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Apartment 322

Chapter Text

September

 

Itsuki dropped his box of shoes and clothes with a huff. His back was killing him. Go figure, the day he moves into his apartment is the day the building's elevator breaks. He was lugging everything up three flights of steps. He knew he should have asked for more help, but he had figured the bed and tables were the heaviest and hardest, and those had already been moved in by his father and himself the day before.

And the goddamn elevator was working then.

He had made several trips up and down, gradually filling the narrow hallway with boxes of his clutter, past caring if any of his neighbors stole any of his belongings while he made another trip. But it was getting a little too full, now, and he didn't want to get sued for someone tripping and breaking an ankle.

He wiped sweat from his brow, reached into his pocket, and looked up at his white-painted door. 320, in big brass numbers, hung just above the peephole. His new home for his junior year of college. A fresh year, a fresh start.

Well, almost. He had technically started school a week prior, but his lease wasn't good for this place until now. But he wasn't starting his new job until Thursday, so he still had a few days to settle in, get homework done, and prep.

Itsuki turned the key and pushed open the door into the small, one-bedroom apartment. The walls were white, the carpet gray, but Itsuki wasn't picky; it was clean, it was cheap, it had AC and updated appliances.

"Hi!"

Itsuki jumped and spun around. A suntanned kid with brown hair and freckles stood in his open doorway. He was smiling brilliantly, white straight teeth, and the oddest golden-brown eyes. Itsuki smiled awkwardly and waved.

"Uh...hi. You live here?"

"Yep!" the kid said--he was actually very handsome, Itsuki reasoned-- "Across from you!" he threw his thumb over his shoulder at the door across, 321.

"Oh, nice to meet you, I'm Itsuki." Itsuki hastily wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans and held out his hand for the kid to take.

"Eijun. Nice to meet you. Need help?"

"Oh, no, that's okay," Itsuki said quickly, "I don't want to put you to any trouble."

"It's no trouble! I grew up on a farm, I can help you carry all these super fast! I'm good with manual labor!"

Itsuki bit back a laugh. Eijun was certainly enthusiastic.

Eijun's help made things go much smoother; he even helped Itsuki carry the rest of his boxes up from his car, which was remarkably kind of him.

"Thanks again," Itsuki sighed, as they dropped the last box in the living room, "I owe you a beer and some food. I know a great pizza place that delivers."

"I like pizza!"

"Great. Have a seat."

Eijun sat down on the loveseat Itsuki and his dad had moved in the day before.

"Water?"

Eijun nodded, his bright eyes roaming over the contents of the boxes curiously. Itsuki pulled out two glasses from one of the open boxes and filled them with water. Then he reached into the fridge and pulled out two beers. Eijun's eyes widened in surprise.

"My dad left them with me yesterday," Itsuki explained.

They sat and chatted a bit. Itsuki was shy, but Eijun was not. The conversation was easy, though, because Eijun took it upon himself to give his entire life story away; he was attending the same school Itsuki was, but was seeking a degree in military history.

Itsuki also noted that Eijun ate with more gusto than any other human being he had ever seen.

"I just moved in yesterday, so I'm not sure who our neighbors in 322 are," Eijun shrugged, pizza cheese dangling from his mouth, "But my roommate knows one of them. So I'll probably meet them soon."

"Oh, cool," Itsuki said, a little dazed by the rapidity of Eijun's chatter, "Who is your roommate?"

"Kuramochi. He's been my roommate ever since I started university."

"Oh. You sound like good friends."

Eijun shrugged.

"I guess. We hang out all the time. But my best friend is Haruichi!"

Itsuki was just about to remind Eijun that he had no idea who that was when there was a knock on his door.

"I'll get it!" Eijun said, jumping to his feet and wrenching the door open, "Ah! Speak of the devil!"

"Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the text, asshole, I was wondering where you were."

"I wanted to help our neighbor!"

The guy at the door peered around Eijun at Itsuki. His gaze was shrewd, sharp, perceptive. He had an earring in his ear, a tattoo on his wrist, and thick black boots. Itsuki wondered if he was hot in this late summer heat in such thick boots.

"Oh. Hey."

"Hi. Kuramochi, I take it?"

"Yeah."

"I'm Itsuki."

"Nice to meet 'ya," he said, then turned his attention back to Eijun, "I was gonna ask if you wanted to go next door and meet Kazuya, but he's not gonna be home 'till late. That ass. I haven't seen him all summer, and this is the treatment I get."

"Any friend of Kuramochi's is a friend of mine!" Eijun saluted.

"Pfft. I doubt you'll feel that way once you meet him. He's an absolute prick. I don't even know why I hang out with him. Pretty sure I'm his only friend. Well, I guess he gets along well with his roommate, too, but other than that, he's, like, the lamest human being on the planet."

Itsuki felt insulted for Kazuya, whoever he was. Apparently Eijun felt the same way.

"Kuramochi!" he exclaimed, "How could you say that about your friend?!"

"I'm just telling it like it is. He's not a bad guy, he's just an absolute dick."

Itsuki awkwardly peeled at the label on his empty beer bottle.

"Well," Kuramochi said, "Wanna play some GTA? You can come too, Itsuki."

"No thanks," Itsuki said, feeling tired and overwhelmed, "But definitely next time. I just have a lot of unpacking to do."

"Understandable. Let me or this idiot know if you need any more help."

"I'm not an idiot!"

"Yes you are. Come on."

Eijun swore darkly, but followed Kuramochi out. The door clicked shut, and Itsuki was surrounded no longer by noise, but by white walls and boxes. He felt oddly lonely. Eijun certainly had a way of brightening up a room.

He was halfway through his boxes when he heard a thud on his wall. He paused, but only for a moment, then continued unpacking. Then he heard another thud. And another.

It took only a few moments after that for him to realize that someone in room 322 was having sex . And loudly. Moans and groans were now heard, seeping through his kitchen and living room wall. Itsuki made a face and rolled his eyes. Whoever this Kazuya's roommate was, he was taking full advantage of the empty apartment.

It just got louder. Itsuki eventually gave up on trying to unpack, and began beating his head with one of his textbooks.

"Just finish..." he murmured, irritated, "Just hurry up and finish."

The thudding was faster now...apparently the headboard was up against Itsuki's wall, and Itsuki waited. And waited. He was almost impressed with the stamina. He glanced at his watch. Whoever was in there had been going at it for awhile. Itsuki had been beating his head with his textbook for quite some time.

Then it was done. He heard nothing now. Relieved, he stood up and stretched. It was getting late. He'd finish the rest in the morning. Now, all he wanted was a hot shower and a cup of tea. He yawned, and shuffled into the bathroom.

While he stood under the water, he couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to...well, to actually have sex. He wasn't unfriendly or anything, but he was shy when it came to that stuff. Growing up, he had tried to force himself to believe he was uninterested in anyone sexually.

Mostly because he was interested in men.

As a kid and teenager, that scared the shit out of him.

He finally came out a few years ago, when he went to college, but it didn't change anything. He was still quiet and kept to himself. He managed to have a lot of friends because he was likeable and polite, but he never had the courage to pursue anyone romantically.

He stared at himself in the foggy mirror for a while, trying to imagine if anyone would ever see him and think he was attractive. He poked his forehead. He tried smiling, dimples on either cheek popping up. He poked at those too. He stopped smiling. Then shrugged.

He didn't find himself particularly interesting, so he doubted anyone else would. He was just a geek who loved idol groups, sports, and math.

He was the most boring human being on the planet.

 

*

 

Mei yawned happily, drenched in sweat and tangled in sheets. He was exhausted. He put his hands behind his head and watched his ceiling fan swirl. He heard a light giggle and he grinned.

"That was amazing, Mei," she said, pale skin glowing.

"Obviously," he said, "This is me we're talking about, here."

She was lovely, that was for sure. Small waist, large bust, the whole shebang. Strands of her dyed burgundy hair lay strewn across the pillow, and his eyes fell to rest on a small tattoo of a mermaid she had on her wrist.

"Mmm," she said, smiling, then snuggled up next to him, her eyes dropping, "I'm sleepy."

"Me too. Let's sleep," he said, making sure his alarm was set on his phone, "We need our energy for class, don't we?"

"Pfft."

He turned out the light on his nightstand and made himself comfortable. Her arm felt oddly heavy on his ribcage, but he ignored it for now. He had met her while in the business building, but luckily she wasn't a business major (Mei didn't fuck around in-house). She had been posting flyers for poetry jams on corkboards everywhere.

Mei didn't give a shit about poetry, but he did give a shit about how great her ass was, so he took one from her and struck up a conversation. They had been sleeping with each other for a few weeks, now, which was honestly the only thing keeping Mei sane as his anxiety rose over his upcoming internship.

Mei slept soundly, and when his alarm went off the next day, he kept hitting snooze until he felt a light and playful slap on his cheek.

"Get up," she said, "You'll be late. Anyways, I'm heading out now. See you later."

"Bye."

He rolled out of bed, threw on some boxers, then shuffled out to the kitchen just as she walked out the front door.

Kazuya was, of course, already up, his hair a mess, glasses slightly askew, but a steaming mug of coffee and a newspaper in hand. He glanced up at Mei, then back down at the newspaper.

"Another one, eh? Whatever happened to what's-his-face?"

"I think he got a boyfriend or something," Mei said, opening the fridge and pulling out some orange juice, "And that was ages ago. But did you see her?"

"Yeah, yeah. I guess she's attractive," Kazuya shrugged, taking a sip of coffee.

"You guess ?" Mei said incredulously, "You've got to be kidding me."

"Okay, she's hot, I mean, what do you want me to say? I don't give a shit what you do as long as I don't hear it."

"Good thing you got home late, then," Mei said with a toothy grin. Kazuya ignored him.

"Anyways," Mei took a huge gulp of juice, then sat down across from his roommate, "When do you have work today?"

"Not until four."

"Jesus. Why are you awake?!"

"Because eight is a perfectly reasonable time to be awake."

"Oh, that's bullshit, you like sleeping in like the rest of us. And you got home late."

Kazuya sighed, and got that weird look on his face that he usually did when he was clamming up. Mei rolled his eyes. Fine. He didn't have to tell him, anyways. It was probably nerves over his promotion.

Kazuya and Mei had known each other since high school. Post graduation, they decided to live together, here in room 322, and had remained ever since. Mei was now a senior business student in college, destined to work for his father's multimillion dollar corporation, and Kazuya had opted out of college in favor of culinary school. He had been out of school and working for a few years now, and had just been promoted to sous-chef at this pleasant French bistro about twenty minutes away. Mei didn't really know why, with a full-time salary and a good job, he remained in an apartment like this. Perhaps it was because it was familiar. He didn't bother asking; Kazuya wouldn't give him a straight answer anyway.

