Chapter 1: 1
Wake up, smoke a cigarette, grab breakfast from the corner store near his apartment, walk to work, a cigarette when work starts, smoke three cigarettes before lunch at 12, have lunch, a cigarette after lunch, smoke more cigarettes while working until the manager goes home or he gets dragged out for dinner and drinks, leave, buy cigarettes from the store on the way home, walk home, smoke more cigarettes, sleep, rinse and repeat.
Life was routine. Nothing changed. Every day was the same. The same routes, the same habits, the same people. That was why seeing a new face manning the store on his way home surprised Sakurai. It surprised him enough that he found himself speechless when he approached that small window for his usual pack of cigarettes. Instead of the usual friendly elderly man, a younger, sleepy-looking man, probably someone around his own age, sat behind the counter, looking out at him with quite the lack of expression on his face.
The man had soft, delicate features, framed by messy, dyed brown hair, and he stared back at Sakurai with unreadable, dark brown eyes that narrowed when he raised an eyebrow and asked bluntly, “You gonna tell me what you want or what?”
Blinking, he looked away. He did not realise that he was staring. “M-Marlboro Reds.” Why was he stuttering?
A rustle of clothing and a grunt. The man turned away, looking down as he looked for the cigarettes. Sakurai shoved his hand into his pocket. Coins clinked as he fished for change. While he did so, the man stood up muttering a quiet “wait a minute” before disappearing.
Putting the exact amount in the change tray on the small counter, he waited until the man came back. He noticed that he had a lanky frame. Delicate, like his face. Judging from the strange look he was getting though, he was probably staring again.
“Here, Marlboro Reds,” the man muttered, sliding the cigarette pack across the counter.
As Sakurai reached out and took the pack, he felt his hand brushing over the man’s. Startled, he coughed and quickly withdrew his hand, swiping the pack off the counter. As he mumbled a hasty “thanks”, he opened the pack and walked off briskly, inhaling through a fresh cigarette as he headed for home.
Hopefully, the old man would come back tomorrow. The increased heart palpitations he was getting felt rather uncomfortable.
Chapter 2: 2
Sakurai walked into the store, grabbed a pre-packaged bun off the first shelf, and shot towards the back of the store, where the refrigerator was. Pulling open the third door from the left, he reached in and retrieved a bottle of chilled green tea. As he made his way to the cashier, he grabbed a rice ball off a shelf on the way.
After depositing his purchases on the counter with a sing-song “Good morning”, he immediately turned his attention to looking for his wallet. He expected to hear a familiar, genial rasp greeting him back, but instead, a low droning noise acknowledged him with a yawn. Surprised, he looked up and saw the impassive face from last night scanning his items into the register.
“Need a bag?” he asked without looking up.
Wordlessly, Sakurai put the money on the change tray and watched the delicate-looking man pack his breakfast into a bag. Once done, the man went on to take the money off the tray and calculate the change with his head still bowed. When he had to pass the change over though, he finally looked up and for a split second, it looked like he paused or hesitated.
Was there something weird about his mid-length black hair, tied back? Or was there something on his face? A weird smudge on his jacket or a stain on his white shirt perhaps? Why did the man’s weird looks bother him so?
When that split second passed, the lanky man dropped the change into the tray, slid it towards him, and walked off without another word. Watching his retreating silhouette disappear into the back of the store, Sakurai could not help but think of the man as odd. He poured the coins into his palm and put them into his pants pocket.
Picking up his bag of purchases, he glanced up at the clock on the wall behind the counter and widened his eyes in alarm. Hastily, he ran out of the store and took long, quick strides towards his workplace. He was going to be late if he dallied any longer.
Chapter 3: 3
Head pounding, Sakurai shuffled down the quiet, dimly lit street that led him home. It was slightly past midnight now and most of the other shops were closed, but one was still open, as usual. The old man tended to wait until he came by for his usual pack of cigarettes after all.
He smiled to himself and approached the tobacco window. But as he drew nearer, his brows began to furrow and his eyes narrowed, partly to squint against the glare of the fluorescent signboard, and partly to frown at the fact that it still was not the friendly old man who was at the window. The bright lights made his head hurt even more and the frown stayed on his face as he stood in front of the window, staring in at the same lanky man who was here the past two times he dropped by.
Noticing Sakurai’s approach, the man removed his feet from the counter and sat up. Behind him, a radio played what sounded like noise to his ears. Perhaps he was just too addled right now.
“You… why are you still open?” asked Sakurai.
“What? You pissed or something?” the man retorted.
Frown deepening, Sakurai shook his head. “No, I just… Marlboro Reds,” he muttered. He could not muster the energy to explain himself now.
The man immediately slapped a pack on the counter. “Here.”
Grunting his acknowledgement, Sakurai took out his wallet and squinted at the notes as he tried to pick out the right amount of money. But his brain refused to work. Groaning, he pulled out a larger note and put it on the change tray. Gesturing around, he asked the man, “Where’s the…”
“The usual…?” His mouth refused to let him speak properly.
“You asking about the old man?”
“Uh, yeah,” Sakurai nodded.
“He’s away,” the man replied curtly as he gave Sakurai his change in the tray.
“What?” Sakurai’s frown eased slightly as worry began to eat at him. Considering the old man’s age, could it be that his health was at stake? “Is he…?’
The man sighed and folded his arms as he leaned against the window. “He’s fine. He’s on vacation.”
“Ah,” Sakurai muttered, slowly taking the pack of cigarettes from the counter.
“And I’m still open because the old man said to only close after I see the man who buys breakfast in the morning and Marlboro Reds at night,” the man went on and added, “because he doesn’t seem to have anyone.”
Sakurai stared at him, stunned speechless by the statement. He felt his frown disappear but his brows still creased together as he felt his chest twist into knots. Taking a cigarette out from the new pack, he lit it, took a puff, and mumbled, “So he simply pitied me, huh?”
“I’m kidding, he didn’t say that,” said the man, nonchalantly brushing off the remark. “He did say to just close shop at 1 a.m. if you didn’t come past by then though.”
“Oh,” Sakurai mumbled. He was not quite sure what to feel now. Thinking about it, it was true that he has not had anyone else around for… How long has it been?
“Hey, you alright there?” the man asked, shaking Sakurai out of his thoughts.
“Ah, yes. Uh, thanks,” he muttered, raising the pack in a quick gesture. “Probably just tired,” Sakurai added. The smoking did help with his pounding head though.
“So you gonna let me close the shop?”
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Sakurai muttered quickly stepping away from the window. A thought suddenly struck him and he stopped. “Uh, how long is… how long are you going to be…?”
The man grimaced as he thought about it. Finally, he answered, “Quite a while, I think.”
“If that’s the case then…” Sakurai gave him a quick bow and said, “I’m Sakurai Atsushi, pleased to meet your acquaintance.”
The man bowed back, looking somewhat surprised. “Pleased to meet your acquaintance too.”
Sakurai paused, waiting for him to continue but he did not say more. “Uh… How should I address-”
The man jabbed a finger up at the signboard that hung over the store; ‘Imai’s Shop’.
“Imai?” Sakurai muttered. “You’re…?”
“The old man’s my dad,” the man, or rather, Imai replied.
“Oh,” Sakurai mumbled as he stared at Imai, trying to pick out the resemblance that he initially missed. “Oh…”
Imai waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever, I’m closing up shop,” he said. “See you around.”
With that, the window shut and the lights went off, leaving the dim street lamps to light Sakurai’s way home.
Chapter 4: 4
Before Sakurai realised it, a couple of weeks have passed since the old man went on vacation and his son took over running the corner store. Visiting it used to feel comforting, now it was mostly nerve-wracking. Sakurai hoped that he would have gotten used to the younger Imai by now, but even if they do exchange glances, he still found it difficult to meet his eyes. Not to mention, they have barely spoken to each other since he first introduced himself. How long was his father going to be on vacation for? Sakurai thought that he wouldn’t leave his store for long but it's been quite a while… Perhaps he should ask again.
Maybe he’d have a chance to do so today since it was one of the rare occasions when he gets to leave work on time too. He would usually be rushing back after his colleagues leave for the last train to get his pack of cigarettes before Imai starts grumbling about wanting to close shop. Then again, why should he care? He could always get a pack somewhere else.
With a huff and a click of his tongue, Sakurai stepped into the corner store and stood in front of the fridge, pondering on what he should make his dinner. Eyes scanning the selection, Sakurai hummed, unable to decide. Nothing seemed like it would satisfy his palate. He sighed and turned around to look at the rack of instant noodles.
Something in his mind clicked and his lips twitched into a smile. Decision-making was almost effortless. Sakurai picked up a bowl with fried sweet tofu then sauntered to the drinks section and pulled out a can of beer from it. That'll do for tonight.
Walking down the aisle, Sakurai approached the cashier counter and found Imai glaring distastefully at his choice of dinner. For some reason, he felt chastised. He swallowed and looked down as he put the instant noodles and beer on the counter. As he focused his attention on finding the right change for his purchase, Sakurai noticed the red and white packaging of his usual Marlboro sliding into view by Imai's hand. Mutely, Sakurai nodded his acceptance without looking up.
Avoiding Imai's stare, Sakurai quickly glanced at the total reflected on the cashier display before looking down again. Just as he was about to deposit the money in the change tray, Imai's open hand appeared in view, waiting.
Surprised, Sakurai looked up at Imai's unimpressed face. With a straight stare, Imai twitched his fingers, prompting. Blinking twice in return, Sakurai dropped his money into Imai’s hand, avoiding skin contact before quickly swiping the plastic bag with his purchases from the table and briskly walking away without turning back. He didn’t quite appreciate being judged for his dinner.
It was only when Sakurai was at the door to his apartment when he realised that he forgot to ask his question.
Chapter 5: 5
Sakurai strode briskly into the corner store, picked up a can of coffee and a rice ball, and proceeded to the unmanned cashier counter. He frowned. That was odd. Where was Imai? He could usually be seen hanging around somewhere in the back but he was nowhere to be seen this morning. There was a counter bell though.
Sakurai tapped it.
There was no sound. It was broken.
His expression fell and he pursed his lips. Humming, he scanned the store again, leaning over the counter as the shorter locks of hair from his fringe fell over his eyes. Sakurai clicked his tongue and brushed his hair aside, again regretting getting his hair trimmed.
“Imai!” he called, eager to get the lanky man to the cashier so that he could head off to work. His manager may not be around, but he still didn't want to risk being late.
Sakurai waited awhile more, getting increasingly antsy the longer he stood in front of the counter. He stared at the cashier machine and his food. Technically, he knew how to operate it…
With a huff, Sakurai picked up the scanner, rang up his purchases, and paid for his breakfast. Grabbing the receipt, he took a pen from the back of the counter and scribbled a quick message stating what he did. It would be better to let Imai know, right?
Putting the pen back, Sakurai took a bag for his breakfast and packed it in. As he left, he turned and scanned the shop again.
“I'm leaving!” he called, hoping for a response but none came.
This was making him uneasy but… Sakurai glanced at the wall clock behind the counter and alarm bit at his heels as he dashed off. He did not have time for this now.
Perhaps later, when he goes home. Hopefully, nothing bad happened.
Chapter 6: 6
Sakurai left work on time again. It was a luxury him and his colleagues were granted whenever their manager disappears, be it for work or personal reasons. He bade his colleagues farewell, declining their invitation for drinks. Perhaps tomorrow. They had time. Their branch manager was only coming back in a couple of weeks later.
With long strides, Sakurai briskly made his way down the street, past three blocks before turning a corner into the street that ran along the train tracks. Walking down another block, he then turned to cross under the tracks to the opposite side, where Imai's corner store stood at the start of the street that led into his apartment. It was right outside a train station, but Sakurai never saw a need to use it. Not when he lived in a building between stations and worked in a building between stations that were really just one station's distance away.
Stepping into the store, Sakurai found himself releasing a sigh of relief to see Imai positioned in his usual posture; leaning back in his chair with his feet on the counter and his eyes shut. Sakurai grabbed cup noodles off the shelf, he didn’t see which and took a can of beer out of the fridge. Imai did not stir despite all the noise he made. Furrowing his brow, he approached the counter and roughly put his dinner on the counter. Only then did Imai jerk awake, almost falling off his chair. It was unusual seeing him so… un-composed.
Stumbling, Imai seemed to take a moment to collect himself before muttering a barely audible “Sorry”. With a hand supporting himself on the table and a hand squeezing his temples, Imai squeezed his eyes and winced, taking a deep breath before muttering, “This morning… that was you, right? Ringing up the cashier on your own?”
Jaw tense and on his guard, Sakurai gave him a curt answer. “Yes.”
“Thanks- Rather, sorry for making you service yourself,” Imai muttered, slowly sitting back down. “No, wait, that didn’t come out right-”
“It’s fine,” Sakurai interrupted. “I get what you’re trying to say.”
“I’m sorry,” Imai sighed. “This… pounding is…”
“I guess.” Imai glanced up at him with a chagrined look. “You came back early yesterday so I closed up early and met a couple of friends for drinks. Bad idea, clearly.”
“You… left the store open?” Sakurai asked, disbelief in his tone.
“No! No… I think made it back to open for the morning and then… I guess I knocked out while in the middle of something… I don’t remember…”
Sakurai stared at him. “What kind of adult does this?”
“What kind of adult has this for dinner?!” Imai snapped back, gesturing angrily at the cup noodles and beer.
“What’s this got to do with you?!” Sakurai retorted, offended.
“Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m a hundred per cent sure you eat nothing but pre-packaged food and stuff like ramen and yakitori,” Imai scoffed.
“And what’s wrong with that?!” Sakurai seethed.
“I bet you can’t cook either!”
“Noodles!” Sakurai gestured violently at the cup noodles.
“That’s not cooking!”
“ That’s not cooking !”
“Just give me my fucking Marlboro Reds!” Sakurai yelled. What was he even doing wasting his time arguing here?
“No, no, no, no, this isn’t- Argh!” Imai groaned.
“Wait, please, hear me out,” Imai muttered, grabbing Sakurai’s hand.
Sakurai froze, eyes darting between their hands and Imai.
“Look, I didn’t mean to rile you up but…”
“You,” Imai gave him a firm stare. “You drink good, don’t you?”
“Help me drink.”
“I’ve been asked out again tonight, I can’t drink anymore. Not like… this,” Imai rambled, looking increasingly stressed the more he thought about it.
“W-well…” Sakurai didn’t know what to say. Part of him felt inexplicably happy that Imai was asking him out, albeit for other reasons, but a smaller part of him wanted to say no.
“Come on, please,” Imai pleaded. “Anyone else I could ask to drink for me won't do it.”
“What makes you think I'll do it then?” Sakurai grimaced. He could feel himself growing more and more nervous over this attention. He didn’t do well with attention.
“Dinner and drinks will be on me,” Imai went on. “The only thing you need to do is drink for me. Or take me home, if they won’t let you intercept…”
“Home?” Sakurai asked. “Where…?”
“My room is right upstairs,” Imai pointed up. “The shop is our house too.”
“You could’ve been robbed!” Sakurai hissed in alarm. “What would the old man say if he came back and-”
“That’s why I need your help,” Imai emphasised. “Come on, please?”
Sakurai sucked in a breath through his teeth, running his free hand through his hair and taking the hair tie off his tiny ponytail. “Fine, fine, fine,” he grumbled, faking reluctance when on second thought, the idea of free food and drinks actually did entice him a lot.
Letting Sakurai's hand go, Imai gave him a quick hug. Surprised by the sudden close contact, Sakurai froze as Imai muttered his thank you's. Imai barely seemed to notice it when he pulled back and looked at the cup noodles and beer on the counter.
Sakurai looked down too. “I guess I don't need the noodles,” he muttered. “But if I'm going to drink, I want that beer.”
Imai waved his hand, “Take it, it's on me.”
“So… do we leave now? Or…?”
Imai turned and looked at the clock behind him. “Uh… Let them get drunker first,” he decided. “You live nearby, don't you? You could drop your things off first if you want.”
Sakurai blinked. How did he know? Gathering his composure, he tried to mask his surprise as he replied, “Yeah, I guess. What time should I come back?”
“Seven… thirty should be just about right.”
“Whatever you say,” Sakurai responded. Taking the beer from the counter, he turned walked to the exit before jerking to a stop and turning back. “My Marlboro-”
Imai tossed the pack to him. As Sakurai caught it, Imai waved a hand to stop him from drawing change out of his pockets. Meeting Sakurai's eyes, he repeated, “Thanks again.”
Awkwardly, returned it with a jerky bow of thanks as he replied, “I’ll see you later.”
Without waiting for a response, Sakurai strode out of the shop, quietly hoping that he wasn't making a mistake.
Chapter 7: 7
It was a mistake.
Imai stiffly slid the shoji door shut, cutting off the ruckus as he exchanged a startled look with Sakurai.
“You didn’t say it’s a group date,” Sakurai hissed through gritted teeth.
“I didn’t know it’s a group date,” Imai hissed back.
The shoji door slid open of its own accord and a loud exclamation assaulted their ears, “Hey! You’re here! And with that friend you mentioned!”
Sakurai froze as the blond, shaggy-haired man put an arm around Imai, pulling him into the room as he beckoned Sakurai to follow. Being the only ones standing and walking around, all eyes, especially the women’s, were on them, watching them as Sakurai found a corner to hide in and Imai made an effort to stick close. He brought Sakurai to drink for him after all. If they were separated, there was no way Sakurai could do that.
As he settled in, Sakurai noticed that the women were still staring at him and he silently greeted them with jerky nods before looking away, only to find that the blond man who welcomed them in was grinning at him. Before he could ask what the matter was, the man stretched out a hand to him and said, “Honma Kiyoshi.”
Sakurai grasped Kiyoshi’s hand and shook it, muttering softly, “Sakurai Atsushi.”
“What a voice,” Kiyoshi immediately remarked, his grin widening.
“Imai… you never said you were bringing such a fine man with you. I didn’t even know you knew anyone like this,” Kiyoshi went on, leaning back on one arm. “What are we gonna do now that your friend's stolen the limelight?”
“I'm just here for the food and drinks,” Sakurai muttered, shifting uncomfortably as he slid a hand under his messy shoulder length hair and rubbed his neck. It truly was a terrible mistake to come.
The shoji door slid open again, revealing a slender man with long tousled hair. “Oh, you're finally here,” he remarked when he saw Imai. Eyes landing on Sakurai next, he said, “And your friend too.”
Shuffling in, he came halfway in before offering his hand to Sakurai in greeting. “Mori Kiyoharu.”
Sakurai leaned forward, introduced himself again, and sat back down, promptly downing the shot of shochu that Kiyoshi had poured for Imai without a second thought.
“Ah, hey, that was for-”
“Oh, sorry,” Sakurai muttered as he looked down at the table before glancing at the other occupants of the room. “Didn't realise.”
“Well, you should've said so earlier if you're that eager,” Kiyoshi grinned, shifting closer to pour Sakurai a glass of his own. Once it was full, he put down the bottle and picked up his own glass. Tapping the rim of Sakurai's glass with the base of his own, Kiyoshi smirked and said, “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” Sakurai muttered warily. And so it begins. He sighed internally as he drank its entire contents in one go. He hasn't even gotten a chance to eat yet.
Chapter 8: 8
“Just so you know, you got a bit of a handicap today; Kiyoshi was already half drunk by the time he started with you,” Kiyoharu said, a wide smile on his face as he drank from his glass. Chuckling, he continued, “But now I see why you’re here. Hisashi would’ve been destroyed.”
Sakurai grunted, looking around the room. Only the four men remained. The women had left around an hour ago after they tired of watching Kiyoshi challenging Sakurai. Kiyoshi was now lying flat out on the tatami floor though, seemingly asleep. It was his own fault for helping Sakurai drink four bottles in a little over two hours anyway.
That said, Imai had fallen asleep too despite barely drinking all that much. Not that Sakurai had the chance to keep count with half his attention focused on trying to drink out of Imai’s glass and the other half on Kiyoshi who poured him drink after drink. It’s no wonder that Imai needed someone to come with him.
With a lit cigarette in one hand and chopsticks in the other, Sakurai was quietly munching on the largely untouched food when Kiyoharu spoke again. “And here we were, hoping to get a little more action tonight,” he said to himself. Pointing his cigarette towards Sakurai, he asked, “So how long have you known Hisashi for?”
Sakurai paused. “Who?”
Kiyoharu burst out laughing. “Are you sure you're his friend? Or are you someone he just dragged with him off the street?”
“… You mean Imai?”
“Yes, Hisashi. He hasn’t even told you his name?”
“He-” Sakurai stopped short, giving his answer a second thought. “He… has only mentioned his family name.”
“For real though, who are you to him?” Kiyoharu asked, taking a drag from his own cigarette. “I have to say, Kiyoshi and I were rather surprised when Hisashi mentioned bringing a friend along. None of the guys from his other group of friends fancied these things.”
“Not that I had any idea that this was supposed to be a group date,” Sakurai muttered to himself. Picking at the plate of fried amaebi, he answered Kiyoharu’s question, “I’m just a regular at the shop his dad runs.”
“As good as a stranger off the street then.”
“Hm.” Sakurai was quiet for a while. “I suppose so.”
“But that gets me curious now,” Kiyoharu smiled. “Why’d you agree to come? What did he do to convince you?”
Sakurai took a drag from his cigarette and sighed. “Free food, free drinks, why the hell not?”
Kiyoharu hummed. He sounded intrigued. “Sure there was nothing else?”
“Why?” Sakurai asked back. “You want me for something?”
Kiyoharu eyed Sakurai’s glass as he took a drink. “Considering how much you can drink… it might be interesting to pit you against some of our other friends,” he remarked, lips stretching into a devious smile.
Sakurai scoffed and moved his chopsticks, only to find that the plate of amaebi has gone empty. Feeling slightly disheartened, Sakurai pressed his lips thin and stood up. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
“Yeah, sure, sure,” Kiyoharu drawled. “I’ll just stay here and watch these two.”
Sakurai carefully made his way out, making sure that he didn’t accidentally kick or step on either of the sleeping men while reaching for the door. Quietly, he slid the door open, stepped out, and then closed it behind him.
Chapter 9: 9
Sakurai had Imai’s arm around his shoulders while his own arm was curled around Imai’s waist, supporting him as he stumbled to the back door of the corner store. It was barely eleven and the night was, technically, still young but here he was, taking Imai home. Normally, he would’ve relished the physical contact, but Imai was proving to be a rather uncooperative drunk.
Arriving at the door, Sakurai let Imai lean against him as he slid his hands down, groping around in Imai's back pockets to look for his keys. While he did, Imai groaned, pressing his head against Sakurai’s neck as he grabbed Sakurai’s shirt in protest.
“I’m just looking for your keys,” Sakurai muttered. “The least you could do is tell me where they are.”
Imai swung his fist sluggishly, hitting Sakurai on his hip joint and a little too close to his groin for comfort.
“Hey!” Sakurai hissed, jerking away as he flipped Imai around. With an arm wrapped tightly across Imai’s chest to clamp his arms to his sides, Sakurai hurriedly jammed his other hand down Imai’s front pockets to search for the keys while Imai started to slump down.
Finally finding the keys, or rather, key, in Imai’s right pocket, Sakurai smiled in triumph and bent his knees before jerking upright again in an attempt to make Imai stand up. It didn’t work. Instead, Imai slumped even lower and ended up sitting on the floor, leaning back against Sakurai’s shins. Giving up, Sakurai left him be, going on to unlock the door before pushing Imai forward and rolling him into the house.
Sakurai locked the door behind him and turned, watching Imai lie asleep on the floor for a moment before he looked at the key in his hand and realised something. Who was going to lock the door for Imai if he went home?
Biting the inside of his cheek, Sakurai squat down and pulled Imai up into a sitting position, resting him against the shoe cabinet. Sakurai tapped Imai’s cheek with the back of this hand and muttered, “Hey, wake up.”
Imai continued sleeping.
“Oy,” Sakurai muttered again, louder this time as he smacked Imai’s jaw a little harder. “Wake up.”
Imai furrowed his brows and slowly cracked his eyes open, staring at Sakurai for a good while before slurring with a rasp, “Who're you?”
“I can't believe you,” Sakurai seethed, affronted. “You ask me to help you and this is what I get?!”
Blinking slowly, Imai appeared unfazed as he craned his neck forward as if to get a closer look at Sakurai. “Ah…” He let his head drop back against the wall. Lifting a hand, he extended his index finger and poked Sakurai's lips as he muttered “scary face”.
Sakurai slapped his hand away and glared at Imai.
Imai's finger hovered back and poked Sakurai's cheek. “I've never seen you smile at me,” he mumbled.
“I've never had a reason to smile at you,” Sakurai retorted, slapping Imai's hand away again.
“That one time you smiled at your phone…” Imai went on as his finger hovered back again, oblivious to Sakurai's annoyance. “I can't forget,” Imai slurred, his lips stretching into a wistful smile while his hand dropped into his lap. With a faraway look in his eyes, he closed his eyes and breathed, “… So pretty…”
Sakurai felt his stomach flutter and his cheeks tingle at Imai's words. Did he even know what he was saying? Sakurai hoped that Imai would wake up and say that he was joking, but he seemed to have fallen asleep again. He clenched his jaw and sighed. He should just take it as meaningless drunken rambling.
Collecting himself together, Sakurai sat down and took his shoes off before removing Imai’s as well. He leaned forward and put an arm around Imai to pick him up again, standing up. Lifting Imai with a grunt, Sakurai got him up the step onto the parquet flooring which led into the house and began exploring the quiet premises.
Chapter 10: 10
The faint, grassy smell unique to tatami mats filled his nose as he dragged Imai past the living area and kitchen while proceeding deeper into the house. Coming to a three-way split in the corridor, Sakurai noted a door to his left and a staircase to his right. Imai mentioned that his room was right upstairs of the shop. Sakurai glanced at the stairs but turned towards the door. If his instinct was right, it should lead to the store’s premises. Pushing the door open, Sakurai peered through the threshold and saw a short corridor that ended in doorway curtains lit by a harsh white light that came from beyond. In the hush, he could hear the low hum of refrigerator motors preventing complete silence from taking over. Sakurai nodded to himself and closed the door. He was right.
Sakurai dragged Imai back down the corridor at stopped at the foot of the stairs. His eyes followed the steps up to a landing before a turn and, supposedly, another flight of stairs. He chewed the inside of his cheek and glanced at Imai. How was he supposed to bring him upstairs? Maybe…
Sakurai gently laid Imai on the stairs and hopped up a few steps. Arms hooking around Imai by his underarms, Sakurai heaved and dragged Imai up the stairs. It took awhile, but he eventually reached the landing and let his body go limp, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall and Imai still sound asleep in his arms. Sakurai swore under his breath. A man of slight build Imai was, but as a dead weight, he's really making Sakurai work up a sweat.
Dabbing the sleeve of his bomber jacket against his face, Sakurai looked down at Imai's peaceful sleeping form. Hoping to wake him up, Sakurai tapped his cheek again, but Imai simply grunted and turned, burying his face in Sakurai's jacket. Sakurai sighed and dropped his head against the wall. It was no use. Oh well.
Sakurai braced himself and lifted Imai, dragging him up the next flight of stairs. On second thought, Imai did only ask him to take him home, right? There was no need for him to do this.
Sakurai pursed his lips and heaved, making his way up the last few steps. Then again, since he's come this far, he might as well just follow through.
All that effort was making him feel terribly hot. With a frustrated huff, Sakurai pulled his jacket off his body and tied it around Imai. He might as well make himself useful. Putting Imai's arm around his shoulders again, Sakurai stood up and looked around. He was in another corridor split three ways. Straight ahead was a door, supposedly leading Imai's room since it was in the same direction as the shop premises, while there was a turn in the corridor to the left.
Stepping forward, Sakurai peered into the turn as he passed. It was another corridor with a couple more doors. He probably shouldn't pry. He continued forward, eventually arriving at the door. Pushing the door open, Sakurai looked in and found an unmade bed to one side of the room next to a window overlooking the street that led to his home. He elbowed the door, opening it fully to reveal a guitar on the other side of the window and a display shelf rack facing the bed.
Sakurai wasn't sure, but he decided to assume that this was Imai's room and went in. Going straight to the bed, Sakurai sat down and let Imai slide off his person, and onto the bed. Finally, his body felt relief, shoulders sagging as he sat slouched on the bed.
Taking a moment, Sakurai stared blankly at the shelf in front of him, his eyes absentmindedly taking in the names and titles of the collection of records before him. He didn't know how long he sat there in the darkness, spacing out, but eventually, he felt a movement on the bed and his consciousness came back to reality.
“I've never seen you look so tired before,” Imai rasped.
The moment Imai mentioned it, Sakurai indeed felt exceptionally exhausted. He grunted and shrugged without looking at Imai.
Sakurai looked at Imai out of the corner of his eyes.
Imai narrowed his eyes as he scratched the side of his head with a hand. “I probably won't remember this tomorrow so… thanks.”
“You won't?” Sakurai echoed.
“Ninety per cent sure I won't,” Imai muttered.
Sakurai breathed in deep and let out a long sigh. “Lucky you,” he muttered. “If only getting drunk had that same effect on me.”
Imai groaned as he turned and lay flat on the bed. “Seems like getting you drunk is hard enough, to begin with.”
Sakurai a smile tugging at his lips as he chuckled, “Penance for overdoing it when I was younger. I can’t even attempt to drink to forget now.”
“So that’s what it takes to make you smile?” Imai remarked.
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Sakurai wiped the smile off his face and looked away. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I know what I said.”
A rustle of clothing reached Sakurai’s ears before a finger poked his cheek again and a single word answer came from Imai, “Pretty.”
Sakurai clicked his tongue and slapped Imai’s hand away as his insides fluttered in a frenzy. “Stop it.”
“I’ll stop if you hate it that much,” Imai sighed. Why did he sound so crestfallen?
Sakurai grimaced, feeling bad for making Imai feel bad. “It’s not that…”
“Tell me,” Imai demanded, “why did you agree to accompany me?”
Without thinking, Sakurai muttered, “Free meal, free drinks-”
Imai shot upright and grabbed Sakurai’s shoulder, forcing him to face him as he asked, “Is that really all?”
This was the second time he was getting asked that question tonight. Wide-eyed, Sakurai was surprised and flustered by Imai’s sudden aggressiveness as he stared back at Imai’s questioning eyes. His lips moved but he struggled to find words for deflections. Sakurai blinked and glanced away. Sucking in a breath, he asked, “You won’t remember this, right?”
“I doubt I will.”
Immediately, Sakurai cupped Imai’s face in his hands and pressed his lips to Imai’s. Any joy he might have felt in him was overridden by the overwhelming fear that tonight’s decision was all culminating into a big, terrible mistake. The anxious energy in his chest was so intense that it was about to explode at any moment. It felt like an eternity before Sakurai felt movement against his lips. Heart sinking, he was sure that Imai was going to push him away. But instead, Imai kissed back. All at once, his anxiety turned into elation as he held Imai a little tighter and pressed a little closer. Yet even then, Sakurai held back, afraid of being judged as desperate.
When they broke apart, Sakurai couldn’t help but smile as he leaned into Imai’s hand, gently touching his face. With a quiet sigh, he opened his eyes and looked up. But the moment he met Imai’s unreadable gaze, Sakurai felt the reality of what he had done crash down on him.
Aghast at himself, Sakurai hastily stood up, startling Imai. His eyes darted all over the place as he slowly retreated. He barely even looked at Imai as he muttered “I need to go”, and without another word, he turned tail and ran out of the room, down the stairs, and out the door.
Sakurai watched his vision blur as his legs carried him home as if he could run away from his confession. Before he knew it, he was fumbling with his keys at the door to his apartment, fumbling but failing. His emotions finally got the better of him and his legs gave out on him. Dropping to his knees with his head bowed as tears streamed down his face, Sakurai dug his nails into his thighs.
“It’s alright,” Sakurai whispered to himself. “He won’t remember anything. It’ll be fine.”
Chapter 11: 11
Sakurai trudged down the quiet street in the morning, his mind a blank and a cigarette between his lips. He felt terrible. As tired as he was last night, he could barely sleep. Proof of that must be written all over his face.
Out of habit, his feet began to turn into the corner store but he jerked to a stop, suddenly reminded of his reluctance to face Imai again. Removing the cigarette and dropping it to the floor, Sakurai stubbed it out with his heel as he stood outside the store, debating whether he should go in or not.
He could always get breakfast somewhere else. Though he never paid enough attention on his way to work to figure out where else he could go. And not to mention, his jacket was still with Imai. Sure, he had others but he liked that one best. Well, there was still a possibility that Imai wasn't awake either, like yesterday. And Imai said he wouldn't remember, right? ... But what if he did?
Sakurai scrunched up his face and stifled a groan. He should just get this over and done with.
Steeling himself, Sakurai went in, refusing to look towards the counter as he went through the motions; packaged bread, rice ball, canned coffee… maybe he should get more coffee. Sakurai stalled at the fridge and eventually settled for two cans instead of three. After all, if he needed more, there was always the pantry.
Finally, Sakurai turned to the cashier counter. Seeing no one there, he let out a sigh of relief. He quietly went forward, slowly putting his breakfast on the table so as to not attract attention but just as he was about to reach over the counter, Imai’s voice reached his ears.
“Did you really think I'd be asleep again?”
Sakurai froze, stiffly turning to meet Imai's eyes for a brief moment as he inclined his head in greeting.
“You look terrible,” Imai remarked as he approached the cashier. “They didn't do anything weird to you, did they?”
“Like forcing you to pick a girl or something? Can never guess what kind of ideas they'd get when they’re drunk.”
“Ah, no… The girls left. Then I took you home.”
“Ah, so that was you,” Imai muttered to himself as he bagged Sakurai's items. “I thought you'd be a little kinder though.”
Sakurai felt his insides clench. “W-what d’you mean?”
“You left me sleeping in the entrance, didn't you?”
Imai didn't remember. Sakurai knew he should be feeling relieved but for some reason, he felt disappointed. “I… Uh, yeah. I didn’t think that it was a good idea to intrude without asking… since I don’t know the layout.”
“Ah, come to think of it, I should’ve shown you around before we left yesterday,” Imai went on. “Anyway, thanks for bringing me home. But how did you convince them to let us leave? They’d normally head for round two, at the very least.”
“I… don’t think Kiyoshi was in any condition for round two…” Sakurai mumbled, looking down at the counter.
“Oh?” Imai tilted his head out of curiosity.
“I think you’re better off asking him about it yourself,” Sakurai muttered, jerking back suddenly when his fingers carelessly brushed over Imai’s hand as he took his breakfast from Imai.
Imai seemed to notice it as his eyes darted between their hands and Sakurai’s face. “They didn’t say anything weird about me, did they?”
“Huh?” Sakurai looked up at Imai, surprised at his random question. “I… No, I don’t think so. Though Kiyoharu did tell me your name.”
Imai went still. “I never told you my name?”
“Um… No,” Sakurai confirmed as he met Imai’s seemingly startled expression. “You only…” Sakurai pointed upwards, “… mentioned family name.”
“Ah, shit,” Imai cursed. “How’d I never- Anyway. Hisashi, it’s Hisashi-”
“I know, I learnt that yesterday,” Sakurai interrupted, feeling slightly bitter about it. “Forget it, it’s past,” he muttered, waving his hand dismissively as he turned to leave.
“Wait! Are you sure they didn’t try anything weird? I doubt you’d look like this if nothing happened-”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Sakurai hissed, his tone unintentionally harsh as he looked over his shoulder at Imai. “I don’t forget things like you-”
“ I did something, didn’t I?” Imai gathered.
Sakurai turned away and grimaced. Why did he have to spit that back? “No, you didn’t,” he muttered, speeding up his pace to leave.
Refusing to heed Imai’s call, Sakurai stretched his legs out and took brisk strides as he shouted back, “I’m late for work!”
Before long, he had left the corner store far behind him, along with the mess that he had created.
And his jacket.
Chapter 12: 12
Sakurai inserted coins into the vending machine and scanned his options. Marlboro Reds. He pressed the button and listened to the mechanisms in the machine do their thing before dropping the pack of cigarettes with a dull thunk.
It was past 2 a.m. now. He only stayed out so late because it was a Friday and the last train ran a little later than usual. Since it’s way past 1 a.m., there was no way Imai would be up waiting for him, he justified to himself. It was perfectly fine for him to get his cigarette fix wherever he could at this time of the night. As logical as it all sounded to him, Sakurai still felt like he was cheating on Imai.
Head bowed, Sakurai scoffed as he opened the pack. Taking out a stick and biting on it, he lit the cigarette with a long drag and shook his head at himself. He never even felt like this when he used to fuck around and yet now, over a pack of cigarettes?
Recalling how unnerved his colleagues were by his weary look this morning, Sakurai could not help but laugh at the absurdity of things. The last time he was distraught enough for others to notice was… … Yet this time, close to nothing has happened in comparison.
By the time he realised it, Sakurai was already approaching the street that led home. A cold draft blew through and he shivered, sneezing from the chilly wind. In all honesty, the back of his throat has been feeling scratchy throughout the day. He wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up with a mild cold tomorrow morning. Not to mention he was now wandering around in the middle of the night without a jacket. But it wasn’t that he intended for this to happen. He didn’t bring a jacket with him because he expected to retrieve his jacket this morning but instead…
Sakurai sighed as he trudged on. He didn’t understand it but for some strange reason, he simply couldn’t summon that poker face that he used to face Imai with now. He took a long drag and sighed again, flicking the ashes off his cigarette as he looked up from the asphalt. He stopped. Lights were still on in the tobacco window of the corner store. A pained expression took its place on Sakurai’s face. Why was it still open?
Glancing at the freshly opened pack of cigarettes in his hand, Sakurai squeezed his eyes shut and clicked his tongue. He had no reason to stop by the store. Maybe if he passed by quickly enough Imai wouldn’t notice that he was here. But who knows how long Imai would stay up waiting for him then?
How was he even sure that Imai was waiting for him?
Sakurai scoffed and stuffed the pack into his back pocket as he began to walk. He was thinking too highly of himself. He was sure that he wasn’t that special that Imai would do something like that because of him. It was more likely that Imai simply got occupied with something and forgot to turn off the lights.
Spirits growing dim as the lights grew brighter, Sakurai kept his eyes fixated on the path ahead. Even as he walked straight past the store, he still couldn’t help but glance over at the window. He couldn’t say whether or not he was expecting it, but there Imai was, a beer can in his hand as he laughed with someone unfamiliar, possibly another friend of his.
Sakurai felt his mood dampen even more as he furrowed his brow and walked on, taking another drag from his cigarette. He truly wasn’t that special after all.
Chapter 13: 13
Sakurai did expect the cold but was worse than he could’ve imagined. His throat hurt, his head hurt, and his vision swam every time he moved a little faster than ‘dead slow’. In a perfect world, he wouldn't need to move from his bed. In a perfect world, he would have someone getting food for him. But there was no food in his house anyway. Specifically, nothing that would make his throat feel better. And so he had to leave the comforting warmth of his bed for the harsh cold of the world. At least there was no work today.
A testament to his reluctance, Sakurai took his time, slowly crawling out of bed and shuffling to the bathroom for a quick wash before throwing on a black hoodie over his white tee. Still in his warm grey sweats, Sakurai slipped on his geta and grabbed his wallet along with his cigarettes. Pulling the hood over his head, he lit a cigarette for himself and headed out.
Sakurai had his hands stuffed in his front pocket as he slowly shuffled along, cursing the fact that Imai's corner store was the nearest place he could get food from. He really didn't want to deal with all those complicated things he felt. Not today. Not ever, actually. But there wasn’t much choice. He cursed again and dropped his cigarette butt, pausing to stomp it out before lighting another and continuing on his way.
The journey to the store usually took no more than five minutes, but with the snail's pace that Sakurai was forced to move in, he felt like it took forever. The road there has never felt so far before.
Upon arrival, Sakurai still had half a stick between his lips. Reluctant to throw it away, he paused at the tobacco window. One hand gripped the counter for support while he leaned against the window, resting his head on the cool surface as he tried to stop his vision from swimming.
The window opening slid open with a loud thud. “What do you want?” Imai snapped.
“… Wait…” Sakurai breathed.
“Fancy you walking right by without stopping and now you come back here with a cigarette from god-knows-where,” Imai rambled. He sounded angry.
Sluggishly, Sakurai pushed himself away from the window and dropped his cigarette butt, stepping on it. He slowly shuffled forward, going into the store and as he passed the counter, Imai followed, holding out Sakurai's bomber jacket and saying, “Take your damn jacket. This isn't a laundromat.”
Trying not to move his head too much, Sakurai stiffly reached towards Imai and grabbed his jacket. He took it out of Imai's hands and hugged the bundle of fabric to his chest, shoulders hunched as he shuffled away towards the fridge with pre-packaged meals. He could feel Imai staring at him as he stood in front of the fridge, struggling to make a decision.
After a long silence, Imai asked, “Are you avoiding me?”
“No,” Sakurai mumbled softly. His head was starting to hurt again. Where was this coming from?
“Are you upset with me?”
Sakurai paused and thought about it. Was he? “… No.”
“Then why won't you look at me?”
“I can't,” Sakurai hissed under his breath as he winced. His throat hurt from speaking.
“I did something weird to you, didn't I?”
Sakurai frowned in confusion and slowly turned to look at Imai. “What?” He almost jumped when he realised Imai was right next to him but he didn't have the energy to react. When did Imai come so close?
“When you brought me back the other time,” Imai reminded.
“Ah…” So that’s what he was thinking of. Sidestepping away from Imai, Sakurai swallowed and whispered his reply, “… No,” he winced, “nothing done.”
Imai grabbed his forearm. “Then why are you- … You…” His harsh tone went away as his words trailed unfinished.
