Freestyle Match

Japanese title: Randori (乱取り)1
CHAWAN Emiko (茶碗 恵美子)
Translated by MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷 裸望)

Translator’s notes included at the end.

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/200666.html)

illustrated by beili

A raised blade:
Beneath the sword
Is Hell,
But take one step forward –
Ahead lies Paradise.

unknown²

“…seven, eight!” Arakawa finishes counting, and they start the footwork routine over again, with the next person down the line counting.

After the sixth person, Satoru calls out “Stop!” and they all start the hand drills. The usual repetition, with more than the usual ache in his knees – too much of the sitting techniques the other day.

Practice is, as usual, sweaty and hot and wonderful, and the newly-promoted sophomores are coming along well, which Satoru is proud of. It takes a team to train new members.

Fujita-sensei comes in around five-thirty and, after letting them finish the balance-breaking drills, teaches them some judo techniques as bases for the more difficult parts of the aikido techniques: the way to make the technique really work, instead of kata-perfect. Satoru’s standing closest to one of the freshmen, so they end up working together, and that’s good, because as an upperclassman Satoru almost never works with them.

At the end of practice they have to clean up quickly and get out of the dojo so that Fujita-sensei can start his adult class, no students allowed. Satoru has about a minute to hang around, stretch, take off his knee pads, and make sure that Fujita-sensei doesn’t have anything special he wants Satoru, as team captain, to do in practice tomorrow, before it’s time to leave the dojo and go chill in the club room.

By the time he arrives, the rest of the club is there chatting, except for the freshmen, who are washing cups, and the girl club members who are still changing in the girls’ changing room. He spends a few minutes strategizing about the freshmen with the third-years, then the conversation peters out as people head home. Horikoshi stays as people drift out of the room; he threw his dōgi³ into the washer and has to wait for it to be done.

“How’d the interview last week work out?” Horikoshi asks, in the middle of clipping his toenails into the cardboard box reserved for that purpose in the club room.

“Not so great,” Satoru answers.

“How come?”

“They asked if there was anything I was looking for in a job. I said one where I could give my utmost in service to the company, but the interviewer made a weird face after that, so I don’t think I’m gonna make it to the next round of interviewing.”

“Too bad,” Horikoshi breathes, and then he grins over at Satoru. “Pity. They don’t know what they’re giving up. But now you have more time for aikido.”

“As long as the next company doesn’t schedule interviews during practice,” Satoru sighs.

Horikoshi folds up the toenail clippers and puts the box aside. “Could just ask for ones during class time.”

“Did you even go to class this week?”

“’bout half, yeah.” Not that Horikoshi needs to do anything more than just pass his classes – he has a position lined up with a logistics company already.

Satoru watches Horikoshi’s unembarrassed grin, the way he strips the athletic tape off his wrists, and his heart twists.

やめ・はじめ

Horikoshi walked into aikido team practice in the fall of their third year after walking out on the aikido club because he was sick of just kata. He smiles often, somewhere between laughing at the universe and grinning in tooth-baring expectation of biting out the throat of some unfortunate prey, and either way it takes up most of his face.

Satoru knows his own type: guys who remind other people of girls, lithe and sweet, with tiny smiles and a hunger to rely on someone. Horikoshi’s nothing like that, loud and warm, and with power written into the thick swell of his muscles and the breadth of his shoulders. Satoru wants to bury his hands into Horikoshi’s dōgi and pull him close, twine their limbs together and send Horikoshi to the floor.

Well, he wants to throw everyone to the floor normally. That’s the whole point of aikido, and Satoru is good at it. But he can’t say his stomach doesn’t twist tight when he tries to throw Horikoshi with gedanate, elbow on his hip and face level with his belly. Sometimes throwing Horikoshi brings him down too, into a tangle of hot slick skin and dōgi clinging with sweat, and after they’ve gotten untangled and the practice bout has ended, Satoru takes a half-second to store the memory for later. At least he’s not getting hard over it in practice, except for that once, during the water break, when Horikoshi and Sakamoto were talking about jiu-jitsu and Horikoshi needed a ground-sparring partner. Sitting with his knees spread over Horikoshi’s hips, letting his weight sink down to keep from being turned over, left him half-hard and trying not to imagine Horikoshi sliding thick and sweet against his hole, not inside but nudging at it.

Unfortunately, whenever the topic comes up, which is with surprising frequency whenever Horikoshi is around, Horikoshi’s not so much uninterested in men as vehemently opposed to the concept of homosexuality. Halfway through his cups at his welcome party, he said If it’s a secret, not public, then that’s okay, but I don’t want to know or think about it, it’s gross, but that didn’t hurt, yet. Satoru only thought he was handsome then, and couldn’t explain what about him was so attractive when he so obviously wasn’t Satoru’s type.

He still doesn’t know. But he does want him – he wants Horikoshi’s friendship, his generosity of time and spirit. His broad taped wrists, his tendency to stand at an angle away from his opponents during practice bouts, the match of their skills on the mats.

He’s been thinking like this since January, and it’s May now. Only a semester left until they graduate.

やめ・はじめ

The now-officially inducted freshmen get taken out for dinner with most of the club, except for a few people who have exams the next day. There’s sixteen of them, and Satoru ends up sitting between Kamioka and a freshman named Shimada.

He listens in on Kamioka and another freshman talking about classes, though he doesn’t join in since he’s not in the School of Literature. Down at the other end, Mochizuki and Tanaka are holding court with a few more freshmen, and Horikoshi is quite earnestly refilling everyone’s glasses of beer while he chats with Ikeuchi.

Sakamoto across the table draws Satoru into a discussion of action flicks, and Shimada gets involved too, at which point the conversation devolves into talking about kung fu, then science fiction films, then ― and before he knows it the dinner hour is half-over.

He’s a little buzzed, though he’s been watching his drinks, and soon enough the conversation turns personal as people get friendlier and begin to switch seats. He’s lucky because he’s an upperclassman, so people are less likely to ask him questions he can’t answer without something bad coming out of his mouth. One of the freshmen is teased into revealing a preference for older women, another an uncomfortable fondness for blondes. Satoru breathes, and laughs when things are funny, and sometimes his eye passes over Horikoshi in moments of transition in the conversation.

Horikoshi is getting quite drunk, and even more good-natured than usual, friendly and flushed, so Satoru wrangles a way into sitting at the other end of the table under the pretense of meeting the freshmen who are eating there.

Somehow the topic of exes comes up, and Satoru, in his turn, mentions the only girlfriend he’s ever had – in high school, a lovely small cute girl by the name of Mihara. He liked her well enough, and she was almost his type, so he eventually decided that he’d try to marry a girl like her when the time came.

He can’t say that, of course, so instead he says, “It was good, but dating took up a lot of time, so we split up at the end of the school year.”

Mochizuki: “Nobody right now, but that’s because I haven’t got time with my classes.” She’s school of law, so Satoru doesn’t blame her.

“Nobody for me,” Horikoshi laughs, when it’s his turn. “And no girls lining up for me either. Hey, Ikeuchi, you’re cute enough; care for–?” and he leans over and kisses Ikeuchi’s cheek, light and quick before anyone realizes what he’s doing.

illustrated by beili

Ikeuchi goes red, then bows, excusing himself to go sit by his girlfriend. Satoru wills his heart to slow, for the tension of his sudden nausea to fade. Horikoshi, who avows disgust at all things homosexual, hinting at willingness when he’s drunk – but for Ikeuchi. Ikeuchi doesn’t want it, not like Satoru does.

It doesn’t matter. Horikoshi would just hurt him, in the end, between his denial and his anger, and Satoru’s own desire.