It was odd, really, how good of roommates they were. Mei had always respected Kazuya, even back when they were playing baseball together in high school, but Kazuya always seemed to try and avoid Mei any chance he could get. They had never been 'friends', per se, but there was a certain camaraderie that had come with years of living together.

Besides, Kazuya was usually unpleasant. He only had one friend, anyway, and it was that punk kid across the hall (also an acquaintance from high school).

"Well, I'm gonna shower," Mei announced after a moment.

"Have fun."

"I will. Also, do you know anything about our new neighbor next door?"

"Nope. He moved in yesterday, Mochi said."

"Huh. And doesn't your friend also have a roommate?"

"Yep. Haven't met him, either. They’ve been roommates for years, but I have never met him personally."

"Maybe we should invite everyone over for drinks," Mei said, excitement at meeting new people bubbling throughout his body.

"Of course you'd say that. You love flaunting around like a peacock."

"I'm just saying. It's not every day people move into this apartment complex that are young like us!"

This was true. The majority of the complex was filled with older people, many of whom were unable to retire. There were also a few families, but hardly any young adults.

"No."

"Kazuya, don't be a fucking dick. You never let me have parties!"

"You have them anyway! All the damn time!"

"Well this is a neighborly thing to do."

"Okay. Do it."

Mei blinked.

"What?"

"I said, fine. Do it."

He was a little unnerved; if there was one thing Kazuya enjoyed more than a dark cup of coffee, it was a good mind game. And he was very, very good at it. What was he playing at?

"...okay," Mei said, "I...will, then."

"Good. Great. Have a good shower."

Mei paused. Kazuya smiled pleasantly at him.

 

*

 

Eijun was having a hard time paying attention to his reading, which was rare. He usually enjoyed his history textbooks, and sometimes, though he'd never admit it, pretend he was living the era he was studying. He'd imagine what it would be like, who he would be, how he would interact. It was his favorite thing to do, other than play guitar and run in his free time.

Of course, it was stressful as well. With a history major came a lot of memorization and essay-writing. Neither of those things came naturally to him, and he struggled to keep his grades up. But he tried hard regardless. He had never received the best grades in high school, but now that he knew what he wanted to do with his life, he was determined to do well in college.

Unfortunately, his best work was often average. But it was better than nothing, right?

Eijun slowly rested his head on a page and closed his eyes a minute. He had been reading for awhile now. Perhaps it was time to stretch and walk around a little.

His phone buzzed.

 

Yo Sawamoron, my friend Kazuya said we should come over tonight for drinks. You can come?

 

Eijun paused, glancing at his mountain of work, as well as some half-written music on the floor (another hobby of his). He had a lot to do, but perhaps it would be a nice distraction. Besides, he was curious to meet Kuramochi's friend across the hall.

ya i can do that but i cant stay late

 

Np

 

*

 

Kazuya put away the vacuum as soon as Mei walked in carrying a case of beer and a few bottles of liquor.

"You were gone awhile," he said accusingly, "You left me to clean the damn place."

"I'm surprised you care so much," Mei snorted, setting the booze down on the counter, "You never give a shit when Kuramochi comes over."

"Yeah, but I don't want these new neighbors sitting in your filth, either. I ," Kazuya grinned innocently, "Am a very hospitable host."

"Ugh, stop, you're creeping me out," Mei snapped, "Everyone knows you're rotten to the core."

"Haha, thank you!"

"That wasn't--"

A knock on the door interrupted their banter.

"Already?" Mei said with a frown, glancing down at his watch, "I told them six. I haven't even showered yet. Or eaten dinner."

"I contacted Kuramochi and left a little note on our mystery neighbor's door," Kazuya said, feeling satisfaction ooze through his limbs at finally being able to spring this on his roommate, "I told them to come at four. After all, we don't want to be up too late tonight. It is a weekend, but I don't know about you, but I have a lot of work to do."

Mei glared.

"You didn't tell me this?!"

"Must have slipped my mind. Also, I told them that you would be providing them dinner, so to come hungry. You might want to get out your wallet so we can order a few pizzas."

Mei's jaw dropped, and fire practically shot from his blue eyes. Kazuya just smiled benignly, then walked over to the door.

"Just one moment," he called, then he looked back at Mei, "You might wanna shower quick; I do know how you love to make an entrance...and you kind of smell."

Mei was livid.

"I came from the gym, you fucking--"

Kazuya pulled open the door, and Mei fled to the bathroom before he could even finish his insult. Ah, so satisfying. Kazuya didn't even want to have this get-together in the first place. And vain, vain Mei would of course need to shower beforehand.

"Come on in," Kazuya said to Kuramochi.

"Yo, what's up dude?" Kuramochi said, walking in and looking around, "Wow, it's even cleaner than usual, you weird neat-freak."

"Pfft."

"KURAMOCHI, THIS CASE IS HEAVY, WHERE SHOULD I PUT IT?!"

Kazuya winced at the shrill voice, and he spun around to glare. But he just couldn't. The boy in the doorway was carrying a hefty 24-pack of canned beer, brown bangs fanned over his forehead, muscles in his arms in full flexion.

He had golden eyes. Golden eyes.

Kazuya felt like he had been hit by a truck.

"I dunno, Kazuya, where should he put it?"

Kazuya stared at the tanned skin, light dusting of freckles, not too many and not too few, at the strong jawline and the--

"Dude!" Kuramochi snapped, "Get it together. Just put it on the counter, moron."

"I am not a moron!" the kid snapped, heaving the case to the counter.

"I take it you're Eijun," Kazuya said, trying to get his footing back. He had no idea why the kid had affected him so, but he was most certainly intrigued.

"Yes, sir!" Eijun saluted happily, smiling gorgeously at him. Kazuya quickly looked away.

"Wow, Kuramochi, is this guy even real?" he asked.

"I ask myself that every day," Kuramochi said, rolling his eyes, and plopping down on the couch.

Kazuya cackled. Eijun glared.

"You don't even know me!" he said.

"I don't have to," Kazuya grinned, walking up to Eijun and tearing open the case, "'Weirdo' is written all over your face!"

Eijun sputtered angrily, as Kazuya grabbed two cans from the box; one for himself, and one for Kuramochi.

"I--you--I don't even--we just met! How mean!" he finally managed, pointing fiercely. Kazuya chuckled, tossed a beer to Kuramochi and opened his own.

"So, Kuramochi, how was your day?" he said, taking a casual sip.

"Don't turn away from me! I'm talking to you, you--you--glasses-wearing...glasses-wearing..."

"You wound me," Kazuya said, "How do you come up with such biting insults?"

"I'M LEAVING!" Eijun yelled, "Kuramochi, you're right, this guy is awful!"

Kazuya cackled, but he definitely didn't want Eijun to leave, so he quickly slid an arm over his shoulder. Eijun smelled kind of vanilla-y.

"Don't leave," he said, smiling cockily but voice serious, "Sit down and have a beer. We'll be ordering pizza in a bit. And we haven't met our other neighbor yet. Though I doubt he'll be as fun as you."

Eijun grumbled darkly, and shook off Kazuya's arm. He snatched a beer from the table, then stormed over to the couch with Kuramochi.

"Um..." there was a voice at the door, "Can I come in?"

Everyone looked. The door had accidentally been left ajar, and a heavy-lidded man with dark hair was peering inside.

"I'm Itsuki...your neighbor...I got this note," he held it out as though it was some sort of white flag.

"Oh," Kazuya said, "Yeah, come in."

Itsuki pushed open the door, and quietly closed it behind him. He was tall and muscular, with bags under his eyes and a perpetual weariness about him, as though he never got enough rest.

"I'm Kazuya," he held out his hand, "And this is Kuramochi and Eijun."

"We met before," Itsuki said, glancing at the couch, "Eijun helped me move in the other day."

"Oh. Cool."

An awkward silence descended upon them. Mei's shower was the only sound.

"Um, feel free to grab a drink," Kazuya waved over at the counter, "And we will be ordering some food as soon as my diva of a roommate finishes primping."

Itsuki nodded gratefully and, to Kazuya's surprise, ignored the beer and poured himself a glass of whiskey from one of the bottles Mei bought. Kuramochi said nothing, but nodded in silent in approval.

"So, Itsuki," Eijun said with a bright wave, "How was your week? I know you started that engineering job!"

"It's not an 'engineering' job, exactly," he said, standing awkwardly next to Kazuya and scratching the back of his head, "It's just at a factory. To make extra money while I'm getting my mechanical engineering degree. But they know I'm studying engineering, and I think if I do good work there, they may hire me post graduation."

"What do you do there now?" Kazuya asked.

"Just operate machinery," Itsuki shrugged, "But they really give me special treatment. Sometimes they call me into the offices to show me what their engineers do. It's really cool, 'cause I can actually see them in the field."

"That sounds cool!" Eijun said, wide-eyed.

"Yeah, but the job itself is kinda boring," Itsuki laughed, "I mean, it's just me pressing buttons all day."

"Still, it's a good foot in the door, ya know?" Kuramochi said with a shrug.

"Hello!" Mei said, walking into the room, one hand in his pocket, and the other slightly outward in a sign of greeting. He was wearing a crisp, red button-down and jeans, his hair still wet but somehow still put-together. Always has to make an entrance , Kazuya thought dryly.

"Oh...hello.”

"Hey."

"Hi!"

"This is my roommate, Mei," Kazuya said dismissively, taking a gulp of beer.

"Nice to meet you all," Mei said, smiling charmingly, but his blue eyes were cold and calculating; sizing up these neighbors into neat little packages in his mind, no doubt.

"I'm Eijun!" Eijun waved brightly, "Nice to meet you! I think I've seen you around campus! You're a business major, right?"

"Yes," Mei said, clearly pleased at having been recognized in some sort of capacity, "Yes I am. So you go to the university as well? Does everyone else?"

Itsuki and Kuramochi nodded.

"Great!" Mei said, pouring himself a glass of vodka on ice, "What are you guys studying?"

"Military history!" Eijun said, and Kazuya choked on his beer. For some reason that was the last thing he was expecting, "I want to go to grad school and be a professor!"

"Are you serious?" Kazuya chuckled.

"Yes," Eijun snapped, "I am. Got a problem with that?"

"No," Kazuya flashed his teeth into his most predatory grin, "But I do find it really hilarious."