Sakurai’s heart raced at his touch and he jerked his arm out of Imai’s reach. Shifting away from Imai again, he hissed, “Don’t touch me.”
Imai came closer again. “You’re burning up.”
“Am I?” Sakurai asked, voicing genuine surprise as he shifted away again. No wonder he felt like shit.
“Have you even eaten?!”
Sakurai turned back to the fridge. “I’m trying to… get…” He was sure that he was still standing upright on his feet but his world suddenly flipped to the side and it went dark.
Well, this wasn’t good.
Chapter 14: 14
Sakurai blinked and stared at the wooden beams of the ceiling above him which cast long shadows in the soft orange light of the setting sun that streamed in through the shoji screen doors. Where he lay, he could feel a strange plasticky thing under his neck and taste the grassy scent of tatami mats filling his lungs. His stomach growled. He couldn’t remember when was the last time he ate.
Sakurai could feel all the aches in his stiff body as he sat up and let the blanket on him fall away while he paused. He was still feeling lightheaded. Looking down on the futon that he was lying in, he saw a cold compress on the pillow. He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the cool skin. Maybe that's why he didn't feel as feverish as he did earlier.
Noticing something out of the corner of his eye, Sakurai turned to his left and found a low table with a covered clay pot and a spoon on it within his reach. Next to the table was his jacket and hoodie, neatly folded. He stared blankly at the sight before him, unsure of what he was meant to do. His stomach growled again. Well, the least he could do is see what’s in the pot.
Sakurai wrapped the blanket around himself and shifted closer to the low table, still seated on the futon. Reaching a hand towards the pot, he tentatively tapped the lid a couple of times, making sure that it was not too hot for him to hold with his bare hand. Satisfied that the heat was bearable, Sakurai carefully lifted the heavy lid and immediately, the savoury aroma of okayu wafted to his nose.
All at once, his hunger pangs grew unbearable and Sakurai hastily put the lid down. Inching the pot closer to him, he picked up the spoon and stirred the porridge, feeling the steam rise and warm his face. Enjoying the aroma, Sakurai took a bit of okayu from the edge of the pot, blew lightly at it and put the spoon into his mouth. He smiled. The satisfying taste of salty broth mixed with egg and vegetables woke his taste buds up and as he swallowed, he could feel the comfortable heat of the starchy porridge settling in his stomach, soothing his hunger.
As he took his time, eating quietly alone in the room, Sakurai began feeling better and he started to wonder where he was. He was obviously not in a hospital. His train of thought was derailed when a screen door slid open to Imai looking in with a towel in his hand.
“You're awake,” he remarked.
Sakurai gave him a small nod.
“And you're eating.”
Sakurai quickly put the spoon down. Was he not supposed to?
“Good,” Imai muttered to himself, closing the door behind him as he came in. “I would've had to find a way to get you to the hospital otherwise.”
Sakurai looked at the pot before him. “You… made this?” he croaked. His throat was still sore.
“Yes, why? Is it bad? Is the taste off? Or did I miss something out?” Imai fired off his questions without pause as he came forward and sat down next to Sakurai, watching him with a concerned expression.
“Nothing of the sort,” Sakurai quickly denied, his voice husky. “It's… I haven’t had something like this in a while,” he went on, smiling as he looked at the pot again. “Thank you.”
Imai went silent for a moment. Curious as to why, Sakurai turned back to meet his eyes only to have Imai glance away quickly, blinking a few times and scratching his nose with a sniff. “You're welcome,” he muttered.
Imai's reaction made Sakurai huff out a laugh before he looked down and asked, “But… why?”
Meeting his eyes, Sakurai rasped, “You shouldn’t have gone through all this trouble-”
“I can’t leave you lying unconscious in the middle of the store, can I?” Imai snapped.
Sakurai widened his eyes, surprised by Imai’s sudden outburst. Feeling slightly cowed, he looked away again, shrinking into the blanket as he muttered a quiet apology.
He heard Imai curse. “Look, I didn’t mean to…” Imai clicked his tongue and sighed. Sakurai heard a rustle of movement. “I’m not heartless, alright?” Imai muttered, sounding guilty.
Sakurai began to shake his head in denial but he felt a hand against his cheek, making him turn to face Imai before his face was wiped by a cold wet towel. Sakurai shuddered. Whether it was from Imai’s touch or the cold towel, he didn't know, but Imai avoided making eye contact with him as he brushed the towel over his face, muttering softly, “Good, your temperature's gone down.”
Without waiting for a response from Sakurai, Imai folded the towel once and then brought it to Sakurai's neck, continuing to wipe him down. His lack of hesitance and familiarity at the task made Sakurai wonder if Imai had been doing this while he was asleep. The thought of it made his cheeks warm.
The moment Imai let him go, Sakurai readjusted his position, turning away to face the table as he asked quietly, “How long was I asleep for?”
“Mm…” Imai stood up and scratched his chin as he gave it a thought. “Quite a few hours, I suppose. You can probably tell the sun's setting.”
Sakurai nodded slowly, going silent. At least he didn't sleep all the way until Sunday.
“Hey, do you want to wipe yourself down or do you want me to-”
“No! No, I can just head home. You don't have to bother yourself with me,” Sakurai said quickly, wincing from raising his voice while he grew increasingly flustered with what Imai’s words brought to mind.
Hastily, Sakurai shrugged the blanket off his shoulders and stood up only to get hit by a sudden bout of dizziness. Watching his world topple to the side again, Sakurai swore internally. But instead of hitting the floor as he expected to, he felt Imai’s arms catch him, halting his fall. Immediately, Sakurai tried to separate himself from Imai, only to held fast and lowered back down onto the futon.
“You're clearly in no condition to go anywhere,” Imai muttered.
“I…” Sakurai pushed Imai away. “I just stood up too quickly,” he mumbled, trying to get up again.
Imai stood up and pressed Sakurai's shoulders down, making him sit again. “Just sit here and eat,” he said firmly, his brow furrowed. “I'll get water and a basin and then come back.”
“Unless you're trying to kill yourself?”
“No! But don't you have other things to do? The store to run?” Sakurai asked, forcing his voice out.
“I closed the store early,” Imai informed as he began to walk out. “Don't bother yourself with that. It's not our main source of income anyway.”
With that, Imai left the room, leaving Sakurai to finish up the porridge.
Chapter 15: 15
Without realising it, Sakurai had dozed off again after washing up and finishing the okayu. When he woke up this time, it was already dark outside. But this time, he was not alone. The sliding door on the side of the room where the sunlight streamed in from earlier was now half open, revealing a small garden. Sakurai could smell the cigarette smoke from outside that wafted in, sparking a craving in him.
Rolling to his side, Sakurai reached for his hoodie, still neatly folded, and groped around for his box of cigarettes. After a while, he frowned. He couldn’t find it. Getting up, he thumped his foot against the tatami floor to brace himself.
“You up?” Imai asked.
Turning to the open door, Sakurai saw the top half of Imai’s body as he stretched across the veranda outside the room to peer in. Mutely, Sakurai nodded in response.
“What are you looking for?” Imai asked again, grunting as he stood up.
Sakurai swallowed and winced from how dry his throat felt. “My cigarettes are…”
“Drink first,” Imai offered him a bottle of water. “Excluding the okayu, you barely drank anything today.”
Sakurai gratefully accepted the bottle, cracking it open and drinking the water down in large gulps. After a while, he stopped, closing the cap back on the bottle. There was still half a bottle left.
“Can you stand?” Imai asked, extending a hand to Sakurai. “The old man's pretty strict about not smoking indoors so…” He jerked his head in the direction of the veranda.
Taking Imai's hand, Sakurai felt the grip of his hand tighten as he tugged while Sakurai stood up. Sakurai paused, taking a moment to see how steady he was. Imai continued holding his hand, watching him with a wary eye.
“I'm okay,” Sakurai muttered, suddenly feeling particularly warm as he avoided Imai's eyes. He didn't want to risk his expression showing Imai everything he felt on the inside.
Clearing his throat, Sakurai began to walk. It wasn't very difficult, but after spending a whole day motionless, his body ached from the stiffness.
When Sakurai sat down on the veranda, his legs dangling off the edge, Imai finally let his hand go and asked, “D'you need something to lean against?”
“Not… necessary but preferable,” Sakurai nodded.
Without a word, Imai sat down next to him and turned away. “Lean.”
“I don't really have anything else.”
“What?” Imai turned and looked over his shoulder. “You think I’d let you fall?”
Sakurai grimaced slightly. “It’s not-”
“Whatever, suit yourself,” Imai cut in without listening nor changing his position. Leaning to his left, he stuck his hand into the pocket of his broad shorts and took out Sakurai’s cigarettes and lighter. “Here, your Reds.”
“Oh, thanks,” Sakurai muttered as he slowly sat down on the veranda. There was something odd though. “It’s a new pack,” he observed. “Where’s my old one?”
“I dumped it,” Imai answered, lighting a cigarette for himself.
Sakurai froze and stared at Imai. “… Why?”
“I… don’t understand…”
“If you don’t want it I’m putting it back on the shelf,” said Imai as he turned to stare flatly at Sakurai.
“No, no, I want it,” Sakurai said quickly as he opened up the pack and withdrew a stick.
Imai mutely slid an ashtray over and left it within Sakurai’s reach while he lit his cigarette. Taking his first puff, Sakurai felt relief that he never noticed he needed. As he felt himself relax, he let out a sigh and began to slouch, subconsciously tilting to the side until he came to rest against Imai’s back.
“I thought you said you didn’t want to lean on me?” Imai commented.
“I didn’t say that,” Sakurai muttered petulantly in response.
Imai simply scoffed and fell silent.
After a moment, Sakurai called, “Imai?”
“You know my name. Just call me Hisashi.”
“Oh… Hisashi…?” Sakurai muttered awkwardly, quietly glad that Imai faced away from him and couldn’t see the flush he felt in his cheeks.
“What time is it now?”
“Half past eleven,” Imai replied. “Why?”
“I slept the whole day away,” Sakurai mumbled to himself.
“That’s what you get for falling ill,” Imai retorted. “How’d you even get so sick? You were perfectly fine just the other day.”
“Mm…” Sakurai swallowed and cleared his throat. “Didn’t the weather report say that there was a cold snap over the past two days? Might’ve been that since I forgot my jacket here.”
“Seriously, why’d you even leave it with me?”
“I… guess I forgot,” Sakurai muttered, unwilling to say more.
Imai let out a long sigh. “Whatever you say,” he responded as he stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. He was clearly unconvinced.
Sakurai took a long drag from his cigarette, exhaling the smoke with a long sigh as his eyes wandered around the small backyard. Looking up, Sakurai could see the familiar train tracks running along the top of the wall that separated Imai's backyard from the outside world. The office buildings that would normally light up the night have gone dark now.
“Ima- Uh… Hisashi,” Sakurai muttered, unaccustomed to using Imai's given name.
“I'm going to go home…” Sakurai let his words trail, pausing to see what Imai's reaction would be.
“… Oh.” He didn't sound too happy about it.
“And then come back. I think I need a change of clothes,” Sakurai went on, taking one last breath through his cigarette before putting it out in the ashtray.
Sakurai felt Imai turn and look over his shoulder. “Hm.” He gave Sakurai a long look before reverting to his original position and asking, “What are you coming back here for?”
“Beer,” Sakurai answered immediately. That was the first excuse he could think of.
“ Beer ?”
“And… dinner,” Sakurai added as an afterthought. “I think I'm getting hungry.”
Sakurai stiffened. “Ah… right…”
“But I have leftovers from earlier.”
Sakurai began to sit up, separating himself from the warmth of Imai's back. “I’ve already bothered you enough today, you shouldn't-”
“Do you always do this when someone tries to be nice to you?” Imai suddenly snapped.
“Just accept it,” Imai said, turning again to give Sakurai a firm look. There was no arguing with him. Imai blinked and looked away, sucking his cigarette once more before putting it out. “It's nice having someone else around anyway,” he added under his breath. Those words would've been inaudible if not for how quiet it was at this time of the night.
Upon hearing that, Sakurai asked out of impulse, “But didn't you have company last night?”
Imai’s eyes snapped to him. “Is that why you didn't stop by?”
Sakurai's chest clenched in panic. He didn't expect Imai to throw a question back at him. “Um…” He swallowed and bit the inside of his cheek. “No,” he denied, “I-I just happened to-”
“You suck at lying,” Imai interrupted.
Sakurai’s eyes flashed with indignation as he stared back at Imai. “What?”
“You don't like dealing with people you don't know, do you?”
Sakurai paused. Again, that wasn't what he expected to hear.
“It's kinda obvious with how awkward you seemed at that group date and during the first time you saw me.”
“Ah.” Sakurai felt his tension slip away. So that's how Imai saw him.
“That guy you saw yesterday was an ex-classmate of mine. He usually drops by after I close but I'll tell him not to come if you'll be late.”
“That's not necessary,” Sakurai muttered, feeling increasingly disappointed the more he thought about Imai's point of view.
“It's no problem,” Imai said nonchalantly. “He won't mind either.”
Sakurai chewed on the inside of his cheek, thoroughly stumped by Imai's mixed signals. “Why are you doing all this for me?” he asked quietly.
“I guess… Hm…” Imai scratched his chin. “I guess I like you enough to want to do it? And honestly, I was hoping I can rely on you for those drinking sessions in future,” he smiled sheepishly. “Of course, that’s only if you don't mind."
“Rely on me?”
“To be frank, the last time you went with me was the only time I actually did wake up at home.”
“But the night before that…?”
“I walked home on my own,” Imai revealed. “Or maybe they did drop me off but I didn’t make it inside so I ended up wandering around… but what I remembered that day was drinking beer with the guys, blank, then dawn when I was walking back.”
Sakurai stared at him in disbelief. “You can’t recall anything?”
“Nope,” Imai shrugged. “That night you accompanied me? The last thing I remember is watching Kiyoshi pour you another shot, then I blink and it’s 3 a.m. and I’m at home with your jacket around me.”
“Remember, that was the only time I woke up at home,” Imai emphasised. “I do wonder when my luck will run out though.”
“What makes you think I won’t take advantage of that?” Sakurai asked, schooling his expression as he looked at Imai.
“Maybe that’s the day my luck runs out,” Imai shrugged again.
“Maybe you should stop drinking,” Sakurai retorted.
“Fat hope,” Imai scoffed. Tucking his legs under him, he stood up. “On second thought, I’m asking a lot from you, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Sakurai nodded, spacing out as he stared at the sparse blades of grass before him. “But I’ll do it.”
“Yeah, I understand that you don’t want that burden.”
“I said I’ll do it,” Sakurai repeated, straining his voice to speak louder.
“I’ll… do… it,” Sakurai said slowly before another idea came to him. “But… on the condition that drinks are on you.”
Imai grimaced. “You’re going to drink me to bankruptcy.”
“Take it as your get-home-safe fee,” Sakurai shrugged, forcing a smile on his face. Though things would be different if Imai was… his.
Sucking in a breath through his teeth, Imai blinked a few times and asked, “You’re serious about this?”
Sakurai crossed his legs and leaned back against his hands. Did he really want to put himself through this? … “Yes.”
Imai took a deep breath and exhaled. “What makes you say yes? The free drinks? I honestly don’t think that’s worth the trouble that-”
“I like you enough to do it,” Sakurai smiled, borrowing Imai’s words. He fixed his eyes on the train that raced across the tracks outside Imai’s house, unable to bring himself to look at the other man.
Imai started chuckling. It took a while before it slowly subsided. “I… I guess I’ll be counting on you then.”
Sakurai nodded. He didn’t quite trust himself to speak.
“Thanks,” Imai muttered. His footsteps thumped on the veranda as he walked, putting the ashtray aside and moving things around. Eventually, Sakurai felt the familiar fabric of his bomber jacket around him and he looked up to find Imai holding his hoodie in his arm. Smiling, Imai extended a hand to him and said, “I’ll walk you home and back. Lest you collapse on the way.”
Chapter 16: 16
They went to Sakurai's home and came back without incident. Instead of simply retrieving his clothes while there, Sakurai took the opportunity to take a quick shower. Even if he didn't smell, he felt better about himself after the shower. The downside was that he had to let Imai see the inside of his tiny, messy apartment though. If Imai had any issue with it, he didn't say anything.
When they went back to Imai's, Sakurai got his beer, which he had to pay for, and Imai's so-called leftovers. Even if they were leftovers though, if what Imai referred to as ‘leftovers’ was half a beef lasagna, Sakurai wouldn’t mind having more if Imai ever offered him food again.
With his stomach finally full, Sakurai continued drinking more beer while Imai stuck around, smoking and drinking with Sakurai until he knocked himself out. Sakurai found himself smiling as he watched Imai sleep with his head on the table next to him. He didn't really pay enough attention the other day to see Imai like this, sleeping with such a peaceful expression.
Sakurai couldn't help but wonder why Imai chose to stay down here in the guest room with him instead of going back to his room. Did he expect Sakurai to bring him upstairs? From how carefully Imai has been treating him all day, that seemed unlikely. He sighed, putting his chin in his hand as his eyes took in the delicate features on Imai's face. He could hardly believe that Imai fell asleep after four mere cans of beer.
He reached out a hand, tempted to touch Imai but he stopped and withdrew. Turning away from the table, he lay down on the futon, staring listlessly at the ceiling as his mind went back to what Imai said earlier.
“… I like you enough to want to do it?”
What was that supposed to mean? What is ‘enough’? Was Imai trying to say that looking after someone he barely knew for a whole day in his own house was normal? Who in their right mind does that?
Sakurai huffed and turned to his side, away from Imai. He recalled the bitterness he felt when he saw Imai laughing with his friend behind the tobacco window last night. It still stung. He pressed a hand against his chest, scratching his skin as he clasped his hand tight. Sure, Sakurai did dislike being around unfamiliar persons, but this feeling had nothing to do with that. It was jealousy. He didn’t like that he liked Imai enough to feel this way.
Not to mention that Imai seemed like he had zero recollection of their kiss. Imai did kiss him back, didn’t he? Or was his desire making him imagine things? Even if it was real, Imai was probably too drunk to tell the difference between him and whatever woman his brain might’ve been conjuring up for him.
The long sigh that Sakurai released did nothing to relieve him of the tightness in his chest. Feeling his eyes grow warm, he shifted and pulled the blanket over himself. In the dark space that he created for himself, Sakurai buried his face in the pillow and let out another shuddering sigh. The last thing he remembered before drifting off to sleep was the dampness on his face.
Chapter 17: 17
Sakurai stirred from sleep, cracking his eyes open to the soft light of pre-dawn illuminating the room. He couldn't really see though. His vision was mostly dark, blocked by a warm body. He thought of moving or perhaps trying to figure out where and who he was with but his mind was still bogged down by sleep. Overwhelmed by drowsiness, he sighed and closed his eyes, letting himself go back to sleep. Before fully drifting away though, he felt the comforting heat surreptitiously leave his side and disappear with his consciousness.
Chapter 18: 18
Waking with a start, Sakurai threw the blanket off himself and sat up, eyes wide with panic. He turned his head sharply, left and right. Exactly what his subconscious was urging him to look for, he didn't know. All he found was that he has woken up alone with that familiar empty sense of loss in his chest.
Sakurai dropped back down onto the futon, burying his face in the crook of his arm as he swallowed the lump in his throat. For how long was he going to keep waking up like this? It's been over a year but still… That said, he couldn't lie here like this and wallow in self-pity forever. Not if he didn't want Imai to see him like this.
With a weary sigh, Sakurai grabbed his wallet, cigarettes and lighter off the nearby table and got up. At least he didn't feel as sick as he did yesterday. It might take a while until his voice went back to normal though.
Sakurai shuffled out of the room with his jacket hanging off his shoulders and went to the bathroom, washing his face and brushing his teeth with a toothbrush from the store that he paid for before heading to the store to look for Imai. Running his fingers through his hair, Sakurai tied most of it up in a small ponytail while some of it messily slipped out of the tie to frame his face. He pursed his lips in annoyance, once again regretting that extra trim he got recently.
Stopping by the entryway of the house, Sakurai took his own pair of geta with him as he headed towards the door that led to the store. He pushed it open and went through the threshold, going down the step that separated the living quarters from the store as he slipped on the geta to walk into the cashier area.
Voices reached his ears as Sakurai walked down the narrow corridor, past the storage room, and through the doorway curtains that he saw the other night. The moment he emerged through the curtains though, the voices stopped. Sensing stares on him, he turned to look at the cashier and found Imai standing there with two other people; a man about Imai’s height and another about a head shorter than him.
The taller man had strong, chiselled features on his face, giving him a particularly manly appearance. He had jet black hair too. Sakurai guessed that he usually combed it back if he was at work. He looked like someone who would do that.
The shorter man looked particularly cheery in contrast to Imai and the taller man. He had a bright spark of something shining in his eyes that made him look somewhat cherubic. Sakurai had a feeling that he couldn’t trust that though. Unlike the taller man, this man’s hair was dark brown and layered with a right fringe parting.
Sakurai couldn’t help but get the feeling that something about them felt familiar. Like he had seen them before or something.
The cherubic-looking man seemed to be of the same mind, exclaiming, “Ah! Aren’t you Sakurai senpai?!”
Sakurai frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Haha! I’d know that face anywhere!” The shorter man clapped his hands in glee. “You used to hang out at our place with the guys from big bro's school-”
“You're the younger Higuchi brother,” Sakurai muttered as realisation hit him.
“Wait, you're telling me he went to our high school?” Imai cut in.
“Yeah, he was in your class too,” the younger Higuchi answered with a wide grin.
“But I don't recognise him,” Imai said as he stared hard at Sakurai.
“Likewise,” Sakurai mumbled, shuffling away. He felt the urge to scrutinise Imai just as intensely but he simply couldn't look at Imai right now.
“I'm sure you would've heard of him though!” the younger Higuchi insisted as Sakurai exited the cashier area and into the storefront. “Everyone in our school used to hang out at the corner store his dad ran!”
“Perhaps you forgot, but I never spoke to anyone at school,” Sakurai answered curtly.
“If we were in the same class then you'd show up in our class photos,” Imai said to himself. “But I don't recall ever seeing you-”
“I never showed up on those days,” Sakurai replied, his eyes fixated on the food in the chiller. “What does it matter anyway,” he mumbled, grabbing a rice bento box out of the chiller. “It makes no difference now.”
“It's just such a huge coincidence though!” the younger Higuchi went on. “We sure were surprised when you stepped out from the inside too, weren't we, Hide?” he continued, nudging his tall, quiet companion, or Hide, as he spoke. “Think about it; isn't it fascinating how you never spoke at school before yet now you're familiar enough to be in Imai's house!”
“We're not exactly familiar,” Sakurai denied. He brought the bento box to the cashier and put it down in front of Imai.
Imai stared at him with a hint of annoyance in his expression. “Atsushi, put that back.”
“If you want food, I have fresh food in the kitchen,” said Imai. “Put that back.”
“But I want to go home.”
“Then pack food home.”
“What's the difference?”
“One's made by a mass-production kitchen and one's made by me. Of course, there's a difference.”
“Are you sure you’re not close?” prodded the younger Higuchi. “Imai doesn't offer food he makes to just anyone, you know?”
Sakurai bit the inside of his cheek and sucked in a breath as he looked away. What was that supposed to mean? Surely he was joking. This was the third time that Imai's telling him to take his food. He had a feeling that he'd get teased even more if he mentioned this.
Full of reluctance, Sakurai slowly picked the bento box back up and brought it back to the chiller. Dragging his feet back to the cashier, Sakurai looked at Imai and said, “Lead the way.”
Chapter 19: 19
“Will you come by later?”
“Hm?” Sakurai looked up at Imai, shaken from his daze. He was spacing out at the dining table as he watched Imai pack steaming hot rice and stir-fried pork with onions into a bowl. He wasn’t expecting Imai to say anything after all that banter outside.
“Should I be expecting you later?” Imai asked again, rephrasing. He seemed fixated on portioning the food.
“I… guess so?” Sakurai mumbled. “I’ll probably need more cigarettes later.”
“Wanna join us for dinner?”
“Huh?” Sakurai cocked his head in surprise. He wasn’t expecting this either. “… ‘Us’?”
“Me and those two at the front earlier,” Imai specified. “And also the other guy who was in the store with me that night. If you’re really from our high school then he’d be an ex-classmate of yours too.”
“It’s perfectly fine if you’re not interested,” Imai added, carefully placing sliced local cucumbers into the bowl. There was a small crease between his brows. Sakurai couldn’t tell whether it was out of concentration or worry.
But what was there for him to worry about?
“Do you… want me to go?” Sakurai asked, wary for some reason.
“Do you need me to drink for you?”
“Ah, no, no one’s out to get anyone drunk tonight,” Imai clarified.
“I just thought it’d be nice to have a regular meal with you or something,” Imai said casually. “I mean, well, if you don’t want to, it’s fine, you know?”
Sakurai stared at him, unable to understand exactly what Imai wanted. “Are the others alright with this?”
“Well, Yuta seemed to know you anyway, so…”
“Yuta?” The name seemed to ring a bell for Sakurai.
“The small guy,” Imai clarified, now carefully placing pickled plums in one corner of the bowl.
“Ah, the Higuchi.”
“Yes,” Imai nodded, straightening up and turning his attention to Sakurai. His eyes had lost the intensity that they held earlier. Instead, he regarded Sakurai with an almost gentle manner as he asked, “So, will you come?”
Chapter 20: 20
Sakurai wanted to dig a hole and bury himself in it. How did he so easily agree to come for this dinner? Not to mention the energy he had from earlier today has already faded away, leaving behind fatigue that plagued him. He should’ve expected it. After all, he was just terribly sick yesterday. Sakurai glared at Imai out of the corner of his eye. Curse Imai and his persuasiveness.
They were at a sukiyaki restaurant sharing a hot pot among the six of them. There were Hide and Yuta, who were at the store earlier, Imai and his friend from the previous night, whose name Sakurai learnt was Araki, and Sakurai himself along with Yuta’s older brother, Toll, joining in at the last minute. At least this time, there was no obligatory interaction required. But there was still something that made Sakurai want to run away.
He was the centre of everyone’s attention.
It was only normal, considering that he had never been a part of their gatherings before. But questions came at him one after another. It was like an endless barrage.
Toll asked, “I’m surprised to find you here, Acchan. Since when did you start hanging out with these guys?”
“Oh? How’d you end up here then?” Toll asked.
“I was at Ima- I mean, Hisashi’s and he asked if I wanted to come along.”
“Strange how things happen, huh?” Toll chuckled. “You don't even speak in high school but now you're visiting his home.”
Sakurai shrugged. “I suppose that’s just how it turned out.”
“That's some crazy coincidence that you ended up living so close though,” Araki spoke up. “Especially considering how big Tokyo is compared to Gunma.”
“I’ve no idea how this happened,” Sakurai muttered. “As far as I know, the corner store here has been there ever since I moved into the area.”
“The old man shifted here over five years ago,” Imai revealed. “I suppose it wasn’t too long ago when you moved in then.”
Sakurai squinted his eyes and bobbed his head as he traced back to when he first came here. “Maybe… three years ago?”
Toll hummed, nodding as he commented, “You’ve been here quite a while.”
“Who knows how much longer I’ll be here for,” Sakurai mumbled with another shrug as he focused his attention on eating.
“Have you kept in contact with those guys you used to hang out with?” Toll asked.
Sakurai scoffed. “Haven’t heard from them ever since they got tangled up with the law.”
“Well, we have our own jailbird here,” Yuta said out of the blue. Sakurai looked up and him in surprise and found Yuta jerking his head in Imai’s direction.
“Shut it,” Imai hissed, throwing a wet towel at Yuta who ducked.
Sakurai hummed, concealing his curiosity as he went back to his dinner. “Fascinating,” he commented. It didn’t seem like Imai wanted to talk about it now anyway.
“Come to think of it, your parents aren't around, Imai?” Hide asked.
“They're on vacation,” Imai answered. It's the same thing he told Sakurai. “The past few years have been rather hectic for them so they're going off to tour the country.”
Collective exclamations of awe burst out.
“They're going to be away for a looong time, aren't they?” Yuta remarked.
“You've really got no idea when they’d be back?” Sakurai asked.
“Already sick of seeing my face?”
Sakurai stiffened, giving Imai a long quiet look before clearing his throat and turning back to his half-eaten bowl of rice. “That's not… what I meant…”
Imai exhaled a loud sigh. “Who knows, really? Maybe they'd get sick of travelling and take a break, come back and make sure I haven't run the business into the ground.”
Araki laughed. “Ah, the bento distribution right?”
“Yeah,” Imai nodded.
“How’s it going?”
“Well enough for the old man to think that it was time to go on vacation,” Imai replied. “It’s the main reason why he even got the idea of moving into a place as busy as the city.”
“Ah, the fresh bentos!” Yuta recalled. “I used to love when your mom would pack those when I went over.”
“Leech,” Imai taunted. Sakurai smiled at his retort, both amused and glad that the conversation has turned away from him.
“I'm simply accepting her goodwill,” Yuta grinned. “Does she still make those?”
“I already mentioned the industrial kitchen this afternoon, didn't I?” Imai reminded. “Besides, it's impossible to make so many on her own.”
Sakurai hummed, quietly listening to their conversation as he ate more cabbage from the pot.
“So, Acchan, what exactly did you do after high school?” Toll suddenly addressed him again.
Sakurai sat up, trying to look attentive as he looked at the faces around the table who were looking at him. He noticed that Imai was the only exception in this.
“Uhm,” Sakurai cleared his throat, “I started working and I’ve been working in the same company though they transferred me here some years back. Nothing interesting.”
“What? Nothing at all?” Araki piped in. “No girls, dating…?”
“No,” Sakurai replied, albeit perhaps a little too quickly. He didn’t quite want to say much on that topic.
“So you’re single?”
Sakurai glanced at Imai, surprised and somewhat unnerved that the question came from him. Then again, it was a perfectly normal question to ask, right? Swallowing, he answered softly, “I guess you could say that.”
As expected, all he got in return from Imai was a cryptic “hm” before he turned his attention to cooking his slice of meat.
Chapter 21: 21
True to Imai's word, everyone could still stand on their own two feet when it was time to head home. Maybe it had something to do with eating while drinking, but Imai had just as much beer as he did last night and he seemed fine. Figuring out his tolerance was going to be a little more challenging than Sakurai expected.
Exhaling a white cloud of cigarette smoke, Sakurai leisurely strolled his way home with Imai. He was getting used to being around Imai. They haven't spoken since parting ways with the rest but it felt alright. Or not. He was starting to wonder if he should say something. Maybe he shouldn't have put this much thought into it.
Sakurai began to fidget with his cigarette box as he took another puff from his stick and grimaced, getting that unpleasant taste in his mouth which told him that he was at the end of this one. Spotting a bin nearby, he made a detour towards it. He stubbed the cigarette out on the top and dropped the butt in.
Without pausing, Sakurai went on to open his cigarette box and draw out another stick as he walked back towards Imai, who had paused in his tracks to wait for Sakurai. Casually peeking into the box, Sakurai suddenly noticed he had less than half a pack left and instinctively stuck out his lower lip, pouting. He didn't realise how much he smoked over dinner. This wouldn't be enough to last him through tomorrow.
“What's wrong?” Imai asked, breathing in through his stick as Sakurai approached.
Still pouting, Sakurai shook his cigarette pack, rattling the few sticks left in the box.
Huffing white clouds of smoke as he chuckled, Imai asked, “Need more?”
“Maybe…” Sakurai mumbled, not too happy at the thought of smoking that much more than usual. “Perhaps there's a vending machine-”
“ Vending machine ,” Imai scoffed and walked off ahead of Sakurai.
“ A vending machine ,” Imai repeated, sounding piqued.
“What's wrong with that?” Sakurai asked, hastening his pace to match Imai's. Why was Imai speeding up all of a sudden?
“Why would you even think of going to a vending machine?” Imai sneered .
“W-well,” Sakurai drew back, startled. “The store's closed and I don't want to bother-”
Imai spun around. “Why can't you understand that you are not a bother?”
“And you didn't light your cigarette,” Imai said quickly, suddenly softening his tone and changing the topic as he turned around to continue on his path.
Putting his half-empty pack back in his jeans pocket, Sakurai hastily flicked his lighter a few times before finally lighting his cigarette. While he kept that in his pocket too, he looked up and found Imai waiting for him some distance away, absentmindedly pressing what must be his cigarette butt into the asphalt with his shoe. As if feeling Sakurai’s gaze, Imai looked up, made eye contact with him and jerked his head, beckoning Sakurai over with an unreadable expression on his face.
Sakurai took large strides towards Imai, catching up to him and they continued their walk home in silence. Only now, it weighed heavy from their mutual reluctance to speak.
Chapter 22: 22
Arriving at the corner store, Imai began to veer off, turning into the alley between buildings that led to the back door while Sakurai continued on his straight path home. Sakurai was at the next building when he heard a sharp hiss from behind. He turned. Imai was leaning out from the alley, frowning at Sakurai as he jerked his head to beckon him.
Confused, Sakurai furrowed his brow and gestured. What?
Imai brought two fingers to his lips, miming what seemed to be smoking and it finally clicked.
In the end, Sakurai was so preoccupied with Imai’s frustration that he completely forgot to stop by any of the vending machines that they passed by on the way. He walked back to Imai, who waited until Sakurai was right by him before he walked off again, leading the way to the entrance of his home without a word.
Reaching his door, Imai unlocked it, and pulled it open as he turned around and asked, “Coming in?”
Sakurai paused and shook his head. Looking down at the ground, he rubbed the back of his neck and said, “I should… rest.”
“Hm, that’s true,” Imai mumbled to himself reluctantly. “At least wait inside,” he suggested, going in while holding the door open for Sakurai.
“Uh…” Sakurai felt the urge to reject the offer, but it didn’t seem like Imai was going to take no for an answer. Nodding mutely, he walked in, muttering, “Thanks.”
Once they were both indoors, Imai shut the door and kicked off his battered sneakers. “I’ll be right back,” he said, crossing the entryway and up the step as he dashed into the house.
Left alone, Sakurai sat down on the step, chin in his hand as he waited for Imai to come back. It felt like barely a moment passed when he felt a hand on his shoulder shaking him. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, albeit with some difficulty. They felt like lead. Did he just fall asleep?
“You alright?” Imai's concerned voice asked.
“Mm,” Sakurai nodded as he straightened up. He had somehow started leaning against the nearby wall without realising it.
“Should've just let you stay home earlier,” Imai muttered, slipping a hand over Sakurai’s forehead.
“I'm fine,” Sakurai grumbled, shrugging Imai away. “I’m just… sleepy,” he said with a yawn.
“Hm.” Imai withdrew his hand.
Sakurai could feel Imai watching him closely. Frustrated, he put a hand against Imai's cheek and turned his face aside. “Don't stare at me like that,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes.
Imai huffed. It sounded like a laugh. Sakurai felt Imai grab his hand and put a box in his palm. He looked. Marlboro Reds. And Imai's hand still on it.
Grunting, Sakurai shifted to the side, trying to get his wallet out but he felt a hand on his forearm, stilling him. He looked up at Imai and frowned in confusion as Imai shook his head.
“No need,” Imai declined.
“Store's closed,” Imai insisted, slipping his hand under Sakurai's to close his fingers around the pack.
Sakurai felt his heart speed up at the gesture. Not that Imai's proximity to him helped either. Eyes darting between their hands and Imai's tense expression, Sakurai muttered, “Thanks.”
“For everything,” Sakurai hastily added.
“For… this weekend,” Sakurai elaborated, choosing to look at his knees as he spoke. “For the meals, for this,” he gripped the pack tighter with his hand still in Imai's, “for… taking… care of… me.”
“Oh, um… yeah,” Imai mumbled, shifting slightly as he slowly removed his hands from Sakurai. “No big deal.”
As they fell silent, Sakurai began to feel particularly warm. Was he sweating? Can't be helped since ventilation hasn't been turned on, right? Even the lights weren’t on. He could feel things getting awkward though. Was it a good time to say it? Should he say it?
“I…” Sakurai breathed, feeling his chest seize up as he tried to speak.
“Hm?” He could feel Imai looking at him again.
“I, um… should go,” Sakurai muttered. He couldn't say it. The nerves went away but he was left with a heavy disappointment in himself.
“Oh,” Imai responded. “Oh, yeah, I suppose…”
Slowly, reluctantly, Sakurai got up, patting his jeans as he dusted them off. Imai stood up as well. Turning around Sakurai found that Imai standing on the step made him a bit taller than Sakurai, though their height was about the same, to begin with. Somewhat amused by Imai's sudden height, Sakurai allowed a smile onto his face.
Imai looked at him and sighed. “I guess… I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Imai seemed to pause for a moment as if he was trying to decide on something. He raised a hand, reaching in Sakurai's direction before he seemed to jerk and veer off to the side, past Sakurai and to the door.
“Need me to walk you back?” Imai asked, pushing the door open for Sakurai.
“Uh… I'm fine,” Sakurai muttered, still confused and somewhat startled by Imai's body language. Shuffling past Imai and out the door, he muttered, “I'll see you tomorrow.”
As Sakurai walked off, he heard Imai respond with a soft “yeah” before the door clicked shut.
Now alone in the alley, Sakurai stopped and looked at the new pack of cigarettes that he still held in his hand. He recalled Imai's proximity, his touch, his soft words…
Sakurai dragged his free hand down his face, groaning in frustration in contrast to the flutterings he felt in the pit of his stomach. Was he reading too much into things? He gave the new pack one last look and slipped it into his back pocket, switching it for the old pack which he was finishing.
Taking out a cigarette, Sakurai lit it, sucking in a breath and exhaling with a sigh. How was he supposed to clarify things with Imai without ruining this?
With his arms folded across his chest, Sakurai took his time walking out, smoking while lost in his thoughts. Exiting the alley, he found himself suddenly getting an odd feeling and stopping in his tracks. Turning around, his eyes were naturally drawn to a lanky figure smoking on a balcony above the corner store. Sakurai didn't need much light to tell him that the figure was looking at him and that the figure was indeed Imai.
Imai raised a hand and waved languidly as he rested his chin in a hand, propped up by an elbow on the bannister. Jerkily, Sakurai raised a hand himself and waved back before turning back around and walking home. Knowing that he was being watched by Imai made his cheeks tingle. It was a good thing the lights that led the way home weren't bright enough to expose the flush that he knew was on his face.
Just what has he gotten himself into?
Chapter 23: 23
Sakurai found himself thrown off his sense of routine again for the second time in less than a month as he forced a smile back at the familiar face of the old man running the corner store. He thought he might have been mistaken when he heard that friendly rasp of “good morning” but no, the old man was back. As he watched him ring up his breakfast and pack it, Sakurai didn't know what to feel.
It felt as if the period when Imai ran the store was just a dream that faded away from reality the moment the old man came back. Sakurai couldn't even spot any sign that Imai was around. His chest felt heavy. Didn't Imai say he'd be here in the morning?
“Something bothering you, Acchan?” the old man asked, shaking Sakurai from his thoughts.
“Hm?” He met the old man’s eyes. “I was just wondering… how you’ve been,” said Sakurai. Perhaps a little small talk first. “You’ve been away for quite a while, after all.”
“Oh, hasn’t my boy told you? I’ve been travelling the country with my wife,” the old man replied. “We’re back for now, but we’re just checking in for a bit before heading off again.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Sakurai smiled. He kind of envied their carefree life. “How long will your next trip be?”
“Who knows? We’ll see how things go,” the old man shrugged.
“Ah, by the way…” Sakurai prompted.
“If you’re wondering where my boy is, he’s probably asleep in his room,” the old man scoffed. “No reason for him to get up early now that I’m back, is there?”
“Ahah… that’s true,” Sakurai nodded stiffly, hiding the mounting disappointment that he felt. Taking the bag with his purchases, he bowed slightly, “I’ll be going then.”
“Safe journey,” the old man returned as Sakurai walked out of the store.
Just before Sakurai headed towards the path under the train tracks, he heard a sharp hiss from behind. Turning, he saw Imai leaning against the bannister of the balcony upstairs, smoking a cigarette like last night. A lopsided smile tugged at his lips and Imai gave Sakurai a lazy wave.
Sakurai couldn’t help but smile back, giving Imai a quick incline of the head before he rushed off towards his workplace. As much as he wanted to stay a little longer, he was hard-pressed for time. But even so, despite that Imai barely did anything, Sakurai realised that the weight in his chest had lifted and the smile lingered on his face. It’s been a long while since he felt this light.
Chapter 24: 24
It was only around seven in the evening when Sakurai stepped back into the corner store. None of his colleagues was available for an after-work meal or drinks but that was perfectly fine for Sakurai. He didn’t mind. He had no issues with settling his own dinner. This simply meant that he could have a simple and relaxing evening. He still had that craving for instant noodles after all.
Without a second thought, Sakurai grabbed an instant noodle bowl and a small bottle of sake from the fridge and then brought them to the cashier. But there was no one there. Not even the old man.
Perplexed, Sakurai put his things down on the counter and leaned over, peering past the curtains that hid the living quarters to try and see if anyone was around. Just as he was about to call out for assistance, Sakurai heard a door click open followed by hurried shuffling and then the scraping of sandals over the concrete floor. Quick footsteps approached the curtains and Sakurai saw Imai’s skinny legs emerge from the gloom just before the man himself stepped through the threshold.
Upon seeing Sakurai, Imai paused, looking slightly surprised to see him. Sakurai then watched his eyes dart down to the things on the counter. As a scowl began to form on Imai’s face, Sakurai swiped the instant noodles off the counter, trying to move it out of Imai’s sight but it was too late.
“Put that back,” Imai ordered.