やめ・はじめ

The freshmen integrate well, and practice is going great, though Satoru still can’t quite believe Ikeuchi’s injury during a more intense practice bout the weekend before. Even if he’s lucky, Ikeuchi won’t be able to practice until after the end of the semester.

But the club goes on. Even though the girls get collective first place, the competition is disappointing because of Kurogata’s broken arm. The following Tuesday during their post-competition exhaustion break Satoru ends up in the club room even though he doesn’t need to be. A couple of under-informed freshmen show up, and he sends them home.

Around six o’clock Horikoshi shows up, unexpectedly, and laughs when he sees Satoru sitting on the tatami floor in front of the club computer.

“Hey,” he says, “Sorry about not announcing myself, but I thought it would be an underclassman who wanted to prove his loyalty to the club, not you.”

“No,” Satoru says. “I didn’t have anywhere to be, so I thought I’d do some reading here, since it would be quiet.”

Horikoshi shrugs. “Fair enough. What’s it about?”

“The World Bank.”

He makes a face and spills out on the tatami, then says, “I feel pretty bad for Arakawa, you know? Because Sakamoto is definitely queer.”

Satoru breathes, softly. “No, I don’t think so. He really seems fond of her.”

“I don’t think ‘not talking to her during practice unless it’s for the purpose of teaching freshmen’ counts as being fond of someone.”

Satoru tries to think of a response that will defend Sakamoto without acknowledging his own sexual orientation, and can’t come up with anything convincing, so instead he says, “If he were really like that, wouldn’t he be less obvious?”

Horikoshi laughs. “That’s too convoluted. By that measure you’d be–” he stops, his smile fading. “You are, aren’t you.” Something in his face twists, ugly and dark in his eyes, before flickering away. “Who’d’ve thought it! Perfect sempai, perfect aikido practitioner, Suzukawa Satoru is a fag.”

He can’t deny it; Horikoshi’s paranoia wouldn’t let him believe it anyway, and would probably just make him angry. Satoru could defend himself physically, if it came to that, but he doesn’t want to have to.

His heart, of course, is already a lost cause, but he will survive that; he doesn’t even know why he was still hoping anyway, after last month’s display with Ikeuchi.

“Has nothing to do with being a good sempai, or good at aikido,” he says.

Horikoshi laughs, then, loud and sharp. “Can’t believe it.” He leans back on the heels of his hands, extends his legs out straight so his ankle is nudging Satoru’s thigh. “It’s okay, I guess. Since it’s you, and I know you’re cool.”

“Thanks,” Satoru breathes. Horikoshi’s foot against his thigh is warm, strangely intimate. Does Horikoshi know it’s there? Satoru shifts away, fusses around on the computer a bit, then tries not to jump when Horikoshi moves even closer, coming to sit next to him in front of the computer table. Their knees brush. Satoru tries to continue with his reading.

“What’s your type, then?”

“None of your business.”

He isn’t looking, but he can practically feel Horikoshi’s grin. “Well, you’re on the aikido team, which is about half lithe quick guys like you and muscley idiots like me, so you’re probably into one of those two. So: you like same or different?”

Satoru doesn’t answer, but as he expected, Horikoshi doesn’t take it as a deterrent.

“I’m betting you like big guys, but you like to top. Energy blending, subtle unbalancing, and then – wham.” He laughs. “If I were that kind of guy, you’d be into me, right?”

Satoru wonders if Horikoshi’s been watching him, or if he really is that obvious, or if Horikoshi’s just a good guesser. Except for how Horikoshi isn’t his type at all, but that’s…

Horikoshi adds, “Getting a guy down on the floor, holding him with some simple shoulder pin while you fuck him, no protest and no tapping out. Sweaty and rough and right on the dojo floor, isn’t that right?”

“The floor of the dojo is gross,” Satoru snaps, before he realizes that as far as Horikoshi sees it, this means he’s just verified all of the obscene things that came before it.

“How about here, then? After everyone’s gone home for the night,” Horikoshi says, and he turns so that he and Satoru are face-to-face. His grin looks more like a leer.

“I thought you thought fags were gross,” Satoru tries, right before Horikoshi leans forward and presses on Satoru’s belt buckle with his palm.

“I think you just said you didn’t want a hand job,” Horikoshi says.

Satoru wants Horikoshi’s hand very much elsewhere. Like safely back resting on Horikoshi’s knee. Or already in Satoru’s pants.

Satoru licks his lips, lets his eyes drop down from Horikoshi’s eyes to his waist. “No,” he says. “I do.”

Satoru is an idiot. He’s so dumb his stupidity is going to result in Horikoshi punching him. He is–

Horikoshi undoes Satoru’s belt buckle with a series of metallic clinks, but the fly is bunched up and won’t go. Satoru puts his reading to the side, stretches his legs out on other side of Horikoshi’s knees, and leans back enough that it comes open under their joined hands.

Horikoshi unfolds forward, kneeling between Satoru’s thighs, and helps him slip his jeans a little down his hips, then opens the flap of his boxers to expose him. His fingers are broad, and strong enough that when they spar together and get carried away he leaves bruises on Satoru’s arms, and just a little loose for how Satoru holds himself.

“This how you like it?” Horikoshi asks. “Just like this? Or would you rather have a couple of fingers up inside you, hard and deep–”

Satoru presses his palm to Horikoshi’s mouth to shut him up. The way Horikoshi asks the question makes him angry, and he doesn’t want to be angry when he’s getting off. Which. Horikoshi’s breathing is quick against his hand, warm and humid, and his lips soft.

illustrated by beili

After a few more moments, heat building under his skin as Horikoshi continues to touch him, his arm gets heavy and he lets it fall. It lands on his own hip, then slides off, lands so that his fingers are resting against Horikoshi’s left hand. It’s half an accident, but only that – and then Horikoshi says, brash and demanding, “You close?”

Satoru shakes his head and doesn’t stop Horikoshi when he slows down, toys with his foreskin, unsheathes him and touches the head. Satoru bucks up into his hand, and Horikoshi laughs. “So instead you’re thinking about fucking me up the ass, aren’t you.”

“No,” Satoru says, because he hadn’t been thinking about it at the time. But now that Horikoshi’s mentioned it…. He can think what he likes; Horikoshi can’t read his mind. He imagines himself half-in, Horikoshi’s knees up and bent – no, they’d both hate that. Horikoshi on his belly and Satoru on top of him, clasped sweet by his thighs, nose filled with the smell of their sweat. That’s nice enough that, looking at Horikoshi’s exercise-blank face above him, he can almost imagine that this isn’t insane, that Horikoshi really wants him, and that’s the thought that he comes to.

Horikoshi’s hand is gone the moment he starts, and he comes on his clothes. Fortunately his shirt is long enough to conceal it if he’s careful. Horikoshi throws a square-pack of tissues at him and he uses it to wipe himself off.

He doesn’t offer to return the favor, mostly because Horikoshi gathers his things and nearly runs out of the room to “wash his hands” and doesn’t come back.

やめ・はじめ

In practice the next day, Horikoshi is late like he always is on Wednesdays, and he is no different from before. Satoru didn’t expect him to prance in with a voice gone suddenly high-pitched and a distinct taste for glitter, but – Satoru wants to believe that Horikoshi touched him, not just the guy who happened to be in the club room yesterday. He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help it, and Horikoshi’s smile catches in his chest the same as always.

やめ・はじめ

Nothing happens after that. Belt tests and summer break pass uneventfully. Horikoshi continues to occasionally make blindingly homophobic remarks that leave Satoru bruised for days afterwards. The fall and impending graduation come. Satoru finally finds a job, after a year of searching, at a company that acts as an intermediary for companies looking to export to the European Union.

The winter is cold, breathtaking. It snows more than once, and he watches the sky from his classroom with not-quite-wonder.

