now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
while the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
i love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.
poem xiv , pablo neruda
One evening, Tadashi says, ‘I wish you’d fall sick.’
In the grand scheme of things, it might not even be the strangest sequence of words Akiteru’s ever heard pronounced. He, after all, grew up with a curious younger brother who made Saturday morning cartoons an absolute horror— and this, back when it was impossible to rewind live television— he would tug on Akiteru’s sleeve every three minutes and lisp what did that mean, or but why is the hamster like that. Sometimes, Kei would either present, unprompted, a Doraemon conspiracy theory worthy of a Pulitzer, or say— again, unprompted— with all the gravity of a four-year-old, I think mama’s kitchen plants can hear us.
So no, I wish you’d fall sick isn’t the strangest thing he’s ever heard, but coming from someone who is nearly twenty-two, and who not only happens to be a perfectly nice person, but also Akiteru’s boyfriend, it is.
Akiteru considers the situation, trying to think of what could’ve prompted this caliber of the-plants-have-ears statement. They aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary, this is as Wednesday night as Wednesday nights get around his apartment: on the couch, Tadashi curled into his side, legs thrown over his thighs, earphones in and eyes on lecture notes, while Akiteru works through The Factory, looking up every now and then to make sure Tadashi’s actually studying and not on that ASMR cooking channel he and Yachi have been obsessed with all month.
No, nothing is out of the ordinary. Tadashi’s screen is split between an endless PDF and a pair of disembodied hands slicing ASMR peppers— it helps me concentrate, okay — and Akiteru is done reading for the night, because now he has to know.
Tadashi isn’t looking at him. It did sound like he’d said it absently.
Akiteru clears his throat and slowly puts his book away, then clears his throat again, and looks resolutely at the little saucer of pistachio shells on the coffee table.
‘Is this,’ he says carefully, ‘a sex thing?’
At that, Tadashi snaps to attention. Takes out one earphone and squints at Akiteru as if he’s the one who said something weird, then takes out the other one and puts his laptop away.
‘No,’ he says, with an infuriating, pointed sort of patience. ‘First of all, gross.’
‘You—’ Akiteru sighs. ‘Never mind. Explain.’
‘I don’t mean the flu or anything,’ Tadashi says. Tugs at the neck of his nightshirt and straightens up a little, then presses right back into Akiteru’s shoulder. ‘Maybe a little fever, or a migraine, or something like that.’
‘Which is— better than the flu how, exactly? If we’re entertaining this idea in the first place?’
‘Okay, fine, it’s weird, I get it.’ He flops backwards dramatically, nearly knocking the laptop off the couch, and stretches in that way he does, that makes Akiteru want to curve right over the boyish arc of his ribs and kiss every single one of them. ‘I just— wish you’d sit still, sometimes.’
‘I was sitting perfectly still until you wished illness upon me.’
Tadashi lowers an arm and glares at him.
‘I wish,’ he says, ‘that you’d let me take care of you. Okay?’
Akiteru softens, which is a verb he has learned to use in place of melt to keep up appearances. He moves his hands over Tadashi’s long legs, runs the backs of his nails on one scarred knee, earning a shiver. The lamp is too bright; he wants to turn it off and carry Tadashi to bed and put him to sleep.
‘Hey,’ he says. ‘You don’t need to immobilise me for that.’ Smiles at the way Tadashi shrugs, conceding. ‘You take care of me.’
‘I know I do, I’m a great boyfriend.’ Akiteru laughs out loud at that, smacks Tadashi’s thigh lightly. ‘But I’m not all subtle like you. I don’t want to just— make you breakfast in the morning or whatever.’
And he does. He does make breakfast in the mornings before going for his runs. Akiteru has no idea where he finds the time; always jokes that there are more hours in Tadashi’s clock than anyone else’s. God knows that before him, Akiteru used to grab an onigiri from the fridge and call it a day.
‘You know that breakfast means the world to me, right? I don’t need anything else.’
‘Aki— okay.’ That’s Tadashi’s I-give-up sigh. ‘Yeah, okay. Can we go to bed?’
And yes, they can go to bed, and come back to this tomorrow, whatever it is. He’ll make sure not to stay out too late at the afterwork, get back in time to take a long, hot shower and still have the energy to settle down cross-legged on the bed and look long and deep into Tadashi’s eyes. What have you come up with this time? What do you want to do on Saturday? Are you happy?
They can always come back to it tomorrow. Akiteru gets up and reaches for the pistachio shells, then helps Tadashi up with his free hand, pressing a kiss to his temple, I'll be there in five, before letting him go.
(Akiteru, when Tadashi leaves the car in the middle of the night and the middle of a storm to walk home alone, makes a valiant attempt to drive to what has become their place in the hills. It remains an attempt; somewhere on the lonely uphill stretches, he pulls the car off to the side of the road, brings a hand up to his eyes, and shakes into tears.
It could be a number of things. The desolate pity he feels, having been Tadashi’s age and size and form, knowing exactly what it’s like to have the ground pulled out from under your feet. The image of Tadashi, the rain bearing down on him, flattening those playful locks, so full of life otherwise. The thought of him trying to be brave-and-smiling Tadashi through it all, the way he’s always been.
It could be any of those things, but it isn’t. Akiteru, when he presses his forehead to the steering wheel and lets out exhale after fractured exhale, is only thinking about the day they’d kissed, the minutes before, when Tadashi had looked at him, silent and wanting. Eyes so full of soul, strange and sad, that Akiteru couldn’t recognise him, and in trying to do so, accidentally discovered the impossibilities of his own desire. Not aquamarine like swimming pools, but darker. Running deeper, and then deeper still.)
