Chapter 1: Lessons
My name is Kaidou Ren. I'm eighteen. Saturday morning I woke up at 5:30 am. I ran to the park. I exercised. I had asked Kaji Akihito for some exercises to do to make my arms and chest bigger. They aren't helping yet. I'm still scrawny. After that, I ran
“Hey! Give that back, Kiri! At least wait until I finished it.”
“Ugh!” was Kiri's opinion, after a quick scan of the paper. “It's terrible, Ren. It's so boring.”
Ren huffed in exasperation. “You said to write down what I did on Saturday. I'm sorry I didn't do anything exciting to start.”
“It's not what you did that's boring – it's the way you wrote it. You're just making a list. I know you read adult books – in English, too - and manga, so why is your writing like a kindergartner's? You don't talk this way, so why?”
“I don't see the point. I already know what happened.”
“The point is...” She had to stop and think of the right words. Explaining things to Ren was tricky. “The point is to tell other people what you did.”
“You were there for most of it.”
“Oh. You're writing it for me?”
“Who else? You told me to do it. Anyway, I don't like writing on paper – it's too slow.”
“Ren, write it like a story. Not for me – for strangers. Think about...White Fang. You like that book, right? Jack London didn't write, 'I'm White Fang. I'm a wolf. I met a human.' He wrote a story that makes the reader feel like they are there, like they are watching it happen and understanding the feelings of White Fang and the humans. He described what is happening all around and how the characters felt and what they said. Write a story. Type it on the computer, if that's easier, but you will have to write by hand for tests.”
She thought she had gotten through this time. Ren was thinking about it.
“So I should write it as if I was Jack London?”
Maybe not quite. “No, you should write it as you would write it, but a story – not a list. Not all authors write the same. Usami-sensei writes differently from Yuki-sensei, and Ijuuin-sensei has his style, too.”
“I can't draw manga.”
“I didn't...!” Take a breath, Kiri. “You don't need to draw anything. But even in The*Kan, the words in the bubbles aren't, 'The Kan went here. The Kan hit that guy hard. The Kan ate breakfast.' There's action and there are feelings, but you'd have to describe the scenery instead of drawing it. Just...just try it, okay?”
Ren rolled his eyes at her. “Fine. I'll write something when I get home. Where's Juuzen?”
“I told him I was going to give you a writing lesson after school today and he should go away because he distracts you.”
“Did you kiss yet? I asked him, but he just turned all red and wouldn't answer.”
“...! Don't ask me that! Don't ask him that! It's none of your business!” Sometimes, I could just kill him!
“Now you're all red. Why? I tell you everything about me and Haru and-”
“I don't ask, though!” she interrupted him. “I don't want to know what you and Haru do.”
“Yes, you do. I can tell. Juuzen must not be good at kissing. I'll teach him for you. Or do you want me to teach you and then you can teach him?”
“You...! I can't even...! What do you mean, teach him or me? How are you going to...? No, don't tell me that either! Just go home, Ren.”
Kiri snatched up her bookbag and her coat, began to stomp off. Why do I even bother with Ren? He's so...She stopped and turned back. “It was fine, okay? He...he doesn't need kissing lessons!” Then she ran out of the library. Oh my god! Ren is so embarrassing!
Ren watched her go, then shrugged and packed up his own things. “I think he does, though.” He recalled the first few times Haru had kissed him. He just froze when it happened, until Haru guided him. I wonder who taught Haru? Ren thought better as he walked along the school's corridors. No, I don't want to know. But Juuzen definitely needs help.
Ren headed toward the dorms instead of home. Juuzen was in his room, as Ren expected.
“What's up?” Juuzen asked, opening the door for Ren then sitting back down to un-pause his video game. “I thought Kiri was forcing you to write?”
“She was. I think I know now what to do, but I want to use the computer at home. I must have made her mad, because she left.”
“Made her mad how?” Juuzen glanced away from his TV screen for a moment. That nearly cost him a life and he cursed, thumbs busy on the controller.
“Asked if you guys kissed yet.” Ren plopped down beside Juuzen and took up the second joystick. “She wouldn't tell me either. Start over. I want to play, too.”
Juuzen gaped at him and died. Ren ignored the staring and pushed buttons to scroll through options for a two-player game.
“Are you trying to break us up? We've only had one date, Ren! Don't ask her stuff like that! It's bad enough you ask me.”
“Why though? She's my friend, same as you.”
“Girls only talk about those things with other girls. I think. I don't know. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it either.” Juuzen chose his own player options and the battle began.
Ren had very good hand/eye coordination, which made him a beast to play against in fighting games. He smacked down Juuzen's character easily, talking the whole time. “I want you guys to be happy. If you're dating, you should be kissing. From the way you're both acting, it wasn't a good kiss. That's because you don't know how, right? It's okay. I didn't know how either until Haru showed me.”
Juuzen gave up on the game and turned the console off. “Ren, I can't-mph!”
Ren sat back frowning while Juuzen scooted across the floor on his butt until he hit the wall. He had both hands over his mouth and his face was nearly purple.
“W-w-whaddija do that for!”
“I have to know how you kiss first, before I can teach you how to do it better. That didn't count, so let's try it again.” Ren advanced on him. “Calm down – it's just a kiss.”