Over the New Year’s break, he stays in Tokyo. He has an aunt living in Taito Ward, so he visits her family and has stilted I-should-know-you-better-than-I-do conversations with his cousin Shinsuke, which is embarrassing since they go to the same university, if different divisions. It’s a relief to return to his little one-man apartment.

やめ・はじめ

There is no formal practice in January, only open mat time. Satoru goes occasionally, spars once in a while with third-years, teaches a first year some sitting techniques – his knees kill him for days – and spends a lot of time in the club room.

One Wednesday in late January, Horikoshi is the only one to come to practice. They spar for a while, tantō-toshu at first, switching the foam dagger at the buzzer that Horikoshi set, then only barehanded once Satoru drops the knife after being thrown with a particularly vicious ude-hineri.

 

illustrated by beili

He doesn’t know how much time passes until he stops to look at the clock and sees that they’ve been at this for an hour, and realizes that he’s tired, that he needs a drink and is dripping with sweat.

Of course, Horikoshi is exactly the same, and there’s a couple of bruises darkening on his forearms from too-tight holds and failed throws. He grins, wide and bright, as he says, “Break?”

“Break,” Satoru agrees. They wander out to the laundry room and drink straight from the spigot on the sinks, and Horikoshi laughs at Satoru when he accidentally sprays himself with water.

They come back, start again. But it’s different now – Satoru’s brain has done something, or his cock has switched on, because the more he tries to break Horikoshi’s balance and the more Horikoshi tries to break his, the less he pays attention to where Horikoshi’s weight is and the more he pays to all the places where they touch, hips and hands and thighs.

Satoru’s belt gives up its battle to hold his dōgi closed and comes untied; he throws it to the side rather than waste time putting it back. The top of his dōgi drapes open over his bare chest, and on Horikoshi’s next attempt to throw him it gets bunched up between their bodies, stopping Horikoshi’s throw. Satoru returns it with a gedanate that doesn’t quite work: Horikoshi falls, yes, but so does Satoru, into a jumbled undignified sprawl together.

This is about the time he encounters the reality of Horikoshi’s erection, which he has to ignore as they untangle from around each other.

Horikoshi, once they’ve got their arms sorted out, glances at the clock and says, “Wow, half an hour. Practice is almost over.”

Satoru gets up and watches as Horikoshi stretches, there on the floor. The timer buzzes, then again three seconds later to tell then when the new round is supposed to start.

“Nope,” Horikoshi says finally, “Can’t get up. You’ve worn me out.”

“Likewise,” Satoru breathes, and goes to turn off the timer. Horikoshi, by the time Satoru’s finished, has stood back up.

“Thanks,” Horikoshi says, stretching. “Your foot okay?”

“Yeah; it’ll just bruise.” He entertains for a brief moment the temptation to proposition Horikoshi when they’re both too tired to fight, but doesn’t. Horikoshi can sleep off exhaustion, but not rage from Satoru suggesting that Horikoshi repeat that hand job from those months ago.

They pick up the timer and the foam knife and put them away, then go back to the club room, where Satoru takes off the top of his dōgi, stretches some and waits for his sweat to dry a little.

Satoru wonders if he shouldn’t be offended by how unsubtle Horikoshi is about looking him over. And then Horikoshi says, “You flush bright red down to your bellybutton.”

Satoru blinks, looks down at himself, and hopes that his embarrassed grin doesn’t come with a blush, given that Horikoshi’s right. “Guess so,” he admits.

“It’s funny,” Horikoshi says, “How normal you seem. And then….”

Now Satoru really wants to put his shirt on. Except it’s on the other side of the room and he’d have to get closer to Horikoshi than he wants to at the moment, given the topic of conversation and what happened the last time it came up.

“I can’t act weird just to make you comfortable,” he says finally.

“It wouldn’t make me comfortable,” Horikoshi says. “It would make me sick, like the entire concept of gays does. Except you; you seem normal.”

Satoru wonders if there’s a detector anywhere in Horikoshi’s head that is pinging hypocrisy. Probably not, otherwise he wouldn’t be saying it. He ‘s not cruel by nature, just … in this.

Satoru shrugs, scooting back away from Horikoshi to lean against the old-dōgi cabinet. His back sticks, uncomfortably, to the varnished wood.

Horikoshi eyes him. “Your flush receded. Now you’re just kind of pink everywhere.”

“Eventually it’ll go away,” Satoru points out, and Horikoshi laughs, then stretches out over the floor until he has one hand on each of Satoru’s thighs, their faces maybe thirty centimeters apart.

“I bet it comes back when you’re close to coming during sex,” he says, grin wide and terrible. Satoru, half-ashamed but mostly desperate and hard, lets him find out.

Horikoshi doesn’t tell him the answer. He might as well have run out of the room afterwards. Satoru is too tired to pay attention, but later, on the train, when the afterglow finally wears out, he feels … split open. Twice is not Horikoshi experimenting; twice is Horikoshi wants him. Twice fleeing is Horikoshi doesn’t want to face that fact. Two months until graduation means Horikoshi never will, and also that Satoru is an idiot.

 

illustrated by beili

He wonders if, tomorrow, Horikoshi’s grip on his heart will have turned his chest as purple as his hands will have left Satoru’s arms.

やめ・はじめ

Satoru graduates. His new job keeps him busy with new-hire training for a few months. After the real job starts, he returns to the club about three times a week.

He isn’t sure if Sakamoto, who’s in charge now, is annoyed or pleased to have Satoru there, but he doesn’t really care: sempai is for life. Some of the current third-years are happy to see him though, and he has a lot of fun beating the crap out of Ikeuchi, who can take it now that his sprained wrist is all better.

After about six months of practice he sees Horikoshi again, on a Friday not long before the end of the semester. Horikoshi greets him with the warmth expected between old friends and they conduct their practice bouts with an energy that clearly scares the freshmen watching it. At the end of the practice, their bodies slicked over with each other’s sweat, they leave practice together.

Dinner and drinks doesn’t end there. Satoru’s apartment is different from the one he had in his student days, still close to school but in a differently cheap district, and Horikoshi lies beside him on the floor, as drunk as Satoru is, their hands wandering over, and then under, clothes.

He realizes, touching Horikoshi without mock-violence for the first time, that Horikoshi is not particularly handsome. He has zits; his shoulders and arms may swell with muscle but his belly is charmingly soft; and there is nothing particularly exciting about his penis except that it’s his and that it’s wonderfully hard.

Satoru touches him, trying for gentleness to keep from frightening him back into his repression, and he thinks he succeeds because Horikoshi falls asleep after, warm beside him. He dreams something that involves watching a TV broadcast of a Yomiuri Giants-Chūnichi Dragons baseball game, and is woken up, painfully early, the sky still dark, by the click of the door to the apartment shutting. He glances at the clock: 5:03. The trains have just started running.

He closes his eyes and thinks that Horikoshi’s learned an eighteenth technique.4 Counter a strike at the heart by breaking your partner’s.

やめ・はじめ

At work there’s a pretty OL named Muraoka Yumi who catches Satoru’s attention. She’s short, with dyed-brown hair and a sweet smile (like Ōmori in the club she has a crooked front tooth) and she speaks good French, he guesses, since that’s the main part of her job. Her personality’s not as cute as he was hoping to find, but they get along well and she seems interested. So he asks her out.

She seems flattered by the invitation and accepts. They go out for a Japanese-style dinner, where he learns that she’s a fan of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, which he supposes isn’t a crime; that her hobby is playing trombone with an all-girls jazz band; and that she enjoys bad martial arts movies. She’s an A-negative.

If it weren’t for her taste in baseball teams and her not being male, she’d almost be his type.

