The first time Ai comes in, Sousuke doesn’t recognize him.
The headlights of passing cars gleam across the racks of bottles like slats on an enormous color-coded xylophone, lighting them up—brown, blue, red. The door opens and shuts, bursts of summer air brushing Ai’s neck and the backs of his ears, hot even after the sun has set. It tastes like hyacinth and exhaust.
He orders a drink, and then sits back to watch the bartender work.
Sousuke writes down tabs with his right hand, but he opens bottles with his left. When a busboy needs help with a stack of plates, he braces them against his chest to mitigate some of the strain. His smile is tight. Not with pain, exactly--more the possibility of pain, or the memory. His hair is longer and he’s less built than he had been in high school, but it would be impossible to mistake him.
“Whisky and Coke.”
Sousuke sets the drink down on a little square napkin. His nails are ragged and short, the cuticles a puffy red. Ai smiles, because the image of Sousuke biting his nails is weirdly charming, and Sousuke smiles back. Politely. Then he picks up Ai’s money from the bar and turns away.
He’s busy, Ai tells himself. He’s distracted. Besides, in the two weeks Ai’s been home, people he used to talk to everyday have walked right past him on the street. He looks different.
It doesn’t mean anything. But as Ai watches Sousuke pour a line of shots, he can’t ignore the familiar ache opening up beneath his ribs. Watching someone he knows will never watch him.
This trip home for summer vacation is supposed to be relaxing, but like every trip home after he left for university, Ai is just bored and unsettled. The chaos of the city allows him to let go and drift along, distraction for when his mind wants to sputter into tightening spirals. Here, the stream is sluggish and full of debris that knock him off course, places and things he had never thought could be nostalgic--the convenience store on the corner, the line of cherry trees on his street, the overgrown trellises in his mom’s back garden--all seethe with ghosts, memories of anxious excitement, crushing defeat, thrilling victory. Ai doesn’t know how his younger self managed to feel all of that, all of the time, and not collapse under the strain.
His mom works during the day and spends a lot of her nights out drinking with coworkers. Ai reconnects with a couple of guys from Samezuka—old teammates, friends—but enough time has passed that their interests have diverged almost past the point of resolution. Most of them still swim, though, and Ai keeps getting asked the same questions—how’s your season going? Is your best stroke still Breast? Are we going to see you at Nationals? Some of them still insist on calling him Captain, which makes him sick, and all the evasion and outright lies make him tired.
He misses his friends back in Tokyo—the ones who had grabbed him with their asymmetrical haircuts and crazy fashion and angry politics. The first time he’d shown pictures of them to his mother he’d watched her eyes get rounder and rounder. Halfway through she'd looked at him and exclaimed, “Ai-chan, you’re not planning to get anything pierced, are you?”
Inevitably, most of his nights end at the bar.
From his eavesdropping, Ai gathers that the owner—a stocky but firmly athletic man in his forties—is Sousuke’s uncle, and is overjoyed to have his nephew with him for the summer.
“He’s a handsome son-of-a bitch, ain’t he?” He’s got a heavy Kansai accent and the tendency to elbow Sousuke in the ribs whenever he talks about him. “He brings in the ladies. Never sold so many cocktails in my life!”
Ai knows he’s heading toward stalker territory, sitting at the end of the bar and ordering mixed drinks, watching Sousuke work, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop. His crushes have always had a flavor of obsession to them.
Ai’s interest in swimming had deepened significantly over his first year at Samezuka, as had his interest in his roommate. After awhile it had became difficult to tell whether it was his love of the sport that kept him at it even when he continued to get the slowest times, or the chance to see Rin cut through the water in the lane beside him, arms slicing the surface like a shark’s dorsal fin.
Honestly, it’s not just because Rin is good-looking (although he’s the most gorgeous boy Ai has ever seen) or that he’s an amazing swimmer (though he’s the best on the team, even better than the captain), or that he’s got just the barest trace of an accent from his years in Sydney (even if his voice makes Ai’s stomach do backflips). There is something deeply tragic about Rin Matsuoka, a heavy melancholy that dogs him even when he’s smiling. Ai desperately wants to know why he spends hours alone in the dark and never answers his phone, like he thinks that if he ignores his life for long enough, it will go away.
God, Ai had been so thirsty for drama. Thirsty for everything.
The night Rin had bought Ai a Pocket Sweat and told him about his dad and the storm and the wall he hit in Australia, Ai had thought, this is it. In manga and movies, the protagonist always opens up to his love interest just before they get together. But the depressing difference between books and real life is that in real life things didn’t just happen. You have to make them happen. Rin had posed against the sea blue glow of the vending machine, weighed down by the past and the restless uncertainty of the future, looking fuckable as hell in a flimsy tank top and sweatpants that slunk down below his hipbones. All Ai had wanted was for Rin to look down and actually see him.
Ai had not considered the other option, that he could have been the one to stand up and press Rin back against the machine, to rock up on his toes and bury his fingers in damp hair. He could have dragged him back to their room, kissed him until he forgot everything but the soft tangle of their bodies.
It doesn’t matter that it would never really have happened that way. It’s nice to think about.
The shout ricochets between the windows and the wall of bottles behind the bar, and before Ai can process the sound he’s being engulfed in a sweaty t-shirt and sun-freckled arms, Momoutaro Mikoshiba babbling about how he’d had no idea Ai was back in town, how he hasn’t seen him in forever, and how the hell is it possible that he doesn’t have Ai’s number?
