Jou lost track of Akinobu some time after the mikoshi battle. He'd gotten carried away with his friends in the break tent, drinking and horsing around in celebration of their righteous triumph against district two, until the clock struck ten and they'd all gotten shoed out into the night; he'd then wandered back in the direction of the shopping arcade, buzzed and cheerful, when he saw Akinobu and Ryuu talking under the nearest awning.
He perked up and was about to say hi, but before he had the chance, Akinobu looked up. He practically jumped when he spotted Jou, his face blanching.
"I'll -- um, I'll just head back, then," he said. And before Jou even had the chance to offer to go with, he turned and left.
When Akinobu was gone, Jou turned to Ryuu.
"I didn't … interrupt you guys, did I?" he asked. He couldn't think of what there even was to interrupt, but that was the vibe he was getting right now.
"Nah," Ryuu said. He at least looked as relaxed as ever. He also had a plastic trash bag tucked under one arm; he must still be on youth council duty. "I was just about to head back to the festival, anyway. Now that you're here, want to help me do one last patrol?"
Jou kind of wanted to go after Akinobu. But it had been a while since he'd gotten a chance to hang out with Ryuu. He was a family friend, the most badass guy Jou knew for as long as Jou could remember, and had almost been like another big brother growing up.
"Sure," he said.
While they were walking along the now-darkened streets, with Jou now the one holding the trash bag and Ryuu armed with a pair of tongs, he asked, "So what were you and Aki-chan talking about, anyway?"
"This and that."
The furtive way he said it made Jou smile. "What, is it a secret?" That would be hilarious, given how Ryuu didn't know that he and Akinobu had a much bigger secret.
"Nothing like that." Ryuu bent down to pick up a beer can that had rolled into the gutter. "I was just telling him I could use a hand at the flower shop, actually."
"Oh." Jou opened the bag for Ryuu to deposit the can, thinking about it. He guessed that shop was a handful for just one person to run. "Yeah, Mayutan might like that. He's never actually had a part-time job before, but I'm sure Bro would let him if it was you."
"I wasn't actually thinking Mayumi. I was thinking Aki."
"Aki-chan?" Jou frowned. "I dunno. I think he's pretty busy with school. He doesn't really have time to work."
"It would just be part-time."
"How much help would that be, though? Wouldn't it make more sense to just hire a high schooler?"
"Sure, I guess. But to be honest, it's not really about the work."
Jou pointed out an ice wrapper on his side of the street, then stepped out of the way so Ryuu could grab it with his tongs. "Then what's it about? Did he say he needed money?" They might not have been rich enough to pay for Akinobu's fancy study abroad program, but they weren't struggling, either. Taiga had turned Jou down every time he'd offered to give him a share of his match earnings; Jou had no doubt he'd do the same with any wages Akinobu earned. Maybe Akinobu was saving up for something, then -- in which case, Jou was probably better off not prying.
But Ryuu said, "He didn't say anything about money. I just think it might be good for him to have a chance to get out of the house."
Feeling a little called out, Jou said, "He gets out all the time." To the produce shop, and the tofu shop, and the pharmacy .... But Akinobu went to school, too. If he didn't venture into the city much beyond that, that wasn't because he had nowhere to go; it was because he was a homebody. Of course, if he wanted a job of his own, that would be one thing, but Jou was somehow sure he didn't. "Look, it's nice that you're looking out for him, but I don't think Aki-chan would be interested in working right now."
"He seemed interested."
"Well, yeah, that's because he has a hard time saying no to stuff like this." Even now, Akinobu took fliers from every pushy salesperson handing them out at the station. Jou had even been with him once when one of those shady new religious types had tried to press him into attending a meeting, and Akinobu had been on the verge of actually giving them his contact information.
"Does the idea of him working for me bother you?" Ryuu asked, lightly.
"It's not that," Jou mumbled, averting his eyes. And it wasn't. Ryuu was cool; Jou had always liked him, ever since he and Shima had been tight. But there was something about this whole situation that was bothering him, and he couldn't figure out what it was.
"Look, it might not even end up happening. I won't pressure him into it if he doesn't want to do it. He just seemed lonely, is all."
"Lonely?" Jou said, thrown. "Did he say that? "
"Nah. But he's been looking kind of depressed lately."
"Are you sure? Because he seems the same as ever to me."
"Maybe you're right," Ryuu said, sounding like he didn't really believe him.
"Yeah. I think I would notice, if he was. Seeing as I'm his brother." Sure, Akinobu might be kind of quiet, but that was just how he was. Jou would notice if something was bothering him. Wouldn't he?
They walked the length of the street in silence, picking up the occasional bit of litter as they went, until finally reaching one of the big trash boxes they'd put up for festival-goers. As he emptied his bag into the box, Jou mulled over Ryuu's words. The more he thought about it, it kind of annoyed him that Ryuu might think he knew Akinobu better than his own family.
They headed for the park next. There was a gaggle of junior high schoolers loitering by the slide, who slunk off reluctantly when Ryuu told them to go home. Once they'd gone, Jou asked, "So, what? You think Aki-chan has something that's getting him down?"
"Does there need to be something specific?"
