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It's just flashes at first. Bright moments of reality. Voices. Touches. Lights. I'm afraid.

I bite.

It's the monster. Not me. I don't bite.

Do I?

*

For the first couple of weeks Kubota always wore gloves when he went anywhere near his new stray. Motorcycle gloves, as it happened. They were suitably thick and extended halfway to his elbow. But the leather was old and soft, and smelt of oil and fresh air.

After a few days, he could hold out his hand and his cat would sniff and growl, but kept his teeth to himself.

This was progress.

*

Pain. Pure, primal pain shooting from my hand - that hand - straight up my arm like a firecracker. (What's a firecracker?) It hurts. Hurts.

I scream.

It's the human in me. I must still be human.

Am I?

*

Kubota watched Kou as he moved around the weird little backroom in his shop, mixing all manner of strange powders and gunk from tiny bottles and packets.

"The pain," Kou said. "Does it come on suddenly, or would you say it's there all the time?"

"Hard to tell," said Kubota. He sniffed delicately at a saucer of white powder. Dipped his finger in and licked it. Wrinkled his nose.

"But it's centred on his hand? The furry one?"

"Seems to be. It's worse at night." He pointed at a jar on the shelf. "What's that?"

"Eye of newt."

Kubota raised an eyebrow. Ash fell from his cigarette and scattered on the bench.

"You'd be surprised," said Kou. "Here." He handed over a jar of something gooey. "Mix it with his food for now."

Kubota did. It worked well in soup.

It seemed to help his cat, a little.

*

The sun's shining. I know it's the sun. It's shining through the window. I know that's the window.

I'm in bed. A warm bed, with clean sheets (I know they're sheets) and a soft pillow.

I stare at the ceiling, and try to think.

Who am I?

*

"Tokito."

He looked up, and blinked. His eyes were beautiful; blue shot through with purple, framed with thick, dark lashes.

Kubota smiled. "You're awake, then."

Tokito ran his tongue over his lips, and swallowed. He made a noise somewhere deep in his throat that started as words and came out as a growl. Kubota wondered when he'd last had a conversation with anyone. If he ever had.

"Hungry?" Kubota said.

*

Hungry. So empty I'm raw inside.

Soup. Thick and dark. Salty.

Warm.

Full.

I'm not so frightened any more.

I look up at him and...

*

The first time Tokito smiled at Kubota it took him entirely by surprise. He'd been feeding him soup, not sure yet whether he was capable of controlling cutlery without breaking it, let alone chopsticks. He could slurp from a spoon if Kubota held it, though, and did so enthusiastically. He liked miso with noodles. He loved sweets, too, but Kou had advised he ration those, and Kubota could see the sense in that. The kid had enough energy as it was.

But Tokito let Kubota feed him soup, and when he'd done, his tiny pink tongue darted out to lick the corner of his mouth and then, all at once, he smiled.

Kubota could swear the room got a little brighter, until he caught himself thinking it.

He shook his head at his own idiocy.

But he smiled back. And Tokito's smile just got bigger in return.

Kubota reached out a hand, and gently touched Tokito's arm, his good arm, just at the shoulder.

*

Touch. Brush of fingertips.

Not hurting. No danger.

No fear.

Warm.

Touch. Touch. Touch.

*

Kubota took a wide-toothed comb, and a deep breath, and set about doing something about Tokito's hair. It was clean enough: Tokito enjoyed showers now, arching and smiling into the stream of hot water, stretching up his arms as if it were sunshine and he was a giant sunflower or something. But he was still very sensitive to pain: the slightest knock or bump would send him screaming into panic. Kubota had offered him a hairbrush and a comb in the hope he might remember what to do with them, but Tokito had just looked at them, looked at Kubota and shrugged.

"Hey, Tokito. This is gonna pull a bit. Don't bite me, 'kay?"

Tokito edged back up the bed a bit.

"If it really hurts, I'll stop. You trust me, right?"

Tokito nodded.

Kubota moved in slowly, and started with a few strands that were pretty much untangled, just falling over Tokito's right eye. Tokito jumped a little, but held mostly still.

Kubota managed about three more minutes before Tokito began to growl.

He figured the hairdressing could be a long-term project.

*

Words.

Slowly, I found words. Soup. Pocky. No. Yes. Okay.