“Instant noodles?” Imai sneered. “Again?”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
Imai clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes as he glanced off to the side. “Just put that back, for fuck’s sake,” he huffed. “We have more than enough food to feed you too.”
“Why are you always offering me food?”
Imai stared at Sakurai. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re either asking me to join you for dinners or feeding me food you made,” Sakurai replied. Truth be told, he only noticed that there was such a pattern this afternoon.
“You… You’re free to decline, you know?” Imai muttered with a pinched expression on his face.
“I…” Sakurai didn't know how to respond. Imai was right. “I will then,” he eventually replied stubbornly, staring petulantly at Imai.
“Fine,” Imai snapped, now openly upset.
“Fine.” Sakurai stretched out his hand. “Then give me my Reds.”
Before Imai could move, the old man suddenly came through the doorway curtains with a big smile on his face as he spotted Sakurai and exclaimed, “Oh, Acchan! How rare it is to see you back this early!”
“Ah, yes,” Sakurai nodded, hastily plastering a polite smile over his frustration.
Coming forward, the old man asked, “No dinner with your colleagues today?”
“No, my boss isn't around these couple of weeks,” Sakurai replied.
“Well, come join us for dinner then! Help us finish the food,” the old man suggested. “My boy got too enthusiastic with cooking today, it seems,” he guffawed, slapping Imai on his back. “And it's not often we get to eat his food.”
“Ah… is that so,” Sakurai muttered.
“Don't be shy now,” the old man beckoned. “Put the instant noodles back, would you, boy?” he addressed Imai.
“Ah, it's okay,” Sakurai quickly spoke. “I meant to buy that-”
“Bah! You won't be needing that,” the old man insisted. “Come, come.”
Eyes darting between Imai’s impassive and his father’s contrasting enthusiasm, Sakurai reluctantly inched towards the back as Imai swiped the instant noodles off the counter and briskly walked towards the shelves. So much for simple and relaxing.
Chapter 25: 25
Sakurai was worried that he would have to eat with Imai and his parents but right after he was given food, everyone disappeared to busy themselves with whatever they were doing before he arrived. Imai apparently had to close up shop while his parents went back to preparing for the next leg of their vacation. It felt a little anticlimactic but Sakurai could appreciate the solitude in the busy household.
So far, he wasn't regretting acceding to the old man's insistence that he stayed for dinner. It was good. The tomato pasta he was given had just the right balance between tart and savoury in the sauce and the basil that was added came through pleasantly. The crunch of the juicy sausages that had been added simply added to the flavours.
Sakurai twirled the last few strands of springy pasta between his fork and brought it to his mouth, chewing with a contented smile on his face as he took the time to enjoy the last bit of his dinner. If this was really made by Imai, then perhaps that lasagna he had wasn't originally a frozen dinner after all.
Footsteps thumped on the wood floor as someone approached the kitchen. Sakurai looked up just as Imai walked in. Imai met his eyes briefly before he veered away and poured himself a glass of water without a word. Sakurai felt himself growing tense as he raised his guard. Imai was probably going to mock him for accepting dinner in his house in the end.
“Need a drink?” Imai asked.
Sakurai held his tongue, unsure if he should accept Imai’s hospitality or reject it.
Without waiting for a reply, Imai opened the kitchen’s fridge and took out a can of beer, the same brand that Sakurai tended to go for. Standing behind Sakurai, Imai put the can down in front of him and pulled the tab, popping it open with one hand. In the silence, Sakurai could hear the fizz in the can hissing lightly as Imai stepped back and put his own cup down the kitchen counter behind.
Sakurai didn’t move, choosing to wait and see what else Imai was going to do or say.
With a soft rustle of clothing, Imai asked, “How’s the food?”
“Good,” Sakurai answered flatly.
“Really?” Imai sounded doubtful. “You don’t look like you liked it.”
“No, it’s… really good.”
Imai hummed softly, as if sceptical. “What about yesterday’s pork and the lasagna from the other day?”
“… It’s all good,” Sakurai muttered. Wasn’t Imai going to poke at him? He didn’t seem too happy about things earlier.
“Thank goodness,” Imai sighed with relief.
“For what?” Sakurai asked.
“I thought you didn’t like me offering you food because it tastes bad,” Imai confessed.
“No,” Sakurai muttered, “I just… don’t want to impose…”
“Haven’t we already gone through that?”
“Doesn’t change that it makes me feel indebted for accepting all this,” Sakurai retorted as he turned and glared at Imai in exasperation.
Imai pursed his lips and exhaled. “You don't…” He paused and ran a hand through his dyed hair, looking equally exasperated. Sakurai noticed that his roots were showing. “You want to repay me?” Imai asked.
Turning back to the dining table, Sakurai folded his arms and muttered, “I just don't want to owe you.”
“But you repay me by drinking for me,” Imai reminded. “And bringing me back in one piece.”
“I’ve only ever done that once-”
“You’ll have another chance tonight,” Imai cut in. “I wasn’t intending to go since you’ve just… recovered, but if it bothers you that much…”
That made Sakurai pause. He wasn’t expecting such a sudden invitation. “But… aren’t you going to spend time with your parents?” Sakurai asked.
“They’re actually leaving tonight to catch some kinda night bus to some other part of the country,” Imai divulged. “They’re so busy now because they’re packing for that. They honestly only came back to do laundry.”
“… Oh.” Sakurai didn’t think that the old man and his wife would plan things like this.
“So?” Imai nudged.
Sakurai took the open can of beer into his hand and took a sip. “I'll go.”
Imai sighed and shifted, straightening up with a grunt. As he left the kitchen, he clapped Sakurai on the shoulder and muttered, “Don't overdo it.”
Chapter 26: 26
How things got this way, Sakurai didn't know.
It was a normal, all-guys drinking session that Imai brought him to this time. There were a few new faces but he couldn't recall their names now. He drank more than he did the last time while Imai had less. At least Imai was awake enough to insist that he could walk on his own. That's despite a few scares when he suddenly veered off the pavement and towards the road. That said, he was still a rather uncooperative drunk. But entering the house seemed to flip a switch in Imai and suddenly, Sakurai found himself on his knees with Imai's erection against his lips. Well, not that he minded.
Sakurai leaned forward, resting his face against Imai’s bare hips as he trailed kisses along Imai’s length. With one hand holding onto Imai’s clothes and the other teasing Imai with his fingers, Sakurai sluggishly separated himself from Imai's torso, licking his lips as he pressed his tongue to Imai's tip. Imai exhaled with a hiss. Sakurai felt Imai's hand close against his scalp, tightening his grip on a fistful of hair before letting go with a gentle caress.
Sakurai sucked and then parted his lips, letting Imai into his mouth. Pressing his tongue against Imai's frenulum, Sakurai let Imai's shaft rub against the roof of his mouth as he slowly moved forward until he felt Imai pressing against the back of his throat. He paused and swallowed, tightening his mouth around Imai's erection as he created a light suction while drawing away.
Imai moaned and his knees buckled as he thumped his back against the wall in an attempt to stop himself from collapsing. Sensing Imai's reaction made Sakurai smile and his groin warm. But he ignored his own arousal. Sakurai now had a hand now on Imai's thigh. He caressed Imai's slender limb as he bobbed his head in a languid rhythm, sucking Imai off to the man's pleasant moans.
Imai's fingers ran through his hair and Sakurai looked up, meeting Imai’s lustful eyes as he continued moving. The look in Imai's eye seemed to sharpen suddenly, and in that moment, Imai gripped Sakurai's hair tightly in his fist as he pushed Sakurai forward towards his groin, forcing his erection all the way in. Anticipating what came next, Sakurai let his jaw go slack as he held on tight to Imai's thighs, letting him fuck his mouth with abandon.
It didn't take long before Sakurai felt warmth spilling into his mouth and he took control again, sucking and swallowing without hesitation. He eventually removed Imai's flaccid penis from his mouth, and as he did, Imai sank lower and lower until he came level with Sakurai seated on the floor.
Imai sighed softly and brought a hand to Sakurai's cheek, caressing him as he slid his hand around to the back of Sakurai's neck to pull him in. Instead, Sakurai shifted backwards, pulling away. Doing that only made Imai more aggressive. Imai grabbed Sakurai's arm and leaned forward with his retreat, cornering Sakurai against the opposing wall of the corridor.
“I need to go,” Sakurai hissed urgently.
“Stay,” Imai growled, pressing his hand against Sakurai's crotch.
Sakurai sucked in a breath, holding his voice in as he tried to jerk away. But alas, there was nowhere else he could move to. Still muddled by alcohol, Imai clumsily kissed Sakurai as he kneaded Sakurai’s erection with one hand while the other began unbuttoning his shirt. Halfway through his endeavour, Imai sluggishly slipped lower, continuing his kisses along Sakurai's neck while his oddly dexterous fingers undid Sakurai's pants.
Sakurai grabbed Imai's hand by the wrist. “Enough,” he said firmly.
Imai bit his neck in retaliation.
Shocked, Sakurai gasped and pushed against Imai's shoulder. He, however, faltered when the bite lost its edge and Imai instead switched to sucking hard on his skin as he brushed his fingers along Sakurai’s throbbing erection. With Imai planting kisses all over while his fingers closed around his shaft, Sakurai lost his composure, letting out a soft restrained moan as his nails dug into Imai's shoulder while Imai stroked with a steady rhythm.
Unfazed by Sakurai’s grip, Imai curled an arm around Sakurai's waist, bringing them closer together as he mumbled, “Stay.”
Sakurai responded with a weak whine, wanting more despite wanting to make Imai stop. Perhaps he was incoherent, perhaps Imai didn't care, whatever it was, it made no difference. Imai kept up with the stroking, the steady momentum gradually driving Sakurai towards and over the edge to all over Imai's hand in a burst of unrestrained pleasure.
Feeling the dampness on his skin, Imai looked down, staring at his hand still holding onto Sakurai with a loosening grip and mumbled, “Ah.”
Before Sakurai could say more, Imai rolled forward, planting his face into the crook of Sakurai’s neck. Nuzzling, Imai’s body grew limp as he mumbled, “Don’t go…”
“I have to go home,” Sakurai protested. Trying his best to shake Imai off, he hissed, “Hisashi!”
Imai hummed and mumbled something inaudible as he rubbed his face against Sakurai’s exposed chest under his half-open shirt. Sakurai didn’t need to look at Imai’s face to guess that he had fallen asleep.
“Oy!” Sakurai raised his voice, jerking his legs against Imai who barely responded.
Imai simply made himself comfortable as he continued sleeping on Sakurai.
“You fucking…” Sakurai wanted to curse but words failed him.
Filled with frustration, he glared at Imai’s sleeping face resting on his shoulder. At any other time, he would’ve appreciated the sight, but now, it simply irritated Sakurai. How the hell was he supposed to deal with this?
Chapter 27: 27
Sakurai grabbed a bottle of green tea, a can of coffee, and an energy drink from the fridge. He didn’t think that it was possible, but he found himself even more drained this time than the last. Though it did make sense, considering that he had to get the both of them cleaned up and still bring Imai to his room plus dress him properly.
All in all, he probably only managed to catch a couple of hours of sleep before his alarm rang. If that wasn’t exhausting enough, there was still the stress of anticipating Imai’s reaction this morning. Sakurai didn’t know if he preferred Imai to remember or not. He only knew that he wouldn’t be this frazzled if he was the one who could simply forget things.
Putting his drinks on the counter along with a pre-packaged bun, Sakurai listlessly watched Imai scan his items. He noticed that Imai seemed well. In fact, he looked more alive than usual.
“Thanks for bringing me back last night,” Imai said as he took out a plastic bag. “I really appreciate waking up in my room after drinking for once.”
“Hn.” Sakurai couldn’t be bothered to respond with anything more. It was clear that Imai didn’t recall anything. Lucky man.
“Didn’t get enough sleep, did you?” Imai asked, taking deliberate looks at the drinks.
“I guess drinking on weekdays isn’t exactly a great idea.”
“Hn.” Sakurai dropped the money in the change tray.
“You know, I…”
Sakurai looked up at Imai, curious about the pause. “What?”
“I think I had a weird dream…?” Imai mumbled, squinting his eyes as he attempted to recall whatever he was referring to. “I think you were in it.”
“Huh, really,” Sakurai muttered, taking the plastic bag.
“It’s… nevermind.” Imai looked away. “I think you’d rather not know,” he said to himself.
“Right,” Sakurai responded absentmindedly as he began to turn and walk away from the counter.
“See you later,” Imai called after him.
Sakurai grunted and raised a hand in acknowledgement as he continued out of the store and on his way to work. He had to admit he felt rather disappointed at how things turned out. If Imai had remembered what he instigated, then perhaps Sakurai could get the clarification he wanted so badly. But then again, he had already expected Imai to forget. Maybe it was better like this.
Or did Imai think that he dreamt it up?
Chapter 28: 28
It was five past midnight. Sakurai sucked in a breath through his cigarette as he walked towards his district. He chose to go out for dinner with his colleagues today. He hoped that vaguely asking them about his dilemma would help but… it didn't.
They cheered when he mentioned that he sort of slept with someone he liked. But then came the problem of that someone not remembering that it happened. Not to mention that he never felt like he ever got any clear indication that these feelings were mutual while they were both sober.
Sakurai took a long drag and sighed.
“If you tell her and it turns out she doesn't like you, that'll be all sorts of trouble. She might accuse you of all kinds of things. Whether or not she still likes you will be the least of your concerns by then.”
“But if you don't tell her and things move forward between you two, wouldn't it be something that’ll bother you all the time?”
Sakurai sighed again as he recalled their conversation. This is exactly why it's a dilemma.
All too soon, the corner store came into view. The main store area was closed, as usual, but the fluorescent light of that familiar tobacco window illuminated the street. Sakurai paused, taking a moment to school his expression into something neutral. He wanted a little more time to think on his own before he made a decision about what to do. As much as he enjoyed the routine and the opportunities to see Imai, continuing on like this wasn't going to work out in the long run. Everything would just fall apart again in the end.
Sucking on his cigarette one last time, Sakurai dropped the butt on the floor, squashed it under his heel, and walked over to the tobacco window while exhaling white clouds of cigarette smoke. Coming into the light, Sakurai kept a straight expression on his face as he met Imai's eyes.
Before he could say anything, Imai commented, “What's with that frown?”
“What frown?” Was he still frowning?
“Like this…” Imai pointed a finger at the space between Sakurai’s eyebrows, moving it up and down, “this… crease of yours is deeper than usual. Careful that it doesn't become permanent.”
Sakurai frowned harder, disbelieving. He pressed a thumb between his eyebrows and massaged, feeling preoccupied about it all of a sudden. “I'm not…”
“Maybe it's just me but,” Imai leaned forward and folded his arms on the countertop, resting his cheek against a hand, “you always look kind of upset the day after I ask you out for drinks.”
Sakurai let out a heavy sigh. Was he that obvious?
“I mean, specifically when it's with the heavy drinkers. I've only asked you along twice for those but…”
Sakurai shook his head, still pressing his thumb to his forehead. “No, it's not the drinking.”
“Something else bothering you then.”
Sakurai folded his arms and looked down the empty street as he chewed the inside of his cheek. “Mm… you could say…”
“Beer?” Imai suddenly asked.
Perhaps it could help. “I guess… But the store's-”
Imai straightened up and stepped to the right, reaching for something out of sight. Sakurai heard the snap of a latch unlocking and a door which he never noticed before swung open from the side of the premises. Imai appeared outside and beckoned Sakurai with a jerk of his head before disappearing back in.
Sakurai sighed and trudged towards the door. Looks like tonight was going to be longer than he expected again.
Chapter 29: 29
Sakurai couldn’t quite understand why Imai invited him in, or why he himself agreed to come in for drinks, but he was now stuck here, unable to think anything to say. It was a tense silence that stretched out between them as they sat side by side on the veranda in the back, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while each waited for the other to say something.
Eventually, Imai was the one to break the ice. “So?”
Sakurai let out a heavy sigh and bit his inner cheek. How was he supposed to put this? He took a puff from his cigarette and crossed his legs, leaning forward to hold his chin in his hand with an elbow on his knee as he said, “What if… What would you do if someone came up to you and said they liked you?”
“Hm? That's what's bothering you?”
“In a way.”
“Did someone say that to you at work or what?” Imai asked.
“No, but… I've gotten hints. Recently.”
Imai hummed and brought his cigarette to his lips, taking a breath through it as he considered Sakurai's words. “Do you like this person?”
“I'm asking what you would do,” Sakurai emphasised.
“Then it's simple,” Imai shrugged, staring off into the distance. “I'd reject them.”
“Hm.” Sakurai straightened up and stretched his body, leaning back in a subtle attempt to ease the tension in his chest. It stung to hear that.
“I already have someone I like anyway,” Imai added nonchalantly before sucking on his cigarette.
“Is that so?”
Imai nodded once.
“Is it someone you met recently?”
Imai nodded again, tapping his cigarette against the side of the ashtray as he did.
“Does that person know?”
This time it was Imai's turn to sigh. “I don't think so.”
“Do you think that person likes you back?”
At this, Imai huffed and a sardonic smile tugged at his lips. “To be honest, I don't know,” he muttered as the smile faded away as quickly at it came. “Sometimes I feel like I might've gotten through but most times…” He sighed again.
“Sounds like a pain,” Sakurai muttered.
“Doesn't it?” Imai chuckled.
Sakurai hummed, unsure of what to think. On the other hand… “So…”
“What if… a man comes up to you,” Sakurai paused and swallowed. His mouth has gone dry. “And said he likes you?”
“So the one who likes you at work isn't a woman?”
Sakurai took a while to consider the question. There wasn't anyone like that at work, but perhaps for the sake of this… “It seems like that,” he muttered.
“Is that what's really bothering you?” Imai asked. “That it's a man who's interested.”
“No, I just don't know how to deal with someone liking me,” Sakurai replied, sneering as he added quietly, “Like why would anyone like me ?”
“Why not?” Imai immediately responded, shooting him an affronted look. “Why wouldn't people like you?”
“Uh?” Sakurai was surprised by Imai’s reaction.
“You're gentle, you're kind, you're considerate to a fault, you’re polite, you-” The moment Imai met Sakurai's eyes, he suddenly caught himself and fell silent. Looking away, he took a long drag from his cigarette and muttered, “You're just not making sense.”
Sakurai picked up his sake and drank deep, wishing that he had the physical reaction to get flushed from alcohol. At least he could pretend that beer was the reason for the tingling sensation in his cheeks and the sudden rush of heat he felt.
“Anyway, your question,” Imai redirected the conversation. “Male or female, it doesn't matter. If it's not the person I like, I'd reject them.”
“I see,” Sakurai mumbled, head bowed as he stubbed his cigarette out on the ashtray.
Reaching for his cigarette pack, Sakurai withdrew another stick out from the box and lit it up. He picked up his bottle and shook it. Based on the weight and the sloshing of the beverage, he guessed he only had a couple more mouthfuls to go.
“Do you… know that man?” Imai suddenly asked.
“The one from your workplace who you said is interested in you.”
“Well… I've barely spoken to him on a couple of occasions,” Sakurai answered on a whim. “Why do you ask?”
“I suppose you'll reject him then?” Imai asked as he looked at Sakurai.
“I… guess so,” Sakurai muttered, shunning away from Imai's gaze.
“Good,” came Imai's quiet one-word answer.
“… Good?” Sakurai's eyes snapped back to Imai, surprised by his utterance.
“Hm?” Imai briefly glanced at him before looking away.
Imai seemed closed off, staring blankly at the burning ember of his cigarette as Sakurai stared at him, waiting for him to say something. It felt as if the night has suddenly turned hush. Sakurai could hear his heart beating in his ears.
Pressured by the silence, Sakurai spoke in a quiet voice, “You said that you had someone you liked.”
Imai didn't move. “Mm.”
“Do I know this person?”
Imai brought his cigarette to his lips and breathed in. With a long, heavy exhale, he replied, “I suppose you could say that.”
Sakurai suddenly felt breathless. It felt like his chest was going to collapse in on himself. That was clear enough an answer, wasn’t it? But what if he assumed wrong? What if he has been misunderstanding Imai this whole time? Sakurai bit down on his cigarette as he took another drag, tensing his jaw.
“I don’t suppose you’ll say who,” Sakurai remarked, his voice barely a whisper.
“Need you ask?” Imai mumbled flatly.
“Mm.” Sakurai shifted, subtly turning away from Imai.
The whole jumble of emotions in his stomach was unbearable. What was he supposed to do now? He never should've accepted the beer invitation. Sakurai picked up his bottle and downed the rest of it. He put it back down with a hollow clunk and Imai turned, jolted into moving by the noise.
“Want more?” Imai asked.
“I should go soon,” Sakurai replied.
Imai seemed disappointed as he looked down at the ashtray. “Oh.”
Sakurai found his eyes lingering on Imai again; watching him fidget with his cigarette in one hand while the other traced the grain of the wood of the veranda. He wanted to see his face but Imai's messy hair was in the way.
Sakurai deliberately shifted the ashtray that sat between them away. Without much of a thought, he reached towards Imai, carefully brushing his hair away and cupping his cheek as he leaned in. The split second before Sakurai closed his eyes, he saw Imai's startled expression but pressed his lips to Imai's despite it.
I hope I'm not wrong.
Chapter 30: 30
Heavy breathing filled Sakurai's ears as his lubricant-slicked fingers dug into Imai's back. A hand grabbed the back of his head and tugged at his hair tie, letting his hair come loose and fall into his face. Sakurai brushed his lips over Imai's, sharing breathless murmurs as he moved his hips, pushing slowly into Imai who let out a soft cry, voice cracking as his nails dug into Sakurai's side and thigh.
If it wasn’t for the fact that there was work tomorrow and that this was Imai’s first with a man, Sakurai would’ve let Imai top but he wasn’t particularly keen on risking the possibility of being in pain. Especially not while doing a presentation. It took a bit of coaxing and convincing, but it worked. In all honesty, Sakurai still could barely believe that things were going so well for him.
Imai gasped and pressed his head against the crook of Sakurai's neck, holding him tight as Sakurai commenced his slow, careful thrusting. Sakurai trailed soft kisses along Imai's neck, holding him close in a one-armed hug as his fingers teased Imai's nipples, eager to use pleasure to ease to the discomfort that Imai would be experiencing. Imai hissed and arched his back in response. Sakurai smiled as he nuzzled against Imai, pleased that he was so sensitive to his slippery, lubricated fondling.
Sakurai pushed deeper, stretching Imai more and he cried out again. Though this time, the sound was closer to a moan. Humming with satisfaction, Sakurai slid his hand lower, taking hold of Imai’s throbbing erection as he began to stroke in tandem with his thrusts. Not expecting this added stimulation, Imai grunted and moaned softly. With his bare legs wrapped tightly around Sakurai’s, Imai pulled him closer, wordlessly spurring for more.
More than happy to oblige, Sakurai braced himself with one hand on the headboard of the bed and gripped tight. Sakurai continued stroking Imai’s erection as he thrust harder and faster while meeting Imai’s hazy half-lidded eyes with a doubtlessly lustful gaze.
Their breaths grew short and quick as the pleasure built up. It wasn’t long before Sakurai felt Imai twitch in his palm and with a restrained groan, Imai came in his hands while his insides squeezed Sakurai too. Sakurai could barely contain himself when he felt Imai’s insides tighten. Eyes screwed shut, he thrust into Imai and came as well, letting out a low moan as his hand slipped from the headboard.
Flopping down onto Imai, Sakurai slowly eased himself out and tentatively removed his condom. He could feel Imai quietly watching his movements as he lay on the bed, chest rising and falling with his slowing breathing. Sakurai stumbled out of the bed and staggered to the desk to grab the tissue box. It’s been too long since the last time he exerted himself with another person.
Pulling out tissues, Sakurai wiped his hands as he walked back to Imai with the box. Imai was starting to get himself up to a seated position and judging by the soft grunts and wincing, he was probably going to feel it tomorrow. Coming back to Imai, Sakurai took him by his hand, supporting him as he sat up.
“Sorry,” Sakurai muttered, putting tissue box down next to Imai.
“No, I… There's a lot I didn't expect but this wasn't one of them,” Imai said softly. Noticing Sakurai reach of the tissues, Imai put a hand on his forearm, stopping him.
Sakurai gave him a questioning look.
“Better off going to the bathroom,” Imai said.
“But can you…?”
Sakurai huffed, a smile coming to his face. “That's true.”
Chapter 31: 31
Sakurai drifted in and out of sleep throughout the night. Each time he draws near the edge of waking, he finds himself frozen with the worry that it had all just been a dream. Yet all his uneasiness gets swept away with the simple act of cracking his eyes open to the sight of Imai quietly stirring next to him with his soft, steady breathing being the only other sound in the unfamiliar room. He didn't know how much time he spent wake, gazing at Imai’s sleeping form by his side, but it must've been much.
Waking up this time, he noticed the gentle light of predawn making the room glow blue. Sakurai suddenly felt the urge for a cigarette and carefully untangled his limbs from Imai's, trying not to wake him. As he stepped away from the bed, Sakurai heard a soft sigh from Imai and he paused, looking back, but Imai didn't wake. Satisfied that he didn't disturb Imai, he quietly put his jacket around his shoulders and withdrew his cigarette pack and lighter from its pocket. Sakurai moved slowly as he tried to unlock the door to the balcony as quietly as possible. When he flicked the latch, the obnoxiously loud click made him wince. Well, he tried his best.
Sakurai stepped through the threshold and out into the chilly morning air, pulling his jacket tighter around his bare torso as he carefully closed the sliding door behind him. A breeze blew past and feeling the cold nip at his skin, he sneezed. Imai's board shorts weren't exactly the best to wear in late autumn.
Licking his lips, Sakurai brought a cigarette to his mouth and flicked his lighter, sucking in and lighting it. He breathed in deep and exhaled, watching the smoke swirl and disappear with the breeze as he leaned against the bannister. Although he was only on the second floor, he quite enjoyed the view of their quiet residential area from Imai’s room. The other buildings around them were actually low enough for him to be able to see his own apartment block from here. It really made him wonder if Imai ever spent time watching-
Sakurai’s train of thought came to a screeching halt when something pressed into the back of his knee that he was leaning his weight on. Alarm flashed through his mind as he suddenly sank down towards the floor. Thankfully, he caught himself but while readjusting his posture, Sakurai found his hands unburdened. He dropped his cigarette. His eyes quickly scanned the floor around him but he found nothing. Leaning forward over the bannister, he looked down to the first floor and finally found his cigarette butt lying in the drain, still smoking.
A half-suppressed chuckle came from behind Sakurai and he turned to find Imai standing there, blanket wrapped around him with a lopsided grin on his face. With open palms and a mortified expression, Sakurai gesticulated mutely, What the fuck?
Without responding, Imai came closer, throwing the warm blanket around Sakurai and saying, “Aren’t you cold?”
Sakurai furrowed his brow and looked back down at his lost cigarette.
“I’ll get you another pack,” Imai promised, wrinkling his nose as he sniffed.
Responding with a disgruntled grunt, Sakurai took another stick out and put it between his lips. Glancing at the blanket, he muttered, “You don't mind? The smell?”
“It's fine,” Imai replied.
Sakurai flicked his lighter and inhaled, sticking an arm out from under the blanket to hold the cigarette away. Even if Imai said he doesn’t mind, Sakurai himself didn’t want the sheets to smell like stale cigarettes. Nudging Imai with his elbow, he offered the cigarette to him and Imai craned his neck over, taking a quick drag while Sakurai held it.
Sharing the stick in silence, it didn't take long for it to run out and just as it did, Imai flicked the butt out of Sakurai's fingers and into the empty street below. Sakurai blinked at Imai in surprise, but all he got in return was a nonchalant shrug. Well, whatever suited him. Sakurai couldn’t exactly retrieve it now.
They stood outside together for a while more, watching how their street slowly woke from its slumber. But they soon became tired of standing and moved back into the room, huddled together on the floor in the blanket as they continued staring out the window, watching the sky grow brighter in silence.
Hugging Imai from behind, Sakurai rested his head on his shoulder, leaning forward while Imai leaned back into his embrace. “Do you know the time?” Sakurai asked softly.
“Mm… about five-ish,” Imai mumbled. “There's still time to spare.”
“Right,” Sakurai muttered, feeling his eyes droop close as he let himself relax a little more.
Imai sensed his drowsiness and said, “I'll wake you up.”
“Mm…” Sakurai hummed contentedly.
A hand reached up to ruffle his hair, gently caressing the side of his face while his fingers interlocked with Imai’s under the blanket. Warm and comfortable, Sakurai sighed and nuzzled against Imai as he relaxed and fell back asleep.
Chapter 32: 32
“Huh, you're early,” Imai remarked, side-eyeing Sakurai as he trudged into the store.
“Um, yeah,” Sakurai muttered, stopping to look at the drinks in the fridge.
The rest of the week passed in the blink of an eye and before anything else could happen, it was already Friday. It felt as if things simply reverted back to normal after that night.
Sakurai initially hoped to spend his evenings with Imai, but his boss returned from his trip a whole week earlier than expected. With him around, there was no way Sakurai had any chance of leaving on time. Not with the obligatory after work ‘wind down’ dinners and rounds and rounds of drinking sessions.
“Got your freedom for the weekend?” Imai asked nonchalantly, turning his attention back to the magazine he had in his hands.
“I suppose so,” Sakurai sighed. Grabbing an energy drink from the fridge, he added, “I hope so.”
As Sakurai brought the can to the cashier counter, he caught Imai staring incredulously at it. “Is that all you’re having for dinner?” Imai scoffed.
“Maybe later,” Sakurai muttered, shrugging as he reached for his wallet.
“No dinner plans?”
“… I'm just going home,” Sakurai answered, feeling a flutter in his stomach.
“What's your point?” Sakurai mumbled.
“… I have curry,” Imai blurted. “I’ve been trying to finish it for the past couple of days and I'm quite sick of it, really.”
Sakurai stared at Imai. Was that it? After a pause, he asked, “Why curry?”
“Instant noodles are-”
“Oh, please,” Imai scoffed, rolling his eyes.
Imai's predictable reaction made Sakurai chuckle. “Can I go home first?” he asked. “Shower and… all that.”
“Do what you want.”
“And give me that,” Sakurai added, pointing at the energy drink.
“Why would you need this?” Imai asked, holding the can in his hand as he read the labels.
“Because I'm tired,” Sakurai replied. “What do you mean ‘why’?”
“It's not like you're going out later or something,” Imai said.
“Hisashi, I'm tired ,” Sakurai emphasised, giving Imai a pointed look. “I have no energy for anything .”
“I still don't get-”
“Tsk.” Sakurai slapped a bill down on the counter. Snatching the can out of Imai's hand, he briskly strode out of the store without a backward glance and a gruff “I'll see you later”.
Chapter 33: 33
Sakurai sat next to Imai, crouched on a stool, reading the magazine that lay open on the counter as he ate out of the shallow bowl that he held in his hand. The generous helping of beef curry that Imai heaped onto his rice was apparently the last of what Imai had in his pot. To Sakurai, it was enough for two to share but Imai insisted otherwise. Maybe he was just sick of eating curry as he said. But why did he make curry-flavoured instant noodles for himself then?
Sakurai let out a short huff and put another spoonful of curry-coated rice in his mouth. He could feel the ball of rice separate into its individual round grains and taste the savoury richness of the sliced beef strips mixing with the fragrant curry. Chewing, he put the bowl down on his lap, distributing more curry over the rest of his rice as he hummed with satisfaction. He couldn't deny that it was good.
Hearing a page turn, Sakurai shifted his attention to the magazine while Imai slurped up his noodles from the plastic cup. Sakurai glanced over at Imai and commented, “I thought you're against instant noodles.”
“Some days I feel lazy. It's convenient,” Imai justified.
“So why won’t you let me eat that?”
“Because you’re lazy every day .”
Sakurai huffed. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he grumbled, popping a curry-infused potato cube into his mouth.
“One, you’re eating out when you don’t come by early,” Imai pointed out. “Two, you don’t cook. Three, there’s nothing you can cook with in your house anyway.”
“Who says?” Sakurai huffed indignantly as he held the bowl in his hand again.
“I’ve been there,” Imai reminded, flipping a page of the magazine. “Your stove has a layer of dust over it.”
Sakurai glared at him. Unable to come up with a response, he shovelled more rice and curry into his mouth as he muttered, “Snoop.”
“Not much else to do while waiting for you,” Imai shrugged.
Falling silent, Sakurai started to wonder what else Imai saw as he pretended to go back to reading the magazine but after a while, another thought came to mind. “Why haven’t you closed up shop yet?”
“You haven’t bought your Marlboro Reds.”
“… Is it necessary to wait for me to do that?”
Imai simply shrugged without a word.
“So you’ll close right after I buy the cigarettes?”
“Surely there are people who come in after I leave?” Sakurai asked.
“No, not really,” Imai replied. “It’s a quiet neighbourhood we live in. ‘Sides, we have part-timers doing delivery.”
“Delivery?” Sakurai echoed.
“Yeah, there’s a number people can call to order food,” Imai said. “We even have it painted on the shutters.”
“Ah… so that's what it's for.”
“It’s not your phone number.”
“Nope.” Imai looked over at Sakurai. “Why would you think that?”
“It only showed up after you took over,” Sakurai muttered, stirring his rice.
“The old man only thought of implementing it after he went on vacation,” Imai explained. After a pause, he looked up and frowned. “You were looking for my number?”
Sakurai made a vague noise, shrugging as he ate another mouthful.
“Why didn't you just ask me?”
Sakurai shrugged in silence again. This was embarrassing.
Imai leaned back and dug his phone out of his jeans pocket. Handing it to Sakurai, he said, “Call your own phone.”
“Hm?” Sakurai stopped chewing and swallowed.
“You can save my number when it shows up in your’s.” Imai offered his phone to Sakurai again. “Take it.”
Hesitantly, Sakurai tilted to the side and took his own phone out. Balancing his bowl in his lap, he took Imai's phone and started dialling. While Sakurai was trying to recall his own number, brisk, heavy footsteps entered the store and an enthusiastic greeting reached them. “Heeey! Imai!”
Sakurai looked up and saw a tall and a rather striking-looking man in a leather jacket whipping his shades off as he approached them. His heavy books clunked to a stop in front of the counter and he ran a hand through his slicked back hair as he said, “It's been a while, hasn't it? I was told I could find you here but I didn't expect you to be running the store with someone else.”
“It has been a while,” Imai greeted. He sounded happy. “Who told you I was here?”
“Oh, you know,” the man waved a hand as he spoke. “Birds and all.”
“Huh.” Imai shifted, folding his arms. “So why are you looking for me?”
“There's a gig tomorrow.”
“Well, everyone knows you like attending gigs and it's been… a while since your last so I was wondering if you're interested.”
“Sounds like there’s a catch.”
“Well, aren't you wary,” the man remarked with a chuckle as he scuffed his boot on the concrete floor.
“Can you blame me?” Imai casually retorted.
Sakurai pressed the call button on Imai's phone and his own phone began buzzing, drawing the attention of both men. Hastily, Sakurai put down the call and handed Imai’s phone back to him. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Imai muttered, turning his attention to his phone. He took a moment to navigate his phone then began typing before pausing and asking, “It's ‘Sakurai’, right?”
“Which one is it?” Imai asked, leaning in close and showing Sakurai the screen with the various Kanji options.
“This, the old one,” Sakurai muttered, selecting with a tap.
Imai hummed and continued typing. “A… tsu… shi… Tsk. Now which- Nevermind. Can I use ‘Acchan’?”
“I-I guess? I have no problem with that,” Sakurai muttered.
“Come to think of it, I feel like I've seen you before,” Imai’s acquaintance suddenly addressed Sakurai.
“Hm?” Sakurai looked up at him. “You must be mistaken.”
“Maybe not,” Imai mumbled, still occupied with his phone. “He's our senior from high school.”
“No, no,” the man shook his head, still staring at Sakurai. “I mean, sure, I suppose we're from the same high school if Imai says so but I don't think that's where I saw you.”
“I don't… recall having met someone like you,” Sakurai frowned, confused. “No offence.”
“Nah, none taken.” A smirk tugged at the man's lips. Snapping his fingers and looking up to the ceiling, he began muttering to himself, “Where was it? Where was it?”
Sakurai exchanged a glance with Imai and shrugged. Imai shrugged back and subtly waved his hand, urging Sakurai to eat and ignore the man. Sakurai put a spoonful of curry rice into his mouth and Imai slurped another mouthful of noodles as they turned their attention back to the magazine.
Before Sakurai could even read one sentence though, the man exclaimed, “Ah! You had long hair, didn't you?”
Sakurai felt his whole tense up and felt his mouth go dry despite the food.
“If you did and you're who I'm thinking of then it's no wonder you don't remember me,” the man laughed. “You two only ever had eyes for each other-”
Forcing himself to swallow, Sakurai stared fixedly at the magazine as he reiterated, “You must be mistaken.”
“Really? I could've sworn-”
“Yes, really,” Sakurai said firmly, eating another mouthful of rice despite his sudden loss of appetite.
The man folded his arms and hummed low, unconvinced.
“Anyway, you were saying there's a gig?” Imai suddenly spoke up, changing the topic.
While still tense, Sakurai felt somewhat grateful that Imai did that. He should probably remember to thank him properly later.
“Well, it's tomorrow evening and a few different bands are playing,” the man informed. “Wanna come?”
Imai turned to Sakurai and asked, “Wanna go?”
Sakurai looked up from his bowl in surprise and met Imai's inquiring eyes. Was this a…? He must've stared for too long because Imai twitched his brow and jerked his head, wordlessly asking, So?
Letting a small smile spread on his face, Sakurai answered, “Why not?”
“I guess we're going then,” Imai concluded with a nod.
The man's eyes darted between the two of them, his expression unreadable. That quick glance was so fleeting that Sakurai wondered if it was just his paranoia making him imagine things. If the man had any opinions though, he didn’t voice them.
“Well, then.” The man clapped with a wide grin on his face. “I'll see you two tomorrow then! Show starts at 8! Don’t be late!”
Chapter 34: 34
Imai’s acquaintance, Sakurai learnt, was indeed their alma mater who now dabbled in holding events of all kinds. His network was apparently extensive, which could explain why he had an impression of seeing Sakurai before. As busy as he was supposed to be though, it took a while before the man finally caught up enough with Imai and proceeded to leave. Sakurai only realised how tense he was when it was only just him and Imai left.
Sakurai was washing his cutlery in the kitchen when Imai came up behind him. Drinking from a can of beer, he commented, “You really can't deal with unfamiliar people, huh?”
“Not a strong point of mine,” Sakurai muttered.
“Beer?” Imai asked, touching the cold surface of a can to Sakurai's forearm.
Sakurai considered it for a moment then sighed. “I think I might need something stronger,” he mumbled. “Maybe another energy drink too. I can feel the crash coming.”
“I don't get why you'd want to stay awake so badly,” Imai remarked, leaning against the kitchen counter as Sakurai wiped the bowl. “It's not like I won't let you stay if you fall asleep.”
Without thinking, Sakurai blurted, “And you won't touch me?”
“Is that what you're worried about?” Imai asked, sounding wary.
Sakurai gritted his teeth, tensing his jaw as he kept his eyes on the fork and spoon in his hands. He couldn't quite tell what Imai meant with his question, but it didn't make him feel good. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and muttered, “I've been wondering if you regret it.”
“No, I don't,” Imai said quietly. “You?”
“No,” Sakurai breathed, hesitantly turning his gaze to Imai.
Imai's shoulders shook as he chuckled. He let out a sigh of relief and confessed, “I honestly thought you were avoiding me these past few days.”
“What? You don't believe me when I say things have been a mess?” Sakurai quipped
“It could've been metaphorical,” Imai smiled, poking his finger at Sakurai’s chest.
Sakurai blinked and looked away, slotting the cutlery into the drainer at the sink as he grappled with his surprise at Imai's gesture of familiarity. “I suppose that's not wrong either,” he mumbled.
Imai hummed and folded his arms. Taking a swig from his can, he asked, “So… beer?”
“You got sake?”
“Yeah,” Imai nodded as he pushed himself off the counter. “I guess I'll finish this too then,” he said, tapping on the unopened can of beer.
“You'll be fine,” Sakurai dismissed. Turning, he wiped his hands off on his jeans. “At least you're already at home.”
Chapter 35: 35
The cool night air filled his lungs as Sakurai sucked in a deep breath of air between long, slow kisses. Curling his fingers, he bunched up the fabric of Imai’s shirt, hugging him close as the man pinned him against the support beam on the veranda.
The ashtray has been pushed aside, sitting neglected between the empty beer can and sake bottle. They had been drinking and smoking, winding down as usual when furtive touches gradually grew into casual caresses and one thing led to another until Sakurai ended up between Imai and the support beam.
This slow build up was quite different from their last encounter. Perhaps it's because neither of them was worried that this was a spur of the moment thing any more. Sakurai knew that this was certainly the case for himself. What Imai said earlier definitely put his heart at ease. Simply recalling it brought a smile to his lips.
Feeling the movement, Imai paused and drew back, opening his eyes as he whispered, “You’re smiling.”
Sakurai hummed and leaned his head back against the beam. Putting a hand on Imai's waist, he sighed and relaxed, enjoying the feeling of Imai's hand caressing the side of his face.
“Did I do something stupid?” Imai asked.
Sakurai shook his head, the same smile plastered on his face as he added weight on Imai's back with his hand to urge him closer. Imai looked unconvinced though. Sakurai chuckled and leaned forward, brushing a light kiss across Imai's lips as he muttered, “You make me happy.”
“Is that so?” Imai replied, a small smile growing on his face.
