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when children like this grow up

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Shuuji knows his new school's not high-level. When the teacher asks the girls what they want to be, the answers are predictable: florist, baker, hair stylist, bride. And once someone says bride, they all agree that's what they want, fancy clothes and a virgin road. The boys come up with some equally childish stuff, but most of it's parroting their parents: be a civil servant, get a factory job, go into sales.

Akira says office worker, but Shuuji knows he's going to university and then probably into his dad's company. That's just how the world works.

Shuuji says maybe he wants to be a designer, but really, he'd make someone a pretty good bride. Part of him thinks it kind of sucks that he never will.

He talks to Nobuta about it on the phone, because she's always good at knowing what he's really upset about. Nobuta says she doesn't want to be a bride, and he can do it in her place.

"Good luck on your exams," Nobuta says, very formally, and Shuuji says yeah and wishes her the same.

Akira gets into the university his dad wants him to go to, and Shuuji studies to be a dental hygienist. Everyone from school laughs and tells him that he's a guy so he should be a dentist instead; Shuuji shrugs and says he's not ambitious. His mom gets a job in Malaysia and his dad and Kouji move, but Shuuji's happy with his studies and his tidy apartment, where the only person he needs to take care of is himself. Akira comes to visit a couple times a month. He never seems to change at all, but Shuuji's convinced that Akira's got a double life, and that far away in classrooms and coffee houses Akira is turning into a responsible adult. He always expects that some week Akira won't show up, having outgrown Shuuji and turned corporately ambitious.

Nobuta never talks about what she's studying or – after they graduate – what she does. Shuuji doesn't feel shut out, though. She's still quiet and she still sees the world through a strange lens, but Shuuji's convinced by the confident way she walks and dresses and meets his eyes that she's found a good place. He thinks Katherine might have helped Nobuta get a job. Sometimes when Shuuji's visiting Nobuta or she's staying for a weekend at his apartment, she tells him about Uehara and Bando. Once she went to a poetry reading with Yokoyama-sensei, and she showed Shuuji pictures, both of them laughing over Yokoyama's latest mustache.

"I wouldn't go back in time if you paid me," Shuuji says, curled up on the hot carpet and digesting dinner, still holding Nobuta's phone even after the screen turned off to save power.

Nobuta takes a long sip of her tea, thinking. "We survived," she says finally, in stiffly formal words and with a lowering of her chin like she remembered how it felt when every day was like going into battle. She looks into her cup , watching the steam rise. "You promised to show me how to floss my teeth."

"Mnph." Shuuji shuts his eyes and pretends to be asleep. Nobuta prods him with a foot, and then he hears the click of her cup being set on the kotatsu and the rustle of her skirt very close by, and then he feels her finger trace his eyelid very lightly. "Mnph," he says again in protest, because she's going to smudge his eyeliner.

"You're prettier than you used to be," Nobuta says, and rubs his cheek like she's checking for foundation. Which Shuuji never wears, because it makes him break out. Not that he needs it anyway, as long as he uses moisturizer with UV protection. He's in a job where people look at his pores and up his nose all day, so everyone he works with takes care of their skin; not to mention he's kind of vain, if he's being honest with himself. "I like that you don't talk about sex. Everyone else... does. It makes me feel weird for not knowing what I want."

Shuuji opens his eyes. "It's fine to wait." Sometimes he wishes he had; he's embarrassed that he's never had sex with anyone he particularly liked. He overcomes his lethargy enough to poke Nobuta in the leg. "If Akira bugs you, just hit him."

The corners of Nobuta's mouth twitch back in a fleeting smile that looks pained, but Shuuji knows she's trying for his sake. "He said you told him you're gay. He was surprised, I think. He wanted to know since when and who with. I think he thinks someone broke your heart, and...." She doesn't bother finishing the sentence.

