New Year’s (お正月)

from the cell phone novel Tsugaru Min’yō (津軽民謡, “Folk Songs of Tsugaru”)
by CHAWAN Emiko (茶碗 恵美子)
Trans. MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷 望裸)
illustrated by Li

Author’s Note: Inspired by “Thirteen Dunes” (十三の砂山 , “Tosa no Sunayama”) as played in this video.

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/144210.html)

The seats are almost all full at this point, and Shinsuke shifts his bag on his shoulders, shutting the door behind himself so he won’t interfere with the professor’s lecture, before starting to walk down the rows of seats to look for a place.

There are two seats open on this side of the classroom. One is on the far side of a guy who is clearly asleep, head down on the desk cushioned by his crossed arms, so Shinsuke can’t sit there. The other is a middle seat, between a girl, sitting on the far side of the table, who’s writing an email on her cell phone; and a guy, sitting on Shinsuke’s side of the table, who’s got one of the buds of his earphones in and is tapping his pencil on a mostly-empty sheet of looseleaf instead of listening to the professor’s lecture.

“Excuse me,” he mumbles in the music-listener’s direction. The guy jerks a moment, his earbud falling out, and slides out of his seat so Shinsuke can claim the center, next to the girl, who seems to be writing an email about getting dinner with her friends on Saturday.

Shinsuke drops his copy of today’s handouts, picked up from the pile of extras in the front, on the desk and drops his bag next to the chair, finally seated. Well-trained in the art of coming late to class, he glances over at his neighbor’s notes:

Divided bakufu weak, weak also due to bad laws about militias? Sat-Cho alliance –> defeat. Revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians; no matter how sweet it would be to sell them cheap tourist trinkets and send them home on the next boat for Amsterdam, along with some strategically marketed cars.

Shinsuke doesn’t laugh, although it’s a close thing. When the next slide comes up, he copies it seriously, then draws an arrow to the note about the Satsuma rebellion and annotates it with Wanted to impress his boyfriend back in the sticks, who missed having a pair of swords to duel with.

The moment he finishes the last letter, his seatmate puts his head down on the table, shoulders shaking. Shinsuke wonders for a moment if the guy’s crying, like he just got thrown out by his parents for being the kind of guy who would visit Shinjuku Ni-chōme or if he’s from Kagoshima and is really homesick or something, except then he realizes the guy’s laughing, as weird as that is for a joke that lame.

Whatever. Shinsuke can’t judge; he wrote the note, after all. If they happen to share a sense of humor, then taking notes for this class is about to get interesting.

It does get interesting. The two of them end up sitting at the same desk in every class, and it’s crazy and funny and keeps Shinsuke awake through the class. Nor does it stop there. By the midterm his e-mails to Yoshida are almost half of his cell phone correspondence. It tends to be small things – Took a nap during Development of the Emperor System, should feel more guilty than I do – with snarky comments after (Should break all your mirrors, sell your jewels, and you probably don’t even own a sword anyway). Shinsuke looks forward to his history classes for all the wrong reasons, and Yoshida doesn’t listen to music in class anymore.

One day in early December, Yoshida comes to class carrying some kind of instrument case; he sets it under the table and sits down next to Shinsuke, where there’s still leg room, but where they can see the notes they’ll inevitably scribble to each other in the margins of their looseleaf.

Shinsuke’s elbow, thrown over the table to hold the paper in place, keeps brushing Yoshida’s writing arm as it falls down the page. He moves his piece of notepaper, slides a little farther away, but now that he’s noticed, he can feel – some echo inside himself that hungers, that wonders what Yoshida would do if he left his arm there.

Idiot. The best he could ever hope for would be Yoshida’s acceptance of his sexual orientation. And then there would be the risk – likely the inevitable accident – of Yoshida telling someone else, and the news getting around, being spread to his family and, worse, be a ticking bomb lying in wait to fuck over his job-hunting efforts. Just . . . no.

He leaves his elbow close to his ribs and tries to think of clever annotations to use for the formation and eventual dissolution of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. For once, he doesn’t have anything, though Yoshida is as clever and cutting as ever.

During winter break, he, Yoshida, and Abe from Yoshida’s Fundamentals of Economics class and Shinsuke’s Constitutional Law class take a travel package out to an onsen close to Nikkō for a couple of days, sharing a room. They’ll be home before the thirty-first, if by “home” everyone means Tokyo – Abe’s from Hokkaido. Yoshida’s folks are, he says, happily skiing without him in Nagano, so he’s going to be stuck in an empty house for half the break.

Shinsuke has already promised to spend the twenty-ninth with him. By that point, Shinsuke will be glad to have something to do – his older siblings are visiting, and they’re bringing their families. He’ll be more than happy to be out of the house after the second day of them, and he’ll probably drag Yoshida out somewhere on January third, too. Between Keisuke being terribly smug about being the doted-upon oldest son (with wife and obligatory newborn child brought along) and Eiji being annoying, and Yōko being prissy, he’ll need the break. He doesn’t hate them, but they are his siblings.

If he won’t be so sick of Yoshida at that point that he’ll want some time away from him. He’s starting to think he is dangerously incapable of getting sick of Yoshida, in that ugly way he recognizes as a crush. There’s the way he remembers the sound of Yoshida’s voice, the shape of his handwriting scribbled in his notes, the flicker of his eyes as he reads.

Shinsuke wasn’t raised to believe that homosexuality was something gross. It’s that he knew before he was fourteen that he wanted to go into politics when he grew up, and being openly gay is incompatible with that. So instead of changing his dream job he changed his dream family, from the assumed wife-and-two-kids to being single and sticking with his parents and siblings. He also acquired a reputation of being clueless and hopelessly bad around girls. It was better that way, because when his classmates shoved him in the direction of some pretty girl and he declined, faking nervousness, they felt better about going after the girl themselves and wouldn’t notice if his eyes tracked handsome men walking by.

