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"You're trying to get rid of me, aren't you?" Nino grumbles, stumbling as he finally sets foot on firm ground. Boats. He hates all boats. He hates water, he hates islands, and most of all he hates his stupid manager right now.

"If I were I'd be using a much cheaper way," Sho reasons.

"Don't flatter me," Nino huffs.

"Nino," Sho sighs. "Just finish your book and I'll get you out of here faster than you can say seasick. Besides, it'll be good for you to get some fresh air."

Nino isn't amused.

"Try it," Sho insists. "If it doesn't work, I'll come and get you, I promise."

"How long do I have to try?" Nino asks distrustfully.

"A couple of months?" Sho says, and he quickly raises his hand before Nino can protest. "Quicker if you finish the book. Who knows, it might just work. Away from all your usual distractions, you might be able to focus. You know it can't go on like this."

"Slave driver," Nino accuses sullenly.

*

The island is small, but Nino doesn’t even bother going out to explore. For the first three days, he stays locked inside his hotel room, ordering room service. It isn’t actually a service provided by the little ryokan he is staying at, but the owner is a sweet lady and she indulges him, cooking homemade meals for him and taking them up to his room.

“Are you feeling better, Ninomiya-san?” she asks on the fourth day, and Nino feels bad for pretending his sea sickness is the only thing to blame for his rude behaviour. “Your face seems to have regained a bit of colour, though I’ve never seen such a pale face before.”

“I don’t get out much, even at home,” Nino replies a bit sheepishly.

“Sakurai-san says you’re a writer?” she asks, and Nino nods, glad when she doesn’t show any indication of being familiar with his work.

“I’m supposed to be, but I haven’t been doing much writing lately,” Nino says. Which is why Sakurai-san thought it’d be a good idea to stick him on this island.

“A lot of people come to this place looking for inspiration,” she says, smiling knowingly. “Some of them never leave.”

What a nightmare, Nino thinks to himself.

*

“How is it going?” Sho asks on the fifth day. There’s concern in his voice, but Nino doesn’t buy it. This is all his fault anyway.

“I still hate you,” Nino replies, and Sho sighs.

“Uesugi-san says you haven’t been out much at all. This isn’t going to work unless you give it a try. Unless you tell me you’ve been in your room writing this whole time?”

Nino lets out a dry little laugh to crush Sho’s hopes. “I can’t write in these conditions. I bet they don’t even know what a PS3 is, let alone a PS4,” he whines.

“Well, you haven’t been able to write at home either. What’s wrong with trying something new?” Sho says. “Six chapters and a grand finale, that’s all I’m asking for. And as soon as I get what I need, I’ll give you whatever what you want. I’ll even book a helicopter to fly you back here.”

*

A week in and Nino still hasn’t written a word. He tries telling himself that it’s because he hates this place - hates Sho - but his argument is starting to sound childish and stale even to his own ears. The truth is, he’s frustrated with himself for letting things come to this point, but he isn’t sure how to change things either. It’s like the words have stopped flowing, all bottled up and caught inside him no matter how hard he tries to shake them out.

“You should go out. Some fresh air can do wonder for your health,” Uesugi-san says. “There’s a lovely place up the coast. You can take the car. I’ll pack you a lunch.”

Nino sighs but doesn’t have the heart to refuse for the third time in a row. So he goes.

The road up the coast is narrow and the family car is actually an old pickup truck, rusty and well-loved. As he drives out of the village and further out, the road gets even narrower, and Nino has to slow down as he follows the cliff side, hoping that no one will come driving from the opposite direction. But no one does.

For such a small island, it feels like the coast stretches forever ahead, weaving in sinuous patterns along the sea. It’s beautiful, for sure, but in a way that makes Nino crave for the concrete definition of his familiar urban landscape. There’s a feeling of infinity here, everything too vast around this narrow road, and Nino misses the closed confine of his little box of an apartment.

He drives for an hour, maybe two, and he’s starting to wonder if maybe he’s gone around the island, missed the village on his way, before he finally reaches the beach Uesugi-san has told him about.

The beach has nothing of those commercial beaches often pictured in brochures. The sand is grainy, maybe a little rocky in places. The waves come rolling in, splashing over the rocks and pushing their foam over the sand in a way that seems almost possessive. The place feels untamed, a little wild, but there are a few picnic tables on the side that tells Nino that locals have not only made it here before but found a way to share and cohabit with the sea.

He parks the truck at a safe distance from the water, then takes his packed lunch to one of the tables, sitting on top of it facing the ocean.

*

By the time the sun is starting to set in the horizon, Nino realises he doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting there, staring into distance. His lunch remains untouched on the table next to him, and there’s an unsettling knot in Nino’s stomach that could very well just be hunger at this point.

“What have I been thinking about all this time?” he wonders, staring skeptically at the plastic bag next to him. After Uesugi-san spent time and effort on this, it would be rude not to eat it, right?

A dog barks from somewhere behind him just as he is taking his first bite, and he startles, nearly choking on his mouthful of rice. He stands up then, and looks around until he spots a white dog speeding towards him with its tongue hanging from the side of its mouth.

“Oh,” he lets out, backing off a little and stumbling back onto the bench as the dog comes charging at him.

Next thing he knows, the dog has climbed half on top of him, licked his face and stolen his onigiri.

“Ugh.” Nino pushes the dog off of him and tries to wipe his face with the collar of his shirt. “Where do you come from?” he asks, just as a voice rises from the same direction the dog appeared from a moment ago.

“Mochi! Mochiii!”

The dog barks.

“Is that you?” Nino asks the dog, and it tries to climb over him again. “Over here,” he calls for whoever is apparently looking for this dog. He likes dogs in general, but if they could take this one back before it slobbers all over Nino, then it’d be great.

“Mochi! There you are. I’m so sorry,” a guy probably around Nino’s age comes running almost as fast as his dog, and for a second Nino is almost afraid this guy is going to climb all over him as well.

Instead, he efficiently pulls the dog off of Nino. “Mochi, down,” he says, before turning to Nino with a brilliant smile. “So sorry about that,” he apologises.

“It’s fine,” Nino says, a little taken aback by it all. “I wasn’t going to eat that anyway,” he adds, gesturing to the dog quickly scarfing down the rest of his lunch.

