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No Place I'd Rather Be

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Japan is hot.

That’s the one thing about the country that Andrew can’t get over. Even as the sun is beginning to set the heat and humidity still remains, draped around his shoulders like a heavy cloak he can’t shake off. The waning light casts long shadows over the little town they’re ambling through, soft and bluish in the onset of dusk. It’s very pretty; Andrew only wishes he could appreciate it more if he wasn’t so damn sweaty.

Los Angeles is hot and Boston summers are hot, too, but they’re nothing compared to this.

Steven, frustratingly, doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. He’s wearing long sleeves, for God’s sake, and is animatedly taking scenic pictures left and right of the local neighborhood. “Summers in Southeast Asia growing up, baby! You get used to it real quick,” he’d said, complete with a flashy hand movement, when Andrew had brought it up earlier. Lame.

“How much farther is the place?” Andrew asks. Steven doesn’t seem to hear him, too caught up in trying to exactly capture the glow of the setting sun between a pair of rusty rain gutters through his iPhone. Lovely.

“We’re almost there,” Rie says from next to him, checking the map on her phone screen quickly.

Andrew just grunts, not wanting to give away how exhausted he actually is. They haven’t done much today other than sit on trains, but all the travel wears down at him. A long plane ride, he can handle that. One and done. But somehow the constant hustle involved with trains—transferring, making sure you get off at the right stop, constantly making room for the flow of passengers, keeping track of your shit—it’s a very stressful occasion, and Andrew is beat.

An hour from their hotel in Tokyo to Tokyo Station, three hours on the bullet train to Osaka, an hour getting to their hotel in a neighborhood called Shinsaibashi, checking in, putting their shit down, another hour and three more trains outside the city proper to get to their final destination so they could pay a hundred thousand yen for a single cup of coffee. In cash.

Andrew’s having one of those ”I can’t believe this is what I do for a living” moments.

He jogs up to Steven, pretending that six hours of travel plus the terrible heat hasn’t sapped away all his energy. It’s a good thing they’re about to get caffeinated.

“Hey,” he says, changing his pace to a brisk walk. "So, it's been a really long day."

"Yeah," Steven agrees, and Andrew can tell that even he sounds a little tired despite his seemingly boundless energy. "But I think it'll be worth it after getting this coffee." He waggles his brows at Andrew who rolls his eyes and huffs out a laugh.

"Wow," he says. "Going right for the low hanging fruit, huh?"

"What can I say? I'm a lazy boy," Steven grins.

"Uh-huh. Anyways, I was thinking, the last two days have been a lot. I mean, Japan is amazing, but it's so fucking hot—"

"Aw," Steven actually coos, the bastard. "Poor white boy can't take an Asian summer. Buck up, buddy."

"Yeah, this white boy's wiped out," Andrew says, not even pretending to hide it. He had to opt for a darker shirt today because of yesterday's sweat stain fiasco. "But anyway, I was just thinking that tomorrow we could maybe take it easy for a bit. Pablo is pretty close to our hotel, and we don't have any other locations to shoot 'til we go back to Tokyo the next day. It'd be pretty nice to relax, maybe check out the city, right?"

"Yeah, that does sound nice," Steven agrees. "We'll see."

Andrew's about to ask for clarification, but then Adam comes up from behind them, pointing up ahead.

"There it is," he says. "We're here."

Rie hurries ahead of them to greet the shop owners and go through all the niceties with translation and introductions. Steven thumps Andrew hard on the back and says, "I hope you're ready for this thousand dollar coffee!"

Andrew just sighs and trails after Steven into the shop.

***

The Münch looks amazing on the inside. It has a cool, calculated chaos aesthetic, sort of like if someone decided to throw together an antique shop inside a boiler room. There's an old motorcycle up against one of the walls, and there are intricate cups and flatware lined up on every surface, all of different colors and patterns.

The old guy running the place is even more charming, puttering around while showing them the kitchen and his coffee making process.

Andrew doesn't think any of them, though, had anticipated exactly how fucking long brewing a single cup of thousand dollar coffee would take. The process, as the man explains it, involves waiting 30 minutes for the first drip of coffee to even fall, let alone for those drips to fill an entire cup. In that time Andrew kind of just stands around while Adam gets plenty of B-roll shots and Steven asks a bunch more questions to the shop owner.

Even Steven gets tired of that after a while though, and they end up sitting together in their seat by the window waiting for their coffee to be served long before it’s ready.

"This is taking a lot longer than I thought it would," Steven admits somewhat apologetically. Andrew has his head leaning against the ledge of the display window, arms crossed, trying to reconcile the exhaustion and the energy he knows he needs to have for filming. It's hot as hell inside too, which makes sense since all that ever goes on in here is roasting and brewing and all other manner of creating steaming hot beverages.

Andrew shrugs. Behind the camera, Rie looks tense, fretting at her lower lip and glancing back often at the kitchen.

“It’ll be ready in just a moment!” the shopkeeper calls jovially from the kitchen, unaware of the tension that has befallen the crew.

“Why don’t we just start rolling the intro?” Matt suggests. “We might have to do a couple takes.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Steven says, latching on and smiling. Andrew just nods tersely, sitting up and uncrossing his arms. He doesn’t know why he’s in such a bad mood, really, but it somehow just irks him to see Steven so chipper. Like he’s impervious to all the minor inconveniences that frustrate the hell out of normal human beings. Always camera ready. The more those minor things seem to roll off Steven’s back like a water off a duck’s back, the more they seem to pile up on Andrew instead.

His neck pops when he stretches it just so and he puts on his filming face, ready to present his camera-self to the world.

***

The coffee, surprisingly, is very good. It’s a bit sweet for Andrew’s taste, as far as coffee goes, but it’s definitely unique and leaves him feeling, if not better, at least more energetic and zinged up. His mood mellows down a lot while they film, caught up in the wonder and marvel of the drink. His camaraderie with Steven is always easy whenever the camera's on and there's something good to eat or drink in front of them, a sort of supplement to their communication. If all else fails, just wax some more about how good whatever they're consuming is and boom. Video done.

It’s nearly midnight by the time they leave the coffee shop, though, and Rie’s arms are laden with little individually wrapped snacks that the owner and his wife insist upon them right up until they’re through the threshold and out into the night.

"Gimme one of those," Steven says, stretching over and plucking a candy from her arms. "Chocolate! Oh, this is gonna go down so smooth after that cup of coffee."

"Here, take them all," Rie says, and dumps the armful into Steven's unzipped backpack. Andrew laughs at that while Steven protests. He complains for a while that they'll melt and get all over his equipment, but then forgets about it after he actually pops the chocolate in his mouth.

"Oh man, that is so good!" he exclaims loudly. Andrew kind of wishes he wouldn't—it's late, and the lights in all the homes and buildings lining the street are conspicuously off, save for a couple of moth-ridden streetlights. "Andrew, man, you gotta try this! It's like...the perfect sweet note to finish off the rich flavor of that insane coffee. A perfect symphony in your mouth. Here," he reaches around and digs another chocolate out of his backpack.

"People are trying to sleep, Steven," Andrew says as he takes and unwraps it.

"Just try it, man. It's like...like,” he flounders, searching for the right words, “the strings in an orchestra winding the melody down right after a big brass number."

"You can cut that out now, we're done filming," Andrew snaps, inexplicably and suddenly annoyed. "Not every single food item needs to be rhapsodized about with some elaborate metaphor. It's sugary, processed, and not that deep. It's chocolate."

He finishes his sentence by biting into the chocolate soundly, feeling it snap between his teeth as he chews it perfunctorily. He doesn't look over at Steven, who has fallen silent.

Immediately, Andrew feels a little guilty, but the annoyance wins out and he turns ahead, catching up with Matt, who raises his eyebrows at him in a way that Andrew feels he probably deserves as they reach the train station.

Behind him he hears Adam say, "I'll take one," and the sounds of rustling as he fishes a chocolate out of Steven's backpack.

"You're right," Adam says. Andrew doesn't turn around to watch the exchange. "It's really good."

"Thanks," Steven replies quietly.

The thing that annoys Andrew the most, he realizes as they slot their coins into the ticket fare machine, is that Steven’s right.

The remaining bits of chocolate that he had left to melt in his mouth mixed with lingering little bitter hint of the barrel-aged coffee is an indescribable, almost harmonic flavor.

Orchestral, even. Symphonic.

***

Steven avoids him for the entire train ride back to the city proper. He’s busy talking to Rie, who has her phone out again and is scrolling through maps and train routes. Andrew thinks he hears something about tomorrow’s filming locations but he’s purposefully zoning out and ignoring them. Adam is asleep already, chin dropped down against his chest, glasses nearly sliding off his face.

Apparently their train stop is a popular one even at this time of night because it seems like everybody gets up and starts piling for the exit doors. As polite and orderly as Japanese society is, there’s still only so much that can be done when you have a hundred people in a train car all heading for the exits, and in the bustle, Andrew ends up bumping shoulders against Steven as they step onto the platform.

“Sorry,” Steven mutters quickly, not bothering to look at Andrew as he meets up with Adam and Rie, who are waiting up ahead. Next to him, Matt shakes his head.

As their group begins walking back to the hotel, Adam sidles up to him and says in his quiet, all-knowing way, “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Do what?” Andrew replies, but Adam’s already gone off ahead of him, hefting his backpack over his shoulder.

Steven’s still ignoring him, walking on his own ahead of the group a little bit, and okay, Andrew does actually feel a little bit bad.

A weird mix of emotions stirs in his gut, half guilt, half justification for being kind of an asshole earlier. It’s just that Steven—he’s a bit much, and not just sometimes. He’s a good guy, Andrew knows, and they’ve gotten to know each other doing the show, but Andrew just likes things a certain way, that’s all. He’s a guy who likes to keep to himself and can be a bit judgey, a bit of a curmudgeon, and there are only so many Steven Lims of the world that he can handle.

But he can’t really picture an objective overview of the situation in which he was in the right, and again, he does feel bad. So he catches up with Steven once again, coming to a stride next to him.

Steven only glances at him for a second before looking ahead again, and Andrew doesn’t like that at all.

“Look, about earlier—,” he starts, but Steven quickly cuts him off.

“Rie and I were talking on the train before,” he says. “About tomorrow’s filming locations. I think it would be really nice to film the intro at Osaka Castle before heading to Pablo, and she agrees. So we’re gonna head there early tomorrow before the tourist crowd gets too bad.” He sounds firm and a little bit defensive, flexing his authority like this. It is his show, after all.

Andrew pauses and lets that soak in—they’re going to wake up early, go to a different place to film an intro clip, and then head back exactly where they had come from to eat cake.

“Okay,” he says. He doesn’t love the idea but he feels bad enough about earlier to not protest about it. He thinks Steven can hear this in his voice though, because where he would usually gush and go on about how he’s excited to see a new place or try the food, he’s unusually quiet.

“Okay,” is all Steven replies, and that’s that. They’re done talking for the rest of the walk and when they get to the hotel, Steven heads into his room without so much as saying good night.

As soon as Andrew’s behind his door, he kicks off his shoes, cranks the thermostat as low as it can go, collapses into bed, and barely gets any sleep at all.

***

Andrew wakes up to a sharp knocking at his door and a low headache.

He’d forgotten to draw the blinds all the way after he tumbled into bed last night, and apparently Japan isn’t nicknamed the land of the rising sun for no reason; it’s already shining at full blast through the window, bathing everything in a morning glow that is completely inappropriate for the hour that it actually is. Andrew hates it. It’s also fucking freezing from the AC blasting low all night, and his arms exposed over the covers are dotted up and down with goosebumps.

He groans and grabs a pillow to put over his face, letting the world go muffled and dark and cottony for just a few more blissful seconds before reluctantly getting out of bed. He checks the time on the bedside clock and swears. They’re supposed to get up early to go to the castle. Shit.

Well, it’s still early but he’s pushing it. The knock comes again and he also swears again, nearly tripping over his haphazardly strewn shoes in his haste to get to the door.

“You’re late,” Adam says when he finally stumbles over and cracks the door open. He’s completely dressed already, looking fresh, rested, and mildly disapproving. Of Andrew, presumably. Great. Meanwhile, Andrew himself feels like gently steaming roadkill.

“Yeah, I got it,” Andrew replies.

Adam gives him a look that he doesn’t like it all. It’s that disapproving look, only with slightly more concern—disappointment, Andrew recognizes. Ouch.

“You should talk to Steven,” he says in his quiet, disappointed voice. Double ouch.

“About what?”

Adam just gives him another look and Andrew slumps his shoulders in defeat. There’s only so much of it he can take, and it feels like his mood from last night has just carried over into this morning. “Just talk to him,” he repeats and then pats Andrew twice on the shoulder. “Look man, you’re my friend and all but...last night, that was really uncool.”

Andrew sighs as Adam leaves, scrubbing a hand roughly against his face as he closes the door. He knows Adam is right, damn it, and he recognizes that he’s being a bit of a whiny brat about this whole thing. He’s in Japan for God’s sake, all on Buzzfeed’s dime, with the sole purpose of eating delicious food.

And to get along with Steven, part of his brain that sounds suspiciously like Adam supplies. That’s the other half of his job that’s just as important if he wants the show to be good, which he very much does, even if he hadn’t acted like it last night.

Everyone is already in the lobby when he finally makes his way down there, and Rie beams at him with a huge, awkward smile that clearly reads ”I hope your weird guy fight has blown over!”

“I got you this,” she offers, pulling a small, wrapped-up umbrella out of her bag and offering it to him. “Since you said it was so hot yesterday.”

Andrew looks at it, not understanding.

“It’s for the UV rays,” she supplies. “Lots of Japanese people carry one when it’s hot outside. Like your own portable shade.”

“Oh,” he says, feeling sheepish as he takes it. He doesn’t like the idea that his stress was so palpable to others. “Thanks. That’s really cool, but I think I should be okay today. I was just a little tired yesterday from the travelling.”

He takes the opportunity to look at Steven who somehow is wearing long sleeves again.

“Do you want this instead?” he asks.

Steven looks momentarily surprised that Andrew is even speaking to him before his features smooth into that same aloof sternness from last night. Andrew doesn’t like that look, he realizes. It’s probably the most inauthentic look he’s ever seen Steven wear, even worse than they both had to pretend really hard to like that golden truffle pizza in New York.

“Sure,” Steven says easily, taking the umbrella and barely meeting Andrew’s face. “My mom used to carry one of these around all the time. Thanks, Rie.”

He smiles at Rie, and then goes to rejoin Matt and Adam in gathering the equipment so they can go.

Rie’s looking at Andrew now with an expression that could just about mirror Adam’s from earlier in the morning.

Yeah, okay, he gets it already.

***

It’s a beautiful morning outside; there’s not a cloud in sight and the sun isn’t quite high enough in the sky yet to make the heat unbearable.

They have to walk through a large park to get from the train station to Osaka Castle and although the crowds haven’t gotten too bad yet, the nice weather is enough to draw out a decent gathering of folks. There are a lot of people walking dogs, which is always a delight, an annoying number of couples wearing matching outfits, and as they reach a wide clearing that has the castle in sight in the distance, food vendors setting up their stalls and setting out their deliciously fried wares for the day.

It’s delightful, Andrew is somewhat loathe to admit, and the charm of it is enough to melt away at his mood from earlier.

Rie makes an executive decision that it’s never too early for yakisoba so she heads off to grab them all a couple boxes while they regroup and take out their filming equipment at a park bench.

Andrew takes this opportunity to go over to Steven, who is busy fiddling with the umbrella, extending the handle and swinging it around without unclasping the spokes. He doesn’t acknowledge Andrew at all, until he speaks.

“Hey, Steven,” Andrew says, hesitating slightly. Steven looks up at him finally, and it’s hard to read his expression, which is a strange sensation. He’s usually an open book, spread for the whole world to see.

“Okay,” Andrew tries again, searching for better verbal footing. “I just wanted to apologize. For last night. I was being an asshole. I’m sorry.”

To his relief, Steven smiles, though it’s somewhat tentative. “It’s okay,” he says, and it’s hard to describe the strange feeling that Andrew has as soon as he says it. Like something he didn’t even know he’d been holding is finally freed. “I’m sorry, too, for being so annoying all the time. I’ll try to tone it down so we can make the show.”

Well, that’s not really what Andrew wants to hear. But that’s what got him mad in the first place, right? Just the way Steven is sometimes gets him feeling this complicated mix of emotions that he doesn’t quite understand and just chooses to box into the category of “fed up.” But now that he’s hearing Steven himself actually say it out loud, it doesn’t seem accurate at all.

“No, don’t apologize. I was just being cranky,” Andrew tries. “I was really tired, and it was late and all. I shouldn’t have acted like that.”

Steven smiles again, one of those tense, tight-lipped ones. “Thanks man, but...while that may be true, you were also kind of right. I know that I’m too extra sometimes, and I make you do lots of stuff that you don’t want to, and I get on your nerves, but I just really care about—about making the show the best it can be. I could probably stand to chill out some more.”

Andrew doesn’t know what to say to that, because Steven’s passion for what they do is one of the things he admires the most about the man. He tries to come up with something to say, but he can’t—he’s not Steven Lim, who is genuine to a fault and always says what he’s thinking. He doesn’t know how to express himself in situations like this.

“Anyways,” Steven continues. “Let’s just move on, all right? We have a show to make.”

Rie chooses that exact moment to come back with a clear, plastic box of yakisoba for the both of them, along with napkins and two pairs of chopsticks.

“Here, eat it while it’s hot,” she says. Andrew doesn’t fail to notice that everyone else has small, individual boxes while she’s given them a large box so they can share, nor does he miss the slight glimmer in her eye.

“This looks so good,” Steven says, sliding back into his usual carefree attitude as soon as she arrives.

Before Steven can take a bite, Andrew takes the opportunity to quickly tap his chopstick full of noodles against Steven’s.

“Yakisoba cheers,” he says, letting the corners of his mouth tilt upwards.

Steven looks at him and there’s a split second of unreadable emotion that flits across his face before a slow smile spreads—the first genuine one Andrew’s seen in hours.

***

They quickly stake their claim right beside a pedestrian bridge that goes over the moat, a perfect spot overlooking the water and the castle for their shot. The castle itself is beautiful—the intricate designs on the ivory white walls, the sloping jade green roof, the golden accents along the corners. It makes for a phenomenal backdrop and really captures the cultural essence of Japan for their video. Which, of course, Steven probably had predicted.

Andrew, as they stand by the railing of the canal, is struck with out well thought-out every aspect of their trip is in order to create a great video—the timing of their locations, the backdrop shots. Drinking coffee at midnight and having cake in the mid afternoon, how the time of day matches the food. Steven might be some kind of filmmaking genius.

He and Steven fall into an easy back and forth, with Rie between them as soon as the cameras are rolling. The mood is playful and light, much like the morning weather they’ve been blessed with. Steven fiddles with the umbrella on camera and the castle looms behind them as they roll, large and magnificent.

Eventually, Adam deems that there are too many pedestrians crossing through his shot and suggests they finish off the intro in another spot. All told, the few minutes they filmed in front of the castle probably won't even translate to 30 seconds of the completed video. Getting up early, taking the train to the northern ward of the city, walking for 20 minutes just to get to a place where the castle would be visible, for a measly half minute. Probably not even.

Earlier, it may have ticked Andrew off, but now it just makes him think deeply. This was Steven's choice, and this whole trip is sewn together with his ideas. Rie and the Buzzfeed Japan team provide the logistics, sure, but Steven is the inspiration. The care and attention that Steven puts in, even to small things like this—Andrew wonders how long he's been taking that for granted.

They don't cross the bridge or go inside the castle; instead, they walk through the surrounding park grounds. Adam and Matt trail behind, carrying the sound equipment and cameras, which are still filming, as they come across several little footpaths surrounded by lush summer greenery.

Andrew is really beginning to appreciate the day and the scenery around them. The sun isn't too hot yet, and it creates dapples of light and shadow as it shines through the little line of trees they've settled along. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots a cat lazing in the sun right by the edge of the dirt path.