“B-b-but what about Haru?”
“What about him? I'm not going to have sex with you. I won't even touch you. And it's not like Haru hasn't kissed a lot of other people besides me. This is educational. Close your eyes and pretend I'm Kiri.”
“I don't...I can't...” but Juuzen did close his eyes. Ren almost laughed. His friend's face was all scrunched up and his lips pressed together so tightly they disappeared. He does want to know how to kiss. So...
“Relax your mouth at least. I can't kiss you if your lips are like that.” It took a minute but Juuzen did as instructed. Ren pressed his lips to Juuzen's very lightly. He flinched but didn't move otherwise. “Open your mouth, just a little.” Ren tilted his head and kissed Juuzen again with a bit more movement in the lips. Still stiff as a board.
“Juuzen, kiss me back. Do what I'm doing.”
“It's so weird, Ren!” Juuzen laughed and his eyes popped open. “I mean, it's not bad or anything but-”
Ren kissed him again, now that Juuzen wasn't so freaked out. And this time, Juuzen did kiss him back. Very nicely. Ren set a rhythm and Juuzen matched it but... “Breathe through your nose. Don't forget to breathe.”
Juuzen was gasping. “Ugh! It's complicated! And my brain is all over the place! I can't focus.”
“That's okay. You'll focus when it's Kiri.”
“How do you know?”
“Because when I kiss Haru, it's like the whole world disappears and my brain turns off and my body takes over. I kissed Natsuo before, and none of that happened, even though the kissing was nice enough. He's a good kisser, too. Anyway, there are different levels of kissing. This is tame.”
“I'm not trying to get you all turned on. Just kissing. It's different. You'll see.”
Juuzen looked horrified. “You...! I wouldn't anyway! You're a guy!”
“I don't think it matters. Still, I'm not going to try that. Unless you want me to...?”
“NO! I'm good! That's enough lessons!”
“We didn't do any tongue though.” Ren was only teasing now, but Juuzen didn't know that. Ren had answered a question for himself during this process. Kissing Juuzen didn't affect him at all. It really is just Haru that I want. Not another guy or a girl. Only Haru. I'm not a sex maniac or anything. He tried to picture going farther with Juuzen and snorted. No way.
“I don't need tongue! You're crazy! But...thanks, Ren. I think.”
“Don't thank me. Just kiss her better. And turn the game back on. I want to play that one with the cowboys. We can play as a team, right?”
“Red Dead Redemption? Yeah...okay.”
They went spent the next hour shooting digital outlaws and joking with each other. Just buddies. Kiri did notice a difference, but would take her questions to the grave.
Chapter 2: No Romance!
The first rays of morning sunshine lit the frost-dusted bare branches of the sakura tree outside the window, sending streams of sparkling light onto Haru's sleeping face. Ren propped his head on one fist and stared at the man lying beside him, defenseless and peaceful and beautiful. It was much easier to stare at Haru like this, without him being aware and looking back. Haru's eyes overwhelmed Ren at times with their always-shifting color that he found entrancing.
“No, no,” Ren muttered, hitting the backspace button. “Delete, delete, delete. Not writing a romance.” He tried again.
Ren opened his eyes, staring into the early morning gloom of the bedroom. The sun was just rising, creating shadows that turned the cozy room into a blur of ominous shapes and haunted corners. A monster-under-the-bed type of morning. Ren pulled the blankets over his head and tried to go back to sleep but he couldn't shake the feeling left over from his nightmare.
Beside him, Haru must have sensed something even from his dreams. He threw an arm across Ren and pulled him closer. Snuggling in, Ren finally relaxed, safe and secure in his lover's arms.
“Ugh! Now it's a gothic romance! Delete, delete.” No romance!
Ren tossed back the blankets and jumped out of bed, ready to face another day. Haru turned over, mumbling in his sleep. Ren scowled at his lover for tempting him to get back under the covers. Then he resolutely turned his back and headed for the bathroom. There were challenges to face! Nothing would get done if he lazed about in bed all morning.
Sweats and sneakers on, Ren raced through the early morning streets as if chased by a pack of wolves. I have to get stronger, faster, he thought. People are always coming after Haru, I need to be ready to fight them off.
“Arrgh!gvfargvhn!” Ren slammed his hands down on the keyboard. This was his main problem when it came to writing – too much of himself seeped in, personal things he didn't want anyone to know. Haru. It's all Haru's fault! When he censored out anything to do with Haru, nothing was left but dull facts.
“Ren? What's going on in here?” Haru popped his head in the door of Ren's “bedroom,” the room where Ren did his homework but never slept. “I could hear you yelling all the way downstairs. Do you need help with something?”
“No!” Ren quickly closed his laptop. “I'm trying to write something for Kiri. She's tutoring me.”
“Why? You passed your tests, didn't you? So you must be improving on your own. There's no need to force it – not everyone is good at writing and you're going into the sciences.”
“I still have to take a few literature courses for my degree and write papers. Kiri says my writing is grade school-level.” Ren sighed. “Haru, how would you describe last weekend?”