“No! Mochi! Bad girl,” the guy cries out, pulling at his unruly dog again. “I am so sorry. So sorry,” he says, and Nino lets out a small giggle. “Please let me make it up to you. My family has a restaurant. Please come and have dinner, anything you want, on me.”

Nino looks at him. In the city, this would sound like a pick up line, but this guy seems so sincerely apologetic that it’s hard to imagine him having any type of ulterior motive.

“Mm, anything I want?” he says, reaching down to pet the dog’s head.

“All you can eat Chinese food,” the guy nods eagerly, and Nino smiles.

“Alright,” he finally agrees. After all, who is he to turn down an offer for free food?

*

It looks like a scene taken directly from a movie, the two of them and the dog walking along the beach, the sky a mix of reds and bright oranges as the sun slowly disappears into the sea. It’s beautiful, and Nino can’t help but think he’s rather never write a single more word for the rest of his life than to include something like that in any of his books.

They go to pick up the guy’s – Aiba’s – bicycle from where he left it earlier, then walk back to Nino’s borrowed truck, hoisting the bike into the back of the pickup.

“Have you been on the island long?” Aiba asks, directing Nino to a small unpaved road cutting away from the coast line.

“About a week,” Nino replies. Whether Aiba is being genuinely interested or just being polite, he can probably easily tell that Nino isn’t from around here. Aiba is the perfect picture of the outdoorsy type: tanned and athletic, and Nino’s pale complexion is a striking contrast against the healthy glow of Aiba’s darker skin.

“Vacation?” Aiba asks, and Nino tries not to laugh. Given the choice, this is not exactly the type of place he’d pick for his dream vacation.

“Work,” he tells Aiba, and even in the dim light he can still make out the surprise on Aiba’s face.

“Ooh, really? What type of work do you do?” Aiba asks.

Nino makes a turn at Aiba’s instruction, transitioning to a well-lit paved road. Well, if Aiba was actually looking to kill him and dispose of his body, he would probably have done it by now, Nino thinks, smiling to himself.

“I’m a fisherman,” he tells Aiba. “Captain of my own boat.”

Next to him, Aiba bursts into giggles as if this were the funniest thing he’s heard all day.

“You’re so full of shit,” Aiba says in between fits of laughter, and Nino grins. He kind of likes this guy.

“Well then, if this is so incredible to you, what do you think I’m here for?” he asks.

“You’re probably one of those artists looking for inspiration, right?” Aiba says, and it makes Nino wonder just how many more just like him have come here against their will.

“You do know how to make a guy feel special, don’t you?” he says, making Aiba giggle again.

*

As it turns out, Aiba didn’t lie about either the Chinese food or the all you can eat. Aiba’s mother is apparently so excited at having a new mouth to feed that she starts bringing plate after plate of warm and delicious food to their table, which Nino is grateful for because by the time they reach the restaurant he realises he is starving.

“Which one is it then?” Aiba asks between two mouthfuls. “Music? I could totally see you as the tortured folksy type.”

The corner of his eyes are crinkled in amusement, eyes sparkling with mischief. Nino reaches over the table to hit him over the head, even if only to hear that giggle again. This is still so far from home, so different, yet he can’t help but think he accidentally stumbled upon the one thing on this island that makes him want to pause his brooding and self-pity for a moment to just enjoy.

“Am I right? I am right, aren’t I?” Aiba says excitedly. “Will you play something for me?”

Nino grins. “Wong answer,” he says, making an X with his arms. Then he laughs at the face Aiba makes. “I’m a writer,” he says, reaching for his iced tea. “Novelist.”

“Ooh, cool!” Aiba says, then, “Wait! Mom, what’s the name of that writer you really like?” he calls, and Nino feels his whole body tense up.

“Nakamura Kenichi-san,” Aiba’s mother replies from the kitchen, and both Nino and Aiba burst out laughing.

“Guess not.”

*

Chapter 28
The Hidden Key

Though he had managed to conceal his true intentions thus far, Satoshi could not

Nino stares at the cursor on his screen, blinking and blinking and never missing a beat. Two and a half hours of sitting here and those pathetic few words are all he has to show for it. This is truly getting frustrating.

That guy did it again. The End, he types vindictively, then shuts off his laptop. It’s pointless.

Downstairs, Uesugi-san greets him with a smile and immediately sets up to make him coffee.

“Sakurai-san called,” she says.

“Did he?” Nino says, taking a seat at one of the tables. A quick check reveals that Sho hasn’t called him.

“He said he hasn’t heard from you in a few days. I told him you’re coming out of your shell,” she says, depositing a small cup of coffee in a little saucer in front of him. Her face is kind, but her smile is a little too amused.

“I made a friend with a PS3 and an Xbox,” Nino sends to Sho in a text message.

Sho’s response is almost instantaneous. “Look at you making friends already, I’m so proud of you!”

Nino replies with a picture of himself making a rude gesture. He loves Sho, really, but he’s also not quite over hating him.

*

Days go by and Nino eases into his new routine. He wakes up, stares at the ceiling for about an hour, then goes downstairs for coffee without bothering to turn on his laptop. After breakfast, he goes out, takes the truck up to the North shore or walks into the city. It’s not much more than a village, really, but people here are so proud that he doesn’t dare break their illusions.

Sometimes he meets with Aiba. They plays games together or take Mochi out to play. Aiba tells him about life on the island, about some people who came and went, about some of the people who stayed. Nino mostly listens, nodding and laughing in all the right places and taking mental notes for future characters that he’s never actually going to use. This is not his scene, those are not his stories.

Sho calls Uesugi-san on a daily basis, but he only texts Nino every two or three days. Nino wonders if that’s Sho’s attempt at giving him space, but he thinks it’s kind of silly. He’s got a whole island and an ocean of space now, and he mostly definitely doesn’t more. So he starts sending random updates.

12 words.
18.
42.
Scratch that, 31. That whole sentence didn’t make sense.
Nothing.

Sho always responds, because he can’t help it. Undying support and long-suffering encouragement, patient pressure, patient patience and just the right amount that won’t stand for Nino’s bullshit. That’s why Nino chose him as his agent. And Nino will never admit that Sho is one of the main reasons why he keeps trying.

