Shishido'd never been all that fond of birthdays. Honestly, it really seemed to him, sometimes, like the gods just went out of their way to make the week before his the absolute most miserable he could imagine: the very beginning of the autumn semester, this time. Hifumi always told him that it could have been worse—he could have been born right after spring semester started, and have to spend the week before his birthday trying to break in a whole new batch of high school freshmen, but…
So maybe the world was trying to make up for the fact that the week had been bad, but bearable—with… this. What the Hell was he doing here? What the Hell was he…
The music wasn't bad. Lots of guitar, a few really impressive riffs, and a nice beat under it all… Hifumi'd been right about that. 'And the guys are gorgeous; they're straight, mostly, but sometimes… and you like to just watch, right? Even if you're not, you know, looking?'
Sure, he liked to guy-watch, all right. It was reasonably fun. Especially since he knew he could dance better than most of them could even dream.
Having to look at Ootori Choutarou dancing the salsa—and not too badly, either—hadn't ever been part of the plan.
Oh, geez, Choutarou. What… what do you think you're doing?
The girl who danced the salsa like her heart was beating in her hips was definitely a little too skinny for Shishido's tastes, but, well, maybe Ootori's tastes were different from his, 'cause he looked like he was definitely enjoying what she was doing. Shishido probably could have put his one hand around both her wrists, and his hands really weren't all that big—Hell, if he'd tried hard enough, he'd probably have been able to do it with both of her delicate, delicate little ankles. Really, he just didn't get girls sometimes—didn't she know that without any good, solid muscle, having her arms and legs and shoulders bared like that made her look kind of like a biolab skeleton model with peel-back skin? Knee bone connected to the thigh bone and all that? Yuck.
Yeah, his 'tastes' kind of slanted towards, well, male, most of the time, sure, but what the Hell—weren't gay guys supposed to have great fashion sense or something like that?
And did she have to be so damned… cute?
Ootori'd always smiled, just at the edges of his eyes, and said that he had a 'gift' for overstatement. Sometimes with those long, graceful violin-fingers playing through the hair he'd let grow just past his collar, by the time he'd finished twelfth grade. A 'gift,' because his doubles partner had really just been too diplomatic to say that Shishido was a drama queen—and, well, so he'd been a little bit of one in middle school, and maybe a bit of high school, so what?
Who'd taught the boy to dance? Sure as Hell it hadn't been Shishido Ryou—every time he'd tried to drag his doubles partner out to a club or anything, it'd been like trying to drag away a very slim, polite wall. Even when he'd promised they'd be back by curfew (and honestly meant it, most of the time, too!) well, there wasn't any getting around the fact that there really wasn't anyone moving Ootori Choutarou when he didn't want to be moved.
So apparently it wasn't going out dancing that his doubles partner had minded, it was just going out dancing with a certain upperclassman.
Okay, that wasn't fair. It'd been six years. It'd been six years, and he'd been as male then as ever, so… yeah. Plus the salsa definitely wasn't the kind of thing he'd have gone for in his high school days—Ootori had rhythm (even Shishido could figure that he'd have made a damned poor orchestra leader if he hadn't) but that wasn't the same as Ootori's hips having rhythm.
Except, well, they did—he had the steps down. And Shishido'd always known that his partner was graceful, but the thought that his shy Choutarou could be smooth just hadn't ever crossed his mind. He had his bottom lip a little between his teeth, his hands so proper—but he was still letting himself being molested by a girl with wrists small enough to break into little pieces, her arms smooth and soft and sleek bared by the strappy little gold lamé thing…. Yeah, dancing got a little risqué sometimes, but why the Hell was Ootori Choutarou laughing while it was happening?
Sure, college plus this and that could definitely change a person, Shishido got that, but—who knew, right, that Ootori looked that way with his hips rocking just a little when he stepped, and his hands resting so lightly on her skin, one on the crest of her waist and one on the back of her neck… and damn, damn, that happy, happy look in those eyes? He didn't think he'd ever seen them curve that way without that distant, sad edge to them that Choutarou had never, ever explained, and Shishido'd never quite gotten up the guts to ask about…
"Ryou?" Hifumi's weight against his side as she nudged him—hard—almost knocked him off his chair. Damn it, letting her drink was always a bad idea, but, Hell, he'd needed a drink after the week he'd been having. Spotting his old doubles partner in the club she'd picked, though, on the night before his birthday… "Ryou-chan, what's wrong?"
