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the dead lovers of the world are listening

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And isn’t love like that?—a shift / of attention the heart demands, a refocusing.
        — Michael Torres

There was a time in Kaoru’s life where Nanjo Kojiro wasn’t a factor. It was remote and far off, placed firmly in the realm of childhood where he had skinned knees and cut hands more often than not, always wanting to get into places that he shouldn’t, always wanting to test limits, and a nanny to run after him, pleading for him to slow down. That time was important, in the way that childhood was important, and he didn’t consider it an afterthought so much as minimally contributory to his life as a whole. Not because it didn’t involve Kojiro, but because his childhood had been muffled. Muted. Mouths moving, no sound coming out.

White noise filling his ears.

He was skateboarding when he met Kojiro, because of course he was.

Not skillfully, of course, and he was in the throes of his first growth spurt that meant that his limbs felt too long and his torso too short and his center of gravity was off, but he had caught sight of a group of older teenagers skateboarding and felt the burning compulsion to do the same, some weeks before. An optimum time to pick up a hobby that required finesse and balance, naturally.

Kojiro had been small, then. Shorter than Kaoru, though only by a few inches, and slight enough that when Kaoru crashed into him bodily they both ended up sprawled over the ground.

Kaoru didn’t remember exactly that their first conversation consisted of. If he stretched his memory, maybe he would, but there were better things for his memory to cling to. They had been eleven, awkward and weird, but the affronted shock on Kojiro’s face that looked displaced when they tumbled over onto the asphalt in the middle of some random playground stayed with him.

So had the way that Kojiro suddenly started to show up in his life, after that. How they unerringly found each other after school and learned to skateboard together, and ended up at the same upper secondary school after being at different lower secondary schools for the first couple of years of their friendship. They fell into a rhythm without much fuss and certainly without intention or motivation on either of their parts, other than an appreciation for skateboarding that they shared and that brought them together.

By the time that he realized Kojiro was his best friend, they were sixteen and Kaoru met his eyes as a needle was being driven through his lip and he couldn’t return the lopsided grin that Kojiro gave him suddenly because, well. Needle in his lip.

 

Everything about them had been easy. Kaoru became easily accustomed to Kojiro’s presence in his life as much as Kojiro became accustomed to his in the way that kids and teenagers did, flexible and ever shifting. There wasn’t many adjustments to be made at that age, after all. But it had been surprising to him, back then —— Kaoru wasn’t one to easily make friends, then. Wasn’t one to make friends at all, really.

The preternatural white noise that filled his childhood was shattered by Kojiro. He barely had time to be surprised by it.

They were attached at the hip, skateboarding together or otherwise. They argued about petty, silly things and were almost never seen without each other. Kojiro frequently dragged Kaoru over for dinner at his family’s home, with his parents and his younger twin sisters, making room for him in their home. Kaoru was only startled by the warm atmosphere of the Nanjo home the first few times that he had been there. By the energy that seemed to pour from each of them. The way that Kojiro’s sisters bickered and his parents laughed and the way that Kojiro moved around the kitchen the way that he rode a skateboard: with intent, intensity, and as if he belonged there. As if he was born to exist in that space.

Kaoru was glad that Kojiro never quite asked why Kaoru never invited him over to his home in return, instead preferring to spend late evenings outside skating around the city together if they weren’t headed to Kojiro’s home for dinner.

But there was always a peculiar sort of clarity in his eyes, a vividness that made Kaoru feel like he was being pierced through the chest, whenever he would vaguely mention his parents, or how quiet his own family home was during school breaks.

Kojiro had a way of seeing him. Kaoru liked it and hated it in turns.

There had been Shindo, too, but ——

Everything about the two of them had been easy. Kaoru simply had to watch with wholly unveiled amusement as Kojiro tried to ask out girls throughout their years in upper secondary school, finally getting successful in their third year and falling head over heels for his first girlfriend. It had been somewhat annoying to adapt to her presents, not simple in the way that he had accepted Kojiro into his life, but she wasn’t much of an intrusion, and Kojiro was still as dedicated to skateboarding as he was.

It was, in the end, the downfall of that first luminous adolescent love. Kaoru patted his back as he briefly mourned the relationship, and then challenged him to a race, because that tended to make him feel better. And it did.

Kojiro convinced him to go on a double date with some of their classmates, near the end of their third year, and Kaoru went along with it with little fuss other than mild indignation that it was getting in the way of their usual schedule.

“They want to go out again,” Kojiro was grinning widely as he announced the news during lunch the day after their double date. “I think she liked your punk look.”

Kaoru looked up from his sketches, looking at the broadness of Kojiro’s smile for a moment, “I’d rather not,” he said simply.

The smile fell from Kojiro’s face and he looked disappointed. Kaoru was almost sorry to have caused it. “What? Why?”

It was bizarrely easy, maybe too easy, to say, “I think I only like men.” He said it quietly beneath the din of the classroom around them, voice clear and calm, as though he hadn’t been agonizing over it for ages, chewing on it, pondering it whenever he couldn’t sleep, staring guiltily at webpages and wondering why, why, why ? It had been an anxiety inducing thought, one that settled heavy in his chest and threatened to crush his trachea, distracting him from his coding work, from his artwork. When he had kissed that girl goodnight, fleeting and willing but trepidatious, it had simply reinforced the thought.

At least, in the midst of lunchtime at their school, in their noisy and raucous classroom, Kojiro couldn’t make a scene if he wanted.

It didn’t look like Kojiro wanted to make a scene, though. Their gazes held fast and Kaoru watched as his best friend processed those words, watched the way that his eyes widened and his mouth fell slightly open. It was surprising to him, he could tell that much, but he didn’t look angry , exactly.

“Oh,” Kojiro said finally after a half minute of silence, and Kaoru watched with fascination as his ears went slightly pink and his gaze darted away for a moment, and then back. He smiled, after a moment, and it looked like a genuine Kojiro smile, “Okay.”

As if it were as simple as that.

He supposed that it was, in some ways.

Kojiro went out with his half of the double date for a few weeks, until graduation came and they parted amicably, as she was going to another city for university almost straightaway to get settled. They spent the sprawling weeks of summer together as they always did, beneath the burning heat, lying down on the floor of Kojiro’s room with the windows thrown wide open if they weren’t out skateboarding or taking the twins somewhere.

Halfway through that summer, while they ignored the fact that Kojiro would be going abroad to culinary school in Italy imminently and Kaoru would be starting university here in Japan, Kojiro asked, “Hey, Kaoru? Have you ever kissed a guy before?”

It was nighttime and Kaoru could hear the cicadas outside as he looked up from the laptop that he had been staring at, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong with a line of programming. Anxiety, so often relatively quiet around Kojiro, unraveled in his chest and he could feel his pulse picking up, nervous energy making his fingers twitch, hidden by his laptop screen.

“No,” he said after a pause that was definitely too long, pushing up his glasses and using it as an excuse to look away.

“But,” Kojiro shifted on the bed and Kaoru’s knee bobbed, the chair base that his foot was on shifting dangerously on its wheels, “you want to, right?”

What kind of question was that? “Of course I do, dumbass,” Kaoru snapped, too sharp and angry for the occasion, but he looked at Kojiro again anyways. “Did you hit your head earlier?”

“No, I,” with a morbid sort of fascination, Kaoru watched as Kojiro’s face turned a delicate shade of pink, only to darken from there. “I was… wondering if you wanted to practice.”

Silence fell between them, thick and as close to uncomfortable as it ever got between them. “With you?” Kaoru said what felt like years later, and he found that his throat was dry. He was too afraid to clear his throat.

“If you wanted,” Kojiro’s voice dropped to a mumble, and Kaoru realized that he was fidgeting with a ratcheting wrench. It was spinning in his hands, a nervous movement. There was a strange, flayed open look on his face that Kaoru noticed, sometimes. Something almost sad, a misplaced crooked smile, something affectionate and odd in his eyes.

The laptop closed with a quiet click before he thought about it. Kaoru felt as though he were moving through a dream or water as he set the laptop on Kojiro’s messy desk, and he was surprised that he maintained his balance as he closed the short distance to the bed. Kojiro was looking at him with wide eyes as his knee sunk into the bed.

Their first kiss was terrible. Both of them were too fidgety, too flighty, Kojiro had leaned forward too far and Kaoru hadn’t adjusted and it was less of a kiss than their mouths somehow mashing together for a moment or two. Kojiro laughed awkwardly, chewing on his bottom lip, and Kaoru could feel that he was equally as red as him. Their second kiss was marginally better, though extremely apprehensive and Kaoru wasn’t certain if he should count it as a kiss or not.

The third was better. So was the fourth, and the fifth, and Kaoru stopped keeping count after that.

 

Kissing should’ve changed something about their relationship, the way that it did in movies and books and television shows, but it didn’t. Kaoru wondered if he should be surprised by that, but found that he definitively wasn’t. Their lives were still connected and they still wiled away the long sunny days with skateboarding and dares and existing together.

They kissed a few more times that summer, sprawled across the floor of Kojiro’s room fighting over who was getting the most use out of the fan, furtive and quick in the shadows long after night had fallen and they were out late skating.

Once, memorably, in Kaoru’s childhood bedroom while they were packing up his things to move into an apartment closer to the university. It was one of the few times that Kojiro had been to his family’s home, and one of the even rarer times when his parents were home. His mother had sighed disapprovingly at his piercings when she saw him, per usual, and his father exchanged a brief and absent greeting.

Kaoru had felt daring and reckless, panicky and strange, familiar anxiety driving him to unfamiliar actions. One moment he was watching Kojiro putting his books into a box, commenting on the fact that Kaoru was a nerd and should read something other than classic literature and books about coding sometime, maybe pick up a manga or two to really rot his brain, and the next he felt the strong compulsion to kiss him. So he took Kojiro’s face in his hands and did, acutely aware of the fact that the door to his room was slightly cracked and while the house was large enough that noise wouldn’t travel easily to where his parents were downstairs, this was a risk all the same.

Kojiro had been surprised, Kaoru could tell from the way that his grip slackened around the book that he was holding. Kaoru took it from him and knew that Kojiro could tell that he was shaking terribly, but he set it on the desk Kojiro, eyes closed tight as he kissed him harder.

It wasn’t an especially good kiss. Kojiro did kiss back, after a fashion, before taking Kaoru’s hands from his face and squeezing them, leaning back. The look in his eyes was sympathetic, he thought, absent of judgement or cruelty. Simply watching. How gently he was handling Kaoru made the knot in his chest grow, tension rising in his throat. “Kaoru,” it was more breath than his name and Kaoru felt, all at once, ashamed and flustered.

He pulled away, turning sharply back to folding his clothes into a suitcase. “No wonder your grades were always terrible if all you read was manga,” the jibe was forced, they could both tell.

“Not everyone has a genius level intellect, brainiac,” Kojiro said after a moment, and Kaoru felt unspeakably grateful.

Near genius level, though I wouldn’t expect you to understand the nuance.”

 

The last time they kissed that summer was after Kojiro helped him move into his new apartment, and he had leaned down to slot their mouths together. It was slow and considering, far and away from the first awkward time that they had kissed with a few dozen beneath their belts, and Kaoru sighed against his skin.

 

When Kojiro left for Italy, Kaoru was left with a strange Kojiro-shaped vacancy in his life. He had known how much space the man had taken up in it before, but he hadn’t really thought about how he was going to compensate for that when he was gone. He was annoyed with his short sightedness, but adapted out of necessity if nothing else.

He threw himself into his university work, primarily. Working with computers, coding, and otherwise technology. Kaoru had always been good with this kind of work, had created his own AI that he spent his free time perfecting between getting nearly perfect grades, though he had to adjust his study methods accordingly.

In the times where he wasn’t studying he was skateboarding, and somewhere between university classes and his favorite passion he had made a friend or two, miraculously. He even went on a handful of dates with one of his classmates, culminating in sex but little more. Less on the part of the classmate and far more by his own doing, granted.

“Do you like me?” Daichi said into a quiet night when they were lying next to each other, catching their breath atop tousled sheets.

Kaoru found the question odd, and glanced at him sidelong. Daichi was good looking, handsome with decidedly masculine features and a strong nose, and he was watching Kaoru intently, dark eyes somehow luminous with the streetlight slanting in through the window. “I like your company,” he decided on after a few moments.

Daichi smiled, something wan and understanding, rolling over to press a kiss to Kaoru’s cheek. He smelled like the tea that they had been drinking before falling into bed. It wasn’t unpleasant.

And that was that.

His life was significantly more quiet without Kojiro’s constant presence at his side, but it wasn’t like Kojiro was entirely gone . They still texted each other daily, and talked to each other on the phone a couple times per week when their schedules permitted. Kaoru missed him, certainly, and Kojiro wasn’t shy about saying that he missed him in return, but life went on and Kojiro talked at length about how he was enjoying his studies, and the people that he met, and the girls that he went on dates with. Kaoru, in return, talked at length about his studies, the sparse men that he saw casually, and his concept for a skateboard that had AI installed in it.

“But why?” Kojiro asked when he mentioned the board for the first time.

“Why not?”

“Doesn’t having something to calculate everything take the fun out of skating?”

Kaoru couldn’t quite help the irritated noise he made. “No, it adds finesse and elegance, Kojiro.”

Kojiro couldn’t make it home for the holidays, that first year, so when he returned for a few weeks the following summer it felt like Kaoru had taken a turn wrong and slammed against asphalt, rattling his brain and leaving him winded.

In high school, Kojiro had been cute by most standards. Handsome, in general, arms still a little too long for his frame, but he had outgrown the awkwardness of his early teen years well. Nearly a year apart, however, had changed Kojiro substantially.

He had always been rather fit, they ran around skateboarding everywhere and he had a fast metabolism, but it looked like he had taken up weightlifting while he was overseas and Kaoru felt caught off guard, even though logically he knew that Kojiro had been happy to report his fitness progress throughout the year. One of his culinary school friends had gotten him into exercising, Kaoru remembered dimly, the thoughts far off and struggling beneath the tide of his other, more pressing, thoughts. Which were ratcheting between: shoulders, arms, longer hair, and that familiar sunny grin.

Kojiro had been cute in high school. Now, he was —— there wasn’t another word for it, now he was hot .

Hot and hugging him, in fact, muscular arms wrapping around Kaoru’s frame and he remembered, wildly, that the last time they had hugged they had been essentially the same size. Now it was like Kojiro was eclipsing him, biceps flexing as he squeezed and Kaoru felt his like brain was shorting out.

