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beneath the northern lights, glittering and cruel

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Minami felt emotionally drained, his face puffy from crying freely after first having tried to restrain back tears with all his might, his voice raw from both yelling angrily as well as pleading and begging to the best of his abilities. And still, Sakura Haruki had not budged a single millimeter in his resolution. Yet another time.

Minami wasn’t one to drink his misery away... but then again, he had never wanted to be the type of man stuck in a one-sided attachment, setting his pride aside countless times, imploring for the chance to spend more time with someone who didn’t care enough about Minami to give up any of the other ties that bound him - connections that weren’t even there anymore, but Haruki still felt the need to abide by, couldn’t find it in his heart to let go of, even now that his own circumstances were so dire. It hurt Minami to look at the man and know without a speckle of doubt that he would never make Minami a priority over his previous relationships, that he wouldn’t allow himself to move on. In a way, it was like looking at a mirror, both Minami and Haruki stranded in a fruitless endeavour, reaching after people who were no longer looking back at them, nor would they turn their heads again to face and meet them halfway.

It was all pointless, but it was the situation he had found himself in regardless. So why not seek comfort in alcohol-induced oblivion, anyway? Even if it wouldn’t squash his memories of Sakura-san, maybe it could still be a better and more steadfast companion than him.

The bar at the hotel he was staying in provided the most accessible option - plus, if Minami did sink enough to lose control, at least he should still be safe enough, in the security that his room was merely a lift ride away and part of the staff was bound to recognize him as a client and assure his well-being. Thus, he made his way there, chose a secluded table, which allowed him full view of the bar’s space and let him keep track of the other customers’ movements if he felt thus inclined. God knew he could use the distraction.

After ordering a strong but standard cocktail, he allowed his gaze to peruse his environment. And, just like that, he almost instantly felt his attention drawn towards a man of Asian descent sitting near the counter. At first, Minami couldn’t discern what exactly about the man had caught his eye, besides the familiarity and relative rarity of meeting someone from his own continent in this part of the world. He seemed to be the typical rich playboy - his looks were attractive enough, even when the guy irradiated a slightly arrogant and too self-confident air. However, any of his charisma and beauty were wasted due to the way his features didn’t bother to hide his boredom and displeasure at the coquettish antics of the three women who had sneakily approached and surrounded him, even when he was indulging them fully. By all means, he shouldn’t have stood out to Minami’s scrutiny.

Then, his mind provided him with a mental image of Minami’s source of distress and the young actor realized it - the culprit was the man’s hair: its dull brown hues, its volume and shape, the way it slightly curled at the end… it was all similar to Haruki’s.

Clearly Minami wasn’t nearly drunk enough yet.

Signing at the waiter for another refill, he happened to meet his target’s gaze and found himself being observed in return.

Minami was pondering the merits of boldy winking at the man, looking for a reaction of sorts, toying with the idea of playing with another person to relieve his own feelings of having been played with, when their eye contact was broke by the other man, who went back to his companions’ conversation.

Nonplussed, Minami returned to his primary task of getting thoroughly drunk and, once the waiter delivered his next drink, proceeded to request he bring and leave the whole bottle at his table.

By the time he had emptied half the bottle, Minami felt a presence by his left side.

“Aren’t you too young to be drinking, never mind downing a whole bottle by yourself?” His voice was low and gruff, full of rough edges and traces of duskiness. It was so far removed from Haruki’s way of speaking - all soft sounds and melodious rhythm - that when Minami looked up again and stared at the man’s expression, the illusion was downright shattered and he couldn’t recall how he’d ever found similarities between them.

Perhaps it was for the best.

“If this were Japan, perhaps. Alas, there’s nothing forbidding a nineteen-year-old to drink alcohol here in Northmare,” Minami crisply replied.

The man hummed in acknowledgement. “So you’re a fellow Japanese.” He switched from speaking in English as he had so far and continued in their shared mother tongue. “I’m afraid I’m still worried about your liver, or the fact you don’t strike me as the high-tolerance type. Especially when you’re not used to drinking in the first place.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I don’t understand why what I do should be any of your business, sir.”

The man let out a dry laugh. “It sort of is, when my family owns the hotel and it would trouble me a whole lot if you were to make a scene.”

Minami brought his glass to his mouth and took a sip. “Do you always introduce yourself in such a heavy-handed manner? If that was supposed to impress me, you managed nothing beyond dull disappointment.”

That pulled a grin out of the other. Not disencouraged in the least by Minami’s poisonous tongue, quite the contrary, the man pulled the chair in front of Minami and sat nonchalantly.

“My apologies. Let’s try again. It’s nice to meet you - I’m Midou Torao. What should I call you?”

