Hakkai grimaced and cleaned his glasses again, pretending to be displeased with an imagined smudge on the lenses rather than the green-haired know-it-all seated across from him.
“… and so I tell her,” he was saying, gesturing wildly enough to make the little cafe table quiver, and making Hakkai grab his cup of decaf to keep it from tipping over, “Hey, you can’t give me a zero just because you didn’t make the assignment interesting enough! I mean, seriously, how do these teachers expect us to learn if we’re bored out of our minds?” Hakkai pushed his glasses back on as the other man slapped the table. “And what does history have to do with art, anyway? I’m the great Zakuro! I got too much star power for boring shit like that!” Hakkai winced at the bridge of his glasses as he pushed them back on, because this was the third time this man had called himself great in this conversation.
Curse Sanzo for cajoling him into this, and a pox on himself for going along with it.
“Truth be told,” Hakkai admitted, desperately wanting to avoid the ‘well, actually’ that itched at the back of his throat, “I can understand why one might feel that way. However, it’s liberal learning, and history, in particular, that helps us understand where we came from so that we might understand where we’re going.”
“Eh.” Zakuro sniffed and smoothed his hair back from his face with a flat palm, preening just a little, but all Hakkai could see were the sloppy, uneven roots of his dye job. “I’d rather make my own path, y'know? Hashtag trailblazing.”
Hakkai forced a wobbly smile, as if this person hadn’t just said “hashtag” out loud. He just had to pretend this young man was as witty and charming as he thought he was until his coffee cup was empty and the plate of biscotti was gone. That would hopefully be enough that this person wouldn’t bad-mouth him to Sanzo’s beau, who had arranged this date with him through Sanzo. Then, he would vanish into the twilight as quickly as he could, forget this ever happened and hope his path never crossed Zakuro’s again. He should have known this was a mistake from the start. He’d been single for two years, why had he thought he’d enjoy trying again? Not even with Sanzo’s assurance that the young man he’d been seeing, Goku, knew plenty of interesting people he could meet had he thought this was a good idea, but when he’d waited fifteen minutes just for this wild-haired, wild-eyed ‘artist’ to stroll up, smirking, drape himself over the chair like a discarded jacket and immediately say, “You’re a coffee and cream type? How about the great Zakuro orders you something more interesting, yeah?” Hakkai’s confidence collapsed completely. All of Sanzo’s sideways looks and snide remarks about how he needed to put himself back out there felt awfully hypocritical; if this was the kind of person Sanzo had thought he could be ‘out there’ with then he seriously needed to re-evaluate his definition of 'out there.’
“I suppose you’re a bit like the other freshmen I tutor,” Hakkai remarked, resisting the urge to clean his glasses again if only so he could avoid eye contact. Zakuro had spent the entirety of their conversation consistently redirecting things to him, so if Hakkai intended to remain in the conversation at all, it would likely be wise to keep the focus where Zakuro seemed insistent it remain: upon himself. Zakuro looked thoroughly offended.
“Hey, don’t you lump me in with the rest of the frosh.” He tugged the lapels of his patent-leather blazer (which Hakkai had already seen had a very loud cross-stitching of a neon pink and green tiger on the back of it, classy). “I’m on a HNL, whole 'nother level.”
Hakkai managed not to cringe at that. “I only meant that because you’re early in your college journey, you may not recognize the importance and value of some of your liberal learning courses.” Hakkai busied himself stirring his coffee, pretending he’d put any sugar in it that might have settled. Zakuro, too, stirred his bright blue and pink smoothie concoction, then took a long, noisy sip from the straw. Zakuro had tried to order him what he called a “space unicorn surprise” as well, but Hakkai could just imagine the cavities coming and declined, to an annoyed-looking sneer. The self-same sneer Zakuro was wearing now.
“Oh, I see the importance. It’s something I can blow off while keeping my credits up. What, is that what your, uh, tutoring is for, you’re a tutor?”
Finally, he was asking about Hakkai! Wasn’t that part of the mating game, or was this preening, bloated Hinderberg of an ego too beyond that? Hakkai tried not to sigh and turned it to a smile. “I’m a TA and a tutor. That’s where I know Sanzo from, he tutors the literature and writing programs and I tutor the sciences.”
“Science?” Zakuro smirked. “I should have guessed.” He took another noisy slurp from his artificially-bright drink. “You seemed like the studying type. Lemme guess, got the glasses from squinting down a telescope at microns all day?”