“What? No hug for your old pal?” Kojiro leaned back, an expression of mock hurt on his face. Kaoru wondered if he imagined that there was genuine hurt lurking in his expression. They were two distinctly different things, on Kojiro.

“Was all you ate protein shakes and dry salads? I thought you went to culinary school , Kojiro,” Kaoru returned, reaching up to touch his bicep without thinking about it.

Kojiro’s head tipped back and he laughed and Kaoru found himself arrested by the line of his neck. Logically he know that musculature in the neck could also increase in mass, but this was bordering on absurd. “You’re one to talk, did you get scrawnier after I left?”

“I didn’t blow up like a balloon,” he poked at Kojiro’s bicep hard, and found himself fascinated by the lack of give. God.

“Hey, I worked hard for these,” Kojiro flexed the muscle that Kaoru had just poked, as if to prove a point, and Kaoru found himself rolling his eyes in response, making an affronted noise when Kojiro slung his arm around his neck and jostled him playfully.

But he did end up hugging back, this time, the initial shock of his physicality wearing off at last.

 

Kaoru supposed that the major difference was that he hadn’t been attracted to Kojiro, before. Not exactly.

Kojiro was his best friend, his only friend at times, and they had spent time together constantly. Objectively, he knew that Kojiro was good looking in a charming, boyish way, entirely different from the way that people described Kaoru has being objectively attractive. It was his broad grin and his loud personality and his sweet features that made girls like Kojiro, and these were things that Kaoru knew, the way that he knew the sky was blue because the ocean was.

Bulking up to the point where it seemed like everything, from his personality to his body, amplified his attractiveness to the point that Kaoru, too, was suddenly caught in his orbit. It was disconcerting and strange, even when taking into account that they had kissed and made out several times hardly a year ago, and those had been perfectly pleasant.

He was certain it would be similarly pleasant, it was just that he was now viscerally attracted to Kojiro in a way that surprised him.

He didn’t know how to approach it, or even if he should approach it. In the end, he wasn’t the one who approached it at all, which he should’ve figured would happen, considering that Kojiro was bound to notice his staring and odd distractibility.

Kojiro was Kojiro, after all.

“See something you like?” Kojiro’s eyebrow was quirked knowingly, a smirk playing at his mouth. They were sitting on the sidewalk in a quiet playground, feet braced against their skateboards. The moon was full and waxy, looking fit to burst.

“Shut up,” Kaoru said, and kissed him.

The shift in their relationship from friends to friends who occasionally kissed to friends who slept together was done absent of fanfare. It was like when they had started kissing a summer ago, but now it involved Kaoru showing off what he had learned from the spare few bed partners he had interacted with over the past year, and Kojiro backing up his remarks that he was, apparently, very skilled with his tongue and fingers.

Slightly less time was spent skateboarding, since they weren’t quite daring enough to mess around in public beyond nighttime kisses occasionally.

Kojiro liked pulling at his lip piercing, Kaoru found, nipping at it gently and smoothing over it with his tongue. It was weird, in a way, though Kaoru figured he didn’t have much room to talk, considering how distracted he often got by Kojiro’s shoulders.

“Kojiro,” Kaoru said against his mouth late one night when they were tangled on his bed. Quiet, tinny music was filtering in from the living room, slipping beneath the closed door.

“Hmm?” Kojiro sounded tired and lazy, if not somewhat winded from his orgasm. He was still softening against Kaoru’s hip, wet and intimate. They were kissing but not. Neither of them were really putting effort into kissing, exactly, but their mouths were certainly sliding against each other.

Kaoru considered his words, tracing his fingers down Kojiro’s back. Lower. And then lower. And then lower, fingers skimming over the swell of his ass. “Would you let me fuck you?”

The only reason Kaoru saw Kojiro’s pupils dilate was because he had looked at him in askance after several moments of silence, and he could feel the stutter in his breath. A decidedly physical, albeit subtle, reaction. Kaoru was briefly obsessed with it.

Kojiro bumped their noses together, and Kaoru wrinkled his, smile threatening to quirk at his mouth, “Sure,” Kojiro arched his back slightly. Kaoru was distracted for a moment, watching the shift of his body. “If I get to fuck you, too.”

Kaoru kissed him, rather than deigning that with an answer.

 

The first time he fucked Kojiro, Kojiro was on his back, knees splayed. Kaoru’s shoulders were slightly too narrow to throw his legs over them properly, but he got to brace his palms flat against his hips and thrust clumsily into him this way. Kaoru listened to him gasp, watched his eyes go unfocused and his brows furrow, and he ended up biting marks into Kojiro’s chest, helplessly overwhelmed.

The first time Kojiro fucked him, it was the night before Kojiro was set to return to Italy, and they were on their sides. Kojiro had pulled him against his chest and Kaoru had tilted his hips back and said, around a noise that was more moan than sigh, “Yes, alright.” This probably wasn’t the ideal position, but Kaoru found that he didn’t want to shift away from Kojiro’s broadness, and while he slipped out plenty there was a moment where Kojiro had taken his knee and lifted his leg up and was thrusting into him with unsteady rolls of his hips… Kaoru swore he saw stars.

 

“Why are you so obsessed with my lip ring?”

“Cause it’s hot?”

“You’re weird.”

Kojiro’s body vibrated with laughter. Always. “You should get other things pierced.”

“Hmm.”

 

Kaoru visited Kojiro in Italy before the winter holidays. The allowance that his parents gave him, secondary to the fact that he was going through a university with a track that they approved of, gave him an ample amount of money to spend wherever he pleased, and he might as well use it. So, he spent it on plane tickets and lodgings.

Adults always say to travel the world before you get too old, after all.

Kojiro had been pleasantly surprised when he informed him that he would be spending a week in Italy and would be getting a hotel.

“Don’t you have class?” Kojiro sounded amused over the phone, and Kaoru could imagine the crooked grin on his face.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” there wasn’t any true frustration nor anger in his voice. No, he simply sounded amused, as well. “Do you want me to visit or not?”

“Now who’s the one asking stupid questions?”

The first day of his visit was spent primarily recovering from jetlag and having multiple enthusiastic rounds of sex. It wasn’t technically conducive to adjusting to jetlag, but it did keep him from falling asleep and ruining his schedule for the rest of his visit. So, good enough.

And the second day was spent skateboarding around the city, seeing the sights and getting a glimpse at the board culture here, and how it differed from home’s.

There was no getting around meeting Kojiro’s friends, though Kaoru didn’t exactly want to avoid it. He knew that Kojiro made friends easily and vastly, though whether or not you could call them friends as opposed to acquaintances was hard to say, and between meeting the majority of his culinary school friends and some of his friends outside of school, Kaoru was half convinced that Kojiro couldn’t feasibly remember all of his friends’ names, though he certainly did. He had managed to tamp down the compulsion to point out that his friends were muscle heads, from either the gym or skateboarding, gorgeous women, or culinary school stragglers that didn’t quite fit either category.

Quite helpfully, he was distracted from derisive commentary by being outraged by the fact that many of them called Kojiro Joe .

“I hate it,” he declared easily in Japanese when they were walking back to his hotel after eating dinner with several of Kojiro’s friends, including a pretty woman who looked at Kojiro with a starry look in her eyes. Several passersby gave them curious looks, eyes lingering. Kaoru ignored them. After talking in English all evening, considering he didn’t know much Italian, he didn’t want to put effort into it anymore.

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Kojiro was looking at him with blatant amusement. Happiness, too, the look that creased the corners of his eyes.

“That they call you Joe . What, is Kojiro too hard for them to say?”

Kojiro laughed, head tipping to the side. “Some of them picked it up when I introduced myself properly, and it just stuck. I don’t mind it.”

“Of course you don’t, dimwit,” Kaoru swayed when Kojiro bumped their elbows together.

“I appreciate the righteous indignation, but I’m fine being called Joe,” fingers brushed against the crook of his elbow, fleeting: there and gone again and, for some reason, it embarrassed Kaoru. “Aww Kaoru are you jealous? Do you want to give me a nickname too?”

How stupid. “You’re such an imbecile.”

“Brainiac.”

 

Kojiro made it back to Japan for the holidays that year, and Kaoru could admit to himself that a jaunt to Italy was unnecessary considering they saw each other a couple weeks later. But —— he had missed Kojiro, and maybe some part of him was concerned that they would go another full year without seeing each other again, which was absurd considering that he had more than enough money to travel on a whim, he simply needed to spend it at a certain point.

The first year… he had been anxious regarding whether or not his parents would track his spending. They weren’t, it appeared, and therefore he could spend it on whatever he wished. So, he did.

But it was better, to see Kojiro in Japan rather than Italy. Kaoru couldn’t pinpoint precisely why. Maybe it was the familiarity, or maybe it was something else.

“Kaoru! It’s been so long,” Kojiro’s mother’s hands were warm against his face as she took him in hand and turned his face this way and that, looking at him intently, “Have you been eating enough?”

“I think so,” Kaoru said, smiling beatifically, catching sight at Kojiro glancing back at him with a bemused smirk over his mother’s shoulder —— it was the smile that he had perfected with time, polite and pretty, though somewhat belied by the fact that he still had piercings glinting on his lip and ears. It had been a while, especially when standing in contrast to how he had spent the majority of his time in this very house when they were teenagers. 

You are always welcome here , Kojiro’s father had said, once. It never really felt right to be here without him, though.

Kojiro’s mother tutted over him for a but longer, his twin sisters said hello and asked about university, curious in a polite way given that they were first years in high school, and his father said a booming hello before he managed to get upstairs and into Kojiro’s room.

It was overwhelming. The way that it had been overwhelming to come to their home when they had first become friends. Kaoru was used to baseline quiet in a family home, and while he had become accustomed to it from exposure throughout their friendship, it had been some time. But, he found that it was overwhelming in the way that skating downhill was overwhelming —— exhilarating inasmuch as it was distantly terrifying

They managed to christen Kojiro’s childhood bedroom, at least. Quiet and furtive and gasping into each other’s mouths, tightly intertwined.

 

His first commission was from a friend of his parents’, who had seen his calligraphy work in their home and had gushed over it, wanting to know the artist. Kaoru was surprised when he got a call from an unknown number in the midst of drafting a more complete version of his plan for a skateboard with his AI integrated into the hardware, and was more surprised at the request.

For a moment, he wondered if his parents were testing him.

He couldn’t tell whether or not he cared as he accepted the proposal and discussed payment, eyes lingering on the brushes and inks that he had lined up neatly on his desk. Entirely at odds with the mess of coursework that was scattered and he needed to clean up.

Kaoru didn’t take out his piercings. He wasn’t imagining the disapproval from the client, and figured that he would have gotten a much better tip if he had presented himself differently.

 

Rome was beautiful. Kaoru had decided he wanted to visit in early spring, and when he sent Kojiro their itinerary the man had laughed, made a remark about how Kaoru was being presumptuous, and laughed harder when Kaoru said that he could just cancel Kojiro’s half of the trip if he really didn’t want to go. They explored the city together on skateboards, weaving between alleys and down busy, crowded streets.

Predictably, they got lost several times. Argued about where to eat, though in the end they ended up somewhere with excellent food either way, other than the one time where Kojiro insisted checking out a hole in the wall out of sheer curiosity.

They were attached at the hip again, like they were younger and hadn’t yet been separated by ocean and country, and Kaoru could catalogue the slight changes. Kojiro had gained slightly more muscle mass, primarily in his torso, and while his personality was by and large the same he had become more easily flirtatious. Kaoru wondered if it was because of Italy, or if his perception of flirtation was slightly off kilter because of the difference in cultures.

Still, he watched with remarkably less amusement than he once would’ve as Kojiro flirted with women, whether they be shopkeeps or waitresses or random people that they spoke to. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, which was to say that he wasn’t doing it with the intention of irritating Kaoru, but he found that it bothered him anyways.

It wasn’t especially hard to figure out why it was bothering him. They were best friends who slept together regularly whenever they were in the same country, and Kaoru knew that he had become progressively more possessive of Kojiro and his attention after they started becoming intimate with each other nearly a year ago. Kojiro wasn’t his but —— he could be, perhaps.

Kaoru wanted him. It wasn’t love , precisely, but in imagining being with someone or being romantic with someone on any capacity, he could imagine being with Kojiro easily enough. He loved him in a way, and could love him.

“I miss cherry blossom season,” Kojiro was running his fingers through Kaoru’s hair absently, gaze fixed on the strands falling between his fingers. It was nighttime, and they were both decidedly too tired to put effort into sex, and Kaoru was responding to emails while Kojiro lounged next to him on the bed, knees bumping against him.

“Then come back to Japan sooner,” Kaoru deleted a few words from the email and retyped the sentence, brows furrowing. They were both nearly halfway through their respective programs, and Kaoru knew that he was anticipating Kojiro’s permanent return to Japan.

“You know I can’t,” Kojiro said, sounding amused as he pulled Kaoru’s hair gently, and he laughed when Kaoru swatted at him. “You’ll do, for now.”

“What does that mean?” Kaoru looked at him, eyebrow raised.

“Your hair looks like cherry blossoms,” Kojiro’s smile was crooked, gaze warm and fathomless. It made Kaoru’s chest tighten for a moment, a strange spasm, worsened by the tension that seemed to ripple between them. “I always thought so.”

Fuck.

“Are you sleeping with other people?” he didn’t think about it, didn’t have time to consider how to ask this, if he should ask it at all. Kaoru kept his expression determinedly neutral, even as anxiety coiled uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach.

Kojiro’s expression shifted to surprise, brows raising and eyes widening. His fingers brushed against Kaoru’s bare shoulder, before his palm curved against the curve between his neck and shoulder. Kojiro had always run hot, somehow, body temperature always higher than Kaoru’s, like he had been laying out in the sun all day, absorbing its warmth.

“Not really,” Kojiro said after a moment.

“It’s a yes or not question, idiot,” Kaoru reached to pinch Kojiro’s side.

“God, you maniac,” Kojiro grumbled as he dodged away from the pinch, and instead practically tackled Kaoru to the bed, ignoring the way that he shouted about his laptop. He leaned the entirety of his body weight on top of Kaoru, shifting only to let him close his laptop and slide it to the side. Their noses were touching, and Kaoru found that he couldn’t quite read Kojiro’s expression. He hated it. “No, I haven’t been sleeping with other people.”

Because there wasn’t time? Because he didn’t want to?

Kaoru wriggled, getting his arms out from where they were uncomfortably trapped between them, and grabbed at the back of Kojiro’s neck. His nails pressed against his skin, mostly accidental, but he dragged him down into a kiss that felt more like a bite than a kiss, regardless. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Good.”

