Freely I slaved away for something better,
And I was bought and sold.
And all I ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold.
The familiar rhythm being tattooed into the door jarred Izumi from his drifting thoughts. In the short month that Izumi had been living here with Katou, he'd grown used to Yui's impromptu visits. Now that Yui wasn't hounding both of them, he'd become quite the mother hen. But lately Izumi noticed a troubled air about him, as though he were dealing with something weighty and needed some distraction.
This time, to Izumi's surprise, Yui wasn't alone. Hanging on his arm was a cute young guy in the last gasp of puberty, maybe eighteen or nineteen, who was staring at everyone and everything with unabashed curiosity. He looked so much like Yui at first glance that Izumi thought he might be a brother, but the subtle sexual manner between them belied that idea.
"Izumi-chan! Katou-chan!" Yui gave them both enthusiastic hugs with his free arm and added a few awkward air kisses that Izumi and Katou managed to duck.
"This darling young man is Atsushi-chin," Yui told them with a grin, shrugging off both coat and boy in one flamboyant motion. "Do love him for me, won't you, Izumi-chan? Katou and I have boring, boring business to discuss."
"Would either of you like something to drink?" Izumi asked politely.
"Beer?" Atsushi said.
"Yes, all right. For everyone?" He did a quick mental inventory of their carefully hoarded supply—if he held off himself, there should be enough for the rest of them. A glance at Katou let him know he was doing the same mental calculation.
"Sounds good," Yui said, and fished out a sheaf of papers from his coat, which set Izumi on edge. Papers were always about money, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Izumi tried not to worry, but their finances were still pretty precarious. Katou had a new job, but he hadn't had his first paycheck yet. And Izumi…well, he was still working on being able to leave the apartment without having a panic attack.
Yui and Katou settled into the far corner of the room, and Atsushi followed him into the postage-stamp kitchen to fetch the beer.
"Do you smoke?" Atsushi asked, apropos of nothing Izumi could work out.
"No," he said, and made a universal sign for money. "Costs too much."
"I don't either. I'm thinking about it, though. Yui smokes all the time, and he always tastes like an ashtray. I was thinking I'd fight fire with fire." He chuckled at his own joke.
Izumi handed Atsushi one of their precious beers. "Here you go."
"Thanks. Yui told me a little bit about you. You're a rentboy, right?" Atsushi said, staring at him as if he was about to ask for a demonstration. Izumi was left wondering whatever happened to the art of small talk.
"I was," he replied, with no elaboration. Was a month's renunciation long enough to let him make that claim? He decided that intent mattered most, so yes, probably.
"Huh. Not that it matters to me. I'm in porn videos, myself."
He tried not to look shocked. "Is that so?"
"For a while, anyway, until I save up enough to go back to school so I can get a real job."
He cast around for a vague enough reply and tried not to let his imagination run free. "Yui-san runs a lot of different businesses, doesn't he?"
"Oh, I didn't get into it because of Yui. I just met him a few weeks ago. Right after Yui kicked you out of your home. He told me he felt bad about that."
"It wasn't home," he answered automatically. Ken had never called the place he'd deposited Izumi anything but an apartment. Never home. "Not what you'd call a home, anyway."
Ignoring Atsushi's puzzled look, he wordlessly took two beers to Yui and Katou and withdrew back to the kitchen. He sat near the open door, though, so he could keep tabs on their conversation—Katou bore a look of deep concern, which didn't bode well. Eavesdropping had always been a valued skill at the orphanage, but Ken had given him a hard time later when he'd caught him at it. Of course, it turned out that Ken had too many secrets he didn't want Izumi to learn. After Ken had left, the obasan upstairs had told him everything she'd seen. He swore he wasn't ever going to be left in the dark like that again.
In the other room, Yui was explaining how one of Katou's outstanding loans had escaped his notice. Izumi could only catch bits and pieces of what they were saying, but Katou seemed to calm a little as they spoke, so Izumi did too. Still, they were living hand to mouth as it was; this news couldn't be good.
Atsushi, seemingly deaf to the conversation going on in the other room, took a long pull from his beer and smiled at him. "I know what it looks like. But Yui and me, we're not together or anything like that. Well, it's complicated. I'm staying with him for now, but that's because I didn't want to be alone after my boyfriend kicked me to the curb a few days ago. Yui feels sorry for me, I guess. Hey, you don't mind me telling you all this, do you?"
Atsushi was so open and transparent that Izumi wondered if he was really Japanese at all. Hawaiian maybe? Californian? But there was no trace of a telltale accent that he could detect. "No, that's all right."
"I just thought you might understand how crazy things get sometimes, because you…well, Yui said your last boyfriend did the same thing to you."
How much gossip had Yui spread to this guy anyway? "That's complicated, too," he said quietly.
"Yeah. I wonder if it's any better with girls?"
"I wouldn't know."
"No, me either." Atsushi looked thoughtful for a moment, then flashed him a quick grin. "And I'm not looking to find out. I only like guys."
Izumi was finding himself warming to Atsushi's strange, blunt conversation. It had been so long since he'd actually had someone his own age to talk to. Not since Ken had cut him off from the few friends he'd had in the orphanage.
"I think Yui likes to take in strays like me. And Daikichi," Atsushi confided. Just when Izumi started to wonder if Yui was busy collecting his own harem of young guys, Atsushi added, "Daikichi is my cat. Hey, do you like cats? You look the type."
"Sure. I like them."
"Thought you might. See? We're a lot alike, really. Stray cats, both of us, looking for someone kind enough to bring us in off the streets."
"So you and Yui…."
"Well, we're not in love or anything. I mean, I don't dislike him, of course. Although I did at first, when he called me 'Brat' and stuff. He and my boyfriend are good friends, that's how we met." He looked up suddenly and laughed. "Like I said, complicated."
"I suppose they're not such good friends now."
"No, my boyfriend doesn't really care about me, but I…. Well, things are really fucked up, if you want the truth. I'm sleeping with Yui, but I don't love him, and he doesn't love me either. It's Tsukasa I'm in love with. I'm hoping he changes his mind and takes me back."