They don’t get back to it until the weekend— when, for all intents and purposes, Akiteru is in no state to talk.
‘A year,’ he gasps, swallows. ‘A— stop — a full year, you’ve been holding out— making me—‘ No idea where that sentence was going. Tadashi’s finally stopped. If he knows where that sentence was going, he doesn’t say. Only waits as Akiteru comes down. The rush of endorphins is so thick it has him laughing like he hasn’t in years. He’d be embarrassed if— through his barely-open eyes— he couldn’t see the wonder on Tadashi’s face. All the careful I can do this, acknowledge me concentration from before replaced by that thing that makes him look so bright and young and earnest. Something tugs at Akiteru to be under that gaze— to be under Tadashi at all— but he lets the sting ebb away as more exhaustion, wavelike and lovely, washes over him.
Then, Tadashi kisses the inside of Akiteru’s knee, and circles his hips forward again, slow. He still hasn’t come, but it drags through the tingling haze of Akiteru’s own orgasm like a sharp-toothed comb, and he turns his head into the pillow and makes a pleading sound.
‘One more?’ Tadashi murmurs, because he’s a terrible, terrible boy like that. Armed to the teeth with the kind of experience Akiteru had been too level-headed to seek out when he was twenty, and cursed with a special ability to ruin every inch of Akiteru he touches. He should never have let Tadashi take charge.
‘Sweetheart,’ he says, managing to look up even though his very shoulders are numb and he could fall asleep the moment his eyes close. ‘That was two already. Are you trying to kill me?’
Understanding dawns. He raises himself up on his elbows— with great effort— falls back down, groans in his throat as the movement registers— ‘Wait, is that it? Is this what you meant? Because believe me, all you had to do was ask.’
‘I am asking,’ comes the reply, but it’s less soft now, more teasing. ‘I asked for one more.’
Akiteru really does hate him. ‘You’d better leave me be if you know what’s good for you.’
Tadashi laughs. Giggles, chastised, suddenly the boy who’d been caught doing chin-ups that Sunday morning. Then he kisses Akiteru’s knee again, and pulls out slowly— Akiteru exhales long and shivery— and reaches for the washcloth on the nightstand.
Akiteru lets him, when he would’ve protested on any other night. Lies still as Tadashi works it over his sternum and ribs and stomach, even lets him pull the boxers back on them both. The lamp on the opposite nightstand bathes him in constantly-moving golden light, his freckles invisible under it, though Akiteru knows the position of every single one. His hair is just long enough to start curling again, especially now, damp with sweat as it is, and ravaged by Akiteru’s desperate hands for over an hour.
His focus is gorgeous. His silence is sweet. He has a secret, and it fills Akiteru up with love, absurdly fierce, with promise. To hold him close, him and everything he doesn’t, won’t tell Akiteru. He doesn’t want to know it anyway.
‘What about you?’ he murmurs, when Tadashi finally lies down on his side, eyes still wide awake. ‘Come here, then.’
And— were he older, he would have said no. But he is younger and silly-selfish despite all his rebellious experience or because of it, so he bites his lower lip and inches forward, and Akiteru laughs as he pulls him into his arms.
(Saeko is the first and only one to learn about it, and only after it’s over. It isn’t that Akiteru doesn’t have other friends— he has nothing but friends, and all in that sweet spot of their twenties and thirties where nothing and everything matters all at once, where no one would blink an eye if he said I had an inadvisable affair with my younger brother’s best friend, and well, turns out it was inadvisable.
Still, he only tells her, because she is the only one who won’t click her tongue, hiss in experienced empathy, then shrug as shorthand for do you want to come out and find someone to sleep with on Friday night?
No. Saeko learns about it on a Friday night after Tenma’s thrown in the towel and taken a million buns to go, and they’re the only ones left in the gritty, dim, comforting booth. Akiteru’s knees hurt from how long they’ve been pressed up against the underside of the low table, which is what he focuses on when he tells her.
She doesn’t click her tongue or hiss or shrug. She puts her beer mug away silently, then leans across the table, looks right into his eyes, and says, ‘What is your problem?’
‘You’re being unkind,’ Akiteru tells her immediately.
‘No, I’m not,’ she says. ‘I’m really asking. I want to know what your problem is. Where is the problem in all of this?’
He blinks at her.
‘Your mother knows you’re gay. He looks the gayest I’ve ever seen anyone dare to look in this town after little Hitoka. And if you think your brother doesn’t know about you two, you’re fucking stupid. So— where’s the problem?’
‘The problem isn’t other people,’ he replies. ‘I wish it were. But it’s me, all right? The problem is me.’
‘You,’ she echoes incredulously. ‘Do tell.’
‘What about me makes you think he won’t be disappointed six months in? He’s built up this entire summer in his head like it was some kind of movie, and you know that’s the only reason he ever even—’ But now you’ve gone and decided my feelings all on your own, because you’re older and smarter, is that it? ‘And if I—’
‘Oh, there we go. You think he’s going to get bored of you if he actually gets to have you?’ Saeko leans back, points an accusing finger. ‘Your whole obsession with the idea that you’re bland just because you’re actually a well-adjusted goddamn human being who knows how to behave—’
‘I am not a well-adjusted human being,’ he counters, and the beer makes him slur the well-adjusted for a perfect final touch. ‘I’m horrible. That’s the entire fucking point. I’m not going to be his perfect older boyfriend. And I’m so tired of— I’m so tired.’ So tired of being nice enough to be boring, but not perfect enough to give his partners whatever solid thing they always seemed to see in him and crave for. Never perfect enough.