“Natsume Minami.”

Torao took a brief moment to place the name. “Oh, the child actor. I knew your face was familiar.” He stretched his hands along the table and laced his fingers together. “So, tell me, what troubles a famous, successful person like yourself, that you would resort to such low methods of entertainment? Nineteen-year-olds should be in their room sleeping at this hour, not indulging in bad behaviour.”

“Did you live by that rule when you were my age?” Minami counteracted.

Chuckling in faint amusement, Torao conceded, “Walked right into that one, didn’t I.” After a beat of silence, he continued, in a soft, serious voice. “There was usually a reason behind it, though. Family issues, coursework stress, business problems … actually, it was mostly due to love troubles.” He smirked.

“Maybe I just wanted to hang out at a bar, you know?” Almost like an afterthought, Minami added conspiratorially, “Who wouldn’t take the chance to flirt with a stranger in a foreign country?”

To Minami’s dismay, Torao turned his head and looked around the room, innocently asking, “Anyone strike your fancy?”

Well, wasn’t that cute. Apparently the women-flatterer couldn’t recognize when he was the one under attack.

“Do you take me as the type to make small talk with someone I have no interest in?”

Minami immersed himself in studying the changes in Torao’s microexpressions, from dim puzzlement to an infinitesimal widening of his eyes and a flash of surprise, an awed “oh” making it past his lips. Such a fun person to tease.

Torao made a fast recovery, though, swiftly declaring, “You have exquisite taste.” And then he actually had the gall to bat his eyelashes, the cheeky bastard.

Minami shouldn’t be finding it this endearing, but if anything, he could always blame it on the alcohol. “You shouldn’t flatter yourself,” he breezily reproached. “Although I must admit to having a penchant for beautiful things.”

Torao only snorted in reply.

“I bet you’re used to being praised all the time.” Or maybe it was Minami who didn’t know how to give out compliments that were simultaneously true, fresh and convincing. If he did, surely he would have managed to reach Haruki’s heart by now.

Even though that was a treacherous train of thought, and Minami had been successfully not dwelling on Haruki during the past hour, he allowed himself an instant of weakness and delved further. “I wonder what sort of words would sway someone like you.” Perhaps Torao’s answer would provide him some assistance in dealing with Haruki.

Yet somehow, that must have been the wrong thing to say. Torao’s countenance grew visibly distant, coldly snipping: “There’s no need to say pretty things if you want something from me. Whatever it is, I have plenty to spare anyway.”

Looks like Minami must have touched a sore spot for the guy. That peaked his curiosity, but he would rather not pry any further. They had a fun mood going on so far, and it might not be too late to savage it.

Unsure of whether he would just be rebuffed, something which kept happening more and more frequently these days, Minami didn’t keep the petulance out of his voice: “I can’t speak for others, but just so you know, I’m not in the habit of feigning affection.”

Torao let the silence build between them, but Minami noted the boundary the other had set gradually disappearing, the stiffness that had formed on Torao’s shoulders relaxing bit by bit.

With a sigh that seemingly punctuated his decision to merely drop the subject entirely, Torao murmured an apology and attempted to resume their previous topic of conversation.

“You still haven’t really told me the reason you’re upset.” Then, realizing the sheer hypocrisy in asking Minami to open up when Torao himself had shut him down, he added. “I will listen and won’t judge you, I promise.” And when Minami continued to ignore him, “You can ask me anything afterwards too and I will do my best to answer.”

That was a reasonable enough proposition. Minami could use the rare opportunity to vent - he wasn’t used to other people being genuinely interested in what he had to say; when Minami spoke earnestly everyone just tended to infer the meaning it suited them best, instead of what he had actually meant. The more it happened, the less inclined to share his sincere feelings he had grown to become.

And besides, Torao was a stranger, someone he had met abroad, a person he was unlikely to ever cross paths with again unless he made the effort to, even if they lived in the same country and were both celebrities of sorts. It was too tempting to pass.

“You must be at least a Level 4 friend to unlock my tragic backstory,” Minami quipped. “But there’s a secret level-up hotkey: you only need to keep me entertained.”

“Very well,” Torao nodded. “Why don’t we go to my room, then.”

To Torao’s merit, there was nothing inherently suggestive about his tone. But Minami - while relatively lacking in such experience - wasn’t naive enough to not be aware of what it meant to leave a bar with someone, who he had been shamelessly, though harmlessly, flirting with and even had admitted to finding his looks attractive.

And despite it not being neither quite what Minami had expected nor what he had been aiming for, he found himself assenting and following after Torao.

