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Freedom Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

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“Thanks again for letting me stay.” Jun looked back over his shoulder to Sho as he carried two more bags of assorted belongings into Sho’s apartment. “I promise you'll hardly even know I’m here.”

Sho eyed the ever-growing pile of Jun’s stuff which seemed to be creeping across the floor of his apartment like a very slow moving tidal wave and gave a doubtful snort. “How long did you say those renovations of yours are expected to take?”

“Two or three weeks.” Jun unearthed a cast iron frying pan and carried it into Sho’s kitchen. “A month at the most,” he added, tutting at the stack of dirty coffee cups teetering lopsidedly in the sink.

The tips of Sho’s ears turned red as he hurried over to the pile of unwashed cups and spoons. “Um, I meant to tidy up before you arrived, but I never quite found the time.”

“Don't worry. I'll have the place cleaned up in no time. It’s the least I can do to repay you for allowing me to stay.” Jun reached out for the cup balanced on the very top of the wobbling pile at the same time as Sho. Their fingers met and they ended up standing awkwardly holding hands. This time it was Jun’s ears which turned red as his fingers were squeezed by Sho.

“Sorry!” Sho yelped, hastily snatching his hand away, knocking another dirty cup onto the floor.

They each bent down in a desperate attempt to save it, but cup broke into several large pieces as it hit the tiles. “OW!” They both yelled as their heads cracked together.

“Sorry!” Sho mumbled, rubbing his forehead as he straightened up. “I'll clean this up immediately.”

Shaking his head ruefully Jun took Sho by the elbow and steered him out of the kitchen. “Just leave everything to me. I think we both agree that it will be safer that way. Anyway, don't you have a photo shoot scheduled for this afternoon?”

Sho blinked blankly; still confused by the way his fingers had tingled when they accidentally held Jun’s hand a minute ago. As Sho tried to gather his scattered thoughts his phone beeped self-importantly. “Oops, that's my pre-reminder to remind me to remember that I have to leave in five minutes.”

Jun’s eyebrows scrunched together in confusion as he tried to make sense of Sho’s babbling, but before he could reply, Sho had dashed off to the bathroom and his bedroom, changed his clothes in approximately thirty seconds and shot out the front door, waving goodbye over his shoulder as he left. Sighing deeply, Jun walked around the messy apartment, at one point almost tripping over a stack of magazines hidden under a discarded shirt. If he was going to live here, even for a few weeks, something would have to be done about the mess.

++

Due to technical issues at the shoot it was almost two in the morning when Sho tiredly unlocked his front door. Without bothering to switch on the light in the entryway he kicked off his shoes and slid his feet into his favourite slippers. Cautiously shuffling across the floor to avoid clutter, Sho was pleasantly surprised by the lack of obstacles in his way. In fact the polished floor was gleaming in the light spilling out of the kitchen. The apartment was filled with a delicious scent. He called softly, “Jun? Are you still up?”

Jun was still awake, despite the late hour. “In the kitchen.”

Even if the light hadn’t been on Sho would have been able to make his way to the kitchen, simply by allowing his nose to lead him. He was eager to discover the source of the tempting smell.

Jun took a steaming bowl of soup out of the microwave and placed it on the table next to a loaf of crusty bread. “They never feed us on those photo shoots, so I figured that you’d be hungry. Its vegetable. I figured that you need the vitamins since I couldn't find a single edible item in your fridge. Do you even know what a grocery store looks like?” Jun was wearing a faded t-shirt which Sho remembered gifting him with after an overseas trip at least five years ago, and a pair of frayed jeans. There was a small smear of dirt on his cheek and the lenses of his glasses were smudged. “I made enough to do for tomorrow as well. And while I was waiting for it to cook I put away all my stuff and cleaned the apartment.”

Sho hovered guiltily; he hadn't meant for Jun to do any of this. “You’re my guest. I should be the one looking after you, not the other way round.”

“Sho-san, we both know that your domestic skills are on the level of a five year old,” Jun replied. The soft smile on his face offset the snarky tone of his words. “I think we can both agree that it was much safer this way.”

Sho was tempted to argue some more, but the smell of the soup wafting past his nostrils lured him to sit down and pick up his spoon. The soup tasted even better than it smelled and Sho hummed with satisfaction as he dunked a chunk of bread in the liquid and munched on it happily.

