Chapter 1: Breakfast Gossip
Kaidou Aki didn't know Kaji Akihiko very well, had only met him a few times when he was working at White Fang, but the distance of the internet made it easier to ask him about something. Well, someone. Alone in his room, Aki signed on and asked Kaji to chat with him in private. Kaji opened a voice-chat and invited Aki in – IT&S's discord server was making all sorts of conversations easier to hold.
“What did you want to ask me about?”
Aki hesitated a moment before telling him, “This is going to sound strange maybe, but I ran into someone earlier today and something about the guy has been bugging me ever since. It's slightly possible you know him – Murata Ugetsu is his name.”
Silence. Then a line of words typed out. “I can't talk about him right now. Not with Haruki nearby.”
Aki's brain whirled. Oh? Kaji does know him. Knows him...in that way? Did I step on a landmine? “It's not a big deal. Next time I see you.”
Kaji said out loud, “I'm working at White Fang the next three days, like usual.”
“Right. I forgot. Well, I'll ask you about that later. What I really wanted to know was - does Given want a website?” He wasn't sure why he wanted to know more about the rude Murata. And now he was even more intrigued but he didn't want to come across like the worst kind of gossip.
“We've talked about it. Right now, our gigs are being canceled so we can't afford it but maybe by next year. Until then, we're stuck with poor Haruki who doesn't like handling our social media but is the only one who knows how to use Twitter.”
Aki faintly heard Haruki say something in the background and wondered if they were living together officially or just spent a lot of time at each other's apartments. He didn't know that much about the band, but Ren had told him a few things. Kaji had been hired to replace Aki in the café, now they just needed someone to take Shima's place. Ren was filling in temporarily, but he was bad at waiting tables.
“I see. Well, when you're ready, I'll give you guys a discount. That's all I wanted to say, so I'll let you go.
“Sure. See you around, then.” Aki and Kaji ended their private chat.
Aki managed to restrain himself from questioning Kaji for three whole days.
Thursday morning, Aki entered White Fang before it opened. He hadn't been up this early since quitting the café and Haru gave him a questioning look.
“Why are you awake already and here?”
“What? It's a weekday and I'm starting a business. I need to keep business hours like everyone else. I have an appointment in the office later, I'm hungry, and you're here so make me breakfast. I want bacon.”
Haru shook his head. “Ren wants only rice, you want only meat, I can't tell if Shima's eating anything before he goes off to Hakue. How did I raise three unhealthy eaters when all I do is slave away to feed you properly?”
“You didn't raise us – you spoiled us. And don't worry about Shima – he eats natto* every morning after you've left the house.”
“Ugh. Well, at least that's something and the smell is gone before I get back.”
Aoi and Iku came in together as usual and Haru called a hello before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Iku, how is your family?” Aki asked.
“Annoying. But fine, everyone's fine, all one thousand of them,” Iku exaggerated. He began the morning prep work; grinding coffee beans, turning on the hot water dispenser for tea (Aoi only drank tea), setting up the tables.
Aki set up one table in the corner, then plopped himself down at it and waved Aoi over to join him. “I should make us breakfast,” she protested.
“Oh, sit down. Haru will be cooking us all something, I'm sure.”
She knew Haru by now as well, so she shrugged and sat. “What's up?”
“Kaji should be here soon. I'm going to ask him about that Murata guy.”
“The jerk from the other day? Ooh, that sounds interesting - count me in!”
Iku had just brought them Aki's coffee and Aoi's tea when Kaji showed up. Seeing the three of them staring at him, he raised an eyebrow. “...Should I be worried?”
Aoi laughed. “No, we - Aki and I – are dying of curiosity about Murata Ugetsu.”
“I have no idea what they're talking about,” Iku said, “but I want to know, too.”
“Hey, Kaji. Have you eaten breakfast yet?” Haru called, poking his head out from the kitchen.
“Err, no.” Kaji looked like he was under siege from all sides.
“Iku, help me for a minute. Morning, Ren.”
Ren, still half asleep but dressed for work, had just wandered in as well.
While Kaji put away his things and grabbed his apron, Iku and Haru brought out food for everyone. Miso soup, grilled fish, pickled veggies, steamed rice – a very typical and normal breakfast. All six sat down to eat.
After a few bites, Kaji started talking. “So...you met Ugetsu?”
“We didn't meet him. I literally bumped into him, on the street outside the office. Aoi and I were going to Viewfinder and Murata was just leaving there. I apologized but he brushed me off. That annoyed me so I asked Takaba about him. He didn't know much aside from the guy being a violin prodigy.”
“He was rude?” Kaji sighed.
“He acted like a diva! Is that the right term?” Aoi asked.
Kaji laughed. “I think 'diva' is for opera singers, and maybe someone like Madonna. Ugetsu is...difficult. He is hard to explain without making him sound like a complete asshole, honestly.”
Kaji took a deep breath. “Ugetsu's talent for the violin was discovered while he was very young. His family nurtured it, found him a private teacher, pushed him into competitions. His whole life became centered around music and performing. He was praised and encouraged to practice and had his entire future planned out by the time he was ten years old.”
“His father's a diplomat and they traveled a lot until his parents decided he needed to stay in one place to really focus on his training. They arranged for his apartment here and sent him off. He rarely sees them, unless he happens to travel abroad for a competition in the same country where his father is working.”
“That sounds...sad,” Aoi said. “Like they only care about his talent and not him as their son.”
“It sounds like he's a privileged, spoiled kid to me,” was Ren's take on the tale.
“Some combination of both, even though we're the same age as you twins,” Kaji said. “He's always popular, but doesn't have friends. He's fussed over, but only for his performances or his looks. His self-worth is all tied to his musical ability and his only real connections with people are through music as well. His parents just send him money.”
“And the two of you...?” Aki was pretty sure, but couldn't help asking.
“We met in high school. If you're sensitive to it, you can hear – or feel – his intense emotions when he plays. It's not a comfortable thing, to feel that deeply or to love someone who does. I wanted to take away some of his burdens, I wanted to tune those emotions to myself. But instead, I distracted him from practicing because I wanted all his attention.”
“We brought each other down, personally and professionally. We broke up but kept living together. We were co-dependent, addicted to each other. We fought, we fucked occasionally, we still felt like best friends in between the bad times. We both slept with other people, bragged about it, then got jealous like the worst trash. It was ugly and I finally ended it for good about a year and a half ago.”
“...” That was more information than anyone had been expecting from the generally not-talkative Kaji.
“I'm telling you this because...I don't know, really. As a warning? Or maybe asking you for help. If you're interested in him, just watch out. I want him to be happy, you know? He needs friends but it would take work to become his friend. I can't be there for him anymore. He likes Mafuyu as someone who understands him somewhat, but Mafuyu is busy with Uenoyama and school and the band.”
“I wasn't interested in him like that. Just curious,” Aki protested.
“Oh? Well, now you know.” Kaji looked hard at Aki. “You aren't his type anyway. Haru would be, if he played an instrument.”
Haru spluttered into his soup and Ren frowned. “Better not bring him here, Aki,” Ren warned.
“I'm not going to bring him anywhere! I've never even met him, aside from that shoulder bump.”
“Good.” Ren took Aki's unfinished rice and passed over his uneaten grilled fish. Haru rolled his eyes.
*Natto – fermented soybeans, often eaten with steamed rice. It's supposed to be very healthy and...notorious for its very strong odor. “Old cheese, old socks, hot garbage, poop, vomit, cat piss, rat carcass, despair.” Just a few ways I found it described online :) I haven't encountered it myself.
Chapter 2: Independence Has a Price
Independence Has a Price
Murata Ugetsu slammed the door and ran down the stairs into his basement studio apartment. He'd already left his shoes outside and now he dashed directly to his bathroom where he removed all his clothes, tossed them in the washer, and took a scalding shower. He scrubbed at his skin until it stung, rubbed raw.
His movements were frantic and spastic – nothing like his usual graceful and somewhat lazy pace – and didn't slow down until he was triple-washed from head to toe. Not even that felt like enough but by then Ugetsu had recovered a smidgen of sanity. Enough to be ashamed of himself. He slid to the floor of the shower and sobbed.
I hate this! I hate this! He slammed one fist onto the shower tiles, then realized what he'd done and cradled it to his chest. His hands were precious - he'd be better off slamming his head if it would stop this compulsive fear from overtaking him when he went outside. How did I get this way so fast?
Only a few weeks ago, Ugetsu had been fine to come and go from his house at any time, to ride the trains, to talk with people. He was a hermit in some ways, but not out of fear. People and their emotions drained him. People always wanted something from him – more than he was able or willing to give. But he hadn't feared them.