Shuuji shoves his hands into his hair and thinks about how wrong it is to want to smack Akira around, but yet so tempting, and rolls over so his face is in the carpet. He can still hear Nobuta laughing at him, tiny strangled gasps of amusement. His face's hot, but he sits up anyway. "And I told him not to tell anyone."

Nobuta gives him two stiff open-handed pats on the shoulder. "But you already told me years ago." Her eyes are still bright with humor, and she's kind enough not to mention that he's been telling her everything that terrifies him for years, because when she says don't worry he believes her. "Also, I'm just Nobuta to him. Different from just anyone."

"Damn straight," Shuuji says, and gives her his hand. He remembers when Akira had his huge crush on Nobuta, and how scared he'd been that they'd actually fall in love, hearts and flowers, happily ever after – like the end of the world. He lets Nobuta pull him to his feet, and yawns, and propels her into the washroom. Nobuta's resolute about keeping her teeth healthy even if she still hardly ever smiles, and Shuuji keeps her supplied with the good toothbrushes. Least he can do.

*

Shuuji grows his hair well past his shoulders and pulls it back with a band, and starts wearing lip gloss to work. He likes how he looks. He doesn't get mistaken for a girl much, because of how tall he is, but he enjoys when it happens. Having to wear a pastel uniform probably helps. He's a little confused by how much more he gets flirted with, when he's not trying to attract anyone. Akira says it's because he looks like an anime character.

Shuuji's escorting him from the train station through the shotengai, and then up through a maze-like twist of backroads and alleys that's the shortest route to his building. For all he's visited countless times before, Akira tends gets lost if he's on his own. Shuuji's carrying the heavier of Akira's bags, which for some idiotic reason doesn't even have wheels. He'd complain, except that Akira's bought food at every stall along the way, and dinner's going to be a feast of hot croquettes, tai-yaki, cabbage-yaki, and enormous sekihan onigiri.

"If you bleached your hair more and did like this," Akira says with glee, pulling his own hair straight up to demonstrate, "you'd look just like that guy on that show, except without an eyepatch. Girls love skinny cartoon guys who have internal suffering. And eyepatches. Here you are, picture perfect, and gay. Do you know how hard I have to work to get a date?"

Shuuji's tempted to remind Akira that women throw themselves at him all the time, figuring if they get into his pants they'll be that much closer to his bottomless wallet. In university, Akira didn't seem to mind, talking about a different girlfriend every few months. But since joining his father's company, Akira hasn't dated anyone seriously that Shuuji knows of. Either growing up or wising up, Shuuji supposes.

"I can still make you stay at a hotel," he threatens, and gives Akira a dark look.

Akira groans and falls onto Shuuji with dramatic repentance. Shuuji stumbles and drops Akira's suitcase, which fortuitously lands on Akira's toes.

"I can't stay at a hotel," Akira says, looking up through the fall of his fringe, an expression that looks so sincere Shuuji doesn't trust him at all. "I hate hotels. And I don't know how long I'll be staying. Maybe one week. Maybe ten."

Shuuji tries to drop the suitcase on Akira's feet again, but unfortunately Akira's prepared for that now and dances out of reach, his boston bag swinging heavily and all his parcels perilous in his hands. "You said you were coming to visit."

Akira waves a hand. "A long visit?"

"We're not kids anymore," Shuuji says sharply. He regrets the words as soon as he sees them make Akira deflate, a very adult kind of weariness blanking the light from his eyes and a false smile pasting itself over disappointment. "I just wish you'd told me before," he says.

"I can't," Akira starts, and looks away, out past the rows of council flats to the fields and mountains beyond. "Going home to an empty house is killing me."

Shuuji went once to the condo Akira's father bought for him. It looked like a photo spread: white walls and furniture, sleek Italian kitchen, potted plants and trees from a rental company. He'd found it hard to sleep, lost in the vastness of the guest room bed, and Akira had been distant and nervous, his voice too loud. As far as Shuuji knows, Nobuta's never been; he can't even picture her there.

"Use my shampoo and I'll kill you," Shuuji says. "And I'll cook but I'm not doing your laundry."

