by Hana Chikai (羽名血海)
illstrated by tashigi
“Hello, this is Ken-ken. I can’t answer the phone right now so leave a message and your number after the tone. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!”
“Ken? You’re there, aren’t you? Please pick up. Just… I’m sorry I said all that. I’m outside, I’ll be here for the next ten min—”
“Ten minutes,” Shion said, his voice frostier than the weather. Snow was falling now, onto his hair and face and jacket. A branded one, of course; he needed to keep up his image. “You’ve got ten minutes to talk before I go home and burn paper effigies of you.”
Shion tucked his hands into his pockets. His jacket might be branded but it wasn’t made for dropping 2AM temperatures. “It wasn’t working,” he muttered. “I needed to get out of that town.” He looked up at Touma. “We were a gay couple in suburban Japan,” he said, gesturing between the two of them. “Everyone knew what was going on; they just pretended they didn’t for the sake of that sweet boy Suzuki Touma.”
Touma looked nonplussed. “Why didn’t you say something, Ken?”
“It’s Shion,” Shion – Ken – corrected automatically. “Don’t call me by any other name in this area.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? You were the star of the place. You had a great job and everyone liked you. You were a polite young man in a business suit, while I waited tables and waited for my life to pass me by.” Shion’s voice cracked. “I couldn’t continue watching them accost you in the supermarket to try and matchmake you with their cousin’s best friend’s daughter from the rice fields somewhere.”
There was a silence. The wind cleaved the air between them with bitter cold and swirling snow. Shion watched as Touma’s expression changed from confusion to shock to a painful, crumpled sadness. “The thing is,” Shion whispered. “One day, the matchmaking would have worked.” He turned and opened the door to the club, and stepped back inside.
Covered in powdery white that was slowly melting into the wool of his coat, Touma said nothing.
Touma said nothing as the door swung shut, and as Shion lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Then he raised an eyebrow. “Would two thousand yen buy me an extra minute?”
Shion bristled. “I’m not a hooker.”
“Yeah? Could’ve fooled me. Do you give them a kiss for five thousand? How about twenty thousand? Would that get me a blow—”
Shion punched him. “The fuck, Touma!”
Touma smiled thinly, hand curled around his jaw. “And the S&M comes free.”
“I don’t even know you,” Shion murmured. The cigarette fell to the ground and hissed to a smoky death. “You waited for four hours for my break, but all you do when you meet me is ambush me in the toilet and then insult me. What’s your problem, Touma?”
“Maybe I just don’t like seeing you like that.”
“What the fuck is it to you what I do?”
“Which part of ‘I waited for you’ did you not understand?”
“Four hours, big deal.”
“Try four years,” Touma roared, and Shion took a step back. “Four years of not knowing where you were, what you were doing. I didn’t even know if you were alive.”
The wind was stronger now. “I left you a letter,” Shion said, the words falling like snowflakes to the pavement. “I told you to forget me.”
Touma laughed mirthlessly. “So I did,” he told Shion. “I moved on, got my promotion, tried to date other people. And then I came to Tokyo and came across you selling yourself for barely any money and probable liver failure.”
Touma hasn’t realized how open Shion’s expression had been throughout the conversation until it closed up, the once-familiar face suddenly belonging to a stranger.
The stranger spent the whole night talking to Daisuke and watching Shion do his thing. The club’s number one host was in his element, attending to three tables at one go. If it weren’t for Daisuke, Shion would have died from alcohol poisoning twice over tonight; the bartender had heavily watered his drinks down without anyone the least bit wiser.
“So what exactly do the guys here do?” the stranger asked at one point. He hadn’t designated any of the hosts to attend to him, but since he was buying drinks, the owner Ryou wasn’t too concerned. Besides, talking to the bartenders was one of the less popular but nonetheless available options at the club.
“They host,” Daisuke said simply. “They make people happy, and earn the club money by making the happy people buy lots of drinks.”
The explanation had only served to darken the stranger’s mood. “It’s barely a step up,” he muttered, and then proceeded to glare at his glass of wine, the fourth that night. He only glanced back up when Shion breezed past to the staff-only bathroom.
