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Where the Morning Glories Crawl

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“Thanks, Sensei,” Hifumi said, immediately latching onto his arm as they moved from the dinner table to the front hall despite the way Doppo protested. Hifumi was always doing this- overstepping his bounds, barging into Jakurai’s space the same way he did Doppo’s- as if he was entitled to by a lifetime’s worth of it. Hifumi was touchy; Doppo had figured that out years upon years ago, the unfortunate target of most of Hifumi’s clinging. Such was the fate of two people whose only lasting friends were each other. But that didn’t mean he was allowed to intrude on Jakurai just because he was too polite to do as most people did and shove Hifumi off. Doppo would have to take matters into his own hands.

“Come on, Hifumi. Let’s go home.”

“What,” Hifumi whined, still clinging, “we can’t stay?”

“Perhaps another evening,” Jakurai replied, making no move to pry Hifumi off his arm- courteous and indulging as always- even as Hifumi launched himself up onto tiptoe and leaned over to plant a light kiss on his cheek. Jakurai smiled, muttered something to the lingering Hifumi- and certainly, thought Doppo, as expected of-

Wait.

What?

Doppo blinked. Hifumi had detached himself from Jakurai’s arm to accept his jacket, shrugging it back on with his usual pleased energy- no, Doppo reevaluated, not usual. This was something even brighter, basking and satisfied. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d seen this kind of Hifumi before- or if it was a nostalgic sort of familiar, a memory plucked from a fading dream. Hifumi stepped down to slip on his shoes, and Doppo watched with a disjointed sort of consciousness, thoughts racing but thinking nothing at all.

In no time Hifumi popped back to his feet, shoes tied and smile blinding. “Doppo? Ready to go?”

“Huh?” Doppo jolted back to awareness. “Ah, yeah. Thank you for having us, Sensei.”

Neither of them acknowledged the kiss, nor that Doppo had seen the kiss. There were no sappy partings, no bold declarations of love. They slipped out the door with a cheery see you later! from Hifumi. And as the door clicked shut behind them, Doppo reevaluated. He hadn’t seen Hifumi like this before- there was no way. If he was right… There was no way.

But.

They made their way to the elevator down the hall, stepped inside with the soft whoosh of the doors. Hifumi reluctantly jabbed the button for the first floor as Doppo moved on autopilot, thoughts whirling.

If that meant what I thought it meant.

But.

He’d imagined it. Clearly. He’d had one too many a glass of the alcohol they didn’t drink because they avoided it in front of Jakurai when they could. He’d been completely and utterly fried out by all the work he’d done that day and managed to hallucinate an entire Hifumi-esque action even though tonight was… Sunday.

The elevator doors slid open. Hifumi bounded out of them, across the lobby, grabbed hold of one of the doors and ushered him out before leaping forwards again to overtake Doppo at his dazed pace. They’d hail a taxi once they made their way to the main street, their well-worn routine. It wasn’t a long walk, but with all Doppo’s thoughts ground to a halt it felt like a small eternity to the corner. The evening was bustling, somewhere that wasn’t here. Cars rushed in the distance and the low roar of the city echoed down in strains of conversation from open windows and laughter from across the street, raucous from the teenagers spilling out from an alley.

But.

But, but, but-

He couldn’t think like this. The late September air was bitterly, unseasonably cold against his skin. Doppo shoved his hands in his pockets and finally, finally lifted his voice to Hifumi’s back as he drew to a tentative halt. “Hifumi.”

“Yeah?” Hifumi called back, but didn’t stop. His head was already craned towards the corner, searching for a taxi ahead. Hifumi wouldn’t turn back; Doppo took a breath and said again-

“Hifumi.”

“Doppo?”

This time Hifumi did stop, glancing back over his shoulder with a tilt of his head. His name was a puff of white against Hifumi’s lips, soft as smoke before vanishing without a trace. He was waiting for an answer, but Doppo wasn’t sure what he was going to say- all his thoughts were bursts of radio static, as they had been since… Had he even said a proper goodbye? Doppo couldn’t remember. If he hadn’t- how rude. He’d have to apologize. The last thing he wanted was for Jakurai to think that he was ungrateful for everything he’d done for them.

He said flatly, mind still elsewhere, “What was that?”

“Oh! Oh, yeah. Guess I’ve gotta tell you properly now, huh?” Hifumi grinned. Someone else might not have understood- or at least played at ignorance a polite exchange- but never Hifumi. Especially not between them. Doppo began to wish he hadn’t asked. For just a second Hifumi glanced away- back up at the building they’d just left, then- “Me and Sensei are dating, now.”

“What.”

“Come on, be a little happier for your best friend!” Hifumi said, trotting back towards him, the headlights of a passing car catching the mischief in his eyes.

“What?” It was all Doppo could muster. Hifumi clapped him too-hard on the shoulder, and he stumbled forwards a step on the pavement before Hifumi slung his arm over his shoulders. It brought them side by side, a familiar pose in a brittle situation.  

Their steps fell into easy time. Like that Hifumi started them towards the corner again, speaking lightly to the air before them- “Shocked, huh? Well, I get it. You know, I was totally convinced he was gonna turn me down. He always seems so, I dunno, untouchable?”

Oh, Doppo knew. He knew full well how very untouchable Jinguji Jakurai seemed.

(Better than Hifumi, even.)

“When did this happen?”

“Uh, you know? Just, like, a while ago? I guess?” Hifumi waved his free hand vaguely about him in a manner that was probably supposed to help elaborate on how long ago exactly he meant. As usual, it did absolutely nothing. In a more coherent mood, Doppo might have been able to glean some kind of meaning from it. But as it was he was still reeling from the incident in the apartment, and the thought of trying to process anything else had him on the verge of short-circuiting entirely.

“You guess?”

Hifumi shot him a guilty look. He was the type to keep surprisingly meticulous track of things like holidays and anniversaries- they both were. (Even if Doppo was also the type to end up forgetting anyway.) Hifumi amended, tone serious despite his words, “Two weeks. But we made it semi-sort-of official eight days ago. Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

Hifumi glanced away, somewhere far in the distance over Doppo’s shoulder. His expression was unusually frustrated, pinched in a way that Doppo knew meant that he was, for once in his life, considering his words carefully. “It’s complicated! There’s a thing we’re talking about!”

“A thing?”

“Geez, Doppo! I just said it’s complicated!” Hifumi’s outburst wasn’t angry, but Doppo would have had to be deaf to hear it as anything other than exasperated. “I promise I’ll tell you! I’d tell you right now, but Jakurai-san would get mad. Okay?”

Their steps faltered; Hifumi unwound his arm from Doppo’s shoulders to run up and hail them a cab without hearing his answer. Doppo followed idly along behind. He remembered little of the ride home through the colorless city, even less of the walk up to their apartment, all actions he was more than used to doing by rote. Even their goodnight calls faded more to sensation than memory as they disappeared into their respective rooms- something that hadn’t been their usual routine since Hifumi had started working as a host. But Doppo hardly registered it.

Of course. Of course. This was always the way his luck had run; one step behind and a thousand regrets left to wallow in. There’d never been anything else; when he’d dared started to think that things would change he didn’t know.

He collapsed into bed, face pressed into the pillow as flush as it would go. Maybe he could fall asleep just like this and slowly run out of oxygen while he was dreaming. That would be an easy way to go. One second sweet dreams, then the next- the void, or whatever came after. It would even come with bonuses. No more overtime, no more scoldings, no more cuts to his paycheck because he’d ended up taking the fall for someone else for the thousandth time in his pitiful existence.

Doppo took a stale breath and turned his head to the side. No, he wasn’t going to suffocate.