Akira's good mood is still banked, but he nods like this is perfectly reasonable.

"We're going to have to share a room, you know," Shuuji adds. "So don't bring anyone home, I don't want to know."

"Oh," Akira says, and tries to grab Shuuji's arm, but ends up smacking him in the side with the tai-yaki bag. He finally looks sorry for asking so much, but that's selfish, too, especially since Shuuji's already resigned to his fate. "Do you have a boyfriend? I forgot you might not tell me if you're in love," and there the guilt trip is, now Shuuji feels like a terrible person who treats his friends horribly. He doesn't think Akira even knows how manipulative he's being. He hopes not.

"No," Shuuji says. Don't worry about it." He turns to cut through the drugstore parking lot. There's a one-lane bridge over an irrigation river, and then a steep cement bicycle track, and then he's dragging Akira's suitcase upstairs and holding the door open like some kind of bellboy.

Akira gives him a weird look and says, "Don't do that," kicking his shoes off and stepping up into the kitchen. In English he adds, "Home sweet home."

Shuuji leaves the suitcase by the door and shakes out his shoulders, then lets Akira pull him into a tight hug, the kind he usually reserves for Nobuta.

"Okaeri," Shuuji says.

Akira thumps his back enthusiastically, like their team just won the finals or something. "Tadaima." And then, "I'm hungry."

Shuji makes a chores list which he tapes to the refrigerator, and the next day Akira brings him home all seventeen flavors of 17 Ice cones, flourishing them in their colorful wrappers like a quickly-melting bouquet.

Akira stays for twenty-five days exactly. Shuuji makes matching obento each morning, cooking while Akira stumbles into his suit and persuades the coffee maker to bring him to full consciousness. Akira gets home after midnight and falls face-first into the futon Shuuji leaves out for him, and Shuuji's sure that he's spending a fortune to commute by Shinkansen, or else he'd be sleeping on a train platform .

Shuuji works Saturdays, and Akira makes a big production about doing the shopping and making dinner. It's kind of nice to come home to a hot meal, even if Akira has an eclectic repertoire gleaned from NHK's cooking shows. The first week it's goya cream stew, then grilled fish and bean salad.

"I could get used to this," Shuuji admits, leaning back on one hand and reaching for his wine glass with the other. Akira likes to downplay his wealthy roots, but he has excellent taste in alcohol. Shuuji tries to find good words to explain how he feels, but his brain keeps circling around the admission that he gets lonely, too. He doesn't know how to meet guys outside of clubs, and that's not really his scene, even though that's how he's managed to get laid so far, a few times a year stranded after the trains stop running for the night and nothing better to do. He's most comfortable like this, safe with someone he knows well, who's used to his face scrubbed clean and his favorite pair of pajama pants, so old he's changed the elastic four times already. He can tell the truth to Akira, and to Nobuta, is the thing.

"I should be going back," Akira says, face bright red, probably more drunk than Shuuji is. He throws himself backwards, arms spread wide, one knee knocking the kotatsu top askew and rattling all the dishes. "It's like... it's a machine, full of gears, and I go in at one end and get passed along and processed and boxed up and – I can see my future, and I hate it. Sometimes. A lot." He drops an arm over his face. "I'll do omiai in a few years, find myself the right kind of wife, and make two little Akira clones who'll think I'm pathetic." He twitches his fingers like he's brushing off cobwebs. "Just one more nasakenai oyaji."

"You don't have to," Shuuji says, the wine making him sound fiercely earnest. "Fuck all that. Stand up for yourself."

Akira laughs and reaches over to shake Shuuji's ankle. His hands are warm and damp. "Go get me some of those pills, or I'll be sick in the morning."

"Get your own damn pills," Shuuji says, and Akira drags himself upright slowly, grumbling.

On the morning of the twenty-sixth day, Akira takes his suitcase with him to the station. The shotengai shops are all shuttered as he and Shuuji walk past; Shuuji feels irrationally as if they won't be seeing each other for a long time.