“I’m off to bed now,” Jun said, running a hand tiredly through his hair. “Make sure you clean up these dirty dishes before you go to bed.”

“Yes mother,” Sho mumbled around a large mouthful of bread earning himself an eye-roll from Jun as he made his way to the spare room.

++

“Do you want anything Sho-kun?” Aiba offered Sho the tray of plastic wrapped sandwiches which had been left on the table for the pair of them. For once a magazine had made a bit of an effort to feed them, but the sandwiches looked dry, with barely a hint of any fillings.

Shaking his head, Sho retrieved his shoulder bag from the sofa. “No thanks, but maybe you’d like to share this?” Sho asked as he pulled out a neatly wrapped bento box. He removed the silk wrapping revealing three layers of lacquered trays and a matching chopstick box.

Aiba’s eyes grew wide and his mouth watered as Sho separated the layers. A colourful selection of stir fried vegetables filled the first tray. The second contained egg mayonnaise sandwiches with neatly trimmed crusts. The final layer was filled with chicken karaage and rice.

“You don't have to ask me twice.” Aiba quickly grabbed a pair of disposable chopsticks from a plastic cup next to the coffee machine and began to stuff food into his mouth. “Mmm, so delicious,” he mumbled around a mouthful of tender chicken. “Have you discovered some sort of home cooking service?”

To Aiba’s surprise, Sho blushed to the roots of his hair, pausing with an egg sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Well...actually it was Jun,” Sho admitted. “He thinks that I don't eat properly.”

Aiba’s raised eyebrows telegraphed his surprise. “He’s still at your place? I thought that he was supposed to be back in his own place a couple of weeks ago?”

“He was, but there have been a few delays with the contractors,” Sho said, taking a bite of his sandwich and humming with pleasure.

“I don't know how you're going to survive without his cooking.” Aiba gathered up a mound of perfectly cooked vegetables and gazed at them admiringly before chewing enthusiastically.

Aiba’s words triggered a sinking feeling in Sho. It wasn't just Jun’s sublime cooking that he was going to miss.

++

Jun was in the kitchen standing at the stove stirring a pan with a wooden spoon as water bubbled on the other burner in a large pot. As with everything he did, there was a look of utter concentration on his face as he picked up a small spoon and dipped it into the sauce. For a few moments Sho paused in the doorway watching as Jun licked the spoon, testing the flavour. Obviously unsatisfied with the taste, Jun added a little salt and a few pinches of some type of spice which Sho couldn't identify. Sho felt himself give a guilty little jerk as Jun caught his eye, catching him staring.

“Like what you see?” Jun asked with a tempting smile.

“I...um...err…” Heat flooded Sho’s body as Jun approached.

“It tastes even better than it looks.” Jun held out the spoon, offering Sho a taste of the pasta sauce he’d been working on for the last hour.

In an attempt to hide his embarrassment Sho took the spoon with trembling fingers and hastily swallowed. Unfortunately breathing heavily and swallowing at the same time is never a good thing and he immediately began to choke. Jun rubbed Sho’s back firmly until Sho could finally catch his breath. “T-thanks,” Sho gasped, gratefully taking a sip of water from a bottle which Jun had hastily grabbed from the fridge once Sho looked as if he wasn’t going to die.

When he saw that Sho was okay, Jun picked up a measured quantity of pasta and added it to the boiling water. “I hope that wasn't a comment on my cooking.”

“No! It’s perfect. Really. Just like all of your cooking,” Sho babbled.

“That’s exactly why you're such a pleasure to cook for.” Jun turned to attend to his sauce, hoping to hide the effect Sho’s praise had on him. “You have time for a quick shower while I finish off, but don't take too long.”

“I'll be quick. You know how important schedules are to me.” Sho couldn't hide his grin as he dashed off. Jun hadn't been quick enough to prevent Sho from seeing the pink of his cheeks or the red tips of his ears.