Kojiro grinned against his mouth and nipped at the ring in his lip.

 

"Do you want to tell my family?"

Irrational fear. "No."

Kojiro was disappointed, he knew, but he smiled: something rueful and understanding. "Okay."

Okay.

 

They went to London during midsummer and then Los Angeles during the new year. There wasn’t a spring trip that year, Kaoru was too busy with commissions and Kojiro was busy with school, and Kaoru rolled his eyes when Kojiro bemoaned that he couldn’t see cherry blossoms this year, either way.

Kojiro was curious when Kaoru mentioned an invitation to something called S , that people in the skateboarding community were whispering that it was going to be an intensive race, taking place along the old abandoned mine. The familiarity made them both uncomfortable. The knowledge that they had been skating there for years felt like a knife.

It ended up being something officially that summer before their respective final years in university programs, when Kojiro was home, and when they attended to scope it out, Shindo was there. Or, Adam was, but they were one in the same —— Kaoru remembered when Shindo commented idly that skating was so separate from his day to day life that he wanted another identity while doing it.

Kaoru wondered if it was to enable him to better hurt people without showing his real face.

But it was exciting . Thrilling. Terrifying. They participated in races, that summer, masked and without aliases, out of sheer curiosity. Curiosity, and then because they wanted to. Because they had been skating here for years.

Whenever they were present, Adam wasn’t. It could’ve been coincidence. Or not.

And when Kojiro returned to Italy, and as summer turned to autumn, S ceased to be a thing. Kaoru knew logically it was because Shindo returned to America, for his final year wherever he had gone.

 

Kojiro mourned, ridiculously, when Kaoru took out his piercings.

It wasn’t for any specific reason, in truth. It had been years since he had gotten them and years since he had maintained them, but he had woken up one day and looked in the mirror and realized that he didn’t want to wear them, anymore. He had gotten them as a symbol of rebellion, an adolescent compulsion, a haze of righteous anger at the world. At the age of twenty-one, it felt somewhat ridiculous.

An unnecessary gesture.

It helped that he was receiving more and more calligraphy commissions by the week and, irritating as it was, it helped on the financial side of things to be cleaner in his presentation.

So he took them out without preamble.

 

“Sorry Kaoru, I can’t talk long.”

“... What?”

“I’m going out tonight with some friends.”

“I stayed up late to talk to you.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I swear I’ll make it up to you.”

And again. And again. And again.

Kojiro wasn’t avoiding him, he knew that much. He was just busy. Another life, another place, other things to do.

It wasn't avoidance. It was distance.

 

They went to Paris that autumn.

Distance smarted. Kaoru despised it on principle. Kojiro spent the majority of the year in another country and a vastly different timezone, and there were facets of his life that Kaoru didn’t learn about until they suddenly came up in conversation, as if Kojiro didn’t think of them as significant. They talked frequently, certainly, about skateboarding and school, but their lives felt separate and like they were separating further and further as time went on, somehow.

Over a year of being exclusively involved, or partners, or boyfriends, or however anyone wanted to label them and Kaoru found that he was resenting distance more and more by the day.

At times it felt like Kojiro didn’t share the entirety of his thoughts. It was his prerogative, certainly, but it was trying. He wondered if Kojiro thought the same of Kaoru.

So, they went to Paris. It was relieving to be around Kojiro and have him act the way that he always had, to fall into their usual rhythm. It hadn’t been terribly long since they last saw each other, a few months, really, but Kaoru found himself looking forward to when Kojiro would finally, finally move back to Japan properly.

Kojiro loved Paris. Kaoru found that he did, too. It was beautiful, here, and the food was fantastic. Kojiro wanted to visit every last patisserie in the entirety of the city, to which Kaoru reminded him that it was physically impossible to do such a thing in the week that they were there.

They certainly tried, however.

It was much like their other trips. They sightsaw on their skateboards and indulged in foreign foods and laughed and talked and stayed up far too late into the night, bodies pressed together and gasping.

Kaoru wondered if he was imagining the strange almost desperate edge to their fucking. The way that Kojiro stared into his eyes when he entered him and the way that Kojiro’s hands felt on his hips when he sat astride him felt different, somehow. Or maybe it was just Kaoru, clinging onto him more and more tightly, biting at his mouth and his jaw and his neck. He was never one to leave marks, before, and abhorred when Kojiro would bruise his (frankly delicate, though he hated think about it that way) skin, but he felt the abrupt need to, savage and burning.

So he did. Kojiro didn’t complain, only passed his fingers over the marks with a grin and returned the favor.

He didn’t complain.

He didn't think about how it felt like they were careening downhill, poised to crash and break several bones.

 

“I got a tattoo.”

“You got a… what ?”

“A tattoo! On my shoulder, here let me send you a picture.”

Silence.

“Kaoru?”

“You didn’t tell me you were getting a tattoo.”

“I didn’t know I was supposed to,” there, a shade of irritation.

“You didn’t have to, but it looks like you put thought into this.”

“Well, yeah, I’ve been thinking about it for a few months.”

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“You’re my boyfriend, Kaoru, not my keeper.”

“Funny, I thought people normally told their partners about major things like this.”

“God, you control freak, it’s just a tattoo.”

“I’m not a control freak, you imbecile, I just thought that something that you thought about for months would’ve come up in conversation.”

“It didn’t seem important.”

How is this not important?”

And on. And on. And on.

 

The truth of the matter was that Kaoru did like to have a sense of control. However, he had long since accepted that he would never have a sense of control over Kojiro. They had spent years at each other’s sides, after all, and Kojiro wasn’t exactly wild, but he had his own sense of will that rivaled even Kaoru’s. It was something that he liked about him, something that he appreciated. It meant that they fought and argued over silly things but that was the ebb and flow of their relationship, the way that skateboarding was the intrinsic foundation. Kaoru wouldn’t change it for the world.

But he felt separate from Kojiro’s life. Irritated that he didn’t know what was happening with him, a great deal of the time. Frustrated that Kojiro would omit parts of his life that, if they were physically closer to each other, Kaoru would have been partial to. Annoyed because he knew that he accidentally omitted parts of his life, too, the way that he always had and the way that was apparently unavoidable in a long distance relationship, but he tried .

It had been impossibly difficult to talk to Kojiro about his father being in the hospital, but he did. Hard, too, to talk about his clients, his work, his choice between technology and calligraphy as his future career. But he did.

Maybe he was being ridiculous. Were these things equivalent to getting a tattoo? To talking about a weekend trip with friends the day that Kojiro was leaving for it? Maybe they weren’t.

It felt like there was a chasm opening between them. Kaoru wondered —— no, hoped that it would be infinitely better when Kojiro returned.

 

“I’m going to continue my training in Paris, for a couple years.”

It was Christmas Eve. Kojiro had returned a few days prior, but their familial obligations meant that they hadn’t seen each other until now, curled up on Kaoru’s couch in his apartment. He couldn’t stay for long, not even overnight, but he knew that Kaoru’s parents were going to be absent for the holidays again, and that he didn’t want to impose on Kojiro’s family for Christmas. They had been sitting in comfortable quiet, watching some movie or another, and when Kojiro spoke his words hung in the air. Ominous. Lingering.

For a moment, Kaoru wasn’t sure whether or not he heard him correctly.

He could feel Kojiro watching him, his expression caught between determination and something like sorrow. No, not sorrow. I’m sorry .

“What?” Kaoru’s voice came out harsher than he necessarily intended. Balanced on the knife’s edge of anger.

Kojiro took a deep breath, as if he was steeling himself. “I’m continuing my culinary training in Paris.”

Final. Resolute. As if he had already made the decision, entirely without Kaoru.

“When did you decide this?” he shouldn’t sound quite so menacing. Was it fair to? He didn’t know.

“A month ago. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and our trip to Paris sealed the deal,” Kojiro was getting defensive, they could both tell.

Kaoru extricated himself from Kojiro’s arms none too gently, teeth gritting as he stood up and whirled around, staring down at Kojiro. He looked angry, he could tell, and he felt furious . “And you decided this without talking to me?”

“It’s my career,” a scowl was starting to form on Kojiro’s face, frustration evident. “I don’t have to clear all of my life choices with you, Kaoru.”

“Stop talking like I expect you to tell me what you eat for every meal,” Kaoru wasn’t yelling, yet, but he stepped around his table and started pacing, agitated. “We’re in a relationship , you deciding to move to another country is shockingly relevant to me.”

“I knew you’d react like this,” Kojiro’s arms were crossed and Kaoru felt himself getting angrier with the presumption. “And act like I’ve done you a great disservice by neglecting to include you in my decision directly. Has it ever occurred to you that I don’t tell you about these things because it never feels like you want to hear about them?”

“I always want to hear about your life,” Kaoru’s voice raised and he stopped pacing, hands balled on either side of him as he glared down at Kojiro. “You never tell me anything .”

“You’re dismissive whenever I bring up my career and hardly pay attention when I talk about my friends.”

“Excuse you?”

“You think I can’t tell when you’re bored or not paying attention to a conversation? When I bring up the future you always talk about me returning to Japan as soon as possible.”

“So we can be together .”

“You could move to Paris for a couple of years!”

“I’m building a career here,” and now Kaoru was properly shouting. “I’m building a name for myself in Japan, I can’t just leave and move to another country in the middle of this.”

“You can develop coding and technology just as well in Paris.”

“I want to do calligraphy.”

Kojiro laughed, and it wasn’t the vibratory, carrying, lovely laugh that Kaoru adored. This was meaner, and it sounded strange in his mouth. “Well that’s news to me.”

It was news to Kaoru, too. He had been wavering between career paths for ages, now, not quite sure where he wanted to fall because he loved both technology and calligraphy. He could see himself doing either, though evidently he wanted to do professional calligraphy more .

What a way to figure it out.

“It wouldn’t be if you listened to me,” Kaoru said after a beat of silence.

Kojiro threw his hands into the air, eyes rolling to the ceiling. “God, you’re exhausting to talk to.”

Kaoru could feel himself bristle at that. “You could just return to Japan and open a restaurant.”

“I want to continue my training.”

“You could do that here, you brainless meathead!”

“I want to continue my training in Paris .”

“Do you want to be with me?” the question was more accusatory than warranted, perhaps, but it felt like his heart was in his throat and he was entirely still after he asked it. Kojiro was still, too, and they stared at each other for several long, wavering, terrible moments.

“Do you want to be with me?” Kojiro echoed lowly.

“I asked you the question, dumbass.”

“And I’m returning it, you lunatic.”

“Answer the question, Nanjo.” His chest felt on the verge of fracturing. Kaoru wasn’t sure whether or not he could put it back together successfully if it did. His Carla band vibrated around his wrist, probably to alert him to his heightening anxiety.

Silence, again. Silence, and then, “Not if you’re going to be like this. I’m tired of it, Kaoru.” I’m tired of you, Kaoru .

Kaoru’s jaw set. He wondered if he wanted to cry or scream. “Then get out.”

 

(He felt irrational disappointment when the door closed behind Kojiro with a shake of his walls that reverberated finality. Kaoru knew Kojiro better than to expect anything else from him.

He didn’t cry, either. But he found that he wanted to.)

 

Adjusting to a life entirely absent of Kojiro was infuriating. How quiet it was.

They had talked overall less near the end of their relationship, hours difficult to synch and, evidently, talking to Kaoru over the phone exhausted Kojiro (unfair bitter pettiness), but they had still texted frequently throughout the day. Kaoru abhorred being overdramatic and wasn’t about to throw his phone away and get a new one, though he did delete the entirety of his text history with Kojiro.

He kept his number in his phone, though.

The holidays passed and Kaoru knew that Kojiro wouldn’t reach out, the way that he suspected that Kojiro knew that Kaoru wouldn’t. Both of them were too prideful, too angry, too good at carrying resentment as if it were a second skin. It wasn’t good for them, but it was who they were, and Kaoru expected nothing at all from his former best friend.

Instead he accepted commissions, finished his university work, finally set to work making the first version of the Carla skateboard, and spent decidedly more time with the few friends that he had made through university.

But he missed Kojiro. He was self aware enough to know that and to recognize the descent of white noise accompanying relative ennui. Missed their conversations and their friendship even more than he missed their physicality and intimate relationship —— he supposed it was easier to focus on the loss of their friendship given that they didn’t get much of a chance to be near each other throughout it, but.

He supposed that he was at least moderately brokenhearted. Whether or not he was in love with Kojiro hadn’t been especially important to him, though he knew logically that he had been for the majority of their relationship. But he hadn’t been, near the end.

Kaoru didn’t know when he had fallen out of love with Kojiro. That and the resentment eased the concept of heartbreak resulting from their breakup, most likely, and Kaoru moved on with his life.

He graduated university and opened a studio for his calligraphy work, hiring on a manager for himself and a few hands and started making a properly professional name for himself beyond the clients that he had picked up during his university years. Sakurayishiki Kaoru would be a household name and largely demanded within a couple years, if he had his way.

And when S started again that summer, he knew it would be a permanent fixture.

It felt absurd to choose a name and an apparent costume for himself, given that he was a twenty two year old adult, but Kaoru could see the sense of it. Cherry Blossom was an obvious choice, and Kaoru was at least moderately confident that he had chosen it because of his family name, not because Kojiro had frequently likened his hair to cherry blossoms with nothing but affection in his voice.

This time, he got the chance to challenge Adam.

“Are you still craving mommy and daddy’s approval, Cherry?” he cajoled, and Kaoru felt a bone deep annoyance with the man.

It was hard to remember that they had been friends, once.

“You’re still certifiably insane, Adam,” he returned. It was a shame that his facemask covered his scowl. “Have you considered going to therapy, yet? Or are you still nothing but a puppet?”

Kaoru ended up with a dislocated arm and a sprained wrist.

Shindo decidedly lost interest.

Kaoru was tired of people growing tired of him.

 

Time went on. Kaoru became celebrated in the calligraphy community and he settled well into traditional aesthetics and styles. He found that they suited him as well as piercings and displaced anger once did, as well as skateboarding still did.

It was part of growing up.

His dalliances with men were occasional, frequently brief, though he entered a proper relationship with a fellow artist a year after he and Kojiro had separated. The man was kind and laughed easily, wicked with a paintbrush and quite frankly cutthroat about competition, definitively meaner than he looked and scathing with his critique. Kaoru enjoyed the variances of him, the shades of him, enjoyed taking him to bed and swallowing his laughter.