“I’m only here for another month,” Ai says, laughing, because as exhausting as Momo can be, that huge smile and effortless enthusiasm is catching.
I used to be like that, Ai thinks, with another maudlin surge of nostalgia.
“Nitori-senpai, I almost didn’t recognize you!” Momo is holding a half-drunk-beer, and judging from the sunburn-colored flush across the bridge of his nose, it isn’t his first.
God, is he twenty already?
“I love your hair!” Momo brushes a clumsy hand across the buzzed side of Ai’s head. He giggles. “It’s so fuzzy. You look so different!”
“Yeah. You too, Momo-chan!”
Momo’s face is thinner, his jaw more prominent, cheekbones high and devastatingly sharp, just like his brother’s. If it hadn’t been for the unhinged grin, Ai might have thought he’d been tackled by his old captain. Momo still has the classic broad shoulders and lithe, slim hips of a swimmer, years of backstroke building up his triceps and deltoids.
“We have to hang out before you leave! Like, lots! Damn, it’s been so long since I’ve seen so many guys from Samezuka. Not even Sousuke was around for awhile…” Momo takes a long pull on his beer. Across the room, the girl he’d abandoned in a booth is texting, looking bored. Her short blonde hair is the brightest thing in the room. Ai immediately feels bad. Momo’s a nice guy, but Ai can see how he’d be a shitty date.
“Who’s your friend?” Ai asks, and actually has to point before Momo realizes who he’s talking about.
“Oh! That’s Isabelle! She’s Irish!” He’s up out of his stool and halfway across the room before Ai can say anything more than, “Oh, cool,” leaving nothing behind but a circle of condensation on the bar top.
“He’s right. You do look different.”
Sousuke’s got this smile, the same one he’d worn the first time Ai had met him and started yelling about his perfect body (god, it’s amazing that Ai had actually had friends), like everyone around him is totally insane, and he’s alright with it. His sleeves are rolled up to the elbows, hair gone spiky with sweat. A towel that probably started life as white is draped over his shoulder.
Before Momo had arrived, Ai had been watching him cut garnishes. He smells like citrus and mint. “I was starting to wonder if you were ever planning to say hello.”
“You recognized me? Why didn’t you say anything?”
Sousuke does the tight, rolling shrug that Ai remembers from high school—a highly affected movement before you know it’s to isolate his shoulder. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to. You always just came in and sat by yourself.”
That’s just like high school, too. Sousuke gives people their space. If you want help, you need to ask for it.
A tipsy middle-aged man with a sunburned bald spot and a legion of coworkers begins banging the far end of the bar with an empty bottle. Sousuke’s mouth tightens and he straightens his back. “Give me a second.”
He leaves Ai alone with his embarrassment. Sousuke has known who he was the whole time, has seen him sitting in the corner and being distant and broody and generally lame.
Now that he’s been caught, though, he allows himself to look. He watches the dense shift of muscle under Sousuke’s shirt, the slight hesitation before he uses his right arm. Cherries and sprigs of mint are comically small in his huge hands—food for dolls.
Ai’s never needed to be tipsy to have a dirty mind—his fantasies of Rin had been lush and varied—but the alcohol certainly assuages the guilt. He imagines Sousuke in varying stages of undress, in nothing at all, in those grey jammers he wore all through his year at Samezuka. He’s probably got a huge dick. A few minutes later and Ai is so focused on the image of Sousuke with his ass in the air he doesn’t notice the reappearance of the fingers on the bar in front of him until he’s begun to incorporate them into his fantasy—spanning his waist, petting his thighs and back, pushing into his mouth. He shivers.
The fingers fold into fists. “Should I cut you off?”
Ai squeaks and jerks his chin up, blinking rapidly to bring Sousuke into focus. “Senpai! I’m not—not drunk. Just thinking.”
Sousuke’s hand hovers above Ai’s glass, and Ai cups his fingers around it protectively. Sousuke cocks an eyebrow.
“I mean it!” Ai laughs. He can tell when he’s being teased. At least, better than he could in high school.
Sousuke gives up and goes back to leaning on the bar. “I wouldn't have thought you’d be into whisky.”
“What did you think I’d be into?” Ai imagines a whole rainbow of girly drinks with chunks of fruit and colorful umbrellas.
Sousuke shrugs his good shoulder. “Something more classic.”
Sousuke thinks I’m classy!?
No, idiot. That’s not what he said.
“What, like sake?”
“That might be a little too yakuza movie for me,” he says. “Sitting alone. Drinking sake.”
Sousuke chuckles. Ai’s whole back is prickling with sweat, from the alcohol flush and from having that smile aimed at him.
“You go to school in Tokyo, right?”
Ai swallows back the last of his drink. All that’s left now is ice. “Tokyo U, yeah.”
Sousuke’s focus has shifted to something playing out behind Ai. Judging from the gleeful, shouted conversation, it involves Momo. “When’s your next meet?”
The ice is sour from the whisky and it cracks between Ai’s teeth like broken glass. Sousuke’s hands draw his focus again, huge and summer-dark, one ring finger crooked at the second knuckle. God, he never should have had that second drink, because he’s too buzzed for evasion. “I don’t swim anymore. I quit in my first year.”