Before Sakurai could respond, Imai's fingers slipped under his shirt, tracing lines on the small of his back as he began kissing Sakurai again. With a blissful sigh, Sakurai wrapped his arms around Imai and tightened his embrace, silently willing him to so as he pleased. As if responding to Sakurai's wishes, Imai grew more aggressive, sucking on his lips and sliding his hands further up Sakurai's shirt.
Sakurai sucked in another deep breath, arching his back to Imai's touches. As his heart raced and heat rushed to his groin, Sakurai froze abruptly, leaning to the side and backing away.
Startled, Imai let him go, albeit with a distressed look on his face. His upset voice came out as barely a whisper when he asked, “What's wrong?”
“Can we go inside?” Sakurai requested, pulling Imai by his forearm.
“What's the difference?” Imai questioned, letting himself be led by Sakurai regardless. “No one will see us out here anyway.”
“I… You'll get it later,” Sakurai muttered, biting the inside of his cheek. Pulling Imai along, he retreated into the guestroom. “Please?”
Without another word, Imai entered the room after Sakurai. Sliding the door shut behind him, Imai then stood up in the darkened room, sliding the closet door open, pulling out the futon and blanket from inside. He left it open as he spun around and spread out the futon properly. He barely gave Sakurai any chance to move before he dragged him onto the futon. Straddling him, Imai knelt and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his cargo pants, taking out a bottle of lube and a box of condoms.
Sakurai stared at the items, tossed onto the blanket next to them and muttered, “Well, aren't you prepared.”
Imai huffed and smirked at him. Crouching over, he helped Sakurai out of his jacket and tossed it aside as well. Gently, he brushed Sakurai's hair away from his face as he drew close. Sliding his hand to the back of Sakurai's neck, his grip tightened and his fingers curled into his hair as he pressed their lips together in a kiss.
This was different. Imai seemed a little less restrained and a little more hungry with the way he kissed and ran his hands over Sakurai’s skin. Sakurai relished it, his chest rising and falling with his conscious effort to keep breathing. When Imai grinded their hips together, Sakurai could barely resist the urge to let a whine and a sigh escape his lips, and Imai, taking that as encouragement, paused as he moved his hands down to unbutton Sakurai’s jeans.
Pushing himself up, Sakurai rested on his elbows and watched Imai. He chewed on the inside of his lower lip, contemplating before he asked, “Do you know what to do?”
“Hm?” Imai looked up at Sakurai as he put his hands on either side of the jeans. Tugging while Sakurai shimmied out of them, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“You know you can't just… get straight into it like with women, right?”
“Right,” Sakurai nodded slowly. “Do you remember what I did the last time?”
“Sort of,” Imai muttered, putting a hand on Sakurai's crotch as he slid off Sakurai's briefs.
With a casual stroke by Imai, Sakurai felt his body tense and shudder as he softly muttered Imai's name. He heard a chuckle from Imai followed by a rustle as Imai reached for the lube.
Watching Imai open the bottle, Sakurai bit his lower lip and muttered, “I could… show you. If you want.”
Imai's eyes darted to meet Sakurai's uncertain expression. He looked as if he was trying to conceal his interest as he handed the bottle to Sakurai and settled between Sakurai's legs on his knees.
If it wasn't already embarrassing enough that he was the only one mostly undressed, Imai's intense stare definitely made it so. Sakurai wanted to tell him to look away out of habit, but that would defeat the purpose of this, wouldn't it?
With his fingers covered in lube, Sakurai lay down and reached below. He bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut as he folded his legs, pressing them as close to his body as possible to elevate his hips. He could just about die from embarrassment right now.
Trying to relax his body, Sakurai took in several deep breaths and finally pressed his fingers to his rim, beginning to tease himself. Perhaps the discomfort of being watched made him want to get it over and done with, or maybe it instead added to his libido. Whatever it was, Sakurai barely spent much time with the teasing and quickly proceeded to push his finger into himself.
Exhaling with a soft moan, Sakurai curled his toes and pressed his knees together, blocking Imai's line of sight. With Imai out of sight, he immediately felt his restraint falter and fade away as he began thrusting his finger in and out of himself, adding a second and a third as soon as he felt like it.
Sakurai's breathing grew heavy and his mind clouded over with the pleasure. Letting the sensations manifest themselves in a dazed smile on his face, Sakurai panted but bit his lower lip, refusing the urge to speak Imai's name.
In his mild high, Sakurai felt hands on his knees, prying them apart as one then moved to stop his hand from thrusting. He looked between the gap and saw Imai holding his legs apart as he pressed his condom-covered erection against Sakurai's hole.
“Fancy you enjoying yourself this much without me,” Imai muttered, an unamused expression on his face.
Before Sakurai could respond, Imai pushed in without much resistance. Feeling Imai slide in deeper than he could've reached with his fingers, Sakurai arched his back and moaned. He dug his fingers into the futon under him, scratching at it as he closed a hand around his own erection, stroking himself while Imai stimulated his prostate with every thrust.
Sakurai could feel his throat constrict and his head growing light as his moans grew in pitch with the building heat in his groin. Bucking his hips while he cried for Imai over and over again, Sakurai felt the warmth of Imai's embrace envelop him as the tension snapped and he came in hot gushes.
As his high began to subside, Sakurai felt drained but Imai wasn't done yet. He was still thrusting. Hastily smacking Imai's upper arm, Sakurai hissed but ended up whining uselessly as the undulating waves of pleasure resumed while Imai continued rocking his body. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Sakurai could only hold on tight to Imai and succumb to the pleasure.
Burying his face in the crook of Imai’s neck, Sakurai was engulfed by the heady scent of Imai’s musk tinged with traces of smoky cigarette and sweet alcohol. Hugging Imai tight, Sakurai moaned and breathed his name into his ear, the only thing that he could think of at this moment.
At some point, Imai pulled away a little and Sakurai watched him gazing back at him for a while. A hand gently brushed Sakurai’s ruffled hair out of his face and Imai drew close again, resting his forehead against Sakurai’s as he murmured something inaudible before kissing his lips again.
Feeling his desire building again, Sakurai bucked his hips and whined, mumbling soft pleadings of “more” whenever he had the chance. Imai chuckled and grinned, thoroughly amused by Sakurai’s behaviour. Sakurai whined louder, arching his back as he dug his fingers into Imai’s back. Imai huffed and finally acceded to his demands, bracing himself with hands planted on either side of Sakurai as he thrust hard into Sakurai.
Another bout of pleasure roiled through Sakurai’s depths, making him shudder and moan again as the surge of ecstasy rushed through his body. What followed was a light, floaty sensation that left Sakurai feeling like he was sinking into the futon under him as his body relaxed and Imai removed himself.
Lying there felt so comfortable that he didn’t want to move. Sakurai heard a soft chuckle and felt a hand combing through his undoubtedly messy hair. Turning slightly, he came face to face with Imai’s satisfied smile.
“No wonder you wanted to come indoors.”
Chapter 36: 36
Sakurai nuzzled against the warm body next to him, breathing in the faint scent of shampoo in Imai’s hair as he slowly woke up. Cracking his eyes open, the familiar blue of pre-dawn light came in through the shoji doors, illuminating the guest room where they slept this time. He hugged Imai closer and sighed. It appears that waking at this timing has become a habit for his body despite the fatigue.
Hugging Imai, Sakurai gave him a peck on the side of his face and began removing himself from the futon. Imai was such a sound sleeper that it wasn’t much of a difficulty to do. Leaving the warm cosy futon for the cold morning was though. But he had his needs.
Sakurai reluctantly rolled out and reached to the side for his jacket, groping around until he found the pocket where his cigarettes and lighter were. With them in hand, he sat up and ran a hand through his hair, yawning wide. He took a moment, sitting in a daze in nothing but in his underwear and the same tee he wore last night. He looked at his jacket. He’d better wear it.
Draping his jacket around his shoulders, Sakurai thought of getting up but that familiar ache in his lower back made him abandon that thought and he opted to shift around on the tatami instead. It's not that he couldn't take the pain. He just didn't want to deal with it now. Though he was once again glad that he didn't let Imai penetrate him the first time around. Going to work with this would've definitely been no fun.
It didn't take long for Sakurai to let himself out to the veranda. Quietly closing the door behind him, he noticed that their drink containers from last night had been cleared along with the squashed cigarette butts. He hummed to himself. Imai probably got that done while he was in the bath.
Sakurai lit himself a cigarette and puffed, holding it between his lips as he brought the ashtray closer to him. He then shifted to lean against the support beam, sitting cross-legged. Relaxing, he let his eyes wander as he watched the clouds languidly float by between the skyscrapers. It was the only thing that moved at this time of day on a weekend. That, and the train that was just passing by. The sound of it running over the tracks seemed more distant than he expected. He thought it would've been terribly noisy living here. Apparently not.
“How do you keep waking up earlier than me?”
Sakurai turned around and found Imai peeking out from the room through the opening he made by pushing the sliding door aside. “Isn't it your off day today?”
Sakurai nodded once as he watched Imai widen the opening and come out. Wearing only his usual broad shorts, he came over and sat down in front of Sakurai, seemingly unperturbed by the chill. Legs dangling over the edge, he yawned and stretched his body then slouched back down.
Noticing the cigarette between Sakurai's fingers, Imai shifted closer and took hold of his wrist, bringing the cigarette to his lips. As Imai smoked from his hand, Sakurai took the opportunity to caress his face with his unoccupied fingers and thumb, earning himself an unamused sideways glance from Imai.
Sakurai chuckled and sat up, shifting around to sit behind Imai with his arms around the man. As Imai let go of his hand, Sakurai asked, “Aren't you cold?”
“Not really,” Imai muttered, only to end up sneezing himself.
“ Not really ,” Sakurai echoed teasingly as he rolled his shoulders forward, letting his jacket cover Imai a bit more. Bringing his cigarette to his lips, Sakurai took a drag and turned to the side, blowing the smoke away while tapping the ash into the ashtray.
“You like doing this, don't you?” Imai asked as Sakurai rested his chin on his shoulder.
“Leaning on me like this,” Imai shrugged. “Hugging me like this.”
“We can stay warm like this,” Sakurai murmured, putting his free hand on Imai’s thigh and rubbing it over the fabric of his shorts.
Imai jerked in his arms, startled. “Geez, warn me or something,” he muttered.
Sakurai chuckled, continuing with his casual caressing as he took another drag from his cigarette. He could feel Imai leaning more weight against him, relaxing more as he took hold of his wrist and brought the cigarette to his lips again. Sakurai wrapped his arms tighter around Imai, his free hand curling around Imai’s waist as he nuzzled against the side of Imai’s neck. Taking a deep breath, he sighed, “Finish it for me.”
Imai acknowledged him with a soft hum and removed the short stick from Sakurai’s fingers. With both hands now free, Sakurai rolled his broad shoulders and adjusted his posture only to lay his head back down on Imai’s shoulder. That was where he felt most comfortable after all.
Carelessly, Sakurai’s hands wandered back to Imai’s thighs, idly caressing him as his mind wandered elsewhere. Recalling their previous interactions, he suddenly remembered Imai's mention of a weird dream.
“You said you had a weird dream the other day?”
“Which… Ah. Ah, that.” Imai seemed to tense up. “What about that?”
“Did you mention it because it had something to do with me?”
“Mm… Sort of, I think.”
“What's weird about it?”
“I don't normally get those kinds of dreams,” Imai muttered, shifting in uncomfortably. “Anyway, I barely remember it now.”
“But you remember that I was in it?”
Tracing lines on Imai's thighs, Sakurai asked, “What was I doing?”
“Mmh…” Imai sounded reluctant. He sighed. “Look, I don't want to sound like a creep but…”
“You were… uh… sucking…”
Imai made a strangled noise and choked. Chest heaving, he violently as he gripped Sakurai's knee with a hand. Sakurai laughed as he patted Imai's back, tickled by his reaction. As Imai began to calm down, Sakurai muttered, “You can say it, you know? I don't mind.”
“Argh, but… I've never even dreamt of a woman doing that for me before, much less a man,” Imai grumbled.
Sakurai chuckled, a grin on his face as he asked, “Did you enjoy it?”
“Mm…” Imai stared at the ground in front of him as Sakurai put an arm around his hips. “Well, yeah…”
“Thank goodness,” Sakurai remarked, his smile growing wider. He wouldn’t have known what to do if Imai said he hated it.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Imai asked, turning slightly.
“Oh, nothing,” Sakurai dismissed, smiling to himself as he combed his fingers through Imai’s messy hair. “Just glad you liked it.”
“Why would you be glad-” Imai suddenly stopped mid-sentence and went still. “It… didn’t actually happen, did… it?”
“It was real?”
Sakurai kept mum, leaving a hand on Imai’s thigh as watching the next train go by while Imai got lost in his thoughts.
“It was real.”
“Mm…” Sakurai hummed in a vague tone.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Imai had an anxious energy about him as he fell silent. “I forced you… didn’t I?”
Sakurai definitely had to say something now. Tightening his embrace, he said gently, “No, you didn’t.”
“You wanted to leave, didn’t you? But I made you stay-”
Sakurai whispered into Imai's ear, “I enjoyed it too.”
Imai turned sharply, looking at him in surprise. Sakurai simply smiled back, beaming at Imai as he slid his hand up Imai's thigh and towards his crotch.
Jerking in surprise, Imai turned back to watch Sakurai's hands but he didn't stop him. Instead, he sucked in a deep breath and sighed as he muttered, “Acchan, I need to wash up and then go raise the shutters.”
“And?” Sakurai breathed, hunching his shoulders more to let his jacket cover them as he rested his hand on Imai's groin.
“I can't go out if you keep doing this,” Imai sighed.
“Keep doing what?” Sakurai asked, gradually closing his fist.
“That,” Imai said with a strangled voice.
“I can help you with that,” Sakurai suggested as he let his lips brush against Imai's ear.
Imai took in another deep breath. “You know, from how reserved you were, I never could've guessed you'd be…”
“Hm?” Sakurai eased Imai's pants lower.
“… so…” Imai looked like he was thinking hard, scrunching up his face as he leaned to the side to let Sakurai have his way.
Sakurai hummed as he slid Imai's pants halfway down his thighs. He smirked at the sight before him. Despite how Imai was acting, he was already erect.
In one fluid motion, Sakurai stepped down the veranda and bent over in front of Imai. Imai barely had time to react before Sakurai slid Imai's erection into his mouth.
Closing his eyes, Sakurai bobbed his head as he listened to Imai protesting. Only for a moment though, for he quickly succumbed to Sakurai licking his tip.
Sakurai wasn’t quite concerned with Imai's reactions this time around. Glancing up, his eyes met Imai's flushed and chagrined expression before he reached back with a hand and pulled his jacket over his head, covering himself from Imai's sight. Sakurai then put his arms around Imai's hips, getting a proper grip as he shifted Imai forward and making Imai fall back a little with a yelp.
In the little space of darkness he created, Sakurai got to work, dragging his tongue over Imai's erection as his fingers crept over Imai’s scrotum. He could hear Imai hissing his name, trying to get his attention as subtly as possible. Considering that they were in Imai's backyard in the brightening light of day, it was understandable. Not that Sakurai cared much. He would be done soon anyway.
Switching his mouth for his hand, Sakurai made a ring with his index finger and thumb, stroking Imai's erection as he held Imai firm and licked down, pressing his tongue into the frenulum and then lower down against Imai's rim. As he teased with his tongue, he felt a smack on his shoulder and heard violent swearing by Imai before a restrained grunt which sounded like a moan. A hand on his shoulder tightened its grip and heavy breathing followed.
Sakurai felt a twitch in his hand. Moving up, Sakurai let the jacket slip off his head as he put Imai back in his mouth. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he felt Imai close a hand in his hair, grabbing and letting go between caresses.
Making eye contact with Imai, they watched each other while Sakurai sucked him, rhythmically bobbing up and down until Imai’s erection throbbed and Imai furrowed his brow. Sakurai finally took him out of his mouth, screwing his eyes shut as Imai ejaculated on his face.
Suddenly feeling like he overdid things, a grin broke out on his face as Sakurai huffed and chuckled. Scrunching up his face, he carefully wiped away some of the discharge and opened his eyes, barely resisting the urge to laugh again when he saw the strange look on Imai's face that appeared to be something between appalled and satisfied.
As Imai ran his fingers through Sakurai's hair, he seemed to have trouble finding the words he needed. Eventually, Imai let out a huff and put a hand over his mouth as he finally finished his sentence.
Chapter 37: 37
The sound of a shoji door sliding open woke Sakurai up. He blinked slowly, barely moving his body as he watched the shadows cast by the tree in the yard dance languidly on the door in front of him.
Sakurai did wash up with Imai after his… deed this morning, brushed his teeth and all, but since he didn’t have anything to do that early on a Saturday morning, Imai convinced him to go back to sleep. It wasn’t as easy as Sakurai thought it would be though. He ended up drifting in and out of sleep multiple times, watching the shadows shift around each time he opened his eyes until he eventually fell into a deeper sleep which he had just been woken up from.
Slow, quiet footsteps entered the room and Sakurai turned. Imai had entered. He smelt like food.
Imai approached and lowered himself, sitting down on the tatami next to Sakurai. Gazing down at Sakurai, Imai muttered, “Hey.”
Sakurai hummed, breathing in deep and exhaling as he shifted to face Imai properly. He stared back up at Imai, blinking slowly as he relaxed in the futon.
“It’s almost noon now,” Imai informed quietly.
“Is it?” Sakurai whispered.
“Mhmm,” Imai nodded once. “Do you want to keep sleeping?” he asked, casually brushing the hair out of Sakurai’s face.
Sakurai smiled and shook his head. “I should get up.”
“I made Katsu,” said Imai.
As if on cue, Sakurai’s stomach growled and Imai burst out laughing. Sakurai sat up as he pressed his lips thin and smacked Imai on his arm for laughing. Imai leaned away, failing to dodge the hit anyway, and wiped his eyes as the bout of laughter subsided.
Letting his shoulders slump with a sigh, Imai looked at Sakurai and asked, “Shall we?”
Imai stood up and extended a hand to Sakurai who took hold of it. Using it as leverage, Sakurai stood up to. He expected Imai to let go once he was on his feet but Imai simply held on, leading him without looking back.
As Sakurai stared at Imai's back and grasped his warm hand tight, he felt his face warm with the smile that crept onto his face. He liked this.
Chapter 38: 38
Imai's friend called the event a ‘gig’ but Sakurai was quite sure that wasn't the right word for it. In fact, calling it a ‘rave’ would've been accurate.
Sticking a finger into his collar, Sakurai tugged at the soft fabric of his black turtleneck as he scanned the mass of writhing bodies for Imai. They had somehow lost each other. Sakurai could've sworn that he just turned away from Imai for a second and the next moment, he was gone.
Sakurai took a deep breath and kept looking around with the stoic expression on his face hiding his bubbling anxiety. Finding Imai in this massive crowd was going to be hard. The strobing flashes and the coruscating dappled lights weren't helping either. He bit the inside of his cheek and huffed, spinning around. Perhaps Imai went somewhere in front.
Picking a direction, Sakurai kept his eyes peeled as he started squeezing between people. As he moved, he could feel people making passes at him; sometimes making strong eye contact with him, other times grabbing… parts of his body. Sakurai felt the crease between his eyebrows deepen. As much as he wanted to react, there wasn’t much he could do in this crowd. Besides, he'd only get himself in trouble and possibly get thrown out without finding Imai.
It took a while and a fair bit of effort but eventually, Sakurai got to the front, close enough to touch the stage. The bass was even heavier here, thudding into him like mild blows to his body. He was pretty sure that this would make most people happy but with Imai still nowhere in sight, he simply got more frustrated. He spun around again and spotted a bar to the right. Maybe Imai was there.
Subtly elbowing people away, Sakurai squeezed his way over as he continued looking out for Imai. Progress was made quicker than before and he finally broke out of the mass of dancing bodies, into a more spacious area. He breathed a sigh of relief. It felt much better out here.
Biting the inside of his lower lip, Sakurai walked over to the bar. It was disappointing, but he sort of expected that Imai wouldn't be here. Feeling defeated, he stopped at the bar counter and ordered a whiskey on the rocks. He could, at least, pause for a drink first.
With his glass in hand, Sakurai leaned back against the counter and swept his eyes over the scene before him. He found it impossible to relax. Not when this place served alcohol and he knew Imai couldn't hold his liquor. If they were in a place where he was the only person Imai knew, he might've felt a little better but he knew Imai had acquaintances here and as far as he knew, none of his acquaintances has ever shown any mercy. He'd better get back to looking for Imai.
Downing the rest of his whiskey, Sakurai felt the heat of the alcohol warm his body. As he put the empty glass on the counter, a familiar face in the corner of his eye caught his attention. His blood pumped faster and spun sharply, turning to where he thought he saw that person but it was someone else instead. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. He must've been mistaken.
Sakurai walked away from the bar and headed towards the few private booths that lined the side of the venue. Maybe Imai was somewhere in there with his friends. He made quick work of them though, glancing in each one as he passed. Out of nowhere, a laugh he knew well reached his ears and Sakurai stopped in his tracks to look around again, searching for its source. He hasn't heard it in so long but he was sure that he knew its owner. But why now? Why was he showing up now? He felt his heart clench in his chest, making it difficult to breathe.
A voice called out to Sakurai over the din. “Hey! You're Imai's friend, aren't you?”
This one was easier to locate. Sakurai's eyes came to rest on a man with bright pink hair approaching him. He was quite flashy in his appearance, but he looked friendly, if not a little sheepish. Sakurai nodded warily as the man came closer.
“Sorry about leaving you on your own,” he smiled apologetically. “It probably felt like we snatched him away, huh?”
Sakurai nodded again. He wasn't sure where this was going.
“Don't talk much, do you?” the man remarked. Beckoning and walking away, he said, “Anyway, c’mon along, I'll take you to him.”
Left without much choice, Sakurai followed, hoping that he was making the right choice and that Imai was alright. Still, he couldn't help but wonder if that person was somewhere around here too.
Chapter 39: 39
“We would've come looking for you earlier if right off the bat Imai mentioned that he didn't come alone, but I guess we didn't give him much chance to speak between the drinks and the smoking,” said the pink-haired man as he led Sakurai towards another corner of the venue.
“… Oh.” Sakurai didn't know what to say. Why wouldn't have Imai found a chance to mention him?
The man went on, “I mean, we finally gave him a break like ten minutes ago and he got all sad like ‘What if he left without me?’ and ‘What if he hates me after this?’ so obviously we had to find you and try to placate him otherwise he'd become such a wet blanket. Not something you would've expected from him considering how he is in the day, huh?”
“Problem is, we didn't know what you looked like, but luckily, Hotei saw you before and he was saying that you looked like the pretty guy with long hair who stopped showing up at events a year or so ago but without the long hair.”
“Huh.” Sakurai didn't know what to feel about that. He supposed that Hotei guy was the one who invited Imai to this ‘gig’ yesterday.
“Was that you?” asked the man suddenly.
“That person Hotei mentioned.”
“Um…” The same familiar laugh he heard earlier caught Sakurai's attention again and he instinctively turned in that direction. This time, he actually did see the person he expected to see seated in another booth.
The man noticed where Sakurai's attention went and commented, “Ah, Issay's laugh sure is distinctive, isn't it?”
Sakurai grunted quietly in agreement and quickly turned away, feeling like his heart was in his throat. As he continued walking with the pink-haired man, he desperately hoped that he had not been noticed. He was sure he’d incapable of handling things.
All too soon came the announcement “We're here!”. Sakurai was hoping that they might be a little further away from the other booth.
Turning his attention to the nearly empty booth that they have arrived at, a couple of men who Sakurai didn't recognise were chatting to each other nodded at them in greeting while Imai sat on the opposite side from them, staring into space in a daze.
“Hisashi?” Sakurai called, immediately going over to him and grasping him by his shoulders. Imai barely responded but he blinked slowly, eyes unfocused as he continued staring at blank space. What happened to him?
“Hisashi, it's me,” Sakurai whispered.
The music was a little less loud here but he wasn't sure if Imai heard him until Imai blinked and lifted his head from the backrest and his eyes snapped into focus. Imai's eyes darted to Sakurai's and he began to smile. Chuckling to himself, he put his hands on Sakurai's face and mumbled, “Acchan…”
“Yes, it's me,” Sakurai replied as he started to frown. Imai was acting weird.
“So pretty…” Imai muttered, rubbing his thumbs over Sakurai's cheeks before he started chuckling again. Pressing a fingertip into the space between Sakurai's eyebrows, Imai said, “Little crease.”
As Imai continued to laugh, Sakurai could only frown harder. Something wasn’t right. Turning to the pink haired man, he asked, “What’s wrong with him?”
“Eh… well, he’s had a bit too much, it seems,” the man answered, pressing his lips thin.
“Too much what?” Sakurai hissed, growing increasingly worried as Imai kept prodding his face. “And don’t tell me it’s alcohol because this isn’t what happens if it's that.”
Sakurai suddenly felt a hard tug and he fell forward into Imai. With his face still in Imai’s firm grip, Sakurai felt Imai manoeuvering him, shifting their position until their lips met. Imai held Sakurai tight as he felt himself melt into deep, languid kisses. As much as he enjoyed it, it wasn’t like Imai to come onto him in a public place and especially not by groping at his crotch.
Pulling away, Sakurai held Imai’s arms to his sides as he coaxed, “Hisashi. Hisashi, listen to me. Let’s go home, alright?”
Imai’s expression suddenly turned dark. “And then you’ll dump me at my doorstep and leave?”
“No, no, no,” Sakurai hastily denied. Gently but firmly, he made Imai get up. “I’ll stay with you,” he said, “I promise I’ll stay with you, as long as you like.”
Imai threw an arm around him and started walking out with a big grin on his face. “I’ll hold you to your word,” he hummed in a sing-song voice.
They passed the pink-haired man and Sakurai saw that he had a perplexed expression on his face. “What are you to Imai?” he asked.
“I- Hey!” Sakurai could barely get a word out before Imai dragged him away towards some unknown direction. He gave the pink-haired man a hasty wave goodbye and then steered Imai in the right direction, away from the still-gyrating crowd and towards the exit.
As he threw another backward glance to the booth they came from, Sakurai’s eyes met the surprised expression of Issay's. The dull ache of an old yearning began to crack open again in his chest, urging him to respond to it and soothe the agony but thankfully, Imai yanked Sakurai’s attention back to him when he almost walked them into a wall.
Wrapping his arms around Imai, Sakurai forced himself to focus on Imai’s nonsensical rambling, most of which were gushings about him, as he pushed the door open and walked out of the noisy venue. While they waited for a cab, be looked over at the man with the dazed grin and smiled back at him. Sakurai had already made his decision. Hadn’t he?
Chapter 40: 40
Sitting in the taxi, Imai had turned docile, simply lying against Sakurai in his arms with a relaxed smile on his face as he traced Sakurai's jaw with his fingers. Imai was often in his own world, but this didn’t look like the world he usually dwelled. At least he wasn't that difficult to deal with in this state.
The ride felt like it took forever but eventually, they arrived at the corner store. Stepping off the car, Sakurai could feel Imai holding his hand in a vice grip, refusing to let go even as Sakurai fished Imai's pockets for the key and unlocked the door.
Sakurai sighed, entering the house. He probably should've waited for the pink-haired man to tell him exactly what was affecting Imai. Looking at Imai, he wasn't even quite sure what he was to do now.
Sitting Imai down, Sakurai was about to remove his shoes when, to his surprise, Imai took the initiative to kick his shoes off. He raised his eyebrows at Imai. Maybe his mind wasn't as far away as it seemed.
After he removed his own shoes and placed them properly at the entryway, Sakurai took Imai by his hand and continued into the house. Their next order of business would be to get a bath. Sakurai sighed again. He should've brought a change of clothes with him to leave here when he went home to change in the afternoon. Well, there wasn't much he could do about that now.
Leading Imai to the kitchen, Sakurai made him sit in a chair at the dining table while he poured a glass of water for him. He put the glass down and stared at Imai. He looked at the glass, and then at Imai’s now dazed face. Sakurai started to doubt whether Imai would even drink on his own. He sighed.
“Hisashi?” he called, bending down. “Do you hear me?”
“Mm…” Imai hummed, blinking once and turning to Sakurai slowly. He began to lean forward, almost falling out of his chair before Sakurai caught him. Pressing his forehead against Sakurai's, Imai muttered, “You are… very far away…”
Sakurai shifted closer, bringing his lips to Imai's ear as he made Imai sit up again. “Hisashi, I'm going upstairs to get your clothes and towel, alright? I'll be right back.”
Imai's hand clamped around Sakurai's forearm as he whined, “You're leaving?”
“Just for a moment,” Sakurai coaxed, hoping that Imai would let go. His arm was starting to hurt. “I'm not leaving the house.”
Imai still wasn't releasing him.
Racking his brains, Sakurai thought of something. “You can hold onto my shirt while I'm gone, alright? I can't go out in the cold without it, can I?”
Hearing that, Imai’s grip weakened slightly. Sakurai carefully eased himself free and straightened up. He couldn't guess how Imai would react if he moved too quickly. Pulling his turtleneck off his torso, Sakurai gave his top to Imai as promised. Imai grabbed it and held it in his hands as he stared hard at the black fabric. Bending lower again, Sakurai whispered to Imai, “I'll be right back”, and swiftly left the kitchen.
Sakurai ran up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, dashed through the corridor, and went into Imai’s room. He found a bath towel hanging on the doorknob facing the inside of the room and grabbed it. Striding to the wardrobe, Sakurai opened it and took a couple of Imai’s broad shorts with him, along with two other random shirts. Even if they were in Imai’s home, Sakurai didn’t feel entirely comfortable with leaving Imai to his own devices for too long in this state.
Bundling everything up in his arms, Sakurai went back downstairs, stopping by the bathroom to hang the clothes and towel on the rack and hooks first before heading back to the kitchen. It would be better for him to have his hands free before returning to Imai.
As Sakurai approached the kitchen, he called, “Hisashi?” No response came and Sakurai didn’t expect one anyway.
Upon entering the kitchen, Sakurai found Imai slumped over the table with his face in his turtleneck. Gripped by panic, Sakurai ran to Imai, his voice taut and raised as he called again, “Hisashi?!”
Sakurai crouched down and grabbed Imai by his shoulders, turning him to the side in an attempt to get a better look at him but Imai resisted, pressing Sakurai's top to his face with a hand. Closer now, Sakurai could hear Imai's heavy breathing and see his hand massaging his crotch. He sighed with relief. Was that all?
“Hisashi?” Sakurai called, stroking Imai's hair as he put a hand on Imai's knee. “Hisashi, I'm right here. I'm back.”
As Imai looked up from the shirt, Sakurai could see that he was flushed and dazed. Seeing Sakurai, Imai let go of the shirt and reached towards him, muttering his name. “Acchan…”
Dropping out of the chair and into Sakurai's arms, Imai buried his face in Sakurai's hair, breathing in deep. Pushed over, Sakurai rolled back on his heels and sat on the floor, holding Imai as he continued to knead at himself. Sakurai felt a huff of warm breath against his skin as Imai mumbled to himself, “Acchan… Why do you smell so good…”
Immediately, Sakurai barked a laugh. “No, I don't,” he scoffed, running his fingers through Imai's hair. “I probably smell like sweat and alcohol right now,” he added.
Imai seemed to ignore him, curling up against Sakurai as he undid his pants and started jerking himself off without a care in the world. Sakurai held Imai closer, resting his head against Imai's and blocking the sight from his view. Nuzzling Imai, Sakurai muttered, “I suppose I can't stop you even if I tried.”
The only coherent reply he got was a breathless “Acchan…”
“I wonder how mortified you'll be tomorrow,” Sakurai chuckled to himself.
Chapter 41: 41
Lying in the futon, Sakurai twirled a lock of Imai's hair around his fingers as he watched him sleep on his chest. In the end, Imai's tees were too tight around the shoulders for Sakurai to wear them. At least he had Imai keeping him warm.
Sleep was intermittent again. Imai’s restless shifting woke Sakurai up numerous times but this was better than getting woken up by intrusive dreams.
Imai's little masturbatory act seemed to have drained the energy out of him last night. He stayed awake while Sakurai was washing him and then went straight to sleep the moment he lay down on the futon. He did still have enough energy to drag himself onto Sakurai and sleep on him like this though.
As Sakurai caressed his cheek, Imai stirred, breathing in deep and cracking his eyes open. Lifting his head, he blearily looked up at Sakurai and stared at him. He blinked and began to frown.
“Good morning,” Sakurai greeted, watching Imai find his bearings while he continued playing with his hair.
Imai hummed in response and pushed himself. “Where’s your top?” Imai asked, his throat sounding parched. Spotting a glass of water on the low table nearby, he reached for it and took a long drink. It seems like Imai was, thankfully, back to normal.
“I gave it to you,” Sakurai said with a smirk, turning to rest on his side with his head propped up in his hand.
Imai suddenly choked, slamming the glass back down on the table as he sputtered water. Sakurai laughed, amused by his reaction. So, Imai knew what he did.
Holding up a finger, Imai shook it. Straining his voice between coughs, he said, “You didn't.”
“I did,” Sakurai affirmed. “I think it's still in the kitchen.”
Imai covered his eyes with a hand, going silent as he took deep breaths. “You didn't,” he repeated.
“… I didn't.”
“You sure did,” Sakurai grinned as Imai put his face in both hands and started groaning. Sakurai sat up and shifted closer to Imai, leaning in as he asked, “Do I smell nice?”
“No…” Imai groaned without looking up.
“No? So you prefer sweat over soap?” Sakurai chuckled.
Imai looked up, a chagrined look on his face as he denied, “I didn't-!” He stopped short and pulled up the collar of his tee to cover his face and groan again, “Argh… Why did I…”
“You sure enjoyed yourself,” Sakurai teased, smiling as he lay back down.
Letting his tee slide off his face, Imai stared at his hands and said, “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have given in…” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, grasping the locks by their roots as his face scrunched up in some sort of anguish. Letting go, he let his shoulders drop and he sighed again. “I shouldn't have done… that. It was disgusting of me.”
“Was it?” Sakurai asked, nonchalantly taking Imai's hand to fidget with it.
“Was it not?” Imai asked back. Sakurai got the feeling that this was the first time he has ever seen Imai looking so genuinely distraught.
“Not particularly,” Sakurai shrugged.
Imai didn't seem to buy it.
Sitting up, Sakurai leaned over and made Imai look at him with a light touch. He gave Imai a chaste kiss and said, “I mean it.”
Only then did the smallest of smiles appear on his face. The furrow in his brow still remained though.
Sakurai cupped his face and kissed him again. “I'm just glad you woke up as yourself,” he muttered, resting his head against Imai's.
“I made you worry,” Imai lamented.
“A little bit,” Sakurai confessed. “It was odd… sometimes unnerving…”
Imai drew away. “I never wanted you to see… that,” he muttered, voice cracking.
“Hisashi…” Sakurai didn’t know what to say. He never expected Imai to feel so sorely about this.
“It shouldn't have happened. We shouldn’t have gone to that event,” Imai continued, speaking faster.
“It wasn't all that bad-”
Cutting Sakurai off, Imai suddenly decided, “That’s it, I’m not going to another event ever again.”
“Isn’t that a little too drastic?” Sakurai questioned, putting a hand on Imai’s lap. “You can’t coop yourself up forever.”
“What am I supposed to do when I can’t trust my own judgement?” Imai scowled at himself.
“Isn’t that why you started asking me along, to begin with?”
“Worked damned well last night, didn’t it?” Imai snapped.
Not expecting him to flare up, Sakurai pulled back just as Imai noticed Sakurai’s wide eyes and the startled expression on his face. Almost immediately, the agitation in Imai’s eyes turned into apology as he looked away and fell silent.
Unwilling to let the silence drag out, Sakurai reached for Imai, putting his arms around him as he nuzzled against Imai again. Imai exhaled a long sigh, releasing the tension in his body. He was becoming a little less testy, but he was still reluctant to meet Sakurai’s eyes.
“What if…” Sakurai began, keeping his voice soft and low, “we were tethered together. Like with rope… or cable ties… or handcuffs.”
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“But that way, I’d go wherever you go. I’d never lose you in a crowd like last night.”
Imai finally raised his head and gave Sakurai a long hard look. “… Do you have a thing for bondage?”
Sakurai stiffened at the unexpected question. “What…?”
“Otherwise, where did the idea of tethering come from?” Imai asked, scratching his chin as he stretched his neck.
“I… I’m… It’s just a random idea that came to me,” Sakurai muttered, feeling slightly flustered.
“You could've just gone with hand-holding but you went ahead with… that,” Imai continued.
“Do you… want to?” Sakurai asked, his head sinking down to rest on Imai's shoulder.
“Only if you want to,” Imai replied. With a sigh, he added, “I really don't expect you to stick around with someone like me.”
“Aren't I still here?” Sakurai asked, his voice growing smaller as he buried his face in Imai’s gaudy tie-dye tee.
“True,” Imai hummed.
Sakurai felt Imai's fingers creep around his own and interlock with his. Imai sighed again and turned in Sakurai's embrace. Raising his eyebrows as he looked up, Sakurai met Imai's quiet gaze, still turbulent with his own thoughts despite the lack of words.
It took a while, but Imai finally managed to muster a smile for him. Only then did Sakurai straighten up and hold Imai closer, smiling back at him before moving in for a kiss.
Chapter 42: 42
Sakurai held Imai's face in his hands, gazing into his brown eyes illuminated by the warm orange glow of the summer sun streaming in through the foldable blinds covering the window in his apartment. As he straddled Imai by his hips on the bed, his crotch ached with desire. Imai leaned back against the wall, smirking at Sakurai’s naked form. Sakurai bit his lower lip, waiting.
Imai put a hand on Sakurai's hip, sliding it down to his rear as he watched Sakurai's chest rise and fall with his measured breathing. Sakurai moved his fingers, brushing them over the short, even strands of hair on the side of Imai's head that replaced his thick locks. Imai shaved his hair off on a whim about a week ago, saying that the weather made it unbearable. Sakurai missed having something to grab.
Feeling Imai squeeze his rear, Sakurai sucked in a breath and straightened his back. He looked at Imai and clenched his legs tighter against Imai’s clothed body as Imai began caressing Sakurai's bare thighs.
“Hisashi…” Sakurai breathed, leaning forward.
But his advance was stopped when Imai held up a finger and tutted. “Patience.”
Sakurai curled his toes, gripping tight as he resisted the urge to let his frustration show on his face. Regardless, judging by that smug look that Imai had on his face, he clearly noticed the twitching muscles on Sakurai's.
Imai chuckled as he brushed Sakurai's fringe away and reached to the back of his neck. Sakurai could feel Imai's fingers fiddling with his hair, which he also recently cropped short. It was, in any case, still significantly longer than Imai's impromptu buzz cut.
Sakurai wrinkled his nose and cast his gaze away, choosing to look at the box of condoms and lube bottle on the dresser next to the bed instead. Imai chuckled again. His hands went back to caressing Sakurai's body, running them down his back and the sides of his torso before reaching his rear again.
Adamantly refusing to react, Sakurai grit his teeth and tensed his jaw, staring fixedly at the badly scratched dresser leg as he felt Imai’s hands squeeze his cheeks before spreading them. But as Imai's fingers began tracing his entrance, Sakurai felt a fluttering in the pit of his stomach and felt the tension in his face move from his jaw to his cheeks.
Sakurai’s eyes darted to Imai but he held his tongue, choosing to stay silent.
Sakurai stayed quiet, staring at Imai with indifference. Or at least, that's how he hoped it came across to Imai.
“Or would you rather without?” Imai asked, his smirk growing wider as he pushed the tip of his finger in.
Drawing a sharp breath through his teeth, Sakurai bucked his hips despite narrowing his eyes at Imai, who paused and waited as he smugly raised an eyebrow at Sakurai. With a huff, Sakurai reached towards the dresser and brought the bottle to them. Imai presented his open palm to Sakurai, watching as Sakurai opened the lid and dispensed a liberal amount of lubricant onto his fingers.
“Sure that isn't too much?” Imai asked, coating his fingers.
“There's never too much-”
“Only too little,” Imai finished. “Yes, yes, I get it.”
“Do you really?” Sakurai asked, setting the bottle down next to them on the bed before caressing the sides of Imai's face with his hands again.
“Sure I do,” Imai insisted as he looked up at Sakurai. Smiling, he watched Sakurai arch his back and squirm his body as he pressed his fingers to Sakurai.
Sakurai leaned forward, pressing his torso against Imai's cotton tee as he lifted his rear and brought his face closer to Imai's. Holding eye contact with Imai, Sakurai huffed shallow breaths as he lightly brushed their lips together while Imai slid his finger in and out, curling his digit each time.
Imai added another finger and Sakurai sighed softly, lips trembling as they continued to hover over Imai’s, still waiting for Imai to either give him the cue or initiate the kiss. As it is, Imai quite enjoyed himself but Sakurai wanted more. Unfortunately for him, Imai liked making Sakurai wait. At least this time, it was just the kiss. Imai said the waiting always resulted in more… how did he put it… ‘pent up sexual energy’, was it?
“Acchan,” Imai called.
Feeling Imai nuzzling his cheek, Sakurai opened his eyes, feeling slightly dazed. He didn’t even realise he had his eyes shut until now.
“Hey,” Imai called again, touching noses with Sakurai to prompt him to look up.
When Sakurai met his eyes, Imai added a third finger, making Sakurai buck his hips, urging Imai to reach deeper as he let out a sigh. Instead, Imai said, “The pants.”