He doesn’t mind being alone if it means he can have a job that lets him serve the country in a way that he loves.

He supposes next year he won’t be such good friends with Yoshida. Their specialties are different, so they’ll probably end up taking different classes, and they’ll drift apart. Shinsuke’s crush will fade until it can hardly be called a crush anymore, and that will be that. Drifting in and out of each others’ lives, maybe passing each other on campus and saying hello. That’s how the little flutter in Shinsuke’s chest will die, and he won’t mourn the risk it represents.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments when he wishes he aspired to a career that didn’t require such impeccability. Like now, with Yoshida in the yukata supplied by the inn, the edges of his collarbone showing because he didn’t close it tightly enough. Leaning close to Abe, talking about endaka and its politico-economic effects, he’s…

Shinsuke looks away. Yoshida’s easy relaxation, leaning against the edge of the table, sipping green tea out of a rough black ceramic cup, makes Shinsuke’s thoughts run in directions Yoshida probably wouldn’t appreciate, and he’s very much not looking at him in a way conducive to interpretation as interest in the conversation.

He stands, stretches, then bends to pick up his emptied teacup and set it on the table. To do so, he has to stand with one foot pressed up against Yoshida’s thigh – or, well, he doesn’t have to. He just arranges himself in the admittedly limited space that way. And Yoshida doesn’t move aside, the heat of his thigh pressing into Shinsuke’s ankle through the yukata.

Shinsuke’s reaction is embarrassing, so he tries to think of something – anything – that will redirect any attention he may be getting. “I’m going back in the water,” he announces, stepping back from the table. Yoshida’s warmth lingers on his skin. “You guys want to come too?”

“Sure,” Abe agrees. He raises his teacup to finish it off.

Yoshida pushes up his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. “No thanks; I’m starting to get a headache and the steam and heat will just make it worse. I think I’ll stay here and take a nap.”

“All right,” Abe agrees easily, rising to his feet and striding past Shinsuke on his way to the door. “See you in a bit.”

Shinsuke pauses, meets Yoshida’s eyes. “Feel better,” he mutters. “It’d be annoying if you got sick and ruined everyone’s good time.”

“Thanks,” Yoshida says. He closes his eyes and takes his glasses off, setting them on the table next to the emptied teacups, and rubs between his eyes. “If you’re going to stand around,” he says finally, opening his eyes and squinting in Shinsuke’s general direction, “give me a hand up at least.” He reaches out and folds his knees into his chest to brace himself. Shinsuke takes his hand, feeling almost flirted-with, and pulls him up.

Despite Shinsuke’s best efforts, their eyes don’t meet, because Yoshida is adjusting the tie on his yukata.

“See you in a bit,” Shinsuke mumbles. Yoshida grunts and slides in the direction of his folded-up futon, shuffling his feet along the tatami floor instead of walking normally.

“Can you actually see what you’re doing?” Shinsuke asks, after Yoshida fails to unfold the futon and instead makes a small mess of the cover and blanket.

“No.” And then, at Shinsuke’s mild laugh, “This humble person would appreciate your condescending to aid him in his effort,” which only makes Shinsuke laugh a little harder and kneel to help Yoshida unfold it.

Yoshida’s hand brushes his a couple of times; he’s got calluses on his fingers, rough and warm, and different from the ones he’d get from holding a pen. Maybe from whatever instrument it was in the case he brought to class that one day.

“You play an instrument?” he murmurs, trying to keep his voice low, although judging by Yoshida’s wince it doesn’t work well enough.

“Badly.” Yoshida turns down the blankets of the futon. “I wonder if Abe is wondering where you are? You did sound like you were going to join him…”

Shinsuke jerks out of his crouch on the floor. Of course Yoshida wants him out of the room so he can take a nap. It stings anyway, being all but told that he’s being a nuisance.

He goes.

In the hall he comes upon Abe, who is wrapped up in his own yukata, dyed-brown hair straggling wetly down his temples.

“Yo,” he says, “I was starting to wonder where you’d gotten off to, like if Yoshida had decided to throw you out the window or you’d been caught by some pretty girl in the hall that I’d be interested in meeting the friend of.”

“Nothing that exciting. Yoshida’s got a headache and I was tucking him into bed like a good nanny.”

Abe’s grin twitches up a little. “I’ll do my best not to disturb the sleeping baby when I get back, then,” he says, and walks with Shinsuke towards the bath rooms.

In the heat of the water, naked and trying to relax while Abe muses about the virtues of going back inside versus staying in the spring, Shinsuke feels awkward and vaguely filthy with his desire.

They’ll be returning to Tokyo tomorrow. He only has to survive dinner and sleeping with his futon laid out next to Yoshida’s before he can relax.

It’ll pass. It has to pass, like all his crushes in high school did, because if it doesn’t, the stress is going to kill him before he even gets a chance to run for an election.

About twenty minutes before the scheduled dinner hour starts, Shinsuke is back in the room, his hair still damp, reading the newspaper he bought in the morning and hasn’t yet finished. He’s sitting close to where Yoshida’s sleeping, half because the room’s small and half because he wants to be that close. Abe’s over in the corner communing with his electronics.

Yoshida’s hand, not far from Shinsuke’s foot, twitches and brushes against his ankle.

“Whoever you are, get outta the way so I can get to my glasses,” he mutters, stretching one hand out along the floor towards the table and incidentally infringing on the space Shinsuke’s feet are occupying.

“Stubborn ass,” Shinsuke informs him, picking the glasses up off the table and setting them down next to his hand.

