by H.P. Lovecock (力。下。愛ちんちん)
illustrated by TOFU+BEAST
Tai doesn’t look at himself in the mirror as he gets dressed.
“Firefly flickers…” he murmurs to himself, seeing how the words feel as his mouth forms them.
He lopes over to his laptop, pants half up his legs, shirt pulled over his head, but he hasn’t gotten to pulling his arms through the lavender tee, so it hangs like a scarf.
“Day passed, night’s page turned…” He taps next on the music player a few times, the songs barely registering.
“Hey Tai,” his father calls from their apartment kitchen, “you need a drive to work?”
“I’m gonna walk!”
His father grunts in the affirmative. Tai absentmindedly pulls his pants up and buttons them, arms barely through sleeves when he grabs his headphones off his desk. A single press of a button on the wireless device and his music jumps from the laptop to the headphones and follows him out of the room towards the entryway.
“Routine lonely dance,” he taps the words into his phone as he slips his sneakers on, and posts it.
By the time he’s locked the door behind him, he’s already considering the colour of the oak trees against the harsh off-white cement of the neighbouring apartment building. That would make a good haiku.
Sora looks at himself in the mirror as he gets dressed.
Not his favourite part of the day.
The briefs are cute. Pink, classic y-front. Clothes are easy. The rest of him…
He grabs a pair of slim, light-blue jeans and slips into them. On goes the light pink tanktop, one size up, and his signature oversized, faded, peach hoodie. He musses his light brown hair, too wavy to be curly and too curly to be wavy. Obnoxious, but he’s grown it out so it forms a fringe he can pull down over his eyes that at least looks kind of cool. He looks at himself again. Nothing but freckles and awkwardness.
He heads over to the vanity in his room, he’s already done the expensive primer from Korea, so on goes liquid foundation, a perfect match for his pale skin. Concealer, powder, bronzer, blush, highlights, eyeliner. His eyelashes are about the only part of himself he likes, so he skips mascara. A touch of eyeliner. Blend, blend, blend. Fix, fix, fix. Through repetition and about a million hours of YouTube videos he can do a natural look that only people who know makeup have ever commented on.
He smiles at himself in the vanity mirror.
He goes over to the corner his dad helped him set up for shooting and livestreaming, a wall of BL spines lined up prettily on shelves behind him. He flips the streaming light on, nothing over-the-top but enough to contrast his face out a bit. He whips his phone out, takes a look with the camera facing him. The oversized hoodie, the hair, the subtle contouring, he looks something like how he’s supposed to look.
He hits the livestream button on Melon and in a matter of seconds a hundred people are watching. Then that doubles. Then that doubles.
“Hey B-Lovers! It’s your boy-love, Sky-Blue!” he says, striking his signature pose. Right hand thumb on chin, pointer finger forming an L-shape at the camera, winking. The comments and heart emojis are already rolling in by the hundreds.
“Do you know what today is?”
He laughs as people clamber to get his attention in the comments, and responds to a couple of good ones that he catches. No, he’s not marrying his biggest fan today! No, he’s not joining an idol group, not yet! No, he’s not taking it all off, dummy!
“Today’s the release day for Bluebirds Sing In Summer!” he pumps his fist in the air excitedly. “Erītokurou-sensei’s new series! Sounds like it might be about me, right? I obviously preordered it! So I thought we’d have a super cute date at the mall. Shoot me a heart if you’re ready to go!”
His screen quickly fills up with hearts and emojis, and he laughs and shoots his pose at the camera before dropping the connection. The stream goes on his daily highlights, he’ll do another video on the bus, then a little tour of all his favourite spots at Sakura Mall before heading to the bookstore to grab his copy. He already has a few more subscribers.
“Errant summer breeze,” Tai mutters to himself as his finger rests on the emerald-green and gilded spine of Le Morte d’Arthur. His finger slips off and slides his phone out of his pocket. “Wind does not whisper: autumn. Hmm…”
“Phone away on the floor, Morikawa,” the floor supervisor, whose name he can’t remember, snaps as he passes by at the end of the aisle. The concrete slab of a man in his red uniform polo does a double take and circles back. “Ugh, and headphones off. You’re not even supposed to have those on the floor.”
“Sorry,” Tai murmurs, but the man has already moved on. “Wind does not whisper: autumn… Trees…”
“Morikawa, do you copy? Over,” Hiramatsu’s voice comes over the employee earpiece Tai usually leaves dangling off his ear unless someone’s speaking directly to him… if he hears them… His friend’s speaking in exaggerated radio protocol as usual.
“Yup,” he says, slipping the earpiece on, smiling to himself.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘over’! Over.”
“Over… the treetops… Nah.”
“You’re useless,” Hiramatsu chastises him playfully. “Boss wants you on orders with me. Thinks you need supervision, and he’s probably right!”
‘’Kay, be right there.”
The Books Bizenkuni is a sprawling two level flagship of rows upon rows of bookshelves, with a couple sections for things like music, toys, decor and a big central plaza area with a pretty fountain and a stage for occasional author appearances. In the fountain plaza they’re draping huge advertisements for the fireworks festival in two weekends, just before the new school year starts. The end of summer.
The store’s packed with weekend customers, perched on every inch of reading seats–many improvising seats with display tables or the floor, they have to stop people from sitting on railings–flipping through books, newspapers or magazines. Tai likes the quiet and muted murmurs of a full store. The supervisor thinks they should take the seats away to encourage people to buy instead of just taking up space reading for free and messing up the shelves.
“Leaves rustle, soft voice…” he murmurs to himself, tapping away on his phone as he hops on the escalator, heading upstairs to orders.
His friend’s lording over special orders as usual, deep in conversation with Mrs. Miyashita about Byronic poetry, while handing out orders without people needing to give him their name, he’s so familiar with the regular clientele. Hiramatsu is assistant floor supervisor, which as far as Tai can tell means he has more responsibility and work for about a dollar more an hour than the rest of them make, but he doesn’t seem to mind if it means he can rule over his kingdom of special and custom orders.
“What took you so long?” Hiramatsu teases. “You get lost or something?”
“Hello Mrs. Miyashita,” Tai says, giving the older woman a quick, respectful bow before ducking under the counter. Manners go a long way with her.
“Little Taiki,” she coos. “What have you got for us today?”
Tai feels his face flush, and internally curses Hiramatsu as his friend gives him an indulgent smile. Ever since Hiramatsu told her that Tai writes haiku, she asks him for one every time she sees him. Better to just get it over with.
“Uh… okay,” he says, slipping his phone out of his pocket, hand trembling a little as he opens up his Melon account. He clears his breath and tries to keep his voice even as he says:
Moths swim in gold pools of light–
Nights grow longer now
Hiramatsu nods his head appreciatively, and Mrs. Miyashita closes her eyes and hums in contemplation. Tai turns away and pretends to organize an already aggressively organized shelf of orders.
“The playful romanticism of a sunset,” Hiramtsu comments. God, Tai hates when they do this.
“But a touch of melancholy,” Mrs. Miyashita intones. “The inevitable end of summer, I’ve seen a few of them. Our little poet.”
“It’s just haiku,” Tai grumbles, mostly to himself. He turns and bumps into the shelf, which wobbles precariously. He glances down; the small, coverless, ruined book underneath the shelf’s weird front leg is coming loose, so he kicks it back into place. They really need to get a new shelf, it gets unsteady whenever it’s too full.
“EXCUSE ME, I’M LOOKING FOR ASHES OF THE ROSE.”
Tai and Hiramatsu both flinch. Mrs. Myashita just gives an exasperated sigh. “Hello, Mr. Watanabe.”
“IT’S A BOOK OF POETRY, BUT I… CAN’T QUITE REMEMBER THE AUTHOR’S NAME.”