Doppo was going to burn.

 

“Kannonzaka-san?”

“Huh?”

The voice jolted Doppo from his trance. Ah, if his balding boss realized that he’d been slacking off at work then he’d only get yelled at again, and he’d already managed to miss an error once that week- but as he blinked himself back to awareness, Doppo realized it wasn’t him.

“Isn’t it almost time for your meeting?” Momose asked- looking down at him with a smile that really didn’t deserve to be turned on him, all bright and bubbly and concerned in a way really only made him feel worse. Usually it was nice to feel like someone at work cared, even if it was only lip service that a nice new hire gave to just about everyone in the suffocating office in some sort of misguided attempt to lighten the grey atmosphere she refused to give up. Right now, it mostly just felt like she was about to laugh at his misery- though, he thought, he’d needed the reminder. That’s right. He was supposed to go out for a meeting before lunch- in place of lunch, really- to…  

He glanced down at his notes. Shinjuku Central Hospital stared back up at him like some sort of cosmic joke. He’d known this, of course. This meeting had been in his planner for the past month. In another life two days ago, he’d been looking forward to it with a relish that no amount of scolding or overtime could have taken away. Now, though?

He didn’t want to see Jakurai.

...No, that was a lie. He’d never turn down the opportunity to see Jakurai, no matter the occasion. There’d been various discussions about what to do with their relationship with Shinjuku Central once Doppo had joined Matenrou, held in a closed board room and had in most part by people that weren’t him.

In what had been a burst of passion that had surprised just about everyone in the room- Doppo himself included- he’d insisted that it remain the same. He could keep his personal and professional lives perfectly separate. It had been a bold-faced lie, of course. Even back then he’d been more than a little compromised. But for some reason, some blessed whim of fate- they’d believed him.

Which meant now he was here, walking through the doors of Shinjuku Central as if the world hadn’t shifted slightly on its axis. Certainly the nurses didn’t seem to think so, long since used to his presence around the waiting rooms and chatting idly as they waved him through. Certainly the patients didn’t, too caught up in their own affairs to spare a thought to the man stumbling through the lobby, rubbing his thumb into the grip of his briefcase like a lifeline.

And why would they? thought Doppo, pushing open the usual door with a lethargy he’d thought might have lifted from his bones. The world wasn’t so generous.

In his usual manner, Jakurai was waiting for him in his examination room with a pleasantly neutral greeting. Doppo went through his presentation with as much as his usual flair as he could manage, the spark returning as Jakurai took careful notes and asked simple but insightful questions. Whether it was because Jakurai sensed something in him had been thrown off balance, teetering at a tired, precarious edge, or there was simply that much to ask about, Doppo didn’t know- but when it was all over and they’d shifted from business to casual, Jakurai invited him to stay and take their lunch breaks together with a soft smile. It was all as Doppo had grown so familiar with- but this time with just one wistful sentence more.

“It’s a shame that Hifumi-kun couldn’t stay any longer,” Jakurai said, and in that instant Doppo’s stomach dropped out. Unaware, Jakurai continued, “Ah, he stopped by earlier to deliver me lunch. Though he seemed a bit tired. He’s usually asleep by now, isn’t he?”

“Ah, Hifumi…” Doppo trailed off, unsure of what he was trying to reassure. Hifumi usually went to sleep as soon as he made it home in the morning; for him to purposely have wandered out after coming home must have been...

(Well, Doppo thought, that was what one did for someone they loved. Brought them lunch and braved the world and lost sleep just to do a nice thing or two to make them happy. Even if Jakurai would have probably preferred Hifumi just get the sleep. The last thing he needed to do was deal with another insomniac patient.)

“Ah, I’m sorry. This isn’t the time to be asking about things like that, is it? I do like to keep the personal and the professional separate,” Jakurai said, his voice a melancholy note, “though I suppose a team by its very nature blurs those boundaries.”

He smiled. Doppo forced himself to return it. Though it must have just looked like he was dying, because Jakurai’s expression dropped minutely with worry. “I apologize for keeping it a secret. Hifumi-kun and I were still in the process of talking things over, and-”

“No,” Doppo interrupted with a strong shake of his head, “No, no, it’s fine. I didn’t… I’m sorry Hifumi forgot that it wasn’t uh, something to share. He always does that. Forgets about boundaries.”

Doppo knew that better than anyone. The only question was for how much longer.

“You don’t need to apologize for Hifumi’s actions. Especially not one of this… nature.” Jakurai took unusual time to consider his words- not that they weren’t usually well chosen. But this was as if he was treading careful around something delicate- the cracked ceramic of a coffee mug lifted to hesitant lips, tentative steps over fracturing ice.

(No one had any illusions about just who was breaking.)

Congratulations, Doppo thought, bitter to himself, now it’s just awkward.

“But back to the original offer. Would you like to stay for lunch?” Jakurai invited him with a smile, as always. The break would be one of the highlights of his week, as always. And Doppo opened his mouth to accept, as always.

But.

“I’m sorry,” he said, checking his watch without ever once registering the time, “I… I can’t. I left work late. If I take any longer to get back, then they’ll add on extra overtime, and I…”

It was a terrible excuse. He was always working overtime; if he had to take on an extra hour or two, the both of them knew full well that Doppo was capable of handling it. Whether he should or not was another matter, and certainly Jakurai was always encouraging him to cut down on the amount of work he brought home wherever possible, but today, at least just for today...

“I see. Well, I certainly don’t want you overworking yourself. But make sure you eat something on the way back. Here.” Jakurai rummaged around one of his drawers a moment, then procured a small, yellow-wrapped square. Doppo recognized it as a calorie bar; if he hadn’t had Hifumi around, he had a sneaking suspicion that he’d be relying on those more than actual food. That or convenience store bento, picked up from the store on the corner every evening a shameful routine.

“For emergencies and busy days,” Jakurai explained, and curled the bar into Doppo’s palm, seeing that Doppo was too hesitant to reach out and take it himself. Given the explanation, though, he’d probably just mistaken it for surprise. His hand was unexpectedly warm as it lingered, and it took everything Doppo had not to jerk back as if he’d been burned.

“Thank you,” he mumbled and ducked his head, unable to say a word more. With that he made his inelegant retreat, lunch still untouched in his briefcase and calorie bar in hand, weighing heavy on him with a guilt that would only double down on his shoulders the second he was free of the hospital-

Because Doppo had fallen in love with Jinguji Jakurai.

There were any number of things that could have triggered the fall- his elegance, his eloquence, his calm bearing that saw straight through the anxieties that brought Doppo to a stuttering halt. The way he listened so intently to all the things Doppo would dismiss as foolish before anyone else. The confidence with which he paved their way through battle. The fond smile he oft showed them when he thought they weren’t looking.    

And to some extent, Doppo thought, they’d probably set the foundation. He couldn’t imagine walking into Jakurai’s office that first time and not nearly stumbling over himself at the sheer beauty of him, welcoming and still. He’d almost dropped his briefcase. No wonder Jakurai had taken pity on him.

But none of those had been the moment.

They’d met at a family restaurant chain after work; Doppo having gotten off just slightly after his supposed proper hours. He’d gotten lucky, really. Team activities weren’t grounds to leave work unfinished, no matter how prestigious his leader- or how valuable the customer. Jakurai hadn’t been at the waiting area, and Doppo had taken that as enough to assume that he must have already found them a booth. He went in, ignoring the little voice in the back of his head that insisted Jakurai had simply gotten fed up with waiting and gone home, regretting his decision to invite Doppo into his team at all.

