Chapter 1: Serenade in G
The one where Jun wrangles Nino into helping him with a class project.
Autumn sunlight filtered down through the panes of tall French windows painting the small room an iridescent mixture of golden hues. Unsettled dust drifted through the rays of light to swirl on the slightest shift in the lazily warmed air.
All was quiet, the noises signifying the chaos from without the classroom muffled by the tightly closed door. One student sat at a desk in the corner farthest from the sealed portal, a neglected guitar lay across the desk before him as he tapped a set pattern of keys in rapid succession on the game in his hand. His short dark hair bobbed as he nodded his head silently to a tune only he could hear.
White specs caught in a pool of light above the floor before the door swirled into a cone before quickly dispersing as the relative quiet was broken by the sounds of many voices and moving bodies. The sound was muffled again with the soft click of the door closing once more. The distinct thump of a pair of dance shoes traveling with a sure gait caused the corner of Ninomiya's mouth to twitch and he frowned down at his game.
“Hey, I need you for a second,” Matsumoto Jun called from just behind the shorter boy as he finished crossing the desks to stand beside him. He waited somewhat impatiently, the command in his statement more than implied by his tone.
Nino did not look up from his game when he replied easily with, “You're interrupting important work.”
Jun spared a glance at the abandoned instrument before his friend and pursed his lips in annoyance. “Am I now? It just looks like you're fucking around on your DS to me.” He rose a perfectly shaped eyebrow as if defying the smaller boy to deny his irrefutable logic.
Still, without looking up, “For all you know I'm mentally mapping out the tempo of a new song.” Nino frowned as he hit the wrong sequence of keys and was forced to concentrate harder to recover.
“Oh, excuse me, I wasn't aware you wrote impromptus,” MatsuJun rolled his eyes as Nino tapped various keys deftly. It was a wonder that this boy managed to get any work done when he seemingly lived on his gaming systems, Jun's frown deepened.
With a derisive snort of laughter Nino countered, “Shows how much you know about music. There is a distinctive pattern to the beats of the keys I'm pressing, jack ass.”
“Eat me, Ninomiya,” Jun returned bitingly, beyond caring about the ridiculousness of his friend's superior tone based solely on the fact that he could count the beats and patterns playing a DS.
The DS chimed a cheery ditty informing Nino that his character had just died. Shutting the system off he lifted his head to face MatsuJun for the first time with a disarmingly sweet smile. “I'd love to, but unfortunately prissy bitch gives me indigestion.”
Jun glowered at the smaller boy. Had he not actually required Nino's assistance he would have been happy to continue the verbal warfare, however, Jun did not forget the reason he'd sought out Nino in the first place. “Seriously, I need you to follow me for a second.” He tried to stifle his wounded pride, promising himself he would exact revenge at a later date, preferably with an audience.
Nino frowned in annoyance, completely disinclined to give up the solitude of his abandoned sanctuary without reason. “What is it? I already told you I'm not joining your fruity musical.”
“It's not a musical, damn it! Which is besides the point. A new instructor is helping our group with the play and he doesn't like the music for a certain part. He didn't like anything we had available either. I said I knew a guy who was good with music,” here MatsuJun paused, hoping that his subtle note of flattery was enough to woo Nino over into at least listening to the proposal.
“Ugh, as if I don't have enough to do already. You're aware that while you get to prance around as Queen Titania I actually have to work on creating an original score, right?” Nino was beginning to pack his belongings despite his words. He was perfectly willing to be persuaded, but he was going to make Jun actually do the persuading.
“Right, because you've been set to the grindstone on that task so intently,” Jun sneered as Nino placed the as-of-yet untouched guitar in its case carefully. After a pause during which Nino made no sign of dropping his nonchalance towards the subject Jun ground out, “I'll make it up to you.”
Lips twisting into a sly grin Nino turned to his friend, possessions in hand. “Of course you will.” Nino motioned for Jun to walk ahead of him so that he wouldn't have to negotiate the task of opening a door while holding a guitar.
Navigating the halls of St. John's Academy of the Arts, Ninomiya liked to think to himself, was much like two virgins having sex for the first time; full of frantic gropes, accidental bumps, too much or too little speed, and when all is said and done—if you did it right—no one is happy but at least you're where you need to be. All things considered, however, Nino was quite aware of how off-the-wall this opinion was and frequently kept it to himself. He cringed as he had to squeeze his instrument case through the members of a practicing off-key quartet and continued to trot along beside (and occasionally behind) his friend.
The general chatter of overcrowded classrooms soon died away as the pair neared one of the larger auditoriums. Jun lead the way to the backstage entrance and waved to a spot where Nino could finally relieve himself of his belongings before being introduced to the instructor he'd be trying to assist. Nino straightened his uniform quickly before following MatsuJun to the stage.
At the back of the stage several students sat stretching and observing as a collection of their peers drilled steps to a count. Nino watched from the wings as Jun approached a short man dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants. He was leaning against a large plywood box and staring in the general direction of the students, though Nino had the distinct impression that the man was not actually aware of what was going on in front of him. The young man was therefore unsurprised when the instructor across the stage started to a more standing position when Jun had to physically touch his arm to get his attention. The two spoke for a moment before Jun motioned for Nino to join them.
“Ah! That's a good start everyone, but why don't you take a break while I try and work out this music situation. Alright? Please continue to work hard!” He nodded and smiled at the students, waving them off.
As Nino closed the distance between them he noticed how incredibly young the guest instructor was. If he had to guess he would say the man—if you could call him that at all—was hardly older than himself or Jun, a maximum of 20 years old. The young face turned and smiled, bright white teeth flashing from behind partially separated lips, dark eyes far more focused than they had been moments ago.
“Ohno-san, this is the friend I was telling you about, Ninomiya Kazunari. He's a student in the music program here, he's quite good with composition,” Jun began the introductions, moving aside to bring Nino forward. “Ninomiya-kun, this is Ohno Satoshi. He's a member of Tempest and has studied under Kimura Takuya. Tempest has seen fit to generously lend us his talents for this production.”
Nino nodded his hello. “I hope that I can be of help.” He watched the new man's face curiously. There was no mistaking, he was obscenely young, especially for an instructor.
“Thank you for your assistance. I'm sure you'll be quite helpful,” Ohno smiled a small smile. Nino did not smile back but he liked the seemingly comfortable air the man seemed to posses.
The two continued to regard each other with no more words for a minute. Nino stared expectantly at Ohno, waiting for the man to begin explaining what it was he might require assistance with. Ohno simply continued to smile.
Jun cleared his throat and Ohno's eyes left Nino and he raised his brows in question. “Uh, I'm sure Ohno-san would like to speak to Ninomiya-kun about the matter of getting new music.” Ohno continued to stare questioningly. “For the performance,” Jun clarified. Ohno continued to stare and Jun nodded at the stage.
Eyes following the younger boy's nod Ohno's expression brightened into a smile, as though the thought had just occurred to him. “Ah! Yes that's actually exactly what we need to do. Matsumoto-kun, you can come with if you'd like. Or go on break, if you'd rather not.”
Jun frowned slightly at the noncommittal proposal, unsure which option he was supposed to take. Deciding he'd rather not play interpretor and instigator any longer MatsuJun nodded. “Well, then, I'll be...” he looked around casually, “Over there,” he gestured vaguely to the direction of the stage and wandered away.
Ninomiya was silently cursing his good friend's date of birth and health for leaving him with the flighty guest instructor. Writing a new song to someone else's specifications was difficult enough without having to try and get them to tune in to planet Earth as well. However, he turned and smiled politely at Ohno and nodded again. “Shall we?”
Ohno smiled cheerfully, as he had before, and nodded. He walked over to a portable CD player that had the tracks for the performance so far and picked up a packet of paper that sat beside the machine. Folding into a seated position on the stage he gestured for Nino to follow the few steps to his location.
“I don't know if you're familiar with what we're doing, but I'll try my best to kind of explain...” Ohno began. Nino crouched to look over the script Ohno gestured to, occasionally nodding his understanding and acknowledgement as the older man described the scene as it was written. The issue that seemed to need resolving was that the tone of the scene, as Ohno read it, called for more abrupt movement to better convey the harried feeling of the characters. Nino felt he understood this point well enough and nodded when Ohno offered to play him a segment of the music that had been made available for the performance.
“Here we go,” Ohno lilted in a sing-song to himself before pressing the 'play' button. When the first few beats of the track drifted out of the contraption Nino's brow furrowed into a visible cringe. The song was a languid, smooth R&B tune. A good song, but certainly not in any way fit for what Ohno seemed to be aiming for.
Without asking permission Nino reached out a hand and paused the track, still frowning. “That doesn't sound right.”
“I know, right!” Ohno sighed, relieved that the boy had comprehended his problem. “It needs to be...” he motioned helplessly with his hands, groping for the words but coming up empty.
“More urgent?” Nino suggested.
Ohno grinned and nodded. “Exactly!”
Nino nodded his understanding, trying to formulate in his mind the basis for a piece that might suit the performance's needs. Turning his gaze from the script to Ohno the younger boy asked, “Could you show me how some of the dance is supposed to go?”
“Hmm,” Ohno pursed his lips. “It's kind of an issue to come up with a dance without appropriate music. But...” Ohno trailed off as he stood, walking to the center of the abandoned stage. “I was thinking that it should incorporate something along the lines of...”
Nino watched carefully as the man before him began to move about the stage. There was no music, the restless students in the wings and backstage shuffling about, noises filtering in from outside the auditorium. Ohno stepped forward briskly, confidence in every move. A few beats in movements and gestures began to stop seemingly abruptly in an expert display of control. The small man would twist into a smooth motion to halt part way through, recovering instantly into another beat, another step. As Nino watched a tune began to formulate in his head and he bobbed his head as he counted along to Ohno's steps silently.
Ohno ended his demonstration with a well executed back-handspring and paused a moment before looking at Nino. “Or something like that,” Ohno shrugged indecisively. Nino couldn't help but stare openly at the nonchalance the man seemed to have about the various feats of athleticism just performed, appearing to be more concerned about whether or not he'd actually keep any of the things he'd just thrown together.
As Ohno continued to look at him expectantly Nino found himself shaking his head inwardly at the simplicity of the young instructor's mind. Outwardly he stood and bowed his head politely. “I think I might be able to do something for you.”
Nino was taken aback by the large grin of gratitude and relief that broke across Ohno's face. “I'm so glad to hear that!” Nino did his best not to smirk.
Chapter 2: Karma Slave
The one where Jun's life is hard.
As he carefully set out each instrument before him Matsumoto Jun took a meticulous inventory of his recently acquired supplies. He was fairly certain he had everything required for his new course, but he had to make sure one final time.
Nino stared at Jun's exacting preparations and rolled his eyes with a loud sigh. “What the hell is all of this stuff for anyway?” His boredom getting the better of him he reached out for what looked like a roll of recycled cardboard with each end twisted into a point and examined it curiously.
Jun frowned up at Nino in annoyance. “Give that to me,” he snatched the object away before replacing it on the table before him. “It's for drawing, I would assume. Considering it was on the supply list for a drawing class.” The younger boy huffed as though the explanation contained only the most obvious information.
Nino's eyebrows raised in a skeptical pause. “I thought that you only needed something to draw with and paper. Not a billion different erasers, chalks, pencils, whatever the hell this thing is,” he picked up the tube of rolled cardboard again before it was deftly snatched back by an increasingly irritated MatsuJun. “And AquaNet. Seriously, fucking AquaNet? The hell does that have to do with drawing? Or is that just yours and it wouldn't fit in that monstrous beauty kit you haul around?”
Nino was grinning inwardly as he began to suspect that the crease in Jun's forehead was soon to become permanent from years of his teasing. Running a hand through painfully silky hair Jun took a breath to steady himself before potentially punching Nino and sending his organized work flying in all directions. “The AquaNet was on the supply list. It's to fix drawings so the pigment doesn't dust off of the papers. Or something like that,” Jun mumbled, avoiding Nino's still doubtful gaze.
“Since when are you so interested in real art anyway?” the musician decided to preoccupy himself with one of the myriad of pencils this time. After a pause with no reply Nino had to look up and was confused by Jun's superior smirk. “What's the shit-eating grin for?”
Jun shook his head and tugged the pencil from where it danced between Nino's fingers. “Ignoring, for the moment, the barb about theater not being real art, I'll let you know why I'm suddenly so interested. The art class isn't drawing fruit in a bowl or working on color wheels. It's a studio class.” Nino remained unimpressed but clearly curious in spite of himself. “Figure study.” MatsuJun announced simply, his grin only growing.
“Son of a bitch,” Nino gawked. “I thought the only figure study studio classes were on Saturdays when you had rehearsals, though.”
“They were,” Jun shrugged, beginning to place each item carefully into a case he had procured just to carry everything. “Until this past term when the schedule changed. Now there's a two hour studio class Tuesdays and Thursdays in the mornings. That leaves my evenings and weekends open for rehearsals and practice and takes care of my remaining elective credits.”
“Son of a bitch,” Nino swore again, leaning back in his seat to slouch against the wall. “So you mean to tell me that you get to spend two hours two days a week staring at boobs and get credit for it?”
Jun suppressed his grin slightly, trying not to look too happy with himself as he nodded calmly.
“Son of a bitch!”
Jun couldn't help himself but to chuckle as he gathered his things and headed off to class.
As he took out a few items and placed them before him on the narrow ledge of his obscenely uncomfortable “horse” Matsumoto Jun concentrated on not scowling visibly. Until approximately 45 seconds prior to this moment he had been full of anticipation and glee. While he had not been expecting or even hoping for anything pornographic out of an art class Jun, like most boys his age, found the concept of the naked female form pleasant to look at for extended periods of time. He had been looking forward to a few hours in his week relaxing, doing exactly that.
As his luck would have it, however, there was no female form to be seen during this class period. Or any period for the rest of the term, he had discovered (much to his dismay) at the start of the class. Indeed, the only model that the instructor had managed to hire was a man from a nearby university. Apparently all of the previous models that had sat for the class in the past had either moved away or procured alternate employment over summer break. The reason for the class being rescheduled for the autumn term in the first place was because the new model was unavailable to work on weekends but only took evening classes during the week.
Jun sucked in a deep breath and released it slowly through his nose in a practiced ritual to calm himself. As he looked at his painstakingly organized box of supplies he couldn't help the bitter frustration that churned in his gut. He chewed the inside of his lip to prevent audible mutters as he thought to himself that he couldn't possibly stand to just drop the class after he spent the money on the ridiculous art supplies that would go to complete waste if he abandoned the venture. The young man let his shoulders sag as he sighed in temporary resignation before straightening on the wooden contraption that he was supposed to sit on for the next hour and a half.
Picking up one of his pencils he began brushing the soft graphite tip against an inconspicuous corner of his pad of newsprint experimentally. The mindless task was enough to distract him from his melancholic sulk long enough for Jun not to notice the entrance of the teacher and the model. Dark brown eyes rose with about the interest one would pay a pair of racing slugs.
In the center of the darkened room was a large platform that brought to mind an over-sized Lazy Susan covered in muted fabric which draped over a pair of blocks that also sat on the pseudo-stage. Standing on the elevated platform was a tall, lanky man, a mop of reddened brown hair hanging into his face as he bent down to speak quietly with the teacher. He was wearing nothing but a fuzzy, navy blue bathrobe that barely reached his knees and seemed a bit short in the sleeves. Nodding one final time the man stood and flashed an electrifying grin, clapping his hands loudly, as if psyching himself up for what was to come.
“Class, this is Aiba Masaki-san who will be sitting for us for the term,” Jun repressed a groan as Aiba waved a small but frantic hello at the crowd of students and sucked his full lips in, clearly suppressing an equally energetic greeting until the teacher was done speaking. “Please remember to be courteous at all times. Models do not have to come and sit for us, they have no obligation to you or me. This means they have no obligation to put up with any misbehavior on your part either.” The teacher glared particularly hard at a set of whispering girls in a back corner who quickly fell silent.
“We will begin this term with something very simple. I want you to start with just capturing the form of the model using a variety of techniques to begin understand how the human body fits together.” As the instructor launched into his lecture on bubbles and blocks, volume and proportions Jun listened as much as he could bring himself to care. None of it sounded particularly difficult at this stage and even he knew that graphic art classes were effort based rather than talent based, at least at this stage in his education.
Suppressing another sigh of boredom Jun allowed his eyes to drift. The way the room was lit it was only inevitable that his eyes would be drawn back to the platform, upon which the model currently sat, tilting his head back and forth and seemingly bouncing with excitement. Jun couldn't understand it. What was so thrilling about sitting naked in front of people for hours on end? Perhaps this guy was some kind of strange exhibitionist, Jun sneered internally.
The boy's internal sneer morphed into an external gape as the completely oblivious (at least Jun hoped to god he was oblivious) model leaned back on the block he was seated on and began swinging his knees open and closed absentmindedly. The swiftly opening and closing portal of the man's long, toned legs imprinted on Jun's mind a sight he had been entirely unprepared for, causing the young man to sit, transfixed in a combination of horror and disbelief.
A sharp rap of chalk on easel as the instructor punctuated his last point drew Jun's attention quickly away from the gap between Aiba's legs that the dark terrycloth did nothing to hide. The young man directed his gaze purposefully at the blank pad of paper in front of him, trying desperately to set his mind working appropriately again. He swallowed thickly as his heart beat seemed to have skyrocketed to a painful pace without his noticing. Jun felt warmth traveling to his face and he frowned at his paper, berating himself for such a ridiculous reaction. It was just a penis, for god's sake. It was not as though he didn't possess one of his own!
“We're going to be starting with some gesture sketches. Just get the flow of the figure.” As the instructor spoke he moved about the platform and positioned a number of portable flood lights to create a starker contrast with the shadows already existent in the dimmed room.
Aiba stood eagerly and stretched his arms a bit before reaching for his belt and shouldering off the bathrobe, balling the garment into a wad before discarding it in a corner by a screen that had supposedly served as his changing area. Jun winced at a panicked heart palpitation and did his best to concentrate on the man's face.
This proved to be an exceedingly difficult task. In the flood of light from the new lamps MatsuJun could not help but to stare openly, though not in horror this time.
Aiba was an honestly beautiful human being. The word “beautiful” has been used so often that it has almost lost its meaning, but looking at the man before him Jun could not help but to think that it was the only term to describe what stood before the class. Long, graceful limbs extended into the light as Aiba continued a few stretches, only accentuating the elegant expanse of his neck and svelte but perfect chest, stomach, and hips. His skin was paled in the light but those parts that were obviously exposed to sun were dusted in an array of barely perceptible freckles over the sun-kissed tan.
MatsuJun was violently shaken from his reverie as the man before him let out an incredibly loud sound that found its way to being frivolous giggles as he reached down and took a prop stick from the instructor.
Jun frowned at the dichotomy of the crass behavior and heavenly body. Proof that the universe was unjust, he supposed. Suppressing what he had come to expect to be the first in many, many suppressed groans of dissatisfaction, Jun picked up his pencil again and prepared to force himself through the class. So much for four hours out of the week where he got to relax.
He would later deny it vehemently, but as Aiba moved from pose to pose, being animated and unabashed despite his disrobed state, Jun became quite calm during the gestures. Something about the man in the spotlight before him made Jun forget all about his frustrations, and he even grinned at some minor bouts of clumsiness the older man displayed.
Then the chocolate haired man turned and beamed that brilliant smile as an apology and Jun's pencil stilled over his paper again. He blinked after the moment was over and ducked his head slightly behind his tablet of paper. It was only four hours a week. Jun was sure he possessed the self-control to remain composed for at least four hours a week.
Aiba laughed loudly and nervously as the prop pole slipped from his grasp and clattered to the ground. Giggles spread through the students and that smile flashed again.
"Son of a bitch." Matsumoto Jun's infamous confidence in his own capabilities suddenly came into question in a corner of his mind as his hand stilled again and the boy simply stared.
Chapter 3: Waxing Quixotic
The one where Ohmiya have lunch.
“A fucking sketch diary! Do believe that shit?” Nino watched disinterestedly from his desk as Jun thrust books and paper into his bag with more force than any would deem necessary. “And it's part of our final grade! Bad enough that I've got to draw a guy again and again and again now I have to do it enough times to fill an entire sketchbook!” As Jun vented his frustration on his belongings Nino raised an eyebrow curiously.
“So, are you too traumatized by penis to hang out today?” Nino asked with practiced indifference. He quelled the urge to rub the bridge of his nose as varied snaps and crunches coming from MatsuJun's bag reverberated in the space behind his tired eyes.
Jun stiffened at the mention of male genitalia and rounded a silent glare promising swift and absolute wrath if the musician insisted on pushing his limits this afternoon. Nino returned the glare with an expression of reproachful confusion but stubbornly refused to look away. The two regarded each other for another heartbeat before Jun returned to silently packing his belongings, though with more restraint than before.
Rolling his eyes the elder boy turned in his seat to tend to his own possessions. “Seriously though, you want me to wait for you today or not?”
With a violent shove Jun returned his chair to an orderly position behind his desk, leaving Nino to flinch involuntarily at the small shriek of metal on tile and cringe. “Absolutely,” he spat over his shoulder as he stormed out of the classroom to some after hours practice.
Watching his friend's retreating back Nino frowned in annoyance. It would have been hilarious that Jun's panties were in such a knot over something like having to deal with a male model in an art class all term, if it weren't for the fact that he really seemed to see nothing funny in the matter at all. Typically the young actor's ire was easily raised, it was one of the things that was fun about hanging around him. Still, even Jun could eventually come to see the humor in most situations. Yet the matter of the male model seemed to have struck some kind of nerve and Nino found himself hard pressed to care enough to put up with Jun's attitude.
Glancing up at a large clock that hung on the front wall of the classroom Nino took note of the hour. While spending time with a pissy MatsuJun was a less-than-thrilling prospect the free meal he usually treated Nino to after classes was motivation enough to stick around.
The dark-haired boy sighed and bowed his head to rest his face on the cool, polished wood of his desk. Closing his eyes for a brief moment the pounding that had been aggravated by Jun's tantrum continued to pump just at the front of his head. While the cool and lack of light helped Nino's fatigued state he remained where he was until he heard the door click shut behind the last pair of slippered feet leaving the room. Groaning a bit in frustration and discomfort he pushed himself up and rubbed his eyes, pressing his palms into the space just under his brows in an attempt to relieve the pressure that seemed intent on taking up residency. He shook himself mentally and frowned at his desk one last time.
Standing casually and collecting his things Nino ventured out into the mostly deserted halls of the school. Classes had only released fifteen minutes prior, resulting in some groups of kids hanging about lockers to chat or retrieve some last-minute item for an after school practice or rehearsal in some department or another. Unlike during the course of the school day, however, there was no need to rush, bob or weave and Nino strolled calmly towards the music wing.
The music wing of St. John's was separated into a collection of classrooms designed with the science of sound in mind. Smaller rooms were used to teach music appreciation, composition, and history and fit the typical set of desks and tables suited to the title of 'classroom'. Slightly larger rooms with collections of bleachers or raised platforms were used for the coaching of vocal musicians, ranging from choir members to aspiring prima donnas and pop sensations in the making. Some of the largest rooms were reserved for the practice of full scale bands and symphonies, of which the school housed several.
It was to the largest of these micro amphitheaters that Nino headed, enjoying the bright glow of the afternoon sun through the few windows along the way. He reached the end of the corridor and pushed lazily through a set of double doors leading out onto a paved outdoor walkway that traversed the short distance from the main building to the band rooms. Nino breathed deep a waft of early autumn air and stood for a moment holding the door open before stepping out into the world where the light would undoubtedly turn from a pleasant glow into a piercing ray.
Nino enjoyed the smell of the sun on the grass, flowers and trees blooming for the final time during the season, the world lulling itself into a comfortable, warm afterglow of the burst of summer life. He certainly liked it a lot better than the miserable wet and cold of winter that soon followed the short autumn days, or the oppressively hot and miserably humid afternoons that preceded the transitory months.
So caught up was the young man in relaxing into the redolence of the afternoon that he did not hear the clack of a door opening and closing down the hall. Nor did he hear the absentminded hum of a soft voice. Nor did he hear the steady beat of meandering footsteps approaching. Indeed, had Nino been paying attention to anything but the glow of the pregnant bouquet of the day he would have been far less startled when he finally did hear a rather surprised, “Ah! Ninomiya-kun!”
Reality returned to Nino with speed enough alone to set his aching mind reeling again as he spun around to fix this new intruder with seething irritation radiating from his very being. When his vision focused on the slight form of the guest instructor Ohno the boy's vexation only flared, as it was incredibly doubtful that he could get away with verbally abusing the man to make him retreat.
Ohno cocked his head to the side lightly, a look of concern on his face. “Ninomiya-kun, you look...” he paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “Not good.”
Nino could do nothing to stop the involuntary twitch of an eyebrow. “Headache,” the boy forced an apologetic smile. Though he might not be a performing arts student he had more than enough practice smiling at people. If someone saw a smile they'd accept whatever answer or excuse you gave them and typically go away.
The small man did not go away, however. He remained exactly where he had been, the concern still plain on his features. “Maybe you should eat something. Ah!” Ohno's face brightened slightly as a memory came to him. He held up a box lunch he had been carrying with him. “It's not much, but we could share this if you'd like?”
Nino looked at the offered food item and mentally slammed his head into a wall to the rhythm of his headache. To Ohno, however, he continued to smile. “It's fine, I wouldn't want to keep you from rehearsal.”
At this the older man blinked in confusion. “Rehearsals?” He appeared to be looking over his mental calendar and physically turned to look in the direction of the auditoriums. “I don't think there are any dance rehearsals today, just voice coaching.” He turned back and smiled at Nino pleasantly.
Looking at the lunch again Nino assessed his options. Free food was always good (it was, after all, why he was still at school at this hour in the first place), but so was the opportunity to slip into a comatic nap. Nino's eyes rose and met Ohno's, which were trained carefully on his face; waiting tentatively for confirmation or denial.
Redoubling his forced smile Nino nodded slightly. “Thank you.”
Ohno's grin spread wider as he nodded in return and waited for Nino to come away from the open door. Throwing a longing glance over his shoulder at the abandoned building across the lawn the younger bow let the door close behind him as he stepped back into the corridor.
“It's really no problem,” the older man shrugged. He looked at Nino, a placid smile painting his features. As he came closer the younger boy noted that there were no real signs of stress on the man's face to signify harsh treatment or age. Ohno could easily pass for one of the students at the school had he been provided with a uniform.
“Where would you like to eat?” Nino asked after a drawn out pause where the two stood in the sun-flooded hallway.
“Mn, I don't know,” Ohno looked down the corridor he had come from before turning to examine the hall Nino had followed. “I hadn't really thought that far ahead.”
Nino went over their options as best he could in his head. “Honestly, we could probably just find any empty classroom and take a seat.”
The musician looked to Ohno to ask his opinion but stopped when he saw the man was not paying him any heed. His eyes had instead traveled out the windows of the double doors where he seemed completely absorbed by an indiscernible point on the grass. “The air outside is probably nice,” he said absently. Then his brow creased in a slight frown. “I don't want to get anything in the food though.”
Looking from Ohno to the window and back again Nino walked over to the door he had been holding open earlier and sloughed off his schoolbag. He propped the textbook-laden pack against the opened corner and stood back experimentally to see if the weight would hold. A triumphant “Ha!” and Nino turned back to the other man with an exaggerated air of self-importance.
Ohno chuckled a bit and walked over to the wall opposite the open door and slid down to a seated position so he could watch the light and grass through the jury-rigged portal.
“Best of both worlds!” Ohno grinned contentedly. He looked up when Nino walked over and sat down beside him, a bit aways.
Wasting no time now that the setting was complete Ohno opened the lid of the box lunch and jabbed a fork into a particularly savory looking slice of strawberry.
After a few moments of eating Ohno noticed that Nino had made no move for the food himself and looked up. Nino's brow was knit in doubt and confusion as he looked at Ohno's lunch.
“You've got strawberries?”
Ohno nodded. “Probably the last of the season.” Looking upon his favored fruit Ohno frowned internally, looking as though he was debating something. “Would you like one?” The hesitance in his voice clearly implying he really didn't want to share but was making efforts to be courteous.
Nino grinned in spite of himself. “Thank you, no. I'm not a fan of sweets.” He reached down into the lunch and plucked out a cherry tomato before popping it into his mouth. He winced a little as the expected tang melted into a sour burn that indicated that the fruit had been a little off from being completely ripened.
Hearing a snort Nino turned to see Ohno trying to hide his grin around another strawberry. Leveling a glare that lacked any glint malevolence the young man continued to hold Ohno's gaze. The dancer broke the stare, finally laughing before his chuckles were cut short as he accidentally inhaled a large chunk of fruit.
As Ohno coughed to clear his throat of the obstruction, shoulders still shaking with laughter, Nino smirked to himself. “I think your fruit needs a bit more ripening, Ohno-san.”
Wiping some accumulated moisture from the corner of his eye with the back of his wrist Ohno smiled back. “I'll be sure to pass the message along to my mother.”
Nino blinked before leaning over to inspect the boxed lunch casually. “So, you live with your mom?” He traced a hand over the varied food items, touching nothing in case he discovered something more to his liking with further examination.
Ohno nodded, taking a finishing bite of the dubious strawberry in his hand. “Mom, dad, and an older sister.”
“Hm,” Nino acknowledged noncommittally, finding a piece of sliced cucumber that seemed safe. “That sounds nice.”
Ohno shrugged but nodded anyway, using his fork to scoop up some flavored rice. “What about you?” he asked after some chewing.
“Same as you. Mom, dad, older sister,” Nino continued to pick at the boxed lunch.
“Ah, I see,” Ohno responded, but made no sign of expanding upon whatever revelation he may or may not have just had.
“I would have thought that someone like you lived on his own,” Nino said offhandedly and popped another cucumber slice in his mouth.
“Someone like me?” Ohno cocked his head curiously and grinned. “I'm almost afraid to ask what you mean.”
Nino looked Ohno in the eye and said frankly, “Well, you're really young and you're already being given teaching jobs. You must be a really talented performer. I've just always imagined that those kind of people make a lot of money and move out on their own so they can practice even at home without interruption.”
“Oh,” Ohno replied simply, looking off into space contemplatively. After a pause, “I suppose I do make a bit of money.” His gaze returned to Nino's, unresponsive to the disbelief bordering on incredulity on the teen's face. “But I'm not really that kind of guy.” He smiled faintly and took another bite of rice.
“So how is it really then?” Nino inquired, trying to keep his tone even so that he wouldn't feel like he was prying. After spending this much time speaking with Ohno the younger boy sincerely doubted whether or not the dancer would even care if Nino asked personal questions, but it didn't make acquiring the information any less awkward for the would-be spy.
“Hmm,” Ohno mused, fork still in mouth. “Well, I quit school after junior high to dance with Tempest.” At Nino's curious stare Ohno grinned. “I knew I was good and figured that high school would have wasted valuable time that could be spent learning to do what I wanted to do.”
Nino processed the information for a moment before clicking his tongue definitively. “Huh...You're actually a lot like the type I described then.” Ohno looked up confused. “Instead of removing the distraction of family, though, you removed the obstacle of school. It's the same method, just different objects.”
Ohno paused to consider Nino's point. Slowly he nodded, “When you put it like that, I guess you're right.” Nino smirked inwardly. “Still, I think that the consideration between leaving family and leaving school points more to what kind of person someone is. The type of person that would consider their family nothing but a distraction and leave them to pursue their work...” Ohno trailed off and frowned. “I kind of feel sorry for that kind of person.”
Nino withdrew his hand from where it had been shifting through the boxed lunch and sat back against the wall to stare out the open door at the sun on the grass. Ohno finished the lunch by himself, neither pursued any form of conversation further.
Chapter 4: Waltzing Matilda
The one where Aiba runs out of class naked and Jun's life is hard.
As he took in a shallow breath carefully Aiba Masaki shivered slightly as he exhaled. Holding still for fifteen minutes was taxing enough, his thighs starting to tremble almost imperceptible amounts with the need for movement, but doing it with a full bladder was even harder. The task's difficulty increased with the fact that the room had been opened up earlier that morning, allowing cooler air to migrate in. While the bright lights the instructor used to create a greater contrast did something to provide warmth, Aiba still bit his lip against occasional drafts that caused goose flesh to spread down his loosely splayed arms and across the tops of his thighs.
Fifteen minutes, for a drawing, was not a particularly long span of time, but when waiting desperately for a set time to pass fifteen minutes seemed a close and friendly cousin to eternity. Aiba closed his eyes and cursed himself for indulging in the second bowl of soup for breakfast earlier that morning. It had been so good at the time and he had been so hungry but now he just really had to pee.
When the shrill beeping of the instructor's watch broke through the soft scratching of pencil and chalk on paper Aiba cried out his relief, hopping off of the cloth covered props he'd been strewn across and covered the short distance from the center of the room out the door in no time. Down the hall, and into the bathroom he flew where he sighed loudly, letting his head roll forward to rest on the cool tile above his chosen urinal.
Jun continued to gape at the door as it swung shut, a very naked Aiba having just burst out into the halls of his school at an impressive speed. As he stared the young man could do nothing to stop the stream of mental images of the model running, in all of his nude glory, through the halls of his school. Forcing his eyes back on his paper Jun breathed deeply, attempting to keep all outward physical indications of the fact that his heart was threatening to break through his ribs to a minimum.
“Matsumoto-kun?” The rhythm of his heart made no signs of decreasing and Jun did not look up, concentrating on the twinge of pain in his throat where his pulse was running just a bit too quickly. “Matsumoto-kun?” The instructor called more loudly.
MatsuJun finally looked up, hoping that he looked more quizzical than panicked. “Yes?” Were his eyes too wide just now? Did he look more like a terrified animal than a confused student? His voice was nice and even, wasn't it?
The instructor was (thankfully) not looking at the young man once he had responded and was instead maneuvering the lamps. Over his shoulder he called, “Would you be so kind as to take Aiba-san his bathrobe or something? I don't know where he went, but the last thing this class needs is for its model to be arrested for flashing minors.”
Another mental image of Aiba being helped (still naked) into the back of a squad car flitted through Jun's mind. Feeling that his mouth was incredibly dry all of the sudden, Jun finally managed to respond with an agitated, “Yes, sir.” before pulling himself carefully from his low, wooden seat and trudged over to the screen where Aiba's belongings were haphazardly strewn for the duration of each class.
Frowning at the utter disorganization of the man's possessions, Jun bent down and shuffled through the items. Finding a pair of worn track pants and a rag of thin material that the young man hoped had once passed for a shirt he stood and trotted for the door.
In the bathroom Aiba stood studying the tiles on the floor. Once he had finished relieving himself the model had noticed that there were no pants or shorts to return his member to. With a cry of shock he had stared at himself, bewildered at his naked state. He had washed his hands but now stood, shifting from foot to foot, attempting to devise a plan to return to the classroom, where he wouldn't get in fairly big trouble for wandering around pant-less.
As he pondered the options open to him, giving serious thought to the possibility of fashioning a crude set of undergarments out of the economy grade toilet paper, Aiba failed to notice the door as it opened. He jumped a little and bolted for an empty stall when he heard, “Uwa!”
Holding the door shut, Aiba was shaking his head despite the fact that a door separated himself and whoever had wandered in. “I'M SO SORRY! I'm, I'm, I'm not, it's not, I'm not—I'M WORKING HERE, REALLY!”
There was a pause, during which Aiba did not hear any shrieks nor yells nor hurried footsteps to indicate someone was rushing to try and inform the authorities of the naked man in the high school bathroom. The only footsteps that sounded were quiet and sounded to be approaching the stall. Aiba's attention snapped to the door as he heard a familiar voice. “Aiba-chan?”
Upon entering into the hall Jun's frown deepened. Thinking back he had noticed that Aiba had looked like he was in some discomfort. He had squirmed a little and kept chewing on his lips (not that Jun had been paying any particular attention to Aiba's lips). Glancing up and down the corridor Jun's critical gaze zeroed in on the sign indicating the boy's bathroom. Figuring an urgent need to visit the toilet was more likely than a sudden whim to frolic naked in the halls (or, at least, he dearly hoped so), the young actor made his way quickly to the restrooms.
As he reached the door MatsuJun paused. It was one thing to see Aiba naked in a room where he was supposed to be staring at him, but alone in a bathroom was quite the different story. Jun practically growled as he steeled himself against the hesitant awkwardness that had just attempted to crawl up from the pit of his stomach and into his chest. The model was spacey, he was just giving him clothing. There was nothing intimate about what was to happen in moments to come, there was nothing to be shy about. This thought firmly in mind he pushed open the door, peeking around the side and slipping in before letting the door close, just in case Aiba was naked right in front of the door and another student happened by.
Jun had expected to find Aiba, though in what state he could never specify; he probably had expected to find Aiba still naked, at the very least. What the young man had not expected to walk in and see was Aiba leaning against a wall laughing loudly and slapping a knee, a hoodie tied around his waist, and Ohno Satoshi grinning and chuckling with him. So flabbergasted was the young man that he simply stood and gawked as his mind worked desperately to make sense of what he was seeing.
Shoulders still shaking with giggles from his bout of laugher, Aiba made to put a hand over his mouth to muffle himself and saw the familiar face of Jun staring. “Ah! You!” Aiba pointed, indicating his recognition loudly.
Turning to see who had just entered, Ohno's face lit into a surprised smile. “Ah, Matsumoto-kun! What are you doing here?”
MatsuJun continued to stare in silence, though he had managed to close his mouth and was training his face into one of careful consideration. He marveled at the fact that nothing seemed strange to either man that they had been chatting in a public toilet while one of them was practically naked. Beyond this oddity he was now incredibly curious as to why the two seemed so friendly. Typically if one man walked in on another completely naked man you would not find them carrying on so jovially.
Blinking at Ohno's question Jun held up Aiba's clothing by way of reply. “I was asked to bring these.”
“Haaa~ Thank you so much!” Jun noted how genuinely grateful the older man sounded and handed off the clothes. “I really hadn't meant to leave without these,” he mumbled as he bent to slide one leg into the pants, not bothering to enter a stall to get dressed.
“That's a fairly dumb thing to do, even for you, Aiba-chan,” Ohno chuckled a little, both at Aiba's past actions and the fact that the gangly man was now hopping from foot to foot into his pants, scooting them up his hips.
“I know, right?” Aiba giggled some more as he finally got his pants in place, untying the hoodie that had served to cover him partially until this point. “Thanks for this.”
“No problem,” the shorter man took the garment back and folded it over his arm.