Reluctantly, Sakurai took his hands off Imai’s face and shifted lower. Biting the inside of his lower lip, he buried his face in Imai’s tee, making sure to keep kisses out of the equation as his well-practised hands undid Imai’s bottoms. Sakurai didn’t want to give Imai any reason to leave him hanging at this point. In the beginning, he thought Imai was joking but the one time Sakurai did break the ‘rule’, Imai actually stopped everything and went straight to sleep. It felt terribly unsatisfying to have to jerk himself off in the bathroom after that.
The moment Sakurai freed Imai’s erection from his clothes, Imai said, “Condom.”
Sakurai took one out of the box and put it on Imai without complaint, biting his lower lip while sighing softly to Imai’s fingers thrusting in his ass. If he wasn’t getting kisses, he could still get his sex.
Once the condom was properly on, Imai removed his fingers and jerked his head, giving Sakurai permission to ride. Rising up, Sakurai held Imai’s erection in his hand, positioned himself and then sank down, letting out a sigh as Imai filled his orifice. Hands on the bed, Sakurai glanced at Imai and took a moment before he began moving his hips.
Sakurai could feel Imai’s fingers digging into his sides as he bounced and gyrated. Panting, he arched his back and put his arms around himself, scratching and caressing his own skin as he moved. Imai seemed happy to simply watch him pantomime his desire to be held. It frustrated Sakurai but if Imai wanted to play the dead fish, then so be it.
Staring blankly at the wall behind Imai, Sakurai let his impulses guide him. His hands slid over the contours of his body, gripping and releasing as they moved. Eventually, his fingers came to his nipples. As he teased and rubbed, Sakurai let his head roll back, panting a little louder and riding a little faster. Out of nowhere, Imai pulled his shirt off with one fluid movement and sat up, pulling Sakurai into a tight embrace, finally granting him his kisses.
Immediately, Sakurai returned the hug, whining softly as he found himself smothered by Imai’s affections. The summer heat only added to their passions as a sheen of sweat coated their skin in their fervent groping and kissing.
Sakurai could feel the pleasure building in his groin, growing hotter as Imai throbbed in him. Putting a hand between them, Sakurai brushed his fingers over Imai's nipple, earning a hiss from him as Imai broke their kiss and narrowed his eyes at him.
Planting his feet firmly on the bed, Imai had one arm around Sakurai's waist and a hand supporting the back of his neck as he leaned forward and made Sakurai fall back. Now on his knees, Imai showered kisses onto Sakurai as he pounded into him. Sakurai wanted to let his voice out, but knowing how thin the walls of his apartment were, he restrained his voice, deciding to be contented with whispers of Imai’s name between quiet whimpering.
As the pleasure reached its peak, Sakurai bit the inside of his lip and arched his back, digging his fingers into Imai as he came with a whine. He could feel Imai's teeth against his shoulder, biting him as he grunted and brought his movements to a stop. Frozen for a moment, they lay on each other, breathing deeply as they gazed at each other between soft kisses.
Eventually, Sakurai asked, “Did you break skin?”
“Not this time,” Imai whispered, kissing where he bit Sakurai.
Sakurai breathed a sigh of relief as he ran his fingers over Imai's short hair. Noticing Imai going still, he called, “Hey.”
“Don't fall asleep,” Sakurai muttered. “We still have that group date of your's to attend later.”
Reminded, Imai groaned and pushed himself up. Looking outside the window through a gap between the blinds, he pressed his lips thin and sighed, “Shouldn't have agreed to that.”
Sakurai caressed Imai's cheek, giving Imai a soft smile as their eyes met. “Too late for that now.”
Chapter 43: 43
“Aren’t your parents going on vacation?” Sakurai asked, his voice echoing through his bathroom as he relaxed in the bathtub with Imai.
“I don’t know,” Imai sighed. Warm water sloshed around him as he sat up and turned around to face Sakurai. “They’ve been home for a couple of months now but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning anything yet.”
“Aren’t they interested in visiting beaches or something? It’s the season for it, after all,” said Sakurai.
“Gah, I don’t know,” Imai shrugged, leaning back against the side of the tub as he stretched his neck and looked up to the ceiling.
Sakurai sighed. He quite liked being at Imai’s place but with his parents around, privacy felt non-existent. “And you?” Sakurai asked, changing the topic. “What are you going to do?”
“Again, I don’t know,” Imai sighed. “There really isn’t much for me to do with the old man around. Yet I can’t quite say that they don’t need me.” He looked down, stretching his neck in the opposite direction and then looked at the tiles on the wall in front of him. “Besides, I don’t know what I can work as. Considering… you know.”
Sakurai hummed, rubbing Imai’s thigh with a hand. Out of nowhere, he was suddenly reminded of a previous conversation they had. “What about that cafe-bar thing you mentioned the other time?”
“The what?” Imai asked, looking over at him.
“Cafe in the day, bar at night,” Sakurai said in a sing-song voice. “You serving your food while having a place you can get drunk with your friends in without worrying about getting home.”
Imai barked a laugh. “It was a joke,” he said with an amused grin on his face. “I can’t believe you took that seriously.”
“Well, I think it’s viable. That’s all,” Sakurai mumbled, feeling disheartened. “I don’t see why you can’t do it. It’s not like you can’t cook.”
“I’d need a place to set up shop first, right? It’s going to cost me for that,” Imai pointed out.
“It could be a part of your family’s business. Like an extension or something,” Sakurai suggested. “Wouldn’t that help?”
“Even then, I can’t run it alone,” Imai went on. “There has to be someone up front to serve people at least.”
Sakurai gave him a pointed look.
Imai stared. Pointing a finger at Sakurai, Imai uttered, “You?”
“You think it’s impossible.”
Imai sighed, “You already admitted that you’re bad at dealing with new people.”
“I can do it,” Sakurai insisted, leaning forward as Imai put an arm around him and pulled him closer. “I’m already doing it at work-”
“Right, right. Whatever you say,” Imai cut him off, sounding unconvinced.
“I’ll start flirting with the girls tonight if you want me to show you,” Sakurai huffed.
Imai’s narrowed his eyes at Sakurai. “Do that and I’ll go home without you.”
“Well, do you want me to show you or not?” Sakurai asked, feeling somewhat annoyed.
“No,” replied Imai flatly as his arm tightened its hold on Sakurai. He went silent and the blank stare that he had on his face made it look as if he was lost in his thoughts.
In the silence, Sakurai simply lay against Imai’s shoulder, enjoying the sensation of the warm water soothing his tense muscles while being with Imai. His tub was smaller than what Imai had back home and it felt more cramped with the two of them in it, but it was better than not being able to share a bath together. The lack of privacy in Imai’s home ever since his parents returned from their last vacation really drove them to spend a significant amount of time in Sakurai’s measly apartment. Imai took in a deep breath and sighed, shaking Sakurai from his thoughts.
“That… bar-cafe thing… I’ll think about it,” Imai said quietly. "I'll think about it."
Chapter 44: 44
How Kiyoshi always found new women to bring to group dates, Sakurai would never know, but things proceeded as per normal. Halfway in, it was clear who was bringing who home but unfortunately for two of the ladies, it was already predetermined that Sakurai would be dodging that by sending a drunk Imai back.
Sakurai shook his hands dry in the sink, patting them on his jeans as he walked out of the bathroom. Once he returned, they’d probably sit around a bit more and then call it a night. After all, the establishment was about to close soon. Most of the tables that he passed were now empty, with used plates, cups, and cutlery lying strewn while restaurant staff cleaned up.
Sakurai was about to make a turn into the area where Imai and the rest of them were seated when a voice called out to him.
He instinctively turned… and regretted it. Sakurai felt the air leave his lungs as he made eye contact with Issay.
“So it really is you,” Issay breathed, a small smile coming to his lips as he approached.
Frozen in place, Sakurai found himself unable to speak nor tear his eyes away.
“I suppose that was you at that event as well? A few months back?” Issay asked, raising a hand to Sakurai’s face. As his fingers gently brushed by his cheek, Issay’s eyes slid to the short locks of hair that Sakurai now had. “I wasn’t sure that it was you. I didn’t expect that you’d cut your hair,” he added, sounding somewhat forlorn.
Sakurai finally found his voice. “I just got it trimmed recently. It has nothing to do with you,” he hissed, albeit shakily.
A wry smile tugged at Issay’s lips as he looked up at Sakurai again. “I didn’t mean to imply that,” he said softly.
Sakurai blinked and looked away. He shouldn’t have said that.
“You look well,” Issay commented, his fingers still stroking the side of Sakurai’s face.
Staring at the ground, Sakurai grunted wordlessly. He could feel his heart growing heavier by the moment. Without much of a thought, Sakurai blurted, “Where were you?”
He heard Issay huff before he answered. “I thought you might ask,” he muttered. “I was in the UK for a bit. Then in the US.”
The pain that Sakurai thought had subsided began bubbling up again. He could feel his face scrunching up from his effort to keep it restrained as he hissed, “You never said a word about that.”
This time, it was Issay who was silent as he held Sakurai’s cheek in his hand.
“Not a single call, not a single message,” Sakurai continued, “I left you so many but you couldn’t even return a single one of them?” He could feel the tears spilling from his eyes as he recalled those times. “Not even one?” he asked as his voice grew small.
“How did you expect me to react?” Issay asked back, his voice pained even as he kept up with the caresses. “How did you expect me to react when I come by only to find someone else with you in bed again?”
“You completely disappeared,” Sakurai muttered, his voice barely a whisper. “Not a single trace of you was left,” he finally looked up at Issay. “It's like you never existed.”
“Acchan…” Issay brushed Sakurai’s hair aside, gently wiping his tears with his thumbs as he gazed sadly at him. He sighed, “I pushed too far…”
Sakurai dropped his head down again, putting his hands on Issay as he closed his fists and bunched up the smooth fabric in his palms. He could feel Issay’s arms wrapping around him, pulling him into a hug and letting Sakurai rest his forehead on his shoulder. Sakurai closed his eyes, biting the inside of his lower lip as he felt Issay stroke his hair in that same familiar manner he knew so well and listened to him whispering sweet nothings that did nothing to quell the disquiet in his heart.
Immediately, Sakurai snapped to attention, turning to meet Imai’s confused stare at the end of the corridor as he put distance between Issay and himself. Both Imai and Issay looked each other up and down, a frown on Imai’s face as opposed to Issay’s sceptical yet bemused expression.
Sakurai watched as Imai glanced at him, then back at Issay again. Finding his voice, Sakurai muttered, “Hisashi-”
“I see,” Imai interrupted, nodding to himself with an impassive face as he began to turn back the way he came from. With as much of a backward glance, he declared, “I’m going home.”
Lunging forward in a sprint, Sakurai heard Issay’s remark of “You’re kidding me” as he chased after Imai. He watched Imai grab his jacket from their table and walk off briskly, exiting the establishment just as Sakurai passed their table. No, no, no. Pushing past other customers who blocked his way, Sakurai barrelled out of the door and looked left, then right.
Spotting Imai, Sakurai ran and yelled again, “Hisashi!” He didn’t look up. No, no, no, no, no. Instead, Imai hailed a taxi and got in, barely sparing a moment before driving off and leaving Sakurai behind.
Sakurai stood on the pavement, helplessly watching the black car take Imai away from him. He watched his vision blur. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. He felt his legs give out and his knees hit the floor. No, no, no. He heard footsteps coming to a stop behind him. No, no, no, no, no. Not one but at least two sets. He couldn’t find the motivation to see who it was. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. With his hands clutching the sides of his head, Sakurai hunched over and watched wet spots appear on the cement.
What do I do?
Chapter 45: 45
The sun has begun to light up the streets when Sakurai finally saw the district he recognised. The corner store was not open yet. Dragging his feet, he trudged past the shuttered entrance and dug around in the pockets of his jeans until his hand clasped around the partially-crushed Marlboro Reds box. Pulling it out of his back pocket, he opened the box, stared at its empty interior, and then crushed it in his palm, tossing it to the ground as he continued home. He kept forgetting that he had run out of cigarettes hours ago.
After Imai left him in the dust, Sakurai drank the rest of his night away in the arms of his ex-lover. He was held but Issay didn't push for more. Sakurai didn't know why Issay even bothered to stay with him while he wallowed in self-pity over another man.
Sakurai ascended the stairs to his apartment, heavy steps echoing in the stairwell as he slowly made his way up. Would Imai be in his apartment? How was he going to react to his return? His stomach churned as he approached his door. He could barely even muster the energy to sigh now.
Slotting the key into the lock, Sakurai turned it; once… twice… and then put his hand on the doorknob. He turned it and pulled. Immediately his eyes were fixated on the entrance area where Imai usually left his footwear. It was empty.
Sakurai felt his eyes grow hot and he shut the door, taking the scene out of his sight. He paused, taking a couple of deep breaths to calm himself before opening the door again. The same scene greeted him. He felt his chest tighten and he shut the door again. Driven by some sort of desperation, he opened the door, saw the same empty space, shut it, and repeated the cycle, hoping that perhaps he was too drunk. Perhaps he was mistaken.
He's not home.
Sakurai slammed the door shut and squat down. His ears rang from the sound. Holding his head in his hands, he felt mirth bubbling up from inside, making him laugh as he stared at the closed door. His vision blurred again and he soon found himself unable to control his breathing. He felt dampness on his cheeks, felt himself sit on the ground, felt his chest clench like it was about to collapse into itself with his breathless, soundless, heaving sobs. Perhaps he was not drunk enough. Perhaps he needed another drink.
Chapter 46: 46
Curled up on the floor against the bed frame, Sakurai had his face buried in Imai’s pillow, hugging it tightly as he gradually grew aware of the door to his apartment unlocking. Even though he recognised the soft padding of the footsteps that approached, he didn’t want to move. As much as breathing in Imai’s scent comforted him, Sakurai was not eager to find out what kind of look Imai was giving him. He didn’t expect anything good.
Sakurai heard the sound of an empty glass bottle rolling around before it was stopped and picked up. There was a rustle of plastic as something was put on the low table nearby. Movement stopped.
“You didn’t come home last night,” Imai remarked flatly.
Sakurai felt opposition well up in him. I did.
“I waited until five but you didn’t come back,” Imai continued.
The tension dropped a notch. He only reached back at around seven.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Imai asked.
What was there to say?
“You slept with him, didn’t you?”
No . Sakurai’s grip on the pillow tightened as he curled up into himself more, trying to make himself smaller. The pillow cover felt damp against his skin as he shook his head slowly, denying. He could feel Imai staring at him as things went quiet. It felt like the silence went on for an eternity before Imai finally sucked in a deep breath and moved his feet.
“Eat your lunch. I made fried rice,” Imai informed, his voice growing further away as he walked off. He sighed loudly, “I need time.”
Unable to move, Sakurai exhaled a shaky breath as he listened to Imai storming around, making as much noise as he wanted until the scrape of Imai’s sandals against the floor of the entryway reached his ears. Whimpering uselessly, Sakurai felt his chest ache as the door opened, closed, and locked, confirming Imai’s exit. It was only after he was left alone that Sakurai managed to utter a single word.
Chapter 47: 47
The latch clicked twice and the door swung open as Sakurai opened his eyes again. The sun was still up but it appears that he had somehow fallen asleep. The box of rice still sat untouched on the table before him.
“Did you even move?” Imai asked, his voice coming from the entrance.
Could he move? With his cheek against the pillow in his arms, Sakurai continued staring at the rice without a word.
Imai let out a frustrated groan and approached, dropping another box of food on the table as he stopped in front of Sakurai. “Get up,” he said.
Sakurai clutched the pillow tighter and turned away, burying his face in it and plunging himself into darkness again.
“Get up,” Imai repeated, more forcefully this time.
A lump welled up in Sakurai's throat, choking him as he struggled to breathe. He didn't want to make any noise but his body wouldn't cooperate, tensing his throat up despite his efforts.
A hand closed around his arm. “Get up,” Imai said again, tugging gently. His tone sounded less harsh now. “C'mon.”
Reluctantly, Sakurai let Imai pull him, gradually unfolding his body from the ball he had been curled up as for goodness knows how long. Imai only got as far as straightening one heavy arm before all progress stopped though. It hurt for Sakurai to straighten his back and legs. With one arm, Sakurai pressed his face into the pillow and let his body drop to the floor. He heard Imai sigh.
“C'mon. Get up,” Imai repeated, tugging Sakurai's hand. “We need to get you washed up. You obviously haven’t bathed since last night.”
Sakurai turned his head slightly, peeking up at Imai from the pillow with one tired eye.
Imai pulled harder, making Sakurai shift slightly. Noticing Sakurai looking at him, he said, “Yes, I'm saying you stink. Now get up.”
Turning, Sakurai put himself back in darkness as he croaked, “Leave me.”
“No.” Imai tugged harder as he came closer and put an arm around Sakurai in an attempt to lift him. “Drop the damn pillow.”
Sakurai shook his head, refusing to look at Imai.
Imai tightened his grip and heaved. “Get up.”
Sakurai remained a deadweight. Even if he wanted to, everything hurt to move.
“Stop looking so pathetic,” Imai muttered. “C'mon, get up.”
Sakurai jerked his shoulder, shaking Imai off. His comment stung. “Just leave,” Sakurai hissed into the pillow. “You don't want anything to do with me anyway.”
“Bullshit,” Imai snapped, pulling Sakurai onto him. “I don't know what gave you that fucking idea but you're an idiot for thinking that.”
Sakurai petulantly shook Imai off again, undoing Imai’s progress.
“You stubborn… Argh!” Imai let out a groan of frustration as Sakurai rolled out of his hold. Huffing, Sakurai heard him stand up and say, “You know what?”
Sakurai remained silent.
“Fuck it,” Imai declared as his footsteps drew away.
Heart sinking and insides churning, all Sakurai wanted now was to sink into the floor and disappear. So this was how things were to end.
“I’ll draw the bath first.”
Chapter 48: 48
After Imai turned on the water for the bath, he dragged Sakurai into the bathroom and by the time they got in, Sakurai had given up, letting Imai strip him without much resistance. Imai could’ve simply doused him in icy cold water, but he took the time to adjust the temperature to Sakurai’s liking. And now here they were, with Sakurai sitting hunched on the bathroom stool and Imai behind him with his fingers in Sakurai's hair, scratching and massaging his scalp as the shampoo lathered up.
Sakurai had his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. Even if Imai already knew what he looked like, Sakurai still didn’t want his dishevelled appearance to be in constant view. He looked terrible and he knew it. He hated it.
“Why didn’t you eat?” Imai suddenly asked.
“No appetite,” Sakurai mumbled, suddenly realising for the first time that his stomach hasn’t even growled once today.
“Didn't you say you liked my food?”
“I do,” Sakurai replied. “But…”
“But?” Imai removed his hands.
Sakurai let out a shuddering sigh. “I'm not hungry.”
“Impossible,” said Imai as he turned on the shower nozzle. “Not when you haven’t eaten anything at all.”
“How would you know?”
“There's no trash,” Imai answered flatly.
Sakurai felt the water running through his hair while Imai kept the runoff away from Sakurai's face. He felt Imai's fingers combing through his hair again and the water stopped. Imai pumped out what Sakurai supposed was conditioner and applied it in his hair.
Without saying a word, Imai rinsed his hands off and moved to the front. Grabbing Sakurai's wrists, Imai eased them away from his head and tilted his chin up, making Sakurai face him. As Imai brushed his fingers over his features, Sakurai kept his eyes downcast and fixed on the floor.
“Do you want to shave?” Imai asked, rubbing over the stubble that grew overnight.
“Why'd you leave?” Sakurai blurted, casting Imai's question aside.
Imai raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to one side. “Hm?”
“Last… night…” Sakurai specified. Recalling how things happened, he felt his eyes grow hot again. Looking down and blinking quickly, Sakurai felt the unwanted tears fall away as he repeated, “Why'd you leave?”
Imai sighed as he continued his idle caresses. “I… just needed to clear my head,” he muttered. “Take a breather or something.”
Sakurai sniffed loudly and put his hands over Imai’s, grasping them as he slowly removed them from his face. Holding Imai’s hands in his own, Sakurai stared at them and asked quietly, “Why’d you come here?”
“Why can’t I?” Imai asked back, easing his hands out of Sakurai’s and holding his face again with Sakurai’s hands around his wrists.
Sakurai let out a heavy sigh. He couldn’t manage an answer. Biting the inside of his lower lip, he blinked and felt hot tears roll down his cheeks. Imai firmed his hold and made Sakurai look up at him. His expression seemed to soften a tad when Sakurai met his eyes.
Imai breathed in, sighed, and asked, “What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” Sakurai muttered, feeling tears well up again. Driven by a sudden impulse, Sakurai let go of Imai’s wrists and reached in front, wrapping his arms around Imai’s waist and burying his face in his shirt as he repeated, “I don’t know.”
“Ah, you’re getting my clothes wet,” Imai muttered with a sigh.
Despite his complaint, Sakurai felt Imai rest a hand on his head, holding him as his fingers gradually worked their way into his hair again. Feeling his throat constrict with an inexplicable emotion, Sakurai tightened his embrace and pulled Imai closer.
Imai put his other arm around Sakurai and exhaled deeply, asking himself, “What am I to do with you?”
Sakurai didn’t have an answer for him.
Chapter 49: 49
“Hello? … I’m not coming back tonight, he’s not well…… Nope, barely ate…… The soup, yes, but the rice…… His appetite is messed up, I don’t know what it is…… I… don’t think it’s a bug…… Yeah, I’ll tell him…… I’ll try…… I know, I know…… I knoooow…… Yeah…… Yeah, bye…… Bye…… I said, bye…… Bye.”
In the darkened apartment, Imai tossed his phone onto the bed and ran his hand over his short hair. “They said get well soon and that you have to eat,” Imai muttered, relaying the messages from his parents to Sakurai, who lay on his side with his head on Imai’s lap. “And they want me to make you eat,” he added.
“Do they know?” Sakurai asked, his voice muffled.
Imai breathed in and let out a long exhale. “Probably,” he muttered. “I’ve never said it out loud but… I think they might’ve caught on.”
“Hm,” Sakurai huffed lightly, adjusting his position as Imai’s hand returned to hold his.
It was night now and the impending reality of work dwelled in Sakurai’s head but his mind wasn’t focused on that. He kept thinking about the miso soup Imai brought and the momentary warmth it brought to him. Too bad he couldn’t quite bring himself to swallow more food. It was good, as usual, but his body wouldn’t cooperate.
Out of nowhere, Imai began to speak. “You know… I’ve been meaning to ask you…”
Sakurai turned and looked up at Imai, lying flat on his back.
Imai looked down and asked quietly, “That man from last night, who was he?”
Sakurai stared back, lips sealed shut in his reluctance to answer. He was dreading this topic. Swallowing, Sakurai looked away and muttered, “Ex.”
“Really?” Imai remarked. “Doesn’t seem like it judging by how you looked at each other.”
Sakurai took a deep breath and exhaled. His jaw tensed. Did it really look like that?
“You’re squeezing my hand real tight, y’know?” Imai murmured.
Sakurai released his grip at Imai’s comment. He didn’t mean to do that. Struggling to answer, Sakurai muttered, “Things… were…… We… had unfinished business.”
“Hn. Really now,” Imai hummed, his thumb rubbing over the back of Sakurai’s hand.
“Yeah,” Sakurai managed. Staring at the ceiling, he watched his memories replay in flashes. “I… messed up,” he mumbled. “Far too many times.”
“I don’t know why I did,” Sakurai went on. “I don’t know what I was thinking or if I was even thinking but… he left me. And that’s it.” He swallowed, pushing down the ball of emotion that stayed stuck in his throat as he recalled that day. “I woke up and it ended,” Sakurai whispered, feeling tears escape out the corner of his eyes when he blinked. “It ended.”
Imai sighed. “It really pisses me off that you’re shedding tears over another man when you’re here with me like this.”
“Sorry,” Sakurai mumbled, biting the inside of his lower lip as he breathed deep in an attempt to calm himself. It didn’t work.
It was like an old wound opening up again. A dull ache accompanying the familiar sting that bit. Wiping his eyes with the heels of his palms, Sakurai kept his eyes covered as he said again, “Sorry.” He took a few deep breaths and added, “I’m sorry but it still hurts.”
Imai sighed again as his arms closed around Sakurai and he pulled Sakurai upright. He put a hand on Sakurai’s head and firmly but gently pressed, making Sakurai rest his head in the crook of his neck as he adjusted their positions into something more comfortable. Sakurai didn’t resist this time, choosing to accept Imai’s comforting embrace as he kept sniffing loudly.
“I can’t believe you never said a word about him through all these months,” Imai muttered.
Sakurai hugged Imai harder in response. He never thought Issay would still treat him so tenderly after everything. It would be so much easier if Issay acted as if they didn’t know each other. Sakurai sniffed again, rubbing his face in Imai’s shirt. It might’ve hurt more that way but at least the path ahead would be clear to him. Now…
“Would it be right to say that you were just holding your emotions in every time you looked angry and constipated?” Imai suddenly commented. “Because you definitely didn’t look like you’d be such a- Argh!”
Sakurai jabbed a finger into Imai’s side, putting an end to his comments. As Imai shifted and tried to defend himself, Sakurai squeezed him tighter, suddenly fearing that he would leave him alone. Imai seemed to sense something, or perhaps he just ran out of things to say but he fell silent, gently kneading the back of Sakurai’s neck while letting him take his time to settle himself. As good as it made Sakurai feel, the moment he calmed down, Sakurai immediately felt guilty for making Imai endure this and started to feel his chest grow heavy again. He didn’t deserve this.
Turning his head to the side, Sakurai breathed in the cool air and said, “You don’t have to force yourself to stay with me.”
“You think I’m forcing myself?” Imai hissed, offended. “I can’t believe you.”
Sakurai shrunk into himself, feeling chided as he curled up closer to Imai.
“Can’t you tell by now that I…” Imai suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “That I…”
Sakurai lifted his head and looked up at Imai. Why did he suddenly stop talking?
“I…” Imai’s face looked strained. He was kind of grimacing as he looked straight ahead and kept his eyes fixed on the main door. “That I’m… here because I…… really… care a lot about you,” Imai ended his sentence quickly, rushing through the words in an almost-whisper with a very tense look on his face.
Sakurai stared at him. Was Imai trying to say what Sakurai thinks he was trying to say? Sitting up a little more, Sakurai tried to get a better look at Imai’s face when Imai pushed him back down into his lap and made Sakurai lie down.
“You know what I mean,” Imai muttered, brushing it off. “Just go to sleep,” he added. “I’ll be here.”
Still surprised by Imai’s sudden confession, Sakurai could only manage a grunt of acknowledgement. He felt Imai’s hand close over his own again and begin fidgeting with his fingers. As Sakurai began to relax, he heard Imai lean back against the wall and open the sole window in his apartment slightly. Closing his eyes, Sakurai could smell the cigarette that Imai lit. It wasn’t his Reds but Sakurai tugged at Imai’s arm, asking for a puff.
As Imai began to bring the cigarette to Sakurai, he sat up and leaned against the window sill, putting Imai’s arm around his waist. Sharing the stick, they took turns breathing smoke out the window while caressing each other with subtle touches.
Eventually, the cigarette ran out and Sakurai lay back down, turning to lie on his side and face Imai’s abdomen. Imai’s hand came back to hold his and Sakurai began to feel sleep creep close.
Suddenly, Imai asked, “Do you… want to… go… back… to him?” He seemed to be forcing his words out as his voice grew smaller and smaller. This time it was Imai’s hand that gripped Sakurai’s tightly.
“If he asked you to, would you go back to him?” Imai asked again.
Sakurai stared into the darkness. Would he?
Chapter 50: 50
Burying his face in the pillow he lay on, Sakurai gradually woke from his dreamless sleep. The sunlight from outside lit up the room. He could see the familiar four walls of his apartment as he turned in bed, under the covers that kept him warm. He could smell the lingering cigarette smoke that clung to his hair. Where was Imai?
Sakurai sat up and looked around. Imai wasn’t on the floor. He shrugged the blanket off and pulled his legs close. Leaning forward, Sakurai noticed there weren’t any lights on in the bathroom either. He bit his lower lip. Did Imai leave?
Dropping his legs to the floor, Sakurai stood up as he swept his eyes around for his phone. Where was it? And what time was it? Judging by how bright it was outside, he was probably already late for work but it might be better if he went anyway. At least there’d be something to distract himself with. But first, he needed the bathroom.
Sakurai stumbled his way over. Flicking on the lights, he paused and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He seriously looked like shit. Sakurai rubbed a hand over his chin and mouth. As asked, Imai didn’t shave for him and his stubble has now grown out even more. He raised his brows and shrugged to himself. He could just leave it.
Sakurai still felt rather dead on the inside as he sluggishly brushed his teeth and washed his face. Could he really work like this? Then again, he somehow managed to push through the last time, right? He pressed a towel to his face and sighed. Could he really do it again? Sakurai dropped the towel with a huff. He had to. There was no other choice. Shuffling out of the bathroom, Sakurai paused and stared at the floor, feeling listless as the main door clicked twice and swung open.
Even though all he wore was a thin shirt and his briefs, Sakurai couldn’t be bothered to move away from the direct vicinity of the entrance. Looking up, he found Imai staring at him in surprise as he commented, “You’re up.”
“I thought you left,” Sakurai whispered as he looked back down to the floor while Imai closed the door.
“I went out for a quick smoke,” Imai clarified. “Didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Oh.” Despite his apathetic response, Sakurai found himself feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. Imai didn’t break his promise after all.
“What’s wrong?” Imai asked, coming closer. He seemed unsettled by Sakurai’s reply.
“I thought you left,” Sakurai repeated, unmoving as Imai came over to hold him.
“Look at me,” Imai ordered.
Sakurai slowly lifted his head and met Imai’s concerned expression.
“What is it? Tell me,” Imai implored.
All Sakurai could manage was repeating “I thought you left” and dropping his head into the crook of Imai’s neck. Wrapping his arms around Imai, Sakurai squeezed him tight as he repeated his single statement while breathing in with shuddering breaths the smell of cigarettes that clung to Imai’s skin.
Imai hugged him back, holding him equally tightly as he cooed repeatedly into Sakurai’s ear, “I’m here. I’m not leaving you.”
Sakurai didn’t know how long it took for him to settle himself down again but Imai patiently waited it out with him. He stayed as promised, standing in the middle of the apartment with Sakurai for as long as he needed.
When Sakurai finally separated himself from Imai and held him at arm’s length, Imai remarked, “You look like you’re going to head out though.”
“Work,” Sakurai muttered.
“They called earlier,” Imai informed.
Sakurai looked up at him in surprise. Why didn’t Imai wake him up?
“I told them you weren’t feeling well, that you couldn’t go in,” Imai continued, rubbing the back of his neck as he looked away. “I… didn’t think it was a good idea for you to go so…”
“I mean, if you want to go to work anyway, I won’t stop you but,” Imai swallowed, “if you’re staying at home, I’ll accompany you.”
Sakurai noticed that Imai looked somewhat sheepish, or perhaps even embarrassed as he spoke. It was rare to see him like this. It was… endearing, to say the least. And with the options presented to him, it wasn’t too difficult for Sakurai to make a choice now.
Chapter 51: 51
Sakurai opened his eyes to the familiar glare of the muted TV screen on the other side if the room, warm and comfortably lying on Imai under the covers. All he wore was his plain tee and his underwear, as he usually did at home, while Imai wore his typical tee and broad shorts.
Blinking the sleep away, Sakurai waited for his eyes to adjust and focused on the TV. Which part of the movie were they at now? He had spent the entire work week at home with Imai, watching strange foreign films with Imai as he kept Sakurai company. Well, it was nice, not working and staying home with Imai. It’s not like he had any other reason to use his annual paid leaves.
Noticing that Sakurai was awake, Imai ran his hand through Sakurai’s hair and shifted to look down at him. Sakurai lifted his head from Imai’s stomach and looked up in return.
“Hungry?” Imai asked.
Although he still couldn’t eat much, Sakurai’s appetite gradually returned over the course of the week. He wasn’t hungry now though.
Shaking his head in response, Sakurai reached up and put his arms around Imai’s shoulders. He moved and lay down again, rubbing his bare legs against Imai’s shins under the covers. Imai, too, shifted, slipping a hand under Sakurai’s shirt around his waist with his arm around Sakurai.
Feeling Imai caressing his skin, Sakurai exhaled with a hum and relaxed, a small smile on his face as he tilted his head up at Imai. He put a hand on Imai’s chest and murmured, “Maybe I am hungry.”
“Hm?” Imai raised an eyebrow but his eyes were still glued to whatever was on the screen. “Whadd’you wanna eat?”
“You,” Sakurai whispered into Imai’s ear as he brought his knee higher, gently pressing against Imai’s crotch.
Imai pursed his lips and muttered, “No.”
“Why not?” Sakurai asked, nuzzling against Imai’s ear as he dragged his foot along Imai’s legs and massaged his chest.
“I already told you I’m not doing anything with you until you’ve regained some semblance of your regular life,” Imai sighed. Despite Imai’s stoic expression, Sakurai could feel his body responding to his touch.
“And what qualifies for that?” Sakurai hummed as he pressed his knee against Imai’s half-hard penis.
Imai grunted in response and Sakurai smiled. Gazing up, Sakurai got a mildly irritated glare from Imai. Sakurai moved his knee again and Imai wrinkled his nose instead. Tracing lines across Imai’s chest, Sakurai circled his fingertips around Imai’s nipple, fidgeting with the fabric of Imai’s shirt as he teased.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Imai muttered flatly, turning his attention back to the screen.
“You haven’t said what implies regular life,” Sakurai purred, redirecting the topic.
Imai sighed. “Well, you haven’t been down to the store in a while for one,” he said. “At least go say hi to the old man. Let him know you’re alive.”
“You’ll go with me?” Sakurai breathed. Feeling the bulge of Imai’s groin against his leg was getting him excited as well.
“Well, no,” Imai shrugged. “I can’t go anywhere looking like this,” he added, gesturing at his crotch which Sakurai continued to grope at.
“I can help you with that,” Sakurai smiled, sliding lower along Imai’s torso and disappearing below the covers.
“You’re a real dick, you know that?”
Sakurai giggled, putting his hands on the elastic of Imai’s broad shorts as he pulled them off and got busy.
Chapter 52: 52
“… Do what you want.”
Sakurai woke to Imai putting down the phone. He rolled over in bed, searching for Imai in the darkened room, and found him getting up from the low table. By the light of the phone, Sakurai could see that he looked troubled.
The moment Imai heard Sakurai’s call, his unease was replaced by a nonchalant look as he turned to Sakurai. Bending down, Imai brought himself closer to Sakurai and whispered, “Sorry, did I wake you?”
“What time is it?” Sakurai asked with a yawn.
“Slightly past two,” Imai replied, brushing Sakurai’s hair back with a hand.
“You were talking to someone?” Sakurai mumbled, leaning forward into Imai. “You didn’t sound too happy.”
“It’s nothing,” Imai dismissed as he kneaded the back of Sakurai’s neck. “I’m gonna go outside for a smoke,” he said, gradually pulling away. “You go back to sleep first.”
“Just open the window,” Sakurai said as he pulled Imai back into bed. “I want a cigarette too.”
“Wait,” Imai stretched towards the low table and grabbed the ashtray. “Here.” He put it on the windowsill while Sakurai slid the window open, stopping halfway.
Sakurai sat upright and pushed the covers aside, exposing his legs to the chill of air conditioning as he watched Imai withdraw a stick from Sakurai’s Marlboro Reds and one from his own Menthols. Imai handed Sakurai his stick and Sakurai took it, putting it between his lips as Imai struck the lighter and held the flame steady for Sakurai as he watched quietly. When Sakurai took his first puff, Imai lit his own cigarette then tossed the lighter back onto the table.
Imai sat down on the bed and moved closer to Sakurai. Facing him, Imai leaned against the windowsill and hung his cigarette-holding arm out of the window. Sakurai could feel Imai’s quiet but intense gaze on him, taking in the pale skin of his legs in the dim moonlight contrasting against his black briefs and tee as Imai’s eyes travelled up to meet Sakurai’s.
Sakurai raised an inquiring eyebrow at him and a lopsided smile appeared on Imai’s face. Imai huffed and turned to look out the window. He had a faraway look on his face as he took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled with a sigh.
Sakurai watched Imai for a moment and then shifted forward, moving closer to Imai. He stretched his legs out towards Imai and went close enough to wrap them around Imai’s hips. Imai’s eyes slid back to meet Sakurai’s and a small smile appeared on Imai’s face. Sakurai returned the smile and put his head on Imai’s shoulder, gradually letting the tension out of his body.
Things were quiet as they smoked and held each other in silence. Sakurai eventually finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. With both hands now free, Sakurai put his arms around Imai, hugging him while Imai kept up with his idle caresses on Sakurai’s thigh.
Listening to Imai’s steady breathing, Sakurai felt his chest grow warm and he nuzzled against the crook of Imai’s neck, mumbling softly, “I love you.”
Imai huffed and shifted towards Sakurai, holding him closer as he took another drag. Exhaling, Imai said, “Really? I don’t quite believe that.”
What? Sakurai tensed and furrowed his brow. “I… Why would you say that?” he asked slowly, cautiously.
“Don’t you love Issay?” Imai continued.
“What?” This time, Sakurai blurted it out loud, unable to hold back his bewilderment. Where was this coming from?
“Don’t lie to me,” Imai hissed.
Sakurai pushed him away and retreated. The face that scowled at him looked like Imai but it didn’t feel right. “I’m not lying,” Sakurai countered weakly. This didn’t feel right.
Imai came towards him with that same enraged scowl on his face. Where was this coming from? Sakurai had never seen Imai like this before.
Cornered against the wall, Sakurai watched Imai rise up and tower over him. Again, Imai hissed with more force this time, “Don’t. Lie. To. Me.”
“I didn’t-!” Sakurai barely got his words out when a hand closed around his throat, pushing him back against the wall and threatening to crush his throat in its grip.
“Don’t lie to me.” The voice that repeated the line sent a chill down Sakurai’s spine. He knew that voice. It was the voice of a man he knew was long dead. Sakurai forced his eyes open and stared straight at the infuriated face before him. It definitely wasn’t Imai who was talking to him.
Mustering his strength, Sakurai struggled against the hold but found his movements sluggish, as if hindered by something. Frustration at his helplessness welled up in his chest, building and bubbling until it came out as a forceful yank which finally tore away the vice-like grip on his neck. Suddenly free, Sakurai turned to the side… and smacked straight into a wall.
“Argh!” Dropping back onto the bed, Sakurai clasped a hand over his forehead as he grimaced from the impact. His head was reeling from how hard he hit the wall.
“Good god, what are you doing?!” Imai’s voice exclaimed.
Sakurai sensed a shadow fall over him and he blearily opened his eyes to Imai’s perplexed face hovering over him. He noticed that the lights in his room were on and there was the citrusy smell of oranges in the air. Imai had a hand against his cheek while the other removed his hand from his forehead.
“What the hell, Acchan?” Imai muttered, brushing a hand over his forehead as Sakurai recovered from the impact.
“He’s not bleeding, is he?”
Sakurai immediately snapped awake. What was Issay doing here? Scrambling to sit up, he found Issay walking towards him, holding a peeled orange in his hand while munching on a piece. Was he still dreaming?
“No,” Imai replied Issay. “What on earth were you trying to achieve?” he asked, addressing his question to Sakurai.
“It’s one of those dreams, isn’t it?” Issay muttered knowingly as he stopped by the bed. Separating out an orange slice, he popped it into Sakurai’s open mouth. His fingers casually brushed against Sakurai’s lips as He gently applied pressure under his chin, coaxing Sakurai’s mouth close. “Eat,” said Issay before turning to Imai and adding, “Surprising that you find this new.”
Imai stared at the orange in Issay’s hand for a moment and then glanced back at the low table. “The hell?” he blurted. “That’s mine!”
“Do you want it back?” Issay asked, leaning forward and angling for a lip-lock.
Imai clicked his tongue and shoved Issay away. “Fuck no,” he muttered while Issay chuckled while chewing. “Keep the damn thing.”
“Though,” Issay paused and swallowed, “has this never before in the past… what, eight or nine months?”
“Well, sometimes he wakes up suddenly but never this… violently,” Imai muttered.
Issay hummed and turned his attention to Sakurai. “Sounds about right,” he remarked, brushing Sakurai’s hair aside. “I guess things haven’t really changed much, have they?” he added with a soft, sympathetic smile.
Sakurai was having difficulty grasping the situation. His eyes darted between the two men watching him; Issay, who stood next to him munching on his next slice of orange, and Imai, who sat on the edge of the bed.
It took a while, but when Sakurai finally found his voice, he muttered, “What the fuck?”
Chapter 53: 53
“I still can’t believe you’re going out with a het-”
“Stop calling me that,” Imai snapped, cutting Issay off.
“It’s a legitimate word, you know,” Issay shrugged. “It’s not an insult.”
“You make it sound like one,” Imai retorted.
“I’m not wrong, am I?” Issay said, taking a sip from his wine glass. “Ever been attracted to any other men aside from him?” he asked, gesturing at Sakurai.
Imai made eye contact with Sakurai who quietly ate his fried chicken pieces. He was still too stunned by this whole situation to say anything.
After a short pause, Imai answered, “… No."
“So how can I know for sure that you’re not just sticking around until you find a woman for yourself?” Issay asked, tilting his glass in Imai’s direction.
To this, Sakurai couldn’t stay silent. Putting a hand on Issay’s knee, he frowned and hissed, “Issay!”
“I’m serious,” Issay said firmly. Sakurai saw that he had a stern furrow in his brow when he turned to him and continued, “What are you going to do when he-”
“I’ll deal with it when the time comes,” Sakurai interrupted. He didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence.
Issay put his glass down and huffed in frustration. “You can’t bear all of it on your own.”
“ We will deal with it,” Imai spoke up. “We’ll cross that bridge if it happens,” he stressed.