They had a routine, the two of them. Each time Shion excused himself from the various tables to use the restroom, Daisuke prepared a cool towel and a glass of water to bring into the stall, where Shion was bound to be kneeling, one hand on the bowl and the other clutching his stomach. Daisuke would leave the drinks to the other bartenders while he gently held Shion’s hair back and helped to wipe his face.
Later that night, however, Daisuke’s hands were nudged aside, and the stranger crouched down beside Shion, towel already in hand and a smile tucked away behind wire-rimmed glasses. Daisuke hid a smile of his own, and went to tell Ryou that Shion was going to go on his second break now.
“Now this is a sight,” Shion muttered around his wineglass.
Daisuke made noises of listening and understanding as he scrubbed at some drink glasses, but inwardly his curiousity was on overdrive. Shion usually spent his first break of the night taking power naps in the back room or drinking enough water to drown a fish, not sitting morosely at the bar, sipping a 1983 vintage and glaring at the tall, handsome man who had come in earlier. “Who’s he?” he asked.
“Someone I left behind,” Shion replied. Daisuke was intrigued, but before he could ask for more information, the stranger stood up from where he had been talking with Yuushi and walked over. The exchange between the two men was quiet, brief and heated. Then Shion stalked away, probably to freshen up for the table of tittering ladies who had just designated him as their host.
The stranger watched Shion leave and turned to Daisuke. “When does he get off work?”
Daisuke tilted his head. “Not until four or five.” The man’s lips pursed; it was only ten. “But he has another break at about two,” the bartender offered. “If you like, you could sit around and wait. We welcome both men and women in this club.” He smiled warmly at the man.
The stranger hesitated. Then he glanced at Shion, who had slid into the booth seat and was now pouring whiskey for the women. “I’ll wait,” he said. “Get me some wine.”
Wine was the only alcohol Touma could take without falling into an embarrassing drunken heap. He had discovered this on an occasion he’d much rather not think about, and had resolved ever since to only drink wine.
It hadn’t stopped his new boss from plying him with sake and whiskey over dinner, though, and Touma was stumbling on every third step as he tripped through the back streets of Tokyo. He had moved to the city three weeks ago, and was only just beginning to figure the place out. Emerging onto a brightly-lit road, however, he thought maybe it was time to start bringing a map around with him.
The road he was on didn’t look like the usual shopping and eating stretches. There were groups of women trotting along the street, arms linked and skirts whipped up into fabric froth by the chilly winter breeze, and smartly-dressed men lined the shop fronts. Touma let the cold air wake him up a little and tried to get his bearings.
Most of the men ignored him as he walked by, choosing instead to apply their charms to the colourful flocks of office ladies. At one or two establishments, however, the men preened at him as much as they cooed at the women. Touma glanced absently into one of the club-café-bars, and came to an abrupt halt. The women behind him nearly crashed into him, and sidestepped him with disapproving glances from under their mascara.
Touma ignored them, eyes fixed on a laughing figure just inside the doorway. The name dropped from his lips uninvited; a name that hadn’t been spoken by those lips for years. “Ken?”
Kenta was the boy who lazed around at home in fuzzy slippers and torn T-shirts, playing air guitar to Orange Range CDs on the stereo. Shion was the poised, polished man who spent an hour getting his hair just right and with a smile at the perfect angle to charm the ladies into buying more whiskey.
Sometimes Ken felt just a little bit schizophrenic.
He’d come to Tokyo with a backpack of clothing, eight thousand yen in his bank account, and a phone number written on his hand. He had hit it off with the man beside him on the train, a slightly older guy with dark skin and the most charming smile Ken had ever seen. “Work for me,” he’d said, and given him a name and a number before disappearing into the pulsing crowd that was Tokyo.
Ken shrugged and dialed. Two rings later, a young male voice answered. “Club Toki, how may I help you?”
“May I speak to Mr Ryou, please?”
“Just a moment, please hold.”