He looked fragile, he knew, with his pale skin, slender body, languid movements. But he was hardy – he rarely caught a cold, could eat like a pig, smoke, drink, party, fuck all night, sleep like a log. Sickness was never a factor he considered, yet now he was terrified of getting sick and leaving home was becoming a test of his resolve. A test he was failing.
There were maybe two people in the world who could comfort him during this time, and neither one would ever be allowed to see this side of him. Satou Mafuyu, who had some idea of what music and performing it live meant to Ugetsu, was busy trying to find his own balance between talent and school, life and love. Mafuyu, who had so much trouble speaking his feelings but was capable of immense expression when he sang them out as lyrics.
And Kaji Akihiko. Love of his youth, bane of his existence. Gone, but not forgotten, leaving behind a gaping hole in Ugetsu that not even playing his violin could fill. Leaving behind his ghost in every corner of this cold, empty apartment. Gone, to that bass player and the stupid band. Given. What a joke! Should have called themselves Thieves. Nakamura Haruki had taken away the only thing that mattered to Ugetsu. Stolen the heart that had been Ugetsu's since the day they met seven years ago.
I have to stop this stupid pining. Ugetsu picked himself up, shut off the water, got out of the bathroom. I pushed him away, over and over. It's not his fault he finally gave up, nor Nakamura's for giving him the love and support he needed. Akihiko and I were toxic. I know that! I put my career first, always. Akihiko understood, he just couldn't accept it.
He's better off without me. I can't hurt him anymore. But I had no idea I would miss him so badly, how bored I'd be without him here to laugh with, to make music with, to quarrel with, to have sex with. Ugetsu's body ached at the memory of Akihiko's strong arms and pierced tongue, the always-warm body that drove away the cold in Ugetsu's bones, the tender way he held Ugetsu after they'd exhausted themselves with sex.
Ugetsu flopped onto his bed, naked and shivering, to stare at the ceiling. Cement ceiling, cement walls, cement floor – soundproof, safe, secluded. And so very, very lonely.
Reaching for his blankets, Ugetsu pulled them over his head like a shroud, curled up into a little ball of misery, and cried himself to sleep. It might be spring outside, but it was the dead of winter in his virus-imposed prison of a studio.
Ugetsu spent Tuesday distracting himself by finally cleaning up his pigsty of an apartment. Growing up with servants did not prepare a person to live on their own and he'd never been motivated by anything other than playing music. Another thing Akihiko had taken care of for him when they lived together.
The past eighteen months had seen a repeating cycle – the apartment turned into a dump until Ugetsu called a cleaning service to fix it for him while he was out of town for a competition or had hooked up with someone and could crash at their place for a day or two. Once he returned, it slowly grew untidy, then messy, then filthy again. When it got to the point of him tripping over things and smelling rot, he called the service.
Not this time. Ugetsu didn't want any strangers in his apartment and he couldn't conveniently disappear for a day or two. He pulled open cabinets he never usually opened in search of “cleaning supplies” though he had little idea what those were. Trash bags, some kind of spray? He knew he didn't have a broom or mop...did he?
It turned out that he did – in a small storage closet beneath the stairs he found all sorts of odds and ends, tucked away by Akihiko. Heavy rubber gloves went on first – there were some clothes piled up in the corner that had been there since before he became aware of the seriousness of the virus and he didn't want to touch them bare-handed.
He got to work. Hours later he collapsed onto his newly made bed of freshly washed sheets and blankets and wondered how on earth normal people did this sort of thing all the time. They don't let it build up to disaster-proportions, he could imagine Akihiko scolding him.
It had taken him an hour just to figure out how to sort the trash. His back and arms and knees ached from crawling on the floor to scrub it (the mop's sponge head was unusable), bending over, stretching upward. He found clothes he forgot he owned, mail he should have answered, mostly-empty food containers that had become science experiments. Opening an old carton of milk to pour the remains down the sink had sent him running for the toilet to vomit. Nasty.
Halfway through, he'd nearly passed out from the fumes of the cleaning products and had to open the small window high up near the ceiling and the front door to get fresh air. Luckily, it was a nice day outside, not that he cared much.
Now that it was done, he felt no sense of accomplishment. I need to hire someone to come once a week, I guess. I wonder if they would shop for my food as well. He was too exhausted for the idea to freak him out. And I need to exercise if doing some home cleaning is leaving me this sore and worn out.
Playing the violin was a sort of exercise – his arms and shoulders were strong and it required a certain posture and breathing that forced his upper body to hold the position, plus he had to stand for hours. But those muscles did him no good for other things, he discovered during this cleaning workout. What a pain in the ass. He drifted off to sleep.
The next day he spent practicing. Over and over - scales, fingering exercises, bowing exercises. And then the latest piece he had been planning to perform at the next competition in France. Canceled, of course. He put it on the album.
The new album had been his manager's idea. His manager lived in Austria and handled everything for him, meeting up only at competitions when he could. He'd also gotten Ugetsu into the best schools and arranged for his personally-tailored training regimen. It was the last call from his manager that had likely caused Ugetsu's current state of mind.
“It's becoming a nightmare here, Murata. It's spreading all over Europe quickly. Stay in Japan where it's not running wild. I'm retreating to a friend's house in the mountains near the Swiss border and we're going to completely isolate ourselves. I'm not sure how often I'll be in contact – the internet service up there isn't the best. Your parents have done similarly. They are on a small Greek island estate, owned by friends of theirs. Stay safe, stay healthy.”
Ugetsu had immediately contacted his parents and been reassured that they were okay and had deposited a large amount of money into his account to see him through any emergency financial needs. That wasn't what he cared about, but then he and his parents had never been very close. He knew they loved him, but they were occupied with his father's work and he was engrossed in his music. Distant, and not just in kilometers.
It all had finally driven home to him how serious this pandemic was. In Japan, it was easy to ignore, especially for someone like Ugetsu, who existed in a bubble of society that rarely mingled with the average person.
There were no lockdowns or curfews. People were being cautious. They had run out and bought up all the toilet paper and face masks, but they were still working and using public transportation, shops and businesses were all still open. Aside from large venues, daily life was quieter but functioning.
Ugetsu knew people all over the world from his travels. He wanted to reach out to them in some way but didn't know what to say. He'd spent a day on the internet, reading of deaths and panic and chaos and fear. Nothing like this had ever touched his charmed life. He was due, wasn't he? He suddenly was sure he was going to catch the virus and die, alone in this basement.
A week later, his manager had sent him an email. Studio time had been set-up, a photographer arranged, even someone hired to create a personal website. If he couldn't perform in person, he was to make himself and his music available online. What better way, than with a new solo album?
Who cares about my stupid music now? Ugetsu wanted to ask. Because he really, really needed a reason to keep from going insane. But who was he going to ask? His manager liked him on some level, as more than just another client, but how petty would it be to demand some kind of reassurance from someone currently hiding in the mountains? Very petty, and Ugetsu hadn't fallen that low.
Ugetsu's main teacher was a cold disciplinarian. Excellent for honing Ugetsu's skills, terrible for talking to. He would never confide in the man or find any comfort from him.
He went to the recording studio. Inside, alone with his violin and one sound tech in a separate room, he was fine. It was getting there and home again where Ugetsu found himself panicking. He kept it in, held himself together, just barely. After the first day, he'd taken a taxi both ways, not able to stand public transportation.
Monday had been his photoshoot. The photographer, Takaba Akihito, was gorgeous, tempting Ugetsu into wanting to seduce him very badly. A hot affair might be just what he needed. But no. Takaba showed zero interest in him and with a flash of memory, Ugetsu realized why. He was dating that amazing Asami guy who'd been in the news recently.
Besides, Takaba wasn't a musician and Ugetsu preferred musicians or at least partners who loved classical music and were fans of his. They were easier to connect with and to brush aside with excuses. Oh, and there was no way Takaba was a top in that relationship. No deal – Ugetsu was a bottom and he knew it.
Sighing, Ugetsu left Viewfinder, collar turned up until it hid most of his face (he refused to resort to a face mask – his one sign of defiance toward the virus), collided with someone's shoulder on his way to the taxi. At home, he would scrub that shoulder with extra force.
All he could think of was getting home. Locking the door. One more ordeal – the meeting to set up the website – and then he could shut himself away for months, if necessary. It was pathetic. He was pathetic and a joke and pointless. Can't let anyone know that. Go to the meeting, buy supplies on the way home, then everything will be fine.
