"I can't wait to get out of this uniform," Takato says, loosening his collar as we stroll through the park on the way home from school.
"Neither can I," I admit.
"At least you boys don't have to wear skirts," Xiaochun says. She's a few paces ahead of us.
"I think we could all use this break," I say. It's finally, summer vacation, and not a minute too soon.
"Would you slowpokes hurry up already?" Xiaochun asks. "I don't want to waste a second of this break and you're costing me precious time."
"Just enjoy the fresh air," I tell her. "It'll do you some good."
"You don't have to walk with me every day, you know," Xiaochun says. "I think I can manage to get home from school on my own by this point."
"Now what kind of big brother would I be if I didn't look out for you?" I ask. "Besides, mom would kill me if I didn't."
"What are you looking forward to most this summer?" Takato asks.
"No homework!" Xiaochun chimes in.
I laugh. "Yeah, that's a pretty good one. For me it's just great to have a little time to unwind." It's the last year of high school and I can't wait for it to be over. It's not that I don't like school or anything, but I'm ready to move on. "How about you, Takato?"
"Spending time with friends," Takato says. "Maybe we could even go on a trip or something."
I smile. "Sounds like fun. Let's plan something."
"Definitely," Takato says with a nod. "What do you think about camping?"
"It's been years," I say, "but that would be great." Xiaochun giggles at that. "What's so funny?" I ask.
"Nothin'," she says, shaking her head at me with a huge grin on her face. "Just the two of you, alone in the woods, sharing a tent…"
"Nobody said we'd be alone," I point out.
"Yeah, we can bring along some friends," Takato says.
Xiaochun shrugs. "If you say so."
"We'll think about it," I tell Takato. "For now though, do you feel like doing something tomorrow?"
"Sure," Takato says. "I'll call you as soon as I wake up."
"Maybe I should call you instead," I suggest. Takato's been keeping odd hours since he started working as the bakery's official delivery boy. It's not something they've been doing for long, but for a few special customers he's more than happy to hand-deliver some fresh baked goods every morning. He's making good money at it, too.
Takato laughs. "I guess that would be better. Sorry again about the other day; I didn't realize it was that early."
"I told you not to worry about it," I say.
"I still feel bad, though," Takato admits.
"Believe me, the treats from the bakery more than made up for it," I assure him. I must've put on five pounds just from that.
"I'm glad," Takato says as we come to the street. "Well, I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Yeah, as soon as I wake up," I say. We both linger, wordlessly smiling at one another.
Xiaochun speaks up after a couple seconds. "Oh just kiss already."
I turn and glare at her. "Xiaochun…" I swear she makes Terriermon look tactful sometimes.
"Come on, it's not like it'd be the first time," Xiaochun points out.
Takato laughs before I can get too mad. "Maybe some other time. Right now I should be getting home. See you tomorrow?"
"Yeah, tomorrow," I say. I lean forward a bit, more out of habit than anything, but with Xiaochun watching… We both hesitate and settle on waving to one another. That's right: waving. This is how my boyfriend and I say goodbye to one another. Thanks a lot, Xiaochun.
"Lame," she says, sounding an awful lot like Lianjie when she does.
No kidding, Xiaochun. No kidding.
Luckily, Xiaochun was so excited about summer break that by the time we got home she forgot all about teasing me. It's a good thing, too, because I just know one of these days she's going to do it at exactly the wrong moment and suddenly the whole family would know. She wouldn't do it on purpose of course; even Xiaochun knows better than that. She just… doesn't always think before she opens her mouth. Of all the people to have found out it had to be her.
See, back when Takato and I first started dating we weren't really all that good at sneaking around. We had more than a few close calls, so it was unavoidable that someone would catch us doing something we couldn't explain away. That someone was Xiaochun, and that something was making out on my bed. I could have sworn the whole apartment was empty.
Anyway, it hasn't been too much of an issue (yet) but she does like to give me a hard time about it. At least it wasn't anyone else. Either mom or dad would… I don' think they'd take it very well. Jialing might not be too bad, but Lianjie would be grossed out. At best he'd tease me way worse than even Xiaochun does.
Speaking of Lianjie, he came over for dinner. His apartment came with a kitchen, but I don't think he's ever used it; it's the only spot in his whole place that's clean. Of course if free food is the reason he comes over in the first place, he sticks around for the free tech support.
"Can't you get dad to do this once in a while?" I ask him as I try to get the third virus off his laptop in as many weeks.
"No way, bro," he says, reclining on my bed while I sit at the desk. "I don't want dad going through all my porn and stuff."
"Trust me, he doesn't want to. And neither do I." I do my very best not to look at those files but where do you think he gets all these viruses? "I updated your virus protection last time. How did this happen already?"
Lianjie shrugs. "Beats me. You're the expert."
If he's back again with this same problem next week I'm going to take away his laptop and give him an etch-a-sketch. Let's see, maybe he accidentally deleted a file or undid the update or… "Oh you have got to be kidding me," I say out loud.
"What's up?" he asks.
"You turned your antivirus off?" I ask. Do you see now what I have to deal with?
"What? No I didn't. I mean, I don't think so."
"Then why is it off?" I ask, pointing to the screen. The phone starts ringing, but I've got other things to deal with at the moment.
Lianjie looks over and studies it for a second before it slowly dawns on him. "Ohhh yeah, I remember now. It was blocking a bunch of stuff, so I switched it off."
"Lianjie, those were viruses it was blocking!"
"Yeah, that makes sense," he says with a nod. "Good thing I got you here though, right?"
I grit my teeth and look back at the laptop. I swear: etch-a-sketch.
My door swings open and Xiaochun leans in. "Jian, phone! It's your boy—" She stops herself when she spots Lianjie, but it's too late.
Lianjie looks right at me. "Your boy?" he asks with a snicker.
I shoot Xiaochun a death glare. As bad as Takato and I were about being discreet, we were never this bad. Okay, Jianliang, just think. There's got to be a clever way out of this so Lianjie won't suspect a thing. Like… maybe he didn't hear right? No, that's stupid. Maybe Xiaochun's only teasing me or something. I mean, Lianjie's made a few of those jokes himself, even without knowing the truth of it, so it's not that unreasonable that Xiaochun would join in too, right? She takes after him far too much.
"Yeah, you know," Xiaochun jumps in. "His, uh… his boy. That's a thing."