"I see. Then we're not alike, not that way."
"Oh. You're in love with that guy talking to Yui?" He looked hard at Izumi as if he could somehow work it out by reading his face.
"I meant the other part," he began, but then his throat tightened as he thought of Katou, and he could barely choke out, "I don't want to see my old boyfriend ever again."
Damn it, he hated how easily his emotions spilled out. It had always made him an easy target growing up with kids who'd somehow learned how to hide their own tears behind anger and their pain behind apathy. "Making Izumi cry" had become a popular pastime. One reason he'd adored Ken when he came to work there was that he'd put a stop to those nasty games.
Still, he wasn't ready to confess to this odd visitor that he'd already fallen hard for Katou, but that he didn't really know how Katou felt about him. Pity was a big reason why he was here, he knew that much, but was there anything else?
But Atsushi didn't notice his distress. "Hey, can I have another beer?" he said cheerfully.
Atsushi had it half gone in two swallows while Izumi watched. In the temporary quiet, he heard Yui tell Katou, "It's convenience, mostly. I give him a place to sleep, and he keeps me company and returns the favor with sex. See? No different than you and Izumi." Katou's reply was too quiet for Izumi to make out.
"That guy—is he a Yakuza too, like Yui?" Atsushi asked.
"No. No, he just got a job as a truck dispatcher. He figures out which truck should go where." He almost added that he could tell that Katou was already bored with it after only a week and was pretending to Izumi that he wasn't, but he caught himself in time. "He wants to be a chef, though. You should taste some of the things he cooks, with stuff you wouldn't think would even be edible. If only—" God, what had gotten into him? He had no business telling Atsushi about Katou's problems or their chronic lack of money. Atsushi's chattiness was too contagious. He needed to guard his tongue.
Abruptly, Yui was in the kitchen with them, making it crowded beyond belief. His distinctive scent of cologne and cigarette smoke filled Izumi's nose, and the smell made him remember things best left forgotten.
"You're not being an annoying little fuck, are you, Atsushi?" Yui said, but ruffled Atsushi's hair with clear affection to erase the sting from his words.
"Not a bit," Atsushi said, his grin mischievous. "We're just dishing the dirt about you two. Whose cock is bigger, that sort of thing."
Izumi wondered what Atsushi would say if he told him he already knew the answer from first-hand experience.
"C'mon, brat, we're going home," Yui said, then went back out to Katou. "Look, don't worry. It's just money. Once you get that first paycheck, things won't look so dire. Are you sure you won't change your mind about…" and he glanced at Izumi.
"No, it's too soon," Katou said. "We'll be fine."
Izumi had spent years filling in adults' unspoken conversation, and knew immediately that Yui wanted him to start working, too. But where, and doing what?
"Okay. Worth a try." Yui took his coat from Izumi with a bright smile. "Take care of him for me, won't you, Izumi-chan?"
Yui stuffed one hand into his pocket, clearly looking for a cigarette, but instead pulled out a handful of paper. He stared for a second, then smiled in recognition.
"Nearly forgot I had these. Lottery tickets. Four of them, and four of us. I better not ignore the significance of that." He fanned them out and offered them first to Katou and Atsushi, who each took one, and finally to Izumi.
"No, you choose next," Izumi urged. "I'll take the last one."
Chuckling, Yui did as he asked, adding, "Good luck to all of us. If any of you win, you can buy me dinner."
"Steak or sushi?" Katou asked.
"Steak, definitely. Gotta keep up my energy if I plan on letting this brat stick around. These young guys wear you out, isn't that so, Katou-chan?"
Izumi carefully wrote his name in pencil on his lottery ticket. Silently Katou handed his over and Izumi did the same to it. The strokes forming Katou's name looked nice, he decided, then he chuckled at how he was practically turning into a teenage girl, writing his boyfriend's name like this. He stuck both tickets on the refrigerator under a frog magnet for luck.
Katou was watching him. "What will you do with the money if you win?"
"Me? Oh, I don't know."
"There must be a lot of things you'd like to have, though, right?"
"I—I haven't thought about things like that."
"C'mon, there's gotta be one thing."
"Okay, I know. I'd like to go to a nice place and have my hair cut instead of doing it myself."
"Yeah. I mean, it'd be a really nice place, you know, with shampoo that smells really exotic, and big fluffy towels, maybe a neck rub to go with it."
"That would be one awesome haircut, for twenty million yen."
"No, I wouldn't spend it all on haircuts, silly. I'd save the rest, I think."
"You know, Izumi-kun, I could pay for a haircut right now if you wanted one. I do like your hair long, though. It's nice, the way you wear it."
He flushed pink at the unexpected compliment. "Ken used to say it makes me look like a girl," he stammered, remembering too late that Katou didn't like hearing about Ken. Awkwardly, he added, "What would you spend the money on if you won?"
"Well, I'd take my time deciding, but I could get myself fixed up again, and then I could get back to learning to be a chef. I think I'd like that."
"Well, an operation, yeah. They told me it would help a lot, but I can't afford it."
"Oh, Katou! You should do it!"
"Well, I have to win first, don't I? You know what they say: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." His face turned serious again as he turned his attention back to the papers Yui had left.
"Is anything wrong?" Izumi finally asked. "Is there something I can do to help?"
Katou shook his head. "No, it's fine. Well, not fine, exactly, but—"
Izumi knew that what he was about to say wasn't going to go over very well, but he had to try.
"Katou-san, I still have a little money left. I would be honored if you'd let me give it to you to pay for our rent." He steeled himself for the rejection that was guaranteed to follow.
"No, Izumi, I can't take your money. You—you just hang on to it. Use it for haircuts and stuff like that."
"Please. I really want to pay my fair share, and I have enough right now. Let me do this, Katou-san."
Katou stared at him for a long moment, then said, "Does this have anything to do with what Yui said?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to listen, but—"
"You can't help it when this apartment's so tiny, huh?" He gave a wry grin. "I know. Not your fault."
"Yui is right, though." If they were going to share their lives, then their money should be shared as well.
A look of surprise crossed Katou's face. "Do you think so? I guess I thought—well, what I thought isn't important, really. I should have paid more attention to what you thought, is all."
