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There was a flutter of soft strands of hair over his eyes and forehead, but Hakuei couldn’t see the person who appeared to be standing above him. His vision was blurry, and he could only make out a darkened figure of a person. A soft light shined behind them; however their face was obscured. Hakuei could feel his arm seemingly move on its own to shield his eyes as a side of his lips curled up. His body felt warm, and the emotion coursing through him spoke of deep affection for whoever was standing there.

The figure let out a soft laugh and asked, “Are you ready to come back in now?”

Hakuei’s lips parted to respond,

He woke up with a gasp and a light sheen of sweat covered his upper body, making his muscle tee stick to his skin. Hakuei frantically looked around his dark bedroom, but the only light coming in was from a street lamp just outside his window. He reached over to switch on his lamp, while he continued to take in shallow breaths.

That was the fourth dream of a similar vein, that he could count, over the past few weeks. They all started out the same way: An unknown, untouchable figure calling to him and Hakuei responded to them as if they were familiar. It felt surreal, like he was witnessing an out of body experience, but from within the mind of, well, himself. The person’s voice — possibly a man’s, he wasn’t sure and he didn’t recognize it — would speak to him conversationally or ask him as a question, but as soon as Hakuei tried to speak, the dream would end.

He let out a deep breath, as he ran a hand through his dirty blond hair. He glanced over at his alarm clock:

3:47 am

Great, Hakuei thought, I have about two more hours before I have to actually be up. He heaved one last deep sigh before reaching over to flip the switch off and throwing himself against his pillows, leaving him in relative darkness once more. He had class in the morning. Analyzing this dream could wait.

Shrill ringing erupted from the alarm clock at 5:45 am and a hand quickly shot out from underneath the covers to shut it off. Hakuei groaned softly and wished for just ten more minutes of rest before having to force himself out of bed to start his day.

He didn’t hate his classes, on the contrary, they brought him much joy. He looked forward to the lessons every day, but dreams like the one earlier that night often left him mentally exhausted.

His alarm clock went off again: 5:55 am. It was time to finally get up.

Hakuei quietly shuffled into the kitchen twenty minutes later after deciding that having a quick shower would help him start the day in a better mood. He took out a couple of items from the fridge — a cup of yogurt, a can of iced coffee that belonged to his roommate, his bento — and shoved all but the coffee into his backpack. A bright red post-it note on the freezer caught his attention before he turned away. It, politely, told him to mail his and his roommate’s rent checks at the post office after work. He took down the note, crumpled it up, and launched it with a swish into the trash can. Finally, he swiped the envelope off the counter, and headed out into the cool, humid morning.

“Good morning, class.”

‘Good morning, Hakuei-san!” the chorus of young students returned in unison.

“Is everyone ready for their field trip today?”

There were frenzied screams, loud agreements, and a few heads furiously nodding at their teacher. Hakuei clapped his hands once and smiled down at his class. “Okay, we’re going to line-up at 8:30 with Naoko-san’s class, which means that we have just fifteen minutes to straighten up the classroom. Do you think you all can do that?”

“Yes!”

“Will you all work together?”

“Yes!!”

“Alright…” Hakuei dramatically twisted his wrist to turn his watch face-up. He furrowed his eyebrows and bent down slightly, his stance challenging his students to get ready. The children, some bouncing slightly, some giggling, waited for his signal.

“Go!”

There was a mad scramble as kids scattered to put away books, straighten their desks and chairs, and even feed the class beetles.

Naoko-san walked in a few minutes later and observed the classroom and rush of students with a reserved smile. “Hakuei-san, why do you wind them up like this?”

He shrugged with a grin, “Why not? Besides, it’s Zoo Day. They were already raring to go.”

“Okay, okay.” Naoko relented as she laughed softly, then she turned her attention to the clock on the wall. Hakuei followed her line of vision and abruptly called out, “Everyone, line up please! It’s time to go.”

Thirty happily chattering students filed out of the small school a few minutes later with Naoko in front with one parent chaperone and Hakuei and another parent doing sweep at the end of the line.

Hakuei’s sweep partner elbowed him softly and gave him sweet smile in greeting. “It’s good to see you, Hakuei-san. You don’t look so hot today; is everything alright?”

Hakuei dipped his head in greeting and returned his attention to the line of students in front of him as they walked to their destination. “It’s nothing major, Yune-san, I just didn’t sleep that well.”

“Hmm,” Yune frowned slightly, “I remember you saying that the last time I saw you at the parent-teacher conference. Only you looked worse then.”

Hakuei raised an eyebrow slightly, “Oh? I don’t even remember.” He replied, then clicked his tongue softly. Yune nodded, “Yeah, you were saying something like how you were having some weird dreams. Not nightmares, dreams.” He looked at Hakuei from the corner of his eye, “Are they still happening?”

The other man nodded once and sighed, “I don’t know what’s causing them, but they've been happening for a while.”

“Maybe you need a vacation.” Yune replied, teasingly.

Hakuei snorted, “I wish.”

“Or maybe you should take me up on that offer to come with me to my friends' new bar.”

Hakuei and Yune stopped with the students and other chaperones at the traffic light and waited to cross. Yune peered at him, a grin tugging at his lips, as Hakuei appeared to be weighing his options. He generally didn’t get involved with any of the parents, but Yune was a dedicated parent-volunteer, so they had become friendly. It also helped that his daughter was a very inquisitive student. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to have a drink with him, as his own roommate was woefully allergic to alcohol and his friends were often too busy pulling long hours at their respective offices, so anything spontaneous — or even planned — was often out of the question.

The walk signal changed and the group moved to cross the wide arterial lanes. As soon as they got to the other side, Hakuei looked over at Yune.

“Let’s do it.”

Yune’s grin grew outright, “Yeah? How about tomorrow night?”

He gave him a firm nod, "I’m down.”

“Great! You’re going to love this place, and you’re going to love my friends. They’re former musicians who played in bands before calling it quits.”

Hakuei blinked, “Wait, then how did you meet them? You never joined a band."

“The music world is very small, my friend. Everyone knows everyone.”

Hakuei shrugged, accepting the explanation seeing as how Yune shared a music studio with his partner. He slipped back into teacher mode as they approached the gates of the zoo, where two more parents were waiting. Naoko called for everyone’s attention, “Now, today we’re going to be on our best behavior, right?”

The students nodded in unison, save for one or two little jokesters.

“Good. Everyone split into your groups — If you want to start with the chimpanzees and gorillas, you’re with Kazuya-san and I.”

Hakuei stepped up, “And If you want to start with all of the awesome bugs and reptiles,” he stopped to laugh at some of the disgusted groans and a loud, “Cool!!” from one student, “You’re with Sugihara-san and I. If you want to start with the big cats, you’re with Takeyama-san and Ishizuka-san. Any questions?”

Hakuei received a chorus of no’s and he gave them a big smile.

“Let’s go!”

A few hours later the group filed out of the Zoo with two sleepy students being carried by the parent volunteers, and the rest were hopped up on sugar. The teachers weren’t worried about their hyperactive state, for once, as it was late enough that everyone’s parents would be waiting for them when they returned. As they walked back to school, Yune and Hakuei were chatting about the upcoming night.

“So, what should I expect? Chill and divey, loungey, pretentious…?” Hakuei asked, just before he darted out to corral a wayward child.