*

His third week on the island, Nino meets Jun.

It’s late and Nino is just coming in after a day out with Aiba. They took Mochi out – the typical excuse – and ended up drinking on the beach long after sunset, walking back to Aiba’s bike with their arms around each other like life-long buddies. Nino’s not drunk, but there’s definitely a slight sway in his step. A happy stagger.

And then he sees him, dark and shiny and everything that this island is not, and his mere presence sends a pang of homesickness straight to Nino’s heart.

Their eyes meet, and Nino swallows. This one, he could write pages about. A whole series maybe. The manicured nails. The confident line of his shoulders. The impatient jut of his hips. The eyebrows. The hair.

“Ninomiya-kun,” Uesugi-san waves him over, forcing Nino out of his daze cheerfully. “Please come and meet my grandson,” she says.

Nino’s image shatters into confused pieces that he leaves behind as he politely – curiously – steps into the foyer.

“Jun, this is the boy I was telling you about,” Uesugi-san is saying in a quiet voice, her eyes smiling warmly as Nino approaches. “Ninomiya-kun, please let me introduce you to my grandson.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Matsumoto Jun,” Jun says, extending a hand like any good city boy would.

“Ninomiya Kazunari,” Nino responds with a slight bow before shaking Jun’s hand.

“Jun-kun is visiting from Tokyo,” Uesugi-san explains. “He moved out there for work, but he visits us whenever he can. He grew up here, you know. He and Aiba-kun went to school together.”

Nino’s eyes widen.

“Grandma says you’re from Tokyo?” Jun says, and Nino nods. There’s an amused spark in Jun’s eyes that seems to tell that he understands how Nino isn’t here by choice. “Well, this isn’t a bad place to be.”

“If you like this sort of thing,” Nino replies, and the corner of Jun’s lips quirk up.

“Let’s go out for coffee sometime,” Jun says easily. “If you have time,” he adds, his tone implying that he knows how Nino’s schedule has been filled with nothing but free time since he first arrived on this island.

Back in his room, Nino flips open his laptop and writes 6,500 words.

*

Nino wakes up the next morning feeling a little groggy and disoriented. His laptop is still open on the table, cursor blinking at the beginning of chapter 29. When he scrolls up, Nino is almost surprised to see the pages filled with actual words. So that part wasn’t a dream?

He quickly hits save before shutting off his laptop. There’s no saying any of it makes sense, but he can worry about that later. For now, he just really needs coffee.

Downstairs in the small dining area, Jun is sitting, stylishly sipping his coffee while reading a magazine. There are a few other people in the room, but Nino hardly notices them, Jun’s presence seemingly catching every thread of his attention.

“Morning,” Nino says, taking a seat at Jun’s table without waiting for an invitation. Jun looks up from his magazine and raises an eyebrow, more amused than offended.

There’s a scarf thrown with meticulously planned carelessness around Jun’s neck, its fringes a perfect colour match to his non-prescription glasses. Nino feels a little under dressed in his jeans and hoodie, but it also makes him think that – for all of his complaining about not belonging on this island – he is definitely not the one standing out here.

“Good morning,” Jun says. He’s eyeing the top of Nino’s head somewhat critically, his gaze softening only when Nino finally reaches up to pat his hair down. “Did you stay up late?” Jun asks, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Mm,” Nino responds, looking around in search of an available coffee cup that he could claim for himself. “Strike of inspiration or something,” he says vaguely. It wouldn’t do to give Jun too much credit for it.

“Is that your plan for today then?” Jun asks.

Nino shrugs. “Maybe,” he says. He didn’t really think about it, not wanting to push the luck of his sudden bout of inspiration.

“I’m going out to meet with some old friends,” Jun says. It’s not an invitation, but Nino wouldn’t have expected otherwise. There’s something about Jun that makes Nino feel right at home, with just the right amount of distrust to remind him that they’re not friends. To be completely honest, this suits Nino just fine. Contrarily to Aiba’s beliefs, normal people don’t become friends overnight, and Nino’s glad for the familiarity of the patterns in his interactions with Jun.

Uesugi-san steps out from the kitchen, and Nino perks up at the sight of the coffee pot in her hands.

*

With Aiba working and Jun out parading around town, Nino’s left with no excuse. He takes his third cup of coffee up to his room and settles in at the table, only losing about twenty minutes playing around with the zabutons until he finds just the right position. When he finally dares to have a look at what he wrote the previous day, he is pleasantly surprised to find it not only makes sense, but it’s also pretty good all things considered.

The email he sends Sho is less triumphant. “Don’t think this means you were right,” he writes before attaching his updated document.

Sho responds a few minutes later with a series of emojis, happy faces and fireworks, which Nino doesn’t find amusing at all. He thinks of sending back a few emojis of his own, but in the end he sighs and just gets right back to work.

Nino loses track of time sometimes when he writes. It’s like his mind goes to a different place and everything around him just stands still for a moment. It doesn’t, obviously, and by the time he breaks out of his focus the sun has moved all the way across the sky and his cup of coffee lies long dry on the table.

There’s a knock at the door. “Ninomiya-kun?” Uesugi-san’s voice comes through. When Nino opens the door, she is standing in the hallway with a food tray. “You haven’t eaten all day,” she says. “Sakurai-san said to make sure you eat properly.”

Nino smiles, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment, but also maybe just the slightest bit happy at the attention. “Thank you,” he says, reaching for the tray.

She leaves shortly after that, but Nino doesn’t go back to his novel. Instead, he takes the time to eat, then just sits there for a while, thinking about nothing in particular. This island is having an effect of him, stretching his usual rhythms and evening him out. Distantly, Nino wonders if he should worry about losing his edge.

*

Aiba comes to pick him up just as Nino is starting to pull him hair out on chapter 31. According to the plan, this is where things unfolds before culminating in chapter 32 and finally wrapping up in chapter 33. The problem is Nino isn’t so sure he likes his plan anymore. So when Aiba shows up, bright and unexpected, Nino is fast to throw everything aside to follow him.

“I have to pick up some stuff from the market, then we can grab lunch?” Aiba says, and Nino climbs into the passenger seat of his SUV with as much enthusiasm as if they were headed for the game store.