Izumi's spirits were lifting when he realized that Katou was going to be sensible about things. It only took a minute to bring him the envelope with his carefully hoarded savings. "Here. I want to do this, Katou. I know you're not comfortable with how I earned it, but it's mine and I want you to have it."
"I can't take it all—here, take this much back, at least."
"No, just—twenty yen is all I need."
Izumi had a strong urge to kiss away Katou's discouraged expression, but was stopped short by the way he seemed a million miles away. That night, instead of taking Izumi to bed the way he usually did, Katou turned on the TV to some mindless quiz show and finally fell asleep there. Izumi watched him for a long time, wondering what else he could do to lessen his troubles. Finally, he nudged him awake and guided him into bed, but Katou merely tugged the blankets over himself and went right back to sleep.
Izumi never bothered with newspapers as a rule, but when he caught sight of Yui's picture on the front page, decorated with lurid headlines, he brought it home. He and Katou spent the evening poring over the story of girls sold into slavery and the other lurid details of the Nokura organization.
It was only as an afterthought, since they had the newspaper anyway, that he thought to check the numbers of the lottery tickets still held up by the magnet in the kitchen.
Which is how he learned that Yui's story wasn't at all the most astonishing news in the Tokyo Shimbun.
Of course, he didn't believe it at first, and when he managed to stammer out the good news, Katou didn't believe it either.
"You must have read it wrong," Katou said, but the numbers were the same when he checked, too. He finally blurted, "Oh my God!"
"Katou-san, you won! You really won!"
"Yeah, I guess I did…. Well, I mean, it wasn't the top prize, but still—wow. Three million yen!"
"Now you don't have to work as a dispatcher any more. I know how much you hate it there. You never said so, but I could tell." One of the ways he realized it was that Katou had stopped coming to bed with him—he instead fell asleep every night in front of the TV. They hadn't done it together since…well, it was after Yui and Atsushi had come to visit.
But Katou was laughing at him. "It's not all that much money, Izumi-kun. I still need to work."
Izumi's heart fell. "But— What about your operation? Is it enough—"
Katou looked thoughtful. "I think it just might be."
And then Katou was finally kissing him, sweet and warm like he had that first week, and Izumi was careful not to do anything that would make him think of stopping. Eventually, though, Katou pulled away and opened his eyes. His warm hands were still cradling Izumi's, who could feel his own hand trembling inside them like a separate creature. He made the rest of himself very still, waiting, hoping not to frighten Katou away, hungering for him more than ever. He tried to read Katou's searching eyes, which were pinned on him, but couldn't. For a long moment, everything was wordlessly suspended between them, as if the slightest exhaled breath would drive them into each others arms at last, or else send them spinning apart for good.
The moment fell away, and Katou dropped his hands and stepped back, as if Izumi had somehow failed to interpret some critical secret code. Izumi's hand involuntarily flew to his own lips, still wet from Katou's mouth, desperate to invoke the magic word that would make things right again. But Katou was already preoccupied with rechecking the newspaper—just to make sure, he muttered—and abruptly, they were back to being strangers sharing the same apartment.
With a self-control that was entirely an act of pretense, he set himself to clearing the table, pretending he wasn't utterly devastated and that a black weight wasn't dragging at his heart.
Izumi hummed a little to himself as he climbed the last step on his way home. It didn't matter that he'd only gone to the convenience store and back—what was important was that he'd done it alone. He made a mental check - he was feeling a little jittery, but nothing too bad. Each trip outside seemed a little easier. Not bad for only a month with Katou. He could even begin to believe in the day when he'd be totally comfortable coming and going like everyone else.
His composure began to unravel, however, when his hand came up empty while searching his pocket for the key. A panicky search failed to turn it up. Then he remembered setting it down on the desk for a moment as he put on his gloves just before he'd left.
"Shit," he muttered, then, "Shit, shit, shit!" It didn't make him feel any better. All he needed to do, he told himself, was to hang on until Katou got home from work. Just until then. It couldn't be more than half an hour. He settled down beside the door and closed his eyes, breathing in and out slowly to calm himself the way Katou had taught him.
But Katou didn't come, and the winter light faded into dusk.
He was on the edge of letting his fear overcome him when he suddenly remembered the cell phone buried in an inside pocket that Katou insisted he carry. What an idiot he was—he could have called him right away. When he turned it on, he saw that there were already several new messages from Katou.
"Hello?" The sound of Katou's voice was such a relief that he couldn't say anything at first. "Izumi-kun, what is it? What's wrong? Why didn't you answer before?"
"Sorry, Katou-san, I forgot to turn it on. It's just…well, I locked myself out. I thought you would be home soon, but I waited and waited—"
"No, that's why I tried to call. I'm at a bar with some friends from the restaurant I used to work at. Kind of a celebration."
"Oh. Then I'll just stay here until—"
"Don't be silly. It's just down the street, the Happy Fortune. You know the place, almost to Hongo Dori, it's got those annoying blue flashing lights along the front. It'll only take me a few minutes to get home."
"No, Katou-san." Bad enough he was stupid enough to lock himself out. He wasn't going to ruin Katou's night out with his friends. "I'll come and get the key from you. I know where you are."
"Izumi-kun. Are you sure?"
He heard the concern in Katou's voice and somehow that gave him a little more confidence. He wanted Katou not to have to worry so much over him. He'd done so much already to help; Izumi could do this much for him.
It took a moment for Izumi's eyes to adjust to the dim light and blue haze of smoke in the bar, but then he spotted Katou at a table that was crowded with half-empty glasses and leftover food. And strangers. Katou must have been watching the door, because he was already waving him over. He was flanked by two girls; both already looked a little bleary from drinking. An older man turned to stare up at him, while another man nearer their age nodded a preoccupied welcome.
"Izumi! Hey! Come on, have a seat. Hey, everybody, this is my roommate, Ono Izumi-kun." Izumi tried to keep track of the names as Katou rattled them off too quickly. "Come on, budge over, let him sit down."