Aiba looked up at Jun again and the younger boy felt his throat tighten. He'd never spent a great deal of time concentrating on Aiba when the man was wearing clothing, always going to lengths to keep himself busy with his supplies as soon as the time required to spend looking at the model had come to a close. As he stood now, however, Jun could not help but to admire the toned plain of Aiba's stomach, the smooth path that it led down. The curves of his waist and the way the man's pants hung off of his hips at a certain spot emphasized their shapeliness, causing Jun to blink quickly and return his eyes to Aiba's face. He looked like he was waiting for something and Jun did his best to ignore the raise of the hairs on the back of his neck.
Raising his eyebrows in question, Aiba gestured to Jun's hands. Jun started and handed the older man the threadbare shirt, suddenly finding the pattern in the tile by the sinks fascinating. “Thank you,” Aiba said again, ignoring the younger man's sudden aversion of eye contact.
“That was nice of you, Matsumoto-kun,” Ohno mused, dragging Jun's attention from the wall to the small man.
Brain working to recall what Ohno must be talking about, MatsuJun replied, “It was nothing.”
Pausing after tugging his shirt on Aiba cocked his head to one side, disheveled brown hair falling into his eyes and face. “Oh-chan, you know him?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ohno nodded. “He's one of the students that I teach choreography to here. He's a hard worker.”
Knowing that what Ohno said was true did nothing to stop the heat from prickling Jun's cheeks at the praise. He was used to getting compliments from instructors, but somehow it meant more right this second. “Thank you,” he mumbled in an uncharacteristic show of sheepishness.
“I see, I see! Such a small world, huh?” Aiba chirped excitedly. “He's one of the students in the class I model for too!”
“Ah! Really?” Ohno turned to Jun, expression brightening in curiosity and a tinge of excitement. “You draw, Matsumoto-kun?”
Jun shifted his weight unconsciously and nodded. “I only started with classes this term though.” Feeling a need to direct the attention away from himself, he asked the question that had been puzzling him since he walked in. “What are you doing here?”
“Hm? Me?” Ohno pointed at himself in question. “I had to go to the bathroom. When I came in Aiba-chan dove into a stall and started begging me not to call the cops.”
Aiba grinned guiltily, a bit of color coming to his cheeks. “Like I said, I didn't mean to leave without clothes!” Ohno grinned again at the incident and Aiba chuckled as well. “It's a good thing Oh-chan found me though. It's not like he's never seen me naked before, so things could have been a lot worse.”
At the last declaration MatsuJun stared openly. “I'm sorry...What?”
“Ah!” An expression of surprise lit Aiba's features, his mouth drifting open and his eyes going wide. It was almost childlike and infuriatingly endearing, Jun noted. “That's right, you don't know! I used to model for Oh-chan a bit ago when he had time to do more drawing and stuff. Back then he used to pay me with food. Those were good days!” Aiba smiled wide at the memories.
“Aiba-chan's a good model, really creative. Sometimes he forgets what he's doing and gets up to do something else though, but it can work to your benefit if you're quick. Your class is kind of lucky to get someone like him,” Ohno nodded at MatsuJun.
Jun ducked his head politely, “Yes, we certainly are...lucky.” Jun shifted uncomfortably, unsure of whether or not the sentiment he had just offered was a lie. After a pause, “Uh...We should probably get back to class.”
“OH! RIGHT!” Aiba yelled, running his hands through his hair and mussing it even further in his frustration. “Right!” He said again. The tall man headed for the door but stopped mid-step and turned to face Ohno. “Hey, are you here for lunchtime?”
Ohno blinked at the question, presumably considering it. “I'm here early today because I had to talk to some of the other teachers, but I usually show up a little bit before the students have lunch, yeah.”
“AWESOME!” Aiba clapped Ohno on the shoulder enthusiastically. “We should eat together when I'm here! What do you say?”
Ohno grinned and nodded. “We should!”
Jun had been waiting patiently. While he would have been content to leave for the classroom by himself he had a sneaking suspicion that if he left Ohno and Aiba alone together neither would be seen or heard from for quite some time, as they would likely get caught up in some reminiscence or another. Aiba and Ohno said their goodbyes, making plans to meet up in a short time to share a meal together, before Aiba gave a final pat on the shoulder to Ohno before making his way to the door.
Jun had made it two steps out the door, certain that Aiba was following on his heels like a bouncy, not-naked puppy, when he heard Ohno call out. The young man felt rather than saw Aiba turn to face the dance instructor and he choked a bit when he heard Ohno say, “Aiba-chan, get some sun while it's still warm enough to do so. The students should get the opportunity to try and capture that birthmark of yours, and I'd hate to see you catch pneumonia trying to sunbathe in winter.”
Aiba busted out in laughter. “Even I'm not dumb enough to sunbathe in winter, Oh-chan!” He giggled as he turned to follow Jun out of the bathroom.
As he led the way back to the classroom Jun tried to convince himself he hadn't made himself a silent promise to seek out and study this 'birthmark' the second he had learned of its existence. No, instead he had just decided to take his instructor's advice and stop concentrating so intently on Aiba's face.
Chapter 5: Sardonicism
characterized by bitter or scornful derision; mocking; cynical; sneering: a sardonic grin.
Nino sat with legs crossed atop one of the various tables located in the outside dinning area hunched over his guitar. His small, sure fingers moved up and down the neck, deftly applying pressure to the strings as he strummed out a few cords experimentally, occasionally pausing to lean over and mark on a piece of paper before him with a pencil the changes to the score. After the marks had been made he sat back and began to pluck away at the instrument from the beginning of the tune once again, nodding his head to a silent count.
The young musician's dark eyes were drawn to the table as his pencil leapt from its place in reaction to the force with which a large box had been tossed unceremoniously upon the wooden surface. Pausing for a moment to spare the recently arrived MatsuJun an acknowledging glance, Nino returned to his ministrations.
“So, you're not going to believe what happened this morning,” huffed the clearly agitated diva.
“Mmn...” Nino responded noncommittally, fingers still moving. As Jun inhaled deeply his friend carefully tuned the younger man's voice out and began to nod to the count of his music again.
“—Naked! He burst from the room butt naked! How unprofessional is that?! I understand—”
Nino's fingers fumbled and his brow furrowed slightly. Righting himself, he continued to strum the bars he had misplayed. After settling back into the rhythm, Nino remained vaguely aware that Jun was still making noise but was far more intent on what he was doing. Reaching down to the pencil and paper he made a few more notations on the sheet before him.
“Naked in the bathroom with Ohno-san of all people! Get this, they know one another!”
A dissonant twang sounded quietly from the instrument in Nino's hands and he found himself frowning once again. As he leaned over to visually verify the placement of his digits Jun's ranting drifted in clearer.
“—modeled for Ohno-san in the past. Oh, did I mention the best part? He calls Ohno-san 'Oh-chan'! 'Oh-chan', can you believe it?”
“Could you just do me a favor and stuff your ovaries in your mouth for a few minutes so I can finish this? Men are working over here,” Nino finally sat up, a deadpan stare locking on to a flustered Jun.
MatsuJun closed his mouth swiftly, his jaw working visibly. He returned Nino's stare with a glare, though his eyes contained little vehemence for Nino as he was clearly more annoyed with himself for having prattled on. Jun looked away after a moment before inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.
Rolling his eyes at the exaggerated stress relief technique that his friend seemed completely dependent upon at times, Nino returned to his guitar.
Moments passed where the only sounds between the two came from the guitar and the buzz of other students enjoying their lunch break in the courtyard. Managing to progress a few bars more Nino finally pursed his lips and sighed slightly. Without raising his head he glanced up at Jun who sat poking at his lunch, a surly pout on his face.
Lowering his gaze once more Nino started plucking absently at the instrument in his hands. “So, speaking of 'Oh-chan', do you have practice today?”
MatsuJun made a noise at the back of his throat indicating a dissatisfied affirmative. “Yeah. We only really have the vocal training on Wednesdays, the rest of the week is all choreography and blocking.” He looked away from his food and turned to face Nino. “Why?”
“Because this,” Nino nodded at the paper in front of him. “Is the song that Ohno-san requested. I want to try and get it done today if I can so I can get it out of the way.”
“Right, you just have so many other projects you're chomping at the bit to work on,” Jun sniped. The warning glare he received went ignored as the young actor turned back to his food and began eating.
Continuing to glare at Jun's profile a moment, Nino turned back to his guitar. “I already have the percussion and bass tracks done, I've just got to finish this part out and put it all together. Assuming it's what Ohno-san had in mind you should be able to progress with practicing your scene without further delay.”
Jun snorted. “I sincerely doubt Ohno-san has much of anything 'in mind' sometimes.”
“And you're such a genius by comparison.”
The remainder of the lunch break passed and the two parted ways; Nino deciding that the only way he was going to get the track complete by the end of the day would be to skip his remaining classes and use some of the unoccupied recording equipment in the music wing.
Bag slung over one shoulder and guitar over the other Nino darted his way through the halls, doing his best to avoid bumps or grazes with other students carrying tools of their various trades. Bobbing around a slight girl the dark haired boy managed to slip through the double doors at the end of the corridor as they were being held open by another student.
Once outside Nino smoothly fell into a hurried step. As he passed students teeming between the band building and the main building he put his hands in his pockets and made a brisk path through the sea of students. A bell rang out across the school, signaling to all remaining students that session was about to begin and the few students that remained in the halls of the large building hurriedly made their ways to their classes.
With the dispersal of the crowd Nino's pace did not decrease until he very nearly bowled over another kid. Pausing to nod and apologize to the boy, Nino stood and watched the student continue on his way. It was at this point that Nino noticed how heavily he was breathing, his pulse thrumming as his heart pumped furiously in his chest. Breathing deeply he chose to ignore the fact that his hand was shaking a little as he brought it up to rub the back of his neck.
He stood, forcing his breath to even. Nino rubbed his hands together, frowning at his clammy palms before smoothing them down the sides of his pants and stuffing his hands back into his pockets. One last, slightly shaky breath and he continued making his way around the anterior hallway, deeper into the buildings.
As his body made its way automatically through the maze of halls and doors Nino frowned inwardly. He needed to get this song finished and done with; get it off of his hands and out of his mind.
Nino began to glance into the small windows in doors, searching for a room with the computer and equipment he required that was empty. After a short time he discovered what he required and slipped in, locking the door behind him to ensure he would not be interrupted. Pulling the now complete score he had been working on earlier from his jacket pocket he smoothed it out on the desk that would double as his miniature workstation. Digging into his front pocket he brought out a flash drive and inserted it into the available USB hub so that he could open the partially completed file that would eventually be the full song.
The young man busied himself with quickly completing his set up, running a few checks to ensure all of the equipment was working properly and making some minor adjustments when required. The plethora of menial tasks served as a welcome distraction from his mounting tension and after a time he relaxed into the rhythm of set up.
Satisfied that everything was in a serviceable condition, Nino turned to his belongings and retrieved his guitar. Taking a seat before the recording equipment he chewed on his bottom lip as he examined the score once more. Hands moved over the frets and strings silently, ghosting through the song in a preliminary run.
Looking up Nino set the computer to play the tune as its data existed so far. A few beats of the bass in the young musician made his entrance with the addition of the guitar. As he played he listened for how the pieces came together, whether or not certain beats hit in the right spot. If he found a section he was dissatisfied with he would pause and rework the section until it came together the way he wanted.
This repetitive process continued, adjustments, tweaks, and minor edits filling the room with round after round of the evolving song. Rough at first, becoming more refined with each pass, Nino continued his work until the point came where he could play the entire piece from beginning to end and was content with the song as a whole.
Nino set about recording the guitar track, relaxing into the movements of playing. Listening through the first take he decided it was not sufficient and trashed it to make another. Settling upon a take that synced with the tune in his head, Nino went about the work of mixing and finalizing the track on the computer.
Clicking the “Burn CD” button on the computer display the young musician groaned happily and signed as he stretched, nearly folding backwards over the back of his seat. Glancing at the clock on the computer Nino's mouth twitched into a satisfied smirk and he sat forward again, adjusting his shirt and jacket. He had managed to complete the piece only a quarter of an hour past the final bell. All that was left was to wait for the CD to finish and he could go drop it off, enjoying the rest of the afternoon to himself.
Twirling around in his seat, Nino picked up his guitar from where it rested on a table and strummed at it absently. He couldn't help the feeling of satisfaction spreading through his chest, helping to loosen the tension he'd been holding in his shoulders. The song, while not a masterpiece, was well done and perfect for what it was going to be needed for. It was true, the tune would have to be approved by Ohno, but Nino sincerely doubted that it would disappoint.
“I knew I was good and figured that high school would have wasted valuable time that could be spent learning to do what I wanted to do.”
Nino's hand stilled over the strings as Ohno's words came back to him; the grinning face indicating he was aware of how full of himself he had sounded but did not see a point in denying what was true. Nino could understand the sentiment, it was how he felt about his own music.
The young boy frowned and pushed the grinning face out of his head. Of its own volition, however, Ohno's voice drifted through his mind again:
“The type of person that would consider their family nothing but a distraction...I kind of feel sorry for that kind of person.”
Nino rolled his eyes at himself and sat forward, pushing his guitar onto the table before him. Twisting in the chair he checked the progress of the CD and resisted the urge to sigh in frustration when he saw it was only a third complete.
Picking up a pencil he had left on the desk Nino began tapping the eraser on the tabletop. Slowly at first before beginning to pick up a rhythm, occasionally flipping the pencil over to tap the sharpened end on the hard surface to change the timber. His eyes repeatedly returned to the computer screen, frowning at the apparent inefficiency of the school's supposedly state-of-the-art technology.
“I kind of feel sorry for that kind of person.”
Ohno had sounded so genuinely pitying when he had said those words. Nino's brow furrowed further as he noticed that the beat he had been tapping out on the desk had been the song that was currently burning to disc. Another glance at the CD's progress told him that a little less than a quarter of the process remained.
Allowing the pencil to drop from his hand and roll across the top of the desk, Nino turned his back on the computer once more. Standing he began to replace his instrument in its case, pursing his lips at the tension that was beginning to mount in his shoulders once again.
Damn MatsuJun for dumping this project on him. There were other music students, or even other teachers that could have helped out without coming to bother him. Hell, if Jun had just spent an afternoon on iTunes he might have found something more to Ohno's liking. No, he had to come to Nino, had to get him involved, take up his time and energy.
From behind him Nino heard the distinct ding of a completed burning. Turning he saved and closed everything, grabbing and pocketing his flash drive and jamming the make-shift score unceremoniously into his jacket. Gathering the remainder of his belongings Nino snatched the CD from the ejected tray and closed it. Not bothering to put away any of the equipment he had set up, Nino marched to the door, turned off the light, and left, allowing the door to swing shut behind him.
Jun bent over, hands on his knees, and panted heavily, feeling his shirt sticking to his back as it began to get soaked through in sweat. As he continued to stand he felt the muscles in his legs begin to tremble and stood to shake some of the tension out of his limbs. Breathing deeply he stared at the short figure standing before the group of students, perspiring noticeably but seeming nowhere as winded as some of the dancers.
As Ohno raised a hand to clear the sweat from his brow he frowned. He was having difficulty trying to explain the segment of movement to the group. There were only so many ways he could think of to say the same thing and he was beginning to feel that everyone was just as frustrated with him as they were with themselves for not getting the moves right. His eyes drifted across the flushed, panting faces and he felt a strange mixture of annoyance and guilt. He didn't want to seem like a bad guy or a slave-driver and he knew that different people were limited by their capabilities. Still, the fact remained that he didn't understand how no one was able to at least partially mimic the piece.
Eyes meeting with Jun's Ohno took in his exhausted form and the dancer's entire expression softened. If MatsuJun, one of the hardest workers and fastest learners in the class, was having this much difficulty then it was clear where the problem lay. Ohno smiled apologetically to the class. “Let's take a break, alright? Don't forget to stretch some if you're going to sit down. Get something to drink, alright? Good work, everyone!”
Jun frowned a little as he saw Ohno's face fall when he turned to approach his own belongings. Turning to go to his own towel and water bottle, Jun tried to formulate in his head some way to try and talk to Ohno about today's session so far. Perhaps try and talk him into changing the choreography a little, or at least trying to puzzle out what Ohno was trying to teach them. Lifting his gaze to the rest of the students for a moment, Jun threw back his head and sucked down as much water as he was able to before requiring to breathe.
Swallowing greedily, Jun sighed in satisfaction as he returned his gaze to the stage. He nearly lost a few drops of water in surprise as he saw Nino weaving around people and making directly for him. Taking another swig of water, Jun began to pat down his face and neck with his towel, waiting for Nino to finally arrive.
“Here, done.” Nino said simply, handing over an unmarked disc. The smaller boy breathed in deeply and stretched, reaching his hands up into the air before deflating slowly.
The musician made to turn and leave when Jun caught his shoulder. “Hold on,” he frowned curiously at the grimace that graced Nino's features. “Don't give it to me, give it to him.” Jun nodded his head in Ohno's direction.
Nino's face scrunched in exasperation and a bit of a whine entered his voice, “Come on! I'm tired, can't you give it to him so I can go home?”
Unable to suppress his own annoyance Jun forced the disc back into Nino's hand. “Don't be such a little shit, just go give him the CD and wait for him to listen to it. That way if he has some complaints or something he can give them to you directly and I don't have to worry about playing the messenger.”
Jun was certain that the glare Nino fixed him with was the direct result of the barb about his song potentially being something to warrant complaints. As the shorter boy's shoulders sagged with an angry huff Jun couldn't help but smirk at his friend's back.
Ohno had been sitting, allowing his legs to dangle over the edge of the stage as he stared at the empty seats of the auditorium. He allowed his head to drift to one side, his eyes slowly coming to focus on the pair of uniform-clad legs before him. Blinking a bit, his eyes traveled up, passing over a pair of small hands clenched carefully around a CD, arms clad in uniform jacket, and finally reaching a pleasantly familiar face.
Smiling brightly, Ohno greeted, “Ninomiya-kun! It's good to see you!” Pulling his legs back on to the stage Ohno paused a moment before asking curiously, “What are you doing here?”
Nino's smile seemed strained, the corners of his eyes seeming more crinkled with stress than happiness. “I finished the song you wanted,” he held up the CD in his hands. Ohno simply nodded, a tad distracted with the younger boy's tenseness. Perhaps he had a headache again.
Pushing himself up he took the offered disc and padded his way over to the same portable stereo that had been used the first time they had met. Folding himself into a crouch, Ohno removed the primary disc before carefully replacing it with the newly burned CD. Pressing play, Ohno sat back on his heels and stared out across the sea of chairs once more.
As the device spun up there was a pause before the first beats started. Softly, a light percussion counted off, a verbose bass coming in stronger. The count progressed before a pause, two beats long. The notes resumed, quieter than when they had stopped but growing as the tempo picked up. Guitar riffs joined in, raising the tension; each note coming out in a vibrant staccato.
Behind Ohno the young composer stood, a hand twitching involuntarily and tapping out the rhythm of the song on his leg. Nino watched as Ohno continued to sit, motionless while he listened. As the song came to a close and the stereo ceased to make noise Nino continued to tap his leg impatiently.
The young man's eyes stayed on Ohno's back and followed the man as he rose and turned with a broad smile. “That was really good! I didn't expect you to be done so fast.”
Nino ducked his head at the praise and smiled slightly. “It wasn't a problem.”
Ohno looked back at the stereo, smile still firmly in place. Turning to face Nino again he said, “This is perfect for the scene, I think. Exactly what I needed.” He caught Nino's distracted gaze. “Thank you.”
Hand stilling at his side Nino nodded a little more firmly. “You're welcome.”
Once again a silence settled between the two as Ohno continued to look on with evident delight and Nino failed to find a polite way to slip away. Nino broke eye contact first, looking around to see what the other students were doing, wondering how long Ohno was going to waste for that practice.
He was about to turn back to Ohno to excuse himself when the shorter man started suddenly, appearing to remember something. “Oh!” Ohno gestured to Nino not to leave and walked away to his things.
Nino frowned at the shorter man's back in the time he was gone. As Ohno rummaged through his bag, however, Nino's curiosity got the better of him. He leaned forward, trying to see around Ohno's shoulders what was apparently so important. A faint “Ah ha!” reached Nino's ears and the dance instructor stood, holding up a pair of boxed lunches.
Walking forward Ohno began to explain, “I was talking with my mom a little while back after that last time we shared one of these and she's insisted on making a second one for you every day since.” He extended a powder blue box out to Nino. “Just in case I ever ran into you again.”
Nino's mouth had drifted open in shock as he accepted the boxed lunch with both hands. Looking up, he couldn't quite figure out what to say.
Ohno giggled at Nino's expression. “I've had to eat two of these every day since then. Not that I mind, it's actually been nice to get the extra food. Still, at least I don't have to explain to my mother tonight about how the school is too big to spend time looking for you every day to give you a lunch.”
Nino continued to remain speechless as he stared from the box in his hands to the man that had presented it to him. “T-thanks...” He finally managed to get out.
The older man waved a hand dismissively. “It's fine, it's fine.” Ohno fingered his own box longingly and looked to be considering carefully. Glancing around Nino and back to the box he worried at a lip in contemplation. “Since we're on break right now, want to stick around and eat anyway?”
A part of Nino's mind nagged at him that it was stupid to hang around now that his obligation to the project had been completed. As he looked at Ohno's hopeful face and to the lunch in his hands once more, however, that part of his mind was swiftly put to death by the larger, more prominent voice in Nino's head that was always in favor of free things—especially food.
So he nodded, following the older man to take a seat at the edge of the stage. As they sat and enjoyed the food that Ohno's mother had made the two talked amicably. After a time Ohno snaked his hand out to steal a piece of Nino's meat and feigned complete innocence when the younger boy demanded it back.
From his place at the back of the stage Jun sat and marveled at the carefree air the two seemed to share. Nino had been his friend since the older boy had joined St. John's their freshmen year of high school and in all of that time Jun had never seen Nino be as tolerant or as open as he was being with Ohno. He had to smile as he watched the pair, however. Nino had been in an increasingly sour mood of late. Jun had tried his best to help by distracting his friend with their typical repartee, which worked on most days, but he could not help but feel that Nino had been withdrawing even further into himself than was typical. If the addition of Ohno's spacey presence helped to keep his friend in a good mood, Jun could think of the instructor as nothing but a positive development.
Nino's laughter rang out over the stage as he reached out and playfully shoved at Ohno's shoulder and Jun's grin redoubled. Shaking his head he made to start another set of stretches, disinclined to interrupt the two just yet.
Chapter 6: King's Clothes
The one where Sho actually makes an appearance.
The grin that spread unabashedly across Jun's face caused Nino's shoulders to tense preemptively. Nino knew that grin, it was not a grin that meant good things for Nino. In fact, that particular grin was reserved for when Jun had happened upon a particularly delicious piece of information to annoy Nino with.
“So,” the young actor began, the one syllable positively dripping with hardly contained glee. “How long have you been meeting your boyfriend for after school lunch dates?”
Nino groaned, pulling his DS from a pocket and flipping it open. He should have known MatsuJun would find some form of vengeance for all of the cracks about the male model Nino had insisted on making.
Undeterred by Nino's classic sign of ignoring him, Jun persisted. “I mean, really, if I had known you two were so chummy I would have invited you along to practice. I'm sure he would just be so happy to see you every day!”
Nino drew in a long breath and sighed. There was nothing to respond with, no adequate defense. Anything that could be said to retort would only result in more juvenile taunting about how he was 'defending' his situation. The only option was to cut past the snide remarks and find out how long he had to make his game system's battery life last. “How much longer are you going to harp on this?”
“Until the 5th of forever,” Jun grinned, taking his seat at the desk in front of Nino. “This will follow you until the day you die,” he promised, practically giggling as he turned in his seat to face the furiously gaming musician.
“Mn,” Nino grunted, folding himself over his lap to further decrease his bodily exposure to his friend. The lie perpetuated by grade school teachers was that words could not hurt, when, in fact, words could be the source of a great deal of discomfort. Nino's currently growing headache could attest to such.
Glancing up the young musician began to chew on the inside of his lip in frustration. “At least I don't draw dicks for hours a day every week. That's pretty gay.”
Nino didn't bother to duck his head any to hide his smirk as Jun's smug grin faltered.
Pursing his lips in a show of calculation, Jun simply nodded. “Drawing a dick for a class is a far cry from sharing a homemade lunch box.” Smug smile firmly back in place, Jun turned to face forward as the teacher entered.
Nino said nothing in response. Instead, he waited until the teacher called on Jun to answer a statement before scooting the younger boy's chair out from under him while he wasn't looking. The resulting crash of the ever prideful Jun to the floor served as appropriate retribution.
The dull ache radiating from Jun's tail bone had not fully subsided when the time came for him to sit through Figure Study. The awkward wooden structure known only as a “horse” did nothing to help with his injured arse either. As he sat and attempted to concentrate on his classwork Jun found himself frequently distracted by the discomfort and squirmed in attempts to subtly improve his position.
At one point he looked up, his eyes meeting that of Aiba who seemed to be biting back a smile. Jun felt heat spring to his cheeks as he realized how ridiculous he must look, wriggling about on the plywood contraption that was his seat. Settling himself in the the least painful position he could hurriedly find, Jun sat rigidly and grit his teeth against the pain. His drawings were slow and most came out half-formed at best as he tried to reduce his fidgeting to an absolute minimum.
When the alarm on the instructor's watch signifying break blared across the room Jun sighed in audible relief. The dark haired boy slumped forward, allowing his spine to form a delicious curve and take the pressure from his lower back. Jun did not bother to suppress the delighted sighs and little groans that resulted from the stretch and instead indulged by staying curled for a full minute or so.
Satisfied with the extension, MatsuJun rolled himself slowly back to a righted position and barely managed to stifle a noise of surprise as he was suddenly face-to-face with a bathrobe-clad Aiba.
The taller man was grinning at him knowingly. “You should go to the bathroom while you've got a chance.”
Jun stared, baffled. After a pause, during which Aiba offered no elaboration of his statement, the younger boy questioned, “Huh?”
“I saw you earlier. You looked like you really had to pee,” Aiba had put a hand to the side of his mouth in a sign to muffle his words, making no effort to decrease his volume in the process. As Jun continued to stare in confusion the chocolate brown hair shook into Aiba's eyes as he giggled.
“Oh,” returned Jun shortly, fighting back the embarrassment-induced twist of his stomach. “No, I don't have to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, my bad!” Aiba apologized, laughing at his own blunder. “That's just what it looked like. What's wrong if you don't have to pee?”
At the question Jun stood as gracefully as could be managed when one sat straddling a plank of wood for hours on end. Carefully moving one leg so that he stood with the horse between Aiba and himself, Jun stretched a little again. “A friend thought it would be funny to misplace my seat in class this morning. I ended up going to sit down and fell.”
There was a pause during which several emotions seemed to battle for control over Aiba's features. Jun watched as the older boy's eyebrows knit in something akin to sympathy; his eyes shining with what Jun suspected was amusement as Aiba sucked his lips in, possibly attempting to suppress a smile. The young actor managed to level a cool stare at the model but said nothing.
Aiba finally smiled wide, giggling through, “I'm sorry to hear that.” He put a hand up to his mouth and pressed it over his lips to prevent further laughter at Jun's misfortune.
Jun responded simply by averting his gaze and frowning at the shaking shoulders and mass of brown hair before him. The annoyance was washed away by a flood of panicked horror, however, as Aiba reached forward and began to finger through his sketches. The dark haired boy made a strangled noise in his throat as he reached forward to attempt to stop the model, but halted in his movements at the taller boy's exclamation.
"OH WOW! Those are really good!” Aiba paused over a few gestures where he had used props to make more engaging poses. “I didn't know something like that would come out of me just sitting there for a few seconds. I can't really do art for my life, though I did a paint by numbers that came out pretty decent once, but it's not the same thing."
As Aiba continued to ramble and flip through the pages Jun stood by, quietly nodding humble thanks for the praise. Inside, however, a tinge of pride began to burgeon in his chest. The young actor watched the model's face brighten in delight page after page, occasionally laughing, occasionally uttering an awed “oooh” or some vocalization similarly full of wonder. As he looked on a smile crept its way to MatsuJun's own features and he settled into a peculiarly comfortable discourse with the older man.
This pleasant encounter was interrupted, however, as an uncertain voice called from the door of the room. “Aiba-kun?”
Both boys turned to the newcomer in curiosity. Standing just inside the doorway was a man Jun had never seen before. His dark brown hair flowed in layers to frame a angular, handsome face with warm brown eyes and a generous pair of lips. He was dressed casually, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his jacket open. In his hands he held a set of what appeared to be car keys and a worn notebook.
“SHO-CHAN!” Aiba fairly squealed as he attempted to speed around the maze of horses, tripping over the final one he attempted to hurdle. Recovering without incident, however, Aiba hopped the rest of his way to the new man excitedly.
Upon reaching the shorter man Aiba flung his arms around his shoulders in a boisterous embrace, releasing the newcomer; who promptly took to straightening his attire.
“Good morning!” Aiba chirped.
“Good morning,” his friend returned with a faint smile, still smoothing his shirt.
As Jun watched he could do nothing to eliminate the sour presence that seemed to permeate both palate and stomach. A small voice in the back of the boy's head informed him that there was no rational reason to dislike this man, who he did not know. Seemingly every part of his logical mind agreed with this thought. As he watched Aiba's close proximity to the new male, however, Jun could do nothing to prevent a mounting dislike for the dark haired man.
“How's your day been so far?” inquired the model, his tone casual and conversational. Jun faced his drawing pad but could feel a faint tingling in his ear as he willed himself to listen as intently as humanly possible in the direction of the door.
The newcomer responded with a quiet, calm voice. “Hmm, slow. Class got out early so I thought I'd bring you these now so you could look over them during your lunch time.” MatsuJun's eyes flashed a glance out of the corner of his vision to see the dark haired man pass Aiba the notebook he had been holding.
The taller man accepted the item with both hands, making a loud noise of relieved elation. “Ahh! Thank you so much! You don't know how helpful these are to me! Really, Sho-chan.” A pair of inconspicuous ears across the room twitched imperceptibly at the second use of the familiar nickname.
“It's really nothing,” a rich, smooth chuckle. He even sounded handsome. Jun's teeth found the inside of his cheek and worried a spot near the corner of his mouth. “Though you should show up to class to take the notes yourself. It would almost assuredly improve your academic standing.”
“I know, I know. Work gets in the way sometimes though,” Aiba responded distracted flipping through the notebook.
“If you worked regular hours it might be easier to keep a schedule,” the dark haired man sounded both concerned and chastising, his tone implying the rest of a sentence the taller boy had probably heard many times before. “It might also help if you paid attention to dates for registration so that you could at least try for a more flexible schedule.”
Aiba's only response was to giggle at his companion while he continued to examine the notes.
Minutes continued to pass as the model stood speaking with his visitor and Jun found it difficult to listen without making himself a spectacle, only Aiba's occasional laughter or emphatic response to a question or statement drifted across the room. Frowning as he bent over his work station stiffly, the young actor sniffed at his own ridiculousness. As he shifted to make his lower back more comfortable Jun consciously tuned the model's voice out, determinedly telling himself that he had no business or concern with the conversation taking place across the room.
The squeak of the door swinging open and shut sounded across the room as a few students began to re-enter the room. A low buzz began to spread across the room, occasionally punctuated by the distinct pound of the room's door opening and closing to permit the entry of more and more students.
Raising his head from his work to glance about the room for the instructor, Jun's eyes fell on Aiba stepping away from his visitor and waving happily, bright smile directed at the dark haired man who was smiling in return. The model had almost made it to the pedestal that he was to model from when the man he had just left called out.
“Ah! Aiba-kun!” Looking back, Aiba stared quizzically as the dark haired man trotted up to him.
“You forgot to take these,” he handed Aiba the notebook he had been pawing through earlier but had clearly handed back to the shorter man at some point.
“Oh! Haha, my bad.” Aiba chuckled as he took the notebook and bit his lip bashfully. “Hey, you want to stick around for lunch? Ohno-kun should be here today too, we can hang out for a little bit. What do you say?”
“I'd like to, but I have some more errands to run today,” the dressed man frowned apologetically. “Some other time?”
“Okay,” Aiba nodded. “I'll see you later at home. Bye bye, Sho-chan!” Aiba waved a hand in his friend's face emphatically before hopping up on to the platform he modeled from.
Jun found himself staring at his drawing pad in shock, incapable of even pretending to pay attention for the rest of the period.
Chapter 7: A Notable Happenstance
The one where Ohmiya say very little but learn a lot.
Stepping out of his front door, Nino turned to check that he had locked it when he felt his cell phone buzz in his pocket. Digging into the front of his jeans he frowned at the caller ID before flipping the phone open. “Hello?”
“I need you to do me a favor and emerge from your cave today,” Jun's voice filtered through the speaker.
“I'm sorry, my sister got a run in her last pair of pantyhose. You're just going to have to go without.” Nino tilted his head skyward to breathe in the clear morning air but winced at the equally clear sunlight.
“Tch,” Nino could hear Jun's appreciative smirk for the barb, “I don't want your sister's cheap pantyhose. No, I was wondering if I could get you to go out and grab a sketchbook from a store and bring it to me at the studio.”
As he breezed his way down the street Nino scowled. “You must have confused my number with that of your mother. I don't run errands.” Nino paused at a corner, his eyes flitting along from car to car as they passed. “Especially not ones that cost me money.”
Jun sighed. “I know it's a big favor to ask, but I really need one. I meant to pick one up myself before rehearsal but...” Jun's voice trailed off and Nino glanced at his phone to make sure the signal hadn't cut out. “It just didn't work out.”
“You and your damn art crap,” Nino cursed as he began walking again. “Why can't anyone at your house get one for you?”
“They're all out today, I already called everyone else I could think of.” Nino was silent over the line for a time. “I'll reimburse you,” Jun tried desperately.
“You bet your ass you will,” Nino huffed a bit as he trotted up a set of stairs to a train platform.
“I'll buy you lunch?”
“And pay my train fare for the trip. Think of it as a delivery charge,” the musician pocketed his transfer and waited patiently for his train.
As an announcement sounded across the platform Nino could practically hear Jun clench his teeth in frustration. “Extortion,” the younger man spat out.
“The price you pay for convenience,” Nino corrected. Spying his line swiftly approaching the dark haired boy shifted his weight on his feet. “When do I need to be there?”
“Any time before two, but if you want me to join you for lunch rather than just throw money at you and run your best option is between twelve-thirty and one-thirty.”
“Alright. Train 's here, I'll see you later.” Nino snapped his phone shut as the line screeched into the station and he waited patiently for the contraption to come to a full and complete stop.
As he stood on the train, watching the scenery zip past, Nino mused to himself how lucky Jun's timing was in making such a request. Had it not been for the fact that this weekend a video game that Nino had ordered weeks prior had finally arrived in shop the young actor would have been quite out of luck in making his plea. Nino wondered briefly if Jun had remembered this fact, which would explain how the younger boy would have even dared risk asking the favor.
Thinking back over Jun's actions the past week, however, Nino highly doubted it. His friend had seemed more agitated and distracted than was typical, and while Nino had noticed the deviation in behavior he had not tried to approach the subject. He was content to follow Jun's lead in pretending nothing was wrong. If the actor decided he wanted to share what was on his mind, it would be at a time of his own choosing and Nino was not exactly the person to try and push the matter. At least not yet.
Stepping off the train Nino made his way through the crowds of people down streets bustling with those hocking their wares and others combing through the proffered items in search of that one “thing” they might be missing. The electronics store Nino enjoyed frequenting was squirreled away between a gaudy café and fruit stand. It was small, cramped, and smelled of dust and cheap cleaning products. If anything was ordered he'd have to wait several weeks past an item's release date for delivery. But he knew the owners. They were dependable and never sold him anything he'd had to return, and after so many years of patronage they tended to sell him things at wholesale price rather than retail.
Greeting the clerk on duty, Nino made a quick round of the store. He had no intention of making any other purchase than the one he came for specifically, but it was always worth it to see if there was something he might want to save up for in the future. It was also a habit he'd gained from being dragged out shopping with his sister over the years.
“Even if you're not going to buy anything you should at least see what's available,” she had told him. Nino could never fathom the logic behind such a thing. If he needed something he could research it online and find where the best deal was before spending a day wasting time with pushy sales people and walking around a bunch of stores. Nonetheless, the practice had stuck with him.
Approaching the front counter Nino pulled out his wallet, extracting an order receipt to present to the cashier. While he waited Nino tapped his fingers on the counter in a quiet, staccato rhythm. When the cashier returned with his game, Nino paid his due and thanked the man. As he accepted the bag and made for the door his mind immediately turned to the next goal on his list (now that he even had a list, thanks to Jun).
As he stepped out into the painfully bright sunlight Nino realized with an internal wince that he had no idea where someone was supposed to buy a sketchbook. Art supply stores was the obvious answer, but he didn't know where one of those might be in relation to his current location.
Sighing, Nino reached into his pocket to pluck out his cellphone, hitting redial as he wandered up the street. Seeing as Jun was supposed to be in the middle of vocal practice, Nino was surprised when he heard an exasperated “What?” growled over the line.
“Where am I supposed to buy a sketchbook?” Nino asked conversationally. He might have actually apologized for interrupting and getting Jun in trouble, but Jun's testiness lately made Nino disinclined to be lenient.
There was a hurried sound of shuffling and a dull thud from Jun's end of the line. Nino's brow knit in concern but Jun soon sighed. “Art stores, books stores, I don't know. Paper stores?”
“Paper stores?” Nino scoffed. “Is there such a thing as a paper store?”
“You asked!” Jun sounded more tired than angry now.
“I think you're lying to me,” Nino scoffed, grinning at the asphalt. His gaze traveled up to see if there were any of the types of stores around that might sell what he was looking for when Nino stopped dead in his tracks.
Milling about a set of vendor tables in front of a store, head bent to study some trinket and expression placid, was Ohno Satoshi.
Running into the spacey man at school was one thing, he was supposed to be there. But out here in the real world? Ohno was about the last thing Nino had expected to see.
“You know, I think I've got it handled. See you in a bit.”
“Wha—” Jun's confused voice was cut off as Nino ended the call and tucked his phone back in his pocket.
Being sure to keep with the flow of pedestrian traffic, Nino made his way over to the table Ohno was bent over. As he approached, Nino saw that the table top (or at least the section Ohno seemed interested in) was covered in small, reflective and shiny charms of some kind.
Coming closer, Nino kept waiting for Ohno to look up and see him. But it never happened. Grinning at how ridiculously easy 'sneaking up' on Ohno was going to be, Nino stepped forward and leaned over the table next to Ohno. He then leaned in close to Ohno said, “Fancy seeing you here, Ohno-san.”
Ohno started, head snapping up to see Nino. He blinked a moment, recognition settling in, and then smiled. “Ninomiya-kun!”
Nino stood up, returning Ohno's grin. “What are you looking at?” He nodded at the shiny objects on the table.
