At the tender age of seven and a half years, Jun Kashihara was certain that he was in love.
He was too young to know the genuine difference between loving someone and being in love, but he was also too young to care. He loved the middle school girl Maya Amano and how she kept her promises, and his heart sank when his father came to escort him home where his real mother would throw a fit and mutter to herself that Akinari should have just left him there to rot. He loved his father, a kind and intelligent man who taught him of the stars and planets, and he loved Eikichi and Lisa too; honeyhearted Eikichi who hated playing the baby and flaxen haired Lisa who shrilly insisted otherwise.
Jun loved Tatsuya. He loved the way Tatsuya agreed to be his friend without hesitation, and loved the way he quietly padded along beside him, content to let Jun do the talking while he did the punching. Jun loved Tatsuya’s eyes and the delicate shapes of his nose and lips. It was like looking into a mirror for the first time in his life without feeling ashamed of his own reflection, without worrying about who would be next to mock him for ‘looking like a girl’. When Lisa wanted to play mommy to Tatsuya’s daddy there was a pang in his stomach that begged him to intervene. He knew that other mommies and daddies loved and kissed each other even if his own did not and he knew that the idea of Tatsuya loving and kissing someone else frustrated him. It was then that he knew the way he loved Tatsuya was different from the way he loved Maya and his family and friends. It was as pure and naive as it was real; he labored under the delusion that their golden summer would never end.
“You can’t ever leave me alone, okay?” When Lisa was out of view and earshot, they tore away their masks and Jun grabbed Tatsuya’s grubby hands, squeezing them in his own muddy palms, filthy from a morning of making mud pies on the shrine lawn. “I really like you. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
It was hardly news but it was a bold confession nonetheless, and Tatsuya’s cheeks reddened. “I won’t.”
“Good.” Jun smiled, and let go of Tatsuya’s hands, rubbing some of the dirt off on his shorts. He thought about what it would be like to kiss him, like girls and boys kissed in cartoons, on their cheeks or even on their lips. He wouldn’t even have to stand on his toes to reach his face. But he faltered and set the thought aside.
“Black, Red!” Lisa’s shrieks echoed from behind the nearby bushes. “The pies are ready and the baby is hungry, hurry up and come back!”
It was then that Tatsuya cracked a grin as he looked in the direction of Lisa’s shrieks and Eikichi’s halfhearted mimicking of infantile warbles, and the sounds of Maya occasionally chiming in with advice for Lisa on how to set the imaginary dinner table. For the first time Jun was aware of how Tatsuya’s precious and rare smile made his heart thump in his chest and pound in his ears.
“Let’s go back now, Jun,” Tatsuya said, snapping his mask back over his flushed face. He stooped down to his knees and gestured to his back, indicating that he would let Jun piggyback on him.
His father told him that someday he would meet a girl who made his tummy churn like thousands of butterflies were flapping their wings inside of his gut, trapped and yearning to escape. When Jun clung to Tatsuya’s back, wrapped his arms around his neck, and rested his chin on his shoulder, his belly lurched and he shyly shrunk behind his hair as Tatsuya clopped along, holding him tight. He knew that these were the butterflies he’d been warned about.
At seventeen and a half, Jun Kurosu was still in love. He knew now that he had always been in love with Tatsuya, but thought he had destroyed any love Tatsuya had ever returned. It was a valid fear; after all, terrorism and misplaced blame are deal breakers for most. But he didn’t need for Tatsuya to love him back, though it would have been nice (a dream come true, even). He needed his acceptance and his forgiveness, however undeserved it might have been.
Though many things had changed since they were children, just as many things hadn’t. Tatsuya was still quiet and passive, uncomfortable with making the decisions but forced into it nonetheless. Even when he bit his tongue and swallowed the hurt and betrayal that he didn’t want to show Jun, Jun could see it.
“It’s okay if you hate me,” Jun declared bravely after Tatsuya’s Shadow fell. “I would too.”
Tatsuya glanced away, uncomfortable with all of his friends’ gazes resting on him. Their frowns made him sick to his stomach. Were they disgusted with him for telling the truth? He nodded, just to get someone to change the subject.
He volunteered to walk Jun home later that evening. Their walk was mostly a comfortable silence, until Tatsuya muttered something. “I said I didn’t hate you. So quit talking like I do.”
