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The Good Kind of Love

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1

not really into beer

        I met him for the first time because my best friend’s older brother was dating his best friend, a suave, leather-clad college dropout named Kuramochi.

        It was my first time meeting all of them, actually—the people who were to be my family. The people who were to take in scrawny, lost, obsessive and wildly impulsive me. They would try to teach me how to make good decisions, but I’m not sure the lessons ever really stuck.

        Haruichi’s brother had been dating Kuramochi for a while now (practically a year), but Haruichi still hadn’t met him, so Ryousuke, loving older brother that he was, begged him to come to a small get-together at his apartment in the city. Not really in celebration of anything, but Ryousuke, based on what I’d heard from sparkly-voiced Haruichi, was the type of guy to enjoy casual evenings of wit and slow drinking with his closest friends. He wanted Haruichi to meet them. But Haruichi was made of nothing but stars and nerves, so he begged me to come with him to the party. And I couldn’t say no to a party. I agreed, so on a Friday night in early November, we bundled up and trekked from our dorms out into the vibrant, wintery city. I liked the way it looked at night, and I bet it looked beautiful from the sky. Just a bundle of lights, scrunched together and making us invisible.

        He certainly would have preferred staying in. Haruichi was a special brand of shy, fully aware of it and even exaggerating it, but he so easily let himself out of his shell if led by the right person—who just so happened to be me at this particular time of his life. Not talkative, but always smiling, hiding his eyes behind a curtain because, I don’t know, a fear a vulnerability? He’d never been able to answer me very clearly on that. We walked along the sidewalk so closely that our shoulders brushed, and I could hear his teeth chattering. He didn’t like to take up space, even though he was short and skinny and so small. He was nervous. I wasn’t sure when he’d last seen his brother (he’d been out of a college for a little over a year) or what he knew about Ryousuke’s friends.

        “Your brother just wants to keep you updated on his life,” I said while we walked. “That’s good, right?”

        “Well, yeah,” he replied, almost begrudgingly. “All of his friends at once, though?”

        “That’s like a thousand birds with one stone.”

        “There’s one way to look at it.”

        “I, for one, am psyched to finally meet your brother.”

        “And you’ll take any excuse to drink.”

        We just hadn’t been to any parties in a while, and I did like the feeling of euphoria, of finally having nothing to stress about or yell about or think incessantly about, that drunkenness gave me. The one time I could find a way to not give a fuck was to drink. But Haruichi was even harder to motivate in the cold, so winter had been isolating. Every few minutes he would check his phone to make sure we were still going the right way. And when we got to the apartment building, he pressed a button, waited, until we were buzzed in and began our ascent to the third floor—it was an aggressively nice building, with polished stairs and a carpeted entryway. By the time Ryousuke opened the door, we had taken off our gloves and were trying to kick the last bits of brown, wet snow from our shoes.

        Ryousuke and Haruichi looked frighteningly similar, which I suppose I should have guessed. His hair was cropped shorter and gelled back, but with the same texture, and though their smiles looked like exact replicas, Ryousuke’s felt wildly different. Not as gentle. More knowing and content than anything.

        “Haruichi! You made it,” he said, pulling Haruichi into a hug. Then, he turned to me. “And you must be Sawamura. I’ve heard wonderful things.”

        “No shit?” I shook his outstretched hand. He spoke so formally and articulately, didn’t he? And his hand was ice-cold. I tried to listen for similarities in their voices and mannerisms.

        “Please, come in.”

        It wasn’t a big party or anything. A small get-together, like he’d promised. The apartment itself was pretty minimalist, with décor mainly in the form of plants in solid, colorful pots, with a large flat screen and nice leather seating. Ryousuke must have been kick-ass at finding bargains. There were a few guys sitting on the couch, drinks in hand while some random sports game droned on silently—there was music blasting from a speaker. (I guessed from the washed out, predictable melody that it was the most recent Chainsmokers release.) But the vibes were relaxed and we could finally get warm. I squeezed Haruichi’s thin arm, half in encouragement, half in excitement.

        “Ryou! This the little brother you’ve been telling me so much about?”

        While Ryousuke took our coats, a guy, older than us and evidently much cooler, slid over. He was wearing a sleeveless white t-shirt and ripped jeans, hair dyed dark green, and he was covered in piercings and an infectious smile. A cigarette hung from the side of his mouth. He looked like a movie star, the kind from the 50s who always died stupid young; I was blushing. He extended a hand to Haruichi, who awkwardly took it.

        “Haruichi, this is my boyfriend, Youichi Kuramochi,” Ryousuke said. “Haruichi, my brother. And his friend, Sawamura.”

        “Nice to meet you! I know smoking’s bad for you, but you make it look really cool.”

        “That’s what I always say! I like you.” He shook my hand.

        Smile unwavering, steady and still as a lake, Ryousuke wrapped his arm around Kuramochi’s waist.

        “What did I tell you about smoking in here, babe?” he said.

        He must have been talking to Kuramochi, but he was looking right at me. Paralyzing, somehow. Kuramochi’s smile got even bigger, and he let out this laugh—loud, exuberant, so distinctive. A mosaic of sound. I lost myself, in that laugh, in the look in his eyes when they fell on his lover. I had no idea what love was, but I wanted to believe that it was this simple. Just looking at somebody the way Kuramochi looked at Ryousuke, even while he was scolding him. Ryousuke reached up and smoothly whisked the cigarette from Kuramochi’s lips. He took a single drag of it himself, and then unwrapped himself and went to dispose of the cigarette.

        “Introduce them to everyone, please,” he called over his shoulder.

        “Your wish is my command,” he called back. Then he led us a few steps forward, over to the couch where the other guys were sitting. “Guys, this is Ryou’s little brother, Haruichi. And his friend…what was it?”

        “Sawamura. Or Eijun. Just call me whatever,” I babbled.

        “Okay, Haruichi and his friend, whatever,” Kuramochi teased. I blushed harder.

        “I’m Tetsu,” said the first guy. He was broad-shouldered and dark-haired, with eyes the color of sunlight. His thick eyebrows were slanted, furrowed as if he’d been born that way. Not nasty or angry, just very serious. “Nice to meet you.”

        “Jun,” said the next guy. Much more smiley, maybe a little bit drunk, I didn’t know his baseline well enough to actually know that. He had sandy hair and beady eyes, and a beard on his chin. The guy beside him on the couch was huge, taller and bigger, eyes narrowed and mouth in a perpetual pout.

        “That’s Masuko. Doesn’t talk much, but could probably throw you across a football field,” Kuramochi explained.

        “Shirasu. Nice to meet you.” The final guy I had barely noticed, but was sitting in an armchair by the television, calmly sipping from his solo cup. His eyes were deep and dark and glassy.

        “Where’s Miyuki? He was just fuckin’ here,” Kuramochi asked, suddenly exasperated, his eyes scanning the room.

        “I think he went to make another drink.”

        “Oh, right. Do you guys want drinks? Take your pick from the kitchen,” Kuramochi said. Haruichi was practically hiding behind me, though I could see a smile on his shaking lips.

        I looked Kuramochi in the eyes and flashed my biggest, most pristine grin. The one I gave professors when I wanted a good grade, or interviewers when I wanted a job, or a cute guy when I wanted his number. The one that charmed. Or so I’d heard. Kuramochi seemed taken aback by it, like he really hadn’t been expecting this short, young stranger to give him such an intense smile.

        “Thanks so much,” I said, louder than I’d meant to. Always way louder than I’d meant to. “We’re super happy to crash your party.”

        “Crash our party?” Kuramochi echoed.

        “Let’s play some drinking games or something! Harucchi, what do you want to drink? Beer? Vodka-soda? Hey, what if we take shots?”

        “Eijun, I’m not taking shots.”

        “All right, I’ll just get you a beer. Be right back!”

        Practically jittering by now, I hobbled over to the kitchen, and finally got the whiff of cigarette smoke I’d been expecting. There were some candles lit on the kitchen counter and in the living room that had masked it. I hadn’t felt this high of meeting new people—cool new people—in too long, and the little kid inside of me that yearned for constant social interaction, constant external stimulation, constant attention, was shimmering. I needed a drink on my tongue, which was a stupid thing to need, since I still hated the taste of alcohol so much that I gagged pretty much every time I drank. I guess I should say that I wanted to be drunk. That would’ve been more accurate. On the way to the kitchen I passed Ryousuke heading back to the living room. He squeezed my shoulder, a silent welcome-to-my-home. I bit my lower lip, smiling, and kept walking.

        The kitchen is where I met Kazuya Miyuki for the first time.

        He was rummaging through a cabinet, eyes the color of pennies narrowed behind thick-rimmed glasses. Jeans tight, hoodie loose, hair falling, jagged and messy and a thousand different colors, over the back of his neck and his ears. I couldn’t really see his face well—he was on his tiptoes. Comfortably invading this kitchen space. I realized this must have been the guy Kuramochi had been asking about. Miyuki. Making another drink. It was just him in the kitchen, with its little granite island, countertops, sink filled with dishes. I approached nervously. I hadn’t been expecting someone else here and, if I was being honest with myself, I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I didn’t know anything at all about alcohol and wasn’t sure why I’d offered myself to get drinks. A beer. I just needed a few beers. I hated beer, but it would do for now.

        “Hey, got any vanilla? I can’t find it anywhere.”

        Miyuki whirled around, and froze when he saw me standing there. But his look of surprise was fleeting and, in the next moment, had melted into an emotion I couldn’t quite explain. Amusement, almost. Like I was a brand new plot twist in his favorite story and he was eager to see where it went. That kind of twinkle in his eyes. A smile that was just barely a smile. Unbalanced. I’d never been so immediately attracted to anybody in my life.

        “Well, you’re not Ryousuke,” he said bluntly. I felt my face burn, and my eyes water from how long I was keeping them open—but I had nowhere else to look but him, and I didn’t dare blink.

        “No,” I finally managed.

        “No,” he repeated. He stepped forward—we were on opposite sides of the island. “So what’s your name then? I assume you have one.”

        “I mean—yeah, of course. Sawamura.”

        “Sawamura,” he said. I thrust my hands into my pockets and balled them up into fists while he tried my name out on his tongue like a new suit. Solid black, newly-tailored, perfectly form-fitting. “Like a swamp?”

        “Yeah, exactly!” I got on my toes and leaned my hands on the granite, lifting myself just a bit higher, so I could reach his height.

        “I’m—”

        “Miyuki,” I interrupted. “I heard them asking about you.”

        “Know what it means?”

        I racked my brain, but it shut down. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me since we’d started talking. I was jittery, clumsy, the kind of anxious that leaves you smiling like an idiot. Not that I would have known the answer anyway, but I was generally pretty good at bullshitting, and there was no chance of any of that. I just kept smiling and shook my head.

        “Honorable fortune,” he said.

        “Sweet.”

        “You don’t have to pretend to be interested,” he said. “How old are you, anyway?”

        “Eighteen. Nineteen in May. I’m a first-year at the college here.”

        “Shit. How do you know Ryousuke, then?”

        “I don’t. Not really. But Harucchi’s my best friend.”

        “Ah, I see.” He spread his arms out. “Then welcome, Sawamura. Did you want a drink?”

        “Uh, yeah, I was just gonna…” My voice trailed off as I fell back to the soles of my feet and balled my fists up again. I looked around the kitchen, desperate to find something to latch onto, and saw a pack of beer by the sink. “I was just gonna grab a beer.”

        “Oh, yeah?”

        “Yeah.”

        “Don’t let me stop you.”

        “…Right. Yeah. Thanks.”

        I started inching around the island toward the sink. Hands still firmly in my pockets. He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms—not even bothering to hide that he was watching. I puckered my lips up, a habit I’d developed when learning how to lie to my grandpa when I didn’t want to get into trouble. The beers were, of course, in bottles. I couldn’t have had it easy, not with a guy like Miyuki, tall and muscular and beautiful, watching my every move. I swiped a bottle from the pack and looked at it for a second. I didn’t have a bottle opener. I did a quick sweep of the area—no bottle openers lying around. Lips still puckered, I grabbed the top with my bare hand and tried to twist. Almost instantly, a sharp pain rushed through my skin, and I withdrew my hand, too sudden to be subtle. I glanced at Miyuki. Still watching. Still smiling. My stomach turned in on itself as I turned back to the demon bottle. I decided to try again, but with the end of my shirt sleeve covering my palm to avoid the pain. When the cap wouldn’t turn, I squatted a bit, and put the bottle between my thighs to steady it, and tried again. Trying so fucking hard that I was wincing, that my shoulder was starting to hurt. So hard that, after a few moments, Miyuki couldn’t stand it anymore. He burst into laughter and I stopped.

        “You didn’t have to laugh!” I cried.

        “Oh, come on, yeah I did,” he replied. Without moving, he beckoned for me to come closer. He took the beer in one hand, and whipped a bottle opener from his pocket with the other. Before I could even register how to actually do it, he’d opened the beer, and was holding it out to me.

        “Thanks,” I said.

        “Aw, don’t sound so defeated. Even failing miserably to open up a beer bottle, you’re cute.”

        “Cute and embarrassed.”

        Pouting, I stared at the beer in my hand, with the white swirls rising ominously up into the air. I really, really hated beer. And there he was, still fucking watching. I brought the bottle to my lips, tipped up slowly, slowly, until the liquid touched my lips. Then I sucked it down.

        The face I made must have been painfully obvious. Miyuki started laughing again, through his smile, a smooth laugh the way shattered glass is smooth on the flat sides.

        “You don’t even like beer, do you?” he smirked.

        “No,” I admitted. “I hate it, actually.”

        “Then don’t drink it!” He took the beer from me again, and placed it on the counter. “What do you like?”

        “I dunno. I haven’t really…had a lot of experience, I guess?”

        “Well, you are only eighteen.” He’d finally stopped laughing, and was now looking at me like a new project. While I wriggled. “Why don’t I make you a drink? I was gonna make myself one anyway.”

        “Really?”

        “Yeah. My drinks are actually good,” he said. And then, he winked, and I lost track of myself. My heartbeat. My breathing. The sensation of my body’s position in space, in time. I lost track of all of it. Just that wink and that smile and the disgusting taste of beer.

        “Yeah?”

        “And they’ll get you drunk, if that’s what you want.”

        “That is exactly what I want.”

        “Then take a seat, cutie, and watch a master work.”

        I took a seat on the island, reeling, and watched him work.

        But before I’d even had a sip of liquor, I was already drunk.

        From that moment on—

        Always drunk.

Chapter Text

2

learning to breathe

        “So?”

        “Holy shit, this is fucking delicious.”

        The drink he’d handed me was magic. I couldn’t taste the alcohol at all, even though I’d watched him pour in so much vodka. (He did end up finding the vanilla.) I had watched like a hawk, and still couldn’t tell you how he’d done it. Sitting on the counter, swinging my legs, I took another sip, ice cubes colliding with my lips, and worried that this was the end. Drinks like this were bound to fuck me up. But he knew that, and that’s why he’d made a drink like this, right? He smiled and went about making himself one of the same. I sipped. Watched his back. Hid bright red cheeks and a shaky smile behind the rim of the glass cup. Miyuki was pristine.

        “So,” he began, “you’re in school.”

        “Somehow.”

        “Not a big academic, then?”

        “I mean…” I had to think about it. “My grades in high school were just fine, I guess, but I don’t, like, read for fun.”

        “Because that’s definitely the most accurate measure of intelligence.”

        Drink complete, he turned, leaning back against the counter to face me. I laughed a bit—I had never been great at reading tones, but I assumed he was being sarcastic. He held my gaze, even as he drank, but I could only stand it for a few moments before I looked down at my sneakers.

        “Know what you wanna do?” he asked.

        “Like, after school?”

        “Yeah. What do you want to be when you grow up, kiddo?”

        “I don’t know.”

        “You don’t know?” he parroted. “No big dreams of being a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer…?”

        “…The next great novelist, or painter…”

        “…Some asshole up in the government…”

        “…A chef, maybe?”

        “Oh, you a good cook?”

        “Not even a little bit.”

        He laughed then, too. I hadn’t been expecting him to, and I hadn’t been expecting it to sound like that. Like I’d been dunked under ice cold rose water. I stared, maybe a bit wide-eyed, hardly even able to smile back. So I took another big gulp of my drink, and cringed as it slid down my throat. Then I started to wonder what his face looked like without glasses. But that was a weird thing to ask when you’ve just met someone…I think?

        “Seriously, you’ve got no idea what you want to do?” he asked again.

        “Not really. I mean, I like music.”

        “No kidding. Play any instruments?”

        “I wish. I can kind of find my way around a piano, but that’s about it.” I was beginning to loosen up. “I just really like diving into music, you know? Finding gems and cool new artists. But I’m not actually a musician, so I don’t even really know what I’d do with it.”

        “The college has a radio station, right?”

        “Oh. Uh, yeah. I don’t listen much. They always play the same old bullshit stuff.”

        “And what is the ‘same old bullshit stuff?’”

        “Oh, you know.” I could talk about this stuff for hours on end, rambling forever. “Cookie cutter pop stuff, beats that all sound the same, lyrics that mean absolutely nothing. I mean, I think that if the music is good enough lyrics don’t always have to matter, but the most popular music always sucks in both regards, you know?”

        “Preaching to the choir,” he said, raising his glass. We both took another sip, his much more smooth than mine. He paused for a second, cocking his head a bit, and then continued. “What do you think of this music, then?”

        “This?” I had tuned out, but forced myself to tune back in. “I’ve never heard this song before, but it sounds shit, just like everything else.”

        “Such a quick judge,” he laughed. “Luckily, I agree with you.”

        “Yeah?”

        “What’re you listening to right now, then?”

        “I know it’s not, like, really upbeat, but I’ve been obsessed with Julien Baker’s newest stuff,” I admitted.

        “No shit? I couldn’t get enough of that album when it came out.”

        “Really? Okay, uh, how about this. Have you heard the newest Kite String Tangle?”

        “Please,” Miyuki smirked. “Hercules & Love Affair?”

        “Omnion is a fucking masterpiece.”

        I couldn’t help but laugh—I’d never met somebody with a music taste as in-sync with mine.

        “You ever consider starting your own radio show? Like, at the school’s station?” he suddenly asked.

        “I kind of thought about it.”

        “But…?”

        “I get nervous that people won’t like what I play, cuz it’s really, I don’t know…eclectic?” I admitted. Something I’d barely been able to admit even to Haruichi, when he’d tried encouraging me to start my own show after I showed him some of my playlists. But something about the way Miyuki stared, the way Miyuki smiled, made me want to spill my guts to him. My knuckles were turning white around the glass.

        “I can guarantee at least one person who’d listen.”

        Despite my fear, my anxiety, despite the twists and turns of my stomach, we locked eyes again. He was looking right at me—somehow, right into me—and I wanted so badly to know what he saw. Because when I looked at him, I couldn’t see anything. Even though I was trying so fucking hard to see something, anything, there was nothing. Just him, as he was, saying charming things and making me blush like a middle schooler.

        “Miyuki! Get your ass over here and fix this stupid fucking playlist, will you?” Kuramochi’s screeching voice from the living room reached us, dragging us from whatever little world we’d been hiding in.

        “I’m being summoned.” He pushed off the counter and headed to the living room. As he passed me, he raised his glass—I clinked mine against his. “See you later.”

        “See you…”

        “And, Sawamura.”

        “Yeah?”

        “Breathe.”

        I hadn’t even realized that I’d been holding my breath. I let it out as he walked away.

        He told me to breathe, so I breathed.

        And then worked my way back to the living room.

 


 

        I felt guilty, because while I’d been in the kitchen with Miyuki, Haruichi had been forced to fend for himself. But when I squeezed into the couch between him and Kuramochi, he seemed okay—currently listening to a dramatic, loud story that Jun was telling him. Kuramochi was drinking a beer in one hand and had his other arm wrapped around Ryousuke’s shoulders, watching the television, occasionally making a profane, vulgar comment. The music was suddenly much better. From the Chainsmokers to Seven Lions, from Jason Derulo to Khalid, from Ed Sheeran to Sufjan Stevens. I relaxed a little bit more. Everyone trusted Miyuki with his music picks, and I swelled at thinking that maybe, he trusted me with mine. He took a seat on an armchair, sipping from his drink, kind of absentmindedly watching the party unfurl. I was already nearly finished with my drink.

        I fell into conversation with Kuramochi and Haruichi, who finally seemed to genuinely be enjoying himself. Kuramochi turned out to be a friendly, outgoing guy who didn’t know how to watch his mouth, insulted people without really realizing that he’d said something rude, but was, in his heart of hearts, gentle. He downed beers like they were glasses of water and soon enough, sooner than most, had taken a liking to bullying me. Probably because he could get such a rise out of me—when he discovered that making fun of my hair, or the way I talked, or my apparently very college-freshman outfit, made me yell at him almost reflexively, he decided it was his new favorite hobby.

        “Come on, it’s because I like you!” he said after a particularly searing insult, tousling my hair way harder than he needed to. I shook myself out of his grip. “Look at that pout!”

        “I’m not pouting!” I cried.

        “You are pouting a bit. But it’s charming,” Miyuki grinned. He stood up and took my finished drink. “Want another? Looks like you could use one.”

        “Yes, please.”

        A few minutes later, there was another drink in my hand, this one’s flavor slightly different. I learned over the course of the next hour that Jun and Tetsu worked together at a tech start-up company that neither of them truly liked, Masuko was an up-and-coming chef at a local restaurant, and Ryousuke was working to be an academic mathematician. He had decided to take a bit of time off before graduate school. Shirasu was quiet, hardly said anything the entire night. We played beer pong, truth or dare, and, once I’d had a few more drinks (all made by Miyuki), never-have-I-ever. That was around the time things started to get fuzzy. I couldn’t remember all the secrets I ended up telling people, all the strange stories I heard from everyone else, if I ever learned what Kuramochi and Miyuki did for a living. I did start to get loud and flirty because I was loud and flirty enough sober—drunk, I became obnoxious, yelling every word, I was good at throwing around compliments to strangers and dancing even though I had two left feet. And I wasn’t a good drinker, not by any stretch of the imagination. I couldn’t hold my liquor at all.

        By the time it was twelve-thirty, I was an absolute mess, living up well to my young, college-student-who-doesn’t-know-how-to-drink image. Colors flashed like fireworks in my peripheral vision, I walked as if on clouds, unbalanced, about to fall through the sky at any moment, dropping back onto the couch (or floor) each time I dried to dance for more than two minutes. Haruichi must have been trying to get me to go home—but Kuramochi was drunk, too, and I was having fun dicking around with him—and, more importantly than that, Miyuki was still here, and I liked getting glimpses of him and hearing him say things to me that I definitely wouldn’t remember in the morning. In my hazy, sunny vision, he had such a bright silhouette, and I was drawn back to him over and over. One moment I was in the living room, draped over Haruichi’s lap. The next moment I was stumbling over to Miyuki in the kitchen, being nonsensical, stupidly flirtatious, waiting for something that obviously was not going to happen, because I was drunk, and that was what drunk people did.

        They made decisions based on their most rash impulses, and they found pleasure in ignoring other people’s advice, unless it aligned perfectly with what they wanted at that exact moment.

        I was truly smitten.

        I’d been able to hide it reasonably well sober, but not now that I was drunk. Maybe Miyuki had been able to tell. Maybe this was what he’d wanted. I’d heard that people enjoyed my attention. I gave it so wholeheartedly.

        I wanted him. I wanted him badly. I’d never wanted someone so badly so quickly. But I had no idea how to even go about getting him. So I, inevitably, made a fool of myself.

        In the midst of dancing, my hand in Haruichi’s and my hand on his waist, I felt a sudden wave of nausea rush through me, and then settle in the bottom of my stomach. I froze, swaying where I stood, widening and narrowing my eyes in an attempt to make something clear. Anything clear.

        “Eijun…?”

        “Get him to the bathroom.”

        Next thing I knew I was on my knees, hunched over a toilet, emptying my stomach. Bitter, hard to breathe, stomach aching and head suddenly pounding. This wasn’t fun anymore. Someone was rubbing my back and wiping the corners of my mouth with toilet paper. It had to have been Haruichi.

        “It’s okay, Eijun. Just let it all out.”

        “Fuck…”

        “I know it doesn’t feel good. But you’re doing great,” he said. Voice muffled, even though it was right in my ear.

        When everything had finally been poured out, he helped me to my feet, and I splashed my face with water and stared at my pale, droopy-eyed reflection. Nothing made sense. I tried to say, in any words I could find, that I wanted to go home. I was disgusting and tired. I wanted to go home.

        He held my arm and led me carefully out of the bathroom, making sure I didn’t trip on my own feet and break my nose or some shit, but everyone else out there was blurred. Just colorful, messy silhouettes, speaking in distorted tones that pulsed and throbbed before my eyes. I could hardly stand. Haruichi steadied me, but he was small. I tried to tell him, again, that I wanted to go home.

        “I’m getting an Uber,” he said, but I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. “I hear you, Eijun, I’m getting the Uber, just wait a little bit, all right?”

        “Why don’t I just take you home? The college is on my way.”

        “Are you sure? You don’t have to do that…”

        “It’s not a problem, really. Look at him. He can barely walk. I’ll give you hand.”

        Suddenly, there were two people holding me up, and I felt much more steady—not so much like I was going to fall over anymore.

        What happened next was blurry and vague. Walking down stairs, someone helping me into my jacket, the lull of a car and my head in someone’s lap, rocking, back and forth. The air was fucking freezing, the world spinning, I kept trying to speak but the words were caught in slurs and exhaustion and leftover vomit in my throat. Fingers in my hair? Voices in my ears? Music I didn’t recognize playing. God, everything was so horrible, I felt so horrible, why did I drink so much. Because I wanted to feel this way? Because he’d kept making me drinks?

        After a while, I heard Haruichi’s voice again.

        “This is his dorm. I can just take him myself.”

        “Yeah? So you can both fall down the stairs and crack your skulls open? I’ll help you take him up.”

        “Thank you.”

        Whose voice was that? I didn’t have much time to think of it before I was hoisted back up and suddenly being dragged around in the cold. Up more stairs. I nearly tripped, but they held me up. I said I needed to vomit again.

        “Go to bed. You look exhausted. I’ll handle this.”

        More conversation, but I tuned out. This was my hallway—that much I recognized. I started stumbling toward the bathroom, where I crashed into the nearest stall and collapsed. My chest was hurting from the retching, my eyes watering, I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs…

        “Hey.”

        A voice, suddenly crystal clear, right beside me.

        “Breathe.”

        He told me to breathe, so I breathed.   

 


 

        He didn’t turn the lights on when we went into my dorm room. He helped me out of my jacket, then let me be as I hurried, tripping over myself, to my bed. I fell onto my back over all the covers, relieved to be laying down, relieved that the world was starting to stand still. I let my eyes close. Flashes of white. Flashes.

        “Miyuki…?” I heard myself say.

        “Yeah?”

        “Can you c’mere a sec?”

        I reached my arm out and wiggled my fingers. Like a child, begging to be tucked in. That was the essence of it, really. There was shuffling, and then his silhouette, barely visible, appeared beside the bed. I put my hand on his arm and smiled.

        “Thanks for bringing me hoooome,” I crooned.

        “You don’t have to thank me.”

        “I think you’re super duper cool.”

        “Yeah?”

        “Mhmm. And you’re really beautiful.”

        The silence that followed left me anxious and fidgety. I pulled on his arm a bit. I wanted him to be closer. When that didn’t work, I forced myself up onto my elbows, gazing up at him. I tried to pucker up my lips, but it was so dark, and I was so fucking drunk.

        “I…wanna touch you,” I whispered. His silhouette was so still. Unmoving. I scrambled onto my knees and steadied myself by placing my hands on his shoulders. Grasping, desperate, pushing past everything else.

        “You’re drunk, Sawamura. And you don’t know me.”

        “So? I know what I want and that’s all that matters.”

        “No you don’t.”

        “I do, you asshole.”

        Neither of us said anything for a while. I grabbed his wrist and brought it to my cheek, and it was cold and refreshing and I leaned into it until the corner of my lips stretched out against his palm. Until his thumb, maybe of its own volition, traced my lower lip. I closed my eyes. His fingers reached up into my hair, stretched out against my scalp, and I tilted my chin up to feel him more fully. Mouth open, waiting, desperate, for him to kiss me. His lips were so close. I tasted his breath, could sense the shape of his mouth, just a little bit closer. It was like starving yourself. It must have been exactly like that. His fingers were tender against me. Painting pictures. Singing songs.

        “Miyuki…”

        “Go to bed, Sawamura.”

        And just like that, he’d lowered me back down, brushed the hair from my forehead, and pulled the covers over my body. Then he was gone. And, alone in this darkness, with nothing left to tether me to consciousness, I instantly fell asleep.   

Chapter Text

3

the first hangover brunch

        The headache was devastating.

        Someone was banging on my door.

        Ears ringing, vision blurred, I groped around the bed in a cold sweat for my phone. Had I even brought it home last night? It was probably dead, now that I was thinking about it. Suddenly drowning, I kicked the blankets from my body, still completely dressed from last night, shoes and all. I could hardly move without feeling a dull, heavy ache pulse through me. I hadn’t ever been this hungover in my life, and I was deeply regretting how much I’d had to drink—even if it had been mostly because of the guy making the drinks for me. But the fucking banging, I needed it to stop. Flopping onto my stomach, covering my ears with my pillow, I called, “Just come in already!” There was no way the door was locked.

        “Eijun, what the hell? I called you like twenty times.”

        My response was to grumble, a silent plea for him to talk just a little bit more quietly. The door slammed closed—I cringed and pressed the pillows harder against my ears. To muffle the world a bit. I couldn’t even bear to hear myself think, not while my brain struggled to put together the pieces of last night into something cohesive.

        “Geez, how hungover are you?”

        “I don’t want to drink ever again,” I responded, voice hoarse.

        “You say that now,” he laughed. The bed rocked as he sat down. “You should have something to eat so you can take medicine.”

        “I can’t move,” I responded. His hand began stroking my back, forcing me to release some of the tension building up there.

        “I tried to tell you to stop drinking.”

        “When have I ever actually listened to your advice?”

        “Never,” he laughed, “which is why this situation is not surprising.”

        “I bet I was so embarrassing last night…”

        “I mean, no! You were fine. Everyone was having fun.”

        “Probably made a fool of myself in front of all those cool guys.”

        “They thought you were cute,” Haruichi said. I groaned again, and finally managed to roll over onto my back. He looked like a fucking ray of sunshine, with a tender little smile and rosy cheeks.

        “I doubt that.”

        “Why don’t you ask them yourself? Ryou and Kuramochi said they want to take us out lunch.”

        I shot up in bed, resulting in another terrible blow to the state of my head.

        “What? Are you kidding?”

        “Nope. So you have to get up and shower.”

        “Fuck, I feel like I got hit by a train.”

        “Just drink some water, hop in the shower, take some meds. You’ll be fine.”

        He pulled me into a quick, reassuring hug. His hugs were magical, infused with some wild rejuvenating power that always left me feeling like a much better person. Like, if someone as pure and good as Haruichi wants to give me a hug, I must be doing something right. That kind of thing.

        “They want to meet at the café down the street in an hour. Sound okay?”

        “Sure, sounds fine.”

        He helped me to my feet. I went to the bathroom, vomited, and took a shower. Then I met Haruichi back in my room. I put my jacket back on, realized that it smelled like booze, put on my slightly thinner one (figured I wouldn’t have to deal with the cold that long), and we headed out. The café was about a ten-minute walk. It was about noon. I wasn’t sure I could stand to swallow anything down, but I went along anyway, figuring that if these older guys with jobs and careers ahead of them wanted to buy me lunch, I wasn’t gonna say no.

        The two of them were already seated in a little booth by the windows when Haruichi and I walked in, making the little bell above the door go off. Their heads popped up, and they smiled at us—we waved, and worked our way over; two glasses of water with ice and a lemon wedge, along with two laminated menus, were waiting for us.

        “Good morning, sunshine,” Kuramochi said, a greeting obviously directed at me.

        “Do I look that shitty?” I grinned.

        “Kuramochi is just being rude. You look lovely,” Ryousuke said. “And you, too, of course, Haruichi.”

        “Glad to see you made it home okay. Wasn’t sure you were gonna make it,” Kuramochi smirked. I made a face, but really, I was thrilled that after only a night, Kuramochi felt comfortable enough to tease me.

        “It’s thanks to Miyuki, really,” Haruichi said softly. It seemed he was still bashful around Kuramochi. I couldn’t blame him. To suddenly meet the person his older brother loved, perhaps somebody who was going to be a part of his life forever. It must have been daunting. Especially when he was the way he was. So loud and smiling all the time, pretty much the epitome of what I thought was cool, and so different from Ryousuke, at least from what I could tell. And yet they fit together perfectly. Every time I caught Kuramochi sneaking a glance at Ryousuke, while he talked in his tender songbird voice or stared out the window, fireworks lit up in his eyes. In those moments, he was staring at the most incredible thing he’d ever seen, gawking, really, breathing it in. Made speechless and crazy by the sight before him. It was the only real look of love I’d ever seen—and Ryousuke looked made whole by it. I must have had stars in my eyes just looking at them.

        “Aw, don’t give him so much credit. Miyuki acts like such a nice, awesome guy but really, he’s the biggest asshole you’ll ever meet,” Kuramochi grumbled. Haruichi and I both stared at him, neither of us having experienced any assholery on the part of Kazuya Miyuki.

        “And you like to talk shit about him,” Ryousuke responded, “but he’s your best friend in the world.”

        “Ha, yeah.” He sipped from his water, staring down at the table. “That means I’d know best how much of an asshole he really is.”

        “I didn’t think he was an asshole,” I said. They both looked over at me, Ryousuke intrigued, and Kuramochi almost concerned.

        “Oh yeah?” Kuramochi replied.

        “Yeah. He was really nice, actually.”

        He didn’t laugh, loud and intense, like I was expecting him to. He just watched my face, that same look of detached concern twisting his features. The piercing in his eyebrow really suited him. Confused, thrown off, slightly uncomfortable, I stared back.

        “Yeah. I guess he was,” he finally said after a while. “Took you home and everything.”

        “I don’t remember much about it, to be honest. I remember little patches here and there, but after throwing up at your apartment, it’s hazy.”

        “Probably for the best. Miyuki’s bad news.”

        “Oh stop it, babe,” Ryousuke said, but his voice didn’t at all betray the pleading, playful nature of his words.

        “Yeah, yeah, I talk shit, but I love him. I do,” Kuramochi admitted. “I’m glad you found him accommodating,” he said to me. Just then, the waiter came by. Despite my initial half-hearted protest, Ryousuke ordered us sandwiches and a few coffees (you seem like you need one, Sawamura). I wanted to ask more about Miyuki, like what he did, how Kuramochi knew him, that kind of stupid stuff, but it seemed that the moment had passed.

        “I don’t know if you told me last night,” I began, “but what do you do, Kuramochi?”

        “I didn’t actually tell you last night,” he replied, grinning now from ear to ear. “You know Ace Nightclub?”

        “Yeah, it’s like fifteen minutes from here,” Haruichi replied. “It’s a…gay club, right?”

        “That it is,” Kuramochi continued. “I happen to be the DJ there.”

        “No fucking way!” I cried, leaning forward with my palms slamming so hard on the table that everybody jumped. “Listen, I’ve never been to Ace, but I’ve heard crazy good things about the DJ there. That’s you?”

        “Eijun, you have?” Haruichi said softly.

        “The one and only, right here,” Kuramochi cackled. “You should come check it out some time.”

        “Oh, fuck yeah.”

        “We’re not legal, though,” Haruichi pointed out. “We wouldn’t even be able to get in.”

        “Eh, I can get you in, no problem. And Miyuki’s the bartender there, so you’re fine.”

        “Really? He is?” I asked. “Won’t he get in trouble if someone finds out he’s serving us?”

        “There’s so much fucking shit we should get in trouble for—”

        Ryousuke elbowed him in the ribs, forcing him to bite his tongue.

        “Point is, just let us know if you wanna swing by.”

        We exchanged numbers. I was so ecstatic that it took me three times to properly get his number in, I was making so many mistakes. I’d continuously told myself since arriving to this town that when I turned twenty-one, the first place I would go was Ace Nightclub. I could barely handle the idea of actually managing to get there this soon. I’d heard so much good shit about that place. The most lively gay club in the city, with the best DJ, the best drinks, the best crowd. The place to end your night when you needed to dance.

        “That’s fucking awesome. You’re seriously the best.” I was staring at my phone, at Kuramochi’s name. It was the first time I saw his first name was Youichi. Youichi Kuramochi. A nice name, kinda rolled off your tongue.

        “Don’t mention it. You seem the kinda guy who would enjoy it. As long as you don’t go too far again,” he winked. It hit me, then, why Miyuki had been so good at making me drinks last night. He was a professional bartender, at one of the most popular clubs in the city, no less. I couldn’t believe my luck.

        “Ace Nightclub,” I murmured. Our sandwiches arrived, and I realized, staring down at it, that I was suddenly hungry. We dug in. If I had to guess, none of us had had anything to eat all day.

        “Sawamura,” Ryousuke said. My head snapped up, to find him staring at me, his sandwich already completely wiped. “I hear you enjoy music.”

        “Hmm? Yeah, I guess.” My voice was muffled, mouth filled with food.

        “Haruichi tells me you might start your own radio show.”

        “I mean, I’ve been thinking about it. I guess I can apply.”

        “You should. If you like music as much as he’s made it seem you do,” Ryousuke continued. I managed a smile, but couldn’t deny that his gaze, so unflinching, made me a bit uncomfortable. Squeamish, almost.

        “That’s what Miyuki said, too.”

        “He works at a record store, you know,” Ryousuke said. “He knows more about music than anybody I’ve ever met.”

        “What? But I thought you said he’s the bartender at Ace.”

        “He is, but he works really late at night. During the day he works at the record store. It’s actually owned by the same guy who owns the club—Ace Records. Spends nearly every second of daylight in there,” Kuramochi explained. “You ever been?”

        “No. I didn’t even know it existed.”

        “You should stop by. I’m sure you could find some real gems in there. Miyuki is incredibly good at finding the right records for the right people,” Ryousuke said.

        “It’s like some weird superpower. As if the fucker needs more talents.”

        Kuramochi waved down the waiter and ordered a chocolate milkshake. When he asked me if I wanted one, I said hell yeah, and soon we were both slurping them down. Now I was thinking about Ace Records. And how Miyuki worked there. And how he knew so much about music. And how if I went in, supposedly, he would find the best record for me. Because that was his superpower. Then I was thinking about Ace Nightclub, and how I wasn’t nearly old enough to get in, but if I told Kuramochi, he would get me in, and then Miyuki, supposedly, would make me drinks anyway. I was so fucking glad I’d gotten invited to Ryousuke’s party.

        When we’d paid the check (Ryousuke insisted on covering it all), we all walked outside together, while Haruichi insisted that we get back to campus and finish our homework. He was right, I did have homework, but the meal was starting to catch up to my hangover and I desperately needed to crawl into bed. The way a hermit crab slinks back into its shell. My head was starting to pound again, begging for another round of pills, and Haruichi could definitely tell. He kept throwing me furtive glances—the kind of look that screamed, You look pale, Eijun, want me to get you to bed?

        “So, hey!” I said, before Haruichi and I parted ways with Ryousuke and Kuramochi. “This was really nice of you guys.”

        “Don’t mention it! You guys aren’t as boring as I remember being as a freshman,” Kuramochi replied.

        “We’ll do this again some time. I like being close with Haruichi’s friends. Right, babe?” Ryousuke, hanging on Kuramochi’s arm, looked up at him. With his gaping smile, Kuramochi nodded.

        “For sure. And seriously, hit me up if you wanna make it to Ace sometime. You’ll love it there.” He tousled my hair, for good measure, or whatever. It sent me into a spiral of pain and flashing colors, but I figured that if I wasn’t hungover, I might’ve enjoyed it.

        “I will!”

        I saw him lighting a cigarette as they walked away. It was the first time I felt like I wanted to try a cigarette, too, not because I craved the feeling, but because I craved that. Whatever it was Kuramochi had.

        Arm-in-arm, Haruichi and I walked back to campus, and I passed out immediately while Haruichi sat at my desk and did his homework.

Chapter Text

4

stranded at sea

        Over the next week, going to class was a burden, and I couldn’t focus on my work for more than a few hours at a time. I kept trying to find gaps of time during which I could bike the twenty minutes across town to where I’d mapped Ace Records to be. It never quite seemed to happen, even though over the past few months, I’d felt like I’d spent so much time lazing around my room. Playing video games, reading comics, listening to music until I thought my ears were going to start bleeding. But suddenly, this week, I was crazy busy. Running from meeting to meeting. Brainstorming ideas for a radio show. Finishing the piles of homework crashing down onto my desk. I was barely sleeping, not for lack of time but for lack of something else. Peace of mind, maybe? I was still struggling to peace together that night. Had I said anything really embarrassing? Had I flirted too audaciously? Had they had to clean up any of my vomit? I’d asked Haruichi to apologize to Ryousuke for me, but he’d assured me that everything was fine, and that, really, I’d been fun at the party. Maybe that just meant I was entertaining and amusing, a drunk kid who didn’t know how to handle his liquor in a room of cultured adults. Had I at least made them smile?