But sure enough he spotted Jakurai at a booth near the entrance, a glass of water and a mug of what Doppo assumed to be either tea or coffee before him.

“Sorry I’m late,” Doppo said, ducking his head and hoping dearly that Jakurai recognized he meant it in sincerity rather than simple nicety. Jakurai shook his head delicately as he slid into the other side of the booth, meaning no harm had been done. Doppo continued with a bit more confidence- “Hifumi was supposed to message you, but I’m not sure if he did. He’ll be here later.”

Jakurai nodded; Doppo took it as a sign that everything was under control. “He did, but I’m glad to have the confirmation. He sent me a draft of his lyrics this morning. I’ve had a bit of time to look over them. They’re quite…” Jakurai paused a moment, and from his slight smile Doppo surmised he was hiding a bought of laughter- “They’re quite interesting. They show off quite a bit of one of his more… well-known facets. Has he shown you yet?”

Doppo shook his head. Apparently Hifumi had gotten an idea and ran with it; for all Doppo knew he’d finished weeks ago.

Jakurai stifled what might have been another laugh, though it was gone almost as quickly as Doppo registered it. And it was a shame. He’d really like to see Jakurai laugh. His expression was almost always placid, considering calmly the situation before him. So rarely had Doppo seen it change, and so did these moments of warmth he think to savor.

“I’m sure you’ll find them quite amusing.” Doppo kind of doubted that, but before he had the chance to dwell on it any longer, Jakurai continued- “And? Have you finished yours? There’s no problem if you haven’t.”

He had- put the last few touches on at work, scribbled them down in the notepad he kept at the side of his desk and hoped desperately that his boss wouldn’t look over his shoulder at the most inopportune of moments. That also meant that he hadn’t had time to rewrite them cleanly, and with sudden hesitation did he present Jakurai his notes. At least they were legible. Hopefully. Probably.

Jakurai paged through them, in his silence rose the background noise of the restaurant- silverware clinking roughly against plates, the rattle of the ice at the soda fountain in the corner, a server calling a nasal Welcome! towards the bells rattling as the door opened. Doppo forced himself not to fidget as it all washed over him, waiting for some sort of response from Jakurai- though the way he was reading them so expressionlessly certainly didn’t help Doppo’s nerves. But finally, just as Doppo thought it might have been time to excuse himself to get a glass of water and kindly never return- “These are your lyrics?”

Doppo didn’t quite understand the tone he was using. It was contemplative, certainly, but that wasn’t all. A step removed from normal, interested as he always was but tinged with something else. If he dared put a word to it, Doppo feared something might crumble.

He said instead, stumbling over himself. “Uh, sorry. They’re… I’ll rewrite them. I should’ve known they weren’t good enough. It’s my fault. I should have known-”

“No,” Jakurai said, and only then did Doppo think to look back to where Jakurai was tracing a fingertip soft over the page, a gentleness in his eyes. “No. They are… evocative, to say the least. A tremendous honesty to both the imagery and the rhyme… They suit you. You’ve exceeded even the greatest of my expectations.”

“You’re- that’s- I-” Whatever inspiration he’d had while writing, it certainly was doing nothing for his words now. Better to just shut his mouth before he blurted out something that he’d regret. That, at least, he’d had plenty of practice in over the years.

“It’s the truth,” Jakurai added, and Doppo was struck silent, unsure if he should accept the praise. He’d worked hard on them, certainly, poured a blooming, burning life into them that he hadn’t been sure he still possessed before all of this. Though compared to anything of Jakurai’s caliber... But before he could make any choice save listen silently, Jakurai continued- “There is a pain to them, certainly. A vulnerability, if you will. But Doppo-kun… there is a strength to them that I find so very beautiful.”

And across a table filled with two hamburger steaks and terrible black tea, Doppo had fallen in love.

 

The memories followed Doppo up from the long, monochrome subway staircase, around the side of the building, cluttered up the elevator and straight into his apartment, hovering about him darker than thunderclouds and just as loud as the clap of the storm.

They were good memories. Precious ones. Even if he were to forget everything, even his own name, then he’d surely remember what he felt in that moment, clutched tight to it over even his own self.

But.

“Doppo! Welcome home! You shoulda told me you were gonna be on time! Then I would’ve made all your favorites!” Hifumi said, rushing around the corner in apron to greet him. Something sizzled on the stove, and Doppo recognized the smell instantly- hamburger steaks. Lovely. Still stuck in his memories, even when it was well past time to leave them behind.

Hifumi’s expression curled down into a frown; with a blink and a sudden new awareness did Doppo realize that the change was his fault. Doppo hadn’t meant to scowl at him- it had been more that he’d been scowling at everything, and Hifumi had just had the unfortunate timing to be there when Doppo had looked up. Luckily, Hifumi didn’t seem as if he’d taken it to heart.

“Eugh. Doppo, your face’s gonna get stuck that way!”

The scowl that Doppo sent him that time was very much was intentional. Hifumi met it with his usual grin and irreverent reply. “Scary, scary.”

Doppo said nothing as he schooled his expression back down into something more neutral, just shrugged off his shoes and set them inside the shoe box. Usually coming home to Hifumi- whether it was the person himself or just a note in his handwriting- was a bright spot at the end of his day. But right now he just didn’t have the patience.

“So? Bad day at work?” Hifumi ventured as they started down the hall, knowing full well that Doppo would take any opportunity he had for the last seven years to vent off his work frustrations before marching back the next day to show them up with his sheer refusal to quit. Was it the healthiest way to handle things? Not really. But it had served him so far, and so Doppo continued on with it.

Doppo shrugged. “Not really.”

He didn’t even have to lie. Today had been good, all things considered. Any day he was out of the office for a meeting with clients was, by default, about eight times better than the average day spent processing reports and running numbers and trying to figure out how he was supposed to meet his portion of the monthly quota before he dragged the entire team down with him. More stressful, perhaps, but at least it got him out of his own head.

Hifumi hummed an unsatisfied, flat little note, then pulled out the chair for him and practically shoved him down by the shoulders to sit. “Just wait there, okay? I’ll bring out dinner! I made one of your favorites!”

That’ll cheer you up!

It went unspoken, but Doppo heard it clear as day as Hifumi skittered back to the kitchen and began rattling around just out of sight. There was the distinctive scrape of a pan across the burner, and then an entire set of then that Doppo wasn’t nearly kitchen-savvy enough to guess at the purpose of- but it was certainly more than Hifumi’s usual plating. And sure enough, what Hifumi set down before him a few minutes later was a platter of omurice. Doppo was scrawled atop the top in ketchup, as if they were ten years old again and messing around in the family kitchen because they’d realized they could have whatever they wanted as a snack after school so long as they figured out how to make it themselves- or at least Hifumi did, anyway. Even back then, Doppo’s aptitude for all things domestic had been in the negatives. The hiragana drawn atop was just as clear as it had always been- Hifumi’s hands always had been steady. That was probably half of why he was good at fishing, and building models, and cooking, and-

Wait.

“Hifumi, what happened to the-”

“No idea what you’re talking about!” Hifumi chimed, and stabbed into his own plate with abandon. Doppo shook his head- as always, Hifumi the terrible liar- and slowly picked at his food. Even with the change, he really had no appetite today.

Though it was never going to slip beneath Hifumi’s notice. Doppo had always eaten anything Hifumi had made, even before the days they’d moved in together. He couldn’t recall anything that he’d ever disliked, for that matter- not because he considered himself someone who’d eat anything, but rather because he couldn’t imagine there was anything out there that Hifumi couldn’t make taste at least halfway decent.

