by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)
illustrated by fightfair
Kazuki was cooking instant ramen when Ryota arrived home.
“Really?” Ryota leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen, arms folded across his chest. “Tonkotsu from a packet? That’s very unlike you.”
Kazuki’s face was turned away from Ryota, but the tense line of his shoulders was altogether too telling.
“It’s been a long day. I felt lazy,” said Kazuki. He did not look up as he stirred the noodles lightly with his chopsticks.
For any other person, a lazy meal of instant ramen would normally involve simply boiling the noodles and chucking the contents of the accompanying seasoning packets into the water. Not for Kazuki.
There were mushrooms simmering in Kazuki’s saucepan. In another bowl, a soft-boiled egg was marinating in broth. Next to it was a plateful of neatly chopped spring onions and shredded nori. It was typical of Kazuki, really. Yet, in the four and a half years since they had moved in together, Ryota had never once seen Kazuki cook something from a packet if he could help it.
There was something wrong.
“I didn’t know when you were coming back.”
Ryota scratched the back of his head. “I sent you a text. When we reached the airport.”
Ryota hated Kazuki in these moments; hated and loved him in equal parts. Kazuki was always angry these days, always simmering with it, waiting for the best moment to start a fight. Ryota couldn’t keep up with him. At some point in the intervening years, without Ryota’s quite noticing, Kazuki had somehow turned into this sharp, distant person who stood silently in their kitchen at a quarter past midnight, making dinner for one.
And yet Ryota still wanted Kazuki. Ryota looked at Kazuki and knew for a fact that outside of this precise moment of hurt, he loved everything about Kazuki, from the downward curve of his lips and the dark circles under his eyes, to the way his narrow arms looked with his shirtsleeves shoved up above the elbows.
“Are you upset?”
“No,” Kazuki answered, whip-fast. They knew each other so well that even this exchange felt rehearsed.
The plastic kitchen timer on the refrigerator began to beep. Kazuki’s noodles were done.
Ryota tried again. “How was your day?”
“Bad,” said Kazuki simply. He offered nothing more as he transferred the ramen into a large bowl before adding everything else. There was an economy in the way he moved in the kitchen that Ryota had always appreciated. When Ryota cooked, things got messy. Kazuki, on the other hand, cleaned as he went and appeared to always know precisely what he was doing. Tonight was no exception. The ramen was perfectly presented – egg neatly halved and sitting atop the noodles, surrounded by the mild green of the spring onions and shreds of near-black nori.
It was a pity he wouldn’t pay one bit of attention while consuming it. Ryota had seen the open laptop and the folders and papers strewn haphazardly across the dining table, and knew what it meant. The case had been going on for months now. When Kazuki didn’t spend the night at the office he worked at home, taking cat naps in front of the computer.
Kazuki picked up the bowl and moved to exit the kitchen.
Ryota braced his arms against the doorframe, blocking his way.
“Move,” said Kazuki.
“I said, move.”
Kazuki sighed, and put the bowl back down on the kitchen counter. “Closing submissions are in two days. I have a lot to do. What do you want?”
“I just got back from Seoul.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“I’ve been away for a week.”
“Again, you’re stating the obvious.”
“I’ve missed you,” Ryota told him abruptly, choosing honesty over persuasion because that was the best way to catch Kazuki off-guard when he was in a mood like this.
There was a moment’s hesitation before Kazuki could come up with a reply. Ryota took that chance to lean in and kiss him.
For one perfect second Kazuki kissed back, pressing his lips to Ryota’s, hands flying up to clutch at the front of Ryota’s flannel shirt.
And then Kazuki’s hands were no longer clutching but shoving. Ryota stumbled a few steps back, before Kazuki grabbed him again by the collar and pulled him close, so close that Ryota could feel Kazuki’s breath on him.
“What do you want?” Kazuki hissed.
“You,” Ryota snapped back. “I want you to look at me. I want you to fuck me.”
It was impossible for Ryota to tell what Kazuki was thinking in that moment, even while looking him straight in the face. There was rage and hurt and lust and heat; revelation and resolution all at once.
“Kazuki,” Ryota said again, and it was like something in Kazuki snapped.
They were of similar height and strength but it seemed to take Kazuki no effort at all to manhandle Ryota across the room and onto the couch. Ryota let himself be shoved onto his back; watched as Kazuki undid the fly of Ryota’s trousers and yanked them roughly down his hips.
When they kissed again Kazuki was all take and no give, crushing their mouths together as if even this was part of some extended fight, giving Ryota what he wanted. Ryota moaned as Kazuki licked into his mouth, their tongues sliding hotly together. As Kazuki drew away he bit hard enough on Ryota’s lower lip to make him gasp in pain.
“What gives you the right, Ryota?” Kazuki murmured as he yanked open the buttons of Ryota’s shirt; pushed it down over his shoulders such that it bunched around Ryota’s arms, trapping them. “Hmm? What gives you the right to come back here and demand this–” He tugged Ryota’s trousers the rest of the way off. “–ask me to fuck you when you’re off all the time, doing god-knows-what –”
He had his hand around Ryota’s cock now, jerking him off just slowly and firmly enough to properly drive Ryota crazy. And Ryota had not known quite how much he wanted this until he had it – how much he needed Kazuki and his clever hands and his clever mouth, that wet heat slipping over the head of Ryota’s cock.
“Fuck, Kazu,” Ryota choked out, desperate to come and yet also desperate for something more than this, something closer and calmer and less like lashing out. “Kazu – please –”
Kazuki merely responded by swallowing down Ryota’s cock.
Ryota threw back his head and groaned, any other plea or thought driven clean out of his mind by the wave of pleasure that hit him. There was nothing in those moments, nothing but the hot slide of Kazuki’s mouth and Kazuki’s fingers pressing bruises into Ryota’s hips.
It hadn’t always been like this:
Kazuki had to admit that Ryota was not exactly what one would call conventionally good-looking. He had full lips and small, dark eyes that were set slightly too close together. His height (or lack thereof) had always been somewhat of an issue for him. Only in recent years had he grown out his hair such that his bangs came down over his eyes and brought some sort of balance to his features.
In Ryota’s younger days, before Kazuki had known him, Ryota had been characterised by a sort of frantic awkwardness, like he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with his limbs. Years later, after they moved in together, Kazuki had unearthed a video of him at age fourteen, singing at a friend’s party. Ryota had spent the entire set clutching on to the microphone for dear life and swaying uncertainly on the spot. His voice, however, had been beautiful as always: a smooth, pleasing tenor that cut straight to the heart.
Kazuki’s twin sister Yae had found Ryota performing one evening at a bar near their university, and had immediately demanded that Ryota join her rock band.
“They’re all right,” said Imamura, turning to grin at Kazuki. Imamura Junichi was in final year like Kazuki, and captain of the university rowing team. He was eloquent and unspeakably handsome. There was a broad symmetry about him that had captured Kazuki’s imagination for the better part of his first three years at university.
Now that they were actually going on dates, however, Kazuki was finding him a bit of a bore.
“This is the third time I’ve seen them,” Kazuki told Imamura.
“I said,” Kazuki repeated, raising his voice, “this is the third time I’ve seen them.”
“Oh.” Imamura nodded. “Okay.” He didn’t look as enthused by the band as Kazuki thought he should be. Earlier in the evening they had been talking about what sort of music they liked. Imamura had confessed to listening to things like Namie Amuro and some boy band. A boy band, Kazuki had thought with vague disgust. They couldn’t really even be considered music, could they? Just posing and autotune and what passed for dancing. Of course, Kazuki had said nothing, merely nodding and carrying on.
“This is our first single,” said Yae, playing the opening riff of their next song. Her bleached-blond hair had come loose from its high bun and now shone like a snarled halo under the stage lights. “It’s out next week, please support us.”
Kazuki snorted. Yae had already made him pledge to buy at least five copies of the thing.
Then Ryota opened his mouth, and, really, nothing else mattered.
He sang with careless intensity, eyes closed and entirely absorbed in the moment. He strutted up and down the length of the stage when he felt the urge to; stood stock still in the centre as he soaked in Yae’s blazing guitar solo. There was an artless elegance about him, the way he leapt and pranced like a demon unleashed. All this while, the sweetness of Ryota’s voice was juxtaposed against the furious riffs and drumbeats of the band. It was stunning every time Kazuki heard it.
“You think he’s cute, don’t you,” Imamura said, when they were in between songs. It took Kazuki a moment too long to realise that Imamura had been joking.
Imamura laughed. “No, that’s cool,” he told Kazuki. “Though personally I’d prefer someone with a bit more polish. Like you.”
It was clearly meant to be a compliment, but on some level Kazuki was slightly offended by Imamura’s dismissal of Ryota. Because what was polish compared to verve and sheer presence? Kazuki was just some grubby law student who put on nice shirts and talked about the economy mostly because everyone else was doing it. Ryota was luminous and wholly alive. It baffled Kazuki to no end how Imamura couldn’t see that.
“Shall we go back to mine after this?” asked Imamura. Onstage, Yae had finished tuning her second guitar and was plucking out the first chord of their next song.
“Maybe not,” Kazuki replied, slightly too quickly to be entirely polite. “Well – uh, I was thinking about going out for drinks with my sister and the others –”
“You’re such a little jerk,” said Yae later at the bar, reaching over to smack Kazuki across the back of the head.
Kazuki ducked out of the way just in time. “Let me just remind you that I am the older sibling here –”
“By just two minutes,” Yae interrupted. “And I’m not the one who’s ditched my date just to hang around biting my twin’s style.”
“You invited me –”
“Assuming that you’d ask Imamura along, not tell him to leave,” said Yae. “Well. You’ve always been bad at this sort of thing.”
“No I’ve not.”
Yae scoffed. “You’re terrible.”
Kazuki was about to reply when Ryota arrived at their table, bearing drinks.
“Akemi and Gaku are still smoking outside,” he said, setting the beers down on the table.
It was one thing to see Ryota as a striking figure under the stage lights, and quite another thing altogether to have him standing right in front of Kazuki. Logically speaking, it should have been nothing special. He was, after all, just another one of Yae’s band mates. But Kazuki found himself caught off guard by how open Ryota’s face seemed now, among friends, unwinding after a gig.
Ryota was at least a head shorter than Imamura and certainly narrower, more Kazuki’s build than anything. Yet he seemed to take up as much space as Imamura did in a room. He certainly drew as many eyes. There was energy in the way Ryota held himself, even while standing still.
“Ryota, meet my boring twin brother,” said Yae.
“Whoa,” said Ryota, doing an actual double-take when he got a proper look at Kazuki’s face. “You really do look alike.”
Kazuki shrugged, while Yae made a grab for the nearest beer. “I’m Kazuki,” he told Ryota.
“Yeah,” said Ryota, grinning as he sat down in the chair opposite Kazuki. “I know.”
At first, Ryota’s fascination with Kazuki had stemmed from how much he looked like Yae. They had the same nose and narrow face shape, but more importantly, there was that look about them; that sharpness in the eyes that was offset by the soft curve of their mouths. Kazuki was less quick to smile than Yae, but when he did, it was Yae’s cheeky grin that lit up his face.
And then Ryota discovered exactly how different Kazuki was from his twin, and that, too, was fascinating.
“I think on a subconscious level we probably decided to gravitate towards different things,” Kazuki said, resting his chin in his hand. “Ever since high school Yae’s always been about the music, but I just did the regular stuff like baseball and tennis. Not that I was particularly good at either, mind you.”
It was the first time they were out together without Yae or the rest of the band. Ryota had texted Kazuki on a whim earlier that night; an hour later they had found themselves in an izakaya near Kazuki’s university, having pickles and chicken skewers with their drinks.
With Yae, Kazuki was almost combative in the way he talked. They finished each other’s sentences when they weren’t having rapid-fire arguments or tag-teaming Gaku about his tragic love life. Right now, however, at two in the morning and with Yae absent, Kazuki turned out to be unexpectedly considered with his answers.
“They talk to Yae but not to me,” Kazuki was saying about his parents. “It’s been like this ever since I came out to them. I suppose the only good thing about the situation was that I was leaving for university anyway.”
“Do you miss them?” asked Ryota.
“Yae tells me that they’re in good health and I assume she informs them that I am still alive,” Kazuki replied, clearly trying to sidestep feelings in favour of fact but failing to keep the bitterness from his voice.