“Well...I woke up and the bed was cold and empty because you got up early to go running. I made us breakfast – you don't eat enough vegetables and if I don't cook all you eat is rice. Then we cleaned the house, did laundry, checked on White Fang. Once all that was done, I dragged you into the bedroom and we-”
“Stop!” Ren made a face. Haru was just as Ren-focused as Ren was about him. “That's pretty much what I wrote but Kiri said it was just a boring list. She says to write it like a story.”
“Oh. I'm no good at that sort of thing either. And saying it out loud is different than writing it down. You want me to try? Open your computer and I'll write something if you want me to.”
“No way! Just leave me alone. I'll figure it out by myself.” Haru would probably write a book worthy of publishing, damn him for being too good at everything.
“Fine, I'll go. But don't stay cooped up in here all night. The house feels lonely with Aki and Shima out doing whatever they're doing nowadays. I'm going to go hang out with Kiyo next door.” Haru stole a kiss before leaving the room.
Ren waited a moment, then crept out to the landing where he could peek through the railing. Haru appeared, having switched from sloppy lounge-around-the-house clothes to jeans and a sweater, and then went out through the back passage to the café/bar. Okay, he's gone.
Ren opened his laptop again and deleted the last attempt. Then he stared at the blank screen. No romance this time! And maybe I shouldn't start with waking up. The day was boring. If I start with that evening...
Chapter 3: Cuts Deep
Ren scrunched closer to Haru's side, uncomfortable as usual on the trains. The thought of random strangers bumping into him or even pressed against him in the Saturday evening crush made his skin crawl – he didn't like it. Not to mention all the people who stared at Haru and whispered and giggled. Bold ones sometimes started a conversation or flirted with him, ignoring Ren's existence completely. It made him want to bite someone.
Haru took it all in stride, accustomed to the attention, not caring at all - but it drove Ren nuts. Haru was way too blasé, in Ren's opinion. That's why the one who usually got bitten was Haru. Haru hadn't wanted to drive because he thought he might have a few drinks at the bar they were going to. Which left Ren struggling to control his jealousy on a crowded subway carriage.
As a distraction, he listened to the conversation between Ayano, Izumi, and Haruto. Ren understood why Kanako and Shinosuke were going to the performance – any excuse for a date while she was in town for exams – but the other three didn't seem like the types to be going to a live band event at some bar across town. A band none of them had heard perform beside Ren, who had found Given's two videos online.
It seemed to boil down to Ayano needing a distraction herself, so Izumi and Haruto were dragging her against her will. Her boyfriend had left town suddenly, without giving her any reason or explanation, and was not answering her calls. She fluctuated between anger with him and anger with herself for not being more casual about the situation. Ren thought she was over-reacting – of course, a subordinate of Asami's might end up too busy for a phone call.
Well...I'd be worried and angry, too, I guess. But still! She's being a pain if Izumi and Haruto have to deal with her like this.
“Have you decided on the name for the new souzaiya finally? You're opening a week from Monday, right?” Izumi asked her.
“Oh god! Don't get me started! Morinaga is being such a pain in the ass! Why does Hiroto call him Angel? He's an ox-brained ogre!”
Everyone laughed at that. It was true – Morinaga hid his stubbornness behind a smiling face and pleasant words. But no one who knew Tatsumi could doubt that Morinaga had a will of pure steel and the patience of a saint and the deviousness of a demon.
“Too bad you don't have a nickname, Ayano. Then maybe the two of you could combine them in some clever way. I don't think 'gold-digger' matches with 'angel' though.” Izumi was not above teasing Ayano – he'd spent too much time being hounded by her over this subject.
“Gold-digger?” Ren asked while Ayano fumed.
“Mhm. Kirishima calls her variations of that, and she calls him some kind of cheapskate. I don't get it. I'd rather be called something like 'sweetheart' but they have their own version of love-talk, I guess.”
“Tatsumi doesn't call Morinaga 'Angel' though,” Ren pointed out. “At least not in public. Hiroto calls him that because of the candy company mascot.”
“Oh, is that where it came from? I wondered,” Haru said.
“Morinaga told me while we were at the ryokan.” Ren sighed, wishing they were still at the snowy mountain getaway.
“What was it called again?” Haruto asked.
“Suyasuya Ryokan. 'Peacefully sleeping.' Perfect name for it.”
“We're going to go there as soon as school is done,” Kanako told them. “Todo made a reservation to celebrate my graduation and acceptance into M Uni! I mean, I don't know for sure yet, but I just know I'll get in.” She and Shinosuke shared a lovey-dovey smile.
“Ugh! You two are sickening, really!” Ayano huffed. “Just as bad as Izumi and Haruto.”
“Maybe if you were more openly affectionate, Kirishima would have called you by now,” Ren pointed out.
Everyone blinked at that one. Even Haruto tried to be careful what he said to Ayano, and Haruto was bad when it came to social etiquette.
“Ren! Take that back! It's not your place to comment on her relationship. And we all know Kirishima must be very busy with some emergency. Izumi said Yashiro and Doumeki also were called to help in Osaka,” Haru scolded. “Whatever is happening there, it's important.” To Ayano, Haru said, “I'm certain he'll contact you the moment he can, Ayano.”
Ren looked at Ayano, saw that she was on the verge of tears – whether they were tears of rage or hurt, he wasn't sure. “I'm sorry. I don't understand sometimes what is okay to say and not. I was raised...strangely.”
