The stars shining in the sky pale compared to the light that shines in the heart. I am the starlight that chases away evil’s darkness.
--Samurai Flamenco, Episode 10
The bar had been Goto’s choice, of course.
They hadn’t been able to find space in the smoking section, but light curls of smoke escape across the the plastic barrier anyway, and settle over their table like fog. Masayoshi doesn’t mind. The scent has become familiar, almost pleasant by association. It makes him think of homemade curry, of Red Axe and Harakiri Sunshine on TV, of friendship, of Goto.
Masayoshi sips his drink, and glances at the man sitting next to him. They’re here tonight because Goto had insisted on taking him out to celebrate, even though his birthday had been months ago, and the entire world has turned upside down since then.
It seems there’s some sort of rite of passage that Masayoshi had missed, while he’d been out fighting crime day and night, and saving the city from monsters. Between King Torture, and From Beyond, he and the Flamengers haven’t had a moment’s peace in months. The police have put in their fair share of overtime, too. And so even though Masayoshi has been twenty for a while, tonight is the first time he’s really acknowledged it.
It’s also the first time he’s has had more than two drinks together in such quick succession. The world buzzes around him, a pleasant sort of hum that pushes back everything that’s been weighing on his shoulders for a while now. It allows him to focus on something other than the fate of the country, and the evil empire threatening to take over once and for all. He’s grateful for the opportunity to concentrate on something else for a night.
Masayoshi stares for a moment at his friend’s hands. They just about make it all the way around his glass of beer, and condensation glistens in the space between his fingers. He’s wearing a new shirt, or at least it’s new to Masayoshi. It’s got a stylish double collar, and the color is nice - rich stripes of blue and brown that bring out the color of his eyes.
Goto has probably had more to drink he has, though if Goto’s world is buzzing around him, you’d never know it. It’s one of the things Masayoshi likes so much about his friend – his ability to stay calm and composed in the face of pretty much anything.
“I really like that shirt,” Masayoshi says, since it’s on his mind. His grandfather had taught him not to leave a compliment unsaid – you never know when you’ll have another opportunity.
“Thanks,” Goto says, then raises his eyebrows. “You know you’ve told me that once already tonight.”
“Sorry,” Masayoshi says, a little embarrassed, though he doesn’t feel too bad, especially since Goto is smiling at him. He wonders if the shirt had been a gift from Goto’s girlfriend – it would make sense if it was. It’s a really good color on him.
“Your girlfriend must like it, too,” he offers, and Goto just shrugs.
“You should tell me more about her,” he continues, but as soon as the words leave his mouth, his stomach tightens into a knot that he can’t quite explain. He’s not sure why, but it never feels exactly right, bringing up Goto’s girlfriend, like his timing is perpetually off, maybe.
Goto’s face is flushed in the dark room. He takes a long sip of his beer. When he sets it down it wobbles, almost tips over, but he catches it.
“You don’t want to hear about that,” Goto tells him evenly.
“I do.” Masayoshi nods enthusiastically. “Goto-san, I really do.”
He wonders if maybe Goto hasn’t said much about her because he doesn’t trust him. Masayoshi wouldn’t blame him, if that’s what it is. He doesn’t exactly have a lot of experience with this whole friendship thing, and he hasn’t been around much lately, on top of it.
But he’s seen Goto’s face staring down at his phone so many times, with that singular focus he seems to reserve only for her messages. He wants to know what kind of person attracts Goto’s attention so completely, wants to know what she’s like.
Maybe it’s the alcohol, but he can feel the blood rushing up his neck, warming his cheeks. The room tilts a little, as he leans forward towards Goto’s face. There are beads of sweat gathering along his friend’s hairline.
“Goto-san,” he says, his voice sounding more serious than he means it to. “I know I probably haven’t been the best friend in the world lately, but I promise, you can trust me.”
Goto’s face looks strange for a second, hollow, and dark, but it softens out so quickly that Masayoshi wonders if he’s imagined it.
“You know I trust you,” Goto says quietly. “You’re probably the most trustworthy person I know.”
“Then you’ll tell me about her?”