        And then there were the pieces of Miyuki. Those were the most elusive pieces—but the images of him that I retained were wildly colorful. If I laid on my back, closed my eyes really tight, and focused entirely on my memories, I could conjure a vision of his smile so vivid it could’ve been right in front of me. Contours on his lips, complete smoothness at the corners of his eyes where wrinkles should’ve been, the slight downward shift of his clear-cut eyebrows. It had made him seem conniving. Like each moment that passed his grandiose plan was getting better, and nobody knew what that plan was. It could’ve been anything. Part of the excitement was that he was the only one who knew, the only one who could put it into action, and he was smiling because damn he was smart, wasn’t he? Too smart for everybody else.

        That’s how I described it to myself, at least.

        And, regardless of all that, it was a wickedly beautiful smile. As cold as it was, it had made me warm from the inside out. Like a bomb. Starting deep in my stomach and spreading in toxic fumes and red-hot flames out onto the inside surface of my skin. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to see him again desperately. Sometimes I scrolled through my extensive list of contacts, filled mostly with people I didn’t see and numbers I didn’t contact anymore, and imagined how nice his name would look there with the other “M” names. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t know his first name. So then I started brainstorming the weirdest names that I could think of, anything that might’ve fit him. Luckily, I wasn’t very creative in that regard, and spared myself the embarrassment. There was a chance, small as it was, that we had the same name, and the thought made me burst into laughter at myself because there was no way it was true but still, if you think about the way statistics and probability work, there was a chance. This was really making me mad.

        I thought about Kuramochi, too, and the way he smoked cigarettes. Next time I saw him, I wanted to ask if his piercings had hurt, and which kind he thought would look best on me. A lip ring, maybe—or a tongue ring. A nipple ring? And I wanted to hear more about what it was like being a DJ. I wanted to hear why he’d dropped out of college, how he’d met Miyuki, how he’d somehow managed to make Ryousuke fall in love with him. I’d never met someone who’d been so accepting of me, as I was, so quickly, but his age and relative maturity intimidated me. Every time I considered texting him, I forced the phone back down and wriggled around. I suddenly felt so stupid all the time and I didn’t know what to do about it. This, I figured, must’ve been what it felt like to want to be one of the cool kids. It wasn’t a feeling I’d ever experienced in high school. Not because I was cool to begin with, but because I’d never really given a fuck. Now, for some reason, I gave a fuck.

       


 

        I finally got my chance on Friday afternoon, a sacred time for me. Exactly one week since the party. I had two classes in the morning, and then Haruichi and I always had lunch in the largest dining hall to commemorate another week’s finale. We were approaching Thanksgiving break, and work was starting to pile up as professors, desperate to prove whatever it is college professors want to prove, unloaded as much on us as they deemed possible. Haruichi must have had it much worse than me—he was taking more difficult classes, and was a harder worker in general. I tended to do the bare minimum, and was more prone to distraction. I got antsy sitting in one spot for too long. Needed to run, or watch YouTube, or just sit and stare at nothing every few hours. But Haruichi could sit at his desk and study for hours on end. It, like many things about him, was completely mysterious to me.

        Friday afternoons I always took off, for the sake of my mental health. Haruichi was hard-pressed to join me, but we got dinner a lot of the time. At lunch, I asked him if he wanted to go into town with me. I wanted to check out the record store Kuramochi had told me about.

        “Really? You’re seriously going?” he asked, sipping an iced coffee.

        “Why do you sound so surprised? It sounds right up my alley,” I replied.

        “I mean…yeah, I guess.”

        “What’s that face for? I know that face.”

        “I’m not making a face.”

        “You so are! It’s the face you make when you think I’m doing something stupid.”

        “I didn’t realize you always paid so much attention,” he pouted.

        “I resent the implication!” I stared at him, wide-eyed, until he was forced to meet my eyes. “What are you thinking?”

        “There are probably so many record stores in this town,” he began. “Why do you have to go to Ace Records specifically?”

        I paused, thought it over, and then opened my mouth to reply.

        Because that’s where Miyuki works, and I wanna see him again.

        And I caught myself right in time, because I realized that was exactly what Haruichi was expecting to hear. He read my mind.

        “See?”

        “Okay, well what’s wrong with wanting to see him again?” I fired. “He was really nice at the party. He’s the one who drove us home, right?”

        “Yeah, but he’s also the one who got you drunk in the first place,” he fired back.

        “So? I asked him to.”

        “You’re eighteen! He’s, what, twenty-four?”

        “I…don’t know?”

        “I know you, Eijun. This is a bad idea. You have an addictive personality. And Ryousuke told me that Miyuki can be really sneaky…”

        “Yeah, right. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? I make a new friend? Come on, Harucchi. You’re acting like I’m already in love with the guy.”

        He didn’t say anything to that. He just stared. Forcing me to reckon with my own bullshit in this sticky silence. I scratched my head, ran a hand through my hair, racked my brain for some sort of explanation—for my sake and his. I couldn’t find one. Except that I just wanted, wanted deeply, the way you want your mom’s cooking or the way you want to listen to the song you heard every day as a child, to see him again. That was it. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to make sure my image of him was accurate. Wanted to make sure the sound of his voice in my head wasn’t some random conjured up sound I’d come up with to fill in the gaps. I wanted to shake his hand again.

        For some reason, I thought I could feel the imprint of his palm on my cheek.

        Had he touched me there?

        “I just wanna check it out, okay? Nothing bad is gonna happen,” I lied.

        “All right. Fine.”

        He decided not to come with me. As soon as we finished lunch, I looked up the place on my phone, memorized the directions as well as I could, hopped onto my bike, and rode across campus and into town. I tended not to ride my bike around campus, it was such a small college that it seemed a waste not to walk, but I’d ridden it to the dining hall expressly so I could ride straight into town. When I’d left home, my grandfather had really tried reminding me to always wear my helmet when I rode, but I hated the way it made my hair stick to my scalp even after only a few minutes on the bike. And it made it uncomfortable to wear my earbuds. I was a pretty wicked biker, though. I was never worried, and the city wasn’t terribly notorious for its bad drivers. I’d ridden around the city a few times to get my bearings when I’d first moved here a few months ago, so at the very least, I recognized my surroundings. Going mostly off instinct, I biked the twenty minutes across town, eyes scanning the small businesses lining both sides of the street while I listened to music. It wasn’t a main road, but it wasn’t a narrow alleyway, either. Right in the middle. After a few minutes, my eyes caught the old, scratched-up sign in white, block letters—Ace Records. I stopped at the nearest bike lock and chained my bike up. There was a “Help Wanted” sign in the window.

        The little bell above the door was louder than I was expecting. I winced for a moment and stood still as the door crashed closed behind me. Suddenly, I was in the middle of a sea of records. Shelves and shelves of them, stretching from the center of the room out to the edges, organized both by genre and alphabetical order. Some records brand new, some landing here from the pages of a history book, it seemed. For a moment, I forgot why I’d come here. I stepped toward the nearest rack and ran my fingers along the top edges of the records. Against the walls, there were more shelves, these ones with regular old CDs. Even those, though, were considered vintage. Nobody listened to CDs anymore. At least, not anybody I knew. There were a few other people in the store, floating among the vinyl. Music played that I didn’t recognize, but liked, a sort of smooth, synthy guitar. I dragged my feet, occasionally checking to see if they had my favorite record from this artist or that, sifting through the country records because I knew nothing about country music. What was the oldest record they had? What was the newest? I’m not sure how long I spent like that. Mesmerized, aimless.

        “Anything I can help you find?”

        I hadn’t conjured it to fill the gaps. It was exactly the same.

        I jerked my head up, ripping myself from this dream, to find Miyuki standing in front of me. Arms crossed, hips leaned against the nearest rack, smile just the fucking same. At first, I couldn’t say anything. I just needed to swallow him in and make sure I’d gotten all the details right—and if I’d gotten anything wrong, I needed to adjust it in my head, for future reference. He wasn’t dressed in uniform or anything. Just a white Smiths t-shirt, dark wash jeans, a thick watch on his wrist with some hand-made, worn bracelets. His nametag just said “Miyuki.” I’d somehow managed to get him perfectly right.

        “Hey,” I finally blurted. His smile broadened, so mine did, too. I was ecstatic.

        “Kuramochi told me you might be stopping by,” he said. “Welcome to Ace Records. I take it you like what you see.”

        “Yeah, I really do. This place is awesome. I’ve never seen so many records.”

        “Do you have a record player?”

        “Fuck, no,” I said. As if realizing for the first time that I needed a record player to play records.

        “When I first started collecting records, I didn’t have one either,” he laughed, “but I just figured one day I’d get one, and by then I’d have an awesome collection.”

        “Huh. That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I replied.

        “Really? It doesn’t? All right.” He laughed again. “Well, is there anything in particular you’re looking for?”

        “No, but Kuramochi and Ryou-san said that you’re really good at picking things out for people.” I faced him directly, watched him blink at me, slowly, taking me in the way I was taking him in. I wanted him to be charmed by me. “Wanna pick something out for me?”

        “Okay. Challenge accepted,” he said. “Walk with me, Sawamura.”

        He remembers my name.

        I followed him without batting an eyelash.

        We just walked for a minute or so. Half a step behind him, catching his angular profile, I watched his eyes scanning the racks behind his crystal clear glasses. He must have known them practically by heart by now—though I suppose I wasn’t sure how long he’d been working here. His gaze moved quickly, swiping right and left with each leisurely step. He had his hands in his pockets, back pin-straight as he walked. At one point, he stopped, frozen in time for a second. His eyes were staring at a single point. And after that fleeting period he kept walking. I can’t say how long we were silent before I couldn’t stand it anymore, and had to say something. Jittery and high as I was.

        “How many records do you have?” I blurted.

        “Me? Like, fifty or so?”

        “Damn.”

        “I’ve been doing this a while,” he said reassuringly.

        “Since when?”

        “I started working here in high school.” He said it very definitively, in a this-is-the-end-of-the-conversation tone. But I didn’t want to stop talking to him, didn’t want to stop hearing his voice, so I immediately changed the subject and kept rolling.

        “Which one’s your favorite?”

        “Changes every week.”

        “Okay. This week, then.”

        I watched the side of his mouth that I could see twist up into a smirk. He thought for a second.

        “Can’t stop listening to The Psychadelic Furs. ‘Forever Now.’”

        “Oh,” I heard myself say. I didn’t mind The Psychadelic Furs. I occasionally listened, but had never been able to get super into them. “Nice.”

        “All right, I won’t pick out a Psychadelic Furs record for you,” he chuckled. “Or any 80s alternative rock, I guess.”

        “I mean, whatever you pick, I’ll listen to,” I admitted. He turned all the way around to look at me. Must’ve been curious what my facial expression was like. There was nothing more to it than bright eyes and an ear-to-ear smile, cheeks that were probably absurdly rosy, I felt hot but really I couldn’t tell what my complexion was. He turned back around and kept walking.

        “Good to know.”

        “I’ve been listening to The Internet a lot lately,” I persisted.

        “Yeah? You like R&B?”

        “Love it.”

        “I take it you’re a Frank Ocean fan, then.”

        “He’s, like, the most iconic artist of the past decade.”

        “Damn. That’s an opinion,” he laughed. “Okay, then I think I’ve got something for you.”

        We veered over to the R&B section. I clasped my hands behind my back while he flipped through the “M-S” records. Some artists I recognized, some I didn’t. And some of the records really looked shiny, brand new, released in the past few months, even. He flickered through them really quickly. He already knew what was there. He wasn’t searching; he was retrieving. At a full stop, he whipped out a newer record, in darker blues. He handed it to me. It was labelled Fin.

        “Syd from The Internet’s solo album,” he explained. “Heard it?”

        “No…” I gawked.

        “Well, now you will.”

        “I don’t have a record player, remember?”

        “Stream it. Keep that to start your collection,” he winked.

        “How much do I owe you?” I started reaching for the tattered, thin wallet in my back pocket, but he put his hand on my wrist. Stopped me in my tracks. And where I wavered, he was unbearably steady.

        That fucking smile.

        I fell further than I should’ve, right then. I don’t know if he could tell. He might have.

        “First one’s on me, cutie,” he said. I can’t even imagine the kind of smile I gave him. Miyuki was really getting under my skin, easily, peeling me back like plastic film.

        “Wow. Thanks.”

        “Sure.”

        He looked like he was about to say something else, lips slightly parted, but another customer approached for help. And so he turned away from me. Just like that. On to the next. I watched him lead the customer away and floated alone the middle of this sea, staring down at my own little treasure.

Chapter Text

5

a little bit of experience required

        I wandered around the store for a while longer. Gripping the record like a lifeboat, like it really was the only thing keeping me afloat in this ocean. It didn’t feel like the right time to leave yet. I hadn’t explored enough yet. That’s what I told myself.  Miyuki was in the pop section now with a small band of customers, and I couldn’t hear what any of them were saying—I tried to read Miyuki’s lips, but I was shit at it. He was smiling so boldly with them and probably saying something really stupidly charming. I wasn’t sure if the smile he was giving them was the same smile he’d been giving me. Was it maybe a bit bigger? More teeth? Not as imbalanced? Shit, I was gonna be hung up on this forever. I whirled away, back to the R&B section to keep browsing. As if I cared about any album other than the one he’d put in my arms. I walked as if I was kicking pebbles, circling the rack back over to the country section, perhaps the one section I would never legitimately bother perusing.

        (Don’t judge. I did go through a trying-to-like-country phase when I was in middle school, but I never managed to really understand that kind of musical movement.)

        Every few seconds, I couldn’t help but let my gaze swing back over to Miyuki. Just doing his job. Showing people random ass records or CDs from the collections on the walls, walking people back to the register and ringing them up. He put everything in these cute little bags with the words “Ace Records” sprawled on the front in cursive black letters, totally different from the way the block letters were arranged above the door. I felt a little bit voyeuristic, watching him do it at the back of the store from where I stood toward the front. I was on guard, trying to make sure he didn’t catch me watching him, but I’m fairly certain he did at least once. Maybe twice. I wasn’t a subtle person.

        I was trying to find an excuse to go back and keep talking to him when there was a gap between customers. Part of me didn’t want to seem desperate, but the other part of me didn’t give a fuck because when had I ever cared about seeming desperate? The people who know me will say that no, I have never cared, and I never will, and that’s part of my obnoxious charm.

        After about twenty minutes of my aimless, anxious wandering, looking at literally nothing, he was finally by himself behind the counter. It looked like he was counting money in the register. Maybe making notes about inventory, whatever it was people who worked registers did. I didn’t fucking know. He had to have known that I was still there in the store. I snuck back over and leaned my elbows on the counter, hard enough that he noticed, and popped his head up. Already smiling before we even made eye contact. But I was, too, I guess.

        “Something else I can help you with?” he asked.

        “I want one of those bags.”

        “Hmm?”

        “Those bags. You keep putting everyone else’s new records in little baggies, but I didn’t get one,” I pouted. He rolled his eyes as he reached below the counter and pulled out one of the bags. I handed him the record, he slid it in, and then handed it back over. I reached, over-exaggerated, to take it from him. But even then, I didn’t move. He furrowed his brow a bit, so snarkily. And I was just standing there, smiling like an idiot.

        “Anything…else?” he said.

        “Um, yes,” I replied. The pause that followed was way too long. His furrowed brows turned to raised ones.

        “Yes?”

        “I…want to…”

        I looked around, definitely desperate, hating myself for not having thought through this in all that time I spent doing literally nothing. Then I caught a glimpse of the sign in the window.

        “I want to apply for a job.”

        “You want to apply for a job? Seriously?” he scoffed. The extent of his surprise was a bit stinging, actually. I blinked at him, and he blinked back.

        “Yeah, seriously! I’ve been meaning to get a job anyway,” I said, “and I can’t imagine I’d enjoy working anywhere as much as I’d like working here. And you need more employees, right?”

        “Right,” he grinned. “Well, okay.”

        He pulled a thin packet of papers from beneath the counter and slid it over to me. It had some basic questions about why I wanted to work there, what experience I had, some random questions to test my knowledge of music and determine whether I’d actually be a good worker here.

        “Fill that out, including your contact information, and then bring it to me with a copy of your CV,” he explained.

        “Oh, I mean. I don’t really have a CV.”

        “Eighteen, you said?”

        I nodded. He took a second to think it over.  

        “So you’ve never really done anything outside of high school. Any jobs back then?”

        “I kinda worked at the mall for a bit, but this’ll be my first real job.”

        “How about this—fill out the application packet, and then I’ll conduct a short interview. We don’t usually do interviews, but I’ll use it instead of a CV.”

        “Great! Do you have a pen?”

        He blinked at me again—as if I kept throwing more curve balls that he wasn’t sure what to do with. For the first time since we’d met (which admittedly hadn’t been that long of a time), his smile was wavering. Still amused, but a little bit confused, too. He handed me a ballpoint pen. I stepped to the side, in case anybody needed to ring up any purchases, and began filling out the application. I answered as clearly and articulately as I could, paying special attention, because I’d never been great with this kind of thing. I really began to wish that Haruichi had come with me. The smart thing to do, and what Miyuki had definitely been expecting me to do, was to take the application home, fill it out, have Haruichi check it over, and then bring it back when it was ready. But I was impatient. I was here, and the application was right in front of me, and fuck it, I didn’t have anything better to do. So with Miyuki practically breathing over my shoulder, I just filled it out right then and there. I didn’t rush it, though. I took my time thinking through each question. In the time that it took me to finish, a lot of customers had come and gone. Some giving me confused looks that I didn’t think twice about. I’d never been good at worrying what other people thought, either.

        When I was finished, I read over all my answers one more time, and then handed the packet back to Miyuki.

        “Well. Thank you,” he said, with a bit of a laugh. My stomach churned while he skimmed through it, flipping through the pages, eyes moving quickly from right to left and left to right. Nothing on his face betrayed what he was thinking. If he wanted, he could reject me, right there. And I would leave dejected. Probably still without his number.

        Finally, he looked back up at me. His smile was almost impressed.

        “Not bad, Sawamura.”

        “For real?”

        “For real. Why don’t you come in on Monday—do you have class?”

        “I can skip.”

        “No, I’m not gonna make you skip class,” he laughed. “When are your classes done?”

        “On Monday? Uh, noon.”

        “All right, come in at one. We’ll just do a quick interview, and if it goes well, you’ve got the job.”

        “Seriously? That’s amazing! You’re the best!”

        “So I’ve heard.” He pulled a small business card from his back pocket and handed it to me. It had his name, phone number, and email. It just listed him as the manager of Ace Records.

        I finally learned his full name.

        Kazuya Miyuki.

        “If you have any questions in the meantime, there’s my contact info.”

        “And you have mine,” I replied. He laughed.

        “And I have yours.”

        “So I can text you?”

        He sighed through his smile. Blinked extra slowly, slowly enough that I could see his eyelashes floating down and up.

        “If you have questions,” he repeated.

        “But if I text you for some other reason, will you respond?” I persisted.

        “What kind of question is that?”

        “I dunno, you seem like the kind of guy who would be okay ghosting people.”

        This definitely surprised him. I hadn’t really meant it to be an insult. Just a matter-of-fact kinda thing. Because he did, you know? He was charming and slightly elusive, he spoke and smiled like he’d broken plenty of hearts before. But he looked like I’d slapped him in the face for a moment.

        “I’d be okay ghosting people?”

        “I didn’t mean it, in, like, a bad way…”

        “And just how might that be said in a good way?” He didn’t sound mad, but he did sound taken off-guard. My face was red hot, and I really regretted saying anything at all.

        “Shit, sorry. I really didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” I blubbered. Suddenly very much not wanting to be there. Miyuki’s gaze was searing, and somehow, I couldn’t look away. After an intense, endless moment of silence between both of us, he let out a sigh and rolled his eyes a bit.

        “You didn’t offend me. Just surprised you think you know me so well already,” he said.

        “What?”

        “Breathe, Sawamura. Jesus.”

        I let out the breath I’d been holding.

        “I really am sorry.”

        “Stop apologizing. It’s fine.” He smiled again, but it was just a bit forced this time. I’d really fucked up. That’s how it felt in that moment. I’d really, really fucked up.

        I started gathering up my stuff to leave. It was starting to get dark, and I wanted to get back to campus before then. Maybe grab some dinner to eat in my room later, while I belittled myself for fucking up so badly.

        “What if I tell you I won’t not text back?” he suddenly said.

        “You won’t…you mean, you’d respond?”

        “Hypothetically, sure. If you had something interesting to say,” he winked.

        My smile could have swallowed the universe.      

 


 

        On Saturday, I was going to text Kuramochi, telling him that Haruichi and I wanted to check out the nightclub. I’d even managed to convince Haruichi that it would be fun. That, even if he didn’t want to drink any alcohol, there would be dancing, and Ryousuke would probably be there and it would be a good time. Unfortunately, Haruichi woke up with a bit of a cold, and even I wasn’t enough of a jerk to push him to go out despite sickness. We decided to stay in, order some pizza, just watch a movie. Haruichi was much more of a movie buff than me, and he insisted that we watch some dramatic indie movie. I ended up enjoying it, but I couldn’t tell you now what the hell it was about. And the entire time, I was fighting back the urge to text Miyuki. If I had something interesting to say, he’d said, he might text me back. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what Miyuki would consider interesting beside music, and he spent every single day around that. He’d put me in a stressful position, and I was going to see him on Monday for the interview, anyway, so really, it was better if I didn’t text him at all that weekend. Right? I had no reason to say anything. And he had no reason to respond. Other than to be nice and humor me, and I didn’t want to admit to that.

        Kuramochi and I were friends on Snapchat, so I was able to follow how the night at the club progressed with reasonable regularity. At around 10pm, he took a selfie of himself on the stage, and the club reasonably packed. Fast forward to about 11:30pm, he took a short video of the crowd, bouncing to his beats while he stood on the stage. And at 1:45pm, he posted another video, this one infinitely more chaotic—the room was completely packed, the partygoers like sardines, and everybody was dancing. Lights of different colors were flashing, so loud through the phone that neither Haruichi nor I could actually determine any sort of melody. At 2:15pm, he posted another video, this one of Miyuki behind the bar.

        “Hey, Miyuki, are you drunk yet?” Kuramochi asked from behind the shaky phone camera. Miyuki was mixing a drink, smiling, avoiding the camera.

        “Fuck off, Kuramochi.”

        “You definitely aren’t. Let’s take shots.”

        “No.”

        “Shots, shots, shots!” He cried it over and over and over again, until Miyuki rolled his eyes and poured two shots. “Ayy! Cheers!”

        We saw Kuramochi’s arm clinking his shot glass against Miyuki’s, and then the camera moved to shoot both of them knocking back the shots. Kuramochi cringed a bit, but Miyuki didn’t even bat an eyelash. He went straight back to mixing a drink, and Kuramochi kissed his cheek.

        “Alcohol is so gross,” Haruichi commented. “I’ve never enjoyed it, ever.”

        “You haven’t had the right drinks then,” I replied. He had his head in my lap while he read a book I don’t remember the title of, as I incessantly checked social media. The perfect millennial juxtaposition, we were.

        “Right, because you’re so knowledgeable,” he laughed. He had me there.

        “Like, I hate beer, but the drinks Miyuki made me were way stronger and way more delicious,” I said.

        “I bet a drink like that at an actual bar or club like Ace is pretty expensive,” he reasoned.

        “I want to train myself to take shots. Because it’s so quick, and easy, and it gets you drunk fast.”

        “God, Eijun. That’s a horrible idea.”

        “Why?”

        “You shouldn’t want to get blackout drunk. It’s not good for you.”

        “I think it’s fine. As long as I have you to take care of me,” I teased. He laughed, shook his head, and kept reading.

        “I won’t always be there, you know,” he continued. “When you start going on dates, or finding other friends…”

        “Hey. Harucchi.” I whisked the book away, so he was forced to look at me and how serious my expression was. “I’m never gonna abandon you or leave you by yourself. I could’ve gone out tonight. But I would always rather hang out with you. Even if I have other friends.”

        “Yeah?”

        “Yeah. Always. You’re my best friend.”

        “Thanks. You’re mine, too. Obviously. Can I have my book back?”

        I handed it back to him and continued my social media splurge. Just then, when it was around 2:30pm, Kuramochi sent another Snapchat. This time not posted on his story, but sent directly to me. Jittery, I opened it. It was an endearing selfie of Kuramochi and Miyuki, Kuramochi’s arm around Miyuki’s shoulders, squeezing him tight. He was winking for the camera and sticking his tongue out, while Miyuki stood, calm, with that ever-enigmatic smile. The caption read: “You missed out! See you next weekend???” Plus a kissy-face emoji. I was over the moon.

        I sent my own selfie, managing to get a little bit of Haruichi reading up in the corner. I showed him my biggest smile. I wrote the caption, “For sure!” and sent the pic to him. Now I had promised, I reasoned. Now I would have to show up at Ace Nightclub next weekend. Haruichi obviously laughed at that logic, but he promised that, no matter what, next Saturday, we would go to Ace Nightclub. And if we were lucky enough, Kuramochi and Ryousuke would take us out for hangover brunch the next day.

Chapter Text

6

stupid, stunned silence

        Kazuya Miyuki.

        How does that sound when I say it?

        Kazuya—

        Three syllables.

        Miyuki—

        Three more syllables.

        I’ll keep saying it until he likes the way it sounds.

 


 

        I didn’t ask Haruichi to come with me to my interview on Monday—I begged him. The walk was too far (about 40 minutes) for either of us to bother and my bike was certainly not big enough for both of us, so we ordered an Uber. I was practically shaking, jittery enough that I couldn’t stop talking. Digging my nails into my jeans as we rode. I kept asking him to throw questions at me that Miyuki might ask, and he tried his best, but he didn’t know the first thing about a record store. Not that I did, of course, but I knew way more about music than Haruichi.

        “Ask me about, like, my work ethic or something,” I said.

        “Okay. How’s your work ethic?”

        “My work ethic is...great. Fantastic. Is fantastic the right word? How about…unbelievable? Wicked?”

        “Eijun,” he laughed.

        “I’m sorry! I can’t help it.”

        “I don’t think he’ll ask you questions like that anyway. It’s probably obvious how desperate you are for the job. It’s probably gonna be mostly questions to determine whether you’d be a knowledgeable employee.”

        “Desperate…?”

        “Oh, we’re here. Thank you, sir!”

        I followed him out of the car, while his hand gripped my wrist. Not hard, just reassuringly, a touch to remind me that he was here, he had come all the way out here into the city to provide me with moral support and I was so grateful. He was making my skin feel warm. The “help wanted” sign was still in the window, right where I’d left it on Friday. I was suddenly craving one of Miyuki’s delicious drinks and one of Kuramochi’s toxic cigarettes. When I first told Haruichi that I’d applied for a job at Ace Records, he had been, predictably, exasperated with me. He was convinced that hanging around Miyuki was a bad idea, but for once, he didn’t have the evidence to back it up. Neither of us knew him very well, and I wasn’t about to make any decisions based on Ryousuke telling Haruichi that Miyuki was “really sneaky.” That meant absolutely nothing to me. But here he was, right in front of me, in this record store that could have only come straight from my imagination. And here was a job, right in the palm of his hands, so within reach if I could just lean forward and grab it. I really had been meaning to get a job. College was fucking expensive, and I didn’t want to keep saddling my family with everything, not when they had so much to worry about already. I literally couldn’t have dreamt of a better job for me than this.  

        When we walked in, greeted by the smell of old vinyl and burning tea leaves, Miyuki was busy with some customers. At the sound of the bell, he popped his head up. I waved and tried to curb my smile—he waved back with a smile of his own.

        “I’ll be with you in a bit. Just hang tight,” he called, and went right back to speaking with the customer. I could feel Haruichi staring at me, judging whatever expression—longing, infatuation, horniness—I was unknowingly making, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. I began wandering around the store. He followed.

        “What kind of music do you like? I guess I’ve never really asked you,” I said, fingers dancing on the tops of the records. I recognized the music that was playing today. Tegan and Sara. Much more recognizable, and I’d loved them for years.

        “Mostly instrumental,” he began. “Like Classical music and piano music and stuff.”

        “Wanna branch out?”

        “It’s just hard to study when I’m listening to lyrics.”

        “It doesn’t have to be with lyrics,” I said, grinning at him. “Trust me?”

        “Yeah, of course.”

        He had a bit of pink in his cheeks. Normal for Haruichi, blushing when people said his name or smiled at him, gave him the attention he never got as a kid. Or so I assumed—he always told me that Ryousuke had been the golden child. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, as an only child myself, but I assumed it meant that he was in the shadows a lot. So I had made a note the first time we met that I’d never make him feel that way. I think I was doing a pretty good job. He followed as I meandered, one slow step after another, among the shelves. I searched the alphabetic order until I reached the “Instrumental,” which, if I was being honest, I was surprised was a genre. It was so broad. And, as expected, there were about four columns within the category. His arm brushed mine as I began flicking. I loved Haruichi, and I wanted only the best for him.

        “Do you have a record player?” I said, though it was kind of an absentminded question. I didn’t have one.

        “No, but I think Ryousuke has one.”

        “Oh, great. When I was here on Friday, Miyuki picked out a record for me. I don’t have a record player, but it’s cool to have, and I just looked up the album on Spotify when I got home.”

        “How much are record players? You should definitely get one,” he mused. I could hear the smile in his voice, and it made me smile, too.

        “I don’t know. Way too expensive, I bet.”

        “You could save for it. With your new job and all.”

        “Yeah. True.” I paused as I flickered past a record. “Oh! Perfect.”

        It was a Nohidea record. I assumed Haruichi hadn’t been exposed to lo-fi yet, so I figured I would be his introduction, and Nohidea was a pretty good start. It had a nice cover and I knew the beats would really make him happy.

        “Here. You don’t have to buy it if you don’t want to, but you’d probably really like that one,” I said. He held it, turned it over, seemed like he was weighing it in his hands. I couldn’t read his expression. Until he looked back up at me, beaming.

        “I told you. I trust you. I’ll buy it.”

        “Awesome!”

        “What about something upbeat to help get me up in the morning?”

        I took him over to the pop section and picked out an album for him. BTS, because I knew he would love them. Nobody didn’t. I was probably enabling the start of an addiction, actually.

        “What about right before I go to bed, something slower?”

        I took him over to the folk indie section and picked out a Keaton Henson record. I personally liked Ben Howard more, but I thought Haruichi would prefer Keaton Henson. We lost track of time and I started to forget why I was there in the first place. Haruichi kept asking me about different records and genres and who my favorite artists were—it was like we both realized that even though we were practically inseparable, we had talked about everything except the details of my favorite music, even though it was such a big part of my life. I was almost never not wearing my headphones, and it was part of my routine every day to spend at least thirty minutes just laying in bed, listening. I kept music on even at night because it helped me fall asleep faster. But I wasn’t really great at any instruments or songwriting or anything, so I wasn’t sure what else I could do.

        After a while, when Haruichi and I were going through the classic rock section, Miyuki finally came over. The butterflies that had settled at the bottom of my belly sprung back into flight, and I turned to face him almost too suddenly. He was wearing a black t-shirt today, with a denim jacket and the same ripped jeans.

        “Hard at work?” he asked, arms crossed. I wasn’t sure how to reply—luckily, I didn’t have to. He looked over at Haruichi and smiled. “Nice to see you again, Haruichi. How do you like the store?”

        “It’s really nice,” Haruichi replied. “I don’t know much about music, though.”

        “Sawamura been showing you around?” Here, he looked at me, face even and steady. My skin started to tingle and my face felt hot.

        “Doing my best,” I said. “Haruichi doesn’t know much about music.”

        “And you do?”

        The question took me off-guard. For a few moments, I fell silent—the kind of stupid, stunned silence that I despise. I forced myself to open my mouth.

        “Yeah. I know a lot about music. It’s like the only thing I know,” I said.

        “The only thing you know?” he repeated, in an amused tone. It somehow pissed me off and turned me on at the same time.

        “But I’m pretty fucking good at it,” I shot back. Miyuki’s smile didn’t falter. That pissed me off, too. One of these days, I wanted to find a way to wipe away that shit-eating grin, the way it burrowed under my skin and sat there and made me boil. He did raise his eyebrows a bit. Impressed? I didn’t want to assume that, but I did anyway. Most of the time I couldn’t help it.

        “Okay. When can you start?”

        There was that stupid, stunned silence again. I wasn’t used to silence. I wasn’t good at it. People said that I talked too much and was too loud. I didn’t like silence.

        “Sorry, what?” I heard myself say.

        “Work. When can you come in for training?”

        I looked over at Haruichi, then back at Miyuki.

        “Holy shit! For real? I got the job?” I cried. A few of the customers meandering were starting to look over at us.

        “You sound so shocked,” he laughed. “You said it yourself. You know a lot about music. And if turns out you don’t know as much as you thought, I’ll teach you. You’re young, and you’ll work hard. Right?”

        “Yeah, of course! But what about—?”

        “I don’t need to interview you. I saw you showing Haruichi around. I trust you. And my decision-making skills,” he interrupted. “Do you have class tomorrow?”

        “In the afternoon.”

        “Can you come in before we open? I’ll show you the ropes, and you can work with me until class. We’ll work out your schedule then.”

        He paused, as if to let the information settle in my mind. Let all that was happening wash over me, like he could tell that I was losing my mind. Like he could tell I was obsessed with hearing him address me, praise me, give me this job. Or maybe he didn’t realize at all, and I was amplifying everything in my mind because that’s what I did. It’s what I always did.

        “Sound good?” he said.

        “Y-yeah. Sounds great.”

        “Great. See you at seven.”

        With one last smile, first to me and then to Haruichi, he floated off to the register. I turned around to watch him go. And then I could hear his voice in my head telling me to breathe.

        So I let out the breath I was holding.  

Chapter Text

7

entering the palace

        My eyes were open and I was wide awake by five o’clock. I didn’t need to be at Ace until seven, but here I was. Puffy-eyed, jittery, lips dry and body chilled from the winter morning. Barely three hours of sleep, and there was no hope of more. I slowly got out of bed and grabbed the nearest sweater to warm myself up, as I went to the bathroom to wash up. I considered making coffee—my grandfather had bought me a coffee-maker, insisting that I was an adult now, and adults drank coffee, but I hated the taste and I hadn’t gotten around to buying sugar yet. After I brushed my teeth, I trudged back to my room at the end of hall, passing a kid heading to the gym. That perked me up a bit. I pulled on my sneakers, put in my smaller earbuds, and decided to go for a run. I tended to run a few times a week, but I’d been meaning to make it into a more steady habit. There was a lake about five minutes from my dorm room, a characteristic trait of the college and one of the positives about it being separated a bit from the city. I ran the three miles around the lake, listening to Queen. My running playlist changed each morning—today was a rock kind of day. Something to keep me pumped up. Queen always made me feel happy things about the world. If it could produce people like Freddie Mercury and music like this, it just couldn’t be bad, could it?

        I was sweaty and warmed up when I arrived back at my dorm, where more people were stirring. It was about 5:45. I hopped in the shower and put hair gel in, to make sure it didn’t dry in too wild a pattern. In my boxers, socks, and sweater, I sat at my desk for fifteen minutes, eating a granola bar, and brainstormed for my radio show. Applications for internships at the college station were due in a week, and I wanted this one to actually be decent. I would have Haruichi look over it. Maybe I’d have one of my hallmates look over it too.

        At six, my phone pinged. A text message.

        Miyuki: You better be on time. I’m a strict boss.

        By 6:30, I was dressed and ready to go. Headphones in (still Queen), I hopped on my bike and headed over to Ace Records. The whole ride, I was picturing what Miyuki’s face would look like so early. Would his eyes be puffy at all, too? Maybe he’d have some leftover crust in the corners. Would his breath smell like coffee? (Was he even a coffee-drinker to begin with?) Or maybe he would look exactly the fucking same, smile and all. Maybe even brighter. With a halo of light surrounding him. The images flipping through my mind made me grin while I pedaled. The streets in the city were quieter than usual, but still filled with people. Heading to work, to school, to get coffee or breakfast at the cafés littering the sidewalks.

        When I arrived at Ace Records, Miyuki was in the middle of unlocking the door. I took out one of my ear buds.

        “Good morning!”

        I got off my bike while it was still in motion, hobbling clumsily over to the bike rack. Miyuki waved in my direction, and proceeded to unlock the door. He held it open for me while I locked my bike up and trotted over.

        “Good morning to you, my most punctual employee,” he said, bowing his head a bit. I waltzed into the store, feeling like a million bucks. “Lights are all the way over there to your right—your first task is to turn them on.”

        “Aye aye, Captain.”

        The light switch was easy enough to find. I flicked it up, and the overhead lights came to life. He came in after me, letting the door shut behind him. He kept the sign on the door flipped over, so that it read “Closed.” The store wasn’t technically open until 9:00am.  

        “Did you see that technique? I already deserve employee of the month,” I said.

        “All right, we’ll see,” he laughed.

        I liked making him laugh. More than I liked a lot of other things that I couldn’t even think of off the top of my head in that moment because I liked it so fucking much. He did, actually, look exactly the same. It was kind of absurd. He didn’t look even a little bit tired. As breathtaking as ever.

        “You’re energetic for seven AM,” he continued. He started walking toward the register, and gestured for me to follow him.

        “Yeah, I couldn’t really sleep last night, but I went on a run this morning.”

        “Very nice. You run every morning?”

        “Not every morning.”

        “Well, either way, it’s more than me. Good for you. Ever work a register before?”

        I shook my head.

        So the first thing he taught me was how to work the register. Then we figured out my work schedule: every morning and afternoon that I didn’t have class, half-days on Saturday and Sunday. Then he showed me around the main shopping area, and told me I would eventually have to know by heart all the artists we carried—it was okay if I didn’t know a few here or there, he clarified, but if a customer were to ask me if we carried music from a specific artist, ideally, I would know. Not a homework assignment or anything, just a continuing part of my job. I told him I understood, and for a while, I just walked at his heels, making note of all the pearls he bestowed upon me. Making note of how sharp his outline was in that shirt. His shoulders had looked more broad yesterday. The denim jacket had probably done it. When he quizzed me on where all the different genres were and I only made a mistake once, he was satisfied, and started leading me toward the back, where we kept the extra records and newest shipments. Just before he opened the door to the back room, we heard the bell above the front door go off.

        “We’re still closed,” he called, irritated, hand still on the doorknob and without turning around.

        “Even for me?”

        I recognized the voice, too. We turned to find Kuramochi, leather jacket and all, standing at the front of the store with a massive smile on his face. He had bags under his eyes and his hair was a bit messier than other times I’d seen it. Miyuki’s irritation melted into contentment, and he turned and walked right past me over to Kuramochi.

        “I bring salvation.” He held up a carrier with three Starbucks cups in it. He grabbed one and handed it to Miyuki. “Grande black Americano, no room, for the soulless among us.”

        Here, he looked at me. He beckoned for me to come over.

        “I wasn’t sure what you’d like so I tried to play it safe and just get you a caramel latte,” he said, handing me the second cup.

        “That’s perfect! Thanks. You didn’t have to do that,” I replied. I gripped the cup in both hands and waited for its warmth to seep into my palms. “Did Miyuki tell you I was starting today?”

        “He did. Congratulations on your new job, buddy!” He punched my arm, much harder than he needed to. I cried out, and they laughed at my pain.

        “I can’t believe you’re up this early,” Miyuki said to Kuramochi. He drank his coffee, boiling, like it was a glass of water. My face was probably ridiculous as I sipped, tiny little pathetic things. Soulless, indeed.

        “Do you sleep a lot?” I asked.

        “Kuramochi? He’s never not sleeping, unless he’s stuffing his face or fucking.”

        “Fuck off,” Kuramochi hissed. But I had to admit, he did look tired. Out of place, this early, compared to me and Miyuki, both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He smelled like cigarettes and sleep. “Don’t talk about me like I’m some deadbeat.”

        “I’m not saying anything that isn’t true. Now, if you don’t mind, we have to finish our little orientation. Unless you’d like to stick around and learn the nuances of back room organization?” Miyuki gestured grandly with his arm as he walked backward toward the door. Kuramochi stuck up his middle finger—Miyuki shrugged, whirled around gracefully, and disappeared through the door into the back room. As I was about to follow, Kuramochi threw his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close, so quickly and unexpectedly that I nearly spilled my latte everywhere.

        “Listen. You’re a good kid. I like you,” he said, voice hushed, not quite a whisper. Suddenly very serious, like when I’d seen his face grow shadowed at the café a few weeks ago. Exactly what had happened last time he talked about Miyuki.

        “Yeah?”

        “Yeah. Do you want some advice?”

        “Sure…”

        “Miyuki can be tough. He’ll say things that really make you feel like shit. Don’t let it get to you. He has his own way of doing things, all right? The meaner he is to you, the more he cares.”

        “The meaner he is? Are you serious?” I shot back, suddenly furious. Who even was this guy? “That sounds like a load of shit. Aren’t you supposed to be his best friend?”

        “I am. I may be the only person in the world that loves that guy other than his mother. That’s why I’m telling you now. Don’t resent him.”

        “It’s only my first day! I barely know him. What the hell?”

        “You’ll get it eventually.”

        He patted me on the back and turned to leave.

        “Text me when you’re done! I’ll take you out to lunch before class, all right?”

        Before I could even agree, he was gone. And then I heard Miyuki screaming from the back room.

        “Sawamura! I don’t have all damn morning!”

        I rushed over, like a servant heeding the call of his lord.