Yoshida grunts, flops onto his back, and puts on his glasses to stare at the ceiling. “What time is it?” he demands after a few seconds.

Abe, who’s currently doing something on his cell phone over in the corner, replies. “’bout six forty-five.”

“Good,” Yoshida mutters. He turns his head to take a look around the room and spots Shinsuke with his back up against the wall. “I feel like I’ve caught my very own samurai bodyguard,” he jokes, almost deadpan except for his eyes. “Instead of a blade so sharp it cuts hairs and falling cherry blossoms, my bodyguard carries a pen and has a mind that can cut through the many layers of political bullshit.”

“That’s,” Shinsuke tries, over the roar of his flattered embarrassment in his ears, “isn’t that you?”

“That’s not very Mifune of you,” Yoshida says, frowning.

“Haven’t seen any of his movies.”

Yoshida throws aside the comforter on his bed and rolls onto his hands and knees on the tatami floor. “It’s all right. I’m still stupid from sleep anyway. Let’s get dinner and I’ll wake up.”

“Yeah,” Abe says, “I’ve worked up a real appetite. Let’s head over.”

Yoshida kneels into seiza on the floor and puts the comforter back neatly in place. In the yukata, in a room done up to look traditionally Japanese, the breadth and slope of his shoulders is a pleasure to look at, and the way the collar is disarranged against the back of his neck is nearly erotic.

Shinsuke drags his newspaper higher and tries to focus on reading about North Korea, but has to give up after someone taps the top of his newspaper.

“We’re going,” Abe says. He glances over the top of the newspaper, then says, “Can I borrow that after dinner?”

“Yeah, sure.” Shinsuke folds the paper up and tosses it at the table; it misses and lands on the floor. He leaves it there and follows Abe to the door and down to the dining room.

Dinner is wonderful. The hotel has a karaoke room for guest entertainment, and after dinner some of the guests, Yoshida and Abe included, wander off there together. Shinsuke declines in favor of going back to the room.

There, he turns on the heat and finishes reading his newspaper, then reads a little about the Allied occupation of Japan like he’s supposed to. He explores the cupboard under the sink in the toilet room, thinks about appropriating Abe’s DS and playing a game, and instead goes to stare out the window.

The trees, winter-bare, have nothing to interest him. He’s about to declare defeat and go join the others at karaoke when the door swings open and Yoshida enters.

“Honey, I’m home,” he says, and his voice rings with the joke.

Shinsuke wonders why his belly feels empty despite it being less than an hour since dinner.

“Welcome home,” he says, and instead of being the ironic drawl he wanted it comes out edging on strangled. To make up for it he throws his voice higher. “Darling, you must be tired.”

Yoshida’s gaze flickers down Shinsuke’s body, and he steps into the room. Shinsuke is abruptly conscious of his own skin, the heat of his desire as it rises.

“You too,” Yoshida says, and for a moment Shinsuke doesn’t know if he’s keeping the joke going or if he’s back to talking to his friend Maeda. Except his voice shifts higher as he changes the subject: “Can I borrow your newspaper?”

“Yeah, but when Abe gets back he’s going to want it.”

“That’s all right; I don’t think he’s going to be back anytime soon. He found two very cute sisters to be intrigued by and flirt with, and I left because being the extra wheel was ruining my fun. They were talking about zodiac signs.”

“When is your birthday?”

“April twelfth. Does this mean I’ll get presents from you? Because I’m hoping for an iPhone.”

“Old socks are an excellent present.”

“With holes in the heels?”

“And toes.”

“There we go. Best kind of socks, after all. Pre-broken in, for greater comfort.”

Shinsuke doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t. Yoshida glances over at him, then away as he bends to pick the newspaper up off the floor, unfolds it and turns it right side out again to read the front page. Ozawa and his four million yen, if Shinsuke remembers correctly. Of course he disapproves; how can a man claim to represent the people when he uses money to tilt his interests away from them?

He looks out the window again while Yoshida pages slowly through the newspaper; his breath steams against the window, clouding away the sight of pine trees and boulders.

Abe returns, pleasantly drunk, close to midnight, and has apparently forgotten the newspaper, because he pulls out his computer and uses the inn’s wireless to check his email, the 2chan boards he favors, and, from the sound of his mumbling about trackers and packet flows, torrent something. Yoshida has been in the bath for the last twenty minutes.

Shinsuke waits, and responds to some phone mail he’d been putting off. Hears the door to the bath room open and turns to look, only to find Yoshida with a towel wrapped around his waist, fishing through the bag he brought to the inn for clean clothes.

Shinsuke raises his book and uses it as a shield so that he’s not quite so obvious about how he’s staring at Yoshida. Whose shoulder blades, muscle and bone shifting as he moves, Shinsuke wants badly to touch. Wants to follow the bony length of his arms to his wrists, taste his skin.

Yoshida isn’t handsome; the best he will ever get is one glance. Without his glasses, he’s nearly blind and develops an odd sort of squint; with them on, they make his head look too small for his shoulders. He’s skinny, and even if he’s not a picky eater he doesn’t eat enough. And he’s clever, with an odd, not-quite-black sense of humor that makes Shinsuke laugh, and lets Shinsuke make him laugh in return.

Shinsuke looks back at the pages of the book, not bothering to read, and looks back up when Yoshida declares that the bath room is open if anyone wants it.

Abe grunts, caught up in some forum debate, then shuts the lid of his computer and puts it aside to rummage in his bag before pulling out toothbrush and toothpaste and taking them into the bath room. Only to stick his head back out again.

“Oi, Yoshida. Can’t use a fogged-up mirror.”

“There is no possible explanation I can offer for the oversight. This person will immediately take on the task of remedying it with the fabric of his own clothing.”