Ryou had been as friendly on the phone as he’d been on the train, and arranged for an interview later that day. Ken made his way through the Tuesday morning rush hour and found himself standing in front of a host club in the middle of the day.
“Ishimura Kenta,” Ryou greeted warmly, emerging out of the gloom that was the interior of the club. “Welcome to Club Toki.”
The interview was conducted by Ryou, who turned out to be the owner of the club, and the number one host of the time, Yuushi. Ken felt like a country hick sitting on a plush velvet couch as the sleek men opposite him quizzed him on cocktails and perfume, literature and hair spray. Forty-five minutes later, he had not only been hired, but offered a place to stay – the bartender named Daisuke needed a roommate to offset his rent.
The training had taken ages, and Ken had burnt his fingers countless times on the hair straightener. Then he finally landed his first unsolicited designation, and it was as if a man named Touma had never been in his life at all.
All this time, the letter had begun, straight after the simple opening of Touma’s name. No ‘dear’, no ‘to’, just ‘Touma’, like a memo, like a note.
Touma, the letter said. All this time I have been yours. Your roommate, your friend, your lover.
Touma’s hands shook as he read the words on the smooth plain sheet of paper. It was the only sign that Ken had ever lived here; nothing else that could remind Touma of him remained. The perfect evenness of the printing paper Ken had used was like a cold slap to the face; it wasn’t even folded, simply left on top of the pillow.
I want you to be happy so much that I would give up anything for that. But I have nothing to give, and I cannot be yours anymore. I need to be mine for a while. Please forget and forgive me. Ken
For the rest of the month, Touma had been a ghost. The housewives in the neighbourhood were talking about it, of course; he could hear snatches of conversation about “Suzuki’s housemate, cough cough” and how “the poor dear is all broken up about it”. He felt like screaming at them; what did they know? His life was gone and all he had to remember it – him – by was a flat sheet of white paper with words written on it so carefully they might as well have been printed. Ken had been thorough; even the photos were gone, right down to the ones in his computer.
After drifting through existence for a while, Touma decided that being a woman about it was useless, and poured himself into work. Slowly he worked through the ranks of the company, and began to wonder if Ken had indeed been holding him back. Three and a half years and two promotions later, he found himself in line for a department switch, one that would bring him out of the comfortable suburban life he was used to and into the grey-brown-neon that was Tokyo.
Tokyo was awesome, Ken decided, as he reached up to yank on Touma’s hair to pull the other boy’s head back so Ken could stick his tongue further down Touma’s throat.
Their shirts were off and the cans had been kicked aside, and they were rolling around on the mercifully beer-free carpet kissing like their lives depended on it and hands groping everywhere. Ken hadn’t felt this turned on since he discovered the eighth world wonder that was Zac Efron. Touma’s breath smelled like alcohol and tasted like saliva and foamy malt, and it was the best make out session Ken had participated in since ever.
“Damn it,” Touma hissed, breaking a kiss to claw at Ken’s belt. “What is this ridiculous contraption?” Ken took a second to laugh at Touma’s face before reaching down and unfastening the whole thing with two fingers.
“You suck,” he told Touma, and then got to work taking off the other’s belt as well. Touma’s boxers were gratifyingly tented as Ken tugged his jeans off, and he smiled blearily as Ken bent down to mouth at the damp cotton. “You could take that off too, you know,” he suggested, and Ken obliged. From the noises Touma was making, Ken was probably doing a good job. He’d never done anything of the sort before, so any cues regarding his performance were welcome.
A while later, Touma pushed raggedly at Ken’s shoulder. “My turn now,” he said hoarsely, and Ken leaned back on his elbows and just breathed as Touma stripped him and began lapping extremely enthusiastically at his dick.
They resumed the kissing thing soon after, but with extra hand action. Ken whimpered into Touma’s mouth as Touma’s long fingers wrapped around his erection and began pumping it with far too much dexterity for a drunk guy. He reached down to return the favour, but had barely begun when it all got too much too fast too damn good and he was melting all over Touma’s fingers and thigh.