Thursday morning, he headed out for his last appointment.
Chapter 3: Playing it Cool
Playing it Cool
Aki glared at his appointment book, causing Aoi to laugh at him from her desk across the room. “What now? You double-book meetings again?”
“No. But what the hell was I thinking? All I wrote was, 'personal website consultation' and nothing else. No name, no contact number, no idea what kind of website...How am I supposed to pitch this when I haven't made any preliminary plans? I hope someone from the club wants the receptionist job soon.”
“What do you have scheduled for today?”
“I'm heading to Yashiro's office for lunch – I'm painting them a mural and we need to talk about the design. When all else fails, just show whoever it is the Viewfinder website. That's a good example of a personal set-up, even if it's technically for a business. What are you working on right now?”
“I'm building a site and an app for DELIcious. They want to include an online ordering system, which is great, but I'm not all that good with programming apps. I had to get Kanako to help me with that part. It's almost done.”
Aoi sighed. “I know it's convenient – especially right now – to place an order online and then pick it up, but something personal is lost, you know? When all this social distancing comes to an end, are we even going to remember how to make small-talk with strangers any more?”
Aki gave her a look. “Don't exaggerate. Neither you or I made small-talk with strangers before this happened.”
“Ha!” she grinned at him. “So true! You can't be bothered and I'm too shy. Or I was, anyway. Iku though – he'll chat with anyone.”
“And that won't change. People like Iku, Isogai, Hiroto, Morinaga, Naru – they talk and they'll keep on talking. Virus pandemic, zombie apocalypse, alien invasion – they will chatter through them all.”
That made Aoi laugh again because it was on the nose. Some people were born with the gift of gab, no mistake. And the world was a better place because of people like them.
Aki had turned his attention to his computer but Aoi was looking at the door when someone scurried in, head ducked down and face hidden by his jacket's collar. Someone who then stood straighter, revealing his face. Aoi hid behind her screen because her mouth had dropped open and her eyes were probably bugging out. It's him! It's Murata! Eek! She couldn't wait for this interaction – Kaji wasn't the only one who thought Aki's interest in the violin player went beyond simple curiosity.
“Kaidou? I have an appointment with Kaidou Aki. I'm Murata Ugetsu.”
Aoi pointed to Aki, whose head had spun around when he heard the voice. Same voice – a bit high-pitched for a man but cold, with a hint of contempt or impatience. He didn't seem to recall bumping into Aki the other day or he hadn't bothered to look at their faces.
“Uh, hello. Welcome, please have a seat.” Aki indicated a chair facing his desk.
“May I use your washroom first?”
“Of course! Just through the door and to your right.”
As Murata went through, Aoi and Aki made shocked faces at each other. She could imagine what Aki was thinking, ranting mentally at himself for not writing down a name for this appointment. Seeing him stiffening up with some embarrassment, she said quietly, “He needs friends, Aki.”
Aki could be abrupt himself when uncomfortable or immersed in his work. He was an emotional weather vane, swinging around according to how the winds blew. Mostly he was warm to friends and distant to strangers he didn't trust. He could explode with temper, but that never lasted very long. He could also get cranky. And it seemed he held grudges far longer than necessary – Iku told her Aki hated Haru's mother for years, without even having met her. Aoi was looking forward to meeting the Dee Dee everyone was talking about.
Aki could also act very professionally when the occasion called for it. As it did now. He looked at Aoi. “We'll see.”
Murata came back in and perched on the chair. “My manager wants a website built for me. I assume he explained?”
“No,” Aki answered, voice equally cool. “I'm afraid he didn't tell me anything other than it was for a person. What exactly is the purpose of the site? What do you plan to use it for?”
He's going to pretend we don't know anything. I suppose that's best, Aoi thought. Murata was sitting with his back to her, damn it. She wanted to see his expressions.
Murata didn't answer immediately. “Do you know anything about classical music? I play the violin. Usually, I travel to competitions and guest appearances.”
“I'm not really into that sort of music, but it's not necessary, is it? Did you want to upload some music onto your personal site?” Aki steered the conversation back to the job.
“Perhaps.” Murata took a deep breath and refocused. “I'm making a solo album. My manager wants me to promote and sell it online. I have one other, from a few years ago. I suppose I should put that on there as well.”
“You don't sound very enthusiastic about the idea.”
“...I'm not. I prefer to perform live for an audience. I can't do that now, can I?” Some bitterness crept into Murata's voice. “I don't like interacting with the public one-on-one, not in person or online. I suppose I'll have to go on Twitter or whatever.”
Aki started scribbling. “So, on the home page, we'll want a nice headshot type of picture and also the new album's cover. Then a biography page and a page for both albums, with maybe a few sample clips from each and links to the places they can be purchased. Are you putting individual songs on streaming platforms like Spottify and iTunes?”
“Fuck, I don't know. My manager is supposed to handle all this shit but he's currently hiding in the Swiss Alps.” Murata's patience was slipping. “He's usually very detailed when he contacts someone. Emails ten pages long.”
Aki's face froze, making Aoi think he hadn't checked his business email account. Oi, Aki! We have got to get you that receptionist! Aoi would do it herself, but she was spending a lot of time painting murals on-site.
“I thought maybe you'd have your own ideas about how to set this up. I can figure out the rest if you don't want to have that much involvement. But it is meant to represent you, so your input is better than his. To me anyway.”
Ha! That was smooth. Aoi believed Aki was going to be a very good businessman, once he got the hang of it. Aki tapped on his keyboard, then turned his monitor around for Murata to see. The Viewfinder website. Aoi winked at him.
“Something like this site would probably work for you. As you can see, Takaba's pictures worked for wallpapers, but Aoi can come up with a design if you prefer. Then here,” he clicked again, "would be something similar, but with your album covers instead of more pictures. And last,” one more click, “a page with your bio and um...later, you can add upcoming appearances.”
The last page had a picture of Takaba. “Do you know him well?” Murata asked.
“Takaba? Yes, he's just down the street and we've worked together on a few projects.”
“He just took some pictures of me. I'll have him send them directly to you. I don't like photos in the background, so maybe Aoi – who is that, by the way?”
“Oi! I'm sorry! Doumeki Aoi, sitting there behind you. She's an artist.”
Murata turned around and Aoi waved at him. “You're Doumeki Designs and he's Kaidou Graphics? I'm sorry, I thought you were the receptionist,” he told her.
“That's okay. We just opened the office so we don't have any help yet. Would you like something to drink? I can make you tea or coffee.”
“No.” Murata stood up and moved over to Aoi's desk. “I'd like to see your designs if you're going to do them.”
Aki raised an eyebrow but said nothing at being abandoned. He turned his screen back toward himself and she just knew he was frantically searching his emails for the manager's list of instructions. I guess I'd better keep Murata occupied.
She showed him some samples. There were abstracts, watercolor-style landscapes, cutesy cartoon figures (not Murata's type at all), and a whole bunch of other things. They discussed color and tone. Like Takaba had said, he had definite ideas about what he liked. Simple and sophisticated, rich colors and soft curves. Sensual, was her summation.
Discreetly studying the man, she took in the draped angora sweater with its loose turtleneck, the fine wool jacket he'd taken off – a deep wine-red to contrast with the cream of the sweater. On Aoi, cream near her face would have left it looking too pale and washed out, but it lent Murata an ethereal glow. With his dark wavy hair, graceful movements, the lilt in his voice...he reminded her something but she couldn't pin it down.
Aki was busy staring at his screen and making mental notes. Ten pages of instructions? She almost giggled. Poor Aki. Then Aki broke into their art discussion.
“Murata, do you have older photos of yourself? And what about music files?”
“Oh, shoot!” Aoi had just noticed the time. “I have to go to my lunch appointment! Aki, do you want me to bring you back some food from DELIcious? Murata, I have a good idea of what you want. I can send you some mock-ups in a day or two but I need to leave now, I'm sorry.”
“I'm sure whatever you come up with will be fine,” Murata assured her.
“Something, anything – I don't care as long as it has meat in it. I'm planning on spending the night here,” Aki said.
“Oh, going to test the new bed? Well, I'll grab whatever looks good. See you later. Murata, nice to meet you!” She had to dash off, just when Murata was getting comfortable. Don't ruin it, Aki! Glancing back from the exit, Aoi saw Murata move back to Aki's desk and an image came to her. A geisha! That's what he reminds me of...
Chapter 4: Flare Up
Aki watched Aoi run off with some frustration. Murata had been much friendlier to her and now he didn't know how to deal with the guy. At least she'd given him time to skim over the manager's highly detailed requirements for the website.