Kazuki had listened, too, with rapt attention, when Ryota had talked about his family and growing up in the shadow of his mother’s operatic career. It was easy to talk like this, with just Kazuki alone; easy to be serious and earnest without having to put on the sort of detached levity that some of Ryota’s friends would have expected.
“Oh, and how are things with Imamura?” asked Ryota, remembering their past couple of nights out as a group. Imamura sometimes joined them for drinks and had, on one occasion, become a bit too handsy towards the end of the night. Ryota could still recall the look on Kazuki’s face when Imamura had leaned in to kiss Kazuki; how Kazuki had jerked away for just a fraction of a second before turning to let Imamura peck him fondly on the cheek.
Kazuki stiffened. “We’re not really together.”
“Sorry,” said Ryota quickly. “I shouldn’t have asked –”
“No, it’s fine,” said Kazuki. “We were, for a while, but it didn’t really work out.”
Perhaps Imamura had been just that little bit more enamoured of Kazuki than Kazuki had been of him. The weight of another person’s affection was not an easy one to bear. And yet Ryota understood first-hand how it felt to be on Imamura’s side of things: he had an idiotic tattoo on his upper arm to show for it, after all – a folly of his youth, so to speak. He also understood how Imamura could feel like that about Kazuki in particular, but this was something Ryota wasn’t quite ready to delve into.
Kazuki glanced at his watch and groaned. “I didn’t realise how late it was,” he said. “I’ve got a class in five hours.”
“Are you heading home, then?” asked Ryota.
“It’ll take forever,” said Kazuki, stifling a yawn. “I’ll probably just head back to the library. I suppose I could get started on preparing for that moot next week –”
“Does this mean you’re not actually planning to sleep?” Ryota asked.
“I’ll catch a couple of hours, probably,” Kazuki replied. When he caught Ryota’s look of surprise he laughed and added, “Don’t worry, I’m pretty used to it.”
“Or you could crash at mine,” Ryota said, before he could stop himself. “I’ve got a couch you could use.”
It didn’t happen frequently enough to be considered routine. But Ryota’s place was a straight bus away from Kazuki’s university, and every now and then, after they’d met up for drinks, Kazuki would end up sleeping on Ryota’s slightly battered leather couch.
Kazuki slept like the dead whenever he was at Ryota’s. It had become clear to Ryota within the first few months of their acquaintance that Kazuki was always exhausted. He generally hid this very well, but the fact remained that there was simply not enough time in a day for all the things that Kazuki needed to do. When Kazuki wasn’t at classes, he worked at an upmarket charcoal grill restaurant in Akasaka, before spending the rest of his time keeping up with his coursework.
Kazuki had long since mastered the art of falling asleep whenever and wherever he could. Thrice already now, Kazuki had nodded off mid-sentence during the bus ride back to Ryota’s flat, sleeping through the rest of the journey with his chin tucked to his chest, the sound of his steady breathing barely audible over the roar of the engine.
Ryota spent these rides trying his utmost not to stare at Kazuki as he slept. Kazuki looked painfully young in those moments, all the stress and sharpness drained from his face. And surely – surely, Ryota thought, it would be far more comfortable for Kazuki if he rested his head on Ryota’s shoulder instead. But Kazuki never did droop over to Ryota’s side; even in sleep, he stayed mostly in the same position, his hands folded loosely in his lap.
“It can’t really be helped,” was what Kazuki told Ryota, the one time they talked about his packed schedule. The only reason why Kazuki had brought it up, as far as Ryota could tell, was because his embarrassment at smelling vaguely like robata grill far outweighed any other concerns. “I suppose once I get past this period of my life, get a proper job and everything…”
“Well, just be careful you don’t vanish entirely before that happens,” Ryota replied. “Or, alternately, disappear into the bowels of some law firm, never to be seen again.”
“Nah,” said Kazuki, “I need to stick around for when you lot get famous. Yae owes me plenty of money and I plan to recoup my losses.”
Ryota laughed. “So that’s why you’ve been rooting for us. It all makes sense now.”
“I’m cheap like that,” Kazuki replied, “thought you’d have realised this by now.”
Kazuki might have been self-professed miser, but he was profligate with other things. He made it a point to attend every show the band performed, and, as far as Ryota could recall, he had only once turned Ryota down on an offer to meet up.
And then, of course, there were the breakfasts.
It had become one of Ryota’s favourite things, waking up in the morning to find freshly cooked rice warming in his rice cooker and a small selection of dishes either being kept warm with the rice, or laid out on the kitchen table under a mesh food cover Ryota had forgotten he even owned. There was almost always a small plate of neatly sliced tamagoyaki, the layers of egg perfectly rolled and just lightly seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar, and a touch of soy sauce. The first time Kazuki had made miso soup, he had apologised via post-it for the poor flavour. (‘You only have dashi granules, so it can’t be helped,‘ he had written. Chastened, Ryota had picked up some kombu seaweed and bonito flakes the next time he was at a supermarket.) Dashi granules or not, however, Kazuki’s miso soup was always just the right balance of flavour, and was extremely comforting first thing in the morning.
This morning, Kazuki had changed things up a little with the miso soup, adding wakame seaweed and small cubes of potato simmered to perfect tenderness. There was the usual tamagoyaki and a few slices of crisp seaweed, as well as Chinese cabbage quickly pickled with orange zest strips, red pepper flakes and the faintest hint of lemon juice. Finally, there was a small bowl of natto in the refrigerator, topped with sliced scallion and a little dab of mustard, just waiting to be mixed up.
Yae claimed that this was further evidence of exactly how cheap Kazuki was – making breakfast for Ryota from Ryota’s own groceries. But it had to mean something, the fact that Kazuki bothered to get up at least a full half hour before he actually needed to, just so he could root around Ryota’s refrigerator and cobble together something to eat. The fact that he insisted on making things like dashi stock from scratch also meant that he sometimes made a beeline to the kitchen in order to steep the kombu in water overnight, while Ryota stumbled off to bed.
They never mentioned the breakfasts when they met in person. Ryota always sent thank-you texts, but Kazuki never replied. All of Kazuki’s communication regarding this aspect of their friendship took place solely through the post-its he sometimes left with the food, which were usually nothing more than curt reminders for Ryota to ‘buy more vegetables‘ or ‘replenish the rice‘.
“He’s a strange one, my brother,” Yae observed, as Ryota had the leftover rice and miso soup for dinner during a rehearsal.
“I suppose,” Ryota replied, trying, as always, not to jump to conclusions about what was probably just a gesture of thanks on Kazuki’s part.
It was one thing to be driven to distraction by Ryota, and another thing altogether for Kazuki to admit that it was happening.
Kazuki was an old hand at this carrying a torch business. He was experienced enough to know that the best way to go about these things was to ignore them as much as he could. He needed to let it grow further from him over time. It would drift away as all things did eventually, such that one day he would wake up and find himself rid of it.
Yet, eight months in, the feeling was still there. At various points throughout the day Kazuki’s thoughts would slip to Ryota. The look of exhilaration on Ryota’s face at the end of a recent gig. The way he had unceremoniously dumped an extra duvet onto Kazuki that night one week ago because the weather had taken a turn for the worse. How he had laughed himself silly at a truly terrible pun Gaku had made, clutching at Kazuki’s arm in his hysteria.
In those eight months, Kazuki had graduated and had started cramming for the Bar examination. In those eight months, Kazuki had never been far from his phone. He lived for those evenings spent standing in crowded live music clubs with two hundred other people, listening to Ryota singing his heart out. Or for the few hours he managed to catch with Ryota whenever they met for drinks. Kazuki saw a different Ryota, then. He just didn’t know if that Ryota was his alone to see. The alternative was too painful to contemplate.
And so when Imamura called Kazuki up out of the blue and asked him to dinner, Kazuki said yes, and let Imamura pick an expensive restaurant (as expensive as the one Kazuki was still working at, even). He went through the motions of complimenting the food and chatting about what Imamura got up to in the bank he was working at now. When Imamura offered to pay the bill, Kazuki put up only the most minimal of objections. And later, when Imamura asked, tentatively, “Shall we go back to yours?” Kazuki just nodded and climbed into Imamura’s car.
Given the circumstances, given the eight months, given Ryota, this was the most prudent course of action.
“Wow,” said Imamura, upon entering Kazuki’s one-room apartment. “Your place is–”
“A hovel, I know,” Kazuki replied, pulling Imamura in so he could shut the door. “I’ve been busy.”
They fucked on Kazuki’s narrow bed. The mattress springs grumbled noisily under their combined weight and dug uncomfortably into Kazuki’s back as Imamura braced one hand on Kazuki’s shoulder and lowered himself onto Kazuki’s cock.
Imamura knew what he wanted from Kazuki and took it. Earlier, he had prepared himself with lube and two fingers with the same sort of careful efficiency he probably demonstrated while short-selling on the currency market. It made Kazuki smile to think of it.
“What’s so funny?” asked Imamura. Instead of giving Kazuki a moment to answer, however, he pulled up off Kazuki’s cock and then sheathed himself back down again in one fluid motion.
Kazuki groaned and shook his head, and let Imamura ride him with that rower’s precision, desperately losing himself in the steady rhythm of heat and friction. It didn’t matter that Imamura’s shoulders felt too broad and solid under Kazuki’s palms, or that when they kissed there was the faint taste of cigarettes that Ryota never smoked. Kazuki fucked Imamura for the simple, mindless pleasure of it. He thrust up to meet Imamura on every stroke, shutting his eyes to Imamura’s symmetrical face and the stack of statute books shoved carelessly to the corner beside Kazuki’s head. He reached down to jerk Imamura off as a matter of course, quick and rough and economical. When Imamura came, gasping and clenching around Kazuki, Kazuki followed him over the edge.
“This isn’t on the menu for tonight,” said Kazuki, glancing down at the two dishes.
“The head chef made this specially for the private room,” said the maître d’. “They’re old friends.”
“Who is it?” asked Kazuki, picking up the tray.
The maître d’ tsked. “Shimabukuro Saki, the mezzo soprano. She’s touring at the moment, don’t you watch the news? Now stop dawdling and go.”
The restaurant’s private room looked out on a garden at the back of the restaurant. It was often used for small corporate events or by celebrities who wished to dine undisturbed. After three years of working at the restaurant, Kazuki was used to dealing with both.
What he didn’t expect, however, was to slide open the door and find Ryota there.
He was seated opposite an elegant older woman with short-cropped hair and striking dark eyes. Kazuki realised that he had seen that profile before, on billboards for the New National Theatre in Shibuya. Of course. Ryota had mentioned before that his mother sang opera, but it had never occurred to Kazuki that she might be a renowned soloist. And their last name – Shimabukuro. Kazuki had seen it on one of the bills Ryota had left lying in the kitchen, but Ryota had otherwise never explicitly introduced himself as such.
The fact that Ryota was the son of this Shimabukuro explained, to some extent, why Ryota took such pains not to mention his last name in relation to his band activities. Certainly, it put into context the previously inexplicable sense of hunger Ryota seemed to have when he talked about how significant it was for him to be doing something of his own.
And, of course, the one restaurant Ryota’s mother would choose to meet her son at while she was on tour in Tokyo was the one Kazuki worked at. It made perfect, perverse sense.
Their eyes met. It was to Kazuki’s credit that he didn’t drop the tray entirely.
“Kazuki,” said Ryota. The surprise was clear on his face, but there was also an element of embarrassment, almost. Kazuki had caught a glimpse of a part of Ryota’s life that Ryota had never meant for him to see.
“Please forgive my interruption,” Kazuki murmured by rote, bowing as he entered the room.
“Is this a friend of yours?” asked Ryota’s mother. As she spoke, Kazuki could see her resemblance with Ryota. They shared the same eyes and nose, the same curve of their cheekbones.
“Ah – yes,” said Ryota. “This is Kazuki. Kazuki, this is my mother.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Ryota’s mother. “Are you in Ryota’s band, then?”
“I’m afraid not,” Kazuki replied. “That’s my twin sister.”
He was still holding the tray. Hastily, he set the dishes down on the table. “This evening, we have an amuse-bouche of lightly simmered bean sprouts and spinach with grated myoga. Please enjoy.”
Before Ryota could say anything more, Kazuki bowed again and made a swift exit.
There were eight more courses after that. Kazuki entered with each dish and left as quickly as he possibly could each time. He left the basting and grilling of the various seafood and vegetables to one of the apprentice chefs. Ryota’s head shot up every time Kazuki came in, but he seemed to sense Kazuki’s discomfort at making conversation and didn’t persist in engaging him.