He doesn’t know what he expects—cursing, a gasp, a smack across the face--but what he gets is silence, so he goes on. “We lost a relay at regionals. I dove too early and disqualified us.” The shame burns worse than the alcohol, sharp with the smell of chlorine and the captain’s shout of outrage, the memory of kneeling frozen on the edge of the pool, watching as the last leg of the medley came in, the winning swimmer emerging from the lane next to Ai’s, shaking his hair out of his eyes.
“That’s rough.” Sousuke’s voice folds in on him from overhead, oddly empty of affect. Ai meets his flat eyes. Sousuke occupies that negative space, when he seems to radiate shadowed…nothing. Ai has seen it before, but it’s never been focused his way. A prickle of fear momentarily subsumes the buzzed arousal.
And then it passes and Sousuke is smiling again, even if it is a little more guarded than before.
“What about you?” Ai asks quickly. “Are you swimming?”
“Not really.” Sousuke wriggles his bad shoulder, bending his arm once at the elbow.
“What about physical therapy?” Ai hedges.
Sousuke makes an odd motion with his hand, flipping it wrist up, like he’s checking a watch he’s not wearing. “I don’t do it anymore. I quit in the first year.”
Ai remembers the meet the way you remember a dream--in fractured impressions. Standing in the gleaming stadium, chlorine thick in his nostrils. The crowd is too loud for him to peel apart any of the words, and every so often he thinks they might be static instead, like they’re being artificially generated.
He takes a step, and suddenly all he sees is blue, the pool endless in front of him. He could swim it, though, if he could only get his feet to move, his body to form the dive he’s practiced over and over. The voices get louder, shouts ringing out and they’re all saying his name, except--no, they’re not cheers, they’re jeers, shouted threats.
A head breaks the surface and shakes dark, gleaming hair out of its eyes.
In reality, the winning swimmer had been a shaking, panting mess, hands barely gripping the edge of the pool as his teammates pulled him out, but in Ai’s memory he is a nymph, a water spirit with eyes the color of bottomless glaciers and a perfect dolphin smile.
Ai wakes up to an extremely dry mouth and four texts from Kenji, increasingly drunker as the time stamps get later.
I’m out and I’m thinking about you.
This place is bullshit okay these fuckers don’t dance half as good as you do.
Ai fuck I can’t believe ur stuck out in thte country for two fucking months.
I miss you.
The last message is a jpeg file. Ai deletes it without opening it—the thumbnail is enough for him to get the gist. Kenji’s dick had never been a work of art in real life, and in the white-out flash of the mobile phone it looks extraterrestrial.
Ai tosses his phone aside in disgust. He doesn’t want to think about his needy ex. He doesn’t want to think about the pile of homework waiting for him, or the jobs he’s going to have to start applying for in a couple months.
He takes a long shower and focuses on Sousuke, his hands and his mouth and the deep rumble of his voice. It’s just daydreaming—it’s never going to happen—but unrequited longing is safe, familiar, his thoughts settling into the comfortable groove like a wheelbarrow down an old garden path.
Ai has toyed with the idea of visiting Samezuka ever since he’d arrived home, and today seems like as good a day as any. He even brings his swim trunks and digs out his old student ID from his closet. But when he gets downtown and the tall iron gates of the academy come into view, the stone courtyard dusty and layered with grass seed brought in on the summer wind, Ai just keeps walking. He wanders the shopping district until it gets dark, signs lighting up and restaurants opening their doors to set out menu boards. Ai walks past people he thinks he recognizes, who maybe recognize him.
When it’s dark enough that the streets are beginning to fill up, Ai finds himself across the street from the bar, teetering on the edge of the curb. This is ridiculous. He’s not even that into Sousuke—not like he’s been into other people. All this moping has got to stop. Rin has always had the handsomely tortured gravitas to make it sexy, but on Ai it just looks pathetic. A little boy crying over all the things he can’t have.
He’ll go home. Just walk straight past and keep going until he hits the next train stop. His mom is working late again tonight, but he’ll just watch TV or start on his essay.
The door to the bar swings open and closed like a flapping mouth, releasing a jigsaw puzzle of women in summer dresses and couples and businessmen stripped to shirtsleeves, ties loosened, jackets draped over their shoulders. A tall man with a bottle dangling from one hand emerges, and Ai’s heart seizes. His pulse ticks in his palms. At first Sousuke looks drunk—shoulders uneven, steps heavy, but he stands at the curb and stares into the glowing night with far too much concentration. Exhaustion, then. Ai tells himself he’s anonymous enough that Sousuke won’t notice him—there are a lot of people on the street. Then Sousuke looks his way, nods, and starts around the side of the building.
It occurs to Ai that he may no longer be as invisible as he feels.
Some places on the street use their back lots for outdoor seating, but Sousuke’s uncle doesn’t. It’s just a little caged-in back garden, empty except for a single broken chair in the center of the patio. The chair’s arms are barely hanging on, sloping downward and open, like it’s anticipating an embrace.
“Hey,” Sousuke says, and Ai jumps, even though he’d known he would be here. He’s sitting on the top step of the back door, his face lost in a stripe of shade.
“Hey,” Ai echoes. He clasps his hands behind him and rocks forward on the balls of his feet. “Are you working?”