Hakkai pursed his lips. “Er. No. It would be a microscope, and no microscope I have access to on a regular basis would allow me to view microns, and degenerative vision runs in my family. I’m merely nearsighted.” He hesitated. “Nearsighted in the left eye. I received an injury to my right eye that resulted in astigmatism.” Hakkai took off his glasses again, smiling as he always did when he explained things (and not at all because he was happy his vision was too blurry to see Zakuro looking down past his drink at his phone screen again). “You might notice the right lens is a bit thicker. That’s all it is. Though, I suppose the 'nerd with glasses’ stereotype exists for a reason.” He pushed his glasses back up his nose, just as Zakuro chortled, reclined in his chair a little more, and gestured flippantly.
“Well, it suits you, anyway. Some folks are way into the hot librarian thing, and I can see the appeal.” He waggled an eyebrow, smirking suggestively. “So, what kind of science is it you do, anyway?”
“Biological sciences.” Zakuro snorted, and Hakkai flattened his expression, but explained despite his instinct to give up on impressing anything onto Zakuro. “I’m working through the graduate degree program in chemical biology, though I hope to transition into the doctorate program once I receive my Master’s for a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology, specializing in the study of living cells interacting with chemicals. I’m somewhat passionate about the development of new pharmaceuticals–”
“Passionate? About chemicals and cells? Jeez, have you ever experienced real passion?” Zakuro wagged his eyebrow again. “Truth be told, all this science stuff is, uh, interesting, but what I really wanna know is why someone like you is getting set up by friends.”
Hakkai nearly answered, jaw falling open a moment, before he forced it shut and forced a nervous laugh. “Er, I suppose it’s because I’m single.” Humoring this young man was getting tiresome. Hakkai wished he could be talking to literally anyone else. Sanzo, for one, he was a sourpuss but he was interesting, and he’d met Goku twice and found him delightful, his students, as recalcitrant as they could be, even the long-haired man in the leather jacket strolling into the coffee shop would likely be better than this. Zakuro, meanwhile, just chuckled.
“Well, yeah, but you’re hot. You should have no trouble getting some.”
“Er.” Hakkai’s glasses slid down his nose, and he found himself lost for words yet again. “I, er, haven’t really been trying to date. A friend offered to set me up, so here I am. You don’t seem like the type to have trouble talking to people and getting dates, I admit, but–”
“Dates?” Zakuro laughed aloud at this. “The great Zakuro doesn’t date.” He leaned over the table, gesturing between them with his pinky and thumb. “The great Zakuro hooks up.” Hakkai felt something cold set in his chest, and found himself involuntarily leaning back and away. Zakuro’s ability to read body language was surely on par with his ability to keep up with his history homework, as he leaned in. “Come on, baby, I’ve been advertising the goods, you gotta get a sample. You might be boring, but you’re hot, I’m hot, and I bet things could be a lot more interesting with our clothes off.”
Hakkai grimaced again, shutting his eyes tight as he wound up to do something he was going to regret, but just as he got ready to tell his friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend precisely how interesting his palm was as he drove it up into this Zakuro’s nosebone as remittance for getting into his personal space without permission, a sonorous voice cut the tension like a guillotine:
“Here you are!” The long-haired man in the leather jacket was behind Zakuro, and waving at him. Hakkai’s eyes widened, and as grateful as he was for someone to have intervened, he began to wonder if he should know this person. He immediately mused that he just might want to. The man was a simple sort of attractive, long limbs, tan skin, red hair sleek and well-kept (and if it was dyed that color, Hakkai couldn’t tell). He grinned, crooked and wild like a wolf, then cocked his head sheepishly. “I drive Lyft, I was caught up in traffic making a drop-off. You’re Hakkai, right?” He extended a hand, right over Zakuro’s shoulder. “I’m Gojyo. You’re here for the blind date, right?”
Hakkai felt like he’d been unchained when he shook Gojyo’s hand, and he quickly turned his attention back on Zakuro, with a vengeance. “Excuse me, did you poach me from my proper date?”
Zakuro sputtered, gesturing wildly and making the table shake, and Hakkai lifted his coffee cup again so he could finish the last few sips. “I – I told you! My friend, Goku – he –!!”
“You yourself admitted moments ago you don’t 'date,’ so why would you accept a blind date?” Hakkai calmly set his coffee cup down. “I am tremendously sorry for the waste of your time. If you’ll excuse me, I believe I have business with this gentleman.” Hakkai rose, taking the last biscotti and turning for his jacket. “I’m afraid I’ve finished my coffee, Gojyo, but perhaps we could continue this elsewhere?”