        Until opening, we went through the protocol of organizing the records in the back—what was to become my first task each shift. They arrived more quickly than we could organize them. He showed me, and then watched me do it for a bit, before telling me to keep going while he went to organize some things behind the register before opening. It was mind-numbing work, and my stomach was queasy after what Kuramochi had said to me. Eerily similar to the warnings that Haruichi, who didn’t know Miyuki nearly as well as Kuramochi did, had given me before applying to this job. I felt like a fish out of water, jumping up and gasping for air, only to find my lungs continuously filling with nothing. But I tried to shut it out of my mind, whatever ‘it’ was. Some sort of overhanging cloud following my every interaction with Miyuki. I really didn’t know him at all. And he didn’t know me at all. As of right now, our relationship was purely that of manager and employee.

        And yet.

        When he looked at me I felt naked. When he met my eyes, even if it was by chance, I was stripped of everything. Baring myself to him, involuntarily, while he remained hidden by charm and conversations that were about nothing and meant nothing. When he said my name I caught fire. It wasn’t fair, for him to do that after so little time.

        I was in the middle of shelving records, immersed in this work despite its ease, when I realized that he had come back in. We’d technically been open for an hour or so, but I hadn’t heard anybody come in—I wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, leaning against the doorway, watching me in stoic silence. Suddenly I was frozen, record in hand, still on my tiptoes.

        “Don’t let me interrupt,” he said.

        “Feels weird with you watching like that,” I replied, trying to make a joke out of it. But I really was squirming. Thankfully, he chuckled a bit.

        “I just wanted to see how you’re doing. Fine, apparently.”

        “Yeah, soon enough I’ll be able to do this with my eyes closed.” Swelling with newfound confidence, I smiled wide and comfortable at him.

        “Please don’t.” Before I realized what was happening, he was tossing a bundle of keys toward me. I managed to grab it just before it slammed into my face. “Nice catch.”

        “What are these?”

        “For when you’re opening or closing. Your own keys to the palace,” he explained.

        “Whoa.”

        “Feeling powerful?”

        “Sure.” I tossed them into the air and caught them again. “I’ll guard them with my life.”

        “Of course you will.”

        Silence.

        Neither of us moved. Neither of us said anything. Neither of us moved our eyes away. We stood and stared, both smiling, worlds away. The keys seared into my palm. I tried desperately to think of something to say, but I couldn’t think of anything worthy enough to cut through this silence—this dense, sickly sweet nothingness.

        The bell above the door went off.

        He pushed himself from the wall and turned to leave.

        “I’ll come check on you in a bit. Let me know if you need anything,” he called over his shoulder.

        “All right! Thanks.”

        “And please, for the love of god, Sawamura, breathe.”

        I breathed and finished my shift.

        At the end of it, Kuramochi swung by, and we went to lunch at a diner down the street, just the two of us, but we might as well have known each other our entire lives. He made me promise, really promise, pinky promise, that I would come see him at Ace Nightclub over the upcoming weekend. I told him I couldn’t fucking wait.

        “Don’t forget to text me before you show up. And Miyuki, too.”

        He squeezed his pinky around mine more tightly. We were leaning across the table on our elbows, brows furrowed and smiles wide, as if we were about to arm-wrestle.

        “And text me your work schedule! I’ll bring you coffee when I can.”

        How he was so cool, and why he so instantly took such a brotherly liking to me, I couldn’t quite understand. But I wasn’t going to question it. Right there and then, I sent him an image of my work schedule for the next month. He tousled my hair and lit a cigarette, and smoked it until a waiter asked him to please stop—at which point he did not stop. I was excited to learn more about him. I was excited for him to learn more about me.

        When we were finished, he insisted on paying for the meal. While he got on his motorcycle and rode away, tinted helmet and cigarette still in his mouth, I got on my bike, put in my headphones, and biked back to campus. Definitely going to be late to class, and definitely didn’t care.   

Chapter Text

8

useful connections for minors

        The next week went by without incident. I worked a few shifts and finished my application for the station internship—Haruichi promised me he would look it over in excruciating detail before the deadline. Nothing exciting happened at work, except that Miyuki and I fell into a routine way of greeting each other. Not that I felt any less excited, any fewer butterflies, when I saw him early in the morning or right after lunch. I assumed that one day, maybe, eventually, I would get used to him looking me in the eyes and saying hello. I hoped so, at least. It was a distracting feeling, and I was still working hard to memorize everything. The shelving was pretty much muscle memory by the end of the week. It all went by in the blink of an eye.

        And suddenly it was Friday, and Kuramochi was texting me. I’d been continuously surprised by his sudden, unabashed friendliness—he responded each time I texted him, would initiate conversations on his own, made jokes to me and asked me about myself each time I asked him about himself. I’d always been an only child, and it was the first time I started imagine what an older brother might feel like. I was trying not to jump the gun. We hadn’t known each other long. But we clicked.

        It was different with Kuramochi than it was with Miyuki. I never once thought of Miyuki like an older brother. And, yes, Kuramochi was hot, but he was off limits from the beginning and anyway, I didn’t feel that vibe with him. He was so friendly and kind, the same way Miyuki was reserved and sarcastic. I could tell how they were friends. Their senses of humor complemented one another. Where Miyuki was in some ways closed off, Kuramochi was open as a book—and was fantastic at reading. Could tell almost immediately what people were thinking. That’s what I heard from Haruichi, at least. From Ryo, of course. But I could feel it, too. Even if I didn’t use as much punctuation in my texts, or something silly like that, he asked if I was okay. All in the middle of teasing me relentlessly. It was his form of affection, apparently. I welcomed it.

        Haruichi had been mentally and physically preparing for our outing all week, so he was begrudgingly ready when I showed up at his door a few floors up, dressed to go out and obsessively excited. I helped him get ready, too. He tried on at least five different outfits before finally deciding on sleek black pants and a pink t-shirt, complete with a thin black jacket that I told him he could wrap around his waist in the club. It was freezing outside, but I figured the club would be sweltering, especially once we started drinking. I was wearing dark wash jeans, orange boots, and a flannel. I think technically I was considered a twink. I didn’t know how to dress right yet. Neither of us did.

        We took a Lyft, and on the ten minute drive, I texted Kuramochi to tell him we were on the way. He texted back with a selfie, his tongue out as per usual. I wanted to text Miyuki, too, but the jitters wouldn’t allow it. I sat on my hands and bit on my lower lip to attempt some semblance of calmness, but I was bouncing a bit in my seat.

        The line to get in was long and winding, running all the way down the street—it wasn’t even eleven o’clock yet. We had been in it, surrounded by glitter and cigarette smoke, for about ten minutes when my phone started buzzing. I thought it was Kuramochi.

        It was Miyuki. I answered.

        “Hey, cutie! You here?” he asked before I could even say hello.

        “Harucchi and I are in line,” I said, yelling over the crowd.

        “Stay put. I’m coming to get you.” Then he hung up. Haruichi raised his eyebrows at me.

        “Miyuki is coming to get us?”

        “Oh. Okay,” he laughed.

        Sure enough, ten minutes later, we were pulled out of the line by a smiling, smooth Miyuki, in a black t-shirt and jeans with a name tag. Hands on both of our wrists, without a word, he led us to the entrance. Past the line—nodded to the bouncers and slipped us into the utter chaos that was Ace Nightclub.

        As we squeezed through the entrance, I groped blindly for Haruichi’s hand somewhere behind me. Hand-in-hand, we entered Ace Nightclub for the first time.

        It must have been an especially busy night—we could barely make our way through the crowd without pushing and shoving indiscriminately. I walked on my tiptoes, peering over the tops of heads to catch a glimpse of the stage. I could see Kuramochi’s silhouette, illuminated, with one hand in the air and the other turning knobs and switches and god-knows-what on his deck. He looked like he belonged up there, like his body was meant to move like that. He had the ear for it, it seemed. Everybody was dancing. Haruichi and I, at Miyuki’s heels, were just desperate to get to the bar and down a few drinks first.

        “Kuramochi is so fucking excited you’re here,” he called over his shoulder. He led us over to the bar, disappeared for a moment, and then appeared once again on the other side. He was making drinks before we could say anything. It was disgustingly crowded, with patrons clawing their way to the bar for a drink like people in a mob. We were lucky that Miyuki had been able to get us to the front, right across from him.

        “Really?” I replied, as loud as possible. Haruichi‘s eyes were darting around the club, obviously overwhelmed. He nodded as he handed me my drink, and then Haruichi his.

        “Yeah. He’s really taken a liking to you, Sawamura. I don’t know what you did to him to make him like you so much,” he said. I couldn’t really tell how far he’d meant to take that, so I just smiled and nodded like I agreed.

        “Awesome! Well the set already sounds great,” I continued.

        And it did. Each time I glanced over, he seemed more and more in his element. Miyuki must have thought so, too. His body moved a bit to the beat of the music while the lights reflected off his glasses like rays of colorful sunlight, and he turned away from us for a few moments to make some drinks for other customers. His lips were moving, speaking to them, saying words I couldn’t quite figure out. Smiling a smile that would fill his tip jar in no time. I caught myself smiling, too. He laughed, handed someone their drink, and threw them a wink as he took the five dollar bill and stuffed it in his shirt. It was then that he looked over and caught my eye.

        “Good drinks?” he asked us. I nodded. Even Haruichi seemed to be enjoying his.

        “I’m surprised that I’m able to swallow it down. I have a weak stomach when it comes to alcohol,” Haruichi said.

        “I figured as much. I cater each drink for each person, don’t worry,” Miyuki said encouragingly. Haruichi, now the color of a tomato, sipped gently. I was trying to finish my drink as quickly as possible, so I could get the buzz going and move on to the next drink until my only choice was to dance. I knew Haruichi would just follow me wherever I dragged him, but I wasn’t quite ready for the dance floor yet. I wanted to drink more, and flirt with Miyuki a bit more. Despite feeling Haruichi’s gaze starting to lock down on us, now that he’d gotten his bearings.

        “How long has Kuramochi been doing this?” I asked. Miyuki didn’t look up from the drink he was making.

        “DJing, you mean?”

        “Yeah.”

        “Long as I’ve known him, at least. He started it as a hobby in high school, and got more serious about it in college. So when he dropped out, he just honed his skills. He’s been at Ace for nearly a year now. He’s our nightly headliner, unless we get really big DJs blowing through town.”

        “He’s really fucking good. Right, Harucchi?”

        “Yeah. My body keeps moving on its own,” Haruichi said.  

        “He’s a huge asset to this place,” Miyuki agreed.

        “How did you start working here?” I ventured.

        “Oh, now you’re asking the big questions, huh?” he teased.

        “We’re gonna be spending a lot of time together! Figure I should get to know you.”

        “Is that right?” Miyuki handed off his next drink and handed the customer the check. Then he leaned across the bar on his elbows, closer to my face than before, and I could see the shadows dancing in shapes all over his skin. “Does that mean I should get to know you, too?”

        “Ask me anything. Literally anything. And I’ll answer truthfully,” I replied evenly. He looked at Haruichi.

        “He bluffing?”

        “No. He’s honest to a fault,” Haruichi replied.

        “Okay. Good to know.”

        He left it at that, without answering my question.

        “If you two will excuse me for a bit—let me know when you need more drinks.” With a graceful wave of his hand, he disappeared to the other side of the bar, where a significant crowd, thirsty, had gathered. We watched him silently for a few moments.

        “You’re so obvious, Eijun,” Haruichi finally said.

        “What? What are you talking about?”

        “You look at him with such big puppy dog eyes.”

        “I do not.”

        “You do!” he laughed. “If only you could’ve seen the look on your face when he got closer like that. Like you were about to have a heart attack or something.”

        “Stop. You’re fucking exaggerating.”

        “I really wish I were. But you’re smitten. He probably knows it, too.” Nonchalantly, he sipped from his drink and leaned his arms on the bar. His feet couldn’t touch the railing beneath him. “Tread carefully.”

        “Oh, come off it. I get it, all right? I get it.”

        “I don’t think you do. I think you’re just saying that. But I’ll let it go for now, anyway. I know you just want to have fun tonight.”

        We finished our drinks and had our usual idle conversation—when Miyuki saw our glasses were empty, he replenished them with a flourish. When Haruichi wasn’t paying attention (because I didn’t want more lectures), I would let my eyes drift over to wherever Miyuki was. I liked watching him in his element. Pouring drinks like he was born doing it, flirting with every customer to get bigger tips. He was such a natural. At one point, I saw him sneak a shot of his own. If I hadn’t been paying attention, if I had so much as blinked, I would’ve missed it. But when he turned to run a card through the register, he sneakily poured a shot and downed it. Swiftly, without a grimace or even a blink. He tossed the shot glass into a mystery box under the bar and turned around to finish the transaction as if nothing had happened. But I saw it. I figured most bartenders drank on the job like that; if I were doing this job, on a busy night like this, I would need some liquid courage, too. But after he’d returned the card to the patron, he turned and ripped yet another shot. I wasn’t sure if I should’ve been concerned or impressed.

        After I’d finished my fourth drink and Haruichi had nearly finished his third, I decided it was time to dance. The dance floor was starting to get rowdy, borderline dangerous, but I reassured Haruichi that I wouldn’t let go of his hand. We were going to be fine. Just then, there was a large, dramatic bass drop, and the entire club erupted. Kuramochi was bobbing his head and now using both hands, with the headphones secure over his ears. I was jealous of how comfortable he was up there, about how much fun it looked like he was having. I wasn’t sure I had anything like that in my life.

        I couldn’t quite see straight anymore, and I certainly couldn’t think straight, and the music was controlling me like a puppeteer. As I moved to the beat, I looked up at the stage—for right now, Kuramochi was god. I swerved and whipped my head and spun around, I jumped as high as I could and fell clumsily back, and Haruichi had to grab me to keep me from falling. So I grasped his hands and spun him around, forced him to dance with me, because I was drunk and I wanted to dance with him, damn it. After ten more minutes I couldn’t make sense of anything except the music. So that’s all I focused on. I closed my eyes and let it whisk me away, let the flashing lights become muffled behind my eyelids, I could hear and feel and see only this beat.

        At one point, I felt someone come up behind me and put their hands on my hips. The warm breath on the back of my neck and pressure of his groin on my ass felt incredible right then, so I kept on dancing. His hands slid up under my shirt, sweaty and clammy on my chest, making me tingle all over. I grinded back against this faceless, nameless person, teasing at the edge of jeans and starting to kiss my neck. I thought maybe someone was calling my name—Haruichi? Yeah, it must’ve been—but I swatted the sound away like a fly in my ear. I kept dancing. Kept grinding on this stranger because, fuck, it felt good, and I hadn’t been touched in so long. I liked being felt up. Liked dancing against someone. Even if I was imaging it was Miyuki, but knew it wasn’t. I wanted to be kissed, drunk and stupid as I was. I turned around and wrapped my arms around the neck of this anonymous person and I must have kissed him because the next thing I knew there was a tongue down my throat and hands squeezing my ass. In the haze of my jumbled thoughts was the possibility of finally getting fucked tonight. If my closed my eyes, I could just pretend—just pretend—that it was Miyuki.

        I was interrupted by an overwhelming need to throw up.

        Not again.

        It seemed like where alcohol was involved, I was destined to always embarrass myself.

Chapter Text

9

same thing as before

     I stumbled away, pushing my way through the crowd with one hand and covering my mouth, my puffed up cheeks, with the other. I finally managed to fight my way into the bathroom despite the large line (I didn’t think they’d mind, seeing as how I was already practically vomiting), and kicked open the door of the nearest stall. Finally safe, I knelt on the floor and vomited my guts into the toilet. My throat burning and my eyes watering, I went from having the time of my life to utterly miserable. After the first wave, I waited, hunched pathetically over the toilet, for the next wave. And when it came, I vomited some more. It left me exhausted. My body was still shaking with the bass of the music, but I couldn’t get to my feet, so I just sat on the bathroom floor. I’d had too much too fast.

     I wasn’t sure when Haruichi got there, but he stood over me, rubbing my back, without a word. He knew there was nothing he could’ve said in that moment. I wanted to keep dancing but I wasn’t sure if I’d have the energy. After a few minutes, he spoke.

     “Do you need water?” he asked.

     “N-no, no. I’m fine…”

     “Eijun.”

     “I’m fine! Go wait for me outside,” I said, words slurred and hardly comprehensible.

     “Let me help you!”

     “No. Go. It’s embarrassing.”

     “Okay…be right outside.”

     Once he was gone, I got myself to my feet and clambered over to the sink. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and started washing. I splashed my face, but the world was spinning and I could still taste the vomit, and suddenly my stomach was churning and the fact I couldn’t see straight was terrifying rather than exciting. I steadied myself on the sink and stared at my reflection, hard, in some weird attempt to find clarity. But there was none. Only stupidity and desperation. I hated how I looked in that moment. So childish and lost. I was furious with myself for letting this happen again.

     The door opened, and I looked over—it was Kuramochi, grinning from ear-to-ear, saying passing words to the others in the bathroom. He didn’t notice me, and went right into one of the stalls. I decided to wait for him to come out, so I stepped off to the side and watched the door of the stall he’d entered. Waited for the flush. But it never came. He walked back out of the stall, wiping his nose and stuffing a small metal box into his pocket. He only noticed me as he was washing up.

     “Hey! Sawamura! You made it!”

     “I wouldn’t…miss it,” I managed. I tried to walk forward but nearly fell—Kuramochi caught me and held me up.

     “Shit, you’re fucked up,” he said as he tousled my hair.

     “I don’t like the taste of vomit.”

     He laughed his laugh, wild and amused.  

     “Well, that’s a good sign. Let’s get you out of here, hmm?”

     “But…your set…”

     “It’s fine, I put on a playlist for a bit. Let’s go.” He steadied me as we walked out of the bathroom, and he called out for people to make way, and I felt so utterly safe and taken care of with my arm around his shoulders. Together we made our way through the crowd for what seemed like the thousandth time, and he stopped by the bar, where Haruichi was sitting and talking with Miyuki. I didn’t have the awareness to be jealous.

     “It’s your first night here and you already got carried away?” Miyuki cried. “Are you ever gonna learn how to drink?”

     “Lay off. You’re the one that made him all those drinks,” Kuramochi replied.

     “He should know how much he can take. It’s not my job to look after him.”

     “Whatever. I’m taking him home,” Kuramochi said. “Haruichi, can you call your brother?”

     “Okay!” Haruichi pulled his phone out.

     “Fine. Just come back down when you’re done,” Miyuki snapped. Genuinely irritated.

     “Sure.”

     I don’t remember getting there. I blinked and suddenly we were in Ryousuke and Kuramochi’s apartment, all the lights were on, my head was spinning. Haruichi was there. Ryousuke was there—he must’ve been the one who’d driven us here. Kuramochi was there, still supporting me.

     “Are you gonna throw up again?” I heard him ask. I shook my head. “All right, then let’s wash you up and get you to bed.”

     He helped to the bathroom and told me to wash my face. I heard him go to the kitchen while I steadied myself and splashed my face with water. I even managed to squeeze some toothpaste onto my finger and give my teeth a few half-hearted scrubs before I got bored and tired and gave up. A folded graphic t-shirt was ready for me on the couch when I came out, and Kuramochi stood by the table, holding out a glass of water. Ryousuke was in the kitchen, and Haruichi was already passed out on the other side of the large sofa.

     “Change, and then drink this water.”

     I stripped out of my jeans and shirt, and put on the one on the couch. I told him I wasn’t thirsty, because I wasn’t, but he forced me to drink it anyway.

     “You’ll thank me tomorrow.”

     “Whatever.” I collapsed on the bed and chugged the water as best I could, but it was too cold and hurt a little bit—when I thought about stopping, I’d look over at Kuramochi and see the terribly determined expression on his face, and keep drinking.

     “Feeling better?”

     “Mhm.”

     “Good.”

     “Hey, Kuramochi…”

     “What’s up?”

     “Were you doing drugs? In the bathroom?” I asked as I burrowed under the blanket he gave me.

     He blinked at me, probably startled by the question. I didn’t care. Whatever small filter I had when I was sober was totally wiped out now that I was drunk. I probably wouldn’t remember this conversation in the morning.

     “How the fuck is that any of your business?”

     “It’s not.” I pulled the comforter up to my chin. “And I don’t really care one way or the other. I’d probably have to be high to do what you do, too. Can you open the window?”

     Despite a heavy, exasperated sigh, he reached over the couch to crack open the window above it. The cool air felt incredible. Kuramochi was preparing to leave, back to finish his set, but I reached up and grabbed his wrist.

     “Can I ask you one more thing?” I said.

     “Yeah. Fine.”

     “Did you mean it? When you said Miyuki likes me?”

     Even drunk, I could sense the change in his demeanor. His face dropped a bit, and whatever irritation he’d been feeling melted away. It was a look of…sadness? Sympathy? Pity, even? I couldn’t quite name it. But it wasn’t happy and I didn’t know what it meant and I was too exhausted to figure it out.

     “Yeah. I meant it. Go to sleep.”

     “Okay. Good night.”

     “Night.”

 


 

     I woke up to the sound of soft, smooth voices coming from somewhere in the distance, and a pool of sunlight falling onto my face. Goosebumps covered my body, half covered by a blanket, half hanging over the edge of the couch. Through my pounding headache, one that was shamefully familiar, I tried to recall the events of last night and remember where I was. Eyes squeezed and squinting, lips dry, body aching, I forced myself to my elbows and looked around. I realized that I’d been here before—I knew this apartment. I looked toward the voices and felt the heaviness of uncertainty lift off my shoulders. I was in Ryousuke and Kuramochi’s apartment—over in the kitchen, Ryousuke and Haruichi were sitting on barstools, drinking coffee and chatting softly. After a few moments, Ryousuke noticed me, blinking myself back into reality.

     “Good morning,” he called.

     “Eijun! How do you feel?” Haruichi swiveled in his chair to face me, his expression bright and awake. I must have looked so horrible.

     “Okay,” I replied. “Not as bad as last time, I guess. That’s good, right?”

     “Right.” Ryousuke poured me some coffee in a light blue mug. “Sugar?”

     “That would be great.”

     He mixed it up for me and walked it over. I thanked him again and took a sip—let it slither down my throat and give me a bit of life.

     “Do you remember what happened?” Haruichi asked.

     “I remember drinking at the bar. Dancing. Throwing up. Kuramochi found me...then I woke up here,” I described.

     “Yeah. That’s pretty much it.”

     “Haruichi called me and I picked the three of you up and drove you back here,” Ryousuke explained. “You were exhausted. Even Haruichi was drunker than I’d ever seen him.”

     “Never again. My head really hurt this morning,” he pouted.

     “Shit, what time is it?”

     “About ten. Why? Somewhere important to be?” Ryousuke grinned.

     “Oh. Uh, yeah. I have work this afternoon.”

     “At the record store, you mean.”

     “Exactly.”

     “How do you like it there?” he continued.

     “I love it. I mean, it’s only been a week, but I’m obsessed,” I replied, face lighting up and voice picking up speed. Just thinking about the store lifted my spirits—it was true, it had only been a week, but I felt at home there. Maybe it was the rush of a new job, but I didn’t think so. I wasn’t the type to start things without finishing them, and I wasn’t the type to do shit I wasn’t excited about.

     “I’m glad to hear it. Maybe I’ll come visit sometime and you can pick out a record for me,” he grinned.

     “He’s good at it! Like he was meant to be there,” Haruichi added. I blushed, and sipped from my coffee to avoid answering and saying something totally stupid. Ryousuke was so intimidating and mature, the way he was always stoic and his voice smooth and uninterrupted. Unbelievably different from Kuramochi.

     “Where’s Kuramochi?” I asked.

     “At the bakery down the street getting us breakfast.”

     “Oh my god,” I breathed, in utter awe. Ryousuke raised his eyebrows. “He is seriously the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Like he acts all tough and he punches me really hard and makes fun of me and shit, but he always goes out of his way for people.”

     “You haven’t known him very long.” It wasn’t an accusation. Just a statement of fact.

     “I mean...am I wrong?”

     “No. Not at all.”

     “I bet he was a big bully in high school,” I snickered. “Like he tried really hard to be tough.”

     “He absolutely was,” Ryousuke laughed. “But he’s always had a heart of gold.”

     “You and him get along well, Eijun,” Haruichi pointed out.

     “I guess we do. When he’s not pulling my hair, or calling me names,” I pouted. As they laughed, I went to check my phone, and realized that I didn’t have it. “Shit, have you seen my—?”

     “Over by the window, charging.”

     It was motivation enough to drag my aching ass off the couch. Not too many notifications, since Haruichi and I had been together all night.

     But the notifications that were there lit my skin on fire. Two text messages and a missed call from Kazuya Miyuki, at 2:30am. I opened the text messages.

     Miyuki: You get home all right?

     Miyuki: Text me when you wake up, idiot.

     Teeth digging into my lower lip, I texted back.

     Hey, sorry! I just got up, totally fine. Kuramochi really took care of me. I’ll definitely be at work on time.

     I didn’t expect him to text back for a while, so I put my phone back down—only for it to vibrate almost as soon as I’d turned around. I grabbed it, nearly dropped it, and opened the new text message.

     Miyuki: Drink a lot of water and make sure you shower. I don’t want the whole place to stink like vomit and Kuramochi’s cigarettes. Got it?

     Aye aye, Captain!

I sent it, with a cute little emoji. I figured that was the end of the conversation—at least until noon, at which point I suspected Miyuki would chew me out for getting blacked again. Though I hadn’t known him long and he was good at acting coy, he was definitely the type to relish being right and better than everybody else. I was somehow both dreading it and looking forward to it.

     When I turned around, Ryousuke and Haruichi were both staring at me. Haruichi concerned, brows knit together and lips pouting. Ryousuke knowing, amused, eyebrows slightly raised.

     “What?” I demanded, suddenly defensive.

     “Nothing,” Ryousuke said. “The way your face lit up spoke for itself.”

     I wasn’t a very self-aware person. I couldn’t possibly imagine what kind of expression I’d made upon seeing those messages. Before Haruichi could say anything, we heard keys turning in the door, and Kuramochi waltzed in with a few paper bags in hand. He kicked the door closed behind him. His hair was a mess, his clothes didn’t match, and his eyes were shadowed. But he was smiling bright as always.

     “Look who’s up! Good morning, my little blacked out loser,” he said to me.

     “Rude!”

     He stuck his pierced tongue out at me, put the bags on the counter, tousled Haruichi‘s hair (more gently than he ever tousled mine) and bent over to kiss Ryousuke’s puckered, expectant lips.

     “Who wants croissants? I got the chocolate-filled kind, too.”

     “Truly my hero,” Ryousuke purred. “Come over here, Sawamura. Eat with us before work. I can drive you back to campus when we’re done.”

     “Sounds great! Thanks.”

     The four of us, huddled in the kitchen, drank coffee and ate our chocolate-filled croissants. Haruichi and I gushed to Kuramochi about how much we enjoyed his set, and how talented he was; I apologized for ruining his night, and as I said the words, the guilt wriggled its way into my stomach. But Kuramochi shook his head, speaking with a voice muffled by crumbs.

     “Not at all. It’s not your fault you don’t know how to handle your liquor yet,” he said. “Besides, I blame Miyuki. He’s such a fucking alcoholic, he thinks everybody wants drinks strong as hell, too.”

     I knew it was a joke. But I couldn’t help thinking back to him sneaking those vodka shots. How many more had he had throughout the night? I let it go. Now wasn’t the time to bring something like that up.

     “He just made us the drinks we asked for,” I said. “It’s really my fault.”

     “Well, at least you’re getting a better idea of your tolerance. And so is he.” He paused, finally looking up at me. “Why do you always feel the need to stand up for him?”

     “Me?” I gawked. “I don’t, I just...”

     I didn’t have an explanation. Ryousuke came to my rescue. In a twisted sort of way.

     “Miyuki is charming, though, isn’t he?” he asked me, chin leaning on his hand. He’d finished his croissant with lightning speed, without so much as a crumb left.

     “I...yeah. I guess he is.”

     “And he gave you that job. Like he’s taking you under his wing.”

     “You make it sound creepy, Ryou,” Kuramochi interjected.

     “He’s already taught me so much, though. That’s true.”

     “Just remember not to give him too much credit. In the end, it’s you that makes you. All right?”

     Kuramochi said it very seriously. Wide-eyed, red-cheeked, I nodded. He nodded back, like we’d just exchanged a pact. He really was an absurdly nice guy.

Chapter Text

10

dropping hints

     Going to work that day, I experienced, for the first time, what Kuramochi had meant about Miyuki being an arrogant prick.

     It was a harsh, unpleasant punch in the stomach, for it to happen so soon. We hadn’t known each other a month yet.

     He didn’t end up lecturing me. It was much, much worse. He gave me subtly disapproving looks when I walked in, smelled my breath. And when I apologized for being a handful last night (though, now that I thought about, he was a bit responsible too, and I really hadn’t been that bad), he shrugged, and said, “can’t expect much more from a kid like you.” Which stung way worse than any dramatic lecture he could’ve given. I didn’t think that was fair, and I told him so. What did he know about me, anyway? And why did he insist on speaking down to me like that? I didn’t realize how angry I was until I found myself yelling, throwing a temper tantrum in the back room. I hadn’t meant to explode but here I was. All while he stared, unflinching.

     “Are you done?” he asked when I paused.

     “Like you were such a perfect eighteen year-old. And never made any mistakes, ever,” I grumbled.

     I was pouty and upset now. Really upset. A lecture, I could’ve taken. I was so used to those, impulsive and reckless as I was. But for him to respond to my apologies, my prostrations, with such shameless condescension—it made me livid. Yes, I was into him. Really into him. Unreasonably into him, given how long I’d known him. But my pride was the strongest thing I owned and just because I was head over heels didn’t mean I was going to let that go. I was breathless with anger and defensiveness. Maybe it wasn’t in spite of being head over heels, but because of being head over heels. I didn’t want him treating me like a kid. It destroyed whatever image I imagined he had of me.

     “You’re lucky Kuramochi was there. You’re not always going to have somebody around to clean up your messes,” he replied.

     “Especially when you were no help.”

     “You’re getting cheeky now?” He snickered, like a parent whose child had talked back for the first time. Impressed, amused, but at his core, angry. “Watch where you step. Don’t forget that I’m the reason you could even get into that club. I’m the reason you have this job, too, for that matter. So don’t fuck it up.”

     “What do you want me to do? Grovel?”

     “No. Just live up to what we see in you, so we don’t regret investing.”

     And with that bombshell, he left me alone to organize the records. Suddenly I was wondering whether it was a compliment or an insult. Whether he’d meant to lift me up or put me down. I felt a combination of everything, all at once, in a rush that went straight to my head and made me physically dizzy. I wished he was back here so I could take another look at his face—memorize the expression he’d made when he’d said that, so I could pocket it and pull it out on rainy days. Investing. He was investing in me. Now both wildly angry and wildly encouraged, I savored the churning of my stomach and continued organizing the records. And went right back to fantasizing about what it would be like to kiss him, even if it was just once. As if he had never said anything shitty in the first place. I was amazed at my own abilities to put humiliation behind me when Miyuki was involved. Perhaps it should’ve been a warning sign.

     He looked especially beautiful when he was being condescending. What a dangerous feature for a human being to have.

     I started to fall into rhythm over the next week. I worked at the records store each day, either opening it and getting it ready in the morning before Miyuki came in, or closing it after Miyuki had gone. I was either the first there or the last to go, which he admitted was refreshing to him. I asked him why he hadn’t hired someone to help out earlier, and he said that he had just managed to convince the owner of the record store (and the night club), a mysterious person that he just called Coach, that it was a good idea. By the time Friday rolled around, I was starting to really get the hang of it all. I knew the contents of the store better and could help most of the customers, I was getting more efficient ringing things up at the register—the back room was always the back room, no better or worse than my first day.

     Seeing Miyuki every day was still a phenomenon in my life. Our conversations fell into something resembling natural witty banter; maybe, if I was being ambitious, even flirtatious. He gave me new pearls of advice every day, and didn’t really say anything mean after Saturday. I was certain that he would show that side of himself again soon enough, but until then, I told myself I’d be grateful for his sarcastic condescension, help, and fluid conversation. I liked spending time with him. That was what it boiled down to. So when I went into work, I was looking forward to the job and to my companion. I woke up in the morning and thought about Miyuki. I fell deeper each time I saw him.

     And Kuramochi and I continued our budding, brotherly relationship. We were texting nearly every day, and I found myself turning to him with each passing question, nearly every passing thought, in my head. He was good at texting back and he answered my questions thoroughly. Now I had two people who listened to me, who talked to me, who gave me the friendship that my attention-craving, extroverted heart craved: Haruichi and Kuramochi. I didn’t see Kuramochi at all that week, but on Thursday night, as I was closing up, he called me.

     “Hello?”

     “Sawamura! You closing up?”

     “As we speak. What’s up?”

     “Are you busy tonight? Have a lot of homework, or anything?”

     “Uh, not really. I was just gonna grab dinner with Haruichi.”

     “Can you tell him you’ll be late?”

     “Why? What do you need?”

     “I’m heading over right now. Don’t move, all right?”

     “Um…okay?”

     Five minutes later, Kuramochi, on his giant black motorcycle, rolled up in front of the store while I stood waiting in the window. Cool and graceful, he parked and slid off, taking off his tinted helmet. He got a big cardboard box strapped to the back of the motorcycle, and I opened the door for him.

     “Hello, hello!”

     “What’s in the box?” I asked.

     “Come to the back room with me.”

     I followed him, because he didn’t really give me a choice. Finally safe and alone, he dropped the box on the ground, making me jump a bit from the sound. I finally peeked inside—it was full of balloons, streamers, party hats, confetti, the works. Brow furrowed, I looked back up at Kuramochi. He was beaming.

     “Are we celebrating something?” I asked.

     “We are! Or, we will be,” he replied. “Tomorrow is Miyuki’s birthday.”

     “You’re kidding!”

     “I am not. Fucker’s turning 24.”

     “I had absolutely no idea.”

     “Well, now you know. And you’re gonna help me decorate, so that he’s pleasantly surprised when he comes into work tomorrow.”

     “Oh!”

     “I mean...you’re okay helping me out, right?”

     “Of course! It’s the least I could do at this point,” I smiled. “I don’t really have money to get him a nice present...so this is actually probably the most I could do.”

     “Atta boy.” He wrapped me into a headlock, tightened until my face was crushed against his armpit. He smelled so much like cigarettes. When he released me and I stumbled away, fixing the mess that was my hair, my chest was warm and my cheeks red.  I smiled back at him. We got to work. We decided to just decorate the back room—Kuramochi told me that Miyuki didn’t like making a big deal of his birthday.

     “November 17th,” I mused in between blowing balloons. “A Scorpio. Right?”

     “Yup. When’s your birthday?”

     “Not until May. I’m a spring baby,” I grinned.

     “No way,” he cried. “I’m May, too.”

     “So you agree that Taurus is the best sign of the zodiac.”

     “Obviously.”

     I opened my mouth to suggest that when spring finally rolled around, we have a joint birthday party. But I remembered that we really hadn’t known each other long, and as important as he was becoming to me, I couldn’t possibly be having the same impact on him. I was just a kid compared to him—and Miyuki, for that matter. By May, they might already have gotten bored of me. So I just kept blowing up my balloon.

     For a bit, we were both quiet. I didn’t like silence, but somehow, it was okay with Kuramochi. Not awkward. We hung up the streamers that said “Happy Birthday” and he gave me some photographs to tape around the room. Photographs of Miyuki and his friends. A lot of them were of just him and Kuramochi, dating back to when they were about my age. Testu and Jun were in a lot of the photographs, too. Some of just Miyuki, never caught in unflattering or compromising positions. Always smooth, sometimes smiling, making searing eye contact with the camera.

     “For all the mean things you say about Miyuki, you must really love him to do this,” I teased.

     “I do.”

     His tone was solemn, then. Certain, but solemn. Like it was somehow a burden. I turned over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of him, but his back was to me.

     “Right,” I said, unsure of how to respond.

     “Miyuki’s...complicated.”

     “Complicated how?” I paused. “Don’t say it’s none of my business.”

     “Why do you think it is?”

     Because I like him.

     “Because I’ll probably be working closely with him for a long time,” I replied.

     Because I really, really like him.

     This time, Kuramochi turned to meet my eyes. There was that conflicted look again.

     “Complicated how?” I repeated. As casually as I could.

     “I told you. He shows his affection crudely. He’s charming and witty and he can make you smile, but he doesn’t know how to deal with his own genuine feelings sometimes.”

     “Like, he’s not used to feeling, and then when he does he’s not really sure what to do about it,” I offered.

     “Sure. Yeah.”

     “I’m like the opposite. When I feel something, I don’t know how to do anything but feel it.”

     “That’s dangerous,” Kuramochi said.

     “Is it? I’ve always considered it a strength. Life’s so much harder when you hide your feelings. I figured someone like you would get it.”

     “Hey, Sawamura.”

     “What’s up?”

     “We haven’t known each other long.”

     “Right.”

     “But I consider you my friend.”

     “I consider you my friend, too.”

     “You can always call me when you need help, all right?”

     “Where’s this coming from?” I laughed.

     “You just seem really prone to getting into trouble,” he said softly. I wasn’t totally convinced. “And you can talk to me about anything.”

     “You mean that?”

     “Of course. Any time.”

     I was worried that if I tried to verbalize how much that meant to me, I would start to cry. So I didn’t say anything.

     “I don’t know how long you plan on working here. Or if you plan on spending more nights at the club,” Kuramochi continued, “but either way, Miyuki’s in your life now.”

     “I...yeah, he is.”

     “There are gonna be times when you want to gut him, because you feel like he doesn’t give a shit about your feelings. But he does. He does give a shit. Try to cut him some slack.”

     He drew a long, deep breath. My stomach flipped.

     “Just not too much slack, all right?”

     I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I told him I understood, because the truth was, blowing up the balloons and talking about Miyuki was exhausting and I wanted to go to bed. We finished decorating, he offered to give me a ride home, but I told him I didn’t want to leave my bike, so he rode away on his motorcycle and I biked back to campus. Haruichi and I had dinner. I told him about what Kuramochi had told me, and as I spoke, voice hitched with confusion, he listened silently. Leaning forward slightly, so that I leaned forward, too. When I was finished, and slurped loudly from my self-made and too-runny milkshake, he was quiet for a bit. Then he let out a sigh—the kind he always let out when he was just about to finish a book he’d been working on, or solve a problem that he’d been focused on for hours. After the hardest part of thinking was over.

     “I think Kuramochi is worried about you,” he said.

     “What the hell does he have to be worried about?”

     “He’s had years to figure Miyuki out. Years to learn to deal with him, you know? And you haven’t.”

     “I don’t get it.”

     “He’s scared that you’re falling for Miyuki,” Haruichi explained. Bluntly, straightforward, but his voice so incredibly soft. “Like he can see it happening, or like he’s seen it happen before. And he doesn’t want to tell you what to do, but he wants to drop hints. That you’re not compatible, maybe. Or that he’s a scary kind of guy and you don’t need that in your life. I don’t know enough about Miyuki to agree, but Kuramochi knows him better than anyone. He’s telling you to watch out for you, even if you fall for him.”

     I thought of a proper, intelligent response, but just ended up saying:

     “Is it that obvious?”

Chapter Text

11

red velvet with the cream cheese

     Kuramochi slept through the small, intimate surprise we were supposed to have for Miyuki. He had warned me that it might happen, so I wasn’t upset. It was snowing a bit when I got up and went on my morning run; I did slip a few times, but I was the only one out in the cold darkness. I grabbed my backpack so I could go straight to class after my shift, and then I biked down to the record store. The feeling of being alone so early, opening up the shop myself—I was still getting used to it. Such a small, insignificant rush, but a rush nonetheless. Miyuki wasn’t due for another few hours, so I went to the back to make sure everything was in place, and went through the motions of checking everything before opening. I kept thinking of the face Miyuki would make when he saw everything. I’d never seen a truly surprised look on his face. Or maybe he would look more happy, with a teeth-revealing smile spreading from ear to ear, not the muted smile he always had playing around on his lips. Maybe he would laugh, loudly, vibrantly. Sometimes I was able to make him laugh, but it was never as musical as I wanted it.

     I realized Kuramochi wasn’t going to make it when, as I was ringing up a customer popping in to pick up a record quickly before work, Miyuki walked in.

     “Morning,” he called, stomping the snow off his boots.

     “Good morning!” I replied. I handed the customer his record, in its cute little bag. “There you go. Have a nice day.”

     The customer left, and Miyuki took his spot in front of me as I stood behind the register. I stared, grinning, warmed at the sight of him. I’d noticed that he liked wearing a different scarf every day, and his jacket was a beautiful red that brought out the brown tones of his hair and eyes. He narrowed his eyes, suspicious, perhaps, of my wrinkly-eyes and trembly-lipped smile. In the silence, he must have been trying to guess what it meant, trying to read my mind through my eyes. Not a terribly difficult task.

     “You look sneaky,” he said suspiciously. “Something exciting happen?”

     “No,” I lied.

     “I don’t believe you. Get a hot date or something?”

     I skipped around the register, moving towards the back room.

     “I wanna talk to you about it in the back,” I replied. He shrugged, shoulders lifting slowly and mockingly, as he followed. Taking off his jacket—arms tangled. I forced myself to tear my eyes away and not look back until we were inside.