Yune let out of a bark of laughter, “Nah, it’ll be chill. These were rock dudes. What you should expect is to…” He smiled down at the little boy who fell back in step with his friends and turned back to whisper, “Probably not remember a thing in the morning.”

Hakuei blanched and responded in a stage whisper, “Are you serious?”

Yune stopped right in his tracks and fixed the younger man a Look. “You”, he began, “Are entirely too wound up. Also, we’re going out on a Saturday night, lighten up.”

Hakuei closed his eyes and sighed, “You’re right. Sorry, it’s honestly been a while and I’ve just been so stressed out lately.”

They had arrived at the school and watched as the students dispersed into the arms of their parents. Yune’s daughter wandered over and giggled upon receiving a little wink from him. “All the more reason why you need to be there, tomorrow, at 9 pm sharp.” he responded, looking back up at Hakuei.

Hakuei smiled, “I’m looking forward to it. See you tomorrow night." He bowed to Yune and his daughter and waved as they headed towards the train station, hand in hand.

After logging in his students’ attendance and cleaning up his desk, he made a quick trip to the post office, just before it closed, and decided to take a long walk home rather than jumping on the train. The air was warm and the streets were buzzing with office workers rushing home, teenagers off to the movies, old men walking slowly with their arms clasped behind their backs, and he weaved through them all, standing tall above the crowd.

Hakuei was just about to pull out his phone to jump manipulate his music player’s shuffle settings, when his eyes were automatically drawn to a smaller man with bright orange hair. He was in the trendier part of the city, so seeing people with hair colors of every hue wasn’t out of the ordinary — and he had recently dyed his hair blond, much to his principal’s chagrin — but his eyes couldn’t help following the man who crossed in front of him without a single glance.

He blinked back to reality and the stream of people continuing around him. He looked around to see where the other man went, but he was gone. Hakuei chalked up his interest as a one-off, and continued on his trek. Around twenty minutes later, he turned down a familiar residential street and shortcut, a welcomed respite from the crowd. As he continued on his commute by foot, his mind kept showing flashes of the man, a crop of orange standing starkly against a sea of black and brown. He felt his lips tugging downwards into a frown and he stopped in the middle of the path to rest a hand against his heart.

It was racing.

Chapter Text

Hakuei arrived back at his apartment feeling slightly better after blasting the sugariest pop tracks from his playlists and his interest in the stranger had considerably waned. He stepped into the doorway and called out, “Tadai —“

And was promptly hit in the face with a throw pillow.

“You drank my last coffee, you jackass!”

Hakuei blinked in a daze and muttered, “I ordered a case two nights ago.”

All of the anger from the offended person left as quickly as it came, and they dropped the arm that was ready to launch another pillow. “Okay, well, you should have told me.”

Hakuei slipped on his house shoes and nodded as he moved past his roommate, “You’re right, sorry. Please tell me you brought food?”

His roommate threw his head back and groaned loudly, “No, I thought you were cooking!”

Hakuei whipped his head around and hissed, “On a Friday night?”

“Are Friday nights different from any other night of the week??” he bit back.

“Yes! Who cooks on Friday nights! Even my own mom, love her dearly, never cooked on a Friday night!”

“Amazing how you managed to slip your mom into this conversation.”

“That’s because my mother is the patron saint of everything that is good this world.” Hakuei replied in a manner that left no room for discussion, as he made his way into the kitchen.

His roommate rolled his eyes and then plopped himself on the couch. “So,” he called out, “…Uh, pizza?”

Hakuei, who had immediately started working on a pint of ice cream, responded “Yeah, sure, pizza’s fine. No corn."

Hakuei and his roommate, Chisato, met at university through their general courses. They were nearly opposite in habits, personalities, and even taste in foods, but both shared a love of music and the pursuit of knowledge. Plus, women flocked to Hakuei in spades, though whether he wanted them to or not was debatable, and that made him more than interesting enough to get to know, as far as eighteen-year old Chisato was concerned.

After graduating, both men decided to stay in Tokyo and agreed to be roommates as they were the only ones out of their friend group to hold atypical jobs — Hakuei being an elementary school teacher and Chisato being a File Clerk in a small law firm.

Chisato patted the cushion next to him when he saw his roommate slouch over, pint of ice cream still in hand. “You’re gonna spoil your appetite, man.”

Hakuei frowned, hummed softly, and then acquiesced by putting the pint on the coffee table. Chisato quickly shoved a coaster underneath it.

“Anyway, how was the zoo?” Chisato asked, making himself comfortable again on the couch.

“Oh, it was good.” Hakuei said as he was pulling his legs up to sit with them crossed. “The kids were mostly well-behaved and Yune-san volunteered, which was great. He’s probably one of my favorite parents."

Chisato nodded while flickering through the channels and finally settling on a B- horror movie. “I wasn’t aware that grade school teachers had favorite parents.”

“We definitely do. And we have parents that we hate — they’re usually the ones who think their children are so well-behaved...when really they are anything but.”

“So diplomatic.”

“The walls have ears, sir.”

Chisato snorted and kept his eyes on the screen, slowly becoming enraptured by the terrible visual effects in the movie. Hakuei watched with him for a while, only paying half-attention, before popping up with, “Oh! Uh, I’m actually going to hang with Yune-san tomorrow night.”

Chisato snapped his head over to stare directly at his roommate. “You’re going to what.” He demanded.

Hakuei quickly waved his hands, “Not like that! His friends have a bar and he invited me to check it out.”

Chisato continued to stare at him, utterly unconvinced, “Uh huh.”

“…He has a partner.”

“What’s your point?”

“Shut up.” Hakuei rolled his eyes to the ceiling, “We’re going out for drinks because I had another one of those stupid dreams and apparently even he could tell that I was out of it.”

Chisato paused the movie, “Wait a minute, you had another dream?”

“Yeah,” Hakuei breathed out as he rubbed his eyes, “I did, early this morning.”

“Was there anything different about this one?”

Hakuei shook his head and sighed, “No, it was the same as the others — someone talking, I try to respond, and then it ends... Ah! Well, actually.” He paused as he remembered a tiny detail, “This time, I felt something? Like, I felt warm and sort of like I was floating...”

Chisato frowned, “What, like on clouds? A waterbed?”

“No, idiot, you know that feeling when you’re with someone you really like? And you just feel this warmth spreading throughout your body?”

“…You have a crush on your dream person?” he asked slowly.

Hakuei waved a hand dismissively, “Forget it.”

“Fine, fine, Sensitive-san.” Chisato unpaused the movie and Hakuei picked up his, now half-melted pint, to sullenly scoop into.

“…So, what are you gonna wear for your date tomorr — ow, man!”

The next evening, Hakuei found himself staring in front of the mirror with a few separate outfits spread out on his bed. He had woken up to a barrage of texts ranging from Yune’s, “Don’t you dare forget about tonight!” to Chisato’s emojis consisting of a bed, Zzz’s, and winking, kissy-faces.

He was fiddling with his hair in the mirror, trying to figure out if he wanted to keep it down, pull into a short ponytail, or throw it underneath a beanie because he was rapidly becoming frustrated, when Chisato poked his head past the bedroom door.

“Whatcha wearing tonight?” he asked with a lecherous grin.

Hakuei looked at him, unamused, in the mirror. “Stop being gross.”

“I’m not bring gross!” he said, as he waltzed into the bedroom and threw himself onto the bed, though not on to the clothing. “I just want to make sure that you look your best for Yune-san and friends."

