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Love, like so many other things in Kashima’s life, doesn’t come easy. This is proven when he forgets to text Toyohi good night for the sixth night in a row; this is proven when he misses their weekly bar date to sit around at work, pouring over old cases.

It’s proven when Toyohi shows up the next night, in the rain, to drag him out of the building on time. Zaou’s the one who tells Kashima—with a knowing smirk on his face the whole time—that there’s a stranger in the lobby asking after him.

It’s proven when Kashima’s first thought as to who this stranger might be is, it’s just a relative.

It’s proven when his second thought is, but maybe it’s Toyohi.

Kashima isn’t used to visits at the office. His relatives all know where he lives so they can barge into his house uninvited whenever they’re in town with only a day’s or hour’s notice. His relatives, the majority of them wizards, would rather be visiting with their old classmates and friends than stay in his company for too long. His is a place to rest their heads for the night; his is a place to refresh themselves after a long business trip, or before, or even in the middle. Kashima thinks he hates those the most, the we-were-just-passing-through excuses. No one ever stops by to ask how he’s doing; no one ever dares to, or so they say.

It’s always been that way. Kashima is used to it.

What he isn’t used to is Toyohi, standing in the office lobby, staring at the vaulted ceiling with a mixture of displeasure and awe. He might not know it after years of ignoring stares, but the receptionist eyes his bubblegum-pink hair with guarded disdain. He’s a guest, even if he’s loitering.

“It’s marble,” Kashima tells him. Toyohi jumps.

“Kashima!” Toyohi exclaims, and raises his arms for the hug he’s gotten used to giving. The umbrella in his hand sprays Kashima with water.

Somewhere behind him, Kashima can hear the whispers start as Toyohi starts to frantically apologize. They’re always there, at the office. The gossip-mongers. Kashima can’t escape them.

He smiles, polite and fake. “It’s fine,” he says, and takes Toyohi by the sleeve, dragging him out the door. “It’s just water. A little won’t hurt.”

“But that’s a suit!” Toyohi argues. “Isn’t it expensive? Aren’t there certain ways to clean it? You can’t just hang it up to dry.”

“It’s fine,” Kashima insists. “I have more at home.”

He has a whole closet of suits for work. He also has a whole wardrobe filled with the traditional Japanese clothing he likes to wear on his days off. The wardrobe is pitifully smaller than the closet, but that’s how life works.

“Oh, good,” Toyohi says, and sags with relief. He doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s been walking under Kashima’s umbrella for the past few minutes. “I’d hate it if I made you look bad at work. Speaking of which, I thought you told me you were going to try and get out on time?”

His hand reaches for the umbrella. Kashima gets ready to let him take it; Toyohi is taller by a scant few inches, but those inches have his head brushing the top. It must be uncomfortable.

Toyohi doesn’t take it. He just lets his hand rest on Kashima’s as he raises it a bit higher.

“I did,” Kashima says, with Toyohi’s hand warm on his own. The day is cold, all of the spring warmth leeched out by the rain. He left his jacket at the office. In lieu, he presses a little closer to Toyohi. “And I meant to keep it, really. But every time I went to leave, I, well…”

The whispers. Kashima never leaves early. Kashima, ever-dependable, must have lost his touch. How half the office knew his powers had been sealed was anyone’s guess; he doesn’t want to think that Takamiya and the others are gossips. He doesn’t want to think that Zaou let it slip, somehow.

Not to mention all the case files. The only reason he’d gotten this far was because of the case files at the office. Most of the ones at home are in his father’s unintelligible chicken scratch. His mother’s are better penned, but sparser, less detailed.

Other people might tell him not to let what other people think get to him. Toyohi just hums. “Got it. Well, they’ll get used to it. They all get to go home on time, don’t they?”

“Not really,” Kashima says. “I think most of them stay at least an extra five hours a day. You know how it is.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Toyohi says. “I got invited to after-work drinking parties, not to work overtime. So. They’ll just have to get used to it.”

Kashima just hums at that and burrows in closer. Toyohi is so warm, and he hadn’t realized how cold it had gotten.

“At this rate, all the cherry blossoms will wash away before we get to see them again,” Toyohi comments.

“You want to see them again?”

“I do! A proper cherry-blossom viewing date! I can pack a lunch and everything!”

A proper cherry-blossom viewing date. Right, because Kashima had been wearing a week-old kimono, hadn’t bathed in days, and was probably on the verge of jumping in front of a train to make the voices in his head stop. Because he and Toyohi hadn’t talked in weeks. Because the whispers at work would be worse after this, not better. Because the face in the mirror, blank as it was, sneered at him.

And he couldn’t stand it.

“Not to say that I didn’t like our first one,” Toyohi says, “but I’d like it more if you weren’t about to catch a cold. Or if we weren’t screaming at each other. Okay?”

“That sounds nice,” Kashima says, and is rewarded by Toyohi burrowing into his collar, holding him close. One of his hands creeps over to Kashima’s waist; the other holds the umbrella as Toyohi presses kisses to his jaw, his cheek.

“Kashima,” Toyohi whispers, in between each one, “I love you, you know?”

“I do,” Kashima says. He would be lying if he said he’s not startled by the attention. He doesn’t remember the last time anyone held him close and smothered him with affection; it might have been before his parents died. “I…”

“Hm?” Toyohi prompts.

He can’t remember the last time anyone told him they loved him. He can’t even be sure what love is. It can’t be this feeling, too much like the way he feels when he overhears gossip about him at work, as if there’s fire in his gut and ice in his veins, where his heart races a mile a minute and sweat begins to bead on his skin.

Love can’t be this easy or this awful.

“I’m pretty hungry,” Kashima says, and presses one single kiss to Toyohi’s lips, ignoring the electric shock it gives him. If he ignores it, he can’t want more. “I owe you a bar date, don’t I? Let’s get going.”

“Oh, sure,” Toyohi says, and if Kashima detects a hint of disappointment in his voice, well.

Like so many other things, he stores it away for later.