He hands Akira his lunch at the bottom of the station steps; inside the plain paper bag he's tied the box up in a blindingly hideous kerchief, pink bunnies and yellow cats and hearts and stars.

Akira grins. "Everyone at work's going to think my girlfriend dumped me when I stop bringing these," Akira says, hefting the bag in thanks.

"You should have treated her better," Shuuji tells him. He pushes away intruding thoughts about Mariko and lunches and how much of an asshole he'd been as a kid. He hadn't known who he was back then, or he hadn't liked who he was; he'd been such a liar that by the time he decided not to be like that anymore, all he knew about himself was that he liked to make people smile, the way Akira is now. "You should pack your own lunches."

"No fun in that," Akira dismisses, and sketches a kind of salute, saying "Shuuji" instead of goodbye as he turns and takes the stairs two at a time, the loudspeaker already announcing his train.

He mails Shuuji back the lunchbox, filled with tiny konpeito sugar stars in rainbow colors and hard-candy goldfish, but not the kerchief.

Shuuji wonders about that, but when Akira invites himself over in June the kerchief reappears in the basket where the bento boxes are kept. Shuuji searches the shotengai for an even more horrible kerchief and finds one that's probably been on the shelf since the Seventies, printed with big-eyed girls, hair in corkscrew ringlets. Akira professes love, and takes to wearing it in the breast pocket of his suits.

*

Akira invites himself over for most of June, and again for the last few weeks of September. Shuuji finds himself looking forward to an intrusion over the year-end holidays, even wondering if he should try and make food for New Years or demand that Akira order over-the-top gourmet osechi from some prestigious ryotei.

Instead, Nobuta calls in late October and says that she's renovating an old townhouse in Saitama as an art gallery, and Akira's volunteered to spend his weekends replacing shoji and patch up the clay walls. Nobuta adds pensively that she's discovered a nest of giant spiders under the eaves.

"So you want me to come rein in his enthusiasm?" Shuji asks. He's annoyed with himself for feeling left out, when he knows rationally that he's spent less time with Nobuta because of Akira always being underfoot. He grabs his cell phone and starts looking up train schedules. When Nobuta asks if he knows how to use a sewing machine, he says, "Of course."

Nobuta didn't mention that her sewing machine was an antique, built into a work table and with pedals. Bando's there, wearing faded navy coveralls and ducking into the garden for cigarette breaks, and she laughs at Shuuji as he figures the machine out, yanking on his ponytail. But when he's finished with the curtains she leaves off with the plumbing job that makes her swear almost constantly, elbowing Shuuji aside to climb the ladder with power tools and attach the rails.

"Wouldn't want you to break a nail," she says, tossing Shuuji the level and driving a screw home with unhesitating accuracy. Shuuji thinks she doesn't hate him, but he's not sure. She likes Nobuta. She can't hold a civil discussion with Akira. She drives a tiny pink and white car lined with Disneyland towels, and apparently she installs bathrooms professionally for a major Toto contractor. She got Nobuta a gorgeous toilet at a deep discount, and smirks when Nobuta shows it off.

Nobuta moves her furniture into the upstairs flat over the December holiday weekend, and Akira covers the garden with LED Christmas lights that cast blue light over them as they eat the lopsided bûche de noël that Shuuji made and Bando over-decorated. The wall are uninsulated, so everyone's in layers of sweaters and scarves, and if it were a TV drama it'd snow. Bando and Nobuta have dates for Christmas eve, even though they won't name names, and Akira paces and makes vague threats about what he's going to do to if anyone steps out of line with them. "They say just one thing that pisses you off, you call me," he insists, and makes sure both of them have his cell phone number and email.

Shuuji's surprised that Bando lets Akira get away with playing protective big brother, but he's not fool enough to ask her about it. He asks Akira about his Christmas plans instead, but that turns out to be a bad idea. Akira's been invited to a client's dinner party, with champagne and dancing.