Shun didn’t quite understand his fascination with technology and found the contrast of his passions hilarious. He had no wish to step onto a skateboard and, after visiting S with him one night, didn’t understand the appeal behind Kaoru putting himself in danger for the sake of a race. But, he never stopped him nor made any attempts to hold him back. He simply never attended S with him again, after that.

He, quite carefully, avoided comparing Shun and Kojiro. It wasn’t a direct comparison, anyways. They were far more different than they were similar, and Shun knew him as well as anyone did.

Kaoru liked him. Imagined that he could love him properly, with time, but.

“I want to meet your parents,” Shun wasn’t asking for anything out of line. This wasn’t an unexpected question, nor was it disrespectful in any way. He didn’t know, after all, because Kaoru never spoke about his parents directly. And most couples, after being together for nearly half of a year, would have met each other’s parents by this point. That signified a serious relationship, after all.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Kaoru watched as black ink bled from his brush into the bucket of water below, holding it delicately beneath the tap.

“Why not?” Shun was trying hard not to sound pushy, Kaoru could tell. “You’ve met my mom and brother.”

He had. Shun’s mom was perfectly lovely, a picture of pride regarding her son’s talents and existence, and his brother was curious about Kaoru’s artform and the high tech bracelet that he wore. The were kind and accepting people. “My mother and father are busy people.”

There was silence as Kaoru turned off the tap and set the brush with his others to dry, though he didn’t turn from the sink. The sun was setting outside, casting his art studio in a soft orange hue.

“Do they know about us?”

So quiet. More whisper than words.

“I’m not close to them,” Kaoru could feel his pulse picking up, could feel his Carla bracelet vibrating against his skin. Familiar. Bracing, but not enough to ward off his anxiety.

“Kaoru I… want them to know about us. If we’re going to be serious about this relationship.”

And he wanted to break something.

 

After a time, and winning several beefs at S to work out his frustration and anxiety, he agreed to at least tell his parents about Shun. He rationalized it with himself that he was a self-sufficient adult and was no longer living off of his parents’ money and he hardly wanted to live in shame and secret for the rest of his life. While he had no idea if he ever wanted to get married, he could imagine a future with a serious partner, and his parents were an automatic factor in his life, regardless of the fact that he rarely spoke to them, these days. He had nothing to fear, and perhaps there was still a spark of rebellion in him, after all. And he was sick about being asked when he would settle down with a woman.

So, he told them.

It went about as well as he expected.

 

The most infuriating thing about the aftermath wasn’t that his parents were furious nor that his relationship was over. No, it was none of those things. It was simply that he had wanted to speak to Kojiro more than anything.

He hadn’t wanted to even conceptualize his voice for over a year. Even when he admitted to himself that he missed the idiot’s friendship, the anger overwhelmed that.

But he craved the familiarity, the simple understanding, the lack of judgement, the clear cadence of his voice.

The way that Kojiro said his name.

He didn’t call him.

 

Later, he wasn’t sure whether or not to be glad that he was out of the country on a work trip when rumors started circulating that one of the original skaters of S returned. It certainly wasn’t welcome news when he got back to the streets, and he couldn’t even pretend that they could be referring to anyone but Kojiro. There were only three of them who could be considered founders of S —— Shindo had made it a spectacle, given it its name, added the showmanship element with a bizarre amount of cameras, but all three of them had been skating here for years. Older people on the scene knew it well.

There weren’t overly many people with green or pink hair skateboarding, after all.

But when he finally saw him for the first time in nearly three years, Kaoru allowed him a moment of surprise. Kojiro looked the same, though his hair was longer, and the way that he was dressed was as ridiculous as Kaoru expected. The man was practically allergic to shirts, after all. His posture was looser than he could recall from recent memory, more akin to the earlier days of their relationship, relaxed and open and happy-looking.

Fury followed fast on the heels of surprise.

It was wholly anger from seeing Kojiro. The fact that he had his arm around a woman’s shoulders and was caressing her arm absently was inconsequential, simply another factor to the whole, and Kaoru couldn’t even begin to give a damn about the fact that Kojiro was with someone or two or three —— Kojiro loved women, and they hadn’t been together in over two years.

Hadn’t seen or heard from each other in over two years.

“I’m surprised a gormless gorilla can manage to skateboard,” it was an unnecessary level of aggression, if he were being honest, but bitterness and spite took precedence. “If you can call that skateboarding.”

There was a brief moment of surprise on Kojiro’s face, as though he hadn’t expected to see Kaoru whatsoever, though it was hardly a flicker. There and then gone, replaced by a casual sort of infuriating arrogance that Kaoru wanted to wipe off of his face. “Oh? I can’t believe a stiff brainiac would even step foot on a skateboard. Is your freaky robot doing all the work for you?”

“We’ll see if you’re still saying those words at the bottom, imbecile.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“I should’ve known that you weren’t capable of higher levels of thinking.”

Their words were similar to how they used to argue, the content itself wasn’t anything new. They had always fought over stupid things, always riled each other up as if they were incapable of avoiding it, but while the content was the same their intentions were different. Where once they would have called each other derisive names teasingly, cajolingly, never with any level of seriousness, here it felt like they were at each other’s throats. Intent on cutting deep.

Kaoru wanted to be mean to Kojiro. Mean bordering on cruel, irritated by the sight of him and reduced to the juvenile desire to berate him.

It was almost soothing when he won the beef.

It was decidedly less so when Kojiro won the next week.

“Maybe your precious Carla needs more work, Kaoru .”

Kaoru lashed out, aiming a kick and landing it, though he was certain that it hurt him more than it hurt Kojiro. “Don’t call me that here you idiot. My Carla is perfection, you just got lucky.”

“We’ll see about that, control freak.”

Kaoru felt his eye twitch.

 

When his client suggested he take him to a new high end restaurant in town as thanks for a recent piece on top of payment, he probably should’ve expected this.

In fact, a pervasive sense of foreboding swelled in him the moment that the client informed him that it was an Italian restaurant when they were outside of the front door. It wasn’t as if Kojiro was the only Italian trained chef in the entirety of Japan, that was a statistical anomaly, but everything about the interior screamed Kojiro’s personal touch and Kaoru had half a mind to say that he was feeling ill and had to leave immediately.

But that would’ve been cowardly.

So instead he simply had to hope that who he presumed to be the chef of the establishment would stay firmly within the kitchen while he and his client had a meal together. It was going well enough, this elderly man wasn’t quite as much of a bore as some of his clients were, and Kaoru found it easy enough to keep up polite conversation regarding his art and the collection that the client had amassed over the years.

It was gratifying to have people tell you that your art was undoubtedly worth a great deal and would be hanging next to fantastic pieces as if it belonged there.

The food was excellent. Excellent, and undoubtedly made by Kojiro —— Kaoru may not have eaten his cooking in years, but there were some flavor combinations and stylistic choices that he could remember well from years upon years of eating Kojiro’s food, even when it had by and large been more traditional Japanese fair than this.

Luckily, it seemed that he would be getting in and out of Sialaluce without having to see Kojiro’s face once.

But, of course, luck simply couldn’t work out that way.

“I wanted to give my compliments to the chef,” his client said to the waitress with a lovely, polite smile.

It was something of a struggle to keep the complacent smile on his own face when he said that, and furthermore to agree demurely that they should give their compliments to the chef, and his calm veneer almost shattered at the mere sight of Kojiro stepping out of the kitchen. The blatant shock on Kojiro’s face only made him feel slightly better.

“Thank you for the meal, it was delicious,” his client was saying, turning in his seat to give Kojiro a bow.

Kaoru, reluctantly, did the same, though his bow was remarkably more shallow. “Yes, it was delightful,” he said quietly, because it was expected of him, and because he enjoyed the way Kojiro’s eyebrow jumped, a sure sign of his irritation.

“It was my pleasure,” Kojiro smiled broadly in spite of everything, bowing in return. “I cook so that my food may bring joy to my customers. Your thanks are just the cherry on top.”

Oh, if only Kaoru could punch him right in his absurd, infuriating, handsome face.

 

(Beating him in a beef two nights later was a nice supplement for hitting him, at least.)

 

“This is ridiculous,” Kojiro was glaring at him, though Kaoru noted that he looked more tired than furious.

“What?” he snapped in return. He couldn’t remember what they had been arguing about, at this point, only that they had stopped somewhere dark in S, sidetracked by an argument that had gotten progressively more cruel. They could be fighting about literally anything, at this point. He felt like he was one exposed, raw, fraying wire that was receiving far too much electricity. Kojiro was looking at him and seeing far too much again, he could tell, and Kaoru wanted to make it stop.

“I know we didn’t end things on a good foot,” Kojiro made an impatient noise at the derisive laugh that Kaoru let out, “shut up, let me finish talking.”

“Yes, because being told what to do by a moron like you makes me want to hear you out.”

“We were friends, once,” it sounded like Kojiro was forcing the words out, and they were half mangled. As if it caused him physical pain to have to say it. “We were best friends, Kaoru, why are we at each other’s throats every time we see each other?”

“I don’t know if any of the women you fuck bother to tell you,” Kaoru resented that he actually sounded bitter, “but a bad breakup lingers .”

Kojiro’s jaw shifted and Kaoru stared at him brazenly, daring him to speak at all.

“I miss being friends with you,” if Kaoru thought that Kojiro was forcing himself to say that they were once friends, that statement had nothing on this one. Kojiro sounded exhausted, but looked as if he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to look furious, exhausted, or something that Kaoru didn’t want to bother to label.

Pleading, maybe.

Kaoru had gone through phases regarding their breakup. He was less heartbroken than furious, in the grand scheme of things, and had spent a great deal of time despising Kojiro to the point that he convinced himself that he outright hated the man, which wasn’t wholly true. By the time that he had managed to work through Kojiro, and he had moved past the first version of his Carla board, he could accept that he was angered by the end of their romantic relationship and saddened by the end of their long term friendship.

He knew that the breakup wasn’t entirely Kojiro’s fault.

Perhaps he had been dismissive in regards to Kojiro’s career, his life as it existed without Kaoru. It had upset him more than either of them were willing to acknowledge that the entirety of Kojiro’s life took place faraway in another country, entirely without him. His friends, his day to day, his lessons. Kaoru hadn’t wanted to spent much time at all with Kojiro’s friends even when he was visiting, instead whisking him away to other locations so that they could be alone.

To say that it was difficult for most people to speak to him would be an understatement. Kaoru had friends and acquaintances, but a lonely and colorless childhood made him sufficient in coping on his own, and led to an overall disinterest in being around people that irritated him, even if only slightly. He hadn’t wanted to put excessive effort into interfacing with Kojiro’s friends because he didn’t think it was important, in the long run.

Inevitably, Kojiro was going to return to Japan, and they could finally be together properly.

But it hadn’t worked out that way.

Granted, he still felt he had the right to be mad at Kojiro for simply pulling away and not communicating with him.

That didn’t change the fact that he missed being friends with Kojiro, too.

“Too bad,” Kaoru said, voice flat and unforgiving as he pushed off and started skating away. “You were tired of me, remember?”

“I was tired of arguing and of our situation, not you , Kaoru!” he sounded irritated, again. Probably looked it, too, a furrow in his brow and a scowl pulling at his mouth, vein in his forehead threatening to throb.

Kaoru took a turn too sharply and almost fell off of his board, but continued on, stubborn as ever.

 

By some miracle, however, they stopped arguing with the obvious intent to hurt each other after that.

Maybe it was that neither of them had the willpower to keep it up, anymore. They still argued, certainly, but there was remarkably less vitriol in the words that they flung at each other and the things that they called each other.

It wasn’t an apology, and it certainly wasn’t a return to their previous closeness, but it was something.

 

If he concentrated, he could manage to be annoyed when they ended up in bed together again. But, it was fruitless to think about much at all with Kojiro’s fingers fucking into him like he had something to prove or a point to make. Or Kaoru was just imagining that and it was just the intensity with which he was going about it, single minded and borderline overwhelming, mouth pressed against Kaoru’s shoulder as he unerringly found his prostate with a twist of his fingers.

It wasn’t like Kojiro hadn’t always been intense when it came to sex.

Was it inevitable? Unlikely. Kaoru didn’t believe in inevitability. They could have just as easily avoided each other and never spoken to each other again, but chose to keep interacting at S despite their history. Or because of it.

The fact that they had a messy breakup and couldn’t help but argue with each other every time their paths crossed didn’t change the fact that Kojiro was still an attractive man. An attractive man who was, evidently, still attracted to Kaoru, and still wanted to sleep with him after all this time. More importantly, an attractive man that Kaoru was willing to sleep with, even after all this time.

There had been a remark. Something about whether or not Kojiro could even satisfy all of the women that he slept with (and Kaoru knew perfectly well that he was fucking the majority of them that he came to S with) which Kojiro returned with, “You never had any complaints.”

And now: this.

Kaoru gasped against the sheets when Kojiro’s fingers found the perfect angle, and wanted to elbow him in the face when he laughed against his skin.

“See? Told you, four-eyes.”

“You talk too much,” Kaoru tried to elbow Kojiro in the face, and predictably missed. “And four-eyes ? How original of you. I’m not even wearing glasses right now.”

“Would you rather I call you scrawny? I swear you somehow got smaller, I didn’t think that was possible.”

“I gained muscle mass, idiot,” Kaoru thrust back against Kojiro’s fingers and felt his cock bump against his thigh. It surprised him, how badly he wanted it inside of him after all this time.

Kojiro hummed consideringly and pulled his fingers out, laughing softly when Kaoru made an affronted noise, only to push three fingers into him without preamble. “Really? Guess I didn’t notice. You’re just so delicate.”

“Stop talking and fuck me,” Kaoru smacked his palm against Kojiro’s side rather than attempting to elbow him, noise reverberating through the air around them.

“Pushy,” Kojiro had found the perfect rhythm again, and he sounded thoroughly smug. “Maybe I want you to say please.”

Kaoru hissed and reached back, grabbing at Kojiro’s hair and pulling , twisting his body on the bed (and on Kojiro’s frankly massive fingers), pulling his face close. Kojiro looked momentarily surprised, but Kaoru could see how his pupils dilated further, could feel how his cock twitched against his leg. “I said stop talking and fuck me, before I throw you down and do it myself.”

“Bossy,” Kojiro mumbled, staring at his mouth. For a moment, Kaoru wondered if he was about to be kissed, and wondered if he would allow it at all.

But after a moment Kojiro pulled his fingers out, fumbled with a condom, and was finally pushing in. Kaoru didn’t wonder about it much, after that.