The market is a chaotic makeshift arrangement of tables and booths in a plaza at the centre of town. Nino is a little surprised to find just how crowded and noisy the place is, and he thinks maybe he would have come here earlier if he had known. He could find an empty table to set up his laptop or maybe just take a notepad with him and jot down notes as he weaves his way around people, observing, seeking inspiration. But he has neither his laptop nor so much as a pen with him today, and Aiba is already walking ahead.

“Celery, cabbage, potato,” Aiba is saying as they make their way around the different vendors, and Nino soon stops paying attention to him, letting his mind wander instead to the different possibilities this type of setting could offer. Just because he can’t write doesn’t mean he can’t think about it.

They’ve been walking around for about twenty minutes, stopping along the way to add to Aiba’s now overflowing basket, and Nino is just following along idly when movement suddenly captures his attention. There’s something flying his way, and Nino jumps in surprise, catching whatever it is out of pure reflex before dropping it down just as fast as his fingers come in contact with the cold and slimy thing.

“What the hell is this?” he cries out, stepping back as if bitten.

There, on the ground by his feet, lies a big dead fish.

“What the hell!” Nino says again, holding up his hands, bemused and certainly a bit grossed out. He looks up then to find a guy around his age standing behind a large display of fish and looking not just a little shell-shocked.

“Is that yours?” Nino asks, pointing to the fish, and he watches as the guy’s expression goes from surprised to guilty.

“Ah, sorry about that,” he says. “I guess it slipped.”

Nino gives him a suspicious look, analysing the distance between his face and the fish display. There’s easily a good four feet, and Nino could swear that the fish came flying directly at him.

“I’m Ohno,” the guy says.

Nino blinks, then stares incredulously as the guy – Ohno – smiles at him, wiping his fishy hands on his equally fishy apron.

“Right,” Nino says, looking down at his own hands and wrinkling his nose.

“Ah, I think I have tissues or something back here,” Ohno says.

Nino looks around to find that Aiba has already gone on without him. “You can come around,” Ohno says, gesturing for him to follow, and Nino goes a little reluctantly.

At the back of the booth is a small table with a couple of chairs, the remainder of what looks like breakfast or lunch scattered around. Ohno looks a bit sheepish as he points to a pile of napkins on the far corner of the table.

“You’re not from around here,” Ohno says as Nino wipes his hands perhaps a little more thoroughly than absolutely necessary.

“Do you always throw fish in people’s face as a conversation starter?” Nino asks.

“Well, I wasn’t sure it would work, but you’re talking to me right now,” Ohno replies with a smile that is maybe just a little bit satisfied. “If you give me your phone number I won’t have to do it again.”

“That is the worst pick up line I have ever heard,” Nino says. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of Aiba. “Well, see you around,” he says, handing back his used napkins to Ohno before making his way back around the fish display.

“What’s your name?” Ohno calls after him, and Nino pauses.

“Matsumoto,” he says.

*

After packing all the vegetables at the back of Aiba’s car, they head up North to a small ramen shop just on the outskirt of town. They’ve been there together a few times already, and it seems to be Aiba’s favourite place aside from his own family restaurant. When he orders “his usual”, the lady at the counter smiles at him before shouting “tonkatsu special” at her husband. Nino doesn’t think anyone back in Tokyo knows what his usual is, he is therefore quite impressed when she turns to him and asks, “Shoyu ramen for you?”

They both take a seat at the counter, waiting for their order, and Nino happily reaches for the hot towel offered to him, scrubbing off the imaginary scent of fish.

“I have to go home after to drop off my mom’s stuff,” Aiba says. “You’re welcome to join.”

“Do you know a guy named Ohno?” Nino asks.

“Ohno?” Aiba repeats thoughtfully. “Mm, there’s that guy, right?” he says, and the ramen lady nods.

“Mimura-san’s apprentice,” she says.

“That’s it! The fishing guy!” Aiba exclaims. “From Tokyo, right?” he says, and she nods again. “The guy’s an artist. You know how I told you they come here for inspiration? I hear he’s quite successful over there. But now he comes here to fish.”

“You know him?” Nino asks.

“I know of him,” Aiba says. “It’s a small town. Why are you asking?”

Nino shrugs. “No particular reason. I just ran into him at the market earlier.”

Aiba doesn’t probe any further and Nino is glad for it. He’s not sure how he would explain their strange encounter. The fish, Ohno’s quirky way of flirting, Nino’s abrupt exit. Yet thinking back on it, Nino can’t help but smile a little.

*

It’s a few days before Nino sees Ohno again. He’s waiting for Aiba and Mochi out by the pier when Ohno makes an unexpected appearance, a little out of breath and carrying a bag from the convenience store.

“I saw you from over there,” Ohno says in way of a greeting.

He looks clean this time, wearing jeans and a nicely fitted sweater, and imagining him in the city seems a little less of a stretch.

“You lied to me,” Ohno adds when he’s finally caught his breath, his bottom lip sticking out cutely. “You’re not Matsumoto.”

Nino smiles sheepishly. “No, I guess I’m not,” he says, and when Ohno’s pout only intensifies, he can’t help but laugh a little. “Hey, I’m not used to being slapped in the face with a fish.”

“That’s not… I just. I had to get your attention or you would have walked away,” Ohno says.

Nino watches as Ohno’s cheeks turn a nice shade of red, and he has to resist the sudden temptation to reach out and touch them. Poke or pet or pinch, whichever. Ohno isn’t his type. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly exciting about him, nothing to write stories about. Not at first glance, at least. However, now looking a little more closely, Nino has to admit that there’s something about Ohno’s unassuming looks that manages to catch his attention. Something different, something more.

“I’m Ninomiya,” he says.

“Well, now I know,” Ohno says, pulling out a well-loved paperback from his back pocket.

Nino’s eyes widens and he gasps as he recognises the cover. “Where did you…?”

“It’s yours, right?” Ohno says. “Kaori-san let me borrow it. She said it’s one of her favourites.”

Nino tries to swallow but his throat feels dry. “How did you. Who’s Kaori-san?” he asks.