Tai turns and gives the tiny old man a grin equally affectionate and consternated. Mr. Watanabe’s from the same retirement community as Mrs. Miyashita, just across the road from Sakura Mall. He’s not really supposed to be out wandering on his own, he has dementia, and he’s practically deaf, but he’s wily, nothing short of barricading him in his room can keep him from getting out. Eventually, when the staff realized he only wandered between the home and the bookstore, they gave up trying to keep him locked in.
“Hi, Mr. Watanabe,” Hiramatsu says cheerfully. “Allow me to check for you.”
Tai’s friend turns to the computer and mimes typing the title into the system. It’s a ritual, a rite of passage for anyone who works in the Sakura Mall Bizenkuni. Mr. Watanabe’s been asking for Ashes of the Rose for as long as Tai’s worked in the bookstore, probably a lot longer. The system doesn’t even have it listed, they’re not even sure the book exists anywhere except in sweet old Mr. Watanabe’s mind.
“How’re you doing today, Mr. Watanabe?” Tai asks, and then has to repeat himself twice more, progressively louder, until he’s practically shouting, blushing once again.
“QUITE WELL, TAIKI. QUITE WELL.” They have no idea why, but for some reason Mr. Watanabe remembers Tai’s name, and Tai’s name alone. “I QUITE ENJOYED YOUR POEM ABOUT THE FOREST PATH.”
He also reads Tai’s haiku; it’s an open secret (spread by Hiramatsu) that Tai has an anonymous Melon account where he posts his poems. The haiku are mortifyingly graffitied around the mall by a local ne’er-do-well, otherwise Mr. Watanabe would probably never see it. He probably doesn’t even know what the Internet is.
“Hmm,” Hiramatsu continues the act. “I’m sorry, sir. It doesn’t look like we have Ashes of the Rose in stock.”
“COULD YOU ORDER IT FOR ME?” Mr. Watanabe asks once again. Mrs. Miyashita sighs again. Tai doesn’t like when people act like Mr. Watanabe is a burden. He’s just a confused old man who wants some poetry.
“Of course, sir, of course,” Hiramatsu chirps as he pretends to type an order in. He hasn’t even taken any contact information. He doesn’t have to. Mr. Watanabe will be back, and the book will never come in. “All done, we’ll give you a call when it arrives.”
“Let me walk you back, Kazuko,” Mrs. Miyashita says, locking Mr. Watanabe’s arm in hers as he shouts his thanks to Hiramatsu.
“KEEP WRITING, TAIKI,” Mr. Watanabe cries over his shoulder as he’s led away. Mrs. Miyashita sighs again when he thanks her, and asks who she is.
“Poor old Mr. Watanabe,” Hiramatsu says, but Tai’s lost in thought as he scribbles the title down on some note paper and pockets it, so he’ll remember for later. Ashes of the Rose. Five syllables. Maybe he could ask around and see if he can track it down before the end of summer.
“I love boba so much,” Sora purrs to his audience as he takes a sip of his mango green tea with fruit jelly, half ice, regular sweet, framing the big bookstore in the background from the ledge of the fountain. He holds the cup up to the camera, the bright orange and rainbow of jellies swirling in the cup. “Look, it matches my outfit! What’s your order when you get bubble tea?”
The comments pour in and he points out a couple of them that he’s going to have to try.
“Okay, B-Lovers. I can’t wait any longer. I’m going to go grab my copy of Bluebirds Sing In Summer. Believe me, you’re not going to see me again until I do my livestream review tomorrow. I’ll probably cry, and I can’t let any of you see me like that! So embarrassing!”
He gets about a hundred offers of shoulders to cry on, or hugs or… other things. He giggles and shoots the livestream his signature pose before stopping the recording and posting it to his highlights. He gives an exhausted sigh and sits there listening to the fountain for a few minutes, sipping his bubble tea. He loves his audience, but it’s exhausting to be so frickin’ positive all the time.
“Damnit, Hidaka!” Sora turns and watches a grumpy looking employee chasing a little punk with bleach-blond hair, who’s waving something over his head. They turn a lot of heads, the punk runs up the down escalator, taking them two at a time, and the scowling, middle aged man runs after him before realizing it’s a losing battle, and screams curses after the kid before turning around to take the regular stairs. Sora wished he’d caught that on the livestream.
Upstairs he stops in the non-fiction section near the orders desk. He flips his phone case open and hunts for the email, in case they ask for the order number.
“Bluebirds Sing In Summer,” Sora hears a soft voice say slowly, and he feels butterflies in his stomach, though he doesn’t know why. He glances around, worried a fan’s stalking him, but there’s no one else in his aisle. Sounds like it came from the direction of the… order desk?
“Six syllables,” a louder, bombastic voice says in response. “New poem?”
Soft voice’s sigh answers that.
“Hisakawa Sora…” loud-voice says. An embarrassed smile creeps across Sora’s face. They’re talking about his manga, of course.
“Ooh, it’s BL. I bet she’s cute,” loud voice draws the last word out.
“She?” soft-voice asks.
“Yeah! Girls love this stuff.”
Now Sora really wishes he were livestreaming this, not that his phone would be able to pick up the audio well. His fans are going to love this story, he’s already putting the narrative together in his head as he ducks around the corner.
Sora steps out from the non-fiction aisle and is about to triumphantly strike a pose and announce himself, as something cannonballs into him from behind.
Sora topples and practically faceplants onto the orders desk, watching his phone go flying, his hand reflexively squeezing the boba cup, which explodes all over his front. He can see a chunk of fruit jelly lodge itself in his fringe. A bigger, beefier teen guy watches the phone soar through the air, his mouth making a perfect o. A perplexed, shaggy and dark haired boy behind the orders desk raises his hand to catch it, but it’s too late. It beams him square in the face.
“Hidaka! You little bastard!”
A giggling, bleach-blond bullet shoots by, chased by the employee from downstairs. The bigger boy looks back and forth between Sora and dark-hair, unsure of what to do.
“Oh my God,” the bigger guy slaps his hands to his face. “You’re Sky-Blue! You’re an influencer!”
“Omigod!” Sora gasps as shaggy-hair dabs at his nose. Blood drips out of it. “Omigod!”
“I’mb ogay,” shaggy hair says. His voice goes stuffy as he sniffs at the blood dripping from his nose down his arm, leaving a crimson line behind it.
“Oh my God!” the bigger guy cries out. “I’ll go get some… napkins?”
He turns around, frantically searching the cabinet behind the order desk.
Sora can already feel the sticky bubble tea dripping down his face, soaking through his hoodie. This is a nightmare. His makeup’s probably a disaster, and the hoodie feels disgusting.
“I’m” –he grunts as he peels the hoodie off, not sure if he should cling it to his front and hide behind it, or hold it away from him as it drips with bubble tea– “Hisakawa Sora…”
Shaggy-hair’s eyes are kind of unfocused as he glances down at the manga on the desk, beside his phone, then stares up directly at Sora. Just great, he’s probably given this cute guy a concussion.
“I lyge your freggles.”
This is a night nightmare!
Sora’s hand shoots out and snatches his copy of Bluebirds Sing In Summer and he turns to run, before realizing he forgot his phone. He pivots back, snatches the forest-green case off the orders desk and, before shaggy-hair can say another word, he’s ducked behind the non-fiction shelf, face pressed into his soaked hoodie, smudging his ruined makeup even worse, sobbing.
There’s no way he’s telling his fans about this.
“He has freckles?”
They’re up on the roof watching one of Sky-Blue’s ViewTube videos. Well, Hiramatsu’s watching the video, and shoving it in front of Tai’s face. Hidaka’s practicing his kanji by defacing the rooftop tiles.
“Yeah,” Tai says, squinting his eyes trying to see the freckles in the video. Sky-Blue’s face is porcelain-smooth, and the oversized pastel orange hoodie he’s wearing is covering his shoulders.
“And you said you like ’em?” Hidaka says, giving Tai a sly smile from the corner where he’s written “sun-water” instead of the symbols for Japan. Tai kind of likes that…
In the morning… Sun-water shimmers sky-bright.
