I didn't want this to be out of character. I really tried. These people are slippery. It's not my fault. I locked my keys in the car. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts!

Besides, they all belong to Maki Murakami anyway.

And remember, kids, Ryuichi is a cartoon character. Do not try this at home.

The Price of Fame


No one had ever told Shuichi tours could be so exhausting.

Well, yes, they had, but he hadn't believed them. There were those who said any live concert was fatiguing, when he found the opposite was true. On stage, throwing his songs to the crowd like casting seed on a field--there was nothing so energizing, enlivening. Put him before an audience and no matter how tired he was it would all be forgotten in the brightness of the spotlights, the reverberation of the microphone. What he was born for.

It wasn't the performances which were tiring. It was afterwards, when the lights went down and the bouncers shoved back the mob of Bad Luck fans clamoring for an encore, an autograph, a smile...he wanted to make them happy, he really did, but while it was easy when he sang to give his voice to anyone listening, harder to appease were those who wanted more. It was as if there were only so much of him, and every wave or wink was another piece of himself lost and not recovered. And when that was over, their voices hoarse and their hands aching from signing tickets and shirts and less lewd body parts, they would return to whatever hotel K had booked, and put their heads down, on different pillows every night.

The first couple weeks it was sheer fun, an adventure. By the third the novelty had begun wearing off, and Hiro looked sleepy and Fujisaki's smile dimmed, but Shuichi pressed on, determined to enjoy himself. He tossed and turned at nights, however, on beds which never seemed as comfortable as his own, for all the posturepedic mattresses and expensive linens.

Or maybe it wasn't the beds at all.

He called Yuki every day, or tried to, though sometimes he didn't get a chance, and often as not Yuki wasn't in, or didn't answer if he was. And it wasn't the same, him reduced to only a cool voice over the phone. Even if the 'baka's held the same mix of irritation and teasing as always, there was no accompanying sarcastic smirk, no warm hand on his cheek, his shoulders, his belly, his...

By the fourth week it was fast becoming torturous to recline in every new, unfamiliar, empty bed. Each one seemed harder, lumpier, noisier than the last. He would lie in each new ordeal cataloguing the flaws which made it so uniquely unrestful, would wake up strangling innocent pillows, when he managed to get to sleep at all.

To combat the insomnia he began to go out more and stay out later, so the inertia of a long day would drive him easier to slumber, and a couple drinks would quicken the process. He and Hiro even managed to drag Fujisaki to a few bars, though with him being underage it was a trick to get him in, and he never drank anyway. So usually it was just Shuichi and Hiro.

But then Ayaka joined them, having secured a couple weeks' free time to apply to the task of becoming a devout groupie. While not a scene with which she was familiar, she made a worthy attempt, attending all their concerts and traveling with them in their van, and she proved to have a sense of humor equal to putting up with five males. And of course Hiro wanted his evenings at least with her, which left Shuichi to his own devices.

That was okay; there were always a few fans more than willing to show him the best bars, buy him as many drinks as he would like, anything just for the simple recompense of conversation or a sign. The longer he spent out on the town, the sooner he was asleep in the hotels, sometimes even before he reached the unwelcome beds, and the less chances he had to think about things, like that Yuki hadn't even tried to call him, not once.

And Yuki never said anything that implied he might be finding his own bed as uncomfortable as the Shuichi's growing list. Yuki was happy for the chance to finish his latest bestseller, was as far as Shuichi could determine more than satisfied with the peace and quiet.

Yuki wasn't the least lonely. Yuki didn't even care when the tour ended. "We could cut it short," Shuichi had suggested, one evening in Nagoya when he had managed to reach his lover. "We're not far away--I could take a break. I could say I got laryngitis again and come back for a week--"

"Is the tour going well? Are idiots still paying to see you?"

"Well, yeah, K says all the upcoming concerts are sold out--"

"Then you shouldn't disappoint your fans."

And that was that.