やめ・はじめ

He skips out on practice occasionally to have dates with Yumi. Inevitably, Horikoshi teases him about it afterwards: “She putting out yet?” or “How was dinner; did it taste better because she was there?”

Satoru wants to – to throw him with shōmen-ate and then sit on him, clench the collar of Horikoshi’s dōgi in his hands and tell him No, never; don’t misunderstand things, I want you and she’s there because I need the social status a marriage will give me but if I could just make you stop running I’d never–

But he can’t.

やめ・はじめ

“My parents are planning a family trip to Okinawa over the New Year’s holiday,” Yumi says, one night over dinner. “Do you think you can take the time off to come?”

He wants to go. The beaches would be wonderful, the food better. He wants to breathe in something a little warmer than the air in his apartment, and the university will be closed so even if he wanted to go to practice he wouldn’t be able to.

Besides, he does look forward to spending time with Yumi. She’s good at conversation and he likes hearing her opinions, and just because he’s exploiting her as a cover for his sexual orientation doesn’t mean he can’t like her.

“Sure,” he says, and they spend the rest of dinner planning the trip.

やめ・はじめ

The following week, after they’ve both beaten up sophomores in preparation for the sophomores’ belt tests, he and Horikoshi are talking with Sakamoto, Tanaka, and Ikeuchi in the club room when Horikoshi gets a phone call.

“Hey,” Horikoshi says into the phone, standing up and moving to the corner of the room. “No, I’m at aikido practice.”

Pause. Satoru, along with everyone else, is listening to Horikoshi’s end of the conversation, trying to hear the rest. “I won’t be home until late. Yeah, sorry. Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday.” He laughs. “Next Tuesday? Right. The usual place? Good. Five-thirty, right. See you then.” He hangs up. Satoru hastily pretends that he’s been paying attention to his own feet instead of watching Horikoshi’s back.

Sakamoto sticks out his pinky finger5, and Tanaka grins. Satoru does, too, embarrassed, since Sakamoto’s probably right. Ikegawa smiles into his hand.

Horikoshi grins, proud and apparently embarrassed at once. “My girlfriend,” he says.

“Photos,” Tanaka responds, and Horikoshi pulls out his phone.

She is pretty, he supposes, round-faced, and with a few freckles on her cheeks. She smiles at the camera with her eyes as she hugs a small fluffy dog.

“What’s her name?” he asks.

“Kuwaki Reiko.” He sketches her name on his palm6, and Satoru holds out his hand for the phone again, to look at her, then hands it back.

“How long have you been seeing each other?”

Horikoshi shrugs. “Not long. One-month anniversary is in a couple of days.”

Satoru catches the look that Sakamoto and Tanaka pass between them. Sakamoto’s been dating Arakawa for going on two years now. Satoru has his doubts about whether or not they’ll last after college, but he won’t voice them.

“You’re skipping out on your anniversary to do aikido?” Sakamoto asks.

“With Sakamoto, all of his anniversaries are best celebrated at aikido, but you can’t get away with that,” Satoru teases, gently. He hopes he doesn’t sound jealous. He can’t be jealous; Horikoshi may love her all he wants, but Satoru doubts whether Horikoshi’ll ever be able to want her sexually, and Satoru not only can’t compete in the love department but also has no claim to monopoly on Horikoshi’s sexual desire.

“Not skipping out. Just getting a rain check.”

“Still….”

“She likes guys in the martial arts, so it’s my honor and privilege to give her fun dates,” Horikoshi says. Satoru suddenly wishes he had Horikoshi’s girlfriend, because Yumi wishes he would stop aikido; it’s so violent, and while that’s okay for a young man, he’s supposed to be an adult now. Satoru wants her to just try aikido, but he won’t say that. She’d see that it’s not the violence that’s important in practice; it’s the shifting of weight and pressure and muscle, and the interaction of force and forgiveness. That’s not why he likes it, or not all of it anyway, but that explanation might at least quiet her a little. She frets over the bruises that Horikoshi, Arai, Sakamoto leave on him, the state of his knees, the peeling blisters on his feet.

“Huh,” Tanaka says, and leers silently.

やめ・はじめ

Over the New Year’s holiday, he goes to Okinawa, which is warmer than he expected, though rather rainy. One night, before he goes to bed – in his single room; he’s supposed to be a good boyfriend and therefore not ravish Yumi when they’re not even engaged – they have a conversation in the hotel about old school friends.

“Amano was a little bit of an otaku, you see, and she liked to read comics. Once I went shopping with her, and she spent almost ten thousand yen on used comics! It turned out she had a yearly budget of twenty thousand yen, so she’d buy lots of comics at once for cheap, then resell the ones she didn’t like at school or wherever she could, and then use the money to buy more, to make it last.”

“I wish I’d been that smart at that age. My mom was always the one who collected the money from that sort of thing. I’d have spent it all on candy. But I guess … well, I had this professor in college who tells stories about his student days, when he would start out the year with his furnished apartment, then by the end of the year have sold everything to the pawnbroker. Then, once his scholarship money came through, he’d buy it all back in preparation for the new year.”

She laughs and takes a sip of her drink. “I think my father did that,” she says. “Or something like that. He likes to brag about doing his homework on the bare floor.”

“You should ask,” Satoru murmurs. He gets along all right with her parents, but that’s not the kind of question he should really ask. Besides, this vacation is her parents seeing if he’s good husband material. If he’s not, she’ll break up with him soon; if he is, he’ll be expected to put a ring on her finger within the next year. Except for the dishonesty, he thinks he wouldn’t mind being married to Yumi. She’s not clingy, and quite clever, and she’s already said that she wants to wait until after she’s thirty for children, so she can have a career and can enjoy her life first. Satoru doesn’t want children anytime soon, either.

“I couldn’t do that,” she says, “He’d talk forever, and it would be awfully boring.”

“I don’t know,” Satoru says. “His stories aren’t that bad.”

“You haven’t heard them a thousand times before,” she points out, and finishes her drink. “Bedtime. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“See you,” he says, and leans forward to give her a kiss. She’s very warm and smells sweet. His arms fit around her waist, and her mouth tastes of alcohol.

After a while, she breaks the kiss, and he breathes, stroking her back. The band of her bra gets in the way of his fingers trailing down her spine.

“I don’t feel like sleeping alone,” she says finally, quiet into his ear.

illustrated by beili

He could say something about it being a vacation with her parents, and how they can wait another week for when her father isn’t around to realize what they’ve been up to and kill him.

“Then don’t,” he says, and she smiles, her fingers slipping between his own.

He supposes he performs adequately. Afterwards, she stretches, her back arching, and then rolls onto her side to press up against him, her fingers tracing idly over his chest.

“You’re all pink,” she says. “All the way down to your heart.”

やめ・はじめ

Everyone at work, and at the aikido club, is very pleased with the gifts he brings back for them. Horikoshi takes two little snacks.

A couple of his coworkers tease him about going traveling with her – “I hope you didn’t talk about work the whole time!” – but he shrugs it off, smiling and laughing a little.

Horikoshi says nothing. He doesn’t ask if Okinawa was fun, or if Satoru finally got around to sleeping with Yumi, or if he beat up any U.S. Marines. Just talk of practice and of techniques and what they’re going to do while all the students are undergoing spring training.

Horikoshi gets an email from his girlfriend and answers it in front of Satoru, who neither asks for nor is offered an explanation of the contents. Satoru goes home from every free practice without Horikoshi touching him except with the intent to throw him or be thrown.

やめ・はじめ

A month later there are all sorts of special sales on jewelry in honor of Valentine’s Day, so one night when there isn’t practice, it being February and spring break for the students, he goes to a local jewelry store and looks at the selection. They are all equally un-reminiscent of her, diamonds and gold. He wonders if she’d be happier with something different, but ultimately doesn’t choose anything unusual. The ring that he chooses has a narrow band with a diamond chip embedded in it, nothing fancy and not very big, and far more expensive than he really wanted to pay, but it’s a marriage, after all.