"Oh my God," he says, immediately turning from the camera and going over to it. It blinks up at him lazily through hazel eyes and allows him to pet it.

"I found a cat," he calls, interrupting Steven and Rie where they’re busy doing the opening lines of the show. Rie laughs and Steven looks exasperated and amused at the same time. He's probably ruined the take, but he doesn't care—he's found a cat.

"Alright, we can cut there," Adam says, thankfully not looking too pissed. "I can probably get some good B shots of the cat."

Andrew's hardly paying attention anymore, busy trying to see if the tabby will let him pick it up. Surprisingly it does, which makes him think perhaps it's somebody's pet that has wandered off. But upon closer examination, its ear is missing a chunk off the tip, so he figures it must be some kind of TNR, if they have that in Japan.

"Hey there," he says to the cat, cradling it against his chest like a baby. It turns to look at him with those large eyes and blinks, gaze unshifting.

Steven comes over then, waving at the cat like it knows what that might mean. "Hey, look at this guy!" he says. "He just let you pick him up?"

"I guess so," Andrew says. The cat is still staring at him eerily.

"What are you doing all the way out here, Mister?" Steven asks, reaching out to stroke its head with just his index finger. It turns its gaze on Steven, then, swiveling its head around to face him.

"Woah," Steven says, smiling. "You think he can understand us?"

Andrew laughs at that—more of a snort, really. "What kind of question is that?"

"I don't know," Steven shrugs. "Animals know all kinds of stuff."

"Alright, sure," Andrew relents, still chuckling. He trails off though, and the two of them are left standing there. An awkward silence settles around them, which, frankly, Andrew hadn't thought would be possible with the way Steven constantly chatterboxes. He's still holding the cat, and Steven is still stroking its head, and it's still staring at Steven.

"Hey," Andrew says, clearing his throat to make a point. "I just want to say that I'm glad you had us come here. It's a really beautiful shot, and it was totally worth getting up early to do, even if it’s just a couple seconds in the video. And if I had to do it again...I wouldn't change anything."

The words feel slightly heavier with each passing sentence and by the end Andrew feels like there's a solid block of lead in his mouth. He doesn't know why, either—he's a direct guy, after all. Sure, he's not used to talking about emotions and all. However, this more than tangentially work related, which he’s always been good with.

Steven smiles, and Andrew remembers his words from earlier, about how he said he'd try to be less of a pain. That still doesn't sit well with him, because he really does admire that Steven is passionate about what they're doing.

"Thanks for saying that," Steven replies after a beat, looking a little sheepish. "It, uh, really means a lot that you can see things the way I do."

Andrew ducks his head down, a smile curling at the edge of his lips.

“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it,” he says as he bumps his shoulder against Steven's slightly, like they've often done before while bantering for the camera.

At that moment, the cat decides to leap from Andrew's arms.

"Ow!"

Its back claws end up scratching along his forearm as it jumps, leaving a series of thin, red lines against his skin. There's are tiny droplets of blood coming from a few of them, like the kind left by papercuts, barely rising to the surface.

The cat lands dexterously on its feet and primly chooses a patch of grass in which to sit down and begin grooming itself.

Steven's laughing at him, bent over with hands against his knees, the sound full-bodied and joyful. And though the scratches really do sting, Andrew begins laughing too.

***

The rest of their day spent filming goes by smoothly and Andrew begins to feel as relaxed as he had been in Tokyo. There’s still some lingering awkwardness between him and Steven, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed in post. He’s also half convinced that it’s all in his head, because Steven is back to being his usual self. There’s just a tiny part of Andrew’s brain that feels like it’s a little forced though, like he’s purposefully trying to bring them back into the way their partnership had been before, even if that was just a few days ago. But the shape of it has changed in subtle ways; a square peg in a round hole. Everything Steven does always seems so effortless, so camera-ready; the minute differences are noticeable.

And then Andrew thinks that he doesn’t know Steven that well to begin with—not enough to analyze the intricacies of his behavior. He’s overthinking things.

But then a silence will fall between the two of them as they run out of bits or scripted questions, and a few weeks ago it would have been a comfortable one. Today, Steven instead hastens to fill it with some quip, which Andrew automatically replies with some kind of witty rejoinder. It seems to be the default state they can fall back on.

Yeah, he’s definitely overthinking things. The change might as well be in himself and not Steven, because ever since their pseudo-argument last night, he can’t help but perceive Steven differently than he did before, just in a slight way that he can’t quite put his finger on.

The sun is setting by the time they wrap for the day, although most of the filming after they leave Pablo is Adam getting great backdrop and B shots while the rest of them wander around the vast, bustling complex that is Shinsaibashi. Andrew, Steven, and Rie do their wrap up of Pablo, and of Osaka in general, by a spot overlooking the Dotonbori Canal, which is apparently a famous tourist spot.

Andrew can see why—though it’s still light out, the surrounding signs and displays are beginning to light up, glittering and multitudinous. It has a real Times Square vibe, only jam packed with thousands more street vendors and restaurants. He feels like everywhere he goes there’s a delicious-looking fake food display waiting around the corner.

Unfortunately, they have to wake up early again tomorrow to catch the bullet train back to Tokyo, so there isn’t a whole lot of time that they can spend exploring. Andrew wants to, but he can’t let a repeat of last night happen; he knows he needs his rest.

“We have to come back here someday,” Steven says, marvelling at all the shops and food stalls that they pass as they reach a covered walkway area. They’re walking shoulder to shoulder again, but it’s so insanely crowded that they have to bump into each other every now and then through pure necessity of space. “This is amazing—it kind of reminds me of the open markets in Malaysia. Except way cleaner, and they’re selling actually cool stuff, and I don’t have to sit around waiting for my mom to pick out a fabric for her qi pao.”

“We definitely will be back to Japan,” Andrew says. They haven’t even done sushi yet; Japan part 2 is already on the horizon after this season is over.

“Yeah, but I mean here,” Steven says. “I just love big cities. So many people! So much food! So much stuff!” He throws his hands in the air, emphasizing his point.

Andrew smiles. The cameras have been turned off for the night, but Steven’s still ready to go at any moment. That’s just him, Andrew has come to see; it’s not a put on like he thought it was when he’d first been dragged into Worth It. It’s all Steven Lim.

But then he remembers their talk from this morning again—he can’t seem to get it out of his mind. His hunch about the forced genuity, that brief emotion that had flashed by then they were eating yakisoba. It feels strange that there are things he can’t read plainly on Steven’s face.

Eventually when they’re walking back to the hotel after dinner, even Steven quiets down. Rie has left them to meet up with some old friends of hers, so it’s just him, Steven, Adam, and Matt who mosey along. It gets dark fairly quickly at night, even in the summer, and the sun has already decided to make its dip below the horizon. The silence is companionable this time, comfortable. Every so often, Steven stifles a yawn into his sleeve.

“I’m gonna go take a shower,” Steven says after they get back to the hotel. They’re standing in the hallway outside each of their rooms. “You guys can start reviewing and doing post without me.”

“You can just go to bed if you want,” Adam says. “You did a lot today.”

“Yeah,” Andrew echoes. “Go to bed, Steven. You’re not allowed to have less energy than the two of us.”

“No, I’m totally still good to go,” he insists, even as another yawn comes on.

“Go to bed,” Adam says in his scary voice. The one that’s firm, but full of intent, which makes it all the more commanding in his gentle, quiet way of speaking. Andrew knows better than the cross Adam when he decides to bring the scary voice out, and apparently Steven does too, because he grumbles and turns to head for his room.

“Good night,” Steven mumbles before he opens his door and retreats inside.

“Listen,” Adam says after Steven’s door is closed. “You should get to bed too. We can do most of the post back in LA, or at least in Tokyo.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yeah. And listen, I’m glad you talked to Steven, but you’re still kind of an idiot.”

“...Excuse me?”

Adam just stares at him and shrugs, like it’s not his job to explain.

“You’ll figure it out sooner or later. Night.” And with that, Adam retreats into his own room, the door clanking softly shut behind him and leaving a mildly bewildered Andrew standing in the hallway.

Despite Adam’s cryptic comment, the past couple days of little rest catch up to him as soon as his hotel door shuts behind him, like some kind of spell barrier has been broken. His mind doesn’t dwell on what in the world Adam could have meant, and In a repeat of the previous night, he haphazardly sheds his clothing and knocks out as soon as his head hits the pillow.

***

Andrew wakes up to a sharp knocking at his door and a low headache.

He'd forgotten to draw the blinds again, so the room is flooded with light. Groggily, he checks his phone—it's very early. Too early for them to be leaving for the train station, but he crawls out of bed to answer the door anyways, nearly tripping again over his shoes. God, he needs to stop doing that. Nighttime Andrew is constantly sabotaging Morning Andrew.

"You're late," Adam says as soon as he opens the door. He's wearing the same outfit as yesterday and is also sporting the sam, mildly disappointed look.

"I am?" Andrew says, automatically assuming that Adam would know the schedule better than him, even though he's pretty sure he's not late. Perhaps they're meant to have a pre-production meeting and it slipped his mind.

Adam just gives him a look and nods. "You should talk to Steven," he says in his quiet, disappointed voice.

"What? Again?" Andrew says, confused. Maybe he's not fully awake yet and his mind is playing tricks on him, because this is all starting to seem familiar. Or maybe Adam's doing a bit. The former seems more likely than the latter, in all honesty.

"Just talk to him," Adam repeats, patting Andrew on the shoulder. "Look man, you're my friend and all but...last night, that was really uncool."

"What? You're the one who said we could do post later. You told us to go to bed," Andrew says, utterly bewildered. Okay, he's definitely not awake yet.

Adam shoots him a strange look and just shakes his head slightly before heading off.

Uh, right. Nothing to do but take it in stride, Andrew supposes. Part of him desperately wants to actually draw the curtains this time and slide right back into bed, but he decides to grin and bear it. Whatever bit Adam's committed to this morning, he's not quite sure he gets it yet. Maybe the punchline is yet to come.

Everyone is already in the lobby when he makes it down, though he does notice that Steven looks a little more hastily thrown together than usual, which is saying a lot—his hair is usually always carefully tousled in a way that is meant to look natural but actually is the result of an involved process, and his outfits are always carefully picked, even more so when it's a filming day. Andrew's not sure how he even knows this, but in any case, Steven doesn't have his usual polish today.

"Morning," he says to the group, setting his bag down on one of the benches they're seated around. Rie beams at him when he speaks and plasters a big, awkward smile on her face.

"I got you this," she says, holding out a small, wrapped-up umbrella. "Since you said it was so hot yesterday."

Andrew stares at the proffered instrument.

What the fuck.

"Uh," he says eloquently, looking around at all of them. Matt is fiddling with one of the camera lenses, and Adam's scrolling through his phone. Steven, however, is looking at him with a confused expression that probably mirrors his own.

"It's for the UV rays," Rie says helpfully, interpreting his confusion with misunderstanding. "Lots of Japanese people carry one when it's hot outside. Like your own portable shade."

"...Oh," he says, taking the umbrella after definitely too long of a pause. He doesn't know what else to say. "Thanks?"

He stares at Rie a bit more, trying to discern what the fuck is going on. This has to be a bit, and she must be in on it. He searches for that knowing glint that she sometimes gets in her eye, but is just met back with a polite eyebrow raise when it becomes apparent that he has stared for too long.

Without much more being said, the group of them get up to leave for the day, without any of their luggage. His own suitcase is all packed and ready to go, waiting by his door inside his room, but Rie and the others make no motions to go back upstairs and retrieve their things before they're out the door. Andrew trails at the back, unsure if he should say something and just feeling generally very, very lost.

They're headed for the same nearby train station as yesterday, and it's hard to tell their destination as they get on the ubiquitous Osaka Loop Line, which, as the name suggests, travels in a large circle around the city.

The train is decently crowded when they get on, but there are still a couple seats open, which Adam and Matt gratefully take so they can set down their heavy equipment. Steven looks like he's heading for another one of the empty seats, but Andrew takes the opportunity to hold him back by one of the straps on his backpack, tugging slightly.

Steven turns to face him wearing a careful look, like he's afraid of what Andrew might say next. Andrew tilts his head slightly towards the back of the train car, towards the door leading to the next car and away from the rest of the crew. Thankfully, Steven seems to understand the signal and they make their ungainly way over.

"So," Andrew begins when they're out of earshot, "I think I'm going insane."

"...How so?" Steven asks, that careful look back on his face. Andrew pauses, considering his words. The last thing he wants is to spill about all the weird shit he's going through and for Steven to have no clue what he's talking about.

"I think I'm having, like, a really severe case of deja vu," he tests.

Immediately, a look of relief rushes over Steven's face, and he puts his hands on Andrew's shoulders, leaning in conspiratorially.

"Dude, same!" Steven whisper-yells emphatically. "Like, this morning Matt said he was excited to see Osaka Castle, and Adam told me he told you to talk to me, and then the whole umbrella thing with Rie. That all happened already, right? That was yesterday, right?"

"Right," Andrew confirms. He, too, feels immensely relieved. "Jesus, I thought I was going crazy. It's good to know it's some kind of bit, though, but I wonder why we're messing with the schedule."

Steven sighs heavily then, shaking his head slightly. "I don't think this is a bit, Andrew," he says, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He wakes the screen and turns so that Andrew can see: the date and day of the week is the exact same as yesterday's.

"Uh...what?" Andrew finally manages after a few moments of simply staring at the screen and trying to parse the information. Did he miss that when he looked at this phone this morning? He hadn’t bothered to check it again after that first time right after he woke up.

"I don't know. I was kind of just thinking this whole thing was a dream," Steven says. "But like...how come it’s happening to you too?"

"Yeah, okay, this has to be some kind of weird dream," Andrew says. "And you're not the real Steven, you're dream Steven."

Steven looks a bit amused at that, though it doesn't wipe the worry from his expression. "I guess that makes you dream Andrew," he says lightly.

The train announces its stop at Osaka Castle Park, then, and the two of them have no choice but to follow the others out.

Steven automatically comes to walk next to Andrew as the group of them begin their trek through the park to the castle. It doesn't escape Andrew's eye that Rie notices this and smiles slightly, like she's happy to see them friends again. Andrew's happy about that, too, but he has bigger things to worry about at the moment.

"So, what are we gonna do?" Steven asks as they pass through the park's small plaza lined with cafes and restaurants.

"I'm not sure there actually is anything to do," Andrew says, hooking his thumbs into his backpack straps. "I mean, since this is just some kind of lucid dream."

"I guess," Steven says, but his brows furrow slightly, like he’s deep in thought. Probably something about Inception or some other slightly related mind-bender, which, frankly, Andrew doesn’t even want to think about. It’s best to just accept the simplest answer—this isn’t real.

***

After the long walkway that takes them through several underpasses, they reach the wide, winding pedestrian road that circles around the perimeter of the castle and its surrounding canal. This is where they stopped yesterday as well; the same food vendors are out prepping their carts and beginning their day.

"It's never too early for yakisoba,," Rie declares as they stop at a little shaded area with a couple of stone benches. "You guys wait here, I'll go get some for us."

Admittedly Andrew is pretty hungry by now, but he's also still supremely freaked out, no matter how much he tries to apply the "this is all a dream" balm. Next to him, Steven looks like he's having some kind of inner existential crisis.

"Hey," Andrew says, going over to him. "Calm down."

"I'm trying," Steven says, "but I'm lowkey freaking out. Like...what the hell is happening?"

"I have no clue," Andrew replies, and somehow seeing Steven so agitated is forcing him to calm down—one of them has to be rational about this, after all, and his mind naturally takes charge. "As long as we don't know what's happening, let's just treat this as a normal day, okay? And if it's all a dream, then we'll wake up eventually back in real life, right? So for now, let's just...do whatever we'd normally do. Okay?" He’s not sure who he’s trying to convince here—Steven, or himself.

Steven nods, taking a deep breath. "Okay. Okay, yeah, that makes sense."

Rie chooses that exact moment to come back, brandishing a large sized plastic takeout box, held together by a single rubber band, overflowing with fresh yakisoba.

“Here, eat it while it’s hot,” she says, shoving the box into Andrew’s hands. He and Steven share a look, and Rie darts her gaze between the two of them. She’s trying to stay casual, Andrew can tell, but there’s a tiny hint of hopefulness in her gaze.

“Thanks, Rie,” Andrew says, taking the chopsticks from beneath the rubber band and opening the lid.

“Man, it still looks as good as before,” Steven says. Andrew nudges him subtly, but Rie doesn’t seem to notice the misstep.

“It’s one of my favorite street foods,” Rie says, taking out her own box this time.

This time, they both gather a heap of noodles onto their chopsticks and knock them together heartily.

“Yakisoba cheers,” Steven says, smiling at the private joke between them. Rie positively beams.

The cheese tart at Pablo is every bit as good as it was yesterday, or whatever that day was. It’s kind of hard to think of things on the fly to say, though, and the magic of the first bite phenomenon is gone. Naturally, they fall back into repeating the same shticks from their previous visit—Steven slaps the cake inappropriately and Andrew pitches his terrible wedding catering business plan.

“Not as much energy as usual,” Adam comments when they’re wrapping up. “Everything okay?”

“Uh, yeah. I think we’re just kind of tired from yesterday. Late night and all. Will what we have be okay?”

“Yeah, should be fine after post,” Adam says, but he’s got a discerning look in his eye as he observes the two of them.

“Sorry about that,” Andrew says. “I can help you with the post later tonight.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you two talked.” Adam glances meaningfully between them. Steven ducks his head down and Andrew rubs at the nape of his neck. Right. They just had a fight, after all.

That night, when they get back to the hotel, Steven books it straight for his room. As the day had gone on, he’d looked more and more emotionally exhausted. Andrew’s having a hard time as well, and he’s feeling rather eager to go to bed and move the hell on with life.

“Well, this has been the weirdest day of my life and I’m glad it’s over,” Steven mutters quietly so only Andrew can hear as they turn the corridor to their wing of rooms.

“Same here,” Andrew replies.

“Good night,” Steven says at normal volume, cheerfully enough that Andrew can tell he’s just excited to finally go to sleep and put this bizarre day behind them.

“Night,” he says. Matt retreats into his room as well, and then it’s just him and Adam remaining in the hallway.

Adam makes for his door as well, but as he’s about to turn the handle, he faces Andrew slightly. “Hey,” he says, and Andrew has a feeling he knows what’s coming. “I’m glad you talked to Steven.”

“Yeah, me too,” Andrew says. “And also, sorry to you as well. I really didn’t mean to make things awkward for the rest of the crew.”

“It’s cool,” Adam shrugs. “Things are fine now. But just saying, you’re still kind of an idiot.”

“I really don’t know what you mean by that,” Andrew says, kind of hoping to get some actual answers this time.

“You’ll figure it out. Night.”

Adam’s gone, so he just sighs heavily and goes into his own room. This time, he takes his shoes off and puts them neatly by the door. Just for extra measure, he folds his clothes before putting them away and sets out his outfit for tomorrow in an a stack on top of the dresser. He’s about to get into bed when he notices the gleam of city lights out of the large window, and draws the curtains closed a little more forcefully than necessary.

Most of him is still convinced that he’s been asleep this entire time and by going to sleep now, he’ll be entering another, even deeper level of sleep a la Inception, but even so, he’s glad to be in the dark under the covers, and falls asleep within minutes.

***

Andrew wakes up to a sharp knocking at his door.

Immediately, he notices that he doesn't have a headache, and he's actually feeling decently well rested. His room is still dark as well, though there are tiny slivers of light peeking out from the seams of the heavy curtains.

The knock comes again, and Andrew groans. Please, let it be someone other than Adam.

He doesn't trip over his shoes this time, which he takes as a good sign, and he prays that he'll be greeted by Steven. Or Matt. Or Rie. Anyone other than Adam.

"You're late," Adam says as soon he swings the door open.