Izumi's heart was still pounding from the panic of locking himself out and then having to walk alone down the street, where the blank windows of buildings had seemed to stare sightlessly back at him like cold, dead eyes. If he stayed more than a few minutes, he might never find the nerve to walk back home. So he answered, "No thank you, Katou-san, I really need to get home soon."
Luckily, Katou picked up on the unspoken message. "Oh, okay. Let me finish my drink and I'll walk back with you, then."
"No, you don't have to do that. Stay here and enjoy yourself with your friends. I'd feel horrible if I made you leave now. Please. All I need is the key and I'll be on my way."
"Are you sure?"
He tried to look calm and confident, despite the fact that the older man was secretly smirking at the young guy, who was too far into his cups to notice. "Of course."
"Well, all right." Katou was handing him the key, still somewhat reluctantly. "I won't be too late."
"Don't worry about me. Stay as long as you like," Izumi told him. "Nice to meet you all," he added with a polite bow. The older man was still watching him with a cagey expression as he turned to leave.
Just before he was about to push open the door to the street, he noticed with some relief a hallway with a men's room at the end. The door was locked, though, and he could hear the indistinct splash of water inside. He leaned back to wait, eventually noticing that Katou and his friends were now directly behind him. Their voices broadcast quite clearly over the wall that divided them but didn't meet the ceiling.
"Oh my God, Katou-san, where'd you ever find him?" That must be the old guy, who was obviously from Kyoto by the accent.
"What do you mean?" Katou asked.
"I really need to get back home soon," the old guy said in a mocking voice, pitched high and soft like a girl's. "What an okama. Don't tell me you never noticed your roommate's a pillow-biting fairy?"
Izumi felt himself flush with mortification. Did he really come off like that to strangers? He should never have come here; he saw that now. He was nothing but an embarrassment to Katou.
"Shut up, Yonai-san, I thought he was cute," one of the girls said.
"Oh yeah? He sure as hell didn't bother giving you a second look," Yonai said with a sharp laugh. "I guess it's because you're not really his type at all."
"You're just jealous he didn't pay any attention to you," she retorted. "You can't seem to get any from girls or guys. Poor Yonai-san."
"Shut up, you fag hag!"
"Hey, you started it. Anyway, Katou-san, how did you end up with him? C'mon, spill."
"Yeah, good thing I saw you go after Midori-san before she quit, or I'd be having real doubts about you now," Yonai added.
"It's not like that," Katou said. "I met him when I was doing a job for my landlord. He needed a place to stay, and neither of us had any money."
"You are such a wimp," Yonai said. "And look where it got you—stuck living with a deadbeat fag who's happy to sponge off the new millionaire."
"Well, it's just until he gets back on his feet."
And there it was—the thing that Izumi had been dreading but had somehow known was coming all along. The thing that neither one of them talked about, the reason Katou had stopped doing it with him. He wanted Izumi gone. More than anything, Izumi wanted to give him everything, but Katou was having none of it. In the clear light of day, now that Yui wasn't breathing down their necks, Katou had discovered the truth, whatever shape that was for him. He wasn't that lonely, he didn't want to borrow trouble, he wasn't gay after all. Izumi felt the familiar burning ache edging behind his eyes, but he refused to let his tears out this time. He tightened every muscle so that he wouldn't sink down to his knees in despair.
Yonai was still talking, oblivious to the unfolding tragedy, and Izumi forced himself to listen to his annoying voice. "Like that'll happen. Now that you've got money, he'll never leave."
"No, Izumi's not like that. It's just—he's had a hard life. And I—"
"Felt sorry for him, yeah, I get it. Wish someone would come along and feel sorry for me."
"Says the guy who's drinking like a fish on someone else's money," the girl said.
"Hey, he's rich now! He doesn't mind, do you, Katou-san?"
"Well, I'm not rich. It wasn't that much money, not like you're thinking. I wanted to take you all out for a drink to celebrate, but the rest of it's just barely enough to cover the operation for my hips."
"So stop ordering all those expensive drinks, Yonai-san," the girl chided. "Who's sponging off the new millionaire now?"
"Hey, at least I'm not trying to weasel my way into his home!"
Home. It was a word Izumi had heard all his life without really grasping what it meant. Aware from an early age that having no home was the one thing that set him apart from normal kids, he grew up craving it like a pauper craves riches. He'd left the orphanage with Ken believing that he would finally have a home of his own, but that hadn't happened. Disillusioned, he had convinced himself that the notion of home had been an empty promise all along, just another adult lie.
Just then, the men's room door swung open and its occupant stumbled out, nearly tripping over Izumi.
"Oh, s'rry—" the man said, grabbing onto Izumi's arm for balance. Then he peered more carefully at Izumi. "Oh. Hey there. What's your name?"
Izumi didn't dare speak for fear of being overheard himself. But he recognized the come-on and in an instant he had the man sized up: what he might like and how much he would be willing to pay for it. He smiled back without knowing why before he remembered he no longer needed to.
The man, of course, took it for encouragement and clumsily tried to pull him back into the men's room, but Izumi, ashamed at his momentary slip, untangled his arm from the stranger's. He managed to go in alone and to lock the door between them with a shaky sigh. He was dangerously close to a full-blown panic attack now, and the thought of Katou having to rescue him here, in front of his mocking friends, was making it worse. It would be terrible if Katou found him with that drunken man doing—well, what he was going to have to start doing again, now that he knew that Katou wanted him to leave.
Because the only way Izumi knew how to get back on his feet was to get back on his knees.
Izumi recognized Yui's distinctive knock, but couldn't work out why he was visiting in the middle of the day when he knew Katou was at work. After the things he'd read about him in the newspaper lately, he was a little afraid to open the door.
"Izumi-chan! Open up, darling, I've brought you some company."
Atsushi was with him, looking thrilled to be back here.
"Yui-san! What—what happened to your eye?" Yui was wearing a rakish eye-patch, looking like an odd pirate, albeit one who shopped for his clothes in Omotesando.
"Ah, just a friendly brotherly disagreement. You know how it goes," he replied lightly, but Izumi had read the news reports and knew there was a lot more to it than that.
