The greatest prize each small victory bequeathed them was the temporary luxury to do absolutely nothing.
For just an afternoon and evening before meeting Maya and the others for yet another round of scraps with the bad guys, Tatsuya could shuffle home, where his mother would be chopping vegetables for dinner and his father would be listening to Katsuya's tale of the day, with a beer in hand and remorse etched into every line of his face. He could let the front door slam behind him and leave his shoes in the foyer, and lurk around the corner to listen to his brother's vexed spiel on arresting more lunatics in masks and robes. He could stalk upstairs to his bedroom when he'd had quite enough of that well-intentioned but ultimately clueless jibe on a crisis that grew more hopeless by the day, no matter how many Masquerade flunkies they threw in the slammer or how many Nazis crumpled from gunshots and spells straight to their skulls.
That he could now do all of these things and more while accompanied by his long lost best friend was a great miracle in itself, just one of many he fought for each day. Jun remarked one day while they shopped for armor just how much he loathed returning to an empty apartment, tidy and all but abandoned save for his meager belongings, a massive and untouched stock of instant noodles, and wilted blooms on the windowsill he couldn’t summon the energy to discard or replace. “I wonder where Mom is now? The last time I saw her, she had another lover… It was before I ran away.”
“I saw her, once,” Tatsuya muttered, turning a can of blade polish over in his hand. “No, a few times. She was at the TV station.” He kept his other musings on Junko’s behavior to himself: offering Tatsuya her autograph, talking down to everyone around her like a queen among slaves, the bizarre rumors of an affair with Yukino’s eccentric pal from St. Hermelin. To Tatsuya she was nothing but selfish, unworthy of whatever love Jun spared her, and for that love his lips were sealed.
He felt Jun’s eyes resting on him, curious and serene. Tatsuya shrugged and shelved the can as second thoughts kicked in. “Come stay with me instead and don’t worry about her. You don’t need to be alone.”
When Jun stood in Tatsuya’s bedroom and shed the stiff blue jacket of his uniform, the bruises of the day’s beatings were visible through his shirt, its usual pristine white stained with blood and sweat. He could name the monster that dealt each mark: the shallow gash on his hip, a jab from the lance of a Valkyrie; the cut on his collarbone, a bite from a hungry Succubus; the bruise on his arm, a slap from an enraged Kraken’s tentacle. Tatsuya had them too, from parrying his sword with beasts that could put up a real fight, but the blemishes on his lean frame were less startling than the wounds marring Jun’s dollish skin.
“I have this,” Tatsuya said, pulling a canister of ointment from his pocket. “Medicine from Satomi Tadashi… It’ll help.” He pressed it into Jun’s palms and began popping the buttons out of his own shirt. Jun smeared the cream onto his fingers, and extended the hand to Tatsuya’s chest, where a small claw wound still throbbed above his ribs. Before Tatsuya could protest he was massaging the ointment into his wound, ebbing away the dried blood with tender dabs.
He groaned and the cuts sealed in a magic instant, absorbing the medicine and leaving a faint scar. Jun smiled and wiped his fingers off on his arm. “Better?”
“Yeah.” Tatsuya glanced down at the greasy scar. “But you were supposed to use it on yourself, not me.”
“There’s plenty of it for both of us, Tatsuya,” Jun said dismissively. He dipped his fingers into the cream once again. “And the deepest wounds should be treated first.”
Tatsuya’s bedroom was dotted with objects of leisure and they gathered dust on most days—the cherry red electric guitar perched on its stand, an old television set and a Playstation that sat beneath it, a PC on the desk that got more use when he was suffering puberty’s most powerful pains, and, stashed under his bed in the most remote corner, boxes of Phoenix Ranger Featherman R tapes Katsuya had recorded for him every Sunday morning until the summer he turned eight, when he landed in the hospital. (Katsuya brought them for him to watch while he was bedridden, and Tatsuya insisted to his brother that he didn’t like the “dumb baby show” anymore. “Throw them out,” he cried from his bed, “I don’t want them around!”) A decade of dust was piled on the masking tape labels he’d attached, obscuring the scribbles of Katsuya’s infuriatingly neat handwriting in red marker: “Tatsuya’s favorite”, “Season 2 Episode 3”, and “28/05/1989”, among others. They lay forgotten from the day Katsuya hid them away.