‘Okay, that’s even better.’ Akiteru looks up with bleary eyes; he really is too tired for this, and he wants to go home and crawl into bed and sleep for five hours, which is all he needs for the beer to wear off, and then he can get into his car and drive back to Sendai and crawl into his bed there and sleep and never come back, never step out, never do this again, the way he’d been so good for years— ‘Don’t you want him to live with you in your stupid apartment that smells like jasmine and discover how horrible and tired and imperfect you really are? You don’t want to discover how horrible he is? Isn’t that sexy as hell? Imagine finding out he does the dishes right after dinner. I’d lose my fucking mind.’
That gets a laugh out of him, wet and miserable, but a laugh all right. ‘I do the dishes right after dinner.’
Saeko leans forward, silent and solemn, and claps her hands once. ‘See? Soulmates.’
Then she pushes away their empty dishes and bowls, and climbs over the low table, crawls across it, settling down cross-legged in front of him. Her eyeliner is perfect, and there is a small smear of dipping sauce on her lower lip. When she reaches out to hold his face, her rings are cold on his cheeks.
‘You’re a person, baby,’ she says softly. ‘It’s called being a person. You think he doesn’t know you’re a person? He does. Now more than ever.’)
On a cold night in the beginning of December, Akiteru feels a tap on his shoulder and smiles. He rolls his chair back, then yelps in dismay at the same time as Tadashi, hands curling into fists in sympathy for the toes he just rolled over.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Akiteru gasps, almost sobbing with it, trying to keep the laughter out of his voice. ‘Oh, God. Let me—’
‘No, it’s fine,’ Tadashi says, wounded-haughty, even as he hops on one foot, clutching at the other. ‘I’ll leave you alone. You could just have told me you’re busy—’
Two taps is coffee. Three is I have something to show you that simply cannot wait for whatever miserable email you’re typing up. More than three and the kitchen is probably on fire, or Tadashi’s father is on the phone demanding Akiteru’s wise counsel on what tablet to buy.
A single tap on the shoulder is Morse for make space . So Akiteru catches Tadashi by the waist before he can get away, and sits him down on his lap. Tadashi is heavy enough to make his thighs burn, but sprightly enough to feel like a child. Akiteru could never tire of holding him. Tonight he smells like his scented candle, patchouli and cinnamon, all of that gentle smoke caught up in his thick curls.
‘Does it hurt?’ Akiteru asks.
‘I’m sorry. What did you want?’ All things considered, single taps are rare.
Tadashi inhales slowly, playful rancour slipping away for something— serious, uncertain. Behind him, Akiteru’s laptop, sitting in the perfect circle of light his reading lamp throws, is still playing faint guitar.
‘Nothing,’ he says finally, but there is something, in his voice, and Akiteru immediately knows what it is.
That something, as heartwarming as it is a little sad, puts another smile on his face. It’s been so many years— nearly two-thirds of his life— that the day is almost no longer anything more. A cold day in December, a cold night in December. He didn’t even call his mother today, just texted her a picture of the salmon he’d made for lunch, topped with scallions and sesame, innocuous.
‘How do you know?’ he asks.
Tadashi smiles too, small. ‘Tsukki told me years ago. Never forgot.’
‘We’ve forgotten, you know.’ It’s a lie— there’s always an almost. Almost just a cold day in December. Almost already twenty years. Almost only a distant figure now, his— their— father. ‘Well, almost.’
‘Almost,’ Tadashi repeats. Then, in that way of his, tries desperately to think of something to say.
Akiteru spares him the awkward misery by tugging at his cheek. ‘Do you want to hear about him? Kei was only a year old so I doubt he had any stories to tell you.’ It almost doesn’t matter that one of the reasons it’s never brought up in their home is so that Kei doesn’t feel excluded from nearly a decade’s worth of memories. ‘I have at least three of my own, even from the hospital. He was all the nurses’ favourite.’
Tadashi giggles, leans back to hook two fingers in the wide knit of Akiteru’s sweater. ‘Really? Was he a flirt like you?’
‘I’m not a flirt! Slander!’ They both laugh. ‘But if you must know, yes. And he was very handsome, too. He would’ve been your favourite Tsukishima.’
‘Really?’ He looks up, for the first time, right into Akiteru’s eyes. ‘And?’
‘And…me? Would he have liked me?’
Akiteru smiles, overcome. Almost.
‘He would’ve told you to cut your hair every single time he saw you.’
That does it. Tadashi splutters and crosses his arms, one hand then going to pull at his own hair— not even as long as last summer— while Akiteru cackles. But the air doesn’t feel heavy anymore, just warm.
‘You,’ Tadashi says, eyes narrowed, ‘are my least favourite Tsukishima.’
‘I’m not even my own favourite Tsukishima,’ Akiteru replies, grinning wide and shameless. ‘But do tell. I thought I’d at least beat Kei out because I’m cuddlier? If you clung to him the way you cling to—’
‘Oh, cling, you want me to stop clinging?’ Tadashi turns the glare up two notches and primly peels himself off Akiteru’s lap, making sure to take his time before straightening up, nose in the air. ‘I can stop clinging, Tsukishima-san, pardon me for having inconvenienced such a big, busy man.’
Akiteru manages to drag him back without leaving the chair, helpless with laughter, then laughing more at how fast he settles back down, soft and willing and thrumming with care.
It’s been so many years that he doesn’t call his mother anymore, nor she him, and Kei has never breathed a word. Now, suddenly, Tadashi curls his arms around Akiteru’s neck, and presses up close, patchouli.
‘I want to talk about things like that,’ he whispers. ‘This— is what I meant, too, I guess. Not only. But— I want to know.’
‘You already know,’ Akiteru replies. He doesn’t know how much of a lie it is. His screen has turned dark but the music is still going, and then just as he notices that, it stops.
