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Tadashi returned to the estate late enough that he was surprised to still see the light on in Ainosuke's office from the outer garage. It wasn't bright enough to light the gardens, but Tadashi followed it through the gravel pathways like a lighthouse, carefully picking his way between the maze of low-lying hedges. They were dark green in the daytime, but at night they turned to obsidian, only the tips of their leaves lit by a few disparate fixtures from around the property.

As Tadashi went in through the servant’s entrance, a series of thoughts burst through his late-night exhaustion. He was always tired — and it was no surprise given how much he worked. He'd learned to live with it for the most part, but as the last several, wonderful months had shown him he was capable of rest as well, he found himself craving it more and more.

At first, he felt relief at the idea that Ainosuke was still awake. That meant Tadashi had a good excuse to join him in his room instead of going right to his own quarters and falling asleep alone. He'd done that plenty over the last few years, and while he was still willing to for the sake of appearances, he had too many memories of collapsing on top of his sheets after long workdays and barely bothering to take off his tie, much less his suit.

Now, Tadashi found himself waking up in bed with Ainosuke, with the sunlight gently warming bright white sheets as Ainosuke snored next to the top vertebrae of Tadashi's spine and had one scorching arm wrapped around him. There was a kind of allure to it — like all the risks disappeared when they were together before anyone else was up. Dangerously, Tadashi was starting to wish every morning could be like that, and the days he woke up in his own bed seemed even lonelier.

But it was the way things had to be. And he'd take what they had now a thousand times over what they had before.

The closer he got to Ainosuke's private quarters, however, the more unsettled Tadashi felt. There were no races at Crazy Rock tonight, and Ainosuke had an early day with a full schedule starting in just a few hours. This was enough to make Tadashi nervous on its own — the days leading up to the terrifying final race with Langa had been marked by late nights, too. Tadashi's sense memory of that time set him on edge, and the echoes of the smothering anxiety he'd felt then were firmly under his skin by the time he was softly knocking on the large double doors.

When Tadashi didn't get a response at first, that anxiety almost flared up to sickening fear.

"Mr. Ainosuke? It's me." Still, no response.

He was about to knock again or burst through the doors when he finally heard a muffled, "Come in."

Letting out a sigh he hadn't been aware he was holding in, Tadashi stepped through the door and quietly shut it behind him.

Tadashi knew something was wrong as soon as he entered the office, the strong stink of stale cigarette smoke immediately eroding the relief he'd felt at hearing Ainosuke's voice.

Ainosuke smoked often, but he smoked in moderation. He once confessed to Tadashi that he enjoyed having one purely indulgent vice incapable of ruining his reputation or his career — his lungs were a different matter. Even if he insisted that he was young and had time to quit, Tadashi always sensed something darker under the surface, an implication that Ainosuke didn't expect to live long enough for it to be an issue.

Skating still remained Ainosuke's foremost outlet. And the requirements it levied on his body and his respiratory system usually kept him from overindulging.

Furthermore, with Ainosuke emerging from the veil he'd been under for years, he was even making the first overtures at quitting.

This is why when Tadashi saw half a pack's worth of burned, crushed stubs in the ashtray on Ainosuke's desk, he was instinctively concerned.

That was before he even saw the damp sheen on Ainosuke's cheeks, which could have been mistaken for sweat if it didn't run in a distinct line from his red, puffy eyes. Ainosuke was in his chair, and only dimly lit by the amber lamp on his desk, but he seemed unsettled, not working, and seated at an angle.

Tadashi set his briefcase down and walked over to the desk. He stopped just short of contact, unsure of where this situation fit within the new constraints of their relationship. All the while, Ainosuke watched him through his bloodshot eyes.

"Mr. Ainosuke?" Tadashi was worried, and it showed in his voice. "Are you okay? Did something happen?"

"You could say that." Ainosuke sniffed loudly, bracing the back of his neck against his plush office chair as he crushed his most recently spent cigarette into the ashtray.

Dread ran down Tadashi's spine. "What happened?"

Ainosuke didn't answer, instead he swallowed forcefully and ran a palm down the front of his face.

"Mr. Ainosuke —"

"I had dinner with my aunties," Ainosuke started, and it would have sounded benign if he weren't so visibly upset. "They were… Insistent on the most recent candidate."

The dread in Tadashi's gut turned into a lead weight. "I see."

"They indicated that my grandfather is insistent as well."

"I see," Tadashi said as if it was the only thing he could say.

"Aunt Aiko asked why I wouldn't even meet with the young lady, and I —" Ainosuke broke off with a shrug.

"You what?" Tadashi was feeling himself wind up into a full panic.

Ainosuke looked up at Tadashi and for the first time he smiled.

"I… I told them."

Tadashi stood in confused silence as he tried to figure out what Ainosuke could possibly have told his aunts. Revealing Adam and S was out of the question, but skateboarding was the first thing that came to mind. “That you still skate?”

The minute shake of Ainosuke’s jaw was a clear negative.

“Not about us.” Tadashi didn’t even bother making it a question; the thought was inconceivable.

“About me.” Ainosuke leaned forward in his chair, bowing his spine as he pressed his elbows into the hard surface of his desk. It was a gesture of smallness from a man who usually sought to fill a room with his presence.

“You know how I am, Tadashi. One of my moods. It just slipped out.” He pressed his forehead into his palms. “It went…about as well as you would imagine. There was screaming. And there were tears. And they informed me they will be bringing it up with my grandfather. Not that the family can do anything but censure me from within—I can’t be expelled from the Diet for that alone. Besides, the scandal would hurt the rest of them as much as it would hurt me.”