Lianjie laughs louder. "I didn't even know Jian had a boy. Been keeping secrets, little bro?"
Thanks, Xiaochun. Thanks a lot. Okay, maybe if I—
"Oh sure, he's got plenty of boys," Xiaochun says. Why does it feel like I'm watching her dig my grave? "Are you saying you don't have any boys, Lianjie? What sort of weirdo are you?"
"Just… just go," I say to them both, before Xiaochun can be of any more help. "Give me the phone, you two go talk about boys, and I'll see if I can tape this poor laptop back together. Okay?"
Lianjie stands up. "Whatever you say, but if I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to get rid of me so you can talk to your boy."
"It's a thing, honestly!" Xiaochun says as she follows Lianjie out. "All the cool kids are saying it. Aren't you supposed to be the cool one, Lianjie?"
Once Lianjie and Xiaochun are finally gone I shut (and lock) the door behind them and turn my attention to the phone. "Hello?"
"Hey Jen," Takato says. "Sounds like I called at a bad time."
"No, it's not a problem. Just my sister again," I assure him. "Could you call my cell from now on though?"
"I tried to, but it's off," Takato explains.
Crap. I must not have turned it back on after dinner. Mom doesn't like phone calls at the dinner table. "Sorry about that," I apologize. "What's going on?"
"Hirokazu called," he starts. "He said he wants to do something fun for the first night of summer vacation and his parents are gone for a couple days, so he's trying to set up a movie night at his place."
"A movie night?" I ask.
"Yeah. He says Kenta's already heading over and he's going to see about Juri and Ruki. He asked me to see if you wanted to come."
Hmm… It would be good to get away from Lianjie and Xiaochun for the night. Not to mention spending a little time with my boyfriend. "Should I bring anything?" I ask.
Takato chuckles. "I thought you'd be up for it. If you have any good movies, you might want to grab one. There's a pretty good chance of sleeping over there too, so bring anything else you might need."
"Will do," I say. "Meet up at your place first?"
"See you soon," he says.
"I can't wait."
I hang up the phone. Lianjie can wait another day to get his computer back. It looks like tonight might be pretty good after all.
There are three reasons to meet up at Takato's home before heading over to Hirokazu's. The first is that it's on the way. The second is that it's a great place to pick up a few snacks from the food that didn't sell that day. The third, and by far the best reason, is that Takato's parents are a lot less likely than anyone in my family to open the bedroom door without knocking.
"Good to see you too," Takato says to me, catching his breath after a long kiss. He's changed out of his uniform and into a black t-shirt with tan shorts since the last time I saw him.
"That's to make up for earlier," I say. "Sorry about how we said goodbye after school, but with Xiaochun and all…"
"Don't worry about it," Takato tells me. "You shouldn't let her get to you, though. At least she's supportive, right?"
"Yeah, I guess," I admit. "You're lucky you don't have any brothers or sisters though."
"I don't know about that," he says. "Sometimes I wish I did."
"I guess the grass is always greener," I say. "So are you about ready to go?"
"Just about," Takato says. "I was just looking through my movies. What do you think I should bring?"
"I don't know. Something romantic?"
Takato laughs at that. "You do remember we won't be the only ones watching it, right?"
"Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll all fall asleep early," I say. Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?
"I'm pretty sure I'll be the first one," Takato says with a yawn.
"Well maybe if you didn't get up so early…" I remind him.
"Yeah, yeah," Takato groans. "If you don't like it I guess I don't have to share these snacks." He nods toward a plastic bag full of baked goods.
"I'm not complaining," I say. "It's just that we get so little time together as it is and you're ready to pass out by sunset."
"I know," Takato says with a sigh as he turns around and bends over to look through a box under his bed where he keeps his movies. "I don't like it any more than you do, but it really helps out. It's more money for college and maybe even a little extra if we want to go out sometime."
"Uh-huh." I wish I had more to add, but with Takato bending over the way he is, my mind is wandering a bit.
"Jen!" He's looking back at me.
He laughs. "Nothing. Enjoying the view?"
I growl seductively. "You have no idea."
"Well remember: tonight we're just best friends, okay?" He picks out a disk and turns back to me. "We don't need to start the summer off by freaking out all our friends."
"Of course," I say. Takato's right. We've got all vacation to be together. Then again with him running around making deliveries or working at the bakery and me signed up for cram school in the mornings and running a little computer repair business on the side, it might get tricky to have all the time together we want. Plus we still have to worry about keeping our friends and family from finding out. So…
How is it possible that I've got a boyfriend and I'm feeling even more pent-up now than when I was single?
"But as long as it's only us…" Takato leans in and kisses me, just like I did to him earlier. I love it when he does that. His lips are soft and warm and he smells… Well, he smells like his shampoo, actually. I know it sounds weird, but I like it. I love it, actually. I love it when he kisses me, and I love—
Stop right there, Jianliang. Don't think it. If you think it you'll say it. We… haven't said that to each other yet. And we shouldn't. It's too soon. We've only been together for a few months. Sure, we've known each other since we were kids. And I guess I've liked him for a long while now. Don't get me wrong, it's been great, but… I don't know if that's what I really feel. I've never been in love before. I've never even dated before this. But I know Takato has to deal with some things, so I'm going to let him be the first one to say it.
If he ever does.
Takato finally ends the kiss and looks at me through his half-lidded eyes. "We should… probably go."
I nod at him. "Y-yeah." If we don't get out of this room right now I'm not sure I'll be able to control myself.
Takato grabs his lucky blue hoodie (the one with short sleeves and Guilmon's hazard symbol on the back in white) off the desk chair and pulls it on over his head. With his movie and a plastic bag full of treats in hand he turns back to me. "Ready?"
"After you," I say.
We head downstairs and take the side door into the alley. It's a little after dusk now, so there's still a bit of color in the sky, even with the clouds rolling in, and all the street lights are lit up. Takato's street is always busy on warm summer nights like this one and tonight is no exception. There are crowds up and down the street, and most of the people look like they've been shopping. Scanning over the faces I can pick out a few other couples. There are families, too; lots of kids darting back and forth. It bugs me any time I see parents letting their kids go running around like that. It's dangerous. Not that Takato lives on a bad street or anything but… I don't know. It's probably something I picked up from mom. I remember when we were kids she'd watch us like a hawk. I know that when I have kids I'll—
Oh. Yeah. Don't be stupid, Jianliang. You're gay, remember? You're not getting Takato pregnant anytime soon. At least I'll never have to tell my parents I accidentally got some girl pregnant. Right? That's something, at least.