“Good,” said Issay, simmering down quickly and picking his glass up again. “ If it happens,” he echoed, “do be reminded I’m available to step right in and erase whatever mess you made.”
“Like your mess?” Imai taunted with a scoff.
“You know why I did what I did and you concurred barely an hour ago,” Issay muttered darkly, swirling the wine in his glass. “And didn’t you react the exact same way last week? When you saw us together? Weren’t you the one who left him behind last week?”
“But I came back the next day,” Imai retorted. “Unlike someone who-”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, stop!” Sakurai cut in, breaking up the building hostility. “If you’re going to argue… please do it outside,” he sighed heavily as his eyes darted between Imai and Issay.
The two men paused and then looked away, looking sheepish as they shifted uncomfortably.
With the two of them finally silent, Sakurai now had a chance to ask the question which had been bothering him since he woke up. “How did this happen?”
Issay was the first to react. “Me, here?”
“He called last night,” Imai piped up, “on your phone, but you were sleeping.”
“He picked it up,” Issay nodded. “Little bit weird, if you ask me, but that’s what he did.”
“He was surprised that it wasn’t you,” Imai said.
“I was surprised, yes,” Issay nodded.
“Then he asked how you were,” Imai continued. “I said you were faring well.”
“I wanted to talk to you though,” Issay muttered, looking at Sakurai with some sort of longing in his eyes. “But you were sleeping, no? I told him not to wake you,” he said, addressing Sakurai’s disheartened inquiring look before Sakurai could even put it into words.
“Anyway,” Imai cleared his throat, snapping the lingering gaze that Sakurai didn’t realise he held with Issay, “I figured he wanted to see you so I told him to come and visit if he wanted.”
“And then I pointed out that he’d be here,” Issay gestured at Imai.
“I already said it’s up to you to do whatever you want,” Imai shrugged, picking up one of the glasses of wine on the table and downing it. Sakurai didn’t realise that Imai was drinking as well. It was unusual to see him drinking wine and this early in the afternoon to boot.
“God, you’re such a heretic!” Issay exclaimed. “Good wine is wasted on the likes of you,” he tutted.
“Whatever,” Imai dismissed. “Doesn’t matter what I drink. The end result is the same anyway.”
Issay raised a sleek eyebrow in intrigue. “Which is?”
“He falls asleep,” Sakurai replied as he chewed on a piece of chicken.
A smirk grew on Issay’s face. “Does he now?” Picking up the wine bottle which he opened earlier, he tipped more of its contents into Imai’s glass and said, “Do have more and try to appreciate the flavours a bit, why don’t you?”
Imai narrowed his eyes at Issay in suspicion but accepted the glass anyway. Issay then raised his glass and tapped its rim against Imai’s. With a wide smile, he said, “Cheers.”
Chapter 54: 54
“I know you said he would fall asleep but I expected him to last a little longer, you know?” Issay chuckled, pouring himself and Sakurai another drink from their third bottle of wine.
Sakurai was feeling the pleasant buzz from the alcohol himself. He languidly picked up his glass, taking his time as he swirled the burgundy liquid and took in its scent. Tipping the glass up, he sipped the finely aged wine, taking a moment to look at Imai’s sleeping form before turning his attention back to a relaxed Issay. Sitting up, Sakurai continued to hold eye contact with Issay as he put his glass on the table. He rocked to the side, towards Issay, and stretched his legs out from under him.
Issay chuckled as he watched Sakurai move, muttering to himself, “You never change, do you?”
Sakurai gave him a soft smile.
“Always lounging around at home in your underwear… sometimes in lingerie,” Issay recalled fondly, smiling back at Sakurai. “Do you still have them?”
“I left them at your place,” Sakurai replied, feeling somewhat regretful. He did like them. Were they gone?
Issay chuckled. “I shouldn’t have been so apprehensive about that drawer then,” he muttered.
Sakurai furrowed his brow. What did he mean?
“I haven’t opened the drawers you kept your things in since I came back,” Issay explained. Sounding glum, he added, “If they’re now empty, I’d rather not know.”
“Issay…” Sakurai reached his hand towards Issay’s without hesitation, but Issay pulled away.
“Don’t do that,” Issay warned.
“ You’re not mine ,” Issay whispered with a pained expression. “I know this is the result of my doing.”
“But…” Sakurai leaned forward in protest. “It’s because of me-”
“But this is on me,” Issay insisted, his voice low. “I should’ve come home sooner.”
Sakurai darted forward and grasped Issay’s hand in his, holding it to his chest as he slid closer. “Why…?”
“I guess I stayed away out of spite,” Issay scoffed. “And because of that, I lost you.” He met Sakurai’s woeful eyes and cupped his face with his hand. “Even though I still love you, even though I know every inch of your body,” Issay breathed, his hand caressing the contours of Sakurai’s torso, “every knot, every curve of you… You’re no longer mine.”
Sakurai took Issay’s glass from his hand and set it on the table. He inched his face closer but Issay retreated away, shaking his head with a stern look. Sakurai clasped his hands over Issay’s. “Issay, I…” He paused. What was he to say?
Gazing into Issay’s eyes, Sakurai moved Issay’s hands down, placing them on his chest as he quietly implored, “Touch me.”
“He’s sleeping right there,” Issay reminded.
Sakurai ignored his reminder. “Touch me like you used to,” he whispered, almost pleadingly.
“And if he wakes up?” Despite his question, Issay let Sakurai lie in his arms, back against him and head on his shoulder.
Sakurai nuzzled against the crook of Issay’s neck, breathing in his familiar musk and feeling the soft strands on his hair tickling his face. “Touch me,” he breathed, guiding Issay’s hands over his chest and along his abdomen.
Without warning, Issay’s hands slipped out of Sakurai’s grasp as he took back control, wrapping his arms around Sakurai’s body and hugging him tightly. Sakurai dropped his weight against Issay, muttering “Issay” with a breathy whisper as a shiver of delight rushed through his body.
Issay didn’t say a word as he slid one hand under Sakurai’s shirt and the other under the side of his underwear. The hand on Sakurai’s torso traced the dips and curves, sometimes scratching lightly while the hand lower down squeezed his rear. Sakurai gasped and reached back, curling his arm around Issay’s neck for support as he heard Issay hum in his ear.
In one fluid motion, Issay moved his hand down, along Sakurai’s rear and thigh, and effortlessly slid his underwear off. Sakurai closed his eyes and bit the inside of his lower lip, holding his voice back as Issay’s fingers circled around his left nipple, almost touching yet not, while his other hand slid towards his groin.
Fingers trailed along Sakurai’s inner thigh, deliberately ignoring his eager erection as they moved. Sakurai bucked his hips, whining softly as he urged Issay to touch him. Instead, Issay flicked his nipple and pinched him. Sakurai arched his back, pressing his face harder against Issay as he hissed sharply, desperately fighting to stay silent.
When Issay let go, he smoothed his hand over Sakurai’s sore skin, caressing him with light touches while he brushed his other palm over Sakurai’s scrotum. Sakurai sucked in a breath and pressed his knees together in an attempt to apply more pressure against his crotch but Issay’s hand was in the way.
Issay brushed the heel of his palm across Sakurai’s balls, making Sakurai jerk and gasp as he applied a little more force than before. Sakurai’s mouth was agape, his breathing shallow and erratic as Issay’s fingers danced over his sensitive skin. He could feel Issay removing his hand from under his shirt and the next thing he knew was that two of Issay’s slender fingers were in his mouth.
Sakurai sounded soft moans in his throat as he sucked on the fingers while Issay continued teasing in his nether region. Issay’s touch reached everywhere, tracing lines between his entrance and his scrotum, prodding around his aching rim, gently fondling his asscheeks and balls, but never touching his erection. Even so, the pleasure and yearning that churned in the pit of Sakurai’s stomach were almost unbearable.
Eventually, Sakurai let out a long moan, rubbing his knees and pressing his thighs together to try and satisfy himself. At this point, Issay removed his saliva-coated fingers from Sakurai’s mouth, silently bringing them down low to push against Sakurai’s entrance while his other hand smoothly slid over Sakurai’s inner thigh, moving up and away from his crotch to curl around his waist. As Issay’s wet fingers rubbed around his rim, Sakurai instinctively spread his legs apart, eagerly inviting Issay to put them in.
Issay took his time, but when he finally did, he only pushed his two fingers halfway in. For a moment, Sakurai’s grip on Issay tightened in frustration but he soon let go when Issay began curling his fingers, holding still with that same shallow depth as he continued to tease Sakurai. It was more than Sakurai got earlier but still less than what he longed for. Despite that, he could feel his body growing warm, his insides slowly melting with each curl.
Halfway through, Issay switched tactics, curling one digit after another without pause. Sakurai bit his lip hard and arched his back again but could not move much with Issay’s firm hold over his body. He blinked and shut his eyes, breathing harder and fighting harder to stay as quiet as he could with his short bursts of thrashing.
Issay huffed as if satisfied with where he has Sakurai now. Removing his hand from Sakurai’s waist, he hooked his arm around the back of Sakurai’s knees and pulled them back. As he kept Sakurai’s legs in the air, Issay finally straightened his fingers and thrust, pushing them all the way in.
Sakurai felt Issay’s fingers hit his prostate and his voice escaped his throat, gasping out loud. Hastily, Sakurai slapped his hands over his mouth. Issay thrust deep and he felt the pleasure flooding his body, moaning as it came at him wave after wave.
The chills that ran through him overwhelmed his senses and Sakurai couldn’t even find it in him to spare any attention for his neglected erection. Feeling his insides turn to mush, he moaned and tensed his body. He felt his pleasure peak and overflow, rushing through his body as he came with a barely contained moan of ecstasy.
Breathing heavily, Sakurai stared at the cum leaking out of his penis with a hazy consciousness and half-lidded eyes. He could feel Issay gently lowering his legs, bringing a smirking Imai into view as Issay enveloped him in a warm, comforting embrace. It took a moment for Sakurai to realise what he was really looking at.
Panic shoved Sakurai back into reality and he sat up in a hurry. But before he could leave Issay’s hug, Issay said, “You got that?”
“Yeah,” Imai muttered. He chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t believe it really worked.”
“I already told you I’ve done it before,” Issay scoffed. “Now you’ve seen it for yourself.”
“What?” Sakurai muttered, utterly confused by their exchange.
“Well, Acchan,” Issay spoke into Sakurai’s ear, “my dearest, dearest, dearest Acchan. This man here doesn’t believe that I can satisfy you using only my two hands and without touching your dick.”
“And now, I’m sure he’s picked up a good few pointers on how to make you happy,” Issay purred, sounding delighted yet somehow, Sakurai detected a hint of melancholy in his voice.
“We… were talking about you earlier,” Imai confessed, “while you were sleeping.”
Sakurai looked up at Issay and then across at Imai. “I thought you were asleep,” he muttered accusingly.
Imai had a sheepish look on his face. “Ah… Yeah, well…”
“He wasn’t convinced that you’d let me do this to you if he was awake,” Issay explained nonchalantly. Judging by the smile on his face, he clearly enjoyed holding Sakurai in his arms.
“What is this about?” Sakurai muttered. He wasn’t sure he understood what was going on.
“Your current lover was worried that he didn’t know enough to satisfy you in the long run so he asked for help,” Issay summarised, nuzzling Sakurai.
“Can you stop doing that to him?” Imai suddenly blurted.
“Isn’t this part of our agreement? That I’d get to be as affectionate as I want to him?” Issay smirked, hugging Sakurai tighter. “Don’t make me regret showing you a few pointers,” he warned.
Imai sighed and wrinkled his nose, reluctantly giving in with a sigh. “Fine,” he muttered. “But you said something about lingerie?”
Chapter 55: 55
This time, after a hot pot and more drinks, Imai was well and truly out cold from the alcohol.
“This isn’t another pretense, is it?” Sakurai remarked, poking Imai’s cheek after he tucked the man into bed.
“No,” Issay chuckled as he stood up. “We’re done with that.”
“I didn’t expect that you’d be willing to pull something like that,” Sakurai muttered, turning to Issay.
“You know what I want,” Issay said quietly. “But it’s no longer my position to bargain, much less make demands,” he added. Averting eye contact, he gathered up his cigarette case and lighter and shoved them into his pocket.
“You’re leaving?” Sakurai asked, standing up quickly.
Issay nodded. “The car’s coming around in about 15 minutes. Might as well grab a smoke before it arrives.”
“I’ll join you,” Sakurai decided, hastily putting on sweatpants and grabbing his own Reds.
“I won’t say no to that,” Issay said as he watched Sakurai stumble around with mild amusement.
When Sakurai was ready, he grabbed Issay’s hand and led him out the door, feeling a surge of warmth as Issay chuckled and adjusted their handhold to clasp tight.
“You’re simply incorrigible, aren’t you?” Issay commented as he let Sakurai lead him down the stairs and to the front of the property. “I know it’s 3 in the morning but couldn’t you be a little more discreet?”
Sakurai looked back at Issay, giving him a small smile and a shrug in response.
They stopped at the wall by the entrance which marked the edge of the property. Sakurai reluctantly let Issay’s hand go and they took out a cigarette each. Even without the packaging, Sakurai recognised that Issay still smoked the same brand he always smoked. Sakurai smiled to himself. He hasn’t changed either.
Looking up at the night sky, Issay sucked on his cigarette and let out a long exhale, blowing smoke into the air. His mind seemed far away as he smoked in silence, looking as if he had a lot on his mind.
“Issay?” Sakurai called softly.
“Hm?” With a subtle twitch of his eyebrows, Issay’s dark eyes slid over to meet Sakurai’s, giving him his full attention.
“You didn’t call me back right after last week,” Sakurai stated.
“You’re right. I didn’t,” Issay nodded.
“Because I decided it wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“You don’t want me back?” Sakurai asked.
“Wasn’t that the perfect opportunity then?”
“Perhaps,” Issay muttered. Running a hand through his hair, he sighed. “But I had a hunch that if I did, you’d be much worse off in the long run.”
“How would you know?” Sakurai challenged. He was feeling something but he couldn’t tell what it was. Was it disappointment? Or was it relief?
“First off,” Issay began, “if things weren’t better, you’d have seeked me out yourself.” He paused, wet his lips and took another drag. “Secondly,” he continued, “even if you still wanted me… As much as it pains me to say this,” Issay looked hard at Sakurai, “judging by how distraught you were, you obviously love that man,” he gestured upstairs, “as much as, if not more than you love me.”
Sakurai bit the inside of his lower lip and looked down, falling silent. Issay knew, as usual.
“You wouldn’t be able to choose one even if I asked you to.”
Issay put a finger to Sakurai’s lips, gently shushing him. As Sakurai looked up at him, Issah caressed his cheek and continued. “I know you,” he said. “You just want to be loved. And making you choose would only leave you upset no matter which way you went.” He breathed in deep and sighed. “This is the best arrangement for you,” Issay muttered. “You know I can’t stand to see someone else touching you if I called you mine. But I’ve been thinking a lot while I was away and this… This, I can accept.”
“Stop saying that,” Sakurai frowned. The ease with which Issay assented to this made him feel oddly uncomfortable.
“We talked a lot too, your Imai and I, while you were asleep this morning,” Issay divulged. “He really cares about you. You know that? He’s a good man. He has more to give to you than I ever will be able to. Not with my obligations…” Issay looked away and removed his hand, shifting back to his original position with his back against the wall. “Maybe in another life.”
Sakurai kept his cigarette between his lips, eyes downcast as he thought about Issay’s words. He didn’t like how they made him feel, but he knew Issay was right. He did put a lot of consideration into this after all.
Lost in his thoughts, Sakurai was brought back to reality when Issay touched his cheek again. He looked up just in time to see Issay giving him a sad smile as he pulled Sakurai into a warm hug.
“They’re here. I need to go now,” Issay whispered, giving Sakurai a kiss on the side of his head. He gave Sakurai a squeeze before letting go and retreating. “You know where to find me if you need me,” he said as he waved and turned to walk off.
Watching Issay step into the expensive-looking car and leave, Sakurai could not help but sense an intense loneliness emanating from his retreating figure. It made his heart ache.
Chapter 56: 56
Sakurai returned to his apartment expecting it to be dark but the lights were on and Imai was standing up, drinking a glass of water at the sink. Putting the cup down, Imai looked at Sakurai with an unreadable expression on his face.
Noticing Sakurai enter, Imai looked up and asked, “He’s gone?”
“Yes,” Sakurai muttered as he locked the door.
“You’re still here,” Imai mumbled to himself.
Imai turned and leaned back against the sink. “Did he ask you to leave with him?”
“Really?” Imai raised his brows in surprise.
“Yeah,” Sakurai confirmed, stopping in front of Imai with his eyes to the ground.
Imai huffed and folded his arms. “Were you intending to leave with him?” he asked flatly.
“No,” Sakurai answered, his eyes darting up to Imai. “Do you even see how I’m dressed?”
A smile broke out on Imai's face and he chuckled. “Yeah, I know,” he muttered, grinning for a brief moment before a pinched expression appeared on his face.
Sakurai couldn’t quite decipher what the change in Imai’s expressions meant. Was he happy that Sakurai stayed or not? Did he believe what he said?
Shuffling forward, Sakurai put his arms around Imai and hugged him. He buried his face in the crook of Imai’s neck, nuzzling him as he said quietly, “I’m staying with you.”
Imai hugged him back and hummed. “Hm.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m home.”
Sakurai frowned. What’s with Imai’s answers? “Are you alright?” he asked, lifting his head and looking straight at Imai. “Do you want me here or not?”
“Of course I want you here,” Imai muttered. He scrunched his nose and looked away as the frown on his brow deepened. “It’s just…”
“What?” Sakurai asked as apprehension filled his heart.
“It’s just that I…” Imai paused and swallowed.
He looked terribly distressed and Sakurai didn’t like that. What was bothering him so badly? Was it how Sakurai was the one who persuaded Issay to do things to him? Did that change Imai’s feelings towards him?
“I…” Imai started but paused again, struggling to speak.
Sakurai grabbed Imai by his shoulders and squeezed hard as he repeated, “What?!”
Imai shoved Sakurai aside as he muttered quickly, “I think I’m going to hurl.”
Sakurai stood stock still as he watched Imai make a beeline for the toilet and stuck his head into the bowl. As puking noises filled the house, Sakurai stared incredulously at Imai. Was that all?
“I don’t think you want me,” Sakurai said to no one in particular as he went towards the bathroom. “I think you need me.”
Chapter 57: 57
Sakurai casually strolled down the path, following the streetlamps home with a cigarette between his lips. A couple of months have passed since that whole mess and things between Sakurai and Imai have pretty much settled back down. He still kept in contact with Issay, exchanging occasional messages about music or alcohol or places they visited, but nothing more transpired. At least when it comes to Sakurai.
With Imai though, Sakurai was sure that he, too, was talking to Issay. How else could he explain the familiar jockstrap that Imai brought back about a month ago? Or the lacy thong that was laid on his bed just a couple of weeks ago? Sakurai chuckled to himself, puffing out white clouds of smoke as he walked under the elevated train tracks near the corner store. Could Imai be any more discrete?
Just as his cigarette burned down to it’s filter, Sakurai spotted the lone bright light shining from Imai’s tobacco window. He smiled to himself and walked over with an extra spring in his step at the thought of seeing Imai again.
When he approached the window, Imai heard his footsteps and looked up at him. Sakurai jerked his head, beckoning him but Imai furrowed his brow and held up a hand. Confused, Sakurai went all the way up to the glass and pressed his forehead to the cool surface as he looked in. There was a ton of documents on the desk behind the counter and Imai was hurriedly gathering them up and putting them away. The old man was seated in the back with a solemn expression on his face. All of this was rather unusual.
Imai slipped a pack of Marlboro Reds through the opening. “Go on ahead first,” he said. “I’ll come up later after I’m done with this.”
Feeling confused, Sakurai reluctantly took the cigarettes from Imai. This has never happened before. His discomfort must’ve shown on his face because Imai took hold of his hand and gave it a squeeze.
“I’ll tell you when it’s all settled,” Imai promised.
Sakurai nodded mutely, giving him a small smile as he let go and returned to his discussion with his father. It was then that the old man noticed Sakurai and gave him a reassuring smile and a nod before turning his attention back to Imai again.
Lips twitching into a half-hearted smile, Sakurai returned the nod out of habit and slowly walked away, heading home with a heavy heart and without Imai for the first time in a while.
Chapter 58: 58
Sakurai sucked in a breath, waking up when he felt someone stroking his hair. He hugged Imai’s pillow tighter before relaxing his body and turning, blinking blearily as his eyes squinted in the dark to look up at Imai sitting by his side. When did he fall asleep?
“Sorry,” Imai whispered. “Took much longer than I expected.”
Sakurai hummed and sat up with a grunt. Rubbing his eyes, he felt Imai’s hand on his knee, caressing his skin as it slid up his thigh to stop at his hip. Imai’s fingers fidgeted with the skimpy side strap of the thong that Sakurai had on.
“Waiting for me, weren’t you?” Imai chuckled softly.
“No,” Sakurai muttered as he put his arms around Imai’s neck. “I was waiting for the sun to rise and shine on my genitals so I can finally get some fucking vitamin D.”
A lopsided smile lit up Imai’s tired face as he burst out laughing. His arm curled around Sakurai’s waist, slipping under his shirt as he leaned forward and laid Sakurai back down on the bed. Burying his face in Sakurai’s neck, Imai kissed him and muttered, “So you wanna wait for the sun?”
“Hm… I don’t know,” Sakurai shrugged, nuzzling against Imai as he felt Imai’s hand groping around his crotch.
Imai shifted, pressing his arousal against Sakurai’s as his grip tightened and he squeezed Sakurai’s rear. Hearing Sakurai let out a soft moan, Imai chuckled, “Still wanna wait for the sun?”
Sakurai squirmed on the bed under Imai, his shirt riding up his torso as he moved. He pursed his lips as he wavered between wanting to get on with it and going to sleep. In all honesty, both options sounded good.
As Sakurai pondered, Imai sat up and shoved the covers away, eyes fixed on the thin piece of fabric that Sakurai wore on his hips. Imai smoothed a hand over Sakurai’s stomach and caressed the side of his body, idly stroking his skin before tracing the red and black lace that made up the thong.
Sakurai breathed in deep and let out a long exhale, relishing his touch. Looking up at Imai with half-lidded eyes and parted lips, he kept his breathing measured as Imai’s fingers trailed along the bulge of his groin, following the outline of his erection that peeked out the edge of the fabric. Imai put his hand on Sakurai’s erection, slowly closing his hand around him until Sakurai nudged him with his foot.
“Yes?” Imai smirked.
Sakurai whined and nudged Imai again. Pouting slightly, he pushed his shirt higher up and put a hand on his chest, idly touching himself as he waited for Imai to move.
Chuckling softly, Imai gathered his shirt up and took it off. Tossing it in some corner of the bed, he crouched over and Sakurai let out a delighted hum, wrapping his arms around Imai as he felt their bodies come into contact. He arched his back and hugged Imai tighter, pushing their bodies closer together while Imai kissed his jaw.
Imai moved wordlessly, trailing his kisses all over Sakurai’s torso while keeping the pressure on Sakurai’s crotch as he gradually shifted lower. Taking his time, Imai gently bit and nipped at Sakurai, leaving marks on his pale skin. Sakurai closed a hand in Imai’s hair, grabbing the now significantly longer locks as the fingers of his other hand interlocked with Imai’s while he twisted his body on the bed, enjoying Imai’s affections.
Eventually, Imai reached Sakurai’s hips. Eyes darting up, Imai held eye contact with Sakurai as he sank his teeth into the soft skin of Sakurai’s upper thigh. Sakurai whimpered while Imai sucked and then sat up, grabbing Sakurai by his waist and elevating his hips higher.
Sakurai tensed, and Imai, sensing it, smirked at him. Sakurai petulantly scrunched his face up at Imai, huffing haughtily until Imai opened his mouth and put his teeth on Sakurai’s erection. Sakurai tensed again as he watched Imai drag his teeth over the lace and nudge his hard cock with his face. A couple of times, Imai made it seem as if he was about to pull the thong off or put either Sakurai’s balls or cock into his mouth. But instead, without doing that, Imai brought his face down lower towards Sakurai’s entrance.
Imai pushed the fabric aside and spread his cheeks apart. Then he paused.
Lowering Sakurai’s hips a notch, Imai looked straight at Sakurai. “Playing with yourself, weren’t you?” he remarked.
Sakurai forced himself to keep a straight face as he kept silent.
“Butt plug?” Imai hummed. “Where’d you get that from?”
“Found it in one of my drawers,” Sakurai muttered softly.
Imai raised his eyebrows briefly then frowned. “You sure it’s alright to sleep with a butt plug in though?”
“I suppose… I’m not sure but… it’s still there, isn’t it?”
“Hm, yeah,” Imai mumbled and tugged.
Not expecting Imai to do that, Sakurai sucked in a sharp breath and jerked his leg, almost kicking Imai.
Imai appeared unfazed, chuckling as he rested his cheek against Sakurai’s inner thigh. “Since you’re so eager,” he said, “we might as well get right to it, right?”
“Wha-?!” Sakurai moaned as Imai eased the butt plug out and pushed it back in. “Hisashi!” he hissed in bewilderment.
Imai ignored him. “Look at you, all lubed up too,” he commented, easily pulling out the butt plug again.
Sakurai grunted, holding back so as to not give Imai the pleasure of taunting him.
Imai still had that stupid smirk on his face when finally put Sakurai’s lower half back on the bed. Taking his shorts off, Imai put on a condom from the shorts’ pocket and put his hands around Sakurai’s thighs, tugging roughly to bring their hips closer together. Leaving the thong on, Imai simply pushed the centre fabric aside and positioned himself in front of Sakurai.
Before Sakurai could say anything, Imai’s erection slid into him without much resistance. Letting out a soundless gasp, Sakurai felt his groin throb with desire as Imai began thrusting. Heat blossomed in the pit of his stomach and Sakurai moaned, gripping the sheets under him as he finally got what he had been waiting for since he got home earlier.
The warmth grew steadily, spiking each time Imai hit his prostate. Out of nowhere, Imai placed a hand over his erection, still barely covered under the lace of his thong. Imai dragged his fingers to and fro, up and down and across Sakurai’s heat. His furtive teasing made Sakurai arch his back and whine for more. It wasn’t enough.
Sakurai heard a soft chuckle from Imai and his hand moved, sliding lower until they closed around his scrotum in a firm hold. Sakurai began breathing harder and bit his lower lip, holding his voice in as Imai’s fingers curled and kneaded delicately while he continued thrusting into Sakurai.
Succumbing to the pleasure, Sakurai sensed a familiar haze settling into his mind, blocking everything out save whatever Imai was doing to him. He felt Imai slide his hand up his torso, reaching up to cup Sakurai’s face in his hand as he leaned forward.
Imai brushed his lips against Sakurai’s, coaxing Sakurai to part them for a kiss. As soon as Sakurai did, Imai began rubbing the palm his other hand against the lace on Sakurai’s erection, making him cry out in surprise and arousal before their lips pressed together. Sakurai wrapped his legs around Imai’s waist and clutched him tightly as Imai deepened their kiss, muffling Sakurai’s soft moans.
With Imai thrusting faster and deeper, waves of pleasure rushed through Sakurai’s body, building and swelling until he felt it shudder and crash all at once. Release and relief washed over his consciousness as his come spilt onto his stomach, soiling the thong at the same time. Still, Imai continued to kiss him, sucking lightly on his lips as he gradually calmed down and removed himself. Pausing, Imai pressed his forehead to Sakurai’s, gazing into his eyes for a length of time in silence.
Eventually, Imai exhaled, gave Sakurai a peck on his cheek, and pinched Sakurai’s rear as he rolled off. Standing up, he stretched his back and turned to Sakurai. With a lopsided smile on his face, he quipped, “Still waiting for the sun?”
Chapter 59: 59
Sakurai could smell seared sausages when he stepped out of the bathroom. The reason for that was clear enough. Imai was making breakfast or based on the time, lunch on his stove.
He was searing the sausages in a pan while on the table, there was scrambled eggs, baked beans, button mushrooms, and toast there too. Sakurai half wondered if that was too much food for the both of them and whether he really did take so long in the bathroom that Imai had the time to whip up such a spread.
Hearing Sakurai’s footsteps, Imai piped up, “Almost done. Just a bit… No, wait,” he stopped Sakurai in his tracks and handed him the plate of sausages. “Take.”
And Sakurai did, bringing the plate to the table and sitting on the floor. Noticing that there was no cutlery, he began to stand up again but Imai was faster. Imai handed him the forks and knives before darting back to the tiny kitchenette to bring two mugs of coffee over.
Taking his mug from Imai, Sakurai sipped the nutty beverage and asked, “What’s with the spread?”
“Just trying a couple of things,” Imai muttered as he sat down with a grunt. With an open palm, he gestured, “Eat.”
Sakurai picked up a fork and stuck it into the scrambled eggs, scooping some into his mouth. As the creamy, buttery texture spread in his mouth, he beamed at Imai. Picking up a piece of toast, Sakurai handed it to Imai, urging him to eat as well.
Imai took it from him, smiling to himself as he put scrambled eggs on his toast and muttered, “Should’ve known you’d only ever give me that kind of reaction.”
“It’s honest,” Sakurai shrugged, biting down on a sausage and then moaning in pleasure as the juices burst out.
“Yes, I know you love sausages,” Imai ribbed.
Sakurai mumbled incoherently and waved his hand at Imai in dismissal.
“Those are just frozen ones from the supermarket,” Imai informed.
Swallowing, Sakurai reiterated, “They’re good anyway.”
“So just any sausage will do, huh?”
“As long as you buy them, I suppose,” Sakurai replied. “I trust your taste.”
“But surely you’ve got a preference.”
“Ah, I do like those thick, meaty ones. Kinda like these,” Sakurai waved his fork around with half the sausage at one end. “Juicy and salty- Why are you laughing?” he asked, stopping halfway when he noticed Imai’s shoulders shaking from his silent laughter.
Imai shook his head and waved his hand, muttering, “Nothing. Go on.”
Sakurai narrowed his eyes at him. Stuffing the rest of the sausage in his mouth, he chewed as he said, “I know what you’re thinking of.”
“Sausages,” Imai chuckled.
“You sick pervert,” Sakurai mumbled, sipping more coffee.
“Me?” Imai asked innocently as he mixed baked beans with the eggs.
Sakurai huffed and put his mug down without an answer. He ate a button mushroom and took a quick look at the food still on the table. “Aren’t there a few too many sausages though?”
“What? Too much for you to handle?” Imai teased.
Sakurai glared at him.
Imai simply laughed, “Didn’t you like making these jokes?”
Sakurai pursed his lips and made a disgruntled noise, ignoring Imai until his mirth subsided. When it did, Imai took a long drink from his mug and stood up. Holding on to it, he stretched a hand towards Sakurai and asked, “More coffee?”
Nodding, Sakurai gave his mug to Imai. As he watched Imai pour more coffee out from the pot, he asked, “You never said what you were discussing about last night.”
Imai froze for a moment, blinked, and put the pot down. “Well…” He came back to the table with the mugs and sat down next to Sakurai. Looking at Sakurai with a firm look in his eyes, Imai said, “I’m… moving away.”
“… What?” Sakurai wasn’t sure he heard right.
“I’m moving away,” Imai repeated, swallowing.
“What?” Sakurai was struggling to comprehend. Imai never mentioned anything about this before. “The whole store’s moving?”
“No. Just me.”
“Why?” Sakurai asked, baffled.
“It was always meant to be a temporary arrangement, me staying with the old man,” Imai explained. “In fact, I’ve actually stuck around much longer than I was supposed to.”
“But… Away, where?” Sakurai asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“Somewhere closer to the city centre,” Imai replied. “Thereabouts.”
“That’s almost an hour away by train,” Sakurai mumbled softly. Imai had already decided on a place? He felt crushed. “Why didn’t you just move in?”
“I thought of that but…” Imai had a faraway look in his eyes as he paused. “There’s something I need to do.”
“I’ll tell you when things have settled down,” Imai said cryptically as he met Sakurai’s dejected expression with an optimistic smile. “Don’t make that face,” he coaxed, putting his hand over Sakurai’s. “You’ll like it. I promise.”
“When are you moving?”
“Tomorrow?!” Sakurai echoed. “And you never said anything about this? When were you intending to tell me? After you’ve disappeared?”
Imai winced. “I didn’t know how to tell you…”
“So what’s this spread for? A farewell meal?” Sakurai snapped, pulling his hand out of Imai’s grasp in anger.
“No- It’s nothing like that!” Imai denied, grabbing both of Sakurai’s hands this time. “Please, just listen-”
“What do you take me for!?” Sakurai seethed as he tried to pull away from Imai again. “Are you just going to throw me aside-”
Sakurai froze. Imai had never raised his voice at him before.
Seeing the shock on Sakurai’s face, Imai closed his eyes and sighed regretfully while still holding on to Sakurai’s hands. Opening his eyes, he pulled Sakurai back to him. With an arm around Sakurai and a hand against his face, Imai looked at him tenderly and said, “I’m not leaving for good. I’m not throwing you aside. I’ll just… be seeing you less.”
Sakurai looked away, not bothering to conceal the disappointment he felt.
“I’m… sorry I didn’t tell you earlier,” Imai sighed. “I had hoped that things would’ve gone smoothly but it’ll take another month or two before… anything. I just wanted things to be completed before this so that I could tell you and show you but…”
Sakurai frowned. Nothing Imai said made sense.
“Whatever it is, I’m not leaving you,” Imai concluded. “Even if we can’t meet every day, we can still call and text, right?” he assured as he brushed Sakurai’s hair back.
Sakurai leaned forward, burying his face in Imai’s shirt. “I’ll miss you,” he mumbled sadly.
“I know,” Imai consoled, hugging him tightly. “But it’ll be worth it. I promise."
Chapter 60: 60
“I’ll come back over the weekend anyway,” Imai said as they shoved boxes of Imai’s things into the back of Toll’s car. “It’s not like I’m moving to another prefecture.”
Sakurai remained silent. He had a pinched expression on his face the whole time he was helping out with the move. If the Higuchi brothers, Araki, or Hide noticed it, they didn’t say anything. Imai clearly did though. Sakurai noticed the frowns and concerned looks cast in his direction.
As Sakurai folded his arms in front of him, he turned, exchanged a glance with Imai, and then looked over at Imai’s parents. Despite their genial hosting, they had an air of tension around them too. They weren’t entirely comfortable with Imai leaving either. Though it was likely more of a parental thing for them.
Araki re-entered the store through the back entrance that led into the house. “Alright, I’m ready to go,” he announced, wiping his damp hands on his jeans. “Anyone else need the bathroom?”
The rest shook their heads and began bidding their goodbyes to Imai’s parents. Sakurai remained still in his spot, watching as Imai’s parents stepped back and stood by him while the guys piled into the car.
Noticing that Sakurai wasn’t moving, Yuta called to him, “Not coming along? We’re heading out for drinks later.”
Sakurai shook his head and forced a weak smile onto his face. “Not feeling too well,” he muttered, giving a brief reply. Besides, it was probably easier like this. It would be even harder to leave later if he went with them.
Imai gave him a long look. “You’re really not gonna come?” he asked, sounding glum.
Sakurai couldn’t look at him as he shook his head again. “Besides, there’s not enough space in the car,” he mumbled.
‘Hey.” Imai put a hand on Sakurai’s upper arm and gave him a squeeze. “Take care of yourself, alright?”
Sakurai nodded mutely.
“Eat properly. And try not to lie around in bed all day,” Imai continued, rubbing Sakurai’s arm as he spoke.
Sakurai adjusted his arms, hugging himself tighter as he surreptitiously hooked his fingers with Imai’s. “So naggy,” he muttered under his breath.
Imai’s mother heard Sakurai and she chortled. “He’d be alright,” she smiled. “After all, he has managed on his own long before you moved back in.”
“That, I have,” Sakurai smiled back at her.
“He’ll be alright,” she repeated, beaming up at him as she rubbed his back.
Imai hummed and looked at Sakurai. He gave his arm one more squeeze before finally letting go and saying, “I’ll see you soon.”
Stepping away, Imai waved his phone at Sakurai. He breathed in deep and exhaled, waving his phone back at Imai with a weight settling on his chest. He watched Imai get into the car and close the door. He could hear Yuta and Araki bantering as Toll started up the car and drove off. All at once, things felt quieter when it was just Sakurai and Imai’s parents standing outside the corner store. In the past, Sakurai would’ve called this peace but now, he wasn’t so sure.
“I’ll head home now,” Sakurai sighed.
“My boy’s made too much for dinner again,” the old man suddenly spoke up. “He must’ve overestimated the portions.”
Sakurai simply smiled politely, letting out a short huff as a laugh. It was possible but unlikely. Imai knew his estimations well.
“Take some home,” the old man continued, beckoning Sakurai as he turned and walked back into the store. “It’d be a waste if we were to throw it away.”
Chapter 61: 61
As he walked home swinging the plastic bag with his dinner and some packed in it, Sakurai felt his smile fading from his face and his mood sinking. By the time he reached his apartment building, he was shuffling his feet and trudging up the stairs to his home.
Sakurai opened the door and entered the dark, empty house. He knew that it was now no different from the days before Imai appeared out of nowhere, but something still felt different as he kicked his shoes off and stepped into the apartment.
Sakurai spotted Imai’s mug in the dish dryer and his toothbrush in the bathroom. He noticed that the toilet paper was put in the holder the wrong way around, or rather, Imai’s way around. Hints and signs that Imai pretty much lived here could still be found. Perhaps that was what’s different.
Putting the packed food down on the table, Sakurai sank to the floor and lay down on it, staring at the ceiling as he slowly replayed his memories. He remembered the look on Imai’s face and the reluctance in his body language throughout the day. It seemed like he was nervous about leaving. If it made him that uncomfortable, why didn’t he just stay? He could’ve just moved out of his parents home and lived here, right? Though the space available was admittedly an issue…
Sakurai closed his eyes and sighed. He still could not figure out what it was that Imai felt that he absolutely needed to do. What on earth would require him to move away from here? Was it a job? Even if it was a job, it was still within the city, wasn’t it? After all, he’s just shifting around within the city… away from where Sakurai was. On the other side.
Sitting up, Sakurai ran his fingers through his hair. It was starting to get rather unruly. When was the last time he cut his hair? He idly looked around as he tried to bring up the memory. Before he could recall, he suddenly noticed a jacket lying in a corner of his bed, close to the wall. Sakurai frowned.
With the lights still off, it was hidden in the shadows but it was easier to spot at eye level. Sakurai reached over. As he pulled the jacket to him, he immediately recognised it as one of Imai’s. What on earth was it still doing here? Did Imai forget about it?
Driven by impulse, Sakurai quickly got to his feet, wanting to bring the jacket back to Imai but he paused. He had no idea what Imai’s new address was. Besides, even if he went over now, Imai would’ve headed out for dinner and drinks with the guys, as Yuta said earlier.
Shoulders drooping, Sakurai gradually, sat down on the floor again. Staring at the jacket, he slowly brought it closer to himself, hugging it and instinctively burying his face in the soft material.
It smelt like Imai.
If only he could sleep until Imai comes back.
Sakurai pursed his lips and frowned at the message from Imai.
Colleague’s wedding tomorrow (・へ・)
Since Imai moved last Sunday, trying to meet him during the week has proved to be difficult. While Imai was busy with unpacking and getting settled in his new place, he seemed to be occupied with something else that ate up even more time too. It must be related to whatever Imai said he needed to do. Sakurai felt his phone buzz and he looked down.
Oh well. At least the day after’s a Saturday
Sakurai sucked a breath in through his cigarette and sighed. Well, that's that. There wasn’t much they could do about it.
Putting his phone away, Sakurai continued smoking on the bench outside his office building, watching people pass by. Though it was already 9 at night and the crowds have dissipated. He should probably head home too.
As Sakurai stubbed his cigarette out under the bench, he noticed a cat, a grey and white one wandering nearby. This was new. Where did it come from?
Squatting down, Sakurai stretched his hand out and made soft shushing noises in an attempt to attract the cat’s attention. It worked. The cat pricked its ears up and turned to Sakurai’s direction, blinking slowly as it stared at him. It took a moment to consider, but it eventually came over to sniff his fingers cautiously.
Sakurai smiled and slowly stuck his finger out, scratching the cat under its chin. It seemed to enjoy it and began rubbing its face all over his hand as it took a step closer. Sakurai’s smile grew wider as the cat began brushing its body against his legs. Eventually, the cat lay down at Sakurai’s feet, flipping onto its back. Sakurai had a grin on his face by then and, unable to resist the cat’s fluffy stomach, he put his hand on it, only to have the cat flinch and bite him.
Sakurai pulled back in surprise and the cat sat up. They stared at each other accusingly. Nonplussed, Sakurai kept an eye on the cat as he stood up and slowly began walking back to his office. He couldn’t quite tell if it liked him or not but it was about time for him to pack up and leave anyway.
Drawing away, Sakurai turned back a few times. The cat continued to sit where it was and as much as Sakurai wanted to play with it more, he wasn’t sure if it was going to run away this time. He sighed and entered the building. Oh well. He could only wait and see if it comes back tomorrow.
Double chapter today in celebration of nursemchurt's birthday~!
Wishing you a happy birthday and more feels to come :D
Chapter 63: 63
The cat was following him.
Sakurai expected the cat to have disappeared when he came down from his office, but it was still there, waiting for him. It was weird. For a moment he wondered if it was actually a dog, but it definitely had the shape of a cat. And it, again, didn’t take too kindly to him touching its belly so it had to be a cat. Right?