     He did look a little bit surprised. His eyebrows came up, and his lips parted slightly; color the shade of raspberry ice cream rushed into his frosted cheeks, and he froze, coat still hanging off one of his outstretched arms. He opened his eyes wide, eyelashes covered in snowflakes. And as his lips slowly turned into a smile, they stretched out across the room and blew warmth, contentment, pure raw tenderness, into my chest. I swelled and threw my arms out.

     “Happy birthday!”

     He looked around the room. Face lighter, more open, than I’d ever seen it.

     “Did you do this?” he asked.

     “It was Kuramochi. I didn’t even know it was your birthday until he called me last night.”

     Miyuki didn’t say anything else. He just worked his way around the room, looking at the photos, running his fingers along the streamers, popping onto his toes to brush the balloons. All the way around until he reached me, bouncing with excitement, savoring the sight of him like this. I’d never seen his eyes wrinkle like that when he smiled.

     “Kuramochi said he was gonna come, and bring a cake and stuff,” I offered, when he looked at me. He started to shake his head.

     “He’s probably asleep. He’ll call and bring it late and feel guilty, I’m sure,” he replied.

     He paused, as if to let our gazes, holding, expand and fill the room.

     “Thank you, Sawamura. It means a lot.” He lifted his hand and tucked it, briefly, gently, beneath my chin. Cupped it fleeting and then let his fingertips float off it. Graceful, grateful, enough to send me to the sky with those balloons.

     “We haven’t been friends all that long, but still,” I replied, “I hope you have a really great birthday.”

     I wanted to hug him. I wanted him to open his arms and let me squeeze in against his chest and listen to his heart beating, just a bit faster than usual. But after he swept his hand across my chin—like a gift, even though it was his birthday—he hung his coat and scarf, and went back out to do his job.

     “Would you mind staying back for the rest of your shift? We got a lot that came in this week,” he called over his shoulder.

     “Sure,” I called back, but he was gone before I’d finished.

     Kuramochi did end up bringing the cake, complete with writing that read “Happy birthday, asshole!” I learned that his favorite cake was red velvet with cream cheese icing. At our lunch break, he cut the cake for us and we all had a piece, before I had to clamber onto my bike and get to class. Kuramochi thanked me for my help with a big, slobbery kiss to my cheek and a playful kick to my ass as I walked out. But I was still thinking about the way Miyuki had touched me. I waved through the windows as I biked off, and the two of them, like lovers on a train platform, saw me off.

     Breathe.

     I could hear his voice in my head, floating around in the air as I listened to my indie playlist.

     Please, breathe.

     I breathed, but it hurt a bit.

 


 

     Haruichi loved the snow, more than was normal, I think. Certainly more than me. That evening, when he begged me to go on a walk with him across campus, just to see the snow now that it was blanketed evenly across the ground, I couldn’t say no. We bundled up and, arm in arm, ventured out onto the salted campus paths. Cold as I was, the night was peaceful. Most of the other students were safe indoors, so it felt like we could’ve been the only students here. Wandering souls, nowhere to be and nowhere to go. The tips of our noses red and our hands jammed deep into our pockets, each step smaller than the next because who knew where the black ice was going to pop up next? Moments like this, I thought, love was most palpable. Tomorrow, he promised, we would go to Ace.

     “I finished reading over your radio station application,” Haruichi said.

     “Yeah? What did you think?”

     “I think it’s great.”

     “Really?”

     “Really!” he laughed. “Please don’t act so surprised. It hurts my heart.”

     “It’s just that I want it to be really good. I want this internship really badly.”

     “I know. I just made some grammar edits but other than that, it’s great. You’re a much better writer than you give yourself credit for, at least when it comes to music.”

     “Perfect. The deadline is Sunday night,” I sighed. “Thanks, Harucchi.”

     “Of course. You can always come to me,” he replied. He squeezed my arm a bit. “I can’t wait to finally listen to your show.”

     “I don’t get my own until sophomore year, assuming I do my internship next semester,” I explained, “and that’ll also mean I can’t work at the record store as often.”

     “I think that’s okay. It’s a part time gig, anyway.”

     “Yeah.”

     We trailed off, because now we knew where the conversation was veering. I didn’t mean to always bring it back to him. I focused on the crunch of the snow, and the colorful sparkles spread out before us. Millions of colors.

     “I was thinking about what you said yesterday,” I finally said.

     “About Kuramochi being worried?”

     “Mhm.”

     “What are your thoughts?”

     “You know how when you’re in middle school or even high school, and you meet someone, and you just decide that you like them so much and suddenly you can’t stop thinking about them,” I began. “And then when somebody asks, ‘why do you like that person?’ You can’t really think of a decent answer. You just do.”

     “You get butterflies when you see them and write their name in the margins of your notebooks,” he smiled.

     “Exactly!”

     “That’s how you feel about Miyuki?”

     “I...yeah. I think so.” I took a deep breath, forcing myself to really breathe the way he always reminded me. “I couldn’t really sleep last night.”

     “Because you were thinking about him?”

     “And me. How I feel about him. I barely know him,” I admitted, laughing a bit.

     “I don’t think that necessarily matters,” Haruichi said softly. “The first night you met, he took care of you when you got drunk. He told you you had a good sense in music, and should pursue it—as someone who essentially does it for a living. He gave you your job and he’s teaching you.”

     “He is, isn’t he?”

     “He’s so good-looking and charming, too. Honestly, I’d probably think there was something wrong with you if you weren’t crushing on him.”

     I couldn’t help but laugh at that—as always, Haruichi was right. About everything. Still, the word crush didn’t seem to fit. I supposed that’s what it was, though. A crush.

     “Eijun? Are you okay?” He wasn’t used to my silence.

     “Yeah, totally,” I replied. Unconvincingly. “Just thinking.”

     “You? Thinking?”

     “Get out of here.” I faked pushing him into the snow, but held on tightly to his arm.

     “Are you worried?”

     “No. Not about Miyuki,” I said. “Worried that I’m not worried, maybe. Worried that I can’t stop feeling, and I can’t slow it down, and that doesn’t scare me at all. You know?”

     “Sure. I know.”

     “Maybe I’ll get a wake-up call at some point. A reality check. But I think until then, I’m hopeless,” I smiled. I put my gloved fingers to my chin.

     “Totally hopeless,” he agreed. We walked until we couldn’t feel our faces. His dorm was closer, so we popped into his room, made some hot chocolate, and snuggled up in bed to watch television. He fell asleep against my shoulder half way through the movie, so I pulled out my phone, about to text Kuramochi about what he was doing.

     There was a text from Miyuki. I sucked in my breath as far as it would go and my fingers trembled as I unlocked my phone.

     Miyuki: Thanks again for the birthday stuff at work. It really meant a lot. Take the day off tomorrow, I’ll see you at the club.

     The world fell away for a bit as I texted back.

     It’s the least I could do after all you’ve done for me. I’m looking forward to it!

     I slept well that night.

 


 

     The next night at Ace was much better. Miyuki cut us off after a few drinks, until we were drunk enough to have fun but not so drunk that we were in danger of vomiting or blacking out. Kuramochi’s set was incredible—Haruichi and I must have been dancing for hours. Around midnight, Ryousuke, Tetsu, Jun, Masuko, and Shirasu showed up; Ryousuke asked us if we were willing to stay after lights on, for a small celebration for Miyuki. We agreed. Jun bought us a round of shots—me and Haruichi’s first real shot. Both of us must have looked horrific, because as soon as we’d swallowed, they were all holding out limes for us. We pounced on them, disgusted but smiling.

     We danced until lights on, when Kuramochi finished his set and the club began to empty. In the outrush, the group of guys we’d first me at Ryousuke’s get-together grabbed me and Haruichi, and slipped us through a set of curtains over by the bar. We found ourselves in a supply closet, big enough to set up some bar stools in a circle and have a few bottles of liquor in the center. We all took our seats, and Tetsu started pouring drinks; Haruichi and I were starting to sober up anyway, so we took the drinks and sipped. A few minutes later, Kuramochi popped in, dragging Miyuki by the wrist. They all erupted, drunk, happy, excited to celebrate the birth of a member of their family—it was a vision. Hundreds of photos taken, sloppy songs sung. We all sat around, drinking, laughing, Ryousuke on Kuramochi’s lap clinging to his neck. I’d never seen them so openly and sensually affectionate. Kuramochi lit a cigarette and passed it around the circle. Haruichi passed, but I was drunk and I’d been wanting to try it.

     I took a drag and immediately started coughing, which encouraged everyone else to laugh at me. I was used to that by now, and yelled in protest despite being a bit flattered. Miyuki whisked the cigarette from my hands, teasing me as he did. Being laughed at for coughing over cigarettes made me feel loved. He finished the cigarette, holding my gaze, maybe drunk but if he was how could I have been able to tell? We must have been there for an hour or so, talking, while Ryousuke and Kuramochi were practically having sex in the corner. Haruichi was falling asleep—Tetsu offered to call us an Uber back to campus.

     We both slept in my room, still a bit drunk and cuddling under the covers, and the next day, Kuramochi and Ryousuke took us out for food. A casual, relaxed Sunday hangover brunch, which was to become our ritual.

Chapter Text

12

lash

     From Miyuki’s birthday up until winter break at the end of December, everything went smoothly, and I started to fall into a new routine. When I wasn’t on campus, in class or hanging out with Haruichi, I was at Ace Records. I took as many shifts as I could, most of them while Miyuki was there, but after a few weeks he started letting me watch the shop on my own if he needed to run errands or take care of things at the club. I didn’t stop feeling the excitement, the rush of blood to my face and extremities, when I saw him, but our relationship smoothed out into a comfortable friendship. I couldn’t deny the dynamic that lurked over us—almost like a teacher-pupil dynamic, or maybe a tutor-student dynamic. He taught me everything he knew about music and when I made mistakes, he was incredibly good at making me feel like shit for it, thus encouraging that it would never happen again. I was afraid of his judgment, but desperate for his praise. One positive word could make my entire day.

     A lot of our conversations involved me, rambling at one hundred miles per hour about whatever tickled my fancy on any particular day, and him listening. Smiling, sometimes nodding, mostly just looking at me with eyes lidded, leaning his elbow on the counter or back against the wall. So languid and easy, my words washed over him and he always knew what to say to make me confident that he’d really been listening. Some cryptic piece of advice or obscure observation. I loved talking to him. Loved watching him watch me talking to him. I liked to assume that he liked to listen, too. He never gave any indications of that, but I was terrified that one day, he would look at me with that lopsided smirk and say, “That’s great, Sawamura, but I don’t actually care.” Absolutely terrified.

     A week before winter break, he asked me what I was doing. If I was going home to spend the break with my family.

     “For a few days,” I answered, “but I was hoping I could stay and pick up some more shifts here. I need the extra money.”

     “Oh, yeah? For what?”

     “A record player.”

     “So you’re serious about that.”

     “Why wouldn’t I be?”

     He shrugged.

     “You can pick up as many shifts as you want,” he said.

     “Especially since if I get the internship at the radio station, I won’t be able to work as much next semester.”

     “How’s that going?”

     “I sent in the application. Said they’ll let me know sometime over break...apparently it’s more competitive than I thought. We had to write a proposal for a show and everything.”

     He pushed off the counter where we were talking to walk toward the new customer who’d just come in. He squeezed my arm as he went.

     “Let me know how that goes, all right?”

     I cherished moments like that. The small, insignificant touches that left my skin burning for days—sometimes I found myself checking for marks, bruises, anything, but it was always just hovering right above the surface. He would touch me and scramble me. Each morning I woke up and thought, where will he touch me today? Would he pinch my cheek? Brush my shoulder? Shake my hand? Put his arm around me the way Kuramochi did every time he saw me? But he always did it when I least expected it. Always when my guard was down, my vulnerability was at its highest, and there was nothing I could do. Just let it sink into me. Even so, he felt so far away from me. Every time I thought I might break through, he would shrink back again, and I was left at the start again.

     I tried using facts about myself, intimacies, really, to get him to do the same, but I didn’t get far. I told him about my family. That I was raised in a home with my parents and grandfather, who invested most in my life, and that I’d always wished for a sibling to adventure with. The only thing I learned about him was that he, too, was an only child. A small link between us. I told him about all the different dreams I’d considered. Archaeologist, doctor, virtuoso pianist, poet, astronaut, vague scientist. And I told him that I’d never felt truly connected to anything but music, though virtuoso pianist had always been out of the picture. I’d tried joining a band in high school, but it had driven me to the point of insanity—I wasn’t immediately good at any one instrument, and as much of a character flaw as that it was, it denied me many opportunities.

     Miyuki was ambiguous, but he told me he had always felt connected to music, too. His father had given him classic rock and opera to listen to as a child, two vastly different genres, and the combinations had inspired him to explore on his own. I didn’t learn much about his dreams, or how he came to be manager of this store. Whenever I asked him about it, or about the club, or about Coach, he gave me archaic answers and deftly changed the subject. He was good at encouraging me to talk about myself. I did also learn that his favorite movies were horror, because not much else gave him thrills—and that he did like red velvet cake, but not sweets—when he wasn’t listening to music or making drinks, he liked to cook.

     (He even brought in small rolls of sushi one day, though the occasion for which he’d baked them he never told me. They were delicious.)

     Kuramochi, on one of his many anti-Miyuki rants during our weekly coffee dates, told me that Miyuki was a stickler for routine. He had a specific morning routine, a specific night routine, scheduled everything and followed his lists to a tee. He was apparently abhorrently clean and organized—he and Kuramochi had tried living together, but had only lasted a few months before Miyuki couldn’t handle Kuramochi’s messiness and Kuramochi couldn’t handle Miyuki’s stubborn anal tidiness. It wasn’t a feature he openly displayed, not a feature that was obvious in the way he carried himself, but I started noticing little details after Kuramochi pointed it out to me. His shirts were always ironed perfectly. His glasses were always clean. Never a hair out of place. He wore a cute little black watch and he was always checking it. My standards of organization must have been somewhere in between Kuramochi and Miyuki’s.

     As many little facts that I learned about Miyuki, I could never seem to cut deeper. We started describing each other as a friend and sometimes on the weekends, we saw each other outside of work, when Kuramochi would invite us out for coffee or dinner or post-games after lights on at Ace on Saturdays. But other than those casual hangouts, other than joking and teasing and banter at work, mixed in with lectures and reprimands, we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

     Haruichi and I went to the club every Saturday night to check out Kuramochi’s set, followed by brunch with him and Ryousuke every Sunday. We often saw the others there: Tetsu, Jun, Masuko, Shirasu. Ryousuke came occasionally, but Haruichi told me that Ryousuke’s scene wasn’t really the club—he sometimes showed up just to support his boyfriend. Each week we got to know them better. I started opening up more, started learning my limits with alcohol, stopped fearing embarrassment and let loose.

     I confronted Kuramochi when I ran into him, significantly more sober, wiping his nose and coming out of a bathroom stall a few weeks after I’d been for the first time. So he offered some to me, but made me absolutely promise that I wouldn’t make it a regular thing. I promised. So some weeks he let me get high with him. I learned how to snort it fast and graceful, and I learned not to ask Kuramochi how often he did it, because he exploded every time.

     Some weeks I made out with strangers. On my fifth week at Ace, I had my first true sexual encounter with one—drunk and high, I dragged him to the bathroom. In the grime and grit of the stall, maneuvering around the toilet, he got down on his knees. Then I got down on mine. It felt, somehow, like a rite of passage. He tried to give me his number and I pretended to put it in my phone, and I lied and told him I’d call him to get him off my back. I had told him I was 22, anyway. When I came out of the bathroom, wiping my mouth on the back of my bare arm, Haruichi was absolutely irate. I wouldn’t lie to him, of course, so I told him I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t do it again. This is what it meant to be a young gay in a big city, right? Blowjobs and make-outs with strangers, snorting coke in bathroom stalls, expensive Sunday brunches with mimosas and best friends? Trying to make the totally-out-of-your-league guy, by whom you are utterly bewitched, jealous?

     I didn’t tell him that every time I made out with someone, or danced with someone, or put someone’s dick in my mouth, I imagined it was Miyuki.

 


 

     Kazuya Miyuki.

     Honorable fortune.

     How do I get to you?

 


 

     The Saturday before winter break, on our last joint trip to Ace and two days before I went home for a bit, the club was a bit less crazy than usual. A lot of people must have been traveling, back to their hometowns for the holiday seasons. Haruichi and I managed to find some seats at the bar, where Miyuki was flirting with a few patrons. Burning with jealousy and much too sober, I clenched my hands into fists beneath the counter. Little things were starting to set me off. Like the way he was smiling, the way he always smiled at me, at that stranger.

     A man sitting next to us, large and broad-shouldered, with a rounded face and thick, furrowed brows, looked over. He saw my fists under the bar, and followed my gaze.

     “You know Miyuki?” he asked. His voice was almost unbearably gruff. He sounded much older than us, but he couldn’t have been much older than Miyuki.

     “Oh. Yeah,” I replied, surprised that he was addressing us. “I work at a record store with him.”

     “Over at the other side of town. I know it,” the man said. “How long have you known him?”

     “I don’t know. A few months, I guess.”

     “Hmm.” The man fell silent for a moment, and sipped from his drink. Maybe a jack and coke. “He’s a cheeky little asshole, isn’t he?”

     “Who the fuck are you?” I cried impulsively. Haruichi rested his hand on my arm gently. “How would you know anything?”

     “Enough. Probably more than you, kid. How old are you? Eighteen, nineteen?”

     I was getting absolutely furious, tethered to earth only by Haruichi’s touch.

     “How’s that any of your business?”

     “You’re right. It’s probably none of my business. But I’ve seen this play out,” he said. “I don’t know you at all. But I’m warning you anyway, because I can see the look in your eyes when you stare at him.”

     He stood up to leave. Blinded, red in my peripheral vision, I stood to follow. But Haruichi held me back.

     “A guy like Miyuki will hang you out to dry. Especially if you keep looking at him like that.”

     He left, just as Miyuki saw us and raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement; he finished with the customer, and floated over to us.

     “Hey there, strangers. I see you met Harada.”

     “Who? You know him?”

     “Masatoshi Harada. An old friend of a friend, from a different life. A very different life,” he said swiftly. Brushing it under the rug like everything else. “What can I get you?”

     “Two double tequilas,” I said.

     “Eijun, you know I don’t do shots, especially double anything,” Haruichi protested.

     “I know. They’re both for me.”

     “Whoa, cutie. It’s early. Pace yourself,” Miyuki laughed. Normally I loved when he called me that.

     “Stop treating me like a fucking kid! I want what I want, okay?”

     I knew I was being unreasonable, but I couldn’t stop myself. I needed to lash out at something, at someone, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be Haruichi.

     “Sawamura,” Miyuki said, voice suddenly stern, back suddenly straight. “I’m not letting you drink that. Order something else.”

     “What, because you’re the boss of me? Because I always have to listen to you?” I screamed. I didn’t have the excuse of being belligerently drunk—I was just sober and pissed. At what, at whom, it didn’t matter, I needed to be yelling.

     “Hey, I’m trying to make sure you don’t make a fucking fool out of yourself and do something you’ll regret.”

     “That’s not your fucking problem!” I stood up, hands slamming down on the counter. I was making a scene. Miyuki was staring at me. Eyes wide and mouth open, like he’d just been slapped.

     “Eijun, please, calm down...”

     “Why should I? I can’t fucking do anything without Miyuki butting in and giving me his orders, like he’s the king of the world, like he can fucking control me.”

     He snapped.

     In the blink of an eye, he’d lunged across the counter and grabbed my collar. He pulled, stronger than I’d anticipated, until the counter was digging into my stomach and I was leaning so far forward that my heels were off the ground. He brought his face close, snarling, angrier than I’d ever seen him. In a single moment I went from angry and self-righteous to absolutely fucking terrified.

     “You ungrateful little shit,” he hissed. “I let you into my bar, I make you drinks, I risk my fucking job so you can have a good time. I look over my shoulder all damn night, to make sure you’re not vomiting in some corner or getting an STI from some sleaze in the bathroom. You think you’re not a burden? You’re just magically one of us now? You think we don’t worry, because you’re young and stupid and you don’t even fucking know who you are yet?”

     Burden.

     I was stunned. Hollowed out. For what seemed like the first time in my life, I couldn’t find my voice. My body was aching in this position—I could smell the vodka on Miyuki’s breath, falling onto the tip of my nose. After another few moments, that dragged and dragged and dragged, he let go. I stumbled back, and Haruichi grabbed my arm. Miyuki held my gaze. I felt my eyes already stinging with tears, but I couldn’t look away. I wouldn’t dare. My entire body was trembling.

     A strong, steady arm weaved into mine, and a familiar voice said in my ear, “Come on. We’re going to cool down.”

     Tetsu led me and Haruichi out into the freezing December night. He was already ordering the Uber on his phone.

     “You should go home, Sawamura. Being close to Miyuki is a bad idea right now.”

     He said it authoritatively, but softly. The steady expression on his face helped me calm down a bit. I bit my lips and nodded, Haruichi now gripping my hand. He waited for us outside until the Uber showed up.

     “For what it’s worth, Sawamura,” he said, just before closing the door, “I don’t think you’re a burden. Good night.”

     Only when Haruichi and I were safely back in my room did I allow myself to burst into tears.

Chapter Text

13

continuous forgiveness

     I didn’t sleep much that night, even with Haruichi curled up against my chest. Usually, his breath on my neck and the steady rise and fall of his body were like lullabies for me. But I stayed awake, eyes glued to the ceiling. Painting pictures of what had happened that night, replaying all the little horrible things that I was now convincing myself were more significant than I’d initially thought. I drove myself mad, back and forth, picking at the tones of voice and crinkles of his forehead. I couldn’t stop repeating that word. Burden. My nightmare. Being a burden on someone. The worst thing I could possibly be. That’s what I was to Miyuki. Maybe to Kuramochi, too. Maybe to all the others. I tried not to cry too much or sniffle too loudly, but Haruichi was a relatively deep sleeper. He wouldn’t have minded, even if I did wake him up. I kept checking my phone. Maybe he would text me? Maybe I would lose my pride and text him?

     Neither happened.

     I managed to get a few hours of sleep as the sun was starting to rise, right as Haruichi was beginning to wake up. When my eyes opened at around 10AM, he was curled up in the corner, reading a book. He didn’t say much to me. Just asked if I was feeling okay, and suggested I go take a shower. I told him I was feeling like shit, but I did go take the shower. I did decide to text Miyuki, but only for one reason.

     Hey, I’m feeling really sick and can’t come into work today. You can dock my pay if you need to.

     He would surely know I was lying. Although it wasn’t really a lie. I did feel sick to my stomach.

     Clean and drying and so utterly sad, I burrowed back up in bed. We were supposed to meet Ryousuke and Kuramochi at the cafe in a few hours—I admitted that I wasn’t feeling up to it.

     “I could call Ryou. I’m sure they won’t mind,” Haruichi suggested. The three of them were leaving tomorrow, to spend two weeks with the Kominato family. It was to be Kuramochi’s official debut with the family. I would be alone here for a bit after returning from my own family home—after last night, though, I was considering staying home longer.

     Just as I was about to tell Haruichi to call, there was loud, aggressive knocking on the door. Both of us jumped.

     “Uh, it’s open,” I called.

     Kuramochi threw the door open. Clad in his flannel, big boots, tight jeans. I was shocked to see him there, and scrambled to my feet. His face was hard and serious, no-nonsense. We definitely weren’t late for brunch, and Ryousuke wasn’t with him; neither of us had any idea why he was there.

     “Kuramochi,” I managed. “What are you doing here? I was about to call and—“

     “Get dressed. We’re going out,” he interrupted. Then he looked at Haruichi. “I’m sorry, Haruichi. I’d like to take Sawamura out alone.”

     “I think that’s a good idea,” Haruichi smiled. “Just text me later, Eijun?”

     “Yeah. Sure.”

     Haruichi left. Kuramochi waited for me to get dressed. I just threw on my nearest sweater and nearest sweatpants. They didn’t match. He helped me into my jacket, wrapped my scarf, grabbed my hand, and led me out to where his motorcycle was parked behind the dorm. I was so exhausted, so emptied, I couldn’t even express how excited I was that I got to ride with him—he gave me his only helmet. I insisted that he wear it, but he wouldn’t hear it. Waved his hand around as he mounted the bike and said, “My head is sturdier than yours.”

     The ride was rejuvenating. I wrapped my arms around Kuramochi’s waist, felt the warmth of his body and the familiar contours. Holding him was comforting. He crouched over, both hands on the handles. The wind rushed through his hair, and as it billowed my clothes and pressed deep and freeing against my skin, I wished that I could feel it on my face, too. But the tears were streaming again, so I was fine being covered up. With each turn, each dip close to the road, my stomach churned and I held on more tightly. The same churn you feel when you’re going up the roller coaster, before the big drop.

     After about ten minutes, he rode into the lot of a small, snowy park. He hopped off his motorcycle and grabbed my hand to help me off, too. I was a bobble head, with the too-big helmet tilting this way and that. Here was the moment of my unmasking. Bloodshot, teary, visibly and undeniably desperate. He tucked the helmet under his arm as he wiped my tears, and then told me to follow him. We walked along the cleared path. It hadn’t snowed in a few days so despite the cold, the grass was patchy, some white, some green, some brown. He seemed like he knew where he was going, so, silently, such a rare state of being for me, I just followed. Until we came to what looked like a small stone shrine overlooking a tiny round pond, with stairs leading up to the entrance. Kuramochi told me that it was essentially empty inside; maybe it had been something once. We sat on the snow melting on the stairs. There weren’t many people around.

     “When Miyuki and I first became friends,” he began, staring out at the icy water, “we used to come here a lot. We felt like it was one of the few places we could really open ourselves up.”

     “How did you meet?” My voice was hoarse.

     “You know he went to college where you are now. He was a junior when I rolled into town. I had just dropped out myself, and had always dreamed of living in this city. I didn’t have anything to my name. I heard about Ace Nightclub. Went to check it out. That’s where Miyuki and I met. He was working there a few times a week to help cover tuition, and he hooked me up with a bartending gig, too. The rest is history.”

     “Why did you drop out?”

     “It just wasn’t for me. I tried like five majors,” he laughed. He lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “I knew what I wanted to do. And school wasn’t gonna get me there. I tell everyone I meet, though, that I got lucky as hell.”

     “What was Miyuki’s major?”

     “Political science. Can you believe it?” He passed me the cigarette. I nodded. I’d gotten used to cigarette smoke, so I didn’t cough when I sucked in through the tube and handed it back to him.

     “Miyuki would make a great politician,” I said. “He answers questions exactly like one.”

     “I guess he does, doesn’t he? That’s what he planned on doing.”

     “How’d he end up manager of a record store and head bartender at a nightclub, then? Doesn’t seem like the place his ambitions were supposed to take him.”

     “Miyuki is brilliant. He’s calculating. I’ve never met anybody so cunning,” Kuramochi said. “I don’t want to guess, and say that maybe he just genuinely likes what he’s doing. I’d bet he has some sort of plan. I don’t know what it is, though.”

     “He won’t even tell you? You’re his best friend.”

     He handed me the cigarette. I took a drag and watched the swirls rise up toward the gray.

     “Privacy isn’t a matter of being close or distant to someone with Miyuki. It’s like he has these unbreakable limits. Maybe I’ve gotten further than anyone else, but there’s still that bit of himself he hides from everyone. Maybe even him.”

     “I didn’t mean to make him mad. But sometimes I go overboard and then I can’t stop myself.”

     “I know you’re just trying to break through. Maybe that was your subconsciousness, going for its last resort.”

     “I’ve tried being nice, I’ve tried being impulsive and wild. Maybe I should try being angry.”

     “Exactly.”

     I gave the cigarette back and leaned my chin on my knees. I was thinking now about the stranger we’d met at the bar last night. I told Kuramochi about him and asked if he knew him.

     “I’ve never heard that name before,” he said. “I think Miyuki really was telling the truth. Someone from a very different life that he lived before even I met him. Maybe in college or something.”

     “Do you think he’s right? That the more I cling, the worse it’s gonna be? That Miyuki’s gonna...I don’t know. I don’t know.” My thoughts started falling apart and I didn’t know how to articulate anything anymore. Kuramochi placed his hand on my back.

     “I’ll say two things. First, Miyuki will never be what you expect or what you want. Sometimes he uses people—most of the time unknowingly. I don’t think he meant to explode on you last night. His outbursts are rare but they happen, and they happen when he feels deeply.” He took a breath. “Which brings me to say this: I have no doubt in my mind that Miyuki cares about you. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you have to work to get to know him.”

     “I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming on.”

     “But. You’re your first priority. Don’t burn yourself just because the fire is beautiful.”

     I finally had to laugh at that—I just hadn’t quite been expecting something so lovely and poetic to come out of his mouth. He pushed me by the arm, and as I swayed back he wrapped his arm around me. Kuramochi was the kind of guy who felt deeply, too. He felt everything. He felt beautifully, he felt others beautifully. I melted against him and closed my eyes. Smelled the cigarette smoke.

     “You don’t think I’m a burden?” I murmured.

     “No. Not even for a second.” I couldn’t bear to open my eyes and see the pitying, sympathetic look on his heart-of-gold face. “You’ve brought something really special to my life.”

     “You don’t think he thinks I’m a burden?”

     “No. He told me so himself. He regrets what he said.”

     “Really?”

     “Yeah, but I wouldn’t count on him saying that to your face,” he chuckled. “That’s another thing you should know about Miyuki. He never apologizes. Or admits when he’s wrong. He shows his regret in other ways.”

     “Oh.”

     “You have to get used to him. You have to continuously forgive him. I’m proof that he’s worth it, I guess.”

     There was a lot he’d said that I couldn’t really process. I forced myself to be patient. Things would become obvious, things would reveal themselves. I think at his core, Kuramochi was telling me to not give up, but to tread lightly. I wasn’t terribly good at treading lightly, but I was fantastic at not giving up.

     As we were getting up, both shivering, my phone vibrated. I expected the worst when I saw that Miyuki had texted.

     Miyuki: No problem. Get some good rest and have a nice time with your family. I’ll see you when you get back.

 


 

     Visiting my family was like pushing a reset button on my mental and physical well-being. They were angry at me for not calling more, something for which I was even angry at myself. My grandfather (father’s father) was a sprightly, nearly bald man who yelled almost as much as I did, and was the inspiration for everything I had done—in his youth, he’d been the star guitarist of an on-the-rise rock band. They split up, just before securing a record deal. As a child, I’d begged and begged and begged, but only after I’d mastered the classics and molded my own musical tastes did Grandpa let me listen to his old albums. It was the music I listened to when I was lost. It was the music I was listening to on the train, out into the countryside where my family home was waiting for me.

     My father was a yeller, too, with a pompadour that had long ago gone out of style. He was loyal to it. Our home was constantly in chaos—we subconsciously battled to get our voices loudest and eat the most, and my mother, powerful and strong and kind, tolerated and loved us with a smile dripping in honey. In those three days I was home, there was absolutely nothing I needed to be thinking about. Nothing I needed to be worrying about. I let myself come alive with my family. We listened to music, we played Shogi (one of my strange secret talents), I helped my mother clean out our storage room from hell. I begged Grandpa each night while I sipped tea and he sipped sake to retell all of his exciting stories. I’d heard them all a thousand times before, but I never tired of hearing him tell them. Always in the same excited tone of voice, lifting and dropping at all the right moments. Like a toddler I sat in front of the fireplace and hung on his every word, clinging to the feelings, the nostalgia. I could picture him so clearly on a stage, even as he was right now.

     The first person I’d ever come out to was Grandpa, after me and one of my best friends, Wakana, tried to have sex when we were fifteen. We’d been friends forever, and she confessed to me one night on her roof that she was in love with me. We dated for a few months, though it never felt quite right for me. After we had sex, and I felt nothing and was barely able to come, I started questioning everything—I’d always just assumed my straightness. In tears, I went straight to my grandfather. He held me in his arms, told me that I was who I was, and my sexuality was never going to change that. Together, we told my parents. It changed the dynamic for a few weeks, like they weren’t quite sure how to act around me anymore. But after a frustrated outburst at the dinner table that involved me slamming my fists straight into my plate, they understood.

     I was one of the lucky ones.

     Wakana and I still kept vaguely in touch. I think I really broke her heart, though.

     I was scared about going back. Scared about dealing with Miyuki. We didn’t talk at all for those three days of separation; I was an expert at ignoring the tone of the room, and I was anxious about shoving my foot in my mouth as soon as I set foot in Ace Records. (It was then that I realized that for the past two months, we’d barely gone a day without seeing each other.) And I was going to miss the constant yelling. The warmth of my parents, the wit of my grandfather. I didn’t tell him about how I felt toward Miyuki—I wasn’t even sure myself. So I decided to wait.

     My first day back at work, I opened. Then I sat in the back room, pretending to work, while I paid attention for customers. Waiting for Miyuki to show up.

     And when he did, he was smiling and carrying two cups of coffee.

Chapter Text

14

wine with dinner

     Kuramochi was right, of course. Miyuki never did apologize for the things he said to me. I never apologized for causing a scene, either. Somehow, we silently understood this similarity, this disgusting display of pride—I forgave him without a word, and I had to assume he forgave me, too. We resumed work as usual, but I was working full days because I was off class. Haruichi and Kuramochi were both out of town, spending the rest of the year with the Kominatos; they would be back the day after New Year’s Eve. Suddenly, Miyuki and I were spending nearly every waking moment together. We opened together, worked together, ordered food and took our lunch breaks together, closed together.

     He was still bartending nearly every night and there was a substitute DJ taking over for Kuramochi for the few weeks that he was gone. So, every night after work, I would bike to my dorm to grab dinner and maybe take a nap (a strong suggestion from nap-king Kuramochi), and then I went to Ace to hang out with Miyuki. I didn’t party like I usually did. It was just the two of us, and Miyuki couldn’t exactly come into the dance floor. I would have rather spent time with him, anyway. Obviously. I would come early to secure a place at the bar, where I could sit and chat with him while he poured my drinks until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Things became easy, natural. He gave me more to obsess over—the smooth way he mixed drinks. The charming, seductive way he flirted with people to get higher tips. I saw him break up a few fights with aggressive gusto.

     And always, he came back to me. Leaning his elbows on the bar while I talked and talked and talked. He listened with dark, shadowed eyelashes and glossy pink lips.

     Every night, he swallowed me whole. I imagined a million times what his tongue tasted like.

     I started counting how many shots he did a night during his shifts. Some days it was five. Once I counted seven. And the drunkenness never seemed to show. On the night he took seven, he disappeared into the back room for a minute, and came back out with a smile. Wiping vomit from the corner of his lips. I tried to bring it up.

     “You take a lot of shots while you work. Is that allowed?”

     “Allowed? It’s the only way I’m expected to get through,” he scoffed as he poured the next customer’s drink.

     “It seems like a lot. Don’t you think?”

     “I’m used to it. Unlike a silly, loud-mouthed lightweight I happen to know,” he winked.

     “I’m not that much of a lightweight!”

     “It’s all right, babe. Nobody’s judging. We all have our own limits.”

     And just like that he veered the conversation away, and I didn’t realize until I was replaying the night’s events the next day. He must have had some wild witch’s spell on me, the way he could divert me like that, lead me right where he wanted every single time. Maybe I was just a fool for letting it happen.

     We lived like that for two weeks. Together morning until evening. I hoped that as I inched forward, further against his defenses, he would let me in. I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want to be slow. From the first night I met Miyuki I’d been desperate for him. But I found myself savoring the simplicity of friendship. Saying good morning and good night to someone. Having someone there to listen, important or totally trivial. Seeing a fresh, familiar face. I got a perfect hold of his mannerisms, and started being able to pick out his moods as soon as he walked in the door—and he always counteracted much more efficiently.

     “You’re slouching a bit,” I would venture. “You didn’t sleep well last night.”

     “Well, your eyes look less dark than yesterday and your smile is bigger. You’re practically bouncing and you’re showing your teeth, and your yelling is even louder than usual,” he would reply with a bit of a scowl. “You did sleep well last night, and you also called your grandfather and ordered pizza.”

     “Fucking smart-ass.”

     “Elementary.”

     I fell harder and faster. Being around him was a high, so different from the high of Kuramochi’s cocaine. Close to him I was untouchable, worthy of something grand and beautiful because he thought me so. I’d always been a lucky motherfucker, but Miyuki’s attention and care convinced me I was the luckiest person on the planet. The excitement I felt upon seeing him, talking to him, being with him, never went away, but I adjusted my life around it. I wasn’t sure what to call it—this highness, this drunkenness—so I didn’t bother trying. Some nights, when I couldn’t get his stupid face out of my head, and I was replaying all the different ways he’d touched me, shoulder head cheek hand arm lips, I couldn’t control myself. In the quiet darkness of my dorm room, under my covers, I touched myself. I had to. That’s what I told myself. I thought of him and touched myself, and stuffed a towel into my mouth to keep quiet.

     He was always my last thought before falling asleep.

 


 

     On the last day of the year, the records store was closed. I woke up and went for my run around seven, dressed in a hat, gloves, tight athletic clothes and leggings with leg warmers. Pushing down my desires to talk to Miyuki. We hadn’t discussed any plans for New Year’s, but I assumed he had plans. As I walked back to my dorm, snow crackling under my running shoes, I took out my phone—I could barely unlock it, my fingers were shaking and cold. I started writing a message. Before I could send it, I received a phone call. I couldn’t have answered quickly enough.

     “Hey! I was just about to message you,” I said into the phone.

     “You sound cold. Just finish your run?”

     “Yup. Walking back to my dorm to shower now.”

     “So I caught you at a good time,” he said, as if he hadn’t planned this deliberately and perfectly.

     “Guess so. What’s up?”

     “You don’t have any plans today, right?”

     “Wow! You sound so sure! That’s pretty rude.”

     “I mean, I’m pretty certain you don’t, but I figured I’d ask to be polite.”

     “Fine, asshole. No, I don’t have any plans.”

     “Perfect. Come over tonight.”

     I stopped in my tracks, overwhelmed.

     “You make it sound like I don’t have a choice.”

     “Come on, stop being difficult,” he laughed. “I’m making dinner. And I’ll buy really fancy wine. Is that tempting enough?”

     “You had me at hello,” I sang.

     “I never said hello.”

     “Send me your address, jerk.”

     “You don’t know my address?”

     “Why would I?!”

     “Hmm. Good point. I’ll text it. Come over at six, all right?”

     “Aye aye, captain.”

     “Go shower, you smell gross.”

     I even smelled my spandex-covered pits, before I realized that he was just fucking with me.

     “Fuck off, Miyuki.”

     “See you tonight, cutie. Dress nice.”

     He hung up. Jittery, filled with disbelief, I went back to my dorm. To shower, listen to music, watch television, and starve myself—so I could eat every last bite of the food he cooked.

     Miyuki lived in a nice part of town. Not especially bougie, but nice. I had to buzz in to get into the apartment building, and he lived on the fourth floor—no elevator, which was strange—and stairs covered in a red rug.   I obviously couldn’t buy any alcohol to bring, so I brought a cake. Just something to add to the evening; I didn’t want him to feel like he was doing everything. Under my puffy black coat I was wearing slim blue jeans, and a nice blue shirt. I was still shivering, shifting my weight from one leg to the next, when Miyuki opened his door. In dark brown corduroy pants and a black turtleneck, simple and stylish and sexy.

     “The man of the hour has arrived,” he grinned. “And with cake! Just the ticket you needed. Come in.”

     Unable to properly greet him through my chattering teeth, I shuffled in, making sure to get the snow off my boots. He took the cake to the kitchen while I stepped out of my shoes and hung my scarf and jacket. I was smiling like a hyena, unflinching. I stood like an idiot in the entryway until Miyuki came to retrieve me, two glasses of wine in hand. He led me into the living room, where the electric fireplace was going and we were swimming in a warm, orange glow.

     All that I’d heard about Miyuki’s insane tidiness was suddenly very real. His apartment was immaculate. No dust on the shelves, populated with color-coded and organized-by-size hooks. Framed paintings and landscapes, not even a little bit crooked, hung perfectly from the dark blue walls. Candles scattered on the shimmering glass coffee table, on the small desk by the big, black leather couch. It smelled like a beautiful, musty forest. The granite counters in the kitchen sparkled—I couldn’t see his bedroom, because the door was closed, but I imagined it was similar. I was charmed and endeared and so impressed. We sat on the couch with our wine, while the television over the fireplace played the countdown. It was early, with the actual countdown still miles away.

     “Make yourself comfortable. Food’s almost ready,” he called as he made his way back into the kitchen. I watched in awe as he put on an apron and peeked into the oven from my seat on the couch. Somehow, he fit perfectly there.

     “So domestic,” I teased.

     “Very cute, huh? An ideal housewife.” In oven mitts, he swiped the tray out of the oven and placed it on the counter. Then he gave me a little curtsy. I sipped from my wine.

     “Do you need any help?”

     “No sir. Just gotta mix this in with the pasta, then you can stuff that pretty little face.”

     I sipped more wine. He was doing especially well tonight at making me blush and squirm. He’d never been quite so openly flirtatious. Maybe he’d had some wine while he cooked. A few minutes later, he brought two bowls of beautiful spaghetti with vegetables and chicken and creamy sauce. He brought the bottle of wine, too, and plopped down on the couch beside me. We dug in.

     “And he cooks, too,” I cried, as I swallowed my first bite. “What doesn’t he do?”

     “He’s terrible at singing, for one thing.”

     “Me, too,” I laughed. “Ironic for people obsessed with music.”

     “Hmm. I guess so. Pasta’s good, then?”