“So you’re bringing ‘what' to this conversation?” Hakuei drawled and smirked when Chisato flipped him off in the mirror.

“Anyway, what time do you have to be there anyway?” Chisato asked, rolling over to lay on his back.

“Mm, he said 9 pm…” Hakuei replied before letting out an annoyed puff of air and just letting his hair hang loose. He shuffled back over to his outfits on his bed and dropped his pajama trousers, causing Chisato to pop up.

“What the hell, man! I’m right here!” he cried, covering his eyes.

Hakuei looked up at him, doe-eyed and confused, “I’m wearing boxers!”

“Sailor Moon boxers.”

Hakuei stood up straight and slapped his own thigh in annoyance, “You know you can leave, right?”

“Yeah, and you should definitely leave because it’s…” Chisato pulled out his phone and whistled lowly, “8:53 pm.”

“Fuck!” Hakuei shouted as he started to scramble by throwing on his favorite pair of washed black overalls, a tight, white crewneck t-shirt with a set of bright pink lips on the chest, and an assortment of his favorite bracelets and rings in record time. He spritzed on some cologne, not even sure if it was seasonally appropriate or not, and ran out of his room.

“Don’t forget to wear a condom!” Chisato yelled from across the apartment as Hakuei sprinted towards the door.

“Shut up!"

Hakuei walked up to the bar with a slow, purposeful stride, not wanting to sweat due to the heavy humidity and, well, he was already thirty minutes late. His body language changed as soon as he saw Yune leaning with his head down against the gate of a nondescript grey stone building that had neon lights overhead. He stopped a few feet from the other man and bowed deeply, causing Yune to look up from his phone and laugh heartily.

“Hakuei, please leave that during the week, alright? We’re equals here.” he said with a smile.

Hakuei huffed softly and nodded, “Sorry, old habits die hard.”

“So, I see.” Yune slipped both of his arms around Hakuei’s right arm and started pulling him along, “Come on, I know you’ve been waiting all week for a chance to finally relax.”

Hakuei allowed himself to be pulled along as they walked down the short set of steps and with a quick nod to the bouncer from Yune, they were led into comfortably dim bar that was quite full of people chatting, drinking, or trying to catch the attention of a bespectacled & bald bartender.

Yune tugged him into a booth, which allowed them a good view of the small set up in the corner for bands to play. Hakuei took it all in silently and noticed that there was a side of the room that was roped off, but seemed to have some chairs stacked up on tables. He turned back to Yune who was in the middle of shrugging off his long, black open knit cardigan.

“So, how long has this place been open?” Hakuei asked when the other man got settled.

“Hmm, not long. Maybe two or three months?” Yune responded as he threw his cardigan to the side. He opened the drink menu in front of them, his eyes quickly going over the options, “What would you like to drink?”

“Whiskey sour.”

Yune snorted and shut the menu with a snap, “Well, alright then! Stay here; I’ll be right back.” He slid out of the booth and called out to the bartender, who looked over and called out his greetings.

Hakuei leaned back and decided to people watch for a bit. He was in the middle of trying to figure out if the woman with the green streaks in her hair was a parent of one of his students when Yune's reappearance blocked his vision. He was setting down their drinks, his a glass of red wine, when Hakuei saw a stranger approaching the table.

“Hakuei, please meet my friend, Kiyoshi! He co-owns the bar.” Yune said, gesturing to the man. Kiyoshi bowed politely and brushed orange strands out of his eyes as he said hello. His eyes held a soft, yet neutral expression that Hakuei was unable to read.

But at that moment, Hakuei was sincerely thankful that he was never one to display strong emotions because he was truly in a state of shock over seeing the man from yesterday afternoon. Still, he managed to smile gently and dip his head in greeting. “Nice to meet you. It’s my first time here; Yune-san really talked up the place”

Kiyoshi’s expression quickly changed and brightened considerably. “Thank you for coming!” he said with another quick bow before turning to Yune, “I’ll bring us some drinks, eh? If this is the friend you’ve been talking about, then he deserves a proper welcome.”

Yune nodded, “Yes, this is the one.” he replied. “Teachers have it so hard! We have to treat him to a memorable night.” He turned to Hakuei and playfully winked at him. Kiyoshi laughed, “Well, I’ll try to dig up something from the bar that won’t kill his reputation. Excuse me.” With that, he bowed quickly and hurried off.

Yune slid into the booth next to Hakuei with a grin. “It’s gonna be a good night.”

One whiskey sour and one bottle of bottle of tequlia later:

Hakuei wasn’t sure what time it was, how many drinks he actually had, or even whose body was resting comfortably around his own. He was warm, sated, and couldn’t stop his mouth from releasing whatever came to mind. His stockpile of recipes, the new house turtle, his roommate’s complete weakness for alcohol — How terrible, he told them, not even a cider could stop the blushing — his bachelor’s thesis on river maintenance in the age of increasing ecological damage; all of it. He paused his motormouth to peer up at Yune who was protectively curled around him. Yune was somehow managing to not spill a single drop from the glass in his hand, even as he laughed uproariously with the bald man, who he finally learned was named Kohichi. Hakuei turned his head and saw Kiyoshi topping off both of their glasses.

Kiyoshi looked down at the younger man and grinned wickedly, “I hope we’re not done for tonight, sensei.”

Hakuei snorted and pushed himself away his warm place against Yune’s chest and snatched up his own glass. He fixed Kiyoshi a determined look before smoothly knocking it back and screwing his eyes shut as he shuddered from the burn. Hakuei then stuck his tongue out to show that it was all gone and received cat calls from the three men around him.

“Yune, where did you find this guy!” Kohichi asked through peals of laughter. Yune pinched Hakuei’s cheek, “He’s one of my daughter’s teachers, believe it or not. This bottomless well is actually an upstanding young man, during the day time.”

“Ahh, Kohichi, what’s that weird American song you were playing in the cafe yesterday? The electronic one from the 80s with a hip hop beat?” Kiyoshi asked, as he wiped away his own tears of laughter. Kohichi bounced up and down in his seat, “Oh, you mean, the Freaks Come Out At Night?”

Hakuei went to sip at the new glass he had poured for himself in the middle of their conversation and sputtered into his drink. “The what!” he exclaimed, aghast. Kiyoshi literally doubled over onto Hakuei, too weak from laughter to sit up anymore. The younger man looked over at him in tipsy confusion and in that moment, he finally took stock of his surroundings. The bar was dim and quiet except for the four of them in a corner booth.

“Wait, wait.” He shook Kiyoshi’s shoulder even though the man still shaking with giggles, “Where is everyone? What time is it?”

Yune pulled out his phone and recoiled, “Shit, it’s five a.m.! We should actually try to get home now."

Kohichi heaved a deep sigh, tuckered out from the near relentless laughter. “Yeah, we closed up two hours ago, so might as well. What do you think, Kiyosh’?” The aforementioned man didn't answer him. He had silently moved from laying against Hakuei to being comfortably spread out with half of his back against the cushion of the booth and half against Hakuei’s shoulder. Kiyoshi slipped off into his own world with his head tipped back, eyes closed, and hummed a soft tune while his fingers twitched against his thigh, as if they picking invisible strings.

For Hakuei, Yune and Kohichi's voices dulled to nearly nothing and his vision narrowed to focus on the quick movements of Kiyoshi’s hands. He could faintly hear someone gently calling his name and then a slim, tattooed hand snapped its fingers right in front of his eyes, causing him to jump in fright and knock him out of his trance.