"Well, yeah. People don't just get depressed for no reason." Of course, there was the one obvious thing Jou could think of that might be weighing on Akinobu's mind right now. But he was certain Akinobu would never talk to Ryuu about his arrangement with Jou, any more than he'd talk about it with Taiga, or anyone else.
Ryuu leaned back against the slide, looking up at the night sky. "It's just a hunch I have, is all. I don't know enough about his life to say one way or another. But I'd like to get to know him better. Lend him an ear, if he ever needs it." He glanced at Jou. "If you guys'll give me your blessing."
"You almost sound like you're into him," Jou laughed.
He'd meant it as a joke. But in the silence that followed, it started to seem less and less funny.
And then Ryuu said:
"What if I was?"
Jou stopped smiling. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"No, really," he said. "What are you saying?"
"I'm just asking," Ryuu said hastily. "Hypothetical question. Would it be so bad, though? We're both adults. And he's available."
Jou's very first instinct was to say, He’s not available, but of course he couldn’t say that. Ryuu would naturally ask who he was with, and Akinobu would never forgive him if he told Ryuu that he’d kissed Akinobu until his lips were swollen, that he knew the noises Akinobu made when he came. But still, the idea that Ryuu might want to do those things with Akinobu -- that he could suggest as much to Jou offhand, like the idea of the two of them dating was actually a reasonable proposition -- it was crazy. Not to mention how it didn't make any sense. Jou had seen Ryuu go with all manner of girls, before, none of them a thing like Akinobu. It would have been one thing if he'd said he liked Shima. But Aki-chan?
“If you haven’t noticed, he’s a guy,” he said, after a conspicuous pause.
“Okay, but he's not gay. He’s normal.” This was debatable, even doubtful, given the things Akinobu had let Jou do to him. But what they did was their concern, and it didn't mean either of them would be up for hooking up with with some other guy, some stranger. Jou liked girls, and Akinobu probably like girls too, and sure, Jou accepted that someday years from now they'd both get married; but relinquishing Akinobu to some hypothetical future wife was a totally different prospect from relinquishing him to Ryuu, of all people. “Look, just -- don't even joke about something like that.”
"You really have a problem with it." Ryuu actually sounded surprised by that.
"Of course I do! He's my brother." Jou realized his now voice was loud enough to be heard from the street. He took a breath, willing himself to cool down, for Akinobu's sake if not for Ryuu's. But the longer he looked at Ryuu's puzzled expression the more he wanted to knock if off his face with his fist, despite how dumb of an idea that would be, because not only was Ryuu both Shima’s best friend but he was also really fucking strong. "Since when are you even interested in him, anyway? He’s like half your age.”
Ryuu laughed incredulously, which just pissed Jou off further. “How old do you think I am?”
“Old enough that you were in a street gang with my sister when he and I were in elementary school. Is that what this is about? Are you into kids?”
“Don’t joke about shit like that." Ryuu's smile faded. Now there was a horrible, concerned sort of expression there instead, dangerously close to pity. “Jou. I know you guys are close, but Aki's not a child. I'm not going to attack him. He can decide for himself what he wants."
Says who? Jou wanted to say, though by any normal metric Ryuu was absolutely right. Akinobu wasn't a child. Still, Jou's face got hot at the thought of Ryuu looking at Akinobu with that same air of concern he had on his face now. Asking him softly, Is everything okay? Calling him Aki. Putting a hand on his shoulder, waiting for Akinobu to crumble and fall into his arms. It made him sick.
"Have you asked him out?" Jou asked, the bottom falling out of his stomach as his mind flashed back to the scene he'd just walked in on this evening. The street had been dark, no one else around as Ryuu stood way closer to Akinobu than he needed to. And then there was that almost guilty look in Akinobu's when he'd seen Jou standing there, like Jou was the last person in the world he had wanted to see.
"I haven't told him anything. I wouldn't spring that on him."
"No, you'd just hire him to work for you, so you could seduce him in your – your back room, or whatever."
Ryuu sighed. "Look, forget I mentioned it. Your concern is noted. How about we get you home?"
"I'm not going anywhere until you promise to keep your fucking hands off my brother."
"Jou, settle down. We're bothering the neighborhood." Ryuu reached out a hand.
"Don't you dare touch me," Jou growled, shoving him away. Or trying to, rather -- Ryuu didn't shove easily. Instead, in what seemed like one continuous movement, he caught Jou's fist, then forced him back against the slide with arms that were way stronger than a guy who ran a flower shop ought to have had.
"I said settle down," Ryuu said, so low it was practically a growl.
Jou was too stunned to do anything at first. His heart was beating really fast. He didn't get shoved around, was the thing. Even in the ring, when a guy came at you, it was to punch you, not manhandle you. Something about it mixed up the wires inside him, like his dumb brain felt a pair of hands on his shoulders and someone else's breath on his face and it jumped straight to the obvious association. Even though Ryuu wasn't a thing like Akinobu. Even though Jou still wanted to deck him. This heat went through him anyway, all the blood that had been in his head rushing down to his dick, and he got hard, right then and there.
The panic must have shown on his face. Ryuu's eyes widened. It felt like an eternity before his grip on Jou's shoulders loosened, and he stepped back.
"Go cool your head for a bit," he said. "Don't keep your family waiting too long. They'll worry."
Jou couldn't think of anything to say; he just stood there, gaping like an idiot, as Ryuu turned and walked away.