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As the rainy season overtakes Japan, Kashima finds himself slipping into the familiar grind of work. There are days when the rivers rise too quickly and it’s all he can do to keep the waters at bay while the residents of nearby villages evacuate; there are days when the very air seems trapped in his lungs, as if begging him to become one with the flood. There are days when only grateful smiles and kind words pull him back into himself, and there are days of bright sunshine, the sky a clear, cloudless, deceptively calm blue. Sometimes he stays overnights at the office, too tired to bother with even a simple transportation spell, dried mud flaking from his spell-dried suit and a persistent ache between his brows.

But sometimes he finds himself in Toyohi’s apartment, as wet as a drowned cat and with bruises under his eyes and an inability to speak more than a few words at a time. He likes those nights, even through the guilt burning in his core, because Toyohi takes care of him. Toyohi lets him soak in his tub, luxuriating in the heat and the quiet until his fingers are wrinkled nubs and his eyelids are too heavy to stay open. Toyohi makes him food and gives him leftovers for the nights he can’t muster up the energy to leave the office. Toyohi scratches lightly at his scalp and holds him close and hums under his breath when it turns out Kashima can’t sleep.

Kashima sleeps well, on the nights when Toyohi is near.

But when he isn’t…

Kashima yawns, taking in the city skyline: all skyscrapers and streets and a sliver of green from a nearby park, everything dark as the dawn light suffocates behind cloud cover. The clouds hanging overhead threaten yet more rain, and yet he doesn’t want to head back inside to more whispers about how Chief Kashima finally has his head back on straight, about how that debacle back in March must have been a fluke, and how it happened even to the best of them, and—

Kashima sips his coffee and frowns at the taste. It’s nowhere near as good as Toyohi’s, or that one cafe they went to. It had a name, but it escapes him; all he can remember is the way he spilled his drink all over the table, and the way Toyohi had grinned and chuckled and said it was no problem as splatters soaked into his jeans. Toyohi always says things like that: soft, reassuring things meant to keep Kashima from darting out the nearest door in embarrassment. It works every time, even though he knows one day Toyohi will tire of it.

And then—

And then—

He takes another sip, feels another sluggish curtain of sleep fall back from his eyes, and forces himself to stop thinking about it. Toyohi will do whatever he pleases, and there’s nothing Kashima can do to stop him.

Even if it’s leaving.

The door slams open. “So you are still here,” Zaou says, his face stern.

“Good morning, Zaou,” Kashima greets, then stifles another yawn that quickly turns into a yelp as Zaou tugs him around. His coffee goes flying, splashing over their shoes and soaking a hot patch through Kashima’s pants.

In the sleepy gray light, Zaou is downright murderous. It must be the lack of sleep catching up to him; this job isn’t kind to regular people, much less ones with pregnant wives.

“Um,” Kashima says, as Zaou inspects his face.

“When was the last time you went home, Kashima?”

“Uh.” Kashima thinks. Not this month, surely. The rainy season has seen to that, and his need to see Toyohi has taken care of the rest. In fact, the harder he thinks about it, the more he realizes that’s all he’s been doing: working and going to see Toyohi. He’s been relying on his housekeeper for changes of clothes. He’s been eating whatever Toyohi makes him and whatever he can scrounge out of the vending machines in the break room. He’s been drinking coffee.

“Thought so,” Zaou says, a little softer, and lets Kashima go. Then he sighs. “I thought I told you to stop working so much overtime. Do you want to collapse again?”

“The season’s almost over.” In another week or so, anyway. Then the heat will hit them hard and there’ll be a whole new slew of crises to handle.

Kashima’s job isn’t one for downtime. They’re lucky if a day goes by without something happening. Kashima’s lucky if a day goes by without something happening.

Zaou sighs again, heavier. He scrubs at his eyes.

Kashima says, “That’s not much better, is it.”

“It’s not,” Zaou confirms, and steps around him and the puddle of coffee to lean on the railing. “It’s all hands on deck, as it always is this time of year. But you’ve barely given yourself time to recover. You need to be taking it easy.”

Maybe he does. Maybe the words whispered in the rain and hissed in the drip of water in the tub and howled in the wind and stuttered in the creak and groan of an old house all around him are only symptoms of some greater issue, something serious. Maybe if he keeps going like this, he’ll collapse again, and this time for good.

Or maybe he’ll get back up, only to find that his magic has snuffed out like a candle in the wind.

He shivers, despite the oppressive heat in the air. Not that. Anything but that.

But he says, “You need to be taking it easy, too.”

Zaou forces out a laugh. “This is the easy part. And trust me, I’ll be taking time off when my wife and I need it. Right now I’m just worried about our star crises chief over here working himself to death. No one can replace you easily, Kashima.”

“No one, huh,” Kashima repeats to himself. They’re nice words to hear: that he’s irreplaceable. That he’s needed.

Something unfurls deep in his gut. The praise is always nice, but it feels different this time. Because it’s Zaou? He isn’t sure.

“Yeah, no one.” Zaou smirks. “Don’t tell me your girlfriend hasn’t told you that yet.”

“That I’m—” Kashima starts to ask, then stops. “I never answered that.”

“You don’t have to. Your face says it all. Plus, if you aren’t heading home after work…”

He trails off deliberately, leaving Kashima’s imagination to fill in the blanks: handmade bento boxes, even full of leftovers, are enough damning evidence in people like Zaou’s book. It makes him wonder if there’s something else on his face, some expression he wears unconsciously after his nights at Toyohi’s.

It could be. He feels different, after his nights at Toyohi’s, almost as if he’s slowly sloughing off everything that used to make him Kashima. Lonely and boring and a workaholic who doesn’t even know how to delegate tasks.

“I’ll be fine,” Kashima says.

“Uh-huh,” Zaou says, “and when you aren’t up on the roof at five in the morning drinking coffee to keep yourself awake, I’ll believe that.” He toes the cup. “I thought you said this stuff makes your magic fritzy. You really wanna risk that?”