Ayano wasn't known for tact herself. “You say that, but it's a convenient excuse, isn't it? You've been in Japan for years now and you're not stupid. That's long enough to know better. Haru spoils you. You're a stuck-up, arrogant brat who believes he doesn't have to bother with things like politeness.”
“I don't see the point in lying, it's true. Whether Kirishima is just too busy or he doesn't want to deal with you screeching at him, I don't know.”
“Screeching!” Ayano screeched. Izumi quickly grabbed Ayano and dragged her away to the other end of the car. Haruto went with them and both tried to calm her down - a lost cause as far as Ren could tell by her continued shrill ranting.
Haru stared at Ren in shock. “Why would you speak to her that way? What's gotten into you?”
Shinosuke and Kanako looked like they wanted some popcorn to munch on.
“She flirted with you. That's bad enough, but then she decided you weren't worth her time because you weren't rich. She might be friends with Izumi and Haruto - even Ichimaru - but I don't like her. Morinaga is much nicer. They should call their store Beauty and the Bitch.”
“Oh my god! She's right! I have spoiled you, and you are an arrogant brat!”
“Haru! That's not fair! She insulted Morinaga! She said Shinosuke and Kanako make her sick! She's been whining about Kirishima non-stop. I heard she made a big scene about Isogai and Hiroto and Ichimaru. And she doesn't like Kiyo either. Am I not allowed to say what I think? Why can she say those things and get away with it?”
“Because, Ren. When someone else displays poor manners, it's not a license for you to do so as well. You're an adult now and I expect more from you. Morinaga can defend himself, so can Shinosuke and Kanako. The threesome already forgave her and Kiyo doesn't care in the slightest. Ayano is spiteful sometimes, but everyone knows she likes the sound of her own voice. You were very deliberate. You knew exactly how to hit her where it hurt. She's superficial – you cut deep.”
Ren looked to Kanako and Shinosuke. Shinosuke raised his hands. “Don't look at me. What she said didn't bother me. I know Kanako and I are pretty sickening, haha. And Morinaga can be pigheaded. But I don't see those as bad things.”
Kanako spoke up. “She wants to be clever, sometimes at other people's expense. I've done that myself and felt terrible about it afterward. What you said about Kirishima was a low blow. I think – even though it's become a joke between them – it bothers her that she's known for chasing men with money in the past. She's trying hard now to change but their relationship is a touchy subject and she's still unsure if she deserves him. It's not a good time to poke her about it.”
Ren wasn't stupid, so he considered what they were telling him. He knew people didn't like having their flaws exposed, but he thought it was better they acknowledged those flaws and accepted them or worked to change them. He didn't see the point in politely ignoring them, making excuses for them, or setting aside your own pain just to smooth things over.
Is that arrogance? I really don't understand manners. I do think it's a waste of time. If someone tells me I'm rude, it doesn't hurt my feelings. But I guess I have to follow my own beliefs. If they're all telling me I'm wrong then it is a flaw of mine. What did affect Ren was seeing the disappointment in Haru's eyes.
“I'm sorry that I hurt her feelings. I didn't know she was worried about her relationship to that degree. I still don't think I was wrong in my opinion about her, but I can see I should have kept it to myself.”
Haru rubbed at his face. “Don't tell us that. Go apologize to her properly.”
Ren, not one to waste time, marched over to Ayano and bowed deeply. “I'm very sorry for what I said. I should not have said any of it. I was arrogant and it's none of my business. Please forgive me.”
It caught her off-guard. Ready to tear him apart, either with words or physically, she was stuck with an audience created by her own ranting. If she was going to lecture him about polite behavior, then now she had to respond properly. Ren was nowhere near stupid.
“I accept your apology. I was wrong as well and said harsh things. I'm...upset about something else and took that out on you. I'm sorry for my part.”
Izumi and Haruto were also taken aback by this sudden turn of events. But Izumi was not one to dwell on things.
“That's good! Now we can all get along and have a good time at this concert tonight. It's going to be fun, Ayano. You'll see.”
“Hmph!” She and Ren traded glances. It was a truce, that's all.
The automated voice announced they were approaching their station.
Chapter 4: First Kisses
Masahiro leaned against Kousuke then quickly put a little space between them. Unused to going on this sort of date in a big crowd of people, he had to remind himself not to be too obvious. He was feeling more self-conscious than ever.
“It's okay, Masa,” Kousuke told him, putting his arm around Masahiro's waist. “Just be casual. We're way across the city from home or school. You can relax. Have fun! Tests are over and you did well. I'm certain you'll get the notice from your college soon.”
“This is totally the kind of place where we can get away with some mild displays,” Isogai added, hugging Hiroto from behind, his chin resting on Hiroto's shoulder.
Ichimaru appeared with three beers and Morinaga and Tatsumi in tow. “Look who I found!”
“Angel! I can't believe you made it!”
“Souichi!” Isogai exclaimed. “Look at you, being all sociable!”
“Morinaga and Kanako insisted. I can't win against both of them.” Tatsumi gulped at his own beer, clearly uncomfortable. Morinaga grinned at him.