Sitting in this large room, in a proper suit and tie and with his wild hair tamped down, Ryota seemed somehow diminished. Even the way he held himself appeared entirely different. There was a certain sort of expressiveness Kazuki had come to expect from Ryota. It was all but gone now, and replaced with a careful deference as he shared a meal with his mother.
Ryota had spoken, before, about being mostly raised by his grandparents after his mother left his father and became partly based in Germany. Perhaps that went some way towards explaining that distance they seemed to have while they conversed. And yet, as Kazuki observed while he knelt by their table grilling slices of beautifully marbled wagyu beef, Ryota seemed pleased to listen as his mother talked about mundane things like discovering a new Japanese grocery store in Berlin.
“When you next come to visit we might even be able to buy some goya,” said Ryota’s mother. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Ryota nodded, and then ducked his head. “Well – I wouldn’t want to be a bother, though.”
“How would that be a bother at all?” Ryota’s mother asked. “You’re always welcome. And a young man like you should travel when you get the chance. See as much of Europe as you can.”
Ryota opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Kazuki serving them the beef.
“The chef’s selection of marbled black wagyu, with green salad and a light sesame ponzu sauce.”
“Thank you,” said Ryota’s mother. “You’re very skilled.”
“I still have a lot more to work on,” Kazuki replied, bowing again.
“Kazuki’s studying for the Bar exam at the moment,” said Ryota, and Kazuki felt himself grow cold. Rationally speaking, Ryota was probably just trying to tell his mother a little bit more about Kazuki. The way it came out, however, made it seem like Ryota was trying to justify his choice of friend. Like Kazuki the waiter wasn’t good enough.
“Ah,” Ryota’s mother said, “that must be very hard.”
“I’m doing my best,” said Kazuki, keeping his voice level. “Let me get you more tea.”
Anger boiled up inside him as he left the room. It baffled him, how Ryota could turn his back on this life of privilege, to attempt to escape from it and try to get by like everyone else. It took courage and definitely explained Ryota’s hunger for the band to be successful. But there was also an element of selfishness to it. Ryota didn’t have to struggle; he’d merely chosen it. Kazuki struggled every day to move on from this; to become somebody, and his parents weren’t exactly about to invite him home for a holiday any time soon.
Yet even at this point, even with all this resentment stirring in Kazuki’s gut, he was still stupidly in love with Ryota.
Eight months in, and Kazuki was putting a name to it. He was in love with Ryota’s smile and Ryota’s secrets. With the way he tilted his head to one side when he listened and the way his lips moved when he talked. With Ryota, both on and off-stage. When he was singing as if his life depended on it, and in the quiet moments as they walked up the hill from the bus stop to Ryota’s apartment building. It was a horrible and terrifying and thrilling realisation to come to, equal parts hope and despair.
He couldn’t go back in. Not like this. Not while he felt like the walking wounded. His hands were shaking.
“I feel like I might throw up,” he told Morita, one of the other waiters. “Could you cover for me in the private room please?”
“Sure,” said Morita, giving Kazuki an odd look.
“Thanks,” Kazuki replied. “I think I just need some fresh air.”
Ryota found Kazuki standing in the narrow alleyway beside the restaurant, fiddling with an unlit cigarette.
This was the first time they had met in weeks. Ostensibly this was because Kazuki was busy preparing to take the Bar examination, but Yae had also mentioned something about Imamura and Kazuki getting together again. That had been a week ago, the first time Kazuki had failed to attend one of their gigs. Something had bubbled up in Ryota when he had heard this, an ugly surge of jealousy that was wholly unjustified. And that, perhaps, had been the moment of crystallisation for Ryota.
Before, he had never really seriously considered what exactly it was that he felt for Kazuki. Ryota just knew that he liked having Kazuki around, liked that they could just be. But the thought of Kazuki with Imamura had thrown Ryota’s feelings in sharp relief. He didn’t just want Kazuki around; he wanted Kazuki. It was a deep want, akin to the way Ryota wanted music: from his gut and his heart and his bones – a need. And now, standing just an arm’s length away from Kazuki, Ryota was struck, once again, by the clarity and depth of this feeling.
“Have you been out here this whole time?” asked Ryota.
Kazuki shrugged. “Aren’t you supposed to be with your mother?”
“She left,” Ryota told him. “She has a flight to catch.”
“Oh,” said Kazuki. He looked especially gaunt under the glow of the streetlamp, swallowed by the fabric of his too-large happi coat. Inside, Kazuki had been the soul of professionalism, bringing in course after course with very little indication of how awkward the situation actually was. Right now, however, he wasn’t even meeting Ryota’s gaze.
“Are you all right?” asked Ryota.
“I’m fine,” said Kazuki, reaching jerkily inside his apron pocket and pulling out a lighter. “The smoke just gets to me, I guess.”
“You’re lighting a cigarette,” Ryota pointed out.
“Fuck off,” Kazuki told him, beginning to smoke.
Ryota couldn’t help the laugh that burst out of him. Kazuki was ridiculous and also ridiculously endearing, and now he was looking at Ryota like he was mad.
“I’m sorry,” said Ryota. “And I’m also sorry for not… telling you. About my mother.”
“That’s fine,” replied Kazuki. “You kind of did, with some details omitted. Granted, they were important ones, but. Well.”
“Well,” Ryota repeated. “This is the thing. I was going to tell you.”
And. This wasn’t at all how Ryota envisioned it to happen, and yet the words were tumbling out of his mouth before he could stop himself. “But there was also something else I wanted to say, and they don’t quite go together –”
“What, thematically you mean?”
Ryota felt the sudden hysterical urge to laugh again, and also perhaps to run away, but he had been working himself up to this for days now and there was nothing he could do but say it.
“I’m kind of – well – really, I’m –” He paused, and took a deep breath. “I like you, and I wish you weren’t with Imamura.”
His heart was pounding in his ears. Kazuki just looked at Ryota, seemingly frozen in shock.
“It’s all right if you don’t feel the same way,” Ryota continued. He was fine with this part; he knew it really well: the get-out clause for Kazuki after the confession. “It’s just – I’m the type who has to say it out loud and quickly and if it doesn’t work out after that I’ll be fine, we can just be friends –”
“Stop,” said Kazuki. His voice was shaking. “What was that?”
“I really like you,” said Ryota. To the point of writing songs about him, but it was best perhaps not to mention that part.
Kazuki’s cigarette dropped from between his fingers and landed on the ground. “Fuck,” he said, under his breath, grinding it out under his shoe.
“I’m sorry this is so sudden,” Ryota told him. Now that Ryota had gotten it out of his system, he felt calmer, more rational. The maddening hope was still thrumming in his chest now, but this was no longer in his hands and that made it somehow more manageable.
“Ryota,” said Kazuki after a pause. His expression was deathly serious. “Are you messing with me?”
“No,” said Ryota.
“Okay?” Ryota repeated.
“Okay,” said Kazuki, and kissed him.
Kazuki kissed as if he had been wanting to do so for a very long time. It wasn’t casual or tentative – he just leaned in and did, cupping the palm of his right hand against the side of Ryota’s face. Ryota could hear the breath hitching in Kazuki’s chest, felt Kazuki’s slight shudder of – relief, perhaps. Anticipation. Their lips clung and parted and Ryota took a step closer so they were pressed against each other, Kazuki’s hand shifting to curl round the back of Ryota’s neck. And Ryota could feel Kazuki smiling against his lips, smiling so hard he wasn’t even really kissing Ryota back any more, just holding on to Ryota, holding on for dear life, like if he let go, this moment, and Ryota, would slip away from him.
“So just to be sure,” said Ryota, “this means –”
“Yeah,” said Kazuki, breathless and beaming. “Yeah. I’m not messing about, either.”
Ryota was waiting for Kazuki at the lobby of his office building when Kazuki finally called it a day. It was slightly past two in the morning. Ryota still looked bright eyed as he waved at Kazuki, wrapped up in a massive down parka.
“It’s freezing, you should probably put your hat on before we head out,” said Ryota.
“You didn’t need to come,” Kazuki told Ryota. He hadn’t realised how tense he had been until he had set eyes on Ryota and felt the stress flooding away from him. Kazuki had spent the whole day becoming increasingly wound up. It had gotten to the point that by midnight, he hadn’t even been able to speak or smile. Seeing Ryota at the end of all of it was like a sigh of relief.
“That’s all right,” Ryota replied. “I was too buzzed to sleep, anyway. How’s the work? All done?”
“I finished the bundle,” said Kazuki. “The hearing’s at ten tomorrow so I’ll have a bit of time to get things sorted before the partner comes in.”
“Great,” said Ryota. He reached for Kazuki’s laptop bag. “Let me take that.”
“I have hands,” said Kazuki.
“But you don’t have gloves.”
“I’ll take yours, then.”
Ryota grinned and pulled off his gloves. “Here you go.” He handed them over to Kazuki, who tugged them on.
They had long since missed the last train. Together they exited the building and headed towards the nearest taxi stand. Ryota was right. It was bitingly cold outside. The Roppongi street was deserted apart from the occasional passing car. As they walked along, Ryota with his hood up and hands thrust into the pockets of his coat, Kazuki wearing Ryota’s gloves and Ryota’s muffler tucked up to his chin, Kazuki felt the odd calmness that came with exhaustion and contentment.
“How was the launch party?” asked Kazuki, rather belatedly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it.”
“Nah, that’s fine. It’s your first month at the firm – rookie’s got to put in the hours,” said Ryota, giving Kazuki a gentle nudge. “The party was fine, we played a solid set. The label’s pretty happy.”
“And you’re happy?”
“We’ve made it to our second album,” said Ryota, “I’m ecstatic. And also tired, but in a good way.”
Kazuki nodded. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” said Ryota. “We’ve still got a long way to go. I want us to be huge, you know?”
“Yeah,” Kazuki replied, “and you will be.” He had known this from the first time he had set eyes on Ryota under those stage lights. Ryota had a voice that could stop hearts and a band talented and tight enough to make him shine. This was just the start of it.
There was a miserable-looking young man in the queue in front of them when they got to the taxi stand. He caught the next one fairly quickly, leaving them to wait alone.
“Yours or mine?” asked Kazuki.
“I don’t think there’s much of a decision to be made, given that your place is currently full of half-packed boxes,” said Ryota.
Kazuki had just recently found another apartment that was closer to a subway station than his current one. However the packing and moving out had not quite taken off because of work. Ryota had offered to help, but between promoting the new album and practicing for the band’s upcoming gigs, he had not made much progress either.
“Also your bed gives you back pains, you said so yourself.”
“I’m getting a new one,” said Kazuki.
“Or you could get into mine,” said Ryota. He gave Kazuki a grin he probably thought was charming. It looked more lascivious than anything.
“I could get into yours,” Kazuki agreed, “to sleep.”
“Of course,” Ryota replied. “I certainly wasn’t implying anything else.”
“Is that so?”
“What else did you think we’d do?”
They were both chuckling now. Ryota reached round surreptitiously to curl an arm around Kazuki’s waist, tugging him closer by just a fraction.
“Oh I don’t know,” said Kazuki, leaning into Ryota. “I’ve got a few ideas.”
But after they had climbed into a taxi, the warmth and comfort proved too much for Kazuki to resist. Almost immediately, he felt himself starting to doze off. His head tipped forward as his eyes drooped shut. Kazuki was dimly aware of Ryota sliding next to him, removing Kazuki’s bag from his lap and placing it somewhere else – probably the other seat. Ryota would take care of it…
“Hey, Kazuki,” Ryota was saying. “Your neck’s going to hurt.”
Kazuki stirred a bit, shifting until he found Ryota’s shoulder. He slept with his head resting against it for the rest of the journey.
On weekends, Kazuki cooked at Ryota’s flat. This was partly because Kazuki’s stovetop only had one functioning coil element and Ryota’s had four. Ryota also had a decent-sized freezer, which was great for storing dishes to be warmed up over the week.
At first, Kazuki had cooked to survive. It had been far cheaper for him to eat in when he’d first moved to Tokyo to start university. And then, as Ryota put it, Kazuki’s personality had gotten in the way and he had started wanting to go about making things the right way. As a natural consequence, Kazuki’s cooking tended to taste very, very good. Kazuki knew the optimum timing and temperature for frying chicken karaage to crispy perfection, and the precise proportions of miso, mirin, sake and soy sauce that would result in a balanced and flavourful braised mackerel. This in no way meant that he was unwilling to experiment. A lot of interesting flavour combinations had come about from years of Kazuki running out of groceries for the week and having to make do what whatever he had left.