“Is she your girlfriend?” Murata asked bluntly.
Does he swing both ways? I got the impression from Kaji he's strictly gay. “She's dating a good friend of mine, actually. Why, were you interested?” Damn it, that came out wrong. He's going to think I'm jealous.
Murata raised an eyebrow. “Don't worry, I don't chase those who are involved with someone. Just making small-talk.”
Aki almost snorted. He's as good at small-talk as I am. At least he took that question as me being protective. And he doesn't suspect I know he's gay. Or is he bi?
“I was asking about other photos or promotional images or music files – do you have them?”
“I have a whole box of junk at home. Should I send it over?”
This isn't going anywhere. Kaji said he needs friends. Aoi was sending me signals. “Why don't I drive you home and pick them up myself? I don't have anything else planned. We could have lunch.”
“You have a car?” Murata looked disbelieving. “And do you always intrude into your clients' private lives?”
“Most of my clients so far have been people I already know,” Aki admitted. “Both Aoi and I just started working for ourselves. And yes, I have a car. It was a graduation gift from...a friend.” From Asami, to be precise. He'd hesitated about two seconds before accepting – Asami could afford it.
Murata bit his lower lip and Aki caught himself staring. Not only were his lips...inviting, but it was a tiny sign that Murata wasn't as cool and composed as he wanted people to believe.
“You haven't been around many people today?” Murata asked. A strange question.
“Um, no. Just family and friends at White Fang – my brother runs a café next door to our house – and then I drove here with Aoi. You're the only person we've seen today. Honestly, you're the first customer we've had in the office.”
“Oh, a café. I'm-I already arranged for a taxi, so...”
Wait. He's...“The café wasn't open yet. Really, I haven't been in contact with anyone and Aoi's the only one who's been in the car. It's brand new.”
Murata's cheeks flushed. God, he's pretty. Fuck! Stop that! Kaji didn't say he was a germophobe. The virus has him spooked?
“I need to stop on the way home to buy some things. It's fine.”
“I don't mind stopping. I need to shop, too. As well as just opening this office, I'm moving into the apartment upstairs and the cupboards are bare. We'll go together, okay?” Wow, I'm really pushing for this. Desperate much?
“Why?” Murata was suspicious now.
“I'm...not sure. Look, it's clear you don't remember bumping into me a few days ago – on the street a few doors down. I was kind of pissed off, so I asked Takaba about you. And when he said you played the violin, I...I asked someone else about you, too. I shouldn't have, but I was curious. Now, you show up here and it's like, more than a coincidence.”
Murata stood up. “That was you? I remember. Who did you ask? What did they say? You've been gossiping about me?” He was angry and he had a right to be.
He deserves the truth. “Kaji Akihiko. He works at the café and I know he plays the violin as well as being in Given. He didn't tell me that much. How music is the focus of your life, how much you've traveled...” Aki's voice trailed off, realizing what else Kaji had told them.
“That we were lovers? That I'm a slut who uses people and tosses them aside when I'm done? That I'm a mess and stay away? Do you find me a challenge or have a thing for bad boys?”
Oh shit. This is going all wrong. Didn't Kaji say it's been more than a year? Murata's not over him. “No! I mean yes, he said you dated in the past and it didn't end well. But he wants you to be happy – said you needed friends. I'm sorry! I'm sorry we discussed you behind your back! But I didn't mean to pry, and I never thought I'd meet you like this.”
“How pathetic! I need friends? Friends like him? With benefits?” Murata sneered.
“Would you stop that!” Aki exploded in return. “I'm not trying to fuck you! I just want to know you better! I don't have many friends either! You're interesting, that's all! No pity! Shit! Get the hell out, if that's how you want to be!”
Murata stared at him, then dropped back into the chair and started...laughing? He's laughing at me now? Spoiled, arrogant, self-important, conceited, stuck-up...I'm running out of synonyms.
“You have a terrible temper,” Murata said.
“You make too many assumptions, all negative,” Aki snapped. His anger was disappearing rapidly though.
“I've been in a bad place recently, it's true. I was rude to you that day. I was rude today, as well. I don't like people, I told you. More so, lately.”
“Everyone's tense lately. They just cover it up in different ways.”
Both of them had just apologized without actually apologizing. Aki laughed a little himself.
Murata stood up again and bowed. “I'm Murata Ugetsu, violinist and spoiled brat. You can call me Ugetsu.” He smiled and it was warm instead of mocking.
Aki matched him. “I'm Kaidou Aki, graphic designer with a bad temper. Please call me Aki.”
“...I'd rather not. Can I just call you Kaidou? How about Kai? I don't mean it as an insult. I just...”
You called him that, didn't you. “Kai. Hmm. I like it. No one else calls me that, so it's kind of fun.”
“Good. Kai, would you please take me shopping? I don't know how.”
Aki gaped at him. “What?”
“I've never been in a supermarket. Only the convenience stores. I can't cook, I just sort of taught myself to clean. I'm petrified of getting sick and don't want to ride the subway. I'm no good for anything but playing the violin.”
Holy shit. He's too much. “That's a different kind of pathetic. Come on, my car's in the back.” Aki locked the front door and led the way.
In the car, Ugetsu tuned the radio without asking permission, easily finding a classical music station. “I called myself spoiled, but this car is fancy. Is your family loaded?”
“Have you heard of Asami Ryuichi?”
“Of course. The ex-yakuza with the killer looks. Takaba's lover.”
“Yes, well. He's sort of my...patron? He's invested in me, which allowed me to start my own business. I did the Viewfinder website when I was a student looking for projects to build a portfolio – I didn't know he was the one who hired me for it. Then he took an interest in me. The car was a gift, like I said. I got this watch for my birthday, too.” Aki showed off his wrist.
“Ooh, that's a nice one.” Murata took his hand to study it closer.
Aki reacted, strongly. Snatched his hand away. Oh my god, what was that?
“Sorry. I'm too touchy-feely, aren't I? I didn't mean anything by it. That's just how I am when I'm not freaking out about the virus.”
“No, it's fine. I'm just – I need to focus on driving. 'Both hands on the wheel!' I can hear my brother yelling at me.”
“Must be nice to have a brother. He's older than you?”
“There's Haru, who is twenty-six and is only my half-brother - we have different mothers. Then me and my twin, Shima. Fraternal twins – we look a lot alike, but not identical. He's working at Hakue for Usami Haruhiko-sama. Then my parents adopted a Japanese orphan from Canada. Ren is eighteen and he's...dating Haru.”
Ugetsu's eyes widened. “That's quite the family you've got there. Mine's boring. Dad is an ambassador, stationed in Greece currently. Mom goes with him everywhere. I stay here in Tokyo and they send me money unless I travel for a competition. Then they give me money in person.”
“Our parents died in a car accident, ten years ago. Haru's watched over us all since then. He paid our tuition, found a house where we could live together as soon as he could. He opened the café so he could be close to home and make sure we ate properly.” Aki pulled into the parking lot and parked.
“I'm sorry about your parents. Haru sounds like an amazing brother, really.”
“It's fine. I mean, it's not fine but we're okay. We had each other and it was a long time ago. Haru is...Haru. He sounds good on paper but he's a pain in the butt. You'll see when you meet him. We're here!” They got out of the car. “You've really never been in a supermarket?”
“Never.” Ugetsu was staring as if maybe he never would, might just get back in the car.
Aki pulled up Ugetsu's jacket collar. “Tuck your hands in your pockets. I'll handle things. You tell me what you want.” Reaching into his own pocket, he pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer. “I'll be fine, you'll be fine. Okay?”
Ugetsu only nodded. But he didn't retreat. He's got balls, Aki thought. He's scared but going to go in with me. I'm impressed. And if Aki was anything else, he wasn't ready to admit it yet, to himself or anyone.
Chapter 5: Not Alone
I made a YouTube playlist of the music Ugetsu plays in this chapter and chapter 8 if you would like to hear them - story #44 (open in a new tab)
Ugetsu made it through the shopping experience without shaming himself by running out or freaking out. He hid his embarrassment over not having a clue how to shop by acting so helpless that Kaidou spent most of the trip lecturing him. Kaidou went through all sorts of expressions, from amazement to disgust to stern to amused. Ugetsu was fascinated – and he also paid attention to make sure he'd never have to feel humiliated about shopping ever again.
They loaded up a cart (after wiping the handle down with hand sanitizer) with all sorts of things. Kaidou started with two cases of beer, which made Ugetsu laugh and lose some of his tension. He got some for himself as well. The most important item out of the way, they headed for the aisles with instant foods.