Not that Kojiro stopped talking. Of course he didn’t.

 

Kaoru didn’t bother deluding himself into thinking that having sex with Kojiro was a one time thing. There wasn’t much of a point. Logically they saw each other with some frequency, and sleeping together was enjoyable, so they kept doing it.

They didn’t fall into bed nearly as frequently as they did that first summer that they had decided to mess around with each other, which was entirely because they didn’t spend even half as much time with each other as they had back then, but they knew that it was an option a great deal of the time.

So, Kaoru ended up in Nanjo Kojiro’s bed approximately once a month. Or, Kojiro ended up in his. They weren’t especially picky about it, or even about making it to a bed at all.

There weren’t many rules. There wasn’t much talking at all, beyond quarreling with each other until they were too distracted by pleasure to keep up with any actual arguing. If they did talk about their personal lives it was brief and prompted by things that were left lying out in their respective dwellings, whether it be an undecorated cake or scrapped attempts at calligraphy or another work in progress of the Carla board.

The only thing that it seemed they settled on was that they didn’t kiss. It was a decidedly stupid gesture, an attempt at distance and space, and it didn’t last.

Six months into their arrangement (in a purely technical sense it would be called friends with benefits, but half the time Kaoru wasn’t sure if they were friends at all) Kojiro was talking to irritate him and Kaoru thought that it would be productive to kiss him to shut him up.

So he did. Hard and seething, not letting up or at all surprised when Kojiro kissed him back with just as much intensity.

 

It was a balance. Or an impasse. Something along those lines. Kojiro was a part of his life again and Kaoru was a part of his life, in return. It was a humorless mockery of what he had wanted before the end of their relationship: Kojiro back in Japan, so they could continue their relationship together. He supposed that it was for the best that it ended when it did, if not the way it did. They had made each other at least somewhat miserable, and Kaoru hadn’t even loved him when all was said and done.

Whether or not Kojiro loved him at that point was inconsequential, or he thought it was. It had been easy to imagine their future together the way that Kaoru had wanted it, and it was easy to keep going along with it because of the comfortable familiarity that Kojiro represented.

Would they have been happy? Would Kaoru had fallen in love with him again?

Who knows.

 

“I’m still seeing women regularly,” the statement was unprompted and they were catching their breaths, Kojiro on the couch and Kaoru collapsed on the loveseat. They hadn’t bothered to make it to the bed, this time, and instead had an enthusiastic round of sex against the wall in Kojiro’s livingroom. Kaoru was still breathless from being suspended in midair, caught between the wall and Kojiro’s brute strength, and fucked within an inch of his life.

Understandably, it took him a moment to lift his head and open his eyes to mere slits to stare at Kojiro with moderate confusion, “And? The whole of Japan knows you’re a womanizer.”

“I just wanted to clarify,” Kojiro said, rolling his shoulders. Something popped softly, and he sighed in clear relief. “In case you cared.”

“We’ve had this arrangement for months,” Kaoru didn’t bother to keep the incredulity from his voice, “if I cared I would have said something sooner, idiot. We use protection for a reason.”

“Hey, I was trying to make sure we knew where we stood.”

There was a beat. Kaoru had no idea was possessed him the next moment, voice cool to the point of frigidity, to say “What, is this where you tell me you were cheating on me?”

It was a ridiculous accusation, he knew it was. For all that he had been frustrated by the fact that their lives were so separate and Kojiro had stopped telling him anything that was happening in his life, regardless of whether or not that was because of Kaoru’s apparent lack of interest, he had never once thought that Kojiro was cheating on him. Kaoru had trusted him, in spite of their fraying communication, and never imagined that Kojiro would stoop to that level.

Frankly, it seemed impossible. Not because Kaoru was thoroughly confident in himself and his ability to keep Kojiro’s interest (that would be rich, considering they broke up) but because it would have been so utterly out of character for Kojiro to be an adulterer. He was a womanizer and flirtatious and slept with at least women regularly when he was single because he enjoyed sex, but he respected his bed partners far too much.

Maybe it was the irritating presumption that they had to clarify where they stood that prompted such an unwarranted snipe. As if Kojiro was concerned that Kaoru was becoming emotionally and romantically invested in him again.

“What the fuck, Kaoru?” Kojiro looked furious, didn’t bother to hide the hurt anger in his voice. Kojiro had never been shy about being angry at Kaoru, other than when he was apparently avoiding him altogether. “Did you think I was cheating on you?”

“No,” Kaoru bit back truthfully. He pushed himself to standing, and felt a flash of annoyance at his own body when his knees threatened to give out. “Forget it.” Through sheer force of determination he walked rather than limped to find his pants, considering his shirt was still on and his mask was only pulled down..

“You can’t just accuse me of cheating on you and then say forget it, you absolute lunatic,” Kojiro had stood up too, and Kaoru could feel a headache starting to throb at his temples. Anxiety was settling in his chest. “I never cheated on you.”

“I know that,” his was on the verge of yelling more than anything, but he stooped down to pick up his discarded clothing before turning around. Kojiro was still standing behind the coffee table, and Kaoru realized that his pants were still slung low on his hips. He had tucked in his cock at some point, probably when he had collapsed onto the couch.

“Do you? Is that what you’ve been mad about all these years?”

“No, you raging idiot,” Kaoru wanted to throw something at him, but there wasn’t anything immediately available other than his underwear and hakama, both of which he started to pull on jerkily. “Though I almost wish you had cheated on me, it would’ve made everything infinitely easier.”

“What does that mean?”

Kaoru took a deep breath, mouth thinning and jaw setting as he met Kojiro’s eyes. His arms crossed defensively after he fastened his pants. “If you had gotten distracted by someone else then at least that would’ve been an external reason to the dissolution of our relationship. There would’ve been an excuse other than you just… giving up .” And then he could’ve been furious at Kojiro for something other than just not wanting to be with him anymore.

“I didn’t give up on our relationship,” Kojiro sounded genuinely affronted by that. “You made no effort to compromise with me or even take interest in other parts of my life, Kaoru.”

“I was trying to plan for our future together,” it hurt to admit it aloud, somehow. They had always been stupid, the pair of them, and while they had been adult at twenty-one, standing here in his midtwenties looking back Kaoru could see easily where they had been foolish and young. Hell, they were still foolish and young. “Which you made clear you didn’t want.”

Kojiro made a frustrated noise, “You refused to meet me in the middle.”

“You knew that I wouldn’t move to Paris, I would have rather stayed long distance.”

“You hated long distance, if you had wanted to be with me you would’ve moved to Paris with me.”

“No,” Kaoru felt like something was tearing at his throat, something unpleasant and awful. Something that felt like the truth. “That’s a ridiculous expectation to set. I would have compromised with long distance and frequent visits if you had just told me .”

“You would’ve fought me tooth and nail, you were desperate for me to move back to Japan.” The distance between them was closing. At some point, Kojiro had stepped around the coffee table and Kaoru stepped away from the wall that they had fucked against barely ten minutes ago.

“Of course I was! If you had wanted to be with me you would’ve moved back to Japan, not just for me but to be near your family.” It was a low blow to bring up Kojiro’s family and he knew it. Irrelevant, too, considering he imagined that his family was nothing but supportive of Kojiro’s decision to pursue further education abroad.

The way Kaoru hadn’t been.

The thing about knowing each other so well is that they knew how to hurt each other.

“That’s not fair.”

“Maybe not,” Kaoru felt a bone deep weariness and closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead, “but it wasn’t fair that you didn’t want to commit to me properly, either.”

“Hey,” the quiet word prompted him to open his eyes again. Kojiro looked tired, too. “That wasn’t what it was.”

“Wasn’t it? Can you really tell me that you didn’t go to Paris because you wanted to maintain space between us?”

“It was for my career .”

Silence. Kaoru badly wanted to sleep. Maybe have Carla play that lullaby for him as he did, in hopes that it would soothe his nerves.

Kojiro opened and closed his mouth several times before saying, finally, “If you convinced yourself to believe that I’d be wasting my breath trying to convince you otherwise.”

“Did you love me, at the end?” Kaoru knew that Kojiro loved him in the middle. Maybe at the beginning, too. Those times weren’t in question at all.

But that wasn’t fair, either. It wasn’t a fair question at all. They knew each other too well, they knew the slight shifts in each other’s voice and expressions. Time had changed a few things, but what remained they both knew intimately and thoroughly. It was easy to say that they were both going through the motions at the end of their relationship, that they loved each other but perhaps didn’t love each other, whatever the difference was, if there was a difference at all. Kaoru didn’t think there was much of one, most of the time. But the distance between them was too great, at that point, and the resentment too heavy.

Kojiro was looking at him with a solemn expression, heavy with a million things that he didn’t want to name, and Kaoru suddenly didn’t want to know the answer, didn’t want his assumption to be confirmed or thrown to the wayside. It didn’t matter. It didn’t change anything at all.

“Never mind,” he said with a wave of his hand, stepping around Kojiro to pick up his skateboard. “I’ll see you later.”

“Kaoru,” Kojiro said when he got his hand on the door, and he sounded half-agonized. It physically hurt, to hear him sound like that. “I want to be friends again.”

He opened the door and didn’t bother responding to that.

 

This time, the Carla skateboard was essentially perfect.

Working through stress in a quite literal manner that involve piecewise and logical assembly meant that he was, in essence, a workaholic, but damn if there weren’t results, even if it was at the cost of sleep and otherwise.

 

It took several months for them to be anything akin to friends.

They saw each other at S, still. They argued, still, as was expected of Cherry and Joe at this point. Their verbal fights lacked the venom that they did when they saw each other for the first time after years of separation, but it wasn’t quite as playful as it had been before they had stopped sleeping together again.

But, as it happened, it was hard not to fall into a pattern with each other. Kaoru missed their camaraderie like a physical ache, and their ridiculous squabbles were a bridge to that. He supposed that he could have stopped coming to S, skated elsewhere, but the rush was something addicting and he didn’t want to give up.

And he had far too much pride to simply stop showing up.

It was surprising how unsurprising it was when Kaoru realized that they talked about their personal lives with each other. He had put a line in the metaphorical sand between them in regards to where their interpersonal relationship would go, and physical intimacy was the limit that he had put without thinking much on it. Without thinking of the impact of it. Because he wanted a definitive space between them, because he wanted an unforgiving boundary.

Sometimes he found himself wondering if it had seemed like he was using Kojiro for sex. Which, he supposed, wasn’t strictly incorrect, but it wasn’t like he disliked Kojiro’s company outright. He was annoyed by him, and carried a grudge like no one’s business, but at some point he had let go of the stubborn desire to simply be mad at Kojiro for just existing.

But Kojiro wanted to be friends again. And Kaoru found that he wanted to be friends again, too.

So they were, in a way.

They never really met outside of S purposefully, but the city was only so large and when they did cross paths they didn’t immediately leave each other’s company. They started texting each other again, nowhere near the constant flow of conversation they used to maintain, but links to things that reminded them of each other or complaints about work or clients or progress photos of recipes or technology.

When they started sleeping together again it was because Kaoru knew it was a welcome advance and he said in the midst of them watching a beef that involved a newcomer named Shadow, “Come over to my place after this.”

“Yeah?” Kojiro said after a moment, and it was heavy with suggestion.

Kaoru hummed softly, head tilting as he watched the man take a sharp turn. Not much finesse, but some skill. “I’ve decided I want to fuck you through my mattress.”

Because he was listening closely, in spite of the noise of the crowd thick around them as if it were its own physical presence, Kaoru could hear the slight stutter in Kojiro’s breath. “Sounds fun.”

“It will be.”

 

The thing was, Kaoru wanted to set boundaries between them because he was still resentful, because he held onto grudges to the point of incredulity. He had been bitter about losses for far too long, had been unforgiving about trivial things. It was immature and stupid, he knew, but he was bad at letting things go, and being mad at Kojiro was easy.

But there was also the factor that being around Kojiro had always been easy. Had always been straightforward. Had always been one of the easiest things about his life.

Kaoru could admit to himself and Carla that any level of legitimate intimacy beyond having sex with each other casually, absent of any sort of relationship, could very easily lead him to circling back around to wanting a relationship with Kojiro. Even if only subconsciously.

It was the ease of them. It was the way they fit together.

He had no idea if it would end up that way this time, and a large part of him never wanted to find out.

But he did it, anyways. Because of course he did.

 

“Stop that,” Kaoru grabbed Kojiro’s jaw, trying to push him back, nose wrinkling as his teeth remained set into his lip and he drags it along, before finally releasing it. “There’s not a hole there anymore, dumbass.”

“Shame,” Kojiro said, voice low and eyes glittering as his grip on Kaoru’s hips tightened before he patted one, as if to say go on .

Kaoru made an irritated noise and had half a mind to get off Kojiro and get himself off as efficiently as possible out of spite alone, but instead he shifted his hips, tightening around him as he dug his fingers harmlessly into Kojiro’s jaw, not hard enough to bruise by half but hard enough to warn. The rumbling groan that Kojiro made was gratifying, and the way that he rolled his hips a heartbeat after made Kaoru gasp. “I haven’t had a lip piercing in years,” he managed to sound affronted, even as he released Kojiro’s face and started to move properly again, hips moving fluidly, arm draping over a ridiculously broad shoulder.

“I know,” Kojiro’s eyes dropped from Kaoru’s face to where they were connected, arousal vicious on his features. “I was just missing it… you looked good with it.”

“Of course I did,” Kaoru said dismissively, ignoring the breathy laugh that breezed out of the other man as they fell back into the rhythm of fucking.

Kaoru liked taking his time with him, which Korijo despised on principle, impatient bastard he was, which was the majority of the reason why Kaoru liked it quite so much. Normally when they fell into bed together like this, there was a certain time limit on how long Kaoru could lord himself over Kojiro, depending on how keyed up they both were, but tonight was special.

Cherry had won the beef against Joe, after all.

And for all of the impatient grunting and the grumbling and the hands trying to force him to go faster, Kaoru knew that Kojiro enjoyed this punishingly slow pace just as much as he did.

Punishingly slow by their standards, anyways.

The clock on Kojiro’s bedside table glared 0335 by the time that Kaoru was lifting himself off of Kojiro’s cock with a fleeting sigh, twisting to fall onto the bed beside him, eyes closing. He listened to Kojiro gripe beneath his breath as he disposed of the condom, and he grunted when the significantly larger man rolled on top of him.

To think that Kaoru had been taller when they met. He disposed of that thought quickly.

“Get off,” Kaoru shoved at Kojiro’s shoulder.