“I’ve got just the place in mind.” Gojyo picked Hakkai’s jacket up for him and held it out, and Hakkai offered him the biscotti as Zakuro gaped, dumbstruck but finally, finally quiet as Gojyo, crunching on the biscotti with satisfaction, escorted Hakkai out into the twilight chill.
The sky smelled a little bit of snow, but Hakkai was barely breathing air as Gojyo held the door for him. The moment the door closed, though, Hakkai finally heaved relief. “Thank you – from the bottom of my very soul – for the rescue.” Gojyo chuckled as he wiped the crumbs from the corners of his mouth, then led Hakkai on with a shrug.
“I heard enough of that conversation. It sounded to me like you really needed an 'out.'”
“You can’t imagine.” Hakkai shook his head, stopping as Gojyo did beside a motorcycle. “He’s a colleague’s boyfriend’s friend, and I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression on my colleague’s beau.” Gojyo chuckled generously, shrugging again.
“I understand, believe me, I’ve been on my share of bad dates looking at girls staring at me just like you were at that guy. The difference is, that’s when I back off, tell her I can see she’s not feeling it and offer to walk her to her car.” He exhaled slowly, condensation forming smoke around his lips that carried the faint scent of clove cigarettes and cologne. “On that note…”
“Oh.” Hakkai realized he’d been staring at Gojyo and quickly dodged his gaze, pushing his hair from his eyes and shuffling his feet. “Ah, I took the bus, so…”
“I was gonna offer you a ride.” Gojyo gestured to the bike, then opened the tank bag and took out a second helmet. “And it doesn’t have to be wherever you call home, though if you’re tired and that’s where you wanna go, I’m game, but I wasn’t kidding about taking you out.” He grinned again, roguish and wild, as he popped one helmet on. “Night like this sounds great for a ride, don'cha think? Not too cold, clear skies.” Gojyo gestured to the road and the horizon. “Let me take you to the overlook, the stars are gorgeous on nights like this.”
Hakkai no longer felt the winter chill. Instead, he felt the tiny, tiny buzz of a decaf cup of coffee drank too late in the evening turn into a roaring blaze, and found himself smiling. “I might not be too tired for a ride.” Gojyo offered him the helmet, and Hakkai snapped it on. Gojyo reached in and adjusted it a little, then motioned to Hakkai’s ear.
“Don’t wanna mess with your glasses, but they’re a little crooked.”
“Oh, thank you.” Hakkai hadn’t even realized his vision had gotten blurry; he was far too busy taking in Gojyo’s natural, easy smile. He was exactly the kind of smooth Zakuro wished he was, and with Gojyo effecting cool confidence without even trying, he found it perfectly charming. Gojyo nodded approval as Hakkai put his glasses back in place, grin spreading a little broader.
“Yeah, you’re gonna wanna see this.” Gojyo mounted first, then patted the seat behind him. “Arches of your feet on the little bars, and wrap your arms tight around my waist. I’ll keep ya safe.”
“I think you’ve made me safe enough tonight.”
Gojyo’s jacket smelled strongly of him, those clove cigarettes and a cologne like oak and cool water, and Hakkai pressed his nose into the leather on his shoulder as he mounted the bike and wrapped his arms around Gojyo’s waist. His body was firm and muscular through his clothes, though he was perfectly relaxed. The motorcycle rumbled and revved to life, and Hakkai felt something he could only compare to his heart restarting as they took off into the night. Hakkai swore he could hear Zakuro whining something on the sidewalk behind them, but the roar of the engine drowned him out, and Hakkai let his head rest on Gojyo’s shoulder as the wind carried them away.
Hakkai hadn’t realized a ride like this could be so thrilling. Gojyo’s steering was as smooth as his attitude, taking the curves with ease as they wound through the city streets to the outskirts and up a steep hill. Hakkai briefly wondered if he should have worried about coming to an isolated place with a stranger, until Gojyo put his leg down at a stop sign and grabbed his cell out, then spoke up over the hum of the motor:
“Mind if I get a quick photo to send my roommate? Figure I’ll show him I’m alive and explain why I’m late with one shot.”