“Oh!” Ohno turned back to the table a second, delicately picking up one of the items. He held it up between Nino and himself at eye level. “They're earring charms, see? But you can use them as fishing lures.”
Taking the charm from Ohno, Nino examined it curiously. “Huh. Do you do a lot of finishing?”
When Ohno laughed Nino was a little startled, his gaze shifting from the item in hand to Ohno's face. Ohno waved a hand dismissively. “No. I don't have the time to commit to fishing.”
Handing the charm back Nino fixed Ohno with an inquisitive look. “Then why are you looking at would-be fishing lures?”
“Because,” Ohno began, carefully returning the 'lure' to its table, “I don't know. They were kind of pretty.”
It was Nino's turn to laugh. “I think Ohno-san is part fish,” he grinned.
Nino very nearly redoubled in his laughter as Ohno's brow furrowed and his mouth drew up into a perfectly offended pout. The older man's round cheeks played up the expression exquisitely, making him a ridiculous caricature of wounded pride.
“Calling me 'Ohno-san' makes me sound so old,” he whined and this time Nino did laugh.
Before he could stop himself, Nino reached up and prodded Ohno in the stomach saying, “That's because Ohno-san is old.” Then Nino quickly pulled his hand back to himself, realizing what he'd just done. This man was a teacher at his school. He might be short and young, a bit spacey and good natured, but he was still a teacher.
Nino was just about to apologize for his behavior when Ohno dropped the pout, his face splitting into a wide grin as he laughed freely. “I'm not that much older,” he defended himself, though the whine lost against the laughter in his voice.
When Ohno wasn't genuinely offended or put-off by Nino's slip the younger boy was, to put it lightly, baffled. Pleased, because he was enjoying the comfortable and relaxed air between them, but completely confused. He was spared having to spend too much thought on the conundrum, however, when a lyrical ditty sounded from Ohno's bag.
Looking down in surprise, Ohno mumbled a quick, “'Scuse me,” as he reached around to dig through his belongings. Pulling out his phone, Ohno glanced at the display before flipping the phone open. “Sho-kun?”
Ohno listened carefully, nodding and indicating he was listening. Nino turned to the trinket table and looked over the items on the table so that he wouldn't be eavesdropping. Or at least so it wouldn't look like he was eavesdropping. Though as Nino listened he didn't think anyone would be offended if he'd not closed out the positively dull conversation in all of its vague glory.
“I was just on my way,” Ohno said. During the pause where 'Sho-kun' gave his reply Ohno waited patiently. “Okay. Okay. Right. I'll see you soon!” Flipping the phone shut, Ohno looked up and was momentarily surprised to see Nino had moved but turned to face him properly.
“Got plans?” Nino asked with a knowing smile.
“Yeah, lunch with my friends Sakurai and Aiba,” Ohno smiled back, a touch apologetic. Then his face lifted as a thought occurred to him. “Would you like to join us?”
Nino blinked at the invitation but continued to smiled. He ducked his head saying, “Thanks, but I've got an errand to run, actually.” It was Nino's turn to look apologetic. “Sorry.”
Ohno shook his head at Nino's apology. “Another time then,” it wasn't a question.
Grinning, Nino answered anyway. “Sure.”
Returning the smile warmly, Ohno raised a hand in a short wave. “I'll see you later, Ninomiya-kun—”
“Nino,” the young man interrupted quickly. Nodding his head sheepishly, Nino bit his lower lip before grinning and repeating, “You can just call me Nino.”
Ohno's grin spread so wide his lips hiked up and Nino could see almost all of his teeth. Nino had the brief thought that Ohno had a nice smile. “I'll see you later, Nino,” he agreed with a nod.
“See you later, Oh-chan,” Nino tried the nickname experimentally. The use only made Ohno laugh and smile more as he waved again before heading out into the crowd.
Chapter 8: & Co.
The one where Sho's life is hard but he and Aiba love on Ohno anyway.
When people have known one another for any lengthly period of time they become familiar with various aspects of each other. Especially in the case of friends.
“In this service these women would come to your home, right?”
“And you'd have dinner or whatever with them?”
“If that's what you wanted, yeah.”
“And then you would have sex with them?”
“What? Not it's not!”
“These girls would be paid to have sex, right?”
“No, but, wait! No! You're oversimplifying things!”
The conversation was an easy one to recognize. If not because of the subject matter, then it would have been easy enough to pick out by the earnest way one man was trying to convince the other that there were merits to his unconventional idea.
Taking the remaining seat at a table set for three, Ohno was tucking his messenger bag under his pristine whitewashed wicker chair as he asked, “What are we talking about?”
“What? Sho-chan, it's nothing to be embarrassed about,” Aiba tried to be consoling, though Sho was resolutely ignoring him as he eyed a passing waitress anxiously. No doubt the lovely young woman had just heard what his idiot friend had said, and while Aiba claimed there was no humiliation to be felt over his virginal status, Sho knew better.
Waiting just long enough for the waitress to pass out of earshot, Ohno ignored Sho's discomfort as any good friend would. “Are we getting Sho-kun a prostitute?”
“Noooo,” Aiba said, his tone imploring. “I was just saying that it would be great if there was some kind of service that could help guys in Sho-chan's situation. Not prostitutes.” He paused to give Sho his best attempt at a glare. The effect was ruined by the fact that Aiba had a face that naturally wanted to be smiling all of the time, even when he was flustered. “Just, you know. More experienced girls who will help guys learn what they need to. So that they can be confident in the future!”
“Like sex tutors?” Ohno surmised, nodding his thanks as the earlier waitress returned with a sweating glass of water for him before zooming off again.
“YES! Exactly! Like sex tutors!” Aiba nodded, ecstatic that someone finally got what he was saying.
“A rose by any other name...” Sho sighed, knowing he'd lost this argument. “We took the liberty of ordering appetizers, but we waited for you for lunch,” he said, nodding at the menu laid across Ohno's place setting.
Picking up his menu, Ohno nodded his thanks. Usually they ate at dingy little ramen stands or corner restaurants. Mom & Pop places tended to have the cheap food they all needed to depend on while money was what it was. Two college students and a dancer weren't exactly rolling in cash. Aiba had been invited by one of the waitresses to come out and try the café's lunch special, however, and rarely was he capable of turning down a pretty face and the promise of a meal.
“So what kept you? This place isn't that far from your house,” Sho asked, flipping open his own menu and scanning the list carefully.
“Mn?” Ohno asked, distracted from reading the description of what sounded to be a delicious deli sandwich. “Oh. I ran into Nino.” Still trying to read through the options of his sandwich innards, Ohno forgot that he was going to elaborate further.
“'Nino'?” Sho looked up from his menu curiously.
“Ninomiya-kun,” Ohno said as he looked to Aiba. “He's a friend of Matsumoto-kun's.”
“Mattsun's? Really?” Aiba's attention was finally brought back to the table as this information seemed more important than trying to discern whether or not the outdoor bartender was wearing a bra.
“Wait, Matsumoto?” Sho asked, looking between his friends and trying his best not to feel left out. “Is that the guy you keep talking about? The one that's 'cute when he squirms'?”
“Yep!” Aiba nodded shamelessly, turning to glance over his meal options for the first time. His lips drifted open as he read the menu to himself, mouthing the words as he went.
Sho stared at Aiba, trying his best to process the information. He wasn't a prude, really. He'd only been embarrassed earlier because they had been discussing his own sex life in public, not so much because they'd been discussing prostitution. But there were legitimate concerns about dating high school kids.
“You never mentioned he was a student,” he said, trying not to sound worried or judging and failing as he reached for his glass of water.
“Says Mr. Hot-For-Teacher,” Aiba prodded Sho with his foot under the table, not offended by his friend's apprehension. He knew that Sho only worried because he cared.
Plus, it was worth it to see Sho choke on his beverage.
“That's completely different!” he sputtered, pulling out a napkin and trying to blot his t-shirt dry. A few heads turned at the outburst and Sho could feel heat rising to the back of his neck. “Kobayashi-san is a teacher's aid. She's not actually a teacher.”
“If you say so, Sho-chan,” Aiba practically sang as he grinned at his menu.
Sighing, Sho tried not to pout as he focused solely on picking his lunch. Clearly he was not going to be able to participate effectively in a conversation this afternoon. Their waitress arrived, breathless but timely. She took their orders dutifully, constantly batting her skillfully painted eyes at Aiba while he asked her humble opinion on which soup would be most appetizing. Their orders taken, she was sent off with a thankful smile from each man and sped her way back to the kitchens.
Looking to his right, Ohno stared in Aiba's direction absently for a moment. When all of his thoughts seemed to be in place, he asked (as if the conversation hadn't been interrupted at all), “You think Matsumoto-kun's cute?”
Eyebrows raising as he finished sucking down some of his water, Aiba place his glass on the table. “Don't you?” He asked, smiling as though this ought to be an obvious thing.
“He is a good looking kid,” Ohno agreed with a nod. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself, though.”
“I know,” Aiba's face wrinkled as he clearly searched for the right way to say what he wanted to next. “But that's kind of charming, isn't it?”
“Masaki,” Sho broke in momentarily, trying to see if he could understand the situation. “You sound like you want permission to take him out.”
“Don't be silly! I don't need permission,” Aiba grinned cheekily, laughing as Sho reached out to swat his shoulder lightly. “Really, I just like him. He seems... Nice.” Shrugging, he reached for another drink.
“Nino's like that,” Ohno said after a brief pause, much to the surprise of his friends. “Nice, I mean. He talks to me.”
Sho and Aiba exchanged glances. While they hadn't seen Ohno in a while, they had both gotten to know the man well enough. Ohno was a wonderful friend and companion once you got used to how he functioned. It was just that talking wasn't typically part of that functioning. For Ohno to say that this Nino person took the time to talk with him... Sho gave a shrug and they both returned their attention to Ohno.
Their appetizers arrived, momentarily interrupting the flow of the conversation. They were all bordering on ravenous, but this lunch was being had so that they could reconnect. Being who they were, however, they felt perfectly connected stuffing their faces with grilled bread and artichoke spread, only sounds of appreciation for their food passing between them.
“What do you talk about?” Sho asked, wiping the corner of his mouth with his crisp napkin. “You and N-Nino? Ninomiya?” He wasn't sure which name form he should use.
Shrugging, Ohno reached for one of the last pieces of bread and slathered it in spread. “Stuff,” he explained, taking a bite of his food and chewing blissfully. “He's kind of like Aiba, you know? Playful? Sometimes we'll be talking about music, and then it'll be Martians that crash landed in Uzbekistan.”
Really, he hadn't had a great deal of contact with Nino. Despite that, however, Ohno was very comfortable and just liked him. The boy would laugh at his jokes, whether they were intentional or not. He spoke with a great deal of candor, which was something Ohno could appreciate. Sometimes Ohno got lost in conversation because he thought the person he was speaking to was being genuine when really they were being polite. Nino always felt genuine with him, even if it was just in the way he stayed quiet and didn't mind if Ohno had nothing to say.
Laughing, Sho nodded. “Sounds like a cool guy.”
“We should have lunch with them!” Aiba declared excitedly. It seemed like a brilliant plan! Especially since he and Ohno worked in the same building Matsumoto and Ninomiya went to school. All that would have to be orchestrated was Sho showing up on time.
“I invited Nino today!” Ohno mentioned, though the slight pride at being forward thinking diminished as, obviously, Nino had not come. “He said he had errands to run.”
Ohno watched as the waitress leaned across his place setting to collect their appetizer dishes in preparation for their incoming meals. He nodded and did his best to scoot out of the way while she worked.
“Is she wearing an undershirt?” Aiba asked as the woman made her retreat, his gaze following her.
“Don't stare!” Sho chastised quickly before answering: “And no. You can see her bra strap across her back through the blouse.”
Aiba's nose twitched in disappointment as his attention returned to the table.
“Maybe we could do it some time this week?” he suggested, coming back to the lunch idea seamlessly. “You have Wednesday afternoons off, don't you Sho-chan?”
“Late afternoons,” he corrected, trying to think about what parts of his schedule could be pushed around. “But I could probably cut statistics this week. We're just doing a review.”
Aiba drummed his hands on the table excitedly, pumping a fist in the air in victory. He refrained from hollering and disrupting the nice outdoor lunch other patrons were enjoying, but that didn't stop him from yelling internally.
Ohno grinned as he watched, unable to stop himself. He'd missed Aiba. The man had some of the most interesting ways of just being. When he wasn't modeling, Aiba would sit in strangely angled sprawls. His long limbs would find ways to make a frame or box to rest his weight upon, but only so long as he was remaining still. His fingers tended to wander, playing with things like shoelaces or the forks on the table. When he smiled, as he was smiling now, his face lit up like the sun. Every part of his cheery, happy nature Ohno could feel himself soaking up. It warmed his bones and made him feel refreshed and happy as well.
“How did you end up working at St. John's?” Ohno asked as their food finally arrived, torn between wanting his question answered and giving his undivided attention to his stuffed sandwich.
“Hm?” Aiba articulated, curious but distracted. He had his cell phone out and open, staring intently at the display as he framed his untouched meal with the camera. A digitized shutter clicked and Aiba saved the image before closing his phone. Satisfied, he looked up and explained. “Random ad on campus. I was actually trying to get my job as a lab intern extended, but I misread the application due date and missed it. I was so mad at myself too.”
Nodding sympathetically Ohno understood how that could be crushing. Aiba had had to stop modeling for him in part because their schedules had become incompatible, but also because he'd found a job that paid actual money. He'd been so excited for his lab job that Ohno hadn't been that sad to see him go.
“Anyway! I was out in the hall just kind of milling about, because I didn't really want to go straight home. So I ended up reading some of the, um, display boards? Message boards? Where people put up ads for room mates or tutors, right? And there was a flier from the art department about a modeling opportunity. I went and talked to the teacher it mentioned and she interviewed me, then sent me over to the high school for another interview. There was some weird stuff about my schedule, but it all worked out!”
Ohno was listening, though his immediate attention was on chewing and enjoying his food. It tasted very, very good, if not a little heavy on the mustard. Even so, he was more than happy to have it.
“You might have remembered what the due date was on the application if you hadn't tortured yourself about changing majors,” Sho pointed out as he took a momentary break from devouring his pasta dish.
“Which I didn't even do!” Aiba pouted defensively. He'd only thought about changing his major, he hadn't actually done it. Though it had meant he'd put off signing up for classes and had only gotten evening courses for the term.
“What would you have changed it to?” Ohno asked, looking up from his sandwich for the first time.
“Veterinary medicine,” Aiba smiled, taking a slurp of his soup. “It's mostly the same coursework, but has more practical application than just, you know... Biology in general.”
Sho paused to consider this point before shaking his head. “Not really. If you get a degree in microbiology you can get a job doing just about anything in the scientific field. Mostly. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but it's a really useful degree.”
Aiba's smile was polite as he gave a neutral shrug of shoulders. “I like working in the lab, but it seems limited sometimes. Like the time I wanted to use the wind tunnel to see which paper airplane designs were most aerodynamic.”
He understood that it was a waste of lab funding to turn on a giant wind tunnel 'just for fun'. He understood that the work going on in labs typically had the potential to impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, or alter how humans interpreted 'facts' about the earth and surrounding planets. Science was serious business. But Aiba felt like he needed the freedom to be just a little silly sometimes. At least if he'd become a vet he could connect with different animals all of the time.
Getting the message that Aiba didn't exactly want to talk about his academic standing at the moment, Sho turned to Ohno. He lived with Aiba, so they'd had more than enough time to keep up with each others goings on. Ohno, however, wasn't always the best at keeping in touch.
“I hear you've been doing well,” Sho said, taking a drink of water. “I saw your name in the paper a lot last spring. You got a lead in one of Tempest's productions?”
Finishing a bite of his sandwich, Ohno nodded. “Yeah. I mean, yes, I did. It was amazing.” Ohno's eyes shone as he was practically beaming happiness at the memories. He hadn't been expecting to be anything more than part of the chorus again. That was how it was supposed to go. Then one day Domoto Tsuyoshi had come up and tapped him on the shoulder during practice, pulling him aside to ask if he felt confident enough to take the lead.
Sho was patient in waiting for Ohno to come back from his trip through space. He'd learned when he'd first met the man that sometimes Ohno got lost in his own head, but he usually found his way back out again. It was just a matter of letting his mind finish doing whatever it was it did.
Ohno refocused on the lunch table and gave Sho a grin. “I was an understudy, you know? But then Miyake-kun got the flu and I had to step in. The show was a big success and the troupe got a lot of recognition. I'm still a fairly junior member, though. Which is why they gave me the choreography assignment.”
“Ahh, I see,” Sho nodded. “So that's why you're teaching at the school? I was wondering about that.”
“Isn't it hard to do both? Or are you not going to practice while you're teaching?” Aiba broke in, thinking how difficult it would be to do all of that physical activity all of the time. He liked dancing, but that was perhaps too much for him.
“It is hard,” Ohno nodded, putting down his sandwich. “I have to miss some practice, which means making it up on my own time. I can do it, but it's difficult to visualize the production coming together when I can't actually be in the producing part the entire time.”
“Wait,” Sho frowned, trying to understand, “If you can't be part of the production then...Why are you part of the production?” Not that he wasn't happy for his friend to be working, but the way it had been explained just didn't make much sense. Any other dancer that couldn't make it to practice wouldn't be permitted a part in the show, right? He'd always had the understanding that dancing was a very strict business.
Shaking his head, Ohno frowned as he tried to think of a better way to explain. “It's not that I can't be a part of it. I miss a practice, maybe two. And I make up for it with additional rehearsals when I can. But even that one missed practice a week makes it incredibly difficult. If I was missing that much for something that had nothing to do with a company assignment I'd be out for sure.”
Sho gave a long 'ahh' of understanding. That made a great deal more sense. “Your schedule sounds so full! But it's good to be busy, right?”
Shrugging, Ohno gave a nod. “I guess. It's nice to have this, though,” he said, gesturing at the table and his friends. He'd missed them both more than he'd have originally guessed.
“Agreed,” Aiba beamed, abandoning his spoon to pick up his bowl and drinking from it directly.
Chapter 9: T.A.B.O.O.
The one where Jun's life continues to be hard but Nino's his friend anyway.
WARNING: This chapter contains explicit scenes of an underaged (17 years old) male in a sexual situation. Reader discretion advised.
The click of the contrast lights warming up echoed against the cold gray walls of the studio. The light flashed blindingly for a moment before the halo of white focused itself on the collection of boxes and pillows atop the turning stage.
Jun checked to make sure the connections were sound. He could just see himself trying to get something from a cabinet, tripping over the extension cord and yanking everything out of the wall. Inconvenient, to say nothing of the embarrassment over being the klutz that literally brought down the house.
Standing on the second of three steps ascending to the table, Aiba was twisted around in an attempt to inspect some peculiarity on his old blue bathrobe. Whatever the oddity, he seemed satisfied it was taken care of, stepping up more properly on to the pedestal he was accustomed to. Shrugging out of his robe, Jun tried not to notice how the deep blue terrycloth looked that much richer next to the fading summer tan of Aiba's long muscled limbs.
Making his way back to his horse, Jun busied himself with setting up his work space. He always had to have things in the same place, or else he was never able to find what he needed in a timely fashion. It also happened that he found it impossible to watch as Aiba crawled around on the boxes, sorting out what position it would be best to start the day with.
Somewhere in the room a clock clicked with each passing second, giving them a general gauge for how long poses were held for. Jun started by doing quick gestures as Aiba stretched, limbering up and preparing for stretches of time where he wouldn't move.
Jun wished he was sitting next to or behind one of the spotlights. If he was closer to the light then Aiba probably wouldn't keep looking at him. Jun returned the smiles and the friendly wave to be polite, but he felt awkward returning such casual signs when the guy was naked.
Aiba's first position was seated. His feet were spread wide, flat on the turning stage and his elbows leaned on his knees. The box faced Jun's direction, which didn't help with the staring problem. Especially because he could swear he saw Aiba's lips twitch in laughter every time they made eye contact. Jun tried to tell himself it was nothing, and that if it was something it was just that Aiba was friendly and they sort of knew each other now. Although the butterflies tickling at his insides didn't seem to get the memo.
Time passed and Aiba slid back, sitting up straighter. His knees swayed as he leaned back so far he propped himself up with his elbows. Jun tried to be objective and disconnected, switching to a fresh sheet of paper as Aiba lay bare before him, still with that knowing smile.
The cool air of the darkened room contrasted starkly with the heat rising in Jun's face. He willed himself to stare at his paper, blocking in the fundamentals. It did him no good, as the next time he looked up one of Aiba's hands had migrated to his stomach, long fingers with clean, blunt nails resting low on his belly. Dragging his eyes up the length of the model's body to concentrate on his face, Jun's breath caught in his throat as Aiba gave a low chuckle.
The whisper of charcoal etching against paper halted. The fan keeping a floor light from overheating whirred noisily in the otherwise silent room. Jun's back was rigid as he stayed statue-still and watched.
Aiba kept his eyes on Jun, now smiling openly. He splayed his fingers on his stomach, pushing his hand lower and lower. Slowly, he took himself in hand and a gentle sigh passed over his chewed lips. Aiba began to massage himself; gentle, slow tugs and rubs causing a pink flush to spread along his thighs.
Aiba circled his thumb over the head of his cock, rubbing the gathering wetness along his length as his strokes became shorter and quicker. He gave a soft grunt, stopping the petting as he shifted. Abandoning his erection to rest against his hip a moment, Aiba behaved as if no one else were even around. He shifted a pillow that was on the box to be behind his back, laying down more properly before taking himself in hand again.
From this angle Jun could see the thick vein running up the underside of Aiba's shaft and the way it bowed out from his body toward the middle. Aiba set to work, lazily stroking himself with a light grip of fingertips and thumb, his head pillowed on his opposite arm (which he'd tucked behind him in his move).
The clock ticking bounced off the cement walls, marking the growing seconds and minutes. Aiba's chest began to rise and fall more quickly, his eyes closed as he tucked his nose into his shoulder. Red was spreading down from his face to his neck and chest, the head of his cock a brilliant pink in the hot contrast lights. A soft groan escaped and Jun watched as Aiba's fingers closed in a tighter grip and he began to rock against his palm.
When Aiba opened his eyes they were warm and dark, and Jun felt himself fall.
“Fuck!” Jun swore, jumping out of bed as the alarm blared in a shrill whine.
He stumbled, half-asleep, out into the hall. His socked feet slipped against the wood floor and his fingers couldn't seem to function enough to lock the bathroom door, kicking it shut in his frustration instead. Plopping down on the toilet seat, Jun jammed a hand into his boxers, barely getting a grip on his painfully hard erection before he gasped and bit his lip hard to stifle any sounds of his release.
Breathing in deeply through his nose, Jun sat trembling on the toilet as his heart continued to jackhammer against his ribs. Past the door he could still hear his alarm clock, buzzing insistently and the sounds of his mother hurrying down the hall to investigate only multiplied the sense that the bottom of his stomach was falling out.
“Jun?” his mother called over the alarm. Her voice was muffled, she'd tried his bedroom first. The silence that followed the alarm being turned off was deafening (though that could have been Jun's pulse in his ears), the knock on the bathroom door after it an explosion of sound by comparison. “Jun? Everything okay?”
Jun failed to restrain himself from jumping, thrusting out his clean hand to steady himself on the counter.
“Yeah,” he said weakly, hoping to god she didn't try to open the door.
There was a pause, during which Jun's mother was undoubtedly attempting to decide if she should believe him or not. Cold sweat dampened his forehead as he gripped the counter, knuckles going white.
“Okay,” she spoke carefully, “Get ready then. You don't want to be late.”
It wasn't until he heard her footsteps disappear down the hall that Jun finally allowed himself to breathe.
There had not been enough cold water and soap in the world to make Jun feel completely clean that day. He wasn't any stranger to morning wood, or even dirty dreams. He was 17, he knew how these things worked. But dreaming about someone he knew was different. Oh, and the fact that it had been a guy, that as new too.
Fleeing out the door to dance practice, Jun forgot many things that morning. He forgot to eat breakfast, forgot the packed lunch he'd prepared the night before. He forgot the book he usually read on the train and while he did remember to grab his pencil bag he had neglected to bring along his sketchbook. Not the biggest tragedy in the world, except for the fact that he'd been given an assignment to draw six different faces from six different people. An opportunity he typically didn't get on this days off because he spent them home alone.
Thankfully, he had remembered his cellphone. The device proved its worth when, upon dialing the fourth person he could think of to try and help him someone finally picked up.
Nino was actually waiting for him at the corner cafe by the time session broke for lunch. Jun was wearing street shoes but was otherwise in practice gear as he trotted his way over to the outdoor table his friend had snagged.
“Hey,” he said by way of greeting, taking the open seat next to Nino and slipping his lavender messenger bag over his head to tuck between his ankles. “Sorry to make you wait.”
“It's cool,” Nino said, not looking up from his DS, “I'll just put it on your tab.”
A waitress appeared shortly, offering to take a drink order while she set a glass of water on the table to accompany the one that had already been brought for Nino. Jun shook his head and thanked her, but requested the menu so that they could get something quickly. Nodding her head with a bright smile, the waitress wandered back into the restaurant to carry on her business.
The DS made a triumphant noise and its owner released his bottom lip from where he'd been chewing on it in concentration. Hitting a few choice buttons, Nino flipped a switch and closed the handheld system before putting it on the table and finally looking at Jun.
“Jesus,” he said, not bothering to hide his shock, “You look terrible.”
“Thanks,” Jun growled, chugging almost the entire glass of ice water that had been left him. Normally he'd make a good-natured crack about how Nino was looking like shit too, but today it didn't seem applicable.
On the contrary, Jun noted with some curiosity (and just a little bitterness) that Nino actually looked better than he had in weeks. He was too pale to be in direct sunlight without blinding passers by, but other than that he seemed... Jun wasn't sure. The positive change wasn't one he was going to point out though, lest acknowledgement break the tenuous hold of good cheer over his friend.
When Nino continued to look at him with concern, Jun raised a hand to wave him off. “Really, I'm okay. I just had a rough morning.”
Nino nodded, leaning back in his chair. He could understand that. There were just some days when everything seemed determined to go wrong. Forgetting things, dropping things, breaking things, missing things. Given Jun's borderline obsession with keeping things in some semblance of order, it was more than enough to explain the frayed-at-the-edges look to him.
The waitress returned with a menu, smiling brightly in a way that made Jun feel obligated to flash his own pearly whites back. He certainly didn't feel like smiling, his face hurt from even the effort, but he accepted the card politely, exchanging peppy 'thank yous' and half-pleasantries until the woman went away. As soon as she was gone, Jun's face fell back into the tired drag he'd had before the woman had appeared.
“That was scary,” Nino commented, watching the woman's back.
“Mn?” Jun grunted, browsing his options ravenously. He honestly did not have much time to eat, which meant he probably was going to have to skip the more tasty cooked foods and just order a sandwich of some kind. Which seemed a pity, as the baked ziti description made his stomach twist itself in a knot.
“That. What you just did with the waitress,” Nino elaborated by swiping his hand in front of his face. As his fingers slid upward he affected a sparkling, sunny grin, as they drifted down again his expression turned into practically a scowl.
Jun watched curiously, trying to think of whether or not he'd actually just done such a thing. He really couldn't remember, but he would believe it if he had. With a sigh, Jun took another drink of water.
“I blame Ohno-san,” he said after finishing his drink. Why did restaurant water always have to have such a high ice-to-water ratio? “He makes us smile all of the damn time during practice. Now every time I'm exhausted I'm all...” Sitting up straighter, Jun flashed an eerily bright grin and bobbed his head from one side to the other, loose waves of hair floating to and fro on either side of his face. With a morbid laugh at his own expense, Jun snapped his menu shut and rubbed at his eyes, exhaling heavily as he rested back in his chair.
Nino's lips trembled as he tried, really he did try not to laugh. But he could just imagine Ohno-san at the head of a group of students, imposing in his tiny stature and getting them all to smile. It was a little bit terrifying and entirely hilarious. Covering his grin with his a hand, Nino nodded in sympathy.
“I got what you were looking for,” he said, changing the subject to get Jun's mind off of things. Sliding the paper bag across the table, he nodded at Jun to take it.
Dropping his hands, Jun looked at the package first before sitting forward slowly to drag it over to himself. “Thanks,” he said, pulling out a cheap ringed sketchbook. He flipped through the empty pages slowly, as if browsing a book to skim for an interesting passage.
Nino watched his friend carefully, taking stock of what was before him. They'd been good friends for a few years now, grown close after so many shared classes and interests. While Nino wouldn't call them best friends, Jun was damn close. And there were times when they got absorbed in their own lives, doing their own things. Usually, however, he liked to think that they were good at keeping in touch.
The hallow look on Jun's face as he stared zombie-like at blank pages made Nino rethink that a little. He knew that Jun had been getting pissier lately. Nino also knew he hadn't exactly been in a place to care, dealing with his own crap. But there was a difference between moody Jun and this. While Nino didn't feel responsible for it, he did feel like he should at least acknowledge what was going on.
In the manliest of ways possible.
“You've been kind of a bitch lately,” he said with absolutely no bite to his remark, taking a casual drink of his lemonade.
Jun looked up, first in confusion. Then Nino saw the way his cheek twitched in annoyance, trying to figure out if Nino was fucking with him. “Right back at you,” he said, choosing not to indulge in an expletive as a waitress walked by.
Looking Jun right in the eye, Nino nodded. “Yeah. Sorry about that,” he said, giving a shrug. Really, he was. Even though they tended to deal with their own problems separately, there wasn't any good reason to cut themselves off from one another.
If Nino was being truly, deeply, wholly honest? He'd missed his friend.
Shoulders loosening just enough for them to sag, Jun gave a nod. It was comforting to know, at least, that he could still talk with Nino. Flipping the sketchbook shut, he tucked it neatly back into its bag and sat up straight. He didn't have time to mope right now, they had to order and eat. Catching the next waitress as she came by, Jun apologized for interrupting but made his meal request before signaling for Nino to do the same. Nino requested the soup of the day (something laden with onions, by the sound of the name) and Jun settled on a bagel sandwich.
They sat in silence a few moments, awkwardness setting in after the almost-conversation about their behavior. Never one to do well with stretching silence, Jun fidgeted, trying to straighten his already impeccable attire.
“So,” he said, running out of things to straighten as he smoothed out his leggings for the third time, “How's your composition going?”
Nino hummed thoughtfully, head inclining to his right shoulder. “Mmm... Not well,” he said, though he sounded unconcerned. (Which, at the moment, he wasn't.)
Jun frowned at that. Nino wasn't the most attentive student, but when it came to his music he usually took things far more seriously. “Isn't it due before the end of the year?”
“School year,” Nino corrected, plucking the lemon wedge from his drink and picking it apart in his boredom. “I have parts of it in mind, but I can't find a way to really connect anything. There's no flow.”
“What's it supposed to be?” Jun asked, knowing that different composition assignments in the past had been given an aim. Once Nino had to compose a ditty for a one minute long advertisement for energy drinks. Another time he was asked to compose a children's song. The teachers tried to get the students in the music department to explore different avenues before going on to whatever practicum of their choice.
“Since it's for the senior exhibition, the guidelines are pretty lax,” Nino frowned, slurping at a shred of lemon. “It has to be at least four minutes long. If it's got vocals, the lyrics have to be completed and submitted for approval prior to performance. Other than that? We're not really limited. Most of the other students in the department have teamed up to either make temporary band units, others have contacted some of the dance or theater kids. I am pretty sure Nishikido-kun has roped in some of the junior high understudies for your musical to perform whatever it is he's working on.”
“You're going to be graded on presentation, I assume?” Jun was trying to understand how the project was supposed to be received.
Many students that performed well at the senior exhibition were discovered and went on to start careers right out of high school, often signing with talent agencies before they even had a diploma in-hand. For those looking to be performing musicians, this was the biggest break they were going to get and exactly the reason why they attended St. John's Academy in the first place.
“Of course,” Nino nodded, dropping the naked lemon rind on his napkin. “But emphasis is going to be put on things like musicality. Since not all students are performing every piece of their own work, there's a leadership aspect that gets graded too. And of course originality and blah.”
Nino had a lot of opinions on what his instructors considered passing in the 'originality' category. He wasn't bitter so much as he was jaded, knowing from about age 14 that he wasn't going to be making any big money as a composer for musicians unless he sold his soul and did 'power' ballads and numbers for pop idols. He could always turn to making musical scores for video games, but sometimes he dreamed of actually having a crowd hear and see something he wrote performed in the way he saw it in his head. It was why he didn't like most assignments that involved collaboration and why, even though they had trained sound techs to help, Nino had insisted on learning how to use auto-tune and other sound editing tools on his own. It's not that he didn't trust other people, he just knew that they couldn't hear what he did in his head.
“Have you thought about starting over from nothing?” Jun supplied weakly, knowing it likely wasn't anywhere near that easy. He knew that Nino could come up with something decent in a pinch (it was why he'd recommended him for the composing job for the drama group), but a full-length song took a lot more work. As much as Jun considered himself a perfectionist, he knew that when it came to music, Nino rivaled him for the crown.
Lips pursing in a not-quite-frown, Nino rubbed his nose absently. “I have,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on the bottom rungs of Jun's under the table. “The problem is that I don't really have anything else to go off of. It's like...”
It's like I can't hear myself anymore. his brain provided helpfully. Nino didn't want to admit that maybe he'd lost his music, at least for now. Inspiration came and went, he needed to learn to work without it rather than become dependent upon it.
Thankfully, he was spared having to elaborate as their food finally arrived. Jun let the topic drop, understanding the frustration of knowing he was supposed to be doing something and being unable to find a way to just get it done. For his part, he had confidence that Nino would manage. But he hoped that 'managed' really meant that Nino would flourish, as he had a talent that honestly deserved to be seen.
The problem was that Nino sometimes seemed to waver on how much he wanted to be successful. To Jun, this was the main key. He knew that he was going to be a success because he didn't leave any room for himself to be anything else. Jun had no back-up plans, no alternative ideas for a career. He was going to be an actor, and he was going to be famous for it. Whatever Nino's ambition for his life, he needed to grasp it to make his dreams really come true.
“What about you?” Nino said, slurping up his first few bites. “How's that art thing going?”
Jun managed not to drop his sandwich in his lap, though he was certain he made a distinctly undignified noise and maybe blanched a little. Taking a bite and trying to act smooth, Jun chewed slowly and gave a shrug.
“I'm...blocked too,” he said, not really considering it a lie.
Looking more interested than Jun had seen him in a while, Nino perked up. He didn't seem about to offer any sort of jab or joke, just.. curious. He waited patiently for Jun to continue.
Frowning, Jun put his sandwich back down on his plate. “I keep having the same i-ideas,” he explained, quickly glossing over what exactly those ideas were, “But it's not what we've been assigned. So I try drawing just the stuff we're supposed to and it turns out like crap.”
Which was mostly true. He'd gotten better at some things, and he actually impressed himself. He had never considered himself very artistic in the traditional sense, but he was beginning to see how certain shapes fit together or how certain lines flowed to make a body move. He was learning a lot, that was certain. But even with that, there were a number of times when he would look at his work and feel nothing but frustration at the areas where he was lacking.
“So why don't you just draw what you want?” Nino asked, sincere in his question. It made no sense to him to deny a creative outlet just because it wasn't the assignment.
Jun opened his mouth to reply, but closed it again. Blinking owlishly at Nino, he continued to stare. He hadn't even considered that. He couldn't just sit in art class drawing the model playing with himself. Embellishing pictures with raging hard-ons wasn't likely to go over well either. But no one had said he had to do it in class.
Jun's eyes went from Nino immediately to the new sketchbook and he bit his lip thoughtfully.
“You think I should?” he asked, tearing his gaze away from the paper bag and frowning at Nino doubtfully. Really, it was a little insane to draw dirty pictures of someone he actually knew. It seemed creepy and wrong.
Giving a strong nod, Nino dipped his head to take another sip of soup. “Why the hell not?” he said, sitting back up. “Obviously ignoring the ideas isn't working. Maybe following them through will let everything work itself out.”
Nino gave a quiet burp into his napkin and Jun's pride mourned the fact that he was silently praising this guy for being a genius.
The rest of the afternoon after he had bid Nino goodbye, Jun had tried to talk himself out of it. He tried to come up with ways it was wrong, ways the suggestion could be flawed. The best his mind supplied is that drawing Aiba in compromising positions was perverted, but that in and of itself was not actually any sort of crime that weighed on Matsumoto Jun's shoulders.
Even though Nino had no idea what he had been giving Jun instruction to draw, Jun really had no idea how to countermand the logic. It wasn't like anyone would know. He could keep the sketches in this new notebook, never take it to school or anything. Just get the ideas out and on to paper. Maybe once they were there they would stay out of his head, and hopefully out of his dreams.
When he got home he went to his room immediately, shutting the door quietly. He pulled out the bagged sketchbook, looking at the blank brown paper for a long time. He felt weird about this, but at the same time felt like maybe it would help. Steeling himself mentally, he pulled the sketchbook from its bag and dropped it on his desk, sinking into the chair before it and flipping open to a crisp white page.
Chapter 10: Tangled
The one where Aiba's a little forgetful and Jun's kind of brave.
There were times Aiba hated living in the city. Not that he could honestly say he’d lived anywhere other than a city before in his life, but there were just certain things he knew he wouldn’t have to deal with if he lived in a small town or out in the country. Like the annoying and repetitive blare of the crosswalk signal below his window.
Squinting his eyes against the persistent sunlight, Aiba rolled over and tried to ignore the noise and get a few more precious moments of sleep. As sleep remained elusive, however, Aiba had the annoying thought that this was the longest light ever. When he was about to give up and pull himself to the window to see if maybe there’d been an accident, the sound finally stopped. With a sigh, he rested back against his pillow and easily managed to doze again.
His door creaked as Sho pushed it open and peered in at his bed. Aiba managed to drag one eye open enough to get a blurry vision of his friend.
“Masaki, what are you still doing here?” Sho asked, coming over to the side of the bed.
Aiba laughed into his pillow and rolled over. “I live here, Sho-chan,” he answered in a sleepy soft voice.
“No, I mean here. Don’t you have work?” Sho turned the clock on the nightstand to face Aiba.
Aiba stared at the alarm clock several moments before his brain could connect the dots and figure out what was wrong. His clock did not say 6:03 as he had previously thought it had, but 9:03 instead.
“SHIT!” Aiba squealed, trying to fling himself out of bed and tripping as his feet caught in the sheets.
Sho, being the kind and easily manipulated soul that he was, offered to give Aiba a ride. It would make him late in turn, but Aiba couldn’t really afford to lose a job. Sho, on the other hand, would not die if he missed a period of Journalism Ethics.