 


 

Later comes after small talk over dinner and hurried goodbye kisses in the rain outside of Tohoyi’s apartment, one of his sleeves drenched and dripping and Kashima darting away from every other advance. Later comes after Kashima’s reminder that he has work in the morning and can’t stay, but he wants to. He would if he could but he can’t: crises don’t take days off so neither can he. It’s the way of the world. He never minded it before but he does now, with Toyohi’s face lingering in his mind and the heat of his fingers still burning Kashima’s skin.

He takes a bath and soaks away the lingering spring chill. He’s never liked fancy bath soaps or salts or the special foaming bubbles Zaou insists are like sinking into clouds; he likes the look of the water, transparent and cloudless, likes the way the steam rises until it doesn’t anymore. But today the drip of the shower is a little too loud; the rain beating a steady drum on the rooftop is worse, and Kashima finds himself too afraid of the noise to even move.

“Stupid,” he says to the water. If he squints his reflection goes blank-stiff, so he closes his eyes. “It’s just noise. You’ve heard louder things in your life.”

He squeezes his knees—too bony—and breathes in steam. Kashima’s not hero material. He’s barely department head material. He’s good, but…

But he’s not good enough. He has subordinates so they can earn accolades and rise up in the world; he has subordinates so he doesn’t have to work so hard while they build themselves up into men and women worthy of being the heroes they always wanted to be.

Kashima—selfish, greedy Kashima, stealing and hoarding everything they should have earned rightly by now—just wants to use magic. He could put a spell up to block out the noise of the rain, of the steady drip of the shower. He could put a spell up to make Toyohi stand down when Kashima says it’s enough.

He could, but he doesn’t. Which should mean he doesn’t actually want to, even if he feels like he should. His mother never put up sound-dampening spells when he complained about the crash of thunder off in the distance; his father never harnessed compulsion spells to make him want to go to school when he lied and said he wasn’t feeling well. He shouldn’t, either.

Tomorrow he’ll ask how much of his sick leave he used waiting for his magic to come back. Tomorrow he’ll be sure to leave work on time so he can talk to Toyohi on the phone while cleaning his father’s library. Toyohi will want to know what he’s doing. Toyohi will ask if he wants help.

With a groan, Kashima splashes water across his face and grips at his hair. Toyohi will ask because he knows next to nothing about Kashima. It’s the sort of thing Kashima would do—wants to do, because it’s Toyohi and he wants to spend as much time with him as he can—if Kashima were more sure of himself.

He doesn’t want to ask because he doesn’t want to pry too much and ruin everything before it really starts. He doesn’t want to ask because it will invite Toyohi to ask back, and Kashima doesn’t want to throw all of his baggage out at once. He likes the pace they’re taking things at. He likes the way things are going, even if it’s obvious Toyohi wants more.

He hears, Don’t fool yourself in the drip of the shower.

You want more, too in the drum of rain on the roof.

When he submerges to make it stop, the rush of blood in his ears and air bubbles as they pass by sound like You can’t expect to take and take everything he has to give, can you? When he realizes you won’t give him anything in return, he’ll leave.

“Shut up,” he begs when he comes up for air. “Please, stop talking.”

The rush of water. His own panting breath becomes a dark chuckle. But it’s true.

“Even still, I—I want to. I do. But I can’t.”

Can’t. Won’t. What’s the difference, if it all ends the same?

“I can’t,” he insists to nothing. The voice is gone as quickly as it came, but Kashima talks to himself anyway, hoping to appease it. Magic is a fickle thing, and his defies him with teeth and claws. “I can’t. The others—they need me. They can’t handle anything too difficult on their own yet. If something else happens, I—”

Kashima will be responsible. Kashima will be the one whispered about in every corner of the office; he’ll be the topic of every piece of gossip for the third time in as many months, and for a reason like being too stupidly in love that he can’t do his job.

It’s a shame. He likes spending time with Toyohi. He likes their weekly dates and the easy way their hands slide together, likes it the way he used to like doing his job.

It’s a shame, because he can’t have both, even if he wants them. He can’t forget the time or the day of the week at work and then go home to Toyohi, patiently awaiting his turn at Kashima’s attention. It wouldn’t be fair to Toyohi or to his subordinates, but it’s not fair to make Kashima choose, either.

The water gone cold, he hauls himself out of the tub and stands there listening as it drains and he drips all over the floor. The house is too big and too silent in the hush of the spring rain.

Kashima decides that tomorrow he’ll make things right—well, a little righter—with Toyohi. Anything to not have to come home to this empty house where its settling creaks are the loudest things the walls have heard in years.

 


 

He’s good this time. He sets an alarm to give him a warning when it’s close to clock-out time—then sets several more, just in case. The reports at the office are so much easier to get lost in that he’s likely to lose track of time regardless of how many alarms he sets; it’s too easy to pick up where he left off after the first one goes off, then the second, then the third.

By the time the fourth one goes off Kurose pokes her head into the record room. “Do you have something important to do today, Chief?”

Kashima stares down at his phone, baffled at how late it’s gotten. Ten minutes until clock-out. Ten minutes until he has to call Toyohi. He hopes he’s available today; he might still be out job-hunting, pounding the pavement and making friends with that smile of his. “Kind of,” he says.

She makes a noise that could be akin to a child discovering their long-lost favorite toy hidden underneath the cupboard. She darts into the record room, gets far too close, and says, “Don’t tell me it’s a date, Chief! I didn’t think you’d ever be the kind of person for that—”

She snaps her mouth shut. Excitement trades itself for embarrassment. “Sorry, sir,” she says.

“It’s alright,” he says, and puts the book back. Kurose is keeping him to his leave-on-time-today plan and she doesn’t even know it. “A few months ago I wouldn’t have believed it, either.”

“So it is a date!” And this time she does squeal, loud enough to ring in his ears. Loud enough that it gets the attention of the other two, minding their own business chatting while they do a last bit of paperwork before the day is out. “Oh, gosh, now I’m so excited and it’s not even my date! Where are you going? Anyplace fancy?”

Kurose is a foodie, he remembers vaguely. She practically drools right in front of him, stars in her eyes as she imagines one illustrious restaurant after another.

Toyohi’s not big on fancy restaurants. He likes street food and action movies, visits to the arcade and memento mori. Kashima still remembers the long, long walk to the restaurant he’d reserved—and the long, long walk back after Toyohi couldn’t go in for wearing jeans. His foot stings with the memory of a blister; his hand feels the ghostly sensation of Toyohi’s in his.