“I’m on break.”
“Cool.” Ai’s pretty sure you’re not supposed to drink on the job, even during breaks. But maybe it’s different when you work for your uncle.
Music drifts down from a second-story window, and the air is spiked with the powdery scent of wisteria from someone else’s garden. It almost covers the smell of the dumpsters back in the alley, but not quite. The heat and the nighttime chatter from the street make Ai feel like the world is holding him, cupping him in its arms and rocking him slowly to and fro.
“Want to sit down?” Sousuke asks, just as the silence skews toward awkward.
“Sure.” And, hey, awkward again, because the only place to sit is in the broken chair or on the stoop right next to Sousuke. The stone is warm, and so is Sousuke, and Ai feels a slow trickle of sweat down the small of his back. He is very aware that anyone who opens the back door is going to open it right into their heads.
He jostles Sousuke’s arm and Sousuke sucks in a sticky breath, shoulder tensing. He shies away from Ai like he’s a hot stove.
“Oh—sorry!” Ai scoots as far away as he can, until about half his ass is hanging off the porch, which still only leave about a foot between them.
Sousuke traces the pads of his fingers across his shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s been bad all day.” He gives it a creaky roll. “It’s the humidity.”
“Does it always hurt?”
Sousuke passes his beer from one hand to the other. “Sort of.”
“That’s awful.” Ai winces. “I’m sorry I—.” He makes a knocking motion with the arm that is not beside Sousuke.
“I said, it’s okay. It’s like…you wear glasses, right?”
“Huh?” Ai is momentarily derailed. A bead of sweat paints another cool line down his neck. “Yeah? How did you…I didn’t wear them in high school.”
Sousuke’s lips turn up around the mouth of his beer. “You squint when you read the special boards behind the bar.”
Ai feels a peculiar floating sensation. Sousuke has been watching him closely enough to see him squinting?
“So when you wear them, you can see the frames, right? They’re always there.” Sousuke pinches at a pair of invisible glasses.
“But they don’t bother you. After awhile you get used to it and look through them instead of at them.” He squints, like he’s suddenly the one who needs glasses. “It’s sort of like that. I look…through the pain, rather than at it.” He pronounces the word pain like it’s a name ; a familiar title, worn smooth with use.
You’ll feel some pain.
Describe your pain.
On a level of 1-10, how would you rate the intensity of your pain?
The music fades away for a moment, replaced by the wind shivering through the small patch of bamboo that separates this lot from the tea shop next door. Invisible chimes sing out a single, sweet note. Out on the street, laughter catches and spreads.
Ai scratches at the sweat on his neck. “Why did you quit physical therapy?” He doesn’t even really mean to ask—it just comes out.
Sousuke’s shoulder maneuvers in a slow, tired circle. “It didn’t seem worth it. You want one?”
Sousuke holds up his half-drunk beer.
“Oh! Uh, sure.”
He doesn't like beer, but he wouldn’t mind having something to do with his hands. Sousuke sets his bottle down and gets up, shaking his legs out. He’s wearing a black apron; he really had been working. He heads back around to the front of the bar, which makes Ai feel a little better about sitting in front of the back door. Maybe it doesn’t open.
Sousuke comes back with four beers. Ai wonders just how long this break is supposed to be.
It’s hoppy and sour, which is how beer always tastes to him, but at least it’s cold. He holds the bottle against the side of his neck.
Sousuke gulps down the last few mouthfuls of his first bottle and opens another one. Ai doesn’t think he ever saw him drink at all in high school.
Ai prods, “You were saying about physical therapy..?”
Sousuke tips his head back against the door. He wipes a hand across his mouth until his lips are dry. “I quit because it was time-consuming and expensive. And it wasn’t the sort of pain I could look through.”
Ai gets that. Conquering anything means looking it square in the face, even if it tears you apart.
“But you’re…” Ai’s mouth works. You’re fantastic. Resilient. You don't give up. Sousuke of the unshakable, fathomless calm.
Sousuke disconnects from a long pull of his drink. “I’m what?”
Ai‘s courage fails him. “You…you just…you loved swimming.”
Sousuke laughs. It’s not a particularly amused sound. “So did you. Why can you quit for no reason if I can’t?”
Ai bristles. “I didn’t quit for no reason. I told you—.”
Sousuke snorts, and it’s clear that he’s a little buzzed. “That’s bullshit.”
Ai’s retort is stunned out of him. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard Sousuke curse, and the eloquent derision is a sour note in the soft warmth of his voice.
He snorts and holds up his bottle without putting his mouth on it. “So you messed up a relay. Who gives a fuck? It happens. Rin made you captain because you knew exactly what it feels like to get back up after falling down—.”
Five years ago, Ai had sat on a step about as wide as this one, in a posture very similar to this. Knees together, head tilted down, acid tears burning in the back of his throat. It’s never over, as long as you can still swim. Ai remembers the way Sousuke had looked at him, eyes blank, voice utterly emotionless. He’d been talking about himself then. That was back before Ai had realized that everyone is always talking about themselves, at least a little.
“Don’t you think I haven’t told myself all of this?” Ai finds himself demanding. “I know I was captain! That’s the problem!”
“What are you talking about?”
Ai’s whole chest is aching with a trembling sob, but when he speaks his voice twisted up with anger. “Almost all of the guys on the university swim team were captains in high school. And they were all…they were all so good! Way better than me. They’d actually deserved to be captains—.”