Which must have been why Hifumi called over the table, staring at him with a worried sort of attentiveness he usually liked to hide beneath a layer of teasing or two- “Doppo? Are you mad at me?”

Hifumi’s tone was uncharacteristically soft; he didn’t venture into it often. Or, to be more accurate, Doppo was one of the few people whose opinions he cared enough to turn it on. Not that it made him feel any better.

It was all his fault. Just as Hifumi told him all the time- you did nothing wrong.

“I’m not mad at you.”

And he wasn’t. Not really. It wasn’t as if he’d told Hifumi, and Doppo had well over two decades of experience that had taught him if you didn’t tell Hifumi outright, he’d never notice. Well. Towards most, at least. Whether it was just because they’d known each other for so long, or because something in their personalities clicked- Hifumi had always been a little bit better at reading him. He’d hoped, if only somewhere deep in the depths of him that had one day dared to think something would come of it, that this would be the same.

“Just not hungry,” he said, and stood from the table. “Sorry. It was good.”

Hifumi let out a long breath. “Good! ‘Cuz there’s something I want to ask you. I’m probably still not supposed to? But?”

Doppo sighed and shook his head. “Ask me later. I’m going to sleep for a little bit.”

“I’ll save the rest for breakfast! Sound good?” Hifumi asked, following him to the door, clinging onto the frame so Doppo couldn’t slam it behind him without some sort of answer. Not without crushing Hifumi’s fingers, at least. And they both knew he’d never do that. Not when they were both still mildly traumatized from the time they were eight and Doppo accidentally had.

(Hifumi had cried. His fingers had been bruised for three whole weeks. Doppo had vowed to never, ever make Hifumi cry again- and for eleven years, he’d made good on that promise. He wasn’t going back on it now. Not ever.)

“Yeah,” he answered, without really processing what Hifumi had said. Hifumi reluctantly stepped back from the door. The space between them was still just a step, but to Doppo then it felt immeasurably greater- the gap between their words, perhaps. A canyon, carved out between the skyscrapers of this city they called home.

But Hifumi didn’t quite let him go with just that. He said, so earnest beneath the quiet tone that Doppo almost wanted to sigh, “Hey... Doppo-chin? You’re not just gonna brush me off forever like with the fishing stuff, right? Promise?”

“Promise.”

Though that one he may very well just have to break. Not that he didn’t think Hifumi wouldn’t understand. If anything, it was the opposite- Hifumi would probably understand far too well. He’d just shown it now. Even though he hadn’t known- even though there was no way he could have.

So he’d have to break it. That was fine. It’ll be all my fault, thought Doppo, pulling off his tie without the energy to do anything else, and I’ll only have myself to blame. The way it should be.

Doppo fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow and dreamed of nothing.

 

There was no breakfast waiting for him when he woke up- no voice calling his name, threatening to shake him out of bed if so necessary. And that was… unusual, Doppo thought as he stared up at the ceiling, blinking bleary-eyed and feeling dead. Unusual, but not unheard of. Some days- the ones where Hifumi had accepted one too many drinks and been dragged to one too many afterparties- he came home and passed out face first in his bed only half-out of his suit, a rose squished against his pillow like a mockery of romance. Doppo never begrudged him those, though if he needled Hifumi with a few comments about watching himself, well- the both of them knew it came from a good place.

And other days… other days Hifumi came home with hands trying so valiantly to hide their shaking as he unbuttoned his suit jacket. Hifumi usually woke him up for those, though. Doppo never begrudged him those, either. After all, Hifumi had never shown him anything but concern during the long nights he’d been sleepless, either.

But today, the bedroom was empty. Hifumi had never come back for the night. And if he thought about it… If he thought about it, Hifumi had been off, yesterday. And he’d wanted to stay at Jakurai’s the other night, before Doppo had gone and dragged him back home.

Doppo could’ve laughed, if the circumstances hadn’t been so bleak. Here he’d thought Hifumi was the half of them who couldn’t read the atmosphere to save his life. Turns out I can be blind when I want to be, too.

The thoughts spiraled, as they always did. This wasn’t going to be a one-time thing. This was going to happen more, and more, and eventually the days that Hifumi didn’t make it home- whether because of work or because he’d decided to spend the night away at Jakurai’s- would outnumber the ones he returned. They’d spent so long together, Doppo had almost forgotten that it wouldn’t continue forever. There was an end to these things. It was only natural.

But if he moved out, then Doppo wouldn’t be able to afford the rent on this place. Not after losing that prize money. Then again- if he moved out, then Doppo wouldn’t need the other bedroom anyway. Hopefully Hifumi would decide to give him warning, and not just run out one day on an impulse. Then he’d be causing Jakurai trouble, too.

But Hifumi was responsible when he wanted to be. Doppo was confident Jakurai had seen that in him clearly- not from the moment they’d met, but certainly from when they’d explained their case afterwards. Despite all appearances to the contrary, Hifumi had a good heart. That was surely why Jakurai had fallen in love with him. That had to be why he’d skipped straight over Doppo, found him interesting only when Hifumi was around-

Doppo shook his head, trying to clear the negativity that swarmed him. He was being pathetic. Worse than pathetic. He wasn’t even worthy of lying in the dirt on the side of the road, like this. Doppo knew that.

But still.

Jealousy. Jealousy, a terrible thing that ate through every rational thought that told him to just be happy for the two people he’d grown to care for most in the world. It was just… Doppo turned around, shutting the door to Hifumi’s empty bedroom and stumbling into the chill kitchen in search of something he could throw on the stove or in the microwave to go with some leftover rice.

(It was just that they’d never seemed so distant, before.)

 

But if the problem was distance, then all Doppo had to do was close it.

Don’t be stupid, he told himself in the mirror the next Saturday, as he did more days than he liked to admit. Nothing is changing. Everything is the same as it was yesterday.

For him, at least. And that was how it should have been. Nothing had changed, and nothing needed to. If Doppo just put in an extra little bit of effort, then it would all be back to normal with errant thoughts shoved back down to the depths of him where they belonged.

There was an exhibition being put on somewhere close, a display at an art gallery featuring the works of some foreign artist that Doppo had never heard of but seemed to be drawing acclaim all the same. It was a sculpture artist, and the flyer pinned up in the lobby seemed impressive enough, even if Doppo really couldn’t glean anything from it other than they were better than his lopsided mounds of clay from the sixth grade that assured him he really wasn’t cut out for a career in art. But Hifumi liked that sort of thing, even if it wasn’t exactly his usual scene. Doppo would drag himself out of bed more than willingly if it fixed the uneasy air hanging over their apartment.

He called out casually from the couch, still nursing a third cup of cooling coffee that he didn’t really need save to give him something to do with his hands- “Hey, Hifumi?”

“Yeah?” Hifumi lifted his head from where he’d been wiping the table, tilted it slightly at the call.

There was no turning back now. He took a breath. “Did you see the flyers? For the art exhibition?”

Hifumi nodded, just short of vehement. How he could be so energetic in the mornings- especially when they were usually when he fell asleep- Doppo would never know. “Yeah! Why?”

Doppo squeezed his mug, fingers flexing across the ceramic. “If you still have time off, I thought we could go.”

“When?”

If he was going to act, then he better not delay it. If he did, then it would never happen. Weekends were the only times when their schedules would match up even relatively easily; by the time they managed to line up another free day, the exhibit, in all likelihood, would have long since moved on. “How about today?”

Hifumi’s expression immediately dropped down into an awkward frown and a stare aimed straight at the table. Doppo hesitated- maybe Hifumi wasn’t interested after all. He’d guessed wrong. Better to cover his tracks while he still could- “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Hifumi blinked, and in that split second- only in that second- did Doppo register the look in his eyes as guilt. “Ah, no, sorry! I wanna go, it’s just, uh.”