“No place like that,” Kashima says as his fifth alarm goes off. He’ll pick up some wine or beer or sake on his way to Toyohi’s—if he’s home, of course. “Just out, I guess.”

But she’s right about one thing: it’s getting late. A dinner date is a must at this hour; should he pick up food, too, or let Toyohi decide?

He hasn’t planned for this at all, has he?

He turns back to the records. His hand still rests on the one he’d put back, like he was waiting for the thought to creep in that he shouldn’t do this today after all. Like he was waiting for an excuse not to go and explain himself.

But Kurose coos at the thought of aimlessly wandering the streets, hopping into whatever eatery catches their eyes. “That does sound pretty romantic, Chief. Who knew you had it in you?”

Toyohi, he thinks.

Or maybe not, is the next thought. There’s no way Toyohi could have ever predicted having such a klutz for a boyfriend, and after the disaster of their first date he would insist on planning the others. Just in case Kashima winds up causing more trouble trying to make plans and reservations that conflict with what Toyohi wants; just in case Kashima derails everything entirely by leading them in circles.

He smiles and chuckles, dry and wan from the new thoughts swirling in his head. Kurose blinks at him, still eager to talk. His sixth alarm goes off.

“Why don’t we call it an early day today?” he asks, and Kurose jumps for joy, racing out of the record room to tell the others. She misses the look on his face as he catches a glimpse of his reflection: blank-faced and dull and utterly lacking any kind of lovable emotion.

He breathes. Lets go of the book that seems to want to become part of his arm and plasters on a smile for his subordinates, who cheer and pat him on the back for taking an early day for once. He offers to stay until the next shift gets here, but Koyama all but pushes him out the door, tearing the wizard’s mantle from his shoulders.

When he looks back, they’re wearing matching grins. Takamiya gives him a thumb’s up right before the door closes.

He feels very alone—and very conspicuous—as he walks the halls of the office, down the stairs and to the lobby where just yesterday Toyohi was waiting for him gawking at the ceiling. It isn’t raining today, but the clouds threaten it where they sit heavy and dark among the skyscrapers.

Kashima didn’t think to bring an umbrella, and hopes he doesn’t need one.

Outside the air is heavy and humid, and it sits as heavy in his lungs as the clouds do above; every breath feels… lesser, harder, than the ones that came with such ease in the office.

He tugs his phone out of his pocket and heads down the street.

 


 

In the end, he calls Toyohi.

Not only does he get terribly lost at some point, but it starts to rain. Using magic would make all of this easier, but Kashima wanted to walk there on his own two feet instead of relying on magic—again, like always—and he sighs in defeat.

Toyohi wraps an arm around his shoulder. He’s warm against the chill of the rain, and Kashima can’t help but lean in closer. He’s cold, his suit jacket is soaked through, and he feels very, very wet. Clammy, almost.

“You’ll get it eventually,” Toyohi says, in that way of his that looks, constantly, for the bright side. “And, hey, I was just done shopping. You can take a bath and get warm at my place while I make dinner.”

“Sorry,” Kashima says. This is not how he wanted today to go. He wanted to be reliable, for once. Isn’t he the older one in this relationship? Doesn’t that mean he needs to be more reliable?

Toyohi squeezes his shoulder. “It’s no big deal.”

This is the part where Kashima should exclaim that it is a big deal. He should know how to get to his boyfriend’s apartment without getting utterly, hopelessly lost. He shouldn’t hang up after one conversation, walk for ten minutes, and then have to call Toyohi back for directions.

He should… but he can’t. “Sorry,” he says again, and that makes Toyohi stop.

“Kashima,” he says, “didn’t I tell you to stop saying sorry so much? You don’t have to apologize to me for being the way you are. Okay?”

“But you’ll get tired of it.” Everyone does. The amount of times his subordinates have yelled at him for wandering off post-crisis to check on other parts of the area and then getting lost is nigh-astronomical. When he used to play with his cousins, he would get turned around in their—admittedly very large—backyards. They would run off without him, and he wouldn’t be found until long after the call for dinner rang out.

Toyohi’s eyes are very, very clear. Kashima is almost afraid of finding his reflection in them, but he’s himself. He’s not sure what would be worse to find there. “How could I get tired of it,” Toyohi says, “if it means I get to spend time with you?”

“I don’t know,” Kashima admits. “But everyone does. You will, too.”

“I won’t,” Toyohi insists. Kashima knows better than to fight, so he tucks his head under Toyohi’s, feels his pulse beating in his throat. He must be getting wet. They must be attracting stares.

He should care, but he doesn’t.

“Okay,” he says.

“Good,” Toyohi says, but for what reason, Kashima doesn’t know. He tugs Kashima’s head back, pauses for just a moment, then pulls him in for a kiss.

It’s soft and short, but Toyohi still manages to fill it with every ounce of love he must have in his body. Kashima wants to chase him—chase that love—when he backs away.

“More later,” Toyohi promises, shaking his grocery bag. It must be wet, too. “When you’re dry and we’ve eaten. Okay?”

“Okay,” Kashima says, and doesn’t pay attention to the street signs as they pass by. He’s too busy breathing in Toyohi: clean and earthy, like wood or smoke, and it brings to mind that poster of the world Toyohi has hanging over his bed, thumbtacks and photos spread out everywhere. He must have camped in some of those places, must have lived off the land, cooked his meals over an open fire and slept beneath the stars.

The image suits him. Toyohi’s the outdoorsy type: it’s in his tan and his sunny smile and the color bleaching out of his dyed hair. If only Kashima could figure out why he wants to settle down in the middle of a city like this, after all that time spent being free to do whatever he pleases.

Toyohi’s apartment is the same as always, except for the clothes spread out over the bed. Polos and t-shirts and jeans and slacks, as if Toyohi carefully picked out his outfit for the day and then forgot the mess. He moves into the kitchen with his groceries.

“Go ahead and take a bath,” he says, as Kashima maneuvers his shoes off. His socks are soaked through and the lining of his shoes has squelched with every step for the past twenty minutes, and it’s a relief to finally have them off.