He doesn’t. But… “There was nothing else to drink; even the water cooler was empty. I just wanted something while I…”

Waited for Toyohi to wake up, he wants to finish. He doesn’t want to burst into the apartment like an intruder. He doesn’t want to help himself like he belongs there. The place is still Toyohi’s; Kashima is only ever a guest.

And he’ll only ever be a guest, he realizes. He’s only Toyohi’s boyfriend. Something like that can change in an instant.

But Zaou must hear the words he doesn’t say. “What, she sleep late or something?”

“No, nothing like that.” Toyohi is an early riser—he goes jogging, and then he makes breakfast, and more often than not Kashima doesn’t even notice any of it until Toyohi drags him out of bed, peppering his face with kisses. “I just don’t want to seem clingy, I suppose.”

Zaou pulls his gaze from the city—already there are cars clogging up the streets, and a steadily growing tide of pedestrians flowing down the sidewalks—to regard him again. “Then go home, Kashima.”

It’s inevitable, he thinks, that he will have to. He can’t avoid the family home forever.

But it’s not where Toyohi is.

And if that isn’t a clingy thought, Kashima doesn’t know what is.

“Right,” he says, “I’ll do that.”

He steps around the puddle, content to leave Zaou to himself. It may be the only bit of peace the expecting father will get for the next couple of years; Kashima won’t take up any more of his time. But as he nears the door, Zaou calls out, “Kashima.”

Kashima turns. His head spins.

Zaou regards him for another long moment, but only says, “Take care.”

Kashima bows his thanks, and turns for the door.

 


 

After his housekeeper gets over her initial surprise of seeing him return after almost a month gone, she makes him a meal and sends him to bed.

Only an hour or so later, he wakes, heart racing. The vestiges of a dream cling to his mind like spidersilk: the halls of his home, echoing with the thunderous footsteps of his ancestors; the rain on the roof, so many whispering voices they drowned out everything else; Toyohi’s sneer; the faces of Kashima’s parents, forever smiling in their photos, turning scornful with disapproval.

I don’t want that.

But he doesn’t want to go back to being the old Kashima. He almost likes the new person he’s becoming. He likes the chats with his subordinates when there’s downtime and the way Kurose’s eyes light up when she mentions a new restaurant or cafe she’s tried. He likes how Takamiya asks him for advice on perfecting his technique and how Koyama pretends not to listen in on their conversations about family heirlooms and the individual strengths of bloodlines.

No, he doesn’t want to go back to being the old Kashima at all. But if anyone found out about him and Toyohi—how many new relationships would that ruin? How many future connections would Kashima wipe out with a single misplaced word, with misplaced trust?

He doesn’t know. He sits by the porch and watches the rain come down in sheets and doesn’t mind when his clothing is sprayed with stray drops. He conjures illusions in the courtyard: jellyfish and dolphins and schools of tiny fish he can’t remember the names of swim through the rain and bushes. Magic fizzes in his blood; lights bloom in his vision.

Fritzy, he thinks, and with a wave makes it all disappear.

When he turns back to his room and his bed there’s tea and snacks on the table. For a second he thinks it might be Toyohi’s doing—but Toyohi is across the city, out job hunting despite the weather, and his heart sinks. Kashima fingers a tea biscuit and wonders, “When did it get this bad?”

But the rain doesn’t answer, and for once the howling wind provides no scathing commentary.

He returns to a restless sleep.

 


 

Toyohi steps off to the side and takes a moment to breathe once he’s out of the station; another unsuccessful job hunt done and over with until tomorrow. His feet ache in dress shoes and his tie practically strangles him, so he loosens it and undoes the button on his collar to boot.

The summer heat is stifling.

It rises in waves from the streets and sidewalks—not that anyone can tell, there are so many people out—and it strikes from the sky, clear and cloudless now that the rainy season is over. The sun is blinding. Toyohi wants nothing more than to go home and sit under the AC for a while, maybe watch some TV or read a book or any of the other dozens of tasks he used to do, back when part-time work was all he wanted.

But things are different now. He doesn’t want to be that frivolous Toyohi anymore. He wants to be worthy of someone like Kashima, who oozes long-term commitment from every pore.

Devotion, Toyohi corrects himself. He oozes devotion. Devotion to his job and to everything else in his life; but he’s always known what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he’s said more than once that magic is all he’s good for. Kashima’s job could be a soul-sucking pile of misery and he would never complain. Magic’s in his blood. Magic’s his calling.

Toyohi thumbs his phone in his pocket. Blood, huh. Maybe—

His thoughts cut off as his phone begins to buzz. “Kashima!” Toyohi answers eagerly. “You know, I was just thinking about you—”

“I’m sorry,” Kashima says, labored, and in the background Toyohi can make out frantic shouting, what sounds like orders being bellowed and stressed chants rushing their way out of throats hoarse from overuse. Even Kashima sounds hoarse, as strange as it is to hear, and it makes Toyohi think of other ways he could lose his voice, ones far more pleasurable than work.

Kashima’s rushed, “It looks like things here are worse than we thought. I’m not going to make it back tonight. I, um, I thought I’d let you know.”

It’s Kashima’s job, Toyohi reminds himself, and Kashima takes pride in his work. “It’s fine,” he says, and pushes some cheer into it. “You do what you have to.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Kashima promises.

Toyohi can think of several ways he can do that, with that hoarse, husky voice of his. But to do that… “Just come back safe, alright?”

Kashima gasps a bit at that, as if he’s not used to it. But he agrees all the same, and when they say their goodbyes and hang up, Toyohi is left with a suddenly open evening.

He sighs. Heads home. Changes and sits under the AC contemplating the summer yukata he and Kashima went out to buy at the end of the rainy season. Wonders what it would mean if they went to a festival, or to an amusement park, or anywhere Kashima has never been before.

There are probably a lot of places he’s never been before. Toyohi wants to show him all of them.

His phone buzzes. Toyohi answers without thinking. “Utsumi speaking.”

“Finally,” his mother huffs.

Toyohi freezes, all thoughts of the heat of summer just outside his apartment gone in the blink of an eye. It’s almost as if he’s been dunked in ice water. He swallows. “Mom. Uh, hey.”