"Are you sure? Like, really sure?" Andrew says, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "Like, really, really sure?"

Adam gives him a look that he doesn't like at all—disapproving and disappointed all at once. That's reassuring.

"You should talk to Steven," he says in his quiet, disappointed voice.

"I already did," Andrew says. "We're all good. So don't worry about that."

Adam actually looks mildly surprised, which Andrew's not sure he should be offended at or not. "Oh, okay. Good," he says, nodding. "I'm glad," he says, putting his hand on Andrew's shoulder. Andrew wants to hit his head against the wall. "You're my friend and all, but...last night—"

"—was really uncool. Got it. Won't happen again," Andrew hastily cuts him off. Adam nods again and gives him a hearty pat on the shoulder before turning to head to the lobby.

He gets to the lobby and everyone is already there, including Steven, who Andrew notices is just wearing the same outfit he did on the "first" day, tousled hair, long sleeves and all. Immediately, a knot of dread forms in his stomach—has Steven been sucked in by the dream?

But then Steven catches his eye and shakes his head, looking worn out. The relief that Andrew feels is a more powerful than he'd been expecting, but he simply hates the idea of facing this repeat of the day without Steven there next to him, fully aware and sharing in his struggles.

"Good morning!" Rie pipes up when neither Andrew nor Steven elect to say anything. Andrew doesn't think he'd be able to say good morning without sounding absolutely dead inside, anyway.

Beside him, Steven appears to be gathering up his willpower, and puts on the most forced smile Andrew has ever seen. "Morning," he says, though it's just one word, it sounds so disingenuous that Andrew almost laughs.

"I got you this," Rie says, holding out her trademark umbrella with a bright smile. "Since you said it was so hot yesterday."

"Oh, wow, thanks!" Andrew says with fake enthusiasm. He hears Steven suppress a snort.

"It's for the UV rays," she adds helpfully. "Lots of Japanese people carry one when it's hot outside. Like your own portable shade."

"Wow, that is so interesting," Andrew says, really laying it on thick. Next to him, Steven mimics a cough to cover up his chuckle. "But actually, I don't think I need it today. I've really gotten used to the heat over the past few days."

He holds it out to Steven instead, who looks at him with amusement in his eyes.

"Steven can have it. I know he likes to keep his nice skin from burning," he suggests.

"You think my skin is nice?" Steven counters right back, taking the umbrella and swinging it by his hip. Rie looks thrilled.

"I think youthink your skin is nice," Andrew quips as Matt and Adam come to join them by the doorway, things for the day gathered in tow.

"You're damn right I do," Steven mutters, and they walk out into the sunshine.

***

"It's never too early for yakisoba," Rie announces as soon as they reach the same spot as before.

It's kind of a curious thing, once Andrew really thinks about it. Here he is, on his third round of doing the same day over again, and each of one of them unfailingly makes the same choices. Rie always brings him an umbrella, Adam always wakes him up with a knock on the door. It's like some kind of live experiment where he and Steven are the variables and they're the constants. It gets his mind whirring, wondering what kind of things they'd have to do to make the others do something differently. Like they're NPCs in a video game.

"Don't get me wrong, I like yakisoba," Steven says after Rie leaves. "But i'm not sure if I want to eat it for three days in a row."

"Well, technically it's just one day," Andrew replies. "We're just living it over and over again."

"Ugh, don't remind me. I really don't want to think about it."

"Yeah, me neither. Like, part of me still believes this is all a dream, and I'm gonna wake up and you're still gonna be mad at me because this whole day is just in my imagination. Or maybe we never fought in the first place and I imagined that as well. Was any of that even real?"

"Yeah, it was," Steven says quietly. Andrew pauses, thinking over his words—not the most tactful.

"Shit, I didn't mean to—"

"No, it's okay," Steven says, giving him a small smile. "I'm not mad anymore. We don't have to talk about it, okay?"

"Okay," Andrew says, even though he kind of does want to talk about it. It’s been bothering him ever since it happened, a small wisp dancing around in the back of his mind. He doesn’t want Steven to think that he, Andrew, just puts up with him for the sake of the show. And, for some reason, it makes him feel uneasy to see Steven masking his emotions.

But it feels like forever ago now, but it's actually only been a "few" days since their sour spat. Or, if he's being technical, it really was just yesterday. However time is quantified in their strange loop.

Rie returns then, brandishing a large box of yakisoba and encouraging them to eat it while it’s hot. She pushes the container into Andrew’s hands, and he looks at it contemplatively for a moment.

The whole reason she’s doing this not-so-mischievous plot to make them share their meal is because she thinks they’re in a fight and wants them to make up, right? But they’d put on such a show of being friendly this morning in the lobby. And yet, Rie is still looking a little too eager about it while putting on a front of nonchalance.

Andrew gets a terrible idea in his head, and he can feel a smirk growing on his face. Steven just raises his eyebrows.

“Thanks,” Andrew says. “It looks really good, right Steven?”

“Yeah,” Steven says tentatively. Andrew’s not sure how he’s going to receive this, but he has a feeling that the look on Rie’s face will be priceless.

Andrew cracks open the steaming hot box and hands a pair of chopsticks over to Steven. “We should get in the spirit of Worth It before we start filming,” he says, splitting the chopsticks haphazardly with his free hand. He gets a nice heap of noodles onto them and directs them towards Steven’s mouth. “Say ah,” he says.

Steven looks stunned for a brief moment, but he opens his mouth obligingly. Rie’s pressing her lips together, trying to hide a smile that Andrew thinks would probably threaten to stretch past the edges of her face. Steven seems to catch on, snorting slightly on the noodles, and he quickly covers his mouth with his hand.

“Here, I’m a good co-host so I’ll do you too,” Steven says, grabbing the same pair of chopsticks from Andrew’s hands and gathering up an overly healthy scoop of noodles.

It’s a good thing Andrew’s basically made a career of taking large bites out of things; he gets the entire chopstickful with minimal noodle-leakage, which Steven actually looks slightly disappointed at. But he’s distracted then by the huge bulge taking up the lower half of Andrew’s face as he struggles to chew and swallow. Andrew nearly doesn’t make it; Steven’s laughter is contagious.

Rie forgets to even eat her yakisoba, she’s so busy pretending not to fawn over them, and she ends up having to hastily snarf it down right before they start rolling.

***

“Watch this,” Steven says, going in for a series of slaps against the crust of the cheese tart. “Look at it jiggle. It’s obscene.”

“Are you ever going to get tired of doing that?” Andrew says, hoping that the double entendre will pass—Steven has been slapping it for far longer than appropriate now.

“Nope,” Steven says happily. The cake wobbles on the plate, still not in any danger of tipping over, which is pretty impressive unto itself. “But, will it maintain its integrity after he forks it?”

They go in for the slice; Matt gets in real close to catch the detail, and as Andrew’s about to run his fork through the cake, Steven speaks in a low voice.

“Oh yeah, fork it,” he murmurs suggestively. The camera isn’t on their faces, so Andrew spares a glance over—Steven’s got a twinkle in his eye. Oh, okay. So they’re still going to play this game.

“Oh my God,” Andrew says as the fork slides right through the filling with no resistance at all. “Like butter.”

They each take exaggerated bites, eyes closed and savoring the moment. The tart is good, that’s for sure, but they’re really hamming it up.

“Oh yeah,” Andrew says. “That’s what I want.”

“Mmm,” Steven practically moans. “This cake just gave it to me so hard.”

Andrew nearly loses composure at that one, but he goes in for another bite so he won’t have to say anything and accidentally start laughing. Steven continues with his inappropriate, exaggerated noises next to him.

“It’s like a gentle...kiss,” Steven says lowly, nearly whispering and leaning in real close to Andrew as he does so.

Okay, that’s where he draws the line. Things don’t need to get quite that heavy, and they’ve already done enough, judging by the way Adam looks like he wants to knock their heads off with the boom mic and the way Rie’s unsuccessfully hiding her blush and not-so-secretly filming them on her phone.

“Can we talk about this sliver of apricot jam?” Andrew says, directing the flow back towards the subject they’re actually supposed to be covering: the cake.

Without missing a beat, Steven falls back too, and they wrap up their portion of the filming much in the same fashion as the previous few days.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Steven muses as they’re preparing to leave Pablo. “Third time around, and each time they make the cake just as perfectly as the first. Wait, is it the third? Fourth?”

“Third,” Andrew says. “And technically, it’s the same cake. We’ve been eating the same cake for three days.”

“Hey, that’s not so bad. Getting to eat cake every day? I could think of worse things than that.”

“Yeah, like being trapped in some weird sci-fi scenario in a foreign country.”

He and Steven both laugh, but it’s a bit strained; he hadn’t wanted to think about it all morning, but truly, he doesn’t know what to do about their twisted situation. The most he can do is hope to all hope that he’ll wake up and it’ll actually be the next day. Steven seems to be avoiding the subject as well—this is the first time either one of them has brought it up all day.

Rie, Matt, and Adam come to group with them then, and instinctively, the both of them don’t bring it up around the others. Andrew’s not sure why, because maybe they’d be able to help. Or, more likely, they’d think the two of them have gone crazy. Maybe it’s a Westworld situation, and they’ll just be totally dismissive. ’That doesn’t sound like anything to me,’ Andrew can imagine Adam saying.

He’s overthinking again.

He doesn’t get the opportunity to be alone with Steven for the rest of the day until after dinner when they’re all headed back to the hotel.

“Hey, you guys go on ahead,” he calls to them as they’re coming up on the block where their hotel sits. “I’m gonna take a walk.” He shoots a meaningful look at Steven, who catches his drift seamlessly—they’re getting pretty good at this silent communication thing.

“I’ll come with,” Steven says, jogging over to him. “You don’t have to wait up for us if you don’t want.”

They part with the others and head off in the opposite direction, around the corner to where the streets, though not crowded and full of light as the Dotonbori covered walkway area, are still decently alive. The evening crowd is beginning to emerge, and there are signs for all kinds of late night restaurants and snacks. Andrew has no idea where he’s going, but just picks a direction and sticks with it.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Steven asks, like he can read Andrew’s mind.

“Nope,” Andrew says. “We’ve been here for three days, though, and it’d be cool to finally know what the neighborhood looks like outside of the filming spots, don’t you think?”

Steven smiles—Andrew knows he loves big cities.

They wander aimlessly for a few minutes, turning down alleyways wherever they please. Though they just ate not too long ago, Steven ends up peering into just about every street food cart they come across. However, he doesn't have any cash on him and most of the places don't accept card, so he's left to stare longingly at the freshly fried takoyaki and gyoza. Impulsively, Andrew snaps a couple of pictures of Steven on his phone as he's illuminated against the glowing street signs or pointing out the crazy colored pachinko machines in the arcades they pass.

Finally, Steven looks so much like a kicked puppy that Andrew relents and pulls out the only 500 yen coin he has in his pocket, which gets him a nice styrofoam plate of fresh gyoza. It's much too crowded to be able to take their time and do a food cheers, so instead they stand off to the side of the cart and scarf down the dumplings while they're still steaming hot.

"I could eat, like, a thousand of these," Steven says. "Man, it's nice to eat something other than yakisoba and cake."

"Yeah," Andrew says, wiping the grease from his face with a napkin. "Well, hopefully we won't have any of that in store for us tomorrow."

"Hopefully," Steven echoes.

A comfortable silence settles between them as they polish off the last of their gyoza. Originally, Andrew had wanted to talk about their situation, maybe come up with some sort of plan of action if they really do end up with the same thing tomorrow. But now, just hanging out with Steven in the heart of Osaka eating gyoza off a street cart while the night comes alive around them, he finds that he doesn't want to do that. It's Steven that's on his mind, not the warped time loop they're trapped in. Steven, and that conversation from days ago lingering in his mind ever since.

"Hey, Steven," he begins, trying to quash down any awkwardness that's threatening to rise up and tie his words into knots. "I'm, uh..." He rubs at the back of his neck, unsure of how to express the jumble in his mind. Around them, the summer night is muggy and warm, and the streets are loud with ambient chatter from passersby and tinny music from the inside of shops and restaurants. It's perhaps not the best environment, but Steven looks at ease in the midst of it all. So maybe there's actually no better place than here.

"Something you said a couple days ago really bothered me," Andrew decides to begin, the words falling out before he can choose them more wisely. Steven looks at him attentively, like he really cares what Andrew's about to say next. Andrew doesn't miss the subtle way his shoulders tense up, the hint of worry that sets into his brow.

"You don't make me do things I don't want to do, and you're not 'too extra,'" he uses air quotes. "I think sometimes I'm blinded by my own stubbornness and I'm definitely not as adventurous as you, and you do take me out of my comfort zone sometimes. But things always end up for the better because of that, and it also makes me, I think, a better person."

Steven is quiet the entire time, but his attention doesn't waver from Andrew, who takes a deep breath and just keeps on going, deciding he might as well while he's on a roll.

"Anyways, I just don't want you to think that I'm actually bothered or annoyed by you even though that's kind of the back and forth we have going on. You're—uh. You're my friend. You're like, my best friend," he admits.

As soon as he says it, he knows it's true. It's never something he's said out loud before, or even really thought about very much, but it feels right as soon as it's out there. Steven's funny, hard working, charming, goofy—an all around great guy, and Andrew feels at ease when he's around him. At home.

They've hardly spent any time together as just the two of them, always tailed by at least Adam and some other Buzzfeed folks. Steven's always so energetic when he's around others, like there's always a camera that might be catching what he's doing. Steven Lim—publicly curated for your consumption.

Now, though, as he's looking at Andrew, he's become somewhat unreadable. Andrew realizes in that moment that Steven must have a private persona too, the way he is as an individual when no one else is watching. And he wants to get to know that Steven, too. He wants to get to know all of him.

Steven actually looks a bit pensive and shoves his hands in his pockets. But there's a small smile curving at the edges of his lips, too, and he looks at the ground.

"You're my best friend, too," he finally replies. "It's just hard to get past some of my own insecurities and stuff sometimes, you know? But I'm really glad you didn't take my friendship just as a bit for the show. You really do mean a lot to me, and not just because of the show. You're important to me."

It's hard to even imagine that Steven Lim, confident and outgoing as he is, as having insecurities, but that's the way people operate, Andrew supposes. It's partially his own fault too for not empathizing enough.

"I know you wouldn't do that," Andrew says. He's not quite sure how to proceed—he's never admitted best friendship out loud before, like it's some kind of confession where the result goes one way or the other. Steven, though, takes care of that for him and ends up pushing off the wall they'd been leaning against, tossing the greasy styrofoam plates and chopsticks into the large garbage bin behind the cart.

"We should get going before it's too late," Steven says. "Either way it goes, we have an early day tomorrow."

"Yeah," Andrew agrees. "Maybe we'll get back late enough so that Adam won't call me an idiot anymore before I go to bed."

Steven snorts at that. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah, like every single night he tells me I'm an idiot before leaving to go to sleep. I think the repetition of it is finally starting to bruise my ego."

"What for?"

 

"I have no idea, he never says."

"I wonder what would happen if we bought an umbrella on the way home and you had it out before Rie can give you hers," Steven muses.

"The world would probably explode and whatever weird AR we're in would mess up. Like, it does not compute."

"You know, we've gone to Osaka Castle like three or four times now but we've never actually gone inside."

"Oh shit, you're right," Andrew says. "Okay, if tomorrow comes and we have to do this whole thing over again, I'm honestly tempted to ditch filming all together and go around and see the city."

"Oh my God, I think Adam would have a conniption," Steven laughs. It's probably true, which is one of the reasons why Andrew hasn't done it yet.

"I don't care," he says. "He's just gonna forget it all the next day anyways. We're never getting out."

"Hey, don't think like that! For all we know, today could be the last day of this whole mess and we'll be off to bigger and better things tomorrow. For real."

"If you say so," Andrew says. Part of him does hope that it's true, but a strange part of him also feels kind of reluctant. It was kind of nice, fooling around all day and sharing something with Steven that only the two of them know.

They bump shoulders as they make their way through the throng of alleyways and bright lights back to the quiet street of their hotel. It's late enough that in this area, after they've left the vibrant nightlife streets and reached a more residential neighborhood, is nearly deserted. Belly full and warm night air lulling him with each step, Andrew finally feels exhaustion beginning to tug at his bones, and Steven stifles a yawn into his sleeve.

When they get back, Steven says good night quietly and slips into his room. Andrew fumbles in his wallet for his key card for a moment and is about it slot it in when behind him, another door opens. One hand on the handle to his door, he peers over his shoulder; it's Adam.

"Oh," Adam says. "I was just about to check if you were back yet."

"Well, here I am," Andrew says. Part of him wants to just go into his room and close the door in Adam's face before he can say anything else.

"Yeah. Good talk with Steven?"

"Yeah, I guess," Andrew says. "We're friends. It's all good."

"Oh," Adam replies. "That's good. But you're still kind of an idiot, you know."

And there it is.

"Huh. I guess I'll have to figure that one out," Andrew sighs with a defeated tone. Adam actually gives a soft chuckle at that, and then turns to go back into his own room.

When he gets inside, Andrew takes care to put all of his things in order right away. Curtains closed, shoes properly tucked away, tomorrow's change of clothes stacked on top of the dresser. Instead of heading into bed, though, he heads for the shower. He needs the space to clear his head for a bit, and he has a feeling that if he climbs into bed he'll be knocked out before his mind can catch up to his body.

The steam of the shower reminds him of the warm summer air outside, made even hotter by the crowds and the steam rising from the gyoza cart as he and Steven had stood there. He blinks water from his eyes, staring at the rivulets sliding down the shower curtain. The heat was hardly noticeable today, he realizes. He figures he's finally getting used to it, and it actually doesn't feel all too bad. Maybe in a couple days he'll be able to wear long sleeves too—not that he'd packed any.

Today was overall a good day, even though it was just a repeat. He feels like in the midst of it all, with the day doing itself over again and everyone else behaving the same, it's a good thing that he and Steven have been able to make strides.

He still doesn't understand what Adam means by him being an idiot, but he has a feeling that it all connects back to Steven, the way all things seem to do while they're here in Osaka.

***

The next morning there's a sharp knock at the door, but Andrew is already awake.

The date on his phone tells him everything he needs to know, not to mention that the alarm he'd set last night never bothered to go off. He guesses things like that can't be saved from the time warp. He'd managed to wake up anyways, half from the anticipation of an alarm that would never go off, half to spite Adam.

Still, the knock slightly infuriates him as soon as he hears it, and he throws a pillow at the door grumpily, imagining that there isn't a barrier separating him and his target.

"You're late," Adam says as soon as Andrew opens the door, but he pauses, slightly surprised—Andrew's already fully showered and dressed. "Oh. Nevermind. We're all heading downstairs now if you wanna come."

"Got it," Andrew says, and then promptly shuts the door in Adam's face. He feels a little victorious as he turns away and slips his shoes on—he should have started doing that days ago. No more of Adam's quiet, disappointed, mini-lectures.

His phone pings off a notification tone a few seconds later, though, and several messages from Adam display on the screen when he picks it up.

You should talk to Steven today.

Last night was really uncool.

See you downstairs.

Andrew considers dropping his phone off the balcony. There would be no consequences, not if the loop repeats again tomorrow. Which, at this rate, it definitely will. He could do it—watch it fall six whole stories and shatter into a million tiny shards on the pavement. It would be cathartic.

Instead, like a good Ukrainian boy, he balls up all that mild frustration and shoves it somewhere deep in his psyche where it can rot away until he's in his forties and it decides to rear its ugly head, along with all his other internalized problems.

Everyone is in their places when he gets to the lobby, including Steven, who greets him with a smile that Andrew finds himself returning.

Rie shoots the both of them an approving smile as she hops up and bounds over to Andrew, umbrella already clutched in her hands.

"I got you this," she says, holding it out. "Since you said it was so hot yesterday."

"Oh, for the UV rays, right? I think I read about Japanese people carrying sun umbrellas around," Andrew says. Rie looks mildly surprised, but very pleased.