Now Masahiro felt even stranger, surrounded by all these older men. He knew them slightly and liked them, but they were adults compared to his newly-turned-nineteen self. He still thought of himself as a kid, aside from those times when Kousuke acted silly and had to be reined in.
He looked around and spotted Uenoyama and Mafuyu huddled in the corner with Haruki and Kaji. Masahiro wasn't sure of the etiquette – should he go greet them, or leave them alone before a performance? Uenoyama seemed to be lecturing the other three, a very intense expression on his face. Better not bother them now.
A ripple in the chatter of the crowd drew Masahiro's attention to the entrance. Sure enough, Haru and Ren had just arrived. There were a few others with them who Masahiro vaguely recognized and the new local policeman with a girl that had to be Kanako, his girlfriend and Tatsumi's sister.
“Be right back,” Masahiro said to Kousuke, who was talking about teaching with Tatsumi. Kousuke patted his butt in response, making Masahiro swat at him before weaving through the clumps of people toward Ren.
There was a weird tension between Ren and the woman introduced as Ayano. Masahiro liked Izumi and Haruto immediately. Kanako and Shinosuke had that aura of two people madly in love with each other and only making a token effort to hide it.
“Hey, Masahiro, where's Kousuke?” Haru asked.
Pointing across the room, Masahiro said, “Over there with the trio and Morinaga and Tatsumi.”
“Oooh, Morinaga managed to get my brother here?” Kanako laughed. “I've got to go tease him!”
“Wait.” Ren had spotted someone. He grabbed Masahiro's hand and Kanako's. “We'll find you later, Haru. C'mon guys.”
Dragged along, Kanako protested. “Ren! What are you doing? I want-”
“Look!” Ren stopped, staring at a couple standing awkwardly silent. “I knew he was going to be weird.”
“Is that Juuzen and Kiri? They're dating now?” Kanako giggled. “They don't look like they're having fun.”
“It's their first date,” Ren told them. “They went to dinner first. Juuzen is so stupid! Why is he just standing there like a dummy? They talk all the time at school and when we hang out together.”
“Being on an official date changes everything, Ren.” Kanako and Masahiro exchanged looks and nodded. They both knew Ren's relationship with Haru was unusual in the way it began. Masahiro and Kousuke hadn't gotten together in the normal way of things either, but he could still remember how nervous he'd been their first time alone after admitting his feelings.
“I think he needs to kiss her,” was Ren's assessment. “Once they kiss, won't that break the ice or whatever?”
Kanako considered. “Maybe? It might make it worse, though. I think it depends on the two people. When Todo first kissed me, it was perfect even though we'd only met that day. He wasn't shy about it at all and, well, he knew what he was doing. To hear some of my school friends talk, it's a lot different for them.”
“What about you, Masahiro?” Ren asked.
“Uh. Well...I was in denial, telling Kousuke he had the wrong idea about me liking him when he just sort of...He knew what he was doing, too. Then my head exploded and he walked off, teasing me about finding a girlfriend. I didn't know what to do, so I tried to forget it, but I couldn't stop remembering. I don't know if that counts? Our first real kiss, after I admitted I loved him...” Masahiro felt his face catch fire.
“What? Don't stop there!” Ren could be relentless.
“Um...we got carried away?” Oh god, did I just say that out loud?
“All the way?”
Ren sighed. “You're lucky. Haru made me wait two years! Shinosuke made Kanako wait until her birthday, too.”
Masahiro shot a glance at Kanako to see if she was upset about Ren spilling secrets. She didn't seem to mind. People responded to Ren in two ways – they either accepted his honesty and curiosity or they got all flustered and defensive.
“Kousuke's reckless. I worry about it all the time. And your situation is more complicated.”
“Whatever. Let's go help Juuzen.”
Poor Juuzen looked desperately happy to see them coming. Kiri and Kanako had a girl-huddle while Ren lectured Juuzen about calming down and treating Kiri more like normal. Then Ren spotted the band and led everyone over to the corner, interrupting Uenoyama's instructing of his bandmates. They also seemed happy to have Uenoyama distracted. Apparently, his way of dealing with pre-performance jitters was to harangue and nitpick.
Mafuyu was spaced out, Kaji laid-back, Haruki calm and comforting. They were up next, so they still had a few songs before it was their turn on the stage.
“Ren! Masahiro! Thanks for coming tonight! And who are your friends?” Haruki asked. Introductions were made, the rest of their companions pointed out. “Wow! You brought a whole crowd!”
“Everyone was glad for an excuse to get out after all those exams,” Masahiro said.
“You're all third-years? I remember those days...Ow!”
Kaji had rapped him on the head with a drumstick. “Don't talk like you're an old man at twenty-four. Masahiro, which one is your Kousuke?”
“Dark hair, blue eyes, weird t-shirt. Standing next to Haru.”
The band looked. “Hmm...he's hot,” Kaji said, earning him a glare from Haruki. “What? He is. But I like them cute.” He grinned while Haruki's face turned red.
“Stop that!” Haruki hissed. “You'll give us away! The fans can't know – musicians should always appear single.”
“And we're guys.”
“Does it really matter?” Ren asked. “Why do people care if you're dating – each other or someone else?”
“It's a publicity thing. Fans want to imagine we're all available to date them,” Mafuyu said, coming out of his trance. “I don't understand it, but that's how it works I guess.”