“If it was any harder to get ahold of you, I swear—”

“Sorry,” he says, on reflex. “I’ve just been, you know, busy, and—”

His mother huffs. Busy has always been his excuse and they both know it—busy doing part-time work, busy meeting people on his trips around the world, busy avoiding his family like the plague—but she spares him the tirade this time. Maybe she’s finally tired of it. “Will you be coming home for Obon, Toyohi?”

“O-obon?”

His calendar says it’s only a week or two out. If he books the tickets now and travels light, then maybe he can.

But does he want to?

No, says his gut. Not when every time he visits home turns into a lecture. Not when every time he shows his face his whole family has to tell him how disappointing he is. Jack of all trades, master of none and all that, and none of them have ever taken him seriously when he said nothing ever clicked. He’s smart, they always argue. He can do anything he wants, be anything he wants.

And he hates telling them that he doesn’t want to be anything.

“Maybe later,” he promises to her annoyance, because he always says this, and he never does. “I swear this time. Now’s not a good time to just take off—”

“Have you finally found a job, then?”

A stable job. A good job. A real job.

Toyohi does not throw his phone across the room. Instead he sits up and runs the fabric of the yukata through his fingers: tightly woven cotton, soft and durable but light and breathable, and in a flattering shade of blue that complimented Kashima’s complexion nicely.

“No,” he grinds out. “But I’ve just put out a couple more applications. I’ll hear back from them soon. It wouldn’t be right to be away when they might call me for an interview, would it?”

She humphs. “And how many of these applications have you put out, then?”

He tries to count them. Several a day over the past few months. Some online and some in person. Interview upon interview. Some only wanted college graduates and refused to say so until he was dressed up and in their HR rooms. Some didn’t care but weren’t full time.

Maybe that was where he should have started. But if he doesn’t know what he wants to do, how can he study for it?

“Two hundred,” he says, carefully.

“Two… what?”

“Two hundred applications.” If his math is right, which it always is. And if he’s off by a couple dozen, how is she to know? “I’ve been taking this seriously. I just haven’t had much luck.”

She’s quiet for a while. He’s not sure how to take it. Maybe it has been too long since he visited, if he can’t read her over the phone anymore. But, finally, she says, “I see.”

“Yeah,” is all he can think to say.

“Toyohi,” she says, “you know we’ll support you whatever you decide—”

He laughs. He can’t help it. “Support me? You’ve never supported me—”

“Not this lifestyle, where you flitter about from one job to the next like a child who doesn’t know better,” she argues, “but something real, Toyohi. Something stable. I’m scared for you, you know.”

“Don’t tell me that.”

“Fine, then. I won’t. But when you’re ready, we’ll be here. We’re your family. We—”

He hangs up. Tosses his phone on the floor and kicks it under the bed for good measure; maybe the battery will die, exhausted from his mother’s repeated attempts to finish what she started.

But he can’t get her parting words out of his head. The last ones she said in person, before his first trip.

You could be so good for our family if you just tried, Toyohi.

Toyohi grits his teeth and tells himself that they’ve never understood a thing about him. Not just about who he is, but about the choices he makes: why he dyes his hair and dates who he likes and goes on his trips. The only thing they’ll understand about Kashima is that he’s a wizard. To them, that will be all that matters.

Just like Kashima thought, way back in March.

He’s not sure how long he sits there in the dark, phone buzzing under his bed and the silence of the night settling down around him. He’s not sure if he dozes off once or twice, just that at some point he wakes to find the gray light of dawn creeping in through his window and a crick in his neck from the awkward position and a creaking out in the hall.

Kashima.

Toyohi leaps out of bed, makes it to the door in a handful of steps, and tugs the other man in before he gets a word out in greeting. They stand in the entrance, the wizard pressed against the door and Toyohi’s hold on him so tight it must be suffocating, but he can’t complain through the kisses Toyohi lavishes him with: all force and hunger and a deep, desperate need Toyohi is barely able to contain. Kashima reeks of smoke and sweat, and his mouth tastes like electrolyte powder and something sharper, like the charge in the air before a storm, and Toyohi wants nothing more than to drink him in—

—just to make himself feel better.

God, he’s pathetic.

He wrenches them apart, keeping Kashima at arm’s length while they catch their breath. Kashima’s flushed a worrying red and he pants as if he’s just finished a race; his hands come up to latch around Toyohi’s wrists but only sit there, feeling out the pulse racing under Toyohi’s skin.

“Sorry,” Toyohi mutters.

“Don’t be,” Kashima pants. His gaze is oddly steady. “I think—I think I needed that. Wanted it. Isn’t that—isn’t that strange?”

“Nothing wrong with that.” And not just because it’s what Toyohi’s wanted for a long time, too. He creeps a bit closer; Kashima’s skin is hot, almost unbearably so, and he leans in the closer Toyohi gets. “But you’ve been out all night. You’ve got to be tired. You should be resting up for your next shift.”

All these all-nighters can’t be good for him. Overwork caused him to collapse in the first place, and the last thing Toyohi wants is to find him like that.

But Kashima’s gaze is steady, even if his eyes shine with the manic light of a man pushed far past his limits. “Then help me relax,” he says, and Toyohi sucks in a breath at the dare that lies unspoken.

It’s got to be the heat, scrambling their brains like eggs in a pan. Or maybe it’s the phone call, and Toyohi only wants to be wanted and needed by someone for who he is, and not what he brings to the table.

Whatever it is doesn’t matter; he kisses Kashima deeper than before, slower, mapping out his mouth and cataloging reactions: Kashima shudders whenever their tongues meet; his hands grip Toyohi just a bit tighter whenever he brushes the roof of his mouth; he moans and mewls and pants as Toyohi takes and takes. The only thing that elicits a response is Toyohi’s hands, sliding down his arms to encircle his back, tugging at the fabric there until he can get at skin.

Toyohi’s touch makes Kashima squirm, the muscles in his back jumping. Everything Toyohi touches is velvet-smooth, even if it is tacky with dried sweat and sparking with residual magic, like the still-warm ashes of a fire.

And Kashima says nothing. Even when he pulls away from Toyohi’s mouth to bury his face in Toyohi’s neck; even when Toyohi digs his fingers into a knot of muscle by Kashima’s spine; even when his knees begin to give out and the only thing keeping him upright is his grip on Toyohi’s shirt, he says nothing.