Ohno gives him a little smile and a shrug. “It’s a small town, you know. Kaori-san is the captain’s daughter. She went to school with Matsumoto-kun.”

Nino nods slowly, a network of connections mapping out itself in his mind. Of course, this is something that would almost never happen in Tokyo, but out here it’s easy to see his anonymity shrinking with the reduced number of degrees of separation. It’s a little unsettling, yet oddly thrilling to be recognised like this.

There’s barking in the distance, and Nino turns his head in the direction of the sound to see Mochi running towards him, Aiba following several paces behind.

“Meet with me later,” Ohno says, pulling Nino’s attention back to him.

Nino presses his lips together, trying not to smile. Ohno is so persistent. Why is he even interested in the first place? “Why?” he asks.

Ohno shrugs. “I guess you won’t know unless you give me a chance,” he replies, and there’s just that tiny hint of a smile at the corner of his eyes, just enough to make Nino curious.

Then Mochi comes barging in, jumping on Nino and trying to lick – or possibly eat – his face. Aiba reaches them a moment later, breathless and grinning so hard his face might split.

“Hi!” he says, making no move to pull his dog back. Since that first time, he’s really been no help at all. “I’m Aiba Masaki. Are you Ohno-san?”

“Mochi, down,” Nino tries, finally managing to push the dog off of him just in time to catch the glance Ohno throws his way.

“I’m Ohno,” he nods.

“Nice to meet you! I heard a lot about you. Are you coming with us today?” Aiba asks, and Nino has to jump in right away.

“No no no,” he says. “Ohno-san was just on his way somewhere else.”

“Not really,” Ohno says, and Nino makes a face at him and resist the urge to make a more dramatic gesture. He's starting to know Aiba well enough, and there is no way he’s letting him witness Ohno’s strange little advances. Especially if Nino should feel at all inclined to respond. But Ohno holds his ground. “I was just…”

“Going to go home and read, yes,” Nino says emphatically. “Then we’ll meet later.”

Ohno gives him a confused look at first, then suddenly perks up. “We will?” he says, and Nino nods. “But I still wasn’t really…” he starts to say, and Nino quickly grabs him and pushes him towards where he came from earlier.

“See you later!” he says, and Ohno grins smugly as he finally backs off.

“Nice to meet you Aiba-kun. See you later Nino-chan!” he says happily, giving them a little wave.

For the rest of the afternoon, Ohno is all Aiba wants to talk about.

*

Sho calls just as Nino is waking up in the late morning, and Nino can’t help but grin at his phone before picking up. It’s like Sho always just knows, like he somehow managed to assimilate Nino’s natural schedule into his own busy one.

“How are you doing?” Sho asks. “Uesugi-san says you look happier these days.”

Nino shrugs even though he knows Sho can’t see him. “That’s her own interpretation,” he says.

“She says that you smile more and laugh more. That you’re going out more often too. And that when you come out after locking yourself in your room all day, there’s this cute little satisfied smile on your face rather than the scary frown from when you first arrived,” Sho says, and Nino can tell just from his voice that he’s smiling fondly.

“She said I have a cute smile or is that just you extrapolating?” Nino asks.

“Maybe a little of both,” Sho admits.

“I don’t know how you survive without me over there,” Nino says.

“Life’s been pretty easy,” Sho agrees.

“And you’ve been hating every minute of extra free time, haven’t you?” Nino grins.

“I’ve had to somewhat rearrange my schedule,” Sho concedes. “How’s the book coming along? It’s been a few days since your last update.”

Nino wrinkles his nose. “It’s going,” he says slowly. He rubs a hand over his face, folding his legs against his chest and leaning against his knees. “I was actually thinking of changing the plan. I think I may have to kill Take-san.”

“Take-san?” Sho says, surprise evident in his voice. “But what about the ending? What about the third book?”

“Whoa, who said anything about a third book?” Nino says, and he has to laugh when Sho sputters indignantly in response. “Fine, fine, I guess I’ll just have to rethinking the plan for the next one as well.”

“But Take-san, really?” Sho says, and Nino smiles. Sho does have a tendency to get attached to characters, even unlovable corrupt ones.

“I trust you with almost every aspect of my life, but this is where you have to trust me,” Nino says, not unkindly.

“I trust you. You’re the genius after all,” Sho says, and Nino grins. “Send me an update once you figure it out?”

“Will do,” Nino promises.

“Oh, Nino,” Sho says just before Nino can hang up. “Finish it fast, okay? I really do miss you.”

*

Nino goes down for coffee in a good mood and much more awake than usual. He skips down the stairs, saying good morning to a random couple of tourists going in the opposite direction. The guy seems a little puzzled, but the girl smiles brightly at him and returns his greeting easily.

Three chapters. Three chapters and he can go home. That is obviously if he can figure out what he wants to do with them but that seems beside the point this morning. There’s a plan slowly brewing in his mind, half formed ideas that make his fingers twitch with excitement. If he can catch just the right thread, he thinks he’ll be able to see the whole plot unfold itself. He’s so close he can feel it.

Stepping into the dining area, his eyes scan the room for Jun, but stop on Ohno instead.

“Good morning,” Ohno gives him a little wave, and Jun gives him a small nod from across the table.

“You really are stalking me, aren’t you?” Nino says, taking a seat next to Ohno.

“You said later,” Ohno smiles, meeting Nino’s eyes steadily and calling his bluff.

“Did you know that Ohno-san here is an artist?” Jun says, taking a sip from his coffee. “I’ve been to one of his exhibitions in Tokyo. It was rather brilliant.”

“Eeh, it’s nothing really,” Ohno says modestly, but the look he throws Nino’s way is a lot more smug than humble. “But if Matsumoto-kun likes it, then I can get you tickets to the next one. Ninomiya-kun too.”

Breakfast is a strange affair. Ohno alternates between strange, strangely confident and frankly strangely adorable, and Nino’s head feels like it’s spinning a little. It also doesn’t help that Jun, with all of his dainty fastidiousness, has nothing but praises for Ohno. Nino – usually used to deciding the end of the story before he even knows how it’s going to develop – finds himself helpless as he watches this unknown plotline thicken.

“I don’t get you at all,” he admits after Jun excuses himself and leaves the two of them alone, side by side at the table.