Jun looked over at Tatsuya, who looked back and met his gaze. It was raw, for the first time since they’d met again, like he was looking into the eyes of the eight-year-old boy who still had his hopes and dreams and wanted to befriend the stranger in the Black Falcon mask, rather than at a frightened and detached young man beaten down by years of familial inadequacy and superficial schoolmates.
“All I said was that if I had been in your shoes, I could have done all of that too. I hated Joker. I still do...” Tatsuya swallowed. Talking had never been easy. Talking about his own feelings was almost impossible. “He’s a part of you, but he’s not you. If I hated you, I’d have to hate myself too.”
Jun’s eyes welled up with tears, and he wiped them away with the back of his hand, hoping Tatsuya wouldn’t notice them in the dark of the night.
“Thank you, and... I’m sorry.”
Tatsuya shook his head. “You don’t have to apologize anymore, either. It’s not your fault.”
I only have eyes for Jun. I only have eyes for Jun. I only have eyes for Jun. The words played over and over in Jun’s head like a broken record, and when the record played, the old butterflies danced again. Lisa wouldn’t look him in the eyes anymore and he had to do his best not to grin like a fool out of nowhere while she was watching.
Tatsuya hadn’t said a word about his bold declaration of love (attraction? fondness? homoerotic lust?) since Lisa’s Shadow had fallen. Jun thought that maybe they didn’t need to say anything about it, that it spoke for itself, but he found that Tatsuya’s heart was still locked away. He wanted to embrace and kiss him like a lover would but his own fears of rejection still lingered and he held back, even as Tatsuya clasped his small, soft hand in his big one, calloused from gripping the hilt of his katana day in and day out.
“We’ll split up here,” Maya said, crossing her arms over her chest and looking at Xibalba’s split paths before them. “Jun-kun and Tatsuya-kun, you two go left, and us three will go right. Don’t be afraid to yell if you guys are in trouble!”
Lisa bit her lip, but said nothing. Eikichi glanced at her as they were leaving, and gave her a playful jab in the side with his elbow.
“What are you frownin’ about, Ginko?” he asked, knowing exactly what she was frowning about. “Are you jealous that a gorgeous babe like Maya-nee is comin’ along with us? Don’t worry, baby, the strong and beautiful Michel-sama can protect both of you ladies at once—oof!”
Lisa socked him in the shoulder, knocking him against one of the yellow stone walls. “Ngh hoh yi, gross! Don’t say weird things like that, Eikichi!” Maya laughed, and Lisa huffed, stamping her foot before striding ahead of both of them. “Come on, Maya-chan! Can we leave this goofball behind already? He can get eaten by a demon for all I care!”
Jun turned around as he was about to disappear in the other direction with Tatsuya, only to catch a glimpse of Eikichi’s smile at Maya and Lisa’s retreating backs as he laid against the wall, rubbing his bruised shoulder.
“It’s a dead end.”
Jun stared up at the torch on the wall illuminating one of Xibalba’s chambers. It was littered with treasures, most of which were useless to them, but a demon had spilt his yen, so Tatsuya stooped down to pick it up and shove it in his wallet.
“Might as well turn back, then,” Tatsuya said softly, looking back over his shoulder at the empty corridor behind them. As he said it, Jun slumped against the wall behind him, breathing hard. He was not delicate nor terribly out of shape, but he was no athlete either, and exploring day in and day out had been taking a toll on him—more than he wanted to admit. “Are you okay? We can rest for a minute if you want.”
Jun nodded, and slid down the wall until his butt hit the ground, happy to rest his legs and take a breather.
Tatsuya followed suit, never turning down a chance to be lazy, and sat down next to him. He pulled his last can of tea out of his bag, and popped it open, offering it to Jun to take a swig first.
“Thanks,” Jun murmured, and he chugged half of the can before handing it back to Tatsuya and wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand. He folded his arms over his knees and watched as Tatsuya drained the rest of the can and crumpled it up, the sound of aluminum crunching echoing through the halls as he pitched it into the pile of demon trash.