“Weird. Shindo Shuichi and Yuki Eiri announced their relationship on the news.”
“Yes, well. We're not on the same level as Bad Luck or Yuki Eiri.”
“Tch! Bad Luck! J-pop!” Uenoyama scoffed.
Masahiro raised an eyebrow in question. “Ignore him, Masahiro. Uecchi is a music-snob.” Haruki surveyed them. “Are you all here with dates?”
Kanako pointed out Shinosuke, while Juuzen stammered until Kiri took his hand and said yes.
“We were talking about first kisses. What was yours like?” Ren asked.
“Urk!” Uenoyama's turn to blush fiercely.
Mafuyu smiled. “After our first performance together. He was very smooth about it while I was an emotional mess from singing. It was ages before he kissed me again.”
Everyone looked at Haruki and Kaji. Mafuyu and Uenoyama did as well. Kaji clearly was willing to talk, but Haruki clearly wasn't. “It was very nice. That's all you need to know.”
“Nice?” Kaji pretended to be offended.
“Shut up. Oh, look! Time to go warm up!” Haruki vanished backstage. Kaji laughed and followed with Mafuyu and Uenoyama.
“Good luck!” Ren and the rest called after them. Then they went to rejoin their dates, taking Juuzen and Kiri along.
Chapter 5: Delicious
Kousuke watched Masahiro chatting with his new friends and smiled to himself. Ren was a weirdo, but his blunt curiosity and lack of embarrassment encouraged Masahiro to open up and talk about things he would never talk about with his other friends or with Kousuke. He knew Masahiro had pestered Asaya for advice – a hopeless cause. Asaya was a stuck-up little princeling who cared about no one but Kensuke.
Kousuke always worried about Masahiro isolating himself from his peers and missing out on typical teenager activities. Luckily, Ren was in a similar situation, dating someone older in a relationship that was...unorthodox, secret. They had bonded on several levels. Now it seemed they were adding Kanako to their circle, and maybe even the guys in this band.
Kousuke was relieved and he'd made several new friends as well, people who understood him much better than Ayaka and Houjou*. Getting to know the trio during their little adventure to the shady casino had been fun. Haru was a good guy and easy to talk to. Morinaga and Tatsumi were a fascinating couple – Morinaga reminded him of a big puppy while Tatsumi was a finicky cat.
While he spoke with Tatsumi about math equations and how they applied to the chemistry of what Tatsumi did in his lab, Kousuke also kept one ear on the argument between Ayano and Morinaga. They still hadn't settled on a name for their new store.
“Can't you help with that somehow?” Kousuke asked Tatsumi, nodding at the clashing pair.
Tatsumi glanced heavenward, as if praying for patience. “Believe me, if I could settle it, I would have by now. He's driving me insane.”
“A souzaiya, huh? What was it called before?”
“The owner's name. No help there.”
“What is a souzaiya?” Ren piped up. Haru must never let him eat out.
Haru answered him. “It's a place where you can buy already-made food to take home – or to work – and eat them later. Usually side dishes, but you could also eat them as a main dish if you wanted to. Back in Canada, they would be called a 'deli.'” Haru used the English word.
“Deli...like 'delicious?'” Ren answered in English.
“What was that word?” Both Morinaga and Ayano wanted to know.
“Delicious? Um...derishasu (the Japanese pronunciation). It would be 'oishii' in Japanese.”
Morinaga and Ayano's eyes met. Ren dashed off, then came back with a napkin and a pen. He wrote something and held it out to them.
DELIcious. “Write it like this,” he told them. “We should ask Aki and Aoi to design the logo.”
Morinaga and Ayano did some staring, some muttering, exchanged more looks and finally agreed. DELIcious it was!
“Yatta!” Morinaga grabbed Tatsumi in a bear hug and swung him around, at the peril of several people standing close by – the room was really filling up now.
“Moron! Have you lost your mind? Put me down or I'll kill you!”
Ayano and everyone else cheered and smiled, but her smile faded quickly. She turned her back, alone in the crowd. Kousuke sidled over to Ichimaru.
“Hey, what's wrong with Ayano? Do you think she was just pretending to like the new name?”
“Huh? Oh...her boyfriend went out of town yesterday, very suddenly, and she hasn't been able to get in touch with him. He's the one who owns the shop – bought it for her, as a matter of fact. Izumi and Haruto made her come out tonight to cheer her up, but...we're all in pairs.”
“Or a threesome,” Kousuke teased.
“Well, maybe the music will help. That last band was kind of awful, but hopefully Given is much better.” Ichimaru sized Kousuke up. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Go say something to her about how bad the music is. Laugh at whatever she says.”
“Ehh? Why me? Isogai's better at that kind of thing.”
“She had a crush on Isogai before she met Kirishima, so that's no good. He has to be careful around her. She doesn't know you yet, so-”
“I heard my name,” Isogai cut in. “Were you telling him how wonderful I am, Yuuki?” Isogai was...a little tipsy. He nibbled on Ichimaru's neck.
“Ayano's still not happy, Taichirou. I was explaining why you're not the best person to cheer her up.”
“Oi! I can do it! I'll have her laughing in no time....urk!” Ichimaru had grabbed him around the waist before he could go anywhere.