++

Ten minutes later, Sho’s hair still clung damply around his neck as he hurried out of his bedroom. By now he knew better than to keep Jun waiting when dinner was ready. Over the last few weeks they had settled into a comfortable domestic arrangement where Jun prepared their meals while Sho did the dishes and cleaned the apartment. Sho’s only attempt at doing the washing had resulted in a red sock getting mixed up with his white t-shirts. Jun had sighed heavily as he surveyed the sad mound of twenty shirts which were now various shades of pink. After giving Sho a lecture about doing a separate load of brightly coloured clothing Jun had taken over doing the laundry for them both as well.

“I bought this on my way home.” Sho held out a bottle of Jun’s favourite wine as he took his place at the table. He sniffed appreciatively as Jun set down two steaming plates of pasta. “Since you’ve cooked such a delicious meal it deserves a nice red.”

“That’s perfect, since tonight is a celebration of sorts.” Jun added a dish of freshly grated parmesan and sat down opposite Sho.

Intrigued, Sho tried to guess what Jun was celebrating as he jumped up to grab a couple of wine glasses. “Oh really?”

“Yep. The contractors have finally finished. I’m going home tomorrow.”

Sho barely managed to catch the glasses before they dropped onto the floor from fingers which seemed to have lost all of their strength as soon as Jun spoke. “T-tomorrow? Are you sure? What about paint fumes? You know how they set off your allergies.”

“Thanks for your concerns, but I already went around there this afternoon and everything is fine,” Jun said, not quite meeting Sho’s eyes as he finished sprinkling parmesan on his pasta before offering Sho the dish of cheese. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to finally have me out of your hair. I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much time alone together even if you added up the every minute since we’ve known each other.

“Yeah, ha ha, that’s true,” Even to Sho’s own ears his voice sounded fake. “You must be relieved to escape me and my wayward red socks.”

“Ha ha, you betcha” Jun said stiffly, filling their glasses. He handed one to Sho and proposed a toast. “To freedom!”

“To freedom!” Sho echoed.

After that, dinner seemed to take forever as they both sat without saying anything further. While they silently emptied the bottle, they rearranged the pasta on their plates but hardly ate a bite.

++

“Thank goodness this is the last load. I don’t think you’d be able to fit anything else in your car. I don’t know how you managed to buy so much new stuff while you were staying here.” Sho awkwardly shifted the cardboard box full of cooking utensils to his other hand and jabbed his finger on the button to hold the elevator, expecting Jun to be right behind him. But he was alone in the corridor; Jun had apparently disappeared back into the apartment leaving Sho holding what was turning out to be a rather heavy box.

The elevator beeped angrily so Sho released it. He put the box down and headed back to his apartment, wondering what Jun was doing. As Sho reached the open door Jun almost ran into him.

“Ooops. Almost got you!” Jun swung his bag away just before it smacked Sho in the gut.

“Where have you been?”

“Sorry, just checking to make sure that I have everything,” Jun replied as he pressed past Sho, slinging his bag over his shoulder as he walked along the corridor.

++

The apartment seemed strangely empty when Sho returned. Jun had driven off with a jaunty wave and a smile. Sho supposed that it was only his imagination which made it seem that Jun’s smile wavered slightly around the edges as he pulled away.

Every surface was gleaming and all of Sho’s belongings were stored neatly out of sight. The place had never looked as good, even when Sho had first moved in. There were new bright cushions on the sofa and other little decorative touches which Jun had snuck in while Sho was working. Even though Sho had made a token protest about Jun taking over his space, he was pleased with the new warmth and comfort to be found.

Before completing his packing Jun had baked a batch of fruit cookies for Sho to snack on. Despite being made entirely of healthy ingredients they were incredibly tasty. After sitting at his laptop for an hour Sho found himself craving the comfort of a glass of milk (Jun had left the fridge fully stocked) and a couple of the cookies.

It was recycling day so Sho decided to treat himself after completing the tedious job of sorting out the large bin of assorted plastic bottles lurking in the back of the cupboard in the the kitchen. He forced himself to walk past the cookie jar sitting on the end of his kitchen bench and opened the door with a heavy sigh. But instead of a random mass of bottles (he had to admit that he was a bit behind with his recycling) Sho saw that everything had already been done. All of Sho’s recyclable bottles had been neatly sorted and readied for disposal.