(Akiteru’s first breakup teaches him that there is a very logical kindness to deciding to leave someone. It is also the last time he allows someone to do him this kindness; instead, carries it out himself, three times more until, at twenty-five, he grows tired of it all.
Hiroki breaks up with him a month before his twentieth birthday, when February is still freezing and tea cools down only a minute after being poured. He does it over a cup of tea, which is perhaps the most unkind thing about any of it— that he might've ruined tea for Akiteru.
He doesn’t, because he is honest and gentle, and kisses Akiteru’s hands. Nothing about Hiroki has changed, only his understanding of Akiteru.
‘Staying would be unfair to you,’ he says, still into Akiteru’s cold fingers. ‘I’d always be asking too much. Too many things from you, and not you as you are. Do you get me, Aki? Sometimes I feel like I don’t want you so much as I want what you do to and for me, and that’s wrong. It’s wrong.’
The next time Akiteru sees him, six months later after a stint of summer travel, the long waves of his hair are gone and he has another tattoo, of which Akiteru only sees the edge, peeking out from under his bracelets. At the end of the night when their friends are lining up to pay their tabs, Hiroki pulls Akiteru into his chest under the awning of the bar, the rest of the alley already gone dim, and kisses the side of his head.
‘I miss you,’ he says, and Akiteru laughs and leans into him. ‘How are you?’
‘You miss being warm,’ he replies. ‘Anyone can keep you warm.’
‘Would you have wanted me to lie about that?’
Akiteru sighs, sorry, somehow, when it’s not entirely his fault. But Hiroki’s sighing too, whispering I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. But he’s right, and Akiteru misses being warm too, but he had missed, more, the freedom of being twenty and cold, with no one to fail.)
Nakamura Mitsuko has waist-length hair, three piercings, octagon-shaped glasses, and is altogether one of the most terrifying people Akiteru has ever met, at least when she’s drunk. She has been fixing him with a silent gaze ever since she settled into the passenger seat, loaded with some inebriated meaning that escapes Akiteru— sober and hence pathetic— entirely.
Tadashi might just have a type when it comes to friends. Only that can explain his affinity for this tall, silent, judgemental—
On cue, Tadashi, speaks up from where he’s sprawled across the backseat, a brave feat for how drunk he is. ‘Micchan, did we get my boots? I can’t feel my feet. Do I have my boots?’
Nakamura doesn’t answer; Akiteru fills in. ‘You have your boots. They’re in the footwell.’
There is, if he cares to admit it, a certain thrill to being what Kei calls a glorified babysitter. It’s not only the ego boost of Tadashi’s friends thinking he’s the coolest human on the planet by dint of being twenty-eight years old, it’s— something else. Because Tadashi only calls to be picked up when he’s too drunk even for the metro, and when he’s like that, he gets demanding. No apology in his voice even if it’s three in the morning, and only rambunctious cheering from the party at large when the saviour shows up. There is something— possessive, about being taken for granted like that.
That’s it, he thinks, as he rounds a suburban corner— Nakamura lives with her parents and five cats— Tadashi takes him for granted in a way that suggests nothing of how soft and anxious he can sometimes get. There was nothing anxious about the way he used to sneak into Akiteru’s room last summer to ask for a lift home; nothing anxious about how he’s talking to an unresponsive Nakamura right now, even though Akiteru has to be up for work in three hours, and will have to nap at lunch.
‘Something on your mind, Nakamura-san?’ Akiteru says when the one-sided conversation dies.
She finally looks away, staring out instead at the road. Her earmuffs are lopsided. Then she turns back to check on Tadashi— dozed off, going by the sudden silence— and turns to Akiteru again.
‘You’re handsome,’ she declares.
‘I’m flattered, but this is hardly the first time you’re seeing me.’
‘I feel like I am. The way he talks about you is always changing. So I feel like I’m meeting you all over again.’
Something shivers through Akiteru; he tamps it down. ‘Oh? And his latest discovery is that I’m handsome?’
Nakamura refuses to accord him a laugh, only turns away with a huff, and doesn’t say anything for a while.
‘I don’t like you,’ she decides, then, and Akiteru bites his lip to swallow his smile. ‘All that trouble last year and you won’t even give him an inch.’
‘I said his way of talking about you changes. Not what he talks about.’ She’s more animated now, voice rising a little in indignation as she turns fully in her seat. Akiteru stops at a red light and faces her, frowning. ‘You do the same things, and he just looks harder every time. Makes more meaning out of it. Because you refuse to give him more.’
‘Nakamura-san, I am already with him,’ he replies, a little stung. ‘Do you want me to buy him a bouquet? Get him a card?’
‘No, because you’d probably find a way to make even that elusive.’
The light turns green; Akiteru doesn’t move. There are no other cars on the road. He doesn’t know why he has such a burning need to explain himself to someone nearly a decade younger than him, so he swallows the urge and takes a deep breath, doesn’t say I’ve spent all this time trying not to be elusive, because he doesn’t know how true that is, and he had decided, ten years ago, never to tell a lie again. And that might be it, actually— he refuses to lie, so he says nothing altogether, and hopes that it will pass off as mystery, something to look forward to.
And someone who barely knows his nature has caught him in the act, so how long has Tadashi been pretending not to know? Not to know that Akiteru has, despite himself, been violating the only thing that was ever asked of him that November night a year ago when he threw aside dignity and decorum to fit himself in Tadashi’s bed meant for one, and heard him whisper, fervently, I want to know everything. Everything.
Has he known from the start? That Akiteru hides worlds of everything, convinced it is not what people want of him? Has he known from the start that Akiteru is— stupid, scared, scared stupid, still? Still?