He could have sworn Hifumi called him that partly because, yeah, it definitely did get his attention when she did—but mostly just to piss him off. Wrong? Aside from the fact that some kid I used to sort of like is with some random skinny chick, and watching it is making me want to rip someone's head off, and damn it, I'm supposed to be over him by now—other than that, nah, it's just been a normal sucky birthday week, why? "Why?" he smirked. "Lipstick on my face?"
But that wasn't enough to make her laugh—not enough to make her look away from him, and maybe that damned Mukahi had been right, maybe his face was different when he looked at his Choutarou—but it wasn't like Choutarou'd ever noticed… "Not unless you've turned up a few really good drag kings in this place, Ryou." Ew. Okay, that was just nasty. "No. Something in your eyes. You sure you're—"
Fuck. "Yeah." He looked away, because lying'd never come all that easy to him, even after all this time. "I'm fine. S'nothing." Ah, Hell, she saw too damned much even when she'd gotten a couple of beers in her, and damn his eyes—they just couldn't keep from slanting sidewards when he heard something soft and warm and almost-inaudible undercutting the music—the sound of Ootori tilting his head back and singing with the melody, just a little, because he did that sometimes. He'd been shy about a lot of things, but never about his music.
Okay. It wasn't a stretch to call Hifumi his best friend, but—she knew him way, way too well sometimes. Well enough to follow the way his eyes were going. Shishido'd always thought Hifumi was teasing when she said he got a certain look around his eyes when he saw a guy he wanted—but so maybe Ootori Choutarou was 'guy he wanted' to the third power, or something. "Oh, my. He's so not your type, Ryou, but… oh, wow."
Then again, okay, that pissed him off a good deal more than the 'chan.'
Well, he really couldn't expect her to know. Thank the gods. Hell, if there was such a thing as his 'type'… if he'd gone running smack away from any guy who even resembled Ootori, it sure hadn't been because he hadn't been attracted. But fair was fair was fair, and dating a guy because his eyes were so sweet when he looked at you, or his face straightened to cool and confident when he was doing something he knew really well and a shy little smile when he didn't, or because he stood so straight, all the time, even when it put him head and shoulders over everyone around him… the way just the thought of it made him tingle was so not cool.
So it wasn't like he hadn't been tempted a time or ten, but that was different.
Her smile was just rubbing him all the wrong ways when she leaned into him again, reaching over his shoulder to grab his bottle of beer before he grabbed it back. "So what's stopping you, Ryou?"
Aside from the fact I've never seen him smile like that? Nothing. But if she makes him happy… six years change a guy, right? "He's straight." And damn, how it hurt to say that. It wasn't like he hadn't admitted it to himself a forever ago, right? Saying it didn't make it any more—or any less—real, right?
It still felt like choking.
She tried for the bottle again. This time, he let her have it; let her take a swig of it—alcohol didn't really down her all that much, but it'd keep her mouth shut just for a moment… "How do you know? Gay guys dance. With girls, even. It's not that kind of club, yes, but you're here, aren't you?"
Funny how she always made up for her brief moments of silent non-nagging by being irritatingly right. "Look," he snarled, turning to look over his shoulder at her. Maybe he was losing his touch, because she didn't even flinch. "Who's gay here, you, or me?"
She'd definitely had too much to drink, if she was sloppy enough to press a big, wet lip-glossy kiss to his cheek when he stopped, like an overripe strawberry squashed splat to his face. Ugh, geez—"Well, sure," despite the fact that he was pretty sure the expression on his face should have dropped her dead, if there'd been any justice in the world, the little idiot was just grinning at him. "But if your track record's anything to look at, Ryou, a guy being straight has never stopped you before."
Well, okay. Also a point. Also the problem of having a friend who'd known him since their first year of college together. So he'd dated a few guys who everyone'd been pretty sure were set down the middle of the straight and narrow path, but sure as Hell they hadn't had girlfriends when he'd done it… "Yeah, but… okay, it's different, all right?"
They'd always known he was gay. And liked him despite it, anyway, even if it hadn't gone anywhere. It wasn't like he had any use for anyone who couldn't deal with his sexuality, and God only knew Mukahi'd laughed until Shishido'd whacked him one when he'd found out, but… but Ootori was frickin' Catholic, he just couldn't help thinking the way he did.