There would be plenty of women there, no doubt, but time and experience had taught them both that as long as they stuck together there wouldn’t be a problem. So the only other protest he could have was...

“Spit it out.”

Hifumi looked up sheepishly. “I have a date?”

Oh.

“That’s where we were gonna go, actually! Do you wanna come with?” Hifumi asked after a moment of awkward silence that hadn’t been between them since… Since…

“It’s a date, right?”

“Yeah, but-”

Doppo shook his head. Their boundaries may have been lower than average when it came to each other, but even Doppo- especially Doppo- knew that was a step too far. Actually, it might have been a little bit alarming that Hifumi didn’t realize that. If he showed up to a date, tagging along behind Hifumi like a lost puppy who didn’t know what to do while his master was away… Doppo didn’t even want to think about it.

The thoughts came anyway, because he’d never been any good at stopping them. Jakurai would hate him. Or no. Even the depths of his doubt could never imagine Jakurai turned on him in hatred- save perhaps the rare nightmare, more concerned with fear than rationality. But he’d pity him. He’d stop thinking Doppo was interesting and instead come to think he was simply sad. A pathetic little creature who’d die of a lonely heart. A rabbit in a cage, left out for the neighborhood cats to toy with as they pleased.    

Apparently his silence had lasted too long; Hifumi spoke over it, tone insistent- “I mean, yeah, but…” He promptly trailed off again. It was unlike him, and no one knew that better than Doppo.

They’d been living together since they were eighteen and Doppo moved out to Tokyo for school, and they’d been inseparable for years before that. With how much time Hifumi had spent sleeping over at the Kannonzaka household since they’d met at age six, that might as well have counted towards the total. So with well over twenty years of living together, they’d more than had their share of silences. A few times they’d stubbornly refused to speak to each other for days after a fight- usually over something incredibly petty- but…

He set the coffee mug down on the table, crossed the distance between him and Hifumi in a few bold steps.

“Go and have fun,” Doppo said, patting Hifumi lightly on the shoulder. He managed a smile that he actually sort of felt. He didn’t want Hifumi stuck with him, gloomy and crumbling and decaying away like the undersides of Shinjuku. Jakurai would probably understand how to properly appreciate the art, anyway- unlike Doppo, who had no idea how Hifumi managed to build ships in bottles, let alone how someone could sculpt a work of art from nothing.

But still Hifumi lingered. “You’re sure?”

He’d never forgive himself if Hifumi gave up on happiness for his sake. He pushed forwards gently. “Hifumi. Go.”

“Wait, wait, I’m not going now,” Hifumi protested, digging his socked feet into the flooring, and only then did Doppo register that Hifumi was still wearing his pyjamas, hair a fluffy mess. The rag he’d been using to clean was still atop the table- and Doppo had to wonder when they were meeting. It wasn’t as if he’d woken up particularly early. But when he asked, the answer came, lackadaisical- “Mmmm, in an hour? Ish?”

Doppo shook him by the shoulders. “Ish? Hifumi, you can’t be late to a meeting with Sensei! Or maybe a meeting, but not a date! I’ll finish this. You go get ready.”

“Are you sure?” Hifumi asked, trying his best to shirk away from Doppo’s shaking to very little success, and only then did Doppo stop.

“Of course I’m sure,” he said, staring Hifumi straight in the eyes. For a second longer did Hifumi hesitate- and then his gaze cleared, filled with a grateful sort of acceptance that brightened it back to normal. Doppo added, dropping his hands back to his side- “And wear something nice. But not your suit.”

God, Doppo thought, what a disaster that would be. No better way to ruin a date than flirting with all the women around instead of the man you’d actually gone with. Then again, Jakurai already knew how Hifumi was. He seemed like he’d accept it, in at least some sort of roundabout way.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Hifumi said, then skittered back to his room with a spring in his step. Doppo stared after him, then glanced down at the table, where the rag still sat. After a moment, he picked it up and started on the rest of the table- not that it looked particularly dirty in the first place. Chores might have always been the bane of his existence, but if it meant Hifumi could get out the door on time, he could do that, at least.

(And besides. If Hifumi really did go- when he left Doppo behind- he’d have to learn how to do this all over again anyway.)

Not twenty minutes later, after Doppo had finished his coffee and deposited the mug in the sink to be washed by someone that wasn’t him when they returned in the evening, Hifumi bounded out of his room. He looked put together as Doppo knew he could be- if not with hair still a little on the fluffier side than the styled.

“Good?” he asked as Doppo stood again from the couch to see him out, turning a circle in place, pendants on his necklaces bounding with the motion. He ran a quick hand through his hair, to absolutely no effect, and Doppo fought back the urge to tell him to stop fiddling with it before he really did ruin it.

“Good,” Doppo affirmed. Jakurai would have to be blind not to see that, and Doppo thought him perhaps the most perceptive man he knew. Hifumi grinned; Doppo returned it, and Hifumi hummed a little tune as they made their way to the entryway, a spring in his step that somehow managed to persist even as he slipped on his shoes. Doppo rolled his eyes at Hifumi’s back- No one but Hifumi could manage that one.

But even as Doppo waved him a lackadaisical goodbye, Hifumi hesitated on the doorstep, letting in the chill air. “Doppo, you’re sure you-”

“Hifumi. I’m fine. Let me go back to sleep,” Doppo insisted, and with that last wish did Hifumi finally relent. He took a step out the door, hand backwards on the knob.

“Okay. Bye, Doppo. See you when I get back.”

“Bye, Hifumi.”

And with that, Hifumi left. The apartment was quiet; Doppo could sleep his Sunday away as he usually did without any fear of interruption. On any other day- before all of this, at least- it would have been the most appealing thing he could have been done. Today it just felt suffocating. Instead he wandered around doing nothing in particular- he dusted the coffee table, cleaned up a few glasses that Hifumi had left on the rack after washing that had dried overnight, paced around for a while wondering if he should make the trip over to the convenience store on the corner for a sandwich only to stare blankly into the fridge and realize he had no appetite anyway.

That momentary silence weighed down heavy on his shoulders, even despite the drone of the afternoon news. It consumed all else, left Doppo reeling in its wake in a way that things weren’t supposed to be. Not with Hifumi. Not when he was always so warm and welcoming.

But that morning he’d remembered- there was one other time that their silence had been just like this. Heavy, unbalanced. Unnerving, teetering on the very edge of an unstable cliff.

When they were in high school- on a mild spring afternoon, blurring fast into summer and the promise of vacation- Hifumi leaned over and kissed him. It hadn’t been much. Just a quick press of lips as Doppo turned his head, sitting together on a bench away from the center of the school courtyard. No one had been around, though Doppo couldn’t remember if there was any particular reason why- the memory of that kiss had seared the rest of the context away.

In the moment, Doppo had been stunned. Hifumi had kissed him on the cheek, before. Quite often, at that- it was some sort of habit they’d developed when they were younger that Hifumi had never quite dropped. Doppo had always thought that one day Hifumi would grow out of it. (Though privately, he wouldn’t have minded even if Hifumi never did.)

But this was different. This was… a mistake, probably. Doppo couldn’t fathom it being anything else. Hifumi was charismatic- well-liked and charming, even if it was of the blunt sort rather than the well-polished suave he’d eventually grow into. Half the time, Doppo was convinced the only reason Hifumi stayed with him was because they’d spent too long together to remember how to be apart.

Hifumi pulled back. Still neither of them spoke a single word. He hadn’t known what to say. He hadn’t been in love with Hifumi, then, and the words simply hadn’t come- though the thoughts had.