“We look like we’re the same size; I’ll find something for you to wear while your clothes dry,” Toyohi finishes.

“Are you sure?” Kashima asks, peering into the kitchen. His suit jacket drips all over Toyohi’s floor. Everything he’s wearing drips. He’s not sure he wants to climb into a tub full of water after being drenched outside.

… He’s not sure how he feels about wearing Toyohi’s clothes, either.

“Sure I’m sure,” Toyohi says with a grin. “And I’ll feel better knowing you aren’t going to catch a cold sitting around. A hot bath’ll do you some good. Trust me.”

“Well—” There’s not much he can say to refute that. Toyohi’s worried about him, about his health—it’s the least Kashima can do to oblige. Wouldn’t he do the same, if their positions were reversed?

He sighs. “Alright,” he says, and heads into the bathroom. Strips off his suit jacket and his socks and looks for a dryer, or a hanger—and hears Toyohi declare from the kitchen that the washer’s on the left, in the closet.

It’s only then that Kashima becomes aware that he’s going to be naked, in Toyohi’s apartment. His shirt is already see-through, and clings to him in the oddest spots, and leaves next to nothing to the imagination. He sees what he looks like in the bathroom mirror: thin, scrawny, the bags under his eyes too dark even when he’s actually getting sleep for once, the wrists under his cuffs protruding like knobs—his hands unbuttoning his shirt are worse, if only for the ink stains, like so many bruises.

There’s nothing about him to like, much less love. Toyohi can’t see him like this—Toyohi’s going to be barging in any minute now—

He throws the rest of his clothes in the dryer, turns it on, and nearly slams the door to the bath shut behind him.

Then he sags against it, fully aware of Toyohi knocking on the other door and saying something about the clothes he’d gone to find. Toyohi must see him through the door—tempered frosted glass, and this close it hides nothing—but Kashima can’t move. His knees shake too badly to support him.

But Toyohi’s bathroom is small, and the shower stool is right there. Kashima sits on that instead, works his way through a basic shower, doing everything but washing his hair with Toyohi’s shampoo. It’s only when he’s in the tub soaking that he remembers that there’s a spell for drying clothes; his mother used to use it all the time, if she was caught unawares in a spring shower or summer storm on her morning walks. It’s a spell for whisking away all the wet but she’d always complained it didn’t take the chill away and Kashima had always forced himself to look away as his parents cuddled together there in the kitchen or foyer or in the hallway leading to his room.

His mother always noticed, and she always called out to him to come and join them.

… He could have done that with Toyohi. He could be doing that with Toyohi, right now, instead of soaking in a tub—but this is for the best. Toyohi won’t be able to make dinner if they’re glued at the hip.

The drum of rain on the window hisses, Don’t hog him.

“I’m not,” Kashima says, softly.

It snickers.

It snickers some more as he hauls himself out of the tub, dries off with a nearby towel, and realizes, again, that he’s naked in Toyohi’s apartment. He’s going to be wearing Toyohi’s clothes. They’re going to smell like Toyohi.

And he forgot the spell.

 


 

Kashima hovers in the kitchen entryway, looking as uncomfortable as always, as if he’s still a teenager growing into his bones and height and magical power—

(Toyohi’s dating a wizard. A wizard!)

—and asks if there’s anything he can do. It’s been fifteen minutes since he got in the bath and Toyohi started cooking. The dryer is still going.

Kashima doesn’t look nearly as amazing in Toyohi’s clothes as his last lover—a petite Filipino girl, small enough for his shirts to drape off a shoulder, and she’d been twenty-two—but he tugs at the collar of the t-shirt, like he’s not used to it. He rubs his bare calves together, like he’s not used to jersey shorts, either.

Of course he’s not, Toyohi realizes, cracking an egg too hard. It crumples in his hand and he fishes bits of eggshell out of the bowl.

Of course Kashima, who he’s never seen out of slacks and kimonos, will think shorts are strange. It’s strange even to Toyohi, even after weeks of dating—cold winter weeks and rainy spring weeks, but weeks all the same.

“Toyohi?” Kashima asks, still over by the door.

“I’m almost done!” He’s not, but there’s no need for Kashima to fret over dinner. Toyohi is almost certain he doesn’t know how to cook, and throws a smile over his shoulder. “Why don’t you go sit down for a while? It won’t be long.”

“Oh,” Kashima says. “Well—okay. If you insist.”

Toyohi tries his best to ignore the disappointment coating his voice. Dinner is finished and plated in fifteen minutes; he goes to call Kashima over to the table and finds him staring at the map pinned to his wall, tracing the strings connecting places to photos. His finger hovers over a picture of Toyohi and Maria, from one of his visits to Mexico. It’s a decent enough picture, taken with one of her cousin’s disposable cameras and mailed to him after he left. Wishing you’re well, it reads on the back; on the front there’s cake frosting smeared across his face and Maria grins wryly with a thumb swiping his cheek. He looks happy. They both look happy.

“It was her grandma’s birthday,” Toyohi explains, wrapping arms around Kashima’s middle. Kashima is warm, and he smells like Toyohi’s soap, and Toyohi never thought he’d get this far this fast with Kashima, and finds he actually didn’t want to. He wanted this to last—he wanted them to explore each other at their own paces, instead of the frantic week- or day-long affairs he used to have.

When all he had was a week, love always boiled down to the physical: hugs, kisses, touches, sex whenever they could manage it. Maria had been hoping he’d stay for her, but she’d understood when he said he couldn’t; Mexico wasn’t his home and he knew it never would be.

“She turned ninety-three,” he goes on. Kashima locks a hand around one of his wrists, just holding him, and he leans back into Toyohi. “The cake was delicious. Abuelita could bake.”

Kashima doesn’t turn in his arms, but there’s a question hovering between them: did he love her? Did he love her the way he loves Kashima? Did he love any of them the way he loves Kashima?

“The food’s getting cold,” he says instead.

“It smells good,” Kashima says, finally turning, resting his head on Toyohi’s chest for the most briefest of moments. “What is it?”

“Just stir-fry,” Toyohi tells him. Kashima hums; Toyohi knows the sensation will keep him up tonight, and goes as still as he can while adding on, “I was in the mood for some. Hope it meets your expectations.”