“I still don’t get how you mistook your alarm clock for a crosswalk signal,” Sho said reasonably, flicking his blinker as he pulled onto the street the school was on.
“They sound exactly alike! At least when I’m asleep...” Aiba protested with a pout, fumbling around in his ratty duffel bag to make sure he had all of the essentials. Loose change jingled somewhere in the bottom and Aiba ignored the old receipts from convenience stores and coffee shops as his fingers brushed across the familiar forms of his phone and then his wallet.
“Then you should set it to wake you up with the radio,” Sho mumbled distractedly, gripping the steering wheel tightly as students rushed in every direction without bothering to look for oncoming traffic. Such carelessness!
Managing to pull up to the sidewalk outside of the school without killing anyone, Sho put the car in park and watched as Aiba piled his belongings back into his bag.
“Do you need me to pick you up later?” he asked, trying to figure out when or if he’d have time to make good on the offer.
Aiba giggled and shook his head, “I’ll get the train. Thanks for the ride!” With a wave, Aiba closed the car door and jogged to the gate of the campus.
Sho put the car in gear and checked his surroundings twice before pulling out into the street and heading to class. Neither one of them had noticed Aiba’s wallet slip from his bag and between the front seats.
Jun didn’t notice anything amiss with his class until he had rearranged his tools three times and realized that the nervous habit had no cause today. Because there was a distinct lack of naked man in the room that Jun had to try and distract himself from.
Surveying the room and seeing a number of similarly curious looks, Jun could only surmise that he wasn’t the only one that had noticed the absence of their model. The soft murmur of students gathering their things and preparing for class that usually died down when things were set to begin instead increased in volume. Students leaned over to one another, glancing around the room and making small talk or speculating about why things were running late. Jun spotted their art teacher at the back entrance of the room looking incredibly displeased, glancing at his wristwatch impatiently.
“Do you think he’ll cancel class?” the girl next to Jun asked in a furtive whisper.
“I dunno,” he shrugged, not taking his eyes from the door and their teacher.
With an angry click of his jaw, the art instructor left the door and approached the center of the room. He crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed his class of students, ready and waiting for things to begin.
“Due to the absence of a subject today it looks like we are going to have to—”
The crash of the door being opened with great force interrupted the instructor and standing in the doorway, panting, was their model. Wasting no time, he marched over to the instructor and gave a deep bow.
“I am so sorry for my lateness,” he panted, wheezing a little as he stood up. “It’ll never happen again.”
The instructor gazed upon Aiba with firm disapproval, but gave a shrug. “See that it doesn’t,” he answered, walking with Aiba to the back of the classroom and speaking to him in hushed tones.
Jun watched as Aiba appeared to take a scolding, head bowed and presumably apologizing again. Really, Aiba’s lateness hadn’t been enough to extremely inconvenience the class, although Jun could definitely understand his teacher’s displeasure. As Aiba slipped behind the privacy screen to strip, Jun couldn’t help wondering what had caused the model to be late.
“Probably got on the wrong train,” he mumbled to himself, looking down at the instruments he kept between his legs.
Class passed without further drama, though Jun couldn’t help but linger as his fellow students filed out. He hadn’t tried to speak to the model since the day the boy’s roommate showed up during the break in their class. Jun was running out of pencils to put away one by one as he tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t be awkward or completely stupid to start a conversation when his attention was attracted to the back of the room by a distressed cry.
Standing up, Jun watched as Aiba squatted over his duffle bag and began to rummage around in it frantically.
“Nooo,” Aiba whined at his bag, dragging out a set of keys, food wrappers, receipts, old ticket stubs and a shirt as he stuffed his hands into each of the inner pockets and turned them out.
“Did you lose something?” Jun asked, walking over and looking down at the rather impressive mess spewing across the floor.
“I... No, I had it,” Aiba’s attention was pulled between Jun and his bag as he tried to smile reassuringly but failed as his brow knit with a frown while he pawed at his bag.
Jun looked over his shoulder, more because he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do than because he thought anyone might seriously be watching them. Turning back, he saw Aiba’s shoulders slump with a pout that tugged at Jun’s chest in a annoying fashion.
“Let me see,” he sighed, stooping to pull the almost emptied duffle over. Jun grimaced as mystery crumbs clung to his fingertips as he pulled apart layers of paper and plastic. “What am I looking for?”
“My wallet,” Aiba answered as he dragged his beaten up bathrobe over and began feeling through the obviously empty pockets sullenly.
Jun nodded and set to his task with more purpose. He found a cellphone, a number of CDs bound together with a dirty rubber band, and lots of garbage but no wallet.
“What is this?” he asked with much confusion, revealing a small remote from the bottom of the bag.
Looking over, Aiba’s eyes widened as he pointed. “Ah! That’s the remote to the air conditioner!” Reaching over, Aiba took the device and stared at it wonderingly.
Jun debated asking the obvious question, but Aiba seemed too distracted by the discovery to volunteer an explanation.
“What is it doing in your bag?” he raised an eyebrow curiously, almost afraid of the answer.
“Sometimes I mistake it for my phone,” the model answered with a sheepish grin. His face fell some as he turned and started pulling his belongings back into the impressively spacious duffle.
Jun felt that annoying tug again and turned to look back at his own belongings once more. With an internal sigh, he handed Aiba a bag of crumbs that had probably once been cookies before being pulverized.
“Do you need train fare or something?” he asked as casually as he could manage.
“I can probably get Sho-chan to come get me,” Aiba shook his head. “But it won’t be for a while and I usually buy lunch out of the vending machines here.”
Jun’s eyes expanded in dismay. “You know they found a dead mouse in the coffee machine, right?”
Aiba’s features shivered before he finally let out a loud, high laugh. There was an appreciative groan in response to the news, but overall he seemed to find the entire thing very funny.
A bell trilled and echoed through the halls and reminded Jun that they were actually still in school. Standing up with Aiba and shifting his feet nervously, Jun frowned more at himself than the boy in old sweats and a too-big hoodie beside him.
“I’ve got lunch this next period,” he said gruffly, looking anywhere but at Aiba. “Just... Follow me.”
Turning, Jun marched to his box of art tools and shoved everything in without ceremony. It wasn’t an invitation so much as a direction, and Jun worried for a moment that he might have been too rude. But then Aiba was trotting to catch up with him, smiling as he tucked odds and ends into his bag so that he could get it closed. Jun kept his gaze forward and told himself not to make more of this than what it was.
Which was nothing, of course. Absolutely nothing.
Jun was surprised by how quiet Aiba actually was. Not that he had any reason to be surprised, he didn’t know the guy very well. Still, he’d had this impression that Aiba would be the type to be loud and constantly talkative. While it was clear that the model was in no way shy about speaking, he also seemed perfectly happy to walk in silence with Jun through the halls of St. John’s.
Jun, however, felt obligated to keep things social.
“So is that why you were late this morning?” he asked after a stretch of quiet hallway.
“Hm?” Aiba tore his gaze away from a classroom that had a floor covered in paint spattered drop cloth. “I’m sorry, what?”
Jun gave an annoyed frown, though it was as much at his own awkwardness in conversation as it was for the fact he was being ignored.
“Your wallet,” Jun repeated, nodding at Aiba’s bag. “Were you late because you were looking for it?”
“Ah! Not at all!” Aiba answered cheerfully, giving another short laugh. “I missed my alarm. Well, I didn’t miss it, but I mistook it for a crossing signal.”
Aiba seemed oblivious to how strange that statement sounded. Just like he’d seen no reason to maybe explain why he had an air conditioner remote in his bag or why he couldn’t be convinced that most people wouldn’t forget to grab a robe before bolting from a room naked no matter how badly they needed to pee.
“You’re so weird,” Jun said aloud, though with absolutely no malice or derision.
“Mn, you think so?” Aiba asked, completely unoffended. “I really thought that the two sounded alike, but maybe not, huh?”
The boy spoke with such genuine wonder that Jun had to laugh. Most people would get defensive or else put themselves down for a foolish mistake. Aiba appeared to accept observations and consider them as accurate or not. Jun wasn’t sure he’d ever run into someone whose brain worked that way.
“What?” Aiba laughed along with Jun, stepping in to nudge his shoulder against the younger boy. “I’m being serious here! What if I confuse more sounds in the future?”
“Do you get confused often?” Jun teased with no small amount of amusement.
“Sometimes...” the admission came with a downward glance and another bashful grin. Jun tilted his head unconsciously in an attempt to get a better look. The swiftness with which Aiba’s expressions changed was something he was finding very curious.
“What?” Aiba asked with another laugh as he caught Jun staring.
Standing up straight too swiftly to be anything but panicked, Jun gave a shrug and found something fascinating on a bulletin board they were passing. “Nothing.”
Aiba gave that whinnying giggle again and drew Jun’s attention back. “You’re weird, MatsuJun,” he grinned and rounded a corner. It took him a moment to realize Jun hadn’t come around it with him. Backtracking the few paces he’d taken, Aiba found Jun paused just around the corner.
“What was that?” Jun asked with complete confusion.
“What was what?” Aiba asked, equally curious as he looked about to see if he’d missed something. He’d be bummed if it had been something really cool.
“What did you just call me?” Jun said, knowing he should have been more specific.
“Ah... MatsuJun?” Aiba asked, looking apologetic. “Sorry, I’d heard some others calling you that. Should I not?”
Jun didn’t know what was more of a shock, that Aiba had used the nickname so casually or that he’d been paying enough attention to what other students said about him to pick it up in the first place. Realizing that he should say something before he came off as more upset than he actually was, Jun shook his head.
“It’s fine,” he said with a friendly smile. “I was just surprised.”
“Sorry,” Aiba said again, although this time with a grin that indicated he wasn’t sorry at all.
Jun fell into step with Aiba once again and they continued on their way. Jun chose not to explain that the reason for his surprise was because there were few people that he allowed to use the nickname freely, and all of them were people he tended to consider very close friends. After all, he wasn’t going to make more of this than what it was.
Chapter 11: Model Behavior
The one where Ohmiya starts to speak each others' language.
Nino swung his guitar case loosely as he walked, whistling some bright tune he didn’t know the name of. He had been feeling restlessly creative of late. Not that he’d actually managed to create anything, but he had been feeling that energy, that rush of something. If only he could hear the notes more clearly rather than trying to catch them as they slipped away. It felt a lot like trying to remember a song from childhood sung through water. Nino knew it was there, he just had to make sense of it.
Even if he didn’t play on it, keeping his guitar with him made Nino feel more secure. If he could pick out that note or chord, recognize that rhythm, he’d be prepared to strum it out and lay down the foundation of the music in his head. Considering he hadn’t been feeling so much as a buzz of inspiration for months now, he knew he’d need to be prepared.
As he rounded a corner coming from the music wing, however, Nino’s personal musings were put on hold. His whistling trailed off on a dissonant note and he slowed to an eventual stop just before entering the courtyard where he usually shared lunch with Jun.
At their customary table was seated a tall young man that was clearly not a student. Or at least Nino assumed that was the reason he was wearing old sweats rather than the school uniform. Nino wasn’t particularly territorial about things like seating, though, and was about to turn to seek another table when Jun appeared carrying two trays of food.
Nino watched curiously. This would have been a novel enough scene if he’d been able to hear what bits of conversation were going on but being able to observe things without the misleading context of words was a singular opportunity. Especially when, as Nino watched, the young man reached out and gave Jun a one-armed hug of thanks for the food and did not receive a punch to the face. Being that in the several years he’d know Jun, Nino had only seen him be physically affection twice and violently opposed to such contact outside of acting otherwise, it was a strange thing to observe indeed.
Nino hummed, turning on his best grin as he took the opportunity to enter the scene.
“If I’d known we were entertaining I would have dressed for the occasion,” he announced himself at the table as he placed his guitar carefully on a bench. Nino did not miss the way Jun’s attention snapped to him in an almost guilty way. Curiouser and curiouser!
“Liar,” was Jun’s best retort out of the gate, though he managed to gain control of himself in an impressively short period of time. “Your idea of dinner wear involves grease-stained jeans and a ratty t-shirt.”
“I dare say I’d fit right in, then,” Nino grinned, promptly ignoring Jun and turning to their guest. “Ninomiya,” he introduced himself with a nod, refraining from reaching out to shake the stranger’s hand as both were currently occupied.
Their guest returned Nino’s grin, completely unfazed by the exchange. “Aiba Masaki,” he greeted, putting down the juice he’d been drinking when Nino had arrived and standing to reach over the table to shake Nino’s hand.
“Aiba?” Nino repeated, trying to figure out why that name was familiar. Then Nino’s grip on Aiba’s hand tightened as he really looked at the boy. Nino knew his face eerily well, about as well as the name. “You’re the art class model!”
Aiba’s eyes widened in shock and his mouth gaped excitedly. “Yes! How did you know?”
“Hard not to notice when your friends are carrying around naked drawings,” Nino laughed, taking a seat opposite the pair. He chose to completely ignore a very scandalized Jun who would likely be investing in a locking binder at the news that Nino had riffled through his belongings without permission. Little did he suspect that Nino had been doing this for a few years now, ever since he found a really sappy romance manga hidden in the folds of Jun’s math book.
Aiba laughed through his nose and nodded, his eyes almost disappearing in his face, his smile was so wide. While it was Nino’s nature to be just a little suspicious of people, he couldn’t help finding Aiba’s expression infectious and entirely genuine. He could understand how someone might choose this guy to be a model.
“So what’s it like flashing your junk at high school girls and not getting arrested?” Nino asked, stealing a cherry tomato from Jun’s salad and only narrowly avoiding a fork to the hand.
Aiba laughed again, having to cover his mouth as he tried not to spit his bite of noodles back out. Jun looked over with some alarm as the boy’s face started to turn pink but Aiba soon gasped for air with a clear palate. Coughing some, he slowly drank more juice through intermittent bouts of giggles.
When it became clear that he hadn’t killed the young model, Nino relaxed again and maintained his nonchalance. Picking up a napkin from the boy’s own tray, Nino handed Aiba the bit of tissue helpfully.
“That good, huh?” he asked and had to snicker when Aiba nodded more in acknowledgment of being spoken to rather than in agreement.
“Most of the time I can’t see anyone,” Aiba finally managed to get out, though his voice was hoarse and he still hiccuped with a strange bark that was a cross between a giggle and a cough.
“That a fact?” Nino hummed, sitting back on his bench again. He knew when not to press the comedic routine. Usually if someone turned that shade of purple it was best to let it go for a bit. (Although he was intrigued that the boy found him so funny.)
Aiba nodded and took another deep drink of juice, apparently finishing it before his throat was sufficiently wet again. Pouting at the empty can, he set it back on his tray and sat up straighter than he had been so that breathing was at least easier. Pushing his tray away slowly, Aiba thought it best to avoid trying to consume things while this Ninomiya fellow was around.
“They’ve got these really bright lights so that shadows are exaggerated and stuff,” Aiba began to explain, waving a hand over his body to illustrate. “And so mostly all I see is black, except for the few people sitting in front.”
“Like being on stage,” Jun said, drawing the attention of both Nino and Aiba. “Only you can usually make out rows of the crowd. Just not very well.
Aiba nodded. “That sounds right,” he said, turning his head to give a belated cough into his elbow. “Agh, sorry!”
“I think maybe I should apologize,” Nino smiled and shook his head. “I appear to have killed you.”
“It’s fine,” he waved off Nino’s apology. Turning back to Jun, Aiba slipped back into conversation as though there had been no interruption. “So do you act, then?”
Jun paused before answering, looking to Nino to see if maybe he was annoyed by being brushed off, especially because he was fairly certain Aiba did it without thinking rather than to be rude. It seemed important for these two not to get off on the wrong foot, at least for Jun. When Nino appeared in no way offended, Jun gave a nod.
“Sometimes,” he said, giving a smile, “If they let me.”
“Let you?” Aiba repeated with confusion.
“Well, I have to pass auditions,” Jun pointed out, thinking that maybe he should just keep things simple. Friendship with Nino had kept his wits sharp, but Aiba didn’t seem to require quips or creative explanations.
“Ah, I see, I see!” Aiba nodded. “Still, that’s pretty cool. Is it only plays?”
“For now,” Jun nodded. “Sometimes I go for auditions for things like commercials, but...” he shrugged.
Nino saw the stiffness that cemented Jun’s otherwise genuine smile into place. While he’d never dwelled on it too much, Jun was frustrated that he had to spend so much time on school. It was a frustration Nino frequently shared when he thought of the years wasted on trying to get an ultimately useless piece of paper.
Rather than prying, Aiba simply nodded. Nino was impressed that he wasn’t more curious, but he figured that it was just one of those things Nino had no boundaries about with Jun. They’d known each other too long for him to be too respectful of those non-explanations.
“Not that I mind,” Nino took the opportunity to change topics, “But why are you eating lunch with us?”
Sensing that the conversation had just been steered away from awkward territory, Aiba accepted the change in subject without question.
“I managed to lose my wallet between the car and the classroom,” Aiba confessed, appearing chagrined.
“You didn’t think to go back and look in the car?” Nino asked with an amused but nonjudgmental grin, helping himself to some of the model’s side serving of vegetables.
“Ah, it wasn’t my car. My roommate gave me a ride to work because I slept through my alarm,” Aiba explained, not batting an eye at Nino’s thievery.
Nodding his head, Nino gave a sound of acknowledgement around his slice of cucumber.
As Nino reached out to pilfer another morsel, Jun frowned and dragged the tray back to Aiba. “I offered to feed him, not you. If you’re so hungry why don’t you go find Ohno-san, I’m sure he’s got a spare lunchbox.”
Aiba’s shout pulled not just Nino and Jun’s attention, but fairly half the quad. Oblivious to the stares, however, Aiba gazed at Nino with shock and recognition on his face, pointed across the table and wagged a finger excitedly.
“You’re Ninomiya-kun!” he repeated, as if through repetition his reaction would make sense.
Completely baffled, Nino’s eyes flit from an equally confused Jun and then back to Aiba.
“Yes...?” he answered, unsure what the boy’s point was.
Shaking his head, Aiba seemed to calm down the tiniest bit, another bought of giggles cracking his face into an apologetic smile.
“Oh-chan mentioned you at lunch the other day,” Aiba explained, finally sharing his revelation. “I didn’t know you were the same Nino, though. That’s cool!”
As shocked as Aiba had been by the revelation, Nino was left staring at the man as if he were deranged. To be fair, Nino had to point out to himself, Aiba may very well be deranged, even if he wasn’t spouting nonsense at the moment. He just had that look about him.
Vaguely, Nino recalled hearing Jun ranting about something. About someone calling Ohno ‘Oh-chan’. Nino knew he’d picked up the nickname somewhere, but it seemed ridiculous that he’d overlooked this pretty glaring connection. He made a mental note to invest in more memory games for his DS, clearly his brain was rotting.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, was the fact that he was a topic of conversation among people he either barely knew or didn’t know at all. While Aiba didn’t seem the malicious type, Nino knew he wasn’t much to remark on. That he would come up in conversation worried him.
Immune to whatever awkwardness his outburst may have caused, Aiba beamed at Jun. “I forgot Oh-chan said you were friends, I totally didn’t make the connection until just now.”
“You don’t say,” Jun drawled sarcastically, though he couldn’t hide his smile completely as he took a drink from his own water.
“Well,” Nino said coolly, standing from his bench, “I know when I’m not wanted!”
“Liar,” Jun drawled again, though it was completely without malice.
Nino gave a faux sniff of indignation and quite literally turned his nose up at a comical angle before collecting his belongings and walking out.
Nino wasn’t upset with Jun at all, but he got the impression that trying to interrogate Aiba further might put a strain on the otherwise pleasant lunch. He couldn’t very well hold Aiba responsible for his insecurities, and logically he knew it was unreasonable to suspect that anything bad might have been said about him. Still, all that meant was that he was even more curious about what could have possibly come up about him.
Not really having a goal for what to do with himself after leaving the table, however, Nino took to wandering. He figured he could probably go hide in the music wing again, try figuring out a few of those notes that kept humming at the back of his head. Rather than going back in the direction he had first come from, however, Nino’s feet took him towards the core of the building. Too lazy to walk all of the way back, he figured he’d just go to his next class early. An empty classroom was just as private as any practice room, perhaps even more so since students and faculty alike avoided them between lessons.
Having an actual destination now, Nino’s stride became more confident as he steered himself in the direction of his history classroom. His path took him along a corridor that came parallel to the dance halls, a series of hardwood floored rooms ranging in size from tiny to enormous with their own sound systems built in. Nino found the practice rooms both amusing and disconcerting, a huge room with at least one wall consisting of nothing but mirrors. For the perfectionist it was both dream and nightmare, enabling one to see any and all flaws in form and function.
These practice rooms were not dissimilar to the rooms available in the music wing. Students could make use of them between and after classes, though most chose to take their breaks when they had the chance. Still, when a pre-recorded track floated through the otherwise empty air, Nino thought nothing of it. At least not until he heard a familiar voice while passing a cracked door.
“Ah, I see,” Ohno’s voice said, barely audible over the stereo in the room. There was a count to eight before the sounds of rhythmic steps started up, matching the beat of the track in several places.
Nino’s steps reversed themselves automatically as he did a double take. Spying wasn’t in his resume, typically. He liked to give people privacy when they tried for it because he knew how precious it could be. Still, St. John’s was not a small school, and that he could possibly run across the dance instructor so randomly a second time was improbable.
Stepping softly, Nino approached the dance room door and peered in through the space provided by the crack.
“And then...” a second, unfamiliar voice said and Nino spied a figure on the floor. It was another young man, likely no older than himself, going through a series of steps as Ohno shadowed him.
Nino watched as the pair moved around the room, both fixed intently upon the mirrored wall. Occasionally one or the other would have a misstep, pausing to count before joining back in again. They were both extremely talented, but Nino couldn’t help staring at the small guest instructor.
Ohno moved as though he weighed nothing. His steps fell with such precision they appeared effortless, carrying him quickly across the hardwood floor. All the while, his attention was fixed resolutely on the reflecting wall, his focus so intense that Nino realized it caused him to hold his breath.
After a series of energetic leaps and wiggles that Nino never bothered to learn the names of, the stranger stopped mid-song and placed his hands on his hips as he turned to Ohno.
“So that’s about it,” he said, breathing heavily. “You feel okay with that?”
Ohno was still counting to himself quietly, his limbs moving through a loose pantomime of the steps he’d just followed. When his eyes finally left the mirror and fixed on the boy in the room with him, he paused and gave a nod.
“There’s a series of mandatory practice for the chorus next week,” the second boy told Ohno as he walked across the room to the old boom box that sat on the floor. Turning it off, the room was filled with a silence about as full as the score that had been pouring out of the machine’s speakers.
“Ah, yeah. Yara-kun sent me a reminder,” Ohno nodded, still having to pull himself away from the distraction of the mirrors. Nino smiled unconsciously at the frown of concentration creasing Ohno’s brow.
Physically stopping himself, Ohno turned to face his companion properly. “I’ve worked out a schedule with the director, so he’ll be handling the practices and vocal coaching all next week.”
“Okay. If you need more help, I know I need more practice too,” the second dancer said as he offered Ohno a water bottle.
Declining the water with a wave, Ohno smiled. “You’re such a hard worker, Toma-kun. It really is impressive.”
Toma laughed, shaking his head. He seemed about to reply when something caught his eye. Which was about the same time Nino realized his guitar case had nudged the door open just enough so that he could easily be seen peeping.
“A student of yours?” Toma asked, nodding at the door.
Ohno turned, frowning in confusion until his eyes lit up with recognition.
“Nino!” Ohno smiled and gave a short wave.
Nino couldn’t help feeling trapped, but pushed it down as he tried to steel himself. Though against what he had no clue.
Waving back as casually as a peeping tom could, Nino stood from where he’d been crouched before the crack in the door and pushed it open.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he gave a short and apologetic bow.
“Not at all,” Ohno shook his head. “We were finished, I think?” he turned to Toma, who nodded.
“I actually do have to go,” Toma said apologetically, looking at his phone. “But I’ll see you Monday?”
Ohno nodded, his attention shifting from Nino to his friend. “Thanks again,” he said, his weight relaxing onto the heels of his feet for probably the first time since Nino had peered into the dance room.
Toma gathered his belongings into a worn duffle before standing with a stretch. Grinning wide he reached out and clapped Ohno on the shoulder affectionately.
“Good work,” he said, making his exit without ceremony.
“Good work!” Ohno called out over Nino’s shoulder as Toma disappeared down the hall.
Through the entire exchange Nino had hovered just outside the dance room door. He wasn’t sure if he should just slip away or if he should continue to hang around. It seemed rude, somehow, to stare and then wander off without any explanation. Then again, it was also rude to drop in on someone unannounced.
Watching the second dancer make his way down the hall towards the front exit, Nino turned back to the room and found Ohno standing there smiling at him. Nino did his best not to squirm.
Moments passed, during which Ohno said nothing. Nino wondered if he realized how awkward that made things, though seeing how unfazed the dancer appeared to be, he wouldn’t put money on it.
“So...” he stared slowly, taking a step into the dance room. “Dance partner?”
Ohno’s eyebrows raised curiously before he seemed to understand what Nino was getting at. “Sort of. Toma-kun is a member of Tempest and had been helping me stay on top of the choreography.”
“Do you miss practices because of this job?” Nino asked. That didn’t seem like it was in Ohno’s best interests.
“A few,” Ohno nodded, moving for the first time since he’d spotted Nino at the door. He crossed the floor to where his belongings sat beside the stereo, picking up a towel and slinging it behind his neck.
“Isn’t that....bad?” Nino ventured a little bit further into the room, though he kept the distance between Ohno and himself around arm’s length.
“It would be if I wasn’t doing this under company direction,” Ohno shrugged, standing up again. He paused and stared at the space between Nino and himself, the fact that the boy had come further into the room not escaping his notice.
“Ah,” Nino nodded, only understanding a little bit. He had always been under the impression that prestigious dance and theater companies were strict about things like attendance. Then again, if this was part of Ohno’s job then he could hardly be penalized for missing a few things.
“Are you looking for Matsumoto-kun?” Ohno asked after more quiet stretched between them and Nino shook his head.
“Actually, I was looking for you. I heard you were talking shit about me,” Nino said teasingly, resting his guitar case on the floor gently and holding the top.
Ohno’s expression when from happy to dismayed far quicker than Nino would have anticipated and he instantly felt bad for making the off-color joke.
“Kidding!” he said quickly, although Ohno remained slightly pale. “Aiba-kun joined MatsuJun and I for lunch today and he said I came up in conversation.”
As Nino explained, Ohno started to breathe again.
“Oh,” Ohno answered with a nod. “I was scared for a second there.”
“Why? Do you really talk shit about me?” Nino asked with a joking tone, though he watched Ohno very closely.
Ohno shook his head adamantly. “Of course not,” he said, obviously worried that Nino might be able to think that about him.
Laughing in spite of himself, Nino shook his head and came forward to pat the instructor on his shoulder.
“Relax,” he told Ohno in the friendliest manner he could manage.
And to Nino’s surprise, Ohno did. Or at least the initial shock of Nino’s firstly poorly timed joke finally began to wear off. He made a mental note to keep his bleak sense of humor to himself until he was actually familiar with Ohno and wouldn’t traumatized the poor man.
“It was nothing bad,” Ohno spoke up, and for a moment it took Nino time to figure out what he was talking about.
“I believe you,” he nodded and let his hand drop to his side again. And Nino was going to let the subject drop after that. After seeing Ohno’s reaction to a simple joke that he’d speak poorly of him, Nino couldn’t remain suspicious.
Ohno, however, seemed determined to set Nino’s mind to rest. “I said that you were nice. And I appreciate that you take the time to talk to me.”
Nino blinked, realizing for a whole new reason that they were alone. Come to think of it, he couldn’t bring to mind any time when other students tried to get Ohno’s attention. He’d always found Ohno with the drama students during rehearsal or otherwise randomly ran into him (mostly) alone. For being a rising star in the world of professional dance, there didn’t seem to be a lot of over-eager wannabes falling over themselves to curry favor. Which seemed odd.
“Maybe you’re just a figment of my imagination,” Nino thought out loud, earning a warm laugh from Ohno who shook his head.
“It’s not an unreasonable assumption,” Nino went on with an expression of the utmost sincerity. “I mean really, I’m the only person ever around when you are. Maybe I’m really just standing here talking to myself.”
Ohno’s laughter redoubled and he started to bend over at the middle. Standing up straighter, he waved a hand and shook his head.
“Wait, wait,” he gasped, grinning wide, “If I’m just a figment of your imagination, what about Aiba-chan? He knows me!”
Nino hummed, giving a thoughtful frown. “Perhaps I’m crazier than I thought and made him up too. Although if I could come up with someone like him I must be truly disturbed.”
“Aren’t most geniuses disturbed?” Ohno rejoined, shifting his weight as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Well now I know I made you up,” Nino said with a sad sigh.
Ohno gave a pout but it didn’t last long before he gave an indifferent shrug and a soft chuckle, “Ah, well. What’s the harm in talking to yourself, really?”
“Harm? Not sure if there’s much real harm. Unless I start to like the people in my head more than those outside of it,” Nino reasoned, following Ohno as they migrated towards the man’s belongings.
“Mmn, maybe. I spend most of my life inside my own head, though,” Ohno shrugged, reaching down for a bottle of water.
“You sure about that?” Nino asked, glancing at their reflections in the mirror wall.
Ohno stood up and looked to Nino in question. It was obvious he didn’t understand the inquiry and his gaze turned to follow Nino’s.
“You didn’t look like you were anywhere near your own head when you were dancing,” Nino observed, looking from the reflection of Ohno’s face to the man himself. Though from the corner of his eye he watched Ohno’s expression curiously.
Ohno remained facing the mirror a moment, though he became contemplative. Lips quirking in almost inaudible laughter, he turned back to Nino with another shrug.
“I guess not, huh?” he answered and met Nino’s gaze evenly. “But... I think that’s why I love it, maybe. Do you stay in your own head when you play?” As Ohno asked the question he reached out a hand and let his fingertips brush the beveled plastic of Nino’s guitar case.
Nino watched as those fingers came close to his own before they dropped away again. It seemed an extremely personal question, but he wasn’t put off by that. It was the idea of the thing, though. Why they did what they did, a part of who they were. Did he stay in his own head when he played?
With a short, almost melancholic chuckle, Nino shook his head and looked up to Ohno with a smile.
Chapter 12: By Any Other Name
The one where Jun's life is less hard and Aiba takes some pictures.
Jun stared across the table intently, sipping on a bottle of tea in thought. There was something he was missing, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what. He knew he had to be looking right at it, but the pieces just weren’t fitting together.
“What the hell are you so cheery about?” he finally asked, not hostile so much as completely dying of curiosity.
Nino looked up from where he’d been peering down at his hands on his guitar, whatever meditative trance he’d been in breaking. He blinked owlishly at Jun, face blank as his mind switched functions and rediscovered the capacity to speak.
“Huh?” he answered eloquently, playing Jun’s question over in his mind a few times to try and actually remember what he’d been asked. “Oh. I’m not cheery,” he shrugged and bent his head back over his instrument.
Jun’s right eyebrow twitched visibly.
“I call bullshit,” Jun said, sitting up straighter as he folded his arms over his chest and scrutinized Nino more thoroughly. “You might not be jumping for joy, but you’re in a seriously better mood than you have been in weeks.”
“Mnn,” Nino returned noncommittally. “I rediscovered internet porn.”
Jun could admire the deflection but he knew it was just one of Nino’s tactics. He’d say things meant to shock and disgust so that no one would push him into having a real conversation. Mostly Jun let it slide because if Nino didn’t want to talk that was his business.
The fact was, however, that Jun had been getting worried about Nino. They’d both gotten distracted with their own lives in the last several weeks, it was true. Jun had been frayed at the edges, trying to balance academics and preparation for the senior exhibition. Applications for talent agencies were piling up at home. And all excuses aside it simply meant that Jun hadn’t been around as much as he had been in the past. Even with his own life, however, he’d noticed how things had changed in Nino since summer.
There was the fact that he’d come back from vacation thinner than ever, which was slightly worrisome. They’d laughed it off as Nino having starved himself in favor of devoting time to his games, but it hadn’t been the only thing. Nino also hadn’t been able to touch his music, his real music, in months. He carried the guitar around with him for show, but it was more like a security blanket than an actual tool. Most worrying had been the headaches, the majority of which Nino had tried to pretend he wasn’t having and would excuse himself to go hide somewhere while he rode it out alone.
And yet here he was. Nino was sitting on a bench in the quad, ignoring his lunch and bent over his guitar actually strumming. Nothing had come together that sounded anything like music to Jun yet, but since it was the first time he’d seen the instrument in weeks, he wasn’t about to deny its significance.
Allowing several moments of quiet to pass between them, Jun continued to watch Nino. He tried to think of the last time he’d seen his friend honestly happy. As Nino started humming, so softly Jun didn’t even realize it was coming from the boy in front of him at first, it hit him.
“Who is she?” Jun asked, suddenly certain he’d figured out that piece he wasn’t seeing.
Nino had begun picking over his strings slowly in what had been starting to become a pretty little melody. At Jun’s question, Nino hit a sour note and looked up with complete confusion.
“What?” Nino stared at Jun. This time he’d heard his friend, he just couldn’t believe what he’d heard.
“You’re crushing on someone, aren’t you?” The way Jun asked, it sounded more like a statement than a question.
Nino’s brows knit and he stared at Jun wide-eyed.
“Are you insane?” Nino asked, honestly wanting to know. He could freely admit to being distracted lately, but this was so completely out of the blue that he didn’t even know how to respond.
“You haven’t written anything that wasn’t for a class in months, and you always do those at home or in the sound lab,” Jun pointed out and re-crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve spent every day for the last several weeks tapping away at a game, even in class. And suddenly you’re....” Unable to find appropriate words, Jun waved at Nino with a determined frown.
“You are insane,” Nino huffed, turning back to his guitar as if he was going to ignore Jun for the foreseeable future.
Only as he did so, Nino was scanning his brain for anything that could have given Jun such a stupid idea. The more he thought on it, the more annoyed he got with his friend’s assumption.
“Did you ever think it might be possible for me to write music without thinking of someone specific?” Nino spat out, his irritation growing as he glared at Jun across the table. “Just maybe I had an idea that I thought was good and was trying to work through.”
“Possible,” Jun conceded evenly, unfazed by Nino’s annoyance as he continued, “But unlikely.”
Nino scowled, unsure how to retort. He was offended by the implication that his talents were dependent upon romantic inspiration. He was better than that, he had to be better then that. If he wanted to be a composer by profession then he couldn’t depend on emotional attachments to be the root of his works, because they weren’t always going to be forthcoming.
“You’re a real douche sometimes,” Nino sighed bitterly. Dragging his hard case across the bench, Nino put his guitar away and packed up quickly, leaving Jun alone in the quad.
Jun hadn’t meant to be such a dick. He’d honestly just been trying to figure out what the hell was going on! But it was Nino’s own fault for not being honest, for not telling him anything.
“Christ, I’m turning into such a girl,” Jun sighed, punching his locker shut in his annoyance.
“Oh no, don’t do that MatsuJun!”
Turning immediately, Jun stared. Aiba wasn’t in his post-class sweats, a fact Jun couldn’t help noticing. Especially when the man’s street clothes included what appeared to be pants that may as well have been painted on, they were so snug.
“What...are you doing here?” Jun asked, his brain still taking its sweet time to switch gears from guilty frustration to being a social human animal. He didn’t think it was an unfair question though, considering they hadn’t even had class that morning. It was never scheduled for Fridays, so Aiba’s presence was all the more conspicuous.
“Ah, I was getting paid,” Aiba grinned and held up a payroll envelope.
“That makes sense,” Jun spoke more to himself than to Aiba directly, but it earned him a squeaky giggle nonetheless.
There was a pause as silence filled the space between the. Jun fidgeted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and then back again, waiting for Aiba to say or do something. Say goodbye, start a conversation, do a backflip, anything that wasn’t just standing there and staring at him.
Aiba must have finally realized that Jun was getting increasingly uncomfortable because he gave another short chuckle before sucking his bottom lip into his mouth and releasing it slowly.
“Why don’t you let me pay you back for lunch?” he offered with a grin, waving his paycheck envelope again.
Jun blinked, and his mind raced. He couldn’t figure out if he was trying to think of a reason to say yes or no, a million things jumping around and colliding inside his skull. He had homework, but it was Friday. He had rehearsal tomorrow, but it was just lunch. He should find Nino and set things right, but Nino likely wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the day anyway.
“Okay!” he finally blurted out, flushing because he was pretty sure he’d said it too fast or too loud and looked like a complete spaz.
Aiba seemed not to notice or not to care, however, and simply pumped his fist in the air victoriously.
“C’mon, I’ll take you to a great little noodle place,” Aiba grinned, practically bouncing over to Jun’s side.
Jun looked around, reminding himself as he followed Aiba out the school’s front doors that he didn’t have to be on the look out. They were just a pair of guys getting lunch. Nothing to see here.
Aiba’s ‘great little noodle place’ was less a place than a stand, and it was a lot more crowded than Jun had expected in the middle of the afternoon. Although he did suppose salarymen had to eat too. Foregoing getting elbowed or rubbing up against the strangers of the crowd, Jun waited a short distance away for Aiba to return with their food and did his best not to be painfully awkward.
Tiptoeing his way out of the crowd, Aiba carried two to-go bowls stacked on top of each other with napkins clutched in one hand and chopsticks in the other, his paycheck envelope held tightly in his mouth. Jun rushed forward and steadied the hot plastic bowls, helping Aiba get them to a nearby bench where they collaborated in setting their food down gingerly.
Laughing, Aiba set the napkins and chopsticks down (and Jun immediately picked them up again as a breeze threatened to blow them away) and started to pat himself down. He looked slightly apprehensive, giving a short and comically distraught whimper before looking down and seeing the envelope still held in his lips.
“Ah ha!” he announced triumphantly before laughing so hard his eyes nearly disappeared in his smiling face. Folding the envelope over, Aiba pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and slipped the remainder of his pay into the billfold,
“You found it?” Jun asked curiously, carefully pulling the top bowl to himself and trying to find a way to situate it that wouldn’t inevitably burn him.
“Hm?” Aiba looked at Jun in confusion before glancing back down and seeing the wallet. “Oh! Yeah. Well, I mean sort of. I bought a new one because I thought I’d lost this one for good, but then Sho-chan found it wedged between the seats in his car when he was looking for a pen.”
“Mm,” Jun nodded, deciding it would be safest to let his noodles sit on the bench beside him while he removed the lid to let out some steam. Although as Aiba sat down beside him, apparently distracted by everything but breathing (and even then, Jun had his doubts), it hit Jun that this was a rather unique opportunity.