He could forget it on stage; singing, he could forget everything except how much he loved being what he was. But even with the fans screaming for encores they could only continue for so long before his voice went flat and Hiro lost the rhythm and even Fujisaki's deft fingers began to slip.

At night the beds only became more impossible, the pillows like jello fruit-salad, the blankets prickly and always too heavy or too thin. He was becoming convinced all hotels were on a mailing list from which they specially ordered his mattresses to come filled with pebbles. And the more he did to manage sleep, the more difficult it was to drag himself out of the bed the next morning, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. Even Hiro gave up waking him, leaving that unenviable duty to K, who didn't care how many curses were laid on his head or how many glares scorched him from bloodshot eyes. Gunshots, even blanks, were painfully loud whether or not one was hung over. Shuichi learned how to force himself moving, no matter what his condition, before K could get off more than a couple rounds, drag himself to the always waiting van and ready himself for the next concert.

"Really, Shuichi," Hiro said one evening, as Shuichi tore out of his concert clothes from their last interview in favor of a less conspicuous outfit. "Maybe you should turn in early tonight. You haven't had a full night's sleep in days."

"I'm fine," Shuichi lied. "Where's my jacket?"

Hiro dug it out of the suitcase but didn't hand it over. "Makeup isn't going to hide those dark circles if they get any bigger. You look like you got beat up."

"The audiences are too far away to see it. I'll catch up on my sleep this weekend. Come on, Hiro, don't you want to have some fun tonight?"

"Yeah," Hiro said, "okay--why don't we watch something? This hotel's got satellite TV, two hundred stations, there's gotta be something on. We can send K out for popcorn and cola--"

"I don't want to stay locked up in a little hotel room," with you and Ayaka making out on the couch, he just stopped himself from adding. "And Fujisaki would probably hate any movie we picked anyway. Let's go out, have a good time--"

"Not tonight..."

"Then give me my jacket so I can."

"I don't think you should," Hiro said slowly, not letting go of the coat, his fists knotting the dyed leather.


"Shuichi, we're--I've been thinking about how much you've been going out. And, uh, drinking and everything."

"What, did my mom call you again?" Shuichi cocked his head, surprised. "You go out a lot too--and we're legal now!"

"Yeah, but...not all the time. And not like this, maybe you shouldn't..."

Shuichi was suddenly very angry, without knowing why. He was at least as surprised as Hiro when he snapped, in a coldly furious tone that didn't sound anything like his real voice, "I can take care of myself, and if you want to do nothing but play guitar and screw your stupid girlfriend, fine, just give me my jacket and leave me alone."

The girlfriend crack was a mistake, a bad one; Hiro went red and his mouth twisted in an expression Shuichi had never seen on his friend before. He thought for a moment that Hiro might punch him, was thinking it wasn't undeserved and maybe it wouldn't even be that terrible, a different way to put him to sleep... And then Hiro flung the jacket at Shuichi as if he wished it were something much heavier and with sharper edges, spun on his heel and exited, steps stiff as a wooden soldier's.

It occurred to Shuichi that Hiro was likely as tired as he was, that even with Ayaka-chan the drives were just as long and the beds probably as lumpy. But Hiro was out of the room by the time he thought of anything to say. So Shuichi shrugged on his jacket, took the bus to downtown Otsu, and found the hangout one of his fans had scribbled on his shirt cuff. When he walked inside a gang of them mobbed him immediately, even in the cap and shades--the sunglasses were probably suspicious after dark, at that. But with a crowd so big he managed to lose himself all the same.

The next morning his head hurt worse than ever before, and when he levered himself up he found he was still fully dressed, jacket and all, sprawled sideways across the single bed. His neck ached from sleeping with his head hanging half-off the mattress, and he realized with some uneasiness that he had absolutely no memory of getting to the room, and only the vaguest flash of staggering into the hotel lobby. Someone had helped him to the correct door, but he couldn't remember if it had been one of his friends or just an accommodating bellboy. He couldn't call to mind any face but had a muddled recollection of saying things he probably shouldn't have, about his bandmates and their selfishness and how maybe they weren't cut out for this life...