Now Kazuki cooked because he enjoyed it. There was a simple joy in the process of it, from planning the meals to prepping the various components. There were dried shiitake mushrooms to be soaked, or carrots to be julienned, while a mound of sliced onions continued to sweat on low heat in a large pot. There was a careful logic about it that was at the same time deeply instinctive. His head always felt clearer after he’d spent some time in the kitchen alone with his thoughts and his pots and pans and chopping board. Nothing was simpler and more fulfilling.
Nothing, that was, apart from being able to physically sit down with Ryota to share a meal.
It was the day before the band’s promotional tour around Japan. Ryota had a train to catch early the next morning. For the better part of the afternoon, Ryota’s apartment had been filled with the most heavenly smell of pork belly simmering on low heat. Kazuki was making rafute to celebrate the beginning of Ryota’s tour, based partly on a recipe that Ryota’s grandmother had given Ryota some years ago. Ryota had told Kazuki that his grandmother’s rafute had been one of his defining memories of living in Okinawa in his early teens. Now Kazuki was attempting it for the first time.
“It smells like home,” said Ryota, coming over to gaze at the stove for the fifth time in the past hour. Ryota was meant to be packing and doing some writing. Instead, he had spent most of the afternoon darting in and out of the kitchen, getting in Kazuki’s way.
“Are you all packed?” asked Kazuki, while he rinsed a head of broccoli under the tap.
“Pretty much,” Ryota replied. He leaned against the counter to watch as Kazuki took the florets off the broccoli and began to peel the tough skin off the stem. “Oh, wait. I forgot the contact lens solution.”
As Ryota bounded off to retrieve it, Kazuki checked on the pork belly. It needed to be so tender, Ryota’s grandmother had written, that a chopstick could slice through it with ease. Earlier, Kazuki had parboiled the pork for an hour in water and awamori, before draining out the liquid and simmering the pork for a further two hours in a fresh mixture of awamori, dashi stock, and ginger, adding raw cane sugar and dark soy sauce along the way. By now, the pork belly had been broken down to a perfect tenderness. Kazuki took it off the heat to let it cool slightly while he finished preparing the rest of the meal.
The rice cooker chimed twice, signalling that it was done. It would need to sit for another ten minutes. This was just enough time for Kazuki to blanch the broccoli and steep it in a bowl of dashi he had prepared beforehand.
“Almost done,” he told Ryota, who had come back into the kitchen. “Did you pack dental floss?”
Ryota frowned. “I think I’ve run out.”
“I’ve got some in my overnight bag,” said Kazuki. “Why don’t you take that?”
“I could buy it at a train station or something,” Ryota said. “It’s not exactly a six-month sea voyage. Or I could steal some of Gaku’s.”
“You could,” Kazuki agreed. “Could you serve the rice please?”
Rafute went best with a steaming bowl of rice. The fat from the pork belly and the savoury, slightly sweet sauce from the long cooking process soaked into the grains and made for perfect comfort food in winter. Because it was such a rich dish, Kazuki was pairing it with the delicately flavoured broccoli he had just prepared. He also had extra portions of lotus root from last night’s dinner that had been poached in rice vinegar and dashi stock.
“You know you’ll probably get to eat authentic rafute when you play in Okinawa, don’t you?” said Kazuki.
“Yeah, but it won’t be like my grandmother’s,” Ryota replied.
“Well, mine might not necessarily taste like your grandmother’s either,” said Kazuki. although it would probably be close enough. Ryota’s grandmother’s recipe had called for some dried chilli peppers and Chinese star anise, which had not been part of the recipes he’d cross-referenced against. She had also specified a particular brand of awamori. In the interests of being entirely faithful to the recipe, Kazuki had taken a different route on his jog that morning in order to pick up the items at a larger supermarket than the one near Ryota’s apartment.
“But that’s fine because you made it,” said Ryota.
Kazuki watched as Ryota picked up a piece of pork belly and put it in his mouth. His eyes lit up as he chewed and swallowed.
“Close enough?” asked Kazuki.
“It’s perfect,” said Ryota.
Kazuki never did move into that new flat he’d found. The day they finished packing, Ryota rested his elbows on top of a large stack of boxes and said, rather tentatively, “I was thinking of getting a bigger bed, actually.”
Kazuki considered what Ryota was actually saying. “The rent would be cheaper split between two people.”
Ryota nodded. “And it’s not like you don’t already have the keys.”
“But I’d lose my deposit,” said Kazuki.
“Fuck the deposit,” Ryota replied.
“Are you seriously asking me to –”
“Move in with me, yes,” said Ryota.
“Wow,” said Kazuki. He huffed a laugh.
“Do you think the movers will charge extra if we change the delivery address now?”
At every show that Ryota did, there were always a few things that belonged, specifically, to Kazuki. The same navy blue hoodie he wore at every rehearsal was Kazuki’s, as were the few minutes before each show began when Ryota would call Kazuki. The one song Ryota picked up an acoustic guitar for – that was Kazuki’s too, no matter where Ryota was performing it.
And finally – the space over the left side of Ryota’s chest, where he’d gotten a second impulsive tattoo. That ink on Ryota’s skin, and everything connected to it: all of that was entirely Kazuki’s.
“Hey,” said Yae, “have you spoken to Kazuki recently?”
They were at the halfway point in their tour, waiting to perform their second Nagoya show later that evening. Ryota was sitting in a dressing room with his pen and paper while Yae fixed the strings on one of her guitars. It was one of the rare moments of privacy. One of Akemi’s friends had been hired to make a documentary over the course of the tour, and they spent most of it being followed around by a couple of cameramen.
“He’s been pretty busy,” Ryota replied. “Sometimes he texts but that’s about it.”
“Ah, I see,” said Yae.
There was something in Yae’s voice that instantly put Ryota on the alert. “What is it?” he asked sharply.
“Nothing,” said Yae, valiantly attempting to keep a straight face.
“You’re up to something –”
“No, really, I’m not –”
“Honestly, Yae,” said someone from the doorway, “you’re terrible at this.”
Ryota turned around to see Kazuki standing at the door of the dressing room. He was wearing glasses and a white cotton face mask, and was holding out a brown cloth bag.
“Hi,” said Kazuki. “I brought dinner.”
It was so unexpected that for a long moment Ryota could do nothing but sit there and gape. Kazuki tugged down his face mask and smiled, cheeks crinkling.
“I took half a day off and got the bullet train,” he said.
“What are you – don’t you –” Ryota began.
“Ryota, your face is priceless,” said Yae, looking delighted as she glanced back and forth between them.
“I brought you some food too, before you start whinging,” Kazuki told Yae, rooting about in his backpack for a different container. “It’s just onigiri, for you and Gaku and Akemi.”
“I don’t whinge,” said Yae with mock affront. “But yes, thank you for remembering that I exist.”
“You’re very welcome,” said Kazuki, before pausing somewhat expectantly.
“And now,” said Yae, “I’m leaving to enjoy this… in another room.”
“Was that some sort of telepathic twin moment?” asked Ryota, when Yae had left.
“Pretty much,” said Kazuki, crossing the room to place the cloth bag of Ryota’s dinner down on Ryota’s dressing table. “Mostly so I could do this,” he added, and leaned down to kiss Ryota.
Ryota met him midway, half-rising from the chair as he did so and knocking a bottle over in the process. Neither of them cared. In seconds they were tangled up in each other, legs entwined and hips pressing tight against each other, Kazuki’s arms curled around Ryota’s shoulders, one hand threading through the back of Ryota’s hair. Ryota had Kazuki by one strap of his backpack, tugging him impossibly close as they kissed.
He had missed this, missed the quiet assurance of Kazuki’s presence, the way they fit together with such ease. Kazuki’s lips against his were a revelation every time, each sigh and unarticulated syllable Ryota’s to hoard.
“We should have dinner,” said Kazuki, as they paused for breath.
“We should,” said Ryota, sliding a hand down to open the buttons of Kazuki’s coat. “Or I could just blow you in this dressing room.”
“That sounds like a viable alternative,” Kazuki replied, and Ryota smiled because only Kazuki would string together words like ‘viable’ and ‘alternative’ while someone was undoing the fly of his trousers. “But you’ve still got a final sound check and –”
“There’s time,” said Ryota, sinking to his knees.
“There isn’t,” said Kazuki, half laughing, half exasperated. “And the door’s not locked, and oh –” He let out a shuddering breath as Ryota began to mouth at the outline of his cock through his briefs. “Wait, wait – you need to sing – Ryota, come on –”
There was something in Kazuki’s voice at that last instant which was sharper than Ryota expected, and in the moment that Ryota took to glance up in surprise, Kazuki stepped away quickly and started doing up his trousers.
“Kazuki,” said Ryota, aware of how desperate he sounded and not really caring; remaining on his knees in the vague hope that Kazuki might come back and let him finish what he started.
“We’re going to have dinner, and then you’re going for your sound check,” said Kazuki, clearly trying very hard to keep his voice even. “And then you’re going to go onstage and play your set –”
“– and after you’re done I’m going to take you back to your hotel room, and I’m going to fuck you.”
Oh. Oh, thought Ryota, turned on as hell by the sudden steel in Kazuki’s voice; by the promise that hung in that single statement. Ryota bit his lip.
“How does that sound?” asked Kazuki, after a pause. He had his arms folded over his chest, almost as if he was trying to physically prevent himself from reaching for Ryota again.
“Sounds like a plan,” Ryota said hoarsely.
“Good,” said Kazuki.
For a few long seconds they remained like that, Kazuki standing half-turned away from Ryota and Ryota on his knees with his cock half-hard and his heart hammering in his chest.
Kazuki took a deep breath. “Shall we have dinner?”
As Kazuki reached for the cloth bag and began to unpack its contents at the nearby table, Ryota got unsteadily back on his feet.
Kazuki had brought with him brown rice porridge with adzuki beans, still warm in a thermal jar, and stewed chicken tsukune dumplings withcarrots.
“I was rather pressed for time so it’s nothing fancy,” said Kazuki as they ate.
“No, this is great,” said Ryota. “Train station bentos are delicious and all, but it’s not this.”
Kazuki said nothing, but his face took on that privately pleased look when Ryota complimented his food.
When they were done, Ryota scraped the last bit of porridge from his bowl before packing away all the containers. And then he headed out for the sound check, but not before pressing a last kiss – for now – to the corner of Kazuki’s mouth.
“You know what I’ll be thinking about,” said Ryota.
Kazuki smiled. “Yes, I can imagine.”
That night, everything was heightened by Kazuki’s promise and the fresh memory of Kazuki’s skin under Ryota’s lips and hands. Ryota sang like the music was being ripped out of him, clutching his microphone like a lifeline and belting out the lyrics with renewed vigour. Even the others were getting caught up in Ryota’s energy, Akemi shouting along as she drummed furiously while Gaku kept up effortlessly with her on his bass, his fingers a blur of movement. Yae, who was normally the calmest, was headbanging along as she played, her long fishtail braid flying like a wild thing.
The crowd loved it, surging forward against the barrier like an ocean of limbs and ecstatic faces. This was what performing meant to Ryota: it was release, it was ablution, it was finding that instant in time and space where Ryota was the music; was caught up in the great and terrible rush of sound and emotion. He hid nothing when he sang – all he could do was keep doing it, pinned under the glare of the lights and the hungry gaze of hundreds of people who had heard them, somehow, and come. It was electric, the ultimate rush, and before he had met Kazuki, these transcendent moments had been the only times he ever felt like he was home.
And somewhere in that crowd tonight was Kazuki, standing in the darkness, watching Ryota and knowing exactly what it was that had sent Ryota into this particular frenzy.
Later, after the first and second encore, after all the instruments had been packed up and the crew had been duly thanked, Ryota skipped the post-concert drinks and climbed into a taxi with Kazuki.
Kazuki was silent throughout the journey from the music hall to the hotel, his face expressionless as he looked out of the window. And then Ryota noticed that Kazuki was sitting on his hands for fear of grabbing Ryota there and then; Kazuki was taut with desire, one leg jittering intermittently as if he couldn’t wait. That was how much he wanted Ryota at that moment.
It was too much for Ryota – the concert, the music, and now this. He stumbled as they got out of the taxi and when Kazuki grabbed Ryota’s arm to steady him Kazuki’s grip was strong enough to hurt. It sent a fresh jolt of desire in Ryota’s gut, and when he glanced over at Kazuki he saw that want mirrored in Kazuki’s face. It was a miracle that they managed to get to Ryota’s room with no incident, Kazuki hissing at Ryota to hurry up as Ryota fumbled to unlock the door.