I don't think I'd even want kids. The closest experience I have to it is watching out for Xiaochun, and she's been driving me crazy my whole life. I wonder if Takato wants kids. I think he'd make a good dad, so long as he manages not to lose any of his kids like he was always doing with Guilmon. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but it's something all of us joke about now and then. Takato gets a little embarrassed by it, but he'll laugh too. Mostly I think he likes remembering Guilmon. In the end, Takato always managed to find him again. To this day I'm convinced that if any one of us can find his partner again, it'll be Takato. I guess Takato would make a good dad. Does he want kids, though? If he does, then…
"Is something wrong, Jen?" Takato asks.
"Hm? Oh, no. Nothing," I say.
"You sure?" he asks.
I give him a nod and a smile. "Yeah, a little lost in thought is all. Hey, do you think Ruki and Juri will actually be there tonight? I mean, you know how Ruki can get, and Juri's dad might not be happy about her going to a sleepover with a bunch of guys."
"We've been friends since we were all kids," Takato says. "She knows nothing would happen."
"Of course not, but the problem is what her dad thinks," I point out.
Takato shrugs. "We'll find out when we get there."
I nod. "Yeah, I guess so." A couple kids rush past us.
…If he does want kids, then why would he stay with me?
We don't say much for the rest of the walk over. It's not a long trip anyway: only a few blocks from Takato's house to Hirokazu's apartment building, but those dark clouds are moving in fast. It starts to drizzle just as we arrive. Normally we'd have to call upstairs for Hirokazu to buzz us past the gate, getting drenched the whole time, but the lock broke a few months back so we walk right in through the gate and take the stairs up. Takato leads the way as we head down the row of apartments and finally come to the right door, where he rings the bell.
"Food's here!" I hear Hirokazu shout from inside. The door opens a second later, Hirokazu grinning at the both of us. "Glad you could make it, guys!"
"Out of curiosity, were you talking to us or the snacks?" Takato asks with a chuckle, holding the bag out to Hirokazu.
"No reason it can't be both!" he says, grabbing the bag and ducking back inside.
Takato goes in after him, putting his hood back down and brushing the rain from his hair while I close the door behind us. It looks like the party's already started. Kenta's sitting on the couch in front of the TV; he waves to us, but can't get a word out before Hirokazu steps in front of him and dumps the snacks Takato brought onto the coffee table.
"Remember to save some for everyone else," Kenta reminds him.
"I make no promises," Hirokazu says as he looks over his haul.
"So is it only the four of us tonight?" I ask.
"Juri will be here soon," Kenta says. "She had to help her dad with something at the restaurant."
"And Ruki?" Takato asks.
"What were her exact words again?" Kenta asks.
Hirokazu rolls his eyes. "I think it was, 'I'm coming over there to make you eat your own face for even suggesting this, Shiota.' Something like that."
"I assume that means she'll be here," Kenta adds. "She does have the farthest to go, though."
"Well if she doesn't want to walk she can throw a party in her huge freaking mansion some time," Hirokazu points out.
"Even if she did it's not like she'd invite us," Kenta points out.
"Why do we invite her to these things again?" Hirokazu asks.
"Fear of what she'd do if we didn't," Takato reminds them.
I take a seat on the right end of the couch. Kenta's sitting at the other end and there's space enough in the middle for someone else… hopefully Takato. Hurry up and claim this seat, Takato; with my luck, if you don't, Hirokazu will. Is it so wrong for us to at least be able to sit together once in a while? I'm not asking for a lot here.
"So what movie did you bring, Kenta?" Takato asks, sitting down next to me while Hirokazu is still busy with the snacks. I've got the best boyfriend ever.
Kenta groans. "I couldn't find anything good. I've got to get some new movies. I've seen everything I own about a million times. What about you? You've probably got the spare cash for a few new movies with this delivery boy job of yours."
"Kenta, it's not about the money," Takato explains bashfully. "I just want to help out, you know?"
"But they're still paying you, right?" Hirokazu points out.
"Yeah, but not a lot," Takato goes on. "Besides, I'm trying to save my money right now. Next year with college and everything…"
"Ugh, don't remind me," Kenta says. "There's still so much to do, you know?"
Takato nods. "Exactly. I figure I could use every last yen."
"You're right about that," I say. "Still, I'm really looking forward to it. I can't wait to be done with high school."
"You and me both," Hirokazu says.
Kenta shakes his head. "No way. I could use a lot more time. I'm not ready for college yet! And don't you think it'll be sad to leave?"
"I know I'll be sad to go," Takato admits. "But at the same time it won't be all that different so long as I've got you guys."
"You'll never get rid of us," Hirokazu says with a firm nod. "Well, most of us…" He looks at me when he says that last part.
I roll my eyes. "For the last time, Hirokazu, just because I'm not going to Nihon with you guys does not mean I'm abandoning you. Besides, it's not like I'll be on the moon. You can practically see my campus from here."
"Don't worry about it, Jen," Takato reassures me. "Even if you were going to Nihon it's not like we'd have any classes together. We can still get lunch together sometimes though, right?"
"Of course we will. I promise," I tell him. "But that's why I think we should be roommates. At least then we'd get to spend the rest of our time together."
"I would totally be up for that," Hirokazu speaks up. No offense, Hirokazu, but I've seen how you keep your room. It would be like living with my brother again. And besides, a big part of wanting to share a room with Takato is that it would be just the two of us.
"I guess," Takato says, ignoring Hirokazu. This isn't the first time I've brought the idea up, although it is the first time I've done so in front of our friends. "But college is expensive enough. I can live at home for free and I'll still be able to take the bus to class."
"But that's the whole point of being roommates," I remind him. "We'd get to split the cost. I know you're trying to save money, but… Sorry. Can you think about it?"
"Are you sure about moving into student housing, Jen?" Kenta asks. "It's not going to be as nice as you're used to."
"I know, believe me. I saw where my brother and sister lived when they moved out," I say. Lianjie was hardly fazed; if anything he seemed to enjoy it. Jialing though? There are still days she comes home in the afternoons if only to be someplace clean. "But I really, really need to get out of the house." It's not that I don't like my family, but like with high school I am ready for a change of pace. "I thought since I was going to be stuck with roommates anyway, I may as well get a place with one of my friends."