He had a bad feeling it hadn't been some anonymous bellboy. K wasn't around at all, but Fujisaki seemed even cooler than usual, and while Sakano and Ayaka's 'good morning's were friendly and sincere, Hiro avoided making eye contact. Even when Shuichi pulled him aside as they walked out to the van, spoke over the intense pounding in his skull, "Hiro, I'm sorry, really, I didn't mean it--"

"Okay," Hiro said, but he still wouldn't meet his eyes.

It was too early and his head hurt too much to sustain the anger which had strengthened him the night before. Shuichi felt only miserable, sitting alone in the van's farthest back bench, listening while Fujisaki and Hiro fooled with the arrangement of one of their new songs. He felt as if he should contribute but he had been told before to keep away from that aspect of music and besides he felt too weary to think. He didn't know where his bandmates got the energy. While they worked he stared blankly out the window, and tried not to be carsick or heartsick.

They were at the stage by early afternoon, but he didn't feel like rehearsing, did the bare minimum needed to test the equipment. That night, for the first time, as he mounted the stage and grabbed the microphone, he didn't feel the concert's revitalizing rush. The crowd's massive compound voice didn't electrify but deafen, smothered him in sound almost too thick for his lone melody to penetrate.

When he opened his mouth, he realized he hadn't tried to call Yuki that day, or last night, and since he had failed to get him two days before, tomorrow would make a week that they hadn't talked at all.

He was so distraught that he missed his cue and had to wait for the right chords to come around again, and while the audience probably thought nothing of the extended opening Shuichi could feel Hiro and Fujisaki's stares burning a hole in his back. That pressure, and the realization that Yuki had in five weeks not once cared to contact him, was a weight on his chest so heavy he could hardly draw breath to sing. The performance was suddenly as much a chore as anything else, his job, and like any salaryman he couldn't wait for it to be over, free him to go out.

He remembered what Hiro had said the night before, but he didn't want to remember, didn't want to think about his friends, or his band, or Yuki...not about Yuki, not about the paradox of a lover who didn't love.

The concert seemed to be lasting forever, and every note he sang he felt as if his voice were on the verge of cracking, like being an adolescent again, every pitch and gesture awkward. And it might not have been only his imagination that the crowd was more subdued than when they had begun.

Then for the first encore--the last, he almost hoped, almost wished that they wouldn't cheer at all--K appeared in the wings, and with him another man, who sprang on stage as if launched by catapult, beaming hugely, and joined Shuichi's chorus, to the screaming roar of the crowd's delight.

Sakuma Ryuichi, and singing with his fellow star, his personal hero still, broke the miasma gripping Shuichi. There was no strain in Ryuichi's voice, no striving for demanded perfection, just joy in the music. Ryuichi's power was enough to recharge him, buoyed him up over the audience and brought back the raw thrill of the song. They did four encores and would have done more had they been permitted, and Shuichi's face hurt from grinning when it ended. He didn't even mind Sakano bowing to Ryuichi so low he was bent in half and crying, "You saved us again!" because it was true. It seemed like every time he would fall someone was there to catch him, Sakuma-san, or Hiro, or K, or Yuki...

"Let's celebrate!" Shuichi called out, over his thundering pulse, loud enough for the ambitious groupies pressing nearby to hear. "Let's party, on me!"

He almost missed the look Suguru exchanged with Hiro. Then Fujisaki declined with a polite shake of his head, and Hiro said, "Ah, sorry, I promised Ayaka-chan dinner--why don't you come along?"

Re-energized in more than music, apparently; the anger returned, as burning cold as before. He bit it back. "No, I don't want to butt in." He turned to his fellow singer, suggested, "Sakuma-san, want to come?"

"Sure!" Ryuichi cheerfully agreed, and bounced after Shuichi and a flock of fans ecstatic about the chance to mingle with their idols.