Goto stares at Masayoshi for a long moment, so long that his skin starts to prickle under the attention. A shiver runs all the way down his arms, and along the back of his neck.
“She’s a lot like you, actually,” Goto finally says.
Masayoshi watches Goto’s lips press together into a thin line. Watches the edge of his tongue dart out, and then back in.
“She’s persistent,” he continues. “She doesn’t give up, not for anything.”
Masayoshi nods. He stares at Goto, practically holding his breath. “What else?”
“She’s really bright. I don’t mean smart,” Goto clarifies, and Masayoshi squints at him in the semi-darkness. “She is smart, but… Bright, too. The room, everything around her. Things light up when she’s there.”
Masayoshi internalizes this for a second. He thinks of the photos he’s seen of his grandmother, how she’s inspired his grandfather in so many ways. He wonders if she’d had the kind of light Goto is talking about. If his grandfather had felt this way.
“She sounds great,” Masayoshi says, meaning it. “It must make you really happy to have someone like that – you’re really lucky.”
“I don’t know,” Goto says, and when he meets Masayoshi’s eyes, something dark flashes there again, just for a second. It makes Masayoshi want to reach out, to wrap his arms around Goto and not let go. It’s not the first time he’s felt something like this, but this time it hits him with such force that he has to look away, down at his hands, as his heart races in his chest.
“She really likes you, by the way,” Goto adds.
Masayoshi’s eyes widen. “Really? Why?”
“No idea,” he says with a shrug. “I must only tell her the good stories.”
“You tell her stories about me?"
“Of course I do, idiot.”
Masayoshi isn’t sure what to do with all of this information, especially when his head feels so strange – heavy and light at the same time, with so many thoughts coming and going at once. Some he understands perfectly well, but others feel mysterious and foreign, dangerous, maybe. He closes his eyes for a moment.
They’re sitting next to each other on the narrow bench, and suddenly Masayoshi is very much aware of the proximity of Goto’s leg to his. Even through layers of cotton and denim, Goto’s skin feels surprisingly close. On a whim, he slides his leg over, presses it up against Goto’s, and keeps it there. He should probably move, but doesn’t think he could even if he wanted to; it’s as if his legs have turned to jelly.
It feels perfect, Masayoshi realizes, the perfect sensation. It’s a strange thought to have - Masayoshi doesn’t really understand what it means, but he’s positive that it’s the truth. It feels so perfect that it sends a shiver down his spine, and sets the hairs on his arms on end. He watches Goto bring his drink to his lips, watches his Adam’s apple as he swallows. Goto’s leg doesn’t move.
Masayoshi finds his drink, and finishes it off in two long sips. He’s not sure if it makes him feel powerful, or completely powerless, but either way it’s not an unpleasant feeling. The numbness that washes over him quiets the thoughts in his head, weakens them like the jelly in his legs, leaving him with a calm sense of curiosity, of acceptance.
They sit there in silence for a moment, and then another. Masayoshi tries to make out the song on the bar’s sound system – he recognizes it from the last variety show he’d been on. They’d played it in between commercials to the live audience.
Finally Goto’s leg shifts. The absence of contact makes Masayoshi’s stomach turn over and then back again.
“I’m going out for a cigarette,” Goto says, and Masayoshi nods, thinking he could use some air himself.
Inside it feels close and thick; the bar’s been filling up since they arrived. They have to push past a small group of people standing near the entrance on their way to the door.
Masayoshi thinks it feels a bit like he’s making his way through a giant bubble, the way the wall of backs shift and propel him forward through the space.
Outside, the night air is cool and clear.
Goto leans against a grey wall that’s speckled with tiny, white stones. He inhales slowly, and exhales the smoke upwards. The rings float above the walls of the alley, up into the sky, against the circle of moonlight above them.
Masayoshi follows the smoke with his eyes, all the way up to the faint stars, and then back to Goto’s lips. It makes him a little dizzy, to be honest, but he doesn’t care. He knows it’s a bad habit, too, and that someday he’ll probably try to convince his friend to give it up, but… There’s something enjoyable about watching him, too. Goto’s concentration, maybe, the focused press of his lips, the casual turn of his fingers as he brings them away from his mouth and then back again.