Video games were a childhood luxury Jun was never afforded. When asked he shrugged it off and said he didn’t mind much, that he kept himself busy learning, reading his father’s books, sketching star charts, tidying the house, and nursing plants he could grow in pots on the apartment balcony. A dimness clouded his eyes whenever the topic of his childhood arose, and sometimes there was a tightening in his chest too that reminded him he would have sacrificed video games and books and flowers just for company, a live human being who would acknowledge his existence beyond a burden inhabiting her space. Jun needed neither friend nor kin to occupy his time, but he discovered the difference between need and want in his tender years, when he performed living room piano recitals to an empty house and all of the applause was in his head.
When Tatsuya pressed a game controller into Jun’s palms it only made his hands appear more delicate. The joysticks made pleasant clicks as he tested their resilience with flicks of his thumbs.
“Play me,” Tatsuya said, picking up the other.
“How do you play?” Jun stared at the character select. It was a fighting game like the ones in arcades, and he rolled his cursor across each potential contender until settling on the busty and built yet scantily-clad female character among various beefcake men and a strange mascot.
“She sucks, don’t pick her.”
“Did you look at her stats? She moves quickly but her attack stat is the lowest and her defense is only average.”
“I like her hair…” Jun huffed and mashed the button. The narrator shouted her name out through the speakers and Tatsuya sighed, running a hand through his hair while biting back a smile.
“I’m just saying, you’re not gonna beat me like that.” He selected his usual and predictable favorite—a ninja clad in red.
“I wasn’t going to beat you anyway,” Jun said, lifting an eyebrow as the match began.
And it was true, for the most part, that Tatsuya kicked his ass seven times out of ten, with two being pity falls he took to let Jun win and the very last where Jun was the true and rightful victor, to Tatsuya’s secret dismay. Jun’s smile remained whether he lost or not. “Good game,” he would say after each match, beaming and bearing no trace of a gamer’s rage.
“You’re a good sport,” Tatsuya said. He turned the system off when boredom prevailed. “But trash talking is half the fun. Usually.”
Jun’s lips curled into a smirk. He raised his knuckles to his mouth, hiding it until it faded away. “Well, I’m not sure if that sort of thing really suits me…”
“If I was playing with someone else, I would have said your moves are shit.” He didn’t look at Jun when he said it. “The point is to get the other person mad and throw them off their game.”
“But Tatsuya,” Jun interrupted. “Isn’t it far more unnerving to have your opponent praising you even as you’re in the lead?” He repeated some of his own lines from only moments ago, punctuating them with waves of his hand. “’Tatsuya, you really excel on the offensive.’ ‘That was nice!’ ‘You should show me how to do that.’”
Tatsuya’s face grew hot with the humiliation of that final and legitimate loss.
“Susceptibility to praise is both the Leo’s strength and his downfall,” he continued. “As for me… well… I’m just not much for video games.”
And while he didn’t voice it, Tatsuya could read in his face that Jun didn’t think him capable of trash talking him anyway.
“You got me.” Tatsuya flopped back on the carpet and held his lighter above his face, flicking its cap and staring at it against the backdrop of his ceiling. “Next time we can make a bet out of it.”
It had been so long since Jun had eaten a homemade dinner with a family that he felt he’d nearly forgotten his manners. But Tatsuya, whose etiquette was long forgotten, dug right in to his mother’s cooking, holding the lacquer bowl right up to his lips and shoveling rice in his mouth with a pair of red chopsticks inked with the characters for “Suou” in gold. He belched heartily into his hand when he’d had enough for the moment, glancing over at Jun to see that his hands were held up in front of him in mid-clap, food yet untouched.
“It’s okay for you to eat, you know,” Tatsuya mumbled, embarrassed. He nudged the half-emptied bowl of rice away.
Jun turned back to his meal and clapped his hands together. “Thank you for the food.”
“You should teach my son manners like that, Jun-kun,” Tatsuya’s mother said kindly. “He hardly ever eats with us, and when he does it’s quite a sight.” She watched as he took dainty bites and resisted the urge to pig out like his other half. “Tatsuya said you go to Kasugayama? Where did you meet?”
Stop, Tatsuya mouthed, but his tongue went dry and no sound escaped, and he suddenly found himself more interested in his lap than his dinner. His father eyed him over his glasses, looking weary as ever or perhaps moreso as he glanced at the empty chair to his wife’s left, where their elder son sat on most evenings.