Sho clutched an empty bottle to his chest, touched by Jun’s gesture. Only this morning Sho had tossed some empties into the cupboard and quickly slammed the door shut before there was an avalanche. The fact that everything was now neatly organized explained Jun’s unexpected absence earlier. For the entire duration of Jun’s stay, Jun had been quietly and unobtrusively taking care of Sho. A mixture of warmth and loss filled Sho at the memory of Jun’s kindness and the realization that Jun was no longer around.

++

Nino stomped into the dressing room where Sho was sitting sipping on a cup of coffee. He snatched the cup from Sho’s hand and held it just out of reach. “What did you do to Jun?”

“Do? To Jun?” Deprived of his first coffee of the day, Sho’s brain was struggling to make sense of Nino’s meaning. “I haven’t even seen him for days.”

“You must’ve done something. He’s been moping around like an abandoned puppy for the past week.”

“I don’t see what it has to do with me.” Half rising from his chair, Sho attempted to grab his coffee, but Nino nimbly sidestepped.

“You’re living with the man, for crying out loud. Surely you’ve noticed that he’s not happy.” Nino’s tone was scathing.

“But I’m not,” Sho protested. “Jun already moved back into his place.”

“He did?” With a puzzled frown, Nino returned the coffee to Sho who took a relieved slurp. “When?”

“About a week ago.”

Sho immediately realized the significance of his reply, hastily burying his face behind his morning newspaper as Nino joined the dots.

Nino found it hard to hide his glee. “Realllly? That’s interesting, to say the least.”

“I don’t know what you’re implying.” Sho rustled his paper in an attempt to shoo his bandmate away.

“Oh I think you do. And may I add that it’s about time you two idiots finally woke up to yourselves,” Nino said with a grin as he pulled out his phone and began sending an urgent text to Aiba and Ohno. He paused halfway through his message, to offer Sho a stern look. “Make sure you fix this. Immediately. No more sad Jun, or else.”

“But…”

“Don’t make me send Leader after you.”

Sho paled slightly at the implied threat. An angry Ohno was a rare sight, but once experienced never forgotten. “Fine. I’ll talk to Jun as soon as we're done filming.”

++

Jun did indeed look sad as he sat in the dressing room, slumped in the corner of the old but squishy sofa. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes.

Sho clucked sympathetically and rummaged in his bag for some eye drops which Aiba had recommended. “Here, try this. You have taken out your contacts, I hope?”

“Thanks.” Jun looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes and gratefully accepted the drops. “You know I always take them out as soon as filming is done. I hope these drops work. It feels as if grit has been sprinkled under my eyelids.”

“They’ll definitely do the job. The label specifically recommended them for cases of grit sprinkled under eyelids.”

Jun gave Sho a withering look before leaning his head back to apply the drops.

“Are you feeling okay?” Sho noted that Jun’s fingers were trembling as he attempted to aim the drops into his eyes.

“Just tired.” Jun hissed in frustration as a dollop of eye drops splattered into his cheek. “I haven't been sleeping very well lately.”

Unable to watch Jun’s attempts any longer, Sho stepped in and gently removed the bottle from Jun’s hand. “Hold still and let me do it. You’ve got it everywhere but where it's supposed to go.”

Sho leaned close to Jun’s face, distracted by the length of his eyelashes and the warm brown tones of his eyes. Even when red-rimmed and with dark circles underneath, Jun’s eyes held a magnetic attraction. Catching himself staring (again) Sho gave himself a mental shake and carefully placed the drops into Jun’s eyes. Jun blinked slowly a few times to distribute the drops, gazing up into Sho’s dark eyes.

“Better?” Sho asked softly.

“Much. Thanks.” Jun remained flopped back in the chair as Sho took a seat beside him.

“So why aren't you sleeping properly?”

“I guess you were right about the paint fumes or something. I just can’t seem to get comfortable,” Jun replied tiredly, allowing himself to lean on Sho, resting his head against Sho’s shoulder. Sho instantly froze in shock, sitting stiff and unresponsive to Jun’s show of affection. Jun immediately pulled himself away, and jumped to his feet. He hastily gathered his things and dashed out the door. “Thanks for the eye drops Sho-san. I'm sorry for troubling you.”