Yeah. Excuses, excuses, and Ootori was just about the only person left he was willing to make excuses for. Who he'd been willing to lie for.
Lie to, maybe, if omission was a lie.
"Being gay… I don't know, Shishido-san. It's a sin, I know it is, how can it be anything else…?" with his fingertips touching his cross, slowly, little motions like he was stroking the strings of his violin, even when that silver wouldn't ever sing for him—and those soft chocolate eyes far away with his God, and even that little sad trace of a smile wasn't a smile anymore, just… sad. He didn't remember anymore how the topic had come up—or even what he'd said about being gay—but maybe that look was always going to haunt him.
Maybe even that smile that never went all the way into joy was better than no joy at all.
Sure, Ootori'd forgive him for being gay, he was pretty damned sure—he'd been pretty sure of that even then, and his partner had also said Catholicism was all about forgiving, right—but forgiveness was a frickin' damned poor second to what Shishido'd wanted. Besides, unless things changed a lot in six years—considering how his partner'd always reacted whenever girls tried to get him, he wasn't all that sure that Ootori'd forgive him if Shishido hit on him. Even in his opinion, hitting on his very sweet, very straight partner was pretty damned lame.
Well, it wasn't like they had a friendship to kill anymore, after that last day—he'd promised to write, hadn't he. Or call. But he'd walked away, his shoulders burning with trying not to let them slouch, and he'd sworn he wouldn't ever go walking back onto that campus—even when he'd had to dig his nails into his cold, squeaky black metal dorm bed, just to keep from hopping on a bus for just the littlest glimpse of how his former partner was doing… and thrown his phone against the wall the first and last time it'd rung with a certain Mozart caller-ID ring tone.
Yeah, and so it looked like Ootori'd moved on like he was supposed to. Nice, pressed shirt in a soft not-quite-gray blue that gave that short, tousled baby-fine hair something like a platinum shine, even in the club's yellow lights—but the first two buttons on it undone, because it was just such a crime when Ootori buttoned up his shirts to the throat, just enough to show a hint of pale skin that just begged for someone's mouth; smooth, smooth black slacks with the crease just down the middle, because it bugged Ootori when his pants weren't ironed just right. Hips that rocked to the music, his shoulders so straight because his parents had raised him right—lips and cheekbones and eyes like a frame for his smile.
Girlfriend who, even if she looked like she'd snap in two if she cracked a grin, made him happy, made him sing, made him dance, damn it—wasn't that just what he'd wanted for his former doubles partner?
But Hifume's hands were surprisingly gentle just above his temple, a little tickle of feathery fingers; she knew he loved having his hair stroked, though he was pretty willing to bet that she didn't have a clue why. "You know him." Not a question.
"Best friend back in high school." Because 'partner' was just too private to share with anyone, nowadays, even Hifume. Maybe 'cause he didn't deserve it, because partners just didn't ditch out on partners, graduating and heart that he'd broken himself and all that crap notwithstanding…
"Mmm." She raised the bottle to his lips, but he really wasn't in the mood to drink, not anymore. Especially since he said way, way too much when he had alcohol in him. "Boyfriend?"
One of these days, someone was just going to kill her. It was probably going to be either him or their principal. Considering their principal drooled when he saw her, it was probably going to be him. "Best friend." Even if he had to wrestle the word out between teeth that were trying very hard to glue themselves together.
Too much sympathy in her eyes. Too much knowing. Maybe he really was as obvious as they'd always said he was. "Crush?"
Damn it. "Yeah, okay? Let it go, Hifumi." Besides, 'crush' didn't even begin to describe how many times he'd wanted to jump his doubles partner after a match, because there just wasn't anything in the world sexier than Ootori Choutarou when he was really on his game, all smooth muscle and long whipcrack grace—press him up to that sun-hot, rough stone wall, or maybe against the tiles of the locker room, sneak a hand behind that neck and into the wet silk at the back of Choutarou's neck, because the hair there curled into the tiniest iron-gray ringlets after a long game—and then, oh, yeah, drag those lips, flushed with their game, flushed with the fact that Ootori chewed on his lower lip whenever they were waiting for an opponent to serve, down to his—to share all the heat and the ache of muscles used just the right way and the ache in his chest, and the way victory tasted like sharp mints…
Geez. Oh, geez, there was just something so wrong about the fact that just the memory of how badly he'd wanted to kiss Ootori after their last game together as a doubles pair made his spine want to melt into a puddle, right on top of the chair, and maybe right onto the lap of a very-too-nosy colleague… who proclaimed, at the top of her not inconsiderable lungs, "I just don't see the problem, Ryou!"