"Tux-eee-do," Akira gripes, dropping to the floor. He puts his head on Nobuta's knee and pouts until she pats his head, like a person who hates dogs trying to be polite. "I'm gonna have to whore out my soul, Bando, you can stop laughing anytime now."

"Poor fucking baby," Bando says, and lights a cigarette, sliding open the garden door so she can blow the smoke out. It curls around the lights and looks beautiful.

*

Shuuji doesn't see Akira again until half past midnight one night in late January, when Akira leans on the doorbell until Shuuji shoves the door open.

Shuuji isn't surprised, but he is worried. Akira looks haunted, jittering with nervous energy but stumbling exhaustedly over his own feet. He's got the dark smudge of bruising on his cheek and no suitcase, so Shuuji gives him a sweatshirt and pair of track bottoms and starts to haul the guest futons out of the closet.

"Don't," Akira says, dropping his suit jacket on the floor. "I mean... I want to sleep with you. Like in high school, remember?"

Like that time before when you fought with your dad, Shuuji thinks, but he tosses everything back except a couple of blankets. All signs indicate that Akira's the sort who steals the covers. Akira strips down to his briefs and socks and then stares at Shuuji, looking a little lost.

"Clothes on," Shuuji says, the way he talks to his brother. He picks the sweatshirt up from where Akira dropped it on the floor and threads it over his head, tugging down until Akira blinks alert and shoves his arms into sleeves. There are more bruises on his arms, and a nasty one across his back, like the edge of a table or a shelf. Shuuji does the same thing with the pants, holding them for Akira to step into and then letting Akira put a hand on his shoulder for balance. "And bed," he adds, waiting until Akira's lying down before turning the light off.

"It's warm," Akira says, and tosses an arm around Shuuji's waist, his face mashing into the back of his shoulder.

"Because I was fast asleep, you idiot." Shuuji puts his hand over Akira's. Akira immediately weaves their fingers together and tightens his grip, and Shuuji doesn't shove him off. Maybe it wasn't Akira's dad who beat him up, but he knows Akira used to get hit back in school and always figured that was one of the reasons Akira didn't live at home.

Akira shakes and gasps in breaths like he's trying not to cry until he falls asleep. Shuuji feels sorry for him, until he wakes up half frozen to find that not only has Akira stolen all the blankets, but he's even shoved Shuuji off the futon onto the tatami. Shuuji rearranges Akira ruthlessly, shoving away arms and legs until he has his half of the bedding back.

The next time Shuuji wakes up is when his alarm clock goes off. Akira grabs it first and pokes at it ineffectually as the beeping gets louder, until Shuuji finally manages to yank it away.

"Oh, ha, yo," Akira says. He yawns and winces; his face is swollen and Shuuji thinks he should have maybe iced that last night. "Is it possible to die of embarrassment? Fatal mortification?"

"No," Shuuji says, not in the mood for whimsy, and crawls back into bed. He sticks his cold feet onto Akira's ankles.

"Ahh," Akira rolls his head back to the side to look at Shuuji from the corners of his eyes. "You're mad at me."

"Shut up," Shuuji suggests, and monopolizes the pillow. He can sleep another five minutes, or ten.

"Shuuji," Akira says, singsong, and throws himself down, propping his head up on one hand. "I told my dad I'm quitting."

Akira's so close Shuuji nearly has to cross his eyes to look at him. "Okay."

"Okay," Akira echoes. "Shuuji." He settles, resting his forehead against Shuuji's. "Let me tell you a story." Shuuji makes a noise that he hopes will make Akira desist. "I probably won't quit," Akira says, very quietly. Shuuji can feel his breath. "I've been walking away from the old man for years and I always circle back. But when I was, after we fought, I was thinking, Akira, what is happiness?" A hand slides into Shuuji's hair and tugs. "Are you awake?"

Shuuji jabs a finger into Akira's stomach, just hard enough to make him let go. "Happiness."