Sho remained frozen as he processed what had just happened. The last thing in the world he wanted was to reject Jun. It was just because despite his growing affection for Jun he’d never anticipated Jun actually liking him back. He’d been utterly unprepared for Jun touching him in such a casual fashion. He wanted to punch himself in the face. “Nononono wait!” Sho ran after Jun, but the elevator was already on the way down.

Twenty years ago way back when they’d debuted, Sho had the feeling that Jun liked him. But Sho was busy with Arashi commitments, university, and reassuring his parents that he’d chosen the right path and Jun had somehow been lost in the background. By the time Sho had emerged from the vortex, Jun had withdrawn from him, and Sho had lacked the courage to pursue him.

Unwilling to repeat past mistakes, Sho turned to the people who knew him and Jun better than anyone else in the world. He knew that there were three people he could rely on for sound advice; it's just that he had to be prepared to suffer to obtain it.

++

“Are you guys going to help me or not?” Sho looked around the room and almost growled in frustration.

Nino was ignoring Sho completely as he slouched on the sofa, fingers flying across his phone screen as he concentrated on his game. Aiba and Ohno were sitting on the floor next to Sho’s coffee table exclaiming excitedly over the array of cakes which covered its entire surface. They were too busy exchanging forkfuls of sweets to bother responding to Sho’s question. Sho was beginning to regret buying the treats as a bribe; he should’ve known that they provided too great a distraction for two of the three people he was asking for help.

“Guys, please. I screwed things up with Jun and I'm desperate to make it up to him.”

Despite Sho’s words and the fact that they were comfortably situated in his apartment, the other three continued to act as if he wasn't even there. He took a deep breath and added, “Look, I like him, okay? And despite me acting like a complete idiot I know he likes me too.

“Look, it's quite simple really. We all know that Jun like to look after people, right?” Nino looked to the others and received nods in confirmation. “So all you need to do is make him feel indispensable to you.”

“But...how?” Sho didn't quite catch Nino’s drift.

“Invite him around to your place for a nice home cooked meal,” Aiba said with a grin.

“But it's bound to be a disaster,” Sho protested.

Ohno swallowed a mouthful of cake and added gleefully, “Precisely. Then he can take over and cook you something which won't kill you both.”

Nino nodded enthusiastically, “And while you're at it, make sure that your apartment is a mess.”

Sho frowned. “Isn't that going a little too far? I don't want him to think that I'm completely useless.”

“You don't have to go over the top. In fact just be yourself,” Aiba giggled.

“Well thanks a lot,” Sho huffed.

“Now now, don't be offended,” Ohno said calmly. “Aiba could've put it a better way, but he's right. We all know you are domestically challenged, but that you do the best you can with the limited time you have to spare. With your insane schedule you should be applauded for coping as well as you do.”

Sho distractedly ran his fingers through his hair making it stick out at crazy angles. “Right now I can't see that Jun would agree to that. He would find some sort of excuse to not have to come.”

“Then we have to be more cunning,” Nino said, accepting a small slice of cheesecake from Ohno. “We have to appeal to his protective instincts.”

++

The next day Sho shushed the others as he dialled Jun’s number. It was hard enough to do this without having an audience. “Hi Jun. I was wondering if you could help me. I’m having someone important to me over for dinner and I desperately need your help.”

“You want my help?”

Sho flinched at Jun’s tone but ploughed on regardless. “I’ve been trying to cook and clean the apartment, but everything is a big mess and I really want everything to be perfect. I desperately need your help. Can you please come over?”

“You’ve been cooking?”

Sho could imagine Jun’s eyebrows rising up to the same level as his hairline as he spoke. “I’ve got these fresh oysters in the shell and I’ve been trying to get the shells open but the knife keeps slipping…”

“Put the knife down and don't touch anything else until I get there!” Jun shrieked. “I'll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Aiba was jumping up and down with excitement and Ohno gave Sho thumbs up. Nino patted Sho on the shoulder and steered the other two towards the front door. “Don't forget to name your firstborn after us,” Nino smirked.

“Get out!” Sho said amiably as he pushed them out into the corridor.

