A/N: Thank you so much for reading! Since my last update, I've made some topical changes to the first two chapters, based on the advice of a very helpful reviewer (thanks TashaBelle!). As always, feedback is greatly appreciated and will be returned in kind. Enjoy!


On the subway to Shinsaibashi, we share a train car with a group of junior high school students. One of them has hair as blond as mine and a port wine stain down the right side of his face, and I can't help but noticing him talking and laughing with his classmates in faster Japanese than I can manage. He's obviously fluent.

When we disembark, Chiaki asks, "Did that boy bother you?"

It takes me a moment to figure out what he's talking about. "Oh. No, I just get a little jealous when I see a foreigner who's got it figured out. Like, my parents are always telling me, 'You're not one of them, you'll never be one of them, don't even bother trying.' So it just pisses me off when I see someone who can actually hack it."

"Who knows," says Chiaki, "maybe he can't speak a word of English."

I flush up. He's right, of course: I don't know his story. Moreover, I'm embarrassed to have run my mouth off about some kid, when it's obvious what's actually bothering me. Before we went underground, I told Chiaki that "of course" I still wanted to make purikura with him. I had known all along, anyway, that going to school in America was a silly dream, that sending me to any college would be hard enough on my family. I thought that, with a few minutes and the perfect free-float of the subway train, I'd be fine.

But we have made it all the way to the Shinsaibashi shopping arcades and I am still barely holding it together. I can't meet Chiaki's eyes as we leave the station.

"You're quiet," he observes.

"I'm just cold," I mumble, which isn't a lie. The sun has set, and the air has a bite to it now. But I regret my words all the same. I'm in a pissy mood and I'm not dressed for the weather: what's to stop Chiaki from telling me, 'just go home'? "I'll be fine, though," I add quickly, purposely trying to brighten my tone. "I'll just get a can of hot coffee or something."

I chance a look into Chiaki's face. It's clear he isn't buying it.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I'm sorry I'm in such a bad mood. I'll cheer up. I really want to stay out and I'm sorry I'm such bad company, I'll cheer up soon, I promise—"

He cuts me off short of repeating myself a third time. "It's really uncomfortable to be around somebody who's miming okayness. It's not endearing; it's unnerving. The way you are acting right now is scaring me."

"I'm sor—"

"I don't want you to apologize. I want you to tell me how you really feel."

I grimace. "Like I want to throw myself into traffic and watch myself die. I know I'm overrea—"

"No, that was good. Actually throwing yourself into traffic would be overreacting. You are doing fine. Now, do you want to be cheered up for real? Because I know something that might help."

"Anything," I say quietly.

"It's this way."

I follow his lead through the Friday evening crowd, sticking close. All around me, Shinsaibashi glitters. It's not just the shops, it's the shoppers. Fashionable twenty-somethings out on the town, maybe on their way to restaurants or bars or nightclubs. There are a lot of couples. I imagine, just for a moment, that I am part of a couple, too, and I feel a little bit better.

I say, "Chiaki, what you said just now really helped. Although the sentiment doesn't strike me as particularly Japanese."

He grins at me. "Well, you don't strike me as particularly foreign."


We turn down a narrow side-street, and within a few steps I am in a completely different world. The only bright lights here are the electric-backed signs for pubs and "massage parlors" advertising rates upwards of twenty-thousand yen an hour. (Sounds legit, right?)

Chiaki takes a turn into a thin alley between two old brick buildings and leads us to a door marked with the characters for "Unauthorized Persons Prohibited." When he tells me, "Wait here," I'm too confused to do anything but nod.

Minutes go by. I pull out my phone to check the time, and that's when I notice that I've got a new email.

From: 2307419213801234780
Subject: tonight

You're coming, aren't you? - - HARUTO

The very sight of the sender's address makes me flinch. I thought I'd blocked that stupid fucker. Did he accidentally send me a mail that he'd intended for a friend? And why is he writing in English now? I mentally run through the names of my classmates: no Harutos. Thinking about all the people who've bullied me in my life, I can't remember any Harutos there, either.

I open my spam filtering preferences and block the address again, making extra-sure to hit the "confirm" button this time. Then the door handle turns and I bolt to my feet.

"Wow, he's a cutie. Are you sure he's not your boyfriend, Chiaki?" calls the man who appears in the doorway in high-pitched Osakan dialect. His hair is styled into soft waves, and he's wearing a server's uniform underneath a crisp black jacket.