So Toyohi takes his fill. Kashima quivers and shakes like a newborn fawn; every noise out of his mouth stoking an ever-growing fire in the pit of Toyohi’s stomach—and in Kashima’s own, if the sudden jerk of his hips is true.

It must be; he does it again, then again. After the fourth time, when he can’t stop a desperate moan from resounding through the room, he says, “Toyohi, w-what do I—”

Toyohi takes him in: eyes screwed shut, hair askew, his face flushed, the skin under Toyohi’s hands hot. Of course he’s terrified—Toyohi was, his first time. He reaches down and stops Kashima from a fifth jerk, thumbs digging into the tender flesh above his hipbones.

“What do you want to do?” Toyohi asks.

Kashima stutters and stammers the start to a dozen different sentences. His eyes flutter open, then closed, then drip with tears as he fights Toyohi’s grip.

Of course, Toyohi thinks. He’s too proper to say it—and if their first month going out is anything to go by, too anxious to believe Toyohi will give it to him.

Which just isn’t true. Toyohi only wants to be sure.

“You want… this?” He dares a slow roll of his hips; Kashima sobs at the contact, his whole body straining.

But he doesn’t say anything. He has to say it, if only for Toyohi’s peace of mind.

So he does it again. This time Kashima’s knees do give out, and the sudden weight sends Toyohi to his ass on the floor, and all his careful control flies out the window. Kashima all but writhes against him; Toyohi grabs him, rolls them over, thrusts his hips against Kashima’s like he’s sixteen all over again. No finesse, not now that he has Kashima on his back at last. He doesn’t even mind the layers in the way; all that matters is the friction, and the meeting of their mouths, and the way Kashima clings to his back and digs his feet into the floor for enough purchase to meet him every time.

Kashima goes first not long after, with a broken moan Toyohi barely allows him to make. Toyohi lasts a few minutes more, need overcoming the distress of the too-pliant body beneath him until Kashima kisses him as slowly as when he first walked in the door, as if to say it’s alright.

But it’s not, he thinks, even as he finishes. It’s not, even if Kashima stares at him like he can’t quite believe it: what they’ve done, what he’s done, what Toyohi has done.

Toyohi groans and flops over onto his back. “You should really, really say something next time, Kashima.”

“Uh?”

“Consent is important,” Toyohi reminds him, and braves the awful, cooling mess in his pants to roll onto his side. Kashima tilts his head to meet his gaze, although his eyes threaten to slip closed and stay there. “I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, remember?”

“Right,” Kashima says. “I’m sorry. I’ll say so next time.”

Toyohi grins. He may have said it first, but hearing Kashima say it, too—it makes warmth bloom in his chest for a different reason. “And we might have to apologize to the neighbors, too.”

Kashima only hums agreement, mumbles something about jellyfish, and slips into slumber before Toyohi even knows it.

(But if they take their time in the bath an hour later, when the worst of Kashima’s fatigue is gone and the mess makes his skin itch badly enough to wake—Toyohi certainly isn’t complaining.)

 


 

The shrine in the corner of Toyohi’s room catches Kashima’s eye one evening. Though the summer heat is stifling and he’s tired to his bones from work, he wanders over to it and can’t help but inspect the cucumber horse proudly rearing its head to the light streaming in from the window.

When was the last time he made one of these? Elementary school, before his parents died? Certainly not after. He’d been too old at sixteen, everything he couldn’t do already made perfectly clear. Kashima had been content just to light incense and pray on occasion, and the looks in his aunt’s and uncle’s eyes when they spotted him around this time of year always made him nervous.

Always so nervous. When did he get like this?

“You wanna make one too, Kashima?” Toyohi asks from the table. His laptop sits forgotten, the myriad job assessments undone for the moment as he rests his chin in one hand. “I’ve got some extra cucumbers, if you want. You can take it home with you.”

“Oh, no, I—” But he stops. He can’t remember the last time he made one, but he remembers enjoying it, as simple a task as it is. And Toyohi is here; he won’t judge. “I’d like that,” he amends.

Toyohi grins, and pulls out everything he needs.

Barely a few minutes later, he has what can pass up as a cucumber horse—if the legs weren’t crooked and it could stand on its own, anyway—and Toyohi laughs as Kashima struggles to keep it upright.

Come to think of it, Kashima’s father had helped him, that last time.

And, if he’s being honest with himself…

“Will you be leaving for Obon, Toyohi?” Kashima asks, adjusting a toothpick just to see if that will work.

“Nah,” is the response. Toyohi gives his laptop a pointed look. “Sure, I could, but… some jobs don’t wait for holidays, you know?”

He does. Kashima has work those nights, as insurance against more wildfires. He used to take pride in the overtime; now he doesn’t know what to feel. As if he’s a step away from becoming exactly like his parents?

No, he thinks, forcefully. Don’t think like that.

“I see,” he says instead.

“Got something you wanna ask?”

He wishes for his fan, and like magic, there it is for him to hide behind. “It might be a bit presumptuous,” he deflects, inspecting the paper and ink. Is it fading? Is it worn? Magic it may be, but untouchable by time it is not; eventually it, too, will crumble and fade and—

He startles at a touch. Toyohi’s hand on his, his eyes beseeching. “The only thing I might find presumptuous is you deciding these things for me. Remember how you convinced yourself I only loved you because you’re a wizard?”

He does. It feels foolish, even months later, but it sits in the back of his mind like a stubborn stain. He forces himself to breathe. “I do.” He swallows. “Well, I—I wanted to know if, ah, you’d like to meet my parents.”

“Your parents?”

“Yes,” Kashima says.

“During Obon?”

“Yes.”

Toyohi draws back, though his hands stays right where he leaves it. Kashima grips it, laces their fingers together, and feels once more how different they are.

Fearing a no, Kashima adds, “They won’t give you any trouble, Toyohi. I, um. They’re—”

He stops at a squeeze. “I’d love to,” Toyohi says, with a soft, reassuring smile. Kashima can’t look at it for long—hasn’t been able to look at Toyohi for very long at all, lately—so he goes back to his fan and squeezes back and hopes that’s the end of it.