He doesn’t propose on Valentine’s Day because that would be too cheesy, so he waits until the first week of March, when they have a date right after work. He’s already in a suit and he called her father last week.

His parents are going to be mad that they haven’t met her yet, but he can’t help that; who wants to go to Aomori for vacations? Besides, if she’s like most of his female friends in high school, she’d dump him for his younger brother Yasuo, which would be inconvenient.

They go to a little sushi place that’s near the station where their routes diverge, and they eat; as usual, he pays, and as usual she smiles and thanks him. He touches her hand, thinking how warm it is, how long her nails are, and with his off hand he fumbles the ring box out of his jacket pocket and sets it on the table.

She squeals, quietly, and picks it up. “Is this what I think it is?”

“Probably,” he admits, embarrassed despite himself. “If you want to marry me.”

She cries a little, which makes him feel awful, given that as fond of her as he is, the desire to marry her is all a lie, and she lets him put it on her hand since she can’t see through her tears.

She seems to like the ring. Satoru thinks that’s good.

やめ・はじめ

The first practice after the regular schedule resumes, Yumi meets him for dinner outside the dojo – not what he’d been planning, and terrifying for a few moments, and then Horikoshi smiles at her like he does when he flirts and Satoru lays a hand extra-heavy on his sweat-damp shoulder and says, “This rude guy is Horikoshi Masanori, as you can read on his belt, and he graduated the same year I did. Horikoshi, this is my fiancée, Muraoka Yumi.”

“So you proposed?” Horikoshi smiles at Yumi, all teeth, and bows faintly, but Satoru’s hand doesn’t slip off his shoulder.

“Yes,” Yumi murmurs. The hand with the ring on twitches, possibly without her meaning it.

“Suzukawa-san is going to be a very lucky man,” Horikoshi murmurs, and excuses himself to change.

“Sorry you had to see me like this,” Satoru apologizes, touching the scrape on his neck left by one of the sophomores stabbing too high and scratching him with a fingernail.

She smiles, sweet and clever, and a little bit dirty. “I don’t mind. I’ll set it as a goal.”

He has to laugh at that, wanting to touch her shoulder, or her cheek, to feel her warmth. If they were in private, perhaps he would.

By the time their conversation is at a pausing point and he goes to change, Horikoshi has left.

やめ・はじめ

They don’t intersect at practice for nearly a month, during which time Satoru starts to wonder if Horikoshi’s staying away out of anger over not being forewarned about the engagement to Yumi. Then one day Horikoshi’s back, and when Satoru says, “Long time no see,” Horikoshi grins.

“My boss decided he had a personal vendetta against my free time. Had a big project due last week that required more overtime than should ever be worked in less than a year.”

Satoru believes him, because after that Horikoshi touches him as much as usual, then, as they’re leaving the sports center, says, “Yumi doesn’t know, right?”

“Doesn’t know what?”

Horikoshi’s voice sounds like he’s laughing. “That you’re not normal.”

That again. “And your girlfriend?”

Horikoshi freezes. For a moment Satoru is afraid that Horikoshi will hit him, but then Horikoshi says, “I’m not a fucking faggot.”

Satoru tries to imagine how this opinion is compatible with the evidence, namely a couple of hand jobs and kissing Ikeuchi, and can’t think of anything rational. “Huh,” he says finally.

やめ・はじめ

Two days later at the next practice where they intersect, he and Horikoshi end up going to dinner and drinks, and then back to Horikoshi’s apartment where they have sex. He could say he’s surprised, but that would be lying; the way Horikoshi slurs You shouldn’t be with her you’ll never be happy with her into his neck reeks too much of jealousy. It shouldn’t leave Satoru feeling victorious but it does.

Satoru leaves his hand resting on Horikoshi’s hip, afterwards, and when he wakes up at five-fifteen in the morning it’s still there, although he shouldn’t read too much into it because Horikoshi’s probably just been asleep the whole time.

He creeps out of the apartment, dressing in the mostly-dark, and is disappointed that Horikoshi never stirs at all.

illustrated by beili

やめ・はじめ

The wedding isn’t perfect, but that’s half the fun. They opted for something a little traditional but not really; instead of the all-white kimono with hat and everything else they save money and she wears the same furisode that she wore at her coming-of-age ceremony. Afterwards she changes into a short-sleeved formal kimono as befitting her status as a married woman. The reception is small, maybe only fifty people. Of course he invites some of his friends from the university aikido club, and his family, and his aunt’s family that lives in Tokyo. His cousin has since graduated and is working as a gopher for the Democratic Party representative’s office.

Horikoshi comes, of course, with his … yes, she’s his fiancée, Satoru realizes, looking at the ring on her finger that he hadn’t been told about. He isn’t jealous; why should he be? He’s a married man now. He’ll do his best to be sexually faithful to Yumi, even if his affection is a lost cause.

He holds Yumi’s hand, and feels the warmth of her smile, and that night they are too tired to have sex. They make up for it the next morning.

やめ・はじめ

Their honeymoon is two weeks in the south of France, hours and hours of flying and too much jet lag, but Yumi’s smile when she gets there and sees the sun makes it worth it. She smiles, laughs, splashes him with water. She gains weight, and they have conversations under the stars and in rain, and the food is excellent.

They come home with terrible jet lag, and much more broke than they were, but it doesn’t matter because of how much fun it was. Satoru laughs, now, when she tells him he’s pink as a crab and just as dangerous.

やめ・はじめ

Horikoshi, when practices start again, has a broken thumb, so he can’t really participate. Instead he does many of the drills one-handed, and whenever Satoru’s off waiting, they play around a bit, breaking balance and figuring out holds that won’t aggravate Horikoshi’s thumb.

Near the end of the semester everyone goes out to party. Satoru and Horikoshi follow along but start a different tab since technically they’re not club members anymore, being graduated students but not old enough to qualify as Old Boys from the school.

Horikoshi gets terribly, terribly drunk, red-flushed cheeks, and he gets louder as the evening goes on, friendly with all the underclassmen and paying no attention to Satoru at all. Which can only be a good thing, really; Satoru doesn’t want Horikoshi’s sublimated sexual attraction to him being revealed to everybody.

He ends up having to escort Horikoshi home, but it’s all right, he doesn’t go inside the apartment, just makes sure Horikoshi gets to his door safely. He wonders where Reiko is, while Horikoshi fumbles the key into the lock, twisting it gracelessly thanks to his broken thumb, and Horikoshi says carefully, slowly, “You want to come in?”

“No,” Satoru says. “You and I have both had enough to drink, and I’m married now, and you’re engaged.”

Horikoshi laughs, loud and warm, and he leans his shoulder into the door frame. “Marriage has nothing to do with it,” he murmurs, sotto voce, and then, without giving Satoru a chance to respond, “See you later.”

“Later,” Satoru says, bemused, and lets Horikoshi close the door in his face.

やめ・はじめ

One month Yumi’s period doesn’t happen when she’s expecting it – she’s normally regular as clockwork; three days of sexual insatiability, three days of no sexual appetite at all, and then … nothing.

Satoru doesn’t know what to do. They’ve always used condoms, as carefully as they can. They’re not ready for kids yet, or rather, Yumi doesn’t want kids yet and Satoru hasn’t mustered up the courage to tell her that he doesn’t want kids at all. Maybe he’s a coward. Probably. There was a kid in one of his classes at school whom everyone knew was gay, and if Satoru remembers right he didn’t have much of a social life and had more trouble than everyone else in finding a job. Satoru doesn’t know what made him like this, but he doesn’t want to have kids and then watch them suffer from it, too.