“You don’t think you deserved it?”
Ai’s mouth tastes like a dirty fish tank, but he keeps drinking. “I think Rin-senpai made a mistake.”
“No one worked as hard as you did.”
“That doesn’t matter!”
Ai can’t sit still anymore. He launches himself up off the step and into the center of the patio. Sweat shakes from the tips of his bangs into his eyes. “In the end, none of that stuff matters!” All that matters was that almost all the guys on the Samezuka team had been better than Ai. Even some of the first years. “I know what Rin-senpai was trying to do, okay? S-show me that perseverance and hard work matter—.”
“He’s a sap, yeah,” Sousuke agrees. He’s still looking to his right, like he hasn’t noticed Ai has moved. “Always has been.”
“The only reason I got on the relay team in second year was because you were coaching me! A-And because Rin-senpai was there, and I wanted to—I wanted to swim in a relay with him. Just once.”
Sousuke finally looks up. “Why do you think I came to Samezuka?”
The air is thick in Ai’s tightening lungs. “What?”
Sousuke picks at the label on his beer. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn't act like you’re the only one who’s allowed to be weak.”
“That’s not what I’m—.” Ai obliterates the rest of the thought with an outrush of breath, because that is what he’s saying, isn’t it? That his failures are justified and Sousuke’s are not. It’s just—they don’t mesh with the fully developed photograph of him Ai’s got in his head. He prefers to see Sousuke the way he had the first day they met—gorgeous and statuesque and smiling, with a scholarship in his pocket and a glorious road in front of him. Just like he prefers to think of Rin as his grinning, unshakable captain and not the boy with eyes like devastation who had barely been able to drag himself from the pool, who had kicked a trash can and screamed at Ai and run away. Or this new Rin, who’s off somewhere right now winning gold medals and fucking Haruka Nanase in hotel rooms.
Ai subsides back onto the step, face burning at his outburst. “I’m sorry. I know—I didn’t mean to dismiss—.”
“It’s okay,” Sousuke says.
“It isn’t—.” Ai presses his palms against his eyes, sweat burning. Don’t cry, god, just don’t cry. He’s not a little kid anymore. “I thought I was over it. I-I’m sorry.”
“I already said it was fine. Stop apologizing when you haven’t done anything wrong.”
The patience in his voice is incendiary. The rough kindness. A warm hand lands uncertainly between Ai’s shoulder blades, and it covers so much of Ai’s back that he can’t help feeling a little squirming thrill. This, and a beer drunk too quickly on an empty stomach, a head swimming from the heat—he blames them all for what he does next. Bracing a hand against Sousuke’s broad thigh for balance, he leans up and presses his lips against the corner of a dry mouth.
Things don’t just happen. You have to make them happen.
Sousuke smells like sweat and his stubble rasps across Ai’s chin. His hand moves down Ai’s back and his mouth opens. Heat bursts in Ai’s belly, anticipation chewing him up as he waits for the hand to move further down, for the taste of Sousuke’s tongue in his mouth.
The body against Ai’s stays rigid, muscles locked, chest turned to marble. Ai doesn’t even know if Sousuke is breathing. His hand curls into a fist and then draws back completely. Ai realizes he’s half-straddling his old teammate, mouth smooshed up awkwardly to his. Sousuke turns his head away, Ai’s nose scudding against his cheek.
Ai squeaks and shies back, forgetting about the step and crashing down hard on his tailbone. He hits a bottle with a flailing arm and sends it rolling across the patio, smacking against the base of the broken chair. Beer fizzes out onto the grey stone.
“I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have—I’m sorry.” He rolls to his feet, ass and palms stinging. He wants to shove his fingers in his ears so he won’t hear Sousuke forgiving him, he wants to rewind himself so there wouldn’t be anything to forgive. But he just breathes in exhaust and the reeking dumpster, skidding out onto the sidewalk and then away, away, away.
Realistically, Ai knows what he did is not that bad.
He could blame it on the alcohol, on heat exhaustion, on the fact that he’s spent two weeks in a place that constantly reminds him of all the things he was supposed to be that he’s not. He’d been craving kindness and familiarity, and Sousuke had offered it, in his own Sousuke way. And it’s not like he’d just outed himself. Ai seriously doubts Sousuke had thought he was straight.
But when you’re a human with a brain, isolated events don’t have isolated consequences. One thing means everything. Ai can’t help the parts that believe he deserves this for thinking he’s the sort of person who can go for what they want, and actually get it.
You don’t actually want Sousuke that bad, a voice in his head keeps telling him. You just need that unrequited longing. You don’t know how to be anything without it.
Ai feels like a roiling mass of wants. He wants so much he’s exhausted.
He sleeps late the next morning and dedicates a couple slow hours to feeling like shit. His mom isn’t around. Ai doesn’t remember where she said she’d be, or if she’d said anything at all. He leaves the back door open and drifts in the smell of honeysuckle and sun-baked earth. He wishes he could close his eyes and dissolve. Kenji texts him, and he ignores him as usual.
Around noon he starts getting calls from an unfamiliar number. He wants to write them off as sales calls or wrong numbers, but by the time the he finally gets a text, he can’t muster up any surprise.
Nitori pick up your phone.