Hakuei looked over at Yune, trying to keep a steady eye on his cheshire grin. “It’s time to go now, Hakuei.” Yune said, softly. Hakuei nodded and let the older man draw him onto unsteady feet. Kohichi was trying to do the same with Kiyoshi, who was being a bit more difficult. “Kiyosh’, Kiyosh’! Let’s go home!” he cried, nearly wrestling the smaller man into a standing position.

“Kohichi, Kiyoshi, a pleasure as always.” Yune said with a smile on his lips and a hand gripping Hakuei’s waist to keep him from sagging. When Kohichi nodded, Kiyoshi straightened up, pointed a finger straight at Hakuei, and drunkenly exclaimed, “Bring him back with you next time!”

Despite the fog that was settling nicely within Hakuei’s mind, the acceptance from the older man came through loud and clear and he found himself fully smiling back at him.

After exiting the bar, the next moments Hakuei experienced were fleeting: There were flashes of a pea green exterior, black soft interior, and rumbling underneath him.

A bony shoulder and soft auburn hair that tickled Hakuei’s cheek and covered much of his vision.

The bland, taupe stone of his apartment building with its achingly bright fluorescent lighting.

His eyes closed in exhaustion and he heard a soft yawn followed by near hysterical laughter from an familiar sounding source, as he was gently maneuvered into a different set of strong hands.

Then there was the precious, downy softness unmistakably belonging to pillows and blankets.

Finally, the gentle clink of a glass next to his head was the last thing Hakuei heard before he let his mind shut down and surrender his body to a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Chisato knocked on the door as softly as he could muster. “Hakkun…” he whispered, “You up yet?”

He heard an audible and pathetic-sounding groan of protest.

“Nah, man, it’s 10 am. You gotta get up.” Chisato chided as he shuffled into his roommate’s room. He reached out and shook the older man’s shoulder, and received a soft, pitiful whine in response.

“Okay, stay in bed. See how easy it is for you to wake up at 6 am tomorrow.” Chisato playfully chided.

A muffled reply that sounded suspiciously like, “Okay, mom.” came from under the covers and Chisato left the room, closing the door behind him. Hakuei heaved a deep sigh and forced himself to sit up. Trying to open his eyes proved to be a near fatal mistake, for he was immediately hit was a searing pain in his temples. His penance for the previous night out.

His phone buzzed with an incoming call, doubling the pain in his skull, and he jabbed the call button with a bit too much force before croaking, “Hello?”

“Oh, you sound positively awful, my friend.”

Hakuei rubbed at his eyes tiredly, “This is all your fault, Yune.”

“Nuh uh,” Yune said, chuckling, "No one told you to go toe to toe with my friends, especially friends of mine who own a bar.”

“Whatever. It’s fine.” Hakuei yawned and fell back against the covers, “How do you sound so awake, right now?”

“I’ve got a kid.”

“Touche. Speaking of kids, I should actually get up and work on my lesson plan for the week.”

Yune snorted, “While I’m glad to hear that my child will live to learn another day from her favorite teacher, please do take of yourself, Hakuei."

Hakuei murmured something in the affirmative, and hung up after saying goodbye. He took a deep breath and then rolled himself off of the bed and onto his feet, still trying ignore the searing headache. He did have to work on his lesson plan for the following morning, and staying in his bedroom meant that he wouldn’t get any work done, so he resolved to go for a short walk to a nearby cafe for a change of atmosphere.

After a long, steamy shower to both wake him up and clear his mind, Hakuei threw on a simple outfit, stuffed his backpack with his laptop and notebooks, and waved at Chisato on his way out.

The weather had turned considerably cooler since the night before, and the air was crisp enough to force the need for a light jacket. Hiding behind oversized sunglasses to shield his sensitive eyes, Hakuei did his best to slowly take in the shedding of leaves from the few trees that lined his walk. His feet unconsciously led him down an familiar path and soon he found himself walking past the bar he was at just last night, only it was lit up inside.

Hakuei blinked at the sign stating “Open” and his recollection of the space itself. He shrugged and pushed the door open hesitantly, before stepping inside.

“Good morning!” called a man with shoulder length and layered black hair from across the bar. He had a few piercings through his right eyebrow and earlobe, and his eyes were warm and friendly. Hakuei bowed slightly and said hello, as he approached the counter.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before; first time?” the man asked, with a little smile as he took out a menu.

“Well, actually I was here last night…I think?” Hakuei responded, while looking around. It certainly seemed like the same place.

“Oh, we’re exclusively a bar after 9 pm. Explains the confused look on your face.”

Hakuei’s eyes snapped back to look at the other man, “Hah?”

The man chuckled, “My friends Kohichi and Kiyoshi own the place. Well, Kohichi's in charge at night, and Kiyoshi’s in charge during the day, when it's more of like a cafe. I think they’d like to eventually add a music component as well…you know, like a lounge sort of atmosphere.” he added with a shrug. “Anyway, my name is Daisuke. Are you hungry or thirsty?”

Hakuei took all of that in with a few well-time grunts, but before he could answer Daisuke’s question, his stomach growled for him. Daisuke’s laugh came out clear as a bell, and he slid the menu in front of him. “Look over this real quick and I’ll be right back. Sit wherever you want.” With that, he was off greeting a new patron and Hakuei was left to himself.

Hakuei trudged over to the table top in a darker portion of the bar/cafe and dropped his bag on the opposite chair. He was in the middle of pulling out his notebook, when he felt someone’s presence behind him.

“You’re back so soon? Glad to know we didn’t scare you off.”

He looked over his shoulder to see Kiyoshi standing behind him holding a steaming mug of tea in front of a tired smile. Hakuei smiled back and slid into the seat not occupied with his belongings. “Actually, my head kills, and I’d like twelve more hours of sleep, but thanks for the welcome.” Kiyoshi let out a raspy laugh and shook his head. “Anytime, anytime. How did you know we were open during the day?”

Hakuei placed his laptop in front of him before leaning on his elbow, “I didn’t. Daisuke told me about your setup. It’s pretty cool, actually. He said you and Kohichi wanted to add a music component?”

Kiyoshi nodded deeply, “Well, yes. We have the space, and we have friends who come through on tour and like play intimate shows every once in a while. Playing here would be slightly better than my apartment or the beach.”

Hakuei’s eyes widened, awed at the thought of a group of musicians huddled together under the stars. “On the beach, really?”

“Oh yeah,” Kiyoshi said with a shrug, “We usually do them when it’s warm out. I think we’re gonna have one more before fall completely settles in. I’ll let you know when he next one is. Maybe you can build in time before your curfew.” He then gave a playful wink.

Despite only having known the man for not even a full 24-hours, Hakuei found himself rolling his eyes and waving Kiyoshi off. Daisuke popped up to get his order just as Kiyoshi’s attention was called away by other patrons, one of whom was particularly loud.

“Oi, Honma! Is it noon, yet?”

“No, and stop yelling! This is a respectable establishment!” Kiyoshi called back, walking over to a pair of men, all of equal height to each other. One with impish eyes and a bright shock of pink hair falling across his shoulders and the other with sleepy eyes, spiky light brown hair, and a seemingly dour expression on his face. The three of them began chatting animatedly amongst each other, but the sight of the chattiest person in the bunch kept Hakuei’s attention. His eyes didn’t leave the group until a hand appear in front of his vision.