Kazuki was kissing Ryota the moment they were inside the room, pushing Ryota against the door and removing Ryota’s scarf and body warmer with methodical ease.
“Fuck,” Kazuki murmured as he tugged Ryota’s jumper and t-shirt off over Ryota’s head and flung them onto a nearby chair. “I’ve not seen you perform like that in years. Shoes.”
“You have that effect on me, get over it,” Ryota replied as he toed off his shoes and socks, shivering in anticipation as Kazuki popped open the button of Ryota’s fly.
“Get over it?” Kazuki repeated, pushing Ryota’s trousers and underwear down to his thighs. He reached down to take Ryota in hand and began to jerk him off with firm, deliberate strokes. “Get over the fact that I make one promise to fuck you and it’s enough to get you half hard and screaming your lungs out in front of an audience?”
Kazuki hadn’t even taken off his stupid backpack, Ryota realised in a moment of hysteria. He was still in his coat and scarf while Ryota was completely naked; naked and shuddering as Kazuki sank to his knees and took the head of Ryota’s cock into his mouth.
“Kazuki – fuck –”
Kazuki just made a noncommittal noise as he circled his tongue around Ryota, one hand resting on Ryota’s hip. Then Kazuki took Ryota deeper and it was far too much all of a sudden; overwhelming, after all the anticipation and the adrenaline from the performance, and Ryota moaned deep in his chest as the rush of impending orgasm hit –
Kazuki had pulled away. His fingers were gripping the base of Ryota’s cock, preventing Ryota from coming.
Ryota moaned again, this time out of frustration.
Kazuki rose to his feet and turned away from Ryota. He shrugged off his backpack, placing it carefully in a corner.
It was some kind of weird power thing, Ryota knew – when Kazuki wanted Ryota so much and so fiercely that the only way he could handle himself was to wrest as much control as he could. Now Kazuki was standing across the room from Ryota, removing his own coat with trembling fingers while Ryota watched him hungrily. He draped it on the back of a chair and peeled off his cardigan before beginning to unbutton his shirt.
“Could you prepare yourself?” asked Kazuki as he stripped off his shirt. Apart from the barely detectable tremor in Kazuki’s voice, he said it in almost the same tone he used when asking Ryota if he could set the table. Sex and cooking, Ryota thought, as he crossed the room and climbed onto the bed, retrieving a bottle of lube from the bag on the nightstand. These were possibly the only two occasions when Kazuki was entirely transparent with what he wanted.
As Ryota leaned back against the headboard and began to work himself open with his fingers, Kazuki removed his belt and trousers. Ryota watched as Kazuki folded his clothes in neat, quick movements, placing his shirt on the table and his trousers on the seat of the chair; nudging his shoes with one foot so that they aligned neatly with the foot of the table.
“Did you think about this?” asked Ryota. “While you were on the bullet train from Tokyo. About me.”
“Yes.” Now it was Kazuki who was watching him, eyes dark and face so open with want that it made Ryota’s heart pound to look at Kazuki.
“Did you think about watching me fuck myself with my fingers?”
“Yes,” said Kazuki. Whatever composure he had managed to gain during the past few moments appeared to be quickly fleeing him. There was a wet spot on his underwear where he was leaking precome.
“Did you –”
“Enough with the cross-examination,” Kazuki snapped. He was on the bed in a trice, grasping Ryota’s chin with one hand and kissing him deeply.
Ryota groaned and kissed back, slipping a third finger into himself as he did so. Kazuki must have felt Ryota’s gasp at that, because he huffed a laugh against Ryota’s lips and said, “How about I make good on my promise?”
They moved together with such frantic familiarity, Ryota tugging down Kazuki’s underwear as Kazuki reached for a condom from Ryota’s nightstand. Every inch of Kazuki’s body was known to Ryota, from the birthmark on his right hip to the smooth plane of his stomach; the slope of his back and shoulders and the curve of his narrow calves. And having Kazuki here, claustrophobically close, lips and limbs and his small, talented hands; that want and joy and relief so plain to see on Kazuki’s face – having all of that was like coming home.
And then Kazuki was pushing inside Ryota, the stretch just this side of overwhelming, and it was all Ryota could do to keep breathing.
“Did you think about this?” Kazuki gritted out. He slid out slowly and then thrust back in, eliciting a grunt from Ryota. “When you were onstage? While you were looking out into that crowd of strangers –” He was thrusting steadily now, in as measured a rhythm as he could manage. “Did you imagine how it would feel –”
“Yes,” breathed Ryota, pushing back against Kazuki with each stroke.
Kazuki was panting too hard to be coherent now. His pace became slightly erratic as he bent to kiss Ryota again.
“I thought – about you –” Kazuki was saying, biting down on the juncture of Ryota’s neck and shoulder. Ryota gave a hiss that turned into a moan as Kazuki reached down to work Ryota’s cock. “About fucking you –”
“Yes,” Ryota replied in a shaky exhale. “Kazu –”
“You’re theirs –” said Kazuki, shifting slightly such that he was fucking Ryota deeper and harder with each thrust. “But you’re also mine – even then – you’re –”
“Kazuki,” Ryota groaned, and Kazuki kissed him again, sloppy and urgent and that was Ryota’s undoing. He came, gasping around the syllables of Kazuki’s name.
Kazuki fucked Ryota through his orgasm, smoothing Ryota’s hair from his forehead and mouthing a wet trail along Ryota’s jaw and down his neck. Ryota just breathed and shook and clung on to Kazuki, pressing his fingers into Kazuki’s skin and taking in the look on his face, pleasure and desperation in equal parts.
“I bet you squirmed,” Ryota whispered, “on that train from Tokyo. I bet you got hard just thinking about how I would look under you, I bet –”
And then Kazuki was coming, his hips stuttering and his mouth opening silently in surprise, in ecstasy, in completion.
Later: Ryota was dimly aware of Kazuki rising from the bed and padding across the room to where his clothes were. When Ryota awoke early the next morning to the sharp beeping of the hotel room alarm clock, Kazuki had already left for Tokyo.
“One of the new associates that I’m working with asked me the other day,” Kazuki told Ryota over the phone, “if anyone has ever told me that I look like Yae from that band.”
Ryota’s laugh sounded so tinny and distant from the other side of the line. “Did you tell them she’s your twin sister?”
“I couldn’t actually get the words out, Yoshino and the others were laughing so hard,” said Kazuki. “But I suppose someone will let him know eventually.”
At some point between their third and fourth albums, Ryota’s band had become huge. The moment had arrived when their latest single had been featured as the ending theme for some testosterone-filled anime programme for young boys. To everyone’s surprise, it had climbed up to ninth place on the Oricon charts. Online, the number of hits on their music videos had also increased by the day. By the time their fourth album had been released, they were starting to get booked as headline acts for a number of festivals.
Ryota called it the culmination of years of playing live gigs and gradual word of mouth. But hard work wasn’t all of it, Kazuki knew. It took talent and a certain amount of arrogance for them to get where they were at the moment: topping the Oricon charts on a regular basis and performing for thousands of people.
“Are you very busy today?” asked Ryota.
Kazuki was, in fact, extremely so. “Just the usual.” It was one of the rare occasions where they were actually speaking to each other on the phone. Normally, Ryota just left messages on Kazuki’s voicemail. Today, Kazuki had answered because the band was flying off to Taipei after their show tonight. “All set for your Asia tour?”
As Ryota answered, there was a knock on Kazuki’s door. When Kazuki looked up he saw Tachibana, the other senior associate he was working on a case with, standing there. She was waving a folder and mouthing the words, we’re late through the glass.
“Look, I’ve got a meeting to go to,” said Kazuki, motioning to Tachibana to give him a second. “Have a good show. I’m taking the first-year associates out for drinks later so I won’t be able to call.”
“Hang in there,” said Ryota. Kazuki knew Ryota meant well. Yet he couldn’t help the flicker of irritation at those words, because what else was Kazuki doing if not exactly that?
Tachibana was waving again. “Yeah, see you,” Kazuki replied hurriedly. He gathered up his papers and grabbed his jacket. “Bye.”
“Okay,” said Tachibana, the moment Kazuki had hung up, “so how mad do you think Sato’s going to be when we tell him that this proxy form nonsense is not going to fly in court?”
Kazuki sighed. “I’ll tell him what we’ve come up with and you can break the news to him, he likes you better anyway.” He’d call Ryota back later when he got home. Perhaps he’d leave a voice message of his own for Ryota if Ryota had already gotten on the plane.
“Fine, but you’ll owe me,” said Tachibana. She paused to look at Kazuki’s face. “Goodness, Iwadate. Are you getting any sleep?”
This was the thing. Kazuki was becoming – well. He wasn’t becoming someone else altogether. But he certainly wasn’t himself.
There had been a time when Kazuki had felt ready to take on the world. He had found Ryota and had known with clarity that Ryota was what he wanted. Now it was taking Kazuki everything just to keep moving forward. In the past few months, Kazuki had found, increasingly, that when he did spend the night at home, he would wake in the morning only to lie in his empty bed for long stretches of time, limbs heavy, desperately willing himself to get up.
Ryota was still hungry, so hungry for the crowd and for success. Kazuki, on the other hand, felt parched. Numb. Insufficient.
All of this scared him and made him furious at the same time. In the moments that he and Ryota did have together, Ryota sometimes ended up getting caught on the edge of those storms. There was not a single justifiable reason for his anger and Kazuki knew it. Somehow that just made him feel even worse. It made him search for some kind of vindication, some fault in every small remark Ryota made.
That wounded expression Ryota gave Kazuki didn’t help, either. It just triggered a dark, irrational resentment in Kazuki’s gut. In those moments, Kazuki’s words and actions were always meant to hurt.
Which was how Kazuki found himself standing on the living room at half past midnight, wiping Ryota’s come off his chin with the back of his hand.
Because even the sex was different now, with Ryota away so much and Kazuki feeling so on edge. Never had Kazuki felt so simultaneously helpless and powerful. Kazuki hardly knew what he was doing and yet Ryota just gave himself over each time.
Kazuki looked at Ryota. He was slumped on the couch and breathing hard, arms tangled in his flannel shirt that still reeked of aeroplane cabin. Just minutes ago, Kazuki had been inexplicably, terrifyingly livid. Now, with the taste of Ryota in his mouth and Ryota lying undone before him, Kazuki felt it all drain away from him, leaving only exhaustion and guilt.
“Kazuki,” said Ryota, sitting up on his elbows. “Let me –”
“My ramen’s gone soggy.” He turned and headed back to the kitchen, unable to face how wretched Ryota looked as he gazed up at Kazuki in incomprehension.
The noodles had soaked up most of the broth and had turned into a congealed mass. Kazuki picked out a mushroom and ate it. He felt ill.
He could remember a time when he’d known for certain exactly how in love he was with Ryota. That feeling seemed so abstract to him now. He had lost it along the way and couldn’t catch sight of it through all this rage and numbness.
“Kazuki?” Ryota was standing at the kitchen door again. He’d put on his boxer shorts and his shirt was still hanging open. He looked so fucking contrite even though there was no reason for him to be. This wasn’t the Ryota that people saw on magazine covers. This was Kazuki’s Ryota, open and hurt. The Ryota that Kazuki had forgotten how to love.
Kazuki rested his elbows on the kitchen counter and pressed his face in his hands, breathing deeply, trying to steady himself. To Ryota’s credit, he didn’t reach forward to try and touch Kazuki. A couple of months ago he might have. Kazuki had shied away enough times that Ryota now knew not to.
“I don’t know what came over me,” said Kazuki after a pause. He lifted his head from his hands. “Welcome back, Ryota.” He tried to approximate some degree of warmth in his voice, but he was so wrung out that it just came out flat.
Ryota just looked at Kazuki uncertainly.
“That thing, tomorrow night,” Kazuki continued, attempting some semblance of normalcy. “Your mother’s performance. I’ll try to be on time but if I’m not there by seven just head in without me.”
“Okay,” said Ryota, after a pause. “Kazu –”
“I’m going to bed,” said Kazuki. He set down his chopsticks. “I’ll take the extra futon so you won’t be disturbed when I get up tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t have to,” Ryota began.
“No, you must be tired,” Kazuki told Ryota, firmer this time. He felt trapped in the flat, now that Ryota was here, all concern and no understanding. “Just let me brush my teeth and then you can take a shower.”
