing the ones that a father will agree with the most. “Wouldn’t you? I want to keep him safe.”

Makoto says with a hint of annoyance, “Look,” he sighs, “I’m not really in the position to tell you to leave him, but there’s a reason why people are often matched with people like them. You are used to getting your way, so you don’t often ask for things,” and it’s been a good long time since anyone’s taken that tone with him, like Asami’s a child who needs things explained. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but: Akihito has trouble saying no. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Asami says.

Makoto sounds like he’s wincing. “My wife just called me something I don’t care to repeat for telling you that.”

There should be little choice but to run into each other all the time living in the same apartment, but all they seem to have are the ghosts of each other.

Asami gets used to reheating the breakfasts Akihito leaves him, laid out neatly with two place settings; he finds bobby pins between the couch cushions and photography magazines on the coffee table, sticky notes on the fridge written in an energetic hand.

Akihito’s been uprooted, his life should be changing the most, but he acts exactly the same: he slips his surveillance without remorse, slips out of the master bedroom post-coital to spend the night alone on his narrow, single bed; Asami’s tried kissing him soft on the shoulders, he’s tried holding him down and running roughshod over his feelings and damn what he wants, but how Asami approaches him makes no difference — he just slips out of Asami’s tight grip like proverbial water through his fingers. They live the same separate lives they’re used to living, except now they do it in close proximity, and maybe it was naive of Asami to think that was enough. He thinks he’s giving Akihito all the space he says he wants, but for the first time Asami is stumped like finding a book he can’t understand, written in an alien language: Akihito is achingly unhappy, suspicious, pouty and turbulent with moods, claims he is fine and pushes Asami away, and Akihito is also by turns obligingly sweet, pliant and soft in his arms, his mixed signals impossible to translate.

Asami knows he isn’t living the kind of life that will likely end in peaceful death in old age and sleep, but he’s beginning to postulate their lives in a list of ‘always’ — he’s satisfied with Akihito being always the way he is, untrusting, always running away, always needing to be dragged back to his side. Because despite his suspicions that Akihito will eventually tire of their non-committal and undefined arrangement that fills him with doubt, Asami thinks he’ll never be tired of him. He’s grown accustomed to the way Akihito’s presence permeates everything that used to feel so empty, like the sun parting an overcast sky, warmth filling up all the hollow spaces in his bones.

It almost feels like he’s — they’re — on the cusp of building something real when their cohabitation comes to an abrupt pause on account of Russian paramilitary shooting out all their windows and shooting up half their walls.

On the tarmac in front of their separate flights going to separate places, he kisses Akihito goodbye and asks him nicely to be good, keep a low profile, for me, and Akihito gives him a wide-eyed, pleading look, like there is no way he could refuse — red-rimmed and doleful and resigned — and Asami boards his plane wishing Akihito hadn’t agreed; he wishes Akihito had thrown a fit, made a scene, cried and beat at Asami’s chest with his fists.

His sense of responsibility would have required him to stand still and stoic and let it all pass, but inside he wants any excuse to tear down that wall of logic so no matter how much safer Akihito would be apart from him, he could keep him close — selfishly allowing him to live in his sphere of danger so they could go on breathing the same air.

Chapter Text

After criss-crossing the South China Sea and not finding any answers, Asami touches down in Hong Kong in early December in time to feel a cold snap shiver through its streets.

Steam wreathes Kowloon bay in sinuous, undulating waves, the way Christmas lights wreathes every high-rise office building on the island; it rises from food carts and small boats by the docks serving up congee, the oil smoke of fried noodles, floating off milk tea in styrofoam cups, but as the temperature drops all that moisture hanging in the air feels frozen and sticks to his skin, making it feel colder than Hokkaido. It doesn’t stop the city from going mad with animatronic Santas and non-stop, maddening retail music though — everyone celebrating the spirit of consumerism in a city where it never goes out of style, year-round.

They rent a building in Tsim Sha Tsui, an old four-storey hold-out disconnected from the grid, its owners refusing to sell so it’s surrounded by abandoned flats, with narrow hallways and bars on all the windows. There’s no elevator, no roof access, every wall glossy painted plaster peeling over cement. It has exactly one entry point that’s also the exit, and each time the door opens the stink of animal blood and old grease would mix into the air along with a few bars of Christmas music, discordantly mixed, playing out of hawker’s boomboxes. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often — Asami’s put them on lockdown, and until they have more information, they’re stuck here in this death trap. If a fire breaks out, the only way through would be to knock through a wall.

Asami has his morning coffee, some sort of pre-packaged instant 3-in-1 monstrosity with powdered milk and sugar made with bottled water. It is absolutely vile, but he imagines how Akihito may, if he was here, fill the foil packet with a fifth of the recommended water and eat the sludge with a spoon and it’s not so bad. When Takaba Makoto’s call gets routed through two of his people in Japan and gets to his burner, he’s flipping the empty packet over and over in his hand, waiting for the next shoe to drop. This time, he has just the story, and it’s even amusing enough that he laughs along with Makoto when he finally figures out Asami isn’t joking at all.

“Pull the other one,” Makoto exclaims, obviously incredulous.

Asami reiterates, laughs a huff that sounds strange to his ears. “He really is on a three-month meditation retreat.”

“And he’s doing this because …?”

“I’m … away, and I don’t want him getting into trouble while I’m gone.” That’s been the excuse he told himself every night before falling into listless, wakeful sleep for weeks, startling at every noise. Now that he’s saying it to someone else, it sounds wholly unconvincing.

They go through the pleasantries: Asami asks after his health, after Akihito’s mother’s health, whether they’re enjoying the wettest month of Rio de Janeiro finding the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants, where they may be heading to next. He apologises for not being home to receive the souvenirs that’s been rerouted to the office, the paucity of handwritten thank you notes on his part.

Then Makoto asks him something no one has, cutting through the empty small talk, "How are you holding up without him?’

With or without Akihito, they’re pushed close enough to the wall that everyone’s eating MREs cold out of foil packages, avoiding the street vendors nearby with their promises of fresh soymilk, piping hot, breadsticks wrapped in brown paper soaked through with grease. Asami wants yakisoba — the way Akihito makes it for him, tossed with thinly sliced pork belly crispy at the edges, fragrant with too much garlic and no sugar. He wonders how Akihito is doing eating vegetarian food all the time now at a monastery when he’s by nature such a carnivore.

He says, “I seem to be having pre-packaged melon bread for breakfast with instant coffee.”

“It’s alright to say you miss him,” Makoto says through an infectious laugh. “It’s not as if I’m about to tell anyone.”

That’s probably how other people live, Asami thinks — how people are supposed to live. Asami is used to keeping himself to himself, an enigma to his few friends. Sometimes he’s still surprised at his few friendships that go beyond simple exchanges, more than the transactional relationship he had with his own father. Asami never learned to be particularly good at having friends, finding the intricacies of what he’s supposed to share a puzzle in a universe of simple vectors. A friend beyond an acquaintance is a liability, and it’s too late for him to learn how to let his guard down, let someone in, but Asami thinks Takaba Makoto has become a friend — or at least as close to a friend as he is likely to have.

Asami’s gaze settles on his Beretta, the box of bullets he keeps on his bedside table, and he sets his coffee down next to them, swinging his legs up onto the single bed. Unlike the last time he was in Hong Kong, he’s calmer. Both times, it feels like he’s just fighting his way back to Akihito. This time though, the initial flash flood of obsession has faded, and a veritable ocean has taken its place. Asami’s still excellent at compartmentalizing, but it’s not possible to cordon away the sea — the affection that hits him sometimes distracts and overwhelms, dismantling, leaving him wide open, so vulnerable that the sight of snack foods sets off memories. There’s no battered pair of trainers at the door here, no bobby pins on the bathroom counter and boxes of candy in the pantry — nothing that anchors him to a place, nothing that reminds him of Akihito, and he has no excuses at all for the drawers of memories of him flying open, missing Akkhito so much he’d settle for a dream.

“I take my coffee black,” Asami says, throwing an arm over his face so he could be anywhere — could be back in their apartment, his feet over the armrest of their couch and Akihito leaning up against him, warm against his side. “I don’t even like sweet things but I’m drinking milk coffee with sugar because that’s the only way Akihito will touch coffee.”

It takes a minute, long enough for Asami to think maybe the calls been dropped, or Makoto’s just sitting on the other side, staring at the phone in shock. “If you’ve got it that bad, then why didn’t you take him with you? If he’d agree to go live in a monastery, I’m sure he’d drop everything for you,” Makoto pauses, intentionally vague. “Wherever you are.”

Even with Asami’s resources, he can’t cover up a night time raid on a Shinjuku apartment building, shots fired, helicopter caught on a MIXI feed. Makoto has left the subject of Asami’s not-so-legitimate side-business alone, but if he knows more than he’s willing to let on, and the level of mess they’ve landed themselves in, he must know it’s not safe.

But then again, father knows best. He probably thinks his boy’s never been safe on his own, anyway.

“Does this mean I have your approval?” Asami says, and considering his situation, the desultary life he’s been living on the run, his voice sounds surprisingly light.

Their lives were, in Akihito’s words, already fucking surreal; Akihito shouldn’t have to get used to sitting by the tub with him taking turns washing dried blood and debris out of each other’s hair, and he’s glad Akihito isn’t here getting used to the acrid smell of firefights and the antiseptic stink that comes afterwards. These weeks has been like a chaotic, formless nightmare, and something as mundane as a parent’s approval feels like a seed crystal of reality, giving the rest meaning.

“Maybe,” Makoto says, which clearly means a no. But he must feel too sorry for Asami to shut him down entirely. “As long as you think locking my boy away is somehow keeping him safe, you won’t.”

There’s commotion outside, loud and distracting voices, a single person cussing in Russian. It looks like their fishing expedition’s successful and they caught the spy that’s been following one of their own through the alleys of Mongkok. It’s time to get up and load his gun, do the work he’s trained for, shut down the part of his mind that cares.

“I’m only trying to protect him,” he says to Makoto.

“Looks like you don’t know him all that well, yet.” Across the ocean, Makoto sounds tired, like he’s reliving memories he’d rather not. “My boy gets into the most trouble when he’s bored, and you’ve made sure he’s bored out of his mind.”

“Let’s hope you’re wrong.”

Asami’s about to hang up the phone, get to the necessary and unpleasant task of interrogation, but it feels like one of those days; there are dark clouds overhead, pressure building in the atmosphere and rolling over the mountains, sitting so heavy on his shoulders it’s a palpable weight. He doesn’t let it paralyse him, but every word feels like the last these days, and all he can think about is Akihito — if everything falls apart, would his parents move back home to keep him company for a time? What would they say to him? What would they say about what they know of Asami?

“Takaba-san, when —” he stops himself from saying “if” just in time, “— I finish my work here and I’m back in Tokyo, we should find a time to meet. I need to ask you for something of yours.”

“Hmm,” Makoto says, and lets the question hang. Asami half thinks he’s changed his mind about letting his son remain with someone this dangerous, whose life, at least at the moment, is so uncertain. The heavy waiting turns into a sigh. “Stay safe. Kaede and I will be looking forward to meeting you.”

Only an hour would go by before Feilong strolls through the door, all on his own with no backup, cocky and shoving a phone with Akihito’s messages in Asami’s face, leaving Asami to wonder if Takaba Makoto ever gets tired of being right about Akihito and his trouble-magnet tendencies.

They make it in time for Christmas in Tokyo, and late at night, Shinjuku explodes with a profusion of pink lights, the keiyaki that line the streets dressed up with soft bulbs and the rows of flowering bushes gone wintering beneath them strung with tiny petal lamps so the entire neighbourhood heaving with people teems with the halcyon aura of a night hanami.

Asami watches for Akihito from their reserved dining room on the top floor of Sion, and he spots Akihito in the bright as day illuminations, weaving through a crowd, the only lone person in a sea of couples.

The Christmas tree of Shinjuku — a giant, gilded thing that’s practically a landmark this time of year — and its multitude of radiant decorations file away all the hard lines of shadows, and Akihito stops in front of it, cranes his neck to stare up and up at the top of it where the lights bloom into a star, brilliant even against a background of light pollution. From where Asami’s standing, Akihito glows the brightest. If Asami could pluck a star out of the sky and make of it a gift, it still wouldn’t feel like enough.

It looks to him like Akihito is doing the customary thing: whispering a wish to the star.

“What are you wishing for?” Asami asks in the quiet of the dining room, his fingers leaving unfocused, fogged impressions on the glass.

When it comes time to order dessert, Akihito takes minutes to decide between the white chocolate cake — the sweeter one — and the chocolate mousse cake which Asami goes ahead and orders so he can slide it over the table just as Akihito’s licking at the tines of his fork as though he’s been missing sugar like Orihime misses Hikoboshi, would cross the milky way for cake.

“You’re sure…?” Akihito stares at him with round, wide eyes.

Asami doesn’t bother answering him — as though he would order cake for himself, ever — and instead, knits their fingers together beneath the table, settling their hands in the seat between them.

Akihito is luminous by candlelight, by the illuminations of Shinjuku filtering in through a wall of windows, and he looks down at his plate, awkward again with their time apart, adjusting to the newness of their borders even when Asami turns and presses a soft, closed mouth kiss to his temple.

For once, Akihito doesn’t try to fill up the air with his babble. He curls his fingers so they brush at Asami’s knuckles, strokes his thumb over the edge of Asami’s hand, and leans into his shoulder like he’s found permission. They stare out at the view of the city at night, at the riotous arrangement of tiny LEDs strung over absolutely everything in ordered chaos, at the milling sea of couples below — and Asami realises he knows exactly what Akihito wants, why his back seemed so full of yearning as he stood by the tree.

On New Year’s Day, Asami opens all the blinds in the bedroom, reminding Akihito that all good children call their parents on New Year’s even if they’re hungover, and calls Akihito’s parents himself in the afternoon to arrange a meeting in Brussels for May. That’s plenty of time for Akihito to settle into their newly woven normality, to convince the parents that they can go five months without life-threatening drama so when he makes promises of forever for now, it wouldn’t sound like an outright lie. The meeting coincides with a business trip, a string of cities he has to visit spanning four countries to finalise the new locations of six different hotels, and there’d be time enough to make a short flight home to retrieve his grandmother’s ring from the family vault, sealed away for a full generation because his own parents eloped.

He calls his mother at god awful hours of the morning with proposal ideas whenever he thinks he’s hit on a brilliant one, and his mother shoots them all down. She calls him all kinds of names in French and Dutch and Japanese and a roll of the eyes he can see all the way across a continent, along with a feelingly muttered “merde” for waking her, and wonders aloud what she did wrong that her son has lived to be thirty-five and hasn’t a romantic bone in his body, that he hasn’t brains enough to know a proposal should not be hair-raisingly exciting.

“Just ask him if he would keep your last name.”

“That’s what father asked you,” Asami points out, listening to her yawn on the other side — at 10am in Paris. “And as I recall, you turned him down.”

“I told him he can keep his damn last name, but of course I’d marry him. Now stop thinking up plans that involve bungee cords and just ask!” And hangs up on him.

In the months between, Asami makes sure he’s home for dinner whenever he could, orders takeout if Akihito’s going to be late, bakes him a cake for Valentine’s — none of it takes away that note of hurt in his eyes. Occasionally, he’d notice Akihito looking at him, forlorn and lost and wondering, as if trying to memorise every detail in his face, his hands, as if he’s certain one day he’d be left behind again.

Come May, he’s so busy that meeting with the parents sort of sneaks up on him between a luncheon with some kowtowing real estate agents and dinner-theatre with a senior minister, so Asami ends up sending Suoh to fetch a box of nicotine patches from the nearest White Night, because the last thing you want to smell like when you meet your boyfriend’s parents for the first time is an ashtray. The meeting place is one of his coffee bars on the first floor of a new hotel; it has textile walls and antique furnishings, exquisitely beautiful princess cakes that Akihito would love, coffee beans freshly roasted in-house every morning that Makoto would approve of. It’s still a challenge to not sit down at their meeting place fifteen minutes early and start overdoing the liquid courage, but by the time they show up he has enough nicotine in his system to lay out the business charm: firm handshake, dry hands, a self-deprecating smile that works on state dignitaries.

It doesn’t work on Takaba Kaede, who shakes his hand with distant politeness, but Makoto drags Asami into a hug (too many years spent overseas, it seems) and tells him, “Glad to finally meet you,” completely sincere, and Asami didn’t expect any less; Akihito inherited his gregarious nature from someone, after all.

What else: Akihito inherited his mother’s eyes, his father’s nose, her chin, his cheekbones — Asami keeps glancing from one to the other until he has to answer Makoto’s inquisitive look. “I keep trying to decide which of you he resembles most.”

“Me, of course,” they say at the same time, shooting each other dirty looks — and burst out into laughter together.

It’s more than their constituent parts, like the way Kaede holds her fork — same way a writer idly flips a pen, the thing could fly off at any moment — or the way she glances at her husband, with a sidelong tilt of her head and a faint smile as though she can’t stop looking at him, or how she drops all pretense at honorifics three sentences in.

They’re casual and intimate, their fondness for each other drenches through the parched land around them; a confluence of unspoken understanding flows between them and pours into a calm, still lake, so deep it looks shallow and inviting. It strikes Asami how Akihito was cloaked in their warmth as a child, raised in their fearless affection, and being in their presence makes Asami miss him terribly, feel it like an ache working through his spine.

“What do you think?” Kaede asks, her one eyebrow slanting up like this is a long standing battle between the couple that Asami’s just been made referee. When she tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and juts out her chin, her smile looks exactly like Akihito’s, daring and so familiar Asami feels the corner of his mouth quirk, answering.

“He looks like you,” he tells Kaede, and he turns to Makoto in apology. “He feels more like you. But mostly he resembles the atmosphere between you.”

The Takabas are good people, they don’t sleep with a gun in the headboard and it’s evident in the looks they exchange in front of him, easy to read in much the same way that Akihito used to be easy to read — their emotions candidly shot and displayed in oversized, blown up photographs printed for gallery walls. Makoto says, silently, “See, I told you he’s not so bad,” and Kaede’s “So he’s not an absolute monster, but that’s not saying much.” She would know him from magazine articles and interview snippets, cut to attention-grabbing headings, and he can’t blame her for disliking him on first-sight: it can be argued that all those airbrushed publicity photos in the gossip pages look far human and approachable than he does.

It’s obvious that Kaede doesn’t think he deserves her son. If Asami puts credence in such a thing as what each of us deserve, he and Akihito would both likely end up alone for discrete and opposing reasons, and he could never convince her he is deserving; he can hope, at most, she may agree that Akihito can be happy with him, but never only with him..

“I’d always wondered why his name’s written with the ‘autumn’ kanji when he was born in spring. But as soon as his father mentioned your name, I knew he was named for you,” Asami says, leading the conversation towards what parents can never stop talking about.

He’d meant to charm them, but they’re full of stories about Akihito he can’t find out in investigative reports: the tests of courage he let his friends dare him into at five, growing up with a largely absent father and coming to associate sushi with love like Pavlov’s dog, because when Makoto came home from a contract, they’d always order in sushi. They ask Asami about his hotel chain, if the Sion coffee and cake shops can compete against the historic patisseries in France, they laugh about Akihito’s lack of discernment in coffee — Makoto wipes at his eyes after saying, “Just heat up a bucket of coffee ice cream in the microwave and he’d love it” — and Makoto’s obsession with coffee, before Kaede reaches for her husband’s hand and they both fall quiet.

“I don’t at all approve of you, Asami-san,” she says with a fearlessly unflinching look. “By all accounts, you’re a terrible match. And I don’t think I need to elaborate as to why.

Maybe one day Akihito will grow into the measured, mild-mannered man that is Takaba Makoto, but the way he used to spit venom in Asami’s direction is every bit, one hundred percent his mother. He knows Kaede had left her family to marry someone unsuitable, and through her years of raising a child largely alone there hadn’t been a single phone call to her own parents. Even that is promising, and how is he so hopeful these days, over every little hint that Akihito can choose him.

“I am aware of that,” Asami says, and he takes a sip of his coffee that’s gone cold through their conversation. It’s never been anything he possesses that will save him from their disdain, by the same token how it’s never been any possession of his that made Akihito want to stay. “Akihito is one of a kind, and I’m just … me.”

Being the CEO of a string of multinational companies, public owner of every private club worth visiting in Tokyo and a philanthropist that gives millions to charities every year should be enough to impress anyone; Asami’s well-educated and well-travelled, carries himself with a cultured air that befits his social status, but he’s been careful to be himself around Akihito, never bothered turning on the charm. By this point, he’d see through him. Take all of that facade he’s built away, and Asami’s not sure what he has left. He’s making an effort, trying everything he can to erase that faraway look in Akihito’s eyes, but most of the time it feels like shooting in the dark.

“Your son is wonderful. He has a big heart,” Asami says, feeling too young for his suit, his tongue sluggish in his mouth. His fingers drags on the tablecloth. “He can love anyone. He’s passionate and idealistic and so strong — and your intuition is correct: he can leave me tomorrow and it would hurt him to leave, but he’ll recover, and he’ll go on to love someone else. Probably someone more … appropriate.”

There’s nothing there a parent can object to, so she’s forced to say nothing, just hold his gaze, some of the steel in it softening; like Akihito, she can’t stop feeling for people, either.

“But if he leaves,” Asami says, and lets his eyes drift to Kaede’s hand, clasped in her husband’s, hoping she remembers that once, she’d made a choice, too. “I’m sure I’d never recover.”

Kaede’s mouth is a line. “You want me to believe that? You’re hardly old — and you must have plenty of admirers.”

“That’s never mattered to me and it matters even less now,” Asami says, sending her a sad small thing of a laugh, the corner of his mouth twitching. “He’s the only person I want,” he says, and in their shared language, he gives away so much more: He is the only person I’ve ever wanted, and I will want him only, for now and for always.

Makoto gives him a warm, encouraging look as he squeezes Kaede’s hand. She asks him, “And what does my son want?”

That’s easy, because Asami has known since Christmas, and it may not be the one thing that would make him stay, but it is the one thing that will make him happy. “Reassurance,” he tells her. “A home. He wants simple things: breakfasts and dinners together.” He resists the temptation to sneer, because they’ve so blatantly left Akihito behind. “He needs to know I won’t leave.”

“You’ve tied up his life with yours. Since he’s met you, he’s made no headway at all in his career, he’s taken months off his work at a time.” Kaede, to her credit, does not back down or bend to his plea for sympathy, and seems to knock away his attempt at guilting her without batting an eye. “You have conveniently ignored all of the other things he wants out of life to make it seem like the only thing that would make him happy is you.”

“The only person that he’d be happy with is me,” Asami says. He’s not a religious man, he makes decisions by Bayesian inference and there are too many unknowns in this equation so all he has left is to wager his faith. “My own father left my mother behind because her parents disapproved. She waited eighteen years for him. If you won’t give me permission,” Asami bites at his lip, realising he’s said that ahead of schedule somewhat. “Then I’m ready to wait as long as it takes.”

“You’d leave him?” She asks, knuckles white in the fold of Makoto’s hand.

“I never said that,” Asami says, lets the warmth drained out of his voice and his eyes. “Nothing will part me from him.”

There is probably a proverb he is ignoring here, something about real love and its ability to engender selflessness, but his love must be as terrible as he is, every bit as awful as the rest of him, because giving up Akihito isn’t a choice he’s ever been able to make.

“If you don’t really care about what we think, then why bother meeting us?” Makoto interjects, some of his telephone-manners gone in favour of taking his wife’s side.

Makoto’s hit the target only by half; Asami couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. If the world will deny him what he desires, then he’ll fight the world for it, and if there are people who will not accept who he is, then he’ll simply discard them. He knows that’s egoism, now. There’d simply never been anyone he loved enough, and in that period when they’d parted, he’d had nightmares of Akihito backing away from him, his eyes a mirror of the horrors Asami’s committed, and Asami would reach out with hands covered in gore, staring at the widening chasm between them with bewilderment. In the beginning he’d parted them to keep Akihito from danger, but that’s obfuscation as much as the lie of Asami’s inability to keep himself safe if they’re together; he understands that he hides too, the same way Akihito hides: he’s tried this hard to keep Akihito from being dyed in these colours.

He’s made Akihito choose only once and he’d chosen his friends. Nearly a year later, Asami thinks he’s on more solid ground, but when he reaches into his jacket to pull out a tiny, engraved silver box, he feels like he’s at a poker table and all his cards are blank.

“Because Akihito cares about what you think. He cares about what you think so much that he’s afraid to breathe a word about me. He should not have to suffocate for the sake of us.” Asami pushes the box to the middle of the table and snaps the catch so they can see the ring — dull from years in storage and not yet fitted. “I want your permission to marry him.”

Asami half expects Kaede to throw it in his face, but it’s Mokoto who asks — probably saving her the outburst. “And if we won’t give it?”

“This is simply a courtesy,” Asami snaps the lid shut then, and he knows it is going to sound like a threat no matter how he puts this. “I am going to ask him regardless.”

“You’re not doing a very good job of convincing my wife,” Makoto says, without the merest hint of anger but only the sadness of a man who’s relinquished his authority as a father long ago. “But I guess we had this coming for letting him live his own life.”

It’s a nice way for him to phrase abandonment, but Asami thinks, just this once, he’ll let Makoto have it.

“Asami-san, you’re really not a very nice person,” Kaede says, the pinched line of her mouth looking cornered.

If I was, I would have never met Akihito, he thinks. They would have remained in separate, discrete layers of Tokyo society, travelling their own orbits, their paths never crossing. “I can’t pretend to be something I’m not,” he says, and he squares his shoulders with his hands on his knees — bowing his head. “But I hope I can convince you that I am serious about him. Please. Entrust your son to me.”

He has the ring and he’s emotionally blackmailed begrudging permission from Akihito’s parents, but he still has no plans, no idea what an appropriate time for such a thing is, and too proud to ask anyone but one person. Asami calls his mother five times on the long flight back to Japan, trusting her to be ruthlessly truthful and she delivers with devastating efficiency before hanging up on him all five times, finally calling him back once to suggest the traditional route, asking him across the dining room table, and that he dismisses and she hangs up on him again. When he walks into his apartment he’s exhausted and annoyed and missing Akihito so much he has dreams about him on the flight over, he finds him stumbling over a Foxtrot, the gala Akihito’s stumbled into feeling like providence.

As he watches the boy’s heart jump into his throat, his eyes going fever bright with pure joy, in love with the euphoric exhilaration of their matching steps and the way he’s not tripping over his feet, Asami scraps all of his previous plans and starts formulating a new one.

“I’ll come home and practice with you every night,” he tells Akihito in the glow of Tokyo, after a kiss that lasts minutes, until Akihito is pliant and glassy in his arms and he’s helpless himself to the relieved sigh of coming home at last.

It’s a easy promise to make if he could hold Akihito like this, watch his face brighten just like this, clutching at his back and following with a constancy Asami didn’t even know he had, with all the fascination of his newly discovered understanding of a previously opaque language. Akihito’s still shy; even as he blushes, looking up at Asami with wonderment, like he’s finally realising what that gentle touch on his back means, he’s taking the time to roll his eyes and to say, “Look, it’s going to be fun learning both parts and all, but I need to practice leading.

It’s delightfully contradictory to how he’d looked up at Asami only moments before, when all his initial clumsiness has just smoothed out into a serviceable (if somewhat stilted) Foxtrot. Asami strokes a thumb over the soft jersey of Akihito’s t-shirt, rubs into the dimples there; how he did miss the way the curve of his palm fits over Akihito’s hip perfectly. He hides his face in the soft nest of Akihito’s hair, hoping that the way he presses his lips over Akihito’s hairline and how he feels — in extremis, hope overflowing the narrow cavity of his heart — isn’t betrayed by how he can’t seem to stop touching Akihito, as if his hands — no. As if every part of him has spent the weeks missing him.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” he says, painting a line of kisses down over the edges of his face, barely suppressing the grin he kisses into Akihito’s mouth.

Chapter Text

The morning after the gala, following the initial bout of not freaking out and subsequently the realisation of his holding himself together the better part of a year with elastics and scotch tape sinking in, Akihito collapses into their pile of pillows tremulous with catharsis and lets Asami order in breakfast, content to needle all the details out of him over fruit and toast. It’s slow, absorbing work, because Asami’s tight lipped and slippery and guards them like a magician guards his tricks, but Akihito is nothing if not persistent, and by lunchtime he’s managed to find out three world-shifting things:

  1. Takato is a traitor, and the reason why Akihito’s museum piece of an engagement ring fits;
  2. Akihito’s dad has been keeping Asami flush in coffee beans from every city he passes through since last summer (what);
  3. for someone who purportedly coveted a career as an investigative journalist, Akihito’s ability to keep a secret himself is on level nil, nada, non-existent. He refuses to believe this, in spite of overwhelming evidence, until Takato reminds him that he doesn’t even lock his phone.

At eleven, Takato calls to congratulate him on the engagement and to sound contrite about inflicting a hangover on him five weeks ago for the express purpose of having him try on fitting rings while dead drunk. After lunch, he picks up the call from his dad who talks around the subject for a full twenty minutes before Akihito can’t take the guilt any longer and blurts out with no ceremony at all that he’s gay. His dad mumbles some pleasantries about him growing up too fast before blithely saying, “I just found a restaurant near you that’d deliver some sekihan to your address. The same address, you know, that I’ve been sending coffee beans to your boyfriend to for a year. I guess the red beans is just a matter of time,” and Akihito is reminded that his dad’s an unrepentant asshole when it comes to anything worth teasing him over, and he’s the prime reason why Akihito started screening his calls in the first place.

"Let me talk to mom," Akihito demands, because men are fucking idiots and even someone as sensible as Takato would fall for Asami's brand of sincerity.

His mom is reasonably distressed over her son's choice of a fiancé but unreasonable in the face of whom she chose to marry, and cries over him all the way from Milan; his dad attempts to fix this by yelling lewd suggestions for things to gift Akihito for their honeymoon, so Akihito is torn between crying with her or dying of embarrassment.

“I think I know exactly what my parents felt like, way back when,” she complains at him, inconsolable. That clunk Akihito hears every sentence or so is probably her throwing things at dad, who never did understand mom’s need to cry. “He’s ruining your life and I can’t do anything about it.”

“But dad didn’t ruin your life,” Akihito points out. “You two literally travel the world and get paid for it.”

Akihito can feel his mom’s eyebrows knitting together without seeing them. “Your boyfriend is hardly just some penniless freelance photographer too young to be a father who’d leave you to raise a child on your own.”

“He’s my fiancé now,” Akihito says, surprised at the rush of heat, and even though Asami’s in his office next door to give him some privacy so it’s not like anyone’s there to watch him immolate, he buries his burning face in the sheets. “Oh my god I’m going to be married.”

Which makes her sob at him all over again, “Don’t remind me!”

Despite her tears and his sekihan bento (which arrived within forty-five minutes, placed onto the pillow next to him by a smirking Asami), his parents are happy he’s happy even if they’re not happy about the person he’s tangled up with; his dad is his usual, distant, uncaring self, and his mom guilt-trips him for being a daredevil and keeping secrets, so everything is as normal as can be.

Once he’s recovered enough from being emotional with his mom, and eaten his sekihan out of a sense of obligation to starving children in central Asia, Akihito asks Asami, “Do you have family I have to meet?”

“Uh, my mother,” Asami mutters, looking pained. “Yes. But she’s not public knowledge so that will have to wait until after the yuino.”

Oh my god the yuino. Akihito conjures up a dragon lady worthy of Asami’s apprehension: one shoulder free of her kimono, all of the exposed skin tattooed; Akihito adds a facial scar for good measure, erases it, replacing the scar accessory with a kaiken hidden up one sleeve before declaring the whole thing ridiculous. But just because she’s probably not some scary yakuza wife doesn’t make the look on Asami’s face any less unsure.

It hasn’t even occurred to him that Asami may have someone whose opinion could influence his decisions. Akihito asks, hesitant, “Does she disapprove?”

“Not at all,” Asami says, closing a palm over the back of Akihito’s neck and pulling him in for a casual kiss, his voice taking on a suspicious amount of charm. “You’ll like her — incidentally, she considers you the least objectionable part of my life.”

“Is she nice, then?” Akihito asks, his nature to find the best in people taking over, but Asami just creases his eyebrows and quickly changes the subject.

Kou and Takato book a much smaller room for four at Robata-Sho that evening, and Asami folds himself neat and elegantly onto the tatami mat next to Akihito like someone raised to eat all his meals at a low table. If not for his bespoke suit and the obviously real white-gold cufflinks, he could even pass himself off as just another salaryman in Akihito’s favourite izakaya, having domestic beer and yakitori like a normal person.

Kou seems kind of miffed, totally understandable since they’ve been living out of each other’s pockets for decades. “Why am I always the last one to find out these things?”

“He wasn’t exactly hiding it,” Takato says, shooting Kou a disbelieving look.

Beer glass halfway to his lips, Akihito says at the same time as Kou, incredulous voices overlapping, “I/He wasn’t?”

“Asami-san’s always the one picking you up, and you just kind of,” Takato explains, making people out of his hands like his words aren't embarrassingly enough, and signs, “fall into his arms.”

“Oh yeah,” Kou says, his eyes going round. “Like one of those fainting Showa era heroines.”

“And you’d tell him, ‘Let’s go home.’ I just figured you’d introduce him to us eventually. I just didn’t think it’s going to take an engagement.” Takato finishes, throwing fuel on top of the fire while Akihito makes vivid plans to murder them both.

Beside him, Asami listens to all of this quietly until the faintly amused look on his face fades into the silent shaking of his shoulders, into hiding a laugh behind his fist and the corners of his eyes crinkling. He avenges all the teasing Akihito’s friends are heaping on him by drinking them both under the table later — tipping the scales of their future hangovers by ordering glass after glass of hirezake so Kou’s eyebrows get sacrificed — all the while swapping out Akihito’s every other drink with bottled water.

Akihito remembers every last minute of the evening, including the part where he accuses Kou of hitting on Asami, and right afterwards crawling into Asami’s lap, mulishly refusing to get back onto his own floor cushion, and Takato gets pictures so he can send them to Asami, the traitor.

The rest he spends listening to Asami being surprisingly well informed on the particulars of ever-changing Tokyo architecture and minimalist signage, of all things, interminable gossip and news, and later still possibly dragging Takato into committing insider trading. At some point in the night Akihito knows he’s looking too meltingly fond of Asami for a public space, delirious with laughter, deliriously happy — just as much as he imagined, but more for how easy, how simple this feels — with the way Asami’s gaze drag over the rise of his brow and pausing at his lips, his hand resting over Akihito’s hip tightening a smidgen, with the ease of being here, seated in a small room surrounded by people he loves.

Robata-sho doesn’t close down the place on them, but he supposes no one ever does that to Asami so they end up staying irresponsibly late for people who have to work the next day, the table before them creaking with stacked plates and Kou’s snoring. It doesn’t mean Akihito isn’t pouty when the night has to be over, whining as Asami practically carries him out of the izakaya, his friends get bundled up into a black town car, and he nods off listening to Kirishima’s monotone logistics of how they’re getting everyone home.

When Akihito wakes up the next day, he’s mortified at himself for being a clingy drunk — that he’s always been a clingy drunk — but it’s the kind of shyness that goes to his head without making his stomach drop out; the pent-up anxiety he’s so carefully folded and tucked away beneath him has been pulled away, replaced by a nameless certainty that unfurls like ferns, like green and verdant things turning irresistibly toward the sun.

They have a wedding coming up for the third Sunday in November, which feels worryingly close but could be counted in months — seasons, even — and Akihito is finding it rather easy to fool himself into not thinking about it. Kirishima on the other hand, seems to have switched careers and he’s become an idol manager in spirit, because he’s in a state of constant panic every time Akihito sees him trailing Asami out of cars and into offices, unceasingly mumbling into a headset. He calls Akihito at least once a day, sometimes three, getting his final approval on table runner fabrics and florist choices for the gazillion flowers they’re going to have in an absurdly high number of hotel rooms Akihito refuses to sound it out with words, only for Kirishma to find something better the next week. He hires and fires a new decorator twice a month and goes from dependable, meticulous secretary to bridezilla crushing xanax into his coffee in no time flat.

“I understand that we’re contributing to the Japanese economy and all, but,” he tells Kirishima as he opens a box (not an envelope, a box) of invitation samples, “I’m pretty sure other people plan a wedding this big in twice the time you’ve allotted.”

Kirishima elects to ignore him and sorts the stacks of gold foiled stamped paper of various sizes into piles wholly indistinguishable from one another to Akihito’s disinterested eyes. “Asami-sama is getting a husband. Everything must be perfect,” emphasizing shujin in goshujin so slow and hard Akihito spits out his tea.

Asami doesn’t outright tell Akihito he’s avoiding Kirishima, but he starts taking more and more of his work home, monopolising every minute left over in Akihito’s day with his silent neediness, working through meals if Akihito doesn’t drag him away from his desk. One time, Akihito catches him staring at the fax machine in mute horror as it spits out page after page of outrageous wedding cake designs in clean, structurally precise lines like blueprints, the smallest of them five tiers.

“Just pick one,” Akihito advises, since he’s familiar with this sort of neurotic behaviour from some photographers with their proofs. “If you pick one he’d stop asking you to choose.”

“If I pick one he’d start bringing cake samples,” Asami says as the fax machine whirs away, a muscle in his cheek jumping, less stressed facing down literal Russian paramilitary.

They delay picking the cake, get measured for their tuxedos, choose complimentary fabrics for ties and pocket squares and cravats and buttons and a million other details that makes Akihito’s eyes cross as the streets of Tokyo turn crimson in a rictus of maple, goes glossy and rain-slicked with the first chills of Autumn.

The wall calendar starts feeling like a ticking time bomb and halfway through August Akihito leaves the thankless nervy task of crossing off dates — and answering Kirishima’s phone calls — to Asami and takes on more and more jobs in his old sensei’s Aoyama studio. His life hasn’t figured itself out as he hoped it would, but the Weekly is a dead end, and some loves are perpetual; whether Akihito’s four or twenty-four, he feels complete with a camera, and in the place of the few exclusives he used to clip out of the Weekly to save to a small album, he’s starting to take up inches of space in their living room bookshelf, filling up book after book of fashion photography portfolios.

In late September, Akihito goes on a stakeout for personal, entirely petty, jealousy induced reasons after spotting Asami out with a woman on his arm. In hindsight the entire debacle is amazingly stupid and obvious a trap, and though it didn’t feel as dangerous as chasing the Triad, it may arguably be worse. In the predictably trauma-habit forming routine of Akihito’s life, he gets kidnapped, shipped halfway across the world and wakes up an indeterminable number of hours later in Asami’s childhood home, because Asami Haruka — Yukimura, dear, I didn’t take on the Asami name and I suggest you don’t, either — a.k.a. Asami’s mother is as insane as anyone in Asami’s immediate orbit and just as misinformed about the legality of using kidnapping to form friendships as her son.

Because this is his life and Akihito’s worryingly blase about kidnappings, he spends the next two days touring the extensive grounds with Haruka. She takes him through the gardens in hibernation, the wisteria hanging with a profusion of seed pods and the peony gone to ground completely, only the camellias allowed to grow wild along the fractured walls are still flowering. In the cavernous space of the old ballroom, with sunlight solidifying through pillars of dust motes, he feels Asami’s ghost in the air around them, takes Haruka’s hand and walks her through a Foxtrot past cloth-covered furniture, their reverberating footsteps as timelessly familiar as an echo from the past. In the evenings he spends hours in the library with its odd collection of classics and fantasy novels in four different languages, pretending to read but actually prying words out of Suoh Takumi, who’s as tall and wide as his youngest son but hasn’t thought about dyeing his hair even though it’s gone all grey, and whose head is filled with amazing stories of little Ryuichi trying to escape from the time he’d been able to walk and causing the giant, chicken-wired hole between crumbling stones in the southern wall.

Like everyone else who spends their lives guarding Asami’s secrets, they’re masters at burying the lede; the stories they tell are full of patchy, redacted anecdotes, leaving swathes of years blank and void of details. But Akihito thinks he has all the details that matter, all the secrets he needs, and he’s getting used to Haruka leaning into his side as they go through a tiny album the size of a diary when Asami finds them in the master sitting room with a giant, bigger than life oil painting of Haruka, Takumi rearranging the logs in the fireplace with a poker.

It’s at least a full minute before Akihito notices him, so engrossed is he in the first photo ever taken of Asami — red, scrunched up in the mouth and nose, acutely enraged and identical to any other newborn except for a too young Haruka’s face cooing just above, anchoring his identity to the man existing in the present and therefore the most precious little face he’s ever seen — that when he glances up to see him standing there framed by an open doorway, he feels all the years that used to separate them compress and wink away, the vertigo of time travelling prickling at his eyes. The story of Asami will never be complete, Akihito will probably never have the whole of him; Asami’s a patchwork tapestry of a person and he’s riddled with holes shaped like the discarded parts of himself, but everything that means the most is consumingly present. He’s also the most unkempt Akihito has ever seen him: collar askew, shirt wrinkled, no tie, a coffee stain paired with something greasy that was probably buttercream at some point that no dry cleaner will be able to get out of woven silk prominent on his lapel.

Akihito pushes his face at the scruff of Asami's three day stubble, burrowing in to drag in big lungfuls of him; it's only been days, but it feels like he's been missing him for months. Maybe what he has been missing is the gap of everything he didn't know, and now the Asami in his arms is a whole person when before all he had was a projection, the sum of all his parts carefully curated for Akihito's sake, and he is glad to love the whole of him — glad to let the warmth of him seep through all their autumn layers.

Before Akihito gets to find out whether Asami’s wearing his twin holsters and ready to commit matricide, he helpfully heads off any thought of murder by declaring, “I think I love her.”

“She’s won you over already, I see,” Asami says, uncharacteristically resigned, and his arms cross tight behind Akihito, his fingertips pressing icily through the fabric of Akihito’s shirt. “That didn’t take long.”

“And why wouldn’t I?” Haruka snaps the album shut and smoothes out the creases in the drape of her kimono, then smiles smugly up at him with striking resemblance. “Unlike you, I’m nice.”

An irate line appears between Asami’s brow, but he doesn’t sound threatening at all as he accuses, “You kidnapped him. I’ve killed people for far less.”

“Are you starting with yourself then, sweetheart?” Haruka ripostes, at the same time Akihito mutters under his breath, “Who hasn’t, by now,” rolling his eyes at both of them. “Well, go on. But not here. You’ll traumatise the boy.”

“We are talking about you right now,” Asami snaps.

“Of course, because you never want to talk about yourself. That’s why I had to do it for you, dear,” Haruka says unsparingly, sipping her tea. “And you’re carrying on the family tradition of robbing the cradle, I see.”

“He’s not that young. Don’t compare me with the old man.”

They devolve into petty jibes and her old grudges about missed birthdays and his not understanding why he ever thought she was nice, ever, rather quickly; Akihito falls into a peculiar ease just listening to them, tucking himself into his reserved spot by Asami’s shoulder, amazed that there’s someone who can speak to Asami like this, like family, that behind all the layers of heartlessness, a facade he wears like armour, he comes from someone who carries on being bright in spite of choosing this life.

He takes one of Asami’s hands then, sliding their fingers together palm to palm, watertight. Whatever worries he was carrying that turned his skin to ice is gone now; replaced by the warmth he’s come to rely on. A part of Asami has always been steadfast and sure, he thinks, shone as bright as a full moon, celestially beautiful in each passing across the deep void of the night sky, and Akihito’s always wondered where it came from, or if Asami knows — that no matter which path he travels, he’s the one carrying the light with him.

Akihito is fast learning that Asami’s one true weakness is his mother, whom he lets get away with kidnapping his fiancé and technically forcible confinement, because when she wakes them up bright and early with an armful of paperwork and insists they register in Asami’s ancestral home, in the disused chapel by the southern wall, he caves before Kirishima has time to show up with coffee.

The chapel’s the size of a small house, flooded with sunlight from lofty windows and cracks in the roof, seats maybe twenty at most but it feels roomy, airy like a forest ruin. Akihito is the only one surprised to find out Takumi is an ordained minister, but it’s been so long since he officiated a wedding he can’t remember any vows so he makes up something half a minute long, scribbling it onto a legal pad Kirishima carries around like a security blanket. Haruka takes a front row seat in the pews and dabs at her dry eyes with a handkerchief; Kirishima, choosing a seat deferentially in the second row, may actually be crying, fogging up his glasses.

The day before, Asami was so sleep deprived that he left his luggage on the plane two hours' drive away, and nothing he keeps here fits him anymore so he’s still wearing the slate grey suit with the coffee stain, tie lost on the floor of one of the family’s endless collection of black town cars. Akihito’s sent his clothes down for laundering so at least they’re clean, but what he has on are what he was wearing when he was kidnapped off an alleyway in Kagurazaka — a faded t-shirt, a cargo jacket reserved for stakeouts and jeans with new rips, with his least presentable, scuffed up pair of trainers rounding out the outfit.

Their rings are still being fitted, and their tuxes are at a tailor's back in Japan, so in that heartbeat where Akihito signs his name and looks up, forgetting their audience entirely and dragging Asami down by his stained lapel beneath a shaft of dusty sunlight — slanting through a hole fortuitously overhead from years of disrepair — to kiss him full on the mouth, it’s with the simplest, barest suggestion of vows and bare fingers. Even this is messy; they don’t fit like they usually do with Akihito grinning into it, eyes half lidded so he can keep watching Asami and all his familiar lines too close, his lips pulled tight too in a smile and the corner of his eyes crinkled.

When Akihito finally pulls away, Asami’s palm is warm where it’s cradling his cheek, his thumb stroking ceaselessly over the rise of it, and sunlight's glinting off Asami’s bangs hanging loose over his forehead in a dusting of gold. He can't blame it on a trick of the light that his breath catches, because Asami’s looking so fondly at him that the air between them feels secluded, only for them, and time seems to crystallise — perfection distilling into a frozen, eternal moment.

There’s a moonless firmament cast over the countryside when Akihito wakes sometime in the night, late enough to be early yet nowhere near dawn. A cornucopia of stars shine into their room, blanketing them with the merest suggestion of shapes. Akihito feels different in a way he can’t quite explain, calm and all the pieces of his heart collected, like he’s crossed the Rubicon, strolled leisurely past a mashy demarcation line to find solid ground on the other side.

He snakes his arm beneath Asami’s neck then, reversing their usual position, resting Asami’s head on his shoulder so he can stroke gently at his hair — as though he’s lulling a child to sleep.

“What are you doing up?” Asami says, craning his neck so he can look blearily at Akihito through half-lidded eyes. He takes a moment to throw in a little leer that’s so weary he ends up yawning through it, wrinkling his nose and all his syllables. “I didn’t wear you out enough?” Asami doesn’t protest the position Akihito’s arranged them in, though, and throws an arm over Akihito’s waist, nuzzles at his collarbone, indulgent with sleep.

A thought surfaces, clear as the skies above them, he’s mine, and without hesitation he pulls Asami closer and kisses him along his hairline, his brow where all his worries sits folded and neatly bundled up, the elegant bridge of his nose. Akihito strokes his thumb over Asami’s cheekbone — the familiar, well-loved limned edges he’s traced with his eyes all day, the usual harsh shadows blurred out in the faint glow of the night, and he marvels aloud, “You’re mine,” combing his fingers through the short hairs at his nape.

It feels like fulfilling a fantasy, to spoil him with affection like this, to tuck Asami’s head beneath his chin and feel his breath soft against his chest. He’s watching what he once thought impossible come to pass, holding Asami close, basking in the secret, private serenity of his childhood bedroom to mingle with his memories, good or bad — as improbable as plucking a star out of the sky.

In his arms, Asami relaxes, drifts off to his little kitten snores and his head goes heavy in Akihito’s arms, but when Akihito wakes, it’s with a fleeting memory so faint he can’t be sure if he dreamt it. Akihito remembers Asami’s lips moving against his collarbone, the scratch of stubble and the warm tickling from his breath in a low murmur. “I think that’s always been true.”

“Do we even need a second wedding?”

Mostly Akihito realises he’s just said the exact wrong thing by the alarmed look Asami gives him — that, and the way Kirishima closes the folders he has with him with a snap and excuses himself with a deep bow, disappearing into the office cabin, shutting the door neatly and with a lugubrious sort of quiet that rings like a church bell after he goes.

“Did I say something wrong? Why is Kirishima — was he upset?” Akihito turns to Asami, because he could swear Kirishima’s eyes were looking a tad puffy and red behind his glasses. “Please tell me I didn’t just make Kirishima cry.”

“He’s been planning our wedding since Jan —” Asami quickly stumbles into a different word entirely, “— June. He’s kind of invested.”

Akihito narrows his eyes. “Were you about to say January?”

“You are going to tell him that we are having that Third Sunday of November wedding.” Asami ignores his question and quickly plows on ahead, not letting Akihito get a word in. “You are also going to try the rest of the cake samples. I am done.

There's a long, cross-continent flight ahead of them, so their seats have been abandoned in favour of the couch, and Asami rests his head on Akihito’s lap, content to use him as a pillow. It looks like all the fatigue he’s been holding off surviving on coffee and liquor and zero sleep and apparently cake samples are hitting him like a wall after running full speed for days, and when he’s this tired, he babbles. Asami doesn’t notice Akihito’s eyes on him, wide and spellbound at the way words are tumbling out: complaining. Asami gripes about the instant coffee, Kirishima working off his anxiety over Akihito going missing by forcing every patisserie they own overnight them samples just before they leave Japan, and then filling up a dinner plate — “not even a dessert plate, Akihito” — with the same whenever Asami asks for coffee.

“French pastry cream is terrible,” Asami says, and when Akihito rests a proprietary hand on his shoulder, he leans into it. “American buttercream isn’t even edible. Too sweet by far. Hong Kong pastry cream isn’t bad, but apparently we can only have the top tier decorated with it because it doesn’t hold its shape. I never want to eat another slice of cake again. Can we serve namagashi at the wedding?”

“We could order namagashi for the guest gift, if you want,” Akihito says, feels a smile tight and insistent on his lower lip, tugging at the corners. “But everything else that’s going in it are flat so we already ordered envelopes.”

It’s only cake, not the million other things that must weigh on Asami’s mind. Maybe he’s projecting but he can’t help hoping: with his hand flat on Asami’s shoulder, stroking over the wide span of his back, the knots that used to plague Asami’s muscles feels softer, loosening as they melt to the heat of his palm.

Either the Tokyo Public Prosecutor office isn’t all that busy or Asami’s just that good at convincing people to do things for him, because he ends up with Kuroda Shinji as a nakodo — the matchmaker and the best man in one role — and the surrealism of their fairytale wedding increases exponentially. Before fall even hits its stride in Tokyo, barely a week after they touch down on the tarmac, Kuroda’s flying out to France so a quiet meeting between both sets of parents can happen without Akihito falling to pieces.

Akihito’s not sure how Kuroda works his magic; all he knows is that from June to September, his mom and Asami engaged in a long, protracted cold war that involved her nitpicking at every detail of the reception and Asami getting progressively passive aggressive about showing off how much money he’s willing to throw around. The cake keeps getting bigger, the guest list keeps getting longer, they changed venue twice before settling on the Sion hotel in Okinawa, the dinner goes from five courses to full tasting menu and Akihito steadily loses his mind. But after their parents meet and there’s only radio silence from the party for the entirety of October, they arrive in Tokyo all smiles, the exception being his father, who looks a lot put out.

Akihito's greeted at the airport by the sight of his mother and Haruka arm in arm and overladen with shopping bags, wearing coordinating Prada coats.

“I had them stay with me in my little walk-up in Paris,” Haruka tells them, handing Asami her weight in shopping bags that he turns around and hands right off to Suoh, junior. “All these years around the world and they haven’t done the Paris thing. Can you believe it? Well, anyway — Makoto and Kaede are such lovely people, and you are so lucky because we get along so well.”

“Conning people into liking you is your specialty, I must agree,” Asami says, snippy, and looking conflicted like he’s at the midway point between impressed and pissed off. “Either hire more people or go make Suoh carry your things.”

“Takumi needs his hands free so he can get at his weapons. I’m not unreasonable.” Haruka shakes her head, widening her eyes in mock innocence behind those huge sunglasses. “Isn’t that right, Kazumi?”

“Don’t put my men on the spot,” Asami scowls at her. “And don’t you have a school to run?”

“I can delegate for a week or two,” she says, shifting her attention to Akihito next like a butterfly distracted by a new flower. “We went shopping for matching dresses — everything’s fine now. Unlike somebody we know who makes friends wherever he goes, I have things well in hand.”

“Be Careful.” Asami warns him quietly after she flits back to Kaede’s side, looking pointedly at the rainbow of packaged desserts she’s stuffed into his arms, “Don’t let her dote on you too much.”

“Why, are you jealous?” Akihito says around a mouthful of macaron; he’s too happy with his mother being happy about his nuptials for once that the stormy moods Haruka works hard to bring out in Asami feels as light as a cloud.

“I’m just saying that my mother has a tendency to bulldoze into people’s lives, that’s all. She’s compulsively manipulative,” Asami says, pulls Akihito closer so he can press a closed-mouth kiss to his temple. “She’ll take liberties.”

It feels like one of those static electricity displays that make all your hair stand on end, makes him go red all over every time; it’s also become a terribly permissible habit — speaking of compulsively manipulative, he wonders when Asami convinced him that kissing him in semi-public space, in front of their family, is normal.

“Oh, so that’s where you get it from,” he says, distracted. He spots his dad following the women at a respectable two metres like a wife in the Edo period behind a lord and his geisha — except in this case the lord and the geisha look like they’ve hit every shop along Avenue Montaigne.

He loves Haruka too much already to heed any of Asami’s warnings, and he doesn’t think about why Asami breathes loudly through his nose to sigh, the way he rolls his eyes as though he’s saying it’s your funeral, not until much later — when it's The Big Day and the cake is already built and delivered in layers, constructed on-site at the ostentatious Asami vacation home north of Naha-shi converted into a banquet hall stroke hotel stroke specialty wedding venue.

The Cake takes up an entire table, its clear candy crystals molded to jewels hanging on sparkling silk strands, curls of spun sugar draping on the edges of snow white fondant, the whole thing covered in gumpaste peonies so lifelike it looks toxic. It’s too much by any standard, and Akihito’s already making a disgusted face at it when his eyes follow the draped silk shapes all the way to the top.

It’s the morning of the wedding, and far too late to change things, have second thoughts, cold feet, whatever, but Akihito takes one look at that beautifully sculpted, perfectly recognizable cake topper and he feels a scream form in his throat. When it finally escapes him, he shouts loud enough to stop the orchestra dead in their tuning tracks.

Chapter Text

“Isn’t it marvellous?” Haruka exclaims, her French accent materialising out of the white decor next to him like a passing cloud in front of The Cake, her hands clasped dreamily beneath her chin. “My ideas are the best ideas.”

Akihito drags his gaze away from the cake topper — it’s like trying to look away from a car accident, truly — so he can look aghast at Haruka instead, towards her lopsided, toothy grin and picture-perfect dark waves cascading over her deceptively narrow shoulders, the fact that she is actually Asami's mother, therefore evil, finally snapping into place like a deadbolt.

Before she’s used his trust like a sledgehammer, she’s never given him cause to examine their sundry interactions, conversations with her in the driver’s seat and Akihito happily going along for the ride for her lovely choice of scenary; now he has no idea why or when he started trusting Yukimura Haruka like a little cygnet imprinting on the wrong mother. It could be the moment she brought him to her husband’s grave and brushed aside fallen leaves so she could read him the epitaph, or the cut open look in her eyes as she touched the etched lines in the stone, red-rimmed with unshed tears. Probably, Akihito has grown attached over her kohl-fringed elongated eyes that her son inherited, the sharp arch of her brow lifting like a question, like the punctuation at the end of all the half-finished sentences Hasegawa sensei fed him along with tea and salt water taffy.

Like her son, she’s no good at talking about herself, either, so what Akihito knows of Haruka is second-hand at best from huddling with his own mother in the week leading up to the wedding, her relating the four weeks with Haruka prowling the streets of Paris digging through endless used book bins and antique stands, eating folded chocolate crepes, spending pointless hours at cafes steering conversations back to the subject of her son.

Haruka’s been abroad a long time, but she’s here to stay now — coming home to inherit her parent’s ikebana studio in Ueno, a sprawling old estate with expansive gardens built in the old Edo style and rebuilt after the war. In her stories she makes Asami out to be a hero, her nakodo who travelled all the way from his father’s house to hers, a teenaged boy playing matchmaker for his parents.

“Your husband,” his mother tells him, her love for Haruka extending to Asami but only lasting long enough for this one story, “was an unexpectedly idealistic and romantic boy.” And because a part of her will always hate him, with the age-old stereotypical enmity of in-laws, she adds, “I wonder what happened to him.”

I call bullshit, Akihito thinks; in all likelihood Haruka talked a younger, far more naive Asami into spiriting her away from her family obligations. He’s rather recently (as of thirty seconds ago) realised that Haruka can talk anyone into anything.

Exhibit A: she’s talked Kirishima into getting a cake topper expertly, salaciously sculpted with facial expressions worthy of a 499 yen romance novel cover and posed in the gravity-defying, searingly tight hip grinding moment of a dip. Asami’s hand is splayed wide on Akihito’s lower back, and since the rest is not awful enough, the figure of Akihito — both of their faces perfectly, vividly, photographically recognizable — is wearing a veil and some sort of skirt’s been attached to the back of his waistcoat.

“What the fuck is that thing?” Akihito does not mean to yell or sound like a teenager whose voice has just began to crack, but such is the seriousness of this travesty.

“Oh, but you are gorgeous, darling,” Haruka tells him, putting a finger in front of his mouth for no foul language please as if it matters, and in true Haruka fashion all of his emotions just bounce off of her — she sounds flawlessly composed as she compliments him in French which he doesn’t understand for half a minute before pretending to realise and switching back to Japanese and the translation is even worse. “They have everything just right — even the antique lace edges are all there and isn't the drape of that fabric so dynamic. Your mother and I have all the accessories prepared — that ensemble’s going to look wonderful when you walk down the aisle.”

“I am not wearing a skirt or a veil!”

It could be the stress of what weddings do to people — just look what it’s done to Kirishima for fuck’s sake, he’s a multiple of himself publicly having feelings — but it’s far more likely this feeling of betrayal he gets looking at her smiling face that makes Akihito raise his voice loud enough to echo in the vast, empty banquet hall, with staff milling about dressing up chairs in pure (who is Asami kidding) white covers and ribbons to go with the doves. Even the orchestra that just a few seconds ago was tuning up a storm — filling the air with the dissonance of multiple string instruments moving towards something unifying and grand — fades out and the hall is filled instead with the quiet hush of people trying not to laugh.

“But it’s so well-made,” Haruka says, sensible in her fusion silver grey dress that matches Akihito’s tie — that matches the tie on the figurine, making a face that creases her brow in the signature Asami way. “It cost a fortune,” she adds lightly, twisting the knife in his frugality. “The ceremony’s in two hours, so it’s not like we can change it even if you wanted to. It was hand-sculpted. An artist spent a whole week getting the details right.”

“The cake is taller than most Christmas trees,” Akihito says, grasping at ribbons. “No one can see what it’s wearing. We don’t have to match.”

“They will when we take the top tier down and you two cut into it for that perfect photograph with your matching outfits.” She grins at him then, as if his distress is amusing, tipping her head to one side so a diamond earring catches the light. He’s so accustomed to her face — Asami’s face — Akihito crumbles in the shadow of her pleading. “Ryuichi is so difficult when it comes to pictures and I only have the one album of him — I want every photo to be perfect, ne?”

The figurines on top of the cake continue to stare at each other with stars in their eyes and a light dusting of blush on his cheeks and when everyone sees that cake topper when it’s not sitting a metre above their heads anymore, he will burst into flames on the spot and in the future his name will be uttered at those weird pseudoscience conferences, proof of the existence of spontaneous combustion. But Asami practices filial piety by letting Haruka get away with absolutely everything and she’s Akihito’s mother too now; the least he can do is compromise when she seems so, well, happy.

“I’m not wearing a skirt down the aisle,” he says, in the spirit of compromising.

“It’s called a train, dear. And honestly, we should have made it far longer — but you’ll wear the veil? The veil is your mother’s.” She blinks up at him, hopeful with an expert hint of wistful melancholy, offhandedly adding, “I never had a wedding.” and producing a silver peony-shaped pin — a cunning replica of the one on his engagement ring — from her purse, she says, “This is his grandmother’s veil pin. It’s beautiful, no?”

There are dark, tarnished grooves where the brush lines down the petals should be, the edges worn smooth by cherishing hands, and though Akihito really, really wants to say no to a flower in his hair, Haruka has watery eyes and he is weak. “Fine. I’ll wear the veil. No skirt.”

“Train,” she corrects. “Say, Akihito.” Haruka reaches for his lapel then, clips the pin neatly into the buttonhole. Since she declared herself his mother, Haruka’s shown her true colours, either excessively French or simply as handsy and lacking in boundaries as her son. “Did you know about his other plans? You know … his proposal plans?”

“I heard,” Akihito says, reflexively suspicious of her now. “What about them?”

“Ah. But I told him they were terrible ideas, you should have heard the latest one — the one he came up with when he was flying home in May. He woke me up for that.” Haruka pretends to be fixated on his lapel, turning the pin just so, as though that’s her goal and all the words streaming out of her mouth is just casual prattle. “I mean, they were silly ideas even for him. He can be such an idiot, you know? So sweet. So thoughtful. Too bad his idea of romance is so dumb,” she cradles her chin with the heel of her hand, admiring her handiwork. “But that’s why we love him, right? My son is adorable.

Akihito turns a lot crimson in the face but he has no idea what to say to that; he imagines Asami sleepless and calling his mom halfway around the world because she’s the only person he trusts, and she’s right, it’s so cute he thinks he may cry.

“So if I’m going to tell you one of his plans, which he is never going to live down, the least you can do is to look like a proper bride for him, ne?” Haruka blinks at him, dazzling. “He’d love it.”

They’d gone to get their tuxes made, chosen complimentary fabrics in matching colours for tie and cravat and pocket squares, silver grey and ivory silk that sets off their platinum rings; Asami had looked at him approvingly at the final fitting, took his hand for a quarter turn to check the fall of the cuff on his wrist. He’d said nothing about wanting anything more, so Akihito can’t help the flare from the warmth beneath the pin lying heavy on his lapel, his pleased surprise like a kite fold stretching into an origami crane. “He would?”

“Of course he would,” Haruka says, grinning the grin of a woman who knows she’s playing the card she’s wanted to play all along. “Ryuichi signed off on the cake topper, you know?”

It is highly probable that not all people feel this bloody on the morning of their own wedding, but he swears a muscle’s twitching in his cheek as he grins back at Haruka.

“Fine. Bring on the train — but you will tell me everything.”

The procession’s starting in a half hour and everywhere he shouldn’t be going is filled with echoing, triumphal strings playing Hornpipe, Handel’s water music, the notes floating majestically over the cheerful noise of an outsized crowd entering the main hall in disordered pairs, so it makes perfect sense that Akihito’s brain is choosing now to have one of its highly inconvenient and increasingly frequent existential crises. The (multiple) women in his changeroom wielding flat irons and pins of three kinds and non-nosense attitudes may be determined, but they're also wearing three-inch heels, so even Haruka can't stop him.

If the building is symmetrical and the hallway connects behind the altar, then the groom’s room (they really should relabel those; he’s requested the plaque labelled ‘BRIDE’ be removed from his door so he would stop passing it, but Kirishima just slaps a yellow sticky on it that says ‘brat’ in permanent marker as though that solves everything) should be right down the hallway he’s running through, that is if he didn’t barrel right into his father — smacking his nose off his groomsmen matching dove grey pinstripes hard enough to see stars.

“Cold feet?” his father gibes. It's removed, at arm's length. "The bathroom's back the way you came — it's attached to the changeroom."

It’s preferable to their not talking, so even though Akihito thinks, “Please do shut up,” he doesn’t say it. They’ve been people who talk to each other once a month since forever, virtually like penpals, and at no point in their relationship could they have qualified for ‘close.’ The most his dad’s ever been to him is a distant friend, like a coworker one rank above that he can never stop being polite to or drop the honorifics however casual the speech; it’s kind of awful that he can’t even lash out when he’s angry because that’s not the kind of family he has.

It’s his wedding day and his idea of panicking is to run into the groom’s room, clutch at Asami’s shirt until his heart stops racing — and how sad is it that before Asami, he’s never found anyone else to rely on this way.

“I wasn’t heading for the front door,” Akihito explains, checking his nose for blood — Haruka may literally murder him if he gets blood on his tux. “I was just —”

“It’s a bit late to call the whole thing off, you know.” His father lifts an eyebrow at him. “Seeing as you’re already married.”

“Then why are we having a wedding?” Akihito blurts out — he can only hope Kirishima’s out of earshot directing traffic in the lobby two walls and an entire hall away. “I was fine with the wedding we already had.”

Their extemporaneous wedding was all he wanted, and they’d spent the evening walking the gardens, old pathways deserted for kilometres, every last guest and servant sent away. For this extravaganza, Asami’s hired out the biggest specialty wedding venue in Japan, an old vacation home turned hotel that has its own private beach, all of the terraces and balconies tied up with enough silver, black and white helium balloons to look fit to float off like Laputa. The guest list includes Tokyo royalty and literal royalty; this is a hotel magnate’s wedding, overplanned and overdone, designed to avoid losing face for a corporation, and Akihito feels like a nick on the satin matte surface of his fondant covered wedding cake — a distortion in an otherwise perfect picture, a speck of dirt on the lens, confusing the auto zoom.

Akihito wraps his hand around his dad’s wrist, a testament to how freaked out he feels, his voice too high as he squeaks out words, “I don’t belong here.”

“Oh dear,” his dad says, making Akihito lament not inheriting his unruffled in the face of panic trait.

He hooks a finger in Akihito’s collar and drags him backwards through the hallway to the room labelled ‘brat’ and Akihito blinks at it as the door closes behind them, and for a split second thinks maybe he deserved that. “Sit down.”

His mothers are still here, but they’ve multiplied inexplicably and now there are at least five women in his change room trying to fix his hair and affix things to his tux. Akihito sinks into an oversized chair in a corner so assaulted by bouquets from well-wishers it looks arboreal, and he curls in on himself, hangs his head between his knees trying not to pass out. Someone’s pushing a water bottle into his hand and pressing a cool towel onto his face and Akihito feels hemmed in, claustrophobically surrounded by the wrong hands, the scent of fresh flowers and expensive perfume, until voices are raised in protest as his father shuts them all out and turns the lock with a click.

Over the maddening ticking of a wall clock that every bride must want to murder, his father asks him, “Akihito. Do you know who this wedding is for?”

Akihito laughs, “Kirishima, probably.”

“Well, he does seem rather enthusiastic about being a wedding planner, but —” his father slaps him upside the head, but only as hard as when he was five or so, “— it’s for you, dummy.”

“The cake is taller than Suoh,” he wants to yell, there are eleven tiers, the first uneven number that comes after nine, each supported by crystalised sugar pillars and draped with strings of clear glass candy like a chandelier but otherwise classic, beautiful, and as boring as Kirishima’s glasses. Akihito didn’t ask for the miles of ribbons and balloons and hundreds of guests, the thirty-seven course tasting menu that takes up four pages in the programme — Akihito never asked for a wedding that required a programme.

“I’m not sure I follow,” he says, looking up at his father leaning on the makeup counter and rudely not having a panic attack.

Out of nowhere, his father says, “Do you remember all the fights your mom and I had when you were a kid?”