“Smartass,” Abe retorts. Yoshida laughs, adjusts the neck of his yukata, and sits down cross-legged on the floor. The spread of his knees makes the bottom half gape open, so that the only thing saving him from indecency is the looseness of the fabric, which dips between his knees and shields anything higher than that from view.

Shinsuke looks at Yoshida’s chest instead, feels guilty about being obvious even to himself, and only then remembers that he should probably look at something other than Yoshida at this point if he doesn’t want to be glaringly obvious.

He looks at his own feet. It’s weird, how long his toenails have gotten without him noticing. He should cut them soon, before he starts accidentally tearing holes in his socks. And he doesn’t remember that scab. When did he hurt his foot?

A hand waves under his face. “They don’t smell that bad, I’m sure,” Yoshida says. He’s on his knees, leaning over with one fist on the floor to brace himself, the yukata gaping open over his chest. The light from the room lamps makes his skin look golden-warm, turning to shadows lower down. His smile is edged, like this is a setup for a joke that he’s waiting for Shinsuke to feed him the straight line for.

“I don’t know; that’s what I tell my mother, but for some reason she says I’m wrong.”

“She’s remembering when you were a small, smelly boy who liked to jump in mud puddles. Now you’re a tall, unsmelly young man who is currently taking a vacation at a hotel where the main attraction is the baths.”

“He shtill shmells,” Abe mutters through a mouthful of toothpaste, leaning his head out of the bath room door.

“Don’t be vindictive,” Yoshida says, not looking away from Shinsuke.

Abe makes a noise best described as choking. “‘f you shay sho.”

Shinsuke isn’t sure what that’s supposed to mean, but he is sure that he and Yoshida are too close. Just a little further than kissing distance, watching each other, Shinsuke’s breath quick and shallow with the temptation.

“What’re you reading?” Yoshida taps his wrist, slides his finger along Shinsuke’s between the open pages of the book, and takes it from him. He sits back in seiza and flips through the pages, then stops and actually starts reading.

“Um,” Shinsuke mutters, not descriptively. Yoshida isn’t even paying attention.

“Can I borrow this?” he says finally.

“When I’m done.”

“Thanks.” Yoshida doesn’t close it.

“Um. My book…”

Yoshida grunts.

Abe spits out toothpaste into the sink, noisily. “You’re never going to get it back unless you distract him.”

Shinsuke thinks about using the excuses of distraction and humor to do something outrageous – touch the back of Yoshida’s neck, or slide a hand under his chin and draw his face away from the page, or set a hand on his thigh and draw it higher until he has to pay attention. He does none of those things. Just unfolds Yoshida’s fingers, one by one, from around the book before taking it back.

Yoshida takes his cell phone off the dresser in the corner and starts catching up on his mail; around the time that Shinsuke finishes the chapter, Yoshida crawls into bed and is out within five minutes. Shinsuke almost manages to not watch him sleep, and anyway on the grand scale of things five minutes hardly even counts.

Over dinner on the twenty-eighth, he reminds his parents – and by extension everyone else in the family – that he and Yoshida are going to meet the next day.

Eiji gives him a look, while their father grunts.

“Where are you going?” his mother asks.

“Somewhere.”

“Yoshiwara,” Eiji mutters, sotto voce.

Yōko glares at him. “Don’t be obscene; there are children present.”

Eiji frowns back at her. “Unless sweaty male virgins with unhealthy fascinations with electronics is worse than I thought, then Akihabara is not obscene.”

“Now you’re just lying,” Keisuke retorts from across the table. He and Eiji share a glance that edges between You’re my brother and I get you and You’re my brother and you’re an ass. They’re only a year apart, and they shared a room until Keisuke went off to university in Kyoto.

Eiji bows his head faintly, but he’s grinning fit to ruin his apology.

Keisuke’s brat Ayako starts fussing. It’s just as well, since that kills the conversation about Yoshida.

They meet the next day in Akihabara station, at not-quite-noon. Spend a good hour and a half over a succession of cheap bowls of ramen at a chain restaurant about a block outside one of the station exits, just talking.

“Are you thinking of committing fratricide to escape the house?” Yoshida asks, past a bite of pickled bamboo shoot.

“No kidding,” Shinsuke mutters. “I keep forgetting which brother annoys me more: Keisuke because he’s a smug married bastard, or Eiji because he thinks he’s clever but is actually an ass.”

“‘s that so.” Yoshida slurps at his noodles.

Shinsuke grunts.

“Could be worse,” Yoshida points out. “Could be living with him all year ’round.”

“Don’t ruin my appetite.”

“Don’t get depressed. And don’t let your baser impulses get the better of you.”

Shinsuke looks up from the bowl. “Nn?”

“It’s very difficult to start a career in politics if you have a murder record.”

Shinsuke manages a shut up through a mouthful of noodles.

“Darling,” Yoshida moves his hand a touch so he’s looking at Shinsuke over his chopsticks, “if you want me to be quiet, there are better ways to make me quiet than that.”

Shinsuke wants to laugh. It’s ridiculous, that innuendo coming from Yoshida in a woman’s tone of voice. And yet – the thought of Yoshida on his knees in front of him, mouth warm and slick, is too nice a thought to laugh at.

He manages, over the heat in his throat, “Like you said, though, it’s hard to start a career in politics with a murder record.”

Yoshida bows his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I was thinking of duct tape, but I think your solution was more graceful. More efficient – you only have to do it once. Mine you have to do more than once if I forget the message.”

Shinsuke stares at him, noodle-ends hanging from his mouth. Yoshida is looking down into his bowl of ramen, hunting for stray noodles. And if there was any moment at which Shinsuke wanted to see his eyes it’d be this one. Fuck. He’s not really into bondage, but after a statement like that he wonders if Yoshida is. That could be – except Yoshida isn’t his.