Mei looked between the two of them in confusion, Kazuya's grin and Eijun's angry pinched face, shrugged, then looked to Kuramochi.

"I'm studying graphic design. I'm Kuramochi. I live with Eijun across the hall."

"Nice."

There was a beat of silence before Itsuki realized everyone was looking at him and he gave a little jump.

"Oh! Um, I'm Itsuki, from next door. I'm a junior. Studying mechanical engineering."

"Itsuki is working in a factory to try and get experience in the field!" Eijun said, smiling at Itsuki. It seemed like pure excitement, but Kazuya had a feeling that Eijun was doing it on purpose, to try to get Itsuki to relax a little. Huh. Maybe the kid wasn't so oblivious after all.

"Well, everyone down for some pizza?" Kazuya asked, "Mei has been generous enough to buy us all food."

"Thanks, man, you didn't have to do that!" Kuramochi said.

Mei smiled, a well-practiced and political smile. No one but Kazuya and probably Kuramochi (who was too perceptive for his own good) could pick up on the brittleness of it. Kazuya was extremely pleased with himself. Served Mei right, for always having loud sex and loud parties all the time.

"Not a problem; I'm happy to do it."

They ordered the pizza, and everyone sat down; Kazuya, Eijun, and Kuramochi on the couch, Itsuki on the floor in front of the coffee table, and Mei cross legged in the armchair. Kazuya lost track of what everyone else was doing; he was too preoccupied with nosing in on Eijun's conversations with Kuramochi. Eventually, Itsuki, Mei, and Kuramochi got to talking about something, and Kazuya got his chance. He leaned in conspiratorially.

"You know, I actually think you'd make a decent professor."

Eijun jumped at the closeness, sandwiched in between Kazuya and Kuramochi, and frowned in confusion at him.

"What?"

"I said, I think you'll make a decent history professor."

Eijun studied him a moment, and Kazuya could see him struggling to figure out whether there was some hidden meaning behind the comment.

"I'm serious," Kazuya added, feeling a little bad that he had teased Eijun so mercilessly.

"Well...thanks," Eijun said after a moment, then he brightened up, "What are you studying?"

"Nothing. I'm a sous-chef at a French restaurant," Kazuya said.

"Woaaah! You're like...a real adult!"

Kazuya looked at him in bemusement, then chuckled.

"If you say so."

"Why do you stay here? With a salary, you could probably afford a better place to live."

"I..." Kazuya trailed away. The thought had crossed his mind before, but moving seemed to be a big hassle. True, Mei was obnoxious all the time with his constant chatter and parties and sexual escapades, but living alone seemed very...troublesome.

A part of Kazuya wanted to live alone. But another part of him was worried that if he did, he'd recede so far into himself he'd never emerge again. Growing up, he was always alone. His mother was gone and his father worked all the time. And when he wasn't working, he was drinking. So Kazuya took care of himself. Always.

And it was very, very quiet, alone in that apartment growing up. The type of quiet that fizzled through your skin and made your ears pound. Sometimes, when he got home from school, Kazuya would wander around with pots and pans and bang them just to make some noise in the apartment. Or at least he did that when he was little. By the time he got to high school, he started creeping around the apartment on tiptoe, even though no one was around. He stopped humming and sighing and even stopped watching tv because it all seemed too loud.

Other than school, he interacted with no one. He played baseball, hung out with his teammates, and went home. He got along well with Kuramochi, but for some reason, they never hung out outside of school and practice. He would get up early in the morning, made breakfast for himself and his father, eat silently across from him, go to school, go to practice, come home, make dinner, eat silently again, wash dishes, do homework, and go to bed.

That was it. Every day.

Things didn't change until he went to culinary school. He knew Mei from school as well, and though he found Mei to be obnoxious and flippant, decided to room with him anyways. And so here he was. Gradually, throughout the years, Mei's constant socializing and party-making had gotten rid of the ear-pounding in Kazuya's head. Though Kazuya still didn't have any friends, he had a lot of acquaintances, people he could chat with in social situations comfortably, a buzz of activity that distracted him from what was hollowing him from the inside-out.

If he lived alone, he was afraid he'd go back to tip-toeing.

"I have no reason to leave," he said finally, "This place is neat and clean and has all I need. I'll probably have to move out next year, though, because I'm sure Mei will get some posh penthouse in the city or something, since he has a huge job lined up after graduation..."

"Oh," Eijun said. He was studying Kazuya a little too closely, and Kazuya quickly retreated, feeling as though he had somehow given something away, though he wasn't sure how.

"Um, want another beer?" he asked. Eijun nodded, and Kazuya escaped to the kitchen area.

He was going to have to watch out for that one, that was for sure. That kid was dangerous.

 

*

 

Itsuki did not like Mei. At all.

When he had come into the apartment, he was relieved to see two familiar faces already present; especially Eijun, who was friendly and welcoming. The glasses-wearing one, Kazuya, was polite enough, but seemed reclusive. He was handsome, though. Built similarly to Itsuki in frame and bulk, Itsuki assumed he had an athletic background. He had brown hair, dark glasses, and expressive eyebrows in high arcs that shifted depending upon how he was analyzing the situation. And boy, was he analyzing. He seemed especially interested in Eijun, who appeared to unwittingly have his attention the majority of the evening. Itsuki wasn't sure to what end, nor did he particularly care. Eijun was a magnetic person, perhaps it was only natural people gravitated towards him.

What threw Itsuki off was Mei. Like Eijun, he had a magnetic quality to him, a sort of pull that made it hard for Itsuki to look away. Unlike Eijun, however, Itsuki found his particular pull to somehow be... alluring . There was a natural elegance about the way he moved, and a seductive way he would smile, or slide his hand into his pocket casually. Long, thin, and pale fingers held his glass of vodka, and Itsuki had the oddest sensation he was looking at some sort of glossy-paged picture of a model at an exclusive party.

Itsuki definitely knew he was the one having sex the day he moved in.

Mei was glamorous, that was for sure, and clearly loved attention. Itsuki learned that fast. However, he seemed very uninterested in talking to Itsuki, not even sparing him anything more than a polite and somehow pitying glance, until Kuramochi found the video games and began challenging Eijun and Kazuya to matches, leaving Itsuki and Mei awkwardly out of the loop.

"So, you're studying mechanical engineering?" Mei asked finally.

"Yeah," Itsuki said, feeling irritated that only now, after being snubbed for so long, he was finally worth attention.

"Hmm. And what do you plan to do with that?"

"Become a mechanical engineer," Itsuki said a little patronizingly. He saw Mei's eyebrow arch slightly, and he decided immediately he didn't want to be completely on his bad side, so he elaborated, "I have a job now that might help me get a jump start in the field. It's menial labor now, but the management lets me shadow the engineers sometimes."

"I see."

"Yep. Uh...what are you studying?" Itsuki asked, suddenly realizing Mei had never told them what he was doing.

"Business. Though it's just a formality; I pretty much know all there is to know," Mei said cockily, leaning back into the armchair regally, vodka and ice clinking in the glass, "I already have a job lined up after graduation this year...as an executive in my father's company."

"Oh, wow," Itsuki said, genuinely impressed, "That must be exciting."

Mei shrugged nonchalantly.

"I mean, I knew I was going to be doing this since the day I was born, so whatever. I'm just excited to be able to afford a private jet of my own, instead of having to always use my dad's when I want to get anywhere."

Itsuki was half-fascinated, half-disgusted by Mei's obvious bragging.

"Why here? Why this apartment, then?" he asked.

"Well, I get a certain allowance from my dad, but I wanted to live with someone during college, and no one could afford me," he laughed, "So I had to settle."

"...I see."

"Yeah, but it's not so bad," Mei went on, his blond hair shining in the television light, "Kazuya is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he's not awful . Except, of course, when he doesn't tell people certain things...like when to be ready for something."

Itsuki glanced over at Kazuya, just in time to see Kazuya give Mei a little smirk, then go back to looking at the race happening on the tv.

"Uh, okay."

"Yes, well, anyway," Mei sighed, draining his glass, "Get me another, will you? You look empty as well. Have more of that whiskey."

Before Itsuki could say anything, Mei shoved his glass in his hand. Being the painfully polite person he was, he swallowed down any smartass remarks he had, stood, and refilled both glasses; vodka for Mei, whiskey for himself.

"Thank you," Mei said, almost flirtatiously, when Itsuki handed him the glass. Their fingers brushed for a second, but Itsuki jerked his hand away quickly. He continued to stand in front of Mei rather than sit. He felt like there was a weird power-play at work, and he didn’t want to sit below Mei’s level.

"So," he said quickly, trying to hide his flush, "You get an allowance? That must be nice."

"My allowance ended a few days ago, when I began my internship at my dad's business," Mei said, "It's a paid internship, and though it isn't as much as my allowance, it is plenty for me to have anything I need."

"Oh."

"Are you an athlete?" Mei asked suddenly. Itsuki looked up from his whiskey, to see Mei's eyes roaming over his body. It made him a little uncomfortable.

"Um, I used to play a lot of sports in high school. I still go to the gym regularly."

"Mmm, yes you do," Mei said, taking a sip of vodka. Itsuki felt himself go red again. What was this?

"So, Itsuki, are you seeing anyone?" Mei asked casually.

Itsuki downright choked on his whiskey, and his eyes burned from the strength of the alcohol.

"Ah--no, I'm not."

"That, I believe."

Itsuki felt a little bubble of anger in his stomach, but it quickly dissipated. Mei had a point. Itsuki was terribly boring and very average-looking. He didn't answer, just sighed and nodded. He wanted to ask Mei if he was seeing anyone, but he was too scared. He didn't know why. Plus, he wasn't sure who would be able to put up with Mei's attitude long enough to date him, money or no.

Itsuki didn't like Mei. He confused him.

 

*

 

By the time everyone had stumbled back to their apartments, Mei was in a fairly good mood. He had enjoyed himself thoroughly. Kazuya didn't say anything to him, just shuffled off to bed.

He had gotten along very well with Eijun, who had a fresh perspective on things that Mei found refreshing, and Kuramochi was kind of hot up close (Mei had never paid attention to him before). Unfortunately, though, Mei was pretty sure he was straight.

Itsuki. That poor, poor man. Brains and brawn, but no inclination to flaunt either of them. He was unbearably boring at first. But he had a grit to him that he was trying hard to hide with complacency and politeness...Mei did not miss those occasional smartass remarks. So at least the guy wasn't completely spineless.

Mei was getting a little tipsy and bored, so he decided to flirt with Itsuki and see what happened. Itsuki was horribly awkward, blushing and stammering a little. It was kind of cute. Mei wondered if he was gay. He seemed pretty straight, but Mei's gaydar was pretty good.