Shuichi had in mind a simple nightclub stocked with the essentials, but somehow they ended up at a karaoke bar, and before he could even order Ryuichi had yanked him up before the microphone for yet another duet. Then he was obliged to do one with Kumagoro; the stuffed bunny had a rather pleasant falsetto. By the song's end the bar was packed and the applause sounded even louder than the thousands at the concert.

Shuichi finally managed to escape, gulped a glass of plain water to quench his thirst before accepting a beer. Ryuichi has assembled a chorus for his next song; he looked as if he would happily sing until dawn. Of course he hadn't been touring the last month, but still, after more than a decade as a superstar vocalist...

"He's something," remarked someone beside him.

Shuichi glanced over. It was the man who had given him the beer--barely a man, really; he looked hardly more than Shuichi's age. Undeniably attractive, with an even, smooth-planed face and shoulder-length blond hair, convincing if it was a dye job. His warm brown eyes met Shuichi's. "You're something too, Shindou-san," he said in a soft baritone. "If you don't mind me saying so. I've been a fan of Bad Luck since I first heard 'Rage Beat'."

"Ah, thanks," Shuichi said, blushing and taking a long swallow to hide it. "You were at the concert?"

"Yes," said the man, then smiled. "Sorry, I should've introduced myself sooner. I'm Takeda Reiji."

"Shindou Shuichi, but you knew that already. You're in the J-pop scene, Takeda-san?"

"No." The smile again; he seemed fully aware of how handsome it was. "I'm no musician, unfortunately, couldn't even bear piano lessons. I'm a poet, actually, or I'd like to be. The rest of the time I study law at Kobe University."

"Ah. That's interesting..."

"You're a rather more famous poet, though."

"If you think my lyrics could count as poems. My...my friend, a friend, says they're not good enough for a grade school class."

"I certainly wouldn't say that," Takeda protested. "Especially compared to the rest of the drivel on the radio these days."

Shuichi grinned back, accepting the praise for what it was--recognizing basic flirting when his nose was shoved in it, and enjoying the chance to partake. Enjoying the company of a good-looking man who watched him so intently, who enjoyed being near him.

If for no other reason than he was famous. He tried to ignore that, ignored any expectations and responded as one did to an attractive suitor, laughed at his jokes, met his eyes and didn't flinch when their hands brushed as they simultaneously reached for their drinks. He would be leaving the city tomorrow; tonight was harmless fun, all over in the morning.

"This place is awfully noisy," Takeda commented after a while. "A few friends and I were planning a party at my place, why don't you come?"

"All right," Shuichi agreed after a moment. He stood, got only a few steps when he felt a weight on his shoulder.

Twisting his head, he found Ryuichi resting his chin there, blinking up at him with soulful eyes. "You're not going to sing with me anymore?"

Takeda chuckled slightly, a brittle sound compared to his full baritone. "You're welcome too, Sakuma-san. I have a couple friends who would love to keep you company." When Ryuichi looked confused, he added, "I own a karaoke machine, too."

He who hesitates is lost. "Great, let's go!" Shuichi said, and grabbing Ryuichi's hand pulled him outside before anyone else could notice and follow.

Takeda's apartment was what one might expect, a tiny two-room student flat, but it was fine for an intimate gathering. There was only the three of them and a couple of Takeda's friends, who had come supplied with beer and a little pot. Those two young men converged on Ryuichi with a predatory gleam in their eyes which Shuichi had seen before only in video documentaries of wolves and Uesugi Tatsuha, and which Ryuichi was entirely oblivious to as he blithely lead them to be his backup at the karaoke machine.

While they three busied themselves singing in the main room, Takeda showed Shuichi the alcove in his bedroom window. Not quite a balcony, it was piled with cushions and a couple quilts, soft and cozy. "The place isn't much, but it's home," Takeda said. "Here." He held up a carafe of dark glass and two ceramic cups. "Okinawan awamori. I've been saving it for a special occasion--I think having two legends in my cramped little pad qualifies." He settled opposite Shuichi, poured the drinks and handed one cup to him. "To music."