Yeah, well, duh, she wouldn't. "You're being loud," he muttered. Okay, so maybe he did need a swig of beer. If only because it always reminded him how Ootori'd always hated bitter things, and maybe the taste in his mouth, dark and bitter and biting, would keep him from doing something colossally stupid.
…like maybe whacking his best friend when she smirked at him, and toasted him with his own bottle. "Coming from you, that's funny, Ryou."
Double damn it. "Hifumi, if you don't behave, I'm going to—" something. Throw her to the fat old lech sitting in the superintendent's office. Sneak tentacle porn into the VCR that she and her roommate shared. Maybe break down crying, because that'd really freak her out. Ri-ight.
"Shishido-san? Is… is that you?"
That voice was a little deeper, a little rougher, maybe, six years' worth of use. But there was enough of that careful courtesy to it that he knew, because he couldn't forget; he'd never been able to, no matter that they hadn't been anything more than they should have.
The sound of that voice—soft and quiet, his memories hadn't lied about that—still braided up his spine and left a pool of something hot and aching in the base of his throat. If he turned—the sight of Choutarou smiling so tentatively—because he couldn't help but smile whenever he greeted someone he thought he knew—would probably send splinters of glass floating slowly through the hot and the ache, to leave pinpricks of something approaching agony across the backs of his eyeballs.
But Shishido turned anyway.
It was just wrong how glad he was that his former partner was smiling at him, and in the press of the bar, standing too close. Oh. Oh, fuck, oh fuck Choutarou still smelled like Burberry cologne, and the curve of his throat was just…
Hifumi's elbow dug into his side before he raised both eyebrows, and clamped down, hard, on his knees, to hide just how much his hands wanted to shake. "Oh, hey. Choutarou. It's been… wow. Six years, right?"
The way the smile looked—he'd imagined a hundred times what it'd look like to have his partner smiling at him without that edge of hurt—but he'd never tried to imagine them meeting again. Tokyo was a big place, right? Aspiring lawyers—or maybe he was a real lawyer, now—didn't hang out in the same place as high school teachers. "It is you!" and it sounded like a bubble of delight when he tugged his girlfriend beside him, her smile as sweet as his—how often had Ootori ever sounded like that? "Ai-chan, this is Shishido-san—you remember, I've told you about him? He was my senpai in high school. Shishido-san, this is Ai-chan."
But kids like Ootori Choutarou did end up with girls wearing strappy little dresses and diamond engagement rings—white gold and a small heart-shaped stone that sent a spray of light that tasted like needles through the back of Shishido's throat.
Maybe Hifumi saw it at the same time he did—her hand clenched, hard, on his elbow—but he shook her off. It wasn't like he hadn't known this had to happen someday, right? He'd been… "Nice to meet you, Ai-chan. This's Hifumi. She's my co-worker."
Oh, who the Hell was he fooling?
He'd needed to get over his former partner for too many years now, but… Hell, there had to be better ways for the universe to give him a good hard kick in the ass than this.
Oh, fuck. Fuck. He's… what, twenty-four? It's not too early for him to get married. Hey, if this is a birthday present, God, can I trade it back, maybe? For a sense of humor? There has to be something funny about this…
"Hey. Sit down. Let me get you a drink." He hadn't always been a good senpai—hell, he hadn't been able to protect Ootori against the rest of their team, not all the time—but this, he could do. Sure, he could pretend it was all okay. It wasn't like his birthdays ever stopped seriously sucking, right? "How've you been? What're you up to?"
Did he want to know? Did he really want to…
Damn it, yes, he did. So, yeah. Ootori was a lawyer—he'd figured as much—for a human rights NGO—no, really not a surprise--
Damn it, it felt… it felt just a little like old times to watch the way Ootori talked with his hands when he started to relax—spreading his fingers, and Shishido blinked a little to note that a) his partner wasn't wearing any rings, and b) he still had calluses on his palms, dark hard crescents which just didn't go with the soft white of his inner wrists, or the way his smile curved when he turned to include Ai-chan in the conversation.