On the way, the two of them settled into a fluid, effortless discussion of Northmare’s best sightseeing attractions, which evolved into Torao questioning Minami about other countries he had travelled to and exchanging his own opinions of them. Apparently the Midou family had at least one hotel in almost every nation. But from his descriptions, Minami could discern that, as much as Torao had toured an extensive amount of dream destinations, he didn’t seem to have ever left the hotel’s comfort and explored beyond. The undisguised longing in Torao’s words hinted that it wasn’t by choice. Minami could relate to that feeling of being caged by others’ expectations, not free to pursue their heart’s desire, no matter how selfish.

When they paused their steps in front of the master suite Torao was currently occupying, Minami braced himself for the cold feet to appear, especially now that the chat and short walk had sobered him up somewhat. However, he couldn’t find it in himself to regret taking Torao’s offer.

Which, once Torao did nothing besides leading him to the sitting area, gesturing for Minami to pick a side of the sofa first, and taking a seat on the opposite end, while purely carrying on their innocuous dialogue, Minami realized he might have sorely misunderstood. Swallowing down the first inklings of disappointment, he instead examined the room, in a veiled search for details that would offer more information about Torao.  

Besides the conspicuous DVD, ostensibly forgotten on the coffee table, its plastic cover not fully shut, the room was surprisingly absent of other personal effects.

“Are we watching the movie?”

Interrupted in the middle of speaking, Torao’s demeanor faltered just barely and bordered on bashful. “If you want to. There’s a few books and CDs in the drawers, if that’s what you’d prefer. I’m afraid I don’t have many other alternatives to entertain you, Minami.”

“Your company is already interesting enough,” he replied reassuringly, while picking up the DVD and skimming the summary. It was one of those mainstream American comic hero films. As someone who worked in the industry from a young age, the only cinema Minami tended to watch was limited to reference material for his characters, or the full filmographies of directors he would be working with. Since he had never been offered a role in a science fiction setting, he wasn’t too familiar with this type of stories. On the other hand, glancing at the credits, there was a name he did recognize.

“I love this composer’s soundtracks,” he commented out loud.

“Really? I don’t usually go out of my way to pay attention to the soundtrack, but I think the main theme for this movie is really cool. It suits the story perfectly and complements its motifs of justice and corruption, as well as the stifling action.” Torao chattered excitedly. He obviously loved this film a lot.

Minami smiled encouragingly, prompting Torao to continue speaking about his other favourite aspects while he busied himself setting up the DVD player, and then summing up any previous knowledge about the pre-established universe that would help understand the movie, once it started playing.

At some point, both Torao and Minami moved more towards the middle of the sofa, their legs almost touching one another’s.

After a few minutes, Minami had to admit it was indeed a compelling watch. Even if he was starting to feel drowsy, the alcohol finally getting to him, and Torao’s warmth nearby - as well as his captivating voice chiming in with occasional energetic remarks and reactions - irresistibly lulling him to sleep. Before he allowed himself to doze off completely, Minami coveted a convenient pillow and thus casually positioned his head against Torao’s shoulder.


He couldn’t tell how long he had managed to sleep but when Minami stirred into consciousness again, the movie was still playing. Torao hadn’t changed their position, until getting up and fetching a glass of water, upon noticing Minami had stirred. “Does your head hurt?”

“You do realize I didn’t actually drink that much.”

“If you say so. Certainly not the amount you would have if I didn’t intervene.”

Despite having missed most of the plot, Minami focused on the scene now playing out in the screen. The main character was displaying an unyielding amount of devotion towards someone who had apparently been a close friend but now stood on the opposite side of the conflict. It was a touching moment, well acted-out and flaunting brilliant direction and cinematography, the score topping off the scene and impeccably conveying both characters’ state of mind. It also hit too close to home.

“I wish someone would ever love me this much,” he murmured unknowingly, while tracing the glass rim with his thumb. “Why do we always end up loving the people who hurt us the most?” he whined in a defeated manner.

Torao approached him cautiously, carefully taking the glass out of his hand and placing it back on the coffee table. He moved Minami’s legs so they’d be sitting facing each other and gently grasped his hands. “My offer still stands,” was the only thing he said, even when the silence stretched for minutes on end.

And then, Minami finally let his mouth form the words that had been stuck on his throat for the whole evening, for the entire duration of his stay in Northmare.

Without divulging his identity or any other details that were best kept confidential, he nevertheless told Torao of his and Haruki’s first meeting, the broad strokes of the pianist’s tricky situation, of his own helplessness and frustration at not being enough, not for Haruki nor for his mother’s expectations and neither for his own happiness. He was tired of reaching out and yet failing to dispel the emptiness inside him, to the point that there was barely anything else left to give.