The sake was expensive, aged and strong. Shuichi took the first mouthful cautiously, tasted it and swiftly sipped the rest. In the other room they had lit the marijuana, and the sweet scent of the smoke combined not unpleasantly with the slight bitterness of the liquor. He listened to the muffled karaoke, gazed out the window at the city lights and the narrow arc of the new moon overhead. At the clink of glass against the cup in his hand he looked back, saw Takeda politely refilling it. Asked, partly teasing, "Are you trying to take advantage of me?"

"Not at all," Takeda said quietly, setting the bottle on the floor without looking down. "Actually I'm hoping you might be induced to take advantage of me." His lashes were long and thick and his angled dark eyes gazed up through them, never leaving Shuichi's face. The golden bangs falling over his forehead looked soft and light enough to be stirred by the touch of the faint moonbeams alone.

"Um," Shuichi said. "I..."

"You are interested, aren't you, Shindou-san?" Takeda asked, low and warm. "I hope I'm not offending you or anything, but you are interested in..."

"Yes, uh, well..." Shuichi stumbled, tore his sight away from the fire in that dark gaze and stared down at his reflection, floating on the clear sake. His face was colored but that might have only been the heat--it was warm here. And comfortable; the cushions under him felt as soft as his bed at home. And not empty, he wouldn't have to be alone, not tonight...

Maybe with that bottle gone those chocolate eyes might look gold, and he could pretend...and maybe this was the fame he had been looking for, not the crowds cheering, but that admiration so shining and obvious in that handsome face.

"You're not offending me," he said, lifted the cup and polished off the sake, then held it out toward Takeda. The carafe tipped obligingly against the ceramic--

And then was snatched back, the cup unfilled. "What the--" Takeda blinked.

"You shouldn't," Ryuichi said.

Shuichi cocked his head. In the other room the singing continued, but limited to only two voice, neither of which sounded particularly melodic or sober but doggedly keeping pace with the music nonetheless.

"What--what do you mean, Sakuma-san?" asked Takeda.

Ryuichi was clutching the sake bottle by the neck in one hand. In the other he brandished his pink bunny, also by the neck. "Kumagoro," and he shook the bunny in question for emphasis, "says this stuff tastes very bad."

"Shindou-san didn't seem to mind it," Takeda said, grabbing for the bottle.

Ryuichi danced back, evading him easily. "I think Kumagoro's right. You should listen to him."

"Sakuma-san, why don't you go back to the hotel?" Shuichi suggested. "K and the others will be there."

"Will you come too?"

"Later." Shuichi's gaze slid to Takeda, off again. Like looking at the sun, he couldn't meet his eyes directly. "Now give it back, please."

Ryuichi regarded the bottle in his hand. "Is this really that much fun?" he said, and there was something in his voice that was more than childish petulance.

It was reminiscent of Hiro's tone, and Shuichi felt a flicker of resentment, though it was difficult to get truly angry with Ryuichi. "I'm an adult," he said, "I can do what I want."

"Oh," said Ryuichi. "Me too!" And he put the carafe to his mouth, tilted back his head, and swallowed.

The entire bottle. Without a pause for breath.

Shuichi wasn't the only one staring. Takeda's jaw had dropped, and leaning through the bedroom doorway his friends were gaping. Ryuichi lowered the drained bottle, coughed once, then put it into Takeda's hands. The student accepted it without comment, still wide-eyed.

"Uh..." Shuichi stood, asked tentatively, "Sakuma-san, are you all right?"

Ryuichi wrinkled his nose. "No!" he said crossly. "Kumagoro was right. It tastes terrible."

Shuichi looked at Takeda, gazing down at his vanished sake in abstract confusion, then at the two blinking dumbly in the doorway, then back at Ryuichi. Said carefully, "Sakuma-san, what..."

"I told you, you should listen to Kumagoro!" Ryuichi informed him. "He knows these things." Then he paused, suddenly cheerful again. "Oh, that's what's wrong. Your Kumagoro isn't here! Okay, you can borrow mine." He tossed his bunny to Shuichi.