“Make me, scrawny,” Kojiro said against his cheek.

Kaoru sighed and opened his eyes properly just to roll them exasperatedly when their mouths were pressed together slightly off center, but he allowed it. The kiss was sloppy and wet, bordering on lazy and, frankly, gross combined with how sweaty they both were. Kojiro pressed his tongue against where there was still a slight indent, the sole remnant of when there had been a ring there years ago. He leaned his head back, glaring, “Your fixation is weird.”

“I wouldn’t call it a fixation,” Kojiro always sounded and looked smug after they had sex, and Kaoru sometimes wondered if that was how he got after fucking women, too, if only because he had to pity anyone who had to deal with this insufferable man. Including himself. “I just remembered it and got a bit nostalgic.”

Kaoru made a noncommittal, borderline derisive, noise as he pushed at Kojiro’s shoulder again, and this time the giant heeded the force of movement and pulled back, giving Kaoru room to sit up properly. “Nostalgic isn’t what I’d call it.”

The grin that Kojiro gave him was what some would refer to as radiant , splitting his face, though it was belied by the lascivious look in his eyes. “What? Things can be both nostalgic and hot, Kaoru. I wanted to kiss you so badly after you got it done.”

That gave him a moment of pause. “What, do you have memory loss? We were sixteen when I got that done.”

Kojiro chuckled. It reverberated, the way it always did, “Yeah, I know,” Kaoru couldn’t decide whether or not he was winded by this new discovery, and Kojiro didn’t really give him a chance to land on either option. “Have you ever thought about getting it done again?”

“No,” it was an easy enough truth to give as he slid off of the bed, arms stretching over his head as he felt parts of his spine pop, muscles already pleasantly sore they were after a hard ride. “Facial piercings do not tend to give off the idea of professionalism .” Never mind that he had taken out of the lip piercing partway through university, which Kojiro knew perfectly well. Most of his ear piercings, too, save for the one open one left on his lobe, which he generally didn’t wear anything in, anymore, but sometimes nostalgia got the better of him, too.

“You really think your clients will deny the chance to get your work if you had a little ring on your lip?” Kojiro was watching him, Kaoru could tell, eyes tracking him as he found his clothes thrown across the floor and pulled them on.

“You’ve met my clientele,” he said by way of answering as he fastened the modified obi around his waist and set to gathering his hair into a ponytail again, watching his reflection in the full body mirror that Kojiro kept in his room.

Kojiro hummed and fell quiet, a luxurious rarity. Kaoru could see him watching him and ignored it, tying his hair quickly and starting out of the already open bedroom door —— they had been in a rush and hadn’t bothered to close it. There wasn’t a reason to, anyways.

“Goodnight, Kaoru,” Kojiro called after him.

Kaoru raised a hand in goodbye as he pulled his face mask up before disappearing from Kojiro’s line of sight, unplugging his skateboard from the plug next to the door, and leaving, the familiar door clicking shut behind him.

 

“How’s your family?” Kaoru had made his way to Sialaluce near closing hours, primarily because a client’s home had been nearby and he had been there late discussing the details of what the person wanted to see from his word. It had been mostly impulse to stop in the restaurant when he noticed that there were no customers, and saw Kojiro wiping down tables alone

“They’re good,” Kojiro slung a towel over his shoulder and smiled at Kaoru, as if him asking after his family had made his day. “Mom’s still working, dad started working at a daycare. The twins went to different universities, did I ever tell you?” Kaoru shook his head, surprised. “All either of them ever talk about when they talk to me is how much they miss each other.”

Kaoru found himself laughing with Kojiro, thinking fondly of Shizuko and Manami, who had always been thoroughly inseparable. When they had asked Kaoru and Kojiro to teach them how to skateboard, they had wanted to be on the same one, and summarily decided it wasn’t worth trying when they told them that was effectively impossible. “I’m surprised they decided that.”

“So was I,” Kojiro perched himself on the edge of a table, and Kaoru was certain that he was exerting more effort to not tip the table over than he would have if he were just standing, and he wanted to point that out to mess with him, but Kojiro always emanated a certain warmth when talking about his family that Kaoru, despite himself, wanted to bask in, “but they thought it was a good idea to try to be apart for a bit.” There was a moment before, “You should come around and see them again soon. The twins will be back for a break in a few weeks, and my parents ask about you a lot. You can listen to my mom berate me about finding a wife.”

Kaoru wasn’t sure why seeing the Nanjo family again was such a disconcerting thought. He had been around them near constantly in his teenage years. “Maybe. I already hear enough of that sort of talk from my own parents, though.”

“Oh?” the syllable was more loaded than most would assume, but Kaoru could hear the unasked question lingering in the quiet.

They knew each other too well.

“They know,” Kaoru said after a moment, holding Kojiro’s gaze for a moment before glancing down at his phone, simply to look at anything else but that expression that he knew so well. It wasn’t quite pity, but he never knew what else to call it.

Kojiro’s hand on his shoulder burned, somehow. “I’m sorry, Kaoru.”

Kaoru tilted his head back to look at him again. It wasn’t the expression that he had expected, but instead several shades away. There was a peculiar set to his brow, a softness to his mouth, a gentleness to his eyes.

He wanted to kiss him, or ask to be kissed.

He didn’t.

 

It should’ve disturbed him more than it did when he realized that seeing other people was more trouble than it was worth.

Dating around had always been exhausting to him. He enjoyed sex and he enjoyed being in a relationship, to a point, but given that he had never been given to forming friendships with everyone and anyone he met, it meant that his dating pool was intrinsically limited unless someone decided to pick him up, or he was interested enough in a random stranger to talk to them.

The latter virtually never happened.

It dawned on him when he was being propositioned by one of his clients. Not an elderly one, luckily, one far closer to his age, though perhaps still a decade older, given the slight greying at his temples. The man was certainly no chore to look at, though his personality was somewhat boring, and Kaoru had to weigh the pros and cons of agreeing to a date with him quickly.

He had ended up agreeing, and later sleeping with him, considering that the commission was done and there was no inherent professional obligation, and it had been fine.

Fine, and not precisely worth all of the effort.

It truly should’ve disturbed him more.

 

Strangely, life went on outside of his odd relationship with Kojiro.

He had a business to run and a reputation to upkeep that was separate to his life as a skateboarder.

And while he was an adult and kept minimal contact with his parents when he could help it, when they requested specifically him and his calligraphic expertise at a conference overseas, there was a certain level of obligation that meant that he went, all the same.

He just had to hope he wouldn’t regret it.

 

(He didn’t regret it, exactly. The conference was perfectly lovely and he didn’t have to pay for anything at all, and discussing business with interested  clients was always simple enough. His parents thanked him, and introduced him to the daughter of one of their business partners.

Regret wasn’t the right word. He found it exhausting, definitively, and thus found himself touching his Carla bracelet with higher frequency than he would have, were his anxiety at normal levels or lower.

But, a free vacation was a free vacation.)

 

“Where’ve you been?” Kojiro said without preamble as he coasted alongside him, his fanclub watching him with pure adoration in their eyes.

S always had a certain energy. Frenetic, bordering on violent. Tension and excitement thick in the air. A constant level of noise that was like the thrum of a bass, thick strings reverberating. Kaoru tended to let himself get swept away by it, the veneer of how he existed on the day to day outside of this place falling to the wayside and leaving him a raw, burning nerve.

Neither of his existences were false, the way that neither of Kojiro’s were. It was just different , here.

And he had missed it in the couple of weeks that he had been gone.

“Why? Did you miss me, you great oaf?” Kaoru said dryly.

“You wish, four-eyes,” Kojiro’s grin was sharp, and Kaoru could only roll his eyes. “Your scathing commentary, maybe. Shadow has been getting more confident and more insufferable. He’s somehow found more things to trip people up during beefs.”

Kaoru was confident, for a few spare moments, that Kojiro had missed him, after all. They had settled into a close friendship that was similar in bearing to their adolescent friendship, albeit altered in the aftermath of their… everything. Their bickering and sniping was familiar, now, less barbed than it had been when they met again after years, though still carrying with it some intrinsic bitterness. It was easier to fight about petty things.

Fucking each other occasionally probably made that easier, too.

But the confidence faded after a moment and he wondered what had made him so confident. It was rare that they saw each other outside of S, beyond when Kaoru stopped by Sialaluce , generally in the company of a client. There wasn’t much to miss. They were friends, or at least friendly, and there were definite benefits to the extent of their relationship, now, but they weren’t attached at the hip the way that they used to be.

Growing up did that to you. So did everything between them falling apart in the interim. The latter more than the former, really.

“I was busy,” Kaoru said, which was true.

He glanced at Kojiro and found himself unsurprised to find the man already watching him. It was that same clarity, the same vividness that Kaoru remembered from when they were younger, carried over into the present. As if he was being not only seen, but perceived down to the very core of his being, analyzed down to his very cellular structure. It was unnerving.

It was Kojiro.

“Kaoru,” Kojiro said in an undertone.

“Don’t call me that here,” Kaoru didn’t bother to hide his frustration. This was familiar, they had been doing this exact exchange since they both started coming to S, though it wasn’t the same. The meaning was different, the intention behind his name carrying, and he kicked out, catching Kojiro in the calf and causing him to nearly fall over. Not quite, though. The hit was too perfectly aimed to cause or threaten any legitimate harm, and they were on a nearly even straightaway.

Kojiro cursed, wavering on his board and glaring at Kaoru as he regained his balance precisely when expected.

It took a few moments to make a decision. Longer than it would have taken, once upon a time. “My parents requested me at an event overseas,” Kaoru spoke quietly and looked away as comprehension began to dawn on Kojiro’s face. “Let’s see if your inelegant skating can keep up tonight. Carla,” he said, louder for the onlookers hoping to overhear a shred of Joe and Cherry’s conversation, pushing off against the ground hard and taking the next turn perfectly. Not an official beef, but cajoling all the same.

In the end, Kaoru knew that Kojiro knew him best, even after all this time. It didn’t take his near-genius intellect (some called him an outright genius, and he supposed that was technically correct, though he hadn’t taken an IQ test since he was a child and trying to live up to his parents’ expectations) to figure that out, and Kaoru wasn’t in the business of denial, personal or otherwise. It wasn’t just that Kojiro had known him longer than anyone even remotely relevant in Kaoru’s life, it was the unabashed wealth of knowledge that he had about him.

Kaoru was a genius, arguably. He had developed the Carla program to create his own personalized AI and had perfected the framework when he was seventeen and finetuned it from there, and he was lauded for his singular talent with traditional calligraphy. The latter was his primary source of income, because it was convenient at the moment and took up the majority of his time that wasn’t absorbed in skateboarding, leaving no room for coding or inventing. Kojiro, though? Kojiro may not have a genius level intellect, but Kojiro saw everything . Noticed everything.

He didn’t have an eidetic memory, Kaoru had tested as much when they were younger, but he was certain that Kojiro catalogued every last minute detail that made up a person. Their moods, the shades of them, the minor differences in their expressions. It made him a good friend when they were younger and Kaoru was recalcitrant and determined to show a perpetually irritated scowl to the world, rebellious and furious a great deal of the time. It made him an infuriating person to be around at baseline.

Lying to Nanjo Kojiro was borderline impossible. Being known by him was a chore. There wasn’t a person alive who knew him and his tendencies and his habits and his moods even half as well. A quarter as well.

So Kaoru tended towards honesty with him, even when it grated at him and set his nerves on edge. There wasn’t much of a point, otherwise, and Kojiro would get the truth out of him one way or another.

And besides, no one but Kojiro would understand the significance of his parents. It would be brushed over, if anyone had overheard. Ignored as another aspect of Cherry outside of S, the calm veneer that he presented to the rest of the world.

Calm veneer. A truth more than  it was a lie, and yet.

“We’re in public, you feebleminded gorilla,” Kaoru said as Kojiro dragged him into a dark copse of trees in the midst of a beef that neither of them were paying attention to, partway down the track and entirely away from prying eyes. That wasn’t stopping him from sliding his hands across Kojiro’s ridiculous chest, down the absurdly cut ridges of his serratus muscles on his flanks.

“And?” Kojiro’s grin was wolfish and Kaoru wanted to kiss it off his face. So he pulled down his mask and did. “Didn’t take you for a coward, four-eyes.”

Kaoru clicked his tongue. Irritation and a quick fuck were easy to focus on, and Kojiro was giving him that. Or, he thought he was, anyways. “You talk too much, for someone so brainless.”

“Do I?” Kojiro affected something akin to innocence, “What’re you gonna do about it, then?”

It didn’t take any deliberation at all for Kaoru to pull at Kojiro’s hair and bite at his jaw, pulling his head closer so that he could breathe, “Get on your knees,” without any extra strain on his part. Other than his arm flexing as he started to drag Kojiro down, anyways.

He went down beautifully, there wasn’t any other word for it, eyes smoldering as his hands parted the pleated folds of his hakama, finding the buttons and pulling them apart. Kaoru’s grip tightened in his hair, and he didn’t let go.

Kojiro, per usual, swallowed, and when Kaoru dragged him back up to kiss him he found himself chasing the taste. It was always intimate, and disgusting, to kiss someone after they’ve sucked you off, but Kaoru always found that he had a propensity for it. It had embarrassed Kojiro, at one point. Now, he kissed back fiercely, though he grabbed Kaoru’s wrist to stop him when he reached for his obvious erection to return the favor.

“I’m good,” Kojiro said against his mouth and Kaoru had to lean back to stare at him, incredulous. “I have plans later,” he quirked his eyebrow suggestively.

Kaoru didn’t quite intend to make a noise that was caught between disgust and exasperation, but he felt more than heard Kojiro laugh, chest vibrating against his, “You’re such a rake.”

“Sorry, how old are you again? Three hundred? Should we return you to the regency era?”

“Shut up,” Kaoru elbowed Kojiro in the side and was mollified by the way that he wheezed, stepping away from him to bend over, holding his side and caught between laughter and pain.

They made out against a tree like a pair of teenagers for a while after that, regardless, Kojiro rolling his hips almost absentmindedly against Kaoru’s, but holding off all the same. And, when Kaoru caught his eye as he was leaving with his arm over a beautiful woman’s shoulder, he gave a sardonic salute that made Kojiro laugh and wave, in return.

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you work before,” Kojiro was sitting on a park bench, posture loose, head tilted up towards the sun but peering directly at him.

“You’ve seen me do calligraphy.”