Cat. Stray. Please. Glove. Play.

Shouta.

Kubota.

Kubo-chan.

*

"I've got to go out for a while. You gonna stay here?"

Tokito tipped his head on one side. He was sitting on the couch, hugging his knees, t-shirt falling off one shoulder. He'd put on weight since Kubota found him in the alley, but he was still on the thin side of healthy. He'd grown very attached to Kubota's old t-shirt, though, and was extremely reluctant to take it off, except for washing.

"You gonna be long?"

"About an hour. Your phone's right there. If you need me, call, okay?"

Tokito checked the phone was on, checked the time on the video display, and nodded. "Come home," he said. He still did that a little, sometimes, fell back into his early pattern of words; short, clipped sentences, mostly commands.

"I'll be back before you know it," Kubota said.

Three quarters of an hour later he came home to find Tokito curled up on the mat by the front door, waiting for him.

*

Tokito had got in the habit of snuggling up next to Kubota when he was sleepy. Or frightened.

Never when he hurt.

And it was nice, in a dangerous sort of way. It was honest. Tokito needed comfort, he took it. Simple.

So Kubota would lie on the bed, smoking, and Tokito would seek him out, curl up next to him, head on Kubota's shoulder, and sleep.

Warm, and close.

Comfort.

*

Kubota found himself looking forward, more than anything, to coming home.

Looking forward to anything was a novelty. But this....

The outside world was necessary, interesting in its own way. But the best part of the day was always when he shouldered his way through the door of his apartment, groceries tucked under one arm, and Tokito looked up from his game or the TV, or sometimes, sleepily, from a nap.

And Tokito would smile, and Kubota would smile back, and the rest of the world just faded.

*

"Kubo-chan?"

"Hm?" Kubota was cooking, stirring squares of tofu into the wok along with the peppers and beans and plump fluffs of rice. Tokito draped himself over Kubota's back to peer over his shoulder.

"How long can I stay here?"

"Long as you like," said Kubota.

"Really?" Voice full of sunshine.

"Sure," Kubota said. "We're room-mates."

"What's for dinner?" said Tokito.

Kubota hesitated, wondering if he'd missed something, then waved his spoon at the wok.

"Oh," said Tokito. "Smells good."

He wandered off then, leaving Kubota grinning a little foolishly at their dinner.

*

It still hurts sometimes. I hide it when it does. Kubo-chan always seems to know, though.

Sometimes it hurts when I'm asleep. It gives me nightmares. I wake screaming.

Kubo-chan's there.

Kubo-chan holds me. Strokes my back. Touch. Touch. Tells me it's just dreams.

I don't tell him about the pain, and I don't tell him what the nightmares are.

It doesn't matter.

He still holds me.

*

"Kubo-chan, do you like girls?"

Kubota looked up from his manga. "Not especially. Why, do you?"

Tokito smiled a small, adorable smile. "Sure," he said. "They're okay, I guess."

Kubota smiled back.

*

The heat had broken at last into rain. Kubota came home to find Tokito staring out of the balcony windows, palms and nose pressed flat against the glass.

Kubota went and stood next to him, and stared out with him. Yokohama glistened wet in neon blue and pink. Tokito was beaming.

"It's really tipping it down," Kubota said.

Tokito nodded. "Open the windows, Kubo-chan."

"You want to go out in that?"

"Don't you?"

Kubota had only just got in, having run the last three blocks in order to avoid the downpour, and had stayed mostly dry. But Tokito's enthusiasm was startlingly infectious. Kubota produced a key and a few moments later the windows slid open, and Tokito bounced out onto the balcony.

"Don't catch cold," Kubota said, and leaned against the window frame, keeping close enough to the shelter of the room that he could keep his cigarette dry.

"It's amazing." Tokito surrendered himself to the rain, water running down his face and shoulders and arms, dripping from his hair and his nose and chin. "It smells so good, Kubo-chan."

Damp concrete and ozone, but Kubota knew what he meant.

"Cats aren't supposed to like water." He reached out his hand, let the rain caress his skin.

"I'm not a cat," Tokito said. "I'm just...."

Kubota raised an eyebrow.

"Me," said Tokito.

"Can't argue with that." Kubota flicked his cigarette stub into a puddle. "Hot chocolate?"

"Sure. Hey, Kubo-chan?"