It’s not. Naturally.

“Your parents, huh,” Toyohi murmurs. “Guess I’ll have to dress up. Gotta make a good first impression and all that, right?”

“Oh, uh—right.” His mind supplies Toyohi in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back. He can, but barely: the contrast with his everyday wear is too much to comprehend.

“You sure?” Toyohi teases as he drifts in closer again.

“I—yes, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, you aren’t looking at me.”

“I, well—I’m sorry,” he says, and startles when he finds Toyohi peering at him over the edge of his fan with hurt in his eyes. “I—it’s not you, Toyohi, it’s—”

“What we did last time?” Toyohi guesses when he cuts himself off.

Kashima nods. Of course his avoidance of Toyohi’s apartment ever since hasn’t gone unnoticed, and of course Toyohi wants to talk about it.

“Did you not like it after all?”

Kashima’s face heats up. It’s enough of an answer, but he forces himself to say, “No, I did. I did enjoy it. Please don’t think I didn’t.”

“Then what’s up?”

That’s the thing he likes about Toyohi: he’s patient. As Kashima stumbles over an explanation that just thinking of Toyohi’s apartment brings him back to that morning over and over again, Toyohi sits and rubs idle circles into Kashima’s hand. When Kashima segues into the persistent thought that Toyohi must have had enough of him after, and how upsetting it became the longer Kashima stayed away, and how utterly conflicted he became when Toyohi texted or called him anyway, he sits up straighter. Kashima tries to understand the steel in his eyes, but his voice falters and fails.

Toyohi says, “I wouldn’t dump you because of that, Kashima.”

“I know.” It’s obvious in retrospect. Kashima had even told himself as much: if Toyohi had enough, he would say so. “But, I—once I started, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I—I want to enjoy spending time with you, even if we don’t—don’t, um—do things like that.”

He sighs at himself. He can’t even say it. He’s not sure there’s a word for what they did, but if there is, Toyohi will know it.

But Toyohi, straight-faced, tugs the fan away. He ensures Kashima’s attention is on him; this serious Toyohi makes Kashima’s stomach flip and his knees tremble. “Kashima, I always enjoy spending time with you, sex or no sex.”

Kashima knows this, so he nods.

“And it’s not wrong of you to think about it so much, either. It was your first time. It might not have been perfect or how we imagined it would go, but it happened. We can work to make it better, next time.”

“Next time,” Kashima echoes, feeling as if he’s heard this before. After last time, maybe. He gets the feeling Toyohi told him something important, but the sluggish feeling overtaking his body overrode everything else into a haze of murmured words and warmth.

Then he catches something else. “We?”

Toyohi’s lips quirk into a smile. “You aren’t the only one who’s been thinking about it, you know.”

That’s another thing he likes about Toyohi: his surety. He doesn’t worry over the little things. Kashima can’t imagine living like that. “Oh,” he says.

“Oh?” Toyohi repeats.

“You’ve been thinking about it, too.”

“Of course I have,” Toyohi says. His free hand comes up to brush Kashima’s jaw; a thumb traces his lower lip, tugging at skin and leaving the ghost of an impression: warmth and want and need. Kashima wants to sink his teeth into it and never let go, so he does. Toyohi tastes like salt; Kashima’s not sure what he expected. “How can I not, when my boyfriend is this handsome?”

Kashima doesn’t have words for that. Toyohi is just as handsome—if not more so—than Kashima is. Toyohi is more everything than Kashima is.

If Toyohi was the wizard—

But he’s not, Kashima reminds himself. He presses kisses to Toyohi’s palm, tastes the salt on his skin with every sweep of his tongue. Toyohi isn’t the wizard—and even if he was, it would be just another skill he was good at. It would be a shame, for something as grand as magic to be relegated to a simple list, filed away with everything else.

Kashima is sure of it: if Toyohi was the wizard, he would be exactly the same. He would still be searching for his place in the world. He would still be living in his apartment, paid for with his savings. He would still cook strange dishes from around the world for Kashima to try, and he would still snuggle in close on the bed after, eager to sneak kisses even when their breath reeked of garlic and exotic spices.

And he would still look at Kashima with such fondness that it takes Kashima’s breath away.

Kashima wouldn’t trade that look for the world.

 


 

As he rounds the corner, Toyohi’s thumb aches where Kashima bit it. Only a week ago, and yet the sensation of teeth on skin haunts him, clings to him like a stubborn stain.

Or maybe it’s the look in Kashima’s eyes that haunts him: the same need Toyohi feels in himself, and the fear Toyohi is becoming used to, and something proud. Kashima’s teeth mark him physically; that look does the same but cuts even deeper. This is mine, Kashima seems to say.

Toyohi bites him back on the soft underside of his wrist, just far enough up the sleeve that no one can see it when he wears his suit. Then he presses kisses to it—watching Kashima blush will never get old—and thinks, loud enough for them both to hear, Mine. Mine. All mine, and no one else’s.

But that is a week ago, and now Toyohi approaches the entrance to the temple with the memory of warm flesh and coursing blood thick on his tongue. His thumb aches.

From Kashima’s reaction, his wrist must ache, too.

The street is empty as they head into the temple. The water is lukewarm, and seems to linger long after Toyohi dries his hands; it’s the humidity, he tells himself as he offers prayers at Kashima’s side. It makes everything stick long after he’s clean and dry, reminds him of how easy it was in Indonesia for his hands to dirty with dust and how the cigarette smoke in Paris lingered on all his clothes for months after.

As much as he wants to reach out and check if Kashima’s hands are as dirty as his, Toyohi doesn’t. The temple graveyard is filled with people and their chatter: squealing children chase each other through the lines of tombstones, their parents calling and shouting; the soft murmur of a man at his wife’s grave, a dog waiting patiently at his side; the splash of water and calls of prayers and the snick of lighters.

At the far end of the graveyard is a walled-off area; more tombstones lie beyond, and from the crests marking their tops, they’re wizard graves. A temple acolyte lets them through, and Toyohi marvels: whole families stretch out over the lines, on and on from the faded ancestors to the pristine descendants, main families and branch families, disgraced and exalted.