“Earth to cutie; do you want something to eat or do you just want wifi?” Daisuke drawled with a smirk.

“Oh!” Hakuei ducked, while laughing to himself, “Could I have coffee with cream, sugar, whipped cream and a slice of apple cake?”

“What a sweet tooth.” Daisuke tapped the pad with his pen, “But yes you can. Be back soon.”

Hakuei finally turned his attention back to his laptop and notebooks, and quickly became engrossed in catching up on emails from parents and fellow teachers, and planning out activities for the week. He barely noticed the food and drink being placed next to him and the twin shadows that had appeared across the table.

“Sensei!” Kiyoshi stage whispered to Hakuei, before jumping at the poke to his waist from his companion. “‘Sensei', what the hell? He’s a kid.” his friend quipped.

“I teach early science classes at an non-traditional school across the city.” Hakuei helpfully supplied, looking over the screen of his computer with a small smirk.

“Oh! Well.” the man shrugged and then turned back to Kiyoshi, “And you want to invite a teacher to the night out because…?”

“Because I want to. Hakuei, we’re going to get together Thursday night at around 7 pm. Do you think you can make that?”

Hakuei blinked slowly as he mentally calculated the time it would take for him to attend the after school staff assembly, get home, “grade” papers, shove something edible into his mouth, and —

“I’ll be there.”

It was around two hours later when Hakuei departed with a wave to Daisuke and Kiyoshi who were bickering about something, to the amusement of a few of the patrons. The pink-haired man and his companion had departed a while ago, while he was engrossed in his work. He walked back to his apartment at a slow pace trying to absorb the new people he had encountered over the past few days.

After chilling on the couch with Chisato for a few hours and throwing together stir-fry from their dwindling grocery stock, Hakuei decided to turn himself in much earlier than usual to catch up on sleep and start his next morning off right.

A soft blink and he was staring into honeyed eyes framed by long red hair that overwhelmed the smaller’s man equally small frame. Hakuei felt a deep sense of deference coursing through him. His body stayed slightly bowed forward with his shoulders sloped down, as he was pinned by the man’s gaze. Suddenly, he felt a warm hand on his upper back, and a sense of calm flooding his body. The gaze of the man in front of him quickly changed from quietly intimidating to seemingly indifferent in the face of whomever had joined them. In turn, he felt his body straightening up to its full height, as if his confidence was renewed.

Hakuei tried to turn his head to look at who was next to him, shifting long honey blond curls to briefly obscure his vision…

But he woke up with a blinding headache, instead.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, Ow....” he groaned with his head in his hands, fingers digging into his temple. After a few moments of pressing and massaging, some of the pain subsided enough to let him reach over to pop open the bottle of acetaminophen on his nightstand. He briefly looked over at the clock that read 2:14 am.

He threw his body back against the pillows with a thud and grumbled to himself, “I’m never drinking again, I swear."

Chapter Text

“Alright class, now please remember to bring in a bottle of seltzer water for our volcanoes tomorrow, okay? I trust that you’ve all asked your parents already.” Hakuei playfully lectured to his students, some whom stifled giggles and others looked away because they knew they had forgotten.

“Yes, teacher.”

“Thank you. Have a good evening and I will see you all tomorrow.”

His class immediately jumped out of their little seats, chatting loudly amongst each other about tomorrow’s demonstration, what they were going to eat for dinner, and whose turn it was to feed the class pets. Hakuei waited until they filed out of the room to lift his arms over his head in a deep stretch and let out a tired sigh. He still had pick-up duty before stopping by the store on the way home to grab some veggies and stock for a relaxing night with his roommate and their college friends.

He was standing out on the sidewalk waving to students and greeting parents who came to collect their children, when Yune walked up with a friendly smile.

“Good afternoon, sensei. Was my daughter an angel today?” he asked gently.

Hakuei smiled, “As always. While you I have you, could you please bring a bottle or two of seltzer tomorrow for the volcano project? We may need extras for the kids who aren’t able to do so.”

Yune slapped his head to his forehead, “Oh! I almost forgot. Thank you for reminding me. I will pack a few with Luna tomorrow. Or, I might just get Yoshiki to bring an entire pack…” He trailed off in thought. Luna looked up at him and whined, “Papa, I told you on Saturday!” He smiled down at her, “I know, sweetie, I know, but papa can be a little forgetful sometimes.”

He looked back up at Hakuei, “When you get a chance, you should tell me how the ba— hmm, cafe — is during the day; I haven’t had the chance to make it over, yet.”

Hakuei’s eyes widened quickly, “Actually, while I was there, Kiyoshi invited me to this beach party thing. Do you know about it?”

Yune’s eyes narrowed, but his eyes twinkled, “Yes, I know all about Beach Night.” he drawled. “Yoshiki and I try to go whenever they’re held. I have to say I’m surprised a newcomer was added so quickly without a fight.”

Hakuei let out of a bark of laughter, “Well! The fight may have happened while I was doing some work. The pink haired guy didn’t seem too happy about Kiyoshi extending an invitation.”

“Hmm, yes, Hide can be a bit of a gatekeeper.”

Hakuei cocked his head to the side, “Hide?”

Yune rolled his eyes, “Of course he didn’t introduce himself. We go way back, and he and Yoshiki go back even further.” He shook his head, "It’s a long story, but, I’d love to have you over for dinner sometime — maybe tomorrow or Wednesday evening? Give you the lay of the land.”

Hakuei was just about to respond before his name was being called by Naoko-san, who was gesturing him to come over. He quickly replied, “Quick answer is yes; I gotta go.”

Yune laughed and bowed at the same time as his daughter, “See you later, Hakuei.”

Gisho was sitting patiently on a bench outside of a small grocery stop near the school, when he saw Hakuei rapidly approaching. He smiled, stood up, and held his arms out for the hug he knew was coming. Hakuei nearly knocked him over with a quick squeeze, before taking him by the hand and dragging him into the store.

“Sorry I’m late.” Hakuei panted softly, as he tried to extract a basket without disturbing the older ladies in front of him.

Gisho waved him off, “You’re always late. What are you cooking again?”

“Mm…” Hakuei murmured to himself, while picking up a carton of dashi broth, “Something quick and simple. Can you grab some fried tofu?”

Gisho nodded and threw a couple of packs into their shared cart. “Chisato says we have beer, so I think this is it?” Hakuei nodded after throwing in packs of udon, a salad mix for lunch, and a carton of sweet potato ice cream.

After paying for their items and starting on the short trek to Hakuei and Chisato’s place, Gisho nudged Hakuei in the ribs. “So, how was your weekend? Chisato said you had a hot date with one of your student’s parents.”

Hakuei heaved a deep sigh, “First of all, Chisato is a liar —“

“About the hot date or the parent?”

“Both.” He then stopped in his tracks, and lolled his head to the side. “Okay, I did hang out with a parent of one of my students, but I was also with his friends, and he’s married. None of that counts.”

Gisho smirked, “Someone sounds defensive.”

“Shut up.”

The bickering continued down the street, up the stairwell, and through the door of Hakuei’s apartment, where Chisato and O-Jiro both quickly moved to take away the groceries, as their friends argued and toed their shoes off at the same time.