"Hm?"

Tokito was coming towards him. He was drenched to the skin, his thin vest-top clinging to the muscles of his chest and shoulders. "Your glasses are wet."

He reached up, almost on tiptoe, and Kubota let him take them off.

And then they were close. Very, very close, and Tokito's eyes were shining with the simple happiness of standing in the rain, and something thumped in Kubota's chest.

Tokito stayed on tiptoe, and very softly brushed his lips over Kubota's.

Kubota put an arm around him, pulled him in, and dropped a kiss into his glossy-wet hair. Tokito stood perfectly still, and hugged him back.

Kubota very gently took his glasses from Tokito's gloved hand.

Sometimes the cat didn't know his own strength, after all.

*

I want to be with him.

When we're sitting on the sofa, or lying on the bed, or standing in the hall, I want to touch him.

Everything feels different when I touch him.

Everything.

*

"Still raining, then."

Tokito threw the bag of groceries down on the kitchen counter and immediately scrabbled around in it for the box of pocky. His hair was wet, his clothes damp.

"Here." Kubota threw him a towel, warm from the radiator. It landed on Tokito's head, and Tokito gave his hair a cursory rub then left it there, draped down to his shoulders like a hood. He stuck a stick of pocky in his mouth and grinned around it.

Kubota was just grateful to find the coffee in amongst the eclectic selection of purchases Tokito had made. He was getting better at shopping, but was easily distracted by shiny packets.

"I've got to go out this evening," Kubota said. "Is your phone charged?"

"Think so. Can I come?"

"No, not this time."

The smile turned to a pout, pocky sticking out of the corner of Tokito's mouth, smearing strawberry over his lower lip. "Why not?"

It's too dangerous, and I don't want you to get hurt. " Just something I have to do alone. Nothing personal. Hey, you have..."

He reached out to wipe the goo from Tokito's mouth, but before he got there Tokito's lips parted and kissed the tip of Kubota's finger instead. Very gently sucked it in, tongue flicking, eyes steadily holding Kubota's gaze.

Before Kubota could even think, it was over, and Tokito was gone, busy throwing himself on the sofa in a sulk.

Kubota stood there a while, staring at his damp, strawberry-dribbled finger as if it was the strangest thing he'd seen in his whole life.

*

Kubota waited outside the nightclub with the parcel, leaned up against the wall, smoking. He wondered idly if he was holding a bomb. You could never be sure, with Kou.

Another in a long line of reasons why he wanted the guy he was delivering to to turn up. Fast.

Somewhere in the distance, sirens blared.

He hoped Tokito hadn't burned the apartment down.

There was a noise from further up the alley, to his right. Yelling. Scrabbling. Kubota very carefully put his parcel down behind a dumpster, and made his way along the wall. Some kind of spat was going on; a couple of men, yelling at each other, fighting over something that looked a lot like a sack of potatoes. Kubota hung back. No need to get involved. Wasn't his fight, or at least, not as far as he knew.

One of the men was crying. All the fight gone out of him. He looked pale, like he'd had a nasty shock.

Kubota looked a little more closely at the sack. Sharp, angular shapes. Small. Cash. Just money. The fight went on.

Kick, thud, kick, thud...

And then, from behind him...

Click.

Shit.

You'd think he'd know better than to hang around in alleys these days.

*

Wait.

Wait.

Wait.

High score.

"Hey, Kubo-chan, I-"

Shit.

Where is the bastard?

*

"What did you see?"

Kubota smiled pleasantly. "Nothing."

"Liar!" The gun pressed uncomfortably into the soft skin behind Kubota's left ear. "You were standing right there! What did you see?"

The man with the sack had run off; the guy he'd been fighting with was sitting sobbing on the step. An old, blocked off entrance to the club, if Kubota had counted the doors right.

"It's very dark," Kubota pointed out. "The light's not working."

It was true, the light that should have been behind them, outside the club, was dim and flickering. The man on the step further down the alley was illuminated in spasms of blue and red light from the sign opposite him.

"You're going to die," the gunman said.

"Yes," said Kubota.

And then he heard footsteps.

*

No question. No doubt.

Just rage.