‘It’s gone green again,’ Nakamura says. Akiteru changes gears and starts on the road, the sound of the car grating. ‘Sorry for saying I don’t like you. I like you.’
‘You’re allowed to dislike me,’ he says.
‘There’s nothing about you one can dislike without feeling uncharitable, Tsukishima-san.’
‘I wouldn’t have expected such pity.’
‘It’s not pity,’ she says plainly. ‘It’s envy. You can get away with anything.’
‘He can get away with anything,’ Tadashi pipes up from the back, making them both jump. Akiteru’s heart is suddenly beating a mile a minute, having realised that this was a real conversation and not some kind of introspective dream, and that it wasn’t private. ‘He could— kill me dead. In the shower. And pout and say oops, sorry. I’d forgive him right away. I mean I’d haunt him forever. But I’d forgive him.’
That brings a swift end to the moment. Nakamura, changing moods at the flick of a switch, explodes with laughter, throwing her long hair about and making what she probably thinks are ghost sounds, then laughing harder as Tadashi howls in unison. Akiteru, now acutely aware of how old and frail he is in the face of unforgiving youth, floors it and turns the radio on. He is laughing despite himself.
(One last time before leaving for Sendai for good, Akiteru comes around on the weekend to gather the last of his things. Kei’s books have progressed all the way to the triangle enclave under the stairs, ready to be strapped into Akiteru’s backseat and then crowd his apartment until Kei can come get them. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to do it alone if Akiteru hadn’t made an abject failure out of the summer, but he will. He’ll be fine. Or Akiteru could just keep his books in the backseat for a week, drive them directly to Kei’s new place. Or—
His musing comes to a freezing stop as he reaches the kitchen. To his credit, he doesn’t startle, though they do. His chest is tight, but his smile is in place, despite the obvious hush washing over what sounded like whispers just before. For a second Akiteru wants to turn on his heel and go back upstairs, but he’s too old for that, so he smiles a little wider and bows his head. ‘Yamaguchi-san, I didn’t know you were here.’
Tadashi’s mother gave him his hair; it’s the only thing he got from her. Her still-dark curls, lively with the humidity of September, bounce as she nods back to him with a smile, kinder than he deserves, hence cutting. Like this, he could almost pretend he doesn’t know what they were talking about, but his own mother’s face stops him. She’s in her apron, hair slipping free of its twist, tinged almost entirely with grey.
When Akiteru had come out to her, it was still a rich light brown, so unnatural she was asked about it all the time. That was nearly ten years ago, and in those ten years, no matter what stories and people and baggage he brought home or didn’t, she never once looked at him the way she is looking right now.
His mother isn’t smiling— and if she was glaring, it would’ve hurt, but this knowing, silent set to her lips is worse, even though it doesn’t last long. She catches herself, but slowly, and smiles too.
‘All packed, dear?’
And— had Akiteru really believed, for a moment, that any of it was truly secret? He doesn’t know, but he no longer has to wonder. Two weeks ago Tadashi slammed the door of the car and stepped out into a thunderstorm, and apparently everyone in their little world knew. They weren’t allowed to have even that— even this.
Anger, then guilt, seizes him. He wants to throw his hands in the air, say what, what is it, tell me something I don’t know. He wants to bow low in front of Tadashi’s mother and excuse himself for his clumsy hands. He wants to hate them both for knowing about that secret world they built over the summer, wants to hate everyone, but wants to thank them for— for leaving it be. For letting it breathe. For letting it blossom, if only a little, before Akiteru, inevitably as he does everything, cut it short.
He takes a deep breath, and gives them a smile, good-natured but noncommittal. ‘All packed.’
Tadashi’s mother catches him in the garden as she’s leaving. He’s trying to force a weekend bag into the messy boot of his car, and his brain can’t come up with a single configuration that could let it fit. But in seconds, swiftly and surely as mothers do, she reaches over and pushes aside a box of boots, slides a satchel over it, and suddenly there’s space where there wasn’t before.
Akiteru lets the bag drop in it, and grits his teeth, unable to so much as say thank you. She doesn’t seem to expect it; only pats his arm— he doesn’t look up— and leaves him to sit on the closed boot with his head in his hands, until his own mother comes looking for him, and pulls him inside for dinner.)
The thing about being a physically affectionate person is that there’s no way to avoid giving out mixed signals. He has been running from Tadashi for a week, but still kisses his forehead every morning and evening, because he can’t imagine not doing it, when Tadashi is right there to kiss.
And Tadashi, though he must notice, says nothing. Akiteru knows it’s unfair and cruel to keep him guessing, and so tries to reassure him with touch where words have yet to form. It isn’t a downside, after all, and they aren’t mixed signals— he wants Tadashi here while he figures it all out. Wants to run his fingers over wristbones and ribs and hips while he thinks. And it’s selfish, the most selfish he’s been in a while— and Akiteru is selfish— but he can only be disappointed in himself for so many things at a time, and fixing what Nakamura called him out for so coldly that night is more important than the guilt of leaving Tadashi in the dark a little longer.
Winter settles into the bones of every building, and Tadashi disappears for days on end, shut up in his own apartment with books and spreadsheets and stress. Akiteru envies him his phase of life, even though it’s the last time he’ll have to work this hard, even though he’s so close to stepping into the world Akiteru lives in that it’s as terrifying as it is exhilarating. In four months he will graduate and start his job, cut his hair short again, wear button-downs instead of bombers, sober blue sweaters instead of the hoodies he likes to swim around in. A leap, two leaps, closer to still to where Akiteru is.