He holds the phone over his face, the little shark charm just brushing his nose. He types back why.
He can practically hear Sousuke’s impatience. Because I want to talk to you. It’s followed very quickly by you owe me an explanation. Ai’s heart rockets up into his throat and he wants to shove the phone into the couch cushions and never think about it again. At least not until his mom decides to clean the living room.
The phone vibrates again. I really want to talk.
Irritation tears at Ai and he hits the send button. Sousuke picks up after the first ring.
“How did you get my number?”
Ai drives a palm between his brows. “What else did you guys talk about?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just—.” Ai squeezes his eyes shut and forces his breath even. “What did you say about me?”
“Nothing. All I did was mention you were in town and I wanted your number. We didn’t talk about you.”
“Oh.” There it is again, that loose, trembling feeling, squeezing his lungs and filling the pit of his stomach with chilly stones. Silence stretches between them. Sousuke is so quiet and the connection so clean that Ai can almost pretend he’s still alone, nothing here but the whirr of the fan and the honeysuckle air. Nothing to fear but the viciousness inside his own head.
“Why did you just take off like that?” Sousuke asks finally.
It’s…not the question Ai is expecting, honestly.
“You—I was.” God, Ai wants to hang up. “I was embarrassed, Sousuke-senpai! You didn’t kiss me back—!”
“You didn’t give me a chance.”
Ai’s heart thumps. He’s flat on his back, but he might as well be running in circles. “What?”
“You ran away. My shoulder hurt too fucking much to chase you.”
Ai’s insides are filling up with air, tight and shivery. A sunflower bobs in the wind outside, coming in and out of sight of the back door. “If I hadn’t run away, would you have kissed me back?”
Sousuke says, “Yeah.”
Sousuke looks good.
He always looks good, but this is the first time in recent memory that Ai has seen him out of his bartender blacks. He’s in grey cargo shorts and a red tank top with a logo that Ai doesn’t recognize. There’s so much he doesn’t know about him. All they’ve ever had in common has been swimming. And Rin.
“Hey.” Ai watches Sousuke takes his shoes off. He’s weirdly nervous. “Do you want to, um…”
He leads the way into the sunny sitting room, where throw pillows are scattered across the floor and the sunflower is still nodding in the breeze. “Nice place,” Sousuke says, although he isn’t looking at the room. Ai is suddenly unbearably self-conscious. He’s wearing really short shorts and an oversized shirt, with sleeves that hang down past his hands. He hasn’t even washed his hair since yesterday.
“Do you, uh, want something to drink?” What’s the protocol here? He’s never invited anyone over just to hook up before. It’s always just sort of…happened.
“I’m alright.” Sousuke doesn’t try anything, and Ai realizes that he isn’t going to. It might be out of nerves, or out of some gentlemanly sense, but Ai is going to have to make the moves, if any moves are going to happen.
Ai swallows resolutely. He’s not sixteen anymore. The carpet squishes underneath his toes as he crosses the room. To his relief, Sousuke reaches for him, not going for anything specific, just feeling the architecture of Ai’s shoulder and neck, down to his collarbones.
Ai stands on tip-toe, and this time he doesn’t miss. This time Sousuke’s lips part at once and he lets out a rumbling sigh, body sagging forward rather than going rigid. He smells amazing, and Ai wants to press his whole body against him, fill his lungs. He’s suddenly aching for touch, and he doesn’t know what the fuck that voice in his head’s problem is. Of course he wants Sousuke. Sousuke is gorgeous and strong and, Ai’s finding, a wonderful kisser. Confident and slow.
He pulls away and takes a step back toward the couch, so fast that for a second Ai’s left kissing air. “C’mere.”
Sousuke sits down and holds out an arm. “You’re too short. It’s hurting my neck.”
“Hey!” Ai punches him lightly in the chest. “You’re just freakishly tall.” He straddles Sousuke’s thighs, and he’s sure Sousuke does not miss the firmness of his erection through the flimsy material of his shorts.
Sousuke sniffs at his neck. “You smell like flowers.”
It’s such a weird thing to say that Ai starts giggling, more breath than noise. “I’ve been using my mom’s shampoo.”
“On your neck?”
Ai hisses as Sousuke nips at the hollow of his throat. “On my hair, Senpai. Which is near my neck.”
“Hmm.” Big, warm hands roam across his Ai’s back, fingers spread, ten soft points of sensation.
“Can you use your nails?” Ai asks breathlessly, shivering helplessly when Sousuke does. His shirt ends up abandoned on the floor, and the scritch against his bare skin makes him arch, shivers doubling. Sousuke drags his nails down to the top of Ai’s ass and back up to the base of his neck. Ai whimpers, so turned on he can’t help rolling his hips.
“Shit,” Sousuke whispers.
“What is it?”
“You’re sexy.” He sounds surprised, like it’s not an eventuality he’d ever consider. Ai giggles, simultaneously pleased and annoyed. Had Sousuke thought he was a virgin? He braces his hands against Sousuke’s thighs, pushing them wider apart so he can slither down between his legs, kneeling on the carpet. He reaches for his fly and Sousuke catches his hands. “Hold on.”
Ai pouts, lips swollen from kissing. There’s something he wants to hold onto, and Sousuke’s preventing him from getting at it.
“Should we really be doing this on your couch?”