It was the first time he had been really and truly alone with Tatsuya since his confession. While Jun believed with all of his heart that they would defeat his father and save Sumaru City, there was some part of him that wondered about the possibility of failure, what it would mean for them and if he might die before he really got to live. He had said he was willing to die to undo his mistakes, and he would, but it was no longer the outcome he desired most.
Jun scooted closer, closing any semblance of a gap between them. They were shoulder to shoulder, now, hip to hip. And Jun laid his head against Tatsuya’s shoulder, lightly, a test to see if he would pull away. But Tatsuya didn’t pull away, despite a startled gasp under his breath, and instead he shifted so that Jun would be more comfortable.
They sat together for a time that was long but altogether too brief, Jun’s head on Tatsuya’s shoulder and Tatsuya nodding off to the sounds of Jun’s breathing. Jun had trouble sleeping even in his own bed, plagued by nightmares and his own thoughts, but at Tatsuya’s side he napped in sound peace, even for just an hour before Tatsuya was snapped awake by a distant howl, the distress call of an anguished and exhausted Eikichi.
He looked over at Jun, who was still snoozing on him. Tatsuya took a deep breath, making a gentle shift and leaning in to kiss Jun’s head, lips pressed to his crown in a light peck. Jun stirred and his eyelids fluttered. Tatsuya kissed his crown again, and his forehead, until Jun’s eyes opened and he realized what had happened. The butterflies flapped their wings once again.
Now, he did not fear the butterflies, and he blinked at Tatsuya before sitting up and reaching for his cheek, cupping his face in his hand and kissing him with a passion he’d contained for ten long years, the same (if matured) passion that had boiled within him as a child. Perhaps it was not like a kiss in the movies, with how Tatsuya was slow to pick up on parting his lips so that Jun could slip his tongue between his teeth, and with how Jun’s bangs got in the way as Tatsuya nipped at his jaw, but it was perfect for a first and a last kiss.
At seventeen and a half, Jun Kashihara is having his mid-life crisis two decades too soon. It is a teenage crisis among crises that accompany the storm of youth and he can no longer hide it.
He has all of the answers for his teachers and guidance counselors who ask him what he want to be when he grows up (a careful and practiced recitation of “I want to be a teacher, like Dad”), and when his proud parents bring up his college education he has the flustered smile down pat. He has never minded being the oddball, the weird guy who chose to attend the “bad kid school” when he had the grades to attend a place like Sevens. Friendships with his peers are shallow and distant but he is not lonely; he has a loving family and has never needed anything more.
There is a young man with a motorcycle who speeds by Kasugayama every afternoon. Jun doesn’t know it, but he’s headed to cram school in hopes that six months of extra senior year study might compensate for his otherwise abysmal attendance record. He wears a familiar red track suit and Jun’s heart races every time he sees it. Is that him? It looks like him. There are no traffic lights for a quarter of mile past Kasugayama; he has no hope of catching up to him to flag him down and spit out some measly excuse for sneaking a peek at the face hidden beneath the helmet’s visor. There is a crosswalk, but Kasugayama’s crowd are long gone by the time the biker rolls around the corner in Hirasaka. He stands on the curb by the crosswalk every afternoon, clutching his books to his chest, praying that one day the young man will stop to look at him too.
At seventeen and a half, he is in love, but he does not know it.
Jun is not hungry that night, pushing chunks of lotus root around in his bowl with his chopsticks. It doesn’t take his haughty mother long to notice that her son is uninterested in her meal and she purses her lips, wondering if he doesn’t like it despite how she took the time to make it for the family after a rough day on the set—only for her husband to lay a hand on her arm as if to tell her to look a little closer. Her face softens and they exchange glances, setting their own chopsticks down and putting all of their attention on him.
“Is something the matter, Jun?” Junko asks. “You’ve hardly touched your dinner.”
He looks up, startled out of his daze by his parents’ concern, and shakes his head. “Nothing’s wrong, Mom. I’m just not hungry tonight. I’m sorry.”
“Are you sick?” His father reaches over and presses the back of his hand to Jun’s forehead. It is no warmer than it should be, and Jun looks up at his dad’s hand. Their worry is enough to get him to crack a small smile. He’s fortunate to have a mother and father that care about him and each other so much.
“I’m fine, really,” Jun says, holding his hands up in surrender and showing them his sheepish, toothy grin. “I had a big lunch, and I was just... thinking.”