He finishes chewing the noodles, picks up the spoon and starts drinking the broth. It tastes good, to his surprise. Nothing like the ash he expected at all.

They go walking around the Electric City for a while, not buying much of anything. Shinsuke picks up some weird batteries that his mom asked for, and they spend half an hour poring over possibly-interesting video games. Neither buys one, though Yoshida spends a while dithering until Shinsuke finally says, “You don’t really want to buy it. If you did, you would have done it already.”

Yoshida’s mouth twists in not-quite-laughter as he puts it back.

Shinsuke gets home twenty minutes before dinner, and Eiji – who appears to be playing “let’s distract little Ayako with fluffy toys” – greets his “I’m home” with, “How was the date with Yoshiwara?”

“Wasn’t a date, and his name’s Yoshida.”

“Sorry. I’ll try to remember for next time.”

“I know you’re lying because your mouth is moving.”

“Bad habit, isn’t it.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Shinsuke tries to look serious and mostly fails.

“If you weren’t so far away I’d go over there and hit you like you deserve,” Eiji mutters, but there’s no venom to it.

“There’s also an innocent child on your lap and she would suffer deep psychological damage from such an action. Better not to.”

Eiji looks at him funny for a second, then laughs.

New Year’s. At about eleven-thirty, the whole family troops over to the local Buddhist temple. It isn’t too busy yet, only maybe thirty people ahead of them in line for the bell.

“Ayako will get fussy if she has to wait too long in the cold,” Yumi says, hoisting Ayako higher on her hip.

“I’ll hold our places in line while you all go,” Shinsuke’s father offers.

Eiji makes a face. “I spent all day with the brat. You go get toothlessly and cutely smiled at while I hold the line.”

Shinsuke goes with the rest of the family to the main part of the shrine, but he does look back far enough to notice that Eiji is talking – and probably, therefore, flirting – with the group of three girls standing ahead of him in line.

At midnight they come back to the line. Ayako’s sleeping, but with the first ring of the bell, she wakes and starts to cry. Since there’ll be a lot more rings after this, Yumi and Keisuke declare that they’re going back to the house and leave.

The rest of them wait. Shinsuke breathes on his hands every few minutes to try to keep them warm – his toes are a lost cause – but the moisture in his breath just makes it worse.

Finally it’s his turn to ring the bell – Eiji came down from the bell-stand looking weirdly solemn, though Yōko didn’t look any more thoughtful than before.

The striker is heavy, the rope scratching his hands. He draws it up, lets it fall. Flinches a little at the deep-loud ring that shakes his bones.

At home, he goes to sleep with the image of Yoshida stretched out beside him in bed painted on the insides of his eyelids.

He doesn’t have the guts to call Yoshida after New Year’s, but he is relieved to return to classes. It doesn’t just get him out of the house: it means enough days have passed since the new year that all the relatives have to get out of the house too, which is better.

And then, the first day back to their shared history class, Yoshida glances up at him and shoves his own notes out of the way to make room for him.

Shinsuke drops his bag into the empty seat. “Yo.”

“Yo.”

“Your folks seem as unhappy to be home as mine would be?”

“Yeah, probably. Two damn kids to be dealing with. Cold weather.” He looks like he wants to say something more, but he frowns a little and turns to flip through his notebook to find the ones from last class.

Shinsuke watches his hands and thinks that – well. He doesn’t think anything so much as feel Yoshida touching him. It’s good, but fantasies usually are.

Near the end of class, where the girl ahead of them turned around in her seat to glare when they got too obvious about their note-writing, Yoshida gets momentarily serious and jots down, I need to get out of the house. Next Monday, 6:30?

Deal, Shinsuke writes back. It’s Wednesday. The grin is already on his face anyway, so he doesn’t try to stop it.

Over the weekend, he thinks about starting to study for exams, then decides not to bother, since they’re so far off. Then he actually looks at a calendar, and it’s only two weeks, and that means four classes and a final before the end of the semester, and he’s not changing his course selections for a crush, no matter how well he and Yoshida get along. Especially since Yoshida is just a crush, and Shinsuke can’t say anything to him because Yoshida will reject his confession and then talk about it and ruin Shinsuke’s chances of a shot at the Diet and a lot of other jobs besides.

He lets his head drop onto his day planner. Never going to have sex. He feels sorry for his left hand.

After class on Monday, they part ways, since Yoshida has class afterwards – Intro to Economics, he says, taught by a good professor who actually makes them learn.

Shinsuke goes to the library and browses the shelves. Eventually he stumbles across the first volume of Hadashi no Gen. He starts reading and then can’t stop even though he wants to.

By the time Yoshida sends him a message saying Out of class, where are you? Shinsuke’s entirely lost his appetite. He keeps looking at his hands and thinking of when he went with his grandfather, who was ten when the bombs fell, to the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and they saw jars of people’s skin that had peeled off from the radiation –

Yoshida finds him among the shelves, perched on a stepstool.

“You look troubled. Shove over.”

“There’s barely room on this thing for me, let alone both of us,” Shinsuke points out. He stifles the urge to suggest that Yoshida could sit on his lap instead.

“No, not that,” Yoshida says. “I need to retie my shoe.”

After a moment to be glad of his self-restraint, Shinsuke moves over. The stepstool shifts under him as Yoshida puts his foot up and leans over to take hold of the laces. His hair drapes forward, somewhere between too long and too short, and messy nearly all the time from how he scratches his head while he’s in deep thought. Shinsuke wants to press his fingers against the rise of Yoshida’s cheekbones and feel the heat of his skin.

Yoshida steps back, finally. “Thanks.”