"Come in, please, come in," he said.
"No, I can't stay. I've got to leave for a little bit, and I wanted to let the tenants know. Here, here are some papers for Katou-chan. I'm leaving Atsushi with you for an hour, sorry about that. He insisted on coming with me to visit you."
Atsushi was shoving a bulky carrier bag at him. "Look, Izumi-kun! I brought beer this time." After receiving a mock glare from Yui, he amended, "Yui brought us beer this time."
He led Atsushi into the kitchen, where they instinctively took the same chairs they'd used before.
"How are things going, Atsushi-kun?" he asked politely.
"Much better. Well, for me, I mean. Yui's had a rough time of it, as you can see."
"Yes, I've been reading about it."
"I mean, his own brother tried to kill him! It was awful! Tsukasa and I found him in an abandoned business hotel, and I thought he was dead. But he's doing all right now. His eye's gonna be okay. Not as good as before, but…."
"Do you know where he's going?"
"No, he won't say. He's been staying with Tsukasa and me—oh, yeah, Tsukasa and I got back together."
Izumi smiled. "That's what you wanted, right?"
"Yeah. But I feel bad for Yui now. But I'm going to let him take Daikichi, so maybe he won't be so lonely. My cat, remember?"
"Ah. That's good, then."
"But it's been crazy, Yui's always at the police station answering questions, and Tsukasa's writing about it all like a madman. It's like…like…"
"Samson bringing down the temple around himself?"
But Atsushi looked at him blankly and said, "Who?" Apparently the nuns at the orphanage had left Izumi with stories that weren't commonly known in the rest of Japan.
"So how's it going with you and Katou-san? He won a lot of money in that lottery, Yui told me."
"Good," he said automatically. "Yeah, three million yen."
He was suddenly overcome with the need to talk to someone, to let out some of the secrets he was carrying. "No, to tell you the truth, things are…well, not so good. Katou-san and I, we don't…. You have to realize, he wasn't gay when I met him, and I suppose he's just…rethinking things, maybe."
"Oh, Izumi-kun! I'm sorry. Hey, I know what that's like. Tsukasa wasn't very interested in me for a long time, either—I mean, he was always gay, but there were a lot of things on his mind, and I wasn't one of them. I found out a lot of it had to do with Yui's organization. Things are better now between us. But it's hard to be the one in love all by yourself."
"Yeah. Look, I, um, I still don't have a job, and I need money in case, well, you know…."
"I'm probably not the type, I'm not cute like you are, but the videos you make—is there any way they could use me, do you think?"
"Huh. I don't know. I don't do that anymore. I got a regular job now. I suppose I could—"
"Never mind, then. I'll think of something else."
"I'm really sorry, Izumi." Atsushi leaned forward and gave him a beery kiss on the mouth. "I'd comfort you if I could, but that would probably be a bad idea. I'd recommend Yui, though—he was kind to me. I bet he'd take you in."
Izumi suppressed a shudder. Kind or not, Yui still left him feeling on edge. "I…think not. Besides, he's leaving town."
After Atsushi had gone off again with Yui—you tell Katou he still owes me a dinner when I get back—Izumi, feeling strangely disconnected from his emotions and still dry-eyed, sat down to plan. Ni-chome was out of the question: he didn't trust himself to travel that far across Tokyo to get to the district, and it was too chaotic for someone like him anyway. But closer to home, Asakusa had a fair number of gay bars; Ken had shown him, before his agoraphobia had trapped him, which ones were best for picking up stray men without raising the hackles of the owners who'd normally expect a share of the money. He thought he could remember which ones they were. He couldn't risk becoming a full-fledged bar boy, not if he wanted to keep it secret from Katou, but if he was clever, he could pick up two or three customers in the quiet daytime hours. He could be cleaned up and back before Katou got home. Oral only. He couldn't risk anything else, nothing that would leave marks on him. Although Katou didn't see him naked any more, not since…. Still, there was always a possibility that things between them would go back the way they'd been that first few weeks, when they couldn't keep their hands off each other.
He forced those memories somewhere deep where they couldn't hurt so much and allowed his survival instincts to take their place. He could pretend that none of it mattered. He could pretend that Katou hadn't gone somewhere he couldn't follow. After all, if nothing else, he was an accomplished actor.
Izumi couldn't help feeling like a mouse under a skyful of hawks.
The bright sun over Asakusa was a liar, promising warmth and wholly failing to deliver. It was almost too cold to be lingering outside certain establishments, where some of the other boys recognized him and glowered back with the natural distrust of competitors. He hoped it wasn't too cold in the alleys and backstreets that were his eventual destination.
Nothing had changed in the months since Izumi had been here last. The lunchtime crowds mostly rushed by, anxious to get back to the tiny warrens that held them as daytime prisoners, but those men weren't his concern. No, he was looking for eyes that caught his and paused, steps that hesitated momentarily, sped up, then slowed again. He held his smile in check—no one wanted a grinning fool who wasted his smile on just anyone. They wanted that smile for themselves alone—and not just the smile but everything else it promised. And Izumi, at least, was more honest than the cold, lying sun.
He trailed slowly through the streets, pretending interest in a shop window here, a news kiosk there. Carefully as a skilled fisherman teases the waters with his hooked bait, he wandered in and out of the rushing mob.
There—that man had been following him and had crossed the street just behind him. He slowed to let the man catch up, feeling the first tug on his sleeve as soft as a fish mouthing the lure.
The man had apparently done this often enough that he had his own favorite nook, tucked away behind a vegetable market that smelled of rotting daikon radishes and hakusai cabbage. They exchanged the barest information, and soon Izumi was gratefully palming crisp yen notes and dropping to his knees.
The stark chill of the pavement crept through his thin pants almost immediately, and he was oddly satisfied—it gave him something less complicated to pay attention to. The cold had persuaded the man to keep his gloves on, and he was tugging Izumi's hair too hard because of them. Izumi could see his own breath making small white puffclouds around the man's cock as he unzipped him. He carefully kept as much of him covered as he could and wondered if they'd have snow before nightfall.
When it was over the man, as so many men do after immediacy has dissolved into completion, turned away and left without a parting word or glance.