Ai sits back on his heels, trying to focus on anything besides really, really wanting to know if Sousuke’s cock is as big as the rest of him. “I don’t actually know when my mom’s getting home.” He points at the ceiling. “Upstairs?”
Ai’s room at the top of the house is sweltering, and turning on the creaky fan just blows the hot air around. “This is so not sex weather,” Ai says, hands on his hips. Even looking at the tumble of his sheets is making him uncomfortable. “Do you think we should—.”
Sousuke strips, back arched, abs tight as he tosses his shirt onto Ai’s desk chair. He grins, and a bead of perspiration runs down between his pecs. “We’ll sweat if we’re doing it right.”
“Yeah,” Ai agrees faintly, already winded.
As he strips off his shorts and underwear, it strikes Ai just how real this feels. So real that it’s almost unreal. All of his hook-ups have been at least a little bit drunk, even with Kenji, who’d technically been his boyfriend, but his head is astoundingly clear as he takes Sousuke by the arms and guides him back toward his bed before sliding to his knees.
“Are your knees okay like that?”
“Mm hmm. For a little while.” He grins. “And it’s cooler down here on the floor anyway.”
Sousuke snorts. He’s really polite about getting head, keeps his hips still, doesn’t yank at Ai’s hair, barely makes any noise past shaky breaths. It makes Ai want to try harder. He relaxes his throat and slides down as far as he can go, earning himself one shocked and open “Fuck!”
In his fantasies, Rin had been completely the opposite. He’d fucked Ai’s mouth and cursed, held him down. But he isn’t with Rin right now, and he probably never will be. He tests that thought, poking at the bruise, and finds that it barely hurts. At least for the moment.
He sits back to give his jaw a rest, stroking Sousuke with a slick palm instead. “I didn’t even know you liked guys.”
“You’re not very observant.” Pleasure gives Sousuke’s voice a rich growl.
Doing this sober—though a lot more nerve-wracking—is actually kind of nice. Ai likes the control, how the only haze over his thoughts is the buzzing thrill of rubbing his hands over muscular thighs and listening to the hitch in Sousuke’s voice as he sucks his cock.
When they get in bed, the blankets are itchy-hot, and Sousuke’s weight on top of him is smothering. Ai is sweating, the fan sending darting shivers across his skin on every rotation. Sousuke kisses his ear, his neck, bites softly at his bottom lip. He traces open palms across Ai’s chest, giving his nipples an experimental tug.
Ai gasps. “Yeah, do that. Harder.” Sousuke rubs with two broad thumbs. “Mmm…twist. Oh, fuck—.”
“You like it kind of rough.” It’s not a question.
“Is that—.” Ai’s pulse ricochets between his ears and throat. “—Such a surprise?”
Sousuke doesn’t respond; he’s probably never thought about it one way or the other. Never imagined himself on top of that overenthusiastic nerd he’d coached for a couple of months his last year of high school. And that’s okay. It’s not like Ai had seen any of this coming either.
Neither of them have condoms, and there’s no way Ai’s about to go through his mother’s stuff to see if she does. Besides, it’s really too uncomfortable in here for Ai to want to take on the momentous task of trying to relax enough to get fucked. Sousuke isn't porno-huge, or anything, but he’s pretty big.
“Do you, though?”
“Do I what?”
Being asked that pinned between Sousuke’s arms sends a low spike of arousal through Ai. “Yeah. But not when it’s, like, a hundred degrees. And never on a first date.” He flutters his eyelashes.
Sousuke’s smile is just a little predatory. “Then what do you want to do?”
“I don’t…” Ai doesn’t know what to say. He’s never been asked so directly. The other sex he’s had had not seemed to involve much thinking at all. “What do you want to do?”
Sousuke shows him.
They do it rolled onto their left sides because it’s easier on Sousuke’s shoulder. He pulls Ai up close against him and fucks his thighs, slick and tight.
Sousuke’s mouth on Ai’s neck and the motion against the sensitive skin of his thighs creates endless, rolling shivers. He wouldn’t have have thought this could be interesting for the one receiving, but the motion--the physical immediacy of their bodies—still feels like sex. He’s dizzy, pinned and held tight.
He squeezes his thighs together and listens to the rough hitch in Sousuke’s breath, feels him trembling. After he comes he barely takes a moment to recover before he rolls Ai onto his back and hooks his legs over his elbows. Ai comes with his cock in Sousuke’s mouth, dragging his heel across his sweaty back, fingers buried in his own hair.
He’s totally wrecked afterward, exhausted and sticky and ready for hibernation. It’s way too hot to spoon, so they lie on top of the bedspread, touching only where Sousuke’s slowly glides his fingertips up and down Ai’s arms. They’d dragged the fan closer to the bed, and Ai is almost comfortable, although he’s sure that sweaty is going to become itchy and clammy pretty quick. Especially considering the mess between his thighs.
“So that happened,” Ai says quietly.
It occurs to Ai, that if he doesn’t tell Sousuke, he’ll never find out. This isn’t some drama series where he’s going to call out the wrong name during sex, or leave his diary open on the kitchen table. His journals are buried at the bottom of his closet, beneath old school uniforms and a thick layer of dust. They should probably be burned, honestly.
“Hey,” he says.
Sousuke, whose eyes have slid closed, raises his eyebrows to show he’s listening.