Oddly, he had thought confessing all of this out loud would make him more depressed, or fill his eyes with tears, but he didn’t feel anything other than like he had finally let go of an insurmountable burden.

Torao had let him speak uninterruptedly, only sporadically asking for a small clarification or reacting with indignation at a certain development.

Once Minami had finished, he returned Torao’s kindness by extending the same offer, listening intently as Torao explained how his family treated him more like a mascot than an actual person, how often he was approached by people who only cared about what he could provide them with, who held them to an unfair standard, who didn’t bother to try to know who he really was, beyond his image. He even delved into his love of heroes and how others misunderstood and belittled it. Even if it originated from unfortunate circumstances, it turned out that they had a lot in common.

Minami couldn’t remember ever being this honest with another person before and receiving the same amount of sincerity and respect in return.

“Thank you so much, Midou-san, for insisting on listening to me.” He squeezed Torao’s hands, still clasped in his own. “For once, I feel like trying to be the one making selfish demands,” Minami concluded, languidly raising his arms and resting them over Torao’s neck. “What do you say?”

“Of course. You have every right to, Minami.” His words were fierce, full of spirit. “It is only fair.”

Minami appreciated them dearly, but Torao was missing the point entirely.

Rolling his eyes, Minami leaned in further, inching his head upwards to close the distance between them. “Did you fail to notice,” he whispered, “that this was your cue,” he brought their faces together, noses brushing, breaths mingling, “to kiss me?”

He allowed his question to hover in the air, for the time it took Torao’s brain to catch up to what was happening, not missing a fraction of Torao’s expression from this up close, watching for the very second his eyes softened, glimmering with anticipation, a sparkle of lust greeting him back.

Nevertheless, when he at last decided to move, it was to tentatively caress Minami’s right cheek, his touch gentle and feather-like. Minami had half a mind to roll his eyes once more, and just promptly pull Torao down and get on with it, when he finally sensed Torao’s lips pressing against his own. It was an affectionate kiss, a soft and brief meeting of lips, lightly touching, slowly exploring. It made Minami feel warm inside, the single moment too perfect, too precious, the flawless and foregone conclusion to the tension that had built up between them during what had been a most memorable night.

And yet, it wasn’t enough. The second their mouths untangled a little for a catch of breath, Minami latched onto Torao’s lips again, but roughly this time, deepening the kiss and imbuing it with all of his desperation from the past weeks, as well as the desire he felt for this near stranger, who had bothered to inquire about his problems, had listened and offered his compassion, had gotten angry on his behalf, had in turn shared personal fears, talked about his dreams which he had almost forgotten how to voice, whose mere company and presence had provided invaluable comfort and put him at ease, at the time when he needed it the most.

Torao matched Minami’s relentless pace just as passionately, while letting his back drop until it hit the sofa and bringing Minami downwards with him, maneuvering them into a position where Minami could conveniently straddle him.

They separated again, and Minami took a moment to rove appreciatively over the mess he had made of Torao. His hair was splayed against the sofa’s seat cushion, in utter dishevel thanks to Minami grabbing it and running his fingers through Torao’s curls. His cheeks were flushed, his pupils dilated, his lips upturned in a drowsy yet hungry grin.

Minami could only imagine what picture he himself painted for Torao’s self-satisfied gaze.

Giggling at the sheer irreality of the evening’s turn of events, Minami let both of his hands trail seductively over Torao’s chest, his mouth retracing the same steps afterwards. “We should probably take this to bed. I think the sofa is too small for us.”

“You call all the shots tonight, darling. I will oblige your every demand,” Torao casually allowed.

“Will you now,” Minami parroted rhetorically, while climbing out of the sofa and helping Torao to his feet.

When Minami started walking towards the bed, Torao didn’t break contact, leaning against his back, embracing him by the waist and nesting his face against the right side of the other’s neck. He hummed in confirmation against Minami’s skin, dropping lazy kisses along the path of his jugular.

At the rhythm of each of Torao’s quick pecks, as they unhurriedly reached their destination, Minami felt the fire that had consumed him just a moment ago settle into a tender, pulsing ember of tenderness and assurance.

His body’s tiredness was catching up with him again. “Will you take care of me, then?” he proposed.

“It is my privilege,” was the reassurance he got, before Torao got a headstart on discarding their clothes and moving towards Minami’s arousal, putting his mouth to work and leisurely exploring every nook and cranny, learning Minami’s tells, what brought him pleasure, what he tasted like.

After they were both sated, Torao laid down beside Minami’s sleeping form, nesting against his pale, naked body, his head settled in the crook of the younger man’s neck, and was soothed into slumber by Minami’s steady - and dare he say, tranquil, at long last - heartbeat.