Thoroughly cold now, Izumi tried to still his shivering without success. He remembered a nearby bookstore where he used to go at times like this to get warm again. Ten or fifteen minutes there and he should be warm enough to take one more customer. If he managed two a day, and if the weather didn't get worse, it might take a month until he had enough money. That way, when the day came that Katou finally admitted the truth and made him leave, he'd be ready.
If he could only ignore the anxious tremors in his hands and the fear churning in his gut, everything would be just fine.
Katou's first words when Izumi answered his cell phone were, "Izumi-kun! You remembered to turn it on. Great! Hey, where are you?"
Izumi felt a rush of relief that he hadn't gone around the bars today. He'd been feeling unsettled and nervous for the past couple of days. Even though his nest egg was nowhere near what he needed to make the break from Katou, he really needed to relax a little. Sneaking around like this, without Katou becoming suspicious, was wearing—of course, things had been different with Ken, who had gotten upset when he didn't go out and earn his keep.
"I'm in the kitchen," he said. "At ho—at the apartment."
"Well, I'm down here at the Happy Fortune. And it's payday. Come out and have a drink with me, okay?"
"Okay. I'll see you in a few minutes then." He closed the cover of his cell with a smile.
He put on a clean sweater and combed his hair. The apartment key was secure in his left coat pocket before he let the door close behind him.
He was nearly at the bottom of the stairs when the familiar and utterly unwelcome feeling of dread began to creep into his brain. He forced his feet to keep moving, past the corner of their building, but then he froze once more, awash in anxiety and breaking out into a cold sweat.
Twenty minutes later found him still standing there, unable to go any further. His cell rang.
"Hey. Are you coming, Izumi-kun?"
"I—I can't," was all he said. He hated the feeble sound of his voice at that moment.
"I'll be right there," Katou told him. "Five minutes, tops. Just hang on."
It probably only took him four, but it seemed endless to Izumi. And then Katou almost didn't notice him wedged into a thin gap between buildings, the only protection he could find. His fingers were clawing fruitlessly into the mortar around the bricks as if he could make himself a cave and crawl inside. They were both breathing hard—Katou from running and Izumi from fear—and the stark walls amplified the sound. Or maybe that was the sound of his pounding heart. It didn't matter.
He felt Katou gently pry his fingers away and hold them to his chest. He was leaning against Katou and would have fallen if Katou's arms weren't holding him up, and then Katou was guiding him back to the apartment. The relief of being back inside these four walls was overwhelming. Izumi threw himself on the futon and wrapped himself tightly in the striped comforter that Katou had given him. Then arms were cradling him, and words were whispered in his ear: it's all right, you're gonna be okay, I'm right here….
"I'm sorry, Katou. I'm so sorry."
"Don't worry about that, it's not your fault."
"Izumi. Hey. Hey." They sat that way for a long time, Katou's strong arms around him to keep his panic in check, until he eventually stopped shaking.
"I'm sorry to be such trouble for you, Katou-san," he finally said, and began to disentangle himself from his cocoon.
"What happened? You were doing so well, I thought…."
"I don't know." But that was a lie.
"Hey. It doesn't matter. This was just a temporary set-back, I'm sure. Tomorrow, things will be back to normal, you'll see."
But they weren't. Not the next day or the ones that followed, either. Katou encouraged him and clucked at him in turn, but none of it mattered—Izumi's agoraphobia was back to stay. This time, though, he secretly agonized over his stagnant nest egg. He could no longer go out and earn anything, and without money he would only be a useless burden to Katou.
So he stayed at home, avoiding the mirror for fear of his secrets showing too plainly in his eyes, and waited for everything to unravel.
Izumi glanced at the clock in surprise when he heard Katou at the door. Like always, his heart and body electrified at his presence. If he had a tail, he thought, it would be wagging.
"You're home from work early," he began, but stopped when he noticed the strange woman walking in behind Katou. Dreadful thoughts tore through him before he could stop them: she was his new girlfriend, she was here to replace him, he was going to be thrown out tonight even though he didn't have nearly enough money yet—
Some of that must have shown on his face, because Katou was peering back at him with alarm. "This is Dr. Sasaki. Ono Izumi-san. I've explained what's going on to her, and she's come here to help you."
It took him a minute to process what Katou was trying to say, but when it did, it was every bit as horrible as his first guess. "No! Oh, no, Katou-san!"
The woman was slowly edging towards him, hands open and wearing a friendly smile as if he were indeed a dog on the street, one that might wildly attack or else cower in fear with no telling which.
"It's all right, Ono-san," she said. "I've seen a lot of people with this problem. I can help you."
"No!" he repeated, his mind rapidly doing the calculations. Not only a doctor, but a specialist, too, and coming here to see him at home; that would definitely cost extra. An idea struck him. Maybe if he refused to let her see him, Katou wouldn't have to pay her very much. He bolted into the bedroom and slammed the door.
"Izumi!" That was Katou rattling the door handle. "Come on, it's okay. Dr. Sasaki has a lot of experience with this, you'll see. Please. Open the door."
"No, Katou-san. You can't help me. I won't let you."
Dr Sasaki's voice was calm and reasoning. "Listen to me, Ono-san. It's nothing to be ashamed of. If you just let me talk to you, you'll understand."
Izumi drew a shaky breath. "Dr. Sasaki, I'm sure you mean well. That's not it. Katou has to have his hips fixed, that's why. So please, I can't see you. I just want you to leave."
"Katou-san, do you know what he's talking about?" he heard her ask.
"I'm not quite sure," Katou told her. "Izumi, what—"
"The money you won. It's for your operation. I can't—I don't want you to—you said that there was just enough."
"He means…. I guess you noticed that I don't walk too well. I need an operation, but what that has to do with him—"
"It sounds like he's worried about my payment," she said. "It's all right, Ono-san. Katou-san has already paid me for coming here. You can—"
"No! He can't! He can't! There's just enough money for him." Desperate now, Izumi looked around the tiny room for answers. Coming to a sudden decision, he scrambled across the room to where his nest egg lay hidden under his clothes. Something was niggling for his attention, but he didn't have time to worry about what it could be.