“Um, well…” Jun’s silent pleas for help went unheard as Tatsuya left him high and dry with questions neither of them wanted to or could answer. A pregnant pause hung in the air until Jun forced a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, but it was polite and gentle and pleasing to Mrs. Suou who bought it without hesitation. “Seven Sisters has a more extensive, um, library… than Kasugayama does. So we ran into each other while studying…”
“That’s a delinquent school, isn’t it?” his dad interrupted gruffly, thick brows knitting in Jun’s direction. Jun thought his stare was a lot like Tatsuya’s—hard and intimidating but not unkind. He straightened up, nodded, and stalled with a well-timed drain of his teacup. “Yes, sir,” he managed finally. To defend his enrollment would be cumbersome, Jun decided, and he crossed his fingers in his lap, praying that Mr. Suou would drop the topic.
Tatsuya’s hands slid up from his lap all the way to his burning face. He clutched his brow and his cheeks and dug his palms into his skin as if he were trying to claw off his own flesh to compensate for his accursed human inability to melt into the floor and disappear.
“Huh.” Mr. Suou guzzled the rest of his beer and wiped the foam off with the back of his hand. “I’ve heard it’s doing better lately. Better than Sevens, but I don’t know if I believe that.” He turned his stare back to his son and paid his agony no mind. “It’s nice that you’re finally making friends, but you’ve got entrance exams this year too, so don’t slack off. I know the city’s a mess right now—” His gaze darted to Katsuya’s empty seat once again. “—but that’s no excuse to flunk. Have you figured out what you want to do yet?” And he didn’t pause for so much as a bat of his son’s eye before whirling back to Jun. “What about you, Kurosu? It’s Kurosu, right, like that actress?”
Jun winced and nodded.
“You even look like her. That’ll be easy enough to remember.”
Tatsuya gritted his teeth and shoved his chair back, wooden legs scraping the tile floor with an unpleasant clatter. Each time he bothered to eat dinner with his family he regretted it, and he felt shame creep in as Jun blinked at him in confusion, knowing that Jun would kill to have a family that made beef bowls and cared enough to pry into his business, but Tatsuya couldn’t handle it, or perhaps it was just that he didn’t know how and refused to try. It was easier to fold when the rotten hand was laid out on the table for all to see.
He met Jun’s eyes. Just bring your food upstairs.
Jun looked back to husband and wife. They watched Tatsuya as he turned away and stomped up the stairs, and went back to their own meals without another word, content to let their disappointment remain unspoken as a mere discomfort hanging in the air, one that seemed as typical a component to family supper as miso and rice.
“Excuse me,” Jun whispered. He bowed and shuffled after Tatsuya, with both of their meals cradled in his arms.
When the late summer sun dipped below the smoggy Sumaru skyline and Tatsuya’s room fell into darkness, he dug Jun a clean t-shirt and boxers out of his drawers for light pajamas. They were baggy on his slender and petite frame, and Jun commented on how airy the pants were, wondering aloud if Tatsuya really loved the wind. “At least they don’t squish my junk,” Tatsuya countered, pointing at Jun’s underwear on the floor. It was a crude remark and Jun bent down indignantly to pick them up, clutching his shed boxer-briefs tight to his chest and bundling them up with his uniform to throw in the wash overnight. When the laundry was spinning and they were dressed for bed they stood together with only Tatsuya’s bedside lamp and its flickering bulb illuminating the room littered with the game controllers and cords and empty rice bowls from earlier.
Jun yawned, and Tatsuya reached for his hand, closing his around Jun’s long and delicate fingers, smoothing his thumb over his neatly trimmed nails one by one. “Ready for bed already?”
“I am if you are.” But Jun’s longing gaze out the window at the stars in the sky was telling. Tatsuya took the hint and led him over to the window, releasing his hand to pull up the pane. The cool night’s breeze wafted in and blew Jun’s hair out of his eye when he knelt down to get a better look at the stars and the moon that were closer to him than ever before. They were quiet for a long time, with only the sounds of their breathing and the whistle of the wind through the screen breaking the silence of the Rengedai neighborhood peace. Jun appreciated it.
“You can’t see the sky like this from anywhere in Hirasaka,” he murmured. “The tall buildings and the lights block it all even if you go up on the roof. That was why Dad and I used to come out here to the shrine… He would bring his own telescope and set it up, and we would stay for hours. I helped him chart the movements of different bodies. Mom was always late, so it didn’t matter how long we stayed out as long as he didn’t have to be at work the next day.”