"Like I said, I'd be up for it," Hirokazu reminds me. "Kenta? Want to chip in? Maybe if we split the rent enough ways we'll get Takato off his butt and out of his house."
Kenta hangs his head. "Crap. I haven't even thought about housing yet. I don't know if I could afford it. How do you guys manage all this stuff?"
"Relax, Kenta, you've still got plenty of time," I reassure him. "But seeing as we're on break now might be a good time to sort it out."
He nods. "Yeah. Yeah, that's right. No pressure."
"Glad that's sorted. Now let's not talk about school anymore!" Hirokazu insists. "We're on vacation, damn it! We're here to have some fun!"
"You're right, Hirokazu," Takato says. "Hey, speaking of the break, Jen and I were talking earlier. What do you guys think about a camping trip this summer?"
"Camping, huh?" Hirokazu asks. "I like the way you think, man. I'm in."
"I guess that could be fun," Kenta says cautiously. "What do you think, Jen?"
"Don't even bother asking," Hirokazu cuts me off before I can get a word out. "Of course he'll be there!"
"Yeah, I'm up for it," I add.
Takato laughs. "Glad to hear it. We'll get it all sorted out soon. In the meantime, what are we watching first?"
"We should probably wait for the girls before we pick," I point out. No sooner do I finish what I'm saying than the doorbell rings. "Speak of the devil."
"It's open!" Hirokazu shouts.
Two hours later we're on the second movie of the night and the rain is really coming down outside. Kenta, Takato and I are still in the same spots on the couch. After Juri got here she took the big chair off to the left, meaning that Ruki had to grab a chair from the table. She's sitting next to me, the chair spun around backwards and a blanket balled up on the backrest for her to rest her arms on. Hirokazu's in the bathroom right now, but he's been sitting on the floor in front of the couch all night.
Takato's… a little out of it. He's just barely staying awake. This is why we rarely see much of one another at night anymore. If it was just us I'd love to wrap my arm around him and have him lean against me, but we've got to keep our distance tonight.
It's not that I want our friends to find out about us. It's not that I'm mad that we're hanging out with them when it could be the two of us. It's not even that I'm jealous that Takato's willing to go out at night for Hirokazu but not for me. In fact, I know if I did ask him out he'd agree in a heartbeat; we've tried it before, but he gets… like this. It's that I'm frustrated that we don't get to spend time together like any other couple. Even when we are in the same room it's like we're only together as friends. It would be nice to know that Takato felt the same, but… well, with how he doesn't want to share a room next year, I'm starting to wonder.
"What'd I miss?" Hirokazu shouts as I hear the bathroom door open.
"Nothing much," Kenta says.
"Maybe we should've put on something with more action," Hirokazu says as he pokes around in the kitchen. The rest of us are focused on the screen.
"Shiota's right, for once," Ruki says. "For a spy movie this is pretty sorry."
"I like it. It's really tense," Kenta points out. "Right, Juri?"
"Uh…" Juri stalls. "I guess. Mostly I was wondering if Mr. Yamaki stole his look from the main character."
"What?" Kenta asks. "Oh come on, that looks nothing like him!"
"Huh. Actually now that I think about it, he sort of does," I admit. "That might even be the same brand of sunglasses."
"I knew he must have taken that look from someplace," Ruki says. "Seriously, why else would he wear sunglasses at night? The guy's just a grown-up version of you, Li: a great big geek trying to look like a tough guy."
"Hey now," Takato says, pausing to yawn. "Just because Jen's smart doesn't mean he can't be tough, too."
"Thanks, Takato," I say. "Good to know somebody's on my side."
Ruki snorts. "'Oh Jen, you're sooo smart and sooo strong and sooo sexy. I want you to take me in your manly arms and give me a big, sloppy kiss.' Seriously, Matsuda, just confess your undying love already and get it over with."
"Charming as ever, Ruki," I say, knowing Takato is probably a little too embarrassed right now to come up with any response.
"Move over," Hirokazu says as he tries to push by Ruki with a tub of ice cream and a spoon.
On spotting him, Juri looks away and asks, "Hirokazu, what happened to your pants?"
"Don't need 'em!" he says without missing a beat.
I guess this is Juri's first time staying late at Hirokazu's place. See, there gets to be a certain time of night when Hirokazu, no matter who's around, decides to "air himself out", for lack of a better term. I was surprised my first time too, but I've gotten used to it; Lianjie was never exactly shy either. Takato says he's been doing it for at least as long as they've known each other. In fact—and I still can't believe this story is true—it's that particular habit of Hirokazu's that led Takato to get into Digimon in the first place. From what Takato told me, he was about eight or so when he was spending the night at Hirokazu's. Sure enough, as soon as it started to get late, Hirokazu did what he always does and showed off his Digimon underwear. Takato asked about them, and that got Hirokazu talking about the show. And then the card game. And the comics. So on and so forth from toys to lunchboxes to backpacks, Hirokazu knew about it all and kept on talking about it until they both passed out. After that night, Takato was a fan. I guess I owe Hirokazu for that. Maybe we all do. If it hadn't been for that, Takato might not have made Guilmon. He and I might not have become friends. He might not have come with us to the digital world. He might not have been there to fight the D-Reaper with us.
…Hirokazu's choice of underwear might have saved the world. And now that is a thing I know. I know it and I can never forget it no matter how much I might want to.
"I've been saying for years it's a wonder you can dress yourself," Ruki notes. "Just had to lower the bar a little bit more, huh?"
"I got nothin' to be ashamed of," Hirokazu says as he digs his spoon into the ice cream.
"Try it anyway. You might like it," Ruki says, bouncing the balled-up blanket off his head.
"Hey, watch it! I almost dropped my ice cream."
"Please, Hirokazu?" Juri begs, still looking away. "There are ladies present."
"Don't bring Kitagawa and Matsuda into this," Ruki says. "Do cover up though, Shiota; my jokes about you are a lot funnier if we don't all know how tragically true they are."
"Yeah, c'mon Hirokazu," Takato adds. "Could you at least be a little modest for once?"
Hirokazu snorts. "Pfft. Really, Takato? Between you and me, which one of us was bare-ass naked on national television again?"