"Like your own personal shade," Steven chimes in.

"Portable," Andrew corrects.

"That, too!"

"I feel like I'm your personal shade," Andrew says. "Like...get it? Like throwing shade?"

Steven rolls his eyes, and from a couple feet away, Matt shakes his head. Not his best work, Andrew admits, but he takes the umbrella from Rie and they head on their way.

On the walk through from the station to the castle grounds through the park, Andrew decides to actually use the umbrella for the first time. It makes a dramatic whoosh as it expands and he holds it up. It actually is pretty shady and nice, he has to admit, though the feeling of holding an umbrella while walking in perfectly sunny, cloudless weather is a bit strange.

"Hey man, share the shade," Steven says, ducking under Andrew's umbrella. He has to hunch his shoulders and tuck his head down to fit. Andrew lifts his arm a couple inches so that the thing's properly held above the both of them and tries not to think about how ridiculous they both look.

Behind them, he thinks he can hear the camera shutter on Rie's phone going off.

"You've had your chance with it for like, three days now," Andrew says, pushing Steven slightly with his shoulder.

"Sharing is caring," Steven says, snatching the handle of the umbrella from Andrew and holding it up even higher so that the scant diameter of shade it provides floats from higher, falling over the halves of their bodies that are facing into the umbrella and leaving the other half to bathe in sunlight.

Damn it, Andrew thinks while looking up at him, why is Steven so tall?

"If I get a weird tan on just the left side of my body, it's your fault," he says.

"Hey, I'll have a weird tan on my right side," Steven laughs. "We'll be matching."

"So, I've been thinking. We've been here what like, four, five times now?" It occurs to Andrew briefly in that moment that he should perhaps keep track of how many times they've repeated the day, if only for his own sanity.

"I think four," Steven says, and then pauses. "Or maybe five? Huh."

"Anyway," Andrew continues. "We've been here a bunch of times, but we've never even been inside the castle, or even across the bridge for that matter."

Steven turns his head to look at him, amusement written across his face.

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying, let's go inside the damn thing and check it out."

"When?"

Andrew shrugs and gestures around them. The castle is in sight now, high against the canopy of trees in the not so far off distance. "I mean...we're here now, aren't we? You know what they say about the present."

"What, and ditch filming?" Steven says incredulously.

Andrew shrugs again. "We'll film again tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. I just feel like we should take advantage of this thing while it lasts, you know?"

"And what if today's the day that decides to stick?"

"We'll make it back for Pablo and we can always re-shoot the intro anywhere else."

Steven considers this. Andrew's winning him over, he can tell. And then Steven says, quietly,

"What about Adam?"

Even trapped in a time loop where they know things will just reset in the morning, they’re both scared of Adam’s wrath. Andrew's probably already on thin ice with him after closing the door in his face this morning, but at this point, he's willing to take their chances. They're in Osaka for what seems to be like an unlimited amount of time, and he wants to do stuff other than eat cheese tarts and walk around aimlessly.

"He'll forget all of this anyway. I don't know about you, but I'm going. You can stay back with the others if you want, but I'm going."

He doesn't know if that's true or not; without Steven, it would be kind of pointless. But it's enough to convince Steven, apparently, because he grins at Andrew.

"We're going to get in so much trouble," he says, sounding thrilled by the scandal of it all. Like this is the most taboo thing he's done in all his life, which it probably is—Steven strikes Andrew as a good, rule-following boy who's probably never so much as gotten a detention in high school.

"No, we're not," Andrew says, a mirroring grin curling at the edge of his lips.

***

"It's never too early for yakisoba," Rie says. "I'll go get us some!"

As she sets her things down with Matt and Adam, Steven and Andrew look at one another—that's their signal. They'd decided that this was the perfect time to do it, and if the others wanted to come looking for them they wouldn't be that far off. They both have their phones turned off for good measure, which Steven was very reluctant to do. Yeah, definitely the never-gotten-detention type.

Andrew motions for Steven to follow him and they blend in with the crowd seamlessly, flowing among the light foot traffic that's crossing the bridge and going into the castle walls.

Once they cross the bridge, they have to hike up a series of pathways that take them up the sloping castle grounds that are lined with trees and stone gardens.

Past of the great stone archways and along the rising walls bordering the curve of the hill, there are families with children having picnics or playing among the large, flat stones placed artfully around the grass; there are couples dutifully taking timed photos with the castle looming high in the background; there's a group of old men sitting on some of the cobblestone barriers outside the gates of the grounds wearing bucket hats and shooting the shit like they've been there for hours.

Steven had closed the umbrella when they'd crossed the bridge to be less conspicuous, and the two of them take in the sights around them. It's actually a longer walk to the actual castle than Andrew had anticipated, and he almost wishes he had a camera in his hands to document this charming slice of local life. It's kind of amazing—there’s this magnificent piece of history and architecture that these people probably visit every weekend to just hang out.

"It's so cool that people just come here to chill," Steven says, echoing Andrew's thoughts like he can hear them. "Imagine being able to just casually come here every day with this huge castle in the background."

"I mean, that's basically what we've been doing for the past few days," Andrew says.

"I guess that's true. Maybe we're looking at our future selves," Steven remarks, nodding at the group of old men in bucket hats.

God, isn't that a thought. Andrew's stomach churns with some unidentifiable emotion that he chooses not to examine too closely—at least, not right now.

They finally reach the entrance of the castle itself. There are large grounds spanning around the great structure, interwoven with stone footpaths and lush trees that are probably rife with cherry blossoms in the spring.

After getting tickets from the automated machine, they head up the stairs into the main castle, only to be met with a long line going out the door.

"Yikes," Steven whispers as they take their place in the queue. Almost immediately, more people follow them until they're sandwiched in.

"Yeah, did not think this one through," Andrew says. This might take more time than he'd anticipated, which is not good if they want to make it back in time to head to Pablo.

"Wait—I think this is just for the elevator," Steven says, pointing to a small sign on the ground. "Yeah, this is just the line for the elevator, which goes up to the 5th floor. The observatory is on the 8th floor, we're meant to head up there first and then make our way down."

"We could just walk it, right? Take the stairs all the way?" Andrew's not super excited at the prospect, but eight floors doesn't seem so bad, all things considered.

"Totally," Steven agrees, and they hop out of line to head for the stairs.

***

The stairs are a bad idea.

They're a very, very bad idea—Andrew thought his sweat problem had become a non-issue after becoming accustomed to the heat, but it's resurfaced with a vengeance. It's a small mercy that he's picked the same black t-shirt from the first day to wear again today. How is he so out of shape? Eight floors really hadn't seemed to bad at first. He really needs to go back to the climbing gym when they get back to LA. If they ever get back—they have to break this damn loop first.

Next to him, Steven isn't doing much better. For someone who usually has so much boundless energy, he tires out quick and starts huffing somewhere around the fifth floor.

Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so fucking crowded. Andrew has to keep pace with the person in front of him, and he can't stop without having the person behind him—which happens to be Steven—bump into him and start a stairwell traffic jam. Ever since the fifth floor, where the elevators let out and everyone regardless had to take the stairs to the top, it’s like wading through a school of fish, packed tightly together. It’s getting real dank and musty with body heat and sweat as they move in a collective herd up the stairs.

"This isn't so bad," Steven says behind him, except that the words come out in huffs of air that betray his exertion. They're close to the top now; Andrew can see the end of the spiral of stairway railing.

They finally reach the top, and Andrew takes a moment to rest his hands on his knees and calm his breathing down.

"Oh, wow," he hears Steven breathe as he passes him and goes through one of the sliding doors to the covered balcony. It's surprisingly narrow up here, and the crowd doesn't really thin out in the confined space. It's a square, with the up and down stairwells taking up the center of the room, surrounded by sliding doors on all four sides that lead out to the open air observation balcony.

Andrew musters up the energy to follow Steven, who has stepped outside and is staring out below.

"Oh, shit," he murmurs when he reaches Steven's side and sees what lies below. The castle itself already sits on a rather large hill, and all the stairs they had to climb to reach this height are worth it, because the view is incredible. All of Osaka is sprawled out beneath them in 360 degrees, from the vast park grounds to the clustered city buildings beyond, rolling as far as the horizon in little dots of life. With the morning sun against the cloudless blue sky, it's phenomenal, even through the mesh safety wiring between the overhanging castle roof and balcony railing. The sun gleams off of the golden accent pieces at the corners of the roofing and balcony and the jade green of the roof blends pleasantly with the sky above and the trees below, like a mellow combination of the elements.

"Okay, I was planning something snarky about coming here after all those stairs, but...this is definitely worth it," Andrew comments. Steven laughs, a single amused huff.

"It's really beautiful," Steven says, staring out at it all. He loves big cities, Andrew reminds himself. Well, it doesn't seem to get much bigger than this—and this is just northern Osaka, he reckons. Nothing's even visible to the south in the area they hang out in at night, with the canal and neon lights and billboards.

They circle around the balcony, viewing the world from all angles before coming back to their original spot.

"Okay, I'm really glad we ditched," Steven says as they step back through the threshold and inside the square interior. "This was really great."

"Yeah," Andrew agrees. The view is gorgeous, for sure, but seeing how entranced Steven is with it all is the real highlight, in his opinion. His happiness is contagious, and Andrew soaks it up, lets it blend into his usual, default monotone color and make it something a bit brighter.

They still have an entire castle exhibit to visit across the remaining seven floors, so they head down the stairs to the first exhibit area, which is no less crowded than the stairwell. In fact, it's even more so, because people stop and gather periodically around informational screens that wrap around the building in a square, much like the top floor with the stairwell at the center.

"So I guess this is the guy who built this place," Steven says, peering above people's heads at the first screen they come to. "Hideyoshi Toyo-something. I can't see."

More people flow in from the stairwell, and Andrew is forced to shuffle forward until he's pressed shoulder to shoulder against Steven, who is still trying to read the screen.

"Let's just keep moving," Andrew says, leaning his face away slightly so he doesn't have to speak into Steven's shirt. They shuffle forward some more—Andrew can't really see a thing, and honestly, he's not that bothered to. Steven, however, is starting to get into the story.

"This guy's life is crazy," he says. "He like, consolidated all this power in and stuff by being loyal to this other guy and gaining political favor."

"Wow," Andrew says. Steven's back is almost pressed against his front now; in front of them are people interested in the exhibit crowding to try and see into the screens; behind them moves a slow-moving throng of obviously disinterested people just trying to wrap around to the next stairwell, effectively trapping them together in a human whirlpool of varying degrees of cultural interest. Andrew's not really concerned about that, though—he's more worried about the fact that he and Steven are about to be squished together like wax and paper.

As they move slowly through the rest of the exhibit, Andrew becomes less and less attentive to what it's actually about, letting Steven's chatter and the noise of the crowd fade into the background. It's seriously hot in here, and part of him is afraid that if he lets Steven out of his sight, he'll lose him, which is ridiculous since he doesn't think he's ever been in a space as confined as this one. There ought to be warnings outside that claustrophobic people maybe shouldn't come here when it's crowded.

Why is Steven taller than him? Andrew already feels slightly taller than some of the other people around, and he definitely feels like he stands out with his blond hair and green eyes. But Steven's just a couple inches taller, only Andrew's never noticed that much what a difference just a few inches can make. He's finally not wearing a long sleeved shirt again, just a plain t-shirt. Andrew's sure he's seen him in one before, but Steven usually wears looser things that hang fashionably from his frame, or button downs layered with something. The t-shirt fits him nicely. He should wear them more often.

Andrew's rapidly becoming fascinated with the way the hair at the nape of Steven's neck is downy and black, unlike the rest of the silver-grey mess, when they reach the end of the exhibit and are at another stairwell.

"That was informative," Steven says, bounding ahead and taking the stairs down. "It was really crowded in there, though."

"Tell me about it," Andrew mutters. He may have gotten a little carried away in his spacing out; he doesn't really know what that's all about. His old creepy character from years ago making a reappearance, possibly.

"It's getting kind of late," Steven says, checking his watch. "Is it okay if we skip the other floors and head back to the rest of them now?"

"Yes," Andrew answers, a little too quickly. He clears his throat. "Yeah. I mean—yeah, I'm fine with that."

They take the stairs all the way down to the first floor again; the air is noticeably less stuffy back at the base, and Andrew breathes in deeply when they step back out into the sunshine.

"That was really fun. We should do something like it again, next time," Steven says eagerly. Andrew agrees with him, but the sun is really bright and Steven is smiling at him really contentedly, so he just squints and nods.

All told, they'd been gone for less than two hours, which isn't so bad considering it usually takes them even longer than that to film all the takes for the intro clip and B-roll footage. But that doesn't stop Adam from ripping them a new one when they make it back to the group, who is still at their usual spot when they return.

"You should come with us next time, Adam," Steven says, not letting the tension dampen his good mood.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's really nice up there," Andrew chimes in.

They need to leave now if they want to be on time for their shoot at Pablo, so Adam lets it go in the interest of professionalism (which the both of them are completely lacking, according to Adam himself circa five minutes ago). Rie, Andrew notices, doesn't seem very bothered by their sudden disappearance. In fact, she looks a tiny bit pleased.

***

The rest of filming is rough. Adam reverts to his quiet camera-self when they begin rolling while still managing to be short with them. Andrew can't find it in him to feel too badly, though—days of Adam's morning and nighttime disappointment have made him complacent. Plus, Steven's still in a good mood from their little adventure and his enthusiasm is contagious, spilling outwards and leaking all over Andrew until he, too, can't stop smiling and cracking jokes as they eat the cheese tart.

They shoot the intro and the outro together this time, a few minutes' walk away from Pablo on one of the large, stone pedestrian bridges going across the canal. It's crowded as all hell at this time of day, which definitely can't be good for Adam's mood, but the sight of them—a group of foreigners carrying a bunch of heavy filming and sound equipment—seems to be enough to make people give them at least a decently wide berth as they choose a spot and set up.

Rie, curiously, also won't stop smiling as they discuss the merits of Pablo, despite being a huge chain, having such a good cake. She's beaming at the two of them, and it only grows wider when Steven knocks his shoulder into Andrew, leaning slightly as they stroll casually through the shot, Matt and Adam following close behind.

"I mean, sugar as medicine. That's a doctor's office I want to go to," Steven is saying, rounding out their keki mame chishiki.

"I think you're sweet enough already," Andrew lets the thought slip out into actual, audible existence before he can really even process that he's thought it at all.

Rie snorts and Steven—he takes it all into stride, looking at the camera and wiggling his eyebrows playfully. Andrew maintains his casual pose, suddenly feeling like a stranger in his own limbs. Why did he say that?

No one mentions it, and it's going to play off excellently in the show—unless he decides to edit it out later, purely out of self preservation, so eventually Andrew shrugs it off as well.

It seems their slight turn of events and change of usual location is enough to alter the gears ever so slightly in the machinery of the time loop, because instead of going for pork katsu bowls like they have been for the past few days, Rie suggests that they all have okonomiyaki for dinner. Osaka is known for it, apparently.

It's a nice change of pace, and Andrew feels edifies; his earlier hypothesis had been correct. If they do certain things a certain way, he and Steven can change the way events unfold in a day. The days of those they've come in contact with for the first time today have probably all been slightly altered—the people cramped around them in Osaka Castle, the pedestrians crossing the bridge.

They're kind of like the masters of this strange little world. Andrew shares his realization with Steven over dinner, when the rest of the group have gone to get drinks from the water machine.

"None of that right now," Steven dismisses, waving his chopsticks around. "It's gonna make my head hurt, and I want to enjoy this dinner!"

"Alright, fine."

They haven't actually talked about what this whole thing actually is, and what it might mean for them. In fact, Andrew's been studiously ignoring it all together, banishing the thoughts away whenever they spring into his mind. He kind of keeps telling himself that it's all a dream, or that tomorrow will finally be the day that he'll wake up and things will be back to normal, but he knows he's only placating himself.

He supposes Steven feels the same way as he does; if they don't talk about it too deeply, it's that much easier to pretend that this all isn't real. That it'll fade away into nothing more than a bad dream once time decides to move forward for them again.

But after dinner, there's an unspoken agreement that they'll take a walk again tonight after the others head back into the hotel. Steven gives him a look as they're strolling down the final block before their destination, a small tilt of his head and quirk of his lips that Andrew's able to read effortlessly.

"We'll catch up with you guys later," Andrew says, hanging back with Steven at the threshold of the lobby door.

Adam simply raises his eyebrows, not looking very amused. He's still not over their little stunt from earlier. But Andrew thinks there must be some part of him—the part that's not pissed—that wants this for him and Steven.

Whatever this is.

They head in the opposite direction as they did last time, northward, where it's much quieter, more reminiscent of a suburban street than the bustling heat and light of Dotonbori and its surrounding alleyways.

"So," Steven begins, swinging his arms and shuffling languidly. The night air, as usual, is warm and humid; Andrew's grown used to it now and it floats over him in a delicate layer that is no longer cloying and clammy, but comfortable.

"So," Andrew echoes. He kicks a pebble absentmindedly and watches as it skitters across the sidewalk and into the road.

"What are we doing?"

For some odd reason, Andrew feels a seizing up in his chest at the question. He furrows his brows minutely; it's a perfectly reasonable question. What are they doing?

"I mean...I really wanted to avoid thinking about it, but now that I am thinking about it, avoiding it is probably not the best solution," Steven continues, oblivious to Andrew's pause.

"Yeah," Andrew responds, all the air whooshing out of his lungs in the word, a sigh bound in by letters. "Yeah, I get that."

"It's just so difficult to wrap my head around. I keep imagining that I'm the protagonist of a Christopher Nolan movie."

"I know exactly what you mean," Andrew says, cracking a smile. "What do you think's gonna happen? How is this gonna go down?"

"I have no clue."

They come to a stop at a small but well cared for park area; it's mostly all cement and a few artful trees and leafy plants placed in tall, diamond-shaped stone platforms, raised above foot level to make the trees and plants seem taller and more lush than they actually are. There's no one else around, save for the lonely street lights that illuminate the plants and the stone in yellow light that fades into blue and black against the darkness, which falls very quickly in the evenings here, despite it being summer.

"How do you feel about that?" Andrew finds himself saying as they sit down, side by side, on one of the stone ledges of the tree.

"...I don't know," Steven says after a moment's pause. "I feel like this should scare me, but so far every day has been so...normal. Like, any of them could have been a day in the life, and if only one of them ends up being the day that I remember, things wouldn't feel any different. You know?"

Andrew doesn't quite know, actually, because in all the days that they’ve repeated here, he feels like something has changed within him. Some metaphorical coin has been pushed along its edge and is now just waiting to slot into place. Like there's something hanging on a precipice, and he doesn't know whether to pull it up or let it fall. He looks at Steven, and his insides churn.

"Right," he says eventually, even though the word feels strange on his tongue. "I wonder what it's all supposed to mean, though. Like...why is this happening at all?"

He leans back on his hands, peering at the sky above like it might have some of the answers he's seeking. Next to him, Steven mirrors his movement.

“Maybe the universe is trying to tell us something.”

“Yeah, no fucking kidding.”

“Why us, though?” Steven muses, turning to look at Andrew. “What could the universe be trying to tell just us two in particular?”

Andrew doesn’t have an answer for that, but there’s suddenly a warm feeling coiling in his stomach.

“Do you think everyone’s living like this?” Steven asks as he leans back on his hands and tilts his head up to look at the dark expanse of the sky.

“What do you mean?”

“Like...what if everyone’s living the same day, over and over again, but they’re the only ones who know it? And the people we interact with on different days are just different versions of the same people going through the same loop. Only no one talks about it because they don’t want people to think they’re crazy.”

“Huh.”

Andrew’s never thought about something that deeply before, not even in his college phase of fake-tortured-soul. Not until now, when his mind is busy warring with itself over whether it should be preoccupied with the concept of time, or with the concept of Steven Lim.

“Even if that were true,” he ends up saying, “that still begs the question of why it’s the two of us, and not just one.”