Tatsuya pursed his lips and squinted at the moon. He was happy to listen to Jun talk without interruption; his voice was soothing and he found himself wondering how he went without it for so long.
“Ah… I guess you could call stargazing special moments you share with God… or the gods… or whatever’s out there. With the universe itself.” He squeezed Tatsuya’s hand tight. “When I look up at them I feel tiny, but not insignificant.” A glance at Tatsuya out of the corner of his eye. “Does that make sense? Some of the stars we’re looking at right now have already been dead for thousands of years, but their lights burned so brightly that we’re still seeing them here on Earth. Er… well. You know.” On Xibalba. “When I think of my dream like a star, I feel like I can pluck it right out of the sky. I want to reach it and I want it to burn brightly long after I’m gone. Even if my own light is the cost to make it a reality.”
Jun scooted closer to Tatsuya, with linked fingers becoming an arm snaked around his and a head on his shoulder. Bold, maybe, and if he humored his imagination he could almost hear Maya’s gleeful clapping and Lisa’s offended shriek and Eikichi’s wolf-whistle in his head. A deep flush set into Tatsuya’s cheeks but he made no effort to shirk away. Jun’s head was at the perfect height to rest comfortably against his shoulder and the smell of Tatsuya’s own shampoo wafted from Jun’s clean hair.
“But it’s nice,” Tatsuya said with an indignant huff, “to share those moments with someone else too…”
Jun hummed under his breath and closed his eyes amidst a pleasant smile crossing his face. “Yes, I think so too… I haven’t forgotten. I won’t forget again. Not ever.”
The way Jun discarded his prudence when they fell into bed made Tatsuya feel like the most fortunate man in the world. When he voiced this sentiment Jun gave his cock and balls a firm and reprimanding squeeze, narrowing his eyes and bringing his hips down hard on his lap. Is my body the only fortunate thing about me, he hissed into Tatsuya’s ear, am I just like my mother after all?
The sentiment was so absurd that Tatsuya lifted Jun by his waist and pulled him up from his comfy spot on top of him. They were both nude, pajamas forgotten on the bedroom floor in a messy pile, and he almost wondered why they bothered with them at all. Jun was beautiful, and the street lights crept in through the windows and illuminated his fair skin and waxen lips and fading bruises.
And perhaps tragically, for however much Jun wanted to hear it, Tatsuya’s mouth went dry when the time came for words of reassurance or waxing poetic on how much he needed him, all of him, and that losing him or any of their friends ever again would tear him apart. Even something as simple and raw as “I love you” felt impossible, and it was as difficult as he’d been told by books and movies since he was old enough to understand.
Jun wanted to hear it but he didn’t, and that was okay; he believed he didn’t deserve Tatsuya’s kindness, or his love or even his acknowledgment. Better that he save it for someone worthwhile, whose heart wasn’t a cold contradiction. Tatsuya was not articulate but for Jun’s sake he murmured a sincere reassurance against his jaw. “You make me happy.”
He needed no more than the pleasant rumbles of Jun’s breathing next to him in bed to get him hot in his groin, and Jun, for as much as he might argue it and play coy, was no better. In a moment’s frustration Jun had almost allowed himself to forget they were both hard and that he was just as filthy and hungry for the man beneath him as anyone else would be, were they ever to be as lucky as he, just as lecherous as any other teenage boy when he let his life’s troubles slip out of his grasp even for a moment, and it was as liberating as it was awkward to massage cold lube on Tatsuya’s length, to allow himself the moment of doing something normal for a change that had no bearing on the fate of the universe or dreams or protecting himself from all of the world’s ills. It was something only they could do together, and Jun cried out when Tatsuya entered him. He filled him and every hair on their bodies stood on end when Jun rolled his hips with each thrust of Tatsuya’s cock. Tatsuya held steadfast to his waist, moaning his name and swearing under his breath—fuck, Jun, Jun—when the head of his dick found his tightest depths, when his girth parted him to satisfaction.
Jun rode him until Tatsuya could tell weariness was setting in, and his hand supported the curve of Jun’s back, bringing him to a rest with balls still tight and cock still inside. His breathing was heavy and his own arousal stood stiff and wet. Tatsuya brushed the hair out of his eyes and pressed a clumsy kiss to his mouth, sucking the breath right out of his lips as they panted together. When his cock slipped out of him Jun clambered off of his lap, coming to a rest on all fours on the bed. His lover took his place behind him and resumed fucking him, harder, until he was stifling cries of pleasure into the pillows and precome dripped into the sheets, until Tatsuya built up his climax again, moaning, trying not to let Jun’s whimpers push him to spill, to little success. He finished warm and thick inside of him, and Jun kept his hips in place until he was spent.