Damn it, Hirokazu. Did you have to bring that up again? Ruki, as usual, cackles on being reminded of that. Kenta at least tries not to laugh, but can't help himself. I can feel Takato trying to shrink down next to me, now practically glowing with embarrassment. "Stop that, Hirokazu," I say sternly. "That got old in middle school. Just cover up and watch the movie."
"Fine, whatever," Hirokazu grunts, pulling the blanket around himself. "But only if I can pick what we watch next."
"Suit yourself," Ruki says with a laugh, apparently still in a good mood after what Hirokazu said.
I swear Hirokazu will never stop finding ways to bring that up. Never mind that we were fighting for our lives against the D-Reaper at the time. You'd think Mr. Yamaki would at least have the common sense not to broadcast that to millions of people. Takato was a little reluctant to go back to school after he learned about it. Fortunately the whole "saving the world" thing got a lot more attention. Hirokazu still makes that joke though.
This is how I know I've got nothing to worry about when it comes to going to college next year. Some things never change. Hirokazu still has no shame. Ruki still speaks her mind. And Takato? When we started going out we were worried that we'd lose something, that we wouldn't be friends the way we used to, but we're closer than ever. We still do everything we used to and a couple new things as well.
If we were to break up, though… No, even then I don't think Takato could stop being my friend. Just look at what happened between him and Juri. I was convinced that they'd wind up together. I guess I wasn't the only one. But they're still friends, like nothing ever happened.
Kenta has nothing to worry about. Going to college? Being in different schools? Living in new places? None of that would be enough to change this. I wouldn't be surprised if we were all back here again a year from now as if nothing had changed.
After a little while it seems everyone's started to get into the spy movie. Well, almost everybody; Takato's passed out and Kenta looks like he's close behind. I have to admit, I'm feeling a little drowsy myself. Sorry Hirokazu, but it seems you won't have the kind of "stay up until the break of dawn" bash you'd planned on. Something tells me half of us won't even make it to midnight.
Of course, that leaves Hirokazu, Ruki, and Juri still. Hirokazu's leaning forward, supporting his chin with his hands while the remaining ice cream melts. Ruki's focused enough on the movie that, for the first time all night, she isn't fidgeting in the hope of finding a comfortable position in her chair. Juri seems to be enjoying the movie, although it could just as easily be that she's looking for more clues as to where Mr. Yamaki gets his fashion advice.
Takato stirs beside me, but only enough that he slumps against me. If it was just the two of us I wouldn't mind. He could lean against my shoulder like this all night if he wanted. But it's like he said: tonight we're best friends, nothing more. Best friends don't nap on one another.
"Hey," I whisper as quietly as I can, nudging Takato with my shoulder.
He blinks, and then looks up at me bleary-eyed. "S-sorry," he whispers back. He straightens back up and covers his mouth as he yawns.
"It's okay," I whisper. I understand, Takato. You want to keep us a secret. I do too. But… sometimes I think it would be so much easier to admit it. At least then we wouldn't have to be sneaking around. At least then I wouldn't have to lie to my parents about what I'm doing so much of the time. That's another thing I'm looking forward to when I move out: I'll get to come and go as I want. If I want to go on a date with my boyfriend I can do so without having to come up with some excuse for where I'll be.
Don't do this to yourself, Jianliang. Just have fun, okay? Worry about this some other time. Sure it's rough now, but in a few months things should get easier.
Takato smiles at me as he puts his hand down at his side. I return the smile, but I don't think he's buying it. He glances past me at Ruki, and then back at Kenta and Juri. He relaxes again, closing his eyes and going limp. I look back to the TV, but as I do I feel him thread his fingers in between mine and squeeze my hand.
How does he always seem to know exactly what I need? I lo—really like that about him. After today I needed a little reassurance. It's hard on me having to keep up the act sometimes. But this, right here, is his way of telling me that everything will be alright.
It's not like anyone's going to see us. Our hands are sort of hidden, pinned between his leg and mine. No one's even looking this way. Even if it's only for a couple minutes, I'll get to sit here watching a movie with my boyfriend. Not my best friend: my boyfriend.
No… He's both. That's the best part about this.
That's how I want things to stay.
It's been about an hour since I woke up. I was surprised that I was the first one, but it was a relief too, since Takato had cuddled up to me sometime during the night. When I woke up he was even holding my hand still. If anyone saw it would have been pretty hard to explain, but luckily we were covered by a blanket so even if anyone else woke up they wouldn't have seen much.
We decided we should have breakfast together before we all go our separate ways again. Juri said she'd go to the store and Ruki went along to make sure to get something she'd like. Takato went along too—I think he wanted to try and… I don't know. He gets paranoid that anyone might find out about us, or even suspect it. Last night I didn't think he'd actually sit next to me. Today, though, it's back to spending time with Juri for him.
That left Kenta, Hirokazu and I here. Since Hirokazu waited until the last second to mention that there weren't any clean dishes we—or at least two of us—had to start washing. There's no prize for guessing who said he'd "be right back" and then disappeared into his bedroom. The only thing to come out of there since then has been the sound of Hirokazu snoring.
I hand Kenta a freshly-washed plate and he starts to dry it while I get to work on the next one. We haven't had much to say; I'm still a little tired, I guess. I don't mind the quiet, though, and it's given me some time to think. See, something's been bothering me all morning, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it until just now.
Where did the blanket come from?
The one Takato and I were covered with, I mean. I remember it being passed around a lot last night, but never once did we have it. Juri had it first, I think—she was cold from getting caught out in the rain. But then, later on, Ruki was complaining about the kitchen chair being uncomfortable and Juri gave it to her to try and help out with that. Then, of course, Ruki threw it at Hirokazu and told him to cover up after he "slipped into something more comfortable." The last I remember seeing it, Kenta was using it as a pillow. The first time I remember seeing Takato with it was when we woke up this morning.
I guess he could have gotten cold and grabbed it in his sleep or something. That's possible, right? Still, it's bugging me. If Takato didn't cover up with it, then that means someone else was awake before I was. Someone saw the two of us curled up against one another. And that someone put the blanket on Takato to keep us covered.