Hakkai felt a little relief at knowing Gojyo was just as aware of the situation as he was. “Say when.” He smoothed his hair and fixed his glasses, smiling just in time for Gojyo to put his thumb on the button and hit it. Gojyo tucked his phone away as a car pulled up behind the motorcycle and sped on without showing Hakkai the picture. “I’ll text my colleague when we get where we’re going,” Hakkai told Gojyo, and Gojyo nodded to show he’d heard, smirking just a little.
“Sounds like a good idea. I thought you looked smart.” Then, he hit the throttle.
The overlook Gojyo had meant turned out to be a hilltop with a “Scenic View” sign, a fenced in field and a few picnic tables, but Hakkai knew in an instant that Gojyo had wanted to show him what was beyond the fence: the advertised scenic view. Hakkai could see the entire college town from here, the stately buildings of the college lit up in the early evening and still just faintly pink and rich purple from the last stretching rays from sunset, the criss-cross of streetlights in the shopping district and the glimmering lights off of the river near the bridge. The park had a few other cars around, a few people milling near the fences, but Gojyo parked his motorcycle right in the grass and helped Hakkai down, then led him to the fence. “See? Here’s what I mean.” He pointed skywards, and Hakkai tipped his head back to see a kaleidoscope of stars, like a flock of fireflies cascading westward. Hakkai had to clean his glasses again to see them just that much more clearly, as Gojyo stood close, hands tucked in his jacket pockets, and watched the sky beside him. “It’s hard to see sometimes. I came here on accident once, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen, so now I keep coming back.”
“I see.” Hakkai nodded a few times. “There’s less light pollution up here – er, less electric lights, more natural darkness. More starlight shines through when there aren’t any other light barriers.”
“Oh?” Gojyo turned his attention to Hakkai, intrigued. “Is that what it is? I knew that was kinda how it worked, but didn’t know why.” Then, he grinned. “You are smart, huh? You into science?”
Hakkai felt pleasure ripple through him like a dewdrop off of a day lily. “Not astronomy specifically, but yes. Biological and chemical science. I’m working my way towards a doctorate.”
“That’s super cool. I wish I were smart enough for that stuff.” He fidgeted in his pocket. “You mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
“Thanks, man.” He lit up with a few practiced motions, and blew a smoke ring out towards the town before looking back to the stars. “Wish I could say the same. I’m just in the GED program – long story – but it’ll get me an Associate’s in liberal learning if I follow through.”
“Ah. I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.” Hakkai nodded a few times, daring to glance to Gojyo again. “Liberal learning is incredibly valuable.”
“Oh yeah, I missed out on so much being a moron in high school.” Gojyo grinned with all his teeth, hunching his shoulders with a little bit of embarrassment. “I figure I’m still figuring out where I’m going, and the more I know, the better I’ll be able to figure out what I wanna know. I’m a little jealous you already know where you’re going.”
“I don’t.” Hakkai turned his attention skywards again. “Not always. Tonight, you saw.”
“Yeah.” Gojyo scrunched his nose. “I can relate. Honestly, I’ve been out of the dating scene for a while, like I heard you tell that asshole back there.”
“Ah?” Hakkai stiffened warily.
“Yeah.” Gojyo blew another smoke ring, then dropped his spent butt and stamped the cherry out in the dirt. “Well, I mentioned I dated girls, but there was this guy – happened to be the one who convinced me to drop out of high school – who convinced me, 'how do you know you don’t like it unless ya try it?’ And that led to four years of what I can look back on now and say were a long series of the biggest mistakes of my life. Left me in my twenties, working on a GED and at a 4 on the Kinsey scale after narrowly escaping a felony charge for burglary, not to mention all the shit I didn’t get caught doing.” He held Hakkai’s gaze a moment. “One-nighters are way safer when sticking with one person happens to mean sticking with someone who’s holding you back.”
“Ah.” Hakkai took this in, realizing Gojyo wanted him to know exactly what he might be getting into, not demanding his own sordid tale. “You’ve read Kinsey, then?”
Gojyo chuckled and shuffled his feet in the dirt, glowing a little like the stars overhead. “A few articles. Turns out, Psych 101 is super cool. I was kinda thinking, if I can get a scholarship for a bachelor’s degree, maybe I’ll go into it more.”
“You seem like someone who might be good at psychotherapy, if I do say so. You’re, er, easy to talk to.” Hakkai turned his focus from Gojyo to the sky again, then made his decision. “I can’t exactly relate to you. My last relationship ended poorly, but it was ended because my lover and I were involved in a car accident, one which she did not survive.”