He loses sleep over it for two days, stresses through aikido practice so much that it even stifles his usual desire for Horikoshi, in the realization that he might be a father soon. He conjures up personalities, hobbies, schools – they’d have to teach the child French; Yumi would insist on it, and Satoru wants him or her to be good at English, because English means the capability of a job almost anywhere in the world.

And then, the third day, she drops by his desk in the company during their lunch break to drop a note on his desk: Safe, it says, and Satoru’s heart breaks and rejoices at the same time. After work she laughs, tears dripping down her face, into his shoulder over dinner.

やめ・はじめ

Horikoshi gets married the following month, and Satoru and Yumi are invited. It is moderately lavish, Western-style, and the food is excellent. Satoru finally has a real conversation with Reiko, and as he remembered from his own wedding, she is not a beauty: quite short, with a stubby face and very little nose. But she laughs readily, and in that she and Horikoshi are well-matched. She is, Satoru has to concede, an interesting woman.

When they come home he kisses Yumi right inside the door, soft and light, and she smiles and untangles herself from his arms. “Not tonight,” she says, and goes to bed. Satoru doesn’t know what to think. She never turns sex down quite like that.

The following semester he and Horikoshi test for third-degree black belt together, a dance of difficult techniques and the clicking of wooden swords and staves. The preparations take all semester, weeks of meeting after practice to work through the kata. Satoru gives himself blisters from the staff.

The last night that they can meet before the exam, he and Horikoshi flow well together, weight and heat, and the sharp pain of effective techniques done well. They say farewell to each other at the station, go their separate ways, and go home. Satoru falls asleep on the train but wakes up in time for his transfer, then again in time for his stop.

Yumi is already in bed when he gets home, which makes sense because it’s 11:15, but there’s leftover curry on the stove and rice on keep-warm in the rice cooker, and so he eats, takes a bath, and joins her in bed.

She stirs when he gets in bed, and asks, “All ready for your test?”

“Yes,” he says. “Or mostly ready, anyway.” He stares up at the ceiling, running through the routines in his mind.

“Good,” she says.

やめ・はじめ

On the mat, at exam time, he bows to Horikoshi at the beginning of their exam and thinks of nothing but the next technique, the next fall, the snapping pressure of staves clacking and the placement of his own feet. He can feel, now, the way their bodies’ energy flows together, blending. The compensation for Horikoshi’s stressed wrists here, and Horikoshi having some care for Satoru’s weak knees at other points – it’s not perfect, but they’ve worked hard.

They both pass. Not as much of a margin as he knows Horikoshi was hoping for, but Satoru’s happy with it, and afterwards they go out for ice cream with the rest of the club. He lets himself slip into easy conversation with the current club president, a somber little fellow by the name of Okazaki, and right as everyone’s heading back to the station to head home, Horikoshi gets his attention by saying, very loudly from the other side of their group, “Hey Suzukawa, how about a celebratory drink and dinner?”

“Sure!” Satoru calls back, and doesn’t think to question it until they’ve gotten back to Shinjuku and they’re on the way to a restaurant. It’s been a long time since they’ve had dinner alone together.

His suspicions are proved right when Horikoshi, after the hour and a half of the meal is passed, leans up close and careful to him across the table and says, “You happy with her?”

“I’m very fond of my wife,” Satoru responds, just as quietly.

Horikoshi is hardly even smiling, just a flicker of teeth. “You don’t miss cock?”

Satoru resists hitting him. He knows exactly what Horikoshi would use to counter it, too, and a counter to that–

“I miss cock,” he says carefully, “far less than you want me to.”

illustrated by beili

Horikoshi’s smile curls, wicked and a little bit angry. “That still enough to cheat on your wife?”

He runs the pad of his thumb over his wedding ring, which is warm with his body heat. He’s fairly sure Horikoshi’s propositioning him, but there’s no right answer to the question. “With you?”

And if Satoru didn’t know Horikoshi so well he’d wonder if that was something like pleasure in the span of his grin.

“There anybody else who knows you’re a faggot in this world?”

Satoru takes a sip of his drink. “I think Sakamoto guessed. I forgot my dōgi once, before I got engaged, and I was looking for a clean one in the club heaps of extras, when Sakamoto threw yours at me, even though it was dirty. Said I spent enough time sweating on you, and vice versa, that the dirt was probably indistinguishable.”

Horikoshi smiles, terrible and strange. “And you said?”

“I said that sweating on each other was nothing like wearing each others’ clothing, and if he doubted that I bet that Arakawa, Kamioka, and Tsukayama had some skirts they’d be willing to share with him.”

Horikoshi doesn’t laugh, like he expects. Instead his smile falters, anger in the set of his jaw. “You knew he was dating Arakawa,” he says lowly. “And -”

“You don’t call dinner and drinks a date? When you expect it to end in sex, which you clearly do, and which we’ve had?”

Horikoshi’s mouth snaps shut, tight-jawed. “I’ve never had sex with you,” he grinds out.

Satoru chokes. “How is giving each other blow jobs not having sex?”

Horikoshi’s face is red. “Forget it,” he says, closing off their account at the ordering pad on the table before standing up and stalking past Satoru on his way out of the table, towards the exit. “Have fun with your wife.”

Satoru waits until Horikoshi has enough of a head start and then goes to the exit, puts on his shoes and says he’s paying the bill. Horikoshi’s paid half of it, which surprises him a little, but is mostly annoying because it steals from him the happy rage he would have gotten from Horikoshi sticking him with the whole of it.

やめ・はじめ

He comes home in such a foul mood that Yumi doesn’t speak to him all night, which is probably just as well. He can’t help but feel angry at her, too, for not being the Horikoshi that he wants: the one who will stay by him and not insist he’s straight when he clearly isn’t; who will acknowledge that he wants Satoru; who would take pleasure rather than shame from their having sex.

He lies in his bed with Yumi and, quietly, imagines that Horikoshi hadn’t run out on their conversation, that instead of disputing their never having had sex Satoru let it lie and just said You don’t call dinner and drinks a date? and Horikoshi laughed.

Maybe it is, Horikoshi says, and his smile catches on something deep and hungry in Satoru’s belly, leaving him feeling sick and tense and too-warm, and not really aroused. And then they find a hotel – it’s close to Shinjuku’s gay district, after all – and he and Horikoshi undress each other, careful and slow, and every button of Horikoshi’s dress shirt that Satoru is allowed to open feels momentous.

Satoru falls asleep like that, imagining the brush of his fingers over Horikoshi’s chest, arms, belly, the heat of his skin, the warmth of his acceptance.

やめ・はじめ

He shows up for free practice a couple of times the month after that, just because he needs the practice; Horikoshi never does. Satoru wonders if their fight was enough to make Horikoshi run away entirely from the team, to get away from him.

He uses his free time to work on things with Yumi because he doesn’t want her to feel unloved. He does love her, though not sexually, and doesn’t want her to be unhappy. So they go out to dinner a few times, and he cooks dinner once, and surprises her by giving her a good evening kiss one night when he comes home from work. He goes to her jazz band’s concert and brings her flowers backstage. And then, one night as she’s cleaning up the dishes from dinner, she says, “Who was it?”

“Huh?”

“Who was it? You’ve never been as affectionate as you are now, so you must have had an affair, and you’re feeling guilty. Who was it? She graduated, didn’t she.”

“No,” Satoru says, horrified and a little amused, and secretly ashamed. “There’s no other woman. I thought that since I’d been busy with aikido this semester, training for the third-level black belt test, that I should make up for it now.”

She pauses, swallows, brushes at her suspiciously damp eyes with the back of her wrist. “Really?”