Ohno beams. “That’s a good thing, right?”

Nino laughs. “It drives me a little nuts,” he says. “But I’m intrigued.”

Ohno nods, satisfied. There’s a calm quietness about him that Nino is can’t help but appreciate. Nino brain is constantly filled with words, with ideas, with mysterious plot twists and shady characters. In front of him, Ohno feels a bit like the eye of the storm.

“Did you read it?” Nino asks, nodding to the book Ohno has laid on the table in front of him.

“Not really,” Ohno replies guiltily. “I wanted to. I tried reading the first chapter, but… there are a lot of complicated kanji.”

Nino tilts his head, trying to figure if Ohno is kidding or not. “Really?” he says when he realises Ohno is serious. “Like what?”

Ohno flips the book open to the first page and points to a word on the second line. “Like this,” he says. “What’s this one?”

Nino leans in to take a closer look at the book. “Yudan taiteki? You’re kidding, right?”

“Aah,” Ohno nods as if this were a revelation of some sort, and Nino gives him an amused look. “So in the sentence, it would be…”

“She could never feel at ease when she knew better than anyone that danger comes when you least expect it,” Nino reads.

“And if you add the sentence before?”

Mihara sat alone in the brightly lit room, her low spirits a sharp contrast with her surroundings. She could never feel at ease when she knew better than anyone that danger comes when you least expect it.

Nino looks up to see Ohno leaning against the table, smiling at him. “You can keep going,” Ohno says, and Nino can’t help but laugh, pushing the book back.

“I am not reading the whole book for you,” he says.

“Why not?” Ohno pouts.

Three hours later finds them out in the garden sharing a bench as Nino reads chapter 11 of his first published book for a captivated audience of one. By the end of the afternoon, they’re three-quarter of the book in, and Nino has to squint to make out the words as the sun starts to set.

“I’ll buy you dinner if you promise to read me the rest after,” Ohno offers.

“I think you owe me dinner anyway,” Nino points out, voice a little raw from speaking for so long.

“Then I’ll buy you breakfast too,” Ohno grins.

*

When Nino comes downstairs for his morning cup of coffee, Jun announces that they will be going out, before promptly turning Nino around and sending him back to his room to get changed. Nino – who stayed up late reading out of his own book the previous night – is less than enthused at the idea of walking across town or putting in any type of effort before getting so much as a chance to caffeinate himself, but reluctantly agrees to go along on the promise of good coffee.

“The owners of the coffee shop like to travel,” Jun explains as they finally get on their way, Nino dressed not much differently than earlier, but in a palette of colours that is apparently more to Jun’s tastes. “I hear they went to Kenya recently and brought back a great new dark roast.”

Nino doesn’t really care where the coffee comes from, as long as it’s dark and strong. Black. Definitely no sugar. With a bitterness that lingers until the next cup.

“Do you mind if we make a few stops on the way,” Jun says. It’s not a question, or if it is then the answer is clearly irrelevant as Jun pulls Nino into a shop. “If you are planning on taking back any souvenirs, this is a good place to get them.”

Nino looks around, more interested in finding out what this place says about Jun than in any of the actual merchandise.

“Are you taking back souvenirs?” he asks, and Jun gives him a mildly offended look.

The second store they go into is a clothing store, small and independently owned with an obvious claim to urban fashion. It’s so trendy that it almost feels out of place on this island, until Jun starts talking about last season vintage. Nino makes a face and edges towards the door.

“This one would look good on you,” Jun says, pulling out a shirt and holding it in front of Nino.

Nino goes a little cross-eyed looking at the loud pattern. “If you expect me to spend money before I’ve even had a cup of coffee, then you’re in for disappointment.”

Jun shows some mercy, cutting his shopping spree short to finally take Nino to the coffee shop.

“Think of it as delayed gratification,” Jun says with a shark-like grin, and Nino wonders if he should make that the theme of his next book.

When he gets back to the hotel, he writes an entire new chapter.

*

“You wrote a book about me,” Ohno says as soon as Nino opens the door, and Nino barely has time to blink the sleep out of his eyes before Ohno has thrust the book into his hands and pushed right past him into the room.

Nino yawns and gives the book a puzzled look. “What?” he asks as Ohno makes himself comfortable on Nino’s bed.

“Satoshi,” Ohno says, patting the futon invitingly so that Nino will join him. Nino shuffles over obediently, too confused to argue, too sleepy to care. “See?” Ohno says, flipping the book over in Nino’s hands and leaning into him as he points to the summary. “I’m Satoshi.”

Nino looks at him, wondering briefly how they suddenly ended up in bed together, but the futon is still warm and Ohno somehow seems to fit perfectly against him on the narrow mattress.

“I think we should read this one next, since it’s about me,” Ohno says.

“Not you,” Nino says. “I wrote this book two years ago and I didn’t even know your name until just now.”

“You should read it to me,” Ohno says stubbornly. “Since it’s about me.”

Nino elbows him in the stomach, which only causes Ohno to grin, adjusting his position and shifting closer.

“Kaori-san says it’s scary,” Ohno says, and Nino laughs a little, flipping the book open to the beginning of the first chapter.

Chapter 1
Premeditation

They’re only a few pages in when Nino drops the book. “This isn’t going to work,” he announces, and he watches out of the corner of his eye as Ohno’s eyes widen with something akin to panic.

“Why not?” Ohno asks, and Nino doesn’t think he’s ever seen him fidget before. “You read the other book.”

“That was different. Very different,” Nino says. “Because I had coffee.”

Ohno sits up. “We can get coffee. I can get you coffee,” he says. He moves over Nino and up with surprising agility. “Stay here. Don’t move,” he adds as he reaches the door.

Nino settles back against his pillow. “I’ll leave it to you then,” he says.

Nino’s dozing off a little when Ohno comes back a few minutes later with two cups of coffee and some toast. Nino stretches lazily and yawns, before eyeing the tray that Ohno put down beside the bed.

“I don’t eat breakfast,” he says.

“I do,” Ohno shrugs and grins.

“Well, you’re not eating and getting crumbs all over my bed,” Nino says sternly, making Ohno sit at the foot of the futon before reaching for his coffee.