“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Ryota.
Kazuki shook his head. “If you’re hungry there are some side dishes in the freezer –”
“The ramen is fine.”
“The noodles are soggy.”
“No, really.” Ryota picked up Kazuki’s chopsticks. His expression was, for the first time, unreadable. “It’s fine.”
Kazuki shuffled off to brush his teeth and change. Ryota stood in the kitchen, leaning an elbow against the counter as he consumed every last bit of Kazuki’s ramen.
They didn’t speak again. Kazuki took out the extra futon and laid it out in the sitting room, nudging the furniture aside to make space for it. A dull pain radiated from his lower back as he lay down. He shut his eyes and tried to ignore it, the same way he ignored the sounds of Ryota bringing over an extra heater and adjusting the timer for it. He didn’t sleep.
When Ryota glanced up from his drink there was a group of young men and women standing by his table, dressed to the nines and looking slightly nervous. A few of them were holding programmes for the night’s performance.
“We’re huge fans – some of us went to your concert at the Budokan last month…”
“Oh,” said Ryota, rising from his seat. “Thanks, that’s really great. How are you guys doing tonight?”
The group murmured their hellos. One of the women was clutching her friend’s arm in excitement. The other patrons in the concert hall bar and refreshment lounge were now craning their heads round to see what the commotion was.
“We didn’t think we’d actually see you here,” said one of them. “But a few of us thought it would be pretty amazing to watch your mother sing…”
“Yeah, she’s not in Japan all that often,” said Ryota. “I hope you enjoy the performance tonight.”
“Do you think we could take a photo with you?”
It was entirely bizarre, Ryota thought, as the group arranged themselves around him and had a waiter help take their photograph. There were people who were now coming to Ryota’s mother’s concerts because of Ryota.
It was a strange reversal of when he was growing up; going for singing classes and realising that the teachers were so much stricter with him because of his mother’s talent, or that people were coming to the year-end recitals just to catch a glimpse of Shimabukuro Saki, if she could deign to attend.
Ryota didn’t love his mother any less for all of this. Growing up, he’d learnt that love could be measured in absence and in yearning, in words sent across oceans and continents; could be just a far-off voice over the phone. This didn’t mean that it wasn’t still hard, or that Ryota didn’t still hate the fact that he and Kazuki may have been drifting towards something similar. A lowering of expectations, perhaps – where Kazuki cooked meals for one and Ryota turned up for things feeling fairly certain that he was going to be attending alone.
Except that Kazuki was still trying – he had still left breakfast for Ryota in the morning, same as always. He had clearly been in a hurry – his nightclothes had been haphazardly cast onto the arm of the sofa and he’d kicked off his room slippers in the hallway on his way out, instead of aligning them like he usually did. And yet Ryota had awoken to find rice warming in the rice cooker and a bowl of natto and sliced scallion in the refrigerator. There had been a saucepan of dashi on the stove with accompanying bowls of wakame seaweed, mushrooms and miso for Ryota to add and simmer.
It was things like this that convinced Ryota that they could be all right, the both of them. Things like how right now, defying all expectations, Kazuki was on time and walking over to Ryota.
He seemed, however, oddly jittery as he arrived at Ryota’s table and sat down opposite Ryota. His face was ashen and the circles under his eyes were dark bruises.
“Are you all right?” asked Ryota in surprise. “Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Do you mind?” Kazuki said, indicating Ryota’s drink.
“Sure,” said Ryota, handing it over and watching as Kazuki drained the glass. “We should be heading in soon, but is there anything else I can get you –”
“Do you think we could go outside for a bit?”
“Sure,” said Ryota after an uncertain pause. “Yeah, let’s get some fresh air.”
They got up and headed down the stairs, past the box office and out of the main entrance. Still, Kazuki kept walking, until they were at a secluded parking area round the back of the concert hall, the only other person in sight a disgruntled looking usher having a smoke break some distance away.
Kazuki pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his trouser pocket, tapping one out of the pack and holding it between his lips as he reached into his other pocket for a lighter.
“I thought you quit,” said Ryota, as Kazuki lit the cigarette.
Kazuki glanced up at Ryota. In that moment, Ryota saw something in Kazuki’s face – that unexpected clarity in his eyes; the resolution and regret – and realised, suddenly and with a lurching feeling in his gut, exactly what this was about.
Ryota knew from the look on Kazuki’s face, because he’d thought about it too, last night. The only difference was that he’d dismissed it out of hand.
“We’re going to be late,” he said quickly, because if he could do anything to stall for time, anything to put this off – “Maybe during the intermission –”
“We could get drinks after, our old favourite place is somewhere around here –”
“Don’t say it,” Ryota snapped. “Don’t pull this shit with me.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to say,” said Kazuki.
“I have an idea, and that’s why I’m saying that we don’t need to discuss this now,” said Ryota. “Not today and not like this.”
“About last night –”
“That’s fine,” said Ryota, “we were both tired. Kazuki, it’s fine. We’re fine.”
“We’re not, that’s the thing,” said Kazuki. “I’m not fine.”
Kazuki really wasn’t; Ryota had been aware of this for a while now. He’d always assumed that it was solely Kazuki’s work that was making Kazuki feel like that. Every time Ryota came back he found Kazuki slightly worse for wear. His temper ran shorter and on his days off he slept so deeply and continuously that Ryota had once even checked that he was still breathing.
“And because of that I’ve not been fair to you and –”
“I’ve not been fair to you,” Kazuki repeated. “It feels like along the way something… broke, and. And we don’t work anymore.”
“What the fuck does that even mean?” asked Ryota. He was furious all of a sudden, because Kazuki was being ridiculous, because this was them Kazuki was talking about. They worked, of course they worked, and they could fix whatever didn’t.
“I took the afternoon off today to pack –”
“You didn’t, Kazuki, fucking tell me you didn’t –”
“I thought about it last night and I can’t imagine continuing like this,” said Kazuki.
“You’re being ridiculous.”
Kazuki drew deeply on his cigarette and closed his eyes. “Ryota,” he said shakily, exhaling smoke. “Sometimes I look at you and I’m so angry I can’t even breathe. I don’t know why I feel like that and I hate it. Do you understand?”
And the startling truth of the matter was that Ryota did understand. He’d glimpsed those flashes of pure resentment, plain on Kazuki’s face. They had vanished as soon as they appeared but Ryota remembered each of those looks and when he had seen them:
In a supermarket, months ago, while they were looking at expiry dates on the milk. That day Yae invited all of them over to introduce them to Tacchan, her boyfriend, and Ryota said something careless. Two weeks ago when Ryota was doing the dishes and realised they were out of washing-up liquid. Last night. Each of these times, Kazuki had done something by way of apology almost immediately after, even though they’d both said nothing about any of it. Each of these times, Ryota had accepted it as Kazuki being Kazuki, and forgotten about it.
“I love you,” said Ryota abruptly, unsteadily; fearful the moment the words escaped his lips because it was so true and so essential and so fragile.
“I know,” Kazuki replied, sad and serious. “I know, Ryota. I’m so sorry.”
This is what Ryota did after Kazuki left:
He went back into the concert hall and waited by the doors until the ushers determined a suitable interval for him to enter. He listened to his mother sing excerpts from Tristan und Isolde and, after the intermission, the entirety of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, her mellow voice soaring over the swelling of the orchestra, warmer in real life than on the records he had listened to countless times growing up. He kept his gaze fixed on her, his mind focused on the lyrics and the beauty of the orchestration, doing his utmost to ignore the desperate ache in his chest, blinking back the tears that stung his eyes as his heart lurched with the music.
And when the encore was over and the final curtain calls had been taken, Ryota went backstage like he always did, and waited outside his mother’s dressing room with the armful of flowers he had left in the cloakroom earlier, just like he’d planned, except that Kazuki had been meant to come along as well, and –
“Ryota,” said his mother when she saw his face. She didn’t ask what was wrong, or where Kazuki was, or if Ryota was quite all right. She just set the flowers gently on her dressing table and took Ryota into her arms.
“You do know that I plan to get promoted above you while you’re off doing your LLM, don’t you?” was what Tachibana had said when Kazuki had told her he was leaving.
“By all means,” Kazuki had replied. Now, six months into his course, he felt like he’d made the right decision to get away for a while. Not forever, of course. He was due back at work the following summer. But here, outside of Japan, he felt like he could breathe easier for a bit.
Kazuki missed Ryota like he was missing a limb. He felt off balance and adrift in the worst way imaginable. In Tokyo, this would have been unbearable. The band’s music was played in stores, their faces plastered on billboards. But what Kazuki didn’t miss was himself in those last months. That terrifying fog of emotion that he could neither handle nor explain. All he could do was hurt Ryota. Hate him and fuck him and apologise the morning after. That night, lying awake on the futon in the living room, Kazuki had considered all the alternatives. He had realised, with a heavy heart, that staying would only twist their relationship into something even more poisonous.
Time and space: that was what both he and Ryota needed.
He still heard about what the band was doing from time to time, whenever Yae called. Yae had shouted at him about being a selfish little jerk that evening, before asking if he needed a place to stay. As mad as she had been at Kazuki, it was perhaps Yae who understood best how Kazuki had been feeling.
The band’s sixth album had been released to glowing reviews three months after that evening at the concert hall. On the limited edition DVD, there had been a recording of a more intimate gig the band had performed in one of the first venues they had ever played at. Ryota had been brilliant as always. He had performed with the same electric energy that he’d had on the first night Kazuki had seen him. But in the last third of their set, when they got to the part where they normally played the song that was Kazuki’s, Ryota had replaced it with something else.
It didn’t change anything. Ryota had still ended up overcome with emotion anyway. Kazuki had watched as Ryota had buried his face in the crook of his arm for close to half a minute while Yae and Gaku continued singing the backing vocals and the fans chanted the lyrics up at Ryota. It wasn’t uncommon for Ryota to sometimes be brought to tears at arena gigs, during the encore with thousands of fans screaming encouragement at him. And this time, like all the times before, Ryota had composed himself. He had looked out, bright-eyed, at the crowd before him, and kept on singing. His voice had been clear as a bell, cracking only a few times over the distorted screech of Yae’s guitar.
“He’s going to be fine,” Yae told Kazuki. “Both you idiots are going to be fine.”
From certain angles and in the right light, the pop idol and sometimes-actor Takemoto Shouhei looked uncannily like Kazuki.
The resemblance was mostly in his nose and in the shape of his jaw, and to a lesser extent the slight downward tilt of his mouth. He was built the same way as well, narrow and pale, except that he had at least an inch or two on Kazuki. When he didn’t smile his eyes took on that same considering look that Kazuki had when he was thinking.
All of that disappeared the moment Takemoto started to speak, however – in unabashed Kansai dialect, all charm and mischief. He laughed too easily and smiled too invitingly and the second time he and Ryota met, backstage at a music show, he put his hand on Ryota’s arm and asked him out for a drink.
“Just to be clear, this isn’t anything serious,” was what Takemoto had said to Ryota after their first time together.
“Good,” Ryota had replied.
Takemoto liked to bottom and loved it when Ryota was rough with him. His face and neck were out of bounds, but everywhere else was fair game.
“What’s this?” asked Takemoto one night, tracing the ink on the left side of Ryota’s chest.
“A tattoo,” said Ryota, obtuse on purpose.
“Fine,” Takemoto replied, laughing. “Don’t tell me.”
It was a mistake, Ryota thought of saying. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
Later, Ryota stroked Takemoto off with the same grip and deliberateness that Kazuki had always used on Ryota. Takemoto groaned and cursed and came with Ryota’s name on his lips, digging his nails into Ryota’s skin.
Ryota looked down at Takemoto’s face and felt, suddenly, bereft.
On trains and buses and in hotel rooms, Ryota wrote music continuously. Half the things he produced never made it onto the band’s albums, but the clarity that came with the creative process was enough to keep Ryota afloat. Critics observed a maturing of the band’s lyrics and sound, after the fury of their earlier years. Ryota wrote love songs and rock anthems and hip hop-inspired crowd pleasers. None of these songs were about Kazuki. Yet, on some level, all of these songs were about Kazuki.
Kazuki was further away from Ryota than he had ever been, in all ways possible – he had put oceans and continents between them. And as the days went by, even the concept of them, which had been so tangible for so long, was steadily receding into the past.
“You know,” said Kazuki to Yae, “I’m starting to suspect that the only reason why you bought me that plane ticket back to Tokyo was because you needed someone to barbecue things at your engagement party.”