Steven makes a noncommittal noise, keeping his gaze on the barely visible stars. Looking at him, Andrew is struck with a sudden sense of melancholy. The streetlamp above bathes him in gold, soft edges meeting hard shadow against the night framed around them.

He doesn’t want this night to end, he realizes.

“What if we just stayed out here all night?” he asks half jokingly. Steven probably knows him well enough to detect the genuine note in his voice. “What if we just never went back to the hotel and sat here until the sun rose? What do you think would happen?”

He doesn’t want to go back and have the time slip away again, snap like a rubber band back into place and string the two of them along with it. He wants to move forward, to progress—with the show, with his life. And Steven, he wants to make progress with him too, even though the cosmos has decided to connect the two of them in the most bizarre of ways.

However, there's another part of him—a part that feels fear for coming out of this. He wants to think he's grown complacent, as he's sometimes wont to do, if it weren't for people like Steven and Adam coming along and pushing him to do greater, be greater. But he knows it's actually something else.

If he wakes up tomorrow and this is all just a dream and Steven has no memory of their lost days together, what would he do? What would that feel like?

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Steven interrupts his inner monologue as he gets up and dusts his pants off. He turns around and looks at Andrew expectantly.

“C’mon,” he says, tilting his head forward. “Adam's not gonna be happy if we get back too late, especially after today. And who knows, maybe tomorrow’s the day things will finally get back to normal and we can move on with our lives.”

“Yeah,” Andrew agrees after a beat, standing up. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

The walk back to the hotel is silent between the two of them, but a certain set of words pings around in Andrew’s brain, like so many marbles in a pachinko machine.

We can move on with our lives.

***

Andrew wakes up early again the next day, which itself is a miracle. Last night he'd lain for hours in bed, deep in thought about the intricacies of time, space, multiple universes and, perhaps, the most complicated of them all: Steven Lim. Is Steven lying there, thinking about all this too? Is he thinking about Andrew thinking about it?

The later it had become, the more determined Andrew grew to stay up all night and figure this thing out once and for all. He wanted to see what would happen. Would space itself pinch and warp, sending him squeezing through dimensional barrels to reach the same exact moment, 24 hours earlier? Would nothing happen at all? Would the sun simply continue to fall and rise over the Earth? The concept of time, then, would exist for them in a circle, rather than laying flat on a line.

But eventually, an unrestful sleep comes to him and for that Andrew's almost thankful because he was going to drive himself into a corner of existential crisis. He's surprised that he wakes up when he does, automatically listening attentively for the knock at his door. But it doesn't come, and though he's not feeling well rested at all, he hauls himself out of bed simply to avoid being woken up by Adam again today.

This time, he's totally dressed and ready to go before Adam even arrives at his door, which he feels he honestly deserves a medal for. If only Steven could see this now—Andrew, triumphantly stepping out of his door without the unwanted wake up call, bag slung over his shoulder, freshly showered and everything.

"Oh, I was just about to come and get you," Adam says from a couple feet down the hallway.

Success is so sweet.

"No need," Andrew replies, trying not to put too much pep in his step. "Should we get going?"

Adam looks like he has more to say, but he settles for nodding and following along as they step into the elevator.

Matt and Rie are already in the lobby, comparing production notes for today. Rie's umbrella is still in her bag, which is resting against one of the arms of the chairs as she jots things down in her notebook.

"Morning," Andrew greets. Rie looks up, like she hadn't been expecting to see him just yet, and then scrambles to pick up her bag so she can fish out the umbrella.

Steven is noticeably absent from them, which is strange because they all seemed like they'd been lounging around for a while before Andrew arrived in the days past, so he ought to be here unless he's decided to break schedule for some reason. Andrew thinks he could have also been up all night, pondering the nature of time and existence.

"Where's Steven?" he asks before Rie can thrust the umbrella into his hands. Her smile falters, and she suddenly looks awkward.

Right, everyone thinks they're still in a fight. Andrew's a little surprised that he'd almost forgotten, even without Adam's usual morning lecture.

"I'm not sure," Rie says.

"I can go check on him," Adam offers, and just then, Andrew's phone vibrates in his pocket. When he pulls it out, a message from Steven displays on the screen:

Tell them I'm sick and then come here. We're doing something fun today :-)

He stares at the screen for a second, suppressing the grin that's trying to edge its way from his lips.

"He just messaged me. Apparently he's sick, bad bit of food poisoning."

Rie looks sympathetic, and Adam—ever the professional—nods, taking it all into consideration. Andrew, in a bout of inspiration, pretends to check his phone again as if there's another message.

"He just said that you guys should go ahead and scout the filming location because he might be a while. Why don’t you guys go on ahead, and I’ll go check on him? If anything we'll meet you at Pablo and we can reshoot the intro stuff later."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, totally."

"You won't get lost or anything?" Rie asks, looking concerned.

As if. The same route they've been taking all over the city is etched into Andrew's brain now through pure rote memorization. "Nah, I saved the offline map on my phone,” he improvises. Damn, he’s quick today. “I'll call you if we run into any issues."

"Okay, okay, fine," Adam relents after a moment's consideration. "If you guys can't make it to the castle, then we meet at Pablo. We'll be able to get good B-shots at the castle anyway."

"Got it," Andrew nods, already turning towards the direction of the elevators.

"Oh, one more thing," Adam adds. "Try and use this opportunity to talk to Steven, okay? Because—and don't get me wrong, you're my friend and all—but last night, that was really uncool."

Ouch. In front of everyone else this time. The savagery burns Andrew a little; noted, he won’t bother trying to outsmart Adam’s morning lecture anymore. Rie presses her lips together to try and stop herself from making a more extreme reaction, probably. Matt all but pretends he didn't hear anything, and Adam just looks head on at Andrew, completely unfazed.

Awkwardly, Andrew clears his throat and nods, and then promptly turns around and heads towards the elevators.

***

"You know, when you said that you had 'something fun' planned, this is not what I was expecting."

Andrew's currently sitting in front of a mirror, tarp draped all over his front, Steven cackling by his side and recording on his phone as a hair stylist does God knows what with his head.

"Hey, you agreed to this!" Steven protests, still chuckling.

"You made me agree before I even knew what this was."

Steven shrugs coyly. Andrew has no choice but to sigh and bear the burn on his scalp as the hairdresser slaps another layer of bleach on top. He has no idea what Steven has told them to do, but for some reason, he goes along with it, helpless to the whims of the more stylish.

A week ago, he might have gotten genuinely pissed at the concept of Steven giving him a mystery hairstyle and color. But now, he figures that there's no harm in it—whatever they do to him probably won't stick. Or at least, that's what he tells himself as they wrap his entire head in plastic so that it's a foamy, smelly, shrunken mess. Please let this not be their last day of the loop.

"Don't look so worried, it's gonna look great," Steven snickers. Andrew tries not to groan.

A few hours later, they step out of the hair salon, Andrew sporting a brand new baseball cap that he's pulled low over his forehead.

"C'mon," Steven tries to persuade him. "Show it off! You're gonna treat all my hard work like that?"

"You didn't do anything," Andrew says, adjusting the bill of the cap. "Besides, it's not like we can just meet up with the others and explain that we ditched filming so I could get my hair done."

"Yeah, I guess," Steven relents. "But we're not there yet! At least take the hat off until we get on the train."

No way in hell that's happening. It's not so much the cut that Andrew minds—that's actually nice. A neater, more cleaned up fade and professionally combed and tousled on top. It's a cut that he could picture someone like Eugene or Ryan sporting. No, it's not the cut.

It’s the color.

"I look like a walking Pepto-Bismol ad," Andrew complains, nervously adjusting his cap again.

"Okay, first of all, I'm pretty sure they don't have that here in Japan," Steven holds up a finger, listing off his ridiculous justifications. "Second, it's a statement. It's meant to be hip! Attention-grabbing! Cool!"

"Ridiculous!" Andrew interjects.

Steven laughs and then lets it drop as they reach the train station, the cap still steadfastly secured on Andrew's head.

"Well, hopefully it won't matter tomorrow," Steven says as they step onto the train.

"It's gonna be just my luck that today's the day that finally sticks, and I'll actually be stuck with this hair until we get back to LA."

"That wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Besides...I think you'd look good with any hair," Steven murmurs as the train doors slide shut and they begin to pull out of the station.

Andrew doesn't know what to say to that, so he just rolls his eyes and pretends to check his phone for non-existent notifications.

Somehow, some way, the fates decide to smile upon him after they reach Pablo, because nobody questions the appearance of Andrew's hat, even though it's not really in good filming etiquette. He chalks it up to people still being afraid that he's touchy after the coffee-chocolate incident, or that the hat is helping him in the heat.

Rie ends up offering him the umbrella when they're done eating the cake, but he declines, tapping on the bill of his cap.

"I got it covered, but thanks," he says. "Maybe offer it to Steven, though? I know he had a big date with Pepto-Bismol this morning, he could use a little break from the sun.

Steven shoots him a glare for that one, even as Rie emphatically pushes the umbrella into Steven's hands, looking like a concerned mother. Bless her. Andrew just snickers.

By the time they're done filming for the day, Andrew's getting pretty sick of wearing the cap. Sweat is gathering at the brim of it and soaking around his ears and temples, and he’s too paranoid to lift the cap to air it out and adjust it for fear of being seen by one of the others.

When time rolls around for Rie to suggest a place to stop for dinner, Steven cuts in.

“Actually, Andrew and I were thinking of going and finding somewhere on our own, maybe checking the city out a little bit,” he says, giving Andrew a pointed look. “Is that cool?”

“Oh! Oh, okay. Sure, that’s fine,” Rie says, trying hard to sound casual. Andrew can tell she’s bursting on the inside though. Should he bring up how Rie seems obsessed with the idea of them together to Steven? He’s never given it much thought before, just sort of treated it as an amusing little tidbit. Perhaps Steven can already tell, though—he’s a lot sharper than most people give him credit for. Maybe that’s why he asks Rie and not Adam.

It’s still early in the evening when they part from the others, but the sun sets early in Japan since the country doesn’t practice daylight savings.. Dusk is falling upon them rapidly as they take their leave and begin their wander back into the bustling, light-filled downtown district.

“That was smooth,” Andrew says to Steven once they’re out of earshot of the others. “Rie definitely thinks we’re up to something, by the way,” he mentions.

“If that’s what you want to call it,” Steven chuckles—oh, he definitely knows. “A thank you would be nice, though. I know you’ve been dying to take that hat off.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Andrew says, though he does momentarily lift the cap and give it a good shake before putting it back on. The few seconds of breeze on his head feels wonderful.

“Oh, come on,” Steven complains. He grabs the hat right off of Andrew and puts it on his own head.

“You’re impossible,” Andrew says, his pink head revealed for all the world to see. Predictably, no one around them bats an eye. He doesn’t bother reaching to get his hat back, because he knows that would just start a cat and mouse game that would end up with him losing one of his new favorite baseball cap. And, he has to admit, it does feel nice to finally be freed of the damn thing.

“You still love me anyways,” Steven chirps.

Huh. That’s a thought. Andrew ignores the weird drop in his stomach, which he attributes to hunger—all they’ve eaten today is the cheese tart, breakfast and lunch forgone for the hair salon trip. True to form, his stomach rumbles a few seconds later, which kind of relaxes him in a weird way. He’s just hungry, that’s all.

“I’m starving,” is what Andrew says instead of addressing Steven’s comment. It’s true, after all.

“Ugh, same,” Steven says. “What should we eat? We don’t have Rie to show us what’s good anymore.”

“I think it’s gonna be pretty hard to find bad food here,” Andrew says, looking around them. Lining the huge, crowded, touristy blocks are rows and rows of signs with pictures of food on them, unsettlingly realistic fake food displays in every shop window, food carts and vendors at every corner. The abundance of choices is almost overwhelming.

“I know we just finished a whole episode about it, but...is it bad that I kind of just want ramen again?”

“Absolutely it’s not,” Andrew says, because as soon as Steven mentions it, the idea of ramen sounds divine. The night is, as always, warm and humid; not quite as sweltering as it is during the day, but enough so that there’s a light sheen on his skin just from the casual strolling they’ve been doing. It’s second nature to him by now, though, and the idea of his face over a bowl of of rich, steamy broth is delectable.

They walk for a couple more blocks before settling on a place purely by virtue of it having available seating for two—every joint they come across is crowded, lines stretching out the door for the places that actually have doors and people queueing up in an orderly, patient, and entirely Japanese fashion at the places that don’t.

It’s vending machine style ramen, which is something that Andrew admits he’d be loathe to try anywhere else. Steven, of course, falls head over heels with the concept.

“So cool,” he marvels, slotting his coins into the machine and picking the option for salt ramen with pork. A little ticket pops out the other end, which he delightedly rips off and hands to the attendant. “This is so efficient, and the idea is so vintage and neat. There are only a few things on the menu, and you have to choose one of them—isn’t it cool?”

“It is pretty cool,” Andrew admits as he puts money in and makes his selection—the same thing as Steven. “I can appreciate how it really cuts down on the need for human interaction.”

“Look at them working back there, they don’t have time for interaction! They’ve got work to do,” Steven points out the chefs who are just behind the counter, billowing clouds of steam and bulk containers of ingredients all visible as they prepare endless bowls of ramen. They do indeed look busy.

The two of them plunk down at the very end of the counter. The seats are too short, Andrew’s knees coming up much higher and closer to his chest than he’s used to. Next to him, Steven looks almost crab-like. The entire place is open air, no doors or walls; the only thing delineating inside versus outside is where the ceiling begins. Outside, the crowd keeps on moving and humming with noise. The place is so cramped that they’re practically back to back with the other customers seated at the table behind them—people have to stand up to let others pass through. Definitely a eat-and-go type establishment, no extra loitering for after-meal chit chat. Steven’s elbow knocks against his as he reaches for the container of chopsticks, taking out two pairs and handing one to Andrew.

As one of the servers sets down two gigantic bowls of hot ramen in front of them, barely three minutes after they’ve sat down, Andrew can’t think of a better place to be.

“Oh my God,” Steven exclaims after he takes his first bite. “This is incredible. I could eat this all day, every day.”

Andrew tries a spoonful of the broth followed by a healthy slurp of noodles and has a similar reaction. It’s absolutely delicious—the broth is rich and glistening, the noodles have just the right amount of bite. The two of them duck their heads down for a while, busy eating. Andrew even manages to forget about his hair situation for a few minutes.

“You know what I think,” he declares after he’s halfway done with the bowl. “This might actually be the best bowl of ramen I’ve had in my life.”

Steven looks up at him—there’s soup dripping down his chin, chopstick full of noodles halfway to his mouth, and somewhere in the middle of eating he’s taken the cap off. He smiles. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually agree with you.”

It’s not just the ramen—Andrew’s positive that any place they might visit would be incapable of having anything less than superb ramen. It’s the whole atmosphere, the cramped space, the noise, the charming vending machine. The fact that there aren’t cameras in his face capturing his every reaction as he eats; the fact that he’s here with Steven, alone, and the only job they have to do is enjoy the food and each other’s company.

"I have an idea," Andrew says when the two of them are nearly done with their food. "You had your fun this morning. Now I propose that we do something that I think is fun."

"I guess that's only fair," Steven levels with him, setting his chopsticks down with a clack on top of his empty bowl and giving a contented sigh. He pats his stomach a few times for good measure as well, looking satisfied. This is the perfect time to bring it up, which Andrew did in fact take into consideration after the idea originally popped into his head. The both of them are in such good moods anyway, and he can tell by the way Steven swishes his spoon around the bottom edge of the bowl, looking for any last remnants of broth, that he's not the only one who's reluctant to call it a night already. "So what have you got?"

"I want to go to a bar," Andrew says, measuring to see how Steven will react. He knows Steven's not a big drinker, but come on—it feels a waste to be in Osaka and at not even check out the nightlife scene, not to mention the fact that they’re already in the heart of it right now. The night is still early, too, giving them plenty of time to mess around before they have to get back to the hotel.

"Should have seen this coming," Steven mumbles, but he seems amenable. "Yeah, okay, that sounds like it could be fun. You've given me enough reason to trust you with drinks already."

"Not only that," Andrew adds, testing the waters. "I want to get shitfaced."

Steven barks a laugh at that one and pats Andrew heavily on his shoulder. "What?" Andrew says, a smile also spreading on his face. "It's true! I mean, we're basically guaranteed not to have a hangover tomorrow morning. Don't you want to take advantage of that?"

"We can go to a bar," Steven agrees, standing up. "But for the other thing...we'll see. It depends on where the night takes us, baby. But before we go consume even more liquid after drinking a huge bowl of hot soup, I have to take a piss."

"Lovely," Andrew says, although it's not a bad idea. He shuffles out of the crowded restaurant to wait for Steven outside in the meantime. They've just finished eating, but there's a cart right outside the place that's making and selling freshly steamed bao—or man, he guesses they're called in Japan. In any case they look absolutely heavenly, so Andrew caves and gets one. He's about to bite into it when Steven emerges.

"Hey!" he shouts, taking one look at the pastry in Andrew's hands. "Why didn't you get me one?"

"You were a little busy, as I recall," Andrew says, but he relents immediately and tears the thing in half. Steam billows out from both the soft white bread and the meaty filling. It smells amazing.

"Cheers!" Steven automatically holds out his half of the bun for Andrew to tap against, which he does. The pillowy wisps of smoke emerging from the treat scatter around the air as he does so, and they both bite simultaneously, and both end up burning their tongues.

Later, they wander around rather aimlessly, looking for an appropriate place to settle for a few hours of drinking. The area they ate ramen in seemed to cater more towards the food and tourist crowd, with every other non-restaurant lining the wide street being a kitschy souvenir shop. Eventually, they find themselves along smaller backroads, where things become decidedly less overtly touristy and change into a more local scene, complete with sketchy looking by-the-hour motels and bars.

"This one looks good," Andrew decides after a few minutes of looking. The place is called Moonshine, depicted in fancy cowboy-style font across the open door.

"I leave it up to you," Steven shrugs, gesturing wide to allow Andrew in before him. Andrew has no clue whether this place will actually be good or not; he's purely taking a shot in the dark and hoping for the best. It looks cool and has a very classic dive bar vibe mixed with a little more modern youthful style, which is why he picked it.

The inside is just a long, narrow rectangle, half taken lengthwise up by a classic long bar, the other half lined with bar stools. The wall behind the bar is mirrored and shelved with what seems like hundreds of bottles. The menu, written on a hanging chalkboard by the entrance, is simple: draft, cocktails, or moonshine. It's not quite late enough for the place to be full, so Andrew heads all the way in towards the back of the bar and takes the seat at the very end. It starts to feel even more like a shoebox as he heads down, the night a velvety dark from the faraway-seeming silhouette of the door.

"Wow, they actually serve moonshine," Steven says as he takes his seat next to Andrew.

"Yeah, I don't think it's a good idea for you to try that just yet," Andrew replies, smirking.

Steven looks like he wants to protest, but he relents after he thinks it over.

"You're gonna have to order for me, because my knowledge is very limited," he says instead, craning his neck to look again at the menu. "I don't know what 'cocktail' is supposed to include!"

"I'm assuming it includes all cocktails," Andrew responds amusedly. The bartender is an older Japanese man who looks like a total hipster dad, complete with a mini ponytail, goatee, and everything. Andrew's not sure if he speaks English, but he nods like he understands well enough when he flags him down and asks for an Old Fashioned.

"And can I have—uh—something sweet, like juice? Whatever you'd recommend," Steven says. The bartender looks momentarily perplexed, but Steven just trucks on, ever the hopeful go-getter written all over his face. He nods, though, and turns to prepare their drinks.

"Oh my God, you are so embarrassing," Andrew mutters under his breath.

"I'm sorry! You didn't order for me like I asked," Steven says, pushing Andrew against the shoulder in mock irritation.

"I took you to three different bars at three drastically different price points and showed you what it's like to order from them, and you still can't pick a drink that you know and like?"