Shinsuke grunts and stands up. “Dinner?”

“What d’you feel like?”

Yoshida shrugs. “I came by some money after my mom sent me grocery shopping and I didn’t give her the change, so I’m up for almost anything as long as it’s less than -” he pulls his wallet out of the back pocket of his pants and flips through it, “three thousand yen a plate.”

“Cheapskate,” Shinsuke murmurs, looking up at Yoshida and smiling even though it ruins the joke.

“What can I say? I’m a bad son. C’mon, pick, I’m hungry.”

“Indian or Chinese?”

Yoshida’s head tilts. “When you say ‘Indian,’ are you talking that all-you-can-eat-naan-for-under-a-thousan

d-yen place halfway to T station?””Yeah.””Then I choose Indian.”The walk there is pretty quiet, because there are lots of students who walk the twenty minutes to T station, which is more convenient for transfers than the one closer to campus. Any conversation they had would be heard by other students, and fortunately for them, vice versa. The group of girls in front of them is sharing Gaijin Stories – amusing encounters they’ve had with foreigners.Two steps inside the restaurant and then to their seats, and then Yoshida says, “I’ve got a story like that.”

“Yeah?” The conversation pauses for a moment as they decline to order drinks, though Shinsuke thinks that it’s just because Yoshida’s forgotten his pockets are flush with ill-gotten gains.

“In high school I was working a part-time job in a restaurant, right? And it was a pretty good restaurant – a sit-down Italian place, not real big but good food, and the owner’s wife was Italian, and she did the cooking.

“Anyway, one day this gorgeous foreign girl comes in and sits down, and goes over the menu. Which is of course in Japanese. She orders, she gets her food, she eats. Her Japanese is all right – heavy accent, of course – and then at the end of the meal she calls me over and does this – ” he makes a writing-like gesture in the air – “and says to me, ‘Enema, please.'”

Shinsuke nearly spits out his mouthful of water. “Did she – no, of course not. She wanted the bill.”

Yoshida grins, then turns as the waiter comes with a basket of naan that he places on their table. “I wondered if I should correct her pronunciation, but the cook did it for me.”

Shinsuke leans over and tears off a piece of bread. “It’s a good thing, too. Someone might not have seen her hand gesture, or thought she was making a very different one.”

“Mn,” Yoshida agrees through a mouthful of naan, just as their curry arrives.

They don’t talk for a while, in favor of eating. Shinsuke manages to not spend too much time watching how Yoshida holds his naan, the flex of his wrist and the unconscious grace to the bend of his fingers.

What diverts his attention is the food, which is damn good. He ordered the vegetable and mutton curries, and the spices come rich to his tongue, pepper and onion and garam masala. The heat of it warms his blood until even the blasts of cold air that hit him every time the door is opened can’t freeze him.

They take nearly two hours over dinner, pay their bill, and resume their walk towards T station. Next to the station is a vertical shopping mall, complete with a video arcade on one of the upper floors. With time to kill, they go inside and spend thirty minutes slamming and then upending virtual tables, to the delight of many onlookers.

After a while Yoshida looks at his watch and says, “I should think about getting on a train eventually. Usually at this point I’d say let’s get a snack out of one of the machines and go, but I think I’d explode if I tried to eat any more.”

“Same.”

“I guess this is where you make a joke about the spread of American habits, creating a Japan full of imperialist pigs.” Yoshida’s smile is one-sided and wry.

“To which you will respond with an ironic remark about either how I am an imperialist pig or you’ll join in with a complaint about capitalism being a synonymous ideological concept to imperialism.”

“I’d probably go with the whining about your being an imperialist pig,” Yoshida admits, starting to walk toward the stairs.

“My ego could handle it.” But Shinsuke isn’t all that sure, really. Yoshida’s opinion means too much to him for that.

Down the stairs, and they’re on the landing of the third floor when Yoshida says, “Maeda.” He sounds too serious for the situation, the air bright with the pop music playing in the clothing store on that floor.

“Yes?”

“I,” Yoshida says. They’re on the landing halfway to the second floor. “This semester’s been fun, being in class together and spending time with you. But you should know – I – I can’t not tell you. It’d be a lie, and you’re – too good a friend for that.”

The landing between the first and second floors, now, and Shinsuke, his belly cold-hot with curiosity, has slowed down so much that they’re hardly moving at all, even if Yoshida’s looking at the floor and the ceiling and the walls and everywhere but at him.

“You’re embarrassing me,” he says.

“Good,” Yoshida retorts, “then we match. Moreover, I’m gay.”

Shinsuke’s brain stops. Then he says, “What the fuck?” which he redacts after the fact to just, “Gay?” and on the third try he manages the vaguely socially acceptable, “Is that so.”

“You know,” Yoshida says, “I’ll give you points for effort. That was a good try.” He’s still smiling, that wicked wry half-smile, but Shinsuke doesn’t think it’s real.

“No, I mean,” Shinsuke tries, and Yoshida shakes his head gently.

“It’s all right; my parents reacted the same way when I told them, and – ”

“Yoshida, shut up a second.”

Yoshida stops talking, but he’s looking at the wall behind Shinsuke’s left ear.

His hands are cold, but at least he’s not shaking. He thought he would be. “I’m just surprised, because I thought it was just me.”

illustrated by Li

Yoshida freezes, looks at him, then puts his head in his hands. “You and I deserve each other,” he says finally.

“I hope so,” Shinsuke mutters. “I can’t imagine putting up with anyone else calling me an imperialist pig and meaning it.”

I can,” Yoshida informs him archly. “Wait until you get elected.”

“Yeah,” Shinsuke murmurs. “If I can be.”