Hifumi did a dozen things on nothing but pure impulse on a daily basis. And it wasn’t as if he’d been acting any different around Doppo, before that. At the time, he’d just figured this was another one of them. He hadn’t acted any differently after the matter, either. Hifumi had clung, and Doppo had groaned but allowed it, because life with Hifumi was better than anything he could have imagined without. So the days had continued and swept them along to here, over a decade later and still close as two people could be- in all ways except one.

They never did talk about it again. But he hadn’t been in love with Hifumi, back then. He’d cared about him more than anyone that wasn’t already family, and wanted to keep Hifumi close as he could, because they were friends. Without each other, they really would have been alone. He was Doppo’s confident- bad as he was at keeping a secret- and unwavering support. No matter how often support was closer to “Doppo chasing after Hifumi and fixing the messes he creates in trying to cheer Doppo up a bit” rather than its actual meaning.

When all was said and done, Doppo had always been grateful for it. Always.

But he hadn’t been in love.

He hadn’t...

Doppo thought about it now, and wondered how he’d managed to live so long like an idiot.

If their relationship changed too much, Doppo had thought- then one day, they might end up losing each other. Relationships crumbled. Fights happened, couples broke up, two people went their separate ways and never talked again. Doppo hadn’t been such a social recluse in high school that he hadn’t seen it happen.

(But then again, the same thing had happened to friendships everyone had thought would last forever. Doppo had seen those shatter, too.)

Beside him Doppo’s phone buzzed. It didn’t take any particular amount of foresight to guess who it was from. Doppo opened his messenger without bothering to check the preview- not that it would have told him anything, anyway.

It was a photo. Hifumi sent them with almost starting frequency, their chat logs his own personal photo diary captioned with the dozen short texts he sent between. These were the ones that never made it to the pages of his social media accounts, unpolished and impulsive and candidly alluring in a way that Doppo always thought best captured why people were so drawn to him. Jakurai and Hifumi stared up at him from the screen, eyes kind and smiles wide as they threw up matching- though on Jakurai’s part, more than a little tentative- peace signs to the camera. Behind them was a statue of (what Doppo gathered to be, anyway) a giant fish, hook stuck in its side. The caption attached read, a feeble attempt at making him feel better about the morning- missing you?

Doppo set his phone down without replying.

He was going to burn?

Too late. He was already charred down to ashes.

 

The problem was. The problem was, Doppo thought, sitting across the restaurant booth from Jakurai and Hifumi as Hifumi attempted to feed Jakurai an appallingly mounded forkful of chocolate cake, he couldn’t actually be angry about any of it. He couldn’t be bitter, or petty, or any other emotion that would better be ascribed to a spurned lover on a daytime drama than someone watching the two most important people in their life make each other happy, because they were good for each other.

If Hifumi wanted to go somewhere public that he wasn’t already familiar with, then he’d have had to either risk it or ask Doppo or wear his suit, and with Doppo as busy with work as he was on top of their opposite schedules, and with Host Mode Hifumi being what Host Mode Hifumi was, none of those were exactly viable options. Granted, most days Hifumi held far less reservations about the latter than Doppo did when most times they both had to deal with the consequences, but… Like this, he had someone else to rely on. Someone else’s hand to grab, someone else’s shoulders to use as a shield against the world.

He deserved that. Doppo wasn’t so caught up in himself not to understand.

Jakurai deserved that, too. Someone he could tell his secrets to without fear, someone who could see straight to the heart of him rather than someone who stuttered, caught spellbound on the allure of the faces he projected. Someone who knew what it meant to have a stain upon their past that their presents were meant to overcome. He understood. He really did. So that was why...

“Doppo? You haven’t finished yet?”

Jakurai’s question jolted Doppo from his thoughts. He started, straightening his back and nearly knocking his fork off the table, then hesitantly shook his head.

“But you’re always writing lyrics,” Hifumi accused with all the authority of the one who took out Doppo’s trash and saw the piles of scrap paper he ended up accumulating every time a page ended up with more illegible scribbles than actual words. Doppo made a noncommittal noise that sounded something like well, that’s… without any of the actual enunciation. Suffice to say, it conveyed absolutely nothing.

Hifumi, long since used to dealing with Doppo’s non-responses, turned to Jakurai and shrugged. It was also a useless interpretation, but somehow, miraculously, Jakurai seemed to parse it correctly.

“We still have a little time before we’ll be expected to perform it,” Jakurai said, “so there’s no need to rush. For now, it’s just something to keep in mind. You’ve both grown far more experienced than when we first met.”

The reality of it hit Doppo all at once, fiercer than a tidal wave crashing over his head. They‘d really done it. It had been some weeks since they’d left the Central Ward the victors, and yet the reality was only just starting to settle in as its shadow disappeared behind them. It had been months of free time spent practicing. They’d written lyrics and performed and tripped over their own thoughts a thousand times at minimum and still managed to emerge on top. All mishaps along the way aside- they’d done it.

“Well, whatever. Doppo’s better with freestyle anyway, right?”

Hifumi just spit out whatever was on his mind. Like right now, apparently. Not to say that it wasn’t effective- Doppo could more than attest to that, as could their victory- but something about that didn’t seem to fit the occasion.

“I’m not going to freestyle our victory song, Hifumi,” Doppo hissed, though Hifumi had that particular aura about him that meant he was about to suggest something particularly awful, like why not?

“Well,” Jakurai intervened, the hint of a smile in the twitch of his lips, “there’s still time. I wouldn’t force yourself, Doppo-kun.”

“...Right.”

Doppo wasn’t sure he knew how to do anything but force himself at this point, though perhaps that belonged to a different category- to the him that had written about morning glories and the death of silence rather than companions and battlefields and all of the words drawn through them in order to seize their glory. That’s right. Things had changed. He couldn’t leave it at this.

“I will write something that suits me,” he insisted, leaving all the other words unsaid. Jakurai paused, considered him carefully.

“I’ll look forward to it,” said Jakurai, and Doppo thought that perhaps- just perhaps- he had heard all the colors painted through his words clearly after all.

 

As they left the restaurant it was obvious something had caught Hifumi’s eye- what, Doppo had no idea, but he had that particular air about him that couldn’t be denied, bright as the neon lights glaring down at them against the backdrop of the night.

“Let’s go,” Hifumi insisted, much in the way of a child determined to get their way. He grabbed Jakurai’s wrist and tugged him forward, towards one of the shops down the street.

“Then,” Doppo said, taking a step back. Just loud enough that they’d hear, but not enough to register as something they needed to stop for. Or so he’d thought, at least.

Immediately Hifumi and Jakurai turned back to him- puzzlement written across Jakurai’s face, exasperation on Hifumi’s. He dropped Jakurai’s wrist, then paced back to Doppo at a clip, shoes tapping pointed against the pavement. Doppo stepped back again. Hifumi stepped forward. He hissed, low enough that he hoped Jakurai couldn’t hear- “Hifumi. What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” Hifumi returned at a normal volume, without so much as a hint of subtlety. Doppo resisted the urge to sigh, knowing full well that Hifumi was intentionally playing dumb.

Instead he continued, still low enough to get lost in the white noise of the traffic of the road beside- “Go ahead. You don’t want to be interrupted, right?”

Hifumi rolled his eyes. “What’re you talking about, Doppo? You’re coming with us!”

“I am?”

Hifumi rolled his eyes again, this time with enough force that Doppo worried what might happen if he attempted it a third time. “Obviously? Come on, Doppo. Let’s go.”