“Me, too,” Kashima says. He can’t hide his smile fast enough; when he pulls out of Toyohi’s embrace it’s like he takes all the warmth in the room with him and concentrates it where their hands are still connected.

Toyohi wishes he could eat like this, connected to Kashima. If he had a say in the matter, he would never let go—but Kashima has important, dangerous work to do and Toyohi will only ever get in the way. He can’t.

But God, does he want to.

He settles for the brush of their legs under the table, and the way Kashima hides a laugh at one of his jokes, and the way Kashima looks at him like he’s something precious he’s scared to let go of.

He settles for the way their hands touch when they pass the salt or the soy sauce, and the way Kashima brushes his hair out of his eyes as he eats, and the way his lips mold around each bite—

Stop that, he thinks, and devours the rest of his food in record time. Kashima deserves more than just a whirlwind romance. Kashima has been agonizing over Toyohi’s attraction to him for months; the least Toyohi can do is make it as plainly obvious as possible that he doesn’t intend to go anywhere anytime soon and that he’s not going to drop Kashima as soon as someone more put-together comes along.

He winds up watching Kashima finish eating, a self-conscious blush rising on his cheeks. He’s the type that doesn’t want to be watched when he eats and he fidgets the longer Toyohi stares. “What?” he asks, after it’s gone on long enough.

“Just thinking about other food I’d like to make you. Stir-fry’s kind of plain, isn’t it? You must be used to fancier stuff than this.”

Wizard families are old: the farther back one can trace their family line, the better, and with old families comes old money. It doesn’t help that Kashima makes bank at his job, either; he can easily afford kimonos as everyday wear and to eat at five-star restaurants on first dates.

It’s Toyohi who can’t compare.

But even though he can’t compare that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to. He wants to fit into Kashima’s life as easily as he had Maria’s and Chati’s and Jean-Louis’s and Karine’s—but for longer. Much longer. As long as Kashima will have him.

“I don’t really know if it’s fancy or not,” Kashima says. He’s still blushing, staring at his plate, pushing food around. “I just eat whatever the housekeeper makes me most days. Dinner used to be…”

Fast food, Toyohi thinks as Kashima says it. Burgers and fries or savory crepes or convenience store bentos, and only occasionally did he stop by memento mori for a cocktail and company.

(A housekeeper. Kashima really is out of his league.)

Kashima’s eyes meet his over the table. Their feet touch; Toyohi snakes out a hand and takes Kashima’s free one in his. To think that it had been a whim—a craving, almost—for a hard drink and some pistachios that had led Kashima to meeting Toyohi. To think that one night spent at home eating lukewarm takeout would mean losing this.

“Well, I’m glad you did,” Toyohi says, bringing that captive hand to his lips and kissing each knuckle. Kashima turns an even more impressive shade of pink, almost red, and it crawls down his neck to his collarbone. Toyohi swears he can see the gooseflesh break out on Kashima’s arms as his tongue flickers out for a brief taste.

Too fast. God damn it. God damn his habits.

“Why’s that?” Kashima asks, gaze a little too glassy. Something dark floats in his eyes.

“Because it means I got to meet you,” Toyohi says, interlacing their fingers. “And it means I get to cook you dinner every so often.”

Kashima gasps, surprised out of his stupor—Toyohi’s seen him in it often enough now to know that he really does hold his breath as if he’s underwater, as if he’s submerged in his own feelings and has to be pulled back out before he drowns—and with a blink he’s back, glassy-eyed for a different reason. “Do you mean it?” he asks, still a little breathless.

“Do I mean that I’m glad your sudden craving for a Cosmos led to us meeting? Yes,” he says. Kashima’s hand is soft, softer than Toyohi expects it to be, after years spent studying and fighting natural disasters. He doesn’t know why he expects the battle-hardened callouses of a fighter—Kashima’s fan is a normal weight, and the only callouses he’s managed to pick up are from snapping it open and closed and from long hours with a pen.

Kashima stares somewhere between their hands and his plate. “No one’s ever told me that before. That—that they’re glad they met me.”

“What a shame. They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Kashima chokes, then coughs, and to Toyohi’s surprise doesn’t pull his free hand away—he coughs on his chopsticks and Toyohi’s fingers threaten to go numb as he grips with all he’s worth, and when he’s done tears drip down his cheeks. Toyohi wipes at them with a napkin; Kashima flusters even more, trying to protest, and it’s all Toyohi can do to keep holding on and grin and assure him that it’s alright.

A few tears and a bit of snot is nothing compared to what Toyohi’s dealt with. Jean-Louis cried the first time they slept together, and whether it was because he knew Toyohi would be gone by the end of the week or because he couldn’t believe that he’d slept with a man and enjoyed it, Toyohi would never know.

But, these tears—he can ask. He can ask, and Kashima will answer. “What’s this all about?”

Kashima sets down his chopsticks at last, grasps at Toyohi’s hand still pressing the napkin under his eye and says, softly, “You think I’m worth missing.”

Everybody’s worth missing, but that’s not what Kashima wants to hear. “Yeah, I do,” he says, and would say more but the dryer buzzes from its confines in the bathroom. Kashima jumps.

The moment is gone.

“Why don’t you go get changed,” Toyohi says. “I’ll clean up dinner, okay?”

“But, I,” Kashima says, trailing off to stare at his plate. He’s eaten most of it—Toyohi hadn’t expected him to go for the bell peppers, but maybe he’d been trying to act mature—and that’s usual. Kashima almost never finishes his food. Whenever they eat out, he always has to ask for a doggie bag.

“I’ll put it in a container for you. It’s no big deal.”

“Right,” Kashima says. He disentangles their hands, scrubs at a few leftover tears, and heads for the bathroom, and maybe Toyohi isn’t imagining the resignation slumping his shoulders. Toyohi’s feeling it, too.

The things he’d like to do—but not now. Not for a while, not until Kashima’s ready, not until they’ve talked about it. Toyohi almost never talked about it with his old flings. Maria had said, explicitly, that she was waiting for marriage when they met, and that had been the end of it. That was when Toyohi found out that just dating someone—even without the sex—was pretty nice, and something in his head had clicked.