The first sip of coffee in the morning is one of Nino’s favourite things in life, and he closes his eyes to fully enjoy it. When he opens his eyes again, Ohno is watching him intently over his piece of toast.

“What?” Nino asks, and Ohno gives him a slow smile.

“I got you coffee,” Ohno says, grabbing the book and throwing it gently into Nino’s lap.

Nino stretches his leg and gives Ohno a little kick, but then he does pick up the book. “Where were we?”

It doesn’t take very long at all for Ohno to realise what this book is all about. Nino can tell just by the way he feels Ohno shifting at his feet. Soon, he feels Ohno’s hand on his knee, and he looks up to find Ohno pouting at him.

“You made me the killer?” Ohno says.

“Satoshi was always the killer. And it’s not you,” Nino says, poking Ohno’s leg with his toes.

Ohno grins, crawling up the futon until Nino can see the top of his head, then his eyes, looming over the edge of the book.

“Am I the killer in your new book too?” he asks, and Nino rolls his eyes.

“I told you it’s not you,” he says.

Ohno ducks under the book and squeezes through the small loop of Nino’s arms. “Do I get a lover in your new book?” he asks.

“Shut up, it’s not…” Nino starts, but he doesn’t get to finish this thought because suddenly Ohno is kissing him.

Nino’s heart jumps into his throat, the book slipping out of his hands and tumbling down Ohno’s back. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he starts cataloguing details: Ohno’s weight holding him down against the futon, the warmth of his mouth, the scratch of his stumble. The way Nino’s hands are still held up, now empty and unsure what to do until Ohno pushes up against him and they find a natural place to fit on Ohno’s waist. Then Ohno coaxes his lips apart and Nino forgets about making notes.

*

“You’ve been busy lately,” Aiba says.

The sky is a cloudless blue, the sun high and bright, but the air is cool. Nino zips his hoodie all the way up as a gust of sea wind comes to hit them.

“Busy? Not really,” he shrugs, pushing his hair back before pulling his sleeves over his hands.

“Jun-kun said he took you out for coffee. And shopping,” Aiba giggles. “Sounds like you guys had a great date.”

Nino coughs. “You realise he’s engaged, right?”

“Well, he says that, but we’ve never actually met his fiancé,” Aiba says flippantly.

Nino rolls his eyes, kicking his legs out over the edge of the pier. “You’re an idiot,” he says, and Aiba puts an arm around his shoulders.

“What about Ohno-kun?” Aiba whispers in his ear, and Nino elbows him in the side.

“Ouch,” Aiba complains, but it doesn’t sound very convincing at all considering the way he’s giggling uncontrollably at Nino’s side. “I totally knew it,” he says.

“Whatever,” Nino says, pushing Aiba back, but smiling maybe just a little bit.

A comfortable silence falls between the two of them and Nino stares off in the distance. Somewhere out there is home, and as thrilled as Nino is about the idea of going back, he’s also starting to think – to realise – that he’s going to miss this when he’s gone.

*

Satoshi locked the door behind him, taking off his gloves only as he reached the bathroom. He needed to clean up fast. His hands shook as he reached for the faucet, cold sweat running down his back. If he had calculated this correctly, Take-san wouldn’t be back until quarter to, but every minute until then was essential to build up the scene.

Every minute ticking by could take a piece of his carefully forged innocence away.

Nino pauses in his reading to glance at Ohno, lying face down on the futon next to him. “Ohno-san, if you’re sleeping I’m going to kill you,” he says.

“I’m the killer,” Ohno replies, immediate but muffled against the pillow. “Keep reading, I want to know what happens next.”

Nino rolls his eyes, but doesn’t protest for once, a pleasant warmth filling his chest. “Do you want him to get away with it?” he asks, and Ohno looks up, bleary-eyed but most definitely awake.

“He’s kind of scary,” Ohno says, sniffling, and Nino laughs. “Keep going, yeah? I want to know what happens,” Ohno adds, pushing the book into Nino’s face demandingly.

“Yeah, yeah. At your command, captain,” Nino grins.

*

Nino finishes his book on a Wednesday, but he doesn’t let Sho know until a few days later, partly because he can’t believe he’s actually done, but also because he can’t admit that he isn’t quite ready to leave.

The Friday is Jun’s last day on the island. In the morning, they have coffee together in the small dining area of the ryokan. Jun sits with his legs crossed and his back straight, flipping the pages of his magazine like nothing is different. There’s a nervous air about him, however, that Nino doesn’t fail to notice, spending long minutes dissecting it over the edge of his coffee cup until Jun’s almost perfect shell cracks.

“Pass me your phone, I’ll give you my phone number,” Jun says, holding out his hand imperiously.

Nino’s teeth clinks against the porcelain of his cup as he smiles. He complies docilely, keying in his password before dropping his phone into Jun’s outstretched hand.

“You can come over for dinner sometime,” Jun says, his eyes no longer meeting Nino’s. “And Aiba-kun said he’d try to visit in a couple of months. We can all go out for drinks then.”

“Sure,” Nino says.

“Let me know when they publish that book of yours,” Jun continues. “I’ll buy a copy, but I want it autographed.”

Nino doesn’t tell him that he’s already part of the special dedication. Those things are always better as a surprise.

*

The next day, Nino goes to see Ohno off at the quay. The sky is clear blue, the ocean shimmering brightly under the sun. The last time Nino’s been anywhere near the docks is on the day he first arrived on this island, and he is a little surprised to find that he doesn’t resent the place all that much anymore.

So maybe Sho wasn’t completely out of his mind sending him here. Not that Nino is ever going to admit that.

“You haven’t finished reading your book for me,” Ohno says sadly, squinting a little into the sun. His one small travel bag is slung over his shoulder, and Nino reaches out to adjust the strap.

“Then I guess you’ll have to buy the audiobook,” Nino replies easily, grinning as Ohno’s bottom lip pushes out in an impressive pout.

“I want you to read it for me.”

“You’re going to miss the boat,” Nino points out.

“Ninooo,” Ohno whines. “You’ll call me when you get home, right?” He steps in close and Nino gives him a quick peck on the lips.

“Come on,” Nino says, and Ohno steps back.

“Call me,” Ohno says again.