“If anyone tells, it won’t be me.” Yoshida’s voice is too intense for the words. “Fuck. You could get married to some crazy bitch and produce enough brats to make my grandparents think you were going overboard and I wouldn’t say anything.”

“I won’t, you know,” Shinsuke breathes. He wants to touch Yoshida, let Yoshida’s tension sink away through him into the floor.

“I know,” Yoshida says. “You’re not crazy like that.”

“Damn right I’m not.”

Yoshida’s cell phone rings, startling them.

“Fuck, that’s my five-minute warning for the last train. Let’s go,” he says, and starts walking down the stairs again.

Shinsuke follows, wondering if this is the end of the night, or if he dares – but he doesn’t. They part ways at the station for their different train lines, and when he gets home an hour later he’s not exactly kicking himself for not saying anything.

That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think about what would’ve happened if he had.

He’d probably have done something after Yoshida’s We deserve each other, like said, I hope so, because I really like you. And Yoshida would’ve looked at him, all that intensity brought to bear, and Shinsuke would reach towards the jut of his cheekbones but not get that far because they would have fallen into a kiss, right there in the stairwell, trying to drink each other up. Yoshida’s hands resting against Shinsuke’s biceps and Shinsuke’s hands clenched around the sides of Yoshida’s shirt, their weight pressing into each other, give and return and the roar of Shinsuke’s blood in his own ears leaving him deaf to anything else.

Yoshida wouldn’t have heard his phone alert. Would’ve had to come home with Shinsuke – they’d have explained it away somehow, the hunger and want crackling between them – and they’d spend the hour until Shinsuke’s parents went to bed playing video games or watching TV on Shinsuke’s computer.

The moment the lights are turned off, they’re all over each other – all edges and heat, Shinsuke on his back in the bed and Yoshida kneeling over him. Hands resting at the waistband of Shinsuke’s jeans, light pressure, and Yoshida asks, “May I have your permission to continue?” with his smile in his eyes rather than on his lips. Shinsuke nods past his laughter because who’d ask like that, who’d talk that formally in bed? But his thoughts stutter as Yoshida opens the button, slides down the zip and guides the cloth aside just enough to expose him. And then Yoshida’s touching him, fingers still a little cold despite the heat being on in the room, and Shinsuke whines a little, breath hissing through his teeth at the shock.

“Your hands are fucking cold,” he says, and Yoshida’s grip loosens. “Either warm them up or take them off.”

“Brave words,” Yoshida says, “from a man who’s entrusting some of the most delicate parts of his anatomy to the person he’s complaining to,” and Shinsuke hits him lightly on the shoulder.

“But if you’re really unhappy there’s probably a fix,” Yoshida points out. He sinks down, down, pushing up the hem of Shinsuke’s shirt to kiss once at his hip before licking, gently, at him and then – he’s warm. Shinsuke doesn’t know what a good blow job feels like, because he’s never had one before, but this one seems to be doing it. Yoshida’s tongue finds the places Shinsuke likes, strokes again and again at them until the heat of his mouth and the cold of the air and the slick reminders of where he’s been mixed with Shinsuke’s own eagerness combine into a haze of arousal that spins tension into his blood, has his body curling around that pleasure until he comes.

He expected Yoshida to spit; what he didn’t expect was Yoshida crawling up his body to get to the tissues, then asking him to his face if he can borrow some mouthwash.

Which is just as well, because Shinsuke really needs to wash his hands. It’s not a bad fantasy. If only Shinsuke had just had the guts to do something – but putting two gay college boys in the same room doesn’t guarantee that they’ll want each other, let alone what Shinsuke would ask for, which is total silence on the subject of his sexual orientation for the rest of his life and at the very least the intention of a long-term connection. Anything less would be risking his reputation, and therefore his chance of election. And as much as he’d like to be able to make that offer to Yoshida, as much as he trusts Yoshida not to betray him provided he doesn’t commit any particularly gross acts of moral failure, there’s a difference between coming out to someone and opening your chest to offer your heart to them.

Apparently he only has the courage for one of those.

He drops back on the bed and closes his eyes, trying to will that thought away, but the feeling of his own come drying stickily on his hand makes him haul himself out of bed. It’s dry enough that the tissue clings to his fingers and rips rather than cleaning anything up.

Washing his hands in the bathroom, he closes his eyes, the cold water running over his hands and drawing out the chill in the rest of his body, and says, “Soon.”

It doesn’t feel like a relief. It feels like he’s just loaded his shoulders with ten kilograms each. But if Yoshida’s given him the opening, then if he wants something – if he wants to have in real life the fantasy he just used to get off – then he needs to say something.

He has a lot more respect, now, for the girls he knew in high school who spilled their feelings out to the objects of their affection.

The class on Wednesday is the same as it was before, except instead of being yet another installment of the never-ending Fifteen Years’ War, it’s about the 1955 System. Yoshida undercuts the lecture with occasional notes that resemble economics lectures: When Ikeda said “Income Doubling” he meant “let’s leverage the national economy and get rich and as an electorally pleasant side effect raise standards of living,” not “let’s pay everyone more!”

Inflation, Shinsuke writes.

Fuck that. Let’s talk banks lending out the postal savings system at zero interest rate with no need to pay it back for ten years so that the recipient corporations can capture the global market.

That’s beautifully immoral, Shinsuke writes back.

Isn’t it? I love my country.

On a whim, Shinsuke writes, Be my economic advisor when I’m elected. Yoshida looks at him with an unreadable expression on his face for a moment, then answers, That’s a very serious commitment.

If I can’t trust my own staff to tell me when I’m being an imperialist pig, I don’t know if I’ll be able to carry on a successful career in the Diet.

Yoshida stifles his laughter into his hand. In that case, I’d better accept.