“Really. I promise.” He wonders if the thin stabbing pain he’s been getting in his elbows is preemptive karmic damage from lying to her.

やめ・はじめ

He is surprised to come back to practice and find Horikoshi there. Things seem normal – Horikoshi tears the captain to pieces, in between chilling his neck with ice packs and re-wrapping his wrists. He treats Satoru as brutally as he always has on the mat, including a particularly nasty trick adapted from the third-degree black belt kata that makes Satoru choose between, essentially, jumping into the wall or getting his arm broken. He’s fine; it only stings for a minute or two, and he gets his own back later in the practice.

Afterwards, Horikoshi manages to be leaving at the same time Satoru is, so they talk on their way out the door, then Satoru finds himself trapped in a corner of the bike parking lot with Horikoshi’s bulk between him and the sidewalk that leads toward the station.

“So,” Horikoshi says, low intense murmur, face almost invisible in the dark, “I thought about what you said. And fine, it was sex.”

Satoru crosses his arms, pauses to wait for a continuation that doesn’t come. “And?”

“And?” Horikoshi deflates a little. “That’s it.”

“You took a month to realize that willingly putting another man’s dick in your mouth was sex.”

“Two weeks, but there wasn’t practice.”

Are you a joke, Satoru wants to say, but doesn’t. “Congratulations.”

Horikoshi’s eyes narrow. “So…”

A pause.

“So,” Horikoshi tries again, then, “What do you want me to say?”

Satoru uncrosses his arms and lets them fall to his sides. “Don’t say anything you don’t mean.”

“I said I realized we’d had sex.”

“Yes,” Satoru says. “And then you left. And you are, very loudly, a homophobe. You have spent nearly four years trying to convince me that you are not sexually attracted to men. And you want me to say, ‘Yes, well done’ because you have finally acknowledged that you had sex with me. Yes. Well done. Thank you. I’m glad we had this discussion.”

“No – that is – damn it. Suzukawa, you -” His shoulders hunch, and for a moment Satoru feels bad, because he knows it was meant to be an apology. Horikoshi didn’t want to fight and he expected Satoru to stop being angry with him.

“I was expecting,” Satoru says, trying for gentleness and knowing that his anger is still in his voice, “one of two things: either you were too afraid of what I was implying and you ran away, or you realized that what I was implying was probably true, and began to accept it. But you accepted the truth of what I said and ignored the implications.”

Horikoshi takes a step back, and Satoru’s thoughts flicker briefly through shōmen-ate, base of his palm pressing Horikoshi’s chin up and head backwards, hand at the small of his back to scissor away his balance.

“Implications,” Horikoshi says, very slowly, and then he continues, even more slowly, “Do you want me to say that I’ve become like that and I’ve decided to divorce my wife, and that I want you to divorce your wife so that I can spend the rest of my life with you?”

“No.” Maybe just the first part, but Horikoshi didn’t need to say it at the same time as all the patently ridiculous things.

And Horikoshi looks at him, dark and frightening, and he says, “You do.” It sounds like Satoru always imagined a yes from him would sound, half dragged-out and half-desperate, and doesn’t fit.

“I don’t want to hurt Yumi like that.”

Horikoshi’s smile flickers back, wan and without the dangerous span of his teeth, but there nonetheless.

“Doesn’t mean you don’t want me on my knees begging for it,” he says.

Satoru takes a step forward, meaning to make Horikoshi back away to keep two arms’ length distance between them, but Horikoshi doesn’t move. They’re too close, close enough that it would be judo if they started something. Satoru’s terrible at catching ankles.

“I don’t,” he says, enunciating it, slow and careful, and that’s when Horikoshi reaches, too slowly for an attack, to lay a hand along his jaw and pull him forward, until there’s almost nothing between their mouths, and Horikoshi murmurs, “You’re lying.”

illustrated by beili

“You’re gay,” Satoru responds, and he feels Horikoshi’s smile spreading as Horikoshi kisses him, and he kisses back, hands laid on Horikoshi’s upper arms to hold them both steady rather than to break Horikoshi’s balance like it usually would be.

He doesn’t make it home, that night. Yumi’s reply to his text message is a simple Understood.

やめ・はじめ

After that, things are at once worse and better. Maybe once every two, three weeks they have dinner together after practice. It only ever ends in sex maybe once a month, and Satoru is careful to make it home before the trains end so that Yumi thinks he’s just staying out late because he and Horikoshi are good friends, not – that he’s being unfaithful. He tries to keep paying romantic and sexual attention to Yumi; she loves him, and she’s his best friend. And he’s made his life with her. Horikoshi – he would probably end up trying to kill Horikoshi if they tried to live together. And besides that, they’d starve to death: neither of them can cook, excepting instant ramen.

A few months pass like that, quiet and stressful, and then the orders come down from higher-up that Yumi, if she doesn’t mind, is being transferred to the office in eastern France for a year. Satoru has no such similar offer, so he has no choice but to stay in Japan, not that he thinks he’d enjoy France anyway.

They sit down at the kitchen table that evening, and Yumi folds and refolds the cloth she uses to wipe down the table.

“What should I do?” she asks.

“What you want to do.” Satoru can’t give her a better answer than that. “Do you think you would be satisfied knowing you’d let this opportunity go?”

“But it’s a year apart,” she says hesitantly.

“You studied abroad in France for a year, didn’t you? It’s almost the same.”

“I could quit, and we could start a family.”

“If you think you’re ready and that’s what you want,” he says, and his heart beats cold-quick with apprehension: Let that not be what she wants. Let her want France more than children –

She pauses, and watches him for a bit, then says. “Do you even want children, Suzukawa?”

He smiles, a little embarrassed, and ducks his head. “I wouldn’t mind a daughter,” he says. “Boys are awful to raise, and any son of mine would be a terror.”

She laughs behind her hand, and leans back in her chair. “You don’t mind waiting a year?” she asks. “I’m almost thirty, after all.”

“Stop adding more years to your age than you’ve actually got,” he says, teasing her. “It makes me feel old, too.”

She accepts, like she probably wanted to from the beginning, and like Satoru was hoping – for her sake and for more selfish reasons – that she would.

やめ・はじめ

He sees her off to the airport that day in March, and within two weeks Horikoshi, sticky with dried sweat from practice, is spending nights in the bed with him, all hot desperation and gentleness from a man who, five years ago, Satoru never would have thought would give in to him like this.

He feels a little guilty for letting Horikoshi take Yumi’s spot in the bed, but it would have felt more wrong to switch which side of the bed was his. As though Horikoshi were husband, and he wife, in this half-empty house.

Satoru wonders how Reiko is, if she and Horikoshi are planning to have children, if they are happy with their marriage, or if she has guessed what her husband is and has decided to find her own lover. He asks once, over dinner, and Horikoshi shrugs.

“We’re getting on,” he says, and goes back to shoveling tempura into his mouth. “She’s a good person. Too good for dumbshit me.”

Satoru swallows and tries not to wonder if Horikoshi thinks Satoru is too good for him, or if they’re both equally bad.

やめ・はじめ

He calls Yumi on her birthday, over the computer. They talk for several hours, and he feels so good for the rest of the day that one of the current seniors in the club asks him if he heard some good news.

“Not really,” he says, “Just talked to my wife for a while this morning.” He is momentarily confused when she giggles, and only realizes that his explanation sounds like a euphemism afterwards.

Horikoshi isn’t at practice that day, so Satoru goes home, eats a bento box bought on a time sale for dinner, and feels fantastic.