Maria was nice, but he wasn’t about to move across the world for her. His home was in Japan and they both knew that.

And, now—he’s glad he came back. Glad he got off his flight itching for a decent cocktail or a good beer and someplace new to haunt; memento mori had never been on his radar but it had been on his way home, and…

Toyohi cleans up without much fuss. Kashima’s uneaten portion goes into some Tupperware, along with the little bit that had been left in the pan. He can have it for lunch tomorrow, if he wants.

When Kashima comes back he has Toyohi’s clothes messily folded in his arms. “Sorry,” he says, when Toyohi takes them.

“It’s fine,” he says, going to put them away. It’s always fine. Kashima’s not good at most things and one day that’ll grate like there’s no tomorrow but for now, it’s fine. What’s more important is that he’s dressed down even in his suit: tie hanging loose on his neck, shirt half-buttoned, jacket folded over his arm. His collar hangs open, his skin begging for Toyohi to mark it.

“Um,” Kashima says, then thinks better of it.

“Yeah?”

The key is patience, some of Toyohi’s net buddies agree. Be patient. Let him talk when he’s ready and don’t say a word until he has, but it’s hard with Kashima’s neck right there, and his cheeks flushed like he knows how good he looks like this. It’s a shame he can’t look Toyohi in the eye, darting his gaze around the room as if the dog-eared paperbacks piled by his bedside or the old TV will help him figure out what to say.

“I—well, I, uh,” Kashima goes on.

Toyohi starts feeling as if his smile is plastered on the longer Kashima squirms, looking very much as if he’d rather be anywhere but here—but he’d looked that way under the budding cherry trees by the train tracks, as if there’s something he wants to say but can’t find the words or the courage and hates being forced into it.

“Kashima,” Toyohi says softly, but the word stops Kashima dead in his mental-tracks. “You want to tell me something?”

Kashima nods.

“Is it bad news?”

He shakes his head.

“Is it good, then?”

That makes him frown. Not bad, but not entirely good—somewhere in the middle, then, Toyohi thinks. Maybe his shifts are changing; maybe he’s going to be training new wizards and needs his free time back for himself. Maybe—

Maybe he’s lurching forward, catching fistfuls of Toyohi’s shirt, and crashing their mouths together in a way that Toyohi’s going to feel for the rest of the night. Kashima’s eyes are screwed shut, his back straight as a rod, and he’s shaking, terrified. Toyohi chuckles against his mouth and backs up to the edge of bed just as Kashima comes up for air, gasping as Toyohi tugs him along.

“Relax,” Toyohi tells him, sitting. An inch or two might not be much but it can really feel like it—Karine had been half a foot taller than him, and Chati had been a staggering full foot shorter—and any ounce of confidence he can give Kashima right now will be worth it. Plus, he rather likes the view.

“Sorry,” Kashima mutters. He shudders when Toyohi’s hand brushes his face, tucking hair behind his ear.

“Was that what you wanted to tell me?”

Kashima nods and says, “But I couldn’t do it right. It didn’t—didn’t feel the same as yours do.”

Because Toyohi has gotten lots of practice, but Kashima—he hasn’t. Toyohi’s his first boyfriend, his first everything. If Toyohi wants to keep him, he has to be patient.

“Well,” Toyohi says, “you can always try again. I’m up for it.”

“Oh,” Kashima says, as if he thought one bad kiss would be enough to ruin their relationship. When he leans in again, it’s much, much slower, and all the more sweeter for it. Toyohi isn’t sure how long it lasts, just that one kiss becomes two, then three, and at some point his fingers tangle themselves in Kashima’s hair. Kashima flattens his hands on Toyohi’s chest; an electric thrill runs up his spine.

“See?” Toyohi asks, when they come up for air again. “It’s better, right?”

“Yes,” Kashima admits. He’s worlds away by now, following some thought of his down a distant track, probably worrying about what comes next.

Toyohi rests their foreheads together. “There’s no need to rush so much. I’m not going to get mad if you aren’t comfortable. We’ve got time.”

“Right,” Kashima says, and then again, as if trying to believe it himself, “right.”

 


 

His parents didn’t have time.

Maybe they thought they would have years—decades—ahead of them. Half a century or more at least, and nearly a whole one at most—wizards could live long if they put their minds and magic into it, but—

But they didn’t. They died when Kashima was sixteen, old enough to know how good it felt when they praised him and how bad it felt when he ate dinner alone for the fourth time in a week. The old housekeeper had sat with him on those days, but she had been cranky and foul-tempered by having to babysit on top of her other duties.

The money made it worth it. The money always made it worth it.

When he arrives home, the lights are off. The new housekeeper is more than happy to follow his instructions, and save for that one week his magic was sealed, Kashima almost never runs into her. She’d been worried back then, putting a bit more care into his meals, staying a few extra minutes to sit by his door and ask if he wanted to talk, singing wordlessly to some tune in her head as she hung the laundry out to dry in the courtyard.

There’s a bento box in the fridge. No note, but he knows it’s for him, and he wonders what he’ll do with Toyohi’s stir fry. It’s certainly not a breakfast food. His mother would scold him if she was here—but she’s not. She hasn’t been for a long time. A crisis is a crisis for everyone involved, after all.

His parents didn’t have time at all—but then again, they’d been married by his age. They’d taken their time much, much earlier than he is.

Kashima doesn’t have time.

It’s all he can think about that night, lips still tingling from the kisses: he doesn’t have time. The next crisis could be the end of him. Maybe his magic will fail him at a critical juncture, just like his mother. Maybe he’ll be trapped underneath rubble, slowly bleeding to death, lungs filling with dust, like his father.

Maybe Toyohi will learn to hate him after all.

And there must be something wrong with him, to think that that will be alright. He’ll mourn the loss of love and someone who might have loved him despite everything he isn’t, and then he’ll move on. Giving Toyohi anything more than kisses seems so… outlandish. Far-fetched. As if Kashima has found himself living in a fantasy land where he’s exactly like everyone around him, and a niggling part of his mind tells he doesn’t belong.