After Goto has finished, Masayoshi notices something on the ground by his friend’s feet – a candy wrapper, or a discarded receipt, maybe. He leans down, figuring he’ll toss it in the bin at the end of the alley on their way back, but as soon as he moves towards it, it’s as if the world suddenly flips over on itself. He can’t quite focus, but he thinks the ground may be rushing towards his face.
“Careful,” Goto says, and his voice is close, right against Masayoshi’s ear. “You okay? Maybe we should call it a night.”
Even after he’s stopped talking, the words cling there against Masayoshi’s ear. He can feel Goto’s arm against his chest, a warm, strong weight holding him in place, and when he glances up, Goto’s face is right there. A little blurry, but close enough that he can feel Goto’s breath, strong and heady and smoky, right up against his face.
“I’m okay,” he says as the world rights itself, and Goto’s face starts to come into focus. “I’m good.”
Masayoshi can feel the weight of Goto’s hand against his side, and his chest. He’s thinking he should thank Goto, for saving him from ending up sprawled on the ground just now, and then suddenly there’s a flurry of motion and sensation.
Before he realizes what’s happening, his back is up against the wall and Goto’s mouth is on his, his lips against Masayoshi’s. His tongue moves against the seam of Masayoshi’s lips until they part, and Goto’s fingers tug their hips together. His tongue swirls around Masayoshi’s mouth. Goto’s entire body is so close, it’s as if he’s all around him, coming from all directions at once. It’s almost too much to process.
Goto’s hands can’t seem to decide where they want to be, either. They’re around Masayoshi’s waist, then they’re snaking up along his torso, then they’re on his neck, brushing against his collarbone. His fingers slide across Masayoshi’s cheekbones, along his jawline, around his earlobes. They thread through his hair, right at the base of his neck. And then they settle around his face, steadying them both, and giving their lips more direction, making them less sloppy. Not that Masayoshi really minds sloppy. He feels like he can barely register half of the sensations happening to him right now, but even so, he’s pretty sure he’s okay with sloppy.
He’s never done this before, not really. In high school there’d been a girl who’d kissed him behind the bleachers after a basketball game, but that had been nothing at all like this. This feels urgent, and raw. Not like Goto had been planning for this to happen, but like he’d been thinking about it, like he’d imagined this before, maybe. The thought surprises Masayoshi, brings heat to his cheeks and makes his heart race – it’s pounding harder than it has during the worst of the fights he’s been in, he’s sure of it. It’s as if he can’t get close enough to Goto, even though he’s sure they’re closer now than they’ve been before.
When he decides he has to take a breath or he’ll completely suffocate, it comes out as a gasp, ragged and strange to his ears. He tilts his head back, and Goto’s lips find his throat. When he applies pressure, sucking against the skin there, when he can feel the brush of Goto’s tongue against the soft skin behind his ear, he gasps again.
Goto groans against his neck. Masayoshi’s head is swimming, and somewhere, something is telling him that despite how new, and exciting, and exhilarating this feels, it probably shouldn’t be happening. He’s thinking of Goto’s girlfriend - the composite image he’s created of her flashes in front of him over and over again. He tries to put it out of his head but he can’t, she’s right there next to them.
And then Goto’s hands let go of his waist, they stop tugging him closer. Slowly and deliberately, Goto’s fingers tuck a strand of Masayoshi’s hair behind his ear, as Goto stares into his face. Masayoshi has gotten good at reading fear, and he sees it now, just for a second, in Goto’s eyes. And then his hands are on Masayoshi’s chest. Soft at first, and then firm. Goto is pushing him away, pushing himself away from Masayoshi, putting distance between them.
The tense feeling in Masayoshi’s stomach is the same one he has when he’s fighting and he knows the enemy is about to land a punch on him. Lots of times he can see the blow coming, but he lets it happen anyway. He knows he can take it, after all, that a few scrapes and bruises are inevitable.
Goto leans forward on his knees, breathing hard.