He pulls his phone out of his pocket
“Sure,” Tai says. “Freckles are cute.”
Tai’s still not sure how Hidaka ended up in their orbit. He seems to remember the fourteen-year-old delinquent is somewhat related to Hiramatsu… a cousin’s cousin or something. If his family thought shipping him off to a more rural area would set him straight, they were grossly optimistic. He’s stolen and somehow carried every piece of the trio’s makeshift “staff room” up onto the Sakura Mall rooftop. Graffiti, theft, ketchup-related vandalism… he’s done it all, and has already been banned from the mall twice, not that it’s kept him away. He also has an embarrassing (and secretly a little bit flattering) habit of graffitiing Tai’s haiku on any surface he can for some implacable reason.
Hidaka’s head perks up as Tai opens the phone case to make a note about sun-water.
“You writing something new?” Hidaka asks.
Hiramatsu glances up too, Tai’s gone even quieter than usual.
The forest green phone case is the same as his, but the phone isn’t. It’s a newer model, with a lock screen background of two androgynous anime boys in school uniforms holding each other, cherry blossoms falling around them.
“You have Sky-Blue’s phone?!”
“What do I do?!”
Sora’s foster brothers sit with him on his bed as he sobs into a pillow. His family are the only people he’ll let see him without makeup, he wiped off the ruined remnants as soon as he got home, then proceeded to sob into his pillow until his brothers came to comfort him.
Little brown-haired Shinsuke, tech genius that he is, holds his hand out with his phone open. “Can I see it?”
Sora hands the phone to him. Whoever shaggy-hair is, he’s extremely trusting. He doesn’t even have a passcode. When Sora realized it wasn’t his own phone, he opened it up directly to a Melon page with nothing but years worth of haiku. Then he had a freakout.
“Don’t worry,” Shinobu murmurs. Even though he’s a year younger than Sora he always acts like the older brother. He puts his arm around Sora’s shoulders, comforting him. “It’s not like he’ll be able to mess up any of your accounts.”
“That’s not the problem!” Sora sniffles. “I practically broke his nose, and I was such a mess… He saw my–”
Sora and Shinobu both gasp as Shinsuke holds the phone out, grinning, camera pointed at the three of them.
“It’s ringing!” Hiramatsu cries out.
Tai blinks at the phone as Hidaka scrambles over to his other side.
“Aren’tcha gonna answer it?”
“No, it’s someone else’s phone.”
“That’s your number, dude!”
Hidaka presses the answer button; suddenly the three of them are facing Sky-Blue and two other guys. The six teenagers stare at each other.
“He does have freckles!” Hiramatsu says.
Sky-Blue cries out and grabs a pillow, holding it in front of his face.
“Uh,” a younger boy with neat dark hair points the phone at himself. “Can you give Sora his phone back?”
“Can we get a selfie with you?!” Hiramatsu asks, and Hidaka snorts.
“I didn’t know you liked gay stuff, Kenji.”
Hiramatsu scoffs, “I keep my mind open to the possibility of love coming from any old place, Hidaka.”
“We can meet in the shop district,” Tai says.
Hiramatsu and Hidaka give Tai an incredulous look, mirroring the two boys on the other end looking at the pillow, who squeaks from behind the pillow.
Sora strides confidently into the shop district just as the street lamps are flickering to life. He’s redone his makeup and he looks at least something like he’s supposed to again. He looks better, not a mess. Things are still busy, the nightlife district’s just down the street so patrons and tourists are turning into rowdy college kids and office workers. Shaggy-hair… Tai is waiting at the corner, red uniform polo swapped for a cute, pale purple tee. He pulls his headphones off, gives a small smile and an awkward wave when he recognizes Sora.
They exchange phones; both of them have the exact same forest-green case. Then Sora’s eyes drop to the ground. “Please! Let me buy you some bubble tea, to say sorry for–”
“I’ve never had bubble tea before.”
Sora’s mouth drops open. He’s met an actual alien.
After they’ve grabbed some boba from a place that makes their own tapioca, Sora trails after Tai, who’s stopping into every used bookstore, looking for some book called Ashes of the Rose. When he asked, the other boy muttered something about an old man who shouted stuff.
“So you write poetry?”
Tai stops dead in his tracks, and Sora can actually see the blush creep up his neck in real time. He wishes he could take a video, it’s adorable. “Haiku.”
“Oh yeah,” Sora says as they head into another used bookstore. Tai floats over towards the poetry section. “That’s like the five-seven-five thing, right?”
Tai actually looks a little miffed, first time he’s looked like anything other than dopey or spaced out since they met. He seemed utterly bewildered by the bubble tea menu. Sora finds it kind of cute.
“It’s… about a little more than syllables,” Tai says. “It’s evolved, there are lots of ways you can tackle them. Um, everyone has their own way to write them. Traditional Japanese versions were phonetically five-seven-five. I try to, uh, keep it at or under… the syllable count… It’s more about the words and images, I guess.”
Sora nods. “I read some of yours. They’re pretty.”
Tai ducks under the poetry book bins, pretending to dig around in the overstock. Sora grins.
“There’s a thing called a… cutting word, or cutting letter, I guess,” Tai’s voice is muffled as he moves some piles of books around underneath the bins, searching. “It used to be about using certain words in an… emotionally affective way, kinda.”
“It’s also usually about, like, cherry blossoms and winter snow, right.”
Tai sighs. “The good ones. They usually have a seasonal reference, or at least nature for mine…”
“Hmm… let me try one, see what you think?”
Tai’s head pops up. He actually looks interested in Sora for the first time.
Sora counts the syllables off on his fingers as he goes. “Hmm… A dusty bookstore… I search shelves for a rose book… I–What?!”
Tai’s face twisted in distaste before Sora got halfway through the second line. “No, it was… good.”
“I just…” Tai rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t like haiku with ‘I’ in them…”
Sora raises a well-manicured eyebrow.
“I just think…” Tai sighs. He turns to the attendant, a man with hair so big and fuzzy his head looks like a bush. “Have you heard of a book called Ashes of the Rose?”
The guy taps the title into the old PC on the store desk, slowly, one letter at a time, and gives an exaggerated shrug, so they move on.
“You just think what?” Sora asks when they’re outside.
Tai looks uncomfortable. “Um. I think it’s a waste of space. I think you can still put yourself in the poem without… putting yourself in… you know, directly.”
“Okay… like what?”
They stop on top of a little footbridge over a stream that leads through the field. Tai’s apartment building is not too far beyond, in the hills, while the big townhouse Sora’s family lives in is by the waterfront, down the road. They stop and watch the fireflies, there’s not as many as in June or July, but blades of grass and leaves blink with their light. Then he hears Tai’s voice:
Dusk sweeps over field,
Two fireflies meet and part;
Grass bowed to hushed wind
Tai gives a shrug. Sora leans in and kisses him.
It’s clumsy as far as kisses go. Their teeth clack a little and Tai almost falls over backwards, over the railing, as he reels from it. Sora pulls away, both of them wide-eyed. Sora pulls his fringe down over his face. “Sorry, I just thought–”
Sora squeaks a little as Tai’s lips meet his this time. He sighs and melts into it as Tai presses him against the opposite railing. They both practically go over into the stream this time. Sora’s hands roam up and down Tai’s back, then up under his shirt. He’s a little scrawny for his height, but surprisingly muscular. Their fronts press against each other.
Somehow they end up in the field, fireflies blinking around them as Tai straddles Sora. He’s moaning a little as Tai grinds against him. Tai’s lost his shirt, and fumbles at the button of Sora’s jeans and pops it open. He tries to take the freshly laundered hoodie off, but Sora stops him, so instead he lets Tai push his shirt up a little and kiss down his tummy, self-conscious as that makes him.
Less so when he looks down and sees Tai pressing his face against Sora’s erection. He lets out a moan. Then lifts his butt up to let Tai pull his pants and briefs down a little. The grass and damp earth feels cool underneath his bare butt.