…And if that's true, then we have a big problem. If it's true then one of our friends knows about us. I think it would be more of a problem for Takato than for me, but his problems are mine. The last thing I want is to freak him out over this, especially if it turns out to be nothing. But what if he was the one that covered up with the blanket? I don't want to ask someone and make them suspicious. I can't sit back and do nothing, though. What if whoever knows decides to say something in front of everyone else? Or what if they leave and start telling other people? Not that I think any of our friends would do that. Would they? No. No of course they wouldn't. But still… I don't know how they'd react to this.
"I think that plate's just about clean now," Kenta says with a chuckle.
Crap. Have I been washing that one plate this whole time? "Sorry," I say.
"Something on your mind?" Kenta asks.
"No. Just a little tired is all." I hand the plate to Kenta and start on the next one. Yeah. Tired. I've been tired for a while. Tired of the lies. Tired of hiding. Tired of… everything. The only thing holding me back is how afraid I am of what might happen if I came out to anyone. But every day I get more tired of hiding and my fear stays the same. Sooner or later I'll have had enough and finally do it.
I know I'm less afraid now than when I first realized I liked other guys. I owe Takato so much for helping me deal with that. I never would have had the courage if he didn't say it first. And when I did say it… He was the first person I ever admitted it to. All my fears were riding on how anyone I told would react, but the first person I told not only took it well, but he actually liked me back.
Would you believe I thanked him for having the courage to come out to me? It's true. I was on the verge of tears at the time, and the very first words I managed to get out were, "Thank you."
"J-Jen, I… I'm sorry, okay? Please don't be upset." I don't think he even heard what I'd said. I still feel bad about scaring him.
I wiped my eyes and tried to smile. I must have looked pretty silly, almost breaking down like that. I can't even remember the last time I cried before then. But when I looked up at him again, and I saw how worried he was, I couldn't help myself. I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him as tight as I could, like I was afraid it was a dream and if I didn't hold on it would slip away. "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!" I kept saying it over and over.
He was confused, but happy. "You're welcome?"
"I-I-I…" I don't know if it's harder to believe that I hesitated to say it, or that I managed to get it out at all. "I'm… gay."
I didn't stop hugging him or even open my eyes until after I knew he was okay with it. There was no way he could have a problem with it, but I was still afraid he would. In the face of that kind of fear, nothing else matters.
"So… Have fun last night?" Kenta asks.
I barely nod at him. "Uh-huh."
Get it together, Jianliang. This is no time to be thinking about that, not when you've got a mystery on your hands. Whoever it was that covered us up must have realized we weren't just friends. After all, they wouldn't have done so if they didn't think it was something worth hiding. It was pretty warm in here last night, so we didn't need the blanket for heat. And if they wanted to protect us, then that means they don't have a problem with it, right?
But who, though? Takato, probably. After all, he could have very easily reached over, grabbed the blanket, and put it around himself. But if he was awake then why wouldn't he move? He would have avoided the problem entirely by moving over a few inches and no one would ever suspect a thing. He was even still holding my hand when I woke up. I really wish it was Takato, but it doesn't make any sense. He doesn't want to get caught any more than I do. He'd never risk that if he could help it.
Kenta, maybe? He was the closest one to us, after all, and he was the last one I remember having the blanket. I know for a fact it wasn't Hirokazu or Ruki; if it had been one of them that saw Takato and I they wouldn't pass up the chance for a good laugh at our expense. Either one of them would probably be hanging up banners and throwing confetti.
Or it could have been Juri. I would much rather have Hirokazu or Ruki know than Juri. When Takato came out to me his only condition was that I wouldn't tell Juri.
"Yeah, Takato?" I admit I was hardly paying attention at the time. We were studying at his place.
"Can I, um, tell you something?"
"Of course. What's up?"
I remember thinking he sounded weird, hoarse, almost like he was getting a cold. "Could you… Could you make me a promise first though? Could you promise that, no matter what, you won't tell Juri what I'm about to tell you?"
"What?" I was confused, but he had my full attention.
"It's a secret and I really, REALLY don't want her to find out," he explained. At first I thought it was something mundane like a present he was going to get for her. Boy was I wrong.
"If it's that important, then fine. I promise I won't tell Juri a thing."
He seemed a little relieved at hearing that. "Good. …Good." He sat there for a little while without saying anything more until I finally spoke up.
"So, uh, what was it you were going to tell me?"
"Right! Right. Um, well… How can I put this?" He was wringing out the front of his hoodie in his hands nervously. Obviously he wasn't looking my way. "Do you, uh… Have you ever…? S-sorry, I'm probably not making much sense, am I? What I mean is…" He took another long pause. I didn't say anything this time; I know that Takato has trouble finding the right words. After a little while he took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. "I'm bi."
It took a few seconds for it to sink in. That was when I started tearing up.
Of all the things he could have asked me, from not being mad to not telling anyone, the one thing he asked of me was that I not tell Juri. I'm going to stick to that promise no matter what. Could Juri be the one who covered us up with the blanket? Maybe. It seems like something she might do, given the chance. But of course, she would have had to take the blanket off of Kenta in the first place. I don't know that he would have slept through that, or that Juri could have gone back to where she was sleeping without waking anyone up; she'd have to step over Hirokazu after all. For Kenta it would have been a piece of cake.
It has to be Kenta. Right? He was closest. He had the blanket. If so then… well, so what? Doing that shows that he supports us. He's looking out for us. Kenta is a friend of ours. That's not going to change just because he finds out Takato and I are together.
Thank you, Kenta. Thank you, thank you, thank you. "Thank you…"
"Huh?" Kenta looks over at me.
"Oh, uh, nothing," I say quickly. I can't believe I said that out loud just now. I hand him the next plate. "Sorry."
"It's okay." He gives me a weird look, but seems to shake it off.
I get started on a glass. That was stupid, but at least I didn't say anything worse. If it was the same way I reacted to Takato I might have just come out on the spot. Then again, it's not like he doesn't already know anyway, so what would be the harm? I can't even believe this. I guess that makes Kenta the third person to know about me. Telling Takato was an amazing experience. Xiaochun, on the other hand…
"Don't move. I need to get my camera!"
Takato spent the rest of the day apologizing to me for biting down on my lip like that. I didn't blame him of course, and I had other things on my mind anyway. At least I only made it out with a bite on the lip. Takato though, um, might have wound up with a, uh, slight bruise… on his backside. I was surprised, okay? I might have grabbed a little hard onto whatever was… at hand. At least we both still had all our clothes on. I'm glad it didn't take much to convince Xiaochun not to say anything to anyone else. She understands the situation enough to respect that, but it hasn't stopped her from giving us a hard time about it.