“So, who is this ‘Sho-chan’?” he asked, giving himself a mental pat on the back for actually sounding casual.
“Mngmmph,” Aiba tried to answer, but it was difficult considering he had just put his first bite in his mouth. Gesturing for Jun to hold on a second, Aiba covered his mouth with s napkin as he chewed quickly.
Giving a soft gasp as he finally managed to clear his throat, Aiba thumped his own chest lightly as a weak cough followed. “Mn, Sho-chan is my roommate. We go to the same university, but we’re in completely different departments.”
Jun nodded, stirring his noodles absently. He was more invested in listening than eating for the moment. “So, did you guys go to the same high school?”
“No, I don’t think I would have cut it at Sho’s school,” Aiba laughed, shaking his head and taking another bite. After finishing it, he continued, “Sho-chan went to a really nice private school or something, his parents are pretty rich.”
“What kind of school did you go to?” Jun asked, blowing on his first bite of noodles. He had to admit, they were pretty good.
“Just a normal public school,” Aiba shrugged and looked down at his food for the first time to poke at his own noodles.
It took Jun a second to realize that the moment of silence they were sharing was not because they both had food in their mouths. Before he could address it, however, Aiba looked up again and gave a blinding smile.
“I met Sho-chan in my first freshman year. I wanted to be a chemistry major, but I was having trouble with math and Sho was doing tutoring through the student center.”
“...Your ‘first’ freshman year?” Jun echoed, unsure if he wanted to know.
“Ah, yeah,” Aiba’s giggle was more subdued than amused this time around and Jun didn’t miss the way the older boy found something to give his attention to in the bowl of noodles. “I thought I knew what I wanted to be and do, but... Nothing really seems to fit right.
“There are a lot of things I know I’d be good at if I could just get past the school part. So I’ve changed majors a few times, and usually the coursework doesn’t tend to have a lot with my new choice so I don’t have enough credits to get past the first year.”
Jun tried to process this information. He’d known what he wanted to be since he was ten years old, he couldn’t really remember a time when he hadn’t been working towards that goal. It was one of the reasons he never left any room for error in his focus work, he didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t succeed. He had nothing to fall back on.
Aiba, on the other hand, seemed to still be wandering, searching for who he wanted to be. And there was always so much pressure to pick a path and stick to it, Jun could understand why this might not be information Aiba would share pridefully.
“Well, at least you keep trying,” Jun said with a slight frown. “I think most guys would have given up by now and settled for some dumb part-time gig. I think that the fact you expect more of yourself is way more impressive than just throwing in the towel.”
Looking up from his noodles, Aiba gave a far more genuine laugh. Reaching over, he tugged at Jun’s ear gently (which Jun jerked away from instinctually, but not quickly enough). “Mattsun’s such a kind guy!” he fawned delightedly.
“How is it that every time you say my name it gets shorter?!” Snapping his attention back to his noodles, Jun tried to keep an annoyed expression on his face but he couldn’t help the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Noodles were finished shortly, more chitchat being shared. Jun learned that Aiba loved karaoke and shopping and animals. He actually really loved animals, imparting onto Jun some of the most random and obscure animal trivia he’d ever heard in his life. Like the fact that marsupials had forked penises.
When they were done, they gathered up their garbage and set off in search of a garbage can. Jun hadn’t thought it would be so hard to find, considering he’d always been under the impression that there were garbage cans everywhere, but he had apparently been misinformed.
Their trek took them up and down a number of streets and soon it became a game. They were on the hunt, and every street corner they passed without a serviceable trash bin earned a more frustrated cry from one or both of them. The frustration was all in good fun, however, as the angry shouts would give way to laughter as Aiba grabbed Jun by the elbow and began to trot down the next street.
Eventually, however, their game did end. A perfectly useable garbage can stood next to a closed newsstand and Aiba approached it at a sprint. Leaping into the air, he slam-dunked their bag of garbage into the basket with a roar.
Jun busted up laughing so hard he doubled over. Aiba was dancing around the sidewalk, fists in the air like a champion boxer. He came over to Jun and hugged him awkwardly about the boy’s holders, making Jun laugh even harder.
“Oh god,” Jun gasped, wobbling on his feet as he tried to remember how to breathe. “What the hell was that?”
Aiba, laughing almost as hard as Jun (if that was even possible at this point), coughed into the back of his hand and tried to give a shrug.
“I wanted to play professional basketball as a kid,” he grinned, breathing heavy, shaking breaths before hacking harshly again and giving a giggle through a wince.
“You going to be okay?” Jun asked, still fighting back his own giggles. This was great and all, but he didn’t want to be the moron that stood and laughed as someone suddenly died in front of him because he couldn’t tell the difference between breathlessness and asphyxiation.
Nodding, Aiba laughed again and pulled himself up on Jun’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine,” he promised, still gasping as he began to rummage around in his pocket.
Jun was about to ask, really make sure Aiba was okay when suddenly the wheezing boy produced his cellphone.
“Cheeeeeese!” he grinned, holding the phone out in front of them with a surprisingly steady arm.
“Whut?” Jun turned right as the flash went off and captured a true candid shot.
Giggling, Aiba stepped away and tapped at his phone to save the image and Jun just watched, unable to do much more than giggle. Usually he hated having his picture taken unless he knew it was happening. Pictures of him caught unawares were usually pretty horrible and he never wanted anyone to see him frozen like that in a photo. As Aiba grinned at his phone before flipping it shut, however, Jun gave a mental shrug. At least this time.
Jun was dragged out of his own reverie as Aiba gave a happy cry of surprise.
“LOOK!” he called out, pointed excitedly behind Jun and even rushing over to turn the boy bodily.
Jun blinked in confusion, trying to figure out what could possibly be so freaking amazing.
“A pet store?” Jun asked, although as he thought about it more, Aiba’s reaction made sense.
“Let’s go in and take a look!” Aiba turned to Jun excitedly, tugging at his arm.
Jun didn’t see what the big deal was, it was just a tiny pet store. But as Aiba turned to look back sat him from halfway across the street, Jun felt his heartbeat slow down in his ears. Looking both ways before stepping out into the street, trotting to catch up.
Why the hell not?
Once they had been in the pet store a few minutes, Jun figured out why this might not have been a great idea.
Aiba stopped at nearly every cage or enclosure, peering into glass boxes stacked on top of one another and stooping down the coo at whatever baby critter was in the bin on the floor. His attention shot from one animal to another and he managed to actually disappear from Jun’s sight. Not that Jun really worried, the shop wasn’t all that big. But it was a little disconcerting just to see him go off like a shot.
Jun lagged behind some, taking his time to wander the cramped rows of fish tank decorations and dog leashes. There were stacks of different types of sod and things chirruped at him from darkened boxes. Jun liked animals enough, but he never really spent much time in pet stores. He’d wanted to get a dog for the family when he was little, but he’d been the only one that had wanted it and once he’d started attending St. John’s he any free time he could have spent with a puppy evaporated.
There were different mixed breeds of puppies in little cages behind a glass door that was locked. Most of them were sleeping, a few eating. They were all too cute, but he couldn’t help feeling sad for them being stuck in little crates in a poorly lit store.
“Something wrong?” Aiba had tracked his way back to Jun’s side and was looking curiously between the boy and a Pekingese-Poodle mix that was chewing lazily on a squishy ball.
“Nothing in particular,” Jun shook his head and turned away.
“I wonder why it’s always the puppies that are put towards the back of the store?” Aiba mused, trailing behind Jun. He seemed to have run down some of his energy and was now content to hover around the younger boy. “No one ever sees them back there.”
“Maybe because people that get dogs know what they’re looking for?” Jun offered. He honestly didn’t know it didn’t seem like good business sense to him either. But it seemed like just as good a reason as any. You didn’t have to entice someone to come in and look at a puppy, dog owners were usually pretty set on the fact they wanted a dog.
Jun was about to elaborate on this line of thinking when Aiba gave a strangled noise of excitement and grabbed his arm tightly. More distracted by the vice-like grip on his arm than what Aiba was looking at, Jun did not immediately understand the sudden rush of excitement all over again.
“Look! New kittens!” he whispered excitedly and started dragging Jun over to the front of the store.
Part of Jun wanted to make a sharp comment about Aiba’s fickle adoration of the puppies, but the second the older boy released him to over around the attendant pulling little, fuzzy balls out of a box he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Aiba was full of complete, unfiltered joy. Like all of the other emotions Jun had witnessed from him so far, it seemed that Aiba’s happiness spilled over just as freely as his excitement. Doing anything to pierce that bubble of glee just felt like a dick move.
“MatsuJun, c’mere,” Aiba waved him over excitedly, though he kept his voice soft.
Jun was confused, but complied. He wasn’t sure what Aiba was expecting from him until the clerk allowed Aiba to reach into the box and pull out a tiny, curled ball of gray-blue and black stripes. Eyes widening in surprise and maybe the littlest bit of panic, Jun brought his hands up quickly and cupped them as Aiba placed the kitten in his hands.
“Ahh, he’s so cuuuute!” Aiba sighed, reaching down a finger to pet the sleeping kitten’s side gently.
“It’s so tiny!” Jun marveled, holding the baby animal out carefully, unsure weather he should bring it in closer or just not move at all.
“They’re only a few weeks old,” the store clerk advised them, watching the pair of boys handle the animal.
“Ah, that would explain it, huh?” Jun nodded, but his attention stayed on the kitten.
Beside him, Aiba stifled a giggle. Reaching over Jun’s shoulder, he gripped the boy’s wrist gently and pulled his hands slowly closer.
“Don’t hold him all the way out there,” he advised, only letting his hand fall away when Jun had the small thing cradled almost against his chest.
A soft ear flicked, long whiskers pulling along Jun’s fingers. The kitten opened little, glassy eyes and gave a soft grumble of a meow before heaving a great sigh.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Jun pouted, not sure what he could do to fix the problem.
Aiba giggled again and Jun could feel his breath on his neck. Moving out to Jun’s side again, Aiba shook his head and started rummaging around in his pocket again.
“Don’t be silly. He’s been jostled around and is trying to sleep. We just keep poking him and talking.”
When it was explained like that, Jun relaxed a little. He didn’t want it to be his fault the little thing was so annoyed. He could understand not wanting to be poked and prodded by a bunch of strangers.
“I can relate,” he grinned, adjusting the angle of his hands to hold the kitten better. “I hate waking up in the morning.”
“Mn, no wonder you two get along so well,” Aiba said distractedly.
Jun didn’t realize what was going on until he heard the digital shutter of Aiba’s camera phone snap again.
Chapter 13: Well Versed
The one where Ohmiya do some more talking. And giggling. And make faces at each other. And perhaps get a bit stalkerish.
The weekend came and Nino spent most of it suffering from what could only be described as creative constipation. Writers called it writer's block, artists called it art block, but Nino fondly thought of it as annoying as fuck. It was that sense that there was something lurking just beneath the surface of his brain but stubbornly remaining inaccessible to his conscious thoughts. When he tried to focus himself on making music happen, Nino found himself sitting with his guitar in a quiet room for several long stretches at a time.
He was actually relieved for Monday to roll around again, looking forward to the distraction classes could bring. Secretly, Nino was also looking forward to watching Ohno dance again. There was a synergy that came from watching someone with talent do something creative, a palpable energy that could be absorbed. Maybe if Nino took in enough of that energy his own power cells would recharge and he'd be able to write again. (And if not, he got to spend an hour watching someone do something amazing, so he still couldn't consider it a waste of time.)
Watching as the final seconds ticked down on the classroom clock, Nino released a breath he hadn't been consciously aware of holding before slipping from his desk as the bell rang. Collecting his books and bag, Nino was focused on the task of mentally plotting the best path to his next destination when his attention was caught immediately by the presence of Jun leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe of his classroom, arms crossed over his chest.
“So you have been coming to school,” Jun said, standing up and shifting to flatten himself against the wall as students began to pour out of classrooms. “I hadn't seen you around for so long I thought you might have gotten yourself sick again.”
Even though he'd done nothing wrong, Nino ducked his head guiltily as he moved out of the main stream of traffic. Nino hadn't thought there was anything suspicious about his behavior. Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say he hadn't been trying to be sneaky.
“Ha, I don't get sick,” Nino scoffed, resting his shoulder against the wall in a lean as he faced his friend. Jun grinned with a soft chuckle and shook his head.
“You seem to come down with illness regularly within a week of any new game release,” Jun pointed out reasonably.
Inclining his head with a laugh, Nino gave a one-shouldered shrug. “You've got me there.”
They quieted as the din rose in the hall, those students not on lunch rushing to make it to their next class. As the hall grew emptier, the bell ringing once more to signal the beginning of the new period, Nino pushed away from the wall and turned towards the lunch hall. Jun came to his side and followed easily.
“How've you been?” Jun asked conversationally, nodding to a fellow theater student as they passed but keeping his attention primarily on Nino.
Nino's eyes stayed on the ground, but he gave a shrug in response.
“Nothing to report,” he answered.
“Really?” Jun asked and Nino looked up curiously. He had some idea what Jun might be getting at, and it shouldn't have been a big deal. Certainly not anything worth getting his heart rate up over, but Nino felt a spike in his pulse just the same.
“I just haven't seen you in a while. Aiba-kun asked about you,” Jun explained his thinking and though he was surprised, Nino laughed.
“Did he now? Is he one of those guys who fall in love at first sight?” Nino teased and Jun laughed with a shake of his head.
“Nah. Well, actually, he might be. He seems the type, doesn't he?” Jun mused and Nino snorted at the thought. Aiba Masaki certainly did seem the whimsical sort, even with his clothes on.
“I'm sure his love is pure,” Nino said, reaching out a hand to give Jun a consoling pat on the shoulder. Jun looked up to scowl at him but chose not to remark on the comment.
“I just wanted to check in. We haven't been doing great at keeping in touch this year,” Jun said as he dropped the banter, slowing to a stop before entering the bustling lunch room.
“We're busy,” Nino pointed out with a shrug, though he had to admit to himself that he could appreciate that Jun was taking the time to have this conversation. When Jun appeared to begrudgingly accept Nino's answer, Nino offered, “Hang out after school?”
“Sure—wait, shit, I can't,” Jun grimaced. Turning to Nino, he sighed and ran a hand through loose strands of hair. "I've got to meet with my math teacher after rehearsals."
Nino frowned questioningly but when Jun pursed his lips and shook his head dismissively Nino accepted the brush-off. Head inclining to one shoulder, Nino shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Tomorrow then?” he offered an alternative.
“Definitely,” Jun nodded and when he reached a hand out Nino gave it a friendly clap with one of his own.
Figuring the conversation done, Nino gave Jun a parting wave.
“You're not secretly keeping another best friend on the side, are you?” Jun asked as Nino turned to abandon him just outside of the lunch room. It was getting to be a habit and while Jun wasn't always the most perceptive he certainly wasn't blind.
“I'm offended you could think me such a cad, Matsumoto,” Nino gasped, a hand going over his heart as though gravely wounded.
“Whatever,” Jun snorted with laughter and shook his head.
Nino didn't tell Jun about running into Ohno. It wasn't that he was trying to keep secrets or anything like that, but it just seemed like something he didn't need to share. Especially not when he had gone back the next day and found Ohno in the same place practicing again. And again the day after that.
Ohno didn't seem to mind having the company—quite the opposite, in fact. While most of the time Nino wasn't sure if Ohno was even aware of him while dancing, there would be moments when he got the feeling Ohno would show off for him. Just a little bit.
Nino wasn't a dancer, so he didn't know much about choreography or how someone went about practicing steps to a lengthy number. But he was, in his own humble opinion, an incredibly observant young man. He had watched Ohno perform certain parts of his dance enough times to know when Ohno changed something. At times it seemed he was simply continuing the scene, other times it came off as the dancing equivalent of a whistle blowing, Ohno letting off steam when he couldn't get something right after multiple tries in a row.
Still other times, however, Ohno would jump, or twist, or move into a fluid spin before rolling down the length of his spine. Nino couldn't help being captivated by these moments in particular, because even though Ohno's style of dance changed completely he managed to stay perfectly on-beat. Each shift, each pop, each thrust in time with music written for a completely different purpose but made to tell the story Ohno wanted conveyed. Nino had never seen a person move the way Ohno did, and that would have been reason enough for him to hold his breath until the end of the musical phrase. Then he'd look up to watch Ohno through the mirrored wall and catch a flash of the man's eyes looking at Nino's reflection in the glass and his heart would stop.
It really was just a flash, though. Nino blinked and it was gone again, Ohno's full attention back on what he was doing as Nino's guitar say silent in his lap.
Today the practice room was empty, however. No boom box sitting on the floor, no duffle bag perched on a chair, no water bottles, no Ohno. Checking his watch, Nino wondered if maybe he hadn’t managed to get out of class early. The digital display told him that he was right on time—if anything he was a little late.
He hesitated a moment before marching into the room anyway, taking up his usual spot atop a stack of thick practice mats. Nino dropped his bag on the floor beside his perch, dragging his guitar case up and onto the space next to him. Pulling the instrument out, Nino set to the rather mindless task of twisting nobs and gently strumming strings as he began to distract himself with tuning his guitar.
Minutes crawled by, bleeding into one another in an endless march. Having tuned his guitar, Nino’s fingers moved deftly as he practiced scales and short tunes, anything that came to mind. Each task he set himself only passed a handful of minutes, however, and Nino pursed his lips at his watch impatiently each time as he saw that only 3 minutes had passed since the last time he’d checked. As the period wore on, Nino eventually accepted that Ohno wasn’t going to show.
As he packed away his guitar, Nino’s hands moved slowly. He fiddled with pouches and straps on the inside that he usually didn’t bother, closing the case and taking care with the latches. He was dawdling because there was still some time before his next class began, but also because his mind was preoccupied.
Nino was disappointed, more than he had any right to be. It wasn’t as though he and Ohno had some kind of arrangement. He hadn’t been stood up. Even so, that’s what it felt like. Nino hadn’t realized that he’d actually been looking forward to hanging out with his new friend until he didn’t show up. Rubbing between his eyes as his head started to twinge, Nino took a deep breath.
Picking up his bag and his guitar, Nino left to find a vending machine. If he couldn’t get lunch, some juice would at least tide him over until he could go home.
The rest of the day carried on much like the first half had. Nino did what he could to focus on class, or at least pretend that what he was being taught was interesting. The results were mixed, leading to some classes dragging while others slipped by without Nino even realizing it. For all of the stop-and-go pacing of the day, it did finally end and Nino couldn’t stop the sigh of relief when the final bell rang.
Making sure he had the things he needed for the evening’s assignments, Nino stretched as he stood, feeling a number of vertebrae pop. It didn’t feel good so much as it just didn’t hurt, but Nino did give a grimace as he had to rub his back in much the same fashion he’d seen his grandfather do a number of times.
“I’m too young to be this old,” Nino whined to himself, picking up his bags.
He wasn’t hungry anymore, though he knew he would be in a while. His headache had also settled, so he felt that he could afford to concentrate on a few things, so long as they weren’t mentally taxing. Looking at his wrist, Nino chewed his bottom lip in consideration. Jun’s afterschool rehearsals usually lasted an hour or two, and then Jun had said that he had a meeting with a teacher afterward. Even though they already had plans to see one another tomorrow afternoon, Nino weighed the pros and cons of waiting around to see his friend today. Figuring he could afford to wait, Nino began the trek out to the drama wing where he planned to wait inconspicuously on the squishy chairs near the office (but out of sight of most staff).
Planting himself on one of the chairs, Nino retrieved his DS from its pocket in his bag and slouched until he was good and comfortable. Really, sitting with most of his body folded over on itself likely contributed to the back-popping and achy joints, but it was still miles more comfortable than sitting ‘properly’. Turning on his game system, Nino let himself slip into the blessedly simple matter of quest-completion.
Music queued up somewhere down the hall but it was simple enough for Nino to tune it out. He got into a rhythm, killing quest creatures and building up inventory. The longer he focused on his game the more he started to relax, tension in his chest and shoulders starting to ease. Admittedly gaming had a bit of its own stress, but in general it helped Nino to unwind. He liked getting to check out of reality, not having to worry about compositions, practice, classes, papers, chapters, money, his life, his future, the world—all of it. When he played one of his games none of that mattered because what mattered was whatever task was at hand. The escapism was a joy that Nino had yet to find paralleled by anything else. Except perhaps music, back when he used to be able to write and play with ease.
Nino couldn’t remember the last time that was. It felt like ages but realistically he knew it couldn’t have been more than a year. At least he didn’t think so. It was difficult to remember what had been happening in his life the last time he’d been able to produce things with any amount of ease. Part of him felt that the reason why it was so easy back then was because everything he made was crap. He’d gotten older, lived a bit more, learned a lot more and now he couldn’t look at anything old without cringing.
If Nino was being fair to himself, though, he could admit that it wasn’t all crap. At least not completely. While none of the musical scores he’d tried writing at first held up under scrutiny, some of the poems and lyrics he’d put to paper were okay. Nino liked certain lines or verses, the images that they evoked, but he found himself at a loss for how to rework them into something better without losing their power. So they stayed where they were, imprisoned in crudely crafted stanzas, hidden away in a drawer of Nino’s desk at home.
With a blink, Nino realized that he’d been staring at his DS for at least a full minute. He’d been playing to this point, he knew he had been, but he’d be damned if he could remember what it was he was supposed to be doing. A quest of some kind, he was pretty sure, though he couldn’t remember which. Tapping a number of buttons, Nino brought up the Quest Index to check his current progress, but quickly became distracted again. This time, however, the source of his distraction came from down the hall.
Looking up, Nino spied students trailing out, each with a heavy gym bag slung across their shoulders and water bottles in hand. They were sweaty and tired looking, some heading for the showers and others just making for the exit. Glancing at his watch, Nino wondered how he could have possibly just sat for an hour and not even noticed it, but given how long his day had been up until now he chose not to question it. Closing his game, Nino picked up his bags and made towards the auditorium door at an easy pace.
The number of students leaving grew to be fewer and fewer. Nino watched as people passed him, some familiar faces and others people he’d never encountered before from other classes and other grades. None of them were Jun, however, and Nino found himself hovering just outside the door wondering if he should head into the auditorium and crawl through the dark backstage area to find his friend or if he should just wait. While he was trying to decide, Nino wasn’t watching the other bay of doors located a few feet behind him, but he did hear when the door pushed open with a loud creak.
“Ah! Nino!” Ohno greeted with a pleasant grin. If Nino’s expression showed his surprise Ohno was kind enough not to take it personally.
“Oh-chan!” Nino greeted with a small wave as he turned around. He still remained hovering outside the remaining open auditorium door, peering back one last time before looking to Ohno. “I was looking for MatsuJun. Is he still here?”
Ohno shook his head, appearing slightly confused as he walked over to the open door and looked inside. Though as he moved the kick-stand keeping the door open to let it close, checking to make sure it was locked, Nino got the impression that Ohno hadn’t actually been confused by the question at all.
“He had to leave a little early to have some kind of meeting with a teacher,” Ohno said, looking back to Nino. “Was he supposed to meet you?”
Waving off the expression of concern Ohno was giving him, Nino shrugged.
“Nah, I was hanging around on the off chance he wanted to hang out,” Nino said, hands moving to his pockets.
“Oh...” Ohno answered, though if he was going to say anything more than that it seemed to drift out of his mind before the words connected with his mouth.
Nino couldn’t help grinning a bit at the thought.
“You kind of remind me of Drifloon,” Nino hummed. When Ohno nose scrunched up and his eyes nearly disappeared in a laugh, Nino’s grin only widened.
“What?” Ohno asked, still chuckling.
“Drifloon. You know, the Pokemon?” Nino said, taking a step forward so that he was standing by Ohno’s side. “You always seem like your mind’s just fuu~ floating away!”
Ohno laughed again, head dipping to his chest as he slowly began taking slow steps up the abandoned hall.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” Ohno admitted with a nod. “I’ve perfected being able to sleep with my eyes open because I can’t keep focused sometimes.”
“Have you now?” Nino snorted, following at Ohno’s side automatically.
“It’s my secret talent,” Ohno said matter-of-factly and Nino didn’t try to stop himself from bursting into giggles.
“I’ll be sure to keep your secret safe,” Nino promised solemnly, or as solemnly as he could manage until he started grinning again.
“I’m sorry your friend isn’t here,” Ohno changed subjects, and to his credit he sounded genuinely sympathetic.
That was something Nino was starting to notice about the man, he didn’t tend to give meaningless platitudes. If he was offering condolences, sympathy or praise is always sounded authentic, which was a trait that Nino appreciated greatly.
“It’s alright. We’re supposed to do something after school tomorrow anyway,” Nino shrugged, honestly not bothered at all. He had mostly been looking for an excuse not to go home immediately, and he’d gotten exactly that.
“He works very hard,” Ohno told him and for a moment Nino wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond. Ohno didn’t seem to expect a response, however, because he almost immediately changed the subject. “Do you have any after school activities?”
Nino hummed, as if the question was actually something he had to think about. Turning so that he was walking backward, his backpack hit the door so he could push it open and Nino leaned against it to hold the door open so that Ohno could walk through.
“Nope,” Nino shook his head, waiting until Ohno had cleared the door before stepping forward.
“That’s surprising, I thought it was a requirement of some kind,” Ohno said, looking back at the school curiously before starting down the steps. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact that Nino was keeping him company, so Nino chose not to address it and continued to follow.
“It is until your senior year,” Nino shrugged. “A lot of people keep taking clubs and extra classes anyway, but we’re allowed to drop them so that we can focus on our showcase pieces for the end of the year.”
“Ahh, I see,” Ohno nodded.
If Ohno was at all curious about anything else regarding clubs and extracurricular activities, he didn’t say so. In fact, his mind seemed to do that drifting thing again, leaving them to walk in silence for a ways. Nino didn’t mind. He found the quiet with Ohno rather comfortable and unassuming. It didn’t seem like Ohno was waiting for Nino to continue the conversation, trying to leave a polite silence so that he could contribute. Ohno just seemed done with talking for now and since Nino had nothing to add, that seemed completely fair.
He did have a moment where he thought that they might stop and say goodbye, go their separate ways as they approached the gates of the school. Then they were through the gates of the school and up the block to the corner and Ohno’s pace hadn’t even stuttered. Since they were heading the direction Nino would have had to go for home anyway, he didn’t see any reason to redirect them.
“So what do you do when you’re not here?” Nino asked, actually curious. He was old enough to understand that teachers (guest or otherwise) existed in the world outside of the walls of the school, but that didn’t mean he spent a lot of time thinking about it. Since they had already left the school environment, however, it seemed a fair question to ask.
Ohno looked up, his sleepy eyes focusing for a moment on Nino before turning to look ahead of them once more. “Well, I have rehearsals of my own a lot of the time,” he said, giving a shrug. “Sometimes I go out with friends or colleagues, drinking and the like.”
“Do you ever go out dancing?” Nino asked with an involuntary snort of laughter. It shouldn’t have been funny, but for some reason it was. Nino never really thought of someone who danced for a living as going out and spending their free time...well, dancing! Ohno was young and reasonably attractive, though, and also successful. Wasn’t clubbing something people did to be social? (Nino wouldn’t know, his version of social usually included quiet, indoor activities with a maximum of 2 other people.)
“Sometimes, yeah,” Ohno answered and Nino nodded with a hum of acknowledgement. “Not that often, though. I prefer things like karaoke or just drinks. Small groups of people are good. I get nervous around a lot of people I don’t know and then sometimes I drink too much.”
“That sounds like the worst solution to that problem,” Nino said, laughing in spite of himself. He’d have felt bad, but Ohno was laughing along with him, scratching at his cheek and jaw guiltily.
“Thankfully, I haven’t embarrassed myself yet,” Ohno said, and Nino was amused to see that the man’s cheeks were a bit pink. “Or if I have, I don’t remember it and everyone’s been kind enough not to bring it up.”
They paused at a crosswalk, each of them looking both ways up and down the street before waiting for the light to signal that they should cross.
“What about you?” Ohno asked once they’d both stood up again.
“What about me what?” Nino’s brow creased slightly in confusion.
“Do you go out dancing?” Ohno tried again.
“Oh!” Nino nodded, giving a laugh. Of course! Now whose mind was drifting, Ninomiya?
“Not really,” he shook his head, glancing up and down the street one more time when their signal changed. “I’ve been once or twice with friends on minors’ nights, but... I don’t like how expensive it is, and usually it’s really stuffy and sometimes the flashing lights give me headaches.”
“That sounds really unpleasant,” Ohno pouted, seeming disappointed on Nino’s behalf. All Nino could do was shrug.
“I prefer smaller things, like you said. You know, karaoke, video games with some friends.” It wasn’t as though Nino was a complete hermit. Just mostly.
“My mom likes video games,” Ohno offered and Nino laughed both in surprise and amusement.
“Does she? What does she like?” Nino asked, figuring the answer would be something along the lines of NintenDogs for the DS or Animal Crossing.
“Hnn, I’m not really good with titles. I know that one of her favorite game series is Tekken, though.”
As the title left Ohno’s mouth, Nino actually stopped walking and stared, his eyes wide. Ohno came back, tilting his head at the boy curiously.
“So this is a forward question, but your mom doesn’t happen to be single, does she?” Nino asked with a completely straight face.
Ohno cracked up. He laughed so hard he curled over, actually slapping his knee before trying to stand up again. Nino didn’t hesitate to join in the laughter, feeling good at having gotten such a strong reaction out of the usually quiet man.
“Whaaaat? Is it because you’d have to call me ‘father’?” Nino asked and Ohno’s giggles persisted to the point where Nino could see moisture growing at the corners of his eyes. “That’s no way to respond to your step-father!” Nino admonished and he was rewarded with even more giggles, Ohno’s face growing red.
Wiping tears from one eye, Ohno finally righted himself, shoulders still shaking with giggles. They resumed their walk, passing into the gates of a train station. It was the line that Nino usually took to get home, so that was fine by him. He did wonder, however, whether or not Ohno realized where they were and where he might be going. Nino had assumed this entire time that he’d been following Ohno, but perhaps Ohno had made the same assumption? Since Ohno didn’t seem too bothered by it, paying for his fare and marching through the fare gates, Nino decided not to question it.
They walked to the platform where Nino usually would board the train to go home, and he was about to ask whether or not Ohno was following him (only half-jokingly) when Ohno spoke first.
“I like spending time by myself a lot,” Ohno said, and it took a moment for Nino’s brain to figure out what he was talking about. Hobbies and things he did outside of school! Right.
“I get lonely sometimes, too, though,” he continued and Nino nodded, definitely feeling empathy.
“It’s probably kind of difficult because you did things so differently from everyone else, huh?” Nino asked, knowing he was making an assumption but it seemed a fair one to make.
“Mm, maybe,” Ohno answered with a nod. Nino thought that perhaps there was going to be something more after that, but Ohno seemed distracted by his own thoughts. Or maybe he saw something shiny float by in the air, it seemed hard to tell.
Even though his curiosity had been piqued, Nino was satisfied to leave the conversation there. Matters of loneliness and socialization could be tricky, to say the least. Nino found that often times he was perfectly fine spending hours alone in his room, until suddenly he realized he hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone he wasn’t immediately related to in weeks. It made a person wonder whether or not he was missed as much as he missed his friends, but that all seemed entirely too personal to get into with a guest instructor standing on a train platform.
The train that would take Nino home pulled into the station and he turned to make his goodbyes. As he did so, however, he and Ohno both had started towards the train. They stared at one another a moment, but not wanting to miss the train they both rushed in before the doors closed.
It wasn’t that late in the evening so the train thankfully wasn’t very full. Even so, Nino kept his voice down when he leaned forward and asked, “Are you following me?” He laughed as he did so, but he really was confused as to why Ohno was on the train with him.
Ohno simply shook his head. “I’m going home,” he answered, also giving a soft chuckle.
Nino had to reach up a hand and cover his mouth to stop from laughing inappropriately loudly. Ohno grinned at him, apparently just as amused.
They stood in silence for most of the ride, occasionally looking at one another and giving another short chuff of laughter. Nino wanted to ask what stop Ohno was getting off at, but he also wanted to see how far this coincidence would go. As the stops went by and people left and entered the train, Ohno stayed with him. Nino didn’t notice the way his grin reflected back at them from the glass in the door or else he probably would have tried to stop looking like such a goober.
Stalker-sensei, Nino mouthed at Ohno, earning him a series of giggles that kind of made Nino think of an old man. The image was just as amusing to him as teasing Ohno for being a stalker and had Nino smiling all the wider.
The announcement came for his stop and Nino’s eyes flit up to the LED sign. Looking back to Ohno, Nino quirked an eyebrow at his companion curiously. Ohno was smiling back at him, but Nino couldn’t tell if that meant anything or not. When they both exited the train without saying a word to one another, Nino managed to make it out of the station and onto the street before he started laughing in earnest.
“Okay, where do you live?” Nino demanded once he was able to breathe properly.
“That way,” Ohno said giving a vague wave to the northeast. Nino actually reached out and gave Ohno a pinch on the arm, the likes of which Ohno responded to with a quick, “Owowowow!”
“I’m a straight shot up this road,” Nino said, pointing at the street heading north just in front of the station. Ohno’s eyes widened and he laughed his old man laugh again, clapping his hands.
“How have we never seen one another before?” Nino marveled, starting to walk to the crossing signal.
“I don’t go out much, you don’t go out much,” Ohno answered with a shrug.
Nino couldn’t argue with the reasoning. It wasn’t like Nino would have known to look for him at the train station, either. He had only met Ohno a few weeks prior and still didn’t know the man’s schedule. How could he have been expected to be aware of Ohno before they’d even met? Nino supposed he couldn’t and that no one would actually expect him to know that Ohno lived in a neighboring area (potentially the same neighborhood, depending on how far away Ohno lived).
Ohno didn’t walk him home and Nino didn’t follow Ohno either. They walked together, chatting (and not chatting) until their paths diverged. They bid one another goodbye and Nino waved as Ohno headed down a sloped section of road that curved out of sight. He continued to stand, watching the spot where Ohno had disappeared long after the man had walked away. Laughing to himself again, Nino shook his head and hiked his bags up on his shoulder before turning to start the uphill trek home. As he walked, Nino whistled a nameless tune, adding notes as he went that began to form the basis of a melody.
Chapter 14: Credentials
Jun has an unpleasant talk with a teacher and starts trying to figure out his schooling.
Jun shifted, crossing his legs one way and then the other. He wasn't uncomfortable or necessarily impatient, but waiting was not something he did well. It didn't help that he wasn't very familiar with being in trouble, however slight. He'd never been the best student, but he had managed to stay off the radar of teachers for most of his school career.
Jun stood immediately, shouldering his bag and giving his math teacher a bow.
"Sorry to keep you waiting."
"No, it was nothing," Jun waved a hand, following the woman into her office.
Nishikawa-sensei wasn't old, but she wasn't exactly young, either. Jun wasn't sure what to make of her as an instructor, but for the most part she seemed like a good person. If not somewhat terrifying. Nishikawa-sensei had a beautiful face and a sweet look about her, but she tended not to humor anyone. Which was one of the many reasons why her kindly smile was making Jun even more nervous.
"Have a seat," Nishikawa-sensei motioned for Jun to be seated at a chair beside her desk. There weren't many people left in the teachers' office, a few lone instructors making corrections or working on lesson plans. Jun felt somehow even more self-conscious than he would have been if the meeting truly had been one-on-one.
"How're you doing?"
Jun did his best not to fidget as he answered.
"Okay," he nodded, his chest already tightening with anxiety.
"Really? There's not anything new or stressful going on?" Nishikawa-sensei pressed, and Jun wasn't sure if he should be comforted by the gentleness in her tone or not.
Other than this meeting? Jun thought bitterly but what he said instead was, "No, nothing comes to mind."
"I was wondering because you seem to be having trouble lately," Nishikawa commented, and for the first time Jun noticed the open file of papers on the instructor's desk. Most of the visible pages were littered with red strikes the whole way through and Jun could admit that he'd be pretty shocked if they weren't his.
"I've fallen behind," Jun admitted with an apologetic nod. "I'm doing my best to try and get back on top of the work, though."
The sympathetic look Nishikawa gave him filled Jun with dread. He knew that look. That was the look you gave someone who didn't seem to understand how out of their depths they were. It was a look of pity given to someone about to receive incredibly bad news. The pause in their conversation that stretched an eternity didn't help any and Jun braced himself mentally.
"Jun-kun—Can I call you that?" Jun nodded, though his anxiety only spiked. "You've never had the best marks in the technical courses, but you've at least managed to maintain passing grades before. This is a little more drastic than missing a homework assignment or two or slipping on a quiz. Repeatedly you've turned things in late or incomplete, or simply not at all. You're present for all of the tests and the quizzes but because the work isn't getting done the results don't help you at all."
"I know I've been kind of distracted, but it was just adjusting getting back from summer break," Jun said in a rush, his face growing hot. That sickening look of pity stayed on Nishikawa-sensei's face and Jun was afraid he may snap and scream at her to stop looking at him like that.
"It's not just math. I've spoken with some of your other instructors and it's the same story in several of them." Jun wished she wouldn't speak so nicely, because it really wasn't helping. "It's not uncommon to make it to your last year and find that you've taken on too much. There's a lot of pressure regarding the senior showcase and the extra practices and lessons can be exhausting. But that's not an excuse to let your main academics drop so sharply. Unless you can make a dramatic improvement over the next few months you may be looking at repeating this year—"
"And I'll be dropped from the showcase," Jun interrupted, panic mixing with realization in a dizzying cocktail that left him feeling suddenly and achingly hallow.
When she didn't correct him, Jun's stomach bottomed out.
Jun had convinced Nishikawa-sensei not to call his parents, though only barely. The agreement was that if Jun could manage to keep up with homework in the future and pass all of his finals that they'd revisit the conversation after the New Year. This gave Jun a little more than a month and a half to work with, roughly six weeks to pull himself together. It didn't seem like an insurmountable task until he actually tried figuring in hours for homework and studying into the hours he was already spending on dance practice and voice lessons. Jun had also intended to get started on applications for talent agencies, but those were going to have to be pushed back yet again.
He supposed he could give up what little free time he'd been enjoying. Jun wasn't entirely sure what he'd been doing with his time, because it honestly felt like he hadn't had any to waste since the school term had resumed. In all fairness he really ought to cancel his after-school plans with Nino. While normally that wouldn't be anything other than inconvenient, the fact was that Jun had been looking forward to it. They were perfectly capable of going a few weeks, sometimes even months without any social contact. The difference tended to be that Jun usually wasn't feeling neglectful in those times. He also usually didn't feel in need of contact and support from his friend the way he did right now.
Jun jumped slightly, his entire horse scooting noisily on the flat stone floor. Aiba jumped as well, bursting into nervous giggles before leaning in again, his loosely belted blue terrycloth bathrobe draping forward from his chest.