“I know all about how to prep food for cooking – skinning, chopping, peeling – but not a lot about how to combine them into actual food,” Kaidou admitted. “Haru is a great cook, so all we did was help him. For myself, I can make fried rice, a simple stir fry, fry an egg. Ha! I'm a fryer. Oh, and I can grill steaks and fish – I'm good with an outdoor grill.”
“I've never turned on the stove to do anything other than light a cigarette.”
“What do you eat?”
Ugetsu sighed. “Lately, frozen dinners. Before, I ate out most of the time.”
“I'm teaching you how to boil water first. Do you like curry? Ramen? How about soup?” He tossed things into the cart left and right. “Do you have rice? A rice cooker?”
“I don't know. Wait! A cooker, yes. Akihiko made rice, so I must have a cooker.”
Kaidou shook his head. “Unbelievable!”
More lecturing, more items piled into the cart. Ugetsu made sure to ask about cleaning supplies. Kaidou questioned, explained, rolled his eyes, led him here and there and everywhere. Ugetsu was distracted from dodging other customers, shying away from handling things, and eventually stopped worrying altogether.
They went through a self-checkout line and bagged everything themselves, even more reassuring to Ugetsu. Everything loaded into the trunk, they headed for Ugetsu's home.
“Whoa. That is a really ugly house.”
Ugetsu was so accustomed to it, he never paid attention. Three stories tall and skinny, the house above his basement was gray concrete with squared-off edges and no personality. “I live in the basement. It's soundproofed, so I can practice at any time. What it looks like on the outside doesn't matter.”
“Here,” Kaidou made him carry half the bags. He had to sit them down to find his keys, then they were inside.
“Kitchen on the left, bathroom and toilet on the right.” For the first time in weeks, Ugetsu didn't dash into the bath, desperate to scrub himself. Kaidou insisted Ugetsu help him put everything away, and they poked through the cupboards and found all sorts of things Ugetsu had no idea he owned.
They both thoroughly washed their hands then put everything in its place. Ugetsu thought that was it and Kaidou would grab the box of pictures and things and leave. But no. Ugetsu had barely lit a cigarette and plopped down onto his bed before Kaidou yanked him to his feet and dragged him back to the kitchen.
He received a crash course on cooking. Rice – measure into the cooker, rinse, add water, hit the button. While that steamed, they chopped vegetables, then he learned how to boil water. Into the water went a bag of curry, only needing to be heated. Kaidou dumped all the veggies into a pan with some oil and tossed them around. Like magic, the steamer announced the rice was ready, just in time.
Into two bowls went some rice, the veggies, and finally the curry poured over the top. Beers in hand, they sat on the floor at Ugetsu's low table and he had his first real meal in weeks. Best of all, he was sure he could repeat the process himself next time. Kaidou had taken pains to explain everything as he worked.
They ate silently, Kaidou seeming to have finally run out of words. What a weird day! I was dreading it and it turned out...fun. And somehow I'm not scared like I was. Thanks to him. He looked at Kaidou, really looked.
Only a bit taller than Ugetsu, hair a warm brown, cut shorter than Ugetsu's. Kaidou had a sturdier build and clear golden skin. Despite being a computer-type, he had a lot of energy and rarely sat still. He had nice features - handsome - and his face was dominated by large dark eyes that flashed with all those emotions he carried right on the surface.
Not once had they talked about music, but not once had Ugetsu been bored. So strange, to think Kaidou didn't care about the only thing Ugetsu was really knowledgeable about. He was so used to discussing music, the violin, concerts, orchestras...
“Kai, what do you do for fun?”
“Huh? Eh, it's going to take me a while to get used to being called 'Kai.' Um...nothing much? Watch TV or movies, play video games, go out and drink and sing bad karaoke. The usual.”
“Is that the usual? I don't even have a TV. Whenever I went out with someone we'd eat at some restaurant, talk about music, and have sex. Even Akihiko and I never went on normal dates when we were a couple. We played the violin together, then we slept together. He took care of me, and I let him. We were so stupid.” Ugetsu pushed aside his empty bowl and lit another cigarette.
“I didn't understand it when he started playing the drums or joined that band. I thought it was some kind of rebellion against me, until I heard them perform the first time. They're really good. You know we ended badly but kept living here together?” Kaidou nodded. “We didn't know how to be apart from each other. We didn't know how to be together, either. In the end, I drove him away. And ever since, this place has felt empty and I've been lost.”
“Now, I can't leave town to compete. I have no one to play for but my teacher. I see the same people at school – people I have no interest in. I don't know...I just want to thank you for today. If this is normal life, I think I like it. I'm going to get a TV! What gaming thing should I buy? Will you come over once in a while and play with me or watch a movie?”
Kaidou didn't answer right away, making Ugetsu nervous. Am I too much trouble? Did that sound stupid? I can't remember the last time I tried to make a friend. All I've done is seduce people before getting bored and tossing them aside. He said he didn't want to sleep with me - is he straight? Doesn't matter.
“I'd like that,” Kaidou said after a very long moment. “My brother Shima - my twin – we've been inseparable since birth. Until recently. Now we both have jobs, he met someone who I think is going to be important to him, and it's been hard. I think it's something like you and Kaji – we are just learning how to be apart and we can't be together the way we used to. So yes, I'd like to spend time with you.”
Kaidou grinned at him. “You have to come to my place sometimes though. Right now, it feels empty and I'm not used to being alone. That's why I barged in here and took over your kitchen, I guess. To avoid going back. I'll help you make new memories here, and you help me fill my place with new ones there.”
“Deal!” They shook on it. Something passed between them when they touched hands and Kaidou didn't snatch his hand away this time. “Hey, wasn't Doumeki going to bring you back some food or something?”
“Shit!” Kaidou pulled out his phone and tapped out a message. She replied quickly. “Oi. She took it home with her. Ha! What if I got there and was starving? Oh well, Iku will eat it, or her mother.”
“How do you know her? And are your other brothers really dating?”
Kaidou filled him on his complicated family, their extended group of friends and acquaintances, the Iced Tea and Snacks Club (Ugetsu snickered), his life in general. How can he feel alone, with so many people in his life? It took a while for Ugetsu to realize that everyone Kaidou talked about was already partnered up.
“I'm talking way too much. I'd...would you play for me? Your violin, I mean. It's okay if you don't want to!” Kaidou was quick to add. “I'm not a real audience and I don't know much about classical music, but that doesn't mean I dislike it. I probably won't appreciate it properly.”
“You sit there and shut up. You're the best kind of audience because I'll get a real, honest response that isn't about my technique or comparing me to the masters or any of that other bullshit.” Ugetsu stood up and crossed to the opposite corner of the room, where his music stand and violin case were.
“Why over there?” Kaidou asked.
“Hmm?” Ugetsu prepared his bow and instrument. “The acoustics of this room make this the best place to play. Plus, if I'm too close to you it will be very loud.” Tighten the bowstrings, add rosin. Snap on the shoulder rest. Stand up straight, raise the violin...
Ugetsu glanced over at Kaidou, who was watching all the steps intently. With a little smile, Ugetsu dragged his bow across the strings and produced a terrible screech. Kaidou clapped his hand over his ears and glared. Ugetsu bent over laughing.
“Sorry! I couldn't resist. Okay. Serious-face!” He took deep breaths to settle himself, ran through a few simple scales. He adjusted the tuning, tried again. Better.
Ugetsu began with a few children's songs, just to warm up. Kaidou smiled, recognizing them. Next, he played an Irish jig, just for the hell of it. That got Kaidou's toe tapping – a good sign. He followed with the opening theme from Fiddler on the Roof, a favorite but not something usually played for a competition or performance. These were pieces Ugetsu liked playing for himself.
Chopin's Nocturne for C# Minor, a beautiful, melancholy piece written for the piano. Ugetsu thought it suited the violin well. And for his last piece, Ugetsu fiddled with his CD player.
“This one is a concerto, which means there is an orchestra and the main violin theme plays with their accompaniment. I practice with the rest of the music already recorded. This one is called The Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto. It's from a Chinese legend about a girl who disguises herself as a man so she can go to school. There she meets and falls in love with another student, but he doesn't discover her secret – he's kind of dense. She tells him he should marry her sister, who is actually her, so he finally figures it out and they're in love for about a minute. Of course, stuff happens, and they can't get married. He dies, she dies – they turn into butterflies.”