"Ow," Akira says, moving his arm so it settles heavy over Shuuji's shoulders. "Every time I'm really happy I'm with you."

"And Nobuta," Shuuji agrees.

"I'm talking about love."

"I thought you were talking about happiness," Shuuji mutters. If he wasn't so sleep-deprived he'd have had a better retort, but he's just catching on that this is one of those momentous conversations. "What?"

Akira sighs, as if Shuuji's testing his patience. "I realized I want you to make me lunch every day. I want to wake up every morning with you, ohayo-san. I want you to throw out my old toothbrushes even if I liked them, and I want to live in fear of what'd happen if I used your conditioner. I want to be the kind of person you can tell the truth to. I want to give you stupid presents. I want to come home to where you are and say tadaima and you say –"

"Okaeri."

"Like that," Akira says, as if he's just proved his point. "Every day."

Shuuji feels like he's just had his shell stripped away; wildly, breathlessly vulnerable. "Except I can't be your wife," he says, and he lets Akira hear the regret, just this once. "Much as I'd love to." He peels Akira's arm away and drags Akira's hand down under the futon. He presses Akira's palm against his crotch and watches Akira's eyes go wide. He keeps his grip firm on Akira's wrist for a moment longer, and then lets him go. "I'm not what you want."

Infuriatingly, Akira doesn't move his hand away, just curls his fingers loosely around Shuuji's dick. "I've got one of these. I know how they work." He leans in, just enough to give Shuuji a tight, menacing smile. "And you don't get to tell me what I want." Then he breaks the mood by flipping the futon over to the side and sitting up to stare at the outline of Shuuji's dick through his pajama bottoms. "I hear size doesn't matter." He says the last bit in English, but Shuuji gets the insult anyway and shoves up, trying to knock Akira over.

He doesn't know anything about martial arts or wrestling, but he's full of righteous annoyance about being cold and tired, which is all Akira's fault, and he's angry that he never asks anyone for anything, and maybe that just means he's going to wind up unloved and alone. He gets Akira pinned and sits hard on his stomach to keep him down.

Akira grins like he came out on top anyway. "Call in sick today, and we'll stay in bed and watch TV and drink cocoa and I'll make curry for dinner."

Shuuji doesn't know what the right thing to say is, so he just blurts out, "Don't break my heart."

"Hey," Akira says, and puts his hands around Shuuji's waist. "I just spent, what, ten years of my life always trying to be with you and I just figured out why. I'd be an asshole if I made you cry." He frowns. "And Nobuta'd probably sic Bando on me. I like my bones unbroken." He sits up, shoving Shuuji back until his butt hits the floor, his legs draped over Akira's thighs. "Then tomorrow I'll go see the old man, sort things out, have him call off the omiai, and you should make me lunch."

"So people'll think you got back with your girlfriend?"

"I'll tell everyone it's from my lovely wife," Akira says, and leans forward to rest his head on Shuuji's shoulder. Like that, it's easy for Shuuji to hug Akira back. "Are we the kind of sappy couple that still holds hands and kisses?"

"You can't say still about something we've never done," Shuuji points out. "That's just logic."

"Oh-ho," Akira says. He picks his head up and Shuuji barely has time to realize how close they are before Akira's mouth is on his. The kiss starts out hard, like a natural extension of all their years of rough-housing, and then takes a sudden detour into soft and lingering. Shuuji finds himself going breathless, with Akira's hands in his hair, and the knowledge that he doesn't have to hide or lie about the way he feels is like walking into warmth after too long cold.

"Don't go," Shuuji says. His hand is under Akira's shirt, fingers spread wide to touch as much as he can. "I don't want to be alone." He takes a breath, but still can't meet Akira's eyes, looks over his shoulder at the window when he says, "I like, I like you."

Akira traces the line of his lips with a finger, and Shuuji realizes he's smiling. "I did that," Akira says, sounding smug, and then leans in to kiss Shuuji again.