"You okay?" Aiba asked, looking Jun's face over carefully.
Jun frowned softly and shook his head.
"It's nothing," he said, and while he was sorry that he sounded a little gruff he mostly couldn't be bothered to care. Besides, if Aiba was rebuffed by his tone at all he didn't show it.
"Doesn't look like nothing," Aiba noted, reaching out and even as Jun made to jerk back his hand advanced until he could press the pad of his index finger against the tense line between Jun's eyebrows.
Batting Aiba's hand away, Jun rubbed his forehead and sighed. He really didn't feel like divulging all of his woes right in the middle of class, even if they were on break and probably no one was paying attention to them.
"I hope you're not getting sick," Aiba pouted, dropping to a squat and crossing his arms over his knees, looking up at Jun. "I used to get sick a lot when I was younger and sometimes it still happens. It always takes me a long time to get better, too, so it's doubly crappy."
"That'd just be the icing on the shit cake this week," Jun grumbled, though when he looked up and saw the open alarm and concern in Aiba's expression he felt bad about saying anything.
The art instructor gave a one minute warning to let everyone know that the break was coming to a close. Aiba looked up, likely knowing he had to go. He lingered by Jun for a moment, biting his bottom lip tightly enough that Jun could see the way the skin turned slightly white.
Jun turned to his essentially blank tablet of paper, trying to force himself to give a shit about what he was doing this morning. Figure Study was, miraculously, one of the few things he wasn't failing, so it seemed a bad idea to start slipping now just because he was having a bad morning. Then again, maybe he was doing well enough in this class that he could afford to have at least one bad day.
A warm hand closed around his wrist firmly and and Jun turned and stared at Aiba in surprise.
"Hang back after class?" Aiba requested and though Jun's lips parted he remained mute.
The instructor called an end to the class recess, breaking the momentary spell. Jun nodded before pulling Aiba's hand from his wrist and encouraging him back towards his place at the center of the raised platform before all of the students.
Picking up a shard of charcoal, Jun poised the pigment over his page and did his best to pay attention. They were supposed to be doing movement gestures again today. Getting down vague swipes of shapes to indicate motion and life. At the end of the period all Jun had to turn in were several skeletal sketches of hands.
After turning in his sheet of newsprint, Jun went back to his workspace and took his time packing things up. Aiba had his customary chat with the instructor before heading behind his screen, pulling on a pair of sweats and a shirt. Today it was a too-large hoodie that read "JUICY" in large, bright orange letters across his chest and while normally Jun might find that hilarious he just wasn't in the mood today.
Aiba came out from behind his screen and waited, waving to, smiling at and bowing out the rest of the students for the class. When the last one was out the door and it was just down to Jun, Aiba ventured over again.
"I didn't mean to be an ass," Jun said by way of apology, running a hand through his hair and gripping it so tightly he felt his scalp begin to sting.
"It's fine," Aiba said, brushing off the entire interaction with the wave of a hand. "But are you? You seem upset."
Jun wasn't sure whether or not he was annoyed with himself for being so easy to read or relieved that someone who actually seemed to give a shit had noticed he was having a hard time. Dropping his hands to his sides with a lifeless flop, he decided it was probably a mixture of both.
"I'm completely fucked," Jun admitted out loud for the first time, the sick feeling of panic starting to creep into his chest the way it had the night before. He hadn't been able to push it away long enough to eat last night either, so he was also hungry on top of everything else.
Aiba took a seat on one of the abandoned benches, not saying anything. He seemed to be waiting for Jun to continue. Figuring it couldn't make things any worse, Jun sighed and decided to oblige.
"I'm failing some stuff. And normally that wouldn't be so bad if it was just one thing, but it's a bunch of subjects," Jun confessed, face flushing with humiliation. Aiba continued to say nothing, his expression open and seemingly without judgment. While most of the time Jun would have left the story off there he dropped down onto his horse and continued.
"I've never been great at the academics part of school," he said, fairly certain it had come up in vague conversation before but he'd never really come right out and admitted he was a bad student. "I've been able to get by with passing marks, for the most part, but even I can admit that I've always been more focused on the talent classes. They were the reason I even came here in the first place. But I let it get out of hand and now there's a chance..." Jun paused, taking a very slow breath and staring at a spot on the floor between his feet.
He couldn't say it. He wasn't sure why, he'd filled Aiba in on everything else, but admitting that there was a chance he might lose his shot at the senior showcase was a step too far. Jun couldn't force the words out of his gut and into his mouth, his throat tightening around the syllables in protest.
Aiba didn't ask him to elaborate, instead choosing to push the conversation forward. "I guess something like cram school wouldn't work, huh?"
"I just don't have the time," Jun sighed, hating how helpless this situation was making him feel. And he had no one to blame for it but himself and he knew it, so even telling others that there was a problem felt wrong. It felt like trying to get people to be sympathetic for him, which they shouldn't be because he didn't entirely deserve it. There were plenty of other people at St. John's who managed to balance both the senior showcase and their academics, there was no reason Jun shouldn't be able to manage the same.
"I have a few scattered hours through the week to work on studying, I couldn't commit to a cram school schedule on top of everything."
"Makes sense," Aiba nodded slowly, and Jun couldn't tell if he was serious or just being nice. Though when he looked up his companion appeared to be thinking very hard, so it felt wrong to assume that Aiba was just listening to be polite.
Jun was about to call the conversation to a close and propose they go get something to eat and forget about the entire situation for a little while when Aiba sat up very quickly.
"What about a tutor?" he offered and Jun frowned slightly. He'd considered the option, but he honestly hadn't looked into anything yet. He'd only just gotten the news the night before, the fear and despair were still fresh in his heart.
"It'll probably have to be like that," Jun agreed with a nod. He chose not to point out that it was probably going to be hard to find a tutor who'd be willing to keep such sporadic hours. He didn't need his pessimism to rain on someone who seemed to want to help him.
"Leave it to me!" Aiba declared, his previously somber expression taken over by a forcefully bright grin.
Jun didn't want to be rude, but he couldn't even fake enthusiasm.
"Didn't you say you weren't any good at math?" Jun asked, fairly certain Aiba had pretty much blatantly told him that he wasn't any good at school either.
Aiba giggled, seemingly unfazed.
"Not me. But I know some people, I'm sure I can find someone to help you out," Aiba assured Jun cheerfully, standing and giving Jun a pat on the shoulder.
Jun felt himself frowning in hesitation but forced himself to drop the expression. He knew Aiba meant well. Aiba always seemed to mean well. And it was entirely possible that Aiba did know people who might be able to help get Jun up to speed and on top of things. It was just difficult for Jun to see any way that this could work out well. Rather than put that on Aiba, though, Jun gave his friend a tired smile (that was only the littlest bit forced).
"I think you've earned lunch," Jun said, picking up his box of art supplies with a grunt.
Aiba let out a whoop of delight, practically dancing over to his duffle bag behind the changing screen and Jun managed a laugh that, while tired and short, wasn't faked in any way.
For some reason, Jun hadn't actually expected Aiba to come through. He'd appreciated just having someone listen to him, even if he wasn't usually the type to share. He'd felt somewhat relieved and by the time he'd gotten home after meeting up with Nino after classes, Jun's mood had lightened. He still wasn't doing great, but he'd started to get himself organized enough to at least begin the hunt for a tutor. He'd anticipated needing probably a week before anything could be settled upon. He hadn't anticipated that Aiba Masaki could apparently work magic.
"Is this the Matsumoto residence?"
Jun stared. He knew it was rude and he knew he ought not to, but he couldn't help it. The man standing on his doorstep took a step back and looked over at their family plaque hanging by the door, clearly double-checking. Jun couldn't remember the man's name, but he recognized the face—it was a hard one to forget.
"You're Aiba-kun's roommate... right?" Jun blurted out stupidly, still not connecting why, exactly, Aiba's handsome roommate was in front of his house.
The man grinned and gave a surprised laugh, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Have we met already? I'm sorry, I'm really bad with names," he bowed and Jun returned it, still standing in his door. When he realized that he was being a clod, Jun turned and made room for the man to come in from the chilly Sunday afternoon air.
"I saw you at the school once, giving him a book or something," Jun explained, stepping back and out of the genkan to give a polite amount of room.
"I'm Sakurai Sho," the handsome man bowed again, and the name struck a chord in Jun and he recalled Aiba had told him the guy's name.
"Matsumoto Jun," Jun answered automatically, though it seemed superfluous considering the fact Sho had to know who he was if he was here. Then again, Sho had said he was bad with names and he seemed about just as confused as Jun felt.
"I'm guessing Aiba-chan didn't mention I was coming?" Sho asked and Jun shook his head. Sho laughed but shook his head. "That guy! Well, I'm here to help with some studying? I hope that you at least need that, because otherwise he is just being weird again and I have to have a talk with him."
Jun's eyes narrowed and though he didn't glare he definitely felt his confusion waning in light of some annoyance. He didn't much care if Sakurai Sho was Aiba's roommate and had probably known him longer than a bunch of other people (Jun included) it sounded like he was making fun of Aiba, and not in a friendly teasing way.
"I think he was just too quick with working things out to keep all of the points connected," Jun said, nodding for a set of guest slippers that Sho could use.
If Sho picked up on Jun's annoyance he didn't show it, and that just annoyed him more.
"Sorry for showing up unannounced. Aiba-chan just gave me the address but neglected to provide your mobile number so I couldn't warn you ahead of time," Sho said, setting his shoes on an empty spot on the shoe rack so that they wouldn't take up too much space before stepping up into the house.
"It's alright. I didn't realize he was asking for it so he could send someone over," Jun confessed, and in doing so he had to wonder what he had expected Aiba to do with the information. He hadn't exactly asked for details, simply provided the information without a second thought. Which was likely the last time he was going to do that.
"Well, since you didn't know I was coming, I hope now is an okay time," Sho said, giving Jun an apprehensive once-over. At which point Jun realized that his bangs were currently tied back out of his face with a fuzzy pink hair tie and probably looked completely stupid.
"Now's fine," Jun nodded, motioning Sho in to follow him through the house. Not like he could just turn the guy away. If he didn't turn out to be any good as a tutor Jun would at least be able to thank Aiba for trying.
Jun trudged his way through the empty house, climbing the stairs up to his room. It was a bit messy, but not the worst it had ever been and there at least wasn't anything super embarrassing laying around. He dumped his book bag on the floor to free up the spare chair that never seemed to get use, pulling it out and closer to his desk before plopping down himself.
Sho looked around the room and while he didn't seem to be overtly judging him, Jun couldn't hep feeling scrutinized just the same. Pulling the girly hair band from his bangs, Jun tossed it on his desk and finger combed the hairs out of his face. It was less effective but didn't look quite so juvenile. Jun wasn't exactly sure why that was important, but it felt important so he was just going to go with it.
"So, um... I guess the best place to start would be getting to know one another a little and try to figure out what you need help with," Sho said, setting his attractive leather messenger bag down on the floor next to his chair.
"Okay," Jun nodded, not seeing anything unreasonable about the proposal. Although it did take him a moment to realize that Sho actually expected him to start that conversation. Sitting up straighter, Jun crossed his legs and did his best to collect himself.
"Um... Well, I guess I need the most help with math and related subjects like physics. I'm also not great at writing essays," Jun listed, looking around the room as if he'd get a clue about something else there was to remember. There were other subjects he was struggling with, for certain, but they wouldn't be as difficult to cope with and so it didn't feel worth it to discuss with a potential tutor.
"What's the difficult part about essays?" Sho asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, chin on a fist. It was incredibly casual and not really what he'd expected but Jun tried not to get distracted.
"They eat up so much time," Jun frowned, resting an elbow on his desk chair armrest.
"But when you manage to write them you get fair grades on them?" Sho prompted curiously.
Jun had to think a moment but then gave a nod. "I actually get better grades on essays than most things. When I manage to get them done and turned in on time."
"Okay. So that sounds more like a time management problem," Sho said and Jun frowned. He knew he wasn't exactly in a position to be defensive and resist criticism, but it seemed a little sudden.
"With math and physics, is it a matter of not having the time to do the work as well?" Sho asked, either oblivious to Jun's offense or apathetic towards it.
"No, I just don't get them. I've never been good at math and physics is just like... Math on steroids, trying to pretend it's not really math," Jun said and his prickliness melted into a bitter pout in spite of himself.
Sho's laugh was loud and full and caused Jun to jump slightly. He hadn't been trying to be funny, he honestly hated these subjects! Though he supposed that Sho wasn't laughing at his pain so much as his description.
"Physics is trying to use math to explain how things work," Sho restated, still grinning wide. Jun noticed, not for the first time, that he had a really, really good smile. Jun kind of hated him for it, but it was difficult to hang on to that when they were actually talking about something somewhat important.
"Yeah, but, like... Who cares? I mean, really!" Jun pointed out, honestly wanting to know. There were plenty of things that seemed useless to him, but few things seemed quite so useless as math and physics.
"Well..." Sho hummed, sitting back and crossing his arms over his chest and it was difficult for Jun not to be shocked by the sheer size and shape of the man's deltoids.
"Ah, well! Masaki told me you're in the theater department, right?" Sho said, leaning forward a little. When Jun nodded, he grinned and continued. "So think about things like special effects or props, or designing stunts. All of that is physics. You have to worry about weight, speed, force, and so on to make sure that nothing collapses under a bunch of people dancing. You also have to understand how light functions so that you can manipulate it to set the atmosphere for different scenes, right?"
Jun considered Sho's points. He definitely had some sound logic, but Jun still couldn't help feeling like the topic was still mostly useless to him personally. It wasn't as though he engineered stunts or props. He could come up with ideas for things sometimes, but he'd never seen a point in (or had the opportunity to) making them come to life.
"I guess..." Jun conceded, though he remained reserved.
For the first time he actually saw something cross Sho's face that wasn't just the same vapid smile and it only made Jun frown harder. Had that been... Annoyance? With Jun? What did Sho have to be annoyed with? Although as Jun seriously considered that question a number of things came to mind in an instant. He was doing a favor for a friend, coming over to the house of a kid he didn't know to try and help out, using his own free time to do it, and now the kid he was helping out was being a pissy bitch. Suddenly Jun felt even more self-conscious, realizing he'd been less than a gracious host. Regardless of how much or how little he knew about Sakurai Sho, the man had come over to help him without even really knowing who he was. And if he was friends with Aiba, he couldn't be all bad, right?
Though Jun quickly pushed that thought right back out of his head because considering Sho's closeness to his roommate kind of pissed Jun off for no logically sound reason.
"Here's what we're supposed to be working on," Jun decided to change the topic, turning to pick up a packet from his desk and handing it over to Sho. "I don't remember learning any of it in class, and I don't skip things so I really just... Have no idea where to even start."
Sho silently studied the pages of the packet, one by one. Jun shifted, unsure what to do with himself while Sho familiarized himself with the subject. Should he say something? Explain? Though he'd just said that he didn't know how it all worked, so there wasn't much he could really contribute. Before he could land on something to say, or whether or not he should say anything at all, Sho sat up again and pushed the papers back onto Jun's desk.
"Well, in your defense it is kind of complicated," Sho said, and Jun wasn't sure if that was supposed to be reassuring. "Before we get into all of that, though, I'd like to see a schedule if you have one."
"Schedule?" Jun repeated, twisting to start shifting through his desk. "Well, there's this," Jun frowned, handing out the list of classes and times he'd made for his own purposes while he tried to find the chart he'd actually found from the beginning of the year that blocked out all of his classes for the term.
Sho stood, leaning forward over Jun's shoulder and resting a hand against the desk. Reaching over Jun's hand and scanning through the mess of papers on the desktop, he eventually reached for the salmon colored paper at the same time Jun did and they drew it forward together.
"This gives a better look of what my days look like through the week," Jun said, dragging a finger down the first few columns.
"So what's on here that isn't on here?" Sho asked, pulling the handwritten list up again and resting it next to the daily schedule.
"Saturday, for one thing," Jun said, picking up a pencil and adding a rough sixth box to the chart. "I have dance workshops until the afternoon, sometimes later. Then... Afterschool rehearsals Monday through Thursday and extra vocal training on Fridays."
Sho nodded, examining the schedule as it filled up even more. His brow furrowed and he seemed to be sincerely considering the matter at hand. Jun turned back to the crammed paper in front of him. He didn't feel the same doom he'd felt earlier in the week, but he could still admit that it didn't look good.
"How long does it usually take you to get home once everything is done?" Sho asked, pulling the salmon colored paper over and picking up Jun's discarded pencil.
Jun chewed the inside of his mouth thoughtfully. "About an hour and a half," he estimated.
"Can you read on the train?"
"Yeah, I guess," Jun nodded. He didn't usually do much but vegge out on the train these days, but he supposed he'd lost that privilege.
"That's at least an hour of study time you can use every day," Sho pointed out, adding the blocks to the schedule and tapping them with the pencil tip. "You can either read assigned text or even work on essays."
"How?" Jun stared, not resistant to the idea but honestly baffled. He didn't have a laptop and the family only had a single computer to share. What was he supposed to write on?
"You have a phone with mail capabilities, right?" Sho said, and Jun couldn't help staring.
"You want me to type essays on my phone?" Jun asked, unable to truly believe that this was being given as a serious recommendation.
"You can at least get a rough outline accomplished, mail it to yourself, then finish it on the computer. It cuts down on the overall writing time considerably," Sho explained reasonably, and Jun had to admit that the logic seemed fairly flawless.
"Why haven't I ever thought of that?" Jun wondered, looking back down at his clustered mess of a schedule.
"You probably would have eventually," Sho shrugged and Jun couldn't help the spark of surprise at the comment. That was a vote of confidence he hadn't been anticipating and it seemed oddly out of place for the image Jun had been building up in his head. Then again, Jun could admit he'd been doing a lot of conclusion-jumping, so maybe he could afford to calm down a bit.
"Okay, so that can help with essays," Jun agreed, focusing on the scattered, unattractive chunks of open space in his evenings and mornings.
"I have my own classes, so I can't come over every day, I'm afraid," Sho said, turning to pull his chair closer to the desk and taking a seat. "But I don't have classes Wednesday mornings, so I can come over on Tuesday nights if that's doable for you? I know you have to get up early, so I probably wouldn't stay too late, but it should help a little to get through the week. I can't do Saturday nights because I have dinner with my family, but it looks like we both have Sundays free, right?"
Jun had nothing to contribute but a nod, so he did but kept otherwise silent. Unlike Aiba, who tended to stay quiet unless engaged in conversation, Sakurai Sho seemed capable of carrying an entire exchange completely on his own. It was baffling, but also a bit fascinating, especially because it seemed to Jun that he was hearing the man think out loud more than actually have a conversation.
"Do you think you'd need tutoring more than just twice a week? If you think that you need a bit more than that I can probably move a few things around..." Sho hummed, tapping the eraser of his pencil against the desk distractedly.
"I think twice a week should be okay," Jun nodded, reaching out and gingerly taking his schedule back. "I mean, if we have almost all of Sunday then there's not really any reason I should need something more than once in the middle of the week."
"True. But Tuesday isn't that far from Sunday and I'm just wondered that you'll get something on Wednesday and be stuck until the late weekend before you can really start working on it," Sho frowned, still looking intently at the mess of boxes and blocks of time, some cleanly printed and others hastily written in with pencil.
"You don't have to go out of your way, I know you're just doing Aiba a favor," Jun said, though Sho's expression of shock was enough to make him wonder if maybe he shouldn't have.
"...You mean I'm not getting paid?" Sho asked, blinking at Jun in disbelief.
All Jun could do was stare back. Pay? Well, okay, he had been planning to pay anyone he'd hired, but he hadn't really hired Sho. The guy had just appeared on his doorstep and was talking to him about schedules and physics and Jun was so very confused. The fact that Sho burst into laughter didn't help matters at all.
"I'm kidding," Sho shook his head, sitting back down with a wide grin. "Of course you can pay me if you'd like, but I don't really need it."
"That must be nice," Jun commented, though he realized immediately it was not exactly appropriate. Thankfully, all Sho did was laugh again and shrug.
"I work and do alright for myself. You're right that I'm doing Masaki a favor, but that doesn't mean I don't genuinely want to help," Sho hummed, nodding in agreement with his own statements and relaxing in his seat.
There it was again, Aiba's first name used so casually. Rather than get caught up on that detail, though, Jun frowned and turned to face Sho properly.
"Not that I don't appreciate it, but... Why?" Jun asked. He felt it was a legitimate question, all things considered.
"Hmm, I wonder?" Sho's head tilted to one side in thought and his arms crossed over his chest again. "Probably because everyone deserves a chance to succeed. Though it likely helps your case that my best friend has spent the last few years trying to make it through school to his dream, too. Aiba-chan's very sympathetic to your situation, and I can't help but be sympathetic towards him."
Jun's mouth opened but he had no idea what he was going to say. So many things had been included in that answer that felt like they needed to be addressed, but was at a loss for where to start. Jun was thankfully saved from having to stare at Sho like a mentally challenged goldfish for very long as the front door opened and Jun heard his mother.
"Jun-chan! Ah. Is Nino-chan here?" her voice drifted up from the ground floor and Jun stood and rushed to his door immediately.
Opening the door he was halfway out of it before remembering to turn back to Sho. "I'll be right back," he promised, giving a slight bow.
"Take your time. I'll try to make a new one of these, only neater," Sho waved him on, shifting to the desk chair and leaning over a clean piece of paper so that he could begin copying out the work-in-progress schedule.
Jun lingered only a moment more before finally heading downstairs to help his mother bring in groceries, trying to think of the best way to explain the strange man sitting in his bedroom without arousing any suspicion or worry.
Chapter 15: Raw Deal
After meeting up with Jun for lunch for the first time in ages, Nino finally starts to realize how isolated he's been since the start of school. His week does not improve after this realization.
WARNING: Potentially triggering situation/home environment. No violence or abuse, but read at your own risk.
"Ahhh, I'm so hungry!" Nino whined, resting his head on his hand as he folded over the table. The restaurant they'd dropped in on was very busy, packed to bursting with the afternoon rush. Even with the number of bodies squished in together, however, the air was rich with the scent of sizzling meat and cooking oils, which actually made Nino's stomach twist unpleasantly but he knew that at least half of his discomfort could be explained by the fact he hadn't eaten at all.
Across from him Jun snorted into his tea, causing Nino to shoot him a sideways glance.
"Now I know you're a pod-person replacement," Jun explained himself with a shrug.
"If I was a pod-person wouldn't it be more likely that I'd eat even less?" Nino asked, grinning in amusement.
"Not if you thought it was normal human behavior to express hunger. Your mistake was taking over the body of an unhealthy hermit who only barely resembles regular people when he stands to benefit from it," Jun answered.
"Ouch," Nino tsk'd. He wasn't really offended by Jun's accusation, however. "Well, assume that my mimicry is being employed because I'm trying to get you to pay for my food."
"Ah, welcome back, my friend," Jun grinned.
Nino chuckled before shifting in his seat so that he could face Jun properly. He was silent for a moment as he just looked at his friend and enjoyed the fact that they were finally in the same place at the same time for the same reason. It felt good! Though the longer he looked, the more he noticed that something was kind of off. He hadn't expected Jun to be bubbly or anything, but Nino also hadn't anticipated him looking so tired.
"How's your nudey art boyfriend?" Nino inquired conversationally, taking a sip of water.
"How's your lunchbox boyfriend?" Jun returned gamely.
"Touché," Nino conceded with a smirk. "But seriously, how've you been?"
Jun's face went through a complicated series of twitches before morphing into a grimace.
"That good?" Nino said, giving a sympathetic frown.
"Worse," Jun confessed, sighing as he dragged a hand through his hair. Resting his elbows on the table, Jun let himself sink into a slouch.
When Jun didn't expand on his complaint, Nino hesitated before approaching the subject. "Should I ask?"
Again, Jun's brow creased and he frowned deeply. "It's just... school stuff. It's stupid."
Nodding in understanding, Nino took another drink of water. Neither of them had ever been top of the class, but Jun had sometimes struggled more. He also usually voiced frustration with his struggles, though—unless he felt backed into a corner. While Nino's general policy was not to pry, he couldn't help being concerned.
"Math?" he guessed.
"Among other things," Jun said. "Like physics. And history. And English." Jun's face grew progressively brighter with each listed topic.
"Shit," Nino marveled. He didn't mean to let shock show on his face, not wanting Jun to feel any worse. Thankfully, he was pretty sure Jun was busy scowling at the bottom of his glass.
"Yeah," Jun answered. He paused as though he was going to say more, but then deflated with a sigh as he repeated himself, "Yeah."
They sat in silence, the sounds of other conversations throughout the restaurant unable to absorb the uncomfortable tension in the atmosphere over their table. Nino wasn't sure what he could do to try and help, or if his help would even be welcome. He was only passing English because of video games, which was a pastime Jun likely didn't have time for. Nino also wouldn't recommend it as an actual study habit. As for the other topics, Nino either wasn't taking them or else had no confidence that he'd be helpful in bringing Jun up to speed.
"Guess who lives in my neighborhood?" Nino said, making a blatant attempt at trying to change the topic. Sitting up in his seat, Jun gladly took the lifeline he was being thrown.
"Who?" he asked, folding his arms over his chest and leaning back in an attempt to ease his discomfort.
"Oh-chan," Nino said, though as the answer left his mouth he had the sudden thought that maybe he shouldn't have shared the information. That was kind of irrational though, right? It wasn't as though Ohno Satoshi's home address was a matter of national security.
Though the way Jun's eyes popped as he openly stared gave Nino reason for doubt.
Finally, Jun's brain seemed to process the information enough to respond. "You're just running into him all over the place, huh?"
"I guess now we know why," Nino laughed, shrugging as he turned to look up. Motion out of the corner of his eye had alerted him to their server coming, finally presenting them with food.
Nino took a happy sniff of his curry flavored ramen and thanking the server before she rushed off to the next table. Across from him, Jun arranged his own order of tonkatsu but still appeared distracted by what Nino had said.
"Ohno-san's a pretty interesting guy, huh?" Jun hummed, tapping his chopsticks lightly on the edge of the table before attempting to split them. He glared at them as the break was uneven, but took them in his right hand to use anyway.
"He's pretty cool, yeah," Nino nodded, though he was somewhat distracted by the matter of slurping up a sizable bite of his meal.
"He's also kind of scary, though," Jun remarked absently, dipping a strip of pork into the provided sauce.
Slurping up his most recent bite, Nino nearly choked as Jun's remark caused him to snort.
"Scary?" he gasped, grabbing a napkin to wipe a bit of broth off his chin. After getting through a light cough, Nino laughed at the very idea that Ohno was scary.
"I'm totally serious!" Jun tried to defend himself, though it was difficult to sound serious when Nino's giggling was infectious. "You get to see the sleepy Ohno-san! The one that's all quiet and nice and—"
"Is about as terrifying as a marshmallow," Nino interjected with a snort.
"Right," Jun nodded in agreement. "But that's just one side. There's the other Ohno-san, the choreographer Ohno-san. That's the one who's strict and really demanding, and every time you miss a step he gives you this look." Jun stopped his list to give an involuntary shudder, which only amused Nino more.
"It's not disappointment. Lots of people think disappointment is the worst thing, but Ohno-san doesn't look disappointed in you for messing up, he looks pissed. Don't laugh! It's not funny!" Despite his protest, Jun ended up joining Nino as he broke down into laughter once more.
Nino reached for his water as he tried to catch his breath, grinning all the while. Jun tried to further defend his point, but Nino didn't care enough to argue. He was too distracted by how good this felt. Their last lunch together had been incredibly brief, and while it had served as an emotional check-in, the end result had felt sort of awkward and sad. It was difficult to know that they were both struggling, but it was even worse to feel like there was nothing they could do to help one another (or themselves, even). Being able to laugh like this, and being able to get Jun to laugh just as hard, was an immense relief.
Lunch with Jun had been very good for Nino in many ways. It had helped him to feel connected to his friend again, it had let them both relax a little, they'd both gotten a chance to talk about things that they actually enjoyed; things that had absolutely nothing to do with school, or assignments, or the future. The entire afternoon had served as a great reminder to Nino what it was like to have a friend to commiserate with and talk to. It had also served to highlight the glaring and uncomfortable absence of any friends in his day-to-day life.
Nino could admit to having a lot of faults, but jealousy didn't tend to be one of them. Not that he was impervious to the emotion; he just generally didn't feel threatened by the majority of things that would make someone defensive in that way. So when he started to see more and more of Aiba Masaki at the lunch table that for years had been occupied almost exclusively by Jun and himself, Nino couldn't put a finger on why he had a problem with it. He actually liked Aiba! They got along well, he had a great sense of humor, and he was full of hilarious and embarrassing details about Jun's day that Nino otherwise wouldn't have been privy to. Which, now that he was thinking about it, Nino was pretty sure was actually part of the problem.
Nino had already accepted that they were both going to be busy this year. Jun seemed especially busy, being pulled back and forth between dance practice, voice lessons, and acting classes. Add to that regular school work and now tutoring, it was amazing that they'd managed to find time for lunch—nearly three weeks ago. And yet Jun seemed to have time for Aiba Masaki.
"So then Sho-chan comes home and shows me an invisible bruise on his side and tells me about how MatsuJun rushed in and kicked him out of the kitchen," Aiba finished reporting, giggling all the while.
"What was I supposed to do? How does a grown man fuck up something as simple as tea?" Jun defended himself, cheeks pink all the way back to his ears.
Rather than answer, Aiba clapped loudly as he laughed so hard he started to list to the side. Despite Jun's brow being creased with annoyance, Nino could see the laughter barely being restrained with a grin as he reached out to tug Aiba upright by his shirt sleeve again.
The entire exchange should have been great. Nino definitely saw the amusement in the situation; Jun trying to be a gracious host to an unexpected tutor (who was apparently also Aiba's roommate), only to lose his cool when his precious kitchen appliances became threatened. It was so very Jun and Nino wished he could have been there! He hadn't been, though. And while he knew that there was no reasonable way he could have or should have been involved, he couldn't help the hollow feeling of being out of the loop.
Doing his best not to let his unfounded melancholy show on his face, Nino forced a grin and a laugh.
"Yeah, J doesn't really understand boundaries very well," Nino attempted to contribute. He was starting to wonder if he should bother, though, because he was growing more uncomfortable by the minute being the odd man out.
"Oh shut up, you would have done the same!" Jun answered, though his response lacked any bite as he lost the fight to contain himself and gave a nasally giggle.
It was weird to see Jun so... Nino didn't even know how to describe it. He'd seen his friend happy in the past before, of course, but it had been a while since Jun had been this lively. Being that Nino cared about his friend and wanted him to be happy, Jun's behavior should have made him feel good. He should have been especially proud that Jun had managed to make a new friend, which had never been exactly easy. Instead, Nino was trying to ignore the niggling feeling that he was being replaced. Of course such a feeling was unfounded and ridiculous! Knowing he was being ridiculous wasn't exactly helpful, however. If anything trying to talk himself down from his jealousies only made him feel worse.
Not wanting his bad mood to taint the otherwise cheerful atmosphere, Nino started to prepare his things so he could leave. His attempts at being discreet, however, had apparently failed.
"Where're you going?" Jun asked as his attention was suddenly completely on Nino. While he cringed internally, Nino managed to keep his face impassive and he gave a shrug.
"I was going to head to the music wing to find a practice room for a nap," he answered with the first excuse that came to mind.
"Oh..." Jun said, and when Nino looked up he could see in Jun's face that his friend knew something was off.
"Too much Grand Theft Auto," Nino explained with a grin, flashing Jun and Aiba a pair of peace signs. "I've gotta catch some z's if I'm going to make it through math."
Jun didn't seem to believe him completely, but he didn't show any sign that he was about to call Nino out either.
"Sleep well, Nino-chan!" Aiba smiled brightly, waving to Nino from his place at Jun's side.
"I'll see you guys later," Nino managed to grin.
"See you," Jun answered, smiling at Nino and giving him a wave as well.
Nino picked up his guitar and hauled it along with him through the maze of tables and students. Once he was back in the main body of the school, however, he realized that he honestly had no idea where to go. His heart started to pound and face feel warm because it was starting to sink in how foolish and weird he'd been for just up and leaving the table. He couldn't exactly go back, though. That would have been even more awkward and embarrassing.
As his ears started to heat up in his agitation, Nino forced himself to keep staring straight ahead. He was acutely aware of the fact that to his right were the halls that would lead to the mirror-walled rooms for dance practice. He was also aware of the fact that he was pretty shitty company for anyone right now. Unconsciously clenching his jaw, Nino turned sharply to the left and marched purposefully toward the music wing.
Nino's mood did not improve as the day wore on. By the end he couldn't even focus on distracting himself with games, his DS sitting closed and silent on top of his desk as his knee bounced impatiently below. The moment the final bell rang, he shoved his belongings into his bags and rushed for the exit. The deluge of students around him only encouraged Nino to move more quickly, the imposing force of other humans causing his tension to spike. All he wanted to do was to leave and get some place where he could be alone.
Once he was on the train, earbuds tucked firmly in place, Nino's jitteriness began to abate. He scrolled through the music on his mp3-player, trying to find a tune or series of tunes that would help soothe his mind. While nothing he came across really hit the spot, the activity kept him occupied for the duration of his ride home and soon enough he was trekking up the short walk to his front door.
Afternoon sunlight peeked through the gaps of drawn shades, stretching long spindly fingers of gold across pristine hardwood and soft blue walls adorned with framed photos. Smiling faces peered out at Nino silently as he passed them on his way to the stairs. He'd passed them so many times that they'd grown strange in their familiarity, a collection of memories he should have felt something for but didn't.
The furnishings were well kept; all wood dusted and polished, and all pillows fluffed and plump. Silk flowers stood in a glass vase on an end table and near the sizeable television. The living room alone could have come straight out of a catalogue—it looked just about as lived in. It bore no resemblance to the rooms in several of the photos standing on shelves and hanging from walls. A house with floor mats and nondescript rugs, with hand-me-down tables and chairs that had been old before Nino had ever been born. The older the photos the less the home resembled its current state. The younger the faces, the less they reflected their current lives.
Climbing the stairs to his room, Nino closed the door against the emptiness and the silence behind him. Dropping his school bag on the floor by his desk, Nino was only slightly gentler with his guitar before flinging himself onto the bed. He didn't expect to sleep but he did hope that closing his eyes and tuning out the world would help him pull himself together. Rolling onto his back, Nino draped an arm over his eyes and took deep, slow breaths as he did his best to relax. Though he turned his music off, he left his earbuds in, more comfortable with the muffled sound of his own breathing than with the quiet.
Nino woke with a start when the front door slammed shut heavily under its own weight. His heart raced, painful and uncomfortable in his chest as his mind tried to catch up with his body. Through his door he could hear the echo of footsteps and voices, objects being discarded heavily on tables or counters. Although annoying, the sounds were dull enough that Nino was able to lie back against his pillow again, ready to give up on trying to be awake for just a little bit longer.
"Why is it that wherever I go I am surrounded by FILTH AND STUPIDITY?"
His father's voice spiking in volume would have been enough rouse Nino, but the crash of dishes being thrown into the metal kitchen sink made sure that he wouldn't be able to ignore the voices downstairs. Sitting up with a sigh, Nino pulled his earbuds out of his ear before rubbing his neck and looking at the shadowed walls of his bedroom mindlessly. There were no posters hanging, all of them having been taken down two years ago when he'd stapled empty egg cartons from wall to wall in an attempt to soundproof his room. Unfortunately he'd been all of 15 and hadn't really understood the physics of sound well enough to know that it was an essentially useless endeavor.
"Will you calm down?" He heard his mother say with barely veiled annoyance. He could see her in his mind's eye, donning her house apron after having spent all day in one for work.
"I will not 'calm down'! Do you have any idea how difficult it's going to be to find a new sous chef that's worth a damn?"
Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Nino fumbled about in his bedding in search of his MP3 player. Fishing it out of the sheets, Nino checked its battery as he stood, stretching with his arms up into the air. As he moved the few steps to turn on the lamp at his desk, the sound of softer, still tense voices drifted up through the floor, punctuated by the violent snap of cabinets being opened and closed with excessive force. Nino dropped himself down into his desk chair heavily, scratching at his neck with one hand while the other reached for the second-hand studio headphones with frayed foam earcups that sat atop his stereo with the other.
"Would you get out?"
Another slam as something heavy hit a counter. Any pretense of staying civil evaporated as Nino's mother raised her voice. "Yes! Get out! I need to make dinner, you are in my way. Go! Leave!"
There was a beat of silence charged with all of the atmospheric tension of an oncoming electrical storm. Nino picked stray hairs out of the foam headband of his headphones, settling the heavy set on his head right as the first crack of lightning hit.
"WHOSE KITCHEN DO YOU THI—"
While the bellowing dropped several decibels, Nino still turned on his stereo and cranked the volume. Normally he hated having it so loud, the insulation of the headphones making his ears ache after only a few minutes of listening. The way he figured it, though, anything was better than having to focus on his parents' verbal warfare. Closing his eyes, Nino breathed deeply as he focused on the melody and lyrics.
He'd gotten lucky that the track playing was something somewhat energetic, but it wasn't right for his mood. As with earlier, his attention drifted after only a minute or so of listening, his fingers tapping out a distracted rhythm on the edge of his desk as the conflict downstairs remained audible just beneath the music. The longer he tried the less he wanted anything to do with the song that was playing, or the one after it. The beat that had taken over his fingers (and spread to a hastily tapping foot), however, was a compelling enough alternative.
Nino turned his stereo off, unplugging the heavy connector before twisting in his chair to plug his headphones into the jack on his amp.
"What did you expect? That because you're chef, you're god? NO ONE WANTS TO WORK WITH YOU!"
The amp came to life with an electric click and an audible buzz. Adjusting the various nobs and dials, Nino pulled his acoustic-electric guitar from its stand. Bending his head over the neck, Nino found his pick and tested the tuning. Mouthing a silent countdown, Nino struck the first chord hard and loud, managing to distort his father's likely belligerent response.
The notes did not come seamlessly, each bar sharp and tight. Every few beats at the start there was a sour note, but Nino's hands kept moving. There was no polish, nothing pretty about the music he was making. His fingers maneuvered deftly along the frets, pulling an angry twang from the strings as the melody vibrated against his chest and set his heart racing. He could hear a beat in the music, the tune shifting rhythmically; jumping and writhing like an open flame, but with more force. It felt as though it had the weight of a person, moving light and quick with controlled twists and sharp pauses, but always, always in motion.
Nino's fingers began to tire, his hands hurting even as they moved faster and faster. He was losing the song; the chords running into one another as his tempo manage to jump the tracks. He stopped with a panicked jolt as a door down the hallway from him closed with a resounding SLAM! Realizing that his breathing was shallow and quick and his heart was thundering against his ribs, Nino dragged his headphones off and replaced his instrument on its stand. His ears were ringing, which probably should have hurt but didn't.