Gojyo was quiet and still. Then, he rested a warm arm and the rich waft of cloves around Hakkai’s shoulder. “I’m sorry that happened to you. That’s rough.”
Hakkai’s throat was too tight, he could only nod resolutely and try to gain his composure. “It’s… it’s difficult. To lose so much… But I thought I could try again, if I just looked past my own fears, not to regain what I’d lost but to build anew.”
“Yeah?” Gojyo’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “That’s brave as hell, man. I hope you find what you’re looking for out there.”
“I do too.” As Hakkai let his shoulder ease to rest against Gojyo’s chest, he got the sensation that maybe he need not look far. The two of them stood side by side in contented quiet for a moment, watching the stars and stealing glances at one another. Hakkai caught a glimpse of a smile when his gaze passed over Gojyo’s face again, even as the sky darkened and the air cooled. Gojyo’s arm was still warm, though, and Hakkai was less than inclined to lose that warmth.
Then, his phone chimed in his pocket. Hakkai jumped, then fished into his pocket for his mobile. “Sorry about that.” He eased away from Gojyo as he checked the message, from Sanzo:
“Where the hell are you?”
“Oh, my colleague. The one who set me up, I told him I’d keep him apprised.” Hakkai laughed nervously, as Gojyo hummed.
“That’s right, I was gonna text my roommate.” Gojyo got his own phone out, then winked at Hakkai. “You, uh, wanna let him know you’ll be out a little longer?”
“I think I just might, yes.” Hakkai smiled, as Gojyo’s phone screen lit up his broad grin against the night sky, and he turned his attention to his own phone to respond…
“There he is,” Sanzo muttered as his phone went off from under the papers he was grading, and he paused the movie again just as Goku’s phone buzzed three more times. He grunted with disgust. “Is that asshole still texting you? How the fuck does he type that fast?”
“I dunno!” Goku groaned and kicked the arm of Sanzo’s couch, which only pushed him to sprawl a little more into Sanzo’s lap and jostle his work off of his arm. “Zakuro dictates, and I guess he just convinced his phone to keep up with him!”
“Did he explain why Hakkai bailed?” Sanzo lifted his phone up and pushed his reading glasses up his nose.
“He’s just going off on me about how I’d told him Hakkai was hot and smart, but he just goes off with some rando who interrupted their date right as it was getting good.” Goku sighed. “Man, I didn’t think it’d work. I had an inkling, 'maybe he can be interesting for Hakkai!’ I mean, Hakkai’s super smart, and all, he likes interesting…”
“Depends on your definition of interesting.” Sanzo put his phone down. “Hakkai says he’s safe, but that his coffee meeting with Zakuro was disappointing. He ended up going to a public park with a new friend – that’s his side of it, anyway.”
“Disappointing, huh? I bet Zakuro put on the 'trying-way-too-hard’ thing.” Goku groaned. “I can’t keep apologizing to him, especially if Hakkai wasn’t having a good time with him. I’m putting him on silent.”
“Good.” Sanzo flipped his lip a little. “Maybe we can get through more than thirty seconds of the movie if your phone stops going off.” He sent a text back to Hakkai, telling him to text when he got home, but just as he went to hit play and continue grading papers, Goku’s phone buzzed again. Sanzo whipped around in annoyance to glare at him, but stopped when he saw Goku’s grin. “You said you silenced your asshole artist.”
“Nah, this one’s my roommate!” Goku turned his phone around, and Sanzo raised an eyebrow to see the way-too-friendly red-haired man who’d answered the door at Goku’s dorm more than once, grinning into the camera pointed over his shoulder to Hakkai riding behind him on a motorcycle, and the message below it:
“Ok so I got curious and went to the coffee shop just to see the guy and I gotta say, next time you’re trying to hook me up on a blind date, open with telling me he’s cute, smart, and interesting, not that he’s your boring-ass boyfriend’s friend!”
Sanzo raised an eyebrow, right as Gojyo’s follow-up popped up. “NVM let’s see if there even is a next time. Holy shit I can’t believe I almost missed this.”
“Ah.” Sanzo picked up the remote again. “So your first choice came through in the end.”
“Yup.” Goku grinned and turned his phone on silent. “Someone up there was looking out for the two of 'em. I thought those two might click.”
“Yeah?” Sanzo snorted, and wrapped his arm around Goku’s shoulder. “We’ll just have to see, then.”
With that, he turned their movie back on, and somewhere not too far away, Hakkai and Gojyo saw all the stars that, but for chance, they might have missed.