Mei wondered how big his dick was.

Itsuki was the first to leave, yawning hugely, the bags underneath his eyes seeming more pronounced...how come Mei hadn't noticed how worn-down he looked before?

"I'm heading out," he said, "I have so much work to do tomorrow. Thank you for the pizza and drinks."

"Not a problem," Mei said, watching as Itsuki stretched, his shirt hiking up, revealing a peek of strong abdominals and a dark line of hair trailing from his bellybutton into his jeans. Hmm. Not bad.

Mei didn't know why, he never analyzed these things, but he wanted to see Itsuki again. He seemed like a good person to talk at and drag around, plus he was pretty cute (especially with those dimples on each cheek on those rare occasions he smiled). It might be fun.

*

 

Eijun's phone was going off. If he didn't hurry, he'd miss the gig. Panicked, he stumbled around his room, throwing homework everywhere in a desperate attempt to find his stupid guitar pick. He finally found it.

Then he ran.

It was cutting it much too close to take the bus, so he had to finally give in and drive his car (he could kiss his great parking spot goodbye), a rusty old stick shift with no working AC and a glitchy tape player.

"I'm almost there!" he yelled into his phone, slamming his car door shut, "Give me fifteen minutes!"

"Geez, you better be...we'll be without our lead singer and guitarist..."

Eijun hung up, threw his phone on the passenger seat, glanced in his rearview mirror at his guitar case, then wiggled his car out of the tight spot.

Eijun chose to keep this music part of his life secret. And that was saying something, as Eijun liked to talk about everything .

He had started this band at the tail-end of high school, when a few of his friends discovered his talent for writing music (he sucked at lyrics, though...the band's bassist usually wrote the lyrics), and they all kind of congregated together. The band had a bit of a rough start, but caught on as a relatively talented and popular local band in a few of the neighborhoods. As the gigs got steadier, the extra money was a nice little side for Eijun as he didn't have the attention span to work through college.

People began asking for merch, so they began selling merch. People asked for CD's, so they sold CD's. They were getting quite a following, but still Eijun kept his mouth shut.

And he knew why.

Guilt.

His father had been the one to teach him the guitar, having had guitar lessons his whole life. He went college to pursue music. He main goal was to become a rock star, but he wanted to learn everything he could about music first. Unfortunately, he dropped out after a year and a half when his band got a record deal.

The deal fell through.

Normal adulthood happened. He got a job. He met Eijun's mother. They got married. They had Eijun. They lived on Eijun's mother's father's farm.

Eijun's dad never went back to school. He put away his guitar. He forgot, or tried to, all about it. Until Eijun found his guitar one day.

It was like seeing a whole new person, the first day his dad showed him to play. It was like a part of him had come to life after being in hibernation for a really, really long time. His dad's eyes flashed gold, not the dull bronze they usually were, as he strummed and tuned and laughed. Eijun was captivated. Eijun tried to play, too, but his hands were too small. So his dad bought him a little guitar and showed him everything he could.

They played together a lot, after a hard summer's day of work, on the back porch of their house. They played duets to the bullfrogs and fireflies and sang to the dark rustling trees and spatter of stars.

But Eijun's dad was also always a little sad after they finished playing. Eijun would catch him staring at the smooth wood, as though trying to see what his life could have been in its reflection.

Eijun eventually played around with electric guitars (also under the tutelage of his father), and began writing his own music. He could read music quite well, and understood some basic music theory, but that shit was extremely complex, so he pretty much just wrote the notes he liked on a page, and knew he was probably not doing it right. After all, he nor his father ever graduated college with this stuff. But he enjoyed it. It was a great way for him to express himself.

He never shared this music with his father. He was too scared. He didn't want his dad to be sad.

It wasn't like the band itself was incredibly successful, anyways; they had a decent following and made some money with their CD's and merch, but they were independent and still relatively unknown outside of the city. But Eijun still felt like he was, in some way, betraying his father. Backstabbing him.

The secrecy bled into everyday life; even Kuramochi didn't know. Eijun would stumble in drunk after a gig and Kuramochi would just assume he went out with friends. Eijun would usually lock his guitars in the trunk of his car (a dumb idea, though, considering they were incredibly expensive) until the next morning, when he would smuggle them inside while Kuramochi was out for a morning run. Kuramochi knew Eijun played, of course, but he only thought it was in the privacy of their apartment.

"Thank you god , I thought you said fifteen minutes!" Tick, the bassist, exclaimed, downing a shot of whiskey.

"Sorry, traffic!" Eijun said loudly, pushing through the crowded bar, guitar case over his shoulder, and another in his hand.

"We set up already, you can strike everything yourself afterwards," Tick burped. Eijun shrugged. It was kind of fair, he supposed. He wasn't sure how he was going to be able to load everything into that van all by himself, though...

"Good, you're here, you've got five minutes, bro," the drummer said, walking up with their keyboardist (and sometimes second guitarist...he was a talented guy).

Eijun nodded, then made his way to the stage to prepare. As he fumbled with his cases, he tried not to think about how much homework he'd have to do tomorrow. But he felt that usual adrenaline course through his veins, that high-like feeling lifting his brain. He loved this, playing and singing like this. The bar was loud and crowded, and he saw a bunch of their usual fans talking excitedly amongst themselves. Eyes watched him take out his equipment, men and women alike smiling at him offering him drinks. A sort of swagger fell into his bones when he performed. He felt like he became someone else. Someone cooler, someone edgier, someone smarter and sexier and grittier, and when the crowd gathered around and Eijun heard his drummer count, he grinned.

"One, two, three, four..."

 

*

Kazuya yawned. It was one in the morning and he was exhausted . It had been a busy day at the restaurant and he had been given the task of coming up with a few new soups for the following week. It was easy enough, but to his weary mind, the chore loomed over him. He'd brainstorm tomorrow.

He walked into the elevator and hit '3'. Just as the doors started to close he heard a 'wait!' and a bang! as whoever it was shoved their arm stupidly in between the closing doors, which clanged to a halt, then jerked open again. He sighed, and moved over to make room.

"Oh. You ."

Kazuya was a little confused; in his exhausted delirium, it took him a minute to realize that it was Eijun standing before him. And he was scowling. Kazuya broke into a smile.

"Is that how you greet your neighbor?"

"Stupid Kazuya," Eijun grumbled, walking into the elevator, "Are you going to make fun of me today?"

" Tonight I won't," he grinned, "I'm feeling tired. I just got home from work. Where the hell have you been?"

Eijun looked a little sweaty and grimy, like he had gone for a run, only he was wearing jeans and a black tee.

"Um," Eijun looked away, "I went to the bar with some friends."

"Oh."

The elevator began creakily ascending. They were quiet. Kazuya was having trouble keeping his eyes open.

"Are you okay?"

Kazuya glanced over. Eijun was looking at him, gold eyes big and bright, and it was a little jarring.

"Uh, yeah, just tired. I went in early today, too, and stayed late."

"That sucks."

"Yeah."

"So...you're like...a good cook, right?"

Kazuya started chuckling just as the elevator doors opened to their floor.

"I mean...I hope so. I'm a chef."

Eijun exhaled loudly.

"You don't have to laugh! I was just trying to make conversation!"

"No, no, it's a valid question," Kazuya said, still smiling, and fishing out his keys, "I'm sure some people in the world don't like my cooking. They are probably troglodytes, though."

To Kazuya's surprise, Eijun followed him to his door, rather than stop at his own.

"What's your favorite thing to cook?"

Kazuya paused. Huh. What was his favorite thing to cook? He never really thought about it.

"I...am not sure. I enjoy making a lot of things. I enjoy the delicacy of seafood dishes, but soups are a lot of fun."

Eijun's eyes widened in reverence.

"Whoa! That's so cool! I wish I could cook...but Kuramochi says I'm not allowed near the kitchen."

"That's funny, coming from him. He doesn't even know how to boil water," Kazuya laughed.

"I know! He orders food all the time! Or lives off of potato chips!"

"You both are going to starve."

"Please come cook for us sometime!" Eijun exclaimed, slapping his hands on his cheeks, "I don't want to starve! You can teach me to make something easy!"

"Pfft. Absolutely not."

"Pleeeease! It's the neighborly thing to do! I'll pay for the groceries for it!"

Kazuya unlocked his door and pushed it open.

"I'll think about it."

"Oh, please, Kazuya! Do some good in your life!"

"Okay, so you'll pay for the food. But what do I get from this?"

Eijun paused. Thought. His brow was furrowed harshly.

"Hmm...I'll...I'll feed you drinks!"

"Not good enough."

"I don't know! What do you want?"

"Nothing you have," Kazuya grinned, starting to close the door.

"Ah! No! I'm gonna die of starvation!"

Kazuya cackled, then shut the door with a harsh click. He stood there and listened to Eijun wail a little, then he slowly opened it a fraction of an inch.

"Fine. I'll do it. You owe me."

"Really?! Wow, thanks Kazu--"

Kazuya shut the door in his face.

 

*

 

Itsuki had a rhythm down. After mechanically doing the same repetitive action for awhile, it became second nature and his mind roamed. He had his headphones in and was listening to his favorite idol groups as he watched the machine he was operating handle a large sheet of steel. The air was thick with something, and Itsuki could only assume it was carbon emissions as well as micro-particles from the metal.

It was a good thing Itsuki only planned on doing this job for two years. Otherwise, he'd probably die. Already his lungs felt heavier than they had ever felt before. The old-timers who had worked here for several years all had a grating cough, and on top of breathing in the bad air, many of them chain-smoked.

His bored eyes caught movement above, and he glanced up to see his supervisor leave the offices and saunter down the stairs, clipboard in hand.

His supervisor's office was downstairs, near the entrance to the factory, but he enjoyed spending time upstairs, where the owners and engineers were. The man himself was rather short and gruff; he had a criminal background, Itsuki discovered through the grapevine, but what he had been locked up for was a mystery. Regardless, he had been out of jail for several years and had become quite successful at the factory. Itsuki didn't care for him; he was overly sarcastic and somewhat arrogant, and he certainly hadn't taken kindly to the interest the higher-ups had in Itsuki, who had just been hired a few weeks ago.

"Tadano!"

Itsuki pulled off his gloves, and yanked one of his headphones from his ear.

"Yes, sir?"

"Engineers wanna see you," he said, his cigarette-stained yellow fingernails covered in cuts and calluses digging into the clipboard, "Looks like you get to goof off from your duties again."

"If you say so, sir," Itsuki said, staring at those fingernails, "If you say so."