“I’ve been in love with Rin-senpai…” He trails off, like he’s got more to say, but that’s about it.
Sousuke’s eyes open, focusing slowly in the shady room. Already Ai is wishing he hadn’t opened his mouth. What the fuck had he been thinking, saying that when he’s in bed with—
“Are you still?”
Ai answers honestly, “I don’t know.”
Sousuke nods ponderously. His brow furrows, and for a second it seems like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t.
Chills skitter up Ai’s neck, and he reaches over to switch the fan off. In the resulting silence he hears the old house settling around them, the buzz of a wasp that’s gotten caught in the well of his window. “Please don’t tell him.”
“I wouldn’t.” Sousuke hasn’t stopped stroking his hand.
Ai wants to roll onto his back, but he doesn’t want to pull away. “You remember Haruka Nanase, right?”
Sousuke’s eyebrows climb toward his sweaty hairline. “You mean Rin’s boyfriend? He’s kind of hard to forget.”
“He’s the one we lost the relay to. His team. And I just felt...he beats me at everything.” Even recalling Nanase’s tiny smirk of satisfaction makes him feel sick, the memory of Ai walking into Rin’s dorm room the week before the third years graduated, to find Rin pinned firmly against the wall, Nanase’s hand down his pants.
Rin had flushed and pulled away, but Nanase looked like he’d be fine to keep going. Ai hadn’t made any more difference to him than the arrival of a cat.
Sousuke’s pulls his right arm tight across his chest, stretching out his shoulder. “Did you ever tell Rin how you feel about him?”
Ai’s got that strong desire to rewind again. “No.”
Sousuke’s face takes on its amused cast again--humor without the smile. “The two of you were roommates for a year.”
“I know that.”
“You were teammates for two. You could have--.”
“I know.” Ai kicks out of the tangle of sheets. “I’m going to take a shower.”
He needs to learn to keep his mouth shut. Every time he opens it recently, people start telling him true things. Things he can’t look through.
Ai barely bothers to dry off, just wraps a thin pink towel around his hips and heads back into his room. “Hey. I left you some hot water, though I doubt you’ll want--Oh.”
He’s talking to himself. Sousuke is gone, and so are his clothes. Ai feels a slow sinking in the center of his chest, a burn in his throat and eyes.
This is better, says the reasonable part of his brain. This is way less awkward. Didn’t you want him to leave you alone?
Another part whispers, you’re an idiot for thinking he likes you.
He intends to cry, but the tears just sit in his lungs like mucus as he dries his hair and gets dressed--jeans and a t-shirt this time, although he has nowhere to go. The heat is creeping back in, so he turns the fan back on, opens the window wider so the wasp has somewhere to go, instead of just buzzing in circles, smacking into walls. His phone is blinking a notification on his desk.
Ai’s can barely dredge up an emotion at all when he sees who the message is from. Messages. Plural.
Hey--I didn’t run away. I just realized I was half an hour late for a shift, and I’m already on thin ice with my uncle for drinking on the job. Sorry for being a dick.
I’m sorry I gave you shit about Rin. It was rude and hypocritical.
My shift ends at ten tonight.
And the very last one: I’m not going to be able to think coherently about anything today.
Ai squints. What does he mean by that? That he won’t be able to think about anything but Ai today? About sex in general? Ai tosses the phone on the bed. Then he picks it up immediately, because that bed is pretty gross.
Well, Sousuke gets one free pass to run out at an inappropriate moment. Now they’re even.
There’s a storm coming--Ai can smell the static on the air and feel it in prickles over his arms. The bamboo whispers in the wind, and whoever it is who plays music on this street has settled on overly-synthed pop. The broken chair trembles ominously when Ai jostles it with his palm. Why even keep it back here if the dumpster is just a couple meters away?
At 10:05 the back door rattles and opens, spilling out a rectangle of light and Sousuke. He looks even more exhausted than he had the night before, and he’s holding his shoulder stiffly. He stops in the doorway when he sees Ai, even though he’d known Ai would be here.
“I didn’t know that door opened,” Ai says, rocking on the balls of his feet.
“Why wouldn’t it open?”
Ai shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter.” The cicadas scream, attempting to drown out the music. “How’s your shoulder?”
Sousuke gives it a casual roll. “Alright.”
Silence stretches between them, and Ai isn’t going to bother to pretend it isn’t weighted. “You want to eat somewhere?” he asks finally.
Something in Sousuke relaxes visibly. “Yeah. I’m starving. All I’ve eaten today are drink garnishes.”
Ai laughs, imagining Sousuke discreetly chewing on cherries and lemons. “C’mon.”
The breeze follows them up the street, buffetting at Ai’s hair, blowing his bangs into his eyes in little puffs. There’s a whole list of things he wants to ask--if this is a date, if Sousuke had gone through his whole shift reeking of sex. What he had meant by hypocritical in his message. If he thinks it’s weird that they are doing all of this backward--arguing, then sex, then a date.
He wonders if Sousuke will let him hold his hand.
There’s only ever one way to figure out if something will work. Ai circles around to Sousuke's left. Their fingers brush, then spread and interlock. They’ll have to let go pretty soon--it’s only a couple blocks to the convenience store--but for now Ai holds on tight, content in the knowledge that he’d offered his hand, and Sousuke had taken it.