Shuichi caught the toy by the ear, frowned at its black button eyes.

"Just keep him safe," Ryuichi requested.

Then he toppled, with the ponderous finality of an axed tree. Shuichi lunged forward in time to stop him from falling flat on his face, and was relieved to find the man didn't weigh much more than he appeared to, even entirely lax in his arms. He adjusted his grip before Ryuichi could slide to the floor, looped his arms under his shoulders and said over the top of his head, "Um...I probably should take him back to the hotel."

"I'll call a cab," Takeda volunteered.

It wasn't that long a ride and Ryuichi didn't regain any semblance of consciousness until the taxi stopped, and then only enough that Shuichi didn't have to carry him inside. The hotel, being one of the priciest in Kobe, was accustomed to hosting celebrities both native and foreign; the late-shift desk attendant didn't bat an eye at Shuichi supporting a good percentage of Ryuichi in an uncertain wobble, only handed him the room key with a polite bow.

They had nearly reached the elevators when Ryuichi stopped their stumbling progress, deliberately planting his heels. Shuichi wondered if he was going to be sick, thought to guide them toward the potted schefflera by the stairway, but instead Ryuichi grabbed his arm. He was swaying and his eyes were glassy and almost entirely black from the dilation of his pupils, but his words were unexpectedly clear, unslurred.

"Shuichi," he said, and it wasn't his light tenor or Kumagoro's squeak but lower, richer. His singing voice. "It'll change you, you can't do anything about that." He placed one hand on Shuichi's chest, not for balance, but lightly, fingers splayed over his heart. "But what it changes you to--that you can choose."

"Sakuma-san?" His gaze was intense even if slightly unfocused, and Shuichi wasn't sure what to say, wanted to turn away before that sharp regard saw everything, if it hadn't already...

And then Ryuichi hiccupped, waved his arms so wildly that Shuichi had to duck, and broke into an impressively loud and surprisingly on-tune rendition of 'Shining Collection', which despite any attempts to quiet him he continued for the entire elevator ride and subsequent reel down the corridor. He fortunately forgot the middle verses and so was quiet by the time they arrived at the right rooms, but too late; before Shuichi could slide the key into the lock the door swung open.

Hiro stood before them in a t-shirt and sweatpants, squinting with sleepy vexation. "Shuichi, what the--" he began, then stopped and assimilated the spectacle at the door. "Sakuma-san?"

Shuichi took advantage of Hiro's bemusement to maneuver Ryuichi inside to the couch, where he collapsed, face down and limp as his toy bunny, and began mumbling what might have been his hit single 'Be There' into the brocaded cushions.

In this interval the rest of their group had emerged from the connecting doors, all looking annoyed at the late disturbance until they got a good look at the main room. "That was Sakuma-san singing?" Fujisaki said in disbelief, pawing his black hair down from its ruffled nighttime chaos.

"Ryuichi?" K went to the couch, poked its occupant with one finger inquisitively. Ryuichi, who had stopped singing and was snoring softly, made no response.

"I didn't know Sakuma-san drank," Sakano ventured.

"He doesn't, usually," K said, darkly, and all eyes went to Shuichi.

"Just one drink," Shuichi mumbled.

"Of what? A whole bottle of shochu?" Hiro asked, incredulous.

"Actually, yes." Shuichi gazed fixedly at his sneakers. "I think he was...um...teaching me a lesson." He added even more quietly, "I think I got it, too."

Someone clapped him on the shoulder and he looked up into Hiro's face. "Good," his friend murmured, just as softly. Their eyes met, and with that encouragement Shuichi dared look past him to the others, all watching, none of them angrily, or even condemning, but waiting.

Shuichi swallowed, said aloud, "I'm sorry, everyone." His ears felt on fire and he ducked his head. "I've kind of been an ass lately, haven't I."