“But not like,” he gestured at the area at large, towards where Kaoru had been kneeling upon the ground beneath the large awning in the sprawling park, where several stragglers were still mingling and reporters were putting their cameras away. The melodic hum of conversation lingered in the air. “I saw you do calligraphy when we were kids and you were practicing. This is leagues different from that.”

Kaoru hummed noncommittally as he processed the truth of that statement. It was strange: he knew logically that becoming a fully fledged professional calligrapher near the end of university was catalyzed primarily by their breakup. Kojiro hadn’t been in the country during his early days making more of a name for himself independent of his parents, and he had never seen him work on commissions before, either. Those were truths that he knew, utterly and without a doubt.

But it had half slipped his mind that Kojiro… hadn’t been there.

It wasn’t like he had forgotten their breakup. He would never forget that for as long as he lived. It was, frankly, more like the idea that Kojiro had been absent from his life felt like an ill fitting shirt that was too tight along the shoulders and too loose along his torso. Something that he badly wanted to ignore and discard —— because Kojiro had always, unerringly and adeptly, managed to integrate himself as a central part of Kaoru’s life.

Even now, when they saw each other outside of spectacles and their absurdly dangerous hobby far less and spoke to each other rarely in the grand scheme of things, Kojiro was still a central part of his life. It was frustrating, in the way that everything with Kojiro was frustrating, and it would make Kaoru angry if this had been well over a year ago and Kojiro had just swept back into his life.

But it wasn’t a year ago, and now he considered the variables and accepted it for what it was. They were friends, again, and while Kaoru had friends outside of Kojiro, there was no one who knew him quite as well. And he liked to think that no one knew Kojiro even half as well as he did.

“What did you think?” Kaoru adjusted the sleeves of his kimono and frowned at the tiniest blot of ink that had decided to make itself at home on the edge of his left sleeve.

Kojiro, when he looked at him again, was watching him with a faint smile on his face, amusement clear in the set of his brows, something familiar-unfamiliar in his eyes. It, ridiculously, sparked at Kaoru’s temper, but he forced down the instinct to get unnecessarily angry. “It was beautiful.”

Beautiful . It hung in the air between them, accompanied by quiet birdsong and the shouts of children across the way playing on the playground. A word was just a word, and yet.

“Of course it was,” there was something impatient in his voice that made Kojiro’s smile widen, fractionally. “It’s a traditional artform.”

Kojiro moved to say something else, mouth parting, but from behind him Kaoru could hear his agent call for him, a carrying “Sakurayashiki,” that brought him back to attention and to the moment, and he started to turn, glancing back at the thinned crowd. His agent was waving at him, beckoning him to come back, and it appeared that she had been speaking to someone —— a client, he presumed.

“Let’s get lunch after,” Kojiro said as Kaoru started to walk away from him, and he paused. “There’s a place nearby that’s good.”

“Fine,” Kaoru didn’t bother to not sound clipped as he strode away from Kojiro, heeding his manager’s call.

 

If he wanted to analyze it on a psychological level, then their continued physical relationship would leave him with a raging headache. It did, in fact. Kaoru wasn’t a psychotherapist nor a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, but he did think about things a great deal to the point that many claimed that he overthought everything. He liked to be aware of himself, the choices that he was making, why he was making them, and whom they involved.

It was easy to simply fall into bed with Kojiro without a thought, but why?

(There was a reason why Kojiro called him a control freak.)

There was, once again, the option of inevitability , but Kaoru thought that was absurd. If he truly didn’t want to sleep with Kojiro, he simply wouldn’t. Sometimes he outright didn’t, when Kojiro was clearly interested and Kaoru wasn’t in the mood, and the same was true in reverse.

It wasn’t helplessness nor was it out of their control. They were both adults. They made clear choices. Neither of them were stumbling into each other’s bed with doubt or hesitation in their minds, and there was no level of reluctance. Kaoru wasn’t quite as good as reading Kojiro as Kojiro was at reading him, but there was unwavering enthusiastic consent that precluded every time they has sex.

Darkly, he wondered if it was a subconscious Pavlovian response. Being around Kojiro involved a baseline level of attraction that fluxed on occasion, depending on moods and otherwise, and sometimes he simply wanted to take him to bed, therefore he did.

Most likely it was just that they continued to sleep with each other, regardless of their past and regardless of the fact that they were friends, because it seemed to be the natural progression of their relationship. It was easy , after all, and their relationship had shifted to accommodate a more physically intimate aspect before, and it could and likely would continue to do that for the foreseeable future. Having sex with Kojiro was straightforward —— they knew each other’s bodies and each other’s likes and dislikes and, perhaps to their detriment, they knew how to wind each other up and precisely how they liked it best, and they were never bored in bed with each other.

Sex with other people wasn’t disappointing , per say. It just wasn’t as good, and there were certain things that they would allow with each other that they wouldn’t allow with others.

Or, at least, Kaoru wouldn’t let anyone else fuck him on the matts of his art studio, sprawled over a drafting table and gasping for it, fingers tangled into his hair and pulling, keeping him suspended and pulling him back into the crux of Kojiro’s hips with every thrust.

Kojiro might fuck his other partners in psuedo public places, Kaoru had no idea and it wasn’t his business, regardless.

“How long have you been wanting to have sex in here?” Kojiro asked after they had both come, sitting sprawled on the floor, leaning back on his arms. He looked ridiculous with his cock out and shirt falling off of his shoulders and Kaoru was tempted to take him into his mouth despite his protests until he was hard again and squirming.

Alas, he was too tired and simply remained sprawled against the low table he had been unceremoniously bent over. He, at least, had fixed his kimono. “Some of us aren’t degenerates.”

Kojiro’s head tipped down when he laughed, eyes closing automatically, and Kaoru watched simply watched him. It felt like he was always watching him, these days. Or maybe he had always been watching him. Just watching. Waiting. “You’re just as much of a degenerate as I am, Kaoru.”

“No one is as much of a degenerate as you are, moron.”

“You’ve fantasized about fucking in my restaurant’s kitchen, haven’t you?”

Kaoru made a genuinely affronted noise, “You prepare food for guests in there.”

“Sure, we wouldn’t do it in the kitchen, but there’s a closet with no food back there.”

“I will pour ink on you.”

“As if you’d waste precious ink.”

Maybe it was that it was easy. But wasn’t that the problem?

Always going for what was easy.

Yet, maybe it wasn’t that at all.

 

There are these quiet things: the way he didn’t question it when Kojiro held him too tightly after they had sex, as if unwilling to let him go. The way that Kojiro didn’t question when Kaoru savagely sunk his teeth into the bold black ink on his shoulder sometimes when he fucked him. The way that Kojiro brushed his hair gently from his face in the moments they were catching their breath. The way that Kaoru kissed him with single minded intent, gentle and nearly beseeching and horribly adoring, whenever he knew that Kojiro had a bad day.

Sometimes he wondered. And sometimes he thought they were simply falling back into old habits, or simply still furious at each other, a quietly simmering thing.

 

“Pretty,” Kojiro was staring up at him, eyes hooded and arms hooked over Kaoru’s shoulders while Kaoru’s arms were straining with the effort of holding Kojiro’s legs so he could keep him at the perfect angle (sure, they could use a pillow, but he enjoyed the challenge). He watched as Kojiro’s eyes fluttered when thrust in harder than was necessary and rolled his hips flush against his ass.

“Come again?” it was mean, to prompt him to talk right at this moment, but what were they but mean to each other at inconvenient times?

It took Kojiro several moments to open his eyes and Kaoru wanted to laugh at the low whine he let out because Kaoru had stopped moving entirely, content to wait. For now. “You’re pretty.”

“Oh? a slow shift of his hips. He could feel Kojiro’s nails bite briefly against his scalp.

“Always thought you were,” it was said as it an afterthought, mouth falling open as Kaoru started to build back into the rhythm  that Kojiro liked best.

Always thought you were . Kaoru thought about it for a spare few moments, before discarding it and focusing his attention on making Kojiro come so hard that he would squeeze Kaoru to his chest and his torso would twist on the bed and they’d nearly end up in a different position than missionary.

 

Seasons bled together when you were an adult. Quickly, the holiday season descended upon them, and Kaoru was working ceaselessly with the influx of orders and wishes for gifts and whatnot. Kojiro was similarly busy, he knew, with increased traffic to their restaurant.

So they worked, as adults did.

And, if for a fraction of a moment several days before Christmas, he had seen a bracelet in display case of a store that reminded him of Kojiro and he had wanted, with a fierceness that caught him off guard, to buy it for him as a holiday gift, well. It was only for a fraction of a moment, the compulsion there and then gone as if it had never existed.

He did send Kojiro a bottle of vintage alcohol, however, along with a fruit basket for his family. In return, he wasn’t at all surprised to receive his favorite brand of sake on his doorstep.

Christmas was whiled away with Carla, tinkering with his board and occasionally responding to well wishes in the form of text messages. In the midafternoon he received a text from Kojiro that simply said Merry Christmas , and he returned it in kind, and continued working, quiet music carrying through the air from his speakers.

When he received a call from his parents, who were in another country again, he answered.

As with many things regarding Kojiro these days, Kaoru found that he should have been more surprised when Kojiro texted him on the day before the new year, asking if he wanted to attend a temple together the next morning as the sun was rising. They hadn’t done such a thing since they were teenagers, they were quite literally physically unable to for years at a time, then, but Kaoru didn’t find the idea repulsive, therefore he said yes, and continued cleaning his home.

When they met early the next morning, Kaoru prompted him to tell him about his family, which Kojiro did with a soothing amount of unrelenting affection, adoration, and warmth. His parents were well and wished to see him. The twins missed each other terribly when they were at university but they were excelling in their classes and looking forward to the next steps of their respective careers, which would ideally be rooted in the same city so that they could be near each other again. In fact, the twins also wished to see Kaoru, as it had been years.

“Maybe,” Kaoru said when Kojiro said, for maybe the fifth time over the past year, that he should consider visiting the Nanjo family home.

Kojiro smiled, understanding in his gaze, and Kaoru looked away.

The temple was busy, as was to be expected, and they waited in line together, the ebb and flow of their conversation natural, with Kaoru simply following along when Kojiro would shift subjects from one thing to another, constantly in motion. They didn’t exactly argue —— it was the first day of the new year and they were at a temple, after all, and it wasn’t as though all of their conversations descended into yelling at each other about miscellaneous things.

Imagine how exhausting that would be.

They kneeled together to pray and give their wishes for the new year and when they stood up to make room for the elderly couple behind them, the sun was starting to rise. As they descended the steep staircase, reds and golds began to break through the dusky sky as the new year was born, and Kojiro stopped to watch it, shifting to the side to let other people pass them. He had always loved watching the sun rise on the first of January, ever since they were children.

It was, objectively, beautiful. The sort of thing that artists tried again and again to capture in their art, or otherwise never attempted out of fear of ruining such a delicate, perfect sight.

Kaoru looked at Kojiro, eyes wide and excited and a gentle, thoughtless smile on his face, head tilted just so, watching as the new year arrived with a childlike wonder that reminded him sharply of every other time he had watched Kojiro, precisely like this, throughout their lives. Sunlight slanted over his face and cast him in warm hues, which always suited him better anyways, and his smile only widened as the sun truly began to crest over the horizon.

The thought was stunning in its clarity and simplicity, utterly without preamble: it should have been surprising but wasn’t.

I love you .

 

(“Kaoru?”

“Hmm?”

“You okay? You’ve been staring off for a while.”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“I was going to make soba, if you wanted to come over.”

“Well, it is traditional.”)

 

Romance novels and movies and otherwise forms of media were trite at best and absurd at worst. Kaoru had always disliked them on principle, to which Kojiro would tell him that he was just a pretentious snot, and Kaoru would say that he just had no taste considering all of the manga that he read when they were teenagers.

There was no such thing as organically recreating moments that existed in fantasy, it was called fiction for a reason.

Kaoru had always thought that they got the concept of love wrong, anyways. There was always a prerequisite level of agonizing that, apparently, had to be done. Moreso when that love extended to a close friend or confidante, to the point of melodrama that was outright painful to watch.

Loving wasn’t hard. It was compromise that was.

It wasn’t as though loving Nanjo Kojiro (again, as though he had never stopped) was an especially earth shattering thought. It did not alter the entirety of his worldview, nor did it stand to ruin his life.

Being in love with Kojiro felt like skateboarding at S. It was certainly thrilling and came with a measure of fear that any legitimately sane person would have, staring down at the track, and it came with a baseline of frenetic energy that made him feel like he was a teenager again, as if a decade of age had just melted away from him.

It was all of those things, but most of all: it was simply another facet of his routine.

Maybe Kaoru should a least try to be surprised, if only for his own sake, but it was hard to be surprised by something that he had seen coming. This was the problem with them, the natural give and take of their friendship and their mutual attraction facilitated romantic affection because they were highly compatible with each other.

What a thoroughly romantic way to put it. But it was the most truthful, least emotionally charged way to describe it.

The furious boundaries that he had enacted when they had first fallen into bed with each other after years of silence and he had refused, pointblank, to be friends with Kojiro were technically self-protective in nature. Though, at the time he hadn’t thought himself especially at risk for falling in love with the idiot again. It had been primarily out of sheer rage that he hadn’t wanted any level of emotional closeness nor vulnerability with the man.

Being friends with him again meant that Kaoru had to acknowledge that there was a nonzero chance that he would love him again. Denial was absurd, after all, and Kaoru didn’t much like to fall victim to such trifles.

Of course it wasn’t the most dramatic conclusion he had reached in the entirety of his life. It had been like this last time, as well, though then they had shifted from friends with benefits to romantic partners because Kaoru had felt more a petulant level of possession in regards to Kojiro and had, selfishly in the way that adolescents do, wanted to occupy the entirety of his attention. This time it was less that he wanted to occupy the entirety of his attention (though there was, admittedly, that factor lingering somewhere, because while he had grown up he was still moderately selfish) it was simply that he loved him.

Loved him in a simple way, a physical way, an emotional way. He wanted Kojiro at the most base level and the most complicated one, wanted him entirely and utterly. He wanted to listen to him talk about his day and the way warmth flooded his voice when he talked about his family and the rambling way he talked about new recipes and the passionate way that he talked about skateboarding. He wanted to laugh whenever Kojiro would drop a bag of flour and be covered in it, he wanted to be the first one to taste test any of his recipes. He wanted Kojiro to wipe ink off of his face with adoration burning in his eyes. He wanted to kiss him good morning and good night and throughout the afternoon. He wanted to step into the blazing heat of his arms and be held tightly and wanted to hold him tightly in return. He wanted to take him apart savagely and put him back together tenderly, and he wanted Kojiro to do the same to him.