But it’s Toyohi. Toyohi won’t hurt him, not on purpose, but it’s not as if he’ll be patient forever. Eventually he’ll get sick of Kashima slowing everything down; eventually he’ll want what Kashima can’t give him. He can hope that if it’s Toyohi it’ll be easy enough to stomach, but—if it’s not—

He shudders and rolls over. The rain picks up, and it’s so easy to cast a sound-dampening spell, to pretend the only noisy thing in his life are his thoughts, to wish he still smelled even vaguely like Toyohi to make all of it stop.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep, just that he must, because one moment it’s the middle of the night and the next the sun is streaming in, falling across his face. He eats Toyohi’s stir-fry for breakfast. It’s not as good as it was last night, fresh out of the pan and with Toyohi across from him, looking up every so often to see if he’s enjoying it.

What did he do, to deserve someone like Toyohi?

 


 

Kurose’s all smiles at the office. Every other sentence out of her mouth asks about his date and it’s only when Kashima has been staring at the same report for ten minutes that he decides he needs a break. He heads to the roof, where the rain of the past few days has vanished into a clear, blue sky marred by the occasional cloud and puddles struggling to evaporate under the sun.

Zaou leans against the railing, twirling his pipe. He glances over his shoulder briefly enough to know who’s there and waves; Kashima joins him and can’t help the hefty sigh.

“The day’s too nice to be sighing like that,” Zaou admonishes, but yawns.

“Your wife again?”

“Who else? But I told her I’d support her through this and I meant it, even if that means holding her hair back when she pukes at three in the morning. Then she wanted tuna on pancakes for breakfast. Pregnancy is terrifying.”

“Sounds like it,” is all Kashima can think of to say. The distant roar of cars and the wind in his ears make up for what he can’t, he hopes, because soon enough Zaou’s leaving with another of his waves and all Kashima can do is sigh in relief. He can’t bother Zaou with his problems, not when the other man has a baby on the way. Kashima is old enough to know how to deal with his own problems himself.

It doesn’t feel like he does. Not these kinds of problems—not about relationships and how far they can advance and how fast they’re supposed to. Kashima doesn’t want to ruin any other experiences with his bumbling attempts, but he definitely doesn’t want to make Toyohi hate him…

He’s thinking in circles again. The best way to handle it would be to ask Toyohi; the worst way to handle it would be to ask Toyohi.

He calls Toyohi anyway.

“I’m, um,” he mumbles into the phone, once greetings are out of the way and he’s assured Toyohi isn’t busy. “I’m—I’m not sure if I can, ah…”

“Can what?” Toyohi asks.

Zaou is going to be a father. It takes two to make a baby, and an act Kashima has barely acknowledged as existing for the last fifteen years since he learned about it in school. Sometimes he hears whispers about hook-ups while he gets coffee in the break room; sometimes he hears questions about what he’d be like in bed.

A nervous wreck, he’s always wanted to say. And what can be so great about it, anyway? If the end goal is to feel good for a few minutes, Kashima can just take a long bath.

But what in the world is he thinking? He and Toyohi have barely been going out for a month—isn’t it a bit too soon to be talking about that, of all things?

He coughs, just to stall. Toyohi waits with all the patience of a saint; Kashima really should appreciate him more.

“I’m not sure if I can…” he says, then sighs. “I’m sorry. I—I shouldn’t be bothering you like this, I—”

“You’re not bothering me, Kashima,” Toyohi assures him. “I like talking to you. Take all the time you need.”

But it’s a stupid, silly, vapid thing to be worrying about. They’ve barely been dating for a month, but Toyohi makes Kashima want to try new things; wouldn’t this be just another in a long list of firsts?

“You know, I meant what I said about taking our time, too; I want you to be comfortable. I love you too much to drive you away like that,” Toyohi says, as if he can read Kashima’s mind.

Love. Kashima’s heart stutters in his chest; not only does Toyohi understand his apprehensions, but he still loves him, still loves the guy everyone in high school joked would be single and a virgin until he died of old age.

“Toyohi,” he says, wondering if he should say it at all and deciding that it can’t hurt in the space of two milliseconds. He doesn’t care that he sounds like he’s about to cry, either; understanding is more than Kashima ever expected from anyone unfortunate enough to fall in love with him, when he had the time to entertain fantasies like that. “I love you too.”

A clatter, then distant, slightly muffled cursing until Toyohi picks his phone up again. “Say it—say it one more time,” he says, slightly breathless.

Kashima does, over and over until his throat is hoarse. When he starts crying Toyohi repeats his words back to him, until they’re an echo chamber of I love yous only the two of them can hear.

If he’s ten minutes late returning from his break, no one in the office says a word.

(When he mentions offhand to Kurose that his date made him stir-fry, she gets stars in her eyes.)

 


 

A week later he and Toyohi sit in Toyohi’s apartment, boxes of Chinese takeout on the table between them. As they came back the simple drizzle overhead had turned into a downpour, complete with gusting winds that tore the umbrella right out of Toyohi’s hands; Kashima sits in another borrowed outfit, looking like a fish out of water.

Japanese clothing suits him much better than Western, Toyohi decides, and makes a mental note to find some. He can have spare outfits just for his boyfriend lying around, can’t he?

The thought of Kashima surprised by his thoughtfulness brings a grin to his face; the real Kashima pauses, his piece of broccoli dripping sauce.

“It’s nothing,” Toyohi says before he can ask. “I just… thought of something funny, that’s all.”

Kashima hums, apparently satisfied, and goes back to his meal. He crunches his way through a spring roll as the rain on the window strengthens, and Toyohi can’t help but stare at the paleness of his arms, laid bare once more in an oversized t-shirt.

With summer around the corner it was only a matter of time before he’d get to see his boyfriend in t-shirts and polos and shorts, Toyohi had thought. But Kashima’s neck is bare, and his throat bobs with every bite, and it’s so slender—

Don’t, Toyohi thinks, immediately aware that the rest of Kashima must be just as pale and slender and deliciously quivering, too.

“Are you sure it’s nothing?” Kashima asks.