Toyohi’s mouth dries up. He’d thought so, but seeing it is a different story.

Kashima really is special.

Kashima leads him down what seems to be an endless slope. For every mundane family in the public graveyard, there’s a wizard family here. Families that have long gone extinct and families that have only recently risen; families with long, long lifespans and families with short ones, kept going only through sheer tenacity. Kashima stops to offer prayers at some of them, lights incense at others, never stopping for very long lest the sparse wizards taking part in Obon drag him into conversation. Toyohi offers bows and greetings when he’s noticed, but most of the time he sits back, ignored, and watches Kashima dodge condolences.

So when Kashima latches onto his hand with a single curling finger, Toyohi only says, “You must get tired of hearing it.”

“Every year, it’s the same,” Kashima says, a shadow passing over his face, “and every year, it doesn’t get any easier.”

Toyohi has nothing to say to that. The sinking feeling in his stomach transforms into an abyss, yawning and empty and yet full of despair, heavy with the knowledge of the storm brewing deep in its bowels. He shakes it off, forces a grin, and says, “Well, I’ll be glad to meet your parents. I’m sure they’re wonderful people.”

That earns him a smile and a blush, high on Kashima’s cheeks. Toyohi could kiss him, but he doesn’t. Kashima has a reputation to look after. He can’t be seen kissing men in public. “They are,” Kashima says. “Or I, ah, remember them being that way. Kind and caring. Almost like you.”

“Almost?”

His blush darkens. He ducks his head, trying to hide. “They’re my parents, and you’re… you, Toyohi. You’ll always be different that way.”

Toyohi only chuckles and goes quiet. He savors the feeling of Kashima’s skin on his, a sliver though it is, and the smell of cut grass and turned earth. If this was any other day, they could be walking in a park on a date, working off lunch or trying to decide where to go for dinner. But the tombstones stretch as far as the eye can see, farther than Toyohi thought possible, and there’s no way out of it now.

Are his ancestors looking down on him now, miffed at being passed over yet again?

But Kashima needs him, and Toyohi’s family doesn’t. That’s all that matters.

By the time they stop at the crest of a hill, Toyohi has put it all out of mind. Kashima needs him, and Toyohi always offers prayers at the shrine in his apartment anyway. If his ancestors are good people, they’ll understand. If they aren’t, then all the better to keep avoiding them like the plague.

Kashima hands him his bag and summons his fan. With a whispered spell a fine mist wets the stones and collects on Toyohi’s shoes; they take turns wiping it down, one end of the line to the other. Kashima, Toyohi reads, over and over again. He imagines men and women with the tuck of Kashima’s chin and a noble, serious air; he imagines them with the curtain of Kashima’s hair and shy demeanors. He wonders if those ancestors blushed in the same way Kashima does. He wonders a lot of things that will never have answers; Kashima is the only Kashima alive, as far as Toyohi knows.

When they’re done he lights the incense. Kashima offers the flowers and food. As they kneel on the stones baking in the summer sun, Kashima takes Toyohi’s hand and flushes, pretty and pink. When he speaks he’s addressing the graves right in front of them, not the hundreds of generations of Kashimas. “Mom, Dad,” he says to the gleaming white stone, “this is Toyohi. We’re, um. We’re dating.”

Toyohi can’t imagine scandal on Kashima’s parent’s faces, and doesn’t want to. Toyohi gets that enough from his own parents. So he tries to imagine what they look like and bows as best he can to their ghosts. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he says. “I’ll endeavor to make Kashima as happy as I can for as long as I can. He’s really, truly, a wonderful person.”

“You don’t have to go that far,” Kashima tells him, and squeezes his hand.

“But it’s true.” Kashima blushes harder and breaks out into a happy grin; he hides it ineffectually behind his free hand. “You work hard at a job you love. You protect people every day. You have no idea how proud I am when I see it on the news, that another crisis has been averted thanks to your efforts.” He leans in close to whisper in Kashima’s ear. “Though I could also tell them how adorable you are when you get lost and call me for help, you know.”

Really, it is. Toyohi lives to tease him for it. He’s never been with anyone as bad with directions as Kashima; he’s also never been with anyone as easily flustered as Kashima gets.

“I don’t get lost that easily,” Kashima pouts.

Toyohi chuckles. They lose themselves in conversation, both with ghosts and with each other. Before Toyohi knows it the sky is darkening, turning a vivid red-orange and lunch seems like forever ago. They pack up, leave, make a detour for dinner before heading to memento mori for drinks. Kashima smiles into his glass of Quartz and looks somehow lighter.

Toyohi knows the weight he’s shed. The lightness of telling someone—anyone—that there’s someone special to you. The comfort of their hand in yours. The relief of knowing that even though you’ve lost one thing, you’ve gained another.

Toyohi wonders if he’ll ever gain that, too.

 


 

Kashima and Toyohi hash out plans to attend one of the nearby festivals at the end of the month. One of them falls on Kashima’s day off, and he finds himself smiling in reflections whenever he dares to look. He’s as giddy as a schoolboy, thinking of what food they’re going to eat and the games he never got to try—festivals were rife with crises, and his parents, like he is now, were always on call—and he finds himself wishing fervently for a night where nothing goes wrong, where he and Toyohi can have their fill of atmosphere and each other.

The day before the festival he heads up to the roof, eager for the fresh air and to check his phone for anything new from Toyohi. Kashima makes it a point not to check it too often when he’s on the clock, and he finds it makes whatever’s waiting for him all the sweeter.

Except Zaou is there today, and he is the furthest thing from happy that Kashima has ever seen him; he stumbles over his own two feet at the sight and nearly winds up face-planting.

Zaou merely turns his head and stares as Kashima hauls himself to his feet. As he dusts off his mantle, Zaou says, “Kashima. Tell me the truth. You don’t really have a girlfriend, do you?”

Kashima’s veins fill with ice. “I—what?”

“I won’t judge,” Zaou says, his voice sharp. “I don’t give a damn. Anybody with two eyes can tell that he’s been good for you. Just tell me if it’s true.”