Akinari takes his hand back. “You can tell us if you have something on your mind, you know.”
Jun shoves another piece of lotus root around his bowl, resting his chin in his hand and staring at its little holes and the way the sauce drenches them and leaves streaks on the porcelain. He’s quiet for a moment while his parents meet eyes again, before speaking up: “Dad, there’s a Tatsuya Suou at Sevens, right?”
“There is,” Akinari says as he returns to finishing his own bowl, watching his son out of the corner of his eye. “Nice kid, about your age... He used to skip a lot, but I guess he finally decided to get his act together, because he’s started coming every day, and I overheard in the lounge that he’s really started applying himself. I taught his older brother back in the day too. Why?”
Jun is quiet again before he melts into a sheepish smile and looks back at his food. “N-No reason. There were just some, um, guys at school who were talking about him...” He casts around for a believable excuse. “Ah, the gang leader said he was hoping to recruit him into his band. Everyone’s been curious about what kind of guy he is, if Michel-san is interested in him.”
It is not a lie, but Jun is not sure who he is trying to convince with half-truths either.
There are times when Jun still reaches into his pocket hoping to find his father’s old lighter. It had been a gift, a trophy of his father’s resolution to quit smoking, inscribed with words Jun keeps close to his heart: “being the most important can’t be seen in the eyes.” (His English teacher once told him that the translation was garbled, but he didn’t care; his father had carved it himself and that was the important part.)
But when he reaches into his pocket now there is nothing but the soft fabric of pocket liners in his pants and sometimes odds and ends like his house keys and his wallet, and definitely no old metal Zippo lighter. He had given it away to someone as thanks for saving him from that freak who’d escaped from the sanitarium and called him names he didn’t understand. (“Joker”; well, Jun had never thought of himself as a particularly humorous person, nor did he want anything to do with some rumored murderer. “The worthy one”; worthy of what?) He never met Tatsuya Suou again after that, though sometimes he spots that Maya woman around town, and is sure that she recognizes him and maybe even watches him while his back is turned, but when he glances up to meet her eyes she averts her gaze and she hurries past before he can reach out and stop her, like she had never even seen him at all.
There are times when Jun looks at his bare left wrist and thinks to himself that it feels light and that it is missing something—a bracelet, or maybe a cufflink, but he’s never been one for accessories.
“You need to get a watch, Jun,” his mother said sternly one day after he returned home late for dinner. “What will your teachers say if you’re late like this to class?”
“I’ve looked,” he replied with a frown. “I can never find any that I like.”
On the day after the death of his appetite, he stays late after school to help clean his classroom with one of his classmates, a stocky guy named Kanzaki who keeps to himself on most days. Jun doesn’t mind cleaning duty, when it’s his turn, despite the silly covers he must wear over his shoes and the hairnet he must wear over his coif. He dutifully scrubs the chalkboard while Kanzaki mops the floors. They work in peaceful silence, until Jun hears the shuffle of the mop pause for a moment too long, and he turns around to look at Kanzaki, who’s staring out the window.
“Is something the matter, Kanzaki-san?” Jun lowers his hands from the chalkboard.
“Nah, it’s nothin’,” Kanzaki mutters. He presses a finger to the window, as if that might show Jun that he’s gazing at the front gates. “Just lookin’ at that biker guy with the flat tire out there. Crappy luck, man.”
Jun’s eyes widen and he rushes to the window, rag still in hand, to see the biker in red outside the school’s front gate, stooped down by his motorcycle and attempting to change its back tire. His heart races and he turns back to look at the clock. There are still fifteen minutes left to spend on cleaning the classroom before he is allowed to go home for the day.
He throws the rag down and tears the liners off of his shoes. “Sorry, Kanzaki-san. I promise I’ll be back soon.”
Before Kanzaki can protest, Jun is out the door and racing down the stairs two at a time. He passes Michel and his gang and his pretty girlfriend from Sevens, loitering by the shoe lockers, and Michel shouts after him. “Oi, Senpai, slow down or you’re gonna hurt yourself!” When Jun pays no heed he turns to his girlfriend and says with a weary grin, “Heh... Never seen that little guy move that fast before.”