“Nonsense,” Yae replied. She swiped a slice of squash off the grill. “Although you do have relevant work experience and an obsession with getting people fed.”
“So does Tacchan’s mother, it seems,” said Kazuki. They watched as she emerged from the house bearing yet another massive plate of yakisoba.
They were having Yae’s engagement party at Tacchan’s parents’ house in Kodaira. Tacchan had picked Kazuki up when he had landed sometime in the afternoon, and Kazuki had proceeded to impose on Yae’s future in-laws by taking a three-hour nap on their couch. He’d woken up just as the first few guests were arriving. Shortly after that, he found himself enlisted to assist Tacchan’s mother with cooking up a storm.
The party wasn’t quite in full swing yet. Most of the people present were Tacchan’s siblings and a number of his old classmates. Many of them had young children. Gaku and a couple of Yae’s close friends had arrived just a few minutes ago and were currently making the rounds with introductions. Tacchan’s father appeared to be having a field day with the video camera.
Between the nap and helping Tacchan’s mother, Kazuki hadn’t had the time to even consider the prospect of seeing Ryota again. When Yae had first asked Kazuki to come back to Japan for the party, Ryota had been the reason why Kazuki had refused. But Yae had made it clear that she was having none of that from Kazuki.
“It’s a celebration for people that Tacchan and I actually like,” Yae had said. “Also, think about how much more awkward the actual wedding is going to be. It’s not just our dear parents who will be there. Consider every other aunt and uncle who has ever called you up for free legal advice –”
“Fine, fine,” Kazuki had replied, “but you’re paying for my ticket.”
One of Tacchan’s nieces had now wandered over with Tacchan in tow, eyeing the various items on the grill.
“What would you like?” asked Yae in a voice that was uncharacteristically sweet.
“It’s so scary when you pretend to be nice,” Kazuki told Yae. He earned himself a kick in the shin.
“Thanks for your help, Kazuki, it looks really good,” said Tacchan. Yae put some grilled squid and chicken skewers onto the girl’s plate before going off to help her hunt down some orange juice.
“Don’t mention it,” Kazuki replied. “I’m happy to be here.”
“Are you planning on coming back for good, soon?” asked Tacchan. “No pressure, of course. I just heard from Yae that you were thinking of staying away another year.”
“Oh yes, the secondment offer,” said Kazuki. His firm had an arrangement with a number of overseas practices that often took on associates for a year. “I’m still considering it – a year is a rather long time.”
“Yae complains that she doesn’t see you enough,” said Tacchan. “Though I don’t think I was supposed to mention that.”
Kazuki laughed. “I highly doubt it.”
The news of Yae’s engagement had been rather a surprise. As much as he was fond of Tacchan, Kazuki hadn’t expected Yae to end up settling down with him. But now, seeing them together, Kazuki could see that Tacchan, stable and good-natured, was a perfect counterbalance to Yae. Also, he taught math at a high school. He probably had the patience of a saint.
“But really,” said Tacchan, entirely serious now, “the most important thing is that you’re happy and well.”
“Thanks,” said Kazuki, slightly discomfited by Tacchan’s earnestness.
Tacchan slapped Kazuki on the back. “Shall I get you a beer? Oh –” He paused, looking at the car that had just pulled up by the front gate. “That must be my sister with Akemi and the others.”
Kazuki glanced over and realised with a jolt that it was Ryota who was emerging from the passenger side.
No matter how many times he had envisioned this moment, Kazuki was still wholly unprepared for the actual shock of seeing Ryota after all this while. From a distance he looked almost unchanged, still moving with that barely-contained energy, all smiles and easy gestures. The whole group was heading down the driveway now, with Yae stomping over to greet them, Tacchan’s niece still trailing along beside her.
“You’ll be all right?” asked Tacchan.
“Okay,” said Tacchan, looking rather doubtful. “I’ll go get you your beer.” He walked off towards the kitchen before Kazuki could reply. This left Kazuki standing helplessly at the grill, directly in Ryota’s line of sight.
And Ryota was looking at Kazuki now, clearly paying no attention whatsoever to anything Akemi and the others were saying to Yae and Tacchan’s father. Kazuki raised his hand in an abortive wave, before hurriedly turning his attention to flipping over a row of skewered prawns in quick succession. When he looked up again, Ryota had broken away from the group and was now walking steadily towards Kazuki.
“Hey,” said Ryota. Up close, he appeared a little more worn than Kazuki last remembered. He looked just a little thinner in his striped grey t-shirt and Bermuda shorts.
“Hi,” replied Kazuki, entirely unsure as to what he should say or do. A handshake would be awkward beyond words. A ‘how are you’ would be far too much like small talk.
Then Ryota’s face broke into a grin, and he was spreading his arms wide and saying, “It’s been a while, where the fuck have you been?”
Before Kazuki could even blink they were stepping towards each other for a hug.
It was brief and almost formal, given the care they both took to position their arms a certain way, their bodies barely touching. But even then Kazuki was startled by the way Ryota’s back felt under his hands, by the utterly familiar smell of his shirt and his skin.
“Seriously, though, how have you been?” asked Ryota. He’d pulled away just a little too quickly, but he was still smiling at Kazuki, hands stuffed in his pockets.
“I’ve been –” Fine, Kazuki almost said, but stopped himself. Fine covered all manner of things and described nothing. “I’ve been really well.”
“That’s great,” said Ryota. “We’ve all missed you.”
Kazuki couldn’t help but notice Ryota’s careful emphasis on ‘we’. “So have I,” he replied, nodding.
There was a pause in which they both searched for something to say, Ryota’s smile faltering a bit as he regarded Kazuki. Out of the corner of his eye, Kazuki could see Tacchan coming over with two beers in hand.
Kazuki held up a grilled mushroom with his chopsticks. “Want to grab a plate?”
They didn’t get the chance to speak again after that. Ryota was quickly monopolised by a couple of Tacchan’s female classmates, before Yae made everyone play a ludicrous trivia game where any losers had spicy death sauce and bitter tea inflicted upon them. It was at that point that Kazuki attempted to make a quick escape on the pretext of going to help Tacchan’s mother. Akemi spotted him before he managed to succeed.
Then someone pulled out an acoustic guitar and Tacchan’s father produced an electric keyboard from inside the house. Yae and Tacchan were forced to sing a succession of sappy love duets while Gaku and one of Tacchan’s high school classmates played accompaniment. Given that Tacchan was enthusiastically tone deaf and Yae bent on changing all the lyrics to nonsense, it was only a matter of time before Ryota was press-ganged into taking over.
“No, no,” Ryota was saying, “how about one of the kids –”
“Come on, you shameless bastard,” said Yae, picking up the guitar.
As Ryota went reluctantly to the front, Kazuki traipsed across the lawn to help Tacchan’s older brother with barbecuing the next round of fish and vegetables.
“Let’s do something everyone can sing along to, okay?” said Ryota, glancing over at Yae and Tacchan’s classmate. After some fiddling about with capos and finding the right key, Yae began to play.
Kazuki recognised the opening. It was a summer hit from more than seven years ago that had been a karaoke staple back when Kazuki in his final year at university. He’d heard Ryota and the others sing it raucously countless times while drunk back in the early days, when they’d all just hung out. Before Kazuki had even realised exactly how attracted he was to Ryota.
Tonight, however, in the balmy heat of this summer evening, Ryota was singing the song in earnest. His voice was tender and clear and powerful all at the same time, injecting a fresh sense of warmth and longing into the music and lyrics that everyone already knew. It was beautiful. A few of the children stopped playing and wandered over. Tacchan’s mother came out to listen, leaning contentedly against Tacchan’s older sister. By the second chorus, everyone was joining in. Akemi slapped out a beat on an empty ice box while Gaku and Yae sang the harmonies. This was Ryota at his brightest, bopping along gently on the garden chair he was sitting on, smiling round at everyone as they shouted the bridge together.
And then Ryota was looking up, looking past everyone around him to gaze directly at Kazuki. He waved and beckoned, making a face when Kazuki shook his head and pointed to the grill.
“Again!” Yae called, strumming the entry to the chorus, and Ryota turned away to hoist one of the more exuberant children into his lap.
Kazuki glanced back down at the bell peppers browning on the grill, trying his utmost to ignore the way his heart seemed to constrict in his chest.
“Ryota,” said Yae. “Drinks, our usual place. Are you coming or not?”
“If you’re paying,” Ryota replied, as he continued to pack what seemed like an infinite amount of leftover yakisoba into plastic containers. It was getting late and most of the guests had already gone, leaving Ryota and the others to help Yae and Tacchan clean up.
Yae rolled her eyes. “In your dreams. Come on, decide already.”
Ryota looked across the garden at Kazuki, who was helping Tacchan put away the barbecue equipment.
“I understand if it’s weird,” said Yae quickly.
“To be completely honest,” Ryota told her, “yes, it kind of is.”
Ryota had thought that he’d have been angry, encountering Kazuki again; that the old hurts would surface. To some extent Ryota had felt that anger and hurt. But at the same time he had also felt an overwhelming rush of relief – joy, even, at seeing Kazuki’s face again. And Kazuki looked well; not dead on his feet like he’d been during their last few months together.
For most of the evening, Ryota had watched Kazuki as much he could get away with it, taking in the way Kazuki spoke fondly to the younger children who ran up to him with sticky fingers, how he still kept a sharp eye on the food even as he conversed with Tacchan’s friends. Ryota drank in every rare smile and every laugh; was mesmerised by the smallest things, like the look of attentive politeness on Kazuki’s face whenever he made small talk.
And that was where the hurt and anger lay – in the knowledge that all of this had once been Ryota’s to love. That Ryota had no choice in the matter of Kazuki leaving. He had walked up to Kazuki and smiled and embraced him because that was all Ryota could ever do, when it came to Kazuki, even after everything. Yet when Ryota had been forced to sing, he had picked something that he could hide behind, that was perhaps less tainted by the sharp focus of hindsight. Anything else – any of the other songs that both were and were not Kazuki’s – would have broken him.
“And also I’m meeting someone after this,” Ryota added. It wasn’t a lie; on Saturday nights he had an open invitation to Takemoto’s.
“Fine, but this is the only time you’re allowed to ditch us for that twirly pop star,” said Yae, who clearly knew Ryota better than he gave her credit for. “Also Kazuki’s flight is tomorrow morning, so…”
“Didn’t he just arrive today?”
“He has a thesis to finish,” said Yae, “which he tried to explain to me while I was paying for his very expensive plane ticket.”
“I did offer to pay you back,” said Kazuki, as he and Tacchan came over.
“Yes, and then I’d never hear the end of it,” Yae replied.
“Now it works out so that Kazuki will never hear the end of it,” Tacchan pointed out helpfully. “Ryota, are you joining us for drinks?”
“Can’t, I’ve got plans,” said Ryota. “In fact, I probably need to head off now.”
“So soon?” Kazuki asked.
There might have been a note of disappointment in his voice; Ryota wasn’t sure.
“Yeah, it was good to see you,” said Ryota. “Have a safe flight, and I guess…”
“I’ll be back for the wedding,” said Kazuki.
“Right,” said Ryota. “I guess I’ll see you then.”
“Need a lift to the station?” asked Tacchan.
“That would be great,” Ryota replied, and after a final round of goodbyes he and Tacchan climbed into Tacchan’s car and left for the train station, leaving Kazuki and everything else behind.
It took Ryota slightly over an hour and a half to get to Roppongi by train and subway, and an extra ten minutes to find out exactly which club Takemoto was at that night. It was only after Ryota had passed the bouncer and the cloakroom and the grotty dance floor and had made it all the way to the VIP lounge that it truly hit him. He had made a terrible mistake.
“Ryota,” said Takemoto, already half drunk and gesturing expansively. “You’re here.”
“Actually,” said Ryota, “I’m going to go.”
Kazuki’s number was no longer in use. Ryota tried Yae’s. She answered on the second ring.
“I knew it!” Yae roared. “Come on then, you know where we are!”
This was how, half an hour later, Ryota found himself walking the comparatively quieter streets towards one of their old haunts, a hole in the wall establishment near Yae’s neighbourhood that was more commonly frequented by salarymen having a late-night meal.
Except that when Ryota arrived, only Kazuki was sitting at their usual table, surrounded by empty plates and beer glasses.
“Akemi and Gaku didn’t want to miss the last trains,” said Kazuki somewhat apologetically. “And Yae and Tacchan went back to Yae’s…”
“Figures,” said Ryota. “Mind if I sit?”