"Please, that was like, two seasons ago!"

"Try one," Andrew scoffs. He doesn't even have a drink in front of him, and yet he feels lighter, more heady, some potent combination of the cool air conditioning inside the bar, the loud music, and Steven's proximity. "Anyways, I'm sure you'll be taken care of. He probably knows what to get you—I know what I'd get you if someone who looks like you came into my bar and asked for something sweet, like juice."

"Oh yeah? And what's that, Mr. Bartender?"

"My money's on something with orange juice in it. A fuzzy navel or something. Or coconut."

At that moment, the bartender sets their drinks down, and they fish out the coins to pay him. He nods and leaves them to tend to new patrons who have just entered.

"Ha!" Andrew says triumphantly, pointing at the drink in front of Steven. It's unmistakably a Malibu Sunset, with a little skewer of maraschino cherries and pineapple and everything. His Old Fashioned also has one, along with an artfully twisted sliver of orange rind.

They clink their glasses together in a silent cheers before sipping. It's pretty good—not the best Andrew's had, but he does live in LA, where there are hipster bars obsessed with perfecting cocktails beyond count. On the other hand, Steven's eyes light up immediately and he goes in for a second sip before Andrew's even done thinking about the taste of his.

"Oh boy, that is dangerous," he says, holding the drink up to his eyes and looking into it like it contains the secrets of the universe.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, you know what? This tastes exactly like the drink you want as a little kid, really sweet and tropical, except with a really nice kick that I probably would have hated back then. But now I can really appreciate it." He takes another sip, the ice clinking against the edge of the glass.

"Should we trade?"

"Yeah, let's do it," Steven replies, already reaching for Andrew's glass. They do another cheers, and Andrew carefully sips from Steven's drink, the skewer of fruit knocking awkwardly against his lips as he does so.

He can definitely see why Steven likes it so much. It's exactly the type of sweet that he'd go for, and apparently the bartender had him pegged on site with his initial request. It's got tang from the pineapple, syrupy sugar from the grenadine, bittersweet depth from the rum and liqueur. Not Andrew's kind of drink, but he can appreciate it for what it is.

Steven makes another noise of satisfaction as he tries Andrew's Old Fashioned. "I kind of like this one better than that Good Times at...whatever that place was called. Dave and Busters."

If there were a camera around, Andrew would look into it. Instead, he settles for nearly snorting up the scant few sips of drink he's taken. Steven continues going on, ignoring Andrew's outburst wholeheartedly.

"It's good, but I still want this—," he plucks his Malibu right out of Andrew's hands, "—back, thank you."

They finish off those drinks and order seconds. Before Andrew can get a word in, Steven asks for two fuzzy navels.

"You mentioned them earlier and I thought I'd try," Steven says just as Andrew's opening his mouth in protest. "So what's in them?"

"I can’t take you anywhere,” Andrew mutters. “They're basically orange juice, peach schnapps, and vodka. A total Steven Lim drink, if you ask me." Nevermind that he actually does like them, although they do just seem to him like slightly kicked up mimosas.

"Well, that sounds perfect."

The bar has filled in some by now as the night wears on. There's a good mix of both foreign tourists and Japanese locals, and an amalgam of languages flow around the narrow corridor of the bar, settling into a background noise that matches the pleasant buzz Andrew's beginning to feel. Steven, ever the lightweight, is already looser and more giggly than his usual self.

"Hey, I have an idea," Steven says, raising his voice slightly so he can be heard and scooting his seat forward so he's closer. "Remember from the cocktail episode? We played Never Have I Ever?"

"Yeah, I remember that."

"Well," Steven gestures between them. "Let's continue it."

"Okay," Andrew humors him. "But I'm warning you, there aren't any cameras around...who knows what might be said."

"That's the fun of it, right? This is a recipe for the perfect boy's night," Steven says. He's definitely tipsy already, which Andrew observes with some bemusement.

"Okay, you start off then."

"Alright. Never have I ever...uh...cheated on a test!"

Andrew takes a sip, and immediately Steven starts cackling. "What? What did you cheat on?"

"I don't remember, I was in like fifth grade."

"Wow, such a bad egg, Andrew. Shame on you."

"Ha ha. Okay, never have I ever—damn, now I can't say 'dyed my hair' anymore. Alright, never have I ever…” He draws a blank. “Fuck, why is this so hard?"

"Never have I ever broken the law," Steven interrupts.

"Wait your turn," Andrew says, but he takes a drink anyways. Steven looks smug. "Okay, you can't tell me that you've never broken the law. Everyone has."

Steven wears an infuriating grin. "Not me."

"You don't speed when you drive?"

Steven's grin falters. "Shit. I forgot about that," he says, and then he takes a drink. He doesn't swear all that often, and usually never so casually the way Andrew does, which means he must really be loosening up.

"Okay, since you stole my turn, I'll do two. Never have I ever cried during a movie."

"What?!" Steven looks positively floored at that one. "You haven't seen Up? Toy Story 3? Finding Nemo?!"

"I've seen them, I just don't cry at movies," Andrew shrugs. He's just not that type. "Wait, why did you only name animated movies?"

Steven just shakes his head and takes a solemn drink. "For shame," he says, putting his glass down. "For shame."

"Anyway," Andrew continues. "Never have I ever stolen anything."

Unsurprisingly, Steven doesn't drink at that one. He's nearly finished with it now, just a last few inches remaining, pooled around the ice cubes in the glass. It's the most Andrew's ever seen him drink in one go; even in the cocktail episode, Steven had a tendency to take a couple sips and then leave the drink three quarters finished for Adam to polish off. He probably had wanted to at least somewhat keep his wits about him while filming, but now he's apparently all in. His cheeks are starting to turn a faint pink, and he's definitely a lot slouchier than usual.

"Neverrrr," Steven drags the word out, tapping a finger against his chin as he thinks. "Neverrr...have I ever...," he trails off, thinking, and then proceeds to get a mischievous glint in his eye. "Never have I ever thought about kissing a stranger."

Andrew feels his own eyebrows raise. "Okay, so that's how you wanna play it, huh? No cameras around, so the real Steven Lim comes out."

"Like you said, we might as well take advantage of our circumstances, right?"

"This isn’t what I meant and you know it. But fine, I’ll play along." Andrew steadfastly doesn't drink, though he does subconsciously sit up a bit straighter, more attentive now. He swallows, trying to think of an appropriate question for his turn. "Never have I ever sexted someone."

To his incredible shock, Steven actually takes a tiny sip.

"Steven Lim, you absolute dog," Andrew says, his jaw falling open. "I thought you were the pure golden boy!"

"Hey, I told you I've never had sex before. That doesn't mean I'm completely inexperienced!" Steven doesn't even look fazed by the confession, too carefree and uninhibited.

Wow. Andrew all of a sudden feels like it's much too hot in this bar, despite the air conditioning and the cold drink. Somehow, it's become even more crowded in the time that has passed since they started playing; he didn't think any more people could fit in this tiny space, but he's being proven wrong. This far at the end of the bar, they're effectively trapped across a sea of people between their seats and the door.

"Never have I ever had a threesome," Steven says.

"That's cheating, you haven't had an any-some," Andrew objects.

"Which means I also haven't had a threesome!" Steven looks self-satisfied as hell, like he's gamed the system. Grumbling, Andrew takes a sip of his drink—his glass is also nearly empty, probably only enough for one more mouthful gathered along the bottom.

"That's a story I want to hear about," Steven says, laughing, face steadily getting pinker in the dim lighting of the bar.

"Not part of the game," Andrew replies with his own self-satisfied smirk. Steven almost looks like he's pouting. In a moment of clarity, Andrew realizes what this must look like. Over the course of the game, they've leaned in closer together, their shoulders all but touching, their bodies angled toward one another. Andrew's heart is beating unusually fast, but he could chalk that up to the couple drinks they've had. Two, his mind supplies. Two drinks. Not quite enough to get him silly the way Steven is.

His mouth goes dry, and he can't think of a line to give for the game.

"I can't think of anything," he say honestly. Steven blinks a couple times, and Andrew can practically see him trying to collect his thoughts together.

"Never have I ever fantasized about a coworker," Steven says lowly. Andrew has no idea how he hears him over the din of the bar but he does somehow, and with perfect clarity. He freezes, staring right at Steven's face—his lips are parted and he's looking at Andrew with an unfamiliar expression, like a mix of trepidation, curiosity, and something else.

Andrew doesn't reach for his drink.

Steven blinks.

Moment over, the two of them lean away from each other. Andrew clears his throat and runs a hand through his hair. Next to him, Steven knocks back the rest of his drink in one go, the ice sliding to the brim of the glass.

He's not sure what that's supposed to mean, whether it's part of the game or if it's just Steven finishing his drink. Before he has time to ask, though, Steven flags the bartender down and asks for two moonshines.

"You're actually insane," Andrew says. He's never had moonshine before, just heard of it like it’s some kind of forbidden poison, even though he knows it's basically a commercial product now.

"Maybe," Steven relents, still not meeting Andrew's eye.

Andrew polishes off the rest of his cocktail too before the bartender sets down two mason jars full of slightly amber, but mostly clear liquid with bits of lime and other fruit floating within.

"Well, here goes," he says, lifting the glass. Neither of them go in for a cheers this time. It's definitely strong, but Andrew kind of likes it—he can tell it's diluted down with a manner of things, lime and juice and acidic, tangy fruits. It definitely leaves a hot, radiating spot in his chest and throat as it settles, and immediately his head and limbs feel lighter, more free. Maybe he ought to have been drinking this since the beginning.

"Wow, I actually like that very much," Steven says, his words only blending together slightly. He’s right back to his good, tipsy mood again, the earlier moment of awkwardness apparently forgotten. "I thought it was gonna taste like varnish or something to be honest."

"I mean, it was to be expected, as the namesake drink of this place," Andrew points out.

"I normally don't like the stronger, clearer drinks so much, but this is quite nice," Steven says, closing his eyes and looking like he's really trying hard to understand the different flavors happening. "It's like...diving into a fresh pool of crisp, cool water, and then getting out and sitting directly in front of a fireplace."

It's like he's fallen into another one of his film-worthy moments, savoring the flavor with a delighted expression and finding creative, word-y metaphors and descriptors. It's the thing that had annoyed Andrew way back those few days ago with the chocolate—if he examines why, beyond surface level annoyance and irritation, perhaps it has something to do with the performative quality with which Steven approaches everything. It's hard to know what the genuine Steven is like when he's like this all the time.

It takes Andrew this exact moment to realize that this is the genuine Steven. The slightly exaggerated reactions, the complicated wordplay—none of it is for the camera, which of course isn't even here right now. He's not the way he is because of Worth it. Worth it is the way it is because of him.

Andrew suddenly feels guilty for all the times he's been slightly annoyed at Steven in the past, even when it had happened in the privacy of his own mind. Steven does nothing but give his whole self to whatever task is at hand, whether that's staying overtime to pitch his fledgling show to the company's executives, to traveling the world to expand their show's scope, to doing something as simple as enjoying a drink at a bar.

He's slightly in awe of the man sitting right here, right next to him. And maybe it's the drinks, maybe his tolerance isn't what it used to be, maybe it's the way Steven's looking at him like that, maybe it's his pink hair, but he lets that thought slip right out from between his lips, no extra thought given.

"You're amazing, you know that?" is what he says.

Steven's lips part in surprise, his eyebrows lifted ever so slightly. For his part, Andrew thinks he's finally drunk enough to not feel immediate mortification set in. Instead, he just keeps on looking at Steven, taking in his reaction.

The edges of Steven's lips start to curl upwards and the flush across his skin grows, reaching to his ears and down his neck. He looks pleased.

"Is that so?" he murmurs, and he's leaning in now, even closer than before.

It'd be so easy, Andrew thinks out of nowhere. It'd be so easy to kiss him right now.

Just lean up, close that few inches' worth gap between them, seal it all together. He can picture it now—he'd run his hands through Steven's hair, lean up and out of his seat so he could crowd Steven against the bar, he'd trace that flushed skin all along his neck and jaw.

And Steven...Steven looks like he's thinking about it too. He looks like if Andrew actually did any of the things that are crossing his mind right now, he'd do them right back. His gaze drops down to Andrew’s mouth.

A beat passes. Andrew doesn't know what he's waiting for—another sign of affirmation? A cosmic bolt of energy? For Steven to take the initiative?

Some magnetic force, perhaps the same cosmic force that’s thrown them in this whirlwind time loop, seems to be pulling them together. Andrew can recognize all the signs: their faces are closer now than ever, and Steven’s lips are slightly parted. His face tilts, following the natural angle of a would-be kiss. Steven exhales softly, and Andrew can feel the warmth of it on his cheek.

He freezes.

Another beat passes, and the spell is broken.

Steven blinks, looking like he's just woken up from a trance, and leans back. Immediately, Andrew copies his movement, clearing his throat once again awkwardly. Suddenly, the setting of the bar floods around him, their little bubble crashing down around his ears—everything's too loud, too bright, too hot. Like the world has finally come into focus after being blurry for a long time and the vibrancy of it overwhelms his senses. He can barely look at Steven without a glare appearing from behind his eyes.

"We should, uh," Steven begins, rubbing at the back of his neck. "We should get going soon. The others are probably wondering where we are."

"...Yeah," Andrew agrees. He feels like it’s the first word he’s spoken in years, though just moments ago they’d been carrying a full conversation. They finish the rest of their drink in silence; it's not nearly as good as it was during the first sip, and only serves to make Andrew dizzier.

When they edge their way out of the bar, squeezing past the throng of people pooled around the entrance, Steven purposefully angles his body away from Andrew's, keeping at a cautious, respectful distance so they don't end up pressed against one another.

The walk back to the hotel is mostly quiet. Steven looks pensive, head tilted up towards the sky more often than it looks ahead. They both know the way back by heart, having walked there so many times now, but in his distraction he nearly misses a turn a couple times.

"It's this way," Andrew says after it happens a third time, gently tapping on Steven's elbow to guide him back in the right direction.

"Sorry," Steven mutters, dropping his chin so that he's looking straight ahead. "I'm drunk."

"Yeah," Andrew says quietly. "Me too."

Everything unsaid and undone hangs in the air between them, and it lingers even after they part ways for the night in their hotel hallway. In an encore of his very first night, Andrew sheds his clothes, kicks his shoes off, and collapses into bed, feeling more exhausted, confused, and conflicted than all the previous nights combined.

***

Things apparently aren’t as consequence-free as Andrew had first suspected, because he wakes up with a terrible headache.

Fuck. I tried to kiss Steven last night, is the first thought that pops into his head the moment he opens his eyes.

The dull pain glowing behind his eyes isn’t quite like the usual, muddy, shrouded pain paired with nausea that comes with hangover territory.. He’s had enough of those in his life to be able to tell the difference, though he desperately wants to blame the alcohol. He had three cocktails, after all—not too bad in his books. He vaguely wonders how Steven’s doing.

Fuck. He still can’t believe it.

The blinds, predictably, are open and his shoes are all over the floor; however, the sun still hasn’t risen enough to be pouring through the window, so the room is gentle with washed-out light. Still, Andrew groans and turns his face into the pillow, contemplating telling Adam to fuck off when he inevitably knocks on his door so he can stay in bed all day. It’s way too early, but Andrew knows he won’t be able to go back to sleep, no matter how much he desperately wants to.

Absentmindedly, he rubs at the crust around his eyes and scratches head—his head, which once again has hair. It’s not long, but the nape and sides are no longer buzzed down the way they’d been yesterday.

That alone is enough to get Andrew to rise out of bed and fumble his way to the mirror next to the closet. The light isn’t good and he does admittedly look quite haggard, but his hair is back to its usual length and color, the blond looking rather glum compared to the bright shade it had been previously.

Sighing resignedly, he goes into the bathroom and starts the shower; might as well start getting ready now. At least this way he won’t have to deal with the Adam Bianchi alarm clock.

His thoughts drift back to yesterday’s events. No matter which way he examines it, it’s still a stunningly difficult thing to process. He tried to kiss Steven. He tried to kiss Steven. He tried to kiss Steven.

Or rather, he hadn’t tried. He wanted to, but he didn’t.

Steven hadn’t tried, either.

The line of thinking brings a whole new flurry of questions that Andrew simply doesn’t have the answers to. Was it because he was slightly drunk? Is the time loop finally affecting his sanity? Is he attracted to Steven?

Steven is, objectively, an attractive guy. Even Andrew can see that. The two of them have never discussed their sexuality with one another before, and for all Andrew knows, Steven’s not into guys. Then again, the fact that Andrew is sometimes into guys has never come up, either. They’ve got zilch to go on other than the knowledge of extant ex-girlfriends. And then there’s Steven’s inexperience to think about, though last night had proven he’s not quite as inexperienced as Andrew had once thought.

Jesus Christ. Even thinking about it, Andrew decides, is such a monumentally bad idea that he shelves the entire thing away in a corner of his mind.

He was drunk. They were both drunk, and it’s been a long and stressful past couple of days. End of story.

He spends so much time ruminating in the shower that by the time he’s fully dressed and ready, Adam knocks on his door.

“You’re late.”

“I know,” Andrew sighs. “Sorry. I’m ready now.”

“Okay,” Adam says. He looks at Andrew closely for a moment, and Andrew gets the distinct impression that he’s being read. “Did you talk to Steven?”

“Yeah, I did. I apologized for last night already. It was really uncool.”

Adam nods, crossing his arms and leaning against the door frame. “But?”

“But...I feel we’re still not back to the way things were before. Like, there’s still a weird thing happening and I don’t know why,” he finds himself saying without much prodding, the words simply spilling out like they’ve been pooled in his mind, just waiting for someone to come and add the final tipping stone. He feels extremely raw, opening up;. he’s known Adam for a long time, but it’s difficult for him to bare himself like this. He doesn’t have that unique power Steven does, that comfortability in his own thoughts and feelings. But fuck it, right? It’s not like Adam will remember this conversation come the next day.

“I see,” Adam says. “Well, maybe things can’t go back to the way they were. Maybe they shouldn’t.”

Andrew has no idea what that’s supposed to mean. Steven has carved out an irreplaceable space in Andrew’s life, strong armed his way in by sheer force of will until Andrew had no choice but to relent. That’s how it is, and Andrew wrap his mind around the concept of Steven not being there. “I don’t get it,” he says simply.

Adam just shrugs again. “I can’t give you the answers, Andrew. You’ll have to figure it out.”

“You’re not very much help,” Andrew says. Adam just gives him another one of his signature looks.

They head downstairs together this time, where Matt, Rie, and Steven are all waiting.

Steven doesn’t greet him today, just keeps his head down like he’s busy scrolling through his phone. Rie looks between them nervously. Andrew’s getting pretty tired of this, the walking on eggshells when it comes to the two of them.

“Hi Andrew,” she says. “I got you this. Since you said it was so hot yesterday.”

Same umbrella, same awkward smile.

“Thanks,” is all Andrew can manage to say today. He just feels drained, drained and tired and God, he just wants this day to be over so they can move the hell on and he can fly back to LA and crawl into his actual bed and maybe never wake up.

They get to Osaka Castle without much talking—Steven spends the entire time walking with Matt. Andrew can slightly hear their conversation, something about the production schedule for the next couple days. It’s a useless topic to the two of them and Andrew’s hyper aware of the distance between them.

As soon as the cameras are on and they start recording, however, the usual Steven emerges—bright as ever, cracking jokes and all. Everyone seems to relax as soon as he does so; Andrew can get away with being quiet and sulky, but Steven’s the one who really carries the show. He has to be present and upbeat.

It's all so fake that it almost pains Andrew to watch.

He has no idea how he ever doubted Steven before, because this—this is a poor imitation, and Andrew can see right through it clear as day. His eyes don't crinkle upwards the way they do when his laugh is genuine, the set of his shoulders is tight where it's usually relaxed and at ease, there's an artificial, rehearsed quality in his voice.