After a couple minutes of grunting and wincing, Sora reaches down and pulls Tai off his dick.
“Uh… first time?” Sora asks.
Tai looks crestfallen, and Sora’s eyes go wide in horror.
“No, no! It’s just…” Sora sighs in exasperation. “Lemme show you.”
He leans forward and their lips meet again. A warm breeze washes over the field. He pushes Tai over backwards and climbs on top of him, unbuttoning his jeans and at the waist. Tai looks so frickin’ sexy; shirtless, lean body, hint of muscles, biting his lip as Sora pulls his pants and undies down around his knees.
Sora takes Tai in his mouth and glances up as the other guy throws his head back, gasping. It’s not Sora’s first time. High school was a busy time for him.
As he continues to suck Tai off, he runs his hand up the other guy’s sexy abs, over his nipples one at a time while Sora strokes him with his free hand. Tai thrashes underneath him, overstimulated. Sora loves it.
“Okay,” Tai groans, glancing down, then away, moaning and panting. “I think… I get the idea.”
Sora’s about to lean back, but Tai surprises him by twisting his body around, pants sliding further down his legs as he props himself up on his side and leans in, grasping Sora’s dick again.
Oh my God, they’re sixty-nining. In a field. Outside. Near a walking path.
Oh my God, it’s so hot.
“Mm, see if you… can slide that… mm, down your throat…”
Tai gags a little, and Sora practically blows right then and there, it sounds so frickin’ nasty.
Neither of them last long. Sora slips Tai’s dick out from between his lips and moans, “I’m gonna…”
Tai groans, still trying to deep throat Sora and he’s not… particularly small. He continues stroking Tai without thinking.
“No… oh God… seriously… I’m gonna–”
He gasps as he unloads, and hears Tai gag and cough, his dick still down his throat.
Then Tai’s come hits him right in the forehead. Then right in the eye.
Tai pulls Sora out of his mouth, coughing and laughing, while Sora leans back, grasping for something to wipe at his eye. He starts laughing when he realizes it’s Tai’s shirt, now smeared and sticky.
“It came… out of my nose,” Tai coughs, wiping at his nose with tears of laughter streaming down his face.
“I got yours in my eye, you bastard!”
Sora clumsily gets to his knees, then falls onto Tai, their legs, pants halfway down, Tai’s practically off bunched up around his ankles, becoming an ungainly tangle. They kiss and Sora can taste himself on Tai’s tongue. He shivers in the night air, and they smile at each other.
When Tai gets home after he and Sora… did stuff, he has a new follower on his Melon account, now one of eighteen. He can’t stop smiling, even as he gets ready for work and starts his shift. His dad, people at work notice, it’s embarrassing.
“So I asked my dad about Ashes of the Rose,” Sora says on video chat.
Tai perks up, and he glances around, then sneaks into the cookbook section. He shouldn’t be video calling… but he couldn’t help it when Sora called him in the middle of his shift. He’s not sure he’s ever spoken to anyone on the phone for more than thirty seconds.
“He’s a regional book rep for a bunch of big publishers,” Sora explains. He’s got his makeup done; said he’s recording a review in a bit. Tai kind of wishes he didn’t. After they… did stuff the other night, it was the perfect opportunity to admire Sora’s freckles without him realizing it.
“Has he heard of it?”
“Nope.” Sora says. Tai feels his shoulders droop a little. “But…”
Tai glances around again, then slides down against the wall until he’s sitting. Sora’s grinning at him and he feels his stomach flutter.
“There used to be an old-school printing house, and you’ll never guess where…”
Tai slaps his forehead. Of course.
Sakura Mall has a little concourse with a town history section. Sora’s dad says it was an agreement for tearing down a bunch of old buildings to plop down the mall, a huge movie theatre and a big, multi-level parking lot.
They’re the only ones in the hallway, Tai slowly floating from display to display, headphones over his ears. Sora keeps reading the same placard over and over, one about a shoemaker, but he hasn’t taken any of it in. He groans in frustration, then walks over behind Tai, who takes way too long to notice. He pulls his headphones off.
“What are you listening to?”
“Oh,” Tai looks uncomfortable. “Uh, nothing.”
“You… wear headphones as an accessory?”
Tai shoots Sora an exasperated look.
“I listen to music most of the time, I just… I forgot I was wearing them. People… usually don’t talk to you if you’re wearing headphones.”
“Do you not want me to talk to you?”
“No… I mean, yeah, of course I do.”
He’s not trying to pick a fight, not with this guy he’s known for less than a couple of days and absolutely adores.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sora waves his hand dismissively. “I was wondering, do you want to go to the fireworks festival together?”
“Um.” Tai nods his head, and nervously reaches out to take Sora’s hand, so he leans in and they kiss. When Sora opens his eyes, smiling at Tai, his eyes catch the word “Rose” in a photograph depicting a pile of books on a newspaper page in a display case behind his… not boyfriend, but maybe not not-boyfriend.
They know what Mr. Watanabe’s book looks like.
It takes the rest of the afternoon and evening, but they make the arrangements. Tai calls in a favour with Mrs. Miyashita. Maybe all those haiku were good for something. She gets the contact info of Mr. Watanabe’s daughter. Sora offers to make the call, but it’d be confusing to explain who he is, so Tai summons up the courage to make it, explaining who he is, what they’re trying to do. The book is a mystery to the daughter, but she’s heard all about Taiki the poet, and that Mr. Watanabe’s ordered the book from Bizenkuni many times. She’s just grateful Tai and his friends treat her father with kindness. She gives them permission to visit.
Tai and Sora stand at the door to Mr. Watanabe’s suite. The whole residence has a slightly uncomfortable old people smell. Tai tries not to think about what the scents are made up of, so he makes a haiku as they wait for the door to be answered, counting the syllables in his head.
Forest breathes as one:
Every leaf and creature
Makes life together
He’ll have to remember that one. He imagines Sora reading it later and smiling, and smiles at the thought in return.
The lock clicks and Mr. Watanabe squints at them from inside a darkened apartment.
“TAIKI! YOU’RE BACK!”
Sora gives Tai a look, but he just shrugs. He told his… whatever they are… that the old man has dementia. He gets confused.
“Hello, Mr. Watanabe, may we come in?” He has to repeat the request two more times before it gets through.
The suite is sparse and surprisingly clean. Old-school: mats laid down on the floor. Other than the family photos, simple nature-themed artworks, a small bookshelf inset with a large fish tank. His daughter said Mr. Watanabe is actually Dr. Watanabe, a naturalist from a university in the city.
“Mr. Watanabe, I wanted to show you something.”
Tai holds his phone with a picture of the newspaper, as clear as they could get it. The black-and-white image from the photograph isn’t clear enough to make out the author’s name, it’s just one book in a pile, but they can make out “Ashes of the Rose” on the cover of a small hardcover book, clear as day.
Mr. Watanabe seems a little confused, a little agitated, but nods his head.
“I HAVE A COPY AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE, LET ME SEE…”
Tai and Sora look at each other in excitement, and then spend the next two hours searching every inch of Mr. Watanabe’s suite. It’s not on the bookshelf, or behind it, or under it. It’s not in storage in any of his closets. They even look through the sparse kitchen cupboards, enough cutlery and dishes for a single person.
Mr. Watanabe eventually offers to make them some tea, so while he’s putzing around in the kitchen they catch their breaths. Tai goes over and smiles at family photos on the kindly old man’s shelf. Aside from books the shelves are lined with family photos… except one stands out. It’s older, grainier, faded and oversaturated. Tai recognizes Mr. Watanabe from his… general Mr. Watanabe shape, same smile too. The other man–or boy? neither of them can be older than eighteen–has his long hair tied back; it looks like they’re out camping or something, but there’s just… something about the photo…
“Oh. My. God,” Sora gasps and points desperately at the fish tank, lost for words.