Now Kenta knows too. But he doesn't know that I know he knows. And I…
I am so… tired.
"Hey, Kenta?" What would be the harm in it now?
"Yeah, Jen?" I want to tell someone. Anyone. Who better than someone who already knows?
"Can I… Uh, nothing. Never mind." What if I'm wrong though? What if it wasn't him? I think it makes sense, but what if it doesn't? What if I'm jumping to conclusions? I'm basing all of this on Takato having a damn blanket!
"What is it?" he persists.
"I…" No. Stop doubting yourself, Jianliang. You always do this. You chicken out every time you try to tell someone. Even with Takato, after he'd already told you he was bi, you hesitated. You hesitated, and even when you did say it, you didn't tell him all of it.
"Y-you are?" Takato asked. "Really? You? I never imagined that you…" He hugged me back as tight as I hugged him.
"And I…" And I love you, Takato. "I…" I am so in love with you that it hurts. "I-I want…" I want to be with you. "I want… to thank you. Thank you so, SO much for… for saying what you said. I never could have done it first." And I still couldn't. I couldn't say what I wanted to.
I know I shouldn't be using the L-word. When Takato says it so will I, but not until then.
"Come on, Jen," Kenta says. "What's bugging you?"
I clear my throat. "Could you make me a promise?"
Kenta gives me another weird look. "A promise?"
I nod, keeping my eyes down on the glass I'm washing. "It's important."
"Sure, anything." He looks worried. I hate making people worry. It's why I couldn't tell anyone about Terriermon. It's why I didn't tell dad that I was going to the digital world. And now I still can't tell them about what's going on with me. Even if they didn't have a problem with it, they'd still worry. But I can tell Kenta.
"Promise that, um…" Promise what? That he'll accept me? That he won't tell anyone? That even if I say this out loud, nothing will change and I can go on with my normal life as if none of this ever happened? As if I wasn't… like this? "Just… promise me you'll listen." That's the only thing I can ask of him.
He's still giving me that look. "Okay. I promise."
I swallow. "Thanks," I say just above a whisper. Come on, Jianliang. He already knows. You can't back out now. Dragging it out like this is only making things awkward. Say it. "I, uh…" Say it! "I…"
Just say it. Say it, say it, SAY IT!
I open my mouth, but my voice catches in my throat.
I said it. I really said it.
Didn't I? I don't know. It feels like I'm dreaming. This is all so unreal.
"Wh-what?" Kenta asks. The look on his face is… stunned. This is real.
I don't say anything. I look down at the glass in my hand. Even if he knows, he still needs to think about it. It was the same for me when Takato came out. I was even more speechless when he called me up a few weeks later and asked me on a date. Even knowing that he could like me, I told myself there was no way he ever would. I lost sleep thinking about that. But then, out of the blue, I answered my phone and the first words out of his mouth were, "Jen, do you want to go on a date?" I felt sick, but in a good way. Butterflies in my stomach. We had fast food and visited the arcade. It wasn't much different from hanging out like we always had, right up until the point when I had my first kiss.
I still haven't said anything. Neither has Kenta. Do I ask him what's wrong? Should I give him more time? This silence is awful.
I hand the glass I'm holding to Kenta. He doesn't do anything for a few seconds, but then he takes it. I can finally breathe again as I start the faucet and get to work on the next glass. No matter what, I said it. I said it and he didn't pull away. I'm still me. He's still him. Saying the magic words didn't turn me into a pumpkin or anything.
Finally Kenta speaks up again. "…Really?" he asks, sounding like he still can't believe it.
All I can bring myself to do is nod.
Kenta looks down and starts drying the glass. "I never thought… I never even suspected that you were, you know… like that."
He didn't? But he had to. I mean, he had to. There's no way it was anyone else. The only explanation is that it was him. It HAS to be him. He MUST have known. "You didn't?" Because if it wasn't him, then… What have I done?
He shakes his head. "Not even for a second."
"…Oh." I hand Kenta the next glass and look back to the sink. We're out of dishes to wash. Kenta didn't know. He didn't know, but now he does. I told him. He knows now. And what's more, someone else knows too. I think I might throw up. What did you do, Jianliang? How stupid are you? "Is this… okay?" I can't believe this. I was so sure. Wasn't I? I told myself there was no other way, but Kenta didn't know. I was wrong. Why did I say anything at all? Was I really so desperate to tell anyone that I would do this to myself?
"Y-yeah! Of course," Kenta says. He seems to be taking his time drying the last glass. "Whatever you like is, uh, is fine. I don't judge or anything." He swallows.
Why did I do this? Why? Damn it! I am such an idiot! My stomach feels like it's twisting around on itself. I can't believe this is happening.
At least it's Kenta. He and I might not be best friends or anything, but if anyone can keep this quiet it's him, right? He wouldn't have a problem with this. He said so himself! But then why is he so nervous? He keeps on drying that same glass over and over. He's staring down at it now, wordlessly.
"You're sure?" I ask.
Kenta takes in a deep breath, sniffling a bit as he does so. "Yeah! It's great." His voice is shaking. "Thanks for, uh, for telling me and all." He puts down the glass and the towel in a hurry. "Hey, you should go wake up Hirokazu. The food should be here any minute and he'd hate to miss out." I think he's about to cry. "I'll go see if they're almost here. Okay?"
Kenta doesn't even wait for me to say anything back before he turns to go. It looks like he can barely stop himself from sprinting out the front door.
I knew it. I knew all along that this would happen sooner or later. I don't get it. I was so sure it was him. It couldn't be anyone else, could it? I guess it had to be, but who?
It doesn't matter now, does it? Now that I've told Kenta and he's taking it this badly, everyone will know anyway. It's not like I can stop him from telling them. Strange. I'd grown used to thinking it would be Xiaochun who would out me. I guess she's off the hook now, seeing as I've done it to myself.
My head is swimming and I can't seem to move. This is bad. At least I didn't say anything about Takato though, right? His secret is still safe. That's what's important.