     “Perfect.”

     I stuffed a forkful into my mouth and smiled to make my point. He smiled back. We ate together, drank wine—when my glass was empty, he almost instantly poured me another, like he was afraid I’d get mad or bored without the benefit of drunkenness. I wouldn’t have minded either way, but I wasn’t going to say no to more wine.

     “Want dessert?” he asked once I was finished.

     “I did bring cake.”

     “Good, cuz I don’t have any,” Miyuki laughed. As he tried to grab my bowl, I pushed him away and grabbed both of them myself.

     “Nope, I got this. You’ve done enough.”

     Before he could protest, I took them to the sink in the kitchen and washed them. While I did that, Miyuki stood, muted the television, and walked over to the far corner of the room, where his record player was majestically nested. He started flipping through his collection of records. After I finished washing the dishes, I scoured the drawers for a knife and plates, and cut the cake. Two equally generous pieces. Just then, as I walked back to the couch and placed the plates on the table, music started playing. Music I vaguely recognized, but couldn’t quite place. He turned over his shoulder, dancing, just a bit. Glass of wine in hand.

     “Know this artist?” he asked. He gave a little spin, and finally sat back down on the couch.

     “I can’t place it,” I smiled.

     “THREE1989,” he said. “Japanese band. Contemporary and jazzy.”

     “It’s so upbeat.” I couldn’t help but move my body along to it. Beats and melodies that made it impossible to resist. Listening to the album, shoulders brushing, we ate our cake and drank our wine. Soon we finished one bottle and he opened another, sticking it between his legs to uncork it dramatically. I was starting to feel happily buzzed, ridiculously elated because somehow, someway, Miyuki wanted to spend this day with me. Cook dinner for me. Pour wine for me. I held my glass out and he poured with a flourish of his wrist, like he was born to do this. The tipsier I got, the easier it was to swallow it down—wine wasn’t really my thing, but if Miyuki gave me tar I would drink it.

     “Why did you invite me over tonight?” I suddenly asked. I’d been gathering the courage since he’d called me that day. He shrugged, pacing leisurely around the room.

     “I knew you wouldn’t have plans. I didn’t have plans,” he began. “You’re my friend. Friends celebrate holidays together.”

     He was speaking to me like I was a child, and I was letting it happen. Because I didn’t care. He’d called me his friend.

     “It’s not just because you felt sorry for me?”

     “Sorry for you? No. If I didn’t like spending time with you, I wouldn’t give a shit about your loneliness,” he scoffed. As callous as that response was, I felt relieved. He stared at me, and smiled more widely. “I invited you over because I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve with you.”

     I held out my empty glass. He filled it. I drank. Then he held his hand out.

     “I’m in the mood to dance. Come here.”

     Both of us were still holding our wine glasses as we started to dance. Stupid, off-beat movements as we clung to each other and tried not to spill our sacred wine. He had his hand on my waist and I had mine on his shoulder; we swayed and stepped like drunks at a wedding, dancing to a beat in our own heads while the music played.

     I was so unbearably happy. He lifted his arm up—I twirled beneath it and stumbled, until he caught me, steadied me, laughing so I could feel his breath falling on my face and into my ears.

     “You’re a shit dancer,” I said, breathless.

     “Yeah? You think?” He took a step back and spread his arms wide. Then he gave me a full, bend-at-the-waist bow. “Thank you.”

     Exhausted, high from these moments and the touch of his fingers against mine, I collapsed on the floor in front of the table. I leaned back against the couch. Stared at the television. Smiled a bit wider when he sat on the floor beside me—I couldn’t control myself. I put my head on his shoulder.

     “Thanks for inviting me,” I heard myself say. “It means the world.”

     “Any time, Sawamura. Seriously.”

     “Seriously?”

     “Seriously. You know I’m here.”

     “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with you.”

     “Are you being real right now?” He laughed, but I could sense frustration in his voice. We both took big sips of wine. I didn’t know about him, his tolerance must have been much higher than mine, but I was drunk.

     “Totally real. Before today, I had no idea what you thought of me.”

     “I hire you to work at my record store. I spend every day with you. I get you into a bar even though you’re a minor and get you drinks for free.”

     “I know, I know. And I’m so grateful,” I said. Suddenly I was close to tears. We really had never talked about that night. “But I’m just a kid. I’m annoying and loud. I could be a burden.”

     He didn’t respond. Just sipped from his wine. I wasn’t sure I wanted a response, anyway. I sipped from my wine, too. I was dying for a cigarette, but I doubted he would let me smoke in his perfect little apartment. I’d gone from unbelievably happy to unbelievably upset in a matter of moments and wine was the only way I could think to handle it. The thirty second countdown to the new year was starting.

     “And I’m not good at reading signs. Even if you’re good at sending them,” I continued. “You could be doing every single thing right, but I’m stupid.”

     “You’re not stupid,” he said softly.

     “If you don’t come out and tell me how you feel, I’ll never get it. I am stupid. At least in that sense.”

     Ten second countdown. I lifted my head off his shoulder, only to realize there were tears gushing from my eyes. I couldn’t stop them.

     “I just need you to tell me. Like you did tonight. That’s all I need,” I said. “For you to tell me you care.”

     The ball dropped.

     I turned to look at him. He was staring at me with an expression I’d never seen before. Tenderness seeped into his features and his smile was gone. Eyebrows furrowed a bit, tilted, like seeing me cry had triggered an innate response of empathy that had before been hidden in deep crevices of cynicism and numbness.

     “So you need me to be really, really obvious. That’s what you’re saying?” he asked.

     I nodded.

     “All right.”

     He leaned forward, put a hand on my cheek, and kissed me.

Chapter Text

15

fresh open regret

     I didn’t even get the chance to close my eyes before he pulled away. Woozy, lightheaded, dazzled. I stared at him with saucer eyes.

     “Miyuki,” I finally managed—it was all I could muster. His hand was still gently pressed to my cheek, his thumb wiping the stray tears that flowed.

     “Stop looking at me like that,” he breathed, “please. I can’t take it.”

     I grabbed his wrist as if my life depended on it. We both moved in to close the space between us, and our lips touched again. This time, I needed to make sure this wasn’t a dream. Not just the wine concocting fantasies right before my eyes. I was drunk but aware. How could I not have been? Kazuya Miyuki had kissed me and now he was kissing me again. I let my eyes flutter shut and leaned into him, until his mouth opened and I could taste the wine and sweet sensations on his tongue. He swiped it across my pouting lower lip and parted my lips, pushed me back slightly while his palm pressed down on the side of my neck. His tongue carved me out and traced, slowly, smoothly, delicately, the lines of my lips. I couldn’t move. Could just sit, mouth open and eyes closed, lost in the tingling, the sparkling, the white blinding feelings. As he lifted his lips to kiss my flushed, wet cheek, he pulled softly on my lower lip with his thumb. Obedient, I opened my mouth wider. Watering. He put his lips back to me and twirled his tongue, tangled it among mine, kissed my upper lip and then my lower lip. I gripped his wrist harder. I followed his lead, and turned, slowly, until I was facing him. For a moment, he pulled away—I could barely open my eyes. He held my face in his hands and, without a word, pulled me toward him.

     I clambered onto his lap, straddling him, and wrapped my arms around his neck. He took off his fogged-up glasses and tossed them onto the couch; his hands were warm and smooth when he slid them under my shirt to touch my skin. As I kissed him, I breathed him in, deep, to try and comprehend this. I tried to follow my instincts. Chest-to-chest, I grinded my crotch down against his, made him push his palms deeper into the flesh of my chest. We were moving slowly, so sickly sweetly slowly. I was afraid of moving fast this time. I didn’t need to move fast this time. I just needed him.

     “Miyuki.”

     When I said his name and squeezed his neck, it was like an out-of-body experience. That couldn’t have been me, crooning his name like that. It couldn’t have been. He pushed my shirt until my arms came up, and then he threw it to the side and brought his lips to the center of my chest. I could feel him getting hard, and I swiveled my hips, increased the pressure. He moaned, gravelly and animalistic, against my chest. I sank down and he kissed my open, glossy lips again. Like he couldn’t get enough, like I was his new exciting way of getting drunk.

     The fireplace was as bright as ever. I was sweating, suspended in this heat. He kissed me slow and delicate and I lost track of where I ended and he started—his tongue was painting pictures on the insides of my cheeks. I held onto his neck to close out the distance between us, I wanted him all the way back in my throat, I wanted his tongue to trace my lips again just like that and kiss the corners of my lips like ritualistic worship.

     Subtly, he pushed me back. I stopped immediately.

     “What? What’s wrong? Did I do something?” I immediately asked, words slurring. He brushed the back of his hand against my cheek and smiled.

     “No. Nothing,” he replied. “I just want to look at you for a second.”

     He put one hand on the small of my back, and tenderly led me to the ground. Spread out, staring up at him as he settled between my legs, I realized that this was the first time I’d ever seen him without his glasses. His face opened up for me like a rose. I put my hands to his cheeks and he kissed me again. Pushed up against my crotch in perfect rhythms while he ran his hands up and down the sides of my chest. Then he was kissing my neck, biting down on the skin as I dug my fingers into his hair—I was seeing colors I’d never seen before—I would never be full enough of this. I tore at his turtleneck sweater until he sat up and ripped it off himself, and now our bare chests touched and we were even closer. The fireplace still crackled. The television droned on for nobody.

     He started unbuckling my jeans as he kissed me. When he’d slid them off, he ran his hands back up my chest and I spread my arms out for him—he grabbed my hands, wove his fingers through mine, pinned me to the ground. I wanted him to control me. When he pressed down I pushed up, and when he kissed me I opened my mouth for him. I was in the palm of his hand and I wanted it that way.

     He took one hand and slid it beneath my boxers. My moans were muffled and cracked against his lips, and I rose up for him; he moved me like the ocean. As he held me, ran his fingers up, he put his lips to my ear and forced my cheek to the ground.

     “Fuck, you’re so cute,” he whispered. I moaned harder, louder, just for him.

     My boxers were off now. I was naked.

     “Is this okay?” he asked. I nodded. “I need you to say it.”

     “Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

     He grabbed my chin and kissed me, hard, slow. My entire body vibrated beneath him. When he brought a hand to my inner thigh I spread my legs out even wider for him.

     But something cracked in me when he brought his fingers to the rim of my ass. I suddenly tensed up, and tears sprang to my eyes like a regiment. I covered my mouth with the back of my arm and squeezed my eyes tight, tight, as his fingertips stopped at the threshold.

     “Sawamura.”

     It wasn’t seductive or soft this time. He said my name sternly. I opened my eyes. He was looking down at me, brow furrowed and lips in a straight, hard line.

     “I’m fine,” I said, trembling, but he shook his head.

     “You’re not.” He sat up, now fully separated from me. “You’re drunk.”

     “No. I’m fine. I said yes, and I meant it,” I began, but my voice cracked. Traitor.

     He paused. As if something was falling over him. As if something was snapping into place.

     “This is your first time, isn’t it?”

     It was more of a statement than a question. Tears burning, dripping with embarrassment, I nodded. Miyuki stood up and started retrieving my clothes.

     “Miyuki, wait—”

     “No. You’re not ready. You’re terrified.”

     He grabbed my arm to help me sit up and, like a parent, helped me get dressed. First my shirt. Then my boxers. Something had settled in his brain and I couldn’t even deny anything—I truly was terrified. Terrified and embarrassed and trying in vain to convince myself that I was ready for this step.

     “I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

     “No. You have nothing to be sorry for.” He helped me to my feet, and sat me down on the couch. With his arms around me, I lay down, curling my knees toward my chest. “I’ll get a blanket. Just crash here for the night.”

     “Miyuki, can we...?”

     “We’ll talk about it in the morning, all right? Just go to sleep.”

     He draped a large, fuzzy blanket over me and brought a pillow. Ran his hand through my hair and across my cheek. My vision was blurred and wet from the wine and the world was spinning a bit—television now off. I watched him, crouched and fully dressed, as he lowered the fireplace to a simmer and moved to the record player. He put on Frank Ocean. Just for me.

     “Good night, Sawamura.”

     I couldn’t respond. I was already crying. If it weren’t for the wine, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep.

 


 

     It was the first time I was experiencing a hangover from wine. The headache was of a different category, making me feel congested and foggy rather than the dull ache that often characterized my hangovers. When I opened my eyes, the world started closing in on me, so I closed them again for a few moments. Readied myself, steeled my nerves as last night flooded back to me. Eyes open now, I looked around the room. I was still wrapped tightly in the blanket, and there was a patch of drool where the corner of my mouth had been crushed against the pillow; my right shoulder ached, no doubt because in my drunken state I hadn’t moved at all in my sleep. My entire body crackled as I tried to stretch my limbs. The television was still off, the record player silent, the fireplace dark. Sunlight poured in through the window door leading onto the balcony, right onto me—under the blanket, under my clothes, I was sweating.

     I finally managed to sit up, casting the blanket to the floor. It was as if my joints were rusted as I moved. When I’d gotten my bearings and had located my phone, nearly dead on the floor by my feet, I swiped my gaze over to the kitchen. Miyuki was standing over the sink, washing the trays and cake plates and wine glasses. His hair was wet and his skin glistened—he must have gotten out of the shower. He was in a plain white t-shirt and sweatpants. And there was absolutely nothing on his face. It was stoic, motionless as the surface of a crystal spring. As soon as I saw him, my stomach dropped to the soles of my feet and my face burned. It took him a few moments to notice I was awake, at which point he managed a smile.

     “Good morning. How do you feel?”

     “Like shit.”

     “I figured. Tea or coffee?”

     “Coffee. With—“

     “Lots of sugar,” he finished. I smiled back while he got to work on the coffee. Enough for two full cups. If I tried to talk too soon, I would start to cry again. He’d promised me we would talk about what happened—or had I imagined that? Either way, I kept my mouth shut until he came over to sit beside me on the couch.

     “Can you grab some coasters from that box, please?” he asked, pointing his chin to a small box in the center of the table. I opened it and pulled out two brown coasters, upon which he placed the cups of coffee. His was darker and smoother, mine light and milky. Even though I was still sweating, I grabbed it, just to feel it burn against my palms. All the fatal embarrassment I’d felt last night came rushing back in a fantastic explosion of agony; I couldn’t have said anything even if I’d wanted to. We sat like that for centuries. Staring blankly ahead, terrified of the aftermath that would follow breaking this silence.

     Miyuki finally spoke.

     “Last night wasn’t fair. I know that,” he said. “I put you in a bad position.”

     I looked over at him, but his glare was locked straight forward. As if there was something more fascinating, more deserving, there on the wall. His profile was sharp and dark and outlined by the golden light. Like a god’s.

     “I’m sorry.”

     I hadn’t been expecting an apology, and not only because Kuramochi had warned me that Miyuki was too proud to apologize. But because I had no idea what he was apologizing for.

     “What?” I gaped. Instead of meeting my eyes, he looked down at his abyss-black coffee.

     “I’m sorry for doing that to you. You’re my friend.”

     “Friend...right.”

     “I was drunk, and I made a mistake.”

     “A mistake?” This time, my voice was louder, angrier than I’d meant it to get. He met my eyes now. They were hard. Icy. No smile pulling at the corners of his lips. No glistening eyelashes.

     “A mistake,” he repeated. “I never should have kissed you. It was wrong.”

     I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I opened my mouth, as if there was any fucking thing I could say in response. This couldn’t just be because I hadn’t been ready for sex. This was different. Deeper. I looked into his eyes and didn’t doubt that he truly regretted it—so much that he was actually admitting it. I thought I was going to throw up. I had never felt stupider in my life; for believing that, when he’d been drunk and impulsive, Miyuki had actually wanted me. I turned away. His eyes had nothing for me.

     “Right. Totally.” I needed to get out. I stood up, leaving my coffee untouched, and headed to the door to start putting my shoes on. “Mistakes happen. It’s fine.”

     “Sawamura...” He followed me slowly.

     “You’re right. I’m just a kid, anyway. Not your fault I was the only one around, and you were horny.” I was aggressive while I tied the laces. Fingers uncoordinated and clumsy.

     “Hey. Come on.”

     “I mean, if you’d been sober, you never even would’ve thought of kissing me,” I laughed. “How stupid would be that be, right?”

     “I meant what I said, though. That I care about you. That I’m here for you.”

     As I put my jacket on, he reached up and tried to cup my chin. The way he’d gotten used to doing. But I couldn’t deal with it. I flinched away, ripping my face from his grasp.

     “Let me drive you home,” he said quietly.

     “No, I’ll get an Uber. Thanks for dinner. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

     I hadn’t even ordered the Uber yet, but I needed to get out of there. I didn’t wait for him to open the door for me. Jacket still unbuttoned and shoes barely tied, I opened the door myself and stumbled down the stairs. I sat on the bottom stair while I waited the five minutes for my Uber. When I got home, I showered to get the feel of him off my body and I brushed my teeth for five minutes to get his taste out of my mouth. Then I curled up in bed and slept some more, while I listened to THREE1989. When I woke up at four in the afternoon, I called Haruichi, hoping, hoping, hoping, that he would answer. Of course he did. Of course he answered. And for the first few minutes that we were on the phone, I couldn’t get a single word out. I was sobbing now. Breaking down.

     “Take your time, Eijun. I’m here.”

     Like a fucking angel, he waited until I caught my breath. Then he asked me what was wrong. I told him everything.

     “Do you want me to come back?” he asked, though he wasn’t supposed to come back until tomorrow.

     “No, no. I’ll be fine for tonight.”

     “Okay. I’ll be back tomorrow. I love you.”

     “I love you, too.”

     I went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

16

Saturday nights in hell

     While I was on my run the next morning before work, at around seven, my phone pinged in the middle of a song. I could’ve sworn I’d put it on do-not-disturb—I prayed it wasn’t a message from Miyuki. I couldn’t wait until my run was over. Without stopping, so I could savor the burn in my lungs, I unlocked my phone. Not a message from Miyuki, to my immense relief. An email, sent to my school inbox. It was from a guy named Shinji Kanemaru, a name I vaguely remembered hearing, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen his face. I opened the email.

     He was congratulating me on my acceptance to the college radio station’s internship program, and introducing himself as my tutor, of sorts. When classes started in a few days, he would be in charge of my internship, showing me the ropes and allowing me onto his show. As I read, I slowed to a jog, and then a full stop. In this swirl of sadness, darkness, hopelessness, being totally and utterly crushed, this was a beacon of light. I smiled. My chest swelled with pride. I had done this. I had snagged this internship. Come next year, if all went well, I would have my own radio show. I texted Haruichi and Kuramochi. Didn’t bother with Miyuki, because I figured I could tell him at work later.

     Then I texted the number that Kanemaru had given me in the email, stating that was the best way to contact him. I introduced myself, thanked him, and gave him convenient times to meet. He texted back, enthusiastic, and we agreed to get lunch tomorrow. Newly rejuvenated, I ran back to my dorm and hopped into the shower. I needed to get ready for work.

 


 

     Miyuki was behind the register, tinkering on his phone when I came into work. He was playing lo-fi today, as if to cleanse the air. When I stepped inside, his head popped up, already plastered with that smirk. Despite myself, despite the deep betrayal that rattled my bones, I smiled back.

     “Good morning,” he called.

     “Hey. Anything exciting happen in the last hour?”

     “Fortunately not.” It was then that I realized he had a cigarette in his mouth—I’d seen him bum smokes or take a few drags from Kuramochi, but I’d never seen him smoke them himself. I walked over to him, the way a moth flies over to a flame. When I stared into his face I could suddenly feel so vividly his lips on mine, his hands running all over me, his breath his words in my ear. I was reliving the whole night again and my heart pounded with anger, humiliation, elation.

     He handed me a cup of coffee from the cafe down the street—the same latte Kuramochi always got me. I didn’t thank him, just grabbed it and drank. I hadn’t realized quite how thirsty I was. As I started walking toward the back room, Miyuki raised his eyebrows.

     “What?” I asked.

     “Any news?”

     “Oh. Yeah. I got the internship.”

     “Hey, that’s great! Congratulations.” He spoke as if he’d already known. For all I knew, Kuramochi could’ve told him. But he couldn’t just ask me about it like a normal person, always had to be on higher ground.

     “Thanks.”

     “So you’re gonna be working fewer shifts?”

     “I guess so.”

     “All right. Having you around has been helpful. I’ll probably hire one other employee to pick up the extra shifts,” he said.

     “Oh. That’s probably a good idea,” I shrugged.

     “You look stressed. Here.” He handed me the cigarette that had just moments ago been dangling from his lips. I took it gratefully between my fingers.

     “Thanks.”

     “We can close for lunch and go out for food around one. It’s too nice out to stay cooped up,” he said. “Sound good?”

     “Yeah, sounds perfect.”

     “Breathe, Sawamura, please. Just breathe.”

     With a deep drag of the cigarette, I turned and went into the back room, so I could process what had just happened, process how he could move on as if absolutely nothing had happened, and mentally prepare myself to be wholly smitten again by lunch.

     He still wants me to breathe, he’s reminding me.

     He’s giving me his cigarettes to help me breathe.

     I breathed.

 


 

     Kanemaru was a tall, blond, good-looking guy who liked to boss people around and wear collared button-downs with khakis. I don’t mean boss people around in a negative way—he knew the right way for things to get done, and he worked to get them done that way. He was blunt, never bothered sugarcoating his words, and sometimes he came off aggressive; if he was ever aware of it, he apologized. A respectful, do-good-for-others kind of guy. He reached out to help when he could and he became my greatest asset in preparing for my own radio show. We hadn’t known each other for an hour before he started calling me “Wamura,” in some weird attempt to get back at me for being so annoying.

     His favorite band was The Strokes, but his show wasn’t actually music-based; it was political. Sometimes I’d caught it after class, but I wasn’t particularly politically-inclined. As we sat down for our first lunch together, I recalled Haruichi mentioning his show to me during our first semester. He followed politics much more closely than me, and claimed that Kanemaru had a thoughtful, detail-oriented show.

     “So, I read your application,” he said, drinking iced coffee even though it was freezing. We were eating in one of the campus dining halls. “You’re big into music?”

     “Yeah, about the only thing I’m big into,” I snorted. “I’m not all smart and fancy and into politics like you, but I know a fuck-ton about music.”

     He gave me a puzzled, eyes-narrowed expression. Like he hadn’t been expecting me to answer in such a candid, enthusiastic way. I kept smiling, while he kept scowling.

     “Right...so what kind of show would you be thinking?”

     “I mean, I haven’t thought about all the details yet since I still have another semester, but I was thinking like a music talk-show hybrid,” I said, excitement creeping into my voice. The pitch elevated with each word.

     “Okay...” He sounded unconvinced. “How would it be original? Different from any other music show?”

     “It wouldn’t just be the most popular songs or artists. I would find new artists and hidden gems and talk about them—kind of like exposés.”

     “Oh. You’re that confident in your taste in music?” he challenged. I blinked at him, confused. “You think you’re so good that you can find random no-name artists and make other people interested in them?”

     “Yeah,” I replied. “Isn’t that the point of a unique show?”

     Straw in his lips, he tapped his fingers sequentially on the table. A pensive, confused comportment crossed his features—his eyes were still narrow and his lips puckered like he’d just sucked on something sour. He didn’t look like he believed in me, but that didn’t faze me. I was used to that, and numb to it.

     “Okay. We’ll see. It’ll be a while before you start working on your own show, anyway. Let’s just get to the nitty gritty of what your internship entails.”

     “Awesome.”

     “God, you are so loud and enthusiastic,” he growled.

     “Thanks!”

     “You’re gonna make this semester hell, aren’t you?”

     Kanemaru was my age, but he’d finished his internship over the summer so he could start his show as soon as his first semester. I was jealous of his clarity and ambition, and I respected him, but I didn’t feel less than him. I was ready to learn from him, but I told him from the start that I wouldn’t stand for any patronizing or condescension—I had enough of that in my life from Miyuki. I couldn’t deny that from the start, there was tension between me and Kanemaru. Because I was more enthusiastic and reckless than he’d anticipated, and he was more harsh and intense than I’d anticipated.

     We became pretty good friends. I grew attached to his colorful button-downs.

     My tasks were mainly to prepare the studio for Kanemaru’s shows, troubleshoot and make sure everything went smoothly during the live show, learn the ins and outs of radio. Sometimes I was given the more onerous tasks that one associates with an internship—grabbing coffee, making copies, filling out mind-numbing paperwork. I did it all, but I wasn’t quiet about my frustration, and Kanemaru hated that about me. I was never afraid to voice my feelings, and a lot of the time, that involved whining. He tried to insult me as a means of getting me in line, and for the first week or so that worked. Shut up, Wamura. You’re full of shit, Wamura. Actually do some work, Wamura. You’ll never get anywhere if you’re all talk, Wamura. But after that, I realized he couldn’t really do anything if I talked back because he technically wasn’t my boss; we started getting into arguments. They were never terribly heated, never too dramatic or intense. They were the kinds of arguments that left me slightly amused and Kanemaru absolutely fuming. He truly hated me at first. We weren’t immediately compatible.

     I worked at the records store as often as I could, but as I’d expected, I had to cut down my shifts a lot. The internship was at least three times a week. If my schedule cleared up through a cancelled class or something, I would text Miyuki if I could come in, and it was always okay. Part of me hated that I couldn’t be in the store more, especially after getting used to working there full-time over winter break. That part was constantly desperate to see Miyuki—it was the part that remembered the good things he’d made me feel when he’d kissed me.

     But the other part of me dreaded the sight of him. That part was constantly in pain, constantly reminded that even if he knew how much I wanted him, he didn’t want me back. It was a terrible, vicious cycle. I felt like a masochist, clinging to the closeness we’d developed in our friendship even after tasting what it would be like if we were more. He’d made himself clear, but my trajectory continued as usual.

     Saturday nights were still perfectly open, so Haruichi and I continued our escapades to Ace Night Club. We’d become bona fide regulars there; Miyuki no longer needed to get us in. The bouncers recognized us and let us skip the lines. The taste of alcohol stopped being foreign and disgustingly strong on my tongue. I wasn’t muscling through the gags anymore just to get drunk. I could drink a Long Island iced tea in twenty minutes and take three tequila shots in that same time frame without vomiting, with or without lime. Though Haruichi never met me on my levels, he had his own development. Where my drunkenness was rowdy and loud and horny, his was subdued and emotional and affectionate. We danced together, but when I grinded on strangers or snuck off to the bathroom, he slipped away back to the bar to hang out with Miyuki.

     After New Year’s, I became more sexually reckless. Driven by humiliation? A broken heart? Raw, true horniness? I had no idea. Sometimes I went to the bathroom with different guys in the same night. If I was drunk enough, I accidentally gave them my real number instead of a joke phone line I’d memorized. I became adept at going just far enough. I knew that Miyuki, Ryousuke, Tetsu, Jun, Masuko, and Shirasu were paying attention to me and I never felt unsafe, but I never let myself get drunk enough that I couldn’t see the face of the person I was with. Every night was a new person, a new vulgar sex act in the bathroom stalls. Every night during the intermission of Kuramochi’s set I met him in the bathroom and we did as many lines as our noses could handle—I did get a nosebleed once. Miyuki and Haruichi were both furious. (Haruichi was much more angry at the fact that I was smoking cigarettes more often. I chain-smoked nearly every time we went out.)

     I could never stop imagining Miyuki, though it was harder now that I knew what his kiss actually felt like. None of these strangers touched like him or tasted like him. None of them made me moan the way he’d made me moan, none of them made me writhe. A not-insignificant part of me was doing it to make Miyuki jealous. A delusional part of me that actually believe he cared enough, a part that encouraged me to look over my shoulder and see if he was watching me while I danced.

     He almost never was.

Chapter Text

17

evenings of research

     Satoru Furuya appeared in my life about a month and a half into the semester.

     On a quiet, chilly Saturday morning, I biked down to Ace for my shift, expecting all to be as usual. Miyuki had opened this morning. He would be there, behind the counter, coffee half-finished, and I would say good morning and chat for a bit and then head to the back to deal with our shipments. We would have lunch together and around five he would leave and at seven, I would close. I would head back to campus for dinner with Haruichi, before heading to the club as usual.

     But that wasn’t what happened. After chaining my bike, I walked in to find the place empty. I figured Miyuki was in the back room—as I got closer, I could hear his voice floating through the door. Now confused, I went in. Miyuki was in the middle of explaining how to organize shipments to a tall, lean young guy, with black hair falling into his eyes and an expression of perpetual ambivalence. They both turned to face me while I stood, silent and confused, in the doorway.

     “Hey, good morning. Your timing is perfect,” Miyuki greeted. “This is Satoru Furuya. I just hired him. Furuya, this is Eijun Sawamura.”

     “Nice to meet you,” I smiled as enthusiastically as possible, and held out my hand. He barely blinked when he shook it.

     “Likewise,” he said, in a smooth, quiet voice, like part of it was still caught in his throat. Pretty much the complete opposite of my manner of speaking.

     “Would you mind showing him the ropes back here so I can man the front?” Miyuki asked.

     “No problem.”

     “Thanks, babe. Make him feel at home.”

     He smiled and squeezed my shoulder as he walked out, leaving the two of us alone in the back room. Furuya looked to be about my age, and when I really took another look at his face under all that black, he was charmingly cute. His lips turned down at the corners a bit, like he was always very irritated about a voice saying rude things in his ear that only he could hear—and there was a little pout there, too. He was pale, but the sharpness of the blue in his eyes was lightning. Despite the heaviness of his lids. They gave him an expression of sleepiness in combination with everything else. I felt an inexplicable obligation to tell him to go take a nap; he just looked beautifully exhausted.

     I got to work showing him around. It didn’t take very long. He hardly said a single word, would just nod without eye contact when I asked him if he understood. He answered questions when I asked but the small talk we waded into was doubtlessly awkward.

     “So, Furuya,” I said, to get used to his name on my tongue, “are you from around here?”

     “No. Not even close.”

     He told me he was from a small town I’d never heard of, but was here for school.

     “Where do you go?”

     Of course, with only one major college around this city, it turned out that we both went to the same school. But he had come in already knowing his major and on a scholarship—he’d been assigned a niche before even setting foot on campus, whereas Haruichi and I had come in open to anything and everything. I was a bit confused that I had never seen him on campus. He was striking. I would’ve remembered, even if it was just in passing.

     “What’s your major then?”

     “Music.”

     “Oh! No way! I considered doing that major,” I cried. “It makes sense now why you’d apply to work here.”

     “What instrument do you play?” Though he still wasn’t looking at me, it was the first question he’d directed to me.

     “Me? I can barely play piano,” I laughed.

     “Oh. I just figured...since you wanted to be a music major.”

     “Yeah, you can see why I’ve decided against that,” I grinned. “What about you?”

     “Violin. And guitar,” he said.

     “You must be really good if you’re on a scholarship for it.”

     “Apparently not good enough for the best conservatory in the country,” he mumbled. The self-deprecation caught me off-guard. Scowling, I froze, and racked my brain for something I could say.

     “Places like that are stuffy and elitist anyway, right? You’re better off in a city like this.”

     “What would you know about it?”

     Either I had miscalculated, or he was an asshole.

     “Oh. I don’t know. Just trying to give some perspective,” I shrugged, biting my angry, loud tongue. Nothing seemed to have fazed him, and that pissed me off.

     “Well, it’s true I wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship there. That makes things easier,” he said. Slightly put-off, I crossed my arms.

     “Are you one of those kids who started playing violin when you were, like, five?”

     “Four.”

     “Jeez. So it’s like all you know.”

     “It’s what I’m good at. Why wouldn’t I do what I’m good at? Isn’t that why you’re here, too?”

     He finally looked over at me; he had to tilt his head down a bit, because I was that much shorter. That pissed me off, too.

     “Miyuki told me you like music and you’re good at it. Like, culturally, or whatever. Even if you can’t play any instruments.”

     “Miyuki said that?”

     “Sure. He doesn’t really know how to play any instruments either, but here he is.” And with that offhand comment, leaving me absolutely writhing with jealousy, he went back to work. They’d just met, and already Miyuki was telling him stuff it had taken me weeks to figure out? I was seeing spots of red. And there was no way Furuya had meant anything by that, because how could he have known?

     “Yeah...it is weird that for as much as I like music, I never felt inclined to play anything.”

     “That’s normal.”

     “You think?”

     “Yeah. Playing is completely different from listening. I’m sure you know way more than me about music in general.”

     “But I bet you know more about the, you know, the technical aspects of music.”

     “Sure. I’ve been playing for fourteen years. But I don’t listen to the radio or anything like that. I listen to what I play and that’s that.”

     “That seems odd,” I said with a bit of a laugh. Furuya looked over at me again.

     “Why?”

     “I just assumed that if you liked to play so much, you’d like to listen, too. Even if it’s just classical music.”

     “Not really.”

     “Then why apply here?” I asked.

     “I came in to buy a record to help me practice for a recital. Miyuki suggested I apply. Here I am.”

     “Miyuki did? Seriously?” I cried. Much more loudly than I’d meant to, but Furuya didn’t flinch at all.

     “I like it here. I’m glad he convinced me.”

     I was too livid to say anything else. I took to organizing the other side of the room. Gritting my teeth so hard that in a matter of minutes, I was ravaged by an awful headache.

 


 

     I had to skip Ace that night, much to my (and Kuramochi’s) chagrin. I think Haruichi was secretly relieved that he could finally spend a Saturday evening curled up in bed with a book and a hot pizza. Kanemaru was finishing up research for the upcoming week, which he usually had finished by Saturday afternoon, but there had been some last minute breaking news that he needed to incorporate into his reporting. And, as his loyal and obedient intern, I needed to stay up with him to finish up. So I found myself on the floor of his dorm room, laptop open while I did research, as he typed away like a madman at his desk with a pencil jammed between his teeth. I didn’t mind it too much. Kanemaru was a nice sounding board. I could rant easily to him about things I couldn’t always rant about to Kuramochi or Haruichi.

     “Have you ever seen him around campus? This Furuya guy?” I asked over my shoulder.

     “Nope.”

     “I bet it’s cuz he’s always in the practice rooms. Playing away on his fancy little violin,” I sighed.

     “You’re overthinking whatever it is Miyuki said to him,” Kanemaru said. I could tell from his tone that he was speaking absentmindedly, which made him that much more astounding. He was hardly paying attention, and still providing me with advice and observations.

     “You think? I had to convince Miyuki to let me apply for that stupid job, but he had to convince Furuya to apply? That’s bullshit.”

     “You put too much stock in what Miyuki says and thinks,” Kanemaru said. This time, his tone had changed. I turned to find him twisted in his chair, facing me with a serious expression while he talked.

     “What?”

     “I mean...I know he’s this hot, cool older guy, and you two are friends. I get that you’re really into him. But you don’t have to hang onto every thing he does. You’ll drive yourself crazy doing that.”

     “I can’t help it! I get jealous so easily, especially after...”

     “New Year’s?”

     Kanemaru and I knew very deep things about each other. We had just expected it and opened ourselves up to it, since neither of us was particularly reserved and we were spending a lot of time with each other anyway. I had told him everything about New Year’s.

     “When Furuya said that, I just went back to thinking, ‘what more can I do to make him pay attention to me?’” Suddenly, against my will, I was getting emotional. Kanemaru sighed and came to sit across from me on the floor.

     “Don’t put that pressure on yourself. You do a lot of stupid things, but treating yourself like that is just absolutely ridiculous.”

     “Thanks?”

     “I’m serious! You’ve been clear with him. At least, more clear than he’s been with you. You shouldn’t have to sit around waiting for him to suddenly realize that you’ve always been there, you know? You deserve more than that.”

     “Kanemaru,” I said, overwhelmed. He was practically yelling now, and as I said his name, he came back to earth a bit.

     “Sorry. I just hate seeing my friends treated like shit when they don’t deserve it,” he grumbled.

     “So I’m your friend now? Really?”

     “Oh, shut up,” he hissed. “I don’t even have a choice at this point, do I?”

     “Thanks, though. Seriously.”

     “Listen. I’ve seen you work hard. I’ve seen you go from knowing absolutely nothing to actually being able to accomplish things in a really short period of time. One month ago I didn’t trust you with my coffee, let alone with the research for my program. You’re annoying and loud and you have the worst temper I’ve ever seen, but you get shit done, and I admire that. Miyuki’s just gotten used to you. It seems like he really takes you for granted. I hate that in a person.”

     “You really think all that?” I beamed.

     “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, yeah.”

     I smiled like a child who’d just been praised by a parent or a teacher. He smiled back, slow and exhausted. It was probably close to 2am.

     “You should come to Ace with me and Haruichi next week,” I said. I wasn’t sure what had possessed me to say that.

     “I don’t know, doesn’t really seem like my kind of scene.”

     He leaned back on his hands, grinning up at the ceiling. Something wild rushed over me in that moment. Watching him stretched out like that. We really had miraculously become friends.

     The deepest thing I knew about Kanemaru was that in the middle of last semester, his long-distance boyfriend had broken up with him, and he was still devastated. They had dated for years and agreed to try the distance because they loved each other. But his boyfriend had had enough—he dealt with the heartbreak every day.

     “Hey, Kanemaru. I have an idea.”

     “Oh, jeez, here we go. What’s your idea?”

     “Let’s fuck.”

     He sat up so quickly that the pencil behind his ear flew across the room, clinking against the closet door. He gaped at me, jaw nearly at the floor, while I sat straight-faced and absolutely serious.

     “What the hell? Have you lost your mind?” he cried. “Why would we ever fuck?”

     “I wanna lose my virginity. You need to get over your boyfriend.”

     “You’re joking,” he scoffed. “How would fucking you, of all people, help me get over him?”

     “You won’t know until you try. And you said it yourself. We’re friends.”

     “Fucking hell, Wamura.”

     “I’m not saying we should date. I don’t wanna date you,” I continued. “But it’s a win-win. We’re comfortable with each other and we could really help each other.”

     “You are serious.”

     “Dead serious. No strings. I want Miyuki, you want your ex. No feelings. Just sex.”

     His anger slowly, slowly, was melting into actual consideration. I got on my hands and knees and inched just a little bit closer, to test the waters. He didn’t back away.

     “So you weren’t kidding. You’re really a virgin,” he smirked.

     “Hey! It’s not that big of a deal! I’m only eighteen.”

     “And you’re saying that you want me to fuck you, because you feel comfortable around me.”

     “I’ve embarrassed myself a lot around you. Can’t get much lower than that,” I shrugged. Inched a bit closer. “And I know you think I’m cute.”

     “And how do you know that?”

     “Because everybody thinks I’m cute, asshole.”

     “Fair enough.”

     He leaned forward to meet me, and we had our first kiss. We were methodical—not quite detached, because we did care for each other—as we made out, as I clambered on top of him, as we removed our clothes and I forced him to pause so I could put on some music. He wasn’t afraid of telling me what he liked and what he didn’t like, and that encouraged me not to be afraid, either. Not quite there, I like it here, more. Keep doing, please, right there. Please never do that again. Do that again.

     When we were flushed and sweating and clinging to each other, we moved to the bed, and Kanemaru turned off the light. I lay down on the bed and he slowly settled between my hips. Overcome with gratitude, with comfort, I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him down to kiss me. He had a great body, muscular and lean, pushing down against my bare skin. He weaved his fingers into my hair, then moved one hand down to my erection.

     “Is this okay?” he asked.

     “Yeah, keep going.”

     He did—until I was breathless. Kanemaru was experienced, as I would’ve expected from someone who’d been in an aggressively serious relationship for so long. I had some experience, from my bathroom stall adventures, but I was still nervous. He assuaged my fears. Led my hand and told me what to do without judgment.

     “Are you sure you want to go all the way right now?” he asked, when we’d both reached our limits.

     “Yeah, I’m sure. Are you sure?”

     “All right. I’m sure.”

     I wasn’t sure how I’d known so easily that he was a top, or how he’d known easily that I was (in theory) a bottom. While I lay there, sweating and breathing, he reached over to the nightstand and opened the drawer, clumsily. He pulled out a pack of condoms and a bottle of lube.

     “I won’t beat around the bush. This is probably gonna hurt.”

     “Just...go slow?”

     “Of course.”

     He got on his knees between my legs, and pushed them just a bit wider. I stuck my ass up into the air and gripped the sheets of the bed. In preparation. I kept thinking back to the humiliation of bursting into tears, scared and confused, when Miyuki had come this close. I wasn’t scared or confused anymore.

     He squeezed a generous amount of lube onto his fingers, and then began spreading it between my legs, right around my ass. It was cold and surprising, but he moved slowly, as promised.

     “I’m gonna put a finger in. Is that all right?”

     “Mhmm.”

     I closed my eyes. I was surely tense, as he put a single finger, covered in lube, into me. I sucked in a breath. The pressure was painful—not too bad. He moved smoothly, until I let out the breath and started to relax. It didn’t quite feel good, but I was sure with time, it would.

     “Doing all right?”

     “Yeah.”

     “I’m gonna put another one in.”

     “Okay.”

     This time, it hurt a bit more. I couldn’t help the small whimper that escaped my lips. He moved more slowly, making circles to loosen me up and relax me. My fingers dug into the sheets and my eyes squeezed tight. I wasn’t sure how long it was before I started to relax. Not quite painful anymore, more of a strange pressure. Not quite pleasurable, either.

     “Okay...I’m ready,” I heard myself say.

     “If you want me to stop any point, please tell me.”

     “I will.”

     I opened my eyes and there he was, looking down at me with such big, beautiful eyes. He kissed my sweating upper lip.