Nobody else seems to even notice. They keep on rolling like everything's business as usual. How is no one else seeing this?

An unease settles in Andrew's gut, subtly growing as the day goes on. Inwardly, he begins to feel guilty, like the sudden appearance of this Steven imposter is his fault—it is his fault. He made things weird between them, shifted the dynamic. He shouldn't have suggested going to a bar, shouldn't have went along with the turn of mood as the night had gone on.

And Steven...Steven doesn't feel that way about him. It's a non-issue, and one that Andrew purposely avoids, compartmentalizes, and packs away.

For the first time in all the days they've had to repeat, the cheese tart doesn't taste as good, the flavor falling flat and unrefined on his tongue. He thinks perhaps the growing pit of bad feelings slithering around in his stomach has something to do with it, but he fakes his way through filming nonetheless.

He's not a great actor and neither is Steven, but nobody makes comment on their stilted performance when they finally wrap for the day early that evening. When they walk along the now familiar canal in search of their dinner spot for the night, Steven falls silent once again. Seemingly lost in thought, he trails behind the others and Andrew slows his stride to line up next to him.

For his part, Steven doesn't even seem to notice that he's there.

"Busy day," Andrew comments idly, even though it's not true. Comparatively, this is one of the dullest days they've spent in the time loop. Steven just hums noncommittally. Andrew sighs, and the stomach pit grows larger. He's gone and fucked all this up.

"Listen," Steven says after a few moments of silence. "Uh...I know that the days can be repetitive, but I've been giving it some thought, and...I don't think we should be doing anything risky that could jeopardize our work or the show. Any one of these days could be the day that sticks, so we should just treat them all as if they're the first."

"Oh," Andrew says, and God, he can hear the disappointment in his voice. He clears his throat, trying to will away the strange sense of loss climbing up his chest. "Oh, okay. Sure. That totally makes sense."

"Okay."

"Okay."

They grow quiet once more, following behind the others at a close enough pace now where Andrew can hear Adam and Matt discussing tomorrow's schedule and how they should cut today's material together. When they reach the restaurant, Steven accidentally bumps against Andrew's shoulder as they're sliding into their seats.

"Sorry," he says quietly, and then beckons Matt forward so that he doesn't have to sit next to Andrew.

***

Dinner is a strained affair, reminiscent of the very first day of the repeat back when Steven was upset and Andrew was being an unreasonable asshole.

Things haven't changed very much between then and now, Andrew supposes as they're walking back to the hotel. Steven is still upset and Andrew's still an asshole.

The swirling in his gut returns, full force. A little voice in his mind that sounds suspiciously like Adam tells him he's an idiot and that of course things have changed between then and now. Things are different. They're stuck in some sort of freaky dimensional time warp, of course things are different.

But not only that, things are different between him and Steven—their relationship, as much as Andrew hesitates to even think of that word with regards to them. They've gotten closer, mired in this world together, and Andrew has realized things about Steven that he never noticed before or otherwise took for granted. Never once, in all their days stuck in this sci-fi rollercoaster, did he feel like things were completely out of the ordinary. It's only when he gets lost in his own thoughts that things start to get complicated, but when he's with Steven, they’re easy, carefree.

Here they are, a thousand miles away, fallen into some alternate reality. None of that scares him when maybe it ought to, because being with Steven is like being home.

Andrew barely even realizes that his feet have carried him all the way to their floor of the hotel, just automatically following in the other's wake.

Steven shoots a glance at Andrew, and there's a hint of something that resembles regret on his face as he quietly says good night and retreats into his room.

Just he and Adam are left standing in the hallway now, and Andrew has a feeling he knows where this is going. Even so, he's never felt more lost. Adam puts an arm on his shoulder and opens his mouth.

"I get it. I'm an idiot," Andrew beats him to the punch.

Adam doesn't even have the decency to look surprised that the words have been taken right out of his mouth. Considering their conversation from this morning, though, it's not such a revelation. "You are," he says instead, sagely.

"I just...don't know what to do."

"Well, have you tried talking to him?"

"Yes!"

Well, no, he hasn't. Not about this particular thing. And even though they're talking about two discrete situations, Adam raises a single, skeptical eyebrow.

"I mean, have you tried really talking to him?"

Andrew sighs, which Adam takes as enough response. He pats Andrew twice on the shoulder squarely and turns to enter his own room.

"You are an idiot," he says as he opens his door, "but you're on the right track."

When he gets to his room, he goes through his usual routine of setting his shoes neatly by the door, drawing the blinds, getting a change of clothes. His body moves automatically at this point, like it's a standard routine as he prepares to live the same day once again after he wakes up.

In bed, Andrew folds his hands over his middle and stares at the ceiling. His own feelings are a chaotic jumble that he doesn't even want to begin sorting through, but he does know one thing: he misses Steven.

It's only been a day, but he hates the feeling of them not being side by side, hates the icy wedge that's been shoved between them. Most of all, he hates the caution with which Steven has decided to approach Andrew, like he can no longer be himself around him.

Suddenly, Andrew's sick of it all. Sick of the repeating days, sick of being in Osaka, sick of eating cake, sick of Adam telling him he's an idiot. He feels trapped by the inactivity of it all, and stunned at the fact that he hasn't tried harder—or at all, really—to get himself out of this time loop, or even figure out the cause of it.

In the end, it all circles back to Steven.

Andrew throws the covers off and stands up from bed, determined; he can't change the fact that they're in Osaka, can't change the cake, can't change the day they're doomed to repeat over and over again. But he can change this thing with Steven, face it head on, be greater and step out of his stupid fucking mental box.

Things just need to be clarified between them, he reasons. Just go over and talk to him. Tell him that it didn't mean anything, they were both drunk, and it wasn't going to happen again. Just put a reset button on the whole thing so they can revert back to their usual routine.

He squints in the light of the hallway when he opens his door and steps out, barefoot. He's going to walk over to Steven's door and knock on it and have a conversation, for once.

When he turns, though, Steven is standing right there, just a couple feet away.

"Oh shit," Andrew says with a start. "Jesus, you scared me. What are you doing out here?"

"Uh," Steven says, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head. "I was actually coming to talk to you. What are you doing out here?"

Andrew laughs once at that, a short huff of air. "The same thing."

"Ah."

"So...what's up?"

Steven purses his lips, like he's not quite sure how to begin.

"Maybe we shouldn't do this out here," Andrew suggests. "Do you—uh—" He gestures to his door, unable to form the question on his lips.

"Oh...no, I think it's fine," Steven says, shifting awkwardly. God. Andrew puts his foot in his mouth like it's his paid profession, doesn't he?

"So," Steven says, taking a deep breath like he's gearing up. "Um. About last night. We should talk."

"I...yeah, that's what I was coming to talk to you about, too."

"Yeah," Steven says, eyes downcast. Andrew's pulse beats in his ears, a rushing sound ringing in his head. "So, I was pretty drunk that night, and...I just. I know that's not a great excuse, but I'm sorry for making you feel like you need to avoid me. That's not what I wanted."

"Wait...what? I thought you were avoiding me."

"What? No, I was—I just thought you wouldn't want to talk to me," Steven says, eyes widening.

"No! This isn't what I wanted, either," Andrew replies. Of course Steven blames it all on himself, of course he does. They're both ridiculous, Andrew realizes. Some of his fears are assuaged, though, and there's an immediate relax in body posture from the both of them. Steven even cracks a smile at the irony of the situation.

"Wow," he says, shaking his head. "Uh, anyways...like I said, I was drunk and—and it didn't mean anything. And we should just forget it even happened, right?"

"Right."

For some reason, though, as soon as the words are out of Steven's mouth Andrew feels a sharp sensation in his chest and a dull sort of numbness that climbs up his fingertips and through his limbs.

They say their good nights quietly and go back to their own rooms. The numbness and the sharp feeling don't go away, though, when Andrew climbs back into bed. He doesn't understand why—Steven had only said basically the exact same thing Andrew had been planning to say. But hearing the words out loud set something off in him, a bloom of dissatisfaction at the explanation.

Last night replays in his mind's eye as he tries and fails to focus on going to sleep. The music and ambiance of the bar, muffled behind some invisible wall that surrounded just him and Steven, concealed in their corner at the end of the bar. Steven's eyes, heavy lidded and hazy with something that Andrew only now recognizes as want. The ghost of breath across his cheek as Steven had exhaled.

He can't act like it never happened, he can't forget it. Even as he closes his eyes, the scene splays across the back of his eyelids; the tension hanging like a string pulled taut between them, the sweet, drunken anticipation, the moment it all culminated and peaked and broke into a disappointing nothing.

It loops over and over again, like this cursed day that just won't end.

***

The morning is just as uneventful as usual. Today, Andrew doesn't bother getting out of bed until Adam knocks on his door, though he wakes up long before that even happens. He spends the meantime staring at the ceiling and generally feeling sorry for himself.

When he makes it downstairs, Steven shoots him a small, tentative smile that he returns. No one seems to notice their exchange, because Rie is as awkward as ever. Andrew offers the umbrella to Steven today, which seems to mollify Rie some.

"Back on the grind, huh?" Andrew says as they're walking to the train station. "Just another day to tick off."

"That's the idea," Steven replies lightly. They walk side by side, and Andrew has the distinct impression that although they're on friendly terms once again, something is strained between them. Like it's a conscious effort to be like this, casual and agreeable the way any coworkers are.

It was a natural thing before, Andrew was so drawn to Steven that he didn't even have to think about it. And they weren't just coworkers—not that Andrew really considers anyone on the Worth It team just coworkers. Most of them are friend-friends, not just work-friends.

Steven, though, is his own category entirely. Andrew thinks back to that one night, eating gyoza next to that street card and calling Steven his best friend. He's not sure how accurate that is anymore—it's truly amazing how dynamics in a relationship can turn on a dime, suddenly shifting in subtle, yet irreversible ways.

Regardless, without putting a label on the whole thing, he does know that Steven is...important to him.

"Penny for your thoughts?"

Steven's looking at him curiously as they wait on the train for their stop, which is next up. They're both standing by the door and holding onto the hanging handrails.

 

"Hm?"

"You just had a look on your face like you were thinking about something really hard," Steven says.

"I'm just—" Andrew flounders for a moment, trying to think of an explanation to offer that doesn't involve telling Steven that he was thinking about him. "—I've been trying to review the past couple days in my head, kind of like post-production. See where it all went wrong."

"That's probably a good idea," says Steven. "The days are really starting to blend together for me. Feels like it's been a lifetime."

"I think it's been about a week," Andrew offers. This is their seventh day, including the very first one.

Steven chuckles. "I can't even tell if that's longer or shorter than what I was expecting."

The train shudders to a rumbling halt then, the doors hissing open as they reach their stop. The platform is an above ground one, long and straight and Andrew can't even begin to express how tired he is of walking down it. He supposes he should appreciate it more, not take for granted having unlimited time in an amazing city, but it all feels so rote and dull by now.

They walk and they eat yakisoba and they film. Steven's trying to make best of it, he can tell, but a blueness stretches itself in Andrew's limbs. He feels trapped and helpless, even as the sun shines brightly overhead and Steven initiates a yakisoba cheers.

The spontaneity and adventure they'd found in the past couple days is gone; probably for the best, but without that, the thought of another day in-day out of this is simply dreadful.

Andrew looks so dead in the eyes that Adam cuts and makes them re-shoot their first take.

"Hey," Steven says as they're just about to begin rolling again. "Just one day, right? You got this."

The small words of encouragement are enough to perk him up slightly, though Andrew still feels a strange dash of something sad in his gut.

When the camera rolls again, Steven is wielding Rie's umbrella like a sword, posing with it over his shoulder.

"Part three," he says emphatically, voguing along with the umbrella, "of a three part series. Are you guys ready for this one to...take the cake?"

Okay, Andrew has to laugh at that one. It's almost touching, the way Steven is being all goofy just to cheer him up. His shoulders, which he hadn't even realized had tightened up so he looked like he was hunched, relax and he smiles. This day doesn't have to be so bad, he reasons with himself.

Steven tries to do the flashy trick again of opening the umbrella to emphasize a word, swinging it in a wide arc so it can sit prettily at the crook of his shoulder. In his haste, the umbrella swooshes open and almost immediately the prongs get stuck in the branches of the tree behind him.

"Oh, shoot!" he exclaims, struggling with it for a second before he rips it from the tree. One of the spokes is now crooked and a light scattering of leaves comes fluttering down in the umbrella's wake.

Everyone, Steven included, starts cracking up. Rie's laughing so hard she has her face hidden behind her hands, and Adam is shaking his head from behind the camera and trying keep it in, a knuckled fist held against his lips. Andrew, for his part, doesn't bother to contain it. He laughs, full bodied and exuberant.

"Okay, I'm stopping it there," Adam says between chuckles. "Let's take five and pick up where we left off after."

Andrew knows that if today is the day that ends up sticking, there's no way that footage is going to be cut from the show. Those little moments of genuine humor and mishaps are part of what makes Worth It great, especially when they come from Steven, whom the vast majority of their viewership already finds so endearing.

Those are the things that can't be scripted or replicated, and that's part of why Steven is such a huge factor in the show's success—his natural ease in front of the camera, his dedication to making every detail great, his humanity. The audience loves Steven Lim, and...

...and so does he.

The final coin finally, finally slots into place, and the moment the realization hits, Andrew has never been more certain of something being true in his whole life.
He looks at Steven, then—still laughing, the whites of his teeth exposed and his eyes crinkled upwards, all but glowing in the sunlight at this spot they've visited so many times now, and it dawns on him. This isn't new. This isn't a sudden, striking love that appeared at this very moment.

Andrew's been in love with Steven, for who knows how long. All his aspirations, his hopes, his doubts, his irritations, his motivations—they lead him back to Steven, who wipes tears from his eyes as he apologizes profusely to Rie for breaking her umbrella.

The strange feeling that's been cropping up in his stomach for some time now finally blooms, spreads from his chest all the way through to the ends of his toes, warm and terrifying all at the same time.

They start rolling again and Andrew has no choice but to compose himself while standing there listening to Steven give his opening spiel and throw in his own lines, all while pretending to be casual and not give away the fact that he's in love. With Steven.

He feels like an exposed nerve displaced from his own body, like he's watching himself and Steven walk and talk and interview and eat cake, like he can see the love written so plainly across his face when he watches Steven slice off the tip of his cheese tart. It's frightening and new and God, how had he not realized this entire time? He tried to kiss Steven and it still hadn't hit him, damn it.

He moved in a trance all day, doing the bare minimum while consciously trying to keep the awe of it off his fake and out of his body language, even though sitting and walking and talking with Steven send little bolts of electricity racing down his skin, making him jittery and hyper-alert of every tiny interaction between them.

The revelation of it begins to finally settle when they wrap filming for the day. They're standing on the large bridge again, and Steven casually knocks his shoulder against Andrew's as they wait for the others to catch up.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Steven asks, looking at Andrew.

Oh, God.

Steven doesn't feel that way.

He doesn't, because he's looking at Andrew the way he always does, the way he has since before they even got to Japan, the way he has since they first started doing the entire series. They're friends, and Steven said it himself last night: it didn't mean anything.

Andrew still wants to kiss him. Today's a day for realizations, he supposes, though this one comes as not so much of a shocker after the last. He wants to lean right over and take Steven's face in his hands and press their lips together, right here on this bridge, surrounded on all sides by a swarm of people, right here while the breeze blows and the sun's beginning to set and Steven, as always, looks beautiful.

He knows better this time, though, and he reigns it in. It would be a bad idea. I don't think we should be doing anything risky that could jeopardize our work or the show, Steven echoes in his mind. He's right about that, and this...this would be bad, because Steven doesn't feel the same way.

Andrew doesn't know how to be casual about this. He doesn't think he could ever be.

It's best to leave things as they are, he decides. The romantic in him, buried deep beneath several thick layers, hurts. But it's for the best.

"Just another day in the books," Andrew says, leaning against the stone railing so he doesn't have to face Steven. "I hope you're gonna buy Rie another fancy umbrella."

"I offered, but she wouldn't let me," says Steven, snorting. "Look—maybe tomorrow we should really brainstorm and try to find our way out of this. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to wrap this trip up, and we haven't even visited the last two cake spots yet."

"Yeah, we have a long way to go," Andrew agrees. "That's probably a good idea."

The others join up with them then and they head off to dinner.

So he's in love with Steven, he reasons with himself through the hours as they eat and begin the trip back to the hotel. So what? Things don't have to change. He can keep it to himself—he's good at that, after all. They can keep on doing the show and being friends and Andrew will just be in love with Steven all on his own. That's fine.

A knot forms somewhere in his chest this time, tight and aching, but Andrew's determined to ignore it. Let it be and it'll untie all by itself.

Just like this time loop was supposed to, his brain supplies, but he ignores that thought too.

 

***

Back at the hotel things proceed as usual. Before he retreats into his room for the night, Steven turns to Andrew and says, "Brainstorming tomorrow. Right?"

"Right," Andrew confirms. Adam looks quizzically between them, but neither of them opt to give him an answer, and Steven's door shuts with a click behind him.

"I still think I'm an idiot," Andrew says after he and Adam are alone, beating him to the punch.

"Really? Things seem pretty good between you two," Adam says mildly. "Brainstorming?"

"Yeah. Things are good," Andrew says, and it's true—they're okay now. But he still is an idiot, because he had to go and fall in love with his best friend and now he has to just suffer the consequences, quietly and alone.

Adam seems to know what he means though, because he nods, considering things, and puts a hand on Andrew's shoulder. Andrew's lost count of the number of consoling shoulder-pats Adam's given him now, but it seems to be his go to move. "You'll figure things out," he says, kindly this time. "I believe in you guys."

"Thanks, I think," Andrew says.

After Andrew's in the privacy of his own room again, he leans against the door frame and lets out a monumental sigh, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes until he sees stars.

A full week of this, and he can feel the threads splitting him apart. Like he's not the same person experiencing the same day over and over again, but rather he's being made and unmade at the turn of the clock when time decides to reset itself. He feels thin, worn out, fabric stretched too tight over too large a surface area.

When he climbs into bed, however, his mind is still alert and whirring. He's angry with himself for not even thinking about the cause and the solution to all this. He'd spent that time instead fucking around, playing hooky, getting drunk, or repeating the same, trite things over and over again.

And then he'd spent time fed up about it, sick of his circumstances but doing nothing to change them. Not only with this, but with Steven too.

Tomorrow he's going to wake up, talk to Adam, take Rie's awkward umbrella, eat yakisoba, film, and God, he just. He doesn't want to do it.

What was that thing he said to Steven on their very first day? If I had to do it again, I wouldn't change anything.

Yeah, what a load of crap that had been. Jesus, there are so many things that he would have done differently from that first day if he had the chance to go and reset it all, change the entire tune of their day. Not answer the door for Adam, refuse Rie's insistence for yakisoba. He would have taken Steven out to do something fun long ago.

Why had he even said that in the first place? It's like some sort of cosmic joke, some ironic god looking at them and going, "you sure about that?"

Andrew shoots up in bed.

Holy fuck.

The cat.

Before he knows it, he has his socks and shoes back on and barely even has the forethought to grab his phone before he's out the door, knocking on Steven's door rapidly.

Steven clearly wasn't asleep yet when he opens the door, though the lights are off inside and he's wearing his pajamas.

"Uh, what's up?"

"Steven, I think I figured it out," he says in a rush. He’s so keyed up about this that he doesn’t even give himself time to be unnerved at interacting with Steven like this. "The time loop. It sounds fucking crazy but I think this is it."

Immediately, Steven perks up. "How do you mean?"

"I'll explain on our way. Put your shoes on."

"Wait, we're going somewhere? Now?"

"Do you want to relive this day again when we have the chance not to?" Andrew intones, an eyebrow raised.

"Fair enough," Steven nods. He disappears into his room and reemerges a minute later, shoes on and a jacket over his t-shirt.

It's considerably cooler outside than it had been a few hours ago, though that does make sense; this is the latest they've ever been out, the time nearing midnight.