*

Tokito burst out of the shadows with a roar, kicking the gun-wielder clean in the kidneys, sending him flying to the floor. Kubota followed through, snatched the gun and shoved it in his jacket pocket. Tokito wrenched the guy's arms back and Kubota knelt swiftly to tie them with the man's own coat-belt. The left arm made a sickening noise as it pulled from its socket. Neither of them flinched.

The sirens were coming closer now.

Tokito looked a little calmer. "Are you okay? Kubo-chan, are you okay?"

"Yes."

"You were gone so long. What the fuck were you doing?"

"Working," Kubota said, and stepped over the bound ex-gunman, striding towards the guy on the steps. "Who are you?"

"Hitoku," he said. "I'm sorry you got caught up in this."

"Ah. Then this is yours." Kubota retrieved the package from behind the dumpster and handed it over. Hitoku stared at it.

"Sorry for the delay," said Kubota, lighting a fresh cigarette. "Looks like you were waiting at the wrong door." There was a presence at his side; he knew without looking that Tokito was there. Calm, alert. Protective.

"Shit." Hitoku stared at the package. "It's too late, it isn't... if they could come back and I've got it after all they'll kill me! What should I do?"

Sirens so close Kubota could see the light from the cars staining the puddles at the far end of the alley.

"I suggest you run," said Kubota dispassionately, and blew out a long plume of smoke.

Hitoku's feet splashed through rainwater as he fled into the darkness of the alley, package clasped to his chest.

"What the fuck was all that about?" Tokito said. "Kubo-chan?"

"I'm not sure," said Kubota. "Sometimes it's best not to ask."

He could see Kasai getting out of the car, swearing at the rain. His gaze met Kubota's without surprise, as if he'd expected him to be there, standing around an alley in the middle of the night.

"'Evening, Makoto. Hey, Toki-boy!"

"Hi," said Tokito.

"There's someone back here you might want to take in," said Kubota. "Been messing around with guns."

"Just guns?" said Kasai

"Far as I know," said Kubota. "Unless you've got anything different?"

"Had a report. False alarm."

Kubota nodded. "Here. You'd better take this."

He slipped the gun from his pocket and tossed it across to Kasai.

"Thanks," said Kasai. "And thanks for not using it," he added, pointedly.

"Can we go home now?" said Tokito. "I'm cold."

"Yes," said Kubota. "I don't see why not."

*

Kubota emerged from the shower to find Tokito sprawled out, taking up the whole couch, watching TV. His hair was mostly dry, sticking up in little spikes at the crown. He was wearing his old sweatpants and Kubota's t-shirt. There was a pizza box on the floor in front of him, and two steaming mugs of coffee.

Kubota made his way across the room, collecting his newspaper from the coffee table on the way.

"Shove up." He batted Tokito's legs; Tokito obediently folded them up to give Kubota room to sit. He kept his eyes on the screen. "What're you watching?"

"I'm not sure. Thriller, maybe. Came in half-way through."

Kubota stared at the screen for a moment. "Oh yeah. I've seen that one."

Tokito shifted around until he was sitting up; his head flopped onto Kubota's shoulder.

Kubota could smell his shampoo, his shower gel, the warm, fresh scent of his skin. He rested his cheek briefly on the top of Tokito's head. Just for a moment.

"Are you mad at me?" Tokito asked.

"Don't think so."

"Oh. Pass me my coffee, then?"

Kubota did so, picking up his own mug at the same time.

Tokito slurped his coffee, eyes focused on the TV, while Kubota read his paper.

*

Kubota woke with a start. The apartment was quiet for all but the rumbling of the television. He could see a thin sliver of grey light through the blinds; it must be almost morning. Tokito was spread along the length of the couch again, his head in Kubota's lap. Kubota absently stroked his hair, and yawned.

"Hey. Tokito. Wake up."

Tokito stirred a little, nuzzled into Kubota's thigh, and mumbled his way back to sleep.

Kubota sighed, not unhappily. It felt nice, he admitted to himself. Warm. Real.

"Hey," he said, giving Tokito's hair a gentle tug. "My leg's going to sleep."

Tokito grumbled a bit, but he eventually sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

"Time for bed," Kubota said.

"'Kay," said Tokito.

*

The bed is always too big when he's not in it.

Even though it's a very small bed, really.

Well, small for both of us.

I'm not complaining, though.

I just like it better when he's there.

With me.