Kaidou raised his eyebrows at the description. “Don't you hate it when that happens?”
Ugetsu snorted, composed himself again, and hit play. “I'm only playing the beginning because it's almost half an hour long.” It began with flute trills, then Ugetsu took the lead. A soft and pretty beginning, representing the young woman's hope and pleasure at being allowed to study. More speed and volume as the pace of her life becomes thrilling. Ugetsu stopped there and looked at Kaidou.
“Still awake?” He put away the instrument carefully.
“You played most of those without reading the music. That's amazing. It's different, hearing the music in person. And watching you, the way you sway and lose yourself. Hypnotic. It was beautiful.”
He meant it, Ugetsu could tell. That was why he played, why he devoted his life to practice and music. To inspire that look on the faces of the people who heard him. Ugetsu wanted to kiss Kaidou. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Don't ruin this. He's offering friendship without strings. He's probably straight anyway.
“I'm hungry,” Ugetsu announced. “I don't want you to cook for me again, though.”
“Order a pizza? Or...do you want to go eat somewhere?”
Kaidou had been very accommodating about Ugetsu's discomfort being around people, but the fear had faded into the background. Then it hit Ugetsu. If I get sick, he'll find me. I won't be alone. He'd help me, I know it. I can call him if I need help.
“Do you know somewhere not too busy?” I can go out. With a friend.
Chapter 6: Sleepover
They went to eat at Mon Chaton, where Ugetsu met Hiroto and Master. Near the end of their meal, Naru and Usami Haruhiko stopped by and were also introduced.
Naru knew who Ugetsu was. “What a troublesome time this must be for you, Ugetsu dear. My season's tickets for the Tokyo Philharmonic are all likely to be canceled and I heard you were being considered for the special performances that were planned in honor of the Olympics. I think it's most likely now the Olympics will be canceled as well, or postponed. This virus is having a dreadful effect on the world.”
“Health must come first,” was all Ugetsu said, trying hard not to stare.
“Of course. But I consider music to be therapy, soothing to the soul, which can help the body heal. In my opinion at least, what you do is important.”
“He's releasing a solo album,” Kaidou told them. “I'm building him a personal website to showcase it.”
“That's wonderful news. I'll be sure to buy it. Don't forget to advertise on the club's server.”
Haruhiko took Naru's hand. “Let's leave them alone, Naru. A pleasure to meet you, Murata. Kaidou, stop by Hakue this week – there are a few adjustments we need to make to the website.”
As they left, Ugetsu turned to Kaidou. “He's...that was...I've met a lot of rich, powerful, famous people but Naruse Aito? I never heard his name until the movie premiere, but he's so...glamorous! Like those Hollywood movie stars of the 40s and 50s. He was genuine and unpretentious, while at the same time looking like he should be sipping brandy on the deck of a yacht in the Mediterranean. How does he do that?”
“I have no idea. It's like you want to hug him, but are afraid to get his clothes dirty. Then he hugs you anyway because he couldn't care less about the clothes.”
“Exactly!” They shared a smile.
After dinner, they went to Kaidou's apartment and Ugetsu learned the fine sport of digitally mowing down innocent pedestrians with his car in Grand Theft Auto and shooting a million bullets in Call of Duty.
Kaidou called Takaba and the three of them teamed up as a squad in Fortnight Battle Royale, yelling at each other in a private discord server Takaba had set-up (neither Kaidou nor Takaba were Foundation-level members of IT&S). Ugetsu was terrible at fighting, but he built protective walls like a champ while the other two ducked behind them to take out the enemy. They didn't win, but they had fun trying.
Ugetsu and Kaidou put a serious dent in those two cases of beer, littering the table with empty cans. The playing and chatting with Takaba stopped when they heard Asami arrive and he quickly ditched them for his lover. “Aki, I'll drop off Murata's photos tomorrow,” Takaba said as he logged out.
“Asami stays over at Takaba's place? Isn't it a studio like this one? Why wouldn't they live in some enormous, posh apartment or house?”
“Ha! Wait until you see it. Asami had that place completely tricked out for Takaba and himself. He offered to fancy this one up for me as well, but I couldn't accept that. I know the money is nothing to him, but it means something to me. I'll improve this place when I can pay for it on my own.”
“Don't give me any discount when you charge for my website. My parents can afford it, and you deserve the full amount,” Ugetsu told him.
“Will you make much money as a professional violinist?”
“Not really, unless I become hugely famous like Itzhak Perlman or Hilary Hahn. No one becomes a classical musician for the money. I'm lucky that my parents are wealthy and I don't have to saw away in a mediocre orchestra while working a side job to pay the bills. I can focus on my technique and continue to learn for another couple of years.”
“Huh. Then you'll travel a lot? Will you move to Europe?” Kaidou leaned back against the couch to stare at the ceiling. “I'd like to travel someday.”
“No, Japan will always be my home base. I like Europe, but when I'm there it's nothing but music, music, music. Here, I can turn that off when I need to and hide away.”
“You really are a hermit, aren't you? I'm not. I like having people around, just not all the time.”
“I'm a really moody bastard,” Ugetsu made a point of saying. “You'll see. You'll want to punch me or slap me or kick my ass once I get in a funk.”
“I'm like a lightning strike, Shima says. I explode and yell a lot, but I get over it once I calm down. Unless you hurt my family or friends. Do that and I'm done with you. Not you, personally. I meant the figurative 'you.'”
Ugetsu laughed. “You're drunk.”
“So? You are too. We should go to bed. Oh, I don't have a futon so...”
“The couch is fine.”
“I'm used to sharing the bed with my twin. You can sleep with me. In the bed. Sleep only. It's a double.”
How long has it been since I slept beside someone and nothing else? Akihiko. “Are you sure? I hog the blankets.”
“Well, I snore so it should be a good sleep for both of us.”
Ugetsu turned serious. “Kai, I'm not going to try and seduce you. Absolutely not gonna cross that line. I want you to know that. I don't know what all Akihiko said about me.”
“Uh...okay? I wasn't really worried. You wanna know what Kaji said? He said I'm not your type. That my brother Haru is your type - if he was a musician. Don't fall for Haru though - Ren will bite you. All the women fall for Haru, date me to get close to Haru, or they want some weird threesome with Shima. Twincest is a creepy kink. Dating sucks.”
So that's why he keeps calling Haru names, even though he clearly loves his brother. I can't wait to meet him, only to not fall for him. Akihiko is such a fool sometimes. All Ugetsu said aloud was, “Shower?”
“You go first. I'll get you some clean clothes and stuff. Towels are on top of the washer.”
They showered. They went to bed. Kaidou did snore at one point but Ugetsu was already sound asleep and didn't hear it. Ugetsu hogged the blankets but Kaidou rolled over and snatched them back. Both slept well.
Ugetsu thought the expression on Doumeki's face the next morning, when they both entered the office from the back door, was priceless. She blinked like an owl, mouth hanging open.
“Good morning, Doumeki!” Ugetsu chirped at her.
“Good morning, Murata. Uh, call me Aoi.”
“Call me Ugetsu! Sorry I have to run but I have class today. Maybe we can all go out tonight? I'd like to meet your boyfriend. Kai, thanks for yesterday. I'll talk to you later.”
Kaidou gave him a look, knowing exactly what Ugetsu was playing at. He was a good sport. “I had fun. Do you want me to drive you home?”
“Nope. I called for a cab. Ciao!” Ugetsu swanned out, leaving Kaidou behind to answer Aoi's million questions, starting with...
Chapter 7: Hanami and a Story
Hanami and a Story
Over the next two weeks, Kaidou and Ugetsu figured out how a friendship between the two of them would work. After a few bumps, it worked surprisingly well. They tested each other a bit. Ugetsu had a tendency to dark sarcasm and a condescending attitude that he could pile on at times, driving Kaidou to explode. Kaidou, shocked by some of Ugetsu's ignorance and carelessness about common matters, sometimes lectured or scolded Ugetsu like he was a brat, sending Ugetsu into a tantrum like a brat.
When that happened for either one, they gave the other space for a day and then did the “not-an-apology” thing by vaguely admitting they had taken something too far and went right back to being friends. Ugetsu at one point went into one of his true funks for three days straight, refusing to answer his phone. He did, however, respond to Kaidou's texts with, “Alive. Need alone-time.”
Kaidou would never know how much it meant to Ugetsu to receive those worried texts each day and then to be left alone in peace as requested. Ugetsu stopped being afraid of the public in general, though he still refused to go anywhere very crowded or ride the trains and Kaidou was careful not to push him about it.