"So, I was just thinking about the first day, kind of retracing our steps when it hit me—and I know this is going to sound absolutely insane, but I just have this feeling about it."

"Dude, we are living in a warped timeline where we've repeated the same day over and over again. Nothing is going to sound too insane."

"Touché. Okay, so...I think it was the cat. From the first day. Remember, I picked it up in the castle park?"

Steven considers this for a moment. "Holy shit," he says. "You know what? I think you may be right."

"Really?"

"Yeah. It's weirdly Studio Ghibli-like, don't you think? Strangely appropriate. Kind of."

"Yeah, well, do you remember what I said while I was holding it? I was talking to you."

"I do, actually," Steven says. "You said...oh wow. You said if you had to do this day over again, you wouldn't change anything."

"I can't believe it took me this long to even remember," Andrew says, incredulous at his own lack of thought. "That was the only day we saw the cat too, it has to be it."

"I honestly forgot it even existed by like, the second day," Steven admits. Andrew had too, somehow. It had simply gotten lost in the shock and muddle of it all, he supposes.

The train station is still decently busy even at this hour, though it's nowhere near the mesh of people he sees in the mornings and afternoons. Students and night owls milling about, headed home or off to new adventures for the night, like them.

They're going to the park to catch a magical cat, he thinks, and nearly laughs out loud.

"What the hell are we doing?" Steven says. He has that uncanny ability where he perfectly voices whatever thought is crossing Andrew's mind. "This is so stupid." But he's grinning, so Andrew grins back.

"It really is," he responds, but there's something intimate about all this that makes his heart constrict in his chest, the knot coming back full force. The two of them, off on an illicit and mysterious midnight adventure in Japan, trying to catch a cursed cat. Someone should make a movie about them.

When they reach the park, it's nearly deserted. There are large flood lights in the area immediately surrounding the train station that dwindle into regular street lights as the park path goes on. The trees and grassy areas are all dark, and the castle itself sits high on the hill, illuminated bright white against the night sky with spotlights positioned at its base, like a beacon for wanderers.

It's strange being here when it's so dark—surprisingly, there are still a couple of people milling about, enjoying the open public area of the park that seemingly never closes. though it's nothing compared to the usual daytime crowd. The grow less and less frequent the further along the path he and Steven go, though, until they're alone in front of the canal surrounding the castle walls, next to the bridge at the railing spot they always film in the morning.

"Do you remember where you first saw it?" Steven says when they arrive; neither of them had explicitly planned to go to this exactly spot, but their feet seemed to take them automatically.

"It was somewhere around here, we finished the take and then moved to one of those tree-lined paths." Andrew points a couple yards away, to the path where he'd seen the cat as they were filming that day. Away from the row of street lamps lining the railing, it's pitch black. "But there's no way it's still there, right? Unless it lives there?"

"Only one way to find out," Steven shrugs, pulling out his phone and turning its flashlight on. "Here, kitty kitty...," he murmurs, making puckery noises with his lips.

"Okay, first of all, the cat doesn't understand English," Andrew points out, though he also pulls his phone out and crouches down across from Steven.

"This is supposedly a magical cat that put some kind of time curse on us," Steven argues. "I don't think it's so impossible that it understands English."

"That is a good point, but I'll raise you this: if it really is a magical cat that can understand us, don't you think going 'here kitty kitty' while making kissy noises is a bit condescending?"

"Fine, then what would you say?"

Andrew pauses for a moment, thinking. Then, he calls into the darkness, voice slightly raised, "Hey. Cat. Come here?"

Steven snorts, pressing a knuckle against his mouth to keep from laughing. Andrew tries and fails not to feel stupid.

"Let's just keep looking," he says while Steven still chuckles.

They continue their search, rustling around the bushes and trees in search of anything cat-like at all. When they exhaust that area, they move onto the surrounding foliage, covering square foot by square foot.

"Think we should have brought some food for it or something?" Steven asks after a good fifteen minutes.

"I guess we didn't really think this one through, huh."

"I wonder if this is what Ryan and Shane feel like when they're hunting ghosts or whatever," Steven muses.

Andrew chuckles. "If that's the case, I think that makes both of us Ryan in this situation."

"Huh. I'm not sure if I like this comparison."

They continue their search for another couple minutes. The most productive thing Andrew finds is a pile of broken leaves and branches that looks vaguely animal-shaped in the darkness before he points his phone at it and it reveals itself to be nothing.

"I don't think this is working," says Steven after nearly half an hour. They've circled back around now to the lighted area lining the castle moat. Overhead, the castle looms, white and magnificent contrasted against the velvet curtain of sky.

It's nearly midnight by now, and Andrew starts to kick himself for even thinking this would be a good idea. He'd been so caught up in the discovery of it that he didn't even stop to think about the logistics. Even if it was the cat's fault, why would it still be in the park? Or, even if they did find it, what makes him think it would reverse things? Maybe they're been doomed to live this day forever and there truly is no escape.

"This was a dumb idea," he says, sitting down on one of the benches under the streetlights. Steven joins him, stretching his legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.

"Nah, it was worth a shot," he reassures Andrew. "I think both of us just got over excited at the idea of finally getting out of this thing."

"Well...if the days really are repeating, then it's most likely that the cat will be at there tomorrow, at the exact spot and the exact time as the first day, right?"

Steven laughs humorlessly at that, shaking his head. "Why didn't we think of that before we left the hotel?"

"I don't know. We're idiots," Andrew says. It's starting to set in now, Steven's proximity a glowing sign in his brain pointing to his realization from earlier today. They're sitting close, elbows nearly touching. Steven could have sat further down the bench, but this is normal for them after being constantly squished to one side of the table at restaurants for filming, shoulder to shoulder. Proximity plays well on camera, after all.

"Did you mean it?" Steven says quietly after a beat. Andrew blinks.

"Mean what?"

"When you said you wouldn't change things if you could redo them." Steven's eyes are cast down at his hands when he speaks, but he looks up at Andrew afterwards, his expression so full of sincerity. Andrew's heart hurts.

"I did at the time," Andrew replies, considering his words carefully. "You made the right choice, wanting to come here for the shoot. It's still really beautiful, even after all this time."

Steven cracks a small smile, but he doesn't look totally satisfied. "And now?"

"Hm?"

"You meant it at the time. What about now?"

Now...now, things are so, so different. There are so many things Andrew would have done differently if he had only realized sooner what he felt for Steven. What he feels for Steven. Not just this day, not just this trip—their entire time together. When did it even happen? Andrew's murky on that detail, because falling in love with Steven had felt like the most natural thing in the world, like growing taller or growing older. You don't realize it's happening while it is; you only know after it's over and you're looking back.

"No," Andrew admits, his voice low. "No, I think there are some things I'd like to change."

They grow quiet, but Andrew can't stop looking at Steven, who is still facing him with such sincerity. He looks so beautiful it hurts. The bright street light paints him in a glow that is bright against the darkness of the park around them, much like the castle behind them, magnificent and dignified. He thinks back to a couple nights ago, when they'd sat outside on those stone ledges and Andrew hadn't wanted the night to end. He wanted to sit out there forever, talking with Steven. He still wants that, now.

"You have to stop," Steven finally speaks after a long silence. There's a hard note in his voice, something like pain. "You have to stop that."

"Stop what?" Andrew blinks, confused.

Steven swallows and squares his jaw, his expression growing serious. "Looking at me like that," he mutters. "You have to stop looking at me like that."

Andrew freezes. Shit. Shit. It's written all over his face, isn't it? Plain as day for all to see just how smitten he is with Steven Lim. Hadn't even bothered to try and keep his thoughts in check, the fool he is.

"I don't know what you mean," he bluffs, but even he can hear the panic in his voice.

Steven takes a deep breath, like he's bracing himself for something big. "Look," he begins, breaking gaze with Andrew and staring straight ahead at nothing. "I wasn't completely honest with you. The other night, when I said it didn't mean anything. I...know you were drunk and what you wanted, and I just. Panicked."

...What?

"What?"

Steven folds his hands together in his lap, cracking his knuckles reflexively. He takes a deep breath, steeling himself.

"I can't be that for you," he continues. "I can't be something casual, that's just not me. And this, how I...," he hesitates, but then dives back in with a note of determination in his voice. "How I feel, it's not. Something I planned, but it just happened. So that night, it didn't mean nothing to me. It was something. But I know that's not how you feel, so it's fine. That's fine. I can deal with this on my own, and we never have to talk about it again if that would be better for you."

Andrew's mouth goes dry while Steven is talking, and a strange heat begins to radiate in his head. He's finally lost his grip on reality, surely.

"Are you saying...?"

"You're really gonna make me spell it out for you, man?" Steven asks, his voice taking on a tortured note. "I understand if you don't feel comfortable being around me after this, but...I hope we can keep on doing the show together."

Oh, he's been so blind. They've both been so blind.

"Ridiculous," he mutters, more to himself than anything. Steven picks his head up at that, though, and the expression he shoots Andrew is mildly incredulous. "Fucking ridiculous." He wants to laugh.

Steven opens his mouth, but he seems lost for words. Andrew lets out a laugh, the sheer lunacy of the entire situation crashing down on him.

"What's so funny?"

"Steven," he says, turning to face the other man and letting his laughter die down into seriousness. "Steven. It wasn't nothing." There’s a note of wonder in his voice, like he can’t believe he’s even speaking.

"What are you talking about?" Steven whispers, almost fearful.

"That night. I wasn't drunk; I wanted to do it."

"But..."

"How could you ever think this could be casual between us?"

Before Steven has the chance to fully process, and before Andrew loses his nerve, he does it. Leans right in, puts a hand right along that jaw, thumb gentle against the curve of his cheek, and kisses Steven.

At first, Steven seems too shocked to move and it's just a dry press of lips. Andrew falters, thinking he'd made the wrong choice after all, and Steven doesn't want this and he's the biggest asshole on the planet. But then, Steven softens underneath him, bringing a hand up to stroke at Andrew's hair, and his lips move—he kisses back.

It's soft and sweet and Andrew's heart aches as he tenderly strokes a thumb across Steven's cheek, his other hand on the bench to keep him anchored to reality; otherwise he thinks he'd float away.

"Wow," Steven whispers when they finally break apart, their foreheads still pressed against each other. He can feel Steven's breath fanning across his own lips, he can count Steven's eyelashes.

"Wow," Andrew agrees in a soft murmur.

They look closely at each other for a moment longer before both breaking into laughter, the kind that's quiet and contained but completely joyous, clutching at one another with shoulders shaking.

"We've been idiots, haven't we?" Steven says after a while, shaking his head incredulously.

"The biggest," Andrew says. "God, I've been so dense."

"We both have," Steven insists.

"So, how exactly was I looking at you?"

Steven takes Andrew's hand, turning it over in his own and stroking the skin across his knuckles. "Like...," he begins, trying to find the words. "Like you could leave the whole world behind as long as you were out here with me."

"You know, that's exactly what I was thinking about," Andrew says, and Steven smiles.

"I still don't think it's a good idea," he says a little regretfully. "But we have plenty of time now, don't we?" He stands up and holds out a hand for Andrew to take.

"We do," Andrew says, lacing his fingers together with Steven.

No one else is around at this point, the remaining park dwellers finally retreating for the night. They hold hands as they take the long way back to the train station. As they're finally departing the park area into the well lit train station complex, just for a split second Andrew thinks he sees a pair of glowing yellow cat eyes in the trees a couple yards away.

***

After they get off the train at their stop, they continue to hold hands all the way to the hotel. Andrew has mixed feelings at the contact, half giddy and extremely pleased with himself, half fearful that he’ll wake up tomorrow and this will all reset as well.

“Hey,” Steven says as they’re in the elevator, seeming to sense Andrew’s anxieties, like he always does. “We’re in this together, right? You and me.”

“Yeah,” Andrew agrees, feeling better just at the sound of Steven’s voice. “You and me.”

When they get to their hallway, Andrew’s reluctant to part but ready to say good night. He’s actually looking forward to the next day, optimistic about the future for once now that he knows this thing with Steven is mutual.

However, Steven hesitates at his door, clearing his throat awkwardly and glancing at Andrew. “Do you, uh, want to come in?”

Woah.

Andrew hadn’t been expecting that, but he nods mutely, his mouth going dry.

Quietly, the both of them slip inside Steven’s room. Out of habit, Andrew takes his shoes off and places them neatly beside the door while Steven, still awkward, says, “one sec,” and disappears inside the bathroom.

Okay. Oh boy. Andrew’s not sure what he’s expecting to happen, but he decides to take it all in stride and definitely trying to keep any thoughts from getting him too excited.

Somehow, he’s never really considered it before, before or after his revelation about Steven. In an abject way, maybe, the way any person entertains thoughts of what an acquaintance might be like in bed. But he’s never given it any of that deep thought that delves into fantasizing territory. And Steven—maybe he has, Andrew thinks, recalling the way their game of Never Have I Ever had finished up.

But now that he’s presented with the situation, he wonders what Steven would look like, laid bare before him, underneath him, eyes closed and mouth open in pleasure—

“Hey,” Steven says, emerging from the bathroom. Like a bumbling fool, Andrew is still just standing there in the middle of the room.

“Hey.”

“So...I was thinking. If you wanted to spend the night here,” Steven says, gesturing to the bed. “We don’t have to do anything,” he quickly adds. “But it might be interesting to see what actually happens to us in the night, if we’ll wake up in separate rooms, right?”

Ah. That makes much more sense. Andrew curses himself for thinking any different, his pants just a tad too tight now. Of course it’d just be something like this, he reminds himself—Steven’s never—

But then Steven takes his hand and pulls him to the bed, and kisses him.

It’s not an innocent, sweet kiss like they shared in the park. Steven wants something, he can tell. It’s a kiss like the one they might have shared that night in the bar if they’d allowed themselves those scant few extra inches. It’s slow, passionate, and full of something deeper.

Steven makes a small noise against his lips, and that’s about all Andrew can take. Something comes over him, months and months of unknown, built up tension, and he slides his hands into Steven’s hair, tilts his head, and opens his mouth.

The floodgates are wide now, and fire crackles up and down Andrew’s limbs. There’s nothing slow or sweet about it now, open-mouthed and slick and hot. Steven moans and slides his hands up under Andrew’s shirt to press his fingertips against the ridge of his hips and Andrew growls, pushing both of them over so they’re lying horizontal.

They break apart and Andrew turns his attention to the skin of Steven’s neck, pressing open-mouthed kisses along its perfect column while Steven seamlessly takes the opportunity to pull Andrew’s shirt all the way up and off, followed by his own, and the touch of bare skin, warm and smooth, has Andrew fully hard and straining against his pants.

He can feel Steven against him too, pressed against his thigh near the junction of where their hips meet. In a moment of clarity, though, he pulls back and looks down at Steven, really looks at him.

“I thought you said we didn’t have to do anything,” he murmurs. Steven actually smirks, and wickedly at that.

“I said we didn’t have to,” he murmurs. “But I want to. And you want to.” He punctuates that with a tilt of his hips, the press sweet and torturous against Andrew’s cock.

“You’re a tease,” Andrew breathes.

You’re one to talk,” Steven retorts lowly. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are? All sweaty and golden. I’ve thought about this for so long.”

Andrew groans, feeling his resolve slipping. “Are you sure?”

Instead of answering, Steven slides a hand into Andrew’s sweatpants, and Andrew melts.

In the end, neither of them make it long enough to completely strip down, and they lie curled in each other’s arms, Andrew still in his sweatpants and Steven in his boxers. Steven has a hand stroking through Andrew’s hair softly and Andrew has his head resting on the crook of Steven’s shoulder.

“So,” Steven says, “we never really said anything official. But considering what just happened, I think I should put it out there that...this is for keeps. For me.”

Though sleep and exhaustion are tugging at his limbs now, Andrew turns his face up towards Steven’s. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says.

Steven smiles at that and presses a kiss to the top of Andrew’s head. “You know,” he comments idly as the both of the are about to fall asleep. “We could have been doing this the entire time. We could have made out in front of the camera and there wouldn’t have been any consequences.”

“The consequence of killing our friend Rie would count, I think,” Andrew says. “But don’t worry. We have all the time in the world.”

***

Andrew wakes up to the sound of rain.

The light is gray and wan as it filters in through the gap in the curtains and Steven is next to him, their limbs tangled together under the sheets. It feels surreal, everything that happened last night, but here’s living proof—Steven peaceful and beautiful next to him, smooth skin and long limbs bare against him.

Part of him still can’t believe this is reality; surely the strange dimension they’ve been tossed in is throwing another curve ball at him and—

Hold on.

It’s raining.

Andrew throws the covers off and practically jumps out of bed. Steven groans and stirs awake from the commotion, but Andrew doesn’t notice; he’s too busy drawing the curtains all the way back, grayish light flooding the room. The sky is hung full of clouds and rivulets of water dot the window as a gentle, steady drizzle of rain pats down to the ground below.

Steven makes a noise of protest at the sudden light, squinting and sitting up in bed. “What are you doing?” he says, voice low and rough from sleep.

“Steven,” Andrew says like it’s the best thing he’s ever said in his life, which may very well be true. “Steven. It’s raining.”

“What?”

“It never rains!”

Realization dawns on Steven’s face, and he grabs his phone off the bedside table to look at the date and time. Then, he too springs out of bed. Andrew grabs him and spin together, lips meeting in a jubilant kiss.

“Oh my God,” Steven says afterwards, laughing and laughing. “Holy shit.”

A knock sounds at the door, then, and Andrew pauses. “We’re in your room, right?”

Steven nods.

“If that’s Adam, I swear to God, I’m gonna lose it,” he says. Steven pads over and checks through the peephole.

“It is Adam,” he says, and Andrew laughs. He can break free from the time loop, but it seems he can’t shake the Adam Bianchi wake up call. “Should I just ignore him?”

“You can open it,” Andrew relents. “He knows about us.” Steven raises an eyebrow at that one, and Andrew just sighs. “I’ll explain later.”

“Why is it that I’m always waking either one of you up?” is the first thing Adam says as soon as Steven opens the door. “Get your things together, we’re leaving for Tokyo soon.”

“This might sound weird,” Steven says, “but I’ve never been happier to hear those words coming out of your mouth.”

Adam shoots him a strange look, but continues. “Just be ready soon. I’ll go get Andrew.”

“Don’t bother,” Andrew calls from inside the room. He goes over to the door, leaning against the frame next to Steven. Adam’s eyebrows nearly reach his hairline as he glances between the two of them, still in their state of undress, but in the end he just shrugs, unfazed, like it’s no big deal.

“See you guys downstairs,” he says, and then turns on his heel.

They’re holding hands when they go down to the lobby, backpacks on and luggage in tow. Rie immediately lights up and starts bouncing around, very uncharacteristic from her usual calm, collected persona.

“I knew it,” she says, clapping her hands gleefully. “I knew it would happen soon! Adam, you owe me fifty dollars!”

“You guys had a pool going on?” Steven asks incredulously.

“I thought it was going to happen here in Japan,” Rie admits happily while Adam, grumbling, slaps a stack of bills into her hands. “Adam thought it wouldn’t be until we were back in LA. Japan is great for romance!”

“Wait, is that why you wouldn’t give me more specific advice?” Andrew says to Adam. Adam just shrugs noncommittally, though his expression is somewhat defeated.

As they gather their things together to get ready to leave for what Andrew sincerely hopes is the last time, Steven goes over to him and says quietly, “I asked Adam for advice too. Before we even came to Japan. He was very unhelpful.”

“I guess in the end we didn’t need his help, did we?”

“No, we didn’t.”

It seems the rain that had woken Andrew up this morning was just a passing shower, because the sky has cleared up some and the sun is out once again, though it is considerably dewier and damper than the previous days. Andrew thinks he prefers this to the raw heat; everything feels fresh and new, like life being breathed into the air.

He takes Steven’s hand as they walk out together into the Osaka sunshine for the last time.