And then Hifumi seized his wrist and dragged him along, picking Jakurai’s hand back up as they went. There was no point in protesting- once Hifumi had made up his mind, even hell and high water wouldn’t get in his way to the goal. And, just as importantly, as they fell into a rhythm once more-

This was what felt right. Hifumi at his side, Jakurai speaking lowly as Hifumi laughed, the three of them keeping even pace on the crowded streets of the Shinjuku evening. Time couldn’t be stopped, or slowed- not even if he were to drop dead here and now.

And it was then that he knew.

He’d have to tell them. All the things he’d realized, all the things he’d once blinded himself to, willing clouds before the sun in order to keep himself in his last remaining shelter, lonely as it might have been. He’d brace for the worst- part of him, somewhere, was always braced for the worst- but he didn’t think it would come to that. Not with them.

 

That didn’t stop the usual anxieties from telling him he’d lose everything, though. His friends, his confidants, his team, everything that had come into his life and sparked up the threads of his reality to make it something more.

If he could only put it into words- the way he could spit out work frustrations or bold insults or any other turn of phrase he used to rap- but apparently love confessions fell into the same category as standing up for himself. In his head, it was simple. Putting that to reality was significantly harder. He wouldn’t be able to do it. When the time came he’d falter. And even if by some miracle he managed it, they’d only end up turning him down and all the strain in their relationship would be his fault, his fault, his fault-

Shut up, shut up, shut up, he thought relentless, punctuated with sharp taps of the enter key each time. They weren’t going to do that. Not coldly, at the very least. He and Hifumi weren’t such fair-weather friends. If he’d been unsure at seventeen- if he’d been afraid- then time had taught him better.

He could not say the same for Jakurai- in the grand scheme of their lives, the time they’d known each other was but a fleeting instant- but it was enough for Doppo to be sure of his kindness. If Jakurai had been able to look at the strained edges of him, the frayed threads and patchwork of stitched resolve and been able to see something beautiful in it, then...

Then Doppo would believe that meant something. Loneliness of his own choosing was no better than the risk of a rejection. No fear of eventual parting should keep him from cherishing what time he had spread out radiant as a color spectrum before him. And besides- he had more faith in them than that. Things between them would remain.

As Doppo was lost in his thoughts, before he knew it, miracle of miracles-

He’d finished his overtime work early. He’d double-checked it. There were no mistakes, no sections he’d skipped, no extra attachments he hadn’t noticed. He was… done. With overtime. Early.

“Huh,” he said aloud to no one in particular, and triple-checked his work just for the hell of it. If he was getting chewed out for anything, it wasn’t going to be for something he could have caught and still gone home early for. But no errors decided to make themselves manifest. He was truly, honestly, done.

Doppo wasn’t sure if this was an omen or not- for good or bad fortune regardless. But he turned his computer off and pushed back his chair and, with all the determination he possessed, headed for home.   

 

“Doppo?” Hifumi’s call from the kitchen as he pushed open the door was unusual- a little strained, like he was trying very hard not to reveal something important. Hifumi, of course, was terrible at hiding anything under direct interrogation, which meant Doppo had an immediate and enactable plan.

“I’m back,” he said, slipping off his shoes and setting them neat beside Hifumi’s in the entrance.

“Early!” Hifumi added, “Really early!”

Something clattered dangerously in the kitchen, and Hifumi yelped before skittering around the corner into the hallway. His sleeves were rolled up and not a thing was out of place around his apron, but the look on his face was that strange mix of wide-eyed surprise paired with mild guilt in his uneasy smile.

“Hifumi?” He asked, stepping up into the hall as Hifumi skittered to block him without actually managing to impede any of his progress. “Hifumi, what’s happening in the kitchen?”

“Nothing! Nothing’s happening in the kitchen!” Hifumi said, lying through his teeth. Doppo stepped towards it, and Hifumi shuffled to the side. Doppo tried to slip aside, and Hifumi cut him off with a hand on his wrist that Doppo shook off without particular difficulty, bolting under Hifumi’s arm and into the kitchen before he could catch up like muscle memory of all the times they’d chased each other through the house as children-

And there was Jakurai, standing in their kitchen as if he belonged there. And he did, Doppo supposed. If Hifumi had invited him, then there was no reason that he shouldn’t be here. Especially if they hadn’t been expecting him home. Which meant he’d intruded. Again.

“Surprise?” Hifumi said, curling back around into the kitchen to drop a hand on Doppo’s shoulder. For the first time in a very long while, Doppo wasn’t sure what it was meant to convey.

For his part Jakurai flashed him a calm smile, unfazed by Doppo’s sudden appearance. “Welcome home, Doppo-kun. Though I’m the one intruding.”

“Ah, no, we’re always happy to have you,” said Doppo, fighting through his speechlessness and wondering now why he hadn’t seen an extra pair of shoes at the door. Unless those had been Jakurai’s, and Doppo had just been so caught up in his own mental preparations that he’d failed to notice.

“If you’re early, that means you’ve gotta help!” Hifumi said it with his usual cheer; whatever he’d felt when he’d tried to stop Doppo from getting to the kitchen, no trace of it remained.

Doppo glanced back at Jakurai, then hissed into Hifumi’s ear- “You know I can’t cook.”

Not that it was any particular secret he’d been keeping from Jakurai- but admitting it and showing off how absolutely useless he was in front of the man himself were two different things entirely. Hifumi just patted him on the shoulder again, saving no strength. “It’s fine! Just chop some stuff! You’re good at that.”

A riveting endorsement. But then Hifumi all but pushed him into the kitchen, and so it was decided. Jakurai relinquished his place cutting vegetables to join Hifumi near the stove, and Doppo tried his utmost not to feel as if he was interfering on their low whispering, doubtless soft words they didn’t want Doppo to hear. When Hifumi had learned that much tact was another matter, but…

It seemed like Hifumi had gone the simple route today; perhaps because he had Jakurai as a helper and wanted to let him feel useful as much as possible. Unlike Doppo, he seemed as if he’d be fairly handy around a kitchen so long as he had clear instructions. The fact Hifumi had most definitely prepared two of these hamburger steaks beforehand, Doppo thought, also had to help matters. It meant Hifumi could detach himself from Jakurai to sweep up the vegetables and throw them into a pan with butter and… whatever sort of sauce he’d concocted today. As he did, he said, more statement than request- “Doppo? Get the extra chair for Jakurai-san!”

“Ah, yeah, right,” said Doppo, and scurried out of the kitchen with his back to them, turning just as Jakurai’s hand landed on Hifumi’s shoulder. The sense he’d intruded somewhere he didn’t belong had only grown unbearably strong.

Doppo pulled out the extra chair as Hifumi and Jakurai brought the plated food from the kitchen, and the three of them sat- Doppo at his usual place, flanked by Jakurai and Hifumi on either side of the table.

“Let’s eat, let’s eat!” Hifumi said, glancing between them in what was doubtless an attempt to raise the mood that Doppo had sent crashing back down.

“It looks delicious,” Doppo added, meaning it wholeheartedly. Given a little time, Doppo was sure that the two of them could become a fearsome team in the kitchen. Hifumi could have that help he’d spent so long trying to prod Doppo into becoming. They’d certainly never make a bad dish- they’d all be delicious as this one had to be.

No one ate.

The silence continued a moment, laced heavy with anticipation, resignation. It wasn’t cold, but it was brittle as the autumn air outside, still lingering heavy in Doppo’s lungs.

“So, Doppo?” Hifumi said in that venturing, soft tone, and Doppo braced himself. Still no one had touched the food. On any other day that would be an insult- but as it was, Hifumi didn’t seem to mind, preoccupied by whatever this had turned into. Certainly nothing good. Probably Hifumi about to tell him that he really was about to move out.