Itsuki set his gloves down, and stood up from his metal stool to stretch. His supervisor glared, put on the gloves, and took his place.

The offices above were cool and quiet in comparison to the extreme heat and noise below. Itsuki stood for a moment, relief spreading through his muscles, as he breathed filtered air.

"Itsuki! Come on in here!"

Itsuki smiled as he walked past the secretary, an older woman with gray-brown hair.

"Have a seat," his boss said, the owner.

Itsuki glanced over to see the three engineers they had on staff sitting at a table. Itsuki walked over to them and sat, feeling a little sweaty and smelly next to them.

"Itsuki, Itsuki, Itsuki..." his boss smiled, "How is your day?"

"Good. Making decent headway on those parts."

"Glad to hear it. I called you up here, because I figured it would be good experience for you to work with these guys," he gestured to the engineers.

Itsuki was quiet. He had already worked, in small doses, with these individuals, sometimes shadowing, sometimes helping. What was so different about this time?

"We want to give you more responsibility," he said, "All under supervision, of course. I'd especially like you to help out Four-Eyes, over there."

'Four-Eyes' was an affectionate term for the sometimes brazen, and oftentimes vaguely obnoxious skinny glasses-wearing engineer in his early thirties. He was the youngest of the three, and Itsuki had the sneaking suspicion he was going to take over as the main engineer in a few years when the eldest retired.

"What kind of responsibility?" Itsuki asked.

"Helping with the math, planning, anything, really," Four-Eyes said, "You won't really be in the factory very much. We're going to hire someone else to take your place."

"So..." Itsuki trailed away, "Um...will I get paid?"

"Of course!" the owner said, "Think of this as a paid internship. We like you a great deal and think you have a bright future...who knows, maybe there will be a job waiting for you when you graduate."

Itsuki caught his breath funny, and coughed.

"I--wow--um, that sounds great!" he choked out after a painfully long and awkward coughing fit.

"Excellent. You'll finish up this week as a machine operator. Next week, report up here instead of down there."

"Yes sir! Um...how would you like me to dress?"

Itsuki didn't know if this was a dumb question or not. He wore old jeans and grimy t-shirts down on the floor so he didn't ruin any of his good clothes. Up here, they dressed casually, jeans and tees (even the secretary), but he didn't want to make any assumptions.

"Just jeans are fine."

Itsuki felt a little lightheaded. The fluorescents above made the room appear to wobble. They hinted at a future job, they hinted at a future job!

"I'll work hard!" he exclaimed, "Thank you for this opportunity!"

They all smiled at him.

"We know," the owner said, "That's why we offered this to you in the first place. You'll do great work here. I'm very excited."

 

*

 

Mei pulled his car around to the drive-thru window.

"Here's your frappucino, have a great day!"

Mei nodded in thanks, took his drink and sped off. He was not having a good day. At all.

He had been working at his father's company for a week now, and it was proving to be easy and glamorous. All of the executives loved him and treated him well, and his father started taking him to important luncheons to observe discussions and other such dealings. It seemed like the perfect gig.

Except for one small thing.

No one actually asked Mei to help with anything big or significant. Every day, he had the same tasks, simple paperwork or helping an executive prep for a meeting. Then, if he was working during the day, he'd usually go to lunch with his father and, sometimes, clients. That was probably the most rewarding experience he had so far.

At first Mei didn't understand why some of the 'normal' interns (who were barely paid and were obviously not destined to be an executive upon graduation like him) got to help with larger projects, or even had their opinions taken seriously, while he was stuck shuffling around in his fancy suits with nothing to show for it.

Then it hit him like ton of bricks.

No one trusted him to do anything. Even his father. Those other interns were hired because of their resumes, their past history, their hard work.

Mei got in because his dad founded the damn company. No one took him seriously. And the worst part was, every time he tried to prove himself to them, they waved him off.

"We'll keep that in mind, Mei," they'd say. Or, "Hmm. Interesting. I'll look into it."

They never looked into it.

Mei frowned as he pulled into his parking space. Today had been the same. He was going to drink his frappuccino, draw a bath, and pout. He had already texted his burgundy-haired lady friend, and she was going to stop by after work. He was going to enjoy the rest of his damn day.

As Mei shuffled into the dingy building, he couldn't help but remember how horrified his family had been when they saw where he was living. He thought it was funny at the time. Now, for some reason, he kind of found it sad. He had no intention of living here forever, but this had become home these past few years.

Itsuki was unlocking his door when Mei exited the elevator. He nodded politely.

"Hello, Mei, how are you today?"

"I've been better," Mei sighed dramatically, taking a long sip of his drink.

"Oh? I'm sorry to hear that. Bad day?"

"Yes. How was yours?"

"Alright," Itsuki smiled. He looked sweaty and he kind of smelled. Wasn't he working in a factory or something?

"How was school and work?"

"Good and great. They want me to stop working the machines. I'm going to do an internship with the engineers!"

It was very clear that Itsuki had been holding in this information his whole way home. Saying it now, his face flushed excitedly. He probably hadn't even told his parents yet.

"Well...congratulations," Mei said. And for some weird reason, he actually meant it.

"Thanks! Sorry to hear about your day, though," Itsuki pushed open his door, "Let me know if you need anything."

"Thanks. See you later."

Itsuki closed his door and Mei walked into his own apartment. Kazuya wasn't home, so he threw himself dramatically onto the couch and loosened his tie.

When he finished his frappuccino, he decided to pour himself a glass of wine and have a bubble bath before he had to work on a PowerPoint for a project due next week. His useless classmates hadn't done anything yet. Mei was the one pulling the weight.

He pulled out the bottle he had picked up from the store the day before and dug around the drawers for the corkscrew.

He couldn't find it.

He dug around some more. Then he started opening cupboards and rummaging through the rest of the kitchen clutter to no avail.

"Great," he hissed, "I have wine, but no way to drink it."

He considered texting Kazuya, but he knew it was pointless. That idiot wouldn't check his phone until his shift was over...and that might be hours away.

He slid on slippers, walked next door, and knocked.

"Coming!"

Mei rolled his eyes and tapped his foot impatiently. The door opened and Mei almost dropped the bottle of wine on his foot.

Itsuki's hair was soapy and wet, water dripping from the strands of his hair down to his neck and chest...all Itsuki had on was a towel around his waist. Mei stared.

"Sorry," Itsuki said, embarrassed, "All the hot water just stopped. I jumped out before I froze to death. Not sure how I'm supposed to rinse the shampoo out of my hair..."

"Knock it twice," Mei said. His voice sounded a little higher-pitched than usual.

"What?"

"Knock the wall the showerhead sticks out of twice. That sometimes happens in my place, too. It usually works."

"Oh. Thanks. I'll try it."

Mei watched water trickle down the front of Itsuki's broad chest, down to his chiseled abdomen and beyond, reaching the towel, so low on his hips...

"Um...Can I help you?" Itsuki prompted.

Please let me fuck you .

"Yeah, I need a corkscrew," Mei said, then frowned. He was pretty sure he saw a porno that began like this once.

"Oh, yeah, I have one. Come in."

Yeah, there was definitely a porno that started like this.

Itsuki's apartment was neat and tidy, but not to the extreme Kazuya's room was. There were still signs of habitation; a sweater tossed over a chair there, a bunch of sports magazines strewn about over there...

"Here you go," Itsuki said, leading him to the kitchen and pulling out a wine-opener from a drawer.
"Thanks. Mind if I just open it here? I'll forget to give it back to you if I take it."

"Sure, I don't care."

A few seconds of getting a little cut up by foil, and the cork popped off. He handed the corkscrew back to Itsuki.

"Want me to take a look at your shower real fast? You have to hit it in the right spot," Mei said. This was a lie. Basically anywhere you smacked the wall worked, but he was hesitant to leave when his neighbor was literally naked and glistening.

"Oh, sure, thanks."

Itsuki lead him to the bathroom, offering Mei a nice view of his muscular back and shoulders. Itsuki leaned over and turned the taps on.

"Oh, of course," Itsuki sighed, his hand underneath the stream, "It works when you're here."

"Maybe I should stay," Mei smirked. Itsuki looked at him in confusion.

"What?"

"Would you like me to show you where to hit the next time it does go icy?"

"Yeah, that would be great."

Mei smiled, and, without breaking eye contact, purposely squeezed close to Itsuki to get to the shower. Itsuki's ears went red.

"Right here," Mei pointed, "Two sharp smacks should do it."

"Th-thanks."

"No problem."

They were close. Itsuki's shampoo smelled very nice. Mei imagined Itsuki dropping his towel, wet and fully exposed, drips of water sliding down his skin...

"Um," Itsuki said awkwardly, "I'm going to go into the shower now."

Mei continued to stare.

"M-Mei?"

"Huh?"

"I'm going to go into the shower now."

"Okay."

There was an awkward pause.

"Oh, right," Mei said finally, surprised at his own behavior. He backed out of the bathroom, "Thanks."

"No problem."

Mei grabbed his bottle of wine and shuffled back, deep in thought. He hadn't had sex with a man in a while . He mostly preferred women, but damn, when a man with a body like that showed up, Mei would dive in headfirst. It was a cruel irony that Itsuki, shy and awkward and quiet, had a bangin' body like that...no one ever got to see it but himself!

Well , Mei thought, He'll make someone very happy someday. I mean damn. Well done.

As soon as he set the bottle of wine down, there was a knock on his door. For a wild second, he thought it was maybe Itsuki, but when he peered through the peephole and saw his burgundy-haired goddess, he grinned.

Tonight was going to be a good night.

 

*

 

December

 

Eijun grabbed the box of cookies he had bought at the store, and attempted to arrange them neatly onto a festive Christmas tree-shaped plate. He initially asked Kazuya to come to his apartment for their long-overdue cooking promise, but Kazuya had insisted it take place "in his kitchen with his equipment". So at five-thirty, Eijun was to go across the hall and get some grub.

The cookies were his own sad way of contributing to the meal. He was way too lazy to bake them on his own, so he stopped by the grocery store and picked up a box of frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies. He hoped Kazuya wasn't picky.

He glanced at the clock. It was five twenty. He paced. He didn't know why he felt so anxious. He and Kazuya had actually spoken on several occasions since the promise in September, usually in the hallway or elevator, but sometimes when Kuramochi invited him over as well. Eijun always brought up the promise, but Kazuya usually avoided giving him a concrete date. Last week, though, he finally got his chance; while Kuramochi was packing to go home for winter break, Eijun cornered Kazuya, who was sprawled out on their couch and flipping through Eijun's history textbook.