Haru invited everyone to a dinner where Ugetsu met Shima and Reiko, Aoi's boyfriend Ikuyoshi, cousin Natsuo and his doctor friend Takamura, Haru and Ren. A very new experience for Ugetsu, the boisterous family dinner where people talked and yelled and flirted and teased. Reiko was a little uncomfortable as well, but they both ended up relaxing and enjoying the chaos.
Ugetsu did not fall for Haru and no one was bitten. Except maybe Haru later that night, but he enjoyed that sort of thing in private. Ugetsu did appreciate Haru's cooking enough to go home and start teaching himself to follow a recipe. The shock on Kaidou's face when Ugetsu made them dinner one evening was worth it.
Ugetsu was amazed by Takaba's jewel of a loft and dazzled to meet Asami in person. Asami sent shivers down his spine – the good kind – but he gave no outward sign. Clear, very clear, that those two would never look at anyone other than each other.
Kaidou managed to persuade Ugetsu to go to a karaoke party where he met Isogai, Hiroto, Ichimaru, Kanako and Shinosuke, Gotouda Aki (another Aki – sigh) and Ueda. Ugetsu, musician or no, could not sing to save his life.
He stunned them all with his terrible attempt, then sat back to enjoy the others making spectacles of themselves. He laughed along with them as Ichimaru unashamedly caterwauled through anime theme songs, then sat up and took note when Isogai showed off his fine voice. Kanako and Shinosuke sang only love duets which made everyone groan at them. Gotouda was a sexy little beast with no shame and obviously, Ueda appreciated him. Hiroto flirted outrageously with them all.
Even Ugetsu, who considered himself quite sexually adventurous and open, had never been in a threesome. He was fascinated by their dynamic, wondering if they'd add another (or more?) to their combo if the opportunity presented itself. Not that he wanted to join them, but he was curious as to how they operated. By the end of the evening, he understood that they were honestly in love with each other, not just three horny dudes who happened to get along in bed.
On March 27th everyone affiliated with the Iced Tea and Snacks Club was invited to an unusual gathering.
For Onodera Ritsu's twenty-seventh birthday party, his parents were throwing a Hanami* on a piece of land they owned about an hour's drive from the center of Tokyo. When everyone arrived, they found a central area with food and drinks (even a toilet facility), then a series of tarps scattered all throughout the grove of trees, covered in their gorgeous palest pink blossoms.
It was as ideal as the situation could be. They didn't have to mingle with huge crowds and could socialize without getting closer than anyone was comfortable with. Everyone brought blankets, many contributed to the food or had their own picnic meals. Ugetsu met a whole bunch of new people, though most of the faces and names would take him some time to sort out.
People strolled through the trees, fell asleep and woke up covered in petals, sang songs and played games. It was a casual, lazy sort of party, with people coming and going as suited them. Ugetsu had never seen so many gay couples all in one place before. He felt at home and surrounded by support and welcomed into a community he hadn't known existed.
Ugetsu glimpsed all four of the Given members. After a polite greeting, they kept their distance without it being hostile. He didn't feel the need to watch Akihiko with Nakamura, felt no resentment or jealousy. I'm over him, finally. I'm glad he's happy.
When darkness fell, a series of small bonfires were lit and people adjusted their seating arrangements to get closer to the warmth. A few stayed out in the shadows, cuddled up under blankets to stare at the stars and be private.
Ugetsu and Kaidou shared a tarp with Reiko and Shima. Reiko and Shima were both quiet people but they seemed to be on some kind of private wavelength without needing much talk. It was disconcerting at first and Ugetsu was tempted to poke at them until he could figure it out.
He got a lot more than he bargained for once it was fully dark.
They had a fire circle to themselves until Kanako and Shinosuke settled down across the flames. Masahiro and Kousuke showed up as well.
“We were summoned,” Kousuke joked. Ugetsu didn't get it but the others did.
“You should tell him, Reiko. He's one of us now,” Kanako said.
Ugetsu assumed this must be some secret initiation to the IT&S club. Would he have to pass some kind of test?
::Test, of a sort, yes. Can you pass it, Music Man?::
What the hell was that? Ugetsu sat bolt upright and glanced around wildly.
Kaidou put a hand on his shoulder in reassurance. “Do you have to do that, Izuna? Can't you wait for an introduction?”
Reiko sat up as well, crossing her legs. Shima stayed where he was, laying on his side with his head propped up by one hand, watching Ugetsu. “Handsome and pretty,” he muttered, making no sense.
The little fox that had spent all day draped around Reiko's neck, jumped to the ground, ran over to Ugetsu, then shocked him by climbing up his left arm, across his shoulders, and down his right arm. He...tingled where it had touched him.
::I'm Izuna, kudagitsune. Energy flows through your arms, your own type of magic. I like it.::
“W-what's going on, Kai? Is...is this fox talking in my head?” He knew his voice has gone up an octave in fear. He stared at Kanako and Shinosuke, who were smiling at him, nodding encouragement.
“She is. Don't insult her or she'll curse you.”
“Aki! That's not funny!” Reiko scolded. “Ugetsu, we're going to tell you a story. You might not believe most of it, but I'll do my best to explain everything and demonstrate if you need me to. Most people here already know some or all of this story because they were witnesses. You're new, so we wanted to wait for a good time. I guess this is the right time. Will you listen?”
Ha! The only other option is to run away like a damn coward and I don't even have a ride without Kai.
::You're no damn coward, Moon Hidden by Rain Clouds. I feel you, strong in heart, in pride. Giving of yourself, but in a fashion many do not understand. No longer alone, no longer need to hide behind clouds. We are trusting you. Ak-no, Kai wants you to know and be a part of us.::
Ack! She heard his thoughts. That was what his name, Ugetsu, meant. He stayed seated.
It took over an hour for Kousuke, Masahiro, Reiko, and Izuna to fill Ugetsu in on the whole story. He was by turns skeptical, shocked, touched, amused, in awe. He wished he had met these people sooner, so he could have experienced it all in person. And in the end, he had to believe because there was a fox talking in his head and Reiko was shimmering and a blossom-shaped mochi had floated around his head before dropping into his hand. He ate it and it tasted normal.
He flopped onto his back and stared up at the tree branches. “What now? Am I going to start seeing demons? Is time-travel possible? Do aliens walk among us?”
Kaidou laughed in relief. He was worried I'd freak out? I might, once I have time to absorb and think.
“Now, Izuna will comment in your head much more than you would like. That's all. It's not as if Reiko goes around zapping things in broad daylight and battling evil ghosts on a regular basis.”
Ugetsu raised his head enough to give Shima a look. “Can you talk to Reiko, you know, mentally?”
Even Kaidou was surprised by that question and stared at his brother.
“I can. Only with her though. It's more like, she can hear me and she can make me hear her. I don't really do anything.”
“That's why you're so quiet but seem to understand each other.”
“I don't listen in on his thoughts all the time!” Reiko was quick to tell them. “That would be an invasion of his privacy.”
“Crazy.” Ugetsu stood up, grabbed the violin case he'd tucked away by their picnic basket, and strolled into the darkness beneath the blossoms.
::Let him go,:: he heard Izuna tell them.
*Hanami- a sakura blossom viewing party. You know, I try to match these stories with real life, but real life in Tokyo is freezing cold with rain/snow right now, damn it. Just pretend it was perfect spring weather.
Chapter 8: Harmony
Everyone heard Ugetsu as he began warming up with some scales, a few children's songs, and the fun Irish jig - just as he had for Aki. Conversations quieted. Then he played something Aki didn't recognize, but it was by turns beautifully sad, wild, passionate, romantic. Like Ugetsu himself, Aki thought.
Last were three songs that seemed to fit together – lighter, happier, joyful. Ugetsu later told him the titles* of the pieces, but he forgot them almost instantly. It didn't matter what they were called, but that Ugetsu was playing them. There was an extra something in the playing. He knows he has a real audience. Or maybe it's the setting. What could be better than playing outdoors among sakura blossoms in the spring night air?
Aki had stayed with the others at first, letting Ugetsu be alone. The first main song pulled on him and he began to fidget, wanting to go watch.
::We trusted him with our story, now he gives back what he can. Beautiful music magic, yes?::
“Yes,” they all agreed. Three couples being lovey-dovey and Aki by himself.
Shima, who was laying with his head in Reiko's lap while she played with his hair, turned his head to find Aki. Why are you still here? Shima expression asked him.