Tai looks where he’s pointing, crouches down, then glances over his shoulder. They hear Mr. Watanabe humming in the kitchen, so Tai grabs the fish tank and shifts it carefully, jerking his head for Sora to stick his hand in the niche of the fishtank shelf. He pulls out a small, slim, hardcover book, barely bigger than his hand, with a faded forest-green cover, slick with condensation.
Tai watches Sora’s face light up as he looks at the cover, and then falls as he opens it up. His eyes water up with tears. Tai walks around to look over his shoulder. The inside is mildewy or rotting, ruined from what must’ve been years of condensation and water damage. Not a single word after the cover is legible. Ashes of the Rose…
Sora runs over and locks his door. Last thing he needs is Shinsuke or Shinobu to walk in and see him, scar them for life. He’s doing a different kind of livestream tonight.
He runs back over to his bed where his phone is propped up against a pile of manga on his bedside table. “You should take your shirt off,” he says, wolfishly.
Tai gives him a dopey grin on the other end and slips his tee off. Sora’s practically drooling. He should’ve grabbed his laptop first: bigger screen.
They were voice chatting after Tai’s shift, and when Sora… somewhat suggestively said he was going to take off his pants and get comfortable, Tai went really, really quiet.
“Wanna watch?” Sora asked. Tai nodded his head emphatically.
Sora had turned the camera towards his closet and slowly undid the button on his jeans, taking his time to unzip them instead of just popping them open. He turned around and pushed the skinny jeans down his legs, bending over as he did so. He grinned to himself when he heard Tai mutter something to himself. Maybe he was making up a haiku about Sora’s watermelon-red briefs. Sora imagined his… whatever Tai is to him… getting hard, the same way he did when they were pressed against each other on the walking bridge. He’d popped at least a semi every time they kissed since. At least.
Then he locked his door and flopped down back on his bed, feeling a little self-conscious about his legs, but Tai was enraptured on the other end.
“What’re you wearing…?” Sora points down.
He feels like he can see Tai go red even in the soft glow of the lamp on his bedside table, a grainy video transmitted from Tai’s phone to a receiver, coursing through a broadband network, shot out of a router and reconstituted on another phone across town. The only thing that would make it better is if Sora could do it to himself and land in Tai’s bed to kiss him.
Tai turns his camera down, almost dropping it. He’s wearing a pair of loose pyjama pants. He’s clearly enjoying the show.
“Omigod,” Sora gasps. He leans back against his bedroom wall and opens his legs, reaching down and lifting his big peach hoodie up so Tai can see the front of his briefs. His boner is tenting his underwear, so he pulls the front until it slips out of the left leg hole.
“Oh my God…” Tai sighs. Sora swears he can see the tent in his pyjama pants bounce. “You’re, um… pretty big.”
“I’m a mouthful,” Sora smirks and strokes himself. Without any prompting, he watches Tai’s hand snake down his front, over his abs, dipping under the waistband of his pyjama pants and grasping himself. “I wanna see your face too.”
Tai fumbles to lay the phone down on its side, on his bedside table, and it takes a couple minutes of adjustments before it’s a decent landscape shot, getting enough of him in. Sora spends the whole time teasing him… in more ways than one.
“Can you take your hoodie off?”
Sora seizes up, and Tai looks like he instantly regrets asking.
“Uh, you don’t have to… I just…”
Sora exhales and then pulls his hoodie and tanktop off in one quick motion. His heart races when he sees Tai smile.
“I wish you were here… right now…” Sora says as he strokes himself for Tai, briefs still on, but they might as well not be for all they’re covering.
“Mm, um, what would you do?”
“I’d start by getting those pyjama pants off you…”
Tai takes the hint, and sprawls on his bed, completely naked, half lit by his bedside lamp. Sora admires his slim, muscular body, the generous treasure trail from his belly button to his surprisingly tidy bush of hair.
“Then I’d run my tongue down your treasure trail… get between your legs… give you the best blowjob of your life…”
He watches Tai unconsciously reach down and grasp his shaft. He’s not too bad in that department either… although Sora doesn’t exactly look forward to taking it.
As if reading his mind, Tai asks, “Um, do you… I mean, are you… do you…”
Sora laughs at how flustered his… boyfriend-not-boyfriend is. “Top or bottom?”
Tai nods his head, looking embarrassed at even asking.
“Bottom,” Sora lies.
“You want to… you know…”
Sora climbs up onto his knees, turning around on his bed and slides his briefs down his skinny little butt. He usually… doesn’t get totally naked with guys, it was usually pretty quick and… informal with the boys in high school. Sexy but not really… intimate, romantic. He feels self-conscious, but smiles to himself and blushes when Tai lets out an audible moan.
“You want to fuck me?”
“Oh my God…” Tai moans again.
Sora climbs around so he’s still up on his knees but facing Tai now. Totally FansOnly pose, and from some of his audience’s usual feedback—and Tai’s reaction—Sora feels like he’d do pretty well on that platform. He puts on a show, lets himself quietly gasp and groan for Tai. Stroking himself with one hand while the other roams his body, down over his thighs, up over his too-wide hips, teasing the little nipples on his scrawny chest. But then he stops thinking and gets lost in it.
“I wish… I was there… too…”
“I’m close,” Sora gasps.
“You wanna… mm… together?”
Sora falls backwards against the wall just as his dick erupts, strings of come shooting up over his tummy, up to his chest. He watches Tai writhe on his bed in the lamplight as he blows a huge load all over himself. Sora laughs quietly, it just keeps going, and he’s never seen anything sexier than Tai coming to him coming, the other guy lost in the feeling. He’s never seen Tai look so unguarded.
“Oh my God…” Tai gasps, looking down at his hand, dripping with his pearly white seed.
“You… made a mess…”
Tai points at his face with his dry hand. Sora’s confused, but then reaches up and feels a gob of come that splattered across his nose and cheek. He was so captivated by watching Tai, lost in the feeling as well, he didn’t even notice. They both laugh, and Tai scrambles for his pyjama pants when someone calls out on the other end, asking if he’s okay.
“Oh my God… my dad… at least he didn’t walk in… I would’ve died.”
“Always… always lock the door,” Sora says sagely. “Ugh, so much for my makeup.”
Tai hesitates from saying something, but Sora knows what he wants to say. Why all the makeup? He rolls his eyes.
“Okay, but you better not put on a single piece of clothing while I’m gone.”
“All right,” Tai agrees, but looks a little embarrassed, looking at his dripping hand. “Gonna grab a towel, though…”
Sora slips on a pair of basketball shorts and, when the coast is clear, gingerly skips across the hallway to the bathroom. He’s coming down; he wants nothing more than to curl up in Tai’s arms, but getting back to him on video call is the next best thing. He removes his makeup quickly, scowling at his awkward, long, freckled face in the mirror before another stealthy run across the hallway.
He kicks off the shorts halfway across the bedroom and flops down, naked, in his bed. Tai hasn’t even adjusted the camera, it’s still his head all the way down to his thighs, his dick still a little plump from their session. Tai smiles at him, and Sora can’t help but smile back. They just sit there for a minute, not saying anything, basking in the glow of their phones.
“I like your freckles.”
Sora rolls his eyes again, but feels his heart beat faster too. He resists the urge to pull the blanket up over his shoulders, over his face.
“Why do you always…” Tai points to his face.
Sora glares at him. Does he really have to ruin the moment? “So people don’t comment on how much they like my freckles…”
Tai’s face falls, and Sora regrets saying it immediately. It was supposed to be a joke; much harsher tone than he meant to. “Sorry…”
“No, it’s just…” Sora gives an exaggerated sigh. “I got teased about everything when I was a kid. You know, weight, freckles… other stuff. I’d just rather… look like who I want to be, even if it’s more work. A lot of me isn’t who that person is, if that makes sense.”
The oversized hoodie to cover up his freckled shoulders, scrawny body and weird hips. Makeup to contour and shape his face, at least appear flawless, trick everyone into thinking he’s pretty.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sora says, waving the thought away. “I was thinking… the night of the fireworks festival, my dad and brothers are going to be watching from our grandparents’ house…”
“They usually just sleep over there,” Sora grins. “I’ll… have the place to myself.”
Tai goes quiet, Sora thinks it’s so cute when he gets flustered.
Shinsuke calls Sora’s name from the hallway, clearly getting closer. Sora screams that he’s changing as he scrambles for his underwear. He didn’t lock the door when he came back in, of course.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go! I’ll see you after work tomorrow! We’ll make plans!”
“Sucks that it’s your last day.”
Tai nods despondently as he kicks the book propping up the orders shelf back in place. He’s had this feeling in his chest all day, this dangerous fluttering. It makes him want to run… somewhere, away.
Hiramatsu and the rest of the staff bought him a cake and threw him a big going away party for lunch. They all made up haiku about him. Some of them were pretty bad but some of them were… actually kind of beautiful. He’s a little all over the place, he got a bit teary-eyed, which meant he got a lot of hugs, even from the supervisor whose name he still can’t remember. Weird day.
“You told Sora yet?”
“Tell me what?”
“EXCUSE ME, I’M HOPING YOU CAN HELP ME. I’M LOOKING FOR A BOOK OF POETRY CALLED ASHES OF THE ROSE.”
Tai almost faints.
He turns around slowly to see Sora and Mr. Watanabe standing on the other side of the orders desk counter. Sora looks way too perfect, giving Tai a brilliant grin. Mr. Watanabe is so small his elbows barely reach the counter.
“I ran into Mr. Watanabe outside. He’s looking for a book.”
Sora winks at Tai. Tai wants to crawl into a hole and disappear.
They go through the usual ritual, and just as Hiramatsu finishes, Mrs. Miyashita hustles over, tsking, a big pile of flyers in her hand.
“There you are Kazuko,” she says, taking his arm, but not before handing out flyers to the two employees and the pretty BL reviewer. “The retirement community’s hosting a talent show the night of the fireworks festival! You should read some poetry, Taiki!”
Mr. Watanabe’s spine straightens, and he looks at Mrs. Miyashita as if he’s never seen her before.
“TAIKI? WHERE’S TAIKI?”
She gives him a profoundly concerned look and points at Tai. Mr. Watanabe squints at him.
Mrs. Miyashita pats his arm, taking it in hers.
“Come on, Kazuko. You’ve got your book on order, right? Let’s get going, more stores to stop into, and these boys have stuff to do.”
She leads him away, but Mr. Watanabe glances back a couple more times, confused.
Hiramatsu is pretending to be very interested in what’s on the computer screen as Sora gives a well that was weird shrug.
“What did you want to tell me, Tai?”
Hiramatsu sighs, “You’re all done here, Morikawa. Thanks for all your hard work, but you’ve got stuff to do…”
So they walk out of the mall, out along the path into the field, and Tai tells him.
The August nights are getting shorter, the sun is already dipping toward the horizon, painting the sky in pinks and oranges, a deeper blush of dark blue creeping in from the east. He can’t help thinking…
Sun loses the day,
Grips at a lost horizon–
“Um,” Sora says, his voice wavering, his eyes shimmering in the last of the day’s light, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know…” Tai admits, feeling like he’s going to be sick.
“But you didn’t just get an acceptance letter yesterday,” Sora’s voice is angry, or hurt, or both. He wipes furiously at his tears.
Freckles, like stars, come. Tears of a lover, like rain: Inevitable.
Why is he like this? Now there’s five profound syllables.
“Can you say something?” Sora asks, sniffing. “Anything?”
“I…” Tai said he doesn’t know why he didn’t say anything about the move, but he actually does know why: “I… I didn’t know what would be worse… stopping with nothing before we even started, or ending with… everything we had…”
“Now that’s poetic,” Sora scoffs, and turns around, his body shaking as he quietly cries. Tai doesn’t know what to do. He wants to go over to him, but he feels like that would be cruel. So he just stands there.
Sora turns around; his makeup’s a mess, his freckles showing through what’s left on his cheeks. He gives a pained, unconvincing smile.
“Well, college overseas. That’s so cool. Good luck.”
Sora turns away and runs, his oversized hoodie flapping in a breeze that picks up from the coast. Just before he disappears out of sight, a cat dashes across the path and disappears in the field, like it wasn’t even there.
Tai stands there in silence for a moment, he reaches for his wireless headphones, taking them carefully in his hands to pull them up over his ears. Then, in one swift motion, he whips them off from around his neck and throws them at the ground, hard enough that some of the plastic cracks and shatters. He sinks down into a crouch, head between his knees, and watches tears fall off his cheeks, dotting the wood of the walking bridge.
There are no words.
Peach petals paints pink
What was plain greens and browns,
A gift of summer
From behind a big pair of sunglasses, Sora glares at the haiku, sloppily scrawled on the side of the information kiosk in black marker with a little cartoon, spiky haired devil as the graffiti artist’s signature. Still, definitely one of Tai’s haiku. Sora liked it on Melon about a week ago, just after they met.
He scowls, takes his face mask off, spits on his hand and tries to wipe away the poem.
Damnit. Sharpie. Of course.
Shinsuke and Shinobu take his arms from either side.
“Come on, big brother,” Shinobu coos.
Sora has wanted to cry nonstop since Tai told him last night. He wanted to cry through the fireworks festival and into the start of the school year, when he is supposed to start working as an intern with his dad’s company. He thought he would have an infinite amount of tears so he could cry until it stopped hurting, but instead he sobbed into a pillow for a bit, passed out, and woke up feeling flat. He wishes he had the energy to feel sad, or angry, but instead he just feels irritated and exhausted. His brothers got him out to the mall on orders of their father, who had no idea what else to do with a zombie, heartbroken eighteen-year-old.
“I don’t want to go in here,” Sora says from underneath his mask as his brothers steer him into the Bizenkuni. It’s not like anyone will be able to tell who he is. On top of the mask and big sunglasses, he’s wearing one of Shinsuke’s wide-brim caps, a pair of Shinobu’s sweats and a ragged old black hoodie that actually fits him. He’s not wearing an inch of makeup. It’s not like Tai will be in the store; he’s packing to leave that evening, the day of the frickin’ fireworks festival.
“I know, big bro,” Shinsuke says. “But someone needs to babysit you while we go buy our yukata.”
Hiramatsu waves from the orders desk, and Hidaka pokes his head out from behind it.
“You want us to buy you one, too?” Shinobu asks.
“I don’t want anything ever again.”
His brothers both sigh as they deposit him behind the orders desk. He plops down across from the big order shelf overladen with books and tries to ignore people who stare at the mysterious, masked, sulking teen squating miserably as they pick up their books.
Hidaka’s wedged in a cupboard underneath the desk, tapping away on his phone, himself hiding from any number of things, probably his nemesis, the floor supervisor. Hiramatsu’s probably babysitting him too. This is what it’s come to. Sora’s being treated like a sullen teenage punk.
“Your phone’s going off,” Hidaka states, not even looking up.
Sora’s heart leaps for a second, thinking it might be Tai calling to… what? Confess his undying love? Tell Sora he’s cancelled his flight? Yeah, right.
Of course, it’s just more notifications from his fans. He didn’t do his weekly stream last night; he hasn’t posted anything since before arriving at the bookstore yesterday. They probably think he’s dead. Good.
He heaves his phone across the little room, and it goes clattering against the order shelf. But even that reminds him about how he beamed Tai in the face… not even two weeks ago? He feels like he’s lived an entire lifetime in those two weeks. Since last night.
Hidaka and Hiramatsu both glance over, but the younger boy’s playing a game on his phone, and Hiramatsu’s doing swift business with special orders, the festival weekend is always super busy. When he needs to grab an order, Hiramatsu just steps around the phone, which is way too polite of him, and dumb of Sora to just leave it there, so he crawls over to grab it.
The phone’s sitting inches away from a little stack of papers wedged under one of the the uneven legs of the shelf. He reaches for the forest-green case, trying not to think of how it reminds him of Tai, when something catches his eye, a dedication at the front of a book: TO KAZUKO
Where has he heard that name?
He whips his sunglasses off and tears at his mask, slapping Hiramatsu’s thick leg. “What… What’s Mr. Watanabe’s first name?” Sora gasps.
“Huh? Uh, let me check.”
Sora stares at the book, like it’s going to phase out of existence if he stops. Even Hidaka’s put his phone down, wondering what’s going on.
“Watanabe Kazuko,” Hiramatsu states. “Huh, he must’ve given us his name years ago… What are you doing?!”
Sora’s trying to lift the shelf and pull the book out, but it’s heavy and the big shelf wobbles as he struggles with it. Books go clattering to the floor, but he doesn’t care. Hidaka, sensing the opportunity for chaos, hops up to help while Hiramatsu desperately glances around for help.
The book finally slips out and Sora cracks what’s left of the ancient spine. The book’s so old the binding glue cracks and flakes off, there’s a huge indent from where the shelf’s been resting on it, and it’s bent and scuffed from a generation of feet kicking it into place. The slim collection of coverless pages is the perfect fit for the uneven shelf leg. He flips the book open and tears well up in his eyes.
“Empty room, gray wall,” Tai mutters to himself as he tapes up the final box. Some of it’s going into storage, some of it’s getting shipped over to his aunt’s house in LA. His dad’s downsizing, so he’s clearing out everything. All that’s left is a couple of suitcases, his backpack, and a phone in a forest green case that he hasn’t touched all day, it’s not even charged. He’s afraid that if he checks it he’ll find a message from Sora. He’s even more afraid that there’ll be no message.
“Shape of an old life in here,” he continues. He hates this one already, there’s no way he’s writing it down.
His dad smiles sadly from the doorway, and Tai just nods, turning and handing him the last box. His dad turns to take it to the living room, where the movers will be picking everything up. Last stop of the day.
He stands in the middle of the room, it’s late afternoon, the sun’s not quite setting yet, but in a couple of hours it’ll be dark. A couple more and fireworks will be popping in the sky, reflected off the water, lighting up the entire region in brief flashes. He’ll be at the airport by then. A breeze tugs at the curtains, making them flutter. This isn’t even his room any more. It’s empty, nothing but an old double bed and a cheap fibreboard desk.
“That season’s passed now.”
He doesn’t even remember saying goodbye to a couple of neighbours. Suddenly it’s darker and he’s sitting in the passenger seat of his dad’s car. The street lamps have just lit up and flash by and they drive toward the highway. He’s glad his dad isn’t saying anything. He doesn’t have anything to say either.
The car trundles down the road, the mall glowing in the distance. The festival’s already in full swing, the streets closed up, lined with stalls, lit in the soft glow of lanterns strung across the walkways, people in robes or just normal street clothes sampling stall food, playing games, laughing.
He glances over at his dad, who shakes his head.
“Nothing, just thought I saw your name painted on one of the street signs, but it said ‘Hisakawa Taiki.’ False alarm… What? What’s wrong?”
Someone’s calling his name.
He hears it, muffled and a little distant. He glances around and sees someone running along the side of the road, waving his hands.
It’s Hiramatsu and he’s crying out…
“TAIKI! LOOK UP, YOU IDIOT! LOOK UP!”
Another sign is coming up with something spray painted on it, fresh enough that it’s still dripping. The writing’s messy, almost illegible, but it says…
LEAF GREEN ON SKY BLUE
He wrote that. Well, not the spray paint, his writing is neater. But that’s one of his haiku.
Another sign looms as they near the highway.
OLD RIVER THROUGH THE FOREST
“What’s wrong, Tai?”
His breath is fogging the passenger side window, he’s practically flattening his face against it as he fumbles for the button to put it down. Wind fills the car, catching his hair, but he sees it…
Hidaka leaps up and down in front of the sign, crowing madly, hooting and screeching to the night sky.
“Stop the car.”
His dad pulls off on the side of the road and Tai throws himself bodily out, tumbling out of the passenger side and scrambling to his feet.
“I gotta go to the festival!”
His dad calls after him, but Hidaka’s dancing ahead of him on the roadside, limbs flailing in every direction.
“I LOVE YOUR POEMS!” Hidaka calls after him.
“YOU ACTUALLY WROTE ‘HUSBAND RIVER’ OR SOMETHING ON THE SECOND SIGN!” Tai calls back over his shoulder. “BUT YOUR WRITING’S GETTING BETTER!”
Further on, Hiramatsu is wheezing and waves him on down the road.
He runs through the field and over the footbridge, under the powerlines and across the road. He hops a cement barrier and dodges his way through the full external parking lot. Then he’s in the middle of the street festival, panting for breath, getting some strange looks from the crowd, and he has no idea what to do now. He doesn’t have his phone, even if it was charged. Even if he could get a phone, he doesn’t know Sora’s number.
“Thank you to our very own Regional Amateur Kabuki Troupe for that stirring reenactment, the mystical story of the heroic duo: Golden☆Lovers.” He hears Mrs. Miyashita’s voice float over the crowd. “I never learned that story in school, very beautiful.”
He begins to dodge his way through the crowd.
By the time he gets there, he’s surprised to see, of all people, Mr. Watanabe stepping up to the microphone. The old man is wearing a deep green yukata, so large on his small body he’s swimming in the fabric. Tai stops, horrified that he’s about to watch Mrs. Miyashita tackle old Mr. Watanabe off stage, but he opens a small forest green book and clears his throat.
“This is a poem by someone who’s very special to me,” Mr. Watanabe says. He’s screaming at his usual volume, but whoever’s doing the sound was clearly warned, so he actually sounds somewhat normal from the speakers. A feat of audio engineering. “Even though he’s gone, I’m reminded of his words every day.”
Then he reads:
Ashes of the rose,
We walked the old path and you told me
Even as old empires crumble
And the sun sets on us
Something must continue,
You apologized for the haiku,
You said it wasn’t your best work
I said every moment of time
Every atomic interaction
In the infinite
Led to that night by the river,
A handful of syllables
And two hearts
The same blood
Elements forged in the stars,
That’s what you told me
There’s a smattering of subdued applause, no one’s quite sure what to make of it.
Tai’s got to get to the stage.
Mrs. Miyashita claps her hands in surprise when she spots him, but then looks concerned when he stops in front of her, taking heaving breaths of air. She asks him if he wants a glass of water; he asks her if he can go up on stage.
So he suddenly finds himself standing a foot away from a microphone, drenched in sweat, with a few hundred pairs of eyes on him, waiting for him to speak. He has nothing in front of him, no phone, no paper, nothing’s coming to mind. His worst nightmare.
He takes a step forward and clears his throat, and he hears it echo over the festival. There’s a few coughs and an uncomfortable shifting in the crowd.
He can’t do this.
But he still has to.
He feels himself flush, and he squeezes his eyes closed, and the first few words tumble out of his mouth unintelligibly…
Not a great start.
He opens his eyes and sees Mr. Watanabe with the other old folks in the front row. The old man is beaming up at him, and gives him thumbs up. He sees the little green book tucked under the old man’s arm.
He clears his throat again.
Your face is the sky, bright blue,
Or dark as night
I could sit and stare,
I could map every star,
I could still want more
I have never
Written a poem like this,
I’ve had no need
But where the river
Meets the sky, and forest leaves
Brush the water
That’s where we meet,
Your bright sky, my clumsy words,
My sky, my love
He stops, squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them. The crowd seems to be waiting for something else, or wondering if Tai’s done.
Then, as if it were planned, Tai sees a break in the crowd at the back. Standing in a bright orange-pink yukata, the cloth decorated with peach blossoms, Tai can tell even at a distance, freckles smattering his face, is the most beautiful person in the world that he’s ever seen.
And he’s smiling.
There are no words.
“Hisakawa Taiki,” Tai wonders out loud, sitting between Mr. Watanabe and Sora on the bench. “Taiki the poet.”
He holds the copy of Ashes of the Rose. The old interior, wedged under a bookshelf, is cradled in the water damaged, time-faded forest green hard cover recovered from Mr. Watanabe’s apartment.
“My dad’s uncle,” Sora says. “I mean, my great uncle, even if it’s not by blood, but still.”
“It was there the whole time… I saw it every day, but I just never actually saw it…”
“Dad said there was probably a box of remainders from the old publishing house.” Sora shrugs. “The bookstore probably used leftover or damaged copies they couldn’t sell for scrap paper.”
“We used this to keep our shelf from wobbling…”
He gently closes the book and hands it to Mr. Watanabe, who holds it reverently in his hand.
“I loved Taiki very much,” Mr. Watanabe whispers… although at his volume it’s pretty much just normal speaking. “We spent one summer together before I went to school, and he went off to be a poet. He… left his manuscript, but by the time it was published he’d… accident…”
Tai reaches over and takes the old man’s gnarled, spotted hand, gives it a squeeze. The old man looks at him, then Sora, nods and stands. He tucks the book into his robe, turns to them and gives a polite bow, then wanders back into the crowd.
As the fireworks start to pop and sizzle over the water, the crowd around them buzzing with excitement, Sora leans his head on Tai’s shoulder.
“What about your flight?”
“Oh my God,” Tai groans in horror. “My dad… I gotta…”
“Leave it to Hiramatsu,” Sora murmurs, watching the fireworks light up their entwined hands.
“Yeah, flights can be rebooked. I… needed to be here. I should’ve…”
They lapse into silence and just watch.
“I liked your poem,” Sora teases, and Tai groans in horror again. “Were you freestyling?”
“Yup,” Tai groans in embarrassment again. “Was it bad? It was bad, wasn’t it?”
“No, it was super romantic.” Sora bends his neck and kisses Tai’s shoulder. “Most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me. You used ‘I.’ I thought it was a waste of space.”
Tai gives a gentle shrug.
“Modern haiku aren’t really like the traditional ones,” he says. “Anyways, you break rules to write them. I guess ‘I’… had to be in that one.”
Tai’s back straightens, and Sora lifts his head and turns towards his… whatever they are. They share a kiss as the crowds ooh and ahh around them, appreciating the shifting, ephemeral explosions of constellations high above them. Their lips part. Tai’s blushing, so Sora gives him another quick kiss.
“You’re not wearing makeup.”
Sora gives his own gentle shrug.
They sit together and watch the fireworks, hand in hand.
“Um, so your family are… out for the night?”
Tai notices something’s wrong almost right away.
Once they get Sora’s yukata and underclothes off, Tai strips down and hops into bed with him. Sora tells him to use a lot of lube, but no matter how much he pours onto his… just dripping, rock-hard hard-on, Sora still seems stiff, uncomfortable.
“It’s okay, keep going.”
Tai sits back, and Sora flops forward on his bed, skinny butt sticking straight up, and grumbles in frustration. It doesn’t feel good for either of them, he can tell that much.
“Uh, do you actually like… that?” Tai asks.
Sora sighs, and flops over onto his side. “Yeah. I mean… Ugh. Guess I’ve just always been the bottom. Never really was about liking it.”
Sora seems uncomfortable, Tai feels like he’s hurting him no matter how many times Sora says he’s fine. They lie like that for a moment, Tai’s not sure what to do at first, but then he gets an idea.
“Do you… want to maybe… put yours… in mine?”
Sora glances over his shoulder, and there’s a look in his eye. “Hand me a condom… and the lube.”
He shivers as Sora takes his legs and puts Tai’s ankles up over his shoulders. He feels vulnerable but… sexy, and the hungry look on Sora’s face is giving him butterflies in his stomach.
“Should I… um… do anything?”
Sora looks up from pouring an obscene amount of lube onto his dick. “So you’re going to want to breathe, and just, like, relax… as much as you can.”
Tai nods as Sora lines his dick up with Tai’s butt.
“Oh my God, you have such a hot ass…” Sora murmurs as Tai feels something press against his hole. He yelps, but then says he’s fine, just surprised. He starts taking deep breaths. “Kinda… relax, but also push against it with your hole.”
Tai moans, and then slaps his hands over his mouth. Sora smirks. “Thick walls,” he growls. “You can make all the noise you want. I’m going to go really slow…”
He whimpers as Sora slides into him. He thought the other guy, his… whatever-they-are… was using way too much lube before, but now he realizes no amount of lube is too much. Still… it hurts but in a weirdly… good way? When he realizes Tai’s bottomed out in him, dick pressed all the way in, balls pressed against Tai’s cheeks, he feels full and…
“Mmm, oh fuck…” Tai groans. Then Sora pulls out slightly, and presses back in. “Oh God, oh God…”
“Yes… mm, yes…”
Sora presses into him, and Tai couldn’t contain his moans even if he wanted to. He feels so hot and… slutty. He realizes with some surprise that he’s losing his virginity, and he’s doing it with the hottest guy in the world. There’s something so incredibly sexy about the way that Sora is bracing himself over Tai, smiling down at him. He leans in and nibbles Tai’s neck, and he can’t help but let his legs wrap around Sora’s hips, throw his arms around Sora’s shoulders.
“I’m gonna go slow, okay?” Sora groans as he pulls his dick out, then slides it in again. Even if he can’t fully relax, the resistance feels crazy good.
“Uh… you… you don’t have to…”
Sora smirks and pulls out, then pushes into Tai a little harder and faster. Tai’s arms and legs contract around the other guy, tight, and he moans.
“Um, maybe a little more lube.”
Soon Tai finds himself flipped over, Sora’s hands on his hips, bucking in and out of him from behind, and it just feels good. He’s getting pounded, and he feels so hot and dirty, he loves it. Why would he ever need to be on top? Except…
“Can I…” he moans. “Can I ride you?”
Then Sora’s underneath him, hands roaming up and down Tai’s front, teasing his nipples. Tai can’t even speak any more. He never wants to stop impaling himself on Sora’s hot, thick dick.
“You’re so fucking sexy,” Sora groans, and that’s all it takes.
Tai moans, and watches a string of come splatter over Sora’s abs. It keeps coming, more on his tummy, some splatters on his chest, or else bounces up to splatter his own abs.
He feels something warm between his legs, and he suddenly feels even fuller. Neither of them can speak, so he leans down and their lips meet, Sora’s arms wrapped around his shoulders this time, pulling him against him, their sweat and mess between them.
Eventually they break the kiss, and Tai realizes he hasn’t been breathing. Sora laughs, gasping for air, and gently lowers Tai backward, dexterously moving with him as he slowly slides out of Tai’s ass. He can feel the slick of lube between his cheeks and thighs. Sora looks down at him, and Tai is utterly blissed out, but manages to pull him in for another kiss. Sora delicately pulls the condom off and tosses it across the room into a trash basket with a practiced ease. So cool.
They lay together opposite-ways on the bed like that, heads at the end and feet on the pillows, Sora wrapped in Tai’s arms, sticky and sweaty and naked and in love.
Eventually, after they catch their breaths, just laying there listening to one another breathe, Tai says, “You could… come and visit me?”
“Yeah,” Sora says. “I will.”
“And I’ll be back.”
“And we can talk all the time… I know–”
Sora’s lips meet his, and he melts into the kiss.
“It’s okay, Tai. I mean, it’s not, but… you know, it’s okay.”
They lay there like that for awhile, listening to the lively summer night without, beautiful even as the season wanes. They kiss occasionally, but otherwise just lay in each other’s arms.
Tai goes quiet, but just for a second. He thinks about what he wants to say… and it’s five syllables.
“We could go again.”
Sora grins. Tai smiles. They kiss.
They make poetry.