It was like he was trying to convince himself. He broke off as he tracked his palms down his face until he caught his own chin with his fingers. Then he looked up at Tadashi as if seeing him there for the first time. His eyes were wide and desperate. “Tadashi I—I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

Admitting it broke the floodgates, and his face crumpled in a way Tadashi hadn’t seen since they were children together.

Tadashi dove forward, his hand going to Ainosuke’s cheek and jaw, catching him where the skin was sticky from tears so he couldn’t turn away. When Ainosuke turned into him, his other hand went up to the back of Ainosuke’s neck. He pressed his forehead into him.

“I’m here, Mr. Ainosuke,” he said, his voice cracking. There wasn’t even time to begin to consider the consequences of this—of everything Ainosuke had just put out in the open.

“I thought…” He stopped, gasping. His right hand went up to cup Tadashi’s while he smashed the heel of his left into his other eye. “I thought…” Shoulders slumping, he gave up. “I don’t know what I thought.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tadashi said, leaning in harder, until he could feel how badly Ainosuke was trembling. “What’s done is done.”

Ainosuke shook his head. “I gave up our safety for a fantasy. Like a child.”

Pulling back, Tadashi frowned at Ainosuke without judgment, and started stroking his thumb along Ainosuke’s cheek. What could he say? You shouldn’t have to be afraid? It would sound hollow coming from him, and Ainosuke would know. They were both well aware of what the other hated about himself. Getting better, perhaps, mostly on those mornings together, but hardly perfect.

“Aunt Aiko said she wished my mother had miscarried, so my father could have started again,” Ainosuke said, looking far away. “Something she wanted to say while we were all saying things out loud, you see.”

He sucked in a breath that Tadashi saw move his shoulders. When he straightened his back, the change in mood was immediate. “I wonder how she’d have felt if Langa had let me go off the track. If the police told her how they found me—”

“Please don’t talk like that,” Tadashi said quickly, the fear from earlier surging back. “Please.”

“I thought they loved me—”

“I love you!”

Tadashi surprised himself with how loud his voice went. Based on the look on Ainosuke’s face, it surprised him, too.

His hands still cradled Ainosuke, and only then did Tadashi realize how tightly he was gripping him.

“I love you.” He said it again, more softly. “I know that’s a poor substitute, but it’s what I have to offer, if it helps.”

Once the surprise on Ainosuke’s face wore off, he squeezed his eyes shut. “Everyone who’s told me that has hurt me.”

“I know,” Tadashi said. “I know that includes me.”

“I want to say it back.” Ainosuke’s voice sounded strained. “But I can’t.”

“You don’t have to,” Tadashi said, his own throat hurting. “It’s not conditional.”

In front of him, Ainosuke pawed at one of Tadashi’s hands, pulling it from his cheek before he pressed his lips into the tender spot where his thumb met his wrist. He held the kiss for a long time. “Tadashi, what have I done?”

“We’ll work it out,” Tadashi said. “I promise. You have funds of your own and a handsome salary. Some things may be more difficult without the backing of your aunts and grandfather, but—” It would be a problem for another day. “They’ll want things to appear fine from the outside. We have plenty of time to secure your finances and your political connections.” As well as, hopefully, find him separate lodgings.

As for how Ainosuke’s aunts thought of him now…Tadashi couldn’t fix that. He couldn’t make the horrifying silences that would follow better or take back the things they had said.

But he could do what he’d always done as Ainosuke’s shadow.

As he said it, he felt some of the tension come out of Ainosuke—although some of that had to be simple exhaustion.

“Are they suspicious of me?” Tadashi braced himself for the answer, promising himself that whatever it was, they could handle it. Ainosuke had said they would be together for the rest of their lives, and all Tadashi had—maybe all they both had—was the trust that he was telling the truth.

Ainosuke snorted, his eyes still moist even though he finally smiled a bleak smile. “Auntie Noriko said that if you knew you would quit, so I think you’re safe, puppy.”

He left the ‘for now’ unspoken, but Tadashi was thankful regardless. Enough pain had been brought on Ainosuke’s shoulders because of him; he hated the thought of his presence making this worse in any way.

“If I ordered you to leave me alone right now, would you do it?” Ainosuke asked the question as if it burst out of him.

“No. Not going forward, but especially not tonight.” I will never leave you to face them alone again. Tadashi thought it, but actions had always meant more than words.

Ainosuke sniffed again before leaning forwards into Tadashi’s stomach, wrapping his arms around his waist sloppily as he did so. He slid his chair and it squeaked in protest of the impromptu hug, but Tadashi brought his hands to rest on Ainosuke’s shoulders in turn.

“My head hurts,” Ainosuke declared from where his face was buried in Tadashi’s suit.

“That tends to happen,” Tadashi admitted. “I could get you an ibuprofen.”

“It’s fine.” Ainosuke shook his head before bitterly pressing a pair of fingers to his temple. “I have a feeling this is all only going to seem worse tomorrow.”

“Maybe it will,” Tadashi admitted. “But someday it won’t.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I do,” Tadashi knelt down. He knew because the life he was living now seemed impossible even a few months ago. “Now let’s…let’s go to bed, Mr. Ainosuke.”

It took some doing, but Tadashi was eventually able to wrangle Ainosuke out of his suit and under the covers. Tadashi was careful to turn off the desk lamp before he followed.