Masayoshi closes his eyes, and the stars keep spinning around in his head.
The alley is quiet. All he can hear is the blood rushing in his ears, and his heart thumping in his chest. After a moment, other sounds start to emerge, too. Like the world is waking up and coming alive around him - Goto's measured breathing, the scuff of his sneakers against the pavement, a car passing on the street opposite them.
Kaname had told him once that part of being a hero is realizing that there are things you can change, and things you can’t. Masayoshi has also learned that there are things that will change whether you want them to or not.
He thinks his problem is that he’s never really been able to tell the difference, even when he’s right in the middle of it.
Back at the bar, Goto orders another round.
It’s as if time has slowed down around them. Even Masayoshi’s thoughts feel slow and deliberate. It’s hard to focus on Goto’s face, which is just as well, because when he does, all he can think of is Goto’s lips against his, Goto’s tongue against his neck. He’s not sure he’s supposed to be thinking about that, now that they’re back in here, but he can’t help it. The moments keep resurfacing whether he wants them to or not - the hard angle of the wall against his back, the look in Goto’s eyes just before they moved away from each other...
He’s thinking about Goto’s girlfriend, too. Goto had said more about her tonight than he ever had in the past, but it still seems like there’s something big that he’s missing, something that has nothing to do with the alley, or the warmth of Goto’s leg, or the feeling of Goto’s lips against his - something deeper than all of that. Something Goto doesn’t want to show him, maybe. Masayoshi doesn’t understand, but he wants to, more than anything. Wants Goto to trust him, wants him to be able to tell him anything.
“I’m glad,” Masayoshi says after a moment. “That you told me about your girlfriend.”
Goto gives him a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“I was just thinking about the things you said about her. She must be really happy, to have someone like you think so highly of her.” Masayoshi takes a long breath, and a long sip of his drink. “You should tell me more, someday.”
Goto’s face shuts down for a moment then- it’s like a shadow’s fallen over him and greyed everything out. It makes Masayoshi’s heart hammer in his chest, makes him nervous that he’s said the wrong thing, or maybe that he’s called attention to something that he shouldn’t have, he doesn’t know.
But the look on Goto’s face doesn’t make sense. It’s just like before, and more than anything, Masayoshi wants to reach out, want to show Goto that he’s here, because it feels important, even if he doesn’t understand why.
He brushes his fingers against the inside of Goto’s wrist where it’s lying there exposed on the table, next to his glass of beer. It’s just for a second, two at the most, but Masayoshi watches Goto’s face soften a little.
“I meant what I said before,” Goto says finally. “When I said you two were alike. I meant it. Ask Ishihara-san, if you don’t believe me,” he continues. “She knows all about you being able to light up a room. That’s what you get paid for on all those photo shoots, right?”
“That’s different,” Masayoshi says, flushing.
“No,” Goto says. “It’s not.”
When Goto brings his hand up to ruffle Masayoshi’s hair, Masayoshi leans into it, presses his cheek against Goto’s shoulder for a moment. Goto’s fingers make his scalp tingle and his heart pound a little harder.
“You have something really special,” Goto tells him. “Trust me. I told you before - you have the power to change people. Even someone like me.” Goto’s fingers press against his head tightly for a moment, before he moves his hand. “Especially someone like me. That’s a really unique talent.”
“Thanks,” Masayoshi says after a long moment. “I think that might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me, but…”
Masayoshi can feel the pressure creeping up his throat, can feel the lump there. He squeezes his eyes shut tight. Things have changed so much already, they’re changing all the time, and he should be used to it by now - he is, and he knows that there are things that will always be out of his control, but…
“What if I don’t I want you to change?”
Goto is quiet for a moment. Then he lets out a breath.
“I think it’s too late for that.”
And there’s something about Goto’s voice now that silences Masayoshi, that stops him from protesting, from telling Goto that there’s no reason why he should change, that he’s fine, exactly like this, and that it’s only the people who want to bring evil into the world that Masayoshi would ever want to change. He feels suddenly small, watching Goto. He wonders how much there is that he doesn’t know about his friend, wonders why that gap suddenly feels so large right now.