“Nope! Not tonight.”
“Kanako then. She's good at trash talk.”
“Is she? That'll work. Here,” Ichimaru pushed Isogai onto Kousuke, “hold onto him for a minute.” He went over to pull Kanako aside.
Isogai blinked up at Kousuke. “You're hot and all, but not my type. Ren says you and Masahiro switch all the time? You know, Ren talks way too much. But, you don't mind it? Being the bottom? You look like a top.”
Kousuke, who had taken Isogai's arm in reflex, grinned at him. “You're not my type either. I like them adorable. But yes, it's true, we switch.” He leaned closer to whisper, “It feels amazing. You should definitely try it.”
Isogai heaved a sigh. “I know on an intellectual level that it's good – I can see that they enjoy it. But I just haven't been able to...I think I owe it to them. They both-”
“What is going on here?” Hiroto snatched Isogai away from Kousuke. “Hands off my man!”
“Just giving him some advice,” Kousuke protested his innocence.
“Hiroto!” Isogai planted his lips on Hiroto's like a starving man. Hiroto couldn't seem to stop himself from responding. Kousuke watched, torn between fascination at the dominant/submissive contrast playing out in front of him and worry that maybe he should stop them. Hmm...how can Isogai play the bottom when he's like that?
“Whoa!” Oh good, Ichimaru's back. “No kissing Hiroto when you're drunk, Taichirou!” He pulled them apart.
“Grr!” Isogai actually growled.
Hiroto snapped back to awareness and groaned. “Shit! Did anyone see that?”
“Only about half the room,” Kousuke joked.
“Coffee. I'll get him some coffee.” Hiroto sped off.
Ichimaru, his hands full with a frustrated Isogai, glanced around then pulled him over to a more secluded area. As luck would have it, a voice announced Given over the speakers, drawing everyone's attention toward the stage where the curtain was rising.
Everyone dropped their conversations and found their dates. Kousuke pulled Masahiro's back against him and felt his lover lean into him then twitch.
“Sorry, my bad. Don't move. I just need a minute to...calm down.” That little display had stirred Kousuke up more than he realized. He took deep breaths as the band began to play.
*Houjou Ayaka - unhappily married to Houjou Tsunehito, the detective with some kinks. Both are long-time friends of Kousuke from his school days. Ayaka is also the older sister of Asaya, who dates Kousuke's younger brother Kensuke.
Daijoubu (I'm Okay)
They're good, was Kanako's first thought. Then the lyrics of Fuyu no Hanashi, sung in Mafuyu's deceptively pretty voice, sank in and ripped her heart apart. It wasn't clear right away, but then she realized it was a song about loss, the pain of the memories left behind when someone you love dies. No closure, no chance to say goodbye or I'm sorry or please don't leave me alone. How do you move on, when they still feel so close? You carry them within you, always.
She turned her head to Shinosuke's chest and sobbed, thinking of her mother. The song ended and Mafuyu left the stage as the next began, instrumental this time. It gave her a chance to recover. She was shocked. Her mother had died many years ago and Kanako would have said she was no longer grieving, but that song had found a little pocket of sorrow and torn it wide open. She felt strangely exhilarated, light-headed, peaceful. Something hidden had been exposed and might now heal cleanly.
“Are you alright?” Shinosuke asked her gently, brushing away some tears.
“Mhm. I'm okay.” She sniffled and looked for her brother.
Tatsumi hadn't cried, but he had been affected. He was older, remembered their mother more clearly. He was clutching Morinaga's hand tightly. She ran at him for another hug.
“Kanako...” his voice cracked.
“I love you, Nii-san! I just want you to know that!”
“I love you, too, Kana-chan. And Mom still loves us all.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. I had a message from a spirit.”
She stepped back and stared at him. “Don't tease me like I'm a child! Really, Nii-san! As if I'd believe you talked to a spirit, you rock-head scientist!”
“I'm not!” he protested. “I'll tell you about it later. We, uh, left that part out when we described our trip to Karuizawa.” Huh, he's serious.
She looked around. Kousuke's eyes were red and Masahiro had cried as well. Everyone had felt something. Isogai was sober again, with his arms around both Hiroto and Ichimaru. Ayano had moved over to the wall and was leaning on it, isolated, her face a blank. “Where's Ren and Haru?”
Kiri answered. “Haru lost both his parents in a car accident. He almost died with them. That song...hit him hard. They went outside, maybe they went home. I'm not sure.”
“That song should come with a warning,” Shinosuke said. “Who would have guessed that quiet young man had so much sadness bottled up inside?”
“Oh, he's back,” Morinaga told them. They all turned back to the stage where Mafuyu was picking his guitar up. “Brace yourselves.”
But the third song was different. Yoru Ga Akeru. This one was about moving on, moving forward. “Get through!” Mafuyu sang to the crowd. Hope mixed with the sadness, healing with the help of others and time – whether you want to heal or not.
Haru and Ren returned, Haru trying very hard to act like nothing had happened. “I'm okay,” he said when asked. Ren hovered beside him, ready to snap at anyone who bothered them. By the end of the song, Haru was nearly back to normal. The message of this song seemed designed as a step in a story. Kanako wondered what the next would say.