And will he like it? Will he like it when it’s no longer a goal, but his everyday? Does he— when it’s no longer a destination, but a place to live in—
On the first day of the Christmas holidays, Akiteru opens his door at four in the afternoon, when it’s already started to go dark, and finds Tadashi standing in the hallway, a rucksack on his back, two bags of takeout in his hands— are those mittens — snow melting on his beanie, the tip of his nose frozen red, cheeks pink. He’s here to camp. Akiteru missed him.
‘Don’t look at me like that,’ Tadashi says, though Akiteru knows no other way to look. He’s breathless from the cold, and visibly done. ‘Take the food and let me in. We’re going to talk.’
(‘We’re going to talk,’ Kei says, brusque and burning, before Akiteru’s even pulled the door all the way open. He pushes his way past and stops for a second to raise his eyebrows at the display on the coffee table— some generic jazz playlist on the speakers, the glass of whiskey Akiteru’s been nursing since midnight, soaked almond peels— before shrugging out of his coat and throwing it over the couch, and whirling, full of movement and anger, to face Akiteru. ‘Close the door. I said we’re going to talk.’
Akiteru doesn’t want to talk. He wants to drink his whiskey and feel sorry for himself, even though it’s technically no longer Tadashi’s birthday. He wants to go back to work, to his cordial colleagues with whom he still hasn’t managed to strike up a camaraderie because he refuses to talk at company outings and can only stomach one beer before the lump in his throat makes him leave. But Kei doesn’t seem to care about that; he makes a sound and strides over, closes the door himself while Akiteru stands, staring into space.
‘He told you,’ Kei says. ‘And you didn’t tell him. How could you do that to him? To yourself?’
‘I thought you, of all people, would agree that it’s better to nip something in the bud before it gets out of control.’
Kei blinks at him, mouth falling open. Akiteru braces himself for it, for the righteous hurt, for the shock at having the worst years of their lives dragged up out of the darkness like this, and for another argument entirely. He waits for everything to crumble, wants it, even; at least then he will be done, lying in the mess he made, finally getting what he deserves. Maybe then everyone will leave him alone.
‘You,’ Kei says, then. ‘You stupid, self-flagellating, myopic fucking clown.’
There’ll be no more whiskey tonight, clearly; he makes his legs move, reaches for the glass and the bottle, but Kei beats him to it. Grabs them both and drives back into his line of vision, eyes blazing now.
‘Look at me,’ he says. ‘I’m older than you were when you— when that happened. If you think that’s something to hold against yourself after all this time—’
‘You’re spilling the whiskey—’
‘Oh, fuck the whiskey,’ Kei snaps, but he puts it back. ‘Will you look at me? That’s no argument and you know it.’
‘Can you please let up?’ Akiteru looks up finally, and wishes he hadn’t; the gleaming stain of whiskey on his floor was prettier than Kei’s face. ‘I promise that whatever arguments you have, I’ve made them to myself already. I’ve thought of everything you can possibly think of—’
‘No, you haven’t,’ Kei says exasperatedly, as if he’s explaining two plus two and not trying to convince Akiteru to jump headfirst into the most terrifying idea he’s ever had in twenty-seven years of being alive and flawed. ‘Because you cannot possibly care about yourself half as much as I care about you. So no, you can’t think the way I’m thinking. You never will.’
That stuns him silent. For a long minute, there is nothing but the soft strains of guitar and Kei subconsciously wiping his hand on his jeans, nothing but Akiteru looking at him, something so horribly touched welling up inside him that he’s a second away from bursting into tears.
‘All right?’ Kei sounds like he’s trying not to spook an animal. ‘Can we talk? Please?’
‘Can you make me a cup of tea?’ Akiteru asks. He’s so tired. He misses when Kei wasn’t twenty-one. Wishes he could’ve kept a Kei who would’ve long since surged forward and wrapped him up in thin and wiry and clingy arms by now. Tries to imagine it. Kei, all of ten years old, trying to reach up and gather Akiteru into the world’s largest embrace, personally offended at whatever force is trying to hurt his brother. ‘Sorry. I just really want a cup of tea.’
‘Yeah,’ Kei replies after a moment. His eyes are absurdly soft. ‘Okay, nii-chan. Go sit.’)
Tadashi has never looked this young, not even last summer, when he was a year and a half younger, and at his most magnetic because Akiteru was still reaching for him. He doesn’t look young like that; he looks young like he used to be ten years ago. So small, with such bright eyes, his freckles too many for his little face. He is simultaneously that child and the oldest, most graceful Akiteru has ever known him to be, and all at once the years seem to tap at the window, creeping in. All at once nostalgia takes over him— for last summer, for his first day of college, for, even, the days at Karasuno when he had the luxury of being at his worst and feeling like it was the end of the world. Days when he was younger than Tadashi is right now, sitting in front of him in bed, knees drawn up to his chest, loose and tense all at the same time.
The sun has long since set, and though they haven’t eaten yet, Tadashi had unearthed— of all things— a bottle of red wine from his bag, and handed it to Akiteru without ceremony. They’ve each had a glass, and on an empty stomach it’s enough to warm him through to his bones and let him drown out any litany that isn’t Tadashi. No work emails to deal with, no cuts of meat in the fridge that he had already defrosted for tonight, no panicked texts from Tenma about escaping his editor. No world outside.
Tadashi looks up, then. Eyes bright, body lithe, full of earth. Here, in his bed, nearly every night since a year ago, always in the light of the lamp on the opposite nightstand, its glow softened because it reflects off the walls instead of on skin. He is far enough from the gold of it that his freckles show up, faded as they are this far into December. Gathered over his nosebridge, then scattering over his cheekbones, the way his skin is so responsive, though he complains all the time about how easily Akiteru bruises. Sun-response, sun-response, sun-response creeping under the edges of his loose sweater.