The teasing and arguments were normal for Hakuei and Gisho's relationship. Despite dating briefly during their sophomore year, he and Gisho managed to carve out a deep friendship that provided the foundation for the relationship with their other college buddies — Chisato and O-Jiro. O-Jiro, the youngest and the most intelligent of the four, was the shyest but held a quirky sense of humor. Chisato and Gisho met through shared courses, and while O-Jiro was added to the group originally as Hakuei’s math tutor, they didn’t click as a pair until the group came together.

Their shared dinners started out as a way to celebrate Hakuei and Chisato’s junior year move into an apartment with a real stove and counter space, and continued as a way to stay sane during their final coursework.

“Hakkun,” O-Jiro interjected, “Did you buy any stock? We couldn’t find any…”

Hakuei paused his arguing long enough to perk up at his friend’s question, “They’re in the other grocery bag.”

Chisato raised the broth from the bag in a feat of triumph before handing it to Hakuei as a way to encourage him to start cooking. Hakuei took the carton, raised his other hand in defeat, and shuffled off to the kitchen, while the other men made themselves cozy around the kotatsu.

“We’re not done, by the way. I want to hear more about your not-date with your parent-friend.” Gisho jeered good-naturedly from the living room.

Chisato whipped his head around, “You know he came in at like 6 am, right?”

“What!”

“Whoa…” O-Jiro’s eyes widened and then he guffawed, “Where did you even go? None of the good places are open that late.”

“The bar was already closed; we shut it down.” Hakuei called from the kitchen as he got started on heating the broth and cutting up the tofu. “My ‘parent-friend’’s friends own it.”

Chisato and O-Jiro started laughing in disbelief and Gisho let out a low whistle. “Wow, the guy’s got connections, too? Sounds like the man of my dreams, at least.”

Hakuei turned around and wave his spatula threateningly in Gisho’s direction, while keeping a blank face, before turning back around.

“Speaking of dreams...” Chisato began, “Did he tell the both of you that his weird dreams are back?”

O-Jiro’s jaw nearly hit the table and Gisho shook his head furiously. “No!” Gisho exclaimed, “When did that start happening again?”

“Like a few nights ago, right, Hakkun?” Chisato replied.

Hakuei nodded deeply as he dumped the udon into the steaming broth.

O-Jiro quickly peppered him with questions, “What were these dreams about? Do you remember them well? Did you recognize anyone? Were we in them again because that’s different and kinda weird?” Gisho waved his hands at him to slow down the questioning. “One at a time, Jiro!”

Hakuei silently took in his questions without turning around, but nearly jumped at the buzz from his back pocket. He tuned out Chisato and Gisho teasing their youngest friend’s curiosity to see a message from Yune.

“I’m just saying, the last time he had them was when we took that graduation trip to France! They lasted the entire week and he became completely disoriented from them.” O-Jiro fired back.

“Shit, you’re right, that was a while ago...”

“Saying or asking?"

[Y: Do you want to come over for dinner on Wednesday?]

Hakuei peeked up and saw that a slap war had started with Chisato as the referee, which allowed him to quickly type back:

[H: Yeah, that would be better for my schedule, to be honest
Y: Okay, good. I can’t wait to tell you about Hide & Kiyoshi
Y: They’re…very interesting
H: If their hair colors are anything to go by, then I already agree with you]

“Hakkun, you didn’t answer my question!”

[Y: Cheeky!]

“Questions. Plural.”

“Get off the phone, man!”

[H: My friends are yelling at me, gotta run
Y: Talk to you later! See you soon \\_//,]

Hakuei raised a sculpted eyebrow at the foreign emoticon, before pocketing his phone and turning the heat off for the stove.

“Come and eat! I already slaved over a hot stove, so I’m not serving any of you."

Wednesday afternoon came with a blink of an eye. After class, Hakuei trudged to a small art shop around the corner from his school. It was hidden from plain view, overlooked by most residents and nearly all tourists trapezing through the neighborhood. He only meant to pop in quickly to pick up a new sketchbook, possibly some new pencils, but saw that his favorite rack was empty. Before departing after yesterday’s dinner, O-Jiro suggested that he start drawing out his dreams as a method of cataloging and deciphering them.

“If we have some clues to go by, then maybe we can look them up. There could be some connections here that you aren’t able to see.” O-Jiro said through a hearty slurp of noodles.

“I don’t think it that serious, Jiro…” Hakuei replied, cautiously, but O-Jiro just shook his head. “Hakkun, this has been happening off and on for the better part of a year. If they’re connected, we should look into them!”

“Mm, fine, fine…”

“My apologies. It’s the start of the school year, so we’re out at the moment…”

Hakuei turned around with a quizzical expression at the voice that was not the soft, pleasant lilt of the older woman who normally ran the shop. This one was masculine and deeper, but just as soothing and strangely enough, it caused his heart to race.

The shop assistant bowed slightly, long hair sweeping over the counter, “I’m sorry to startle you. My mother is ill, so I have taken over the shop for her until she’s better.”

Hakuei managed to school his face into a showing a friendly smile, as he dipped his head. “I’m sorry to hear that about Sakurai-san, but she’s still quite young? I’m sure she’ll get better soon.”

The man smiled softly, but his lips held a hint of sadness, “I’m sure, as well. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Hakuei shook his head, “No, it’s fine. Honestly, I should have known better to look for a sketchbook at this time of the school year.”

“Ah, well, check back in at the end of the week. I’m due for another shipment then…” The bell at the door rang with the arrival of more customers, a parent with their child, and the man pivoted to greet them. Hakuei took this time to throw out a quick goodbye and hurried out the shop, with a hand over his heart.

As he started on his short trek to Yune’s home, he racked his brain to figure out the reasoning behind his heart’s sudden jump in pace. He thought back to the last time he experienced this, which happened to be after seeing that stranger, or “acquaintance”, he mused. And before that, it was after he and his friends dumped their savings into visiting France as a graduation present. He remembered walking up to the grounds of Reims Cathedral and... not much else. Its beauty captured him so deeply that the closer he got to the church, the more his vision swam. Stendhal Syndrome, they called it. He wasn’t even aware of the fact that he had passed out until he blinked and saw his friends’ worried faces hovering over him. The cathedral stayed in his dreams for weeks afterwards, and so did his friends distinctly different appearances.

So different, that he couldn’t even adequately explain the full spectrum of emotions he experienced upon seeing his friends in a dreamworld of pancake white makeup and elaborate, yet cheaply made costumes. It felt like he was watching himself through another set of eyes, and yet it also felt vaguely familiar. Lightly rubbing his upper arms with his fingertips, Hakuei swore he could still feel the slip and slide of fresh sweat and vinyl.

He left out that part; they were freaked out enough.

Taking a deep breath to rid himself of the fog and ground himself again, he pulled out his phone to see that his internal map of the neighborhood wasn’t too off and Yune’s residence was across the street. With a nod to the doorman, he went inside.

“Your home is…really, really nice.”

“Thank you.” Yune replied, with a soft smile, “Please, make yourself at home.”

Hakuei kicked off his boots and padded into the living room, trying to keep himself from staring longingly out of a wall of windows that showed off Tokyo’s twinkling skyline. Small dishes of finger foods and empty teacups sat on the coffee table in front of him. He gently deposited himself as gracefully as his long legs allowed him onto a zabuton and nodded in thanks at his host who gestured at him to dig in.

Yune poured the both of them a cup of mint tea and then settled across from him. “These,” he pointed to the small green glass bowl, “Are stuffed grape leaves. Next to them is hummus or ground chickpeas — don’t give me that look; it’s delicious — and the bread is called ‘pita’. You use it to dip into the hummus. Try it; you’ll like it.”