Flinging open the door, he caught them both off guard.
"Here, please, take this instead," he told her. He had no idea how much money it would take to make her go away for good—the money from two of his customers, or three, or four? He shoved all of it at her and trusted her to decide. "Please."
Katou looked at him, shocked. "Izumi, what are you doing?"
"You can't give up your hip operation because of me. I won't let you."
"I'm not! Listen to me! There's enough for that and this too. For god's sake, I just won the damned lottery!"
"But…." He stared at Katou blankly, his hand still clutching a fistful of crumpled yen.
There was a long silence, finally broken by Katou, sounding distant and formal, asking, "Just where did you get all that money, Izumi?"
"I—I started working again," he managed to say, finally too overcome with emotion to try to keep up the lie. What must Dr. Sasaki be thinking now?
Clearly, that thought had also crossed Katou's mind, because he turned to her and said, "Dr. Sasaki, I think it might be a good idea if Izumi and I talked things out alone. I'm sorry for taking up your time."
"It's all right. Please call my office when you think I can be of any help."
After she was gone, neither of them spoke. Izumi found himself wondering if Katou would erupt in rage and violence; if he would lash out with fists or feet the way Ken used to. But Katou wasn't anything at all like Ken; he knew that without question. Katou was by nature a kind man with an innate compassion for everyone, someone who hated causing pain. Right now he didn't seem at all angry, just disappointed, which was worse.
Finally Katou rubbed his hands over his face and sat down with a deep sigh.
"Would you please tell me what's going on in that head of yours, Izumi-kun? Because it's pretty obvious I sure as hell don't know what's going on with you."
"I thought…but you said you won just enough money to pay for your operation."
"I never told you that. For one thing, it's not true."
"But you said…at the bar that time…that's what you told your friends."
Katou's face went slack as he apparently tried to recall the conversation, then froze into a scowl. "Wait a minute. You weren't there. You'd already left. How—"
"I didn't mean to listen in, but I was waiting for the men's room just behind you, and I overheard you. You told that old man that you'd won just enough to fix your hips."
Katou groaned. "Yeah, I told him that because otherwise he was gonna sit there and drink all night and expect me to pay for it. I don't like him very much, all right? So I told him that so he wouldn't take advantage of me."
"So you thought, what, that I didn't have enough money?"
"Is that why you…why you thought you needed to go back out and…." Katou shook his head as if he were trying to erase disagreeable images. "But you knew we were doing okay before the lottery. Unless all along you were still—"
"No, I wasn't." It was important enough to repeat. "I wasn't, Katou-san! It's just…."
"Just what? Come on, I think we both know that something's really gone wrong here. I want to know what it is." A beat, and then, as if the idea were entirely new, Katou said, "You're planning on leaving, aren't you? That's why you need the money."
Izumi tried to disguise his panic behind something closer to reason. "I don't have enough yet, but I will soon. If you can just let me stay a little while longer, until I can come up with the rest—"
"Dammit, Izumi, if you want to leave so badly, I'll give you the money. You just need to ask. You—you don't have to sell yourself."
"I'll stay and help you until you're well again, after your operation. I want to stay. But I—I know you've changed your mind about me, and I won't stay if I'm upsetting you too much."
"What do you mean, changed my mind about you? Look, that's not true, either. Where did you come up with that?"
"I heard you tell your friends you were only letting me stay until I got back on my feet."
"God, Izumi-kun! Look, okay, so maybe I'm not running around telling everyone about you and me, but that doesn't mean…. Look, they're not even friends, really, they're just a bunch of people I used to work with. I don't want to share my personal business with them, all right?"
"So that's why you've been acting so cold, then? You thought I wanted you to leave or something? I don't."
"But then why did you…? You stopped sleeping with me, and—"
"Hold on—I thought you didn't want to sleep with me, because you…. When you gave me your money that night Yui was here, I asked you if it was because of what Yui had said."
"It was." At Katou's uncomprehending look, he added, "Yui told you I should be helping you out with your loans. And that's what I was trying to do."
"Oh, no! That wasn't…. Look, I thought…. Ah shit, what a mess!"
"What is it, Katou-san?" He needed to steady himself, and his hand naturally sought out Katou, his one source of strength. To his surprise, Katou captured it and entwined his own hand in his.
"Okay, listen. Something else Yui said that night was that you were only sleeping with me to pay me back for the rent. That's what I was talking about."
Izumi remembered, but it had made no impression on him at the time. "You were?"
"Yeah. So when you gave me that money, I took it to mean…well, that you'd rather give me money than have sex with me. After that, I didn't want to pressure you to, ah…. I just thought that you probably don't even like sex anymore."
"Don't like sex?" he echoed. Was that even feasible?
"Not after what Ken made you do and everything."
Izumi gave Katou's fingers an affectionate squeeze and tried not to smile at his ignorance. "Well, it all matters who I'm having sex with. Didn't it seem like I was enjoying it with you?"
"Uh, yeah. I thought so, but then we stopped and— I thought you'd, uh, well, be more assertive about it, I guess, if you really wanted to. But you weren't."
"That's because I thought you decided that doing it with a guy wasn't your thing after all, or maybe"—he almost couldn't admit this—"maybe it was me."
"What I did before. Maybe you want someone without a history like mine, and you just don't know how to tell me."
"No, no, that wasn't—"
"And then you won that money, and…well, when we first met you told me that girls cost too much, so now you can have a girlfriend if you want."
"No, I don't want a girlfriend, Izumi-kun. I just want…. Okay, look, so I really suck at this, I know. You have to remember, though, that…living with another guy and…well, not just living with another guy, the rest of it, I mean, the sex and everything…oh, god, I'm making such a hash of this."
"Just—just tell me whatever it is."
Izumi tried to read Katou's eyes, searching for some kind of anchor to steady him in this chaotic discussion, but Katou was addressing their linked hands. "Okay. Look. I know I'm not the most romantic guy, but I'll try my best. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around…us. Sometimes I think about you and me and, uh, well, it scares me. Not that I was one-hundred percent straight before—well, I think things speak for themselves there, you know? But wondering about myself is one thing and doing something about it is something else."