     He leaned back up and ripped open one of the condom wrappers. I watched him slip it over his cock, practiced and measured, before putting his arms beneath my knees and steadying me.

     “I’m gonna go really slow.”

     “Okay.”

     In the end, it turned out that I’d vastly underestimated just how much it would hurt. He did move slow, and steady, and whenever I screamed he stopped. But I wanted this to happen. I needed to feel this. I told him to keep going. I felt like I was really being carved out from the inside, the pain was sharp and intense and I bit my lip so hard that at one point I drew blood. He groaned in a gravelly voice as he fucked me. In, out, slowly back in. When I was least expecting it, he put a hand to my cheek, and it comforted me. Relaxed me. I let out a deep breath. Then he started to touch me, reassuring me it would help me relax.

     Eventually, the pain stopped being so intense. I tried to move my body with his, rhythmic, because maybe that would improve this. He really seemed to know what he was doing. I grinded out against him each time he pushed his cock in, until we were moving together, practically dancing. My whimpers of pain started subsiding into moans of pleasure. He kissed me again, and started moving faster. I pushed the pain aside and focused on my movements, on the feeling of his hand around my cock. The white pleasure started to spread throughout my body, until I lost track of where I ended and he began—we moved, moved, moved, until he stiffened and gripped my thighs more tightly. As he slipped out, I continued gripping the sheet, realizing how fucking close I was, but I hadn’t quite made it.

     “Relax, Wamura.”

     Before I could reply, he got back between my legs and brought his lips to the tip of my cock.

     “Fuck,” I breathed, as he took me in.

     It didn’t take long for me to finish after that. While I got dressed, he turned on the lights and went to the bathroom. I went when he was finished—both of us amazed at the lack of awkwardness. We stayed up doing research for another hour before I inevitably fell asleep his floor. I could barely walk the next day, and it hurt like hell to shit, but I still managed to make it to brunch with Haruichi, Kuramochi, and Ryousuke.

     Kuramochi called me later to ask who I’d fucked.

Chapter Text

18

truth of course

     The next few weeks were both some of the most frustrating and the most comforting since New Year’s.

     I’ll start with the good—Kanemaru. After what happened on Saturday, we decided that, miraculously, my idea had turned out to be a good one. So we made a pact that until things shifted in our lives, as long as we were friends, we would keep doing this, because it gave a little blush to our cheeks and a bounce to our steps. It was never rushed or forced or awkward. Often it was after a show, or after a meeting. We would casually ask, wanna come over? And then we’d spend a few hours fucking and go to bed.

     Our friendship didn’t shift much. We still argued constantly, I still did my job and he still did his, and now there was just an added dynamic of fucking at the end of the day. We never spent the nights together—we never felt quite right cuddling, though we’d tried. I demanded that I be little spoon, but that didn’t feel right, so then he tried being little spoon, and that really didn’t feel right. So we just settled on cumming and saying good night and heading home.

     Kanemaru never failed to make me feel comforted and relaxed. I was taken care of in his bed. I was pleasured and I gave pleasure—each time we fucked I learned something new, got better at something. I started to feel the unbridled pleasure of getting fucked without the pain. I demanded that he tell me when I wasn’t doing something right and, soon enough, I was doing absolutely everything right. I was learning my own tricks just as he learned his.

     Haruichi, though confused, was happy for me. He’d seen my ups and downs, had seen me fall hard at Miyuki’s feet, and I think he was relieved that I’d found an outlet that didn’t involve strangers in clubs and hundreds of lines of cocaine. And he liked Kanemaru, admired him. The three of us started hanging out together more. Kuramochi acted more like a proud older brother, constantly teasing me with tasteless dirty jokes. Kanemaru and I didn’t go out of our way to hide what we were doing, and he warned me that soon enough, the whole school would know. I didn’t mind. Surely Miyuki knew, too, and I hoped, despite everything, I truly hoped, that it made him feel something.

     Where he was involved, of course, was the frustrating aspect. Furuya was an absolute fucking enigma. I was impatient and, even though it hadn’t been long, I was pissed that I couldn’t immediately figure him out. We didn’t work together that often since the whole point of hiring him was so he could pick up my shifts, but when we did, I found myself struggling to keep up with his mind. One moment he was totally silent, off in his own world of whatever, and the next he was saying something absolutely rude and unwarranted. I guess in that sense we were similar—we never thought through anything. We kept arguing about stupid shit. Whatever we could grasp to get on each other’s nerves. In the softest voice he would tell me I was being too loud. He made snarky additions when I tried explaining types of music to customers by mentioning technical aspects upon which I conveniently couldn’t comment. I don’t know what it was about me that annoyed him so much, but he flowed with it.

     Miyuki must have thought it amusing. He was always laughing quietly in the corner. Sometimes he even said shit to feed the fire, stir the pot.

     Once, when Furuya had his back to us, Miyuki cried, “Sawamura! It’s rude to make those faces at someone,” just to start an argument. Another time, Miyuki and I were at the register, when Furuya walked in to take my shift. We’d been talking about a new album we both had really enjoyed. Music remained a consistent commonality between us, something that inherently separated us from Furuya.

     “What are you talking about?” Furuya asked.

     “Sawamura was talking shit about you again, even though I keep telling him to back off,” Miyuki shrugged nonchalantly.

     “Miyuki, you dick!”

     Furuya always fell for it, too.

     And as it turned out, he didn’t just look sleepy. I walked into the back room a week and a half after he’d been hired, and he was slumped in the single chair, asleep. I picked up the nearest object—a tissue box—and tossed it at him. For a moment, the confused, exhausted look on his face made me feel a little guilty. Then he mumbled something about me under his breath and we started arguing again.

     I should clarify the manner of our arguments. They mainly consisted of me yelling, demanding that he speak up, while he rolled his eyes at me and said condescending things—calm down, I don’t care what you think, that kind of thing. It was a dynamic we became oddly accustomed to. I wouldn’t have ventured to call us friends, but who knows? Maybe one day.

     Definitely not as long as I felt this burning, ferocious jealousy. Every time Miyuki looked at him. Said his name. Directed any statements toward him. Squeezed his arm the way he squeezed mine. Until the jealousy faded, I would hate him.

 


 

     A few days before Haruichi’s birthday, it was a slow, slow day at the records store. All three of us were working. Miyuki had dragged a stool behind the register, was leaning his chin down on the counter. I was laying across the counter on my back so that my head was right by his shoulder, my legs hanging over the edge. I was smoking a cigarette and watching the gray waft up toward the ceiling. Furuya was weaving around the store, hands brushing the records. He might as well have been sleepwalking. The music playing was Bob Dylan.

     “I’m bored,” I called to nobody in particular.

     “Must be the first slow day of your life, hmm?” Miyuki scoffed. “Gimme a drag.”

     I languidly handed him my cigarette.

     “Let’s play a game,” I continued.

     “You can’t handle silence for two seconds,” Furuya sighed.

     “You’re right. How about truth or dare?”

     “Why not?” Miyuki said. He stuck the cigarette directly back into my open mouth. “You first. Truth or dare?”

     “Truth. Dare is boring,” I smirked.

     “Agreed,” Miyuki smiled. “Okay. Biggest fear?”

     “Tame start,” I said. “Being a failure.”

     “That’s it? Failure? That’s your biggest fear?” Furuya interjected.

     “Shut up, Furuya. Failure’s a big fucking deal for me! It would be like working my whole life, and telling myself I can achieve whatever, and then getting pushed all the way down to the bottom. That’s terrifying.”

     “I think that’s fair,” Miyuki shrugged, much to my relief. “Failure is pretty scary.”

     “Your turn, Miyuki. Truth or dare?” Furuya asked. I wish I’d managed to ask it first.

     “Truth, of course.”

     “First time you fell in love.”

     “Ha! For real?” Miyuki laughed, sitting up. “Not even when I lost my virginity?”

     “No. First time you fell in love. And you can’t lie.”

     “I wouldn’t count on it too much,” I scoffed. “Miyuki could be lying through his teeth and nobody would be able to tell.”

     “Quiet, you. Let me answer the question.”

     He pushed down on my head to shut me up, and paused to think. I knew he was just putting on a show. Everybody knows the first time they really fall in love.

     “Eight.”

     “Eight?” I screamed. I sat up, pulling the cigarette from my mouth.

     “Cross my heart and hope to die. I fell in love for the first time when I was eight years old.”

     “A childhood friend?” Furuya asked.

     “Sure, you could call it that.”

     “How long were you in love?”

     “Nope, one question per turn, and I already gave you a freebie. It’s your turn now, Furuya.”

     “Fine. Dare.”

     “Wow, what a rebel,” Miyuki purred. Annoyed, I put out my finished cigarette on a makeshift ashtray and stuck another in my mouth.

     “I get to dare him,” I said.

     “Jeez, no need to pout. Go ahead,” Miyuki teased. One foot on the counter now, I faced Furuya head-on.

     “I dare you to kiss me. Right now,” I finally said. Furuya stared back. Stoic and motionless. Without a word, he walked over to me, took the cigarette from my mouth, put his hands on my cheeks, and kissed me. Surprisingly hard. I was taken aback that he’d actually done it. It lasted longer than I’d been expecting, too—long enough for Miyuki to whistle at us. When he pulled away, he held the cigarette out. I was fucking pissed now. I grabbed it and, blushing, turned away.

     “Your turn again, lover boy,” Miyuki laughed. “Truth?”

     “Yeah, sure, fine,” I grumbled.

     “I wanna ask this time. It’s only fair,” Furuya said. Miyuki nodded to him. My heart dropped a bit.

     “Hit me with your worst,” I said.

     “What’s your greatest fantasy?” He leaned back on the nearest shelf, like he hadn’t just asked that question. He’d directed it to me, but he was looking at Miyuki.

     I was so angry, so distraught, that I fell uniquely silent for a bit. Desperate. I wasn’t a fucking liar, but I wasn’t about to answer this truthfully. Not with the answer he wanted. And I was not, no matter how strong the urge, going to let my gaze over to Miyuki. I sifted through my brain for something, anything. Something vague but believable.

     “Someone obsessing over me,” I blurted.

     “What?”

     “Like, someone being obsessed with me. That’s my fantasy.”

     “That’s actually a pretty good one,” Miyuki laughed. “An ego boost, that’s for sure.”

     “I want to make someone so happy, and so excited to see me, that they’re just totally obsessed,” I continued.

     “I don’t think that’s what obsession is,” Furuya interrupted. We both looked at him. “Obsession is unhealthy and dangerous. It’s about losing yourself. What you’re describing is love.”

     “Love and obsession are the same thing most of the time, if you ask me. There’s no good way to give part of yourself to someone,” Miyuki shrugged.

     Stumped and a bit unsettled, I couldn’t find anything else to add. Luckily, my phone started to ring—I answered so quickly I didn’t even check who it was.

     “Hello?”

     “Sawamura! What are you doing right now?” Kuramochi was practically screaming into the phone.

     “I’m at work, why?”

     “I’m going to the store to get shit for Haruichi’s birthday party—when is your shift over?”

     “Uh...”

     I glanced over at Miyuki. He waved his hand, flashing that irritating all-knowing smile.

     “Right now!”

     “Perfect. I’m coming to get you.” He made a kissing sound into the phone and hung up. He must have been banking on Miyuki letting me leave; less than five minutes later, he walked in, twirling the keys to Ryousuke’s car around his gloved fingers.

     “And the king arrives to sweep his prince away,” Miyuki teased, as I hopped off the counter. Kuramochi wrapped an arm around my shoulder and pulled me toward him so hard that I nearly fell forward on my face.

     “You’re coming to the party on Friday, right? Got someone to cover your shift at the club?” Kuramochi asked him, while I was still in his death grip.

     “You betcha. I even got him a cute little present,” Miyuki said. “And I’m bringing a leash, too, so we can keep track of Sawamura.”

     “God, fuck off!”

     “Good idea. If I have anything to say about it, he’s turning up,” Kuramochi said, with a sloppy kiss to my temple. “You coming, Furuya?”

     “Oh. Uh...I don’t really know Haruichi.”

     “Doesn’t matter. You’ve met him...once? You’re coming. Miyuki, make sure he comes.”

     “Your wish is my command.”

     “All right, we got a lot of errands to run,” he announced. “We’re leaving.”

     “See you.”

     Dragging me by the arm, Kuramochi led the way out, while I waved with what little strength and direction I had. It wasn’t too cold out—the world was trying to transition into spring, but winter’s grip was tight. We were chilly. He’d parked Ryousuke’s car down the street; it was a nice black sedan, a Nissan. He told me that he drove the car instead of his motorcycle because we were “picking up a lot of shit.” I got into the passenger seat. The first stop was the grocery store. He held out a shopping list that Ryousuke had drafted for him, while I pushed the cart, riding it like a scooter.

     “So, how’s school?” he asked.

     “Boring. Going to class is a nightmare.”

     “Why’d you do it then?”

     “I’m not wickedly talented like you, jerk,” I hissed. “I have to get a degree if I wanna make it anywhere.”

     “How about that internship?”

     “I love it. I’ve already started planning out my show. You’re gonna listen, right?”

     “I don’t know, you’re kinda dumb.”

     “Sometimes I question whether you actually like me.”

     “How about...what’s his name? Kanemaru?” Here, he turned over his shoulder and wiggled his eyebrows at me. I couldn’t help but blush. He tossed some chips and salsa into the cart.

     “He’s...good.”

     “Oh, yeah?”

     “Hey, we’re just friends, all right?”

     “With benefits, though.”

     “Lots of benefits.”

     “That’s how Ryou and I started, you know. All that no-strings-attached bullshit.”

     “This is different! You loved him from the start, even though you lied and acted like you didn’t,” I snapped. “He probably knew it, too.”

     “Watch it, smartass. And how do you even know that Kanemaru’s not already in love with you?”

     I burst out laughing. It was such an outlandish thing to say. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that Kanemaru and I would never love each other. Not romantically. We gave each other certain things we needed, but we didn’t need romance. Not from each other.

     “All right, fine. But how do you know you won’t eventually develop feelings?” We veered over to the bakery section to put an order in for the cake. I knew the answer, and I knew if I could’ve told anybody, it would be Kuramochi. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to say it right then.

     “I just know,” I said.

     “You shouldn’t wait for him, Sawamura.”

     “Kanemaru?”

     “No. You know who I mean.”

     We walked up to the baker, and that was the end of that conversation for now.

Chapter Text

19

happy fucking birthday

     Haruichi’s party happened at Ryousuke and Kuramochi’s apartment. While Ryousuke finished last-minute touches, Kuramochi came to pick us and Kanemaru up from our dorms. The apartment was decorated to the nines, with streamers and balloons and a very overdramatic cake for someone turning nineteen. Bottles of wine lined the counter, music was already playing (one of Miyuki’s pre-made, public Spotify party playlists). For a while, it was just the five of us. Sipping on wine, having winding, rambling conversations. Then Tetsu, Jun, Shirasu, and Masuko arrived—they surrounded Haruichi like a mob, throwing hugs and happy birthdays in his face. All of them except for Shirasu were already drunk by the time they arrived, so the atmosphere was instantly lifted. The music got louder and the drinks flowed more. There were thousands of arms around my shoulders, everyone asking us how we were, warmth spread through my body and I couldn’t stop smiling. I introduced Kanemaru to everybody and they were predictably immature about it; thankfully, I’d warned him.

     Miyuki was the last to arrive.

     Furuya in tow.

     He dragged Furuya into the apartment by the hand and when I caught them in the doorway I thought I was going to throw up. I’d only had a few glasses of wine. They all surrounded him in greeting as he introduced Furuya to everybody—this is Satoru Furuya, my new cute employee. Had he ever spoken about me like that? I couldn’t quite remember.

     Miyuki wasn’t the real problem though. I couldn’t even count how many times I’d seen him flirting with others. Customers at the record store, people at the bar. Miyuki being like this, I was used to. Maybe I even took some weird masochistic comfort in the familiar pangs of pain.

     It was the look on Furuya’s face that really crushed me.

     He stared at Miyuki like he was a deity, like if there weren’t people around, he would fall to his knees and prostrate himself at Miyuki’s feet. His eyes had always been that piercing blue but they were exploding today in liquid gold sparkles. Whenever Miyuki looked at him or said anything to him, he blinked his long, heavy black lashes, as if just looking into Miyuki’s eyes and hearing his voice pulled him from a lucid dream and into this preferable reality. I’d never really seen Furuya smile, and he wasn’t smiling now, but there was a different look about him—surrounded by light, somehow. Walking on air while Miyuki’s hand was around his wrist.

     Watching Furuya crumble, rise, swell and float like a cloud, I realized that I must have looked like that, too. That must have been what the stranger at the bar meant.

     A guy like Miyuki will hang you out to dry.”

     “Especially if you keep looking at him like that.”

     Like that. This must have been like that.

     I demanded that Kuramochi make me a stronger drink, because I needed to get sloshed, and I was already too heartbroken to ask Miyuki to make me one. The last time we’d been in that kitchen together was the first time we met. He’d made me a drink and we’d talked about music and I’d realized that I had never looked at someone before and thought, in a single split second, that’s what I fucking want. It had been a moment of such clarity and focus, the first moment of clarity and focus in my entire life, and yet here I was, spinning in a haze of hanging on every word, every look, every touch. I stepped into the kitchen and the world collapsed a bit on my shoulders. But I took comfort in watching the familiar movements of Kuramochi’s back as he mixed me a drink. It was quieter in the kitchen. Everybody was in the living room, trying to get Haruichi to tell them his deepest, darkest secrets. I didn’t usually like quiet.

     When Kuramochi turned to hand me my drink, he wasn’t smiling. His face was blank, even a little…angry? His brows were furrowed a bit, like he was disappointed in me for keeping secrets that I didn’t even know I was keeping. I sipped from my drink and avoided his gaze.

     “You wanna talk about it?” he asked.

     “Talk about what?”

     “Whatever it is that’s on your mind,” he spat. “You’re bad at hiding your feelings and I’m not an idiot.”

     I turned over my shoulder, knowing Kuramochi would follow my gaze. That way he would realize, without me having to say anything. Everybody was spread out in the living room. Furuya was sitting on the end of the couch, right next to Haruichi. Miyuki was sitting on the armrest beside him, arm leaning on his shoulder while he talked to the others. Like they were the most natural thing in the world. I kept noticing Furuya’s gaze swinging like a magnet back to Miyuki—even though they weren’t even in conversation together. My insides caught fire. I heard Kuramochi sigh.

     “I don’t know what you expect from him,” he said. I turned back to face him.

     “I don’t know, either, okay? I don’t know either,” I snapped, “but I don’t know how to stop.”

     “There’s not much I can tell you except…that you’ll be disappointed, probably,” he said. “I’m not one to sugarcoat things. Especially when it comes to people I care about.”

     “Why do you even care about me so much? You haven’t known me that long. I’m just a stupid kid,” I said, without quite meaning to. Kuramochi raised his eyebrows.

     “What the fuck are you talking about?”

     “It doesn’t make sense. You’re cool and successful and you have no reason to associate with a stupid, naïve nobody like me.”

     He stared at me for a few moments. His expression was angry now—really fucking pissed. I’d never really seen Kuramochi truly, viscerally angry. He stepped toward me and for a stupid, ignorant moment, I was terrified that he would hit me (he’d always been physical with me anyway, right?). But he didn’t. Obviously. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to his chest, hand behind my head. I closed my eyes and breathed him in.

     “Listen to me, you stupid, stupid asshole,” he said through gritted teeth. “You are young. You don’t have a lot of experience in the world. But that doesn’t have anything to do with your worth, or whether you deserve love and support. Do you hear me?”

     “Yeah…”

     “I’m serious. Really, really fucking serious. Even if the person you want most in the world doesn’t make you feel worthy, you are. And any time you don’t feel like it, you come straight to me. All right?”

     “All right…”

     “Promise me.”

     “I promise.”

     “Good boy.”

     “What does Furuya have that I don’t?”

     “It doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he said softly. He pulled away and held me at arm’s length. “Even I don’t know what’s going on in Miyuki’s head half the time. If I knew what his game was, you’d be the first to know.”

     “Okay.”

     “Stop pouting, will you?” he sighed. “What, are my drinks not as good as his?”

     “No, it’s perfect,” I smiled, and took a big ass gulp. Just then, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to find Kanemaru beside me.

     “Hey. Everything okay?” he asked quietly into my ear. I nodded.

     “Yeah, I’ll be right there.”

     “Okay.” He squeezed my shoulder, smiled cordially to Kuramochi, and went back to the party.

     “See? I’m not the only one who cares about you,” he said, gesturing toward Kanemaru. “And I know he shows it in twisted ways, but Miyuki does care about you. That I can assure you.”

     “I believe you.”

     He made himself another drink, and together, we joined the group. I pulled myself together. This was Haruichi’s day, and I was not going to ruin it. I squeezed onto the couch in between Kanemaru and Haruichi, and put my arms around their shoulders. I did love the two of them. More than I could’ve articulated at that moment. But being surrounded by these people—all these people, who’d been there for me for the past six months, who’d become an extension of my family, hearing Kuramochi’s words in my ears, I almost forgot about Furuya and Miyuki. Too close for comfort. Sharing secrets that I would never, ever know.

     The party eventually graduated to dancing, and then games, and then opening presents, and then more dancing. By midnight we were all drunk off our asses. Especially, I’m relieved to say, Haruichi. It was so rare for him to let completely loose but it wasn’t really a choice, being surrounded by his closest friends on his birthday. I’d never seen him so drunk before. It made him effervescent, forever smiling, pink-cheeked and excited and affectionate. We danced together and twirled together, Kuramochi gave him piggy-back rides around the room, at one point, Jun and Tetsu lifted him up on their shoulders like a king while Shirasu popped open a bottle of champagne. In his drunkenness he became more talkative—I noticed at various points throughout the night that he and Furuya were talking a lot. Getting to know each other, maybe. Furuya was pretty drunk, too. He wasn’t any more talkative, any louder or more friendly. Just smiled a bit more, and was flushed and slow.

    


 

     I was nearly blacked out when I saw Furuya and Miyuki kiss.

     Just nearly.

 


 

     Were they on the couch?

     In the kitchen, maybe?

     I was woozy, I remember that. Kanemaru, Haruichi, and I were dancing. The others were cheering us on. I remember that, too.

     The world fell silent for a bit. I didn’t stop moving. Kept dancing in the quiet. Took a sip of whatever drink Ryousuke brought to my lips.

     Did Miyuki kiss Furuya?

     Did Furuya kiss Miyuki?

     I didn’t catch that part. Just the actual kissing part. And the part afterward. Where Furuya looked flushed and dazed and Miyuki looked really quite accomplished.

     Maybe they kissed again?

     I wasn’t sure—

     I grabbed a shot right out of Jun’s hands. Just as he was about to take it. And I knocked it back and blacked out.   

 


 

     I dreamed of New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t really a dream, but more like my drunk, tired brain replaying the exact sequence of events from that night. Eating dinner and drinking wine while we brushed shoulders. Washing his plates, serving him cake. Dancing drunk and off-beat. The rush of the first kiss, the rush of the second and third and fourth and fifth—

 


 

     My eyes opened to darkness and nausea. At some point, the party must have ended. I blinked to adjust to the darkness. Tetsu, Jun, Masuko, and Shirasu were gone. So were Miyuki and Furuya. The apartment was in shambles. I was on the couch; Haruichi and I were wrapped tightly around each other, and Kanemaru was spread out with some blankets on the floor beside us. The three of us must have been too drunk to get home. It wasn’t the first time and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time crashing at this apartment. But after a few moments, the nausea intensified, and I realized I was about to throw up. I tried to be as gentle as possible, unraveling myself from Haruichi—he groaned a bit, but I put my hand on his head to calm him down and delicately stepped around Kanemaru. As soon as I was in the clear, I ran to the bathroom. I didn’t even have time to close the door before I fell to my knees and vomited into the toilet. Violent, horrible retching. I had never vomited like this before, so that it burned my throat and made tears spill in rivulets from my eyes.

     Just when I thought I was done, another wave rushed over me; there was nothing left for me to vomit, so I was left dry heaving, trying to get the saliva off my tongue.

     I wasn’t surprised when Ryousuke magically appeared beside me in the bathroom—there was no way I had been as quiet as I’d meant to be. He turned on the lights in the bathroom and began rubbing my back, his hand soothing and the motions rhythmic. I clung to the rim of the toilet, hovered with my eyesight blurred and the taste of vodka and birthday cake between my teeth.

     “Let it out,” he said quietly.

     “I’m sorry. I always do this,” I replied, my voice raspy and weak.

     “It’s okay. No need to apologize.”

     It was only then that I realized I’d graduated from vomiting to crying. Slumped over the toilet, pathetic, humiliated, stuck in a loop of memories from New Year’s Eve and the image of Furuya and Miyuki, lip-locked, not regretting anything.

     “Did they go home together?” I asked. I knew I wouldn’t need to clarify.

     “Yes. I’m sorry,” he whispered. Still rubbing my back.

     He ripped off some toilet paper and handed it to me. I wiped the vomit from my mouth and blew my nose. I was absolutely disgusting. I had never hated myself more.

     “Why do I keep doing this?” I said. To nobody in particular.

     “You’re an emotional person. You get invested. You let yourself feel. It hurts you. It haunts you. But in the end, I’d say it’s a blessing. To feel things this deeply,” he said. “It’s hard to feel.”

     I couldn’t respond.

     “I’m sorry, Sawamura. I’m not very good at this. Do you want me to wake up Youichi?”

     I shook my head. I couldn’t bear to see Kuramochi right then.

     So we stayed on the bathroom floor, just the two of us. He waited, patiently and kindly and silently, hand on my back, until I stopped crying. Then he led me back to the kitchen and got me a glass of water. He knew I wouldn’t be going back to sleep—he brought me his laptop and a pair of headphones, and told me to go crazy with Netflix or YouTube or whatever I needed at that moment. I curled up on the floor, beside Kanemaru, and turned on the first thing in Ryousuke’s Netflix queue. Kind of a gamble, considering the fact that I couldn’t have even begun to guess what Ryousuke watched on Netflix. The gamble paid off. It was Queer Eye. I’d already seen it all, but I watched it over anyway. Until Kanemaru woke up, and I shared my headphones with him and we watched together. And when Haruichi woke up, Ryousuke drove us home, assuring us that it would be at least half a day before Kuramochi woke up.

     I asked Kanemaru to come back to my dorm. Hungover, maybe still a bit drunk, we fucked. I asked him to fuck me hard. Harder than ever before. As hard as he possibly could—I asked him to put me up against the wall and push my face into it, asked him to dig his nails in and pull my hair and bite me. I need him to fill me so utterly and so completely that I could stop picturing what Furuya and Miyuki looked like in bed together. Wrapped in each other.

     Doing the thing that Miyuki had absolutely refused to do with me.

Chapter Text

20

reflection

     I did catch a break—I didn’t have a shift scheduled at Ace for a few days. I wouldn’t have to see Miyuki or Furuya. I didn’t go to the club the next day, either.

     On Sunday, after brunch, Kuramochi took me to the park again, just the two of us. We went to the little shrine and there were a lot more people out this time; the winter cold was finally clearing. I was in just a sweater, and Kuramochi had traded his heavy leather jacket in for a lighter one. It was nicer with these strangers scattered around us. Not so lonely and isolated. We took our seats on the stairs and passed a cigarette between us, like last time. There were two little kids running up and down the stairs, racing.

     “I like Kanemaru,” he said, figuring that was the best starting point of this conversation. “He’s a nice guy. He’s got his shit together.”

     “It’s intimidating sometimes,” I chuckled. “Thankfully it helps me get my shit together, too.”

     “I’m glad you’ve got someone like him. Keep you in line a bit, since I sure as hell don’t.”

     “That’s true. You’re more like a weird coked-up uncle figure than anything else,” I said.

     “Watch it, smartass.”

     He ripped the cigarette from my fingers, like a half-hearted punishment for teasing him. His tone was softer than usual today—his touch a bit kinder. Not so rough. He must have known that something inside me was broken.

     “What made you and Kanemaru start doing what you’re doing?” he suddenly asked. “I keep trying to work out in my head how the likes of you two got an idea like that.”

     “Why wouldn’t we?”

     “Well. No point beating around the bush, I guess.” He leaned back and stared up at the sky. “I thought you were too into Miyuki to even consider fucking someone else.”

     He wasn’t wrong.

     I hadn’t told him about New Year’s Eve yet. I’d been terrified of his reaction. Would he be disappointed in me? Angry? Or maybe he wouldn’t even care at all? That was the worst possibility, for sure.

     “I was,” I said. I mimicked his position, so we were both staring up at the sky. I took a second to listen to those kids, running, running, running. They had nothing to bear on their shoulders. “I figured that if I waited long enough, and was patient like you said, and did everything I could to be the person he wanted, eventually...”

     “It would happen.”

     “And it did. I was right.”

     “What are you talking about?”

     I told him, in a hushed tone, every single detail about New Year’s Eve. He listened in total silence. Watching my face intensely while I spoke. While I tried to put into words every feeling he’d injected into me that night, on the pristine floor of his apartment, in between my legs. Telling Kuramochi was truly like lifting a weight off my chest, breathing a little easier. When I’d finally finished, by telling him that Miyuki thought I was a mistake, he said nothing. Just crushed the cigarette on the marble and lit another one. He handed it to me.

     “That son of a bitch,” he mumbled. “He said all that to you?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Why didn’t you tell me?”

     “Because I was ashamed.”

     “Ashamed? Are you kidding? If anybody deserves to be ashamed, it’s that prick. Treating you like that. I could go give him a piece of my mind right fucking now.”

     “Don’t you fucking dare,” I cried. “I’m trying to put it behind me, all right? He obviously meant what he said. It really was a mistake—he doesn’t want me and he’s made that painfully obvious. I just have to suck it up and move on.”

     “You don’t sound convincing at all, babe.”

     “I know. That’s the worst part.”

     “Do you feel like you’re changing yourself?”

     “Hmm? Changing myself?”

     “Yeah. Since you met him. Or me, or Ryou—any of us. Are you changing yourself to fit into what you think he wants?”

     “No! Of course not!” I cried. A knee-jerk reaction. I was louder than I’d intended. The little kids stopped and stared at us for a moment, before they decided we actually weren’t that interesting and continued their game on the shrine stairs.

     “Oh, yeah? You’re not?” He smiled, and it was kind of a wicked smile, a smile that made my skin crawl.

     I hadn’t thought of that question. Maybe it had fluttered across mind at some point during the chaos that had ensued since meeting Miyuki for the first time, and I’d pushed it away. Because I loved myself. I was almost irrationally proud of the person I was—when people asked what I would change about myself, I always had a difficult time answering. Because I knew myself, was confident in myself. The idea that I would change myself for someone else, for their sake, for their approval, gave me a stomach ache.

     But I really hadn’t thought about it when it came to Miyuki.

     Kuramochi seemed to think he already knew the answer.

     “You’ve never once thought to yourself, ‘I wanna do this thing, but if I do, he might not like me as much.’”

     I had definitely thought that before.

     “You’ve never thought to yourself, ‘maybe if I act this way, he’ll finally want to fuck me.’”

     “You’re not being fair!”

     “I’m just trying to get you to reflect a little bit, all right? Since I’ve known you, I’ve seen you bending over backwards to be around him. I can’t force you to really reckon with your feelings, so I’m just doing what I can.”

     “I don’t...know how I feel.”

     “Sure you do. Emotions speak for themselves. It’s okay to be afraid to say it—that’s a different monster.”

     “I’m not afraid.”

     “Okay.”

     “God, you are so fucking annoying sometimes.”

     “Answer me this. Right at this moment, as we speak, are you holding onto that little hope that even after everything, Miyuki will circle back to you?”

     It was such a simple question.

     “Yes.”

     “Then roll with that. Don’t let it weigh on you, but don’t try to force it out, either, because that always backfires.”

     “You love to act like you’re some wise old monk or something,” I spat.

     “I’ve been around the block a few times,” he snickered.

     “Do you think he really likes Furuya? The way he never liked me?”

     “I don’t know, Sawamura. I don’t know.”

     “What if I, like, actually fall in love with him?”

     He put his hand on my head and pulled it to his shoulder.

     “Then you are absolutely fucked.”

 


 

     For the next few days, I thought long and deep and hard about what Kuramochi had said. I tried to take a step back and examine my feelings toward Miyuki in a way akin to objectivity—I should’ve known that was never gonna work. Objectivity was a concept foreign not just to me, but the very foundation of my mind. I’d never been able to even get close. But I tried. I talked to Haruichi about it, too. Neither of us had any real idea where Miyuki and Furuya’s relationship stood; maybe it would end the same way New Year’s Eve did for me. I was sure, though, after seeing the way Furuya stared at him, that he probably felt the same way about Miyuki as I did. Unsurprising and still terribly bitter.

     I told myself, for fear that I had or would evolve into the changeling Kuramochi had mentioned, to take a break from Miyuki. I wasn’t sure what that would entail. I still felt an instinctive need to see him. Talk to him. And I loved my job at the record store. But I needed to stop the flirting, the overthinking, the falling over his every word. Easier said than done, I knew, but my heart was leaky and aching. Haruichi told me that it needed me to take care of it, above everything. Whatever happened in the next few weeks (months? years? indefinite amount of time?), my heart was my first priority now.

     That was my attitude when I went back into Ace for my first shift since Haruichi’s birthday party. Today was an overlap day. My afternoon shift overlapped for a few hours with Furuya’s morning shift. I parked my bike, took out my headphones, and walked in. Miyuki was helping a customer, but he turned to smile and wave. Hot and red, I waved back, and let that be that.

     Take a break.

     Furuya was already in the back room when I went in.

     “Hey, what’s up?” I said. I didn’t want him to think anything between us was strange, though I was certain he’d known my feelings about Miyuki from the start.

     “Hey.”

     I got to work on the stack of shelves across from his.

     “How’s your week been going?” I asked. I needed ways to fill the silence. I fucking hated silence, especially when Furuya was so comfortable with it.

     “Fine.”

     “Just fine?”

     “Should it be going some other way?”

     “No. It’s just that fine is vague.”

     “Why do you need me to be specific?”

     “Jesus, just forget I said anything,” I finally cried, exasperated.

     “How about yours?” he asked, after moments of more tense silence. His voice sounded unsure, even though it was him asking the question.

     “Eh, I’ve been better. I feel like schoolwork is starting to pile up and now I have to start on planning my own radio show—do you listen to the local college radio?”

     “No.”

     “Right. Well, I’m getting my own show starting this summer.”

     “Okay.”

     “Wanna hear what kind?”

     “If you wanna tell me.”

     “It’s a music show, where I find up-and-coming artists and talk about why I like them.”

     “Sounds very...you.”

     “I know, right? Wait, was that a compliment?”

     “It was whatever you wanted it to be.”

     I laughed a bit. No matter how annoying he was, he was funny, probably without realizing it. That’s what was so funny about it. He just said shit that he was thinking and it always came off silly.

     “What are you laughing at?” he asked.

     “Your tone? I don’t know,” I said, still laughing. “You just kinda say things.”

     “Oh.”

     He wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he fell back into silence. It was ironic that now, of all times, when I was horribly jealous and twisted up inside, we were having an okay conversation. I wasn’t irritated beyond reprieve.

     “You’re just so weird,” I said.

     “Weird?”

     “Yeah. You don’t talk all that much, but when you do, it’s always interesting.”

     “Well I think that’s better than never shutting up.”

     His tone was accusatory. I stopped what I was doing and turned around—he hadn’t stopped shelving.

     “Hold on. What the fuck was that supposed to mean?”

     “You never shut up, and it’s annoying.”

     You spoke too soon, Eijun.

     I hated him again. With fire.

     “You don’t know anything about me.”

     “I don’t have to know anything about you to know that you’re annoying.”

     “Who do you think you are?”

     “And I’m obviously not the only one who thinks it.”

     Only then did he turn. Like he was flaunting it. Like he knew just what I couldn’t handle, just what I wanted but didn’t have, and was dangling it in my face.

     Things were a bit hazy for the next few minutes. I threw a punch that landed squarely against his jaw. There must’ve been blood, he must’ve punched me back, we must’ve wrestled each other to the floor and made a commotion. Some of the records fell off the shelves; this room wasn’t quite big enough to accommodate a fight. I don’t really remember details. Maybe I was in pain? I don’t know. My vision was colored red and my body moved of its own accord. I just wanted to hurt him.

     The next thing I was truly aware of was Miyuki wrapping his arms around me and dragging me from the floor, where I’d pinned Furuya to the ground. I was still kicking, still struggling, still reaching for him when Miyuki managed to get me off. He flung me toward the other side of the room.

     “The fuck is going on here?” he cried. As Furuya sat up, I realized my lip was bleeding, and wiped it on the back of my hand. He had a torn lip and his eye was probably going to bruise tomorrow. He was definitely more scratched up than me. Miyuki had his arms stretched out between us.

     “Sawamura started it,” Furuya said, propped up on his elbows. Glaring at me.

     “And I’ll fucking finish it, too.” I tried to move toward him again, only to find Miyuki’s palm solidly colliding with my chest, stopping me in my tracks.

     “Go outside, Sawamura. Take a walk,” he said.

     His face was absurdly serious—so serious I could’ve laughed. I almost did. Instead, I whirled around and headed for the back door; we almost never used this door. It led out to a dirty lot where the dumpster was, and a narrow alley leading back onto the main street. I slipped into the alley and sat on the grimy floor. My skin was still tingling, and only when I pulled out a cigarette and took a drag did I begin to the feel the pain. He’d managed to split my lip pretty good and I was sure I had a few bruises, though I wasn’t sure where. I sat, against the wall, fuming and smoking and searching for something to bring me back to earth.

     It was decided in that moment that I hated both of them.

Chapter Text

21

high risk, high reward

        I’d been sitting on the ground with my cigarette, poking at my tender lips, for about ten minutes when Miyuki came out. I couldn’t even bring myself to look up at him, let alone say anything, when he approached. Sat down on the floor beside me. His eyes were on me but I wouldn’t dare turn to meet them. In my head I was imagining a thousand different ways he could’ve been looking at me—apathetic, disappointed, confused, angry, worried, distraught. As furious as I was with him, and with Furuya, my heart pounded when I felt his shoulder brush mine; my body couldn’t help it, even when my mind resisted so intensely. His proximity left me dazed, as usual, and I shut my eyes to find some clarity in the darkness. The deliberate, self-inflicted loneliness. I wanted to grab his hand so badly.

        “Cooled down a bit?” he asked. Brow furrowed, lips pouting, eyes still shut, I shrugged. I wasn’t sure what the definition of ‘cooled down’ was. “You gave Furuya some nice bruises there.”

        “He returned the favor,” I replied dryly, and opened my eyes. The world was still the same. Still turning and turning and turning. Sometimes, when Miyuki was around, it felt like it really did stop.

        “That’s fair.” He didn’t sound angry anymore. More amused than anything, which made me even angrier. When he talked like that, I knew there was no way I could ever explain to him what the fight had been about. There was no way I could ever come clean, be even more explicit than I’d been. “What did he say to set you off?”

        “None of your business.”

        “I figured it would happen eventually, I just couldn’t predict what would trigger it.”

        “You think you’re so fucking smart, huh?”

        I finally whipped my head around to face him. Blank, calm, blinking eyes. Tenderly smiling lips. I wanted to crush everything. I’d never hated anybody more in my life than I hated Miyuki in that moment. None of the possibilities that I’d imagined my head were materializing there in his eyes—there was just absolutely nothing, and me twisting and turning inside it.

        “I don’t know what you mean,” he replied evenly.

        “You know us so fucking well, you can sense what’s gonna happen years before it happens, all that. You are so full of shit. It’s none of your business what happened in that room and I think you have some fucking nerve to even bring it up.”

        “It happened in my store, so it’s my business,” he said. Then he lowered his voice. “Sawamura, if you need to talk, about anything, I’m here. You know I am.”

        As if he cared. As if, after months of stringing me along, watching me bending over backwards for him and begging him to come closer and spending my Saturday nights hoping that we would slip but we would slip together and there would be a happily-ever-after—he had been there for me. Miyuki was smart. Brilliant, even. It amazed me that he was stupid enough to believe that I would ever find comfort in him.

        “You always say that, as if it’s my fault that I don’t ask you for help. Even though you’ve never made me feel comfortable enough to actually, truly confide in you.”

        “Whoa. Where is this coming from?”

        I had been hurting for so long over this. I didn’t see an end to it. Not this way.

        “Nowhere. Forget it.”

        “I sent Furuya home. You can talk to me.”

        “Well, I don’t want to.”

        “The fight...was it about me?”

        That was the last straw. I scrambled to my feet, so I could be taller and bigger than him, so I could look down on him, just this once. Fuck, I was hurting, still hurting, he was so fucking beautiful and each time I looked into his eyes I was pulled even deeper into this horrible, achy place.

        “Not every single fucking thing is about you, Miyuki! Why do you always have to be such a goddamn narcissist?”

        I didn’t want to give him the chance to respond (I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, it would’ve torn me apart), so I tossed my cigarette behind me and stormed back into the building. Hoping that he hadn’t seen the tears starting to flow, because I didn’t need that embarrassment. Not now.

        It was a lie, of course.

        It really did seem like, lately, every single fucking thing was about him.

 


 

        “Eijun, you’ve really done it this time.”

        “I couldn’t help it. He was saying things just to make me mad.”