*

Kubota flopped down on the bed next to Tokito, who wasn't quite asleep. He licked his lips, tasting the weird cherry mint toothpaste Tokito had bought. Interesting, but not quite right for toothpaste.

"Kubo-chan," Tokito murmured, and curled into Kubota's side, flinging one arm across Kubota's chest.

Without really thinking about it, Kubota picked up his hand, and kissed the palm. Tokito wriggled a bit, and Kubota lay his hand back down on his chest. Warm and soft.

"That man," Tokito said. "Tonight. If he'd killed you...."

Kubota could feel the tension coiling in Tokito's body, muscles tensing, skin twitching. "Then I'd be dead. But he didn't. So I'm not. Okay?"

"I can't-" Distress mounting in Tokito's voice, panic rising.

"Tokito." Kubota clenched his fingers in Tokito's hair, tipping his head up so they made eye contact. "I'm alive. Don't worry about anything the fuck else. Okay?"

Tokito's tongue darted out to lick his lips. He was breathing fast, his face still troubled.

"It's okay," Kubota said.

Tokito bounced up, all at once, and kissed him.

Fast. Fleeting. Barely more than....

Kubota rolled him swiftly onto his back, and kissed him properly. Hard, searching, his tongue stealing into Tokito's mouth and flicking at his teeth.

Tokito arched up, and for a moment Kubota thought he might be about to struggle. He made ready to let go and spring away. But Tokito just wound his arms around Kubota's neck, and tilted his head a little to make the kissing easier.

"Kubo-chan?" Tokito whispered into Kubota's mouth. "Does this mean I was gay?"

"Fucked if I care," Kubota said. "You want to stop?"

Tokito shook his head.

"Tell me if you change your mind."

And he kissed him again. Gay or not, Tokito was a damn good kisser, and Kubota couldn't help but wonder if he'd learned that, or if he was just a natural, or what. Didn't matter. It felt good. Tokito moaned softly and shifted against him, pressing his hips up to Kubota's. Kubota could feel the hard ridge of Tokito's cock, the sharp edges of his hipbones, the lean shifting muscles of his thighs.

Kubota threaded his fingers through Tokito's hair, and nipped at his lower lip. Tokito smiled. "This is good."

"Yep," said Kubota.

"I kind of want to...." Tokito writhed a bit, moving his hips in slow, sensuous circles.

"Go right ahead," said Kubota.

Tokito's eyes slid shut, and his tongue slowly ran over his lips as he moved, head tilting back, hips squirming. Kubota backed off a little, making Tokito work for it, reach for it. Tokito let out a little moan of protest, and pulled Kubota firmly down on top of him. More kissing, then, and Tokito was flushed, and breathing hard. "Touch me," he whispered.

Kubota ran his hand from Tokito's shoulder down his arm, flirted with his fingertips, lingered over his hipbones. Tugged at the waistband of his sweatpants. Tokito made as if to wriggle out of them, but Kubota was working his way back up his body, this time stroking his stomach, his ribs, and finally, so softly it had to tickle, his nipples. He kissed Tokito's neck and jaw and collarbones. He tugged off Tokito's t-shirt and took his tongue to Tokito's skin. Soft and wet and teasing.

Tokito quivered under his touch. His fingers fluttered in Kubota's hair, and soft noises escaped from his throat.

*

Warm. Touch.

Soft. Touch.

Hard. Touch.

Touch. Touch. Touch.

*

When Tokito comes there's nothing jerky or sudden about it. His whole body undulates, like a wave's running through it. His fingers tighten on Kubota's arms, and suddenly there's thick, salty come in Kubota's mouth, and Tokito is murmuring gratitude and wonder, and Kubota doesn't want to stop.

He doesn't have to stop. Tokito curls up in his arms but there's no stopping. Tokito gives Kubota pleasure shyly, cautiously, softly. By the time Kubota's done, Tokito is hard again.

And so it goes on, until the light in the room has faded into a warm afternoon glow, and they lie entwined and bound in sheets, and sleep.

*

"Kubo-chan?"

"Hmm?" Kubota doesn't take his eyes from the screen. He's about to beat his personal best.

His fingers fly on the controller, deft and sure.

"Are we...."

"Sure," said Kubota.

Tokito drapes an arm over Kubota's leg, and smiles.

~owari~