They had a little house in Fujimi, a long and narrow three bedroom that leaned right up against his friends’ long and narrow houses, close enough to climb over the windows to break curfew and they often did; his parents had a room on one end and he had a room on the other, separated by a hallway and the length of a darkroom. Akihito used to flatten himself along the floor, ear pressed against the carpet so he can peek beneath the door at the light shining into the hallway. He’d watch his father as he paced sometimes, locked out of the bedroom, quietly asking to be let back in.

“I was away weeks at a time, you remember. Fourteen years; it was hard for her,” his father says, eyes lowered and focused distantly at a point back in time. Akihito wonders if his father ever thought it may have been hard for his son, too, or if it’s as he suspected, that his parents loved themselves and each other too much to parent. “I was always someplace new. Always around new people — and your mother couldn’t stand it.”

Akihito doesn’t ask, “Is that why mom left, too?” Maybe they’ve convinced themselves they did it for him, that being alone is better than listening to their screaming fights, but he got used to running his mouth instead, acting tough and relying on himself and not bothering them with his problems.

“Did she think you’d cheat on her?” he asks.

“I don’t … think so? It’s not me that she didn’t trust. It’s all the people I meet. I’m sure you’d know —” His father ruffles Akihito’s hair, undoing all the work that’s been lavished on it, “— you and your mother are like two peas in a pod.”

No one should be this jealous, or rather, he thinks no one could tolerate their other half being this jealous. This level of possessiveness is best reserved for books, afternoon melodrama: the way he has to tamp down his hurt kissing Asami goodbye before he goes off to an evening event where someone will likely cling to him feels all so irrational, unreasonable — unseemly. Lately — no, it’s been nearly a year now — Asami would linger in the genkan, hold him until it’s past comfortable, trying to make things easier despite Akihito never having said anything about it being hard.

On busy nights Akihito could bury himself in work and not dwell on Asami playing social butterfly, surrounded by interested, interesting people. Akihito found himself often ending up with all the lights off on nights off to sulk in the far edge of their giant bed with his face buried in a pillow.

He looks up at his dad then, searching, wondering how he didn’t get tired of the fights going on for years, how in the face of his mom’s unreasonable demands, he didn’t just leave. “Is it bad?”

“No. It’s bad if you don’t care,” his dad says, kindly as only a distant, absent father could, so Akihito would never think him biased. “Still, she would have stayed with me and stayed unhappy. I had to take her along eventually. Life’s too short.”

There’s an apology in that, for depriving him of a mother, but it doesn’t clear things up at all in the present. “What does this have to do with —”

“You see all those famous, rich people that have no idea who you are?” His dad gestures palm out in the general direction of the hall, at the rows and rows of seats he can imagine behind two walls, filled with beautiful people dressed to the nines. “They’re not here for you — I’m sure they won’t even bother to remember your name. They’re here for Asami Ryuichi, who’s going to show everyone here he’s taken. And he’s doing it for you. Well,” his father makes a face, a half derisive smile, “that’s my theory. He’s kind of crazy about you so maybe he just wants to marry you in front of everyone he knows. Maybe there’s no other purpose to going through all this trouble than to show you off.”

Akihito’s been married for two months already, but it still hurts to see Asami go — wherever he goes. “How will this help?”

His father doesn’t answer him for long seconds, twisting his wedding band around his finger like a tell. “You can hold his hand before he goes where he goes and remember that you’re the one who slipped a ring on there,” he says, finally, and shrugs at him. “Think back on how happy he looked letting you chain him up in front of everyone.”

“And if it doesn’t work? If … nothing makes it easier?” Akihito asks out loud, so he can feel the weight of his wilful, unaccountably feckless love on his teeth. “What if I’m like you say — just like mom?”

His father smiles, toothy and open, holding out a hand to help him up. The clock’s ticking away; soon the orchestra will move into the seasons of Vivaldi, Spring for Haruka leading the procession on Suoh Takumi’s arm, Asami walking in with Kuroda, his imposing looking men followed by Kou, Takato — and Ai-chan in a tux because Akihito has such trouble saying no.

“I guess this gives him an excuse to take you with him everywhere now.”

For the honour of walking him down the aisle, Akihito’s parents play janken and his dad’s sent off to fall into step behind Kuroda Shinji.

Akihito lets his mother pin the veil on him, and though he’s fought against wearing the thing this hard, the edging on his pocket square was obviously made to be a match, as is the train that falls neatly in petal like pleats behind his knees. There is something about the weight of all the fabric and the reassuring pinch of a peony pin in his hair that makes Akihito feel transformed. Maybe this is why people choose to have weddings despite all the trouble and expense that goes into them; all the panic attacks, the pomp and circumstance draws a clear line bifurcating one portion of his life to the next.

When the double doors open and the orchestra smoothly transitions from Spring to Autumn, every head in the room turns to look — every young woman staring daggers and some dour faces here and there, disapproving — but none of it seem to matter, their faces fading into the bokeh of the picture before him as Akihito finds his focus, finds Asami past the white haze of the veil, his eyes warm and his smile open, surprised, looking so happy Akihito could start running, the crowd he’s been so intimidated by ceases to be an obstacle altogether.

Between the door opening and his first steps onto the carpet, he feels his mother clutching too tight at his arm, all the iciness she had towards Asami surfacing, and he thinks he gets it; she’s chosen once, and though she does not regret that choice, they are alike, and Akihito knows she wishes she could have chosen both of them, spent the last ten years watching him grow, had a husband that didn’t roam.

She doesn’t want to give her only child away to a man who doesn’t deserve him. Akihito does not begrudge her choices, and he supposes he would feel the same, if he’s the one having to give a child away.

But for himself, Akihito has come too far now to agree with that sentiment. It’s naive probably — downright idealistic — but he knows the word ‘deserve’ is empty, loveless, nothing but an exchange of karma, a give and take game played with a universe that doesn’t care. In some other iteration of the world, maybe he could have ended up with an Asami that never fired a gun or needed a weapon, never did him wrong, but in his reality, the one standing at the altar with all his jagged edges that only turn soft when their eyes meet is the man he fell for.

“Mom, it’ll be alright,” Akihito leans in to whisper so even though every pair of eyes in the room are on them, these words are a secret. “I’ve found the man I want to follow for the rest of my life, too.”

Akihito ends up with fresh tear stains all down his right shoulder, but it’s turned away from the camera so this rare imperfection in the meticulous perfection of Kirishima’s making will only hold permanence in Akihito’s memories. The rest is scripted and over-rehearsed, so their wedding album for this part is polished to a gleam, a collage made with a series of short depth of field shots taken beneath plenty of skylight. The wedding video goes from serene to pandemonium right after the vows, with Ai-chan leading the wolf whistling and women crying all over each other, but these are all details he fills in later.

When Akihito thinks of this moment, he remembers the heat of Asami’s hands, how the ring is warm when Asami slips it onto his finger, and looking up through the gossamer thin lace edges of his veil, he finds Asami not looking past him, not looking over his shoulder; his eyes are hot on Akihito’s as he brushes the fabric aside, his fingers painting tingling trails across Akihito’s cheek.

The kiss is hypoxic, makes him reach out to hold onto the back of Asami’s shoulders for balance, and Akihito thinks it’s passingly ironic that in a room full of people, they’ll always be alone — wrapped up in each other as isolated as a pair of dancers.

Asami’s letter to his mother is vague and delivered with such effusive charm that Akihito gags a little, but it’s obvious to him that it’s masterfully written by Haruka herself and extensively redacted by Kirishima until it’s becomes one of those softly focused photographs of a flower garden in full-bloom — the kind of common denominator claptrap that a crowd could eat right up. Akihito cries all over his letter and makes up the second half because he can’t see the words for his tears, and he ends up thanking his mother for teaching him how to cook from a young, tender age (he doesn’t say it’s for her being absent) and his father for giving him his first camera (to keep him occupied to make up for his absence) and that’s probably why every old lady in the room crowds him later during free dance so they can heap recipes on him while he gets incrementally more tipsy from flute after flute of champagne.

Akihito knows his limits, so despite Kirishima’s grim looks and his mutterings of “that’s hardly tradition,” he schedules the dancing before dinner because there’s no way he can dance after that many toasts. Picking a song was easy, and they’d settled on that some time back in July, but Akihito fought tooth and nail with Kirishima over the arrangement: Kirishima’s liked a big band piece with a fast piano intro and a cacophony of horns, an abrupt, dramatic pause before the music morphs astonishingly into a moderate Foxtrot under bright lights, but Akihito thinks the rest of the wedding is spectacle enough. Asami’s favour is evenly split between the two of them when it comes to The Wedding, but Akihito thinks he actually has the more tasteful idea this time, and though Asami will never admit it, he’s a romantic at heart.

“It doesn’t exactly go with the rest of the theme,” Asami had told him over a break during rehearsal, cutting the final decision close enough to send Kirishima into a sulk.

Akihito snorted at him then, “Which is, what — loud, obnoxious, and as big as possible?”

“You mean extravagant,” Asami had said, but a smile’s hidden like a secret by his mouth. “But this is the one choice you want to make? We’ll end up with fireworks for the last dance, Kirishima will want to make up for it.”

“We’ll end up with fireworks anyway.” Akihito made a moue at him then, but he felt shy and maybe blushed a little bit when he closed in, saying, “I’m sure. It’ll remind me of … you know.”

“And what do I know, now?” Asami had asked, his smile gone school-boy mischievous, and Akihito knew he was in for it.

Asami spent that afternoon pretending he didn’t know and teased Akihito mercilessly, but they only rehearsed to the acoustic version that whole evening — a slow and quiet rendition that barely covers their footfalls.

It’s only mid-afternoon at most when it’s time, so the staff has to go around pulling closed blackout curtains before they stage the actual blackout — fifteen seconds of silence and darkness and Asami’s footsteps echoing amidst a murmuring crowd. Akihito waits at a corner for a single spotlight of a cue, bathing Asami in a circle of harsh light, so sudden and blinding white the edges fade to blue like the brightest moon. His hands are in his pockets, casual as you please, but when the lights come on he’s already looking in Akihito’s direction. As a departure from rehearsal, he doesn’t extend a hand like a gentleman should — he crooks a finger, flashes a crooked smile: come here.

Akihito rolls his eyes where no one can see him; you can marry a man twice and he’ll still stay a cocky bastard. And this time, he runs: choreographed by Hasegawa sensei to perfection so Asami could scoop him up around the waist and spin him once before the violin plays the first note.

They’ve done this a hundred times in sensei’s studio, refining the routine until they’re perfectly in sync; there shouldn’t be any surprises here, not a hint of spontaneity, but when Akihito feels the press of a ring beneath his palm as he slips his fingers into Asami’s hand, the metal warmed through, he colours. Asami rubs a thumb over the back of Akihito’s fingers — so smug, getting more insufferable everyday — and he finds himself reeling in the shadow of Asami’s smile as an acoustic guitar joins their lone violin, and they spin into the first turns, cutting across the floor in geometric curves.

Akihito can do this on muscle memory alone so he’s free to put all his attention into memorising every second of it: the warm press of Asami’s cheek on his temple as they step through the promenade, breaking form for the sake of being closer, the heat and roughness of his fingers, the way Asami’s laughter vibrates softly through him as they execute a perfectly elegant hover-cross.

So far the wedding’s gone off without a single deviation, not a ribbon out of place, and Akihito will blame that for squeezing Asami’s hand at their cue two and and a half minutes in at the tempo change. Instead of spinning out from the cuddle into an open stance, he slows and leans into Asami at his back — stopping entirely. It takes him back to another time and another place, and this time, when he thinks, I don’t want to move from here, he doesn’t.

If there is a language in dance that takes time to learn, that takes precise study to glean each character and interpret one syllable at a time, then Akihito turning his shoulder into Asami so he can grab his tie and drag him down must be a marquee, bright with a thousand light bulbs.

It's as loud as the horns that come blaring in at the cue, and whatever he means to say, he thinks, must be lost to it. Whatever people may read out of his moment of possessive want, he can only focus on Asami's eyes, held wondrously captive, Asami's lips, searingly warm on his own, and if he had insecurities, they must fade away like mist through the press of Asami's hand, splayed flat and wide on the small of his back.

Chapter Text

They luck into the sunny half of inclement Okinawan November afternoons, escaping rain by mere hours as the clouds part through First Dance. Overhead, it’s a fiery ultramarine, all the skylights uncovered, the crushed lapis lazuli brightness of it making Akihito’s head pound and lending a tinge of blue to their white tablecloths and white cake and white everything. He’s half listening to an old lady relate her family recipe for nimono and thinking about the hours it would take to white-balance all these shots, how the touch of blue feels as magically uncapturable an artifact as an endless horizon, when Haruka taps her on the shoulder.

Akihito doesn’t really mind — the woman’s recipe sounded like it had enough vinegar in to dissolve evidence.

“Mother’s privilege,” Haruka says, blithely ignoring the old women’s glare and sliding into her spot in a swish of blue tinted grey, all red lipstick and black cascading waves like a French stormcloud by the sea. “And I did promise you a secret.”

They glide right into the music at the next bar, but Akihito takes her through a turn right away, looking around for Suoh Takumi and finds him standing ramrod straight within a five metre radius, hands resting on his lapels. He probably can’t help the way he glares at anyone standing close enough to Haruka to be a threat, but it still makes Akihito want to end this conversation as quickly as possible.

“You’re not going to wait until after the cake cutting?” Akihito asks.

“My son doesn’t like you spending time with me, for whatever reason,” Haruka pouts, bats her eyelashes at him. “He’s rather protective.”

After the First Dance, Akihito’s been aware of Asami the way a lodestone is aware of the north, his body always tilted to keep him within range of his peripheral vision. Asami’s all the way on the other side of the dance floor with Akihito’s own mother, making her laugh at something — probably talking about Akihito — pretending the temperature doesn’t drop ten degrees every time they meet.