やめ・はじめ

There was some talk about Satoru flying to France to visit Yumi over the New Year’s holiday but nothing comes of it. Instead he goes back to the house he grew up in in Aomori. New Year’s Eve he spends lying in his old bed, kept awake by the ringing of bells at the local temple, thinking of Horikoshi and wishing for something better. He doesn’t know what ‘better’ would be – not divorcing their wives and starting to live together; their careers would stall and they’d blame each other for it.

Not to mention Satoru doesn’t want to have to explain to his family what he’d done, nor make them explain to the rest of their relatives and friends what he’d gotten up to in Tokyo. And Horikoshi’s family would be even less pleased.

There’s a knock on his door, even though it’s near on two in the morning.

“Come on in,” he murmurs, and is surprised to see that it’s his mother. She’s usually early to bed.

“Is something wrong?” he asks, worried about what would have made her get up to talk to him.

“That was what I wanted to ask you,” she says. “Is everything all right with Yumi? She didn’t come home, and you’re in Tokyo all alone…”

“We’re fine,” he says. “It seemed too expensive to come back to Japan, or go all the way to Europe, for so little time.”

“Good,” his mother says, then again. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s all right. You’re probably tired, too.”

“Yes.” She makes her way out of the room, and whispers Good night into the room right before she closes the door. He used to be afraid that her good-night wishes would escape, and would make her practice saying it and then closing the door ever more quickly.

He wouldn’t mind playing that game with his daughter, if he ever had one. But if Yumi ever decided to leave him, she would keep custody of the child, and then he would have a thousand times the regret.

There was a newspaper article once about a gay couple somewhere in Europe raising their children together. He somehow doubts that Horikoshi would be very paternal, but maybe – it’s not like Horikoshi was bad at looking out for freshmen. But that won’t happen. If Satoru won’t leave Yumi over Horikoshi, then Horikoshi won’t leave Reiko.

He dreams of the slow pleasure of his and Horikoshi’s bodies aligned, not so much sex as touching for the pleasure of it and happening to be hard. Horikoshi has started to go gray, and Satoru buries his hands in Horikoshi’s hair, the sharp-edged softness of it. Horikoshi leans into him, his hands stroking down Satoru’s back, falling further and further and then – well, it is a dream, after all. If it didn’t involve sex it wouldn’t be anything at all.

やめ・はじめ

Come March, despite assurances that the post in France was only supposed to be a year, Yumi’s position is renewed, and this time there is almost no conversation at all.

“I’ll stay another year,” she tells him, and he nods. He does not ask why she is staying, nor why she is not concerned about his opinion; she changed apartments in February, which in retrospect he interprets as her having taken a lover. He doesn’t mind. He can’t begrudge her having another on the side. He would not even mind if she had a child, though if the father is French he might have to divorce her rather than declare paternity. But he wouldn’t mind acting as an honorary uncle to such a child.

Not that he says this to her, of course. He says it to Horikoshi.

“…you want your wife to have children with another man so that you can spoil them?” Horikoshi laughs and shakes his head and cracks his knuckles, leaning back into the couch. “You are way too nice a guy.”

“You don’t want Reiko to be happy?”

Horikoshi shrugs. On the television, some talent or another exclaims over the food he’s eating. “She has different standards for me than everything else. I have to sleep in our bed five nights a week, and tell her in advance if I’m not. Practically threw me out of her side of the bed after our one-year anniversary. Probably figured I was having an affair and she didn’t want to catch anything nasty.”

“You are having an affair,” Satoru points out, somewhat helplessly. “You’ve been having sex with me since before we got married.”

“And I still wouldn’t want to have to claim paternity of some other guy’s kids by my wife.”

“Isn’t that kind of a double standard?”

Horikoshi eyes him. “I am not interested in sexual partners with whom I can have children. Hence, non-issue.”

Satoru presses his lips together. The restaurant owner on TV gives an explanation of his cooking methods.

“You should be getting home,” he murmurs finally. “It’s almost eleven o’clock.”

He lets Horikoshi see himself out and locks the door using the panel in the wall, then goes to bed. The sheets smell of Horikoshi, even though they didn’t have sex tonight.

Is this supposed to be what love is like? To feel as though no matter what he does it’s a compromise? He cannot honor his wife without denying his own desires; he cannot act on those desires without sacrificing not only his duty to Yumi and his family but also his role in society. Not that he’s unique – there’s a thousand Edo-period plays of men and prostitutes in love who commit double suicide to escape their duties to their families or the brothel in favor of their love for each other.

He tries to imagine Horikoshi as a samurai and can’t, which is just as well because Satoru would make a terrible woman.

やめ・はじめ

Two years later, Horikoshi is assigned a temporary transfer within his company, out to Osaka. He breaks the news over Chinese food not too far from campus, at the beginning of summer, and Satoru manages not to gape at him.

“Osaka,” he repeats.

“Yeah. It’s a step up.” Horikoshi pushes away a half-empty plate of lo mein and reaches for a pork, eggplant, and green pepper stir fry.

Satoru tries not to think about how he was hoping, now that Yumi’s position in France has officially become permanent, that he could be a little more reckless about Horikoshi. Disappointment doesn’t get easier even after this long.

“Congratulations,” he says instead. “Is Reiko going with you?”

Horikoshi shakes his head. “Nah, she needs to stay in Tokyo for her job. I’ll be back in town every month or so, and she’ll come to Osaka for New Year’s and Golden Week. It’ll work.” He swallows a mouthful of rice and stir fry.

Satoru taps his fingers on the table and thinks of saying something like, So you’re saying your schedule’s wide open most weekends that you’re not working? but doesn’t. If he pushes Horikoshi will push back, and nothing will happen.

“Are you planning on going to the headquarters dojo while you’re there?” Satoru asks.

Horikoshi swallows another mouthful of food. “Maybe. Was thinking about it.”

Satoru scrapes off the last of the eggplant onto his rice.

“Suzukawa,” Horikoshi says after a moment.

“Yeah?” Satoru looks up.

Horikoshi is carefully picking the last grains of rice out of his bowl. “Train fare’s too expensive to be traveling that distance much.”

Satoru nods and turns back to his food. “I’ll keep it in mind.” Horikoshi may think he doesn’t want Satoru to visit, but it doesn’t really matter. They’d both forgotten that in weaponless matches, either partner is allowed to attack.

illustrated by beili

交代です7

Translator’s Notes:

The translator would like to acknowledge Sensei S.M. Flynn for his assistance with the details of Tomiki Aikido, without which this story would have been untranslatable.

The style of aikido featured in this story, though never explicitly named, is recognizable as the style of aikido commonly known as “Tomiki aikido.” What makes it recognizable is the references within the story to both competitions and to a basic repertoire of exactly seventeen techniques. Both are unique characteristics of Tomiki aikido.

1) The title, randori, refers to the format of the competitions. Rather than a set sequence of techniques (a kata), one partner may attack freely, and the other may defend with any technique, or combination of techniques, he or she considers feasible.

2) In Japanese, the poem quoted at the beginning of the story reads:
振りかざす
太刀の下こそ
地獄なれ、
一足進め
先は極楽

Furikazasu
Tantō no shita koso
Jigoku nare
Hitoashi susume
Saki wa gokuraku

3) Dōgi: Japanese martial arts uniform.

4) Tomiki aikido has a basic repertoire of seventeen techniques.

5) A slang gesture meaning “girlfriend.”

6) Horikoshi’s verbal explanation of the Chinese characters in Reiko’s name (玲子) has been omitted in translation. He says, “Rei as in the left side is ‘king’ (王) and the right is the right-hand side of ‘bell (鈴).'” Perhaps indicatively, ‘bell’ is the “Suzu” of Satoru’s family name, “Suzukawa” (鈴川).

7) The scene breaks mean “Stop/Start”. The final phrase is “Alternate” [i.e. switch who is the attacking and defending partner in a match].

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