“I haven’t always been like this, you know,” Goto says after a moment.
Goto takes a sip of his beer. He shakes his head, and then looks over at Masayoshi. His voice is quiet.
“Back when we first met, you said you didn’t have any friends. And I always thought to myself that it didn’t seem possible. You’re pretty much the most likable person on the planet, right? And then I realized that I understood perfectly. Because I’m the same. Or I was, before I met you.” Goto sighs. “I guess what I’m trying to say that I’m not that great at making friends either. But something changed, when I met you. That night… I found myself—"
Goto’s voice cuts off, he clears his throat.
“I found myself moving forward.” Goto takes a breath, and meets Masayoshi’s eyes for a moment before he looks away.
“And tonight,” he says, and his voice is so quiet, Masayoshi can barely hear him. “Tonight I didn’t even give it a second thought, I just…”
Goto looks up at him a little helplessly.
“Yeah,” Masayoshi says, nodding. “I think I know what you mean.”
He's not actually sure whether or not that's true, but there are flashes of images moving through his head – that first night in the alley, the night he’d first met Goto, and tonight, in a different alley, the feeling of Goto’s lips pressed against his, and a hundred other moments in between. Rescuing Goto’s umbrella, an endless stream of monsters, the day those cops had died, and the tight feeling it had brought in his chest, realizing how much danger they were all really in. And then later, at the Flamengers base, feeling cut off from everything he’s ever known, but fighting every day for what he believes in, for what he wants to protect. He’s not sure he would have been able to do that, if he hadn’t met Goto. He’s not sure he would have moved from that alley that first night, if it hadn’t been for Goto, calling him out. He thinks he might still be out on the street hiding behind garbage bins, a public nuisance, nothing more.
Goto had asked him who he was that night, and Masayoshi had told him. A superhero. He’s not sure it would be true today, if it hadn’t been for that moment.
Something swells in his chest - acceptance, maybe, and relief. He's been on the right path after all. He realizes that now.
“Goto-san,” he says, and Goto doesn’t move, doesn’t blink, just stares at him.
There’s a song playing in the background that Masayoshi can just barely make out over the din of the bar. He thinks it might be MMM’s latest single, the one with the English words mixed in with the chorus. The room is buzzing around him again, bleeding in around the edges. Mari sings about the color of dreams, and Masayoshi thinks that her voice has never sounded so beautiful.
“Goto-san, from now on,” Masayoshi says, “let’s move forward together.”
Goto stares at him for a long moment. Masayoshi can see hints of something sad in his eyes – it reminds him of the feeling in the pit of his stomach when he thinks his grandfather, and his parents. But there’s something else there, too, something in Goto’s eyes that feels bright and clear. It feels like hope. It’s what Masayoshi sees in the eyes of the people he’s been able to protect, the people who trust their lives to him, and the other Flamengers. It’s the best part of being a superhero. Maybe it’s the best part of being a friend, too.
“Yeah,” Goto says finally. “Okay.”
And then Goto smiles a little, not with his mouth, not really, but with the corners of his eyes. They’re soft around the edges, and warm. It makes Masayoshi feel like he can he can do anything. Like he can defeat anything that comes his way.
And then he blinks, and the room spins on its axis, goes a little wobbly at the corners. He feels Goto’s hand on his shoulder.
“First step in moving forward is getting you home in one piece, okay? Come on, lightweight,” Goto says, and he starts to get up from the table. “Let me walk you home.”
Masayoshi doesn’t even bother arguing with the assessment, he just lets Goto wrap his arm around his elbow, lets Goto steer him around the table, through the bubble of people, and out into the cool night air again.
This is trust, Masayoshi thinks, as the brisk air fills his lungs and he looks up at the faint glow of stars above them. This feeling in his chest that makes him want to take on the world. He trusts Goto more than anyone else in the world right now. He wonders if Goto feels it too. If not now, Masayoshi is sure that he’ll feel it someday.
Someday, Masayoshi thinks, feeling the warm press of Goto’s arm around his shoulder, guiding him home.
Someday I’ll return this favor.