Nino waits until Ohno turns around to leave before reaching for his hand, pulling him back to him for a proper kiss. “Don’t miss me too much,” he whispers into the kiss, and he feels Ohno smile against his lips.

“Don’t miss me too much,” Ohno repeats as he pulls away, and Nino doesn’t let go of his hand until he absolutely has to.

“See you later?” Ohno says.

“Yeah,” Nino smiles. “See you.”

*

The morning of his departure, Nino drives up the coast, feeling a little nostalgic. How long has it been since he first arrived? It seems like almost like a lifetime ago. Tens of thousands of words, three new friendships and the promise of much more. For Nino who finds comfort in the unchanging nature of things, it feels a little like a culture shock, but one that he’s somehow managed to take in stride. One that he thinks he may not want to get over completely any time soon.

The North beach is as deserted as he first saw it, and Nino sits on the same picnic table and contemplates. When he gets back, Sho will give him a short break before coming back with his edits, asking him to tweak this part and rewrite this one, add this and that, justify this twist or just take it out entirely. Nino will fight for every word, claiming that he did mean to leave things ambiguous here or that this completely useless part of the dialogue does add value to the plot. In the end, however, he will give true consideration to all of Sho’s comments, trusting him to see what Nino has been too close to see.

Time flies. An hour passes by and Nino knows he has to go on his way. As he stands up, he gives the ocean a quite bow, a silent thank you, than wraps up his thoughts and gets going.

He stops by Aiba’s family restaurant on his way back, and Aiba hands him a giant bag of food.

“Mom insisted,” Aiba says, then he proceeds to pull Nino into a suffocating hug. Nino lets him linger for several seconds before pushing him back.

“Enough!” he says, voice most definitely not rough with emotions.

At the door, he gives Mochi a pats on the head. “Take care of this idiot, won’t you?” he tells her, and when she responds with a friendly attempt to eat his hand, he adds a quick “good girl” before pulling back.

Uesugi-san says her goodbye as Nino leaves the ryokan, asking for a picture for her wall of celebrities. Nino laughs in embarrassment, going along with it nevertheless. He makes sure to express his gratitude, promising to come back if he ever visits the island again. Somehow, the thought of that doesn’t seem as horrible as it used to be.

The ferry leaves in the afternoon, and Nino is secretly glad that Sho didn’t book a helicopter for him. The agency has invested enough money to try and get him out of his writer’s block as it is, and Nino would much prefer if they all actually made money out of this book. He reserves the right to change his mind after spending the next couple of hours at sea, though.

When Nino stumbles off the boat, Sho is waiting for him with a bottle of water, a pack of motion sickness medicine and a concerned smile that feels like home.

“Welcome back,” Sho says, and Nino lets himself collapse against Sho’s chest, lets himself be wrapped into a warm embrace. “I know you hate me right now,” Sho whispers, holding Nino tight, and Nino gives a faint grunt in response, too exhausted to confirm or deny. “But I’m just glad to have you back.”

“Sap,” Nino mumbles, and Sho squeezes him a little tighter. Just this once Nino forgets to point out that Sho was the one to send him away in the first place.

“Your book is brilliant,” Sho says when they finally step apart, and Nino – for all of his lingering nausea and dizziness – can’t help but smile a little.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

*

EPILOGUE

When Nino’s book comes out, Sho immediately suggests they throw a launch party. It’s a big deal, Sho insists, and the much anticipated sequel to the first bestseller deserves media attention. Nino isn’t really about to argue because selling his books is Sho’s job – a job that he always puts admirable efforts into and does very well. However, when he hears Sho has hired Jun as their event planner, he knows all chances of a small and modest event have been thrown out of the window.

“I need your guest list by the end of the week,” Jun tells him as Nino flips through Jun’s proposal – already signed and approved – with only mild curiosity.

“Isn’t Sho-chan taking care of that?” Nino asks.

“I’m talking about personal guests. Family, friends, loved ones,” Jun says. “I already saved a seat for Ohno-kun at your table, but I’m sure there are other people you’d like to invite.”

Nino shrugs. “Sho-chan, Oh-chan, J and Mao-chan,” he says, grinning at Jun. “Then unless you can fly Aiba-kun in, I guess that pretty much wraps it up for me.”

Jun smiles. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says, and Nino knows him well enough to feel confident in raising his expectations.

“Then I guess all that’s left for you to do is to show up. Sakurai-san and I will handle the rest,” Jun says, and Nino barely has time to relax before Jun adds, “You do have a suit, right?”

Nino flinches. There’s a gleam in Jun’s eyes that Nino only recognises too well.

“Yes,” he tries. A valiant effort, but visibly not good enough to convince Jun.

“I know a shop.”

*

Nino rolls his shoulders and stretches his arms, feeling the quality fabric follow his movements. The suit was ridiculously expensive and Nino tried to argue against it – why spend that type of money when he had a perfectly good suit at home? – but Jun has insisted that this was the price of success and Sho had agreed.

The price of success. What a load of… Well, the agency paid for it anyway.

“You clean up well,” Ohno says from the doorway, his own suit looking crisp and tailored. There’s a little smile of his face, the same one he always wears when he’s secretly proud of something. Like when Nino first agreed to read for him. Or after they first kissed. After the twenty first times they kissed. Or when Nino invited him to come up to his apartment after their first official date.

Like a cat who got the cream.

Nino makes a silly face. “Look who’s talking,” he says. Several months into it and he’s still surprised whenever Ohno shows so much as a hint of style. First impressions leave a lasting impression. “Did J dress you up too?”

Ohno shrugs, stepping in to kiss Nino.

“Jun’s going to kill us if we’re late,” Nino says into the kiss, and he feels Ohno smile against his lips. He knows what Ohno is going to say before the words even leave his mouth.

“Don’t worry. I’m the killer.”

*

To Sho-chan
For being Sho-chan and never ever ever giving up.
(I’m never saying thank you for sending me to that island.)
(Thank you.)
(Just don’t do it again.)

To J
For the multiple sparks of inspiration and being my unknowing muse.

To Aiba
For being a source of Chinese food, video games and laughter when I needed it most.

To Satoshi
You are not Satoshi. Therefore, thank you.