++

Sho breathed deeply and pinned a smile on his face as he opened the door to let Jun in. His palms were so sweaty that it took two attempts to grip the doorknob properly. He only hoped that Jun couldn't hear the nervously loud thumping of his heart. The sight of Jun standing there looking gorgeous but cranky, made Sho nervously blurt, “Thanks for coming. I know I’m not your favourite person right now.”

“My feelings for you aren’t up for discussion,” Jun replied coldly as he swept into the living room. “You asked for help and here I am.”

“Right, well, the food is in the kitchen.” Sho’s voice came out an octave higher than usual, earning himself a strange look from Jun.

“I should’ve thought that was obvious,” Jun replied, rolling his eyes. “Now where are those oysters?”

Jun stopped dead in his tracks in the kitchen doorway, stunned by the sight which greeted him in the kitchen. There was mess everywhere, used bowls and spoons were piled to overflowing in the sink. Every available surface was covered in blobs of something sticky and the floor was thick with flour. But it wasn't the mess which startled Jun. Perched on the bench was a large plate containing a wonky cake. The cake listed to one side and the writing on it was shaky, but the words were clear. In large red letters “Be my boyfriend?” was scribed on the surface accompanied by a strange yellow and black blobby mound of icing.

“Looks like you did okay without my help,” Jun said huskily. “I hope whoever this is for says yes.”

Jun tried to leave the kitchen but Sho was faster, using his body to block the exit. “So do I, because it’s for you. I hope you like it.”

“Me?” Jun’s eyes were huge as he looked at Sho in confusion.

“I know that I’ve probably gone about this all wrong, but I really like you Jun. I know now that I always have.”

“You don't need a boyfriend. You need a housekeeper.” Jun pushed Sho out of the way and dashed to the front door.

Jun was delayed by the need to tie his shoes and Sho managed to catch hold of Jun and prevent him from running out of the apartment. “I’m sorry. I couldn't think of any other way to make you come here again. I missed you being around. I missed you. We can take things slowly at first, but I am serious about being your boyfriend.”

“If dancing around each other for twenty years isn’t slow enough then I don’t know what is. You went to our idiot bandmates for advice again, didn't you?”

“Well...yes,” Sho admitted.

“That was your first mistake,” Jun said, edging a fraction closer to Sho. “Your second mistake was to not just tell me that you like me, which would’ve saved you and your poor kitchen some pain. Your third mistake was not simply asking me to stay over sometimes. It would’ve saved us both a lot of trauma.”

“Only sometimes?” Sho pouted.

Sometimes,” Jun replied firmly.

“How about tonight then?”

“Impossible. I need my stuff if I’m going to be staying here regularly.”

“Are you sure about this? I don't want to force you into anything,” Sho asked nervously. “What about your freedom?”

“Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Jun replied with a soft smile. A moment later his expression hardened and he added, “I do have a couple of questions though.”

Sho braced himself for the inevitable; Jun was bound to still be angry, but Jun’s fleeting smile had given him hope that he might escape mostly unscathed.

“Who’s idea was it to bake me a cake? Ohno?”

Sho nodded cautiously.

“And that black and yellow blobby thing on the cake?”

“That was Aiba. It’s a bee. He thought you'd appreciate the pun.”

“Bee? Really? I”ll have to take your word for it,” Jun laughed, shaking his head. “And Nino? What part did he have in all this? Apart from standing in the background and watching his minions and you struggle with that cake? Maybe I should buy him a Persian cat he can stroke threateningly?”

Sho snickered at the vision Jun had conjured up, but felt that he had to defend Nino. “He’s the one who gave me the courage to finally confess my feelings for you.”

“Actually you haven't.”

“Haven't what?”

“Confessed to me,” Jun said, eyes sparkling with mischief. “You got me here on a pretence, baked me a wobbly cake, asked me to be your roommate…”

Sho cut Jun off. “I love you Matsumoto Jun. I’ve loved you from a distance for half a lifetime and I don't want to waste another minute.”

Jun was momentarily stunned by the words he’d longed to hear for over twenty years. He didn't trust himself to speak, instead he gazed at Sho with eyes that conveyed all the love which had lived in his heart since he was sixteen years old. He held out his hand as a smile as soft as a feather illuminated his face.

Jun's smile was echoed by one of Sho’s own as he reached out and took Jun’s hand and leant in for their first kiss.