Why am I? I'm kind of afraid to go. He's hypnotic when he plays. He said he wouldn't cross the line with me. Because he's not interested? Or because it would ruin our friendship? I'm not Kaji. But is that good or bad? What do I want? What does he need? Maybe it would be better to not find out.
::Go already, dumdum. He's calling you. If you can't understand his language yet, Izuna can. Told you before – strong, but weak for you.::
You meant him? When you said “soon”...I bumped into him the next day!
::Soon is whenever soon happens. Just go!:: It felt like she was giving him a mental shove.
Aki grinned at the little fox, then gave in and stood up. “Be right back.” As if anyone would believe he was only going to the bathroom.
Wandering through the trees, not in any hurry, Aki followed the music. He passed Kaji, leaning against a tree alone, smoking. Their eyes met, Kaji looking a little conflicted. Then he stubbed out the cigarette and walked back to Nakamura, a warning in his expression. I'll be good to him, Kaji. Better than you were.
Ugetsu was into the second part of the second song (“the second movement, not 'part,'” Ugetsu would later correct him) when Aki found him. Ugetsu's eyes were closed as he swayed, a shadow among shadows in the sparse illumination of the crescent moon filtered through the branches. But as the second movement ended, he opened his eyes to look right at Aki as if expecting to find him there.
Launching into the third movement, Ugetsu had a small smile on his face. This one he was playing just for Aki and he was having fun. He ended with a flourish, holding the position for a moment, before bowing deeply. There was a smattering of applause from all around as people realized the impromptu concert was over.
Ugetsu put away the instrument then walked straight over to Aki and into his arms. “I'm cold now.”
“You were wonderful,” Aki said, holding him tightly. He had no idea how his voice didn't crack, he felt so nervous with his heartbeat thundering in his head.
“It felt amazing. To play like that, knowing all those people are out there but not having to worry about them looking at me or expecting anything in particular. Alone, but not alone. I wish every performance was like that.”
This was the last possible moment Aki could back off, leave it at friendship. Right now, this could pass as a hug between close buddies. The tension between them would fade gradually. If he said nothing. He had to say something.
“Ugetsu, that first night when we were drunk, you mentioned a line you wouldn't cross.” Can he hear my heartbeat? He must.
“Did I? I'm stupid, but I'm not a liar.”
What the fuck does that mean? He's so frustrating! “And if I'm the one who crosses it?”
“Then I'm still not a liar and you're the stupid one. Because I'm a real bastard. I told you that, right? You'll want to slap me or punch me or kick me-”
“Or kiss you?” Aki interrupted.
Ugetsu didn't answer, but he did lean away just enough for their eyes to meet.
“Izuna already called me a dumdum. So I guess stupid fits too.” Aki kissed Ugetsu in the sakura-scented darkness and everything fell into its proper place.
Ugetsu tasted slightly of cigarettes and mochi. A strange combination but fitting – bitter and sweet. And holy shit, was he good at kissing! Whatever Aki did, Ugetsu matched him. Soft at first, testing each other again. Then Aki's tongue searched for Ugetsu's and found it waiting. Things suddenly turned hot as they explored each other's mouths, pressed against each other.
Aki moved his lips to Ugetsu's throat – his long, graceful neck. Ugetsu clutched at his hair and whispered, “I want you. God, I want you. If you're stupid, then I'm a fool and we're a perfect match.”
“Not here. Will you come home with me? Or should we go to your place?”
“Yours, not mine.” They kissed again - promises this time, slowing things down.
“Uhh...mmm. Ha, should go back and say goodbye.” But Ugetsu was already tugging him toward where the cars were parked. He scooped up his violin as they passed it.
::Go. Have fun!::
Aki and Ugetsu chuckled as they dashed hand in hand through the grove. It was a long drive back. They said very little at first. Ugetsu either didn't want to distract Aki while he drove, or he was just content to wait, now that things were settled between them. But were they?
“We're dating now, right?” Aki blurted out.
Ugetsu laughed. A merry, careless laugh. “Yes, Kai dear. My stupid darling. Unless you're terrible in bed – Oh my god! I forgot, aren't you straight?”
Aki glanced sideways to see a look of horror on Ugetsu's face and laughed himself. “No, foolish sweetheart. I'm bi. Don't worry about that.”
“Fuck, that scared me! I mean, it's not a problem for me if you are inexperienced, but to find out at the last minute that you can't do it with a guy would not be fun.”
“Uh, there is one thing...you'll have to guide me a little. I was on the bottom. Unless you want me to be the bottom – I'm fine with that! I just...I know what to do, but I haven't actually done it for a guy.”
“Oh.” Ugetsu blinked. “I prefer to be the bottom.” He grinned, “I can train you!”
“I'll be putty in your hands,” Aki told him dryly.
“No way! Putty is soft.” They both laughed at that. “Drive faster. Do you have supplies or do we need to stop somewhere?”
“If you mean lube and condoms, I've got them.”
“You have lube handy?”
Aki shrugged. “Bought it on impulse. Just in case.”
“Of course you did. How long have you been planning to seduce me?”
“From the moment you bumped my shoulder, I think,” Aki confessed. “You?”
“I knew when you yelled at me in your office.”
They fell silent again, waiting. Aki drove faster. At his place, they got awkward.
“You shower first,” Ugetsu told him. “It's going to take me longer to prepare.”
Aki showered in record time. Do I put all my clothes back on? No, that's ridiculous. He put on underwear and a t-shirt. Then he gulped down a beer while Ugetsu was in there. He made sure he had the supplies handy, turned down the sheets, contemplated lighting some candles. Talked himself out of it, then lit them anyway. I want to see him in the candlelight. Wow, I'm far gone. He laid back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
He spaced out, then jolted when Ugetsu plopped onto the bed beside him, wearing just a towel. “Having second thoughts?” He looked a little worried.
He's absolutely adorable! Aki pounced, pinning Ugetsu beneath him. “Second thoughts, third thoughts - all thoughts of you.”
“You think too much.” Ugetsu pulled Aki's head down for kisses.
Aki took the lead just fine. He did know what to do and Ugetsu wasn't reticent about asking for what he wanted or telling Aki what he liked. In fact, once they got started and Aki was very obviously turned on, Ugetsu lost all inhibitions which helped Aki feel confident.
Ugetsu was a sensual creature. He liked to be touched and to touch in return. His body moved like a snake, coiling around, sliding, writhing. His skin was cool and smooth, but inside...
“My god, you're so hot!” Aki's finger explored the tight passage until he found Ugetsu's sweet spot.
“Oh, fuck! There! Yes, nngh!” Ugetsu moaned and panted. “Just like that, Kai!”
Ugetsu's fair skin was all flushed from the chest up, his eyes glazed over. Aki stared as he added another finger. It wasn't taking long – Ugetsu had prepared and not just cleaned himself in the shower. Leaning over for more kisses, Aki gasped when Ugetsu grasped his aching cock.
It was a battle, as Aki fought to keep himself under control and not neglect what his fingers were doing as Ugetsu stroked him and then slid the condom on. Drizzling more lube, Ugetsu urged him into place.
“Are you sure it's enough?”
Aware of what it felt like to be entered, Aki slowly pushed into Ugetsu though what he wanted to do was thrust in as hard as he could. “Shit, Ugetsu! You feel so fucking hot! I'm not gonna last very long...”
“You can move. Fuck me, Kai! I want you deep inside me.”
Oh god. Aki lost his mind at that point. Afterward, he wouldn't be able to say exactly what all they did to each other, only that it was both amazing and over too soon. He did know they ended with Ugetsu on all fours, Aki bent over him and gasping into his hair.
“Uhnn! Grr! Ugetsu, I can't...much longer...”
“Touch me!” Ugetsu pushed back into him as he gripped and stroked. “Harder, Kai! Ahh! Hah! Yes!”
Ugetsu tightened around him in his climax and that pushed Aki over the edge into his own. “Nngh! Uhhh! Ugetsu!” He felt the release like a bolt of lightning, almost painful it was so strong.
They collapsed into a sweaty, sated, boneless heap. Aki took a few minutes to catch his breath then stretched out an arm to grab the small container of damp towelettes and made a token effort to clean them both up. He blew out the candles, dragged the blankets over them both and they fell asleep.
Aki didn't snore when he was in the spoon position, and Ugetsu had no need to steal the covers with Aki's warm chest at his back. Together, they dreamed.
Lightning. Moon shrouded.
Sakura petals flutter.
Spring storm in the heart.
A Tokyo Yaoiverse haiku for you. Spring is here!
*Ugetsu's playlist – this night he plays Chaconne by Vitale and Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Op. 115 by Prokofiev.