But first another instrumental, as if Mafuyu also needed time to recover between songs. People took a moment to talk quietly, refresh their drinks, dash to the restroom.
“I think I know why now,” Ren said.
“Know what?” Masahiro asked.
“Why Mafuyu and Uenoyama haven't had sex yet.”
“Ren! Seriously?” Kiri scolded. “This is not the time to be discussing something like that.”
“But what did you mean, Ren? Why?” Kanako wanted to know.
“Because Uenoyama doesn't know if Mafuyu is over it. Like he's haunted by whoever Mafuyu was singing about. I wouldn't want to if I thought Haru was thinking about someone else – someone I can't even fight off.”
“That makes sense,” Tatsumi said, surprising everyone. “I at least had a chance to yell at Morinaga's first love and to see them together, to know for sure it was over between them.”
“Senpai, I told you it was over.”
“I know you did. But I still didn't like seeing him, hearing him talk like he knew things about you I never would. I didn't punch him but I wanted to.”
“Silly Senpai! I love you! Only you.” Morinaga planted a kiss on Tatsumi and got a fist in his stomach in return. “Oof!” He smiled though and Kanako laughed.
“Stop flirting in public, Morinaga!” They're so cute!
He made a face at her. “Why? You and Shinosuke are lovey-dovey all over the place.”
“Yeah, but I don't get mad about it and punch him. Nii-san is different.”
“You can punch me, Kanako. If I make you mad, punch away,” Shinosuke offered.
“You'll regret saying that,” she told him, grinning.
“Uh oh. They're getting kinky now!” Isogai teased. Everyone laughed, the mood was much lighter. Just in time for the last song of Given's set.
“This is a new song,” Haruki told the crowd. “We just finished writing it, so you're first to hear it. Go easy on us! 'A Song of Summer.'”
Ah. A love song. Still hints of sadness, of fear, but also summer rains helping the flowers to bloom their brightest. Melancholy driven out by bright sunshine. Rainbows.
“Ren, what is Uenoyama's first name?”
“Hmm? Ritsuka, written like the first day of summer.”
“Yeah, I don't think he needs to worry about Mafuyu. Hopefully, that song will lay the ghost to rest. For both of them.”
“You think so? I don't know – Uenoyama's kind of dense. We'll see. I'll bet I can tell next time I see them.”
“Is that it?” Masahiro asked. “Should we wait for them to come out or...? I don't know what bands do in a place like this.”
“They'll come out,” Kousuke said, “but they'll probably be swamped by fans. I think I'm ready to go if you are, Masa.”
“Sure. Ren, Haru – see you tomorrow. Bye, everybody!”
The trio also said their goodbyes and followed Kousuke and Masahiro out. Izumi and Haruto appeared, also ready to go. “Where's Ayano?” Haruto looked around. “Oh, there she is. Why is she all alone over there?”
“I'll get her,” Kanako offered, crossing the room. “Ayano? Everyone's leaving. Are you...?”
Ayano turned a happy face to Kanako, sniffling. “I got a text! See?” She waved her phone.
“Crazy here. Sorry for no contact. Will call soon, promise. I'll bring expensive gifts with pink ribbons.”
“I don't want gifts, though. Just him,” she whispered. “And maybe a pink ribbon, right on top of his head.”
Kanako laughed. “And nothing else? Make him pay for making you worry, just not with money. You're feeling better now? He contacted you, you guys picked a name for the souzaiya – it's all good?”
“I was a pain, wasn't I? I'm okay, now. Sorry about that. Ugh! Ren came up with the name. Brat.”
“It's a good name – doesn't matter who came up with it. Anyway, let's go home.”
Morinaga and Tatsumi went home alone. Kanako went home with Shinosuke and the neighbors. The band did circulate a little, then headed for home as well. It would take a few days for Uenoyama to process Mafuyu's lyrics for the new song, and then a few more for him to work up the nerve. But Ren would definitely notice a difference the next time they met.
“You really shouldn't brag about yourself, Ren, not even in the third person. And how do you know about some of these things?” Kiri wanted to know. “You weren't there for all of it.” They were in school, just after classes ended for the day.
“What I didn't know, I made up. You said to write a story, not non-fiction.”
He had her there. “Well, your writing still needs work, but you've improved for sure. Now you just have to apply that to test-style writing.”
“Whatever. I'm sick of writing. Want to play some video games?” Kiri was a much tougher opponent than Juuzen.
“Um, I can't. Juuzen and I are going to see a movie.”
Ren thought about his lesson with Juuzen. He'd better do a good job this time! All he said was, “Have fun then.”
Kiri gave him a disbelieving look. “That's all you're going to say?”
“What? Oh. You want advice on what positions...?”
Kiri laughed as she left the room. “That's more like you.”
Another Saturday night goes by in the Tokyo Yaoiverse. A little tame, but that last one drained my brain. I need DELIcious food!
About Given's songs - The first we know is called Fuyu no Hanashi (A Winter's Tale or Story) and was written about Mafuyu and Yuuki, Mafuyu's name refers to winter.
Edit 9/14/2020: The second song is now out - Yoru Ga Akeru (Dawn Breaks or Day Will Break Soon).
The third song is my invention, but I think a summer song for Uenoyama and Mafuyu makes sense.