Kashima can’t breathe, his throat is so cold. But he forces himself to say, “And if I do?”

“So I can fight for you, you dumbass!” Zaou shouts, his eyes narrowed to slits. He clings to the railing with knuckles as white as bone. “How do you think you got that sick leave, you idiot?! How many asses do you think I had to kiss to get that for you?! ‘Just another burnout,’ they told me! ‘It happens all the time!’ No one here gives a damn how talented you are; they were ready to let you work until you died!”

Kashima thinks of the director’s office and how the varnish on the floorboards had worn smooth right in front of the desk, as if dozens of other wizards just like him had bowed and scraped and begged to keep their jobs. He thinks of the whispers, as if determined to drive him out of the building with shame.

But this is all he’s good at. It’s all he’s ever worked for.

And it’s no mystery, how and why his parents died.

“I know,” Kashima says. “And I’m grateful you did, Zaou.”

He approaches the railing. Zaou, gritting his teeth against another outburst, follows him with bloodshot eyes. There’s no need to explain everything at the moment; Kashima can do that later, over drinks, over birthday cake for his unborn child, over other quiet breaks spent on the rooftop.

All Kashima says is, “It helped me realize something important. And it helped me find someone who loves me as I am.”

“So it’s true, then.”

“Who told you?”

“No one did,” Zaou admits with a heavy sigh. “I can put two and two together. But if I can, so can others. It’s going to come out sooner or later, Kashima.”

“You think they’ll get rid of me for it?”

Such a silly, vapid reason. Hasn’t Kashima proven he can work just fine despite loving Toyohi? Hasn’t he proven that he’s still just as human as the rest of them?

“They already tried to get rid of you for one thing,” Zaou reminds him, and that flush of cold races through him again. If not for Zaou, where would he be? If not for Toyohi, would it have happened at all? “Like hell me and your crew are gonna let that happen again.”

“Do they know, too, then?”

Kurose, with her bright smiles. Takamiya, with his cocksure grins. Koyama, steadfast and taciturn. Surely they won’t judge him. Surely they will understand he’s only human, too.

Kashima asks: “Should I tell them?”

“If you think it’ll do you any good, go for it.” Zaou scrubs his face; somehow his eyebags are even deeper than before. “At the very least, if it all goes to shit, I can help you get out of here the right way.”

“I wouldn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Yeah,” Zaou says, “I know.”

Kashima thinks on it for the rest of his shift. On the one hand, if it turns out they don’t like the way he is, they’ll know. He can have them transferred elsewhere, somewhere better than the crisis management division. But people talk, and there’s no telling if any of his subordinates will give him away, if they’ll let it slip in a fit of disgust. Kashima won’t be able to do anything about it. Zaou won’t be able to do anything about it, because Kashima will become disruptive to the work environment just by existing.

He shudders when he thinks that. Disruptive means unlovable, reasons his blank-faced reflection. It means unwanted, even for the one thing you’re good at.

He storms into the records room and loses himself in reports.

 


 

Kurose ducks her head in around clock-out time, startling Kashima out of whatever funk he’s been in since break. He hasn’t read a single word in the past hour, eyes skimming over the same page, the diagrams and circles blurring into obscurity.

“Chief,” she says, unsure, “you gonna be okay to go home on time today?”

He worries them. It doesn’t help the laughter ringing in his ears: that he’s not good enough, that he never will be, that they’ll hate him in the end. He shuts the report, slides it back onto the shelf.

Better to get it over with.

“Kurose,” he says, “there’s… something I’d like to tell you.” Her worry morphs into fear; he understands it too well. “It’s nothing you’ve done. It’s something about myself, actually.”

“About Chief?” That lures her in; the door slides shut with a hiss of air.

She’s so trusting. So open.

Or, so he hopes.

“You were asking before, about my date.” She nods. He takes a breath. “And I told you he made stir-fry, didn’t I?”

“You did!” she exclaims. “You said it was super tasty! You’re so lucky, Chief! I wish I had a boyfriend like—oh.”

She gasps, hands flying to her face. He can’t look at her, so he turns instead to the outer room, where Takamiya and Koyama scratch out the finishing touches on their reports. Takamiya’s desk is a nightmare of haphazard papers and pens; Koyama’s is as neat and tidy as Kashima’s and Kurose’s.

Koyama is also looking directly at them, pen tapping out a rhythm on his desk.

“Chief, you’re,” Kurose starts, but stops. She darts closer, whispers as if the records room isn’t outfitted with sound-dampening spells, “you’re with that guy from a couple months ago? The pink-haired guy?”

Kashima whips back to her. “The—the who?”

“The guy back in spring? The one who showed up with an umbrella for you?” Her eyes glitter with the thought of romance. “Oh, I thought so! It has to be something like that, I thought, but you’re Chief, you know? Who can tell with guys like Chief—um, no offense.”

“Uh,” he says, as tactful as ever.

She plows on: “Oh, I just knew it! That’s why he was here! You must have walked home together in the rain, and—”

“You don’t think it’s odd of me?” Kashima interrupts.

Movement out of the corner of his eye: Takamiya, stretching; Koyama, getting out of his seat. For water, like always, but he could be coming over to check on them.

Kurose tilts her head, draws Kashima back to her once more. “Odd? What’s not to love about a guy who can cook?”

Oh, Kashima thinks. Maybe it really is this simple.

A knock at the door interrupts them. Koyama, his expression serious, cracks it open. “Kurose, don’t bother Chief so much,” he says, prepared to reprimand.

Kashima steps in. “Oh, it was no bother, really. I’m glad she did; I almost lost track of time.”

Koyama sighs, nods, and says, “If you say so, Chief. My report’s on your desk. Please go home on time today. Come on, Kurose. You haven’t even started yours.”

Kurose groans. “I can’t get it done in ten minutes!”

“You could if you weren’t goofing around,” he chides, all but dragging her out. Kashima watches them go, listens to the muffled argument taking place. Takamiya joins in, bored and antsy to leave. It’s obvious whose side he’s taking; Kurose practically beams when he does.