"Kazuya!" Eijun had yelled, snatching the book from his hand, "Cook for me! You promised months ago!"

"Ugh. You won't let this go, will you?"

"No! A promise is a promise!"

"Fine. Next week. I'm free all week, pick a day."

And that was that.

Eijun wasn't sure why he was so adamant about being fed by the bespectacled asshole. It wasn't like he and Kazuya were friends in any sense of the word. Maybe it was curiosity. Despite knowing Kazuya for three months now, he knew next to nothing about him. Kazuya simply didn’t talk about himself. He was a master deflector, and great at distraction. Hell, Eijun knew more about Mei by this point (mostly because Mei loved talking about himself) even though he saw him less. As much as he was loathe to admit it, there was something oddly compelling about Kazuya, something that intrigued him.  Eijun's mom had once said that sometimes unpleasant people were trying to hide or protect themselves from something, and to not bother trying to fix them.

Eijun was definitely not going to try to fix Kazuya's shitty attitude, but he was curious to learn more about him.

That, and Eijun had an irrational desire to impress him.

Perhaps it was because ever since they first met, Kazuya had done nothing but tease him relentlessly. It was infuriating, and half of the time he'd blow his fuse and grab the bastard by the scruff of the neck and threaten him with bodily harm.

That didn't work, though. Kazuya just cackled.

Eijun looked down at his Christmas sweater, complete with little bells around the collar. It was his favorite, big and green and gaudy. He wondered if Kazuya had any Christmas sweaters. Probably not. Kazuya was lame.

Five-thirty rolled around, and Eijun grabbed his plate of cookies and walked across the hall. The door opened just as he reached it.

"Oh!" Mei exclaimed with a little jump, "Oh, you're here. He's in the kitchen. I'll see you guys later, I'm catching a red-eye tonight...can't be late," Mei tossed his expensive-looking scarf over his shoulder, and shoved a tan suitcase into the hallway, "Have fun. If you even can with that loser."

"Uh, thanks," Eijun said, staring at Mei's woolen trench coat. It was super classy-looking. Maybe Eijun should get one.

"Yeah," Mei said curtly, sliding his phone in his pocket, "Bye."

Eijun was just about to walk into the apartment when Mei paused outside Itsuki's door.

"Hey, you know if he's in?" Mei asked. Eijun shrugged. Mei looked at the door a second, shrugged too, then walked away, suitcase in tow.

It was very warm, and Eijun regretted wearing his sweater instantly. He heard pans and pots clanging and when he had closed the door behind him, he glanced around.

The living room was dark, the television off. The only light was coming from a small, fake Christmas tree in the corner. It was one of those 'chic' trees; all white with a pink and black color scheme for the ornaments and baubles. Eijun found it ugly.

Kazuya had his back to him. He was facing the stove. Eijun was just about to greet him loudly, hopefully startling him in the process, when he heard a small sound. Faint, light, almost drowned out by the fan above the stove, but it was there. Soft. Melodic. Pleasant.

Kazuya was humming.

This completely and utterly blew Eijun's mind. Of all the secrets and hidden quirks he was prepared to witness and discover, humming was not among them. It just seemed too... normal . Kazuya wasn't normal. Kazuya was as mean as he was handsome, and cocky as he was smart. He was sadistic and quick and cutting and humming was much too human .

Kazuya was a human being. And this blew Eijun's goddamn mind.

Eijun stood there awhile, committing Kazuya's humming to memory, recording it into his flesh and bone. He stood there awhile. Kazuya dropped a spoon, and the clang of it jump-started his brain, and he realized how weird he was being. After all, this was something he wasn't supposed to see. Kazuya didn't know Eijun had walked in when Mei was leaving. He was happily cooking away, thinking he was alone in the apartment, and even though humming wasn't exactly earth-shattering, this was intimate.

Eijun had no idea how to approach him now. If he said anything, he'd probably give the poor bastard a heart attack. And as fun as that sounded, Eijun would feel like the biggest creep on the planet. He stood, frantically thinking, desperately trying to come up with a plan, but nothing made sense.

Quick, open and close the front door firmly...pretend you just walked in! Maybe he'll just assume Mei didn't lock the door!

Yes. This would work. Eijun was just about to move his lead legs when Kazuya turned around to grab something from the counter behind him. For one intense millisecond, Eijun prayed Kazuya wouldn't see him, and for a fraction of that millisecond, Kazuya hadn't; his eyes fell straight to a measuring cup and he reached for it. Then his eyes flicked upwards, as though some sixth sense told him something was amiss, and his eyes didn't even reach Eijun's face before he jumped.

" Jesus !"

Eijun stood there awkwardly. Then smiled and waved.

"Uh...hi!"

"What the...how long have you...how did you...?" Kazuya was flustered, and if Eijun hadn't felt like a straight-up stalker in that moment, he probably could have enjoyed it.

"Mei let me in while he was leaving."

"Fucking Mei...and what, you were just standing there for the past five minutes?"

Eijun's face went red.

"I...you seemed really in the zone and I was afraid to shatter it!"

"The zone?"

"YEAH, THE ZONE!" Eijun yelled, "I DON'T KNOW HOW COOKING WORKS, MAYBE YOU GET THE MUSE OR SOMETHING!"

Kazuya broke into laughter.

"'Get the muse'? Just admit you were captivated by my culinary skills and dashing good looks. Ha! You are such a creep."

"I AM NOT!"

"Stop yelling. What the hell is that?" Kazuya nodded at the plate in Eijun's hands. In his distress, all of the cookies had shifted to one side, ruining his nice presentation. Eijun huffed, walked into the kitchen, which was very bright in comparison to the living room, and began to hastily rearrange the cookies.

"They're cookies, can't you tell?" he snapped, still humiliated, "I thought you were the culinary genius, here."

"Ooo, sassy. And yeah, I can see that they're cookies--store-bought ones, by the way--I'm just wondering why you brought them here."

"To contribute!"

Kazuya frowned.

"Contribute?"

"To the feast!"

Kazuya stared at him.

"You bought all the ingredients already, wasn't that contribution enough?"

"No!" Eijun huffed, "Besides, it's festive! We can eat cookies for dessert!"

"I don't like sweets."

Eijun gasped. Kazuya grinned.

"You don't...like sweets?!"

"Nope," he shrugged, "Never really did."

"I bought these cookies for nothing!" Eijun wailed, grabbing at his own hair, "I'm a failure!"

Kazuya cackled, then turned back to the stove. Eijun watched him for a few moments.

"What are you making?"

"Clam chowder."

"Oooh!" Eijun quickly came up around him to peek. It smelled divine.

"Beat it," Kazuya snapped, "Don't crowd me."

"I just wanna see!"

"You'll see it when it's done. Nice sweater, by the way."

"Thanks!" Eijun beamed. Ah, maybe Kazuya had the Christmas spirit after all!

"It's ugly."

Oh.

"You're a bastard," Eijun said darkly.

"One who can cook," Kazuya smirked, sipping a bit of the chowder from his spoon, "Man, this is a good pot of chowder, if I do say so myself."

He dipped the spoon in again to fill it, and placed his palm underneath to keep it from dripping on the floor as he turned to Eijun.

Eijun could see the heavenly steam rising from the spoonful and he eagerly opened his mouth, his stomach grumbling. He had fasted all day for this. He was so ready, and that chowder looked so good...

Kazuya pulled the spoon away from Eijun, and took the spoonful himself, grinning wickedly as he did so. Eijun blinked, then flushed.

"Pfft, you thought I was gonna feed you?" Kazuya laughed, "Ha! You should be the one feeding me! I'm doing all the work!"

Eijun glared, embarrassed.

"I didn't--you held it out--I thought--SHUT UP YOU BASTARD!"

Kazuya was doubled over, he was laughing so hard. Eijun huffed, and turned on his heel to leave, but Kazuya caught his wrist.

"You're not getting out that easily. This was your damn idea. Set the table and don't be a baby."

Eijun grumbled as his eyes fell to the plates and spoons Kazuya had set on the counter.

The table was in between the living area and the kitchen. Bathed in half-fluorescent light from the kitchen and a warm glow from the Christmas tree, the spoons and knives glinted oddly.

"What do we need knives for?" Eijun asked, setting them onto paper napkins.

"For this," Kazuya said, wiping his hands on his apron and pulling out a loaf of bread from a bag above the fridge.

Eijun watched as Kazuya laid the loaf onto the cutting board. With expert and almost graceful hands, he sliced into it with practiced strokes.

Eijun was captivated.

He was just cutting bread, but there was an almost reverential way he handled the knife and deftly maneuvered the loaf on the board, a swirl and flash of silver as a slice fell to the side.  

Eijun wished he could see him really cook....the chowder was already done and ready to go.

"Sit," Kazuya said, gesturing to the table while he piled the bread onto a dish. Eijun obeyed. And when he felt the warm soup caress his tastebuds he almost fell over.

It was the best chowder he had ever had.

 

*

 

They ate in silence, and Kazuya amused himself by watching how quickly Eijun poured the chowder down his throat. The kid had absolutely no pacing at all. Kazuya waited, and by the time Eijun was halfway through his third bowl, the thickness and richness of the chowder finally caught up with him.

“I’m gonna die ,” Eijun groaned, leaning back in his chair and clutching his stomach.

“That’s what you get for eating so fast,” Kazuya snorted, “You should have eaten slower.”

“But it was so good!”

Kazuya felt a little buzz of fondness for Eijun at that, but promptly ignored it.

“Yeah, yeah, obviously. Get crackin’ on cleaning.”

“Please let me sit a moment, first,” Eijun said, standing up from the table and lowering himself gingerly onto the couch where he could sprawl and let his food digest. Kazuya rolled his eyes, then stood up and pushed Eijun’s feet off of the couch so he could sit.

Mei’s ugly Christmas tree made the white walls look a warm pink-orange. When Kazuya glanced over at Eijun, who was watching him, he noticed the light made Eijun’s honey-eyes glow.

“What are you staring at?”

“You,” Eijun said, “You’re a weird guy, you know that?”

This made Kazuya burst into laughter. Man, this guy, he never gets old…

“Says the guy who creepily watched me a half hour ago!”

“I didn’t mean to!” Eijun scowled, “And you are weird. You don’t tell anyone anything. I don’t know anything about you, and I’ve known you for awhile now!”

Kazuya felt a little uncomfortable with how upfront Eijun was being. It was harder to weasel out when people were so blunt.

“Well, maybe if you behave yourself, I’ll share my dark secrets with you someday,” he said.