‘Why won’t you have me?’ Tadashi asks.
It’s not the question he had expected. Why won’t you let me have you, yes. But it makes so much more sense this way— why won’t he? Why won’t he put everything aside just to stare at this? Why won’t he submit to the random rushes of tenderness that overwhelm him, that say crawl into his arms and close your eyes? Why won’t he take Tadashi for granted, take him for his?
Why? Because he’s scared, and stupid, and scared stupid. Scared that distance, if only a centimetre of it, is the secret to their love. Seven years of distance. A summer’s distance. One heartbeat away, in this bed. Because the only way he knows to maintain distance even now, a year later, is to—
‘I’m afraid of the magic wearing off,’ Akiteru says. ‘If we— if we slip into the habit of it. I— don’t want you to get bored of me.’
He shouldn’t have. Maybe Tadashi isn’t even thinking about it yet, and all he’s done is make him realise, and accelerated the process. Or maybe the fact that he takes Akiteru for granted has nothing to do with possessiveness and already to do with the fact that he— lives here now, in this place that belongs to them both, and that none of it matters anymore, because the magic was in the wanting. But— maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Akiteru, unselfish for once. Knowing, and preparing, and being the one to let know. Being the one to understand, and to make understand.
Tadashi doesn’t look very understanding. He looks, in fact—
‘You’re— what?’ he says. Yes, that’s anger. ‘You— don’t want me to get bored of you?’
Akiteru exhales, and wonders if he has permission to lie down. Decides against it, and leans back against the head instead, shuddering at the cold touch of the frame.
‘Akiteru,’ Tadashi says, voice strained. ‘Every morning I wake up and I can’t believe you’re next to me. Do you remember that last summer I never got to do that once? Do you remember that? And now I can. That’s the most magical thing in the world to me, and it’s never going to stop feeling like magic every single time. Every single morning.’
‘You’re angry with me,’ Akiteru whispers, but his heart is clenching as if in the hold of a fist.
‘No,’ comes the reply immediately. ‘No, I’m not mad at you , I’m just— mad at how much I love you. You’re always doing that. And it just makes me madder.’
He makes a frustrated sound, so high-pitched and childish that it makes Akiteru smile. ‘Akiteru, I can’t wait to get bored of you. I can’t wait for there to be more of the same every day. I can’t think of one thing I want more than that. To— to make a habit out of you. I—’
Tadashi’s eyes are beginning to glisten. He wants to be held. And Akiteru, too, wants more of the same. It dawns on him all at once, not unlike the glass of wine that is just now starting to climb to his head. He wants more of the same, every day, because— as novel as it was, and striking though it was, he never wants to feel the pain of irreparable distance again. Of sobbing in his car with the rain lashing down. Of hurting, and being hurt. Of knowing Tadashi is hurt, his—
Baby, he thinks desperately, his baby. Fragile and boyish and full of life. Full of growth. Like a vine taking over a balcony, or the impossible rain-bark-green scent of trees in August. Akiteru wants to hold him. To make love to him for hours and hours, fill him up until he’s too full to breathe. To pick him up after his last class and drive him to his doctor’s appointments. To drop everything on their schedules just to go and eat at their favourite restaurant without reserving. To put on strange crooning songs and dance to them, silently, seriously, arms around each other.
Akiteru wants him, will always want him a little more, will always win this argument. With as urgent, as desperate an affection as that day on the hill when they first kissed, oh, Tadashi’s eyes. How dare Akiteru miss the pull of yearning for him when Tadashi, every last loving breath, is sitting before him in bed right now? Right now? It’s never going to stop feeling like magic every time.
‘This is anticlimactic,’ he manages to get out, afraid that anything less than a joke will mean tears. ‘I had an entire debate prepared, and you shut me down with three lines and puppy eyes. You should be classified as a weapon.’
‘I still want to listen to your debate,’ Tadashi replies, half-smiling. ‘You promised me you’d always be clear with me. Don’t go back on it now.’
‘It’s going to sound stupid.’
‘I’ve known you're stupid since that time you thought cooking instant ramen in milk would taste good. Next.’
‘It could’ve worked if the spices hadn’t made the milk curdle!’
‘No, because those noodles can only absorb water well, you’d have ended up with weird stringy noodles in a tasteless broth. Why do you think I’d get bored of you when you come up with something new and stupid every day?’
‘Hey, that’s my line! You’re the one always coming up with nonsense.’
‘Name one occasion, Tsukishima-san.’
Akiteru rolls his eyes, then breathes out.
‘That summer was perfect,’ he says. ‘Well, before I ruined it. And with every day that we get further from it, that world disappears. But it—’
But he’s wrong, knows it as he says it. Because it’s never going to stop. Not the magic— the pull. The want. But it refuses to disappear from inside of me.
It’s never going to disappear. He is never going to stop aching for Tadashi, and it’s going to take time to get used to that. To get used to having him and pining for him all at once, every day. To get used to missing him before he’s even shut the door of the car, his lovely, retreating back. To get used to giving him everything, and waking up the next day with more everything to give. With worlds of the same.
Tadashi, you’re standing too far.
‘It wasn’t perfect,’ Tadashi whispers. Akiteru looks at him, too far gone to put anything on his face other than the truth. ‘It would never have been, even if you hadn’t said anything in the car that day. It would never have been, because it wouldn’t have led to this.’ He reaches out, then curls his fingers back; Akiteru isn’t fast enough to catch them, and something inside him keens at that. ‘You think it would’ve been perfect because it would’ve ended. But it was never supposed to end. We’re not supposed to have an end. That’s what made it perfect. That it wasn’t an end. It was the beginning.’