"Yeah, but we figured it was just Yuki rubbing off," Hiro said. "Glad it wasn't permanent."

"Don't say bad things about Yuki!" Shuichi snapped automatically, then stopped. "I...I'll try not to do it again. Really."

He was surprised by Fujisaki's quick embrace. "Good to have you back, Shuichi-san," Suguru whispered, then let go. He stifled a yawn, smiled. "And good night."

"Good night," Ayaka-chan said with a smile and ducked back into her room. Sakano echoed them with a firm nod before following suit.

Shuichi followed his other bandmate and stopped him by his door. "Hiro," he said, and couldn't help the anxious waver in his question, "can you forgive me?"

"Of course I can," Hiro replied. "And I do." He pulled Shuichi into a bearhug, squeezed his ribs and said in his ear, "I wasn't really mad at you, you know, I was just worried. It was like you...like my best friend was going away and I didn't know where or how to get him back."

"I'll try to stick around," Shuichi promised again, and Hiro thumped him on the back, grinned and wished him good night.

Before retiring himself Shuichi returned to the center couch. K had fetched a blanket and was spreading it over Ryuichi, now curled on his side, one limp arm extended out as if reaching for something not there. Shuichi stood beside his manager and watched Sakuma snore for a moment before asking, "Did you bring him here--"

"For the concert," K said. "Hiroshi suggested it. Ryuichi likes to sing with you and you sometimes sing better with him. I work for the artist."

"I know," Shuichi said, then couldn't swallow the yawn which caught him unawares. "G'night," he said around it, and after receiving K's reply he made his way to his room. Fujisaki was already asleep in the other bed. On tiptoes to avoid rewaking him, Shuichi crossed to the telephone and dialed Yuki's number. The dark wasn't a problem; he didn't need to see the buttons.

It was only 2 AM but there was no answer. Sighing, Shuichi changed and climbed into bed. He was surprised to find that this hotel had been mysteriously excluded from the list; the mattress was firm but not rock-solid, as comfortable as Yuki's couch. In minutes he was asleep.

Shuichi was having a wonderful dream. He was lying in a featherbed fit for a prince and Yuki was stretched out beside him like a long, majestic lion, dawn's glow turning his skin as tawny as his eyes. He was stroking Shuichi's hair, then ran his fingers down his spine with such nimble dexterity that Shuichi shivered from his eyebrows to his toes. He pressed close to Yuki's warmth and his lover kissed him tenderly before leaning over him. Golden hair tickling his cheek, Yuki whispered huskily in his ear, the breath a hot breeze washing his skin, "Wake up, I didn't spend three hours on that damn shinkansen to sit and watch you snore with your mouth gaping like a hippo's."

"Yuki?" Shuichi's eyes snapped open, and he sat up to find himself staring at one Yuki Eiri, live and in person, sitting on the edge of his bed and not quite glaring at him. "Yuki..." Shuichi repeated, at a loss.

"Yes," Yuki confirmed. His eyes roved over Shuichi, studying him without a hint to his opinion of that sight. Shuichi stared back. Yuki was fully dressed in slacks and a gray shirt, but they were a little wrinkled and his hair was mussed, like he had dozed off sitting up on a train. His expression was almost unreadable but seemed to hold more than irritation . Impatience, perhaps.

Shuichi didn't know what to say. He felt as if there were two of him, sleeping and waking, before and after, then and now. One wanting, the other wanted. What had seemed obvious last night was suddenly murky; he wondered if he should have stayed after all, in that warm soft place with Takeda and his desire. They were nothing like Yuki, his fans, everyone who listened to his music and thought it worth something, thought him worth something. That was what being famous was about. Give them what they wanted, those little bits of himself, and they would fill him, keep filling him, and everything drained away would be replaced.

His choice.

"Well," Yuki said finally, and there was no adulation, no awe. Just Yuki. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"YUKI!" Shuichi howled, and launched himself at his lover, wrapping his limbs around him like a starfish around a clam. They fit excellently, as always.