If she’s anything like him she’d like Asami just fine after two drinks. Any attempts on Akihito’s part to steer her towards the champagne tower is accidental.

“Maybe he caught wind of how you got me into that skirt,” Akihito says. How obviously afraid Asami is of his mother both sweet and terrifying; she’s quite possibly the only person he defers to, and Akihito can’t believe he ever thought her harmless, eating out of her hand, choosing to go into enclosed spaces with her voluntarily. “Or maybe he’s right to feel protective. You did kidnap me, after all.”

“It’s a train, darling,” she says with infinite patience, switching gears on a turn, “speaking of,” Haruka divulges, her mouth quirking and her smile uncannily hooked. “My son was planning on kidnapping you for a proposal —”

“No way,” Akihito says, betraying how hopelessly smitten he is with an unbidden grin to go with his wide eyes.

He’s been dreaming up corny possibilities since he heard about alternative plans from Asami months ago: thirteen dozen roses sent to the paper to crowd his second floor temp desk, a blimp with a giant banner, skywriting, anything to match the usual cheesy mess that comes out of his mouth. It’s not as though Asami’s ever had to woo anyone, so it would make sense that his frame of reference for what passes for romance to come from Haruka’s library. Akihito hasn’t counted on illegal, but how could he have counted on less? A giggle escapes him, effervescent like champagne bubbles. Haruka looks taken aback, and it’s unpracticed and new on her, like she’s unused to being surprised.

“— and that is not what I was expecting.” Haruka’s smile is quizzical, curious. “I’m beginning to think he could do no wrong in your eyes.”

“That’s not true,” Akihito refutes, averting his gaze with a pout. “I call him out all the time.”

“You still married him, though.” Her eyes are warm on him finally, that constant impish glint gone out of them. When her guard isn’t up her eyes are naturally downcast, and he thinks sad eyes, the truth of her uncomfortably honest. “I married my Asami before I knew the worst of him. There were rumours, of course, and there was my parents’ disapproval, but I had no idea.” She tips her chin to one side, and the optical illusion of sadness dissipates. “Do you think you walked into this with both eyes open?”

Across the room, Akihito’s mother leaves to mingle and Asami’s mask drops — it’s subtle, half covered up with a champagne glass, but she’s barely turned away before all traces of friendliness disappears from him like a curl of smoke. The first thought that comes to Akihito is he must be tired, and despite the hours of reception they’re obligated to attend, he wants to pull Asami to their changeroom, a shared space for costume changes they’re not having, into one of those oversized easy chairs, tuck a soft throw over his shoulders. He knows Asami’s a first rate actor, but he’s never tried to pull the wool over Akihito’s eyes; he was awful from the get-go and it didn’t make a dent of a difference in the long run.

“I don’t know,” Akihito admits, looking past her at Asami’s profile.

“You don’t know if you’ve seen him at his worst?”

Akihito takes a breath. This feels a lot like confessing an enormous, sparkling diamond of a secret, like pushing away dirt to show the veins of mineral in the rock — a facet, from which she could surmise the whole dimensions Asami takes up in his chest. He tears his eyes away from Asami to tell her, “I don’t think it matters.”

They take another turn around the dance floor before Haruka hmms at him and concludes, tapping him on the back with a hand that still bears a ring. “I guess not.”

“And it’s not like we started off with rainbows and unicorns,” Akihito adds, laughing nervously.

“I deduced that from his utterly harebrained idea,” Haruka says, a hint of mischief coming back but Akihito has a feeling it’s not for him. “And if he kidnapped you, took you to the roof of that Shinjuku building where you met, and proposed to you with no music and no dancing or romance whatsoever as you roll freshly out of a body bag like an angry, spitting cat, you still would have said yes.”

If Asami had reached across their breakfast nook and asked him if Akihito wouldn’t mind making miso soup for him for the rest of their lives, he would have said yes, and Akihito knows this with a certainty that borders on deterministic, knows the breadth of his feelings like knowing the sun hides behind heavy overcast skies. Their initial meeting was a rush and a half so he doesn’t really remember it, it’s fuzzy, indistinctly adrenaline fueled, but he has a flashbulb photo memory of Asami snapped and saved climbing down a sign on the side of that building, the glow of neon limning Asami’s hand against the night sky, his gaze interested and slightly defeated.

Akihito didn’t know this then, but it didn’t take him long to learn that it’s the look Asami has when he gets an idea into his head that he just won’t let go.

“Really? The building where we met?” Akihito says, grinning like an idiot, turning his face to blunt the sudden heat in his cheeks. “I was expecting … less sentimentality. I mean,” it’s insane that he’s even considering it romantic, and he knows explaining it is probably just making it worse, “I got away.” At her speculative look through the long fringe of her eyelashes, heavily implying Did you really? he adds, "Well, I got away that day, at least."

Haruka seems to agree somewhat, hmms at him again. They’re nearing the end of a song, woodwinds pulling into a long note and rhythm slowing to the last tap of a hi-hat. She drags herself closer, on tip-toes so she can whisper to him a secret, “Well, he didn’t.”

Despite the cake looking like an accident waiting to happen, they cut it without incident and Akihito says goodbye to his veil and his skirt after all the pictures are taken, pushing them into Haruka’s hands in a bundle like an unwanted child.

She takes the pin and clips it right back onto his lapel.

“It’s the symbol of my husband’s family.” Something has changed in her demeanor like a thawing plum branch, colours fading in genuine and sweet, and she kisses him on the cheek as she says, “It’s yours now, too.”

It’s not a posh wedding unless there’s an open bar, so it’s a bombed wedding, what with all of Akihito’s friends in their twenties and half the entertainment industry that Asami’s invited about the same. In the ensuring alcohol and sugar fueled aftermath of dinner, Akihito ends up all over the hall trying to keep his friends upright for the rest of free dance. He dances with Kou (clumsy), Takato (surprisingly clumsy), and delights his mom (as agile as a bird) by being a better dancer than his dad (letting Akihito back lead, the whole time) who sulks bitterly by the bar afterwards to drown his contradictory and unwarranted jealousy in awamori.

Akihito’s fear of offending their many and varying tiers of prestigious guests keeps his anxiety well fanned until the band goes on break, and a relatively young Diet member — outspoken Councillor Sasaki, of Osaka — with an eleven petal chrysanthemum pin sits down at the grand piano to start playing 90’s pop, elevator music edition, belting out something that sounds suspiciously like — no, it definitely is — an anime opening from Akihito’s best forgotten youth into a muted mic. Asami’s choosing to be utterly useless at keeping the crazy to a minimum and Akihito spots him trying to blend behind the remnants of the cake, a stack of crystal sugar pillars piled high, hiding his face behind a fist and his shoulder shaking from laughter. Three words into the first chorus, Kirishima’s idea of damage control is to turn on the microphone.

Looking at the guest list (he doesn’t know why he did it, maybe he’s just that kind of masochist) before the wedding, Akihito had spent minutes staring into the mirror in his tux trying to determine if he looked adult enough to stand in the same room with Asami, let alone these people. And now these same people — his own father included — are on a quest to convince him that adulthood isn’t actually a place you fall into once you reach a certain age, and we are all in our own way pretending. That we’re all just one drink away from risking life and limb, to sit down at an empty piano to start playing Hohoemi no Bakudan at Asami Ryuichi’s wedding.

His father’s plunking himself down next to Councillor Sasaki trying to tone correct him by singing along to delay his foray into an entirely different key, but Akihito doubts it’ll matter since Kirishima’s second attempt at damage control is to send out the servers to make a second champagne tower. Pretty soon no one’s going to notice such trivialities as discordant piano arrangements of hit theme songs.

Akihito’s high strung panic is dissolving into resignation just as he hears Ai saying next to him, “Do you think he knows Moonlight Densetsu?”

“Ai, no,” Akihito tells her, boggling, excessively empathetic on the no, but with the promise of no recording devices on site aside from one single private wedding video that Asami will guard like a national treasure comes the implied no consequences, so she’s skipping off to the piano before he can finish saying her single syllable name.

There’s going to be a clip of Momohara Ai singing Moonlight Densetsu on my wedding video — on Asami’s wedding video, and Akihito’s still trying to wrap his mind around that when he’s pulled backwards by someone tall and lithe and acting overly familiar, smelling heavily of fruity awamori and as suicidal as ever.

“Bun, this is clearly the worst idea you’ve ever had,” Akihito laughs as Bun pulls him into an insult to Foxtrot over badly played anime music.

“We are all clearly having the worst idea and executing it, so why the hell not,” Bun says while dipping him so low they nearly tumble. “You only live once.”

Akihito takes one look around and well, he can’t fault that logic.

Out by the stage, Momohara Ai has purloined the microphone from Councillor Sasaki of the LDP, and the big band’s piano player has finally come to defend the sanctity of the grand piano only to be pressed into the service of playing Moonlight Densetsu. There are supposed adults with professional pins worn like chest candy on their lapels dancing badly, and it’s beautiful, glorious chaos; Hasegawa sensei’s doing the cha-cha with Haruka, the two of them giggling all over each other while a terrifyingly sober Suoh Takumi looks on with what passes for a smile for a Suoh.

Not a shred of the high-brow, nose-in-the-air tightness from the wedding itself is left in the hall, and Akihito lets Bun pull him into haphazard spins, laughing so hard the pressure in his temples feels like a hangover.

“Come here often?” he asks Bun, because drunken stupidity is catching. “If you do, please tell me that my wedding is not especially disastrous.”

“All weddings devolve into a drinking party by the dessert course — don’t worry about it,” Bun says, pleasantly unconcerned, dipping Akihito inexpertly and then sweeping him up with, if not skill, then abundant dramatic flair. When they’re upright again, Bun’s looking at him in the way that drunk people do, haltingly serious. “I understand why you turned me down now though. Your husband is —”

“Ugh,” Akihito chokes, going red all over; he’s never going to get used to Asami being referred to as that.

“— madly in love with you,” Bun concludes with a nod of his head, so close his eyes cross. He says, “You look happy,” as if he can see Akihito at five centimetres.

The first half of that, he’s not even sure how to deal with, but Akihito feels the answer spill out of him for the latter half. “I am.”

“You got any terrible ideas?” Bun asks, he’s always been a seize the day kind of guy. “It’s your party. Everyone else seems to be overdoing it.”

Along the west side of the hall, across from the stage and the travesty of a wedding reception caught on indelible digital tape, a tropical sunset’s painting an impasto of fire across the horizon in streaks of saturated citrus. It’s as bright and thick as crushed mineral and oils refracting through stacks of clear sugar pillars, drawing lines of golden yellow and deep orange on canvases of white linen tablecloths, so vibrant Akihito can taste the sourness of the colours on his tongue. He spots a fragmented silhouette in the midst of that, fractured into hundreds, thousands of distinct puzzle pieces, edges jagged as broken mirrors, and if he follows the beautiful confusion of scattered light, he could put them all back together. Akihito does what he’s always done — he tracks the bits and pieces of darkness to piece whole the knife sharp lines of a familiar shadow.

“Why don’t you go belt out a song with Momohara Ai?” Akihito squeezes Bun’s hand, backleading himself into an off-rhythm spin before letting go. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Akihito had collected Asami from his perch next to a line of French windows — kidnapped him, for once, stealing him right out from beneath Kirishima’s watchful glasses — without something as grandiose as a plan, leaving the doors to the terrace wide open and their embossed napkins to soft November subtropical winds, flooding the hall with the crushed salt of Okinawan autumn. It’s a five minute walk down the white stone walkway that fades into white sand, and in the excitement of sneaking out the walk is shorter, feels like seconds, so they’re on the shore staring out at a wide expanse of the Sea of Japan before either of them notices that the path is gone.

The view is nothing like the contained ocean they’re used to in Tokyo, circumferenced by ferries and freighters and bridges like another city living on the water, banked in by skyscrapers and closed off overhead by claustrophobic light pollution. Naha glows dimly to the south, the blue of a distant star, and Akihito thinks this probably qualifies as his terrible idea, his answer to Bun’s ‘you only live once,’ to wander near a large body of water on the cusp of night, ensuring a stumbling walk in the dark later. But they’ve made it to the brokenly rhythmic lapping of the water’s edge, getting sand in all the patently perfect grooves of their white leather shoes and Akihito can’t think of it as being anything but wonderful watching Asami’s tux take on the colours of a bruised sky, his hairstyle loose from a long day, messy and run through with sea breeze.

“I thought you may need a smoke,” Akihito says, making up excuses for dragging them out here.

Asami looks surprised and maybe a bit caught, glancing away. In the blush of a sunset, his smile looks shy. “I didn’t bring them.”

At any other time, Akihito would have teased that Asami didn’t want to ruin the line of his tux with a cigarette packet, wonder aloud if he would forego addiction for vanity. He has his suspicions, he’s been collecting evidence in vacant ashtrays for months. “Are you okay?”

“I’m wearing a patch,” Asami shrugs, sliding his hands casually into his pockets.

“At least three people told me they were quitting just now,” Akihito says.

“Weddings do that to people.” Asami settles a hand on the small of Akihito’s back, rubbing his thumb over the fabric, and Akihito can feels the join of his shoulder beneath the well tailored lines just behind him, protective. “I didn’t want to run out to have a smoke today.”

It’s a serviceable excuse, and he’s heard this from smokers before: how smoking is about constantly missing moments, removing oneself from the immediacy of intimacies to cater to the immediacy of an addiction. He hasn’t asked because he figures Asami has his own reasons for doing what he does, or to stop doing what he does, and Akihito’s no stranger himself to hiding things, but. “You know, you may even be able to get away with that lie if you were still gone all the time. But when you’re home all the hours you’re not working, it’s kind of obvious.”

“I’m down to one a day,” Asami admits.