There were times, Shishido thought, laughing at something that Ootori'd said with a shy smile, that his head was just made for being beaten against a very, very hard object.
"Congratulations, by the way!" his best friend chirped, both of Ai's delicate hands between hers—she'd always had a way of bonding herself to someone. Whether or not they wanted her stuck to them. "That's a lovely ring… When's the wedding?
But maybe it'd feel better to beat Hifumi's head against something very hard.
Ai-chan was cute—like genuinely cute—when she blushed, and dipped her chin, the tips of her hair tumbling over her cheeks. He was still trying to decide if that went into the 'okay' part of his comfort zones. "Tomorrow. This is my, well, bachelorette party, but you know Choutarou—he insisted on arranging the whole thing."
"Tomorrow, huh." His grin was a little lopsided, maybe, but… hell, no way to lose something he'd never had, right? Even if he suddenly felt like he had no insides—just this big hollow thing, with maybe one lump of bleeding heart resting at the bottom. "You ready?"
It was official. He'd had a few really bad birthdays the past couple of years—the one when one of Hifumi's freshman girls had tried to give him a kiss for a birthday present had been pretty bad—but… there really was no ruler long enough to measure just how much suckage this night was racking up.
It felt like ice—or fire—when Ootori's fingers strayed over his bare shoulder. "Shishido-san? Are you—you're all right?"
"Yeah." His voice sounded just a little strange. Maybe that was the beer. Maybe that was the sex, the guys, the emptiness all catching up to him. "Yeah, I'm good. So. Am I invited?"
He knew the moment the words came out that they were going to get him into trouble. As if he needed any more nails for his own damned coffin.
"Why don't you bring him, Choutarou?" Ai chirped, her flush spreading deeper across her face as she sipped at her martini. "I mean, since you left—what was his name again? Kouji?—you've been positively moping!
Aw, shit. Aw, SHIT, I—totally DON'T want to go to Ootori's—
His neck felt a little like it was on springs and running on pure disbelief when he swivelled to look at his former partner. "What do you mean, his name? Choutarou, what—"
He didn't think he'd ever seen a look like that—horror, shock, shame, all the sorrow that he'd thought had disappeared from that little smile—wash over his partner's face before.
For someone so tall, Ootori was doing a damned good impression of trying to disappear into the bar.
"It's… you…" the girl wearing his Choutarou's ring on her finger blinked at him, once, blearily, before the sake-clouds faded from her eyes. She was prettier sober, maybe, if that was possible. It definitely didn't make him like her any better. "You… you didn't know. You don't… oh. Oh. Choutarou, I'm sorry, I—"
"It's alright, Ai-chan," and he saw the way those shoulders lifted and fell; the way his once-partner settled an arm around her shoulders, gently, with that big palm cradling a bone that protruded just too much to really be pretty, with those long fingers cupping a shoulder that looked too small to be held within them. Perhaps that was why he touched her so gently—no, that was just because… that was just the way Ootori had always been, gentle because he could be, not 'cause he had to be. "I… well, I'm gay, Shishido-san."
That wasn't even the kind of thing most guys joked about, and Ootori'd poked fun of his own damned self too often, but that wasn't even frickin' funny. "The Hell?! What the—when'd'you—what the Hell?!"
How the Hell can you be gay when I spent most of my damned high school life so totally stupid in love with you that by the time I graduated, I didn't know whether to cry because I'd never see you again or laugh my damned fool head off 'cause I didn't have to ache like this every time you smiled, and your eyes were always just that little bit away from a real, real grin…?
He watched those straight, straight shoulders flinch, hunching downwards like Ootori'd been struck, just about a second too late to realise just how bad that'd probably sounded coming out of his mouth without the mental thought bubbles. He watched Ootori's mouth go just a little tight, eyes falling away, and if the ache had been bad when he'd smiled, those years ago, it was nothing like the fingers that pulled open what he'd really thought was a healed scar, leaving hot, hot hurt pouring down Shishido's hollow insides.
It wasn't anything like watching the horror fade into anger in the girl's eyes when she jumped to her feet, and started trying to tug Shishido's ex-partner after her. Oh, yeah, he remembered trying to drag Ootori places, and Ootori definitely wasn't resisting. "Come on, Choutarou. It's late. Let's go."