“My turn now,” Touma repeated in a whisper that almost got Ken hard again. He put his hand around Ken’s and began moving, and Ken counted three, maybe four familiar jerks before Touma’s teeth sank into his shoulder and there was warm and wet and then the blissful black oblivion of the very satisfied and very drunk.
“Drunk,” Ken accused. He handed Touma another can, missed, and giggled as the unopened can rolled across the carpet. They’d gone out and bought an armful of beer, and were now halfway through the lot in celebration of graduation. They were also celebrating splurging on a proper hotel room for the final leg of their graduation trip instead of huddling on a bunk bed in a six-person dormitory like in the other cities.
“You suck,” Touma told the armchair, and made a blind grab for the can. He managed to snag it by sheer luck, and cracked it open to take a huge swig. Ken marveled for the third time that night at how drunk Touma was; all those years as roommates and he’d never seen Touma tipsy, despite all the wine he consumed at debate club events.
They polished off a couple more cans before Ken declared, “I need to take a piss,” and climbed to his feet. Or at least attempted to; he found himself getting well-acquainted with Touma’s left knee instead. “Damn.”
“What are you doing there,” Touma said woozily.
Ken flipped onto his back and grinned. “Enjoying the view,” he replied, which wasn’t a lie. Touma’s chin was amusingly stubbly and he had a beer foam moustache, which Ken found much funnier than he should have. “You have a beer foam moustache,” he informed Touma, and then started giggling again.
Touma peered down at Ken’s own moustache-less visage. “You don’t,” he noted, and then leaned down clumsily to press his mouth against Ken’s. “There. Now you do.”
Ken stared. Touma didn’t stare back; he was more preoccupied with wiping the foam off his own mouth with the back of his hand. “You can’t just leave a guy hanging like that,” Ken said eventually. Touma blinked stupidly at him, and Ken simply had to get to his knees, lean over, and kiss him, because seriously, the sheer random had to be reciprocated.
Unfortunately, Touma wasn’t surprised at all, and kissed back.
“You’re backwards,” Ken pointed out helpfully. The boy who had just walked into the room gave him a confused look, so Ken felt the need to clarify. “You’re supposed to have all your stuff in here before you enter, so I have some warning you’re coming.”
“My stuff is right behind me,” said the newcomer, clearly perplexed by Ken’s oddness. “Anyway, hi, I’m Suzuki Touma, your new roommate.”
“I’m Ishimura Kenta, pleased to meet you.” Ken swung his legs off his bed. “Do you need help with your things?”
They moved Suzuki’s luggage into the room, and Ken beamed at the new boy as the latter began unpacking. “So what course are you in?”
“Accounting,” came the reply from behind a pile of identical folded white shirts.
Ken made a face at the pile. “I’m in history,” he said instead. “Do you own anything other than white shirts and black pants?”
Suzuki’s head emerged from the suitcase. “Of course I do,” he said indignantly, and lifted out another stack of clothing to place on his bed. Ken reached over to pluck a polo shirt and cardigan off the pile.
“Preppy,” he said approvingly. “You and I are going to get along so well.”
It was well past fifteen minutes when Touma realized how late it was, and how cold it was getting. Following Ken home after work was bordering on weird and creepy, especially after not seeing each other for years and then yelling at each other in a back alley when they finally met. Besides, it was almost dawn now; Ken had probably gone to sleep anyway.
Touma was about to start walking to the nearest train station when he heard the click and screech of a door being opened on semi-frozen hinges. Hoping against hope, he turned, and a figure in white barreled into him, grabbed his coat lapels, and kissed him.
Ken tasted of single-malt whiskey and mint toothpaste, and Touma was too shocked to do anything but grip back, kiss back, kiss back, kiss back. When they finally pulled apart, both of them were flushed and breathing hard, clouds forming in front of their faces.
Touma could feel the stupid grin forming, but didn’t care. Instead, he pressed his lips to Ken’s hair – it was soggy from snow and smelled like five kinds of product – and murmured, “Hello.”