Hakuei rocked his head side to side in contemplation and settled on popping a piece of pita into his mouth. Yune sighed, “That’s a start, I suppose. Anyway, we’re here to talk about beach night, not your pickiness.”

Hakuei coughed, “Yes, mom.”

“So,” Yune began, ignoring Hakuei’s snark, “Beach night is something that’s been in effect for…” Yune screwed his face up a bit, “Goodness, almost ten years now? But I wasn’t always a part of it. I didn’t get involved until I moved up here from Hadano. But, Hide and Yoshiki started it and then sort of adopted musicians along the way. It’s kind of what they do.”

During the explanation, Hakuei chanced on one of the stuffed grape leaves and chewed thoughtfully, “It’s just a night for hanging out, then.”

“Well. It was that way, in the beginning, and it’s like that now, but, for a while it evolved because some of the guys in the group showed great talent. Like, a lot of talent and promise. So, we ended up with friends dropping in and out because they were being picked up by indie labels, and then a few even went major. One of my good friends is actually like that…you might meet him soon enough. He’s on tour, at the moment.”

“Is that how you met Hide and Yoshiki, then?”

Yune hummed softly, “Sort of. Yoshiki and Hide had a band together some years back, and Yoshiki was really interested in bringing in a more classical element. They found me playing with the symphony and numbers were exchanged.” He turned his head to the side, his expression wistful, “I was just supposed to be around for one song, but Hide kept finding ways to keep me around the band and, well…” He looked back at Hakuei, “I’m sorry, I got off track. All's that to say is the beach night became a way kept to keep us connected as we moved in and out of music.”

Hakuei nodded and tried out another stuffed grape leaf, “So, if this is supposed to keep your group connected, then I guess I can see why Hide wasn’t that keen on my joining.”

Yune made a noise of approval at Hakuei’s continued eating before speaking again, “Like I said, he’s a bit of a gatekeeper. It was his and Yoshiki’s idea and normally it was them who controlled was invited or not. But, Kiyoshi doesn’t care about that. He never has.”

“I feel like there’s a story there.”

Yune grinned, “They’re…more similar than they’re willing to admit. Kiyoshi knows when someone intrigues him, so he gets super excited and immediately wants them around. And it’s so obvious, his eyes go from bored to — “ Yune widened his eyes and tried smiling with them, “Ugh, I can’t do it that well. My face isn’t animated enough. Anyway, Hide acts the same way when someone interests him, but how dare Kiyoshi extend an invitation without talking through it first! But to be fair, he treats us all the same way.” He started chuckling, “He’s a nice guy, I swear. You just have to grow on him, but you’ve got two in’s -- Kiyoshi and me.”

Hakuei laughed to himself, as he relaxed against the couch behind him and stretched his legs out. “I wonder how many more in’s I need in order for him to get on his good side.”

“Are you musically inclined?”

“…Define ‘inclined'.”

Yune playfully gave him a look, “Can you play an instrument or sing?”

“Nope.”

“Then what did you mean by ‘inclined’?”

“I can break dance. Does that suffice?”

Yune blinked, “I was...not expecting that.”

Hakuei shrugged, “I’m a man of many hidden and unnecessary talents.”

Yune laughed loudly just as Yoshiki walked through the door with bags of food. “What’s so funny?” he asked, setting the bags on the dining room table.

“Nothing, nothing.” Yune replied, trying to wind down his laughter, "Hakuei, meet my loving slave-driver of a husband, Yoshiki. Yoshiki, this is Hakuei, the guy I’ve been telling you about.”

Hakuei muttered, “There’s a pattern of personalities about.” to himself before grinning in embarrassment after Yune’s introduction. “Wait, 'telling you about'? Yune, what do you say about me when I’m in class?"

Yoshiki nodded to Hakuei and then hid his smile behind a seemingly delicate hand, “Nothing terrible, I promise. He says only nice things.”

Yune looked over at Hakuei with wide, innocent eyes as he moved to help set the takeout on the table, “See? Just nice things.”

“…I feel like you’re lying, but I can’t prove it.” Hakuei deadpanned.

“All the more reason for you to believe me! Now please come to the table and eat.”

Hakuei got up and stretched before making his way over to the table. Yoshiki poured each of them a glass of wine and then sat down with a tired sigh.

“Although this my first time meeting you, I’m glad you’re coming, Hakuei. It will be nice having new face around.” He said with a smile.

Hakuei blinked a bit, looked over at Yune, and then looked back at Yoshiki, “Are you sure?”

Yoshiki shrugged, “It’ll be fine. Bring a blanket, as it might be a bit nippy. Also, beer. Liquor if you’ve got it. That’s one way to placate my stubborn ass of a best friend.”

“That’s the easiest lift I’ve ever been offered. Done.”

“Shall I propose a toast?” Yune said, while lifting his glass.

Yoshiki furrowed his brow, “To what?”

“To a successful beach night for Hakuei -- may he not be run off like the others.”

Hakuei was just about to reach over and lift his own glass, before he whipped his head over to stare at Yune, “Wait, like the others?”

“Cheers.”

Chapter Text

As soon as Hakuei woke up that morning, he filled his backpack with an old blanket, a six pack of beer, and bottle of whiskey, for good measure. His excitement for whatever would happen tonight had carried him through the day, to the point where he didn’t even flinch when a few students poured too much sparkling water into their makeshift volcanoes (despite repeated warnings). Even a few of the parents noticed his particularly upbeat attitude and he was ribbed by some of the friendlier ones.

He was a bit surprised to not see Yune picking up his daughter earlier in the afternoon, but the nanny politely informed him that Sugihara-san was getting ready for an event.

Ah, of course.

Hakuei fired off a few texts to Kiyoshi just before throwing a flannel sweater around his hips and a leather jacket around his shoulders. He said goodbye to Chisato, who was laid out on the couch playing video games, and lovingly responded with the one-fingered salute to the kissy sounds that followed him out the door.

Hakuei walked slowly across a short stretch of Odaiba's beach and only picked his head up from the set of, confusing, directions on his phone to look around the relative darkness for familiar crops of neon colored hair. The air was surprisingly cool for an early fall evening, where one would expect the vestiges of humidity to not relinquish its hold for another month. A warm hand appeared suddenly on his lower back and he whipped his head around to stare down at a very amused couple carrying violin and keyboard cases, respectively.

“I was waiting on a text from you!” Yune said upon removing his hand. “We could have met up and come together.”

Hakuei sighed and looked back at his phone, “That would be have been a much better plan. Kiyoshi sucks at giving directions.”

Yoshiki laughed and peered around Hakuei’s shoulder to look at the texts in question. “Yes, he...can’t give directions for shit.” He patted Hakuei's shoulder in mock sympathy, “Better luck next time.”

Yune walked ahead to lead the two men to a makeshift campfire where a group of men had already gathered. Blankets of various brightly-colored patterns were spread out near rocks and folding chairs, and cases belonging to multiple types of instruments — acoustic guitars, bongo drums (Hakuei blinked quizzically at that one), keyboards, a cello — were bunched together and away from the men who were standing, drinking, and laughing. Yoshiki called out to the group and in a flash, a pink blur flew past Yune and Hakuei into a pair of arms that were already open to receive the greeting.

“You fucker, you’re late!” Hide yelled as Yoshiki spun him around. “Forgive me!” was all Hakuei heard when he turned away to drop off his backpack and add to the, rather extensive, pile of alcohol.