Jun stops when he’s out the front door, on the steps of his school and watching the biker in red kneeling and fidgeting with a tire on the school’s walkway. There is no one around but the two of them; his peers have gone home or are indoors at their clubs or loitering around like Michel’s gang of aggressive school do-gooders. The biker in red pays Jun no heed as he concentrates on his task, and Jun watches from a distance as he fiddles with the wheel, tightening the air cap on it and unscrewing the old one from its axle.
He approaches, the afternoon sun casting his shadow over the young man’s bike. He turns to Jun and Jun can see that his muss of brown hair has been crushed by his helmet. He has brown eyes and a delicate mouth and nose that remind Jun of his own. There is a black X painted across his red jacket, and no sign of that weird tattoo that was on his arm before (perhaps Jun had imagined it). There is a small angular lump in his pocket. It’s been months, but this is Tatsuya Suou, who Jun has been looking for all along. There are butterflies in his tummy, like the ones his father told him about.
“Can I help you?” Tatsuya asks, putting his wrench down.
Jun’s heart sinks.
“Ah, um... Hi,” he says. “It’s been awhile, Suou-kun.”
Tatsuya peers at Jun’s face, as if trying to discern him from a memory, but only shakes his head
“Have we met?”
“You don’t remember...?” Jun looks away. It had been Tatsuya, after all, who’d known Jun first. “At the Sky Museum, when you saved me... and I gave you the lighter.”
Tatsuya reaches into his pocket and pulls out Jun’s father’s old Zippo lighter, looking the same as it did on the day Jun gave it away, though maybe a little worn on its top from where Tatsuya had been flicking the cap over and over out of habit. “You gave me this?”
“Yes, I did,” Jun breathes, feeling shame and embarrassment creeping in. How could he have forgotten something like that?
Tatsuya is quiet, and rises from his kneel on the ground. He towers several inches over Jun, and his gaze drifts from Jun to the lighter in his palm and back again. There is a sadness there that Jun cannot describe but understands nonetheless; it is his pain too even if he doesn’t know it.
“I’m sorry, I really don’t remember,” Tatsuya mutters, looking past Jun to the facade of Kasugayama High behind him. “But I guess I’ve always wondered where it came from.”
Jun bites his lip. The butterflies are gone and his heart has sunk into his stomach. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Suou-kun.”
“I never said it was a bother.” Tatsuya shoves his hands in his pockets, and looks Jun over from head to toe. He cracks a smile when he sees that Jun forgot to remove his hairnet, gaze at rest on the crown of his head. “...On cleaning duty today?”
Jun squeaks and clutches the top of his head; the hairnet is indeed still resting there. He yanks it out and covers his face with his hands as it flushes crimson and his bangs flop back into their proper place over his eye. “Yes,” he mumbles into his hands, wishing for a way to disappear or melt into the ground. “K-Kanzaki-san is waiting for me to help him finish, so I should probably get back to it.”
Once the hairnet is gone, Tatsuya finds his own gaze lingering on Jun’s face. It’s familiar and it’s striking. He’s not ready to let it go yet. Again.
“I have to finish changing this tire,” Tatsuya says haughtily, leaning against his bike and trying his damnedest to look cool. With a tinge of pink in his cheeks, it’s not working... or at least, it wouldn’t for anyone other than Jun. “But if you want, I’ll wait for you to finish cleaning, and then we can go somewhere. ...You can refresh my memory on how I got that lighter.”
He flicks the cap of the Zippo. The cap hits the base over and over, and it makes a pleasant and tinny clinking sound when it does. Tatsuya seems unaware of his own habit.
Jun lowers his hands and wrings them behind his back, redness in his face fading into something more of a pink pleasure despite his embarrassment. The corners of his mouth twitch into a smile and he brings a hand to his cheek, resting his face against it sheepishly. Already his heart is thumping in his chest again and the butterflies are tittering to themselves about dates and what it would be like to hold on to Suou-kun while on his bike.
“Ah, I would like that.” He bows his head to him. “My name is Jun Kashihara, by the way.”
Tatsuya lacks Jun’s prim and proper niceties no matter the universe. He picks the hairnet up off of the sidewalk and hands it to him. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says. And he adds with a shrug: “Again.”