I trust you, Shinsuke writes.

After the exam, as a celebration, they eat dinner with Fujiyama and Okada from their history class, which means that three of them eat their dinner while Fujiyama spends the entire meal outside the restaurant on his cell trying to talk his girlfriend out of doing something stupid ― possibly quitting her high school tennis team, or at least that’s what it was last week. Okada plows his way through a troup’s worth of shrimp tempura while Shinsuke watches in horrified fascination. Although it isn’t bad food, the fact that it’s a chain restaurant shows.

Fujiyama finally begs out, half his meal untouched, to go deal with the girlfriend crisis. Okada leaves once his bill tops four thousand yen, claiming empty pockets and a full stomach. By that point it’s just Shinsuke and Yoshida, and even though they’ve both finished eating, neither seems to be moving.

“We should probably go,” Shinsuke says finally.

“Why? It’s cold out. It’s warm here.”

“True.” Shinsuke toys with his chopsticks, trying to line them up with the edge of the box his food came in. It’s a hopeless effort; one end of the chopsticks broke out of line with the rest, so it juts out oddly.

“I’m going to miss our history classes together,” Yoshida says finally. “Sarcastic commentary especially.”

“Same here.” Shinsuke props his chin up on his fist, elbow on the table. “You have plans for break?”

“Not really. I might work extra hours at the English conversation place, but that’s about it.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Very. You?”

“Maybe some vacation out to visit relatives up in Aomori. Other than that, nothing.”

Yoshida drawls out, “That looks to be mighty borin’.”*

“Nobody talks like that anymore.”

“But it will be boring.”

“I have a lot of cousins. There’s no way it can get boring.”

“Ah.” Yoshida flicks his finger against the side of Shinsuke’s dinner box, dislodging the chopsticks. Shinsuke ignores this and instead turns Yoshida’s box ninety degrees on the table.

Yoshida looks at the table arrangement a moment and says, “I like it.” He puts his elbows up on the table and folds his hands together and just looks at Shinsuke.

He is – too intense, when he does this. His glasses usually cover his eyes, muting their intensity, but it’s showing through now, heavy between them. Watching Shinsuke’s face as though he’s looking for some response Shinsuke can’t say aloud and which his body is giving away in slow increments of movement.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he says, but he doesn’t look away. Yoshida does, but only to reach for the check that’s still lying on the table to look at the total, and then they start trying to figure out if Fujiyama stuck them with part of his bill.

The waitress eventually comes over and clears their foodless trays, and with the table arrangement permanently disrupted they agree to leave.

On their meandering way to T station, Shinsuke pauses briefly to tie his shoe – mostly as a way of buying time to steel himself – and when he stands up again, before Yoshida can start walking, he says, “Wait a second.”

“Mn?” Yoshida is looking at him like that again, and Shinsuke was all right until that, and now his hands are shaking.

“I -” He has to make a choice now: either spend agonizing minutes trying to find the right words, or be direct and tell the truth and be utterly, humiliatingly graceless in the telling. Politician’s art of compromise. “You probably don’t want to hear this, but you’re really important to me. I want you to know that.”

“I did know,” Yoshida says. “No one else -”

“No,” Shinsuke says, turning to look at the shop window that was behind him. It’s advertising excellent long-term savings deposits rates. “I mean I think I love you.”

“What?”

Shinsuke has a second to think, then says, “I said I think I love you.”

Yoshida’s hand is abruptly on his arm, not easy to feel through the layers of his coat but undeniably there.

“Maeda, fucking listen to me. What you’re offering, I want. But I can’t take any – political career garbage. If I say yes, you’re not allowed to marry for the sake of your reputation. If you do anything like that, it’s over. I’ll stay publicly in the closet for you – it’s no one’s business anyway – but I demand absolute fidelity.”

In the flickering light spilling out from the signs above their heads and the car lights from the road, Yoshida’s face is thrown into shades of gold and darkness that slide between accenting and mirroring away his eyes. He’s striking, like this – not handsome but magnetic, too much so to ignore.

“Yes,” Shinsuke breathes, “I can do that. No one else and no coming out.”

Yoshida nods, then shivers suddenly as the wind blows hard against them. “You had a very unhappy future before today, didn’t you.”

“I guess I did.”

“Still do, really. Job-hunting.”

“And you calling me a capitalist brainwashing victim at every opportunity.”

“I may be one of your problems, but my one problem is you,”** Yoshida says. It makes Shinsuke wants to touch the awkward tilt of his smile, so he does. In the mostly-darkness no one will see anyway. When Yoshida reaches to catch his hand, his fingers are cold.

“How long’ve you been waiting to use that pun?” Shinsuke asks, sliding his fingers between Yoshida’s.

“Long enough.” Yoshida says, and draws his thumb across the back of Shinsuke’s hand.


Translator’s Notes:

* Yoshida’s next line is, in the original Japanese, spoken in a stereotypical Tohoku regional accent. This accent is particular to Aomori and other regions of northern Japan. It carries the stigma of being from “severely countrified” regions of the country, and as such it has been rendered as a stereotypical “hick” Southern US accent in the translation.

** While the parallel structure and ensuing emphasis Yoshida uses here are easily translated, his pun is less so. The second clause of his line is 俺のひとつの問題はお前だ (ore no hitotsu no mondai wa omae da), which is literally exactly as the translation says. However, he is also punning on Shinsuke’s family name, Maeda (前田), conflating the pronoun “you” with “Maeda”. This is a bad pun.

Eiji’s repeated confusion of “Yoshida” (吉田) with “Yoshiwara” (吉原) is more than a simple mistake, although all the “letters” involved are common in names – “Yoshiwara” was the name of the licensed brothel district in Edo (feudal-era Tokyo).

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