Kaoru wanted him to be happy. Selflessly so and selfishly so. He wanted to facilitate anything and everything to make Kojiro happy, yet at the same time he wanted to be the cause of his happiness.

Love was a contradiction. And it was exhausting. A realization without fanfare. Simply a realization, another fact that he had to take into consideration. Something else that he would have to say, eventually, but he wanted to sit on it, first. Not out of fear, but because these feelings were his, and he was not a reckless rebellious adolescent any longer, fraying at the edges to profess every last thing.

But: sometimes he caught Kojiro watching him and wondered.

 

(And perhaps some small part of him, the part that was always wracked with anxiety, feared that if he were to split this open once more, undo the ragged stitches and let loose the scream that has been building in his throat for months and years, he would never be able to stop. That he would not stop pouring, that no mountain could ever form from this torrential current.

How terrible.)

 

With spring came melting snow and S, and a young man that was still mostly a boy asking for a job and the recognition of how he stood on a skateboard outside of Kaoru’s art studio, wavering and intent and falling. And another young man that was still mostly a boy, or maybe more a bright spark of energy laughing alongside him.

It was the strangest sequence of events that Kaoru had ever borne witness to, regardless of the fact that Kojiro had been his best friend in adolescence and his closest friend even now: to profess belief in this child that was a snowboarder rather than a skateboarder and to watch, bemused, as he prove himself gloriously. Kaoru was rarely wrong, though even he found himself to be surprised by it.

Kojiro laughed disbelievingly when Kaoru told him the next day when they met for lunch. “He taped the skateboard to his feet? No way, I can’t believe that I missed this.”

“Your loss,” Kaoru said, sipping on his tea. His feet moved out of the way when Kojiro went to kick him. “What? You chose to go on a date rather than go to S.”

“It wasn’t a date,” Kojiro’s shoulders were raised slightly, the way they always did when he got defensive.

“You have a hickey on your neck you imbecile,” he pressed the edge of the cup against his mouth, doing nothing at all to hide the sardonic smile on his face when Kojiro clapped his hand to his neck over the faint mark. “Are you a teenager? Who leaves marks?”

“You do,” Kojiro grumbled, hand dropping to his flank where Kaoru had, indeed, left a mark last time they slept together.

“I don’t leave them anywhere visible.”

“I’m practically shirtless skateboarding, genius.”

“And whose fault is that, gorilla?”

Kojiro made an irritated noise and darted forward to steal a piece of sushi off of Kaoru’s plate, much to his displeasure. “ Anyways , how did Shadow react?”

“Poorly,” Kaoru said simply with a shrug as he picked up his chopsticks again, and smacked them against Kojiro’s when he went in for more of his food. “Stop that, you glutton, if you ate slower you’d still have some left.”

“Not my fault you’ve always been dainty about eating,” Kojiro did kick him, this time, though it was more nudge than kick. “Who needs to eat at a glacial pace?”

“I do.”

“Right, you’re an ice queen.”

“Do you want to hear more about last night or not?”

Kojiro dropped his chopsticks onto his plate with a clatter with a roll of his eyes and leaned back, bracing his hands against the back of his head, elbows spread wide, knees hooked beneath the table as he obviously as leaning on the back legs of the chair. Kaoru almost wanted to push him over. “Fine, fine , go on.”

 

And then there was the frankly absurd improvement of Hasegawa Langa and then the attentions of Adam (Kaoru still hadn’t learned to let go of a grudge easily, after all, and he resented people growing tired of him) and then a goddamn tournament and.

Kojiro knowing him best, always.

 

“I’m here for work , not to cater to your every whim.”

“Right, that’s why you spent the day at the beach.”

“I was invited here a day early to enjoy the sights, you idiot. Don’t you have a restaurant to run?”

“Well, you see, I own it, so I can take a day off whenever the books allow. I thought you were the brainiac here.”

An annoyed noise, “Don’t you have women to pick up? Surely one of them will sleep with you.”

“Of course,” there was that familiar smugness, “but you’re right here,” fingers brushed along his arm and he could feel himself reacting, “and I’ve been thinking about you since the beach.”

“Oh, am I not just Kaoru ?”

A kiss against his shoulder, lingering. “Yeah, you’re just Kaoru.”

He wanted to kiss him. “I’ll think about it if you say please.”

Teeth against his shoulder, a warning bite, but he could feel Kojiro’s grin. “Please, Kaoru,” against his ear, a whisper and a breath. “Please,” not quite a moan, but bleeding into.

Kaoru kissed him.

 

Would they make each other happy? Would they be happy, together?

Kaoru was a pendulum. Swinging between the two extremes, uncertain which option was the most likely. He had stayed with Kojiro even when they were both unhappy and if they had stayed together, he doubted they would’ve made each other happy, in the end. But now was different from then. They were different in ways that mattered, and the same in ways that mattered, too.

It was a stupid question, really.

They could make each other happy. And wasn’t that what mattered, in the end? Nothing was definitive. Nothing was finite. Nothing was absolute. It wasn’t like inventing. Kaoru could disassemble and reassemble Carla a thousand times and each time she would turn out the same, or improved —— it was significantly harder to do that with human relationships.

Kaoru could choose, here. He has always had the ability and autonomy to choose, throughout most of his life, certainly all of his adult life.

It was simply that he always chose Kojiro, in the end.

That was a facet of love.

 

Precisely when Kojiro stopped sleeping around at his leisure Kaoru didn’t know, but it was easy to tell if you were looking for the signs. Kojiro still arrived at S with gaggles of women, still put his arm around their shoulders and their waists, but he didn’t hold quite as tightly or posessively, kept his hand high on their waist or draped harmlessly over their shoulder. It was a slight difference that most people wouldn’t notice, subtle enough that everyone presumed that Joe was simply being Joe, but the women laughed less flirtatiously and, when it seemed like no one was talking, they were always talking more quietly.

It could have been that Kojiro had fallen for one of them, that was a perfectly reasonable conclusion, but it was the incorrect one.

Kojiro kissed him with breathless abandon and Kaoru wondered.

 

In the end, it was because Kojiro was doing the most mundane thing imaginable: bringing him tea after nearly fucking him unconscious, because it was the polite thing to do and Kaoru forced a modicum of manners into him years ago.

Oh, very well, perhaps not the most mundane thing imaginable, but it was up there.

Kojiro was looking at him with that odd expression, the one that he was getting more and more frequently after its relative absence: a crooked smile and unlined brows and something like affection mingling with a peculiar sort of sadness and intent care. Kaoru recognized it from when they were teenagers, too. From when they had been together.

The thing about Kojiro was that for all that he was occasionally mean and arrogant and loved women sometimes beyond sense, there was an intensity about him with every little thing he did. From the way that he skateboarded to the way that he cooked to the way that he fucked. Even now, one knee on the bed and holding out a cup of tea that Kaoru knew already was his favorite blend, brewed to perfection, because he could smell it over the pervasive smell of sex and because he knew that Kojiro was well practiced at making cups of tea, there was that intensity about him.

Moonlight slanted over his bare skin. It didn’t suit him as well as sunlight, and Kaoru thought that was a shame, but also thought that while it didn’t suit him as well it enhanced parts of him that the sun blocked out. Like the line of his shoulders, the tiredness in his eyes, the soft set of his mouth which meant that he wanted to say something but wasn’t going to.

An infuriating man.

So Kaoru took the cup offered to him and held Kojiro’s gaze as he took a sip and then said, “I love you.”

Kojiro didn’t look surprised. Of course he didn’t. But the set of his jaw shifted, melted, lightened, and his head tilted to the side and his fingers spasmed at his side. They watched each other for several long moments, and Kaoru drank more of the tea in the interim. He had made his way through half of the cup before Kojiro said, “I’ve always loved you, Kaoru.”

He knew it was the truth, to a point. In hindsight, knowing what he knew now and knowing Kojiro for all of this time, he knew that Kojiro had loved him for ages, for a lifetime. He had loved him when they were teenagers, when he watched Kaoru get his lip piercing, when he touseled his hair as an excuse to touch him. Kojiro had loved him when they kissed for the first time, had loved him throughout at least most of their relationship. Kaoru supposed that he could be called cruel for how he conducted himself, but enough introspection and consideration of his past and how his world had intertwined itself so utterly with Kojiro informed him summarily and without a doubt that he had loved him, too.

Not always. Not tirelessly. Not with full acknowledgement on his part, but he had loved Kojiro most of that time.

Because Kaoru wanted to be contrary, because they had to talk about things if they wanted to communicate, and because he liked being difficult when it came to Kojiro, he said, “That’s blatantly untrue.”

“What?” there: more shout than question, and Kojiro looked mortally offended again as he climbed onto the bed properly and practically sat on Kaoru’s legs. Their knees bumped together.

“You certainly didn’t love me when we met.”

“I thought you were the prettiest person I’d ever seen!”

“We were eleven, Kojiro.”

“Yeah, and then I realized that you were also the most aggravating person I’ve ever met.”

“You didn’t love me when we broke up.”

Kojiro groaned, rubbing his eyes, “You don’t know that, Kaoru —— are we always going to go back to that?”

Kaoru raised an eyebrow, “A breakup is fairly significant.”

“But it wasn’t entirely my fault,” he sounded both stubborn and pleading.

“No, it wasn’t,” Kaoru conceded easily, because they had been young and stupid and terrible at communicating with each other, and because, then and now, Kaoru had always made broad, sweeping assumptions that he believed were fact. It wasn’t fair, certainly. The funny thing was that they were still young and stupid, just several years older, no longer precocious teenagers clinging to each other as if daring the world to tear them apart.

Kojiro watched him and Kaoru watched him in return for a few moments, and it was oddly easier to breathe, now.

“You didn’t love me when we met again after years, I’d say that you disliked me more than anything.”

“Do you always have to be so difficult?” Kojiro sounded annoyed, but took the cup from Kaoru’s hand gently and leaned over to set it on the floor. “I didn’t dislike you, you disliked me when we met again and you’re projecting.”

Kaoru hummed, disbelieving, as Kojiro straightened up again and pulled Kaoru closer. He settled his legs on either side of Kojiro’s hips, enjoying the closeness and straightforward intimacy.

“Okay, I disliked you a little bit,” Kojiro said after a moment. “Can you blame me? It sucked that you weren’t interested in my career or my life outside of you.”

“I was interested in your career,” Kaoru said, absently tracing a finger down the center of Kojiro’s chest. “I just wanted your career to bring you back to Japan as soon as possible,” he pressed his palm against Kojiro’s abs, fingers curling around what he could reach of his side. “But I wasn’t interested in your life outside of me, no.”

“Brat,” Kojiro said with fondness. “My friends in Italy are nice, you know. So are the ones in Paris.”

“Italy was supposed to be transient and Paris wasn’t supposed to happen at all,” Kaoru watched as Kojiro took his hand and pressed his thumbs against his palm gently. It was a soothing touch. “You were supposed to come back to me quickly.”

“I have a life outside of you now, y’know. Friends, people in the restaurant industry, groups that I’d like you to meet.”

“I know,” Kaoru said, because it was the truth. “I’d like to meet them. And introduce you to my friends, though I’m sure you’re going to embarrass me in front of them.”

“Probably,” Kojiro was grinning, a gently sloping thing.

“You should’ve told me,” Kaoru was sorry to see the grin go, though hopefully it’d return sooner rather than later, “you should’ve talked to me. I can’t know if something is wrong if you don’t tell me, idiot.”

It was Kojiro’s turn to sigh and say, “I know. I didn’t know what else to do, so I pulled away from you.”

For a moment he looked so pathetic that Kaoru felt obligated to lean forward and kiss him. It was meant to be fleeting and chaste, but they both sunk into it, mouths sliding against each other, and his chest felt overly full. The constant thrum of anxiety in the back of his mind was quieter, now.

He had forgiven him some time ago. This was one piece of resentment that he could let go of —— that he had to let go of.

“I still loved you through all of it,” Kojiro said against his mouth. “No matter what you’ve convinced yourself to think, I loved you first and always.”

Kaoru felt a sudden rush of emotion and he exhaled shakily, leaning away from Kojiro. “Sentimental fool.”

There was that grin again, that quiet laugh, “Always so romantic.”

Kojiro leaned forward and they kissed again. His hands were massive and warm against Kaoru’s hips and he ran his fingers through Kojiro’s hair slowly, adoringly, knees squeezing at his sides.

“Hey, four-eyes.”

“What is it, you imbecile?”

“Let’s give it another shot.”

He sighed, as if put upon. “Oh, very well.”

Kojiro snorted and bit Kaoru’s lower lip, unerringly finding where his piercing used to be. He laughed when Kaoru swatted harmlessly at him to make him stop. “I love you.”

“I love you.”

 

(When morning came, Kaoru woke up after a spare few hours of sleep to Kojiro brushing his thumb beneath his eye, as though he were swiping away an eyelash or a stray piece of hair. It had been a while since he had woken up in Kojiro’s arms, and he realized with sharp acuity that he had missed it, in the interim. Another thing that wasn’t at all surprising, but that he had let be dismissed and fall to the wayside.

They looked at each other for several long moments, even though Kojiro looked blurry because Kaoru had taken out his contacts before they had settled down to sleep, and Kaoru reached up to trace the line of his jaw. Kojiro smiled and leaned down to kiss him.

“Good morning,” Kojiro’s voice didn’t dare break the tenuous peace of morning.

“Morning,” Kaoru felt terribly, horribly overwhelmed with love.

He pulled Kojiro down to kiss him again, never mind the displeasure of morning breath. It was an afterthought when their legs were tangled and Kojiro’s body was a warm heavy weight against and then on top of his.

A few moments or maybe minute or maybe hours later, Kojiro chuckled, breaking their kiss.

“What?” Kaoru said around a sigh.

“Now you have to see my family again,” Kojiro said, eyes glittering. “This time I can introduce you as my boyfriend, finally.”

Kaoru was caught between the desire to laugh and the desire to sigh again, and ended up doing both, practically collapsing back against the bed, head tipped back. He tilted to accommodate Kojiro when he leaned down to start kissing his jaw and neck and he clicked his tongue, passing the arch of his foot over Kojiro’s calf.

“Yes, I know.”

“Love you,” Kojiro said into his skin.

Kaoru turned and blindly pressed his mouth just in front of Kojro’s ear. He hadn’t stopped smiling since he woke up. “I love you.”)

Love is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving —— a choice we make over and over again. If love if sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is that act that returns us to love.
        — Valarie Kaur