When the tininess faded to a subtle buzz, Nino could hear enough to know that the yelling was over. Able to read the tension in the house without even leaving his room, however, he could also tell that the fight was still ongoing. It took him a moment to gain his bearings enough to grab a coat from his closet and slip it on before quietly but rapidly descending the stairs. He didn't have to look around the corner to know that the person loudly forcing pots and pans about while water ran in the kitchen sink was probably his father. Not stopping to investigate, Nino slipped into his shoes and out the front door without a word.
Outside it was already dark and impressively chilly. Nino was grateful for the cold, though, breathing in several deep lungfuls of it in an attempt to combat his anxious heart. He walked briskly through the neighborhood streets, not so much confident in where he was going as he was ambivalent. After putting several blocks between himself and his home, the buzzing had eventually faded and he was able to hear normally again. His pace slowed and rather than continue to race through the night he began to meander down the abandoned streets. As he came around a wide corner lined with the occasional streetlamp he slowed to an inadvertent stop.
At first he had stopped just to look around and figure out where he'd ended up. Nino knew the neighborhood fairly well, but he hadn't been keeping track of which direction he'd been headed. As he searched for a familiar landmark his attention was drawn to a figure the moved across the street.
Ohno Satoshi had a fair sized bag of plastic recyclables in-hand as he walked to the end of his home's short driveway. Nino tensed momentarily, frozen as he resisted the urge to immediately turn back the way he'd come from. While there wasn't any logical reason for him to flee at first, his mind soon began filling in justification. The top of the list was that he didn't want to come off like a real stalker, especially not after how he'd teased Ohno. It had nothing to do with the fact that Nino wasn't sure he'd be able to keep all of the unpleasantness of his day to himself. Though as Ohno not only looked in his direction but then started to wave Nino figured that he didn't have much of a choice anymore.
Waving back, Nino gave a smile that was tight at first but softened as he crossed the street and was greeted by quiet, surprised laughter.
"Hi," Ohno grinned, placing one hand on his hip and seeming to forget the task (literally) at hand.
Nino had considered simply saying hello and then goodbye. It would have been easy enough to excuse himself and just go home; it had to be fairly late in the evening, after all. As soon as he'd come to a stop, however, he gave up on any such plan. It'd been thirty seconds and one word and this had already been the best part of his day.
Chapter 16: Working Hard
Jun's still struggling with school, but Aiba and Sho are each doing their best to help him in their own way.
Jun wasn't sure when he'd acquired enough sketchbooks to get confused by which book had which drawings in them. He'd started off with the main drawing pad on the material's list for figure drawing. Then he'd invested in a bit of newsprint for himself because he tended to mess up a lot and he didn't want to use all of the paper in the class just because he was a crummy artist. After that had been the sketch diary, which had also been on the supply list but was often times forgotten at home because he didn't need it for class. Then there was the private sketchbook, the one he kept tucked under his mattress when not in use and rarely ever looked at, if he could help it. The private sketchbook didn't even look remotely like his sketch diary, which the class occasionally had to bring in so the instructor could check that they'd actually been working on it. As such, Jun was not only horrified but confused when he'd reached into his bag to pull out the assigned drawings and found only his spiral-bound Book of Shame.
He'd thought about getting rid of it on more than one occasion, either by ripping up or burning the offending pages and praying to whatever gods existed in the heavens that no one ever found out what he'd done. Every time he went to do it, however, he'd managed to find some other activity to be distracted by. He hadn't even added to it in weeks, managing to keep himself and his deviant brain in check with other more important matters. All of which should have made it easier to dispose of, and yet it remained in his possession.
Getting to know Aiba better as a friend had only made the keeping of such a book more awkward. There would be moments when he'd smile, or he'd move and his loose sweater hung off of him just so, and Jun's chest tightened and his palms itched. He wasn't even sure why his palms itched, that was weird, but each time he was frozen for a moment as his body had a reaction he was unable to stop or control. Jun never thought explicitly of the images tucked away beneath his bed, but to have that outlet, just in case he needed it, became justified for that much longer.
Jun had just come to accept that his responses were because Aiba was an attractive guy, even objectively speaking. Anyone would have had those strange moments. It was impossible for Jun to think of a way that anyone could look at Aiba in good lighting for a quiet minute (clothed or unclothed) and not find him attractive. It didn't mean anything for him to find an attractive guy attractive! All it meant was that he wasn't blind.
Regardless of how he chose to console himself, however, Jun would have had a lot more explaining to do if anyone found out about this book. Shoving it violently into his bag, Jun closed it with a sharp jerk of the zipper, pulling so hard that one of the tabs actually slipped from his hand in his panic and he had to pick it up and try again.
"Zipper stuck?" Aiba asked and Jun's head snapped up. He stared silently at Aiba with wide eyes, a deer in the proverbial headlamps.
Once his heart began to beat again, Jun managed to finish closing his bag and sat up, shaking his head. Aiba laughed his high, squeaky giggle before dropping down to sit beside Jun on his wooden bench. Jun shifted automatically, pushing backpack as far away from Aiba as possible as he tried to make space for them both. Aiba didn't even seem to notice that Jun was trying to give him room as he leaned back casually, only a hand's breadth between them. A figure of speech Jun had never understood in a literal sense until he became acutely aware of the fact that he could feel Aiba's little finger resting against his hip.
"Aiba-chan..." Jun groaned in exasperation, rubbing his face tiredly.
"Hm? Oh!" Aiba closed his legs, making sure to keep his knees touching. "Sorry," he said, though Jun was pretty sure the way he giggled was completely unapologetic.
Jun didn't realize he was waiting for Aiba to say something until he didn't. Instead, Aiba just continued to sit, and to smile, and to give Jun all of his attention for reasons Jun was completely unable to fathom.
"What?" Jun finally asked, giving a nervous laugh of his own and rubbing his neck. Hopefully it wasn't starting to turn red.
"What?" Aiba repeated, his shoulders shaking with laughter.
"You're, like, staring at me," Jun said and turned to face Aiba a little better. It was a difficult position to maneuver without having their legs touch.
Aiba's eyes widened and he sat up with a laugh. "Ah, really? I'm sorry!" he ducked his head and waved a hand apologetically. Jun was so busy trying to look casual himself that he didn't see the way his companion's face turned vaguely pink.
Jun began to open his mouth to try his hand at small talk, but was stopped midway when Aiba addressed him in a curiously serious tone.
"Hey, MatsuJun..." he said, taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment. Jun thought he may have actually forgotten what he was going to say, but then Aiba forged ahead at breakneck speed.
"I'm kind of trying not to ask if you're feeling any better, because I know that when I'm feeling down I kind of hate having to answer that question if I'm not better yet. Like, I feel obligated to show people that I'm doing better, even if I'm not. And I know things are really hard right now and a few tutoring sessions probably haven't made everything okay yet, but you should know that if you're not okay, that's okay."
Jun blinked in utter confusion. Whereas earlier he'd missed the slight change in Aiba's coloring, now it was kind of hard not to notice that he'd gone rather red in the face; which in truth seemed a fair reaction considering the involuntary-sounding word vomit that had just occurred. Despite the fact that it had come out completely awkwardly, however, Jun was more taken aback by the compassionate words he'd just been offered than by their delivery.
"I—Yeah. Yeah, thanks," he said, finally managing to reconnect his brain to his mouth.
Aiba grinned and shook his head. He may have had more to say but the heavy double doors to the studio opened at that moment as the first of the wandering students began to return from break. Aiba bid Jun a brief goodbye and gave him a small wave as he moved back to the dais in the center of the room.
While he was sure Aiba's goal was to be comforting, Jun couldn't help feeling awful. Grabbing his backpack, Jun guiltily stuffed it under his bench and tried not to think about how he could possibly reconcile having those drawings while being friends with such a genuinely good guy.
Managing to survive class with only a minimal amount of squirming, Jun breathed a deep sigh. As Aiba got dressed behind his screen and students began filing out the door, Jun moved sluggishly as he started to put his belongings away. Far from wanting to put renewed effort into his studies, Jun was struggling with the urge to just go home and sleep all day. Knowing that hiding from his problems wasn't about to make them go away, however, he instead elected to scroll through his phone in an attempt to distract himself from making plans for escape.
Expecting to find nothing of interest, Jun was understandably surprised when Sakurai Sho's name came up in his messages. Opening the mail, Jun's brow creased as he read the message intently.
"What's up?" Aiba asked, bending over at the waist and accidentally knocking his head into Jun's in an attempt to look at the phone screen.
"Ow! Watch it!" Jun growled, reaching out on instinct and giving Aiba a smack on the head. He had a moment of dread and instant regret for the action, but when Aiba only seemed to laugh and rub the injured spot, Jun figured he was fine.
"Sorry, sorry!" Aiba said, hissing a bit as he scratched long fingers through his hair in agitation. Jun turned his attention quickly back to his phone when his brain started to interpret the sight as inexplicably attractive, not feeling in the mood to pretend he wasn't looking.
"Your roommate messaged me," Jun said, holding out his phone for Aiba's inspection.
"Eh? Sho-chan?" Aiba asked as he accepted the phone. As Aiba's eyes scanned from one side to the other quickly, Jun flipped his class sketch pad shut and continued to focus on not staring at his friend.
"He says he was going to pick you up for lunch anyway and figured that we could do a tutoring session as well," Jun summarized, grunting as he stood and gave his back a pop before picking up his bags.
Aiba nodded as what he read confirmed what Jun said, grinning as he handed the cell phone back to its owner.
"That's great! It sounds like a good use of time," Aiba said, either oblivious to or intently ignoring Jun's scowl.
"Except that I can't leave campus for lunch. You can leave whenever you like, though," Jun pointed out as they started on their way out the door.
Jun wasn't sure how to feel about that. He honestly didn't want to keep Aiba from lunch with his friend. He also tended to look forward to lunch with Aiba himself, though. Aside from the selfish nature of his internal debate over whom Aiba should spend his time with (when honestly it was up to no one but Aiba to decide), Jun was also aware of the fact that he shouldn't be turning down chances for more help. He was pretty sure the reason Sakurai-kun was offering extra help was because Jun had been consistently flubbing the practice exams he'd been making.
"Sho-chan could join us here though, right?" Aiba asked, distractedly patting at his pockets before rummaging around in his bag to pull out his own vibrating phone. "Hello?"
"I guess..." Jun sighed noncommittally, slowing to a stop as Aiba put his phone to his ear.
"Ah! Sho-chan!" Aiba said brightly before turning to Jun and whispering in the loudest manner possible, "It's Sho-chan!"
Jun actually rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest and resisting the urge to give Aiba another smack.
"We were just talking about you," Aiba said, shifting his weight as he ran his free hand through his hair again. Jun really wished he'd stop doing that.
"Really?" Aiba asked, pulling his phone away from his face to look at the screen. All it showed was the call in progress, of course, before Aiba replaced the phone to his ear. "I didn't see it. MatsuJun saw the one you sent him, though! Yeah. I think it's a great idea, but MatsuJun said he's not allowed to leave the school during the school day. Right. Right? That's what I said! I don't think there's any rule against it."
Aiba paused, and while Jun couldn't make out the words coming through the phone, the tone he could make out from the muffled voice sounded hesitant.
"Don't worry about it! It'll be fine, it'll be fine, it'll be fine! Just come to the entrance near the..." Aiba twisted about in confusion, turning himself in a full circle and then around the other way again before coming to a stop. Jun finally gave a soft laugh at the action, his shoulders relaxing as he took a deep breath. Only Aiba could get lost in a space of three square feet.
"The huge metal statue that looks like... I don't know, a thing. Like a twisted hallow raindrop. You should know it when you see it!"
Jun waited for Aiba to close the call before asking, "Is he here already then?"
"I forgot to ask," Aiba giggled with a shrug.
"How do you ever get anything done in life?" Jun said, but though his tone was admonishing, his lips had started to tug into a grin.
"I dunno. Life just kind of works itself out, you know? Smile!"
Before Jun could ask what he was supposed to smile about he heard the digital sound of a camera shutter as Aiba snapped a photo of him.
"Stupid," Jun snorted, giving Aiba's arm a gentle shove as he marched past the tall boy and towards the double doors Aiba'd instructed Sakurai-kun to meet them at.
"I don't get it," Jun said for what felt like the hundredth time. It had been embarrassing to admit at first, but now it was just frustrating.
"I don't understand. You got the answer right," Sho said, frowning at Jun's notes. Jun wished he could point out the part that he wasn't getting, but that would have involved the entire page.
"I know, but I don't know how I got it right. How would I get it right again?" Jun tried to explain in frustration.
For once, Sho seemed to be just as confused as Jun. Which probably shouldn't have been comforting, but it kind of was. Jun appreciated to have someone knowledgeable helping him along through various subjects, but it was also nice to know someone who was as outwardly perfect as Sakurai Sho could also be confused. It made Jun feel a little bit less like a loser, which was nice; even if it did mean that he'd spent the last three-fourths of his lunch hour trying to figure out how to explain his complete failure to understand math.
"What's giving you the most trouble?" Sho asked, pushing Jun's notebook back to him.
Taking a deep breath, Jun leaned forward and scanned the page.
"This, right here! 'Critical value z'. What the fuck is this?" Jun asked, tapping at the element in his notes that he'd been unable to wrap his mind around.
"It's how far away the points for your interval are from the mean. See, you even have it drawn here!" Sho explained and looked up at Jun hopefully.
Jun simply stared back.
"I don't get it," he repeated flatly, unsure what else he could possibly say to get the point across.
From his other side, Jun heard Aiba shift but was unable to move before the boy's head was practically resting on his shoulder. Jun tensed and resisted the urge to turn his head, aware that something unfortunately would likely happen (like sticking his nose in Aiba's eye, or something).
"What math are you in again?" Aiba asked as his nose twitched like it had an itch.
"Statistics," Jun sighed and did his best to scoot the half an inch away from Aiba he still had on the bench before he was in danger of being inappropriately close to his tutor's lap.
"It looks complicated," Aiba hummed sympathetically. "I thought you were a theater major, though. Why're you taking such complicated math?"
Jun rubbed at his face sullenly with both hands and counted backwards from 10 to prevent homicidal rage from taking over.
"Someone told me it'd be easy because it wasn't 'real math'," Jun said.
Being fair, he couldn't pin this one on Nino completely. Jun had needed one last math class and had been too lazy to look into what, exactly, statistics entailed. All he knew was that it wasn't calculus, which had been a good enough sale pitch for Jun. Unfortunately, he was starting to think he'd have been better off attempting differential equations than wading through the weirdness and manipulations that were statistics, but the ship had already sailed on that matter.
Finally dropping his hands, Jun took another look at his notes and tried to figure out what it was that he was having trouble with. Sho was trying to help him, Jun knew he was, and despite any knee-jerk resentment he'd had Jun honestly did appreciate the help.
"I don't understand where this value comes from," Jun said, pointing at the section of his notes that listed a percentage and then a series of numbers.
Sho looked at the notes again, brow creased thoroughly. As he listened to Jun's complaint, however, his face lit up in realization.
"Okay, wait, give me your calculator," Sho said, holding out his hand for the device. He had to wait a moment for Jun to retrieve it, pulling out almost every single item in his backpack before finally producing the calculator. Putting it down between them, Sho began punching numbers. Jun leaned forward to observe, and Aiba followed over his shoulder curiously.
"You have to use Inverse Normal, and you have to go to the next percentage point up when you're inputting it. So if you're looking for 95% confidence, you have to input 0.975 because you have to take the value of one tail and add it onto your total to get the right critical value," Sho explained, looking to Jun immediately to see if he understood.
To Jun's complete amazement, he kind of did.
He was silent for a few more moments before groaning loudly.
"THAT'S SO EASY! Why couldn't anyone just explain that to me before?" Jun practically whined. Despite the hemming and hawing, however, he felt the tension that had been building in his shoulders release and he slumped against the table tiredly. Skimming over his notes one last time with this new understanding, Jun nodded.
"I get it now."
"YAY!" Aiba cheered, hugging Jun around the shoulders tightly before pulling back again just so he could pat Jun on the back.
Sho looked over Jun's head at his roommate in a manner that could only be considered warning. While Aiba's boisterous affection had taken him off guard (as had the distracting detail that Aiba apparently bathed with something peach-scented—a detail Jun honestly did not need in his life right now), Jun couldn't say that it was really over the line. It was strange to see Sho acting in a manner that seemed protective of him, though. Jun couldn't help the feeling of gratitude that started to grow for the gesture, however small and random.
Jun was ready to relax and enjoy the rest of lunch (and maybe even eat something, which he'd mostly neglected to do) when the bell ran overhead. This time he held back his frustrated sigh, instead electing to give Sho a beleaguered smile of thanks. Sho returned it with a sympathetic smile and a pair of thumbs up, turning to collect his own papers as Jun started to stuff his scattered belongings back into his bag.
Twisting around on the table bench, Jun managed to extract himself from between Aiba and Sho without falling on his ass. Giving them both a wave, Jun was sad to be leaving the pair but felt better about his prospects heading into his next class.
"I'll talk to you later. Thanks again, Sakurai-kun. See you later, Aiba-kun," Jun said and made his way back into the halls.
It was lucky that he hadn't felt the need to rush. If he had, he likely would have slipped into the foot traffic between classes and he wouldn't have been able to hear Aiba call him from the quad doorway.
"MatsuJun!" Aiba said, wheezing slightly as he trotted over to Jun.
"You okay?" Jun asked, frowning as he reached out to tug Aiba further out of the way of stampeding students by the elbow.
"Fine," Aiba shook his head, and though he sounded a little breathless it didn't seem like an emergency. "You forgot your notebook, though."
"Oh, thank—" Jun froze mid-sentence as he accepted a black covered, spiral bound sketchbook from Aiba. His heart pounded so fast Jun honestly thought it might explode, but the casual way Aiba had given it to him had to mean that he hadn't looked inside. "Thanks," Jun tried again, terror still coursing through his veins and heat rising along his neck.
"No problem," Aiba said. Jun had hoped that'd be it, the end of the exchange so that he could flee, but Aiba showed no sign of disengaging. In fact, he was sucking on his lips as though he was trying to decide whether or not to say whatever it was that was rolling around in his head.
"What is it?" Jun asked, his panic driving him to impatience.
Aiba blinked, giving a bashful grin as though he only just realized he'd been staring. Jun tried to focus on the conversation they were half having and not the way Aiba's hair hung in his face in a way that perfectly accentuated every angle and curve.
"I just wanted to say good luck! I know exams aren't for a while, but I know you can do it! You're smart and you work hard. So... Keep it up! I'm rooting for you, MatsuJun," Aiba finally managed to say as he gave Jun a blinding smile.
They parted ways then, but Jun remained rooted in spot for several moments afterward. That was the second time today that Aiba had taken the time to tell him something serious, and both times it had been to offer support. Jun was used to getting told 'good luck!' and he was used to working hard to get the best results he was capable of achieving. What he wasn't used to was the sincerity. He was sure that everyone else who said supportive things to him meant it, but he couldn't think of anyone else who ever made sure he heard their words so earnestly.
Looking at the sketchbook in his hands, Jun's stomach gave a painful twist. Gripping it tightly, he made for the nearest trash can he knew of before slamming it down into the garbage. Turning on his heel sharply, Jun marched down the hall to his math class, where he intended to do his best. Better, if he could manage it.
Chapter 17: Sweet Talker
Nino and Ohno have fallen into the habit of riding the train home together.
As Nino focused intently at the screens of his DS, his eyes flit from one scene to the other. He chewed on his bottom lip absently as he did quick calculations based on menu options, attempting to form a strategy to defeat the current boss. Out of the corner of his eye a shadow moved, and in response Nino leaned slightly to his left so that whoever was moving could do so without interrupting his concentration. Satisfied that he'd done his part to be as unobtrusive as possible, Nino refocused his attention on the matter at hand. To his right another shadow moved, closer this time, until suddenly he felt a distinct weight on his shoulder.
"What are you doing?" Nino demanded as he pulled out an earbud to hear the response.
"Watching," Ohno said, apparently immune to Nino's annoyance. He hadn't even looked up from Nino's DS to answer, a behavior that had Nino half grinning even as he tried to maintain a scowl.
"Do you like watching, Ohno-san? Is that what turns you on?" Nino snorted but shifted so that his DS was more easily visible between the pair of them. He didn't mind that Ohno didn't bother removing his head from his shoulder.
Ohno answered with a distracted hum and Nino was forced to pause his game just so he could free a hand to cover his laughter. Around them bodies swayed on the train, but aside from low levels of talk and the scrape of wheels on the tracks there wasn't much sound. Nino was perfectly comfortable not having anyone's attention, so he tried to get ahold of himself.
"Have you played this before?" Nino asked as he resumed play, putting into motion the series of actions he'd decided on prior to interruption. On the screen a character pulled out a sword before being picked up by a party member and spun around for a special combo attack.
"No, I don't really play. Except for the Wii; I'm pretty good at bowling," Ohno said, nodding to himself as though in agreement with his own statement, his chin digging into Nino’s shoulder lightly with the motion.
"Bowling, huh?" Nino repeated, though he could admit that his investment in conversation waned for a moment as the boss monster used a breath weapon that nearly killed his entire party and left every member with rather unpleasant status ailments.
"We have family tournaments sometimes. My mother usually wins. Unless it's Wii bowling," Ohno explained. The fact that Ohno was answering Nino's half-conversation so sincerely only made him give another quiet laugh though his nose.
"You'll have to show me sometime," Nino said as he looked up at the sign for the stop. Seeing that it was their exit, Nino paused and closed his game, pocketing the DS before queuing up at the door with Ohno on his heels.
Walking home together hadn't been something they'd agreed upon any more than they'd agreed to meeting most days for lunch. It was just something that had kind of happened. Since Ohno didn't seem to be going out of his way, and Nino certainly wasn't going out of his, he hadn't seen any reason to question it.
Nino blinked as the afternoon sunlight hit his eyes, squinting as he moved out of the direct line of foot traffic so that other commuters could move around him. Beside him, Ohno gave a shiver and pulled up the insular padding of a scarf from just under the collar of his coat as they stepped out of the train station and onto the street.
As they walked their hunched shoulders occasionally bumped amiably, setting a rhythm as they fell into step with one another. A comfortable silence settled between them as they walked which was maintained until they came to a stop to wait for a crossing signal and Ohno became distracted.
"Ahh," he sighed longingly as he leaned towards the warm scent of a nearby noodle stand. "I'm hungry!"
"Are you always hungry?" Nino laughed, not taking his eyes from the light across the street.
"Only when my stomach is empty," Ohno answered, turning back to Nino. When Nino turned his head he was faced with a shockingly effective pout. A full grown man should not have been able to make that face!
"Why are you looking at me like that? What do you expect me to do about it?!" Nino demanded, giving a nervous laugh as he felt his ears grow warm under Ohno's sad-faced gaze.
"Nothing, I guess," Ohno said, but his pout remained as he turned back to the light.
"Am I supposed to magically produce treats from my pockets for you like you're a dog?" Nino asked, moving with the crowd as their light finally turned.
"You could! I'd be a very good dog for Nino-chan," Ohno answered.
Nino couldn't help laughing loudly this time, his head tilting back with the force of it.
"Maybe. You'd probably be a pretty lazy dog, though," Nino pointed out and turned to poke Ohno in the stomach. Ohno's winter coat was puffy enough that Nino was pretty sure the man hadn't even felt it, but Ohno grunted and covered the spot with his hand all the same.
"Lazy dogs can be good dogs. They can be the best dogs! A lazy dog wouldn't wake you up super early to make you take him out to pee," Ohno pointed out.
Nino had to admit that was pretty fair argument.
"But dogs are so expensive! Even the lazy ones. Especially the lazy ones, even!" Nino sighed loudly.
"Why especially the lazy ones?" Ohno demanded with an offended pout.
"Because the only thing that motivates a lazy dog is a bed and food. The bed is one-time expense, but food is something you have to keep buying more and more and more of," Nino explained as they veered to the left at the T in the street where they usually separated, walking with Ohno towards the dance instructor's house.
"I'd buy Nino food if he was my lazy dog," Ohno said, and the fact that his sullenness had yet to lift only had Nino grinning. It shouldn't have been cute, but it was honestly adorable. Especially with the way Ohno tended to mumble.
"I'll keep that in mind," Nino said as his walking slowed until he and Ohno were meandering down the street. Eventually they came to a stop before the gate of Ohno's family home and Nino turned to face his companion.
Ohno was smiling in his usual non-specific, distracted manner and Nino had to suck on his own lips to keep from laughing. He was starting to learn that Ohno did this sometimes, and it never ceased to be funny. Sometimes it didn't matter, because there was no reason for them to say anything to one another at all. At other times, however, social convention would usually have dictated that one or the other say something. As a result, Nino had begun to play a game with himself where he'd try to wait out his friend's obliviousness. Today, however, it seemed that he wasn't going to have to wait very long.
"Do you like ramen?" Ohno asked.
Nino finally let go of the giggles he'd been holding back, shaking his head at the randomness of the question. He liked that, though. He liked that Ohno was off-beat and said things without seeming to really care about whether or not they were on-topic.
"Sure. Though I usually can't finish an entire bowl before it gets cold," Nino said, patting his stomach absently.
"I could finish your bowl," Ohno offered generously and Nino gave another laugh.
"I'm sure you could."
Ohno was silent for a moment after Nino's response, and Nino couldn't help being fascinated. Ohno's slanted brows knit and he was actually chewing on the corner of his mouth. Before Nino could break the obvious (and rather strange) tension, Ohno picked up a hand and scratched the side of his nose, looking to the empty sidewalk across the street.
"There's a really good little shop not far from the station. We should go sometime, I think you'd like it," Ohno said and finally turned back to Nino.
A breeze swept up the street, causing Nino to shiver before he could respond. He figured it was likely the wind that had Ohno's cheeks so pink, too, which made him feel a little guilty for keeping his friend outside.
"So long as you're buying," Nino nodded, holding his breath unconsciously when Ohno's face lit up. That was not the reaction he was used to getting when he told someone they were going to be footing the bill for his eating.
"I probably can't tonight, though," he said, fishing his phone out of his pocket. If his parents weren't home now then they'd be getting home soon. "Maybe later?"
"Sure," Ohno nodded, not seeming at all disappointed.
"I've got to go," Nino said and ducked his head apologetically. "I'll see you tomorrow, Oh-chan."
"Right! Tomorrow!" Ohno nodded enthusiastically. As he began to turn, however, Nino caught a shift in Ohno's expression out of the corner of his eye. As such he wasn't exactly shocked when Ohno reached out and tugged on his elbow.
"Can we exchange numbers?" he asked.
Nino blinked, momentarily distracted by the fact that he could feel the warmth of Ohno's hand even through the fabric of his jacket and sweater underneath. Although as he thought about it Nino realized that it was probably impossible, unless Ohno's hands were on fire. He was likely just imagining the warmth, and he also realized that he was taking an uncomfortably long amount of time to answer such a simple question.
"Yeah. Yeah, of course," Nino nodded and turned back. Opening the address book in his phone, Nino simply handed the device over to Ohno to fill in his own information.
The way Ohno's lips moved in a silent recitation of every number and syllable he tapped out on the small keys was such a small, inconsequential thing. Even so, Nino couldn't help watching, fascinated by the fact that a grown person could be so ridiculously cute without even trying.
"Man, are you even aware of how adorable you are?" Nino laughed to himself. Ohno's expression of shock only earned another giggle as Nino shook his head and accepted his phone back.
"W-what?" Ohno finally asked, his shoulders shaking in a near silent laugh.
Shaking his head, Nino waved a hand.
"Never mind," he said. When Ohno continued to look at him expectantly, however, Nino found his manners waning. "It's just... your face. You make the best expressions, like when you're thinking really hard about something. But the things that it looks like you're thinking hard about are simple things, like your phone number or food."
Ohno seemed thoughtful a moment before nodding.
"Both are important!" he said by way of explanation. Nino waited for further elaboration but Ohno remained quiet.
Laughing loudly in spite of himself, Nino’s eyes were still crinkled with a grin as he shook his head and slowly began to drift away from Ohno on the sidewalk.
"See you later, Oh-chan!" Nino said again, giving mock salute before finally turning to head home.
Ohno remained at the end of his driveway and watched Nino until his figure disappeared around the twisting curve of the street ahead, a grin spreading widely across his face.
With earbuds firmly in place, Nino was draped across his bed haphazardly as his thumbs tapped on the buttons of his DS. His mouth had drifted open, lips parted just slightly as the amount of focus he put into his game left the rest of his body slack. He’d finally reached a new section of a game he hadn’t yet beaten, curious about the story developments as they unfolded. It was also a timely distraction as his parents voices carried through the house in an angry din once again. Today’s fight wasn’t as bad as others (or at the very least it wasn’t as loud), but Nino was at a point where he just wished he didn’t have to hear it all the time.
Just as Nino was released from a series of cut-scenes and he guided his character through a door, his entire body tensed and he gave a quick jump. Snapped out of his reverie, Nino pulled an earbud from his head and looked around in confusion for the disturbance. His phone buzzed again, rattling violently against the plywood nightstand he’d set it on. Breathing out slowly, Nino gave himself a shake to loosen the sudden tension before picking up his phone and opening it to the main screen.
1 New Message
Pursing his lips against a sarcastic retort to an inanimate object, Nino opened the new file and scanned its contents. As he read it, Nino relaxed against his pillows again, smirking as he pressed his tongue to the corner of his mouth.
Make it home safe?
Nino lived maybe ten blocks from Ohno—probably less, to be honest. The entire way was through residential buildings and small market places. It wasn’t exactly rife with danger, so to ask if he’d made it home safe Nino assumed had to be a joke. Hitting the reply button on his phone, Nino let his DS rest on his chest as he began to type with both hands.
I’ve been kidnapped, actually.
Pressing send, Nino dropped his phone onto the bed beside him before picking up his DS again. He’d only just started exploring the new map area when a buzzing sensation tickled his side. Laying his open DS on his chest again, Nino picked up his phone.
Subject: Re: Re:
Oh no! Should I come rescue
Nino snorted. He considered the offer for a moment, trying to formulate a good response.
Subject: Re: Re: Re:
You got ransom money?
This time Nino held onto his phone and waited, only barely registering the fact that shouting had progressed to the slamming of drawers and doors between unintelligible curses downstairs. He didn’t normally use text messages as a primary form of communication, enjoying talking to people face to face much more. Occasionally, however, texting was a fun way to reach out to another person. It certainly had the convenience of reaching anyone, anywhere (so long as they had their phone on them). Nino’s phone buzzed his hand and the ‘new message’ notification had barely loaded on his screen before he was opening the inbox.
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re:
All my money is saved for ramen.
You’d let me die over
Subject: Re: Stingy!
I don’t think they’ll kill
you. They’re nice enough to
let you have a phone.
You don’t know that! Maybe
I stole a phone from a kid-
Subject: Re: Cruel
Did you steal the phone?
Subject: Re: Re: Cruel
We’re getting off topic...
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Cr...
I’m sorry, I just can’t
risk it. I need to save my
ramen money for a special
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re:...
How am I supposed to
join you for a special ra-
men dinner if I’m kidn-
Nino grinned at his phone, feeling that his superior logic had to resonate with Ohno. Assuming, of course, Ohno had been talking about them getting ramen together. Which he may not have been, Nino now realized. Ohno liked food, and maybe he went and got ramen by himself a lot. Or maybe he went out with members of Tempest, like that Toma guy, and had business dinners or drinks with coworkers. It was entirely possible that the ‘special ramen dinner’ had nothing to do with Nino at all.
Nino’s face was warm but he chose to ignore it. They’d been talking about getting a ramen dinner before they’d parted. Even if that wasn’t what Ohno had meant, Nino could hardly be blamed for making the assumption, could he? Besides, this was all in good fun, all hypothetical.
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re:...
Wait, that’s not...
Nino could just see Ohno’s expression in his mind. Brows knit, face screwed up in concentration, bottom lip jut out in protest against the cognitive dissonance. In spite of himself, Nino laughed into his chest.
Subject: The worst
You’d be a terrible hero.
The sound of doors shutting heavily attracted Nino’s attention from his phone momentarily. He realized that his house was quiet now, but not the peaceful sort of quiet. At least his parents were done yelling.
His phone buzzed.
Subject: Re: The worst
I offered to come rescue you!
That has to count for some-
Nino opened up the reply dialogue, prepared at first to be snarky. Then he thought about the question for a moment. Did an offer to come to the rescue count for anything, if it was sincere? Lots of people asked if there was anything they could do to help, but the offer to take a specific action was pretty rare. As he thought about it more, however, Nino came to the conclusion that people could say tons of things without following through on any of them. Simply making an offer wasn’t enough, especially not when qualifying someone as a ‘hero’.
Subject: Re: Re: The wor...
Actions speak louder than
Ohno’s response was so fast, Nino wondered if he’d even waited to read Nino’s before typing it out.
Subject: Hero ON!
Where are you? I’ll come
save you right now!
Nino stared at his phone, eyes bulging slightly. It was hilarious how aggressive the offer for help suddenly was, especially considering Ohno’s normally sleepy demeanor. Clearly he’d hit a nerve of some kind (or else Ohno was in a very perky, playful mood). Before Nino could send a response his phone buzzed in his hand again.
Opening the file, Nino burst into giggles as Ohno’s face appeared on his screen with one of the strangest expressions he’d ever seen. It looked as though Ohno was trying to be Very Serious™, but couldn’t quite figure out what to do with his eyebrows. Or mouth. The entire thing was an absurd caricature of a video game character profile, and Nino loved it.
You should totally come.
Maybe I can convince the
kidnappers to take you
in my place.
That sounds more like
you rescuing yourself
Subject: Re: ??
Well, you know what they
say: if you want some-
thing done right you gotta
do it yourself.
No one ever lets me play
Subject: Re: :(
You’re too sweet and
fluffy to be a hero.
Subject: Re: Re: :(
I’m not fluffy! I’m rock
Subject: Re: Re: :(
WAIT, THAT CAME
Nino’s phone slipped out of his hand and onto his chest, thumping him in the sternum and knocking aside his DS as his body shook with laughter. He rubbed his chest where his phone had hit him, coughing slightly as he tried to sit up and retrieve his electronics from where they’d fallen on his bed. He closed up his DS and set it aside safely before picking up his phone to respond.
Normally the people Nino talked with only had a few things to say via text. It was a utilitarian method of communication, used to convey time and location or to ask short, simple questions. Conversations were exceedingly rare, and when they took place they tended to pitter out as one or both parties became occupied with something other than their phone. Ohno, however, remained completely engaging. Whenever Nino would tease him or joke, Ohno would play along perfectly. It felt like putting on an improvised skit, but it was even better because they were the only audience members and so they were the only ones who ever had to get the jokes.
Talking about absolutely nothing at all was refreshing. Ohno didn’t ever try to cycle them back around to an ‘actual’ conversation. If he’d messaged Nino initially with a topic in mind, he gave no indication. They continued to argue about the best method of liberating Nino from captivity, with Ohno insisting that he could be of help and Nino remaining playfully skeptical. In the end Ohno accused him of staging his own kidnapping, at which point Nino revealed himself to be a pirate simply trying to lure Ohno out for his money. Rather than feign betrayal or outrage, Ohno simply said he was glad Nino wasn’t in any real danger, then.
Nino had turned onto his side, curled up around his phone in the dark of his bedroom. He’d been stuck on how to respond to that, both amused by the surprise and touched again by what felt like sincerity. In the end, however, Nino fell asleep with the reply dialogue still open.
Chapter 18: This is the Birthday Song
Winter exams have finally arrived and Jun puts in every effort to do his best. During the winter holiday break from classes, he runs into Aiba while doing some last minute shopping and is swept up in an impromptu karaoke party which eventually dwindles in attendance to only Aiba and Jun left in the booth at the end of the evening.
NOTICE!!: If you previously read chapter 17 here on AO3, please go back and read it again! Somehow, a large portion of the text message conversation got cut out of the original post and it has since been edited.
WARNINGS: This chapter contains NC17 content. There is alcohol use, m/m sexual contact, questionable/dubious consent, and underage sexual partners (ages 19/20 and 17 respectively). It’s not as squicky as the warnings make it sound, but proceed at your own risk.
Chewing at the corner of his mouth tightly, Jun does his best to remember to breathe as his eyes burn a hole into the paper sitting on his desk. He had his arms crossed over his chest tightly, fingers tapping against one elbow as he tried to give himself an outlet and not fidget. Jun tried not to flinch as Sho’s red correction pen made a sharp mark on the page, his mind instantly running through the questions he hadn’t been confident on and wondering which one it was, which one had gone wrong. For as stressful as getting a failing grade back from a teacher was, it was infinitely more stressful watching the grading process because Jun had to restrain the urge to explain himself. As if there was some kind of way he could talk himself out of a wrong answer to a math question.
Jun practically jumped to the edge of his seat as Sho finally sat back. He flipped through the packet one more time, skimming to make sure he hadn’t missed anything before finally turning to Jun with the same completely unreadable, kind smile he did at the end of every grading session.
“You’re getting much better,” Sho said as he handed over the practice test. Jun couldn’t help feeling slightly patronized as he saw his score.
Resisting the urge to crumple the paper in his hands, Jun simply dropped it back on his desk before deflating with a sigh and running his hands through his hair. Sho gave him a sympathetic frown before picking up the test and leaning in, inviting Jun to examine it with him.
“Look, you’ve got the basic concepts down just fine. Most of your mistakes were algebra related, and I think you only made them because you were stressed out,” Sho explained as he pointed to areas he’d underlined in red.
Damn right, I am. Jun thought bitterly. Keeping it to himself, however, he finally sat up and tried to focus on what Sho was telling him. As he examined the page he could see what Sho was talking about. Stupid mistakes where he’d failed to carry a negative sign, or did his addition or subtraction wrong during one step which tripped him up for the entire rest of the equation. He couldn’t help scowling at his flaws in disgust.
“So how do I not be so stressed out?” he asked, finally looking up at Sho. He couldn’t help letting some of the bitterness seep into his tone.
“I know it’s hard,” Sho nodded. “You should see me during exams. My freshman year at university I had to cut my hair between terms because I’d literally pulled so much out.” He reached up a hand and tugged at his hair to demonstrate, giving a laugh.
Jun couldn’t help being skeptical. “What is there for you to be stressed about? You’re like an encyclopedia, you know everything.”
“Hardly,” Sho snorted, unfazed by Jun’s moping. “I still get stressed out now, but I’ve learned to deal with it better. Mostly. What I had to learn, and what I think you need to remind yourself, is that you know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. When you stress yourself out your brain freezes up and it’s easy to get confused. You have to trust yourself a bit more.”