        “As if you need extra reasons to be mad.”

        On Friday night, Haruichi was on the floor of my dorm room, looking up from his book at the bruises I was showing him from the fight. Concern etched in his features, even as he teased me. I lowered my shirt and fell back onto the bed so I could properly stare at the nothing there on the ceiling.

        “Maybe…I don’t know,” he began. His voice was shaking a little bit. I glanced over at him, but his nose was buried in the book again. He was avoiding looking at me. He had something to say, but he was afraid to say it.

        “What?” I said. He shook his head. “Come on, you can tell me. You know I value your opinion.”

        “I don’t know if you’ll value this one.”

        “Just tell me.”

        “Maybe you should quit your job at the record store,” he blurted. I sat up in bed, but kept my mouth shut. “And go to the club less often. I mean, yeah, you have fun there, but you and I both know that the only reason you go regularly is so you can flirt with Miyuki all night.”

        “Hey! That’s not true! Kuramochi’s one of my best friends.”

        “You’ve seen so many of his sets already, though. And the two of you hang out anyway.”

        “I-it’s not just Kuramochi. It’s Tetsu, and Jun, and—”

        “Eijun.”

        Voice not shaky anymore, Haruichi closed his book and met my eyes dead-on. As if my defensiveness had given him the newfound strength of fearless honesty. It was because he was the one witnessing this, from a platform higher than mine. Where I was in the thick of things, surrounded by daydreams and idealistic situations in which Miyuki would open his eyes one day, see me in front of him, and realize it had always been me—Haruichi was an innocent bystander. I felt like I was soaring, but he could see that I was really falling.

        “You’re clinging,” he said.

        He was right. Because of course he was right. I lay back down and shut my eyes.

        “We just came so close.”

 


 

        I didn’t want to quit my job, but on my new quest of being ‘reasonable,’ I had to really think about what Haruichi had said. That if I really wanted to put some distance between me and Miyuki, for the sake of my tattered heart (and ego), it would be impossible if I was in such close proximity with him so often. Several times a week, hours at a time, throwing conversation at each other in the ways we had become comfortable and content with—sometimes with Furuya, fueling the flames of ugly jealousy. Being around Miyuki for me was like giving sips of alcohol to an alcoholic; even if I kept telling myself I was going to quit, even if I said, just a few sips, I would still stay drunk. I just wanted him too badly. I was too used to being around him. I would have to quit cold turkey if I was going to quit at all. No tapering. Because it would never end that way.

        Not that I wanted the relationship in its entirety to end. I cared about Miyuki. And, if he was to be believed, he cared about me, too. It was one of the things he’d been trying to sneak into conversations ever since New Year’s. Usually when I was least expecting it—I care about you. Just like that, no strings attached. I believed him, but in the end, I was the most important person in my life.

        I just needed some distance.

        I decided I would do it on Monday, because I still wanted to go to the club on that Saturday night. I went to work in the morning, had lunch with Miyuki while I sweated bullets (he could tell something was off, but he didn’t press when I yelled that I was fine), and went home. That evening, Haruichi and I prepared for our excursion, and I promised him, pinky promised him, that on Monday, I would tell Miyuki that I was quitting, and I would work just until he’d found a replacement. We even managed to convince Kanemaru to finally come with us. His very first time to Ace Nightclub. I told him to wear his nicest button-up, and he shoved me into the nearest wall.

        By the time we got there, it was, as usual, vibrant and alive. I could tell as soon as we squeezed through the narrow entryway that Kanemaru was deeply uncomfortable—he tensed up and walked so closely behind me that his toes brushed up against my heels. With my most generous smile, I reached my hand behind me, and in that instant he grabbed it more tightly than he ever had before. I grabbed Haruichi’s hand in front of me, too, so the three of us slivered through the pumped up crowd like children on a playground. Haruichi and I led Kanemaru straight to the bar where, as always, Miyuki was mixing drinks. Kuramochi was in the middle of his set, and the dance floor was electric. One look at Kanemaru’s face, though, and I knew that we’d need a few drinks before really dancing.

        “Kanemaru! Glad to see you show your face around here,” Miyuki greeted as we finally emerged at the front of the bar. Sweat on his temples, he tried to convince us that his grimace was a smile.

        “Here, we’ll just take a few shots, and then you’ll be feeling loads better,” I suggested.

        “Just take a few shots? You’re psycho,” he huffed.

        “I just want you to have fun!”

        Miyuki was already getting our drinks ready. For Haruichi, a vodka-cranberry with a lime—for me, a double tequila shot. When he looked at Kanemaru expectantly, Kanemaru looked anxiously at the shot glass in my hand, and finally succumbed. We toasted to living life to the fullest, and took our shots. I immediately regretted pressuring him; he looked like he was about to vomit as soon as the liquid slithered down his throat. I leaned over the bar to grab some more limes and stuck them right into his mouth.

        “Suck,” I demanded.

        “He’s used to it by now, I’d assume,” Miyuki said nonchalantly.

        “Fuck off.”

        He survived it.

        An hour and a half later, the three of us were on the dance floor; at some point, Tetsu, Jun, Shirasu, and Matsuko had joined us. In a tightly conjoined circle, we moved to the beat, jumped when it was called for, pumped our fists when it was called for, moved our hips and dropped to the floor when it was called for. Drunk and happy, I reached for Kanemaru. He was drunk and happy, too. He turned really really red when he was drunk, I learned. I pushed my ass back against him and forced his arms around my chest, to feel him touching me, the warmth of his lips brushing against the back of my neck. After a while like that, we couldn’t take it. Hand-in-hand, we slipped out of the crowd and into the bathroom, where we crashed into the nearest stall and fucked. My back pressed against the wall, I put one foot on the rim of the toilet and he held the other up with his arm. The grimy urgency of it all, the hurried haziness, turned us both on. Someone was banging on the door, telling us to stop fucking so he could take a piss, but we ignored him and kept going.

        Out of breath, rosy-cheeked, smiling wildly and goofily, we finally stumbled out of the stall, washed our hands, and, still hand-in-hand, walked back to the dance floor. It was then, while I was dancing, that I couldn’t help myself. Of course my gaze drifted over to Miyuki. Of course I needed to see where he was, what he was doing, what his face looked like in that moment.

        He wasn’t alone at the bar. Furuya was there. Taking a seat, beautiful and surreal, so natural talking to Miyuki that it somehow looked as if he belonged in this fray. The least chaotic thing in the midst of chaos. And, for what seemed like the first time, Furuya was smiling. Leaning his elbows on the bar, letting the hair fall in his face, beaming at Miyuki. At one point Miyuki leaned across the bar, and Furuya turned his head so Miyuki could whisper in his ear. Before I could get a chance to dig myself deeper into this hole, Jun grabbed me and whipped me around, right into the center of the circle. They surrounded me and one of them put another drink in my hand, and for a bit, lost in the warmth and affection of this family, I let go.

        When Kuramochi took a break from his set, I met him in the bathroom, where we crammed into one of the stalls and he took out his favorite little metal box. I put the toilet seat down, and he dumped a small pile of the white powder. We both started to make the lines—he used his credit card, I used my (pretty useless) driver’s license. Then he handed me a dollar bill from his wallet and took one out for himself. Just as we were about to start, he flushed the toilet, in case someone outside the stall got too curious about the sounds. We did it the way we did it every Saturday, breathing in deep and tilting our heads back. Letting the tingles spread to our toes and the tips of our fingers. My heart sped up a bit and I savored it. When we were done, we clambered to our feet, holding in belly-laughs, arms intertwined.

        I froze, though, when I heard two familiar voices enter the bathroom. I pressed my back up against the bathroom door and covered the lock, so that despite his best efforts, Kuramochi couldn’t push the door open. He finally gave up, grumpy and pouty, and collapsed onto the covered toilet, when I gave him a pleading look at covered my lips with a finger. The look in my eyes was just frantic enough to speak to him. It was Miyuki and Furuya, and I knew how wrong it was to listen, but I was listening anyway.

        “I’m not patient enough to wait until tomorrow, or the day after, or whenever the next I see you is supposed to be,” I heard Furuya say.

        “We see each other practically every day. What is so urgent? Why right here, right now?” The words themselves were accusatory, but Miyuki’s tone was soft and smooth and curious.

        “Because I want to. Right here. Right now.”

        “Want to what?”

        “I…don’t know.”

        “You don’t know what you want?”

        “I want you.”

        Kuramochi widened his eyes at me. I widened my eyes back at him. He mouthed the words, “are you sure you want to hear this?” I nodded, vehemently. The hairs on my skin were standing up. I focused back in on Miyuki’s voice—velvety smooth and bitter as the black coffee he loved to drink.

        “Okay. How badly?”

        “Really badly. You already know that,” Furuya said. Somehow, he sounded both frustrated and calm at the same time. I was impressed and madly jealous.

        “What about what I want?”

        “I don’t know what you want. But if it’s just to fuck around, then I can’t.”

        “No?”

        “No. If I can’t have everything, I don’t want any of it.”

        “That’s a risky attitude to have in life. Don’t you think?”

        “It’s worked out fine so far.”

        “I can’t argue.”

        “Is that a yes?”

        “You’re not gonna give me time to think it over?”

        “Just stop thinking. Do what you feel.”

        They must have kissed, because they stopped talking. Kuramochi stood from the toilet and wrapped his arms around me. We waited until we were sure they were gone, and then, drunk and high and disappointed, I slinked after Kuramochi out of the bathroom and back onto the dance floor.

Chapter Text

22

short-term memory loss

        It wasn’t a good morning. On my run around the lake, I kept tripping over my feet, as my gaze wandered over to the post-winter, rainbowed glass surface of the water and my mind drifted out into the clouds. My legs and lungs burned worse than usual—as if it was my very first time on this run, as if I hadn’t spent the past six months training my body to know these paths as well as I knew the lines of my body. In one of the denser areas, where trees reached up toward the sky and intertwined their fingers to cast specks of patchy light along the leafy earth, I tripped and couldn’t find my footing. I let myself sprawl out, exhausted and aching with cuts on my face and hands. For a few moments, I just closed my eyes and pressed my cheek to the soil. When was the last second I had just stopped and closed my eyes like this? Felt myself connected to the universe?

        Breathe.

        I breathed.

        Then I got to my feet and finished my run. The rest of the morning was hazy, through the shower and getting dressed and breakfast with Haruichi and the bike ride down to the record store. I was listening to Talos, desperate for a sense of ethereal connection with the deepest parts of myself. I needed to be sure that I was whole and good. The wind on my face, the rhythmic cycling of my feet on the pedals, the voice in my head telling me every time I held my breath to just let it go. Free falling was a terrifying feeling and I needed to be sure of my love for me before I started tumbling.

        Miyuki had opened. And, as he usually was in the morning, he was standing behind the counter with his elbows on the table. Two cups of coffee, while he scrolled through whatever it was he scrolled through on his phone. His face floated up to greet me as I walked in.

        “Good morning, sunshine.”

        “Hey!”

        “I didn’t catch you around closing on Saturday. You duck out early?”

        “No, I didn’t leave until, like, two-thirty.”

        “Earlier than usual, I mean.”

        “I guess.”

        “Kuramochi said you weren’t feeling good,” he said. “Hit the sauce a little too hard?”

        “It must’ve been something I ate,” I lied, with a crystalline smile. He smiled back. “Just a nasty stomach ache.”

        “Are you feeling better?”

        “Yeah! Loads.”

        “Good! Coffee?”

        He held it out to me. I took it, and as our fingers brushed, and as I watched the contours of the smile on his lips, I changed my mind. For a split second, I changed my mind. I wasn’t strong enough to lose this rush. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to be without the stability of being crippled by him. Being near him was a drunkenness I wasn’t ready to let go of yet.

        “You still look a bit pale, I think. Take it easy today, all right?”

        “Oh. All right.”

        A customer came in. I went up to greet them, and my shift began.

        Furuya wasn’t scheduled to work today, because I didn’t have class and could stay the whole day. Miyuki ordered takeout to the store for our lunch break, and everything seemed perfectly fine—just a conversation. How could I have ever believed that this wasn’t the right thing for me, when it made me feel this? The tingles, the unhinged smiles, the warmth of his skin so close to mine. No way that could be wrong. Absolutely no way.

        But when it came time for Miyuki to go home, leaving me to close up, I remembered Saturday night. Who it was he was going home to. Who he’d been texting all day, checking his phone for. It wasn’t me. And suddenly the bliss turned to unbearable pain and I was suffocating again and I had no choice in the matter. Not anymore.

        “Hey, Miyuki. Can I talk to you for a second? Before you go?”

        “Sure, babe. What’s up?”

        He was putting on his jacket, looking at his phone, responding to me but out of instinct. He wasn’t really paying attention and that was okay.

        “I’ve been thinking a lot about…where I am, I guess. At this point in the semester.”

        “Mhm. I’m listening.”

        “In a few months, I’ll have to be working on my own radio show.”

        “That’s great, Sawamura. I’m excited for it.”

        “Yeah, thanks. I’m excited, too,” I said. I considered telling him the truth. I was such a bad liar, after all. But I didn’t have the strength. “What I mean is that I really need to start focusing on the show. And on school, too.”

        “Naturally.”

        “So I…”

        My voice trailed off. It was here that he looked up and met my eyes. Like he’d finally tuned in and knew exactly what was coming. No smile, no glimmer of mischief in his eyes. We were both frozen in that moment. Somehow, I’d never felt more connected to him.

        “I have to leave my job here,” I finished.

        “Oh.” He blinked. “Are you sure?”

        I nodded, because I had to.

        “There’s nothing I can do to change your mind?”

        “Change my mind?” I parroted.

        “Yeah. Like, a raise or something. Is that what this is about?”

        “No, no, of course not,” I stuttered. “It’s not about that at all.”

        “Then what?”

        “I just have a lot on my plate, and I don’t think I’ll have time to keep coming down between classes and the radio show and…”

        His brow furrowed, his eyes narrowed, and he examined my face. Because of course he knew I was lying, and he was searching for the truth in my moon-shaped eyes and chapped, icy lips.

        “Why would you want to change my mind?” I heard myself ask.

        “Come on, really?” he laughed. “You’re still asking questions like that?”

        “Like what?”

        “How many times do I have to try and convince you that I’m your friend, Sawamura? That I like having you around? I would rather you work here than not because I like hanging out with you.”

        “You can still hang out with me. Just not here.”

        His lips clapped together, straight and slightly pursed. He hadn’t been expecting me to say it quite like that, and I hadn’t been expecting myself to say it quite like that, either.

        “Well, it seems like you’ve thought this through. If there’s nothing I can do to convince you otherwise, then that’s that.”

        But you barely tried.

        He shrugged his shoulders.

        “I suppose this is it, then,” he continued.

        “Until you find a replacement.”

        “I don’t need a replacement. Just Furuya’s fine.”

        “You’re mad,” I said.

        “Mad? Why would I be mad?” he scoffed. “I can’t control you. I can’t make you stay here if you don’t want to, and I can’t judge you for whatever reasons you have. That’s not my place.”

        Of course you’re making me feel like this is my fault now.

        “This isn’t about me, is it?” he asked. His face was so serious, wiped clean of everything. Reading him was impossible right now.

        “N-no—”

        “Did I treat you badly somehow? Make you feel uncomfortable?”

        “No, Miyuki!”

        “I want you to tell me if I did.”

        “You didn’t!”

        “Is it the work environment? Is it Furuya? You don’t like the way he treats you?”

        “No, this is just me, all right?”

        “All right, fine.”

        “What, you don’t believe me?”

        “No, not really. But it doesn’t matter whether I believe you. Reasoning aside, you’ve made your decision, and that’s your business. Not mine.”

        He turned his back to me and walked toward the door.

        “Don’t forget to lock both doors.”

        I was left standing in this vast ocean of records and shadows and memories and the disgusting feeling that I’d really done it this time.

 


       

        I didn’t seem him again until my birthday, two months later.

 


       

        What was Furuya like in bed?

        As beautiful as he was in reality?

        Heavy-lidded, glossy-lipped, sleepy even when he was wide awake.

        Blue and stoic as an ocean after a storm, hair as black as its depths.

        His kisses probably tasted like roses.

        I couldn’t remember what Miyuki’s kisses tasted like.

 


 

        He must’ve been fantastic at the violin.

        Did he play for Miyuki?

        What beautiful dreams did Miyuki find in Furuya’s violin?

        Miyuki was laying in bed, and Furuya was standing by the window.

        Playing his violin because—sooner or later, if not right now—he loved Miyuki.

 


 

        Breathe.

        Even if you’re under water.

        Breathe.

 


 

        One week after I quit, a miracle happened, and I ran into Furuya on my way to class. It was the first time I’d ever actually seen him on this campus. Either he pretended not to notice me, or he was so lost in his own world that he really didn’t notice me—I was tempted to believe the former, but knew that, most likely, the latter was true. I stepped right in front of him, beaming. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they (whoever ‘they’ are) like to say. I wasn’t sure if my heart had grown fonder, or if it was my reflexive need to be seen and acknowledged. He was wearing leggings, black boots, a white t-shirt, a denim jacket, and had his violin case slung over his shoulder. Sucking on a lollipop.

        “Furuya! Hey!”

        “Sawamura,” he said, stopping in his tracks. He looked as if I’d just woken him up from a nap. “What do you want?”

        “Oh. Nothing. Just saying hello.”

        “Really?” he hissed. “I had a black eye for a week.”

        “Come on, you deserved it. I figured you’d be over it by now. I am.”

        “Not everybody has short-term memory loss like you.”

        “It wasn’t even that big of a deal, anyway.”

        “You’re not even going to apologize?”

        I blinked up at him.

        “No. Not until you apologize for what you said.”

        “When pigs fucking fly. I actually wish you hadn’t quit, because now it just means I have fewer chances to step all over you.”

        Shoulder shoved into my chest, he pushed past me. I was left stunned, tears on the edges of my eyes, absolutely unwilling to turn and watch him walk away. Humiliation pulsed through me. Delirious and dangerously close to a public meltdown, I whipped my phone out and texted Haruichi. And Kuramochi. And Kanemaru. I knew, of course, that even if they agreed that I was in the wrong for throwing the first punch—violence is never the answer, Eijun—those three would at least humor me and tell me I wasn’t a horrible excuse for a human life when I told them about this. They knew when I did and didn’t need reason. Right now, I just needed something to keep me afloat. Maybe if Furuya knew that I had seen and heard him at his most vulnerable, baring his soul to Miyuki there in that bathroom, he wouldn’t have been such an insufferable prick to me.

        After class I met Kanemaru for lunch, and I was still fuming. As I sat across from him, squeezing my fists and staring at a blank spot on the table, he must’ve been desperately racking his mind for something he could say to me. Kanemaru was used to me being angry. At least, I assumed he was. Statistically, we spent so much time together, and I was angry at least fifty percent of the time.

        “You already knew Furuya was kind of a dick,” he said. Sipping his iced coffee. “Maybe next time, just don’t engage.”

        “I can’t just let him say that to me!”

        “Yes, you can. You have no reason to associate with him anymore. You’re not friends, and you’re not co-workers anymore, either. He’s just a guy you’re really, really jealous of.”

        “It makes me sound so pathetic when you say it like that.”

        “A wake-up call, then, dumbass.”

        “How could Miyuki be with someone so…”

        “Edgy?” he snickered.

        I stuck my tongue out at him, and snagged his coffee for a sip of my own. I knew he kind of hated sharing them. He ripped it away from me almost immediately, ears turning red.

        “There’s no point thinking about that right now. They’re together, it’s out of your hands, and, frankly, none of your business,” he continued. Then he paused. “Have you texted him?”

        “Against my instincts, no.”

        A lie. I was getting better at them.

        Not my fault, though, because he’d texted me first. And it was rude to not reply, right?

        “Are you going to Ace this weekend?”

        “No.”

        The truth.

        “Come over tonight. We can watch shitty movies and eat shitty pizza and have nice vanilla sex.”

        “Okay.” I couldn’t help but smile. Kanemaru was so honest and forward and I was grateful to have him in my life.

        When he got up to get another plate of salad (he was very much a kale-salad-and-iced-coffee kind of gay), I sneaked a glance at my phone. Now, with the distance, it was more of a habit than before. This was my only line to him. He seemed to understand that, too. He texted me more regularly than before. At this particular moment, though, my phone screen was blank, but for the photo of Haruichi, making a silly, embarrassed drunk face, that I’d set as my background.

        Even though I barely saw him anymore, it seemed as if nothing had changed.

Chapter Text

23

edgar allan poe loneliness

        The next two months were a unique, very personally tailored hell.

        Not being around Miyuki didn’t free me, or help me reflect, or put me in better tune with myself and my needs. It didn’t refresh me or lighten whatever burdens I was carrying. The separation didn’t give me what I thought it would. To fill the spaces that used to be filled with him, in the flesh, speaking to me, I spent hours looking back through all of our text messages and photos and weird memes. I spent hours daydreaming, both hypotheticals and real, concrete memories. I fought with myself over and over about whether to text him—only for him to text me before I got the chance. Every chance I got I was checking my phone, silently willing his name to pop up there, even if he didn’t have anything to say. And more often than not, he didn’t. Just checking on how my day went. Our conversations were duller than they used to be (that was the price of exclusive telecommunication, I guess), but they were more plentiful and consistent. Miyuki was in my life now more than ever. And yet there was the void of distance. The warmth, the hazy drunkenness, of his proximity was lost, and only then did I realize the extent of my addiction to it.

        I was consumed by him. Shamelessly, grotesquely.

        My plan had gloriously backfired.

        So gloriously that it was funny. Hilarious. It even made Haruichi laugh. At this point, what could we do but laugh? I’d hit my dead end and the only thing there was Miyuki. Just as the only thing behind me was Miyuki.

        His relationship with Furuya was apparently going wonderfully. I deliberately avoided asking him about it, but it was only natural that he come up in conversation sometimes. As did Kuramochi, and Kanemaru, and everybody else. Just another mutual acquaintance/friend. Of course, I still couldn’t come close to breaching the limits Kuramochi had mentioned—those unbreakable limits, the private parts he kept from the world on principle. I couldn’t even get to the less private private things. I learned more, though. He became more open with me, as if that was enough to compensate for my sudden absence in his life.

        I learned about his family for the first time through text message. I’d known he was an only child. His father was a diplomat, traveling for work and ever-present in the back-channels and underground tunnels of government. He hadn’t been a big presence in Miyuki’s life, with his constant traveling. And, according to Miyuki, he always brought the stress of work home with him, leaving him no love and no affection for his wife and son. When Miyuki was seven, his mother got fed up, and left. He only learned later, after years of building resentment toward her, that she had tried to take him with her, only to be stunted by the powers and connections of her ex-husband. She didn’t even get visitation rights. He hadn’t seen her since, and didn’t know where she was.

        Don’t you want to see her again?

        Miyuki: Not really. Whatever part she played in my life is gone.

        Seriously? You could do whatever you wanted now. Go see her whenever. I bet she’d be so happy to see you.

        Miyuki: It would mean bringing up a lot of ugly things from my past. I don’t want that. And besides, if she really wanted to see me, she would’ve  found me by now.

        Any time I brought it up, truly convinced that it would be good to see her again, he shot it down by claiming that he’d moved on and didn’t want to turn back to that life. He’d cut ties with his father, pushed aside the blossoming political career that had laid ahead of him. I was honest, and told him I couldn’t understand his reasoning, but he always replied with the same thing.

        You don’t have to understand. Nobody does.

        That at least answered the question of why he’d graduated with a degree in political science, but hadn’t pursued a political career. Miyuki was the furthest thing from desperate, but in his attempts to distance himself from his childhood and his family, I saw real desperation. I never said that, of course. Never would have dared.

        That was the only thing he dared reveal to me about his childhood. I had already spilled everything about my life to him, of course, starting from my very first shift at Ace Records. About my cozy, love-filled childhood with my parents and grandfather. About all the trouble I used to get into in school, for talking back to teachers and getting in fights and bullying the bullies. About Wakana, and my attempts to love her back, and realizing my sexuality. I told him how hard it had been, coming to terms with the fact that my life was going to go differently than how I’d planned—not that I was great at planning to begin with, but being gay had never been part of the plan.

        He told me he couldn’t relate. He’d known from a young age.

        (To remind you, Miyuki was a perfect, immaculate planner. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that.)

        We talked about music every day. What new and old music we were listening to. Favorite song of the day. Favorite album of the week. Throwbacks and eccentric recommendations. I was really into Vince Staples and he was really into Nina Nesbitt. I was really into RADWIMPS and he was really into Ichiko Aoba. We were both really into Vancouver Sleep Clinic, and Ryn Weaver, and Kali Uchis. He gave me future recommendations for my radio show, and asked me constantly how it was coming. I asked him what exciting new records were in the store.

        Miyuki: You should come check out the new stock sometime.

        Yeah! Maybe I will.

        Of course I wouldn’t, because that would be breaking the pact I’d made with myself.

        I lied to Haruichi, Kanemaru, and Kuramochi about how much we were talking. I knew they’d lecture me. What’s even the point, they’d say, if you talk all the time anyway? I wasn’t even going to the club on Saturdays. To them, it seemed like I was doing a really mature thing.

        I didn’t want to disappoint them.

 


 

        About one month after I quit, in the midst of this hellish back-and-forth, a nightmare of mine became reality.

        Without discussing it with me, Haruichi invited Satoru Furuya to his dorm on Friday night, our sacred time for pizza, Netflix, gossip, and wholesome affection. I did notice something off about him on this particular Friday night. He was fidgety, his smiles were all quaky, he answered my questions quickly and curtly. He wouldn’t meet my eyes most of the time. When I tried asking what was wrong, he assured me it was nothing, but Haruichi was a worse liar than I was—surprising, given the fact that his brother had a terrifyingly good poker face. At around ten, there was a knock on the door. It made him jump.

        “Who’s that?” I grumbled, stuffing pizza in my mouth and holding a crude cup of cheap white wine. Haruichi didn’t respond; maybe he tried to shrug? But he stood and went to answer the door immediately.

        Both of us froze when we saw each other. It had recently started getting warm—he was in nothing but a t-shirt and leggings. No violin to be seen, just a small backpack. After that moment of awkward paralysis, we both starting yelling.

        “What is Furuya doing here?”

        “You didn’t tell me Sawamura was going to be here.”

        “Calm down, please!” Haruichi cried, standing between us. “And close the door.”

        Eyes still on me, like a cat, Furuya closed the door, but didn’t move any further into the room. The tension between us was thick and lumpy, burning. The last time we’d seen each other, it had been a catastrophe. Just the sight of him made my skin crawl. I swallowed the pizza, pursed my lips, and looked away. I wasn’t going to fall into my own traps again.

        “Sit down, Furuya, please,” Haruichi persisted. In my periphery, I watched Haruichi sit back down beside me, and he directed Furuya to complete the triangle. “I’m sorry, Eijun. I didn’t know what else to do.”

        “What are you talking about?” I faced him.

        “Well…I didn’t tell you, but Furuya and I have a class together this semester. We didn’t even realize until after my birthday party, really.”

        “So?”

        “We kinda became friends. I was nervous about telling you.”

        “Didn’t want me to get jealous?” I scoffed.

        “No, I just know you don’t like each other.”

        I finally looked over at Furuya, and was surprised to find his gaze locked on the ground. As he sat leaning against the wall, knees hugged to his chest. I’d never seen him not exuding confidence, whether deliberate or not. But he looked small right then. Vulnerable and little. His hair was so long now that I could barely see his characteristically heavy lashes. I sipped my wine.

        “But I want you to try this again, and I knew you’d say no if I asked,” Haruichi continued.

        “Of course I would’ve,” I replied. I couldn’t look away from Furuya. “Furuya was meaner to me than anybody I’ve ever met.”

        “And you punched him,” Haruichi pointed out. I had no witty, or even witless, response to that.

        “Why do you care, Harucchi?”

        “Because you two are more similar than you realize. And I think you could be friends,” Haruichi said softly. “There’s no real reason for you to hate each other.”

        “I’m not apologizing,” Furuya finally said.

        “Me, neither.”

        “Fine! Then don’t apologize! Just put it behind you. I like hanging out with the people I care about, but it’s hard when you two hate each other.” Haruichi crossed his arms, more determined than I’d ever seen him. “Call it selfish if you want. But one day you’ll thank me.”

        We all fell silent for a bit. None of us making eye contact, none of us daring to say a word. Whatever mindless movie we’d put on was droning on in the background, pitifully unaware that it was alone.

        “Don’t let competition and jealousy destroy what could we be something really great,” Haruichi said.

        “I’m not jealous,” Furuya replied.

        “Yes, you are.”

        “What does Sawamura have that I don’t?”

        “He’s bold and outgoing and he’s never afraid to say what he’s thinking or act on his feelings. He can easily make friends. He’s happy even when there’s no reason to be,” Haruichi said. That took me off-guard, and I eagerly watched Furuya for a reaction. He looked back down at the ground—reaction enough for my chest to swell with pride.

        “And I’m not afraid to admit that I’m jealous, too,” I jumped in. Haruichi smiled. Furuya fearlessly met my eyes, even as he stayed in that curled up position.

        “Of what?” he asked.

        “You’re cool and calm and mysterious. You’re gorgeous. You’re really good at music—”

        “You’ve never heard me play.”

        “—and you have the one thing that I want and can’t have.”

        We both knew what the real root of the problems was, and especially after what Haruichi said, I wasn’t going to avoid it anymore.

        “I worked at that store for months before you showed up. It took me weeks to even break through a little bit. But you showed up and he opened his arms for you the way he never did for me,” I continued. “For months, I worked so hard for something that was just handed to you. Because you have something I don’t.”

        “That’s not true,” Furuya said. Not in a comforting way, but in a matter-of-fact, plain sort of way. “It’s useless to try and figure out what Miyuki wants. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. For all I know, he’s only dating me as an experiment.”

        “No way. If that were true, he would’ve dated me, too.”

        We kept our eyes on each other. Slowly, he unfolded, until he was sitting cross-legged and had his hands clasped gently in his lap.

        “I didn’t realize how much you liked him,” Furuya said.

        “Liar,” I scoffed. “You made jabs at me about it all the time.”

        “I mean, I knew. But I didn’t realize just how much you liked him. Or how it must have felt when I showed up.”

        “It’s…not your fault,” I said. “It’s just how shit happened.”

        “I know. It still sucks for you.” Not in a mean way. In an almost sympathetic way. “He mentions you sometimes.”

        “What does he say?”

        “In passing. Like, ‘Sawamura did this once,’ or ‘Sawamura likes this artist.’”

        Miyuki didn’t really talk to me about Furuya like that, but maybe it was different.

        “Are you happy with him?” I asked. It was a stupid question, and I could tell from Haruichi’s furrowed brow and puckered lips that he thought so, too. But I needed to ask.

        “I don’t know. I think so. I don’t really know what a good relationship is supposed to look like. This could be good, and I wouldn’t know. It could be really bad, and I still wouldn’t know.”

        “I’m like that with everything,” I laughed. “That’s why I have people like Harucchi. To tell me when things are bad.”

        He almost smiled. He could relate.

        But he didn’t have friends the way I did.

        “Are you lonely?” I asked. To anybody else, an offensive question. But I knew it wouldn’t be to him. “Miyuki isn’t great at filling loneliness. And I never see you around.”

        “Maybe I am. This is just how it’s been my whole life.”

        “Jeez,” I laughed. “You belong in an Edgar Allan Poe story or something.”

        “Who?”

        “Never mind. Want some pizza?”

        “Sure. Can I have some wine, too?”

Chapter Text

24

pinky promise

     The three of us quickly became inseparable. As it turned out, Haruichi was absolutely right. Furuya and I were fairly similar, in more ways than we realized, and despite the clashing that came from our shared competitive and stubborn nature, there were ways in which we complemented each other. When I was loud, he was quiet. When he was sad, I was angry. When he was shy and anxious, I was bold and outgoing. When I was clueless and literal, he was sarcastic and witty. We fit together in twisted, distorted ways, and in the spaces of anger and jealousy we couldn’t quite bridge, Haruichi was there. The three of us meshed in a bouquet of very different flowers that came together and looked stunning. I was a bit too proud to put aside whatever bullshit had bubbled between us and admit that I’d been wrong about Furuya—but so was he. So it worked out.

     We had a silent pact to not talk about Miyuki, if we could help it. Obviously he came up in conversation in ways we couldn’t avoid. He and Furuya were dating and it seemed like they were getting more serious with each week; his texting me didn’t slow at all, either. It was easier to avoid talking to Miyuki about Furuya than it was to avoid talking to Furuya about Miyuki. I mentioned to Miyuki in passing that Furuya and I were hanging out more, and I assumed (correctly) that Furuya had mentioned me to him, too. I’m not sure that either of us imparted to him just how close we were becoming.

     I convinced him to start joining me on my runs every morning when he mentioned once that he’d always dreamed of getting in shape, but had shit endurance.

     “But you’ve been running like every day since the beginning of the year. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up,” he said dryly.

     “That’s okay! You set the pace. It’s better to run with a partner, anyway. It motivates you.”

     “Well, I would like to be better than you at running, too.”

     “All right, buddy, we’ll see.”

     I will admit, the first week was rough. He couldn’t run very fast and couldn’t run for very long, either—I kept pace with him and tried to keep him from stopping. When I noticed that he was wearing tennis shoes, I told him to get an actual pair of running shoes, and they would help him keep his balance and feel less pain. And yet, he was a quick study. Things got better after the first week, and I was happy that I had someone to run with, even if it meant I couldn’t listen to music while I ran.

     The three of us agreed that because our days were fairly hectic, with three very different schedules, we would get breakfast together every day. To be sure that we could spend time together for at least half an hour every day. I usually had lunch and dinner with Kanemaru, now that he was helping me prepare for my show while still working on his. On Friday nights the three of us (and Kanemaru, if he was free) spent our sacred time together. We never remembered the movies we watched.

     My weekends were mainly for Kuramochi. We spent a lot of time in the park—the same way he said he and Miyuki used to spend time together. Despite the fact that Haruichi and I no longer spent our Saturday nights at Ace—I missed it so fucking much—we maintained our ritual of Sunday brunch with Kuramochi and Ryousuke. Even if I wasn’t at the club, I was drunk nearly every Saturday night anyway, on alcohol that I convinced Kuramochi to buy for me. Furuya often joined me. He loved wine. Pinot Grigio, specifically. He said it made him feel happy “without any caveats.”

     Despite how totally filled my time was, and how many friends I had and activities and tasks to complete, there was one section of my mind and energy blocked off completely for him. Dedicated to running through the memories and concocting the daydreams and waiting, waiting, waiting for text messages.

     I knew he was with Furuya. And now, that mattered to me. Because Furuya suddenly mattered to me. And in the end, that made everything so much harder.

 


 

     A few days before my birthday, Haruichi had a massive paper due. He ducked out of our sacred Friday night, so I went over to Furuya’s dorm, on the other side of campus, by myself. Armed with three bottles of wine that Kuramochi had given me a few days ago. It was actually my first time in Furuya’s dorm. It had always been more convenient for him to come to us, since Haruichi and I lived closer to each other. He lived in a single, too.

     It was messier than I would’ve guessed for someone like Furuya, but not nearly as messy as, say, Kuramochi. Just some piles of clothing, papers spread out and disorganized on the desk, boxes that were still unpacked and crammed in the corner. His violin case and a guitar case leaned against the foot of his bed. The floor in the center of the room was cleared, with a small television set up. I could tell that he’d prepared and, though he wouldn’t have admitted that he was excited to host, it made me happy.

     I poured some wine and ordered the pizza while he searched for a stupid movie to put on—he settled on When Harry Met Sally. A movie we both enjoyed, but had already seen hundreds of times each. We could easily talk over it.

     “I remember you saying when we first met that you could play guitar, but I never actually asked you about it,” I said. He glanced back at his guitar case.

     “I’m better at the violin.”

     “Obviously,” I grinned. “Did you teach yourself guitar?”

     “Kind of. My grandfather taught me.”

     “Oh. Did he teach you violin, too?”

     “No. He was a cellist in the national conservatory, and encouraged me to play from a young age. I liked the violin more, so I did that.”

     “So you come from a really musical family,” I observed.

     “Just Grandpa. He could never convince my mom to be musical.”

     “The talent skipped a generation.”

     “Hm. Maybe.” He was still staring at the guitar. I saw something in his eyes, something tender, when he mentioned his grandfather.

     “Are you close with him? Your grandpa?”

     He nodded.

     “He’s the only one who really supported me when I decided to be a musician. He was proud. Relieved, almost. He’s not very good at showing affection but I know he’s proud.”

     “Maybe that’s where you get your stoicism from, too,” I teased. He looked back over at me, gifting me with a bit of a smile.

     “I’ve never admired anybody more.”

     “I feel the same way about my grandfather, too.”

     “Really? I didn’t know you were close to him.”

     “Super close. He was a musician, too. I mean, not, like, professionally. But he was a guitarist in a band for years.”

     “Oh. Is that why you love music so much?”

     “I think so. He introduced me to all the classics. Helped me learn how to explore music on my own, you know?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Grandpa’s everything to me.”

     “I feel the same.”

     There was always warmth in shared experiences. We drank more wine and ate more pizza.

     “How come you don’t play an instrument, then?” he asked, about ten minutes later. “If your grandpa was a guitarist and you love music so much.”

     “I was never patient enough to commit to learning,” I laughed. “How awful is that?”

     “It’s very on brand for you, though.”

     “I tried so many different ones. Sax and guitar and drums and clarinet. The only one I spent more than a few months with was the piano, and that didn’t last long, either.”

     “Do you regret it?”

     “When I see people like you, yeah,” I said.

     “People like me?”

     “So in-tune with your instrument. You’re always in the practice room. You can play whatever you want.”

     “I don’t really think of it that way, though.”

     “Still. I am jealous.”

     He didn’t respond. I looked over at the movie. It was the scene where Harry and Sally run into Harry’s ex-wife and her new lover.

     “Do you want to learn?” he suddenly asked.

     “Hm?”

     “To play guitar. I can teach you.”

     “Are you serious?”

     But he was already standing up and walking over to the guitar case. As I scrambled to my knees, stunned and a bit drunk, he lay the case on the floor and flipped it open. It was a beautiful, glossy acoustic guitar, the color of caramel. He lifted it and held it out to me.

     “Furuya.”

     “Just take it and see how it feels. Sit on the bed.”

     It was heavier than I’d been expecting. I sat on the bed, cradling it in my lap.

     “I always forget that you’re left-handed,” he mumbled. He sat on my right.

     “Like Jimi Hendrix,” I beamed.

     “Uh. Right.”

     “Don’t tell me you don’t know who that is.”

     “Shut up. Do you wanna learn or not?”

     “I do! I do.”

     We were both a little bit drunk, but he ran me through the basics anyway. Hand position, all that jazz. The whole time, in the face of his rosy seriousness and blank expression, I was grinning from ear-to-ear. In that moment I regretted every horrible thing I’d ever said to or thought about Satoru Furuya. I carved out a part of my heart and committed the space to him. I hoped, I prayed, that he felt the same way about me.

     “Do you play for Miyuki a lot?” I asked, an hour later, after we’d put the guitar away and had more wine. We were lying on the floor on our backs, shoulder-to-shoulder, staring at the ceiling.

     “Violin? Not really. Only if I need outside advice or critique.”

     “How about guitar?”

     “No. He’s way better at guitar than me.”

     “I didn’t even realize he played.”

     “He writes songs, too but he never lets me listen to them.”

     “That’s not surprising. I’d die to hear them, though,” I said.

     “Yeah. Me, too.”

     “Hey, Furuya.”

     “Hm?”

     “Do you love him?”

     “I don’t know. I think so.”

     “Do you think he loves you?”

     “No.”

     A quick answer. Certain. Doubtless.

     “I’m sorry,” I muttered.

     “That’s okay. I don’t mind. As long as I can be with him.”

     That didn’t sound like what a relationship was meant to be, but who the fuck was I to judge? I didn’t know the first thing about serious relationships.

     “Well. I guess that’s good.”

     “I don’t know. Doesn’t matter,” he sighed. “I’m trapped now.”

     “Trapped...”

     “I think he misses you.”

     “Me? He misses me?” I cried.

     “Yeah. He talks about you more often now.”

     “Oh.”

     “Do you miss him? You can be honest. I don’t mind.”

     “Yeah. A lot.” I closed my eyes. “That’s okay, though. It’s better this way.”

     “Whatever you say.”

     “And we’ll see each other next week for my birthday. So it’s fine.”

     “Right.”

     Kuramochi and I were having a joint birthday party. According to him, the event of the century. Of course Miyuki was going to be there, and of course, I was ecstatic.

     “I think he’s getting you something really nice. He won’t even tell me what it is.”

     “Wow. That asshole,” I snickered. “It’s not fair, cuz I didn’t get anything for his birthday.”

     “He knows you’re a poor college student.”

     I laughed, and he laughed a bit, too. Which was a relief. That we could talk about him, and still feel close, and make jokes and laugh together. We hadn’t been friends long, but in a strange way, I’d never felt so connected to someone. It was the first time I’d become so close to somebody so quickly. I felt I could bare my soul to him and he would recognize parts of himself there inside me, and that feeling bound us together. Like it had always been inevitable that we would become friends.

     “I’m glad we don’t hate each other anymore,” he said.

     “I was just thinking that.”

     “Really?”

     “Yeah. I’m really grateful that we’re friends now.”

     “That makes me happy.”