When Tatsuya pulled out Jun turned over and flopped back on the bed, staring up at Tatsuya, whose expression was flat as usual. But for all of his solemnity he didn’t wait for Jun’s beckon to rest in between Jun’s legs and kiss him, with a grace and hunger that felt like love if either of them had any idea what it could be. Jun hadn’t come yet because Tatsuya was so thoughtless and despite it there was nary a complaint that escaped his lips. “Sorry,” Tatsuya murmured, and his lips trailed down Jun’s body, from his chin to his throat to each nipple to his abdomen and thighs and finally his erection. If he had ever possessed reservations about going down on him they were gone now, and he knew Jun was self-conscious. Perhaps even moreso than him, as Tatsuya recalled with a grin the first time they were entirely nude together and Jun had pulled the covers over his waist and huffed at Tatsuya’s tactless declaration that his dick was “cute”. This time he forewent the underhanded compliments. He didn’t smile but there was a passion aflame in his eyes that said he wasn’t doing this out of obligation nor was it a chore.
A rough fucking left Jun weary, and Tatsuya was gentle and considerate with him, dropping the usual teasing in favor of tender kisses along his length, tongue curled around his tip, and the rare sight of him taking all of Jun into his mouth. Jun watched every moment of it, propped up on his elbows and kindly pushing Tatsuya’s hair aside. They were both quiet now, save for Jun’s breathing and the wet hums of Tatsuya’s lips bobbing up and down on Jun’s cock. His orgasm crept up on him in the moments that passed, pleasure washing over him like a wave and he threw his head back when he came with a sharp heave and Tatsuya’s name on his tongue.
They fell into a heap on the bed, clinging to each other in a sticky hot clutter. Tatsuya’s tongue was fresh with the taste of Jun’s come and the way Jun kissed him despite it made Tatsuya shudder all over again.
Tatsuya’s futon fit one, but Jun was small enough to fit in the curve of Tatsuya’s body. They faced each other with the sheet pulled up over their thighs, and their eyes were closed but the lingering euphoria chased away yawns and sleep.
“What time do we have to get up tomorrow?” Jun’s eyelashes fluttered as he inhaled and exhaled, with each breath pushing him closer to rest.
“Dunno.” Tatsuya rolled over flat on his back. Jun still clung to his stomach. “Maya-nee said to get plenty of rest.”
There was quiet from his side, and Jun pressed his nose into his ribs with a sigh. A long pause trailed on and Tatsuya didn’t ask what was wrong; Jun would share if he wanted.
“Is it okay? To be afraid…”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid to mess up more than I already have… to hurt more innocent people… to lose you, or Maya, or Lisa or Michel.” Jun sniffed. “But I’m not afraid to die.”
Tatsuya felt his stomach sink for reasons he couldn’t bring himself to wonder. The sick feeling showed not on his face; his brow was set and his eyes narrowed at Jun, and he said firmly, “You’re not going to lose anyone.” I can’t lose anyone.
They lay there together, asleep and still like dolls, until the stars in the sky faded out once again in favor of the light of the sun. Tatsuya did not stir even when woken by the light peeking in the blinds; he toyed with Jun’s hair, letting each silky strand catch the morning sun. There would be many more mornings like this one, he told himself; after they won they would not only do absolutely nothing but important things too, like schoolwork and jobs and maybe even college. The five of them would make up for the years stolen by rumors and evil, for all of the video games they never played and meals they never ate. He could move out of his parents’ house and Jun would never have to be alone ever again. It was all he had to promise himself to get out of bed today and every day, even if he would never admit to that kind of positivity out of sheer stubbornness. Tatsuya needed it even if it remained a private motivation, and he couldn’t feel guilty for keeping it to himself when Jun and the others had Maya to lift their spirits in a way he could only aspire to. If a dream was an ideal, he decided, then his ideal life would be one with all of his friends, living happily together. It was the dream he would cut down any beast and make deals with any devil to make a reality. For all the talk of love and how powerful it could be, certainly no one could begrudge him a sole wish.
It was a warm sentiment and selfish desire he kept a secret until it was far too late.