Eijun frowned, then looked away. Kazuya exhaled. He hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath while under his gaze.

“So,” Kazuya said quickly, hoping to change the subject, “Kuramochi left for break?”

“Yeah. He went home to stay with his family for the holidays.”

“Hmm.”

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow,” Eijun said, gaze now on the ugly tree, “The family farm is only about forty-five minutes out of the city, but Christmas is next week, so I think I’ll just spend the week at home out there.”

Ah, so Eijun was a local. Kazuya and Kuramochi were not from around here at all. Kuramochi had moved here for school, and Kazuya had followed him, not really knowing where to go for culinary school. Mei’s family was from here, but he had gone to their high school on a baseball scholarship, and had returned to the city with them. Once they had moved here, Kazuya found a good school and fell into working at the bistro upon finishing.

“Are you going home at all? Well, I guess probably not, you’re like a real adult,” Eijun said, “But probably just for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, right?”

A chill ran down Kazuya’s spine. He clenched his jaw.

“Uh...yeah,” he lied, “I’ll go home on Christmas Day. I work Christmas Eve.”

“Aww, working on Christmas Eve? That must suck!” Eijun shifted as he spoke, the little bells on his sweater tinkling. Kazuya smiled in spite of himself, then looked out the window. It was dark outside, but the orangey streetlights lit the large snowflakes falling from the sky. It was quite heavy, and he thought briefly that he should text Mei and make sure he had made it to the airport safely.

“This is nice and peaceful,” Eijun said softly. Kazuya saw he was looking out the window, too.

“Yeah, it is. Which is surprising, because you’re usually such a loudmouth.”

“Shut up.”

Kazuya chuckled.

“So Mei said he was catching a red-eye. Where’s he going?” Eijun asked.

“He’s going to Switzerland with his family for the holidays. They do it every year. They go to a ski-lodge in the Alps or something like that.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. That’s the Narumiya family for you.”

“Why does he live here when he could live in a fancy place? Why do you ? You have a real job!”

Kazuya sighed.

“I think Mei does it because it’s close to campus and he’s gotten comfortable here.”

“And why do you?”

“I don’t know. Because Mei is here, I guess. I got comfortable here, too.”

“I’m surprised you want a roommate when you could afford an apartment on your own. You’re not very friendly.”

This was true.

“Well…” Kazuya said slowly, trying to find a way to phrase this without giving too much away. He did hate talking about himself, “Um, I suppose it’s because…well…”

Eijun watched him patiently.

“I guess,” Kazuya said a little loudly, “I don’t want it to get too...quiet.”

“Too quiet? What does that mean?”

“It means what I say it means.”

“But don’t you hate it when Mei has parties? You complain about it all the time.”

“It’s better than the alternative,” Kazuya said shortly, starting to get irate.

“What’s the alternative?”

“Stop procrastinating and clean my kitchen,” Kazuya said, rising, “I’m going to pack up the leftovers.”

Eijun grumbled and groaned and whined, but finally shuffled to the kitchen and set to work. Kazuya was pleasantly surprised to see that the kid worked quickly and efficiently; Kazuya watched him scrub and listened to his chatter as he poured the leftover chowder into two large tupperware containers.

“You take these,” he said, stacking one on top of the other.

“Woah! Really? But I’m going to be leaving tomorrow!”

“Put them in the freezer. When you get back, you can get several meals out of them, since you’re completely useless in the kitchen.”

Eijun looked at him wide-eyed.

“But what about you? Don’t you want any?”

Kazuya shrugged.

“I know how to cook. You need them more than me.”

Eijun looked at him for a minute, then burst into a radiant smile. It almost knocked Kazuya over

with it’s brilliance.

“I knew it!” he declared happily.

“Knew what?”

“Knew you weren’t completely heartless!”

I am the the kindest and most generous of hosts,” Kazuya winked as Eijun scowled, “Now take

your chowder and god-awful cookies and get out.”  

 

*

 

Itsuki was curled up in blankets in his bed, laptop on his chest. He was cozy and warm and watching It’s a Wonderful Life .

Life really is good , he thought happily, I love school, I love my internship...everything is working in my favor, finally.

His phone buzzed and he found he had a Snap from Mei (who, at a party, had forced him to get a Snapchat in the first place). Curious, he opened it. Mei was sitting on an airplane, with his eyes up at the ceiling in irritation. The caption read, ‘on route to miami airport to fly overseas. stupid rj doesn’t have first class.’

Itsuki rolled his eyes, and was about to set his phone down when he received another Snap. This time, Mei was smiling dashingly, and had drawn a halo over his head, ‘but at least i’ll fly first class from miami to zurich!’

Itsuki frowned, and instead of Snapping back, he typed a message.

Shouldn’t your phone be on airplane mode?

 

haven’t pushed back yet. still loading people on.

 

Oh. Fly safe.

 

Itsuki thought that was that, but Mei typed back.

 

what’s your phone number? i follow you on snapchat, but texting is so much easier.

 

Itsuki didn’t know how to decline and not be rude, but he had no desire to give Mei his number. Mei was obnoxious as it was. He hesitated. It’s a Wonderful Life continued to play on his laptop, the screen lighting up his face.

He sighed, then typed in his number. He just hoped Mei wouldn’t ever use it.

 

*

 

Mei was exhausted. He had finally reached Zurich, and was currently weaving through people with his father to get to their private car.

“Your mom and sisters arrived a few days ago,” Mei’s father said, alternating between typing on his phone and glancing up at the signs above. Mei was taller and had longer legs, but his father was a fast walker, and Mei still struggled to keep up.

He always felt like a bumbling child with his father.

“I see.”

“I do believe we will just relax today. We can ski tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

Mei wasn’t really listening. He was too busy drinking in the people and space around him. He had missed Switzerland. He looked forward to it every year, because it meant he could spend extended time with his older sisters.

They found their driver, and he lead them to their car; a spacious Mercedes-Benz SUV, and they crawled in, leaving their luggage for the driver to load. As his father buckled his seatbelt, Mei glanced over at his phone to see who he was emailing.  

He wasn’t emailing anyone. It was a text. A text to Lillian, a young English supermodel who sometimes posed for ads the Narumiya company put out.

Mei felt revulsion turn itself into acid in his throat. He felt sick, so he turned and looked out the window.

“Should be beautiful this year,” his father said, but all Mei could hear were the light tapping sounds his fingernails made against the touchscreen.

“Yeah,” he said.

 

*

 

hey mochi i have a question

 

what do you want, moron? how did your date go?

 

EWWW gross it wasnt a date he just made me clam chowder. you were invited too but you left.

 

ha! so whats the question?

 

do u kno anything about him? hes really weird and doesnt answer questions

 

yeah, he’s a weird guy. very private. i know some things.

 

tell me im curious

 

he spent a lot of time alone as a kid. didn’t have a lot of friends. got bullied and beaten up a lot.

 

wait really????

 

yeah. the bully part i only found out cuz i was talking to a friend a few years back who knew him in elementary school. apparently, he never fought back.

 

NEVER?

 

not according to my friend. as they’d beat the shit outta him, he’d compliment them on how well they could throw a punch.

 

UR JOKING

 

dead serious. kazuya’s annoying even when he’s getting his ass kicked.

 

holy shit

 

yeah

 

did he like do anything to provoke people into beating him up?

 

he was a smartass and know-it-all, but according to my friend he mostly kept to himself. the kids bullied him because he was an ass, but also cuz they knew they could get away with it because he was small and stubborn and wouldn’t tell on them.

 

omg

 

yeah. granted, i heard all this from my friend. i didn’t know kazuya back then.

 

did he get bullied when you knew him?

 

i think he hit puberty and became an athlete and people relied on him too much to fuck with him. at least, when i knew him that’s how it was.

 

wow

 

yeah

 

anything else u kno?

 

not really. i know his dad became an alcoholic when his mom left.

 

wait, his mom left?

 

yep. when kazuya was eight. he actually told me this. i was surprised he did. it’s honestly one of the only things about his life he’s ever told me.

 

THATS SO SAD

 

yep.

 

anything else?

 

why, are you thirsty for his dick or something?

 

EWW WAT IS WRONG WITH U

 

you just seem very invested. it’s weird.

 

IM JUST CURIOUS

 

whatever. look, i know you like dudes too, and i don’t care, but man, kazuya is a handful. you could do better. he’s my friend and all and i care about him but he’s kinda fucked up.

 

I DONT WANT TO DATE HIM

 

do you wanna fuck him?

 

UGH NO

 

okay, good. keep it that way.

 

GOD KURAMOCHI

 

just checking! >:]

 

*

 

hey

 

what do you want, mei?

 

just wanted to say hi. can’t i be nice and say hi to my roommate?

 

no

 

kazuya, u r a dick.

 

why, thank you :)

 

not a compliment, wiseass. whatcha doin?

 

thinking about work

 

that’s all u do

 

i really like my job

 

i think u should get out more

 

how’s switzerland?

 

good. don’t change the subject. i think u should get a tinder.

 

not this again, mei. i don’t want that crap.

 

aren’t u lonely?

 

no

 

don’t u get bored with just work all the time?

 

no

 

aren’t u afraid of dying alone?

 

are you going to say something useful, or can i get back to working on this menu?

 

ha! u are! u are totally afraid of dying alone.

 

i’m turning my phone off.

 

get a tinder.

 

*

 

April

 

The weather was still volatile; one day it would be warm and sunny, the next it would be frigid and rainy. Today it was partly cloudy, but warm and pleasant, so Eijun went for a run.

People were out and about in the neighborhood, getting coffee and running errands. Eijun soaked it up as his feet hit the sidewalk. He never ran with headphones in; he loved the sounds of the city; of the cars, of the laughing and talking. Maybe it was because he had lived his whole life in the country, but all of this was vivid and exciting for him, and though he had been in this neighborhood for three years, the novelty hadn’t worn off.

His mom had been terrified of him moving into the city, especially because his neighborhood wasn’t always the safest. It was an arts district, so it was pretty safe (and actually quite nice) on the weekends and during the day on the main drag. The area was trendy and full of cool bars and restaurants and theaters and galleries, but a few blocks away things started getting shady. Every so often Eijun would hear a gunshot in the distance while he was doing homework in the evening, and Kuramochi’s car had gotten broken into twice.

It was worth it, though. At least for Eijun. Kuramochi seemed to enjoy the area as well.