     “Even if we are jealous and competitive. You’re important to me.”

     “You’re important to me, too.”

     I turned over onto my side, cheek propped up on my elbow, so I could see his face. He turned it to face me. Flushed and languid. Harry and Sally were kissing now.

     “Let’s make a promise,” I said.

     “What kind of promise?”

     “That no matter what happens with Miyuki—or anything else—we’ll stay friends. Because we motivate each other to be better.”

     “Okay. I promise.”

     “Nope, not good enough.”

     I stuck my pinky out. He stared at it for a few moments, and then wrapped his own pinky around it.

     “I promise that no matter what happens, I will stay your friend, and continue motivating you to be a better person.”

     “And I promise, too,” he said softly. I could’ve sworn I heard his voice start to crack. “So we can both be good.”

     I squeezed his pinky. He squeezed mine. We finished the pizza and the wine and the movie and fell asleep, drunk and happy, on the floor.

Chapter Text

25

when the chauffeur finally arrives

        The party was, by far, the biggest and most extravagant birthday party I’d ever had. While Haruichi had absolutely insisted on just having a small get-together for his birthday, Kuramochi wanted a grandiose and memorable event, especially since the party was celebrating not one but two birthdays. And Ryousuke wanted an excuse to organize a party he could be truly proud of. At least, that’s what Kuramochi told me. He said that Ryousuke loved having the power to make things exactly the way he wanted them to be, and planning parties was an innocent, utilitarian means of doing so. Which I thought was a strange way of describing it, but whatever. Because Ryousuke and Kuramochi’s apartment was too small, Tetsu and Jun offered up the house that they rented together—big enough for a kickass house party, they assured us. I tried to offer my help, since it was supposed to be partly my birthday party, but whenever I tried, Ryousuke would give me his smooth, unsettling smile, and tell me that he would just take care of everything. It amazed me that even when he was being kind, he could make things sound ominous.

        It wasn’t the best timing for a party. It was the middle of May, and finals were much too soon. Haruichi, Kanemaru, Furuya, and I were already studying for them. Between the four of us we had fifteen different finals to take. In that regard, I was relieved that Ryousuke and Kuramochi had taken over planning for the party.

        Two days before the party, on the day of my actual birthday, my family came to town and surprised me for the day. They had a cake and balloons, and were waiting in the lobby of my dorm building when I walked in after my morning class. I feared, when I first set on eyes on them, that I was going to publicly burst into loud, ugly tears. I fell into the wide-armed, thick-chested embrace of my father, and then the tender, lips-against-my-scalp embrace of my mother. I squeezed Grandpa as tightly as I could, and then we piled into the elevator (Grandpa wasn’t great with stairs anymore) and went up to my dorm room. They took me to dinner in the city, where they revealed to me the presents they’d brought with them.

        “You didn’t have to bring anything,” I insisted, blushing. “Just surprising me like this was the best present ever.”

        “Nonsense, Eijun! We had to get you the best damn presents ever,” Dad said.

        He and Mom had gotten me an incredible new shogi board. They wanted to encourage me to play with my friends, and sharpen up my game, since I only ever got to play when I was home. I loved it, and I meant it when I bowed my head and thanked them.

        Grandpa got me something much less expensive, but absolutely priceless. I had mentioned to him in passing last week that Furuya was starting to teach me how to play guitar, and how excited I was to play for him once I got good enough. He must have taken it to heart. Across the table from me, with a shaky, yellow-toothed smile, he handed me a small blue box with a black ribbon.

        “Open it! Right now,” he encouraged. I nodded and opened the box.

        It was a guitar pick. It looked old and worn, loved. It looked like it had seen lots of guitars and lots of stages and had played so much music.

        “Grandpa…”

        “That was my pick when I first started playing. Never stopped using it.”

        I opened my mouth to thank him, but my lips began to tremble. I could do nothing but sit there, head bowed as low as I could get it, clutching the pick in my fist and pressing it to my chest until I felt pain. He and Dad began to laugh, while Mom rubbed my back and smoothed my hair. They were the lights of my life. I was so deeply grateful for them. I vowed to myself, as I always had, that I would make them proud enough one day. Whatever that meant, whatever the standards, I was going to do it. I promised him that I would treasure this pick, and practice with it every day. And then I promised my parents that I would practice shogi, too. I was pretty good at the game, good enough to beat both my grandfather and my father, but I’d never been good enough to beat my mother. So I added that to my goals.

        Kanemaru came over later that night. He asked me about my family, and if I’d been happy to see them. I told him that I was relieved they’d showed up instead of just called. It had been a welcome surprise. And then, as I was taking my clothes off and trying to decide what music we should listen to tonight, he whipped out a bag, brimming with pink tissue paper. I gawked at it for a few seconds.

        “Happy birthday. I was gonna wait until the party to give this to you, but I kind of wanted to give it to you in a more intimate setting.”

        “Kanemaru. You’re serious?” I said, smile creeping onto my lips. “That is so mushy of you.”

        “Shut up and just open it, all right? I don’t want any of your stupid comments right now,” he spat back, but he was smiling, too. “You’ll ruin the moment.”

        I sat beside him on the bed, shirtless, and held the bag in my lap for a few moments. To feel how heavy it was. To try and get an idea of its shape. I could tell Kanemaru was getting impatient beside me, so I went ahead and got rid of the tissue paper, to peek inside.

        It was a large, glossy box, containing incredible headphones and a small recorder. Slowly, I lifted the box out of the bag and moved it around in my hands.

        “I know you already have great headphones and stuff, but I figured you might want a recorder, too. To practice, since you’re gonna have your own show in a month.”

        “This is amazing. Thank you so much,” I beamed.

        “Yeah, of course. It’s the least I could do.”

        “What are you talking about?” I laughed. “I owe you way more than you could ever owe me.”

        “No.” He looked me right in the eyes, with a softness I didn’t often see there. He wasn’t about to say anything cutting, anything reasonable or logical, he wasn’t about to smack my head or roll his eyes at me. I saw gratitude and affection there. I was moved. “I was at a rough point in my life when you showed up. Against my will. You helped me get back on my feet.”

        “Shit, you’re gonna make me cry,” I murmured.

        “It’s true, though. And I don’t tell you enough. That I’m grateful. There’s a card in there, too, but don’t read it now. I’ll get too embarrassed.”

        I put the box on the floor and threw myself into him, arms around his neck, lips planted against his. In the sweet silence of being grateful for each other, thankful that this stupid thing we had taken a risk on had evolved so wonderfully, we tangled ourselves up in the sheets for the birthday sex he’d promised me.

 


 

        The night of the party, I had class until the late afternoon. While I was showering and getting myself ready, Ryousuke came by and picked up Kanemaru, Haruichi, and Furuya to help finish setting up. He called to tell me that he would come by in a few hours to get me, too. I took my time getting ready, listening to Janelle Monaé and St. Vincent, dancing around my room and drinking wine in my own private birthday pregame. I wanted to be just buzzed enough when I arrived, just tipsy enough to unlock the charm in me. And I needed some extra courage.

        I was inevitably going to see Miyuki tonight. For the first time in about two months. I was excited and terrified and feeling what seemed like every emotion that could be felt. I wasn’t sure what sort of state my heart would fall into when I saw his face. It was true, we’d been talking every day and were certainly updated on each other’s lives, but seeing someone in person was different. The nearness of Miyuki had always been disarming for me. Just his physical presence. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to keep my calm. For weeks I’d been concocting in my head the different scenarios that could arise when we locked eyes again for the first time. Would it be awkward? Casual? As if nothing had changed or as if everything had changed? I wasn’t even sure what I wanted. I’d made the choice to create this distance to begin with. If I’d wanted to see him at any point, I could’ve. But I hadn’t. I’d deliberately avoided him. Desperately avoided him.

        I was starting to forget what the point of that was.

        I missed him so fucking much.

        After an hour or so, I went downstairs, to wait outside for Ryousuke to come pick me up. I sat on the stairs of my building, headphones in my ears, while I scrolled through my phone. My entire body was buzzing, coming alive in anticipation. I hadn’t asked Kuramochi how many people he’d invited—I’d invited essentially everybody I knew from school, which couldn’t have been more than twenty people, but I could imagine Kuramochi had invited practically everybody in town. I would be surrounded by a lot of strangers. A lot of new faces. I couldn’t wait.

        The music in my ears was loud, so I didn’t hear anybody approach. I only looked up when I noticed somebody stop right in front of me. I took out one of my headphones; Ryousuke hadn’t texted me.

        “Hey, stranger.”

        I managed, in my daze, to get to my feet. There he suddenly was. Shimmering, bright-eyed, towering.

        “Miyuki,” I stumbled.

        “What is with that face?” he asked, chuckling. “It’s just me.”

        “I…thought Ryousuke was picking me up.”

        “He was running around like a crazy person, trying to manage that party. I told him I would come get you.”

        “Oh.”

        “Sorry? I didn’t think you’d be so upset to see me.”

        I hadn’t seen that smile in so long. It sliced through every one of my defenses.

        “I’m not upset,” I replied. “The opposite.”

        “Yeah? So you’re happy to see me?”

        I didn’t bother replying. I just got on my tiptoes and wrapped my arms around his neck.

        “I miss you,” I said, lips against his neck.

        “Hey. I miss you, too.”

        Relief pulsed through me when he held me back. Arms around my waist, steadying my body, fingers sitting on my spine.

        I realized, fastening the seatbelt in the passenger seat of his car, that I’d never actually ridden in it before. Not sober, anyway. Both of the windows were rolled down slightly. Unsurprisingly, the car was totally clean, and there was an air freshener that smelled like fresh laundry attached to one of the air vents. A small keychain of music notes hung from the rearview mirror. It was a nice enough car, nothing too fancy. I leaned my arm against the window, but really, I was watching him. Unable to pull my gaze away, like drinking more water than you really need after being dehydrated for a long time. Dousing yourself in the middle of the desert. My memory of him proved pristine—he looked the same. Sharp, haloed profile, lips tender, angled jawline and candied tongue.

        “Are you excited? A big party, all for you,” he asked. One hand on the wheel, one hand out the window. It was just getting dark.

        “Hell yeah. I haven’t been out in so long.”

        “Right,” he grinned. “Ace misses you.”

        “I was a staple there, wasn’t I?”

        “Every Saturday, like we paid you to be there.”      

        “I wish.”

        “Is tonight a crazy drunk night or a relaxed drunk night?”

        “Do you even have to ask?”

        “You’re lucky you have so many people willing to take care of you.” We stopped at a light, and he looked over at me. “You look good, Sawamura.”

        “Really?”

        “Why do you always act so surprised when I say things like that?” he said.

        “I just never expect you to actually say it!”

        “I should be insulted.”

        “And yet?”

        He just smiled. Reached up. Cupped my chin. I’d missed those little touches. Sometimes, I’d feel them there, feel his fingers on my arm or my cheek, like a phantom pain.

        “I’m just glad to see you.”

        “This is not like you at all,” I teased, “showing emotion? Vulnerability?”

        “Vulnerability? That’s a leap.”

        “Right. Sorry.” We were both smiling now. Comfortable here. I’d never been this comfortable with him, always fidgety and anxious and self-conscious. Maybe the distance really had been good.

        “So,” he began. I watched his lips twist and turn, like he was debating whether to smile or not. “Furuya tells me you guys are getting close.”

        I hadn’t been expecting him to bring up Furuya, and it caught me off-guard. I wasn’t sure how much he knew. He’d barely ever come up in our conversations, which was probably a good thing.  

        “He said that?” I replied.

        “Yeah. Is it not true? Should I confront my beau for lying so blatantly?”

        “N-no, it is true,” I murmured.

        “Good. I’m happy you guys are getting along now.” He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, cunning, a bit scary. I batted my eyelashes at him and mustered a smile.

        “Me, too. Things going well with you two?”

        “Mhm.”

        “I’m glad.”

        “You are?” he laughed.

        He hadn’t changed.

        “Why wouldn’t I be?” I challenged.

        “No reason,” he shrugged. Eyes now fully on the road. Smile leering; my blood began to boil, just as he’d doubtlessly meant it to. I was amazed at his abilities to get under my skin so fucking quickly, and so fucking deliberately.

        “Jesus, Miyuki, why do you always have to be like this?”

        “Like what?”

        “Forget it.”

        I turned my gaze to the road, at the little yellow markings racing by beneath the wheels. I wanted a cigarette, but I knew he’d yell at me if I smoked in his meadow-fresh car. I could see my reflection in the side mirror, angry and pouting and flushed.

        “Relax, cutie. Don’t go into the party all puckered up.”

        “It’s my birthday. I’ll pout if I want to.”

        “You know, studies show that you’ll get early wrinkles like that. And your hair will probably start graying early, too.”

        “What? Really?” I relaxed my face and smoothed out my forehead, only for him to burst into glassy, magical little cackles. “Jerk!”

        “Come on, Sawamura. Just embrace your guest-of-honor status and give us a smile.”

        He looked over at me again as we reached a red light. I bared my teeth, as wide and annoying as I could get them, with a wrinkled nose and squinting eyes. He rolled his eyes, and pushed lightly on my head.

        “Relieved to see you haven’t matured at all,” he said.

        “Light’s green.”

        We lurched forward.

        “Really, though,” he continued, “just let loose tonight. Relax. Ryousuke went hard planning this party, so it’s the least you can do.”

        “Only if you promise to make me some drinks.”

        “Ho, ho, making demands of me now?”

        “Absolutely. And you’re so into yourself, you were gonna do it anyway, just because you like impressing people with your drinks.”

        “You’re a cheeky little fucker, you know that?”

        “And shameless, too.”

        “Maybe I shouldn’t give you your present after all…”

        I paused, as the air in the car got a little warmer. Body twisted around in my seat so I could properly face him, I looked right into his face, even as he kept his eyes on the road. I knew he knew I was looking at him, blushing, pursing my lips to hide a smile.

        “You really did get me a present?”

        “Sure I did.”

        “You didn’t have to do that.”

        “I know. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”

        “Like drive me around?”

        “Exactly.”

        “What did you get me?”

        “You’ll find out.”

        “Aw, come on. I can keep a secret.”

        “Right, just like I can sprout wings and fly whenever I feel like it.”

        “Okay, it’s not that farfetched,” I grumbled.

        “Just have fun with the party, all right? You’ll get your present eventually. Scout’s honor.”

        “Yeah. I trust you.”

        “You trust me?”

        We pulled into the driveway of a modestly-sized house, lights already on inside and music so loud we could hear it from out here. Cars lined the street. There were people hanging out on the porch with red solo cups, silhouettes moving around gleefully inside. Streamers hanging across the front deck read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in colorful rainbow letters.

        But my eyes were on Miyuki.

        “What kind of stupid question is that?” I asked. Truly hurt. And it was plain in the shakiness of my voice. “How could you ever think that I don’t trust you?”

        “Not that wild of an assumption,” he shrugged as he unfastened his seatbelt. His words were dripping with smooth nonchalance, and if I didn’t know any better, they wouldn’t have sounded forced at all. “Given all that’s happened.”

        “What the hell are you talking about? I told you. It had nothing to do with you.”

        “Right. Of course,” he said. His hand was on the handle of the door, and he paused. “That’s exactly why you quit your job, but still hang out with Furuya. And why you stopped coming to Ace, but still hang out with Kuramochi.”

        “Miyuki—”

        “It’s fine, Sawamura. Really. I get it.”

        He smiled. It was sickly sweet, and made my stomach turn. There was nothing genuine in his eyes anymore, nothing reaching out for me but sugary, artificial sparkles.

        “Let’s get inside. I owe you some drinks, birthday boy.”

        He got out of the car, and for the few moments after he closed the door and I was in there by myself, I felt exactly as I had the first time I’d been in the record store. Stranded at sea. Grasping for something, anything, to keep me from treading water.

Chapter Text

26

a toast to the bull

        The entire house erupted when I stepped through the threshold, like I was a king returning to his kingdom, beloved by his subjects, enough to shake the very earth. Before I could blink I was surrounded by drunk, happy people—some I recognized, some I didn’t. The first face I recognized and clung to was Kuramochi’s. He pushed through the crowd, red solo cup in hand and eyes bloodshot, and pulled me into his chest hard and fast. My cheek pressed uncomfortably against the buttons on his jacket as he held me, rocking me back and forth. He was drunk and high out of his mind, but I loved him and was unsurprised anyway. I embraced him. Silently relieved that, even in a drunken, unearthly state, he loved me, too.

        “I’ve been waiting for you, babyyyyy,” he purred. “You’re not even a little bit drunk yet! You’re behind! Miyuki!”

        “Right here, babe.”

        “Let’s go make him some drinks.”

        “Way ahead of you.”

        As Kuramochi released me and wove his arm through Miyuki’s, Miyuki turned over his shoulder and left me with a wink, before whisking Kuramochi away toward the kitchen and its extensive, overstocked bar. Then Ryousuke, Jun, Tetsu, Shirasu, and Masuko were surrounding me, saying their happy birthdays and planting slobbery kisses on my cheeks and holding me—Masuko so tightly that I thought I might pass out. The house itself was unbelievably packed, with people huddled in corners and playing drinking games on the single table. Almost everything was cleared out. It was perfectly suited for a house party, with the balloons (including an arch) and the sparkles and the photographs.

        “You outdid yourself, Ryousuke,” I said. He put his arm around my shoulder and, in a moment of undeniable witchcraft, managed to remove me from the suffocating crowd.

        “No cutting corners for you or Kuramochi.”

        “I really appreciate it. Seriously.”

        “I’m sure you’ll repay the favor some day,” he said with an ominous smile. “For now, just enjoy.”

        “Where’s Harucchi?”

        “Last I saw, he was in the kitchen with Furuya and Kanemaru.”

        “Thanks.”

        I slipped through the crowd, stopped at least ten times on my way to the kitchen, by friends and strangers alike wishing me a happy birthday. Heart swelling, skin hot, smile invincible. I finally managed to slide through the narrow doorway into the kitchen, which was significantly less crowded than the main living areas. Miyuki and Kuramochi were over by the fridge, mixing drinks. Kuramochi was whispering in Miyuki’s ear, making him giggle like a middle schooler.

        “Eijun!”

        Suddenly, Haruichi’s arms were around my neck. Then Kanemaru hugged me from behind—then Furuya joined in, too, so that the three of them were completely trapping me in their arms. I couldn’t breathe; it was a most loving breathlessness, without fear of suffocation.

        “Happy birthday!” they all cried. They released me. All three of them were more drunk than I’d ever seen them. Kanemaru was talkative, excitable, face completely red and words slurred. Haruichi was more talkative, too, holding my hands and unable to articulate his words, balancing on the balls of his feet and smiling like a madman. Furuya was quiet, but smiling, laughing at nothing, body swaying off-beat to the music. It was the first time, really, that I was more sober than anybody else.

        It didn’t last long.

        Miyuki and Kuramochi approached our loving little circle. As Miyuki was about to hand me the red solo cup, Kuramochi cut him off with two fresh shot glasses. He handed me one, and I gladly took it.

        “Someone record this. Our first birthday shot together,” he cried. Miyuki obediently took his phone out without a word. Kuramochi lifted his glass, so I lifted mine. “To Taureans!”

        “To Taureans,” I agreed. We clinked glasses and took our shots, to be enshrined on Instagram.

        I let the night sweep me up. After the shots, we left the kitchen to mingle. Furuya was hanging on Miyuki’s arm, drunk and in love, while Miyuki kissed his cheek in an absentminded, comfortable sort of way. I tried to block them out—as much as I cared about both of them. I desperately tried to block them out. I focused on everybody else. On Haruichi and Kanemaru (and later, Furuya) playing drinking games with me and threatening to tell everybody all my embarrassing stories. Kanemaru bragged about my upcoming radio show like a proud father, and Haruichi kept asking for more drinks, and what kind of hypocrite would I be to stop him? Every time I finished my drink, it seemed like Miyuki swooped in with another one at the ready. A true bartender, down to the bone.

        When I was nice and drunk and met Kuramochi at his practically blacked out energy level, we went to the bathroom for our first birthday line. We came out revved up, and I finally convinced Miyuki to give me control of the playlist. I put on one of my favorite party playlists, one I’d made recently; the first song to come on was THREE1989. I wondered if he would notice. Even if he did, he wouldn’t make it obvious, surely. I also wondered if he knew that I’d seen him taking shots. Six since we’d arrived. There was no way he was as sober as he was acting.

        I kept drinking. I was high now, too. The faces around me were my family, I realized—I reached my arms out for them. We danced, we kissed, we loved. Kanemaru pushed me up against the wall and kissed me, like we were really in love, like one day, we really could be, while, in a corner across the house, Miyuki and Furuya were up against a different wall. Kanemaru was hornier than I was, or perhaps drunker, or perhaps this had actually helped him move on from his ex-boyfriend whereas this absolutely had not helped me move past Miyuki. Maybe Kuramochi was right, and Kanemaru was falling into a dangerous territory of spilling romantic affection toward me.

        I didn’t want to think about it. So I just made out with him, and then made the excuse of going to the bathroom. But I veered back into the kitchen, woozy, wanting another shot. I didn’t even want to take it with anybody, I just masochistically wanted to feel my throat burn as I swallowed the vodka. I stumbled over myself, to the counter where the bottles were lined up. The world was in double now, spinning and twirling like ribbons. Smiling to myself, I leaned my hands on the counter to steady myself, and then I searched for an empty shot glass.

        “Let me help you.”

        Two hands reached out to steady my arms from behind. I closed my eyes and let my head hang. I heard shuffling among the bottles and glasses, and when I opened my eyes, Miyuki was holding out a shot glass filled to the brim with vodka for me.

        “What, no lecture tonight?” I asked. He gestured for me to take it. I did, and realized that he had one of his own, too.

        “No. No lecture tonight.”

        “Wow.”

        “Make a toast.”

        “To…Coach.”

        “Coach? What?” he laughed.

        “If it weren’t for Coach, and his record store and club, I wouldn’t have gotten to be your friend.”

        “That’s quite a hypothetical there.”

        “Can we just take the shot, please?”

        “Fine,” he said, smiling. “To Coach.”

        We clinked glasses and took our shots. I was used to the wave of nausea that followed—the five-second threat of vomiting. I closed my eyes and breathed in deep, so deep that my chest swelled up and the world went white for a second. The wave passed and I opened my eyes. Miyuki was still there, right in front of me, unfazed. His face was blurred, and even if it were clear as crystal, I wouldn’t have been able to read his expression.

        “Do you want your gift now?”

        I nodded. He held out his hand. I grabbed it. He led me from the kitchen, into the living room (which had become something of a club itself, with what seemed like every person at the party dancing wildly), and over to a stairwell leading to a dark second floor. It was narrow and creaky, but his grip was strong. Steady, as I stumbled behind him up the stairs. The house was shaking with the bass and the jumping. I was so happy. So unbelievably happy.

        We walked down a dark hallway with doors leading to what I assumed were the four bedrooms of the house. All the way to the end, at which point he pulled me into a bedroom, flicked on the light, and closed the door. The room was tidy.

        “This is Tetsu’s room,” he explained.

        “As no-nonsense as he is,” I said. It was decorated sparsely.

        When I looked over at the bed, I noticed a large box, wrapped in blue paper with a yellow ribbon and a white card with my name in pristine writing on it.

        “Is that my present?” I asked, pointing to it like a child.

        “That’s your present.”

        I stumbled toward it, and put my hands flatly against it to steady myself. The ground was shaking from the music downstairs. The neighbors must have been furious. Miyuki stood by the foot of the bed, arms crossed, hip cocked.

        “Can I open it?”

        “Yeah. I wanna see you do it.”

        I opened the card first, but the words started swimming before my eyes.

        “Sorry. I’ll read it tomorrow.”

        “That’s okay.”

        I ripped at the wrapping paper barbarically, without rhyme or reason or pattern, just ripping it where it looked weak. As I could have expected with Miyuki, it was perfectly wrapped. If I’d been sober, it would’ve been easy to open. I wasn’t sure quite how long it took me to actually open it. But when I did, I fell silent. Deathly silent. I was paralyzed. Unable to move, unable to speak, unable to look away.

        “Well? Say something.”

        “I…”

        It was a turntable. A beautiful, functioning turntable. Smaller than his grand vintage record player, but with an added aux input and bluetooth speaker. It was everything in one. I couldn’t begin to imagine how much money he had spent on this. There was a Fleetwood Mac record, too. I’d told him once that Rumours was one of my favorite albums of all time. And he’d remembered.

        “I don’t know what to say,” I finally murmured. My words were so slurred, I wasn’t sure he’d understand them.

        “Thank you would be a start.”

        “Why would you do this for me? Me?”

        He raised his eyebrows. Then he stepped toward me, and put his hands on my arms. I might have fallen otherwise.

        “Because I care about you, Sawamura. Because you’re my friend.”

        “Miyuki…”

        “Come on. Don’t cry.”

        I tried to lower my face, embarrassed, but he lifted it with both hands and wiped the flowing tears with his thumbs. I felt urgency in his touch.

        “You’re so drunk, Miyuki,” I heard myself say.

        “What? What does that have to do with anything?”

        “That’s why you’re being so nice to me,” I continued. I was babbling. Speaking practically in tongues. Miyuki’s face contorted angrily.

        “I don’t have to be drunk to be nice to you.”

        “Yes, you do. Just like last time. Just like New Year’s.”

        “You’re drunk, too. And high. That’s why you’re saying these things.”

        I shook my head, over and over and over, because I knew I was right. I was starting to cry harder. I couldn’t stop it.

        “You think I don’t know, but I do. I see you taking those shots. Because you have to be drunk to deal with me.”

        “Shut up, Sawamura. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

        “How many was that? Eight? Just to be able to be around me.”

        I couldn’t have predicted what happened next, not in a million years, not sober or drunk or high or awake or dreaming.

        Angry and tender and desperate, all at once, Miyuki pushed me back against the closed door and kissed me.

        “You’re delusional,” he murmured against my parted lips.

        Then he kissed me again, before I could say anything. I let my body fall back against the door, wrapped my arms around his neck, pulled him in until his body was so tight to mine that I could feel the bumps of the door creating imprints around my spine. His hands slid up under my shirt and pressed hard against my skin, while he forced my lips open with his tongue. There in his grasp I began to suffocate. He pushed his thigh up between my legs, against my groin, and I clutched at his back to bring him closer. His tongue traced my lips, down to my jaw, down beneath my chin, until I leaned my head back and turned my face to the ceiling. I moaned as he bit the tender skin of my neck, then pressed his tongue against it in endless circles—all while his fingers, seasoned navigators, drew maps on my chest.

        “Miyuki,” I moaned, hands in his hair now, deep against his scalp.

        “Mm, just like that,” he said.

        “Miyuki, I love you.”

        He paused, and lifted his head. Glasses fogged up, lips glistening. I swallowed. Licked my lips. He pushed me back harder against the door and kissed me.

        “Yeah?” he murmured. “Say it again.”

        “I love you.” I moaned, long and deep, as he pushed his knee up and I pressed my hips down against it. “I’m in love with you.”

        “Do you love him?”

        “I don’t know. I think so.”

        “Do you think he loves you?”

        “No.”

        Furuya flashed across my mind. My pinky, wrapped tightly around his.

        Against the will of everything I had ever wanted from him, I put my hands against Miyuki’s chest and pushed him away. He stumbled backward, arms open, breathing heavy.

        “No, I won’t do this,” I said. The world was still spinning.

        He had the audacity to look dumbfounded.

        “Furuya is my friend. I care about him. And he loves you, too. And I won’t let you hurt him like this.”

        “Wait, Sawamura—”

        I couldn’t be in there any longer. I needed another line, another drink, anything. I opened the door and stormed out, straight down the hall, staggering, down the stairs. I miraculously made it down without tripping and falling on my face. Everybody was still dancing, in the dim darkness and flashing strobe lights. I reached my arms out like feelers, moving, moving, moving, until I found who I was looking for.

        I pulled Furuya out of the massive crowd and held him. I held him tight. Squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.

        “Sawamura…”

        “We haven’t known each other long,” I began, “but I love you. I really do.”

        “W-what?”

        “I want you to know that. I love you. I care about you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

        He froze, withering there in my embrace. And then, after an eternity, he lifted his arms and held me back. I felt his tears, wet and warm against my neck.

        “I love you, too.”

        “Let’s go take a shot.”

        He joined me in the kitchen. We took our shots. Then I grabbed Kuramochi, told him I wanted to do another line. We went back to the bathroom.

        Ten minutes later, while I was in the middle of the dance floor, my knees gave out. Kuramochi and Kanemaru held me up, but I couldn’t steady myself—my heart began to beat faster than it ever had before, my skin tingled and burned and my head exploded in a rush of bright, colorful, agony. I fell to the floor, hard, banging my head. For a few moments, the world spun and spun and spun. I was inside a kaleidoscope. I was free falling from space. Then everything went black and there was nothing.

Chapter Text

27

game-master

     I’m standing in the middle of Ace Records, my fingers brushing the tops of records whose titles I can’t understand, like they’re written in another language. I’m alone in here, but I don’t mind. I’ve been alone in here so many times before. There’s music playing but I don’t recognize it; I feel like I should, though, and that’s frustrating. I start to walk, weave my way through the aisles. When I look up at the ceiling, it’s gone. There’s nothing but pitch black. I look over at the door—there’s nothing outside. More pitch black. This record store is alone in the universe and I’m alone in this record store. A cigarette sits kindly in my lips.

     I start to panic, though I’m not sure why. Fear burrows under my skin and paralyzes me, keeping my feet flat on the ground and my face pale and cold. I’ve gone under water and stopped breathing. The cigarette falls to the floor and my chest stops moving—and I reach for air. Clawing for it. It must be here somewhere. Air, to breathe, because I’m fucking suffocating.

     Two arms, warm and dry and strong and tender, wrap around my chest from behind. Lips against my ear now. I close my eyes. I’m going to die soon without air. Then a voice whispers to me.

     breathe

     breathe

 


    

     breathe

 


 

     The first thing I was aware of was a rhythmic, high-pitched beeping. I let my brain get accustomed to it before I slowly opened my eyes. The next thing I was aware of was a sharp, pulsating headache, like I’d been stabbed through the ears. My entire body was stiff and achy, like a hangover, but so much worse. The world was dim, surrounding me in dull grays and blues. I was in a bed I didn’t recognize, in a room I’d never been in before. Without a word, I kept blinking, but my eyesight stayed blurry. I couldn’t clear it up for some reason. I moved my head to the right; there was a door there, leading out to a vomit-colored hallway. I moved my head to the left; there were chairs lined up against the wall and a wide-open window. The sky was gray but cloudless. There was someone in the chair, I thought, but I couldn’t get my vision clear enough to recognize them.

     My eyes closed again, just so I could squeeze them. Like knocking some sense into them. Things became a bit clearer when I opened my eyes. Fuck, that beeping was so annoying, drilling into my head like that. And there was something in my right arm, something weighing me down, annoying and uncomfortable. With my left, I reached over to pick it out. When I grabbed the mysterious item, a sudden and dramatic pain rushed up my arm. I tried to yell, but it came out as little more than a hoarse, dried up whimper.

     “Hey, hey, Sawamura. You’re awake.”

     It was a voice I recognized, right there on my left. I released the stick in my arm and turned my head to face them.

     Kuramochi looked terrible, but at least I could clearly see his face. Bags under his bloodshot eyes, hair flat and lusterless, lips dry and cracked and pale.

     “Hey,” I said, but my voice didn’t rise above a whisper. It was caught in the jagged terrain of my throat somewhere. It burned, and my lips stretched out when I tried to talk.

     “Hey,” he smiled. He sat down on the edge of the bed, one hand on mine, and the other running through my hair. His touch was cold and refreshing in whatever horrible, heat wave of a world I was in. “How are you feeling?”

     I started to shake my head, but movement intensified the pain. I grimaced, and felt him squeeze my hand.

     “I don’t know,” I replied. “I...what’s going on? Where am I?”

     “Just relax, Sawamura, please,” he said quietly. “Take a deep breath for me.”

     I did what he asked. There were tears in my eyes now.

     “I don’t know what’s happening,” I murmured. “I’m terrified.”

     “You’re safe. I promise.” He brought his forehead down to mine, a soft, intimate connection, palpable, something I could reach for and hang onto. “You’re safe.”

     He grabbed a tissue on a small table beside the bed and wiped the tears away for me. He was still smiling, but I could see his lips shaking.

     “What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked.

     “Dancing at the birthday party.”

     “That’s it? What had you been doing before that?”

     “Um.” I racked my brain, looking for clues in his face. “Furuya and I were in the kitchen. I took another shot. Then you and I went to the bathroom and did a few lines, I think. I don’t remember anything after getting back to the dance floor.”

     “Good job. Here.”

     He brought a cup of cold water to my lips. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was until it slithered down my throat, and he tilted the cup until I’d had all of it.

     “More water?”

     I nodded. He left the bed for a moment to slip out into the hallway. A few moments later, he returned with a full cup. I drank that, too. I asked him to keep holding my hand.

     “You’re in the hospital. You passed out and hit your head pretty hard,” Kuramochi began explaining. “We thought you’d just stumbled, you know, you were drunk and high and you hit your head. So we just carried you to the couch. But you weren’t responding when we tried to wake you up. At least...that’s what people told me. I was blacked out.”

     “Oh.”

     “Furuya’s the one who called the ambulance. He didn’t ask for anyone’s advice. He just went into the corner and did it. Somebody realized your head was bleeding.”

     “Furuya did?”

     “Yeah. He rode with you in the ambulance, too.”

     “That’s never happened to me before,” I managed.

     “Doctor says it was alcohol poisoning, plus a concussion from the fall. When they did your blood alcohol it was 0.33 percent.”

     “Oh my god.”

     “Plus there was cocaine in your system, which apparently didn’t help.”

     “Am I gonna get in trouble? Are you gonna get in trouble?”

     “No, no, relax,” he said, hand on my cheek. “Nobody’s getting in trouble.”

     I released the tension in my shoulders.

     “I’m so sorry,” I said. Kuramochi furrowed his brow, squeezed my hand a little too hard.

     “Why are you sorry?”

     “I ruined everything. Again. If I could just have some more self-control, and—”

     “Listen to me, Sawamura.”

     I was crying again. Horrible, disgusting sobs. But he looked me right in the eyes and held my hand in both of his.

     “Don’t you dare apologize. Don’t you dare believe that somehow, your near-death experience ruined something for us. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

     “I shouldn’t have had so much to drink.”

     “Nobody cares about that. We love you, you idiot. We’re just relieved that you’re safe. All right?”

     I tried to nod, while he gave me a tissue to blow my nose and dry my eyes.

     “I love you, too...”

     “I know, baby, I know.”

     He moved closer on the bed and squeezed in beside me, so he could wrap his arm around me and I could rest my aching head on his shoulder. Just then, Haruichi, Furuya, and Ryousuke walked in, holding cups of yogurt and soda pop drinks.

     “Eijun! You’re awake!”

     “Don’t hurt him, Haruichi,” Ryousuke warned, tone as smoothly amused as ever.

     Haruichi and Furuya scrambled over to me, holding my hand and asking me a thousand questions.

     “Hey, give him some room, will ya?” Kuramochi cried. But I didn’t mind. I was so relieved. In my darkest hour, I had people who cared enough about me to tolerate a disturbing, depressing hospital room for who knows how long. I tried to smile for them.

     “We’re so happy you’re okay,” Haruichi said. He was about to cry, too. Voice trembling, lips shaking with every word. “I thought...maybe...”

     “We thought you might die. You know those stories of people passed out and choking on their vomit and stuff,” Furuya said. I nodded.

     “You got me the ambulance,” I said to him. He blinked, eyes blank, surprised that I’d pointed it out. “Thank you.”

     “You would’ve done the same for me.”

     “Where’s Kanemaru?” I asked.

     “We sent him home to get sleep. He was up all night and all day yesterday with you. Said he wanted to be here when you woke up. But he wasn’t looking so good, so we told him to go rest and come back later,” Ryousuke explained.

     “Kanemaru did?” I gawked. They all nodded, not at all as surprised as I was. “Oh...”

     “I’ll call and let him know you’re awake,” Haruichi offered. He pulled out his phone and went out into the hall.

     “I don’t know how to thank you all. I—”

     “Take care of yourself better,” Ryousuke interrupted. He handed me a yogurt cup and plastic spoon. “Because now you know just how much we care about you.”

     “Right...”

     Haruichi came back into the room. “Kanemaru is on his way.”

     “Okay.”

     Furuya’s phone buzzed at the same moment. He checked it.

     “Miyuki’s on his way, too.”

     “No. I don’t wanna see him.”

     The words escaped my lips before I’d even had time to process them myself. They were a knee-jerk reaction to hearing Miyuki’s name. And they were true. I didn’t want to see him. The moments we’d shared in Tetsu’s room last night lunged back at me as I stared into Furuya’s eyes. I was angry, ashamed, heartbroken.

     Everybody stared at me in surprise. For a few moments, the air was tense and thick. But I didn’t care. I was comfortable enough around these people, my chosen family in this city, to be honest.

     “You...don’t wanna see Miyuki?” Haruichi asked.

     “No. I don’t. Furuya, can you just tell him that I’ll text him when I get my shit together?”

     “Oh. Sure.”

     “Did something happen with you guys at the party?” Kuramochi jumped in. He was still sitting on the bed beside me.

     “I...” I glared into Kuramochi’s eyes, and then very deliberately swept my gaze over to Furuya. Off, as usual, in his own world. “No. Nothing. I just don’t wanna see him.”

     Kuramochi understood what was happening. He dropped it with a solemn nod of his head. A we’ll-talk-later nod.

     “Whatever you say,” Furuya said. He sent the message. Relieved, I sank down in bed.

     “Can I get this stupid IV out of my arm? It’s so annoying,” I grumbled.

     “Absolutely not! You need those fluids,” Haruichi replied.

     “It hurts, though,” I pouted.

     “Just deal with it, you baby,” Furuya said. I flipped him off, to which he shrugged his shoulders and sat down in the nearest chair. I ate what I could of the yogurt Ryousuke had given me, but my throat still burned, badly. So I put it on the table and pulled the blankets higher over my body. My eyelids suddenly became terribly heavy.

     “Sleepy?” Kuramochi teased.

     “Yes, Daddy.”

     “Get some rest.”

     “Only if you promise to go get some rest, too.”

     “I was going to suggest the same. Now that we know he’s okay, and Kanemaru is on his way,” Ryousuke said, gathering everybody’s things, “let’s all get some rest. Haruichi and Furuya need to really study for finals.”

     “Damn, I’ve got to study, too,” I added.

     “Not yet, you don’t. You’re sitting right here until the doctors say so,” Kuramochi demanded. While I pouted, he gently tousled my hair. “We’ll be back tomorrow, all right?”

     “Okay.”

     “Youichi, love, would you and the boys go get the car started up? I have to go to the bathroom.” Ryousuke held out his car keys. Kuramochi nodded, grabbed them, and then leaned down to kiss Ryousuke’s lips. Different and perfect and beautiful. I admired them and was jealous of them and wondered how they’d done it.

     Kuramochi, Haruichi, and Furuya left the room. Ryousuke followed them to the door, but didn’t step into the hallway where the bathroom was. Instead, he stepped back inside. Just the two of us in this room now. I watched him silently as he pulled up a chair beside the bed.

     “Has Youichi ever told you about how we started dating?”

     “He just mentioned once that it started out as a fling.”

     “Would you like to hear the full story? Quickly?”

     “Yeah. Absolutely.”

     He smiled, leaning forward with his arms on his knees.

     “It wasn’t always like this. We started off messy. We met back when he was still bartending at Ace, trying to get his DJing to take off. He and Miyuki were inseparable back then. I was new in town, went to the club to check it out. I thought he was cute. I flirted. I’m good at charming people and Youichi is good at being charmed,” he explained.

     “That’s a really nice way of saying you played him,” I laughed.

     “Fair enough,” he grinned, tone unchanging. “We hooked up, and I knew after that first night that he wouldn’t be able to get me out of his head. It wasn’t arrogance or pretension, just a fact I knew. I was bored and lonely in a new place. I had only just met Tetsu and Jun. I liked the idea of someone loving me, even if I didn’t love them back.”

     “How long did that last?”

     “Six months. I toyed with him for six months. At first, it really was just a game. Eventually, I realized I was just convincing myself it was a game, because I was afraid of making our relationship something more than just ‘fun.’ It was a little late, of course. Youichi was heartbroken and lost. He knew I was playing him, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He loved me too much.”

     “How did you figure out that you loved him, too?”

     “One night, at the club. His first day DJing there. I was at the bar with Miyuki. I watched him up there and couldn’t take my eyes away—I realized how badly I wanted him. That night, he begged me. Said that he wasn’t strong enough to let me go, but if I couldn’t give him what he needed, I should let him go, instead. I told him I wasn’t strong enough for that, either. I said ‘I love you’ first, he said it back, we worked to heal the damage we’d already caused and now we’re here.”

     “Why are you telling me this?”

     “Just so you know that even when people hurt you, manipulate you, use you...they’re probably hurting, too.”

     I tried to smile. I didn’t want this sort of advice right now.

     “Youichi...he thinks this is his fault. He cried himself to sleep last night.” He stood up and gave me another smile. A parting gift. “Just know that if nothing else, he will be there for you. He loves you, Eijun. He truly does.”

     “I...I know.”

     “Good. I hope you sleep well.”

     And with that, I was alone, and asleep with another blink of my eyes.