Whatever it was, it followed him as he walked home, meowing and weaving through his legs ever so often. Sakurai was so distracted by it that he didn’t even realise that he had arrived at the corner store. Stopping in front of the tobacco window, Sakurai had his eyes on the cat as it continued meowing at him.
Before he said a word, the old man heard the cat and he stood up, peering down through the window and asking, “Found yourself a friend?”
“Uh,” Sakurai looked up. “Yeah, I guess.”
The cat meowed again.
“Cute little one you got there,” the old man remarked and the cat meowed at him. “Are you hungry?”
“It might be, I think,” Sakurai muttered, looking down at the cat again.
“Ah, wait a moment,” the old man said as he disappeared, leaving Sakurai at the window with the cat still meowing at him.
Sakurai took one step away. The cat took one step with him. Sakurai took one step back. The cat stepped back with him. Sakurai wrinkled his nose, unsure of what to do. It’s been a while since his previous cat passed but he still wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to look after another. This one was winning him over though.
“Here,” the old man said, putting a can of cat food next to Sakurai’s Marlboro Reds on the counter. There was also a couple of homemade rice balls placed on the small space. “I hope you eat umeboshi. Then, you can have supper with it.”
“Oh,” Sakurai uttered, surprised. He was about to decline but luckily, he managed to catch himself before he said anything this time. “Thank… you, “ he forced out, bowing slightly as he watched the old man pack the food and his cigarettes into a plastic bag.
Stuffing his hand into his pocket, Sakurai fished for money but the old man held up a hand and said with a chuckle, “Leave it for next time. The little one is demanding to be fed.”
“Tomorrow,” Sakurai promised, bowing and nodding several times as he bade his goodnight and left for home.
It was honestly surprising that the cat was willing to follow him this far. Wouldn’t it normally be concerned with territories and the like? This particular one was unfazed though, happily following Sakurai up the stairs and into his apartment.
Sakurai watched the cat explore his small abode, sniffing and looking around with wary curiosity. Setting his things down, Sakurai opened an overhead cabinet and took out the food and water bowls. He held it in his hands and paused. It’s been a while since he last saw these things. He looked into the cabinet again, at the grooming supplies he still kept. Well, it was a good thing he decided to keep them as a memento.
Something pressed against Sakurai’s leg and he looked down. The cat was standing up with its front paws on his calf and its eyes fixed on the food bowl. Sakurai smiled at it and rinsed the bowls, filling the water bowl before setting both of them down on the floor. He then pulled the tab of the canned food, opening it to the pungent smell of fish before slapping it down on the food bowl. Immediately, the cat paid no heed to Sakurai and went straight for the food, scarfing it down without a second thought.
Sakurai chuckled and knelt down next to it. Stroking its back, he could feel its ribs under its skin. No wonder it was hungry. Judging by its behaviour, it seemed more like a house cat than a feral cat and he began to wonder how long it has been wandering around on the streets. Was it abandoned?
The cat finished its food in record time and looked up at Sakurai, meowing again. Sakurai smiled and chuckled softly. Well, it’s not like it could tell him its past. He stood up and retrieved the sticks of cat treats from the overhead cabinet. He gave the expiry date a quick glance and, satisfied that it was still far from it, he opened one.
Sitting down, Sakurai extended the treat towards the cat and it immediately started lapping up whatever escaped the opening. As he watched it, Sakurai smiled to himself. It seems like he was going to have less reason to feel alone now.
Chapter 64: 64
“I’ve barely been gone for a week and you’ve already found yourself a new lover?”
Sakurai opened his eyes, squinting against the sunlight streaming in through a gap in his curtains as he breathed in deep and yawned. He felt a weight pressing down on the side of his bed and turned to see who it was. He blinked and stared blankly for a moment.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” Imai greeted quietly. “Don’t you usually wake up before me-!”
Sakurai immediately stretched his arms out and wrapped them around Imai, roughly pulling him down into a tight embrace on the bed. Imai made a surprised noise but did not protest otherwise. Instead, he folded his arms around Sakurai too, holding him as Sakurai buried his face in Imai’s clothes.
“I missed you,” Sakurai whispered, squeezing Imai tighter. Waking up to Imai’s return was overwhelming.
“Acchan, I can’t breathe,” Imai hissed.
“So much,” Sakurai added, rolling over and pinning Imai onto the bed with his undressed self.
“I know,” Imai muttered, calming down now that Sakurai’s hug wasn’t so crushing. He kissed Sakurai on his head and said softly, “I know, but… Do you have to get so aroused? You’re so warm.”
“Yes,” Sakurai replied. He shifted higher and kissed Imai on his neck. “I have to love you.”
Imai chuckled, his hands caressing Sakurai’s back as he moved. “I’ve never heard anyone saying things like-!” His breath hitched and his words got stuck when Sakurai teased a nipple between his fingers.
Sakurai didn’t bother with getting Imai out of his jacket. Instead, he simply rolled Imai’s t-shirt up his body, putting his pale slender body on display before him. Sakurai paused, taking a moment to drink in the lascivious sight of Imai’s soft brown eyes shining in the dark as they looked at him from under his messy hair, his ribs pressing against his skin as his chest rose and fell with his heavy breathing, the band of his briefs peeking out from under his cargo pants which clung to his slender, bony hips.
Desire burned hot in Sakurai’s groin and he bent over, kissing Imai’s body with renewed vigour. Imai buried his fingers in Sakurai’s hair, scratching and grabbing as he let Sakurai do as he pleased.
Sakurai lingered around Imai’s chest, teasing one nipple with his fingers, rubbing gently while he licked the other. He could feel Imai squirming under him, his grip tightening on Sakurai’s hair as his breathing grew louder. Sakurai switched around, this time sucking on one side while using his fingers with the other which he licked. Imai grunted and let out a long sigh as he squirmed again and arched his back, pressing his groin against Sakurai.
Fingers working nimbly, Sakurai undid Imai’s pants. He grabbed the side, digging his fingers in and under Imai's briefs too as he pulled both articles of clothing off Imai’s body. Then, Sakurai paused again, admiring Imai’s tender, erect nipples on his chest. Baring his teeth, Sakurai bent over again and bit Imai’s nipple, making Imai hiss and smack Sakurai on his arm until he let go. Sakurai then leaned over to his dresser, pulling the drawer open to take out the lube and condoms.
Sakurai coated his fingers in slick gel and began teasing Imai’s entrance with a finger. Imai sucked in a breath and raised an eyebrow in surprise. Sakurai smiled back, kissing Imai’s knee as he held eye contact with Imai. His surprise was to be expected. Sakurai usually rode him anyway.
As Sakurai pushed a finger in, Imai fought to control his breathing, taking deep breaths as he clutched the sheets and pressed himself into the bed. “I… don’t think I’ll ever get used to how weird this feels,” Imai muttered with a pinched expression on his face.
Sakurai hummed and leaned forward. Nuzzling against Imai, he carefully slid another in and as Imai let out another breath, he whispered, “Is it bad?”
“No, just… weird,” Imai mumbled as he exhaled and put a questing hand on Sakurai’s chest for something to hold.
“Getting used to it comes with frequency,” Sakurai chuckled softly while adding another finger in.
Sitting up, he held Imai’s hand as he moved his three fingers and spread Imai wider while thrusting with a languid rhythm. He felt Imai’s grip tighten for a brief moment before releasing as he forced himself to relax.
When Sakurai removed his fingers, the tension left Imai, letting him loosen up significantly. Sakurai could feel Imai watching him open the condom and put it on, breathing deep and slow as he did. Sakurai then bent over again, taking Imai’s hands and putting them on him before placing his forearm next to Imai’s head to steady himself as he slowly pushed himself in.
As expected, Imai’s nails dug into Sakurai’s skin as he thrust, grip slowly easing as time passed. Sakurai hovered over Imai, kissing him softly as their bodies rocked together. Imai had a hand around the back of Sakurai’s neck, holding him close as Sakurai closed a hand around Imai’s erection and began stroking Imai in tandem to his thrusts.
Imai let out a gasp, turning away slightly. His expression loosened a little more each time the joint of Sakurai’s thumb hit Imai’s frenulum. Sakurai took joy in seeing Imai get off to his handling for once. Most times he would have his face buried in Imai’s groin or occupied somewhere else.
Soon enough, Sakurai began to feel the tension building in his crotch and he thrust harder, pushing deeper. Judging by Imai’s soundless exclamations, the pleasure seemed to be getting to him too. In fact, he looked close to tears as he latched onto Sakurai with a sort of desperation.
Dipping down, Sakurai brought his lips to Imai’s, sharing fervent kisses with him as he continued thrusting and stroking. Imai soon reached his limit, exhaling with a soft grunt as he came in hot gushes over Sakurai’s hand. Feeling Imai’s insides squeeze against him in that moment gave Sakurai the final nudge that tipped him over too. He felt an ecstacial relief spread through his body, leaving him with blissful satisfaction as he lay down in Imai’s arms.
Barely needing time to recover, Sakurai wrapped his arms around Imai and hugged him, nuzzling against him as he breathed happily, “You’re home.”
“Yes,” Imai muttered tiredly. “Yes, I’m home.”
“You’re home,” Sakurai repeated again as he tightened his embrace and continued rubbing his face against the side of Imai’s face.
Imai let out a long low noise of acknowledgement and mild annoyance. He sighed and dragged a hand down his face. “I don’t know how I’m going to survive if this is how you greet me every time I come back.”
Chuckling, Sakurai kissed his cheek and said with a smile, "You'll survive."
Chapter 65: 65
“I don’t think your cat likes me,” Imai mumbled.
Sakurai sat on the floor, lounging against the side of his bed as he gently scratched the cat’s head. Seeing Imai and the cat staring at each other made him laugh. “I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” he smiled. “It’s very affectionate.”
“No, I’m sure it hates me,” Imai muttered, his eyes fixed on the cat as he slowly reached over.
The cat hissed at him.
Imai drew back. “I told you.”
“Stop staring at it,” Sakurai chuckled. “Just come over here.”
Imai’s eyes darted away but came back to the cat again. Stiffly, he inched closer, only to retreat when the cat darted forward, hissing again with a clawed paw extended.
“Ah, don’t be mean,” Sakurai chastised softly, picking the cat up and holding it securely in his lap. Scratching its cheeks, he cooed to the cat, “He won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t think it likes me near you,” Imai surmised, inching towards Sakurai while facing away from the cat. “Where did you even get it from?”
Once Imai was close enough, Sakurai leaned against Imai’s shoulder, relaxing despite Imai’s wary tension. “It followed me home,” he recalled.
Startled by Imai’s exclamation, the cat leapt out of Sakurai’s lap and darted away into the bathroom.
“Ah, look what you’ve done,” Sakurai lamented. “You scared it away.”
“It’s still in the apartment, isn’t it?” Imai muttered.
“I wanted it to get a little more used to you.”
“Maybe later,” Sakurai sighed. A thought suddenly struck him. “You’re staying, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah, I brought clothes,” Imai nodded, gesturing to the duffel bag he left lying near the entrance. “I can stay this weekend but I’m not sure about next week though,” he muttered regretfully.
“Still busy, huh?” Sakurai probed, shifting closer to Imai. This time, he put his arm around Sakurai.
“I’ve barely started unpacking really,” Imai relayed. “There’s way more to do than I expected. Buying things, arranging things, sourcing things, putting stuff together.”
“Huh. I don’t remember doing that much when I moved here,” Sakurai mused.
“Well, I’m… more or less fixing up the place from scratch,” Imai said. “So that’s an issue.”
“Why didn’t you just stay here first while getting the new place furnished?” Sakurai asked.
“It’s just that… I’d prefer being there to see that things are done right.”
“Uhhuh.” Sakurai sighed and mumbled, “I don’t even know where you live.”
“You don’t?” Imai looked at him in surprise.
Sakurai shook his head. “You never told me.”
“Ah, right, you didn’t come along last week,” Imai groaned as he slapped a hand on his forehead. “Shit. Remind me to tell you the address? I can’t recall the exact digits right now.”
Sakurai shrugged and nodded as he curled his fingers around Imai’s hand on his waist. “Any plans tonight?” he asked.
“Not really…” Imai muttered, scratching his chin as he racked his brain. “Unless you wanna go for drinks with Kiyoshi.”
Sakurai raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Just him? No girls, whatsoever?”
“Nope,” Imai affirmed. “Just him. I think.”
Sakurai pondered about it for a while. “Did you say you’d go?”
“I said I’d think about it,” Imai answered. “Wanna go?”
“Do you wanna stay home?” Sakurai asked. “You’ve been busy after all.”
“Well, I haven’t had the chance to go for drinks at all this past week so… I don’t really mind going out.”
“Then… shall we?"
Chapter 66: 66
True enough, Kiyoshi was the only one there when Imai and Sakurai arrived. He didn’t look too surprised that Sakurai tagged along. Sakurai did notice a twitch in his expression when they first made eye contact though. He wasn’t too sure what that was about but Kiyoshi didn’t say anything.
The location this time was a quieter one; a small bar that served food as well. As Imai caught up with Kiyoshi, they had their dinner and drinks. Both were alright, nothing fantastic. Sakurai supposed this place was chosen more for its ambience than its food.
Sakurai found himself drinking out of Imai’s mug out of habit throughout the dinner, earning himself disgruntled looks from Kiyoshi. Why it bothered Kiyoshi, Sakurai did not know but, as things would have it, Imai ended up calling for a time out in the middle of a conversation again.
As Imai leaned against the backrest of the chair and tilted his head back, Kiyoshi went on, “So, Imai, I heard you moved.”
“Huh?” Imai squinted at him. “Yeah?”
“To somewhere more central?”
“Yeah?” Imai dropped his head back again.
“Kinda sudden, isn’t it?” Kiyoshi asked.
“Is it?” Imai returned.
“I thought you’d move in with him,” Kiyoshi said, jerking his head in Sakurai’s direction before swallowing a mouthful of his beer.
Sakurai maintained his stony facade as his eyes darted to Imai. Where was this going? Did Imai say something to Kiyoshi? Was Kiyoshi supposed to know? Seeing that Imai wasn’t responding, Sakurai asked, “Why do you say that?”
“You pretty much follow him everywhere, don’t you?” Kiyoshi said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I don’t recall ever seeing Imai on his own ever since you started showing up.”
“And?” Sakurai raised an eyebrow. Considering that Imai wasn't saying anything, he probably fell asleep.
“Even this time, I expected to meet him and only him, but you tag along again,” Kiyoshi continued, looking somewhat irritated.
“He asked me,” Sakurai shrugged. “I had nothing planned.”
Kiyoshi huffed and drank more beer. “The way he clings to you and keeps asking for you when he gets drunk,” he angrily muttered to himself.
Sakurai furrowed his brow. “Are you jealous?”
“No?” Kiyoshi denied. “It weirds me out. You haven’t even known him for as long as I have and he’s-”
“You like him?” Sakurai asked, cocking his head to one side as his furrow deepened.
“Of course I like him!” Kiyoshi effused. “He’s a close friend of mine. Why wouldn’t I like him?”
Sakurai stared at him. “Mm,” he nodded. “Okay.”
“What are you looking at me like that for?” Kiyoshi shot.
“That…” Kiyoshi gesticulated wildly. “… face.”
“What did I miss?” Imai asked, taking a deep breath as he righted his posture. “Almost slid off the couch there,” he mumbled to himself.
“Nothing much,” Kiyoshi deflected.
“What’s wrong with his face?” Imai yawned as he pointed at Sakurai.
Sakurai stuck out his lower lip, raising his eyebrows as he shrugged and drank from his mug. Perhaps he should keep a closer eye on Kiyoshi.
Chapter 67: 67
Sakurai held Imai’s face in his hands, caressing his cheeks with his thumbs as they kissed slow. He could feel Imai’s hands on his waist, grasping his shirt in his hands as he pulled Sakurai closer. He seemed uneasy, but it was understandable. After all, they were under the train tracks near the now-closed corner store. It may be night, and they may be somewhat hidden between the stackable bicycle racks, but they were still out in public.
As it was, Sakurai was reluctant to let Imai go, stalling him by pinning him against the wall with longing kisses between which, he whispered, “Stay.”
“I- can’t-” Sakurai barely gave Imai any chance to speak by occupying his mouth for as long as he could. Eventually, Imai had to put his hands on Sakurai’s cheeks, squeezing his face as he made Sakurai give him a break. “I told you I can’t,” Imai said regretfully.
Not liking what he heard, Sakurai wrinkled his nose at Imai.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of deliveries coming in tomorrow morning. I need to be there to receive them,” Imai repeated for the umpteenth time.
“And you said you can’t stay next week,” Sakurai recalled.
Imai shook his head.
“And I can’t stay at your new place either?”
“Because it’s not properly furnished yet and there are boxes everywhere and dust all over the place-”
“It just sounds like you’re looking for excuses to keep me away,” Sakurai scowled, pulling away.
“You know that’s not true,” Imai sighed, stubbornly keeping Sakurai in his embrace. “Plus, you have a cat to look after now.”
Sakurai huffed and looked away, upset. “I could bring it with me.”
doesn’t like me,” Imai reminded. “It’d probably hate getting stuffed in a carrier too,” he added. “Come to think of it, you never said if it has a name.”
“You haven’t named it?”
“I… haven’t thought of it,” Sakurai muttered sheepishly.
“Well… Is it male or female?” Imai asked.
“Uhm… I was thinking of taking it to the vet next week.”
“Go with me?”
“Acchan…” Imai sighed. “I wish I could but…”
“Fine,” Sakurai muttered, pressing his lips thin as he looked away and frowned. Did it have to be so difficult for them to meet?
“Well… Dinner?” Imai suggested as he caught Sakurai by his hand. “During the week? We could meet at the station near my place and after that, I could show you around.”
Sakurai side-eyed him. “Didn’t you say that you were busy?”
“I’ll shift some things around,” said Imai. “Dinner shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Sure?” Sakurai asked, evidently sceptical.
Imai nodded with a firm look in his eye. “I’ll work something out."
Chapter 68: 68
I’m here .
Sakurai pressed send and tugged at his black v-neck sweater. The number of looks he got as he stood there outside the train station was beginning to bother him. This is why he preferred staying in that quiet neighbourhood.
Lips pressed thin, Sakurai shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the next as he waited for Imai’s reply. He had gone home earlier after work to feed his cat, which he ended up naming Spots for the specks of grey he found on her belly, and change out of his work clothes. He didn’t know how long he would be out for after all. He didn’t quite fancy wearing those out here anyway. If he was out with his colleagues, that would not have bothered him though.
Sakurai’s stomach growled. He wrinkled his nose and shuffled his feet, hoping that nobody heard that. It was to be expected. He hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch and it was close to 9 now. At least he would have more appetite to eat with Imai.
They haven’t had much chance to talk during the past few days. It seemed like Imai really was as busy as he made things out to be. Sakurai hoped that Imai had been eating though. He got the feeling that Imai was someone who was prone to missing meals and he was already skinny enough as it was.
Sakurai suddenly felt his phone buzzing in his hand. The incessant vibration told him that it was a call, instead of a message, that came in. That was odd. Imai typically preferred messages.
As his eyes scanned the crowds, Sakurai picked up the call. “Hello?”
“Hisashi, I’m here. Where are you?”
“Uhm…” Sakurai heard a long pause from Imai. His reluctance to answer immediately made Sakurai’s heart sink. “Look… I lost track of time and-”
“You forgot,” Sakurai finished flatly. He was surprised at how level his voice sounded despite the growing disappointment that swelled in his stomach.
Imai let out a heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “I’m really sorry, Acchan.”
Speechless, Sakurai couldn’t think of anything to say. Did he expect too much from Imai? He should’ve known that this would happen. He should’ve just stayed home after all.
“Acchan, why don’t you-”
“Forget it,” Sakurai cut in and hung up. He suddenly couldn’t stand to hear Imai’s voice any more.
Jaw tensing, Sakurai found himself gritting his teeth as he stared blankly into the distance. There was no one around here for him to look out for now. What should he do now? Should he get dinner? But he didn’t feel hungry anymore. He had no appetite to eat. Should he just go home then? He immediately felt uncomfortable at the thought of it. It felt stupid to go home like this.
Sakurai leaned back against the wall, running a hand through his hair as he sighed dejectedly. Suddenly, he recalled something. There was one other place he could go to.
Chapter 69: 69
Sakurai lounged on the couch, legs stretched out across its length as he met eyes with a three-year-old child who sat in the luxurious armrest situated at the other end of the couch. He didn’t expect to get to meet this child but then again, Issay didn’t expect Sakurai to turn up at his doorstep.
Eventually, the girl, or Rina, as she introduced herself earlier, asked, “Who are you?”
“Your dad’s friend.”
“He’s not my dad.”
Sakurai raised his eyebrows. “Huh?”
“We decided to tell her,” Issay sighed as he strolled back into the living room. Putting a glass down on the coffee table in front of Sakurai, he added, “It’d be easier in the long run.”
Sakurai picked up the glass and gave the liquid in it a whiff. “Apple juice?”
“We’re being child-friendly tonight,” Issay smirked as he sat down at the couch and let Sakurai rest his legs in his lap.
“Oh well,” Sakurai huffed, resigned. “I haven’t had dinner anyway.”
“Hm?” Issay looked up from his glass. “Hasn’t Imai fed you?”
Sakurai clicked his tongue and scoffed. Issay raised his eyebrows at his reaction.
“I have cookies,” Rina piped up before she pushed herself off the armrest and ran off.
Sakurai raised his hand, about to call her back but Issay put a hand on his forearm and said, “Let her.”
“Stop frowning,” Issay said gently, pressing his thumb into the space between Sakurai’s eyebrows. “She’s coming back,” he said as small footsteps thumped on the parquet flooring, back towards them.
“Here!” Rina offered Sakurai a cookie the size of his palm.
Sakurai exchanged a glance with Issay who nudged him to take it. He extended an open palm to Rina and she happily put it in his hand.
“Thank you,” Sakurai said quietly with a smile.
“You’re welcome!” she said, grinning before running off again.
“She’s very sweet,” Sakurai remarked softly as he watched her run into one of the rooms.
Issay hummed in agreement. “Takes after her mother.”
“Speaking of which,” Sakurai looked around. “Where’s…?”
“Her mother?” Issay guessed.
“Out on a date with Rina’s father,” Issay answered. It sounded like a regular occurrence. “It’ll be a while more before they come and pick her up.”
“So… you live apart now?” Sakurai asked.
“It’s better for Rina,” Issay nodded. “Though you could imagine how much our parents protested with all their concerns about reputation and whatnot.”
“But for you…?”
“Is living alone…?”
“Better? For sure. Especially if I have anyone I want to bring home,” Issay chuckled. “I’m used to this anyway.”
“Really?” Sakurai asked. He didn’t feel completely convinced with Issay’s answer.
“Besides, doesn’t this give me the freedom I’ve always wanted?” Issay smiled at Sakurai.
“Uncle Issay!” Rina suddenly called out.
Issay immediately got up, patted Sakurai on his knee, and went to look for his ‘daughter’. Watching Issay leave, Sakurai turned his attention back to the cookie in his hand. His stomach growled. He was starting to feel something again.
Slowly unwrapping the snack, Sakurai munched on the chewy chocolate chip cookie and thought about Issay’s situation. He couldn’t help but feel like it was partly his fault that Issay was living alone. While Issay seemed alright with things, he sounded like he was trying to convince himself with his answers. But the more Sakurai thought about it, the more he realised that Issay did seem more contented now than when he cohabited with his ‘wife’ though. It wasn’t that they didn’t get along. After all, they were childhood friends. It was more attributed to the fact that he had no say in the whole arrangement.
Sakurai heard an assortment of things tumbling noisily to the floor. As the cacophony subsided, Issay’s laugh and Rina’s giggles reached his ears. Sakurai smiled to himself. Things were still complicated for Issay, but at least having a choice seemed to make him happier.
Chapter 70: 70
“So? What was that reaction when I mentioned Imai earlier?” Issay asked. Rina left with her parents just a few minutes ago and he was already tangled up with Sakurai on the couch with a glass of wine in his hand.
Reminded of what happened earlier this evening, Sakurai felt his spirits dip. He now had a glass of wine for himself too and was feeling a bit full as well. Letting Rina play with the takoyaki maker and feed him with her failed takoyaki's was more substantial a meal than Sakurai expected.
“What happened?” Issay probed, fingers caressing the side of Sakurai’s jaw as he spoke. It seems like wasn’t going to let up.
“We were supposed to meet for dinner,” Sakurai muttered reluctantly.
Issay frowned. “He forgot,” he echoed.
“Yes.” Sakurai felt the weight in his chest return. “We were supposed to meet at the station near here but when I got there, he… called and said he forgot.”
“The station nearby?” Issay asked.
“Isn’t it kind of far from where you guys live?”
“He moved,” Sakurai informed.
Sakurai nodded again.
“Why not just move in with you?”
“I don’t know,” Sakurai moaned and drank more wine. “I don’t understand anything he’s doing any more.” Topping up his glass, he continued, “First, he moves away and only tells me one day before he’s due to leave. Then, I ask about staying at his place and he has a whole bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t. Now, he forgets that he said we would meet tonight and have dinner.” Ending his spiel of distress, Sakurai downed half his glass of wine. “It feels like he’s hiding something…”
Issay hummed low and held Sakurai tighter. “So, you came here after Imai said he forgot about your date?”
Sakurai nodded as he lay against Issay’s shoulder.
“Did he apologise?"
Sakurai held his tongue and drank again instead of answering. Imai did, but…
Issay sighed and drank from his glass. Setting it down on the coffee table, he held Sakurai’s hand in his and asked, “Has Imai called or texted you yet?’
“I turned my phone off.”
Issay exhaled an even heavier sigh. “Should’ve figured you would do that.”
“Whaat?” Sakurai whined.
“Nothing,” Issay chuckled with resignation. Caressing the back of Sakurai’s hand with his thumb, he asked, “So what do you want to do now? What did you come here for?”
Sakurai pressed his lips thin as he put his empty glass down on the table, disliking how patronising Issay sounded to him. He was sure that Issay already knew the answer without needing him to answer him.
Proving his point, Issay went on without waiting for Sakurai to respond, “Good thing Rina was here, huh?”
Huffing indignantly, Sakurai met Issay’s eyes and leaned in… only to have Issay tilt his head back to have Sakurai bury his face in his chest. Issay held Sakurai firmly against him, restricting his movement.
Spurned by Issay, Sakurai felt a sting in his chest as his face grew warm. Curling up, he said breathlessly, “Why are you rejecting me?”
“I don’t want you doing anything you’d regret,” Issay muttered as his fingers weaved into Sakurai’s hair. “Even if you feel like Imai is hiding something, you haven’t confirmed anything.”
Sakurai thumped a fist against Issay.
Grunting, Issay blurted, “What’s that for?”
“For rejecting me.”
Issay huffed. It sounded like a laugh.
“I hate you,” Sakurai muttered, hitting Issay again.
“Yeah, yeah, say what you want, do what you want,” Issay deadpanned. “You’re the one who came to me.”
He was right and Sakurai knew it. Grabbing the soft fabric of Issay’s top, Sakurai scrunched it up in his hands in frustration. What was he to do now? He had wanted to throw all his vexation away and replace it with pleasure but Issay, the one person he knew was undoubtedly capable of doing it, has said no, while the other had already let him down earlier on.
As if sensing Sakurai’s dilemma, Issay adjusted his embrace, holding Sakurai as he kneaded the back of his neck. “I’ll tell you what,” Issay began. “Go and seek Imai out.”
“Shh,” Issay shushed him. “Listen to me,” he urged, stroking Sakurai’s hair. “Seek him out and if you don’t like what you find, come back to me. My door will be open for you.”
Chapter 71: 71
Sakurai wandered along the pavement that skirted the edge of the shopping belt. Crossing this street would immediately put him in the residential district where Imai supposedly lived. He had butterflies in his stomach, fluttering about, making him nauseous. He didn’t know what to expect when he got to Imai’s new place. He didn’t even know if Imai would be there. He didn’t like this uncertainty. If Issay hadn’t made him that deal, he honestly would’ve just gone home.
Sakurai kept a hand stuffed in his pocket, clutching his phone which he still hadn’t turned on. He didn’t want to turn it on. He wouldn’t know what to do if he did and saw new messages and missed calls from Imai. That said, he didn’t even want to think about if there was nothing for him to see instead. Just the thought of it made him sick.
Stopping at the pedestrian crossing, Sakurai stared at the floor, silently wishing that he had gotten himself a little more drunk before leaving Issay’s. Maybe it would’ve made him a less nervous, a little number.
In all honesty, the way Imai said that him staying with his parents was a ‘temporary arrangement’ made Sakurai uncomfortable. Why did it have to be ‘temporary’? There wasn’t anything wrong with staying with his parents. It wasn’t as if he didn’t help them out. A ‘temporary arrangement’. Was Sakurai a ‘temporary arrangement’ to him too?
The pedestrian crossing beeped and Sakurai looked up at the green man. As the cheerful jingle played, he continued looking at the green man, contemplating if he should just go home. If he did, then he wouldn’t have to think about Imai for another week at least. The jingle was reaching its end and the green man started flashing. He could go home and play with Spots… But he wouldn’t get to see again Imai for goodness knows how long more. Maybe never.
The jingle ended and the green man disappeared, immediately getting replaced by the red man. Sakurai continued standing at the crossing, watching the cars go by as he pressed the button at the traffic light again. The counter started, beeping steadily as Sakurai continued grappling with his feelings. Would he be okay with never seeing Imai again? Imai could go back to having a normal life; meet a lady somewhere, get married, have children, and all that. And Sakurai could go back to… whatever he had. They could end their… ‘temporary arrangement’, if that what it was.
The green man appeared again and the chirpy jingle restarted. Sakurai looked up at the green man, frozen in a walking pose. In that moment, he found his answer. Sakurai dashed across the road. He wanted to see Imai. The jingle reached its end and Sakurai arrived at the other side of the street, almost tripping as he stopped. Panting, he looked left and right, reorienting himself before starting on his way again.
Sakurai sped up his pace as he walked. He knew what he wanted now. He wanted to see Imai. Would he like what he was going to find? Sakurai didn’t know. If it broke his heart, so be it. He might as well call it karmic retribution.
Chapter 72: 72
It took a while but Sakurai eventually found a two-storey building with a shuttered first floor at the street corner. An emergency staircase ran up the side of the building to the second floor. The lights were on up there but things seemed quiet. Was he in the right place?
Sakurai took a long drag from his cigarette and fidgeted. He was sure of it, but perhaps he should check the address that Imai sent him earlier this week. Pressing the power button, Sakurai had his eyes fixed on the windows of the second floor as he held his phone in his hand while waiting for it to start up. He took another drag and felt a chilly draft blow by. It felt like it was about to rain. At least he was wearing a sweater.
Sakurai’s eyes darted up to the sky, eyeing the gathering clouds with concern as he shuffled to stand under the canvas awning of the florist opposite Imai’s supposed place. Suddenly, Sakurai felt his phone start vibrating incessantly in his hand. He looked down at the screen. Nine plus unread messages, nine plus missed calls.
As he scrolled, Sakurai felt both relieved yet guilty all at once; relieved that Imai did try to reach him, guilty that he made Imai waste that much effort. Was Imai worried? Sakurai bit the inside of his lower lip as he searched for Imai's address. The distant sound of a heavy door opening reached Sakurai’s ears and he looked up in its direction.
A woman’s voice rang out. “Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna look for Acchan,” Imai replied, putting on his jacket as he stepped out of the door on the second floor. A woman stood at the door, holding it open. Sakurai felt a stab of jealousy in his chest. Who was that?
“What makes you think you’ll be able to find him now?”
“If I can’t, then I’ll catch the last train home and head there,” Imai said firmly.
“And what if Acchan doesn’t go back?” the woman asked curtly. Sakurai frowned as he grew increasingly disturbed. Who was she to ask such questions? He squinted, straining his eyes to get a better look at the woman but the lighting was all wrong.
“I know Acchan,” Imai said with conviction as he turned to face her. “I know Acchan. There’s a cat back home. Even if Acchan no longer cares about me, he’d care about the cat,” he said to himself. “Acchan will be at home. Eventually.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, the only other noise on this relatively quiet street. Sakurai could see Imai looking up at the sky and mutter something to the woman. As the woman retreated into the building, Imai remained outside, solemnly looking down at his phone as he appeared to wait for something. Imai’s shoulders sank and he put a hand in one of his jacket pockets while he brought his phone to his ear. Almost immediately, his eyes lit up.
Sakurai realised why at the next moment. Imai's call connected. His phone started vibrating. He looked at his phone, then at Imai. Should he answer?
As Sakurai thought about it, the heavy door opened again and the woman came back out with an umbrella in hand. Imai excitedly exclaimed to her, “It went through! The call went through!”
“But is Acchan picking up?” asked the woman.
“Not yet,” Imai replied, slowly taking the umbrella from her.
The woman scoffed.
Hearing it infuriated Sakurai. Fueled by impulse, he answered the call.
“Acchan?” Imai’s gentle tone immediately came through and Sakurai felt a rush making his cheeks tingle. “Acchan, please tell me it’s you,” Imai implored.
Sakurai swallowed. He didn’t know what to say. At a loss, he returned, “Hisashi, I…”
“Oh, thank god,” Imai breathed as he leaned on the staircase railing. “Where are you? Just tell me where and I’ll come to you right now.”
“I…” Sakurai paused. Would it be weird if he said he was right here? Silently considering his options, Sakurai watched as the woman reached a hand out to rub Imai’s back. He saw red. “Don’t! Touch! Him!” he growled through gritted teeth.
Sakurai was apparently loud enough that the woman heard him as well. The two of them straightened up, eyes darting around as they looked for Sakurai. It took a second or two but Imai eventually made eye contact with him.
“Acchan?” Imai went to the side of the landing closest to Sakurai. Leaning over, he asked, “Acchan, is that you?”
Sakurai struggled to keep himself calm as he sucked in a sharp breath. He could feel the heat from his cigarette which was still smoking in his other hand. It was a stark difference from the chilly wind that nipped at his face and neck. Not that he felt it much with how warm his cheeks and eyes felt.
“Acchan, stay right there,” Imai said softly as he turned to descend the stairs. Looking back, he kept an eye on Sakurai as he continued, “Just stay right there and wait for me.”
“Couldn’t you be frank with me?” Sakurai hissed.
“With what?” Imai asked, then paused. He exchanged a glance with the woman. “You don’t actually think-”
“I’m leaving.” Sakurai hung up the call and walked off, taking long, brisk strides away from the property.
Sakurai then heard heavy footsteps thundering down the rest of the steel staircase. “No! Wait!” Imai called out from behind.
“Don’t follow me!” Sakurai yelled, breaking into a run. As if on cue, lightning ripped across the sky and thunder followed, bringing a sudden downpour with it. Sakurai swore. He was going to get soaked.
“Acchan!” Imai called again.
“Leave me alone!” Sakurai retorted, turning around as he stopped in the rain.
Sakurai fully expected Imai to stop as well, perhaps stand a distance away from him, but instead, Imai barrelled straight into him. He felt Imai’s arms wrap around him, holding him in place as an umbrella came overhead and shielded them from the fat droplets of rain.
“Let me go!” Sakurai demanded, pushing against Imai even as he took his jacket off and put it around him.
“No,” Imai said, refusing him flatly.
Sakurai felt Imai’s warm hands on his face, brushing his wet hair aside as he dabbed at Sakurai’s skin with the edge of his long sleeves. Enveloped in the warmth of Imai’s jacket and his familiar cologne, Sakurai felt calmer but no less upset. He shook Imai off, looking away while Imai continued watching him without a word.
“Let’s go back,” Imai prompted quietly.
“What’s the point?” Sakurai spat.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’ve already got a woman waiting for you. What do you still want me for?”
Imai barked an exasperated laugh. Shaking his head, he said, “It’s nothing like that.”
“Then what is it supposed to be?”
“She’s my fucking sister.”
Chapter 73: 73
Imai held the door open, shaking his umbrella dry outside as he let Sakurai in. Stepping in, Sakurai took his shoes off and gave the property a cursory glance. The first thing he noticed was that there was another door straight ahead of this entrance; on the other end of the living space. Where it led to, Sakurai couldn’t quite guess.
The next thing he noticed was that this place was bigger than his own apartment, much bigger but he could see why Imai didn’t want Sakurai staying over; most of the furniture, including the couch where Imai’s younger sister was seated on, were still covered in the plastic wrapping they were probably delivered in. The house was basically a mess. No need to even mention the dust.
As the door locked shut, Imai removed his shoes and set the umbrella down. “Take your sweater off,” he said suddenly.
“Eh?” Sakurai looked at him. “It’s fine. I’m not that-”
“Take it off,” Imai repeated, going up the step that separated the entry from his living room. “I’m not risking you catching a cold.”
As Sakurai reluctantly shrugged Imai’s jacket off, Imai took it from him and waited for him to remove his sweater. Sakurai gathered the bottom hem up in his hands and glanced at Imai’s sister who has yet to say a word. He could feel her staring at him. Were his eyes that swollen from the tears?
Noticing the pause in Sakurai’s movements, Imai asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Does she always… stare?” Sakurai muttered, lifting the soft fabric up and over his head.
Imai turned and looked at her. “Are you just gonna sit there?”
“ I’m a guest too,” she retorted.
Imai pressed his lips thin and rolled his eyes as he took Sakurai’s sweater from him. Putting his jacket back around Sakurai, he muttered, “Wear this first. I’ll get a towel.”
Leading him into the house, Imai asked, “Are your pants-”
“They’re fine,” Sakurai cut in, patting his hands on his black jeans at the same time. He didn’t feel inclined to strip completely in front of Imai’s sister anyway.
Imai responded with a grunt of acknowledgement, giving Sakurai a quick look up and down before he went around the couch to cross the living room. “There’s the kitchen,” he said, pointing past a dining table to the opening in the wall to his right as he continued towards a corridor.
Sakurai could see a refrigerator already on and working in there. He could go and look inside later. As he followed Imai, he could still feel his sister’s eyes on him. It was rather uncomfortable.
“This is the bathroom,” Imai continued, gesturing to the first door in the corridor on his left. “These two rooms,” he pointed to the right, “still empty. No idea what to do with them yet. And that,” Imai pointed to the door at the end of the corridor as he walked towards it, “is the bedroom.”
Opening the door, Imai turned on the lights and went in. Sakurai stopped at the entrance, peering in as Imai opened the wardrobe.
Imai glanced at him then did a double take. “Why are you standing outside?”
“Just… come in?” Imai invited. “You’re no stranger.”
“What about me?” Imai’s sister suddenly popped up next to Sakurai.
Imai turned to her, pointed at her, and warned, “Stay out.”
“Why not him?” whined his sister.
“Different case,” Imai answered flatly as he pulled a towel out from his wardrobe and beckoned Sakurai.
Eyes darting between Imai and his sister, Sakurai hesitantly stepped into the room and went over. Imai reached into the wardrobe again and pulled out a t-shirt, handing it to Sakurai when he was closer.
“I can’t wear your clothes,” Sakurai reminded as Imai put the towel down on the bed and removed his jacket from Sakurai’s body.
“I know,” Imai muttered. “But it’s in your size, I think… I hope.”
Perplexed, Sakurai unfolded the shirt and put it on. It did fit. And it smelt new. “Did you… buy…?”
“Hn, yeah,” Imai said quickly. He hastily put his hands on Sakurai’s shoulders and made him sit down on the king-sized bed.
Without a word of warning, Imai unfurled the towel and dropped it on Sakurai’s head. “Hisashi, what are you-”
“Sh. Just stay still,” Imai cut in.
The next thing Sakurai knew, Imai was ruffling his hair, drying it with the towel.
“You cold?” Imai asked softly.
“No. It's warm enough in here,” Sakurai replied.
“Did you eat?”
“I can whip something up if you’re still hungry,” Imai offered.
“You never offered to do that for me,” Imai’s sister complained.
Sakurai couldn’t see where she was, but she sounded like she was in the room.
“Why should I?” Imai retorted. “And what did I say about coming in?”
“Fine, fine, whatever,” his sister grumbled as she left.
Finally left alone, Sakurai asked, “Is this normal?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Imai dismissed. “It’s just how things are.”
Imai suddenly paused his movements and looked down at Sakurai. Curious, Sakurai looked up and met his eyes. He couldn’t quite tell what that emotion was in Imai’s eyes but Imai sighed and resumed.
“Where’d you go just now?” Imai asked softly.
“I…” Sakurai paused, reluctant to answer the question. What would Imai think of him if he told the truth? “I was at Issay’s,” he blurted.
Biting the inside of his lip, he braced himself for Imai’s reaction. But nothing happened. Confused, Sakurai looked up at Imai’s nonchalant expression.
“You’re not angry?” Sakurai asked.
“I would be if you lied,” Imai replied.
“That Issay called sometime before you… showed up,” Imai said. “He said some… choice words for me,” he chuckled, “and a warning or two.”
Sakurai could feel Imai’s movements gradually coming to a stop. With his view obscured by the towel, Sakurai could not see Imai’s expression when he shifted closer and put his arms around him. He felt Imai hugging him tightly, holding him to his chest as he nuzzled against the top of his head. Returning the hug, all Sakurai could hear in their silence was Imai’s deep breathing.
Eventually, Imai muttered, “I’m sorry.”
His apology incited a new spark of concern in Sakurai. Why was Imai apologising out of nowhere?
“I didn’t mean to make you worry,” Imai added. “I didn’t realise how all of this was making you feel so… I’m sorry.”
Sakurai pulled Imai closer, hugging him tighter as he buried his face in Imai’s shirt. His heart felt so full that it felt like it could explode. Sakurai had never meant for Imai to know about that but the fact that he seemed to take it seriously felt inexplicably good. Or perhaps it was something Issay said. What did he say though?