Oh, shit, okay, big bad. Very big bad, in fact. "Wait. Whoa. Stop." He wasn't sure who exactly he was trying to reach for—but his hand ended up somewhere on Ootori's forearm, and it was a little of a shock to realise that the same muscles had moved under his fingers whenever they'd clasped hands after a game. "Whoa, okay, that came out all wrong." There were just no words for how wrong it'd come out. "Didn't mean to—hey, seriously, it's not a big deal, I mean—but… when?!"
Because if somehow—and he didn't know how it was possible, 'cause what the Hell had all that been about being gay being a sin, but if it was—Choutarou had been dating someone when they'd been in school together… he was going to hunt down the bastard and break both his arms. Yeah, okay, sure, it was, what, six years past, and it wasn't like Ootori'd ever needed his permission to go out and do… stuff… but…
The 'when' of it wasn't easy for him—it'd never been easy, not when he'd always sort of known how he felt—but… damn, it couldn't have been easy for Ootori. Not when he made so many things so damned hard for himself. "I came out… well, in college." Those eyes met Shishido's—brief as a kiss, quick enough to send a chill down his spine. "I've known… awhile."
From somewhere behind him, his best friend chirruped, "Wow! Isn't that great, Ryou-chan? Just like you!"
That was it. No more alcohol for Hifumi. Ever.
The place was noisy, right? All heavy beats and soft tapping drums and guitar music, so it really didn't explain why everything seemed so quiet, all of a sudden, and he could tell that Ootori's mojito—and it was just so like Choutarou to drink girly drinks, when he drank at all—had stopped, dangling in the thick air, about halfway to his mouth.
Someone snickered. In a high, girly voice.
He would have killed her—no matter which 'her' it was—if he hadn't suddenly been so busy trying not to look Ootori in the eye.
So instead he watched the way Ootori's long fingers shook on his drink, rattling ice cubes and mint and sugar and vodka in that tall, slick tumbler before it started the slow descent back to the table, slick silver drops of condensation trickling over clear glass, stained yellow by the club's light. "Shishido-san? You… you're…?"
"Yeah. Well. Yeah." Yeah, because there'd been no reason, no need, to hide it anymore when the only person whose opinion had ever mattered had waved and smiled just out of the corners of his eyes and hadn't cried, his black spring Hyotei blazer covered with cherry blossoms, and pushed him off the Hyotei high school campus with a gentle shove of those big hands. And an 'itterasshai,' as if Shishido was going to be coming back. Maybe he'd really believed it. "Couldn't be helped. Guess Atobe was contagious, after all."
Something that was almost a laugh shook that throat, slow and sweet as the drink that was still in Ootori's hand, and he still couldn't meet his partner's eyes. Which was maybe why he was so focused on the way Choutarou's Adam's apple jumped, just a little, in that smooth, smooth throat when he swallowed. "Oh, Shishido-san. You haven't changed."
Yeah, well, being gay wasn't something I became. It was something I always was.
Except—it suddenly took too long to swallow, and even longer to look up and meet chocolate eyes. Because people didn't become gay, they just were, and… "Neither have you." He tried on a smile—found it just that side of unreality. "Yeah."
Too many drinks later—had he seriously just had a shot of something? He HATED shots, but the warmth of it was still down his throat, the shotglass tipped onto the bar in front of him with a few drops of pink still clinging to the bottom—Shishido realised that the two girls were giggling at the tops of their lungs, bouncing together on the dance floor, and Ootori's hand was palm-up under his—warm and coarse, just like he'd always remembered.
Right. Like I'd forget. Like I could.
"The Hell, Choutarou," and his voice was too much, too rough when he lifted his hand away; with this many drinks into him, he could admit it didn't have anything to do with the alcohol. "Why the Hell are you getting married, if you're gay? I mean, you're the only boy of your family, I get that, but…"
"Me? Shishido-san… I'm… I'm not… I'm her, ah, her man of honour," the smile was soft, and bitter and sweet, clouded a little with too much emotion because Ootori couldn't help being anything but sweet when it came to that family of his, could he. "I told my parents. And… well, my mother calls."
With Choutarou, it was always about what he didn't say. Always.