"Baka!" Yuki growled, but there was an instant where he relaxed in the embrace, and Shuichi felt a warm hand sneak around to squeeze the back of his neck before Yuki pushed him off. And when he looked up into his face that impatient, searching look was gone, as if he had found what he had been seeking.

"What are you doing here?" Shuichi demanded, kneeling on the bed before him. "I mean it's great, it's really great to see you, you can come to the concert--are you going to stay that long? You should, since it is kind of a long trip, but I thought you had your novel to write."

"I have a laptop for a reason," Yuki said.

"So you're going to stay for longer?" Shuichi asked. When Yuki didn't deny it Shuichi threw himself forward again, and before Yuki could dodge he had locked their lips together. It was familiar, that kiss, but different too, changed, better than before, tasting of tobacco and morning breath but sweetened by absence, and so satisfying it might well have gone on forever.

Shuichi finally pulled back, his eyes open so he saw Yuki's pupils gradually shrink back to a normal size, and heard him inhale hugely as if he had momentarily forgotten how to breathe. Then Yuki exhaled, just as long, and Shuichi thought he heard him mutter, "Doesn't seem like anything's wrong..."

"Ah, Yuki, I missed you a lot," Shuichi said, wrapping his arms around him again and pressing his head to his chest. Yuki's heart sounded like it was beating a little fast.

"I..." Yuki started to say, oddly high, and his arms came up to encircle Shuichi. Then they dropped again and he said, in his normal voice, "What happened at the concert last night? You started singing late."

"Yuki!" Shuichi tilted his head up. "You were at my concert?"

"No, dummy, I told you I came last night. I heard it on the radio."

"It played on the radio? You were listening to the radio?" Then the other corollary occurred to him. "You noticed I missed my cue? I didn't know you knew that song."

Yuki ignored the interrogation. "You looked tired on your last interview but you're usually not stupid enough to skip sleep when you have to sing. What have you been doing?"

"Nothing much." Shuichi flushed. "Nothing you wouldn't do."

"Baka." Yuki cuffed him, very gently. "That's no way to live."

"Yuki...you came all the way here because I messed up my song?"

"No! I came because your friend made me."

"My friend? Hiro? Or K? Or--"

"Not them." Yuki looked put out, as if it were a trial to have interacted with so many of Shuichi's friends. "It was your Sakuma Ryuichi, yesterday morning. Seguchi must have told him where I live--I was lucky Tatsuha wasn't around."

"Sakuma-san visited you? Sakuma-san told you to visit me?" Shuichi asked, trying to imagine Ryuichi ordering anyone to do anything. Well, except for last night.

Last night... "Oh no--" With a hasty apology Shuichi pushed past Yuki and ran to the main room.

Ryuichi was sitting up on the couch, with K and Hiro standing over him. Hiro held a glass of something too red to be blood, smelling strongly of tomatoes and pepper. Ryuichi had both hands pressed to his temples, was mumbling, "Itai itai itai itai..."

"Sakuma-san!" Shuichi flung himself prostrate before the couch, touched his forehead to his hands flat on the floor and cried, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm really really sorry--"

"Ah, Shuichi, you might want to give the guy with the hangover some quiet," Hiro murmured.

"Sorry!" Shuichi finished in a piercing whisper, then looked anxiously to Ryuichi, who was squinting at him in utter bemusement. "And here," Shuichi continued in an undertone, fumbling in his shirt and extracting the pink bunny.

"Kumagoro!" Ryuichi shouted, then winced, reaching for his rabbit. He paused before reclaiming it, however, focused on Shuichi and for an instant subjected him to that same intense regard of the night before. Then he looked over Shuichi's shoulder, and beamed innocently. "It's okay, right? Since you have your Kumagoro again."

Shuichi glanced behind him, followed Ryuichi's line of sight to Yuki, standing in the doorway observing the scene with shallowly concealed amusement.

He turned back, returned Ryuichi's grin. "It's okay," he confirmed. "I think everything's going to be all right."