From inside the building, Chiaki laughs. "What," he answers back, "if I say no, are you going to try and take him for yourself?"

A third, deeper voice follows: "Where is he?" Another waiter appears, this one tall and wearing glasses. "Cute," he agrees.. "And look at that blond hair."

He steps out from behind the first man and reaches out to run his fingers through my unruly locks. Much to my chagrin, he quickly gets caught in a tangle. But rather than jerk his hand away, he patiently flexes his fingers until the knot comes undone. I am so stunned I can barely breathe.

Chiaki appears in the doorway with something black slung over his arm. "Let us proceed," he says in polite-form Japanese, as if he's addressing the president of a powerful company. "The atmosphere here does not at all suit."

The tall man with glasses links his arm through mine and escorts me out of the alley, opposite of the direction from which Chiaki and I came. "My name is Yuusuke Wakamatsu," he introduces himself. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"P-Pleasure's mine," I stutter back.

The wavy-haired man takes my other arm and says, "Everyone calls him Wakamatsu. But you can call me by my first name, Taka." He gives my shoulder a squeeze and sends a shiver down to my toes.

At the lip of the alleyway, Chiaki turns around and gently shoos the other two away from me. He holds up a black jacket, similar to the ones that Taka and Wakamatsu are wearing. "Would you kindly turn around and allow me to put this on you?"

I turn, and he slips the the armholes over my waiting hands, then pulls the soft, dark thing over my shoulders. He tugs at my elbow and spins me back around, straightening out the front and tying the belt snugly around.

"Allow me?" Taka suggests, putting out a tentative hand.

"It's not your jacket," Chiaki replies with what I swear is a hint of smugness. Then he adjusts my collar and smiles. "Perfect."

The warm jacket is just one notch too big for me, and the sleeves extend to my finger joints. The faint smell of old cigarettes hangs from it. Yes, it's perfect. "So, what's this?" I ask.

"It's my work jacket, for when we have to go outside," Chiaki explains. "I keep it in my locker, and I thought you looked cold, so..."

"No, not that, I mean that too, but... what's all this?" I spread my hands to indicate the obvious change in my circumstances: the three beautiful men suddenly fawning all over me, Chiaki included.

"Well..." he points with his chin to the restaurant next to us. The real front door opens onto a wide and well-traveled street shared by cars, pedestrians, and motorbikes. "That's where I work." So I look, and I realize it's not a restaurant at all.

"You're a host?"

A host bar: a place where ladies can come to drink and unwind while beautiful male servers lavish attention upon them. The price is... well, it makes the "massage parlors" earlier seem like not such a bad deal.

"At your service," says Wakamatsu, sliding the back of his finger lightly along my jaw.

My brain turns to random static, and I say the first thing that comes to mind: "Are you two skipping out on work right now?"

"Not at all. We were just on our way to the bridge to drum up customers," says Taka. "And no one will notice if we stop to play for a few moments." He takes my hand and begins to lead me back in the direction of the main arcade. "By the way, your name is... Akshis?"

"Pretty close," I encourage him. Then I say it slowly a couple of times, and give him the spelling.

"A-x-i-s," Wakamatsu repeats, then attempts to sound it out: "A kiss?"

"Kiss, kiss," chants Taka. The word is the same in both our languages. "Hey, Askhis, how old are you?"

"Seventeen," I answer, not sure how he arrived at this non-sequitur.

"So you've done plenty of kissing," he surmises.

"Actually," I begin, flushing up, "I've never even—"

He stops short, pulling me against him, and smacks his lips against mine. It's a short, ashy burst of dry heat that leaves me dazed and stumbling over myself. My first kiss.

Thought #1: What?

Thought #2: We are in a public place. A crowded public place.

Thought #3: What?

I righten myself and whip my head around, and sure enough, some people have stopped to get a look. Most keep walking when they realize I've spotted them, but a gaggle of girls a little older than me refuse to move on. They stand across the street from us, talking and pointing and giggling. One of them has her phone aimed like she's trying to snap a picture.

The hosts have noticed them, too. Wakamatsu grins. "Hey," he calls, "we're doing street performance, advertising for our bar. Take a flier, and the first hour's half off!"

"Can I get a video of that?" asks the girl with the phone camera.

In response, Wakamatsu puts his arm around me, and before I know it, his lips are on mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip, and he tastes like mint candy. I think I might hear the girls squealing in the background, but it's suddenly hard to care about anything that isn't touching me.