Chapter 74: 74
Sakurai sat on the couch, turned away from Imai’s sister who sat on the other end of the three-seater. The TV was on but neither of them was watching it. Imai was in the kitchen doing something with the pot and dashi and whatever else he felt like using to put together a quick supper. That left Sakurai alone with Imai’s sister who seemed to really enjoy looking at him.
Out of nowhere, she remarked, “I’ve never seen you before.”
“That’s because we’ve never met,” Sakurai muttered. Turning slightly, he averted his eyes as he nodded and introduced himself. “Um, Sakurai Atsushi.”
“Imai Hiyori,” she returned. “Did you become acquainted with my big brother only recently?”
“I… suppose,” Sakurai replied. “Though we were in the same class back in high school.”
“Oh? That’s strange,” Hiyori blurted. “If that’s the case then you should’ve visited our home before.”
“We weren’t… exactly… acquainted,” Sakurai corrected, speaking especially slowly to pick his words.
“Strange,” she repeated. “I thought everyone in his school came to our home. Well, at least that’s what it felt like.”
Sakurai hummed. He didn’t know what to say to that. Was he supposed to say something? Sakurai fidgeted with the hem of his shirt. He could still feel eyes boring into the back of his head. What’s with that? Why wouldn’t she stop staring?
Perturbed, Sakurai stood up and, deciding to look for Imai instead, walked towards the kitchen. When he entered, Imai looked up from the pot he was stirring. It smelt like oden to Sakurai.
“What’s up?” Imai asked before turning back to his pot.
“Nothing,” Sakurai muttered. Going all the way in, he stopped by the window and took out a cigarette. Lighting it, he mumbled, “Your sister won’t stop staring at me.”
“Huh?” Imai twisted around and peered out of the kitchen and into the living room. “She’s watching TV now though.”
“You’ll see later,” Sakurai huffed, exhaling clouds of white smoke that drifted out the window and into the thunderstorm outside. “It’s so uncomfortable…”
“Mm…” Imai thought for a moment. “Have you tried smiling at her?”
Sakurai frowned and muttered, “Why would I do that?”
“Because I can tell you why she’s doing that, depending on her reaction, of course.”
“What?” Sakurai scoffed.
“I’m serious,” Imai nodded. “C’mere,” he beckoned. Picking up a soup spoon, Imai dipped it into the pot and offered it to Sakurai. “Is it too salty?”
“Won’t that affect the taste?”
“I’m only asking about the saltiness,” said Imai. “Doesn’t matter.”
“And the smoke?”
“What about it?”
“It’ll get in-”
“I smoke too, don’t I?” Imai huffed. “Just come here.”
Frowning, Sakurai shuffled over and drank the spoonful of broth. “Hm.”
“What is it?” Imai asked, dipping the spoon back into the pot and getting a taste himself. “Oh.”
“More dashi?” Sakurai suggested.
Imai nodded. Scratching his head, he muttered, “Did I add too much water?”
“What about adding soy sauce?” Sakurai asked.
“That too,” Imai nodded again. “It’s fine for eating now, actually, but I was thinking of keeping it for tomorrow too.”
As he went back to the window, Sakurai turned and looked at Imai. “Tomorrow?”
“If… you’re staying, that is,” Imai muttered, eyes fixed on the pot. “I mean, it’s a Saturday tomorrow, isn’t it?”
Sakurai took a drag from his cigarette. The saltiness of the broth, no matter how light, still lingered on his tongue. “I thought you said you didn’t want me to stay,” he recalled.
“Of course, it’s only if you want to,” Imai shrugged as he placed the lid on the pot. “You’ve seen what the place looks like,” he gestured at the boxes lying around the house. “Not the best environment. But it’s raining. Though you’ve got the cat to feed,” he went on rambling to himself.
“I can bring her over tomorrow,” said Sakurai.
“Yeah,” Sakurai nodded. “It’s a she.”
“I see,” Imai mumbled. “I assume she’s healthy then?”
Sakurai nodded again. “And I named her. Spots.”
“Spots?” Imai echoed.
“Because of the specks on her belly,” Sakurai explained. “I’ll show you tomorrow.”
“But it sounds more like a boy’s name,” Imai remarked.
“But she responds to it,” Sakurai shrugged.
Imai hummed, folding his arms as he waited for the broth to boil again. “So… you’re staying?”
“I guess so,” Sakurai sighed as he looked out the window. “It’s pouring. I’ve missed the last train. And I don’t think I’ve got enough for a taxi home.”
“If you want to go home, I can give you the money-”
“I suppose you don’t want me staying after all,” Sakurai interrupted. “Chasing me away like that.”
“What? No!” Imai denied as he hastily darted towards Sakurai. “I don’t-” Halfway, he stopped and pressed his lips thin.
Sakurai chuckled at his reaction, his grin hidden behind the hand with which he smoked.
“Don’t do that,” Imai muttered, giving Sakurai a firm look before reverting to his spot in front of the pot. He folded his arms and huffed.
Still chuckling, Sakurai stubbed his cigarette out and went over to Imai. Hugging Imai from behind, Sakurai nuzzled against the crook of Imai’s neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll stay.”
Chapter 75: 75
“Ey, big bro.”
“How do you get good looking friends when you look like that ?”
Affronted, Imai paused in his eating and glared at his sister. “That’s uncalled for.”
“Well I’m just stating the truth,” Hiyori retorted. Turning to Sakurai, who sat diagonally from her at the dining table, she asked, “Right?”
“Huh?” Sakurai looked up from his bowl, startled that he was being addressed in the middle of this. Eyes darting between the two siblings, he muttered, “What?”
“How do you think he looks?” Hiyori asked as she jerked her head in her brother’s direction.
“Good?” Sakurai replied.
She curled her lip. “Hah?”
Sakurai turned to Imai, giving him an inquiring look. What was he supposed to say? He could feel Hiyori watching him again.
Noticing Sakurai’s discomfort, Imai muttered, “Have you tried smiling at her?”
“Like… how?” Sakurai frowned.
“Like you do when you flirt with the girls at the group dates,” Imai replied.
“I do not do that,” Sakurai huffed indignantly.
“Kiyoshi says you do,” Hiyori piped in. “I heard him complaining about it just now.”
Sakurai immediately felt irritated at the mention of his name and clicked his tongue, scoffing, “ Kiyoshi . What was he doing here?”
“He imports foreign alcohol brands so we were talking about pricing earlier on,” Imai explained.
Sakurai felt a muscle in his cheek twitch.
Imai stared at him. “What’s with that face?”
“What face?” Sakurai snapped.
Imai blinked and furrowed his brow in confusion as he went back to eating. “I thought you guys were fine with each other,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sakurai asked.
“Kiyoshi had this… I don’t know, satisfied, perhaps? That look on his face when he realised you weren’t around,” Imai recalled.
“ What? ”
“Anyway, you can ask him about it when he comes by tomorrow,” Imai shrugged.
“Tomorrow?” Sakurai asked.
“Yeah, we weren’t done talking when you texted earlier and I realised the time-”
“ He’s why you forgot?” Sakurai surmised, his expression growing darker
“Wait. Wait, it’s not like that- What did he say to you last week?” Imai asked, suddenly alarmed.
“Ask him yourself,” Sakurai retorted, turning his attention back to his food as he stabbed his chopsticks into the boiled egg.
“He said something weird, didn’t he?” Imai asked
Sakurai ignored him as he chewed the egg furiously with a scowl on his face.
“C’mon, Acchan, don’t-”
“Wait,” Hiyori suddenly cut in. “Acchan? This is Acchan?”
Imai gave her an incredulous stare. “How haven’t you figured that out?”
“This is the ‘Acchan’ you’re muttering about when you were trying to decide on what to buy?” Hiyori asked.
This time, it was Sakurai who found himself confused. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah,” Hiyori nodded. “Big bro kept saying things like ‘Ah, I don’t think Acchan would like this’ when we were out shopping.” Turning to Imai, Hiyori continued, “I thought Acchan was supposed to be your girlfriend or something. Is there another Acchan?”
“There’s only one Acchan,” Imai muttered through gritted teeth.
“It's always Acchan this, Acchan that,” Hiyori complained. “But it’s just another one of your friends? Like why would you be so bothered about what he think-”
Out of nowhere, Hiyori’s expression changed and Sakurai could almost see a light bulb go off above her head. Hiyori slapped her palm on the dining table. With eyes as wide as dishes, she turned at her brother and hollered, “NOOOO WAAAAY!”
Imai clicked his tongue and grimaced. “I should’ve just made you go home earlier,” he muttered. “You’re done eating, aren’t you?”
“NOOOO WAAAAY!” Hiyori repeated, still stunned.
“Get out,” Imai blurted, ushering her towards the door. “Go home. Stop bothering me.”
Hiyori let Imai steer her towards the couch, where she picked up her bag and exclaimed again, “NOOOO WAAAAY!”
“Shh!” Imai hissed, grabbing the umbrella he put by the side.
As Hiyori took hold of the umbrella that Imai shoved into her hands, she looked at Sakurai, then at Imai and said, “Are you for real!? Do mom and dad know?!”
Imai ignored her, grimacing as he unlocked the door and let Hiyori out. “Drop a message when you get home.”
Hiyori opened the umbrella and barked a laugh. “I can’t believe you-”
Imai shut the door and locked it. Turning around, he leaned against the door and looked at Sakurai. He dragged a hand down his face, sighed in exasperation, and muttered, “Gotta love her reactions.”
Chapter 76: 76
Wearing the black tee and his underwear, Sakurai lazed in bed alone as he waited for Imai who was still out in the living room. He said there was something he wanted to check on. He’s been out there since Sakurai started washing up though.
Warm under the covers and clean after his shower, Sakurai felt comfortable. He stretched his body, reaching over to the other end from his side. The bed was spacious. But what would Imai need such a big bed for if he was living on his own?
The room door clicked open and Imai walked in. Sakurai greeted him with open arms as he lay splayed out on the bed. A smile tugged at a corner of Imai’s lips and he approached the bed, sitting down on one side and then rolling into Sakurai’s arms with a fatigued sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Sakurai asked.
“Just a few things to reconsider,” Imai muttered. “I don’t really want to think about that any more for tonight.”
Sakurai hummed softly, hugging Imai as he shifted closer. “I was wondering…”
“Why’d you get such a big bed?”
“Better than squeezing in a double, right?”
Imai chuckled. His fingers caressed the back of Sakurai’s neck, playing with his hair as he muttered, “I’m surprised you’re not pushing for sex tonight.”
“Do you want me to?” Sakurai smiled, sliding his hand down Imai’s back to cop a feel of his rear.
As Sakurai gave him a squeeze, Imai huffed a soft laugh. “Haven’t had your fill?” he teased.
Sakurai froze and drew back, looking at Imai with dismay as he said, “You think I slept with him?”
“You got pissed with me and then went to him. Would I logically think otherwise?” Imai asked, brushing Sakurai’s hair away from his face as he spoke.
“I know you didn’t,” Imai sighed, pulling Sakurai closer. “I would’ve given up going after you if you did.”
The mere thought of it sent panic surging through Sakurai. Muttering an almost inaudible ‘no’, Sakurai immediately buried his face in Imai’s clothes and held on to him tightly with the desperate desire to ground himself and his wayward emotions.
“Hey,” Imai breathed. Returning the embrace, he asked softly, “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
Sakurai nodded furiously. He could hear his heart pumping in his ears and felt his breathing turn shallow as he tightened his hug. “Yes, you’re here. You’re still here,” he whispered to himself.
Forcing himself to focus on Imai’s warmth and his scent, Sakurai tried to slow down his breathing. He could feel Imai rubbing slow circles on his back as they lay together, holding each other tight.
Hearing the rain hitting the window panes and Imai’s quiet shushing filling his ears, Sakurai felt a crushing weight sink onto his chest, stifling his breathing and only easing up when his world began to grow dark.
Chapter 77: 77
Sakurai woke up to the muffled sounds of Imai exclaiming, “No, no! Wait, I can get it myself!” Burying his face in the sheets, Sakurai blocked out the sunlight that sneaked in under the curtains as he squirmed in bed and frowned. Who was Imai talking to?
A laugh followed and Sakurai heard the doorknob twist. As the door opened, a familiar voice picked at his nerves. “Oh, c’mon, it’s not as if I don’t know-”
The voice fell silent. Sakurai turned his head and peeked out at the stunned male with an eye. “Kiyoshi,” he hissed.
Imai’s feet slapped against the parquet floor as he rushed towards the room. “I told you I can get it myself!”
Mouth agape, Kiyoshi turned to Imai. “Wha-?”
Rubbing his face in the sheets, Sakurai turned away, ignoring him. He was quite aware that the bottom half of his body was exposed.
“Ah, you woke him up. Do yourself a favour and go out,” Imai said to Kiyoshi.
“What is he doing in your bed?!” Kiyoshi blurted. “This isn’t what I think-”
“It is exactly what it looks like,” Imai huffed. Hearing that made Sakurai’s heart swell. “Now go and leave us for a bit.”
“Since when?!” Kiyoshi exclaimed.
“Think about it!” Imai retorted as he made Kiyoshi step outside and shut the door. He heaved a sigh as he sat down on the bed and took off his shirt. Outside, a hollow shout of ‘oh my god’ echoed and Imai sighed again, muttering, "That wasn't supposed to happen."
"Hmm?" Sakurai hummed and turned back around. Putting his arms around Imai's waist, he asked, "Why are you taking off your shirt?"
"Look," Imai showed Sakurai his shirt. There was a big brown stain on it. "Spilt coffee just now."
Sakurai pulled Imai down into the bed and pressed his face into Imai's chest. "You smell like coffee now," he mumbled.
“Naturally,” Imai chuckled. Curling his fingers into Sakurai’s hair, he asked, “Feeling better now?”
“No,” Sakurai grumbled. Rising up, he hovered over Imai and added, “Kiyoshi being the first person I see when I wake up spoiled my mood.”
“I thought he’d have the sense to stay out since I left the room door closed,” Imai huffed.
“Hm.” Sakurai nuzzled against the side of Imai’s face, sighing softly as he sank down. “What time is it?”
“About ten,” Imai replied.
“I should go back and get Spots soon,” Sakurai muttered.
“Soon?” A lopsided smile tugged at Imai’s lips and he rolled over, pinning Sakurai under him. “How soon?” he asked.
Sakurai craned his neck up, giving Imai a peck on his lips. “As soon as I feel better.”
“I thought so,” Imai chuckled, dropping down to give Sakurai a slow kiss.
Parting his lips, Sakurai let Imai push his tongue in and meet his for what felt like their first kiss in ages. Imai’s hand caressed his face while his other arm curled around Sakurai’s waist, holding him as heat began to build between their bodies. Sakurai could feel Imai’s growing erection pressing against his own, making him whine and wrap his legs around Imai as his lips stretched into a smile.
Sakurai leaned his head back, exposing his neck and Imai moved to trail kisses along his jaw before shifting lower to Sakurai’s neck. Feeling Imai’s teeth graze his skin as Imai kissed and sucked, Sakurai hissed and sighed, hugging Imai tighter as he grinded his hips against Imai’s.
Imai responded by sliding his hands under Sakurai’s shirt and digging his fingers into his back. Sakurai whined again and Imai sucked at his collarbone, hard enough that Sakurai was sure that it would leave a mark.
Rising up, Imai paused and gave Sakurai a once over, as if admiring his handiwork. Sakurai breathed shallow breaths as he watched Imai’s eyes move, eventually meeting his with a hungry gleam. Finding his voice, Sakurai breathed, “Hisashi…”
Imai hummed low, easing Sakurai’s shirt up his body and over his head to remove it. His hands caressed Sakurai’s torso, feeling the smooth skin under his fingers until they wandered to the coarser hairs on Sakurai’s lower abdomen leading down towards his stiff erection under his briefs. Imai paused, stopping his hand right before he touched Sakurai’s tip.
Sakurai stretched, raising his arms and putting them above his head as he arched his back and shifted on the bed. Making eyes at Imai, he bit his lower lip, and lifted his hips, jerking ever so slightly to push his erection into Imai’s hand.
Imai played along. As Sakurai sank back down onto the bed, he pressed his palm down onto Sakurai, massaging him. Sakurai closed his fingers on the pillow under him, sighing and spreading his legs wider while Imai lowered himself and slid his other hand down the side of Sakurai's body. He then slipped his hand under the waistband of Sakurai’s briefs, effortlessly pulling them down his rear and off his legs. Tossing it aside, Imai sank down, positioning himself between Sakurai's thighs to nip and kiss at his tender skin.
Sakurai let out a soft moan of pleasure, curling his toes as his breath hitched with nervous anticipation whenever Imai's teeth came into contact with his skin. Following another breathy murmur of Imai's name, Sakurai felt Imai's hand close around his erection, casually thumbing his tip and smearing the precum as he shifted into his groin. Feeling Imai's lips against his balls, Sakurai bit the inside of his lower lip and held back his moan; the knowledge of Kiyoshi's presence in Imai's house was still lingering in the back of his mind.
Imai appeared frustrated with Sakurai's restraint. Hands caressing Sakurai's thighs, Imai huffed brought his teeth into play, gently biting and releasing as he made Sakurai thread the line between pain and pleasure. Sakurai's throat tightened and emitted a high pitched whine as he struggled to stay quiet. Imai, on the other hand, seemed determined to make him scream.
Imai eventually moved lower and he grabbed hold of Sakurai's hips, making him turn to his side. Using his tongue, Imai licked with enthusiasm. He pressed his tongue into Sakurai's perineum, teasing him with short quick laps around the area before giving Sakurai one long lick over his entrance. Sakurai moaned and whimpered, scratching at the sheets as Imai did whatever he did down there. His legs felt weak and it felt as if his hole quivered with each lick Imai gave him.
“Hisashi,” Sakurai breathed again, his voice muffled by the pillow that he now held to his face.
Continuing with his ardent lapping at Sakurai’s hole, Imai chose to respond to Sakurai’s call by pushing his tongue in, making Sakurai cry out before he replaced his tongue with a finger to tease him further. Sakurai felt Imai press against his hip to have him lie flat on the bed again. Lifting the pillow slightly, Sakurai looked down at Imai who held eye contact with him as put Sakurai's eager erection into his mouth.
Sakurai instinctively closed his eyes, curling his toes as he let out a restrained groan and arched his back. With Imai's head bobbing up and down and his fingers thrusting and stretching in him, Sakurai felt his pleasure build steadily but he thrashed and tried to break out of Imai's firm hold. It was proving to be difficult.
Grabbing Imai's hair, Sakurai tugged hard and let go, whining a 'no' when he finally got Imai's attention. Imai looked up, clearly perturbed by Sakurai's sudden impediment to his own climax.
"What is it?" Imai asked, his voice soft.
Sakurai bit the inside of his lower lip. How was he supposed to say this? "… inside me," he muttered.
Imai furrowed his brow. "What?"
"… Fuck me," Sakurai mumbled, quieter this time. Having Kiyoshi outside made him feel more awkward about this than usual.
"Ah. I, uh…" Imai grimaced. "I only realised last night that I don't have condoms or lube here."
"I don't care!" Sakurai hissed as he kicked the air and folded his legs around Imai, pulling him closer.
"Fine, fine," Imai muttered. As Sakurai pulled him closer again, he said, "At least let me take my pants off first. I thought you'd mind that I don't have-"
"I don't care," Sakurai growled, tugging with his legs again as Imai slid his pants lower. "I've waited long enough to have you in me, I don't want to wait any more," he grumbled.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Imai muttered as he positioned himself between Sakurai's legs. He spat in his hand and stroked himself a few times. As his breathing grew shallow, he pressed his tip against Sakurai's entrance and pushed in. Seeing the rapturous expression on Sakurai's face, Imai breathed, "You like it raw anyway, don't you?"
Sakurai could feel his insides clenching with anticipation as Imai slid in. Slowly but surely, Imai filled him up, going in deep as he pushed all the way in. Sakurai moaned softly, enjoying the intimacy that he felt without that extra layer of latex in the way.
Holding his position, Imai bent over and put his lips to Sakurai's body, trailing kisses over his chest until he came to the dip between his collarbones. Imai looked up at Sakurai, pausing to lick his lips before putting his hands on Sakurai's waist, grabbing tight, and beginning to thrust.
The sudden burst of movement caused an unrestrained moan to escape Sakurai's lips. His breathing grew laboured as he called Imai's name and scratched at the sheets. Unable to find the hold that he so desired, Sakurai stretched his arms towards Imai, inviting him into his embrace with a needy whine. Imai smiled and bent over, wrapping his arms around Sakurai as he did. Holding Imai tightly against his body, Sakurai sighed and nuzzled his hair.
Sakurai felt Imai kissing his neck, teeth lightly grazing his skin before Imai paused and pressed his face into Sakurai’s chest. Warm breath huffing against his skin, Imai thrust faster, making the effort to push deeper and stimulate Sakurai’s prostate. Sakurai moaned louder, hugging Imai in a vice grip as his nails dug into Imai’s back.
As Sakurai felt his body reaching its limit, Imai lifted his head and looked at him. Sakurai could not tell exactly what Imai was thinking, but the tenderness in his eyes jolted his heart, all at once causing waves of pleasure to rush through his body as he came. He felt Imai’s lips against his cheek, giving him a hard kiss as he lurched his hips and stopped. Imai panted, slowly calming down while planting kisses all over Sakurai’s face. Sakurai hummed softly, enjoying the affection as he lay on the bed with his eyes closed.
Eventually, Imai removed himself from Sakurai but he remained on him, hands gently caressing his face until Sakurai opened his eyes again. Their eyes locked and Sakurai found himself transfixed by the yearning in Imai’s eyes. Imai looked as if he wanted to say something but he breathed in deep, blinked, and turned away. Confused by Imai’s gestures, Sakurai tilted his head to the side and tried to catch Imai’s eye again. When he did, however, Imai seemed to have gone back to normal.
Imai took Sakurai by his hand and sat up. Jerking his head towards the room’s adjoining bathroom, he asked, “Shall we?”
All Sakurai could do was nod his head in agreement and let Imai lead him in. Perhaps he could ask about it later.
Chapter 78: 78
Kiyoshi seemed to have left the house by the time Sakurai and Imai came out of the bedroom. He took his mug of coffee with him though. Imai realised that when he was trying to find a mug to pour coffee into for Sakurai. Instead of looking for another one, Imai took his now-cold mug of coffee, dumped the remainder of it down the drain, poured out a hot serving from the pot.
Handing it to Sakurai, Imai looked around at the boxes in his apartment. “I know I’ve got at least three or four mugs packed somewhere but…” he sighed and gestured at the mess.
Sakurai blew at his coffee and sipped carefully. “I could help you unpack later,” he suggested. “Maybe tomorrow too?”
“You want to do this on your weekend?” Imai asked. “You should be resting.”
Sakurai held the mug to his lips and stared at Imai. “Do you want me here or not?”
"Of course I want you here," Imai huffed and frowned. "I just don't want you tiring yourself out."
"I'll be fine," Sakurai chuckled. "It's not much different than when I used to go to Issay's."
Imai narrowed his eyes and scratched his chin as he looked up at the ceiling. "I pretty much gathered that he lives nearby but… how near?"
"Probably… 15 minutes' walk away?" Sakurai replied. "20 if you stroll."
Sakurai stared at Imai, dubious. "Really?"
"Yeah," Imai affirmed, leaning back against the counter with Sakurai.
"Hm," Sakurai hummed, unconvinced as he sipped more coffee.
Imai turned and looked at him. "What?"
Shrugging, Sakurai muttered, "Nothing."
Not saying anything, Imai gave Sakurai a long look before he pulled out his phone and started fiddling with it. As he typed, he left Sakurai to his own devices and quietly shuffled to the laundry area, turning on the kitchen lights as he did. Sakurai watched Imai move, rubbing his bare forearm with a hand as he continued drinking his coffee.
A door clicked open without warning. There was a moment of scraping and shuffling, sounds of someone removing footwear before footsteps thumped on the living room's parquet flooring and came towards the kitchen. The moment Kiyoshi caught sight of Sakurai standing in the kitchen, he froze and stared. Sakurai stared back, unwilling to yield.
Kiyoshi seemed to take a moment to recover, fidgeting with an empty mug in his hand as his eyes instinctively, or perhaps deliberately, Sakurai wouldn't know, shifted lower down and fixed on Sakurai's bare torso. Sakurai furrowed his brow, unable to fathom why Kiyoshi looked at him so intently. He was wearing pants anyway.
As Sakurai tried to decipher the odd look on Kiyoshi's face, Imai came back to him holding his sweater in his hand. Seeing Sakurai's confused frown, Imai asked, "What are you- Oh, Kiyoshi."
Kiyoshi's eyes darted to Imai and then back at Sakurai.
"What's that for?" Imai asked. Trying to understand Kiyoshi's increasingly obvious discomfort, he turned and looked at Sakurai too. "What's with the… Oh," Imai mumbled and pressed his lips thin.
"What?" Sakurai asked.
"Hm." A pensive look on his face, Imai retreated out of the kitchen without answering Sakurai. Folding his arms across his chest, he scratched his chin and stopped next to Kiyoshi. He hummed again.
"Yeah," Kiyoshi suddenly responded.
"Shit," Imai mumbled, looking down and pressing on the bridge of his nose as he grimaced. “I thought they’d fade away.”
"What?" Sakurai repeated, getting annoyed.
"I, uh…," Imai started and paused. Instead of continuing, he looked at Sakurai pointed to the side of his own neck.
Sakurai put a hand on the corresponding area. He prodded with his fingers but felt nothing. The furrow on his brow deepened.
"I, um…" The words seemed stuck in Imai's throat. "Just…" Imai sighed. "Look down."
And Sakurai did. Looking at his body, his eyes widened. "Hisashi!" There were bites and bruises all over his body but most were concentrated on his chest and collar bone. There were probably more around his neck and shoulders but Sakurai couldn't see them now. How did they not notice this earlier? Perhaps using the bathroom in the dark really was a bad idea after all.
"I didn't mean to!" Imai said as he came back towards Sakurai. "Here, here," he pushed the sweater to Sakurai and took the mug from him, "just put it on first."
"Hisashi!" Sakurai repeated in distress. He didn't know what else to say.
"I had no idea you were this… vicious … Imai," Kiyoshi remarked with a hand covering his mouth. Sakurai could now see that he was clearly stunned.
“It wasn’t deliberate!” Imai hissed. He bunched up the sweater and put it over Sakurai’s head, helping him wear it. “I didn’t mean to do... this!”
“Hisashi, it won’t cover the marks,” Sakurai lamented, looking down at his v-neck line as he bit the inside of his lower lip.
“I’m sorry,” Imai apologised. Smoothing his hand over Sakurai’s skin, he sighed, “I should’ve bought a turtle neck too.”
“I’ll just go home and get one,” Sakurai mumbled, brushing Imai’s hand away and taking the coffee back from him.
“You’re going home?” Kiyoshi piped up.
“And then I’m coming back,” Sakurai retorted.
“What’s with that reaction?” Imai asked.
“No,” Kiyoshi began, raising a hand in protest as he stepped back. “I just…”
“What?” Imai pushed.
“Talking’s a bit… different when there’s someone else around, as compared to when it’s just us, y’know?”
“Fine,” Sakurai put his mug down in the sink, “I’ll leave now.”
Imai put a hand on Sakurai’s arm, holding him in a firm grip. “Acchan-”
“No, no, I’ll just… wait for Imai downstairs or something,” Kiyoshi interrupted as he turned away, still clutching the mug. “Let me know when you’re done,” he added as he walked off and left them alone.
Sakurai wasn’t sure how he should feel about this or what he should do. Staring blankly at the floor, he subconsciously put a hand to his chest, absentmindedly stroking his skin as he thought about it.
“Hey,” Imai called softly. Taking Sakurai’s hand off his chest, he muttered, “Let me see.”
Sakurai let Imai do as he pleased, which wasn’t much really; just gentle caresses and prodding at his skin.
After a moment, Imai sighed again, “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to-”
“I know,” Sakurai cut in, putting a hand over Imai’s.
“We’ll see if it fades by tomorrow evening,” Imai said. “If it doesn’t… I’ll ask my sister for some sort of cover up if you want.”
Sakurai hummed softly, letting silence settle around them for a moment before he said, “I should go home and bring Spots over anyway.”
“Don’t want to eat first?”
Sakurai shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“At least take a rice ball,” Imai said, opening the fridge to retrieve one and put it in Sakurai’s hand.
Sakurai automatically began peeling the wrapper. “I guess I’ll just…” He took a bite of the unwrapped rice ball and began walking out of the kitchen.
“I’ll walk you to the station,” Imai said as he followed behind Sakurai. Darting off towards his room, he asked, “Need a jacket? It’s getting chilly these days.”
“My sweater’s enough,” Sakurai declined. “That reminds me, you’ve still got a jacket at my place.”
“Ah, I better pass you one then,” Imai muttered.
“What for?” Sakurai asked. “I should be the one returning it to you.”
“The one at your place probably smells nothing like me by now, right?”
Sakurai spun in surprise. “Who said anything about that?”
“You’re always putting your face against me and taking deep breaths,” Imai huffed as he came back out of the room with last night’s jacket in his hand while wearing a different one. “How much more obvious can you be?” he commented as he put the extra jacket around Sakurai’s shoulders. “Here, you can cover the marks with this too.”
“Right,” Sakurai muttered as he focused on his rice ball while Imai fussed about him. It was embarrassing that Imai noticed his habit.
“C’mon,” Imai said, walking into the entryway and putting on his geta. “The sooner you get home, the sooner you’ll come back, right?”
Sakurai smiled at Imai’s comment. Nodding, he put on his shoes and walked out with Imai. He most certainly was right.
Chapter 79: 79
Sakurai stepped off the train with Spots in her crate and his clothes in a duffel bag hanging off his shoulder. Before he headed home, Imai said to drop him a message when Sakurai was on his way back or a few stations away and he did. Now, Sakurai just hoped that Imai wasn’t going to leave him hanging again.
Weaving through the crowds, Sakurai kept his eyes out for the exit that he needed to be headed to. This station was made of far too many people and too many exits for his liking. Luckily for him though, he had been here enough times to have a sense of where to go. Sort of.
Sakurai eventually found his way to a gantry and made his way out into the square on this side of the station. He looked around for Imai but couldn't find a familiar face in the masses of people. He swallowed. Maybe Imai was hidden somewhere among all these people.
Taking his phone out of his pocket, Sakurai checked it for messages. Nothing. Not even a reply. His mood soured. Biting the inside of his lower lip, he began to dial Imai's number when he felt a hand on his upper arm.
Sakurai turned and found Imai by his side, panting slightly as he took Sakurai's duffel bag from him. "Saw your message a little late," he said. "Good thing I made it in time."
"I thought you were ditching me again," Sakurai sulked as he put his phone away.
Imai gave him a nervous laugh. "I don't wanna imagine what you'd do if I did," he muttered as he slung Sakurai's duffel across his body with a grunt. Putting a hand on Sakurai's back, he asked, "Shall we?"
Chapter 80: 80
"I think it'll take a while for her to get used to the place," Sakurai muttered. He was lying flat with his stomach to the floor while holding a cat treat in his hand, attempting to lure Spots out of her crate. "C'mon now…"
"She's still not coming out?" Imai asked, squatting down and peering into the crate.
"C'mon," Sakurai beckoned, reaching in with the treat.
Spots didn't lash out, but she didn't move either. Craning her neck out to lick at the treat doesn't count. Soon enough, the treat ran out and Sakurai withdrew his hand with a sigh. Spots remained curled up in her crate with her tail around her as she stared out at Sakurai and Imai with a somewhat alarmed expression.
"I don't know what else I can do," Sakurai muttered dejectedly.
"Maybe it's better if we left her alone," Imai suggested. "You could leave the crate open while I show you downstairs."
"Downstairs?" Sakurai echoed, confused. "Isn't downstairs a shuttered unit?"
"Yeah," Imai confirmed. "It comes with this living space."
Sakurai stared at him blankly then blinked. "I didn't know you had a downstairs," he muttered. "I thought it belonged to someone else."
"Well, now you know," Imai said.
"What are you doing with the first floor though?"
"I'll show you," Imai repeated as he stood up. "Come on," he said. "Let Spots figure out the place for herself."
Sakurai reluctantly sat up, sighing as he got to his feet. "Should I put her in a room instead?" he asked. "I'm worried about her jumping out of a window or something."
"Ah. Put her in one of the empty rooms then," Imai suggested. "We can close the door too."
Nodding, Sakurai closed the crate and picked it up. Imai led the way and he followed him into the first room with Spots. Putting her down among the carton boxes, Sakurai opened the crate again and left her be this time. They then stepped out of the room, closing the door behind them.
"The window's closed in that room, right?" Sakurai asked.
Imai began to nod, paused, then turned around to open the door to go back in again, saying, "I should check."
The moment Imai went three steps in, Sakurai heard a yowl and Imai yelped. Before Sakurai could peer into the room, Imai rushed back out and shut the door behind him. "Windows are closed," he muttered quickly.
"What happened?" Sakurai asked.
"Spots swiped at me," Imai replied, looking down at his left ankle now adorned with red lines.
"Thank god I trimmed her claws yesterday," Sakurai mumbled as he crouched down to take a closer look. Brushing his fingers over the reddened skin, he added, "At least she didn't break the skin."
"I'll be alright," Imai dismissed. "C'mon. Let's go downstairs," he went on, leading the way towards the door on the other side of the living room, opposite the entryway. “You might want to put on sandals or something too.”
As Sakurai grabbed Imai’s geta and a pair of sandals that seemed to fit him, Imai unlocked the door on the other side and pushed it open to reveal a stairwell leading down. He held the door open as he slipped on the geta, inviting Sakurai in and then closing it behind them after they were both through. Sakurai stood on the landing, letting Imai lead the way down to the door at the bottom of the staircase. Reaching it, Imai unlocked it too and held the door open again for Sakurai to enter.
Sakurai went through the threshold into a space that was still in the midst of renovation. There wasn’t much in here aside from the basic walls, a couple of doors, a partition that split the space into two with a hole in it to pass through, and tools lying around. There wasn’t anyone working, but that would probably be because it was the weekend.
Walking to the middle of the space, Sakurai peered into the gap in the partition to look into the other side of the space. This side had a bar counter against the partition. Turning to Imai, he asked, “What are you doing with this place?”
“Well… remember that thing you mentioned sometime back?” Imai asked. “The convenience store with an eatery thing?”
Sakurai’s eyes widened with realisation. “You’re doing it?” he asked. “You’re really doing this?”
Walking over Sakurai, Imai folded his arms and seemed tense as he nodded, “Yeah.”
“You’re doing this on your own?” Sakurai asked, looking around again. He couldn’t quite believe it.
“I… haven’t figured out that part,” Imai muttered, rubbing his upper arms as he breathed in deep and exhaled. “I mean, I have a few… ideas but I’m not sure.”
Speechless, Sakurai paced around. Walking through the space they entered, he asked, “What’s this side supposed to be?”
“Convenience store, I suppose,” Imai replied. Stepping into the other side, Imai beckoned him. Making his way over, Sakurai found Imai pacing around the bar counter as he said, “This side’ll probably the eating area. Though I haven’t figured out exactly what kind of-”
“I suppose everyone else knows about this too?” Sakurai blurted. It suddenly clicked. “You were talking to Kiyoshi about stocking the store, weren’t you?”
“Well…” Imai grimaced. “I wouldn’t say everyone-”
“But I didn’t know. You didn’t say anything about this. Not even the slightest mention,” Sakurai muttered, feeling more and more miserable by the second.
“This wasn’t how I-”
“Was I never supposed to know?” Sakurai asked, his voice weak.
“You were ,” Imai countered, stepping towards Sakurai. “You were supposed to know.”
“When?” Sakurai shot back. “When am I supposed to find out? After everyone else?”
“All I ever intended was for things to be at least eighty per cent done before I showed this to you,” Imai sighed. “I didn’t want you to see… this, ” he gestured around him, “much less deal with it.”
“So you’re just excluding me from it?” Sakurai seethed.
“That’s not what I-”
“That’s all I’ve felt since you suddenly declared that you were moving away out of nowhere. Excluded,” Sakurai went on. “Alone,” he added, his voice wavering as he breathed heavily. “It’s as if you’re trying to push me out-”
“That,” Imai snapped, his voice low, “is the last. Thing. I. Want.”
“Then why?” Sakurai questioned. “Why, all of this…”
“I just… wanted the best for you,” Imai sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “But it feels like I’ve done nothing right,” he muttered, turning away.
Watching Imai turn his back to him made Sakurai’s heart drop. Why was Imai walking away? Was he giving up on this? His chest ached as Imai drew away but instead of heading for the stairs Imai went to the back of the bar counter. He seemed to pick something up and took a long look at it.
Imai took in a deep breath. “You know,” he started, “I originally planned to do this later. Much later. Like a month or two later. But… considering everything, and after what Issay said yesterday…”
Sakurai was quiet as Imai spoke and now, as his words faded away. Apprehension kept him still, stoic even. He wasn’t quite sure of what to expect, but he definitely did not expect Imai to walk out of the bar counter and back to him with a single, freshly-cut red rose in his hand.
Imai’s eyes were fixed on the flower as he stopped in front of Sakurai and sighed. “Again, this isn’t ideal,” he muttered. “I would’ve preferred… but I couldn’t think of anything else so…”
Imai’s hand felt cold as he took Sakurai’s in his and made eye contact with him. Blinking, he took another deep breath and appeared to steel himself as he sank down onto one knee, looked up at Sakurai and asked, “Will you stay with me?”
Chapter 81: Epilogue
It was quiet around here. Even a light breeze could be heard as Sakurai knelt here, in the cemetery with his hands put together in prayer. The smell of incense tickled lightly at his nose as he breathed in the fresh air and tried to think of something to say.
Well… I quit my job…… And I met someone. We've been living together for a few months now… Things are good, but… I don't know how you'd feel about this. Though, I suppose if you’ve been watching over me, you’d know all about it.
Geta scraped on the paving which he stood on, shuffling about.
I know you said a long time ago that I should do what I want… I took a long while to get to that, didn’t it? I finally left that job I didn’t like and all that. I finally did what I wanted… I’ve always wondered how you’d feel about all that’s happened recently. Sometimes I can almost hear you chiding me.
Sakurai chuckled to himself and felt a hand on his shoulder, giving him a squeeze before slipping away. He smiled.
A lot has happened since…… but it’s all led to this and… I don’t know where this will take me, but I guess you could say that I am… happy.
Opening his eyes, Sakurai looked at the headstone before him which bore the name of his mother. He smoothed his hand over the coarse stone with a small smile on his face, glancing at the fresh flowers that they brought and the incense which has burnt down a quarter way. Letting out a soft sigh, Sakurai got up and dusted his knees. “I’ll see you soon,” he muttered, smiling at the headstone again before taking his leave.
Sakurai looked towards the exit where Imai stood under a tree, back facing him with a cigarette between his fingers. He rubbed his thumb over the silver rose ring on his last finger, feeling the coils of the smooth metal as he made his way over. Hearing Sakurai approach, Imai turned, geta crunching in the gravel, and gave him a nod of acknowledgement.
“Why’d’you come out here?” Sakurai asked, his tone light. “You can smoke in the compound too.”
“It feels weird smoking among all those graves,” Imai muttered to himself. “Besides, I thought you might want a moment alone.”
“It’s alright,” Sakurai chuckled.
Putting a hand into his pocket, he took out his pack of Marlboro Reds and put a stick between his lips. Imai readily provided the lighter, striking the wheel and producing a flame for Sakurai to light his cigarette from. Sakurai sucked in a deep breath and exhaled, blowing clouds of white smoke away as Imai kept the lighter.
“Y’know, I never thought I’d be coming back to Fujioka with you,” Imai remarked with a faraway look in his eyes as he stared into the distance.
“And I never thought you’d be the one proposing,” Sakurai teased.
“Well, I must apologise that I’m no Issay,” Imai said sarcastically.
“You sure aren’t him,” Sakurai laughed. “But that’s not what I meant.”
“I really thought you wouldn’t want to let this drag on,” Sakurai confessed. “But then again, who knows what’ll happen in future.”
Imai shrugged and said, "I know for sure that I want you in my immediate future. And even though things are still kinda rough with the store and the bar, we've got it up and running so it can only get better, right?"
Sakurai nodded, impressed by Imai's optimism as always. Suddenly compelled, Sakurai blurted, “Do you… Do you ever get the urge to marry a woman and start a family?”
Imai breathed in deep and answered, “I won’t unless you do it first.”
“You’re not immune to women,” Imai smirked. “It’s pretty obvious, Acchan.”
“Is it?” Sakurai huffed. “Will you be my woman then?”
Imai barked a laugh and scoffed, shaking his head with a grin as he tossed his burnt-out cigarette butt away. “Try as you may, no child is coming out from this crotch, Acchan.” Imai then paused and shuddered, “God, what a thought.”
“What does it matter?” Sakurai chuckled. Leaning in close, he kissed Imai on the cheek, surprising him.
“Aren’t you usually bothered by where we are?” Imai asked.
Sakurai put an arm around Imai’s waist and gave him another peck on the cheek. “There’s no one around,” he grinned. “There aren’t as many people around here.”
Imai sighed and shook his head in resignation. “Whatever you say,” he muttered, putting his arm around Sakurai’s shoulders as they started walking away.
Taking one last breath through his cigarette, Sakurai dropped his cigarette butt, stomped it out, and kicked it into the drain. He then nuzzled against the side of Imai’s head, enjoying their momentary freedom and proximity as he asked, “So, where to next?”