They’re polar opposites, even if he doesn’t think of them as diametrically opposed anymore; Akihito knows that as a nebulous fact, but it’s stuff like this that casts a spotlight on their differences. Akihito’s tried to smoke once and only once, because a cigarette is a vital prop for any self-respecting yankii. That single cigarette had sent him into a coughing fit and the nicotine had felt like chugging ten coffees, and it’d depressed him for ages until becoming an adult made him realise he’d dodged a bullet. If he’d had to quit, Akihito would have declared his intention and hung a resolution banner in his apartment, using that as strength, as accountability, but Asami would rather one day mention it over breakfast after he’s burned his last packet.

Asami doesn’t like all that many people, saves all his grand gestures for the few he cares about, and Akihito feels at the centre of it; he closes his eyes and turns his face into Asami’s shoulder to breathe in sea and champagne and cake, clean linen and the floral note of being surrounded by bouquets all day, thinking of how lucky he is to be here, have all that intoxicating, focused attention to himself, to feel greedy and indulged.

“So,” Akihito says, reaching up to play with Asami’s tie. “You just decided to quit one day?” And he watches Asami watch the sunset for half a minute in silence, the glorious deep richness of an egg yolk going under, like he’s trying to decide on the right words, which pisses Akihito off to no end. “Tell me.”

“I put on a patch to meet your parents back in May,” Asami says, kissing Akihito’s hairline probably to avoid meeting his eyes. “And I was once again reminded of how awfully young you were.”

Twenty-four is near a quarter of a century and hardly qualifies as awfully young, especially coming from a man who’s crushingly young for the life he leads, and Akihito wants to remind Asami that this entire year has been an unrelenting and continuous mid-twenties crisis, all his youthful hopes slipping away like the ocean at low-tide, leaving him parched and gasping. He’s about to complain about the uncalled for number of times Kirishima’s called him a brat today, but then Asami’s mumbling into Akihito’s hair, his hand just a fraction tighter, pulling him just a fraction closer, and he’s so wide with confessions and promises Akihito feels himself go weak — his feet rooted to the sand, clinging to Asami like wisteria to an oak tree.

"My parents were married only five years before my father fell ill. He spent the last year of his life hooked up to a machine that helped him breathe, and now my mother has had more than ten years on her own. She’ll live at least another forty. I promised you a lifetime," Asami says, pressing their sides together in a line so Akihito can feel the bulk of him, dependable and solid enough to lean on, grow old with.

“Me — me too,” Akihito says, having no idea at all how to answer the weight of those sentiments, struck dumb. “I’m —”

“I’ll always come home to you,” Asami says, reaching up to pinch Akihito lightly on the nose. “You too.”

Nowadays the sum total of risk in Akihito’s job is getting trampled in a crowded convention centre during the next inevitable Tokyo earthquake, maybe a model will one day go from prissy to homicidal and attempt strangulation with a pair of jeans, but Akihito’s hardly in the wall-climbing and prostitution ring busting phase of his career — he’s barely in the busting politicians for misusing public funds phase of his career. Asami probably hasn’t meant to remind him that being nearly a quarter of a century old also means, quite possibly, three whole quarters of a century left, too early to start feeling lost; he’s been lost for months though, at sea for a year — maybe longer, and he turns his face into Asami’s lapel, slotting himself into the space beneath Asami’s chin, where he instinctively searches for solace, now.

It takes him too long to remember Asami expects an answer, and he feels Asami’s hand on his cheek, featherlight with an aching tenderness. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m in no danger of hurting myself in my current line of work, don’t worry,” Akihito says, the spiteful resentment he’s buried deep sneaking into his words like a thief.

Asami seems to be holding back a laugh. “Do you enjoy being in danger?”

“Not exactly, no …” Akihito says, trailing off as he realises what an outright lie that is. He can’t really deny he loves the rush, but the vertigo of real and measurable danger, the sudden panic he gets in the face of guns and feeling his stomach drop out — that, he could do without. “I just … haven’t been able to figure out what I want to do with my life. Since we —” he shakes away his reluctance to bring them back to that time they had to part, “—I mean since ... since last Christmas.”

Now Asami really is laughing in the face of Akihito’s existential crisis, a soft staccato alighting in his chest that vibrates through them both, it’s contagious, makes Akihito look up — only to find Asami’s gaze on him, warm with easy confidence and thoroughly amused.

“When I was your — when I was twenty four,” Asami says, coughing into his fist, flattening out the near slip of the tongue. “I was doing my Master’s. I was literally still in school.”

“Say ‘when I was your age,’” Akihito pleads with wide eyes.

“No.” Asami shakes his head at him with only the barest hint of exasperation. “Look — I’m in my line of work because I inherited most of it. I don’t have life figured out,” he’s saying with an anchoring smile, as steadying as his hand at Akihito’s back. “Success is not at all the same as realising one’s dreams, or doing what one loves. A lot of the people you saw in there,” he gestures vaguely in the direction of the hotel, a beacon in the gathering darkness, “don’t have it figured out. Their lives were on train tracks. They became politicians or lawyers because that’s what their fathers were, and they keep doing it to maintain the lives they have — most people there will work to their last breath looking successful without figuring out what it is they love.”

“What did you love?” Akihito finds himself too curious to hold back, and he thinks he’s allowed now, privy to all of Asami’s secrets. “I mean, what were your dreams like?”

“Staggeringly unambitious,” Asami confides, savagely judgemental of his younger self. “I wanted my own bar.”

“You have your own bar. I’ve lost track of how many bars you own,” Akihito points out.

He does roll his eyes a little this time. Asami stage whispers, “I wanted to be a bartender.”

Akihito takes a moment to dream up a young Asami in the uniform, with the apron and bowtie and the waistcoat, and colours. “Um, do you still —”

“No, I don’t really know what I want to be anymore. I am the linchpin in a giant machine that’s run for centuries, and far too many people rely on me for their livelihoods for me to quit. Then along the way I met you,” Asami says, his voice taking a lift like his words are tied with balloons, the limned edges of him glimmering in the last rays of the sun. “And you ... you can do whatever you want. Take as long as you need to figure things out.”

“Is that okay?” He asks, small over the soft crash of waves.

Save for a few wisps of searing purple hanging on the offing, there’s hardly daylight left, and Akihito tries to make out Asami’s face by the gleam on the water, the burnished gold edges of him are beautiful coloured with the last of twilight.

“Of course. You have me,” Asami says, a glint of gold warm on Akihito’s face, and Akihito feels a lump catch in his throat at how easily he says it. “Rely on me.”

Akihito remembers standing on a beach just like this, staring into a distant horizon, trying to bracket the eternal line of it in a four by six frame. A nine hour flight and a lifetime from here, he’d stared into Asami’s inscrutable edges and thought he could never hope to have him — hope to keep him. He’d wanted him then with the curiosity of a satellite caught in a gravity well, with a possessive heat banked low, flaming bright at the merest provocation, with an utter lack of regard for self-preservation that in hindsight could only be love.

It fills him up like the ocean rushing in, dragged along by the moon. Akihito feels a sting in his eyes, burning up as he chokes out, “Okay. You have to too.”

The last of the sunset is supposedly the most spectacular but they’re missing all of it; Akihito’s half closing his eyes to Asami taking his face in his large, warm hands, kissing the corners of his brows, draws a line down to his mouth. The vows at the altar took a full twenty minutes, but it’s a blur compared to what Asami’s telling him now, kissing an answer into him as the moon calls out to the sea, the tides coming in leisurely, lapping softly at their feet.

Even in Okinawa it’s not scorching hot midday in November, so the earth gives off scant little heat at night. Akihito feels only a slight wind shift as the sun sinks and the skies darken overhead. The salt breeze exchanges itself for autumnal flowers, rich and sweet with cloying lemonade of tree blossoms. The wind also brings with it the endnotes of a song.

“Looks like Kirishima is done looking for us,” Asami says. “That’s our cue.”

The milky way’s a suggestion of a river overhead, its rift a crack along the firmament, and Akihito can hear the beginning clarinet trills of Moonlight Serenade they chose for a last song faintly above the sound of water, drifting between patches of darkness in their moonless night.

“We’re going to miss the last dance at our own wedding,” he tells Asami, and he should feel sorry about consistently marring the perfection Kirishima’s worked so hard to architect but he can’t help feeling glad to be free of it, that he could spend the last hours of today with just the two of them.

His eyes hasn’t adjusted to the dark yet, so Akihito doesn’t see what Asami is doing; first he feels a hand on his left shoulder blade, a palm clutching at his right hand — and his own fingers curling naturally around the warmth as he steps into the stance night blind. Asami has a note of roguish mischief in his voice as he says, “Who says we’re missing it?”

There's a thrum in Akihito’s veins like strings humming to a tuning fork, pulled just tight enough to vibrate at Asami’s exact frequency. The song is dazzling, it sets all his nerves tingling, and Akihito finds himself smiling wide, and he thinks this, impossibly, is what he’s wanted all along: he may have passing fantasies of attracting jealous looks as he hangs off Asami’s arm everywhere they go, but it’s never been their attention he wanted. There is nothing for which he has a craving for more than this, Asami close and coal black and sharp with starlight in the dark, his gaze his hands his mouth a jealous, possessing heat, as glad to be the only person watching Akihito as Akihito feels to have only this single pair of eyes on him.

“It’s too dark for us to find our way back,” Akihito says, sounding entirely unconcerned. “Kirishima will think we’ve run away.”

Asami hums at him, muttering, “Not a half bad idea.”

They kick up sand working through feathering steps, and Asami’s spinning him back in as the first firework lights up the sky. It obscures the music, suddenly blinding overhead and illuminating the water, the explosions making them lose the beat, but beneath the faint consecutive booms he can hear Asami humming slightly off-key, keeping time; in the flashes of blooming, electric blue flowers, Asami’s eyes are half-lidded, his mouth curling into a smile that matches the small creases by his eyes. The waterline creeps inward with Asami walking him back into shore in a slow promenade, the waves erasing their footprints. Akihito’s reminded of something his mother said to him once, before she left on her first business trip that turned into two, three, the indefinite time blocks of them stacking into months: life is about building castles in the sand, and I can’t let your father do it alone.

“You’ll take me with you?” Akihito says, so quietly he’s surprised Asami can hear him, but he feels Asami’s mouth curling into a sickle by his brow.

“Did you know,” Asami says offhandedly, “I ate melon bread for breakfast when we were apart. Instant coffee. Packaged ramen for lunch.”

These are all things Akihito keeps in the pantry. And these are all things half demolished the last time Asami went off on a business trip, needing comfort and finding it in his favourites in Asami’s absence. Akihito laughs at him, “The indignity.”

“Didn’t Sumie tell you about my father? Leave an Asami alone and we’ll drink ourselves to death by fifty,” he tells Akihito over the last notes as they spin to a stop, slanting down a embarrassingly fond look as his hand behind Akihito’s back slips down to his waist, letting their hands unclasp from their Foxtrot stance so he could stroke the back of his fingers over Akihito’s cheek. There’s only the sound of the waves to accompany his words, a sardonic smile to cut this overwhelming sweetness. “I’m never leaving you again. Who’d take care of me?”

Akihito feels his eyes burn; it’s such a silly thing to cry over after all the promises they’ve given each other today, but it’s strange how those are the lines that break the dam. Asami won’t be wearing it again anyway, so Akihito doesn’t really feel bad about balling his fists into the back of Asami’s bespoke tux, stretching out the weave and telling him off because it’s fucking true, “You’re awful. I have no idea why I love you.”

He’s not quite aware of what he’s said until Asami’s running both hands up his spine, clutching back just as tight, and half speaks into Akihito’s mouth, “That’s okay. Because I do,” with logical inevitability, leaving Akihito no room to have a meltdown. “You are absolutely adorable blushing like this,” Asami says, between kisses, between maddeningly slow nips at Akihito’s lower lip, “every time I think I know you inside and out you surprise me with something new, and —”

“But none of those things are about you,” Akihito interrupts, leaning back and away, too baffled to be embarrassed now even as Asami leans in on him, grinning, chasing his lips like it’s a game. “They’re about —” me, and his brain catches on before his mouth does and the flood of endorphins feels like an assault to his knees. If Asami wasn’t already holding him up he may end up on the sand, and he says, shocked to silence, breathily, letting Asami pull him back in, “— oh.”

“And the way you just said oh is pure poetry,” Asami teases. The smile he wears around Akihito is never one he selects out of a catalogue; it’s the smile of a man who can’t stop smiling. “I could go on.”

In between kissing Akihito breathless, he does; Asami names his favourite dishes, his least favourite horror movies, all the cute, sweet things Akihito says in his sleep. He marvels, with an awe that Akihito knows better now than to doubt, how Akihito fits into his life like a puzzle piece so long lost he’s only just now learning what it’s like to be with than to go without.

As the soft embers of fireworks float down to the water and the sting of sulfur and gunpowder hits his eyes, he closes them and lets Asami lead him, entirely blind and trusting, into a dance that has no form, just humming and swaying to an old melody in haphazard circles.

Akihito used to think himself greedy, used to think the shape of his yearning too wide, and he’s let it eat at him like a planetary shadow, trimming the moon to a crescent. But now he thinks Asami likes it, that he likes the messy, tangled heart of him; Asami tells him he’s interesting in a tone that says delightful, indulges his moods with slow kisses to his knuckles, and all his answers to Akihito’s greed is in their secret language, telegraphing want me even more. Love only me.

It's as impossible as the moon meeting the sea, clasping together in the offing for a dance, but Akihito knows with an ineffable clarity that all he wanted of Asami has always been his: for the moon is constant, its waxing and waning an illusion, and Akihito could only answer the same way; he would follow, as the ocean follows the moon — as certain and ceaseless as the tides.