But it was Jakurai that spoke next, calm and collected as ever. He picked up exactly where Hifumi left off with as much confidence as a battle. “There’s something we have to ask you.”

“Wait,” said Doppo, unable to stop himself from spilling the words, “Wait. There’s something I have to tell you first.”

Jakurai and Hifumi exchanged a glance, then a small nod. For whatever reason, they seemed almost as nervous as him- though Doppo couldn’t possibly comprehend why. He ran the words through his head over again, taking that last breath before they urged him on to prepare the final draft. But what left him then was, simply- “I’m in love with you.”

Hifumi broke into a dreamy smile. “Right? Jakurai-san’s like, gorgeous! And kind, and smart, and-”

“Hifumi-kun, please-”

“And who wouldn’t fall in love with him?” Hifumi finished, looking quite pleased with himself despite being cut off.

“No,” Doppo snapped, “not just-“

He stopped. Hifumi blinked at him. Doppo blinked back. That hadn’t been how he’d meant to do that. But whatever words he thought he’d spent the day preparing for some distant eventually had all vanished at the sight of them before him.

Hifumi jabbed a finger at Doppo, then at his own chest, then at Jakurai before back at himself. “Not just… Me? Him? ...The both of us?”

A long breath, spitting out the last of the cold that dragged him down, then- “The both of you.”

Hifumi lit up, blinding as  it had been that night as they left Jakurai’s. “So? If that’s the problem, why don’t you just, you know, date the both of us?”

“What?”

Hifumi grinned. “Yeah. I mean, we were trying to ask you about that anyway. Right, Sensei?”

“I can’t do that.”

Ah, that hadn’t been what he’d meant to say- not in the slightest. That was the exact invitation he’d been longing to reach out and take, and he’d gone and turned it down. But in the end, when finally faced with the moment… He couldn’t. The both of them were dazzling, filled with a purpose- a drive for their own existence. All Doppo could do was push himself through the unending days, waiting for the chance for sleep or battle both. They had no need of him.

But neither of them were so timid as they’d once been. Hifumi leaned over the table and insisted, “Why not?”

Why not?

Because they didn’t love him, obviously. They didn’t hold the same care towards him that would drive Hifumi to go out of his way to make him a meal he didn’t have to, have Jakurai concerned enough about him to make time in his busy schedule for time together like the dates he made for Hifumi or smile at the thought of his lyrics-

But… wait.

Hadn’t they already..?

“Doppo-kun?”

Jakurai’s voice was gentle and welcoming- listening to it now, the way it immediately soothed some of his sparking nerves, it was no wonder that he’d ended up spilling it all.

“Sensei?”

When he finally gained the courage to look up again, there was nothing in Jakurai’s posture that was harsh. He sat at the table as open as he ever had been, watching Doppo less with his usual amusement and something rather more fond. In fact, if Doppo had to compare it to anything, then… He’d compare it to the day that he’d realized-

“I think what Hifumi-kun is trying to say is that he’d be very happy if you intruded. And, for that matter, so would I.”

“Yeah. I like you, Doppo. Sorry I never said it earlier.” Hifumi chuckled, uncharacteristically bashful- the way he’d been only once before- and Doppo knew that surely they were remembering the same incident. High school. The kiss. The way they both hadn’t been sure of how to proceed and done nothing about it at all in the hopes that they’d stay together anyway.

There was only one answer to that sort of hopeless them- “What are we, back in elementary school?”

“Nooope. But I’ve loved you since then, probably! Hey, Jakurai-san, did I ever tell you about how I met Doppo?” Hifumi radiated a terrible energy; Doppo knew he had just one chance to stop this before it all tumbled out of hand and he’d never be able to show his face in his own home again.

“No, please don’t-”

“Love at first sight! I crashed into little Doppo-chin at our elementary school entrance ceremony and-”

“Hifumi!” Doppo hissed, half-rising from his chair, and Hifumi slunk back with a wicked grin. He’d probably end up telling the entire thing to Jakurai the second he was out of earshot. Then again, it wasn’t as if he didn’t have plenty of stories to tell about Hifumi- knowing someone for well over two decades tended to do that.

Jakurai laughed- at them, clearly, but in a polite sort of way that meant Doppo didn’t really find himself minding. If it was a stranger, then he’d certainly end up either ducking his head and running or picking an ill-advised fight (especially if Hifumi was around). But from Jakurai, the laughter wasn’t so bad.

Wait.

Doppo’s head swiveled to Jakurai, searching as he played back through the last few seconds. Hifumi had tried to spill their secrets, and Doppo had scolded him, and… And he’d laughed. Doppo blinked, but nothing about the sound in his memory had changed. Jakurai had truly, honestly, laughed.

So he had to ask, just one more time- “It’s really okay?”

“It’s certainly far from traditional-“

Hifumi laughed inelegantly. “You don’t like traditional anyway, Sensei.”

Jakurai gave a shallow little chuckle, apparently well aware that he couldn’t refute. He had, Doppo thought, more than a little hysterical, formed a team with them, after all- the most ridiculous human being Doppo had ever had the questionable pleasure of colliding with and, well, Doppo himself. If he’d thought Jakurai capable of it, he would have called it bad taste.

“Anyway, what’re you worrying for? You know he’s been in love with you since like, the second he invited us to join his team or something, right?”

“Hifumi-kun, please-“

“Oh, was I not supposed to say that yet? Sorry?” He didn’t sound the least bit sorry at all.

“If you’re going to apologize, do it properly!” Doppo said, surging forwards to grab a laughing Hifumi by the collar and nearly knocking into Hifumi’s glass as he did. Hifumi darted out one hand to steady it- though thankfully, it was just water- and his other hand unraveled Doppo’s fingers from his shirt.

“I just did! So let’s eat?” said Hifumi, changing the subject just smoothly enough that Doppo didn’t have the energy to do anything else but let him. This time. But only because Jakurai didn’t seem particularly offended.

(And also because the relief washing over him was stealing his strength, making him want to melt back into his chair and eat some of this hamburger steak and forget about this entire ordeal until it was a mutually embarrassing story they could pull out from the pile of them.)

“Let’s eat,” Jakurai echoed, picking up fork and knife to take the delicate first bite as Hifumi lit up across from him, delighted as always by the sight of someone enjoying his cooking.

And this was it, Doppo thought again, this was the way it was supposed to be. What felt right- not just for him, but the three of them all. From now on they’d only have more of this, on every level. Working together, going out together, hopefully, eventually, living together, listening to all the others had to say-

“Wait,” Doppo said, pausing as the table descended into warm, companionable silence, “What did you mean, you were going to ask me anyway?”

“You never listen to me!” Hifumi cried, pointing at Doppo with all the offense Doppo wished he could feel. “I said it was complicated! And then you brushed me off when I invited you like you do with fishing all the time, even though you said you wouldn’t, and-”

“I think I have a headache,” Doppo said, dropping his elbows onto the table and his head into his hands. Jakurai leaned over to pat him on the back. Hifumi did the same, significantly harder.

“You know what a good cure for that is?” Hifumi asked, in the floaty sort of tone that meant whatever came next was going to be anything but a serious answer.

Jakurai asked, in something very much the same- “Good food?”
“And good company! So cheer up, Doppo! Because you’ve got the best of both!”

Well. Hifumi certainly wasn’t wrong. So this once- just this once- Doppo would let it slide. Because regardless of riches or glory or purpose or pride, they had each other. And for now, even if just for this one, burning, transient night- they needed nothing more.