But this is Kashima. Toyohi wants him to be comfortable, but he also can’t bring himself to lie. “Maybe not,” he admits, and sets down his chopsticks. His hands don’t shake. They should, as Kashima follows suit. The poor man has no idea what he’s in for; it’s written all over his face. “It’s just, y’know. I forgot how sexy it is for my boyfriend to wear my clothes, that’s all.”

It takes Kashima a moment to parse that. When he does, he turns red. “I—I’m not—”

Toyohi doesn’t dignify that with a response—Kashima knows how he feels and knows he means it—but regards him as he works through it.

Maybe someday he’ll get used to it. In the meantime, Toyohi will cherish every stammered, blushing counter.

When Kashima finally gets a hold of himself again, he asks, still blushing, “Do you really think so?”

“I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t.”

Kashima makes a noise. He’s been raised too prim and proper to squirm, but his gaze darts around the room: from the calendar tacked to the fridge to the sink where this morning’s pans are waiting to be put them away to Toyohi, who can only wait for so long before he blurts out, “Do you not like it, Kashima? Being called sexy?”

“I—no, I—it’s fine,” he stammers, before thrusting a hand across the table and gripping Toyohi’s. “I’m just not used to it,” he admits.

“Really?” Toyohi can’t believe that—but he’s Kashima’s first everything, so maybe he can. “Well, I’ll just have to make up for all the years you didn’t hear it, then.”

“All the—oh, I see,” Kashima says, even if it sounds like he doesn’t believe it. His foot bumps Toyohi’s under the table and he jolts, and somehow goes redder.

Toyohi laughs, pats his hand, gives it a kiss or two to make up for the distance his kitchen table forces upon them, and goes back to his meal. Kashima only starts eating again when Toyohi threatens to feed him himself, spurred on by sheer embarrassment.

Later, they clean up dinner—Toyohi gives him more leftovers and washes the dishes, Kashima wipes off the table and puts Toyohi’s share of the food and drinks in the fridge—and before Toyohi knows it he has Kashima in his lap on his bed. He flicks through channels, one arm loose around his boyfriend’s waist, feigning nonchalance and wondering if he smells too much like lemon dish soap and ginger. His breath tickles Kashima’s ear, and Kashima’s heart races under his hand at a mile a minute.

He’s so warm. And like Toyohi thought, there’s a nervous vibration running under Kashima’s skin.

Or it could be the magic in his blood. It’s hard to be sure.

“See anything?” Toyohi asks, just to stop thinking about it all.

“Oh—no,” Kashima says. Maybe the heat is affecting him, because he can’t seem to focus on the TV, even with his glasses on. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands—one of his arms is trapped in place by Toyohi’s while the other rests on his thigh—and his fingers flutter with aborted motions. Toyohi’s leg is right there, right beside his hand. He could touch it.

Toyohi really wants him to touch it.

“I didn’t know you were ambidextrous,” Kashima says, and his fingers twitch.

Toyohi laughs a hot puff of air. Of all the things for Kashima to pick up on, it had to be that. “Broke my dominant hand once,” he says, wiggling the fingers pressing into Kashima’s hip. “Having notes taken for me really sucked, so I learned to write with the other one, and then I started doing other stuff with it, too.”

“Other stuff?”

“Tennis. Bowling. Cooking. Nothing special.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“I make everything sound easy,” Toyohi reminds him. “I’m a jack of all trades, remember? Except magic; that’s your thing.”

My thing, Kashima thinks, in a way that Toyohi can hear as if he’s spoken aloud. It’s in the sudden proud flush to his face and the soft acknowledgment. My thing. Because I’m good at it, not just because I’m a wizard.

Toyohi had made that very clear. It’s up to Kashima to begin to believe it.

Toyohi settles on some nature documentary, thumb rubbing at Kashima’s hip. The narrator comments over a shot of dolphins swarming a shark, the volume too low to make out what’s being said but the way the shark frenzies against its attackers plain as day.

“Jellyfish would be better,” Kashima remarks, sleepily.

Toyohi takes his hand—his free one—after setting the remote aside and tries to ignore the brush of their legs, stretched out over the bedspread.

Toyohi says something, but Kashima falls asleep before he can hear it.

 


 

Long after Kashima’s tucked into his bed, Toyohi stares at his kitchen table. Hugging and cuddling and kissing is all good—but it’s tame. He crosses his arms, clenches them tight, and waits as the blood leaks out of his fingers.

Tame. He shouldn’t be thinking things like that, not after telling Kashima he’d go as slow as the wizard wanted, that as long as Kashima was comfortable that was all that mattered.

And it is, but his god damn brain can’t shut up: eventually he’s going to get to see Kashima naked; eventually he’s going to get to whisper dirty, sweet nothings into Kashima’s ear; eventually he’s going to find out what kind of face Kashima makes as he comes undone—and it’s all going to be Toyohi’s.

“Damn it,” he mutters, resisting the urge to peek around the wall by glaring at a stain on the table’s surface.

If he twists his head just so—no. No.Damn it all.

And—this isn’t the first time Kashima has slept over. Toyohi has managed to keep his hands off him before, so he should be able to control himself now. He should be able to, so why is it so hard?

Because last time he hadn’t rubbed the nub of Kashima’s hipbone, his mind supplies. Last time Kashima hadn’t clung to him, his head rolling, that pale stretch of neck like a canvas waiting to be painted. Kashima had barely responded as Toyohi extricated himself, hadn’t made a sound, but the warmth Toyohi’s skin had brushed had scorched every spot. They still pulse with the memory of heat.

And he tries not to think of the slight dip of Kashima’s waist under his hand, or the way he’d tucked against Toyohi as he fell asleep, fitting right under his chin, or the way his ear and the side of his neck had flushed just at the touch of Toyohi’s breath.

He’s so innocent. So, so innocent. Toyohi can’t defile that.

But he wants to. He wants to so badly it sits, as heavy as brick, somewhere low in his gut.

“I really can’t mess this up, can I?” Toyohi asks the table. The table doesn’t answer back.

But that’s alright. He knows he can’t; not with Kashima, not with this. If he fucks this up he’ll lose Kashima and ruin him for dating for the rest of his life and that’s not a comforting thought.

But that’s alright, because Kashima’s willing to try. Toyohi just has to slow down and match his pace.

He sits at the table and begins to plan.