“How can I trust myself when I do stupid things like five minus seven is equal to negative-three?”
“By taking a second to breathe.” Jun glared poison at Sho, willing his face to melt. A muscle in Sho’s cheek twitched but otherwise he continued to play the dutiful tutor. “I’m serious. Look, when you get to the end of the test you pause. You take a deep breath in, you let it out slowly, and then you go back over your answers from start to finish. Take your time, be thorough.”
“What if I’m running out of time for the test?” Jun asked.
“Do you usually run out the clock on exams?” Sho asked, a flicker of what appeared to be concern in his eyes as he frowned slightly.
Jun thought about making him sweat for a minute, just so he’d think twice about making such assumptions in the future. In the end, however, it wasn’t worth it. Sho wasn’t his enemy, and he needed to stop trying to displace his anger at himself for his own failings onto other people.
“No,” he admitted with a shake of his head. Sho’s shoulders slackened with visible relief.
“Then you don’t have to worry about it, you’ll be fine.” While normally Jun would be wishing he had Sho’s confidence in him, he could admit to himself that things weren’t so terribly dire. He had been doing better with Sho’s help, even if it wasn’t as good as he wanted to be doing.
Sho shifted in his seat, stretching his arms across his chest before picking up his phone from the desk and checking the time. Out of curiosity Jun looked up at his own alarm clock and saw 22:03 reflected back at him in neon green. As such, he wasn’t surprised when Sho stood and he pushed himself up out of his own chair to stretch.
“Oh, hey, how did you do on that history paper?” Sho asked as he began collecting his belongings into a leather portfolio. For all that Jun had issues with the man, Sho at least had impeccable taste in accessories.
“Great, actually,” Jun said, happy to be talking about something that was going right. “A solid 90 with only a few notes on transitions or asking for more detail. It’s hard to give more detail when you have a page limit, though, so I don’t know what they want from me.”
“Ah, tell me about it!” Sho sighed dramatically. “I once had to condense a philosopher’s entire life works into a four page paper, while making sure to thoroughly discuss at least 8 of his 15 major contributions to economic thought.”
Jun couldn’t help staring. That sentence alone made his brain want to revolt.
“Bet you got full marks on it just the same, though,” Jun shrugged.
“Actually, I got marked down because I went over the page limit,” Sho smiled knowingly before returning Jun’s shrug. “Nobody’s perfect.”
The chastisement was incredibly light, but it was received loud and clear. Whatever bristliness Jun had pent up slipped out of him with one last sigh before he turned to open his bedroom door so Sho could head out.
“When do your exams begin?” Sho asked as he made his way forward.
Jun had to think about it for a moment before he could remember what the current date was.
“Next week,” he said, too tired for anxiety to creep up in his stomach again tonight. “And then we break for the holidays.”
Sho’s eyes focused on a faraway point and Jun could tell he was considering something. Jun shifted his weight on his feet and rested his hip against his door as he tried to be patient while at the same time being painfully aware that he had to get up in only a few hours and begin the nightmare that was school yet again.
“My exams are this week, but it means that I have a different schedule than normal. I can’t tomorrow, but most of the rest of the week I have free time during your lunch period. I could come by and give you some extra help this week, if you’d like?” Sho offered, his gaze refocusing on Jun.
Jun felt his lips part and knew his surprise had to show on his face. Making the conscious effort to close his mouth, he scratched his neck to buy himself a second as he tried to think.
“I mean, I don’t want you to go too far out of your way if you need to study too,” Jun said, grateful for the offer but feeling awkward. It was one thing to have Aiba there, Aiba sort of worked for the school. Having a tutor show up to have lunch with him was just... Even though Jun knew that reasonably, no one cared, it felt really public.
Glancing at his desk over Sho’s shoulder, however, Jun knew he couldn’t really afford to turn the offer down.
“If you really wouldn’t mind, I think it would help a lot,” he nodded and gave Sho a weary smile.
Sho returned the smile warmly and reached out to pat him on the shoulder before exiting into the hall. Jun walked him down to the front door, waving goodbye from the stoop before locking up and heading to bed.
Since ridding himself of his sketchbook of dirty images, Jun had been a lot more comfortable around Aiba. Being one of the only people who knew about the situation he was in, Aiba had remained his primary source of encouragement, and it was a sense of support that he sorely needed. Jun had been afraid at first that Sho would share his failures during tutoring with his roommate, but Aiba seemed to care a lot less about Jun’s academic improvement than he did about his overall well-being. Which was incredibly strange, but really... Really nice, too.
“Good morning, MatsuJun~” Aiba hummed pleasantly as he plopped himself down behind Jun on his art horse, shifting to move his legs out of the way occasionally as students filed down the rows and out of the room for break.
“‘Morning,” Jun answered, raising an eyebrow at his friend as he glanced over his shoulder. “You’re in a good mood.”
Aiba grinned wide, white teeth flashing brightly as his eyes crinkled. “You think so?”
“Definitely,” he nodded. Jun couldn’t help answering Aiba’s smile with one of his own, twisting around to sit beside Aiba rather than in front of him. “Something good happening today?”
“Nothing I can think of,” Aiba shook his head. “I just like this time of year.”
“I can see that,” Jun grinned, reaching up and giving the white puff at the end of Aiba’s Santa hat a light tug.
Aiba giggled but batted Jun’s hand away before throwing the puff over his shoulder. It was the only piece of clothing he was currently wearing, save for the terrycloth bathrobe he donned during breaks. He’d given the class a good laugh with the hat this morning, but even though it had been ridiculous Jun had managed not to get too distracted by its presence. Somehow it just seemed very Aiba to wear a Santa hat to a nude modeling session, because really, who was going to stop him? The fact that Aiba’d experienced a rattling cough before the space heaters had kicked in had also drawn attention to the fact that Aiba was naked for completely different, non-sexy reasons. He’d waved off everyone’s concerns, however, and had mostly managed to keep it under control, and as the room warmed up it ceased being an issue for the remainder of the period.
“It’s not just Christmas! After tomorrow I’m done with classes until after the New Year myself! No homework, no readings, no early mornings...” Aiba trailed off, his gaze distant and wistful. Jun felt a pang of envy.
“Man, I can’t wait for this term to be over,” he said with a sigh so heavy his shoulders sagged. Beside him Aiba leaned in, a warm soft shoulder bumping his own awkward pokey one.
“Not that much longer, right?” Aiba pointed out without his smile ever faltering.
It really wasn’t that much longer, but surviving the days between the now and the end was always the hard part. Most mornings these days Jun would wake up and sincerely consider just staying in bed. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really good at playing hooky. He had responsibilities, and he had things that needed to get done. It was agony to force himself into wakefulness most mornings, but in the end he knew it was better for him than skipping school. At least for the time being.
“Not that much longer, yeah,” he nodded, bumping Aiba’s shoulder back. The motion earned him a little giggle and the weight on Jun’s shoulders eased a little bit as he began to relax again.
They continued to chat quietly, wearing down the precious few minutes of break they got to share before class resumed. As Aiba launched into a rather interesting, but also rather random expository speech on hamster husbandry, Jun reflected that it was nice to have someone to talk to about practically nothing. Nino was an amazing friend for a number of things, but Jun always felt sort of ‘on’ with him. Most of the time Jun was like that with Aiba, too, but more recently it felt less and less pronounced. Aiba didn’t really seem to want anything from their friendship except Jun’s presence and participation. He didn’t expect Jun to be all that witty, or sharp, or even good-humored. It was an openness that was foreign to Jun, and while he realized now that some measure of skepticism on his own part was what had fed into the fact he’d found Aiba Masaki bewildering at first, he was growing to appreciate Aiba for who he was and the kind of friend he was turning out to be.
Which only made it that much more awkward that Jun couldn’t seem to escape dreams of Aiba’s naked body in varying positions and states of arousal. The sketchbook was gone, but the fantasies that had inspired it remained. Rather than ruminate on that particular thought, however, Jun’s attention was pulled from Aiba’s storytelling by the sound of the studio door opening with the first of the students to return from break.
“Ah, oh well...” Aiba said with a simple shrug, knowing that his time was up. He bumped his shoulder against Jun’s one more time and Jun froze as his own nose nearly brushed Aiba’s cheek when he turned to try and say goodbye.
The remainder of the period passed quickly enough, even if concentrating on the artistic aspect of the class had been a struggle at first. Jun had done a good enough job disengaging from the sight of Aiba’s nudity, however, that he actually grew bored towards the end. The repetitive nature of figure study could be soothing sometimes, but on days like today Jun was painfully aware of every minute that dragged by.
By the time the bell sounded Jun had already finished putting away most of his supplies. He’d figured out that his instructor didn’t care if you stopped drawing early, so long as you were discreet about it and didn’t distract anyone. Standing from his seat, Jun stretched along the length of his body and enjoyed the pop of several vertebrae down his spine. The majority of his classmates rushed toward the front to turn in their drawings, but Jun didn’t bother. He’d developed the habit of waiting for Aiba to get dressed anyway, and he wasn’t exactly partial to crowds. Once Aiba had collected his own belongings, Jun picked up his backpack and art box and dropped his sketches on the pile with others on his way out into the main body of the school.
“Yo!” Sho called out, pushing off of a wall he’d been leaning against and giving Aiba and Jun a wave. While Sho had simply held his hand up, Aiba returned the wave with the full length of his arm, exhibiting far more energy than was necessary considering they were only about ten feet from one another.
As they approached Jun stopped short of walking straight into Aiba as his friend paused to duck his face into the crook of his elbow again. His shoulders shook with the force of a cough that seemed to honk as it forced its way out of Aiba’s lungs. Jun stared, reaching out to put a hand on Aiba’s shoulder but letting it be brushed off lightly as Aiba gave a shake of his head. Having recovered, Aiba stood a little straighter and finished crossing to Sho.
“I forgot you were coming, Sho-chan,” Aiba greeted, scratching his head through his Santa hat.
Sho appeared concerned by the cough as well, but when Aiba gave him a reassuring smile he seemed willing to let the matter go. “That’s alright. So long as Matsumoto-kun didn’t forget,” Sho said with a smile in Jun’s direction.
“How could I possibly forget?” Jun asked lightly, doing his best to school his bitterness out of his tone. Sho was doing him a major favor, he had to remember that and be grateful.
“I was thinking we could actually try squeezing into one of the study hall rooms,” he said as he started to lead Aiba and Sho through the halls. “There’s more guaranteed seating at our usual table, but it’ll be quieter if we can find a proper study room open.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Sho nodded, following Jun easily. Aiba seemed to drift between walking alongside Jun and back behind him with Sho, but if he was having difficulty deciding where he was supposed to be he didn’t really show it. Jun tried not to be disturbed by Aiba constantly appearing and disappearing from his side.
“Are we allowed to eat in the study rooms?” Aiba asked with an unconscious pout, one hand going to his belly and scratching absently.
Jun’s lips quirked into a smirk and he rolled his eyes.
“Probably not,” he said honestly, amused by the fact that Aiba’s pouting intensified. Jun paused before a door, peering in through a tall, skinny window before trying the handle. When it turned easily he pushed open the door and ushered his companions through. Once inside he dropped his bag before pulling out a large boxed lunch and sliding it onto the table.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Jun grinned. Aiba’s eyes went wide and he gave a high whine of approval (or at least Jun assumed it was approval) before reaching out for a set of chopsticks gratefully. At the risk of staring inappropriately while Aiba began to pile food into his face (leading with his tongue for nearly every bite, which was just an unfair habit to have in Jun’s opinion), Jun turned and offered Sho a pair of chopsticks as well.
“There’s enough for you as well, Sakurai-san. It’s the least I can do since you’re giving up your own study time to help me.”
“Are you sure? You really didn’t have to,” Sho said, although he accepted the chopsticks gladly.
“It’s fine! Besides, I can’t think on an empty stomach,” Jun said as he broke down the tiers of the lunchbox to reveal the various dishes inside.
“Uwaa! This is really nice! Please tell your mother thanks for us,” Sho said, his eyes bulging wide as he reached out and picked up a star-shaped carrot bit from a garden salad located in one of the upper portions.
“My mother?” Jun repeated in confusion. “Oh. Actually, I made this. I hope it’s alright, it’d probably be a lot better if my mother had done it.”
Across the small table from him Aiba froze, chopsticks at his lips and eyes wide. Jun had a horrifying moment when he thought that maybe whatever it was Aiba had popped into his mouth tasted awful, but soon enough Aiba swallowed his bite and looked over the spread with renewed interest.
“MatsuJun made all of this???” he asked in awe. Although Jun felt warmth creeping up his neck, he couldn’t deny also feeling kind of proud.
“Yeah. I mean I get up early or stay up late anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal to make sure that there was enough,” Jun said, giving a shrug he hoped was nonchalant.
“This is really fantastic, Jun-kun,” Sho said as he began to pick a portion of just about everything out of each box. “Maybe you should think about culinary school!”
“Maybe. I’ve heard that some programs don’t even require that you finish high school, so... There’s that.”
“Well, we’ll call that Plan B,” Sho said with his usual understanding smile. “In the meantime, why don’t you show me the review packet for physics?”
Taking his seat beside Sho, Jun pulled out a mess of papers and a notebook, along with his pencil bag and calculator. Sho had given him some tips on how to take more effective notes, and they honestly had been helping Jun with keeping on top of the current material. There was nothing to be done about the fact that he was really lost on a lot of earlier stuff, but it was getting easier to take things one step at a time. Jun leaned over his work, occasionally reaching out for bites from the lunchbox but mostly absorbed in the way Sho untangled the confusing web of numbers and words on his assignments. As Sho spoke, Jun modified his notes in a different colored pen so that the clarifications stood out when he skimmed the page.
As the pair worked, Aiba craned his neck and watched as pencils moved over paper and calculations were made. Occasionally he nodded his head in agreement or understanding to a point that was made, despite the fact that he was not the one being tutored. Sho had a way of explaining things that even Aiba could understand, and even when Aiba couldn’t understand it was at least interesting to listen to.
“Ah,” Aiba spoke and drew attention from the paperwork. His face turned pink as he waved a hand at the pair across from them apologetically. “I finished the karaage. Sorry, MatsuJun! I couldn’t help myself, it’s my favorite!”
Jun looked over at the lunchbox tiers and shook his head, giving Aiba a smile.
“I made the stuff to be eaten, so don’t worry about it,” Jun said before sitting up and stretching in his chair. He twisted around in search of a clock and ended up looking at his wristwatch instead. The lunch hour was almost up and he hadn’t actually eaten much himself. As though listening in on his thoughts, Jun’s stomach gave an audible rumble and he finally put his pencil down.
Sho followed Jun’s lead, checking his phone for messages and the time before picking up his own chopsticks again and beginning to dig in heartily. Jun hesitated a moment to watch Sho’s reaction to his food and was both relieved and delighted to see enjoyment in his tutor’s features. Cooking for himself was one thing, and usually he could put up with something not turning out exactly the way he wanted it to, but presenting food to others made him nervous. While it was possible he was being humored, Jun didn’t think Sho or Aiba would be taking such large bites if they didn’t actually like what they were eating.
Aiba was just about to reach out for it bit of tamagoyaki when he gave a little jump. Jun stared for a moment, but when Aiba pulled a buzzing phone from the pocket of his jeans the reaction made a little more sense. As Aiba flipped open his phone and skimmed his new message, Jun grabbed a bit of hamburger and popped it into his mouth.
“Aw, damn,” Aiba pouted at his phone, his shoulders sagging. “Yoko had to cancel. Apparently his parents want him to visit his grandparents.”
Sho appeared confused for a moment, but soon enough realization dawned on him. For his own part, however, Jun remained in the dark. “Ah, that’s too bad,” Sho said, his brow creasing sympathetically. “It’s a really tough time to get together, you know?”
“I know,” Aiba sighed.
Jun waited for further explanation, looking from Aiba to Sho and then back again. His companions, however, seemed to be too caught up in addressing this new information than filling Jun in on the blanks.
“What’s her name is still coming, isn’t she? Mimi-chan?” Sho pointed out, trying to take a positive track.
“Miwako-chan,” Aiba corrected, sitting up a little straighter. “And she said she was going to try and bring a few friends, so it should be fine. Becky said she was going to try and join up with us at some point, too.”
Sho smiled and gave a nod. Beside him Jun continued to stare, but was beginning to get the distinct impression that neither Sho nor Aiba was paying any attention to him anymore. While it wasn’t unthinkable for them to become distracted, it felt pretty rude to have a conversation going where not even a cursory attempt was made to include him. Figuring that whatever it was that was being organized was none of his business, Jun tried not to sulk as he stabbed a morsel of folded omelet and popped it into his mouth.
“Well if Becky’s going to be there then it should be a great birthday after all, right?” Sho pointed out and Jun’s attention jumped back to the conversation immediately.
“Your birthday is coming up?” he asked, unsure why he was so shocked by the news but feeling awkward for not having put the pieces together.
“Christmas eve!” Aiba nodded. “Most people are busy with dates or family or work, though, so it’s just going to be a few people, it looks like.”
“Oh...” Jun said as he shifted in his seat and tried not to let the discomfort in his body be conveyed through his expression. “That... sounds like fun.”
“I’m hoping so! Everybody wants to go out for drinks, so that’s probably what we’re going to do after dinner. I’m still trying to work out how I’m getting home, though, I don’t want to be out too late.” Aiba turned his attention back to Sho.
Sho crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair in thought. Jun had come to know this as Sho’s ‘problem-solving’ posture, the one he assumed when he was taking it upon himself to puzzle through other peoples’ difficulties. Normally it was a reassuring thing to see for Jun, but at the moment he used it as a cue to tune out of the conversation.
Drinking, huh? Jun supposed Aiba would be old enough to go out and do that. Not that Jun had never consumed alcohol himself, but he couldn’t exactly tag along to a birthday party that involved bar hopping. Not that he’d been invited to begin with. Jun tried not to be bitter about it, reminding himself that chances were good that he wasn’t invited specifically because of the age difference. Or maybe because Aiba just didn't see Jun as the kind of friend you invited to birthday parties.
Before his brain had a chance to slip further down that rabbit hole, however, Jun noticed shadows passing by the study room window. There was always the occasional passer-by, but more and more bodies were steadily traversing the hall outside, telling Jun that the lunch period was ending shortly. Finding that his appetite had been soured a bit, Jun slowly began to pack up his notes and homework. By the time he’d gotten his school things packed away the lunch bell rang and Jun was ready to stand up. Sho and Aiba looked up at the sound of the bell in surprise, having been absorbed in their conversation.
Sho and Aiba helped Jun with packing up the remnants of the lunchbox. Despite the dip in his mood, Jun really was glad that the food had gone over so well, especially since Sho had been refusing to accept any money for his tutoring sessions. The trio gave the study room one final sweep before shuffling out into the hall where Jun had to give his friends a short wave before darting off. Even if he had felt snubbed at the end there, Jun was able to remind himself that it likely wasn’t intentional. Sho and Aiba had been going out of their way to help him over the last several weeks, and they’d been doing it because for some reason Jun could not fathom they both seemed to believe in him.
Aiba hadn’t mentioned his birthday, but Aiba probably didn’t mention a lot of things. After all, there were plenty of things Jun would never mention to Aiba. Not in a million years.
As he stood in the narrow aisle staring at one of the end displays Jun became acutely aware of the damp feeling of sweat beginning to form just under his hair along his neck. He’d pulled his scarf free upon entering the store and even stuffed it into his pocket, but the combination of store heaters and several bodies moving through a combined space made wearing an insular winter jacket indoors stifling after a while. He’d only intended to be in the store for a moment, having already scoped out the item he wanted (a ceramic orchid for his mother to add to a growing collection of flower replicas) and the price it was being sold at earlier in the week, but on his way to the register something had caught his eye.
Necklaces and bracelets of carved stones and beads adorned the oscillating rack before Jun. Shiny printed text in a fancy script extolled the virtues of Jade and Jadite in healing and some other mumbo-jumbo. He’d read it on other cheap pieces of jewelry before, but it was usually easy enough to ignore unless the bracelet or necklace in question was attractive on its own. However, this time the text went on to read that together the stones had especially helpful energies when promoting lung health and soothing bronchial inflammation. It was an oddly specific claim, one that Jun believed even less than the standard vagueness, and yet it held his attention. He couldn’t help thinking of Aiba and the dry, wracking cough in the corridors at school before break. He could remember a few other coughing fits, but Jun had never thought it might actually be a problem until he’d noticed it getting worse as the temperatures got cooler.
A simple bracelet of carved jade and jadite beads seemed a harmless enough gift, right? If nothing else it was at least thoughtful. Jun did worry, however, if it would be weird to give Aiba a Christmas gift. Then again, today was Aiba’s birthday, and he’d mentioned that usually he only ever got presents for one or the other, usually never anything to celebrate just his birthday. As a friend, Jun could give him a belated birthday present without worrying about sending any signals.
Selecting a bracelet with a jadite frog sitting on a carved jade lily pad with a dark brown braided leather band, Jun stuffed the purchase into his cart. He got about five paces away before he promptly turned on his heal and made to return the would-be gift to its place on the display. As soon as he was within reach, however, Jun turned sharply again and put the bracelet back in his cart. He made it three steps this time before reversing, then turned around almost immediately and sped for the register before he had a chance to change his mind yet again.
He’d rather give a weird gift than regret not giving something at all. Besides, Aiba was a weird guy, so even if a normal person could find the gesture strange chances were Aiba was going to like it no matter what.
Nodding his thanks to the clerk, Jun accepted his purchases and made for the door. Once outside into the fresh air, Jun breathed in deeply. He closed his eyes for a moment and enjoyed the sensation of his cheeks prickling as cool breeze brushed across heated skin pleasantly. Normally Jun’d be shivering, bundling up his skinny limbs against the chill of winter, but after the stifling heat of Christmas Eve shoppers packed shoulder-to-shoulder the crisp evening air was completely refreshing. Being outside of the chaos of last-minute shoppers also helped to clear Jun’s head enough that he was able to peek into his plastic bag.
Despite the anxiety he’d felt making the decision to buy a birthday gift for Aiba, he was glad that he’d gotten his friend something. Aiba had been consistently kind and supportive essentially since their friendship had begun. When Jun was in need of help, Aiba not only stuck with him for moral support, but even put him in touch with someone who could assist him in a tangible sense. Aiba had a talent for simultaneously being completely oblivious and disconcertingly perceptive when it came to Jun’s thoughts and moods, but no matter Jun’s sharpness, Aiba smoothed over it as through the barbs weren’t even there. The very least Jun could do to repay him for such friendship was get him a birthday gift.
Satisfied that he’d be able to convey at least a bit of his appreciation for Aiba with his gift, Jun tucked the purchases into his messenger bag and pulled out his scarf to wrap it about his neck again. As he started his way back to the train station, Jun tried to imagine how presenting the gift was going to go, if only because he hadn’t thought that far ahead. The only times he really saw Aiba were during or after class, and while Jun was bad at being patient for things he was pretty sure he was going to have to wait until lunch before giving the gift over. He’d discovered that his friend was prone to gushing, and while he secretly looked forward to making Aiba that happy (even if it was entirely platonic and over a stupid impulse-buy), Jun wasn’t sure he’d be able to look at Aiba through the second half of a drawing session without laughing at his friend’s red nose and misty eyes. For as sadistic as he could be sometimes, embarrassing Aiba in front of all of his classmates seemed more cruel than amusing.
With his mind so preoccupied with playing out a variety of potential reactions from Aiba over his gift, Jun thought that he must have been hearing things when a high, whinnying laugh drifted to him from a little ways up the street. Looking up curiously, Jun scanned the sidewalk and nearby doors of buildings, expecting to find nothing. When instead he saw Aiba emerge from a darkened doorway, the thick pulse of a strong bass beat growing and fading as people entered or left the club, Jun came to a dead stop.
Aiba was wearing his Santa hat again, but rather than a simple terrycloth robe he was bundled up in a sharp jacket with a fluffy-trimmed hood and a tartan scarf. Which was good because as Jun stood and stared an evening breeze drifted up the street and Jun felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. If Aiba noticed, however, he showed no sign. That could have had a lot to do with the fact that he was in very... distracting company.
“Aiba-chan! Come take a picture, come take a picture!” A girl called out to Aiba, beckoning him over. Aiba crossed the distance happily, leaning down to press his cheek to hers as she held her cellphone at arm’s length to snap a selfie.
In contrast to the length and layers Aiba was wearing, his female companion was dressed in a manner that was more for fashion than comfort. Even with tights underneath and over-the-knee boots, her lithe legs shivered in her tiny shorts, the likes of which her puffy jacket did little to cover.
A second girl joined them, dressed similarly to the first. The three of them huddled together around the glow of a cellphone screen. They looked like they were talking, or planning, or something. Something that didn’t need to be interrupted by Jun, that was for sure. While he had momentarily been struck with the dilemma of wondering if he should try to say hi or not, the sight of delicately manicured fingers holding onto Aiba’s wrist as he took hold of the cellphone was enough to convince Jun that now was not the time or the place. Physically turning away, Jun looked up and down the street for an alternate route to the train that would take him around the party.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t counted on the fact that if he could see Aiba, then Aiba could definitely see him.
Jun’s head snapped up in time to see Aiba speeding towards him, but not quickly enough to side-step being literally swept up into a hug. Jun gave a terrified squawk and seized Aiba’s shoulders tightly as he tried not to let his legs hit anyone passing by.
“IDIOT! PUT ME DOWN!” he yelled, mostly out of surprise and fear as Aiba had already finished his spiral hug and set Jun on his feet again. He continued to grip the sleeves of Aiba’s jacket, heart racing painfully in his chest as he tried to make sure he was steady before standing up straight.
“Ah, sorry, sorry,” Aiba giggled, scratching at the back of his head and making his Santa cap shiver and not sounding the tiniest bit apologetic.
“It’s so amazing that you’re here, though!” Aiba continued far, far too loudly. Jun shushed him and looked around, grateful that no one was really staring. Aiba giggled again and ducked his head, this time seeming genuine in his mumbled ‘sorry, sorry!’ Now that he was closer, too, Jun could see how Aiba’s cheeks were bright pink and his eyes were kind of glassy.
“You’re drunk,” Jun realized out loud, his suspicion confirmed when Aiba’s face split into a grin and he burst into giggles all over again.
“Probably,” he nodded.
“Aaaaaiba-chaaaaan!” one of the girls whined as the pair made their way over. “If you’re going to take off like that, say something! Jeeze...” Impeccably glossed lips pouted fully as she crossed her arms. Her friend seemed less invested in being miffed, instead resting against the angry girl’s side and looking at Jun curiously.
“Ahhh, who’s this?” she asked, nodding Jun’s direction.
“Ah! This is MatsuJun! He’s really cool,” Aiba said, beaming at Jun in a way that made him feel incredibly sheepish. Jun wasn’t sure how ‘cool’ he’d seem to a pair of college girls, but so long as Aiba didn’t try to elaborate he was pretty sure he’d escape complete embarrassment.
“Ehh?? This is ‘MatsuJun’?” Miss Pouting Lips said, eyebrows shooting up in surprise before she turned to Jun with interest.
Jun wasn’t sure how to interpret her expression, but he felt very much like a bug in a specimen jar being ogled. She seemed to be holding back saying something, but she did shoot Aiba an equally indecipherable look. Or rather, it was indecipherable to Jun. Aiba had looked to his friends in time to catch her face before his own flared an even warmer red and he cleared his throat.
“This,” Aiba said, gesturing to the friend who had been pouting, “Is my classmate Miwako-chan. And this is her friend Nana.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jun said automatically, giving a slightly awkward nod. His courtesy was returned with similar pleasantries from both Miwako and Nana, which helped put him at ease just a little bit.
“Nenenene, ne, ne, MatsuJun,” Aiba said, tugging on Jun’s coat sleeve with every ‘ne’ (just in case saying something hadn’t been enough to get his attention, Jun supposed). “We’re headin’ to karaoke. You should come with us!”
Jun’s eyes went wide and he shook his head.
“I don’t want to impose. I know it’s your birthday and—”
“It is my birthday, and MatsuJun should come and sing at my birthday!” Aiba interjected. Aiba’s hand slipped down just a tiny bit and Jun could have sworn he felt the tip of Aiba’s pinky brushing his palm. “Please?”
Jun swallowed hard. There really wasn’t any reason for him not to go. He had the time, he had the money, and he had permissive enough parents that if he just sent them a message they wouldn’t be too upset if he stayed out for a few hours. Even so, Jun felt like he ought to say ‘no’. But then he looked into Aiba’s face and he thought about how left out he’d felt at not even being invited to begin with. He even had a present on him, so really, what could the harm be.
“If... If it’s really alright, then maybe...” Jun hesitated, looking at the two girls. They didn’t seem overjoyed for him to be joining them, but they also didn’t seem hostile, either.
Miwako simply shrugged, and Nana did not appear to have enough investment in Jun’s attendance to feel one way or the other. Aiba, on the other hand, thrust both fists into the air and bounced on the balls of his feet as though he’d just won some great victory. Jun tried to shush him again, dragging him out of the way of foot traffic and resigning himself to the likelihood that he was going to be a babysitter for the rest of the evening.
Beneath the veneer of unsureness and irritability, however, Jun’s heart raced as he let Aiba link their arms and begin to lead them off to karaoke.
In spite of himself and his misgivings, Jun had fun. There were admittedly awkward moments when he definitely felt like the odd man out (either because of his age, or his sobriety), but for the most part it was not as horrifyingly stilted as he’d expected it to be.
They sang loudly and happily, taking turns doing solos or duets. There were a few great moments where Aiba had selected a song, only to realize that he didn’t actually know the words once it started up. On at least one of those occasions Jun had come to his rescue and picked up a mic. He had been aware of Aiba watching him the entire time, but Jun had tried his best to focus on the lyrics and making sure his voice didn’t crack on the high notes. In the end, Aiba had fawned over him and congratulated Jun on his high score with a tight hug.
Miwako and Nana had treated the room to a round of drinks shortly after that, although Jun abstained because the longer the evening wore on the more convinced he was that Aiba might have trouble getting home if left to his own devices. After the last particularly rowdy number, wherein Aiba had danced energetically as he sang his heart out to a tune about friendship and fighting to succeed, the birthday boy had ended up curled up on one of the long couches near Jun. Over the course of a few more rounds between the girls singing cute girl group songs, Aiba made a few grumbling noises which had attracted Jun’s attention until he had allowed his friend to pillow his head in Jun’s lap. The situation probably would have been kind of cute if it weren’t for the fact that Jun was silently praying that he didn’t end up with a lap full of vomit for his trouble.
“Aiba-chan,” Miwako loudly whispered in the way only inebriated people could manage when they thought they were being quiet. “Aiba-chan.” She reached out and tugged at the leg of Aiba’s black jeans. When he didn’t as much as twitch she gave an exasperated giggle before turning to Jun.
“I have to get Nana home,” she said with an apologetic smile. Beside her Nana had been starting to nod off for quite some time, so Jun could understand the dilemma. “There’s still some time on the room, so maybe he’ll wake up so you can get him to a cab.”
Looking down at Aiba’s head, Jun highly doubted that his friend would wake up of his own volition. Even so, he didn’t see that as a reason to keep anyone out too late.
“You go on, and be safe,” Jun said and motioned for them to start for the door. “I’ll make sure this idiot gets home alive.”
“Ehh, MatsuJun’s so kind for his age,” Nana sighed and Miwako burst into giggles before giving Jun an apologetic bow. Jun wasn’t sure what to even make of that statement, so he simply nodded and wished the pair goodnight.
They collected their purses and their coats and tumbled out of the door in a flurry of jangling jewelry and clicking heels, the likes of which echoed down the hall until the door to their room closed. Without the distraction of other voices, Jun turned to gaze at the bright screen of the karaoke setup, still playing music videos and clips of music talk shows as the strobe lights overhead flashed their rays intermittently. For all of the motion and colors, however, the room was quiet.
Jun let his right hand drift to Aiba’s head. He’d been resisting touching or even looking at his friend while the others had been around, not wanting to seem strange, but now that they were alone there wasn’t any reason not to be comfortable. The Santa hat had fallen off at some point, making Aiba’s soft hair easily accessible. Jun had wanted to run his fingers through it for ages now, but touching Aiba always seemed like a bad idea considering the dreams he had to contend with.
“Mm,” Aiba mumbled, sighing as he shifted on the couch. Jun snatched his hand back immediately, trying to decide whether or not to apologize or deny that he’d done anything at all when Aiba tilted enough so that he could squint up at Jun in the dim lighting.
“Aw, that felt good,” he said with a slight pout. Jun let out a nervous giggle before lowering his hand again.
“I thought you’d passed out,” Jun said as he resumed dragging his fingers gently through Aiba’s hair. The strands were strong, a little dry, with split ends that tended to tangle. Even so, Aiba was warm and pliant and Jun found petting his friend’s hair rather relaxing.
“I might have,” Aiba admitted with a laugh, eyes scrunching up before sliding shut as he sighed once more and let his cheek return to pillowing on Jun’s thigh.
Jun watched Aiba’s expression, wondering if there was more conversation to be had. He could see that Aiba’s face was still really pink, though, and he could feel the warmth radiating from Aiba’s body, so there was a good chance that Aiba was going to fall asleep on him again. As he watched, however, Aiba shifted, his head moving a few centimeters forward.
Air caught in Jun’s lungs as he came to the uncomfortable realization that Aiba’s head was directly on top of his crotch. While usually that might be awkward regardless of whoever had their head in his lap, the fact that it was Aiba and he was blush-y and his warmth was pressing down through Jun’s pants, however, made an awkward moment feel more like a potential catastrophe. Figuring he could maybe dislodge Aiba if he did some shifting of his own, Jun tried to maneuver his friend’s face anywhere else.
“MatsuJun’s warm,” Aiba murmured as he shifted forward and his nose bumped against Jun’s stomach.
Jun snorted back a laugh, but only to cover the fact that he was releasing a quick breath in relief. The relaxation was short-lived, however, as the momentary bump of Aiba’s nose turned into a nuzzle. As Jun looked down he watched as Aiba dragged a hand up, fingers warm through his shirt as they rested along Jun’s waist. He thought for a moment that Aiba was going to try and struggle to get up, but rather than make any attempt to rise, Aiba simply tugged at the hem of Jun’s shirt to uncover a bit of skin.
“W-what are you doing?” Jun asked, trying to sound casual and likely failing.
Aiba didn’t try to answer him, only giggled as he grinned at Jun’s bellybutton.
“’t’s cute,” he said and leaned forward to press a kiss to Jun’s stomach before Jun could move to stop him. The knowledge that Aiba’s lips were warm and soft tingled its way up Jun’s spine and down from his waist in a manner that made him wonder if he shouldn’t have just left Aiba’s head where it was.
“MatsuJun’s always so cute and warm,” Aiba said softly, his lips brushing against Jun’s stomach with each word.
Jun’s ears burned and he pressed his thighs together on instinct under Aiba’s weight. Aiba was affectionate and had weird understandings of boundaries even when he was sober, and right now he was decidedly not sober. Jun tried to remind himself of that, remind himself that Aiba’s pink cheeks were from the beers and cocktails, that his willingness to drape himself across Jun’s lap was loosened inhibitions and a lack of understanding about physical space. Regardless of whatever logic he could come up with, however, Jun’s body was beginning to respond to the beautiful person giving it soft, warm kisses.
“Ah... What’s this?” Aiba asked, pulling back a for a second to stare at Jun’s stomach before shifting a hand forward to trace his thumb across a smattering of curled hair just below Jun’s navel.
“A happy trail, hm?” Aiba said as he smiled up at Jun. “Should I follow it and see if MatsuJun is happy?”
It was a terrible line and it should not have been attractive, because it was ridiculous and stupid, but still Jun’s heartbeat stuttered and his cheeks flared. He swallowed hard, trying to figure out if this was actually happening or not, if he should even allow it to happen. Before Jun could settle on a verbal response, however, he felt kisses against his stomach once more.
Jun opened his mouth to say something. Aiba’s name, a question, something, but what came out instead was a sharp intake of breath as Aiba shifted in his lap and put pressure on Jun’s crotch. His own hand had slipped from Aiba’s hair to his shoulder where Jun gripped tightly as he felt fingers beginning to fiddle with the button of his jeans. Aiba looked up questioningly and Jun realized that this was it. This was the part where he was supposed to call it off, to give Aiba a shot at pretending this was all a weird joke and backing off.
Rather than tell Aiba to stop or pull him away, Jun slid his hand up Aiba’s shoulder, to the back of his neck, and into his hair again. Aiba grinned, kissed the inside of Jun’s wrist, and returned to his earlier task. Aiba made impressively quick work of Jun’s zipper, pushing his boxers down and out of the way and lavishing his length in hot, wet kisses as he used his hand to bring Jun to full hardness.
“Fuck,” Jun panted as his face burned. He did his best to try and measure his breathing, not wanting to do something stupid and amateurish like pass out because he hyperventilated. While his right hand remained occupied with Aiba’s hair, Jun had no idea what to do with the rest of his body. His left hand clenched into a fist on the sofa cushion beside him and he planted his feet on the floor both otherwise tried not to move.
If Aiba expected him to be doing anything differently, he didn’t give any indication of it.
“I guess you’re warm here too, huh?” Aiba asked rhetorically before pressing the flat of his tongue to the head of Jun’s cock. Jun watched as Aiba’s lips closed around his head but closed his eyes as Aiba began to suck.
Jun let out a loud moan, giving a start as he startled himself with his volume. Below him Aiba chuckled and Jun whimpered because he could feel Aiba’s voice vibrate through his length. He’d never thought about that before, about how it might feel to have someone laugh while doing this. His heart raced a bit as he realized that he hadn’t ever really thought of a real person doing this before either. A real person with deep brown eyes, whose voice rasped when he laughed and who had a talent for calming upset animals. A real person who was warm, and alternatingly soft and hard, whose weight was braced on his thighs and knees as fingertips held the base of Jun’s cock while their head began to bob in his lap.
“Aiba,” Jun managed to get out, his left hand rushing up to his own hair and brushing his bangs out of his face as he tried to take a deep breath. “Oh shit, wait, I- I’m getting close.”
If Aiba heard him, he didn’t give any acknowledgement. Jun tried to hold back but he honestly didn’t have any experience with this sort of thing. His own breathing and voice were too loud to his own ears, with only the wet sound of Aiba’s mouth moving along his cock to help break up the silence in the room. Everything was hot and sensitive and Jun couldn’t tell if the flashing lights were making him dizzy or if it was the way Aiba kept stopping at the top to tease his tip with his tongue.
Jun bit his lip tightly and squeezed his eyes shut as his balls tightened and his body tensed before finally his hips jerked; his body shuddering with a moan as he sagged against the couch with his release.