He looks up, young, scared, brave. ‘Don’t you want to keep it going? Keep that magic going?’ The magic of having each other.
‘I do,’ Akiteru hears himself say, through a wine-wave of need. His voice sounds strange. Dark and red, and low. Honest. ‘I do.’
‘Then can we?’ Tadashi asks, just as low. ‘Will you just— come? Just come, now.’
(A week after the night Kei stormed into his apartment, he kills the ignition of his car in a parking lot, then freezes as the light from the street catches on something in the footwell of the passenger seat.
A small, square pack, so innocent and banal even as it tears at his insides. Almost before he knows it, he’s pulling his phone out, heart in his throat.)
Akiteru goes. Akiteru crawls into his arms and closes his eyes; Tadashi curls around him with such a readiness, such a relief. And that same relief, coursing through Akiteru, is so new, as if it’s the first time. He could never have helped the sound that escapes him. Tadashi is warm and solid, and smells, faithfully, of not candles but candleflames. Akiteru could lean all the way and Tadashi would simply bend back to take it, spine curling over the mattress, hold still tight; he knows. He doesn’t test it; he knows, just like he knows that it will always feel like this. He could go an hour without touching Tadashi and touching him again would feel like this. Minutes— he could go minutes, and his body, panicked, would somehow already forget the golden weight of Tadashi’s legs on his, arms around his neck, lips on his. Maybe it’ll never change, and it will be magical. Or maybe he’ll get used to it one day, and it will be magical, still, that he had the luxury of getting used to it. How he made it so many years without it is beyond him.
For now, Tadashi, young Tadashi, strong Tadashi, stubborn Tadashi, leans backwards and pulls Akiteru with him, then laughs. Then hushes Akiteru for no reason, and lays him back down carefully, with a closeness that makes it hard to breathe. Akiteru closes his eyes as he feels lips on his neck, his shoulder, his jaw, then his mouth. Tadashi’s hands under his sweater now, palms impossibly hot against his ribs; Tadashi’s forehead pressed to his collarbone, weight, bearing down.
Akiteru pulls gently at his hair, makes him look up only to kiss his forehead, brow furrowed. I love you. He kisses rough curls. I love you. The delicate edge where temple meets cheekbone. I love who you are, who I have seen you become and who I see you becoming every day. I love how you love me throughout. I can’t wait to meet you all over again. The five minutes between who Tadashi was and who he is, and who he will be, are five minutes of wanting enough. Akiteru will want him for those five minutes of wait, then want who he will be five minutes later. Akiteru will want him.
‘I love you more,’ Tadashi says, then laughs at the frown he’s given. ‘What? You have tells.’
‘Oh, I have tells?’ Akiteru sits up a little, settles back against the pillows, arm still around Tadashi’s shoulders. ‘Enlighten me.’
‘Now why would I do that?’ He pretends to consider, stroking his chin. ‘Although it’d be funnier to see you try not to do it and get caught anyway.’
‘You know, I’m beginning to think the only reason you’re never bored is because you’re always coming up with new ways to bother me. Admit it.’
‘I outsource some of it to Tsukki, if you must know.’ Tadashi grins, the one that makes his eyes close, the one that is not sorry and never has been. ‘He’s the one who told me to buy beetroot the other day. Said you hate it but you hate wasting food even more.’
Akiteru blinks up at the ceiling, the wide, smudged half-circle of light the lamp is painting on it, and takes a deep breath. Then he throws Tadashi off himself— Tadashi rolls away with a triumphant laugh— and makes to get out of bed, to stalk away to the kitchen. The takeout will go back into the fridge; he knows what’s for dinner—
A hand closes around his wrist and tugs. Akiteru closes his eyes to hear it. ‘No, come back.’
He doesn’t move just yet. ‘More wine?’
‘Yes,’ Tadashi says, then pulls again. ‘But later. Come back.’
Akiteru goes, and goes again.
(Tadashi opens the door, and Akiteru— laughs.)
A month before his twenty-ninth birthday, Akiteru comes home from work and positively throws the door open, startling the life out of Tadashi, who’s listening to— Akiteru squints— what sounds like some kind of English rap, and brandishing a knife and a spatula both at once, making a mess of the kitchen.
’This is an emergency,’ Akiteru says, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, satchel at his feet. ‘My head's been hurting for six hours now. Can we order in? And I want a bath, I’m freezing. And after that maybe we could get under the covers and you help me forget this horrible day?’
He rattles it off like he’s practiced it thrice in the car on the way back from work, which he has. And it’s deliberate, it’s contrived, but it’s playful, as much a part of their daily mischief as anything else now. He can’t stop himself from breaking face and smiling by the end of the tirade, even though he runs the risk— slight thought it is— of actually annoying Tadashi.
But Tadashi— his Tadashi— lights up like a freckled firework, complicit in the joke. Down go the spatula and the knife, dry go the hands against the apron, and then he’s pulling Akiteru close and kissing the corner of his mouth, murmuring we can arrange all of that.
Then he pulls back and frowns. ‘I think we need to get your eyes checked, you’ve been complaining about headaches for two weeks now. I’ll look for appointments while you—’ Akiteru’s lips quiver with a strange, silly happiness that tastes like salt. He closes his burning eyes against it and turns his face into Tadashi’s neck, breathes in the sweet smell of him. ‘Akiteru, are you okay?’ Akiteru, what is your favourite colour and why is it blue? What do you want to do on Saturday night? Are you happy?
‘Yes, sweetheart,’ he says. ‘Yes I am. Yes.’
i will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
i want to do with you
what spring does with the cherry trees.
poem xiv , pablo neruda