These people are the closest thing Kashima has had to a family in years. He doesn’t want to lose them.

But he can’t help but think he’ll lose some of them anyway. It’s the way things are; not everyone is open-minded, and not everyone can bring themselves not to care.

He sighs. Glances at the clock ticking away on the wall—nine minutes until clock-out, and Kurose is shoved into her seat, pouting—and steps out into the bedlam.

 


 

“I’ll be there soon,” Kashima promises, voice low over the phone. “I’m really sorry about this, Toyohi.”

“No worries.” Toyohi plays with an olive, contemplates ordering another drink while he waits and decides against it in the same thought. It’s too easy to get drunk off the Master’s cocktails. It must be the magic. “Take your time. I’ll be waiting.”

They say their goodbyes and hang up. Toyohi already misses his voice.

Hell, he just misses Kashima. Toyohi’s hands ache to hold him.

How pathetic. It’s barely been a couple of hours.

“Special plans tonight?” the Master asks, eyeing Toyohi’s getup: cotton yukata and straw sandals, his wallet safe in a pouch hanging from his obi.

“The festival’s on,” Toyohi says, “so we went on a date, that’s all.”

The Master hums acknowledgment. His hands don’t stop moving, and he slides a cocktail down the bar with practiced ease as he says, “It seems he’s come to like you a fair bit, then.”

And then some, Toyohi thinks. “Yeah. Thanks.”

He sips at his Quartz and watches the minutes go by on his phone. Of all the days for Kashima to be called into work over a misfiled report, it had to be today—but Kashima will be here soon. All Toyohi has to do is wait.

Even if it feels like agony.

He didn’t get very many photos of the festival. He wishes he had, just to preserve that awestruck look of Kashima’s as he drank in the lights and the noise and the crowd. Toyohi kept him close as they wandered through the stalls, trying out the games and the food—Kashima was predictably bad at everything, and attempted to eat anything he was given as delicately as possible—until they meandered off to watch the fireworks display.

Which they didn’t get to do, because of that damn report.

Which is how he winds up in their favorite bar, nursing the same drink for well over an hour, then two, fielding off single women hoping he’s as lonely as they are and a few surreptitiously gay men not unlike he used to be.

Or is, for that matter.

The thought makes him turn back to his drink. How many months ago had it been, that Toyohi had wandered into memento mori hoping for good cocktails and interesting conversation and wound up falling head over heels for the man he met there? And he’d known then that it was his heart doing it’s usual thing of falling too hard too fast, and he’d been sure it would be over in a handful of weeks anyway.

But it hadn’t, and here he is, with a Quartz barely half-drunk and an inbox full of messages from Kashima. Toyohi rereads each one: plans for their dates, cancellations due to work, good luck messages for his job hunting. He stops before he gets to the one from March. It hurt too much to read it the first time; a second or third won’t do him any good.

Toyohi wants to be happy when Kashima arrives—and sure enough, the door jingles open, letting Kashima in. He takes only a moment to spot Toyohi and beelines for him.

Toyohi cuts off his apology with, “Sit down, Kashima. You wanted a Tiger’s Eye, didn’t you?”

“Oh, I—yes,” Kashima says, and takes a seat.

They chat over drinks and snacks. Kashima fiddles with his pistachios and can’t look Toyohi in the eye for more than two seconds; Toyohi ignores his drink after a while and can’t stop staring.

How did he ever get so lucky?

The bar clears out; the last trains are leaving soon, and the patrons grumble and complain. Some have work in the morning, others can’t believe they’ve lucked out again, still more are simply miserable for missing the festival.

Toyohi places a hand on Kashima’s knee. Kashima jumps; his pistachio clatters to the bartop.

“Sorry,” Toyohi says. Even he knows he’s pushing his luck.

“Don’t be,” Kashima tells him.

“Don’t be?” He laughs. “So you don’t mind?”

“Why would I? You’re—we’re—”

Dating. Boyfriends. Lovers. All the things Toyohi never thought would last this long.

Kashima takes his hand, laces their fingers together, and stumbles over all of them: dating; boyfriends; lovers.

Then he slams back the rest of his Tiger’s Eye and says, “We should get going, Toyohi.”

Kashima all but drags him out the door, stopping only long enough to pay their bill. Before Toyohi knows it they’re back at his place, inside, sandals left in a heap by the door; Kashima’s mouth is greedy for his, and his lips trail a scorching path across Toyohi’s skin.

“You sure you want to?” Toyohi asks.

“I do,” Kashima says, eyes hooded and filled with a hunger that’s all too familiar. He’s getting greedy, this Kashima, but Toyohi likes this side of him, too. “I liked it last time. I remember that much, that I did. So, I—I want to, and I want to remember.”

“That so?”

A nod. Then, “Yes. Please. If—if you want to, Toyohi.”

That makes him laugh. If he wants to, as if he hasn’t since the day they met. As if he hasn’t been holding himself back, terrified of scaring the handsome, adorable wizard off. “Of course I do. Just, uh—as a hypothetical, you won’t wind up doing magic halfway through, right?”

“Magic?” Kashima asks. He ponders it. “I shouldn’t. You’ve seen how it works.”

With the chants and the circles and the conduits—yeah, Toyohi has seen it. But he also saw the relief, plain and evident on Kashima’s face, on that day in March. The cherry blossoms blooming early; the chains of ugly thought Kashima had wrapped himself in. Both were spontaneous; they could have been flukes.

Toyohi doesn’t mention them. If Kashima believes he won’t, then Toyohi needs to believe him. “Alright,” he says, and ducks in for another kiss, deep and slow and full of desire.

When they break off, Kashima says, “Chiharu.”

“Chiharu?”

“My name,” is the explanation.

Toyohi thinks back to the graveyard and the line of tombstones. Kashima, all down the line, generations upon generations. “Chiharu, huh,” he mutters, testing it. He likes the way it rolls off his tongue, how smooth it feels to say. “Chiharu. Chiharu.”

Kashima—Chiharu—tugs him over to the bed, his yukata already slipping free of a loosened obi. It’s enough to drive Toyohi insane, after months of waiting.

He takes his time. He’s learning to be better, after all.