Eijun always saw Kazuya at the café at the corner with his laptop out, working on menus and whatever else sous-chefs did. Today was no different. As he ran past the large windows, he spotted him; frowning at his laptop, an iced coffee at his side. He didn’t see Eijun, and Eijun didn’t stop. He never did. It was his own private moment. He didn’t know why he looked forward to these little glimpses of Kazuya, but they always gave him an odd sense of happiness.

Eijun kept what he learned from Kuramochi a secret, but it had definitely altered how he viewed Kazuya. He felt sorry for him. He wondered if he had really gone home for Christmas, or if it had just been a lie. He was too scared to ask, especially because he and Kazuya were hanging out regularly now, even when Kuramochi wasn’t around.

Their odd kind-of-friendship started when Eijun returned the tupperware that had contained the leftover chowder. Kazuya had been looking particularly weary that day, so Eijun decided to act extra silly and loud, which perked Kazuya up considerably. Somehow, they ended up bickering until dinnertime and, to Eijun’s surprise, Kazuya offered to cook them dinner.

It was one of the most beautiful things Eijun had ever seen. The second Kazuya tied his apron, he became someone else, or maybe just a different version of himself, slicing and stirring as flames flew from the stovetop, controlled completely, his eyes focused and intense behind his glasses, and there was something else, there, too, something that took awhile for Eijun to riddle out, something that made his eyes glint and smirk genuine, and only when he plated the food and crossed his arms in finale did Eijun understand.

It was joy.

By the time Eijun had made it back to his apartment, he was drenched in sweat and cheerful. A good run really helped his creative mind, and he really wanted to write a new song so the band could debut it before the summer.

Kuramochi was still in class, so Eijun took a long and luxurious shower, poured himself a glass of water, tuned his guitar, and pulled out blank sheet music.

He sat. He plucked. He thought. Nothing was coming to him. He drank some of his water. He played a few songs he had already finished to get himself warmed up.

Fuck.

“Goddamnit, I thought I was feeling creative!” he said to no one. Outside, he heard an ambulance go by.

He set his guitar down and slid into his bed. He let his mind wander. He thought about his schoolwork, and the Trojan War, and the Byzantine Empire, and piracy. Then he thought about how he hadn’t called his mom in a while, and how he should probably do that. Then he thought about his best friend Haruichi and got excited because he was going to get dinner with him tomorrow. Then he thought about food. And then he thought about cooking.

He thought about Kazuya.

He remembered Kazuya humming while he stirred the chowder. He remembered exactly how he hummed. It wasn’t any song Eijun recognized; it had sounded idle, as though it existed simply to fill in the quiet apartment, as though it served a purpose deeper than mimicking something else. Eijun remembered it perfectly.

He picked up his guitar.

 

*

 

August

 

Miyuki spent a lot of time at Eijun’s apartment. It was a gradual thing, but had now grown into him being there almost every day. He used to go to see Kuramochi and tease Eijun if he happened to be there, but somewhere down the line he started going even when he knew Kuramochi wasn’t around. It couldn’t be helped, he supposed; Eijun was ridiculously fun to be around. Kazuya could literally make fun of him for anything .

Kazuya was naturally drawn to people who didn’t shy away from his strong personality; Kuramochi didn’t take his shit and called him out on his bull, Mei was too self-centered to take anything he said seriously, and Eijun...well, Eijun was something else. Like Kuramochi, he had no problem calling Kazuya out (although he sometimes ended up making himself look stupid) and, like Mei, the kid was ridiculously self-centered.  But there was something else that drew Kazuya in, and he remembered back to that first meeting with him, all the way in September.

Strangely enough, as much as Kazuya made fun of Eijun, Eijun kept coming back. Nothing he said stuck, and he was grateful for it. In all honesty, Kazuya didn’t actually want to hurt Eijun’s feelings or make him feel inferior, it was just that the kid was so loud and brash, it was hard for Kazuya to process him without being extreme.

He had grown quite fond of the little idiot. He could see, now, why Kuramochi was such good friends with him, and how even shy Itsuki and diva Mei got along so well with him. Eijun was so full of life and energy and intensity, it acted like a magnet.

Today was very much like any other day; Kazuya had the day off, and he knew Kuramochi was out of class, so he slid on his flip flops, walked across the hall, and knocked.

“Yo,” Kuramochi said, a bag of Doritos in his hand.

“Hey.”

“Come on in.”

Kazuya walked in and (as usual) turned up his nose at the mess that was Eijun’s and Kuramochi’s apartment.

“Get that look off of your face, wise guy, you don’t live here,” Kuramochi said, tossing the Doritos onto the table and wiping his cheesy fingertips on his jeans, “Sit down. Want something to drink? We can play a game or watch something.”

“Let’s watch something,” Kazuya said, “And I’d like water.”

“Oh! Good! You can get it yourself,” Kuramochi sneered, snatching the remote and putting on Netflix.

“Tsk. So rude to your guest,” Kazuya said, putting his hand over his heart in feigned hurt. Kuramochi flipped him off.

“So,” Kazuya said, opening the fridge and pulling out the Brita pitcher, “Where is you annoying little roommate today?”

“Why do you ask?”

The tone in Kuramochi’s voice made Kazuya look up. Kuramochi was staring at him carefully, brow slightly furrowed.

“Just curious,” Kazuya shrugged, pouring himself some water, “Is that a problem?”

Kuramochi didn’t answer; just then, some guitar strumming could be heard from Eijun’s closed bedroom door.

“He’s doing his guitar thing,” Kuramochi said dismissively, scrolling through the Netflix titles.

“He plays guitar?” Kazuya asked in surprise.

“Yeah. You didn’t know that?”

“No.”

“He’s kind of weird about it. He usually likes playing when I’m not home. It’s like his--I dunno--private hobby or something.”

“Is he any good?”

“How the hell should I know?” Kuramochi asked harshly, “He almost never plays when I’m around.”

Kazuya carried his water over to the coffee table.

“He doesn’t sound bad.”

“No, he doesn’t. I guess.”

As though he could sense they were talking about him, the guitar strumming stopped. Kuramochi and Kazuya sat in silence a moment, waiting for it to continue. When it didn’t, Kuramochi put on a horror movie.

Kazuya was having a hard time concentrating on the perfect eighties blend of fake blood and shoulder pads; his mind kept wandering to Eijun’s room and wondering what he was doing in there. Was he going to come out at all? Surely he’d need to use the restroom or get a drink. Was he doing homework?

“You look distracted.”

Kazuya shot a look at Kuramochi, then quickly rearranged his face to look nonchalant.

“This movie is boring,” he said.

“Hmph,” Kuramochi grunted, then he looked away, “Of course it is.”

By the time the credits were rolling, Eijun still had not come out of his room.

“I have to get ready to go,” Kuramochi said, looking at the time on his phone, “I’m supposed to get dinner. You can just hang out while I get ready, if you want.”

Kazuya stretched out on the floor, and put his hands behind his head. He heard rock music coming from Kuramochi’s phone as he brushed his teeth and put on fresh clothes.

“Kuramochi! Where are you going on this fine evening?!”

Kazuya instantly sat up and turned his head. Eijun was in the hallway, wearing a tee shirt and sweatpants, and peering into the open door of the bathroom. Kazuya’s heart stuttered.

“KAZUYA!”

Eijun had spotted him.

“Oh, great, the loud one has come out,” Kazuya rolled his eyes, then reclined back on the floor and closed his eyes.

“KAZUYA! I DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE HERE! HOW COME YOU DIDN’T TELL ME YOU WERE HERE?!”

Did that mean he would have come out if he had known?

“Because,” Kazuya answered, eyes still closed, “I wanted some peace and quiet for once. You’re more obnoxious than Mei. And that’s saying something. He’s pestering me about getting a Tinder now.”

“Kyahaha, are you serious?!” Kuramochi cackled from the bathroom.

“Yeah, it’s awful,” Kazuya snorted. He could tell Eijun was standing over him now, and probably scowling. He tried not to smile, but it was too difficult, so he went ahead and did it anyway.

“STOP SMILING, YOU BASTARD. SO RUDE. HOW WAS YOUR DAY?”

This was the type of whiplash-dialogue that Kazuya loved about Eijun. Nothing he said seemed to flow into the next thought. It was all disjointed and genuine and volatile.

“Okay. Until now.”

“WHAT’S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?!”

“Oh. My. God. Shut. Up,” Kuramochi said, “Now behave yourselves when I’m gone.”

“Yes sir!”

“Whatever you say, dad ,” Kazuya opened his eyes and sniggered at Kuramochi, who glared.

Kuramochi left, and Eijun gleefully hopped onto the couch above him. He immediately began scrolling through the titles on the screen, his mouth moving slightly, soundlessly reading aloud. It was adorable.

“I’m sad Kuramochi is leaving,” Eijun said after a while.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he and Mei graduated college. He’s leaving. Our lease is up in a few weeks, and he’s moving out.”

“Hmm.”

“Is Mei leaving? Are you all moving out except for me and Itsuki?” Eijun’s voice sounded so sad. Kazuya sat up and looked at him.

“No. Mei is staying in the apartment for next year. I’m surprised, honestly, because he’s got that super high-paying job at his father’s place. And since he’s staying, I might as well stay. It’s so much easier to renew a lease than to go look for a new place to live.”

Eijun looked down at the remote in his hands and nodded grimly.

“What are you gonna do?” Kazuya asked, feeling suddenly apprehensive.

“Not sure. I need a place to live, and I can’t afford an apartment by myself--”

Shit.

“--I might have to move somewhere else--”

Damn it.

“--I guess I have to start looking.”

“You don’t have to!” Kazuya said quickly, “Our place has an extra room. It’s technically a three-bedroom apartment, we just use the third room for storage.”

And by ‘storage’, Kazuya meant Mei’s extra shoes and clothes.

“Really?” Eijun’s eyes widened, “I never knew! Could I really move in with you guys?”

“Yeah, sure,” Kazuya said.

“That’s great! Thanks, Kazuya, you’re the best!”

Kazuya tried to ignore how syrupy-soft his chest felt.

“Naturally!” he grinned, “I always look out for my friends.”

“Pff. Yeah. Right.”

Eijun put on some stand-up, and as he laughed and talked to the television, Kazuya sat in silence, realizing, very slowly, what he had just done.

He had invited Eijun to live with him and Mei next year. He did this without consulting Mei, who would not look kindly to having to share a bathroom with a third person, nor would enjoy having his personal storage space taken from him.

Why had Kazuya been so brash? He was never brash. He had spoken in an almost-panic, and now he was going to have to try to convince Mei to let Eijun live with them.

And it dawned on him, the light, the understanding, the realization. Oh, fuck. That’s why.

Kazuya yanked out his phone and downloaded Tinder.