And maybe things hadn't changed so much between them in six years, because when Ootori's hand rose to the open collar of that incredible shirt—like it was automatic—before stalling on skin and leaving an echo of dampness in the hollow of his throat—it was just damned impossible for Shishido not to notice the empty space where Ootori wasn't wearing that cross of his. Not when he'd stared at just that spot, the shining silver that gave Ootori's collarbone just the right accent of shadow, so often that his partner had finally misunderstood and explained that his father'd given it to him when he'd had his first communion.
"Oh. Man. Choutarou, I'm—" he totally, totally had not meant to bring up general family badness. "Shit, that… sucks."
Damn it, he really did have the vocabulary of a ten-year-old sometimes.
Ootori gave him back half a shrug—a minimal little motion, like it hurt to give him more. "Your family…? They know?"
Shishido nodded, mouth twisting a little wryly. "Took them awhile," it'd taken them what felt like forever, but his family's opinions hadn't ever mattered as much to him as Ootori's had. "But… well, I'm the younger son anyway, and Aniki's got a wife and a kid on the way, so…"
"I see." A small flame of a smile licked over the edges of Ootori's lips, and it was only by flattening his hand to the wooden bar that Shishido kept himself from reaching up and stroking that little lick of motion into something more real. "That's… that's good. Your brother's going to have a baby? He's married?"
"Yeah." He asked if I wanted to invite you to the wedding, but he didn't say that. "Mayumi-neesan's pretty nice. Keeps teasing me about making me babysit, and I keep having to tell her I teach high schoolers."
For a moment, the smile was real—a heartbeat, and it was enough. "You always wanted to do that, didn't you, Shishido-san? Your students must love you."
"Yeah, well." Shishido felt the shrug ripple across his shoulders. He never really had figured out just what they liked about him, but what the heck, if it made his job easier… Yeah, there were a lot of things I always wanted to do. But… "Hey, Ootori?"
It should have been the alcohol talking. Or the way his former partner looked just a little lost, fingertips coming up to stroke the hollow of his collarbone like it ached. Or maybe, just a little, the way he wanted to jump Ootori Choutarou's bones right in the middle of the bar to wipe away the touch of bitter that'd edged its way into that sweet chocolate gaze. (And okay, not just to wipe away the touch of bitter.) "Yes, Shishido-san?"
"Y'know, it's been a damned long time since I was your senpai." Yep, it was the alcohol talking—and damn it, it was saying everything that he'd ever wanted to say. Six years worth of 'should've' and 'could've' and 'didn't.' And ten of that damned '-san' somewhere between them, a helluva lot bigger than the thirteen centimetres—maybe eight, now—of height difference. "How about… how about you start calling me Ryou? Then… maybe we can take it from there." He grinned, just a little. "Hey, I'll even go with you to that wedding. If you want."
He'd always wondered what it looked like—what it would feel like—if Ootori ever smiled, really smiled, at him, one day.
And oh. Damn.
"Ryou," his old partner said, softly, lowering his head to look into his eyes—so softly, but in that quiet, husky baritone, low enough to sing across his skin and raise every goosebump that he had, damned if it didn't sound like a promise that Ootori Choutarou intended to keep.
Oh, shit. Oh, God. Oh, yeah.
And then, shyly, with just the hint of a shy tremble to his voice. "Is that—like that, Shishido-sa—"
They were both laughing by the time Shishido's watch—he always wore a digital, no matter how unprofessional people thought it looked, sometimes—beeped midnight.
Ootori lowered his head, gently, and their foreheads brushed—those delicate, delicate wispy curls that Choutarou'd always said he'd gotten from his mother like a whisper of q-tips across his skin. "Shishi—I mean… er. Ryou-san?"
He was never, ever going to get used to the way his name sounded on those lips. "Yeah?" But damned if the quiver that went down his spine didn't feel just a little like an 'I'm sorry' for every fucking awful birthday he'd suffered through in the past twenty-four—twenty-five, now—years of life.
Then their lips brushed—like an accident, a quick darting touch, but… but… but Ootori was smiling, trembling, when he whispered, "I never forget your birthday. Hope it's happy?"
If his Choutarou even had any doubts… Shishido grinned, and reached around to rest his chin on his former partner's firm shoulder. "If you've gotta ask that, then we've got a lot of getting reacquainted to do."
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