Wakamatsu breaks away, and he and Taka both turn. "Chiaki...?"

I swallow. Chiaki takes a long breath.

Then he hooks his fingers into my jacket collar and pulls me close. His kiss is like nothing so much as birdsong, and a little like eating the sunset.

When it ends just half a moment later, the ache in my teeth is testament to how good it was.


The three of them take me to purikura, where we make silly poses in the photo booth part and then draw on silly hats in the decorating part. Then Taka and Wakamatsu have to go, but first, Wakamatsu gives me his business card. "I'm a hairstylist," he tells me. "Hosting is just temporary, while I'm looking for a salon job. Please consider being in my portfolio. You'll get a free haircut, and I'll treat you to coffee afterward."

I thank him profusely but don't make any promises, and then they are gone.

"Are they...?" I ask Chiaki, returning to English.

"Straight. Very straight. But also very nice," he tells me. "They're the only ones I'm out to."

"I wasn't expecting them to kiss me," I say.

"Neither was I," he admits. "Honestly, I was a little worried that..." Then he shakes his head and smiles. "How much time do you have left tonight?"

Reluctantly, I check the time on my phone and suppress a wince. Then I stuff the damn thing back into my pocket. "You know what?" I say. "Screw curfew. I am having the best night of my life and I am not ready for it to be over." Then I wait, half-expecting Chiaki to tell me that I've had my fun, now I ought to be a good child and run along home.

Instead, he says, "So, if you don't mind, how about Don Quixote's? I haven't been there in a while."

So Don Quixote's is where we end up, browsing the costume racks and junk gifts and cell phone cases, and then before I know it we've decided to go to karaoke, and Chiaki is shocked at how many Japanese songs I can sing along to (and how many American songs I can't), and we walk by the canal and I ask Chiaki a lot of questions, like a) if he has a boyfriend? and b) why does he work at a host bar? and c) can we do just one more thing before we say goodbye?

His answers: not right now, why not?, and he knows exactly where he wants to take me. Just one question for me: "Are you a cat person or a dog person?"

I don't need to ask him where we're going; in fact, I don't mind if we never get there. There is a festival air to the dark: the blinking streetlights are our fireworks, the taxis are all portable shrines, and every shop, restaurant, and game center is a one-night-only market stall.

I say, "Thank you so much for tonight."

He says, "Here we are."

We've stopped at a thin building, a drugstore. But the sign running vertically beside it: 5th floor, DVD rental, 6th and 7th floor, office space, 8th floor...

"A cat cafe? Like, where you can pet the cats? Are you serious?"

"I—"

"You are amazing. I, I don't even. You are too cool. Just, let's just go in or I will, I will die of anticipation."

We opt for the elevator, an old-style affair where you have to pull the inner grating closed yourself. I didn't know they existed outside of black-and-white movies. Chiaki pulls the grating closed, looks at the call panel a little skeptically, and pushes the button for the top floor. It lets out a ring as if we've set off the fire alarm, then the big outer doors slide shut, and we begin to rise.

Very, very slowly.

"I wonder if it's to keep the cats from escaping this way," he says.

I smile at that but don't say anything. Then I shift a little closer to him and put a hand on his elbow. He glances down at me, not quite turning his head all the way. "Yes?"

"I was just thinking," I begin, and nearly have my whole train of thought derailed by oh god I cannot believe I am actually saying this, so I start over with, "One more kiss. Please, one more kiss, and you will have made my life, and I'll never ask for anything more."

Silence.

Then he comes in slowly, like a stalking tiger, and pushes my back up against the wall of the elevator carriage. His nose slides along mine, and then his full lips are on my thin ones for the second time tonight as all the breath evaporates from my chest and my eyes flutter closed. He doesn't pull away like last time. The kiss seems to go on and on, until we are up and away, long past the eighth floor.

Then the elevator jolts to a halt, and Chiaki and I break away from one another.

The outer door pulls back to reveal an almost-blinding light, and all I can see within it is the silhouette of a man. He comes closer, shoes clicking with every slow step. Chiaki bristles and raises an arm across my chest.

The strange man is close now. He wrenches open the grating, and I can see his face: young, my age or just a couple years older. Spiked hair. A killing gaze.

"Haruto," Chiaki gasps.

At the mention of the name, the young man takes a step back and slides a pack of cigarettes from his jeans. "Well, you just fucked up," he says with a sneer. "Welcome to the consequences."