Kazuki shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
Ryota ordered a beer and they sat there in silence, Kazuki picking occasionally at a half-eaten bowl of edamame beans. Kazuki kept looking like he wanted to say something, but each time, he went straight for the beans instead. Ryota just nursed his drink and watched Kazuki’s hands as Kazuki fiddled with a discarded edamame skin or picked at a napkin on the table. Kazuki had small hands and nails that were bitten short. There was a faded scar on the back of his left hand from when he’d inadvertently burned himself once. Ryota knew how those hands would feel in his – warm, slightly rough. The writing callus on the middle finger of Kazuki’s right hand had faded over the years after he left university, but the ones on his wrists from resting on his laptop keyboard would still be there.
“It’s been a tiring weekend for you, hasn’t it?” asked Ryota finally.
“I suppose,” said Kazuki. “But I slept through most of the flight, so it’s not that bad.”
Ryota laughed. “You fall asleep everywhere, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Kazuki replied, smiling wryly. “Old habits.”
And they were back there again, skirting around familiar territory.
“So, with the time difference…” Ryota began.
“I’m pretty much wide awake,” said Kazuki. “Pity that everyone else buggered off.”
“Are you just going to stay up till your flight tomorrow morning?” asked Ryota.
“I guess I will,” said Kazuki. “Take it all in before I go.”
“Perhaps you’d like to be alone –” Ryota began.
“No, stay,” said Kazuki, just a little too quickly. He paused and looked down at his hands. “I mean – this is fine.”
It was something in the way Kazuki said this, with that hope in his voice and on his face. He wanted Ryota here; wanted Ryota to stay even though they had fuck-all to say to each other after what Kazuki had done. This was a selfishness that Ryota understood but could not bear. Not like this, not now, with all this anger and longing bound up together and burning in his gut.
“I’m going to go,” said Ryota for the second time that night. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the money for the beer, placing it on the table before he got up and left.
The night air was almost oppressively humid when Ryota stepped outside. His turned down one of the side streets and kept walking. His heart was pounding in his chest, his limbs itching; he needed to run, to hit something, to go back –
“Ryota,” said Kazuki.
Ryota stopped but didn’t turn around. “I’m sorry, I thought I could do this, but it appears not.”
Kazuki was coming closer to Ryota now, his footsteps cautious. He paused, and took a breath. “I don’t know what to say, but –”
“You packed all your things and left your keys on the dining table,” said Ryota, rounding on Kazuki. “Can you imagine coming home to that?”
Kazuki opened his mouth to say something but shut it again almost immediately.
“You left me,” said Ryota, “and before I could even see you or speak to you again you left the country.”
“Ryota,” said Kazuki shakily. “Ryota, I’m sorry. Please stay.”
“So you can get on a plane tomorrow morning and leave me behind all over again? For fuck’s sake, Kazuki. Don’t do that. Don’t ask me to stay. Because you know I would.”
And even as Ryota said this, he looked straight into Kazuki’s eyes and knew with wretched clarity that he still loved Kazuki, still wanted Kazuki – to the point of destruction, the same way he wanted music: even if it wasted him.
“I missed you,” said Kazuki.
“I know,” said Ryota, exhausted all of a sudden. “So did I. Did you consider that?”
“I’m sorry,” said Kazuki for the second time that night. There was really nothing else he could possibly say. There was no defence and certainly no other option but to try and make amends. Kazuki had needed to hear that accusation in Ryota’s voice, even though it felt terrible, seeing Ryota so raw. It was better than indifference. Better than seeing Ryota walk off with Tacchan earlier, his goodbyes casual and polite like he didn’t care.
Kazuki knew he was being selfish, hideously so. And yet he could live with that if it meant having Ryota not go. If it meant Ryota shrugging and sighing and saying, “Fine,” with grudging resignation.
“I’ll stay,” said Ryota. “Just for tonight.”
They knew these streets well, from wandering about after the band’s early gigs at smaller venues around the area. They fell in with each other fairly quickly, walking in the specific sort of meander without destination that took place with two people who each thought they were following the other person.
“So where did you go?” asked Ryota, as they passed the brightly lit convenience store where Yae had once sat outside and cried tears of rage after dumping an ex-boyfriend.
And Kazuki answered each of Ryota’s questions. He filled in the blanks for Ryota about what he’d done in the months after he had left. He didn’t mention some details, like how he had missed Ryota most bitterly in the evenings, or how he’d once tried to call Ryota while blindingly drunk, only to be thwarted by the international calling codes.
“I felt like I had the time to think, if you know what I mean,” he told Ryota. “Like I could get some perspective on how I’d been for the past three or four years. I used to never stop, and I was always just all –”
“All wound up?” asked Ryota.
“Yes, precisely,” said Kazuki. “And this hasn’t exactly been a holiday by any stretch, because the course is pretty demanding, but it’s still been change of pace.”
“I used to have to come by and distract you because you’d sit for hours at your computer without moving,” said Ryota.
“Yeah,” said Kazuki. “That really wrecked my back.”
“Do you still cook?”
“Not as much as before, but –”
Kazuki talked until his voice was hoarse. Ryota was genuinely interested in hearing about the things that had made Kazuki happy; what had made him proud, or angry, or unimpressed. But as the hours wore on Ryota never quite let the conversation turn to himself. He answered Kazuki’s questions in return, of course. But Kazuki found that each time, Ryota would quickly move on to something else.
Nonetheless it was as close to before as they had ever gotten. Their feet were sore and Ryota had to be tired from staying up all night, but still they kept going, reluctant for this to end.
“You never used to tell me things,” said Ryota.
They were at the park on a bench by the water, waiting for the early sunrise. Earlier, they’d stopped at a vending machine for drinks. Ryota was currently clasping a can of green tea between his palms.
Ryota shook his head. “Not like this. Even at the beginning. Perhaps enough things went unsaid between us that maybe you just never saw the need?”
“And then at some point we just couldn’t find the time.”
“Or the energy,” Ryota added.
Before them, the sky was slowly turning grey, lightening imperceptibly as the minutes slipped by. And then the suns’ rays were creeping over the water, bathing everything in blinding gold.
And this was it, really. Kazuki was leaving again and it was almost certain that he would take the secondment after he was done with his degree. This fact had been hovering over whatever fragile thing they had managed to put together over the past few hours. Kazuki wasn’t sure if it – if they – could hold up under the weight of another departure. Because Kazuki knew what he wanted but he had no right whatsoever to ask for it.
“I’m glad we did this,” said Ryota.
“Yes, so am I.”
“What were you about to say?” asked Ryota. “Before I interrupted you.”
“Oh.” I’d like to see you play live again, was what Kazuki had wanted to say. But even that suggested too much of the future, of what happened after this.
“I was going to ask how you felt about breakfast,” said Kazuki instead.
“It’s five in the morning,” said Ryota.
“The sun’s up.”
Ryota had eaten many of Kazuki’s breakfasts in the past, but this was perhaps the only time he had seen Kazuki preparing it.
They had let themselves into Yae’s house with Kazuki’s spare key, and were now making breakfast in relative silence so as not to disturb either Yae or Tacchan. Ryota washed the rice while Kazuki fried and rolled layers of egg in Yae’s tamagoyaki pan. On another hob, a pot of dashi stock was simmering gently.
Kazuki was calm and collected even in an unfamiliar kitchen, opening and shutting drawers and cupboards to get the things he wanted; peering into Yae’s under-stocked fridge with faint disapproval. After Ryota had set the timer on the rice cooker he sat on a kitchen stool and watched Kazuki set aside the tamagoyaki in its bamboo mat, before moving on to attend to the salted salmon. It was only through watching Kazuki go through the motions of making breakfast that Ryota could really appreciate how much work it actually was.
And yet it was second nature to Kazuki. He seemed to take joy in the collected chaos of tending to different things in quick succession. With gentle strokes Kazuki sliced a block of soft tofu in his hand, dropping it into the miso soup with some mushrooms, before flipping over the pieces of salted salmon that were cooking in a pan. There was poetry in the way Kazuki moved from stove to chopping board, in his wrists and hands as he sliced a bunch of spring onions or cut the tamagoyaki carefully into equal-sized pieces.
When everything was ready and Yae and Tacchan’s portions placed under a food cover, Kazuki and Ryota sat down on either side of the kitchen table. In addition to the rice, miso soup, salted salmon and tamagoyaki, there was also natto topped with mustard and spring onions. From the golden yellow of the rolled egg to the crisp perfection of the salted salmon, Ryota saw an eloquence to Kazuki’s cooking that far surpassed anything Kazuki could possibly put into words.
Stay, Kazuki had told Ryota, and Ryota had, just for the night that had now turned to morning. And in that time it had become evident to Ryota how they still fit, so easily and so wholly, from the way they’d fallen in step with each other to how they had just set the breakfast table in silence, never once bumping as they did so. Time and distance had not eroded that.
Stay, Kazuki was saying again with this, even though it was Kazuki who was going and Ryota who had never left.
“Oh,” said Kazuki quietly, “I forgot the pickles.”
But when Kazuki rose from his seat to get them, Ryota was standing too, stepping into Kazuki’s space just as he had done countless times before. Ryota looked at Kazuki’s face and saw in his expression honesty and fear and hope, that same hope that had undone Ryota all those years ago in that alleyway outside the restaurant, when they had been younger and stupider and hungrier for life and for each other.
Kazuki blinked, and breathed, and didn’t step away.
“What do you want?” Kazuki asked, in barely a whisper.
“You,” said Ryota simply. “I want you to stay.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before Kazuki could come up with a reply. Ryota took that chance to lean in and kiss him.
And this, this was one more way that they fit. With Kazuki kissing Ryota back, cradling his arms round Ryota and stepping even closer. Pressed thigh to hip to chest, faces together, breath mingling. Sunlight was streaming in from the kitchen window and breakfast was steaming on the table and Kazuki was gripping Ryota’s hand in his own smaller, calloused one. And in the wake of all the hours of conversation from before came this wordless exchange: Stay. Yes. Yes.
Yae and Tacchan got married in the summer of the following year, just after the band’s album release and arena tour of Japan. Despite Yae’s best efforts to make it a ‘small kitschy one on somebody’s roof,’ it ended up being a full-blown affair up in scenic Karuizawa.
“I plan to be slightly drunk for most of the proceedings, just to warn you in advance,” Kazuki had told Ryota over the phone a week earlier, when he’d called to let Ryota know the details of his flight back to Japan. “Because it’s basically going to be an exercise in looking happy and pretending that my parents are actually still speaking to me. And yet –”
“And yet it’s for Yae,” Ryota had finished.
“Yet it’s for Yae.”
“And another three months after that, I’ll have you for good.”
“Whoever said anything about having me for good?”
“Ryota!” Yae had bellowed down the corridor. “Stop being disgusting on the phone and come over already.”
“Tell Yae to go away.”
“No. She’ll hit me.”
Kazuki had laughed. “I know.”
The wedding took place in the late afternoon, in a lush garden after the rain. Kazuki sat in the second row with Ryota and the rest of the band, and watched as Yae walked blissfully down the aisle, entirely unconcerned with getting grass stains under the hem of her dress. Just a few hours earlier, Ryota had witnessed Kazuki and his parents exchange terse greetings at the hotel entrance under Yae’s watchful eye, Kazuki bowing stiffly while his father continued to stare at a spot just past Kazuki’s shoulder, their expressions carefully blank.
It was hard for Kazuki, to return to that after two years away from home – far longer, from his parents and his childhood. And yet he’d come back, just to see Yae’s mischievous grin when her eyes met Tacchan’s, the joy so clear on their faces; to join in with the resounding cheer when they kissed, laughing at the gasps from the excitable collection of nephews and nieces on Tacchan’s side of the family. And Kazuki had come back to Ryota – to this familiar presence beside him and this love that was as natural and as difficult and imperative as breathing. To Ryota, who was whooping and cheering along with everyone else, and who was now reaching over to take Kazuki’s hand in his.
“You’re ridiculous,” Kazuki muttered, thoroughly unable to hide his gratification.
Everyone else was clapping as they rose and moved to form two lines beside the bride and groom. Balloons were being handed out to be released. Yae was trying to get everyone organised so she could finally be rid of her bouquet. Still Ryota didn’t let go, twining their fingers together and holding on until their palms were damp; until Kazuki could do nothing but lean in closer, drawn, as always, into Ryota’s orbit, just as Ryota was drawn into his.