“You made it!”

Hakuei looked up to see Kiyoshi, this time with burnt red hair, smiling brightly at him. “I was worried that my directions would have taken you another part of the island. Honestly, you probably should have just coordinated with Yune…” He trailed off, running a nervous hand through his hair.

Hakuei shook his head and grinned, “No, it’s okay. Yune actually saved me when I came up the stairs.” He straightened back up and held up the bottle of whiskey, “This was all I could offer.”

Kiyoshi gasped, took the bottle into his arms, and then cooed at it, “Oh, I will cherish you for as long as my liver will allow.”

He waved Hakuei closer to him and gestured to the men gathered in various groups. “You already know three out of…how ever many people are here; I’m not going to count. Anyway, that,” he pointed to a sunny-looking man with blue and yellow braids sprouting from a short black mohawk, “Is Chirolyn. He’s a visual artist and plays the cello. Next to him with the black curly hair is Joe, who teaches drumming lessons, and the longer-haired guy is —"

“Ishizuka-san?” Hakuei exclaimed, "I teach one of his kids!"

Kiyoshi blinked, “Well then, tonight will be interesting for you. We call him ‘Pata’. Anyway, the yellow-haired fellow picking up the keytar is Daijiro. We have another friend who’s a programmer, but he primarily lives in Los Angeles at the point. Hmm, then there’s…” Kiyoshi started pointing rapidly at the men in front of him, "George, Jun, Jimmy, Kacchan, Ani, Shinya…wait, where’s Imai?”

“Hide!” he called out, “Where’s Imai?”

Hide responded by tipping his head to the side and exaggeratedly shrugging his shoulders. Jun helpfully answered, “He’ll be here soon; he overslept!”

Kiyoshi grunted in thanks and looked back up at Hakuei, “Imai and Atsushi will round us out.”

Hakuei rubbed the back of his head as he took in all the names, and relationships, in front of him. “You all already know each other — I kind of feel like an outsider.”

Kiyoshi smiled, “Don’t worry about that. Just stick with me, outsider.”

After a round of introductions to Hakuei and the crisp sounds of multiple beer cans cracking open, the guys settled down onto chairs and blankets with their instruments. Hakuei took over a corner of one of the blankets and tucked himself in-between Chirolyn, whose personality was just as bright as he appeared, Kiyoshi’s chair, and quietly sipped his beer.

Just as Yune had placed his violin on his shoulder and nodded to Hide, who had been plucking a few stings, Jun called out to two figures in the distance, “Oi! Where the fuck have you been!”

Everyone’s attention turned towards two approaching men, one with short light brown that was spiked and his near opposite with long, flowing ink black tresses. The brown-haired man paid no attention to Jun’s question and greeted everyone causally, while his companion at least had the grace to appear embarrassed for their lateness.

Hakuei sat up a bit once he got a better view of the man with longer hair, who kept nodding in greeting and pushing loose strands behind an ear. Kiyoshi caught Hakuei’s sudden movement and asked, “Oh, you know Acchan?”

“I think so? But, ” Hakuei responded, but before he could continue, Chirolyn cut him off.

“Ah, well, if you want to get to know him,” Chriolyn drawled, “That’s not too difficult. But you gotta go through Imai, first.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.”

“Yeah…” Kiyoshi sighed, “They’re kinda codependent. I’d steer clearly, personally.”

“Guys, can we back up a sec—“

“Imai!” Chirolyn shouted, “Come here! And bring your other half.”

Imai lolled his head in Kiyoshi and Chirolyn’s direction with a blank stare, but ambled over anyway. “Acchan” followed him with smiles for both men, but stopped and gasped a bit in surprise upon seeing Hakuei.

“Oh, “ Acchan said, bowing slightly, “You’re the guy who came by the shop. I’m sorry we still haven’t gotten in a new shipment of sketchbooks.”

“Nah, he’s the teacher that was hanging out at Kiyoshi’s place.” Imai countered, before narrowing his eyes slightly. “Wait, that was you, right?”

Hakuei nodded with a soft smile, “I’m actually both. My name is Hakuei, nice to meet you.”

Imai and Acchan nodded at the same time before Imai spoke up again, “The name’s Hisashi, but everyone calls me Imai, and this guy,” he pointed to his left, “Is Atsushi or Acchan. He also goes by seventeen different names, so figure out which one you like and stick with it for both your sanity and his.”

Hakuei sputtered a laugh at Imai’s monotone delivery and the well-timed shove Atsushi against Imai’s shoulder.

“Hakuei-san, do you play an instrument?” Atsushi asked softly.

“No, unfortunately.” Hakuei replied with a soft shrug. "I’m fairly useless, aside from my booze contribution. Kiyoshi appears to be happy with that, anyway.”

“That’s because he’s easy.” Imai quipped, with a straight face.

“Shut up!” Kiyoshi hissed.

Atsushi smiled at the childish display before turning back to Hakuei. “That’s okay. I like to sing, and I can play the drums…a bit.”

“No, he can’t.” said a man off in the distance.

Atsushi whirled around and shouted, “I said ‘a bit!’”

Hakuei’s eyes flitted back and forth from the scene of quick snipes between friends and a smirk slid onto his lips. “I’m sure you can play a mean solo on those bongos.” he murmured.

Kiyoshi, Imai, and Chirolyn cackled like hyenas at the remark and Atsushi turned around and fixed him a stare before replying, “And you look you’d be a hell of a crooner after a bottle of rum.” Hakuei grinned brightly at the jab, while Atsushi snorted good-naturedly and shook his head.

“Everyone! If you’re all done flirting,” Yoshiki looked pointedly a certain group of men, all of whom simultaneously turned to look at the twinkling stars in the sky, “I’d like to get started before it gets too cold or some of you get too drunk. Whichever comes first."

The collective jam session between the group went on for an hour or so, before slowly dissolving into groups of continued merriment and groups of bickering and minor instances of petty violence over perceived slights. Despite the lateness of the evening, Hakuei couldn’t bring himself to move from his cozy spot in the small circle that had formed around him. Feeling slightly hazy after his sixth beer, he closed his eyes and leaned his head against Kiyoshi’s hip, as the older man continued to strum seemingly random notes that managed to weave into Imai’s output almost seamlessly.

Atsushi’s soft humming and occasional murmuring of broken phrases lulled Hakuei further into a relaxed state, and before he knew it, his breathing had evened out as he surrendered himself to sleep.

Flashing lights, gold and silver, surrounded Hakuei and the horde of people around jostled him about. He could see arms stretched outwards — the size of the crowd looked like a black, rolling sea — but he couldn’t hear anyone except the lone, mournful voice far in front of him.

His breath caught in his throat and his eyes quickly ran over the man’s appearance: the chin-length hair, the suited attire, the ghostly-pale skin, and the eyes…the man’s eyes held a softness that felt almost out of place. Hakuei's feet felt like they were welded to the floor, as the band fell back and the man called out, “Kimi ni niteru…”

Hakuei jerked out of his quick slumber. His brows furrowed and his eyes roved the ground in confusion, as he tried to wake himself up. He heard a soft chuckle from overhead and felt Kiyoshi gently pet his hair, before he picked his head up to see Atsushi’s smiling face across from him. The older man’s eyes gently closed, as he tilted his head to the side, while singing softly under his breath,

“Ai dake wa soko ni aru..."