"Then it's like I thought—"
"No, that's what I'm trying to explain. Badly, I guess. When I'm gone, I think about you and get a little freaked out, but then I come home and see you, and I know I made the right decision. I don't want anyone else. I'm happy with you. I know it's weird, and maybe you still won't believe me, but I do like you. I'm sorry for not telling you before."
"Then you—want me to stay?" Everything hung on the answer.
"Yeah. I didn't ask you to live with me on a whim, you know. I really meant it."
An unexpected joy settled over him. At that moment, he would have gladly forgiven him the most heinous of sins. "You—you did?"
"Yes, of course I did. I do."
Izumi had fought his tears for so long that he'd convinced himself he'd won the victory, but Katou's simple declaration undid him. "Really?" he gasped, letting this new-found happiness overtake him. "Really, Katou-san?"
Katou was smiling now, the one that made Izumi's heart falter and then race in turn. Izumi lifted his face to him and completed his apology, kissing Katou gently at first, lightly tracing the outline of the beloved face, nuzzling the soft hairs at his temples, brushing his cheeks, and finally his lips.
"Do you know how hard I've had to work to keep away from you, Izumi-kun? When I get home at night and you're here, I just want you in the worst way. It's been awful."
"Oh, for me too."
"We're sure a pair of idiots, aren't we? It's like—like our own Rashomon or something. Except we each thought we saw what we were most afraid of. Come here. Let's—I want to do this right."
Instantly, Izumi was in his arms, leaning his body along Katou's, in love with him and with the world. They were kissing again, sweet and slow like the night they'd celebrated the news about the lottery, except this time Izumi knew the secret words that would admit him into that special place. And then their kisses grew fiercer, hungrier, deeper. Katou, crablike, was walking him backwards, too involved to stop what they were doing until they toppled onto the edge of the bed. Izumi felt himself being lifted by strong arms until he rested in the center of the mattress. Katou was on top of him, rubbing against him and saying something into his skin. Katou's fingers were threading through his hair, and although Izumi would have worried only moments before that Katou imagined himself in bed with a girl, now he knew better because he heard his own name whispered over and over.
The thing he remembered most about Katou was that he liked to take his time, not like Izumi's customers who registered every tick of the clock against what they'd dearly paid for. Even Ken had always done it with him in a frenzied rush, as if there were too many other pleasures waiting out there for him to relax and enjoy this one.
Not Katou. It was as if every touch, every sensation, every part of their bodies was something to be explored at length. And it wasn't just the things he was doing to Izumi, but how he tried to explain in astonished gasps how much he treasured every minute of it. Izumi let himself stretch out full length so Katou could reach whatever it was he wanted, a sensual smorgasbord.
Katou was curling around him now, condom and lube in place, and there was that breathless moment when everything was poised on the head of a pin, the moment Katou took himself in hand and pushed past all of Izumi's defenses, and they both gasped at the sensation and wonder of it.
"Are you all right," Katou asked—Katou always asked, holding very still until Izumi assured him that yes, he was all right, better than all right, in fact. It was awkward, but Katou leaned in, pressing Izumi's legs up tight against his chest, and kissed him as long as he could before the angle and the pressure got the better of them.
"Nnngh," he moaned into Katou's neck. "Come…come on, I…ah, I want…" and he was fisting himself, even though the feel of his own cock against Katou's skin was enough to make him come without any help at all.
"Oh god, Izumi-kun, you are…I want—want you…ahhhh!"
Izumi lowered himself on Katou to ease the pain he was surely feeling by now in his hips. The tightening grip on his arms let him know Katou was very close. He was working hard to keep his own orgasm in check so that he could feel the instant Katou came apart underneath him, and when it finally happened, the emotions that engulfed him were sharp and fierce.
"I love you so much, Katou-san," he mouthed into the soft skin of Katou's shoulder, knowing his voice was pitched too low to hear. Then he bit his lip, thrust helplessly against Katou's searching hand, and came too, losing himself utterly, until he heard a soft chuckle asking, "You still with me, Izumi?"
"Yeah," he sighed and slipped off, tucking himself against Katou's side where he belonged. Even though they were still touching, Katou's hand smoothing possessively over Izumi's hip, they were lost in their own silence. It wasn't the awkward, confusing silence of the past weeks, though, but a stillness rooted in solace and reconciliation.
"I—I think I love you too, Izumi-kun," Katou said. Startled, Izumi lifted his head, but Katou gentled it back down. "Yeah, I heard you just now. I can hear you when I'm listening, you know."
"Is it okay? That I say it, I mean?"
"Yeah, it's okay. Scary as hell, but okay."
Izumi, although he was drowsy and sated, roused himself and began massaging Katou's shoulders, his back, his damaged hips.
"Mmm…nice," Katou murmured. "You know, you could get a job doing just this. Legit, I mean."
"Yeah, I heard that masseurs make a decent living. If you want to, that is. Once you get over the agoraphobia. You'll talk to Dr. Sasaki now, won't you?"
"If you think I should."
"Yeah. You know, I bet I can guess why it's come back. It's like your body is trying to tell you not to go out and sell yourself anymore. Don't you think?"
"Mmm. Maybe." He gently urged Katou over onto his back and began running his hands over the chest muscles, relishing the touch.
"Your body just wants you to stay home."
Home. The word sounded so promising coming from Katou's mouth and filled him with an unexpected hope. With Katou, he'd finally found a home. The most surprising discovery, though—what he suddenly understood so clearly where he didn't understand at all before—was that home didn't seem to be a place at all. Somehow, without even being aware of how it had come about, Izumi found out that home might just be a person instead. Someone who always sheltered you deep in his heart.
Katou's breathing had become slow and regular under his hands. Asleep. The fine lines of pain around his eyes were softened and he looked younger, although no more handsome. Izumi slid down into the warmth beside him, placed one hand gently over Katou's heart, and closed his eyes.
We get hurt and we just panic
And we strike out, out of fear
(you were only being kind).
Oh, and all we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold.