MatsuJun's not sure how long he's been running, and he's not even sure what he's running from anymore. Is it his family? His old friends? Did he run because he was afraid of what life would be if he got a real job? Of what life would be if he settled down?
It's been three years now, and somehow he's found himself in Paris, staying at a youth hostel. He spends his days wandering the city and sitting alone in cafés, sipping his café au lait and watching as the people bustle around him.
He likes how here they let him buy one cup of coffee, and sip it for hours, perfectly free to people watch as long as he likes.
MatsuJun decides he likes it here in Paris.
He meets Nino and Ohno when the café is completely full and no tables are left. Nino's first words to him are, "Hey, you don't mind right?" immediately after plopping down on the seat next to MatsuJun. It jolts MatsuJun into awareness, because it's the first time he's heard Japanese in months--no, in years. His mind is sluggish, like he's forgotten how to speak anything other than broken French, broken English, and a few German words.
"Well, actually--" he begins to say.
"Cool, man, merci bien," Nino replies, cutting him off with an easy smile before MatsuJun can continue.
MatsuJun grips the handle of his coffee cup fiercely and tries to smile back, the tension in his shoulders rising.
Ohno reaches across, rests a hand on his and says, "You should relax."
MatsuJun is about to say, yeah, he wishes he could relax, but somebody interrupted his leisure time and now he's forced to make silly conversation when he hates that, when Ohno continues. "I'd love to paint you sometime, you know." His eyes are dangerously serious, and MatsuJun feels all the tension in him slowly slipping away. When the two of them finish their coffee and get up to leave an hour later, Ohno slips a piece of paper into MatsuJun's hands with his cell number scrawled on it almost illegibly.
And when, that evening, hours later, as he finally decides to leave the café, the sight of Ohno's dark eyes still hasn't left his mind, he thinks that if he's not careful, Ohno's presence could become a drug to him.
MatsuJun stays in Paris longer than he's ever stayed anywhere these past few years. There's something about Ohno that keeps drawing him back to Ohno and Nino's one-bedroom apartment in the second arrondissement of Paris. He's curious how they're able to afford it when neither seems to hold a steady job, but MatsuJun doesn't think he's in any position to ask them about it, not yet.
He just wants to see the finished painting, he tells himself, but knows that's not the truth at all. Ohno works fast--he no longer needs MatsuJun as a model, as all he is doing now is adding color to the canvas. MatsuJun spends most of his afternoons at their place now, and instead of being some faceless Japanese man sitting alone drinking coffee, he's a welcomed guest, an invited friend. They speak in their native tongue and laugh at all the strange habits of the parisiens together.
It feels like something special. It feels kind of like home, though MatsuJun doesn't want to admit it.
And then, one day, everything comes crashing down around him. MatsuJun uses a spare set of keys to let himself into their apartment, and instead of the usual sight in the living room--Ohno sitting near the window, covered in temper paint, Nino sitting immediately in front of the TV, absorbed in a new game--MatsuJun finds an unfamiliar face, lounging on the sofa and flipping stations on the TV.
MatsuJun stands in front of the door to the salon awkwardly, a bag of groceries in his hand.
Part of the reason MatsuJun has been able to travel alone for so long without feeling lost is that he has an amazing knack to never feel that out of place, despite language and cultural barriers.
Today, however, for the first time in MatsuJun's recent memory, he feels completely, totally, horrifically out of place. The man is at home in this apartment, more comfortable here than MatsuJun can ever imagine feeling.
He feels foolish for bringing the groceries over to make dinner.
The man looks up, jaw dropping in surprise at the presence of someone else in the apartment, and falls to the ground in a rushed attempt to scramble to his feet. When he finally manages to get off the floor, he dusts his shirtsleeves off and smiles sheepishly. "Désolé. Je m'appelle Aiba," he says in awkward French.
MatsuJun wracks his brain for the little French he knows. "Er, um. Parlez-vous japonais?"
Aiba visibly sags in relief. "Oh thank god, you speak Japanese. I only would have been able to carry this conversation for a minute at most in French," he says with a crooked smile. "You must be MatsuJun." MatsuJun nods warily. He's not sure if it's good or bad that this Aiba person knows his name. "Ohno and Nino can't stop talking about you," Aiba continues, laughing, and MatsuJun decides to believe this is a positive.
"Um, they never mentioned they were going to have a guest today. I'm sorry for intruding." MatsuJun bows, then nearly loses an onion from his bag in the process.
Aiba leans forward to catch it, although MatsuJun is able to stop it before it falls. "I didn't really tell them I was coming. Come on, let's take these bags into the kitchen," Aiba says, already lifting one from MatsuJun's hands, "before we lose anything else." Aiba glances over his shoulder sheepishly at MatsuJun as they enter the kitchen. "I tend to surprise them a lot like this."
"Then Ohno and Nino live in Paris? I mean, permanently?" The two had seemed so carefree, so easily accepting, that MatsuJun had begun to think that maybe they were more the traveling sort, like he is. He realizes now that the assumption was probably a little silly.
Aiba gives him a funny smile, as if this should be obvious. MatsuJun once again feels like he no longer belongs in this apartment--this world where the three of them must have known each other for a very long time. "Yeah, they do. Actually, it's not really their apartment. This guy, Sho, his family owns a bunch of real estate all over the world. I'm not exactly sure what they do, but only he'd be able to afford an apartment with this kind of location."
"Oh," MatsuJun says, because there is a pause, and he's not quite sure what else to say. He starts to plan where he'll go after Paris, how he'll get there, where he'll stay while he's there--anything to keep him from thinking about how awkward he feels right now. It's like he's seventeen again, his father staring at him with those same disappointed eyes he always reserved for MatsuJun.
"I'm not sure how Ohno and Nino met the guy. I think he's Nino's friend or something. I swear, he's like Nino's personal daddy longlegs. I'd love to meet him one of these days and make sure he's not like, some sort of serial killer or something."
There's another pause, and Aiba smiles at him expectantly, so MatsuJun says, "Well, from what I've seen of Nino, he seems to be a pretty distrustful guy. I'm sure he wouldn't be connected with this person if he weren't trustworthy."
Aiba laughs. "Does that mean I can trust you, then?"
At that, MatsuJun laughs as well, feeling some of the awkwardness lift. "Yeah, I guess it does."
They keep talking, fix two cups of coffee for themselves, and Aiba tells MatsuJun that Nino and Ohno just went out to the bank, and that they shouldn't be long. MatsuJun talks about the places he's traveled, and that he's curious to see what Ohno's painted of him.
At the mention of Ohno's name, Aiba's face is suddenly filled with what appears to be pity, and MatsuJun feels outrage rising in his chest. He's never liked pity, especially when he's not sure why he's being pitied. "What? What is that supposed to mean?"
Aiba sighs. "We all fall a little in love with him, you know. You should give up. In the end, you'll be the only one broken."
"I. What?" MatsuJun asks, disturbed. "I don't even know what--"
Aiba looks up at the ceiling, his face suddenly tired as he says, "Ohno. Everyone falls for him, but the only one he can see is Nino. Just Nino, now and forever. It's been that way for years." He looks back at MatsuJun, looks straight into his eyes and says, "Get out while you still can."
MatsuJun never has a chance to ask what he means, because Nino and Ohno choose that moment to return.
MatsuJun spends the next week watching how the three of them interact, and MatsuJun comes to the realization that though Aiba is a naturally bubbly person, part of it is just an act.
He can see the remnants of it--of how much Aiba loved Ohno, and how completely it broke him and their friendship. He sees the way Aiba has glued his heart back together. He wonders how long it took Aiba to be able to face the two of them again.
He thinks that maybe now he knows what Aiba meant. MatsuJun looks in the mirror and sees the start of what must have led to Aiba's downfall reflected back at him.
MatsuJun sticks around for another two weeks, mainly because that was the only way to get the cheapest train fares on such short notice. He doesn't mention that he's bought his tickets out of here, because MatsuJun doesn't want to give any of them the chance to convince him to stay.
He starts to feel a sort of kinship with Aiba as the days pass, because Aiba is the only one MatsuJun knows who can understand what he's feeling. He stands next to Aiba awkwardly as they walk around the Marais, noticing for the first time the way Nino clings to Ohno, the way he grabs Ohno's hand and doesn't care who might be watching.
And he sees the way Ohno leans into his touch without a second thought--nothing deliberate about it. It's just instinct for him.
Aiba's better at sensing feelings than MatsuJun would have given him credit for at first glance. Whenever he notices one of MatsuJun's mood swings, his face is filled with--well, it isn't pity, but it's something, something MatsuJun isn't entirely sure he's comfortable with. But then Aiba grabs MatsuJun's hand, and whispers something silly in his ear, and MatsuJun feels himself laughing, relaxing into Aiba's touch.
He doesn't notice the way his reactions to Aiba are starting to mirror Ohno's to Nino. He doesn't allow himself to think about anything but how much he wishes he were away from this--this feeling that he could be comfortable here, if he only let himself be.
MatsuJun leaves Paris before Aiba does, after almost two months. He doesn't tell any of them until the day he leaves, and tells them he's canceling his cell phone service as soon as he leaves, and no, he's not sure exactly where he's going. He encourages them to email, and then flees the apartment. Ever since he realized he'd fallen in love with Ohno, he hasn't been able to sit still. He's been itching to be alone again, to protect himself from dangerous emotional attachments--what have always seemed to be at the root of all his troubles.
He goes to Provence first.
A man checks into the hotel, huge sunglasses, massive Longchamp tote bag, as MatsuJun sits in the lobby, checking his email on the hotel computer.
"One for Sakurai Sho," he says, and MatsuJun looks up from the screen in shock.
If this were Japan, he wouldn't question it, but this is the Midi, and MatsuJun is pretty sure that Japanese men don't normally show up as tourists at this time of year. Much less having the same name as Nino's supposed daddy longlegs.
MatsuJun follows him to a bar, and walks up to approach him right as Sho gets a call from Ohno.
MatsuJun waits, and when Sho disconnects, he clears his throat. Sho turns to face him, and MatsuJun and notices that Sho's face holds that same expression his does whenever Ohno is mentioned.
"You too?" MatsuJun asks.
"Me what? Who the hell are you?"
"Just someone else in love with Ohno Satoshi." He slips into the seat next to Sho, and orders the cheapest beer on the menu.
Sho tells him that the three of them used to live in that same apartment together, that at the time Nino and Ohno weren't a thing yet, and that he had left the apartment to them when he couldn't take the sight of them together anymore. "And to think that I was actually the one who introduced the two of them," he says with a bitter laugh. "You'll get over it, though. You're strong, you and Aiba. You'll move on."
"You will too," MatsuJun slurs, completely wasted. He doesn't even think to ask why Sho knows about Aiba.
Sho has apparently watched his alcohol intake more carefully than MatsuJun, because he pats MatsuJun's head and says, soberly, without any trace of the glasses before him, "No. I never will."
Later, when MatsuJun asks Sho how he knew about Aiba, he says, "Nino told me about it. Funny, how he noticed Aiba and you, and yet never figured out why I left."
MatsuJun thinks that Sho's emptiness is almost haunting.
He leaves Provence a few days later, and heads to a little town, Chamonix, in the Alpes. MatsuJun's not sure why, but something is keeping him in France.
The town is quaint, almost the the point of being lifeless. He wanders the markets in the morning, and without direction during the nights. He's waiting for something, some sort of sign.
He calls Sho a few days after he arrives, and he can feel Sho's motherly smile through the phone as he says, "I hope you find the one you're waiting for." MatsuJun's not sure how Sho knows he's waiting for something when even MatsuJun doesn't know what it is. He asks him what he's talking about, and Sho just replies that he should stick around in Chamonix a little longer, and maybe'll he'll figure it out.
He's staying too long here--too long because it's the Alps and it's expensive and he's running out of money--but he just can't bring himself to leave.
He's not in love with Ohno any longer. Sho was right about that--with time and distance, he's been cured. He almost feels guilty, like his love was so impure that he could move past it in such a short time, but maybe all these years, wandering without any sort of connection to anyone he meets, have made him more resilient.
He's sitting in a café, watching the people bustle through the city in their fashionable winter clothes, when he notices one person who completely stands out. It's a young Japanese man in a thick coat two sizes too big, staring at him from across the street.
MatsuJun leaves what he owes on the table without even asking for the check, abandons his half-finished coffee, and walks briskly to where Aiba is standing.
"Oh good," Aiba chatters, almost nervously. "I was wondering when you'd notice me."
MatsuJun stares at him, not sure how to take his last statement. "Did you come here for me?" he asks incredulously.
"Well I. I just thought I'd give you a bit of time first, you know, to move past things, and then you weren't in Provence anymore and you hadn't told Nino where you were. And then I ran into Sho and he told me you were headed here and you were right, you know, Sho really is a nice person and I think he's very trustworthy so I guess I don't feel so weird about him paying for their apartment and--"
MatsuJun clamps a hand over Aiba's mouth and closes his eyes, trying to focus on what he really wants to say. When he figures it out, he opens his eyes, and sees Aiba's eyes widened and staring back at him. "This has nothing to do with Sho," he states blandly.
MatsuJun doesn't remove his hand. "Did you come here for me?" he asks. There's a long pause, and MatsuJun still doesn't remove his hand. He wants a simple yes or no answer, and he has a feeling that in Aiba's current state of raw nerves, that would be impossible for Aiba to attempt with words.
After an eternity, Aiba nods, and MatsuJun removes his hand.
Aiba starts babbling the second MatsuJun's hand leaves his mouth. "I just. Well, you left, you know, so suddenly that I hadn't even had a chance to sort out what I was feeling for you. I mean, I knew I was pretty attracted because you're kind of hot and then there's that whole responsible-type thing about you which is attractive as well and I just--"
"Aiba," MatsuJun interrupts, sighing. "I don't even know your first name, and you don't even know what my nickname stands for. Are you trying to say you fell in love with me after less than a month?"
Aiba's cheeks are already red from the cold, but at MatsuJun's question they just get redder. "No," Aiba replies. "I'm not that silly. But I just. I think I could. Fall in love with you, I mean."
A lot of people, men and women, have fallen in love with MatsuJun over the years he's been traveling. They always talk about how he has this irresistible sadness that surrounds him, or that his beauty is haunting, or that they think he has a tortured soul, or that they think his whole running-from-the-past thing is really romantic. They've never once plainly told him about how hot and responsible they think he is.
MatsuJun really isn't sure how to respond, because he feels like the world has stopped, like the survival of everything hinges on what he says next. "I don't like to stay in one spot," MatsuJun warns.
"I'm pretty ADD, so that's fine by me," Aiba says, a nervous smile on his lips.
MatsuJun stays silent.
Aiba risks taking a hand out of his pocket to grasp hold of one of MatsuJun's. "Take me with you," Aiba says, pleadingly. "I promise it'll be worth your while. Let's travel the world together."
MatsuJun sighs, and doesn't remove Aiba's hand like he normally would in this sort of situation. Instead, he says, pointing to the post office to their right, "My hotel is in that direction. I'm really cranky in the mornings so don't bother me until 10AM at the earliest, okay?"
Aiba squeezes his hand and smiles. "I think I can handle that."
When MatsuJun is feeling sappy and overly emotional, he thinks that maybe it wasn't being alone he liked so much, but rather that he really disliked traveling with people who didn't suit him.
And Aiba suits him just fine.