It was so much easier being on the other side of things. That was stressful, but compared to this? I don't know how Takato did it. I asked him what it was like coming out to me and he said it was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. I didn't really believe him until right now. I thought that it couldn't compare to everything we went through in the digital world and dealing with the D-Reaper. Don't get me wrong, I still think everything we did back then was the hardest thing I've ever been through. This is a different kind of challenge though. Like Takato told me, we had to do the things we did back then. Coming out was a choice.
I have to do something. If I can talk to Kenta then maybe it won't be so bad. It will be like with Xiaochun. Okay, so Xiaochun never really had a problem with this. She likes to tease us, but that's because we're dating, not because we're… not because I'm gay. I still have to try though, don't I? If I could talk to him, maybe I can make him see reason. Or at least I could beg him not to tell anyone. He's still my friend, after all. He's been there since before we all went to the digital world. He'll listen to reason.
Now if only I could make my legs move.
The front door opens again. Maybe that's Ke—
"Hurry up already," Ruki announces as she steps inside. "We're not getting any younger."
"Ruki?" I ask.
"Here's the food," she says, dropping a couple full plastic bags on the counter. "I hope you got the dishes done."
The front door closes as Juri comes in with a couple more bags. "Sorry we took so long," she says. "I couldn't decide what to get. Do you like eggs, Jen?"
I nod at her. "Uh-huh. Where's Takato?"
"Ran into Kitagawa outside and they got to talking," Ruki explains. That's not going to help matters.
"Do you think Hirokazu would mind if I used the stove?" Juri asks.
I shake my head, but I'm barely listening. I've got to get out there. "You could ask. He's in his room."
Ruki rolls her eyes. "That figures."
"I'll be right back," I say. Juri's already unpacking the things they brought for breakfast and Ruki flops down on the couch, turning the TV on.
I close the door behind me as I step out into the brisk morning air. The walkway is damp from last night's rain, but the sky is perfectly clear today. It sounds like a normal morning: the noise of traffic coming up from the street, birds singing… and hushed voices coming from off to the side. I look over to find Kenta and Takato talking.
I'm too late. Kenta's told Takato that I told him. I've got to get over there. I need to explain.
…If only so that my boyfriend doesn't think I outed him.
"Kenta!" I call out. "Wait!" Even though he has his back to me I can see his whole body lock up. Neither of them says anything as I jog over. "I shouldn't have told you I'm gay!"
The color instantly drains out of Takato's face. "You told him we were…?" he squeaks.
Silence. No one says a word for what seems like forever. And when someone finally does speak up it's the last person I would have expected: Kenta. "…'We'?" he asks.
I didn't think it was possible, but Takato looks even paler after hearing that. "Wh-what?"
I swallow. "I, uh… I didn't say 'we'. Just, um, 'I'." Sorry, Takato. I know that look, but please don't beat yourself up over this. It's my fault. Now doubly so. "Kenta, you… you didn't tell him what I said?"
Kenta shakes his head. I am officially the dumbest person I know.
"What did you mean?" Kenta asks again. "When you said… 'we'?"
"I…" Takato is struggling to say something, but nothing's coming out.
I stay silent. If there's a way out of this I don't have a clue what it is. Maybe if I can explain it won't be so bad.
"Takato?" Kenta asks him.
"I'm sorry," I blurt out. "Kenta, I shouldn't have said anything. And I… I understand how you feel about this, I guess."
"N-no!" Kenta yelps. "I don't… I told you it's okay. I just… I did not see this coming. O-or…" He looks at Takato, then back to me. "I, uh, I promise it's okay, Jen. I swear."
"But the way you ran out here…" I start.
"I'm shocked is all," Kenta says, starting to sound like he's calming down a little. "I never even imagined that… Well, I guess I never really thought that you'd be that way. Or that you'd tell me like that." He actually almost laughs at that. I have to admit I never imagined coming out to anyone quite like that either. "But, uh, just… be honest, okay?" He looks at Takato again. "Takato, are you…? Are you gay too?"
Takato hesitates for a couple seconds, shuffling his feet, pursing his lips and turning a vibrant shade of pink before quietly admitting, "I'm… bi."
Kenta nods. "And are you two, you know, together?"
Takato nods and I do the same a second later. "Yeah," I say.
Kenta starts to smile. "That's great, guys. I'm really happy for you."
Takato starts to perk up a little, even cracking a bashful smile himself. "Thanks, Kenta."
"Are you sure, Kenta?" I ask. "The way you ran out of there earlier…"
"You surprised me, is all," Kenta says with a soft laugh that makes me feel like he really means it. "I never thought either of you might… Why tell me?"
Takato looks my way as well, appearing pretty miffed. "Yeah, Jen. Why?"
"I, uh, thought that you might have, um… figured us out. I guess I thought that, um—Look it's stupid, all right? It doesn't matter now anyway." I sigh. "Sorry about all this."
"What? You thought Kenta might've figured us out?" Takato asks. "How?"
"It's sort of a long story," I begin. "But I could swear somebody must have last night, and it seemed like Kenta was the only option. I guess I was wrong. Did Ruki or Juri say anything?"
Takato shakes his head at me. "Not a word. What about Hirokazu?"
"He's barely said anything all morning," Kenta points out. "He's been in his room… since… you…"
My breath catches in my throat. "You don't think…?"
"He could have just been tired," Takato says. "Maybe."
"Yeah," Kenta agrees. "This is Hirokazu after all. I mean, if Hirokazu thought you two… There's no way he'd keep quiet about something like that."
"Of course not," I say. Then again, he's been alone all morning. Who knows what he's been up to? For all I know he could have called everyone in the phonebook to share the news by now. "Maybe we should check on him though."
"If you really want to," Takato agrees. "But don't jump to conclusions."
"Of course not," I say. I've learned my lesson after Kenta. "Let's see how he's doing. If he does know then it should be pretty obvious, don't you think?" Hirokazu wouldn't be able to keep his mouth shut. "You're sure Ruki and Juri didn't even hint that they might know something?"
"They were totally normal," said Takato. "I think we all know Ruki wouldn't have cut me any breaks if she knew this."
"Not without money changing hands," Kenta adds.
"And Juri…" Takato clears his throat. "She was normal."
"I'm glad to hear that," I tell him.
"Kenta, I need to ask a huge favor," Takato says. "Whatever happens, please don't tell Juri."
"Of course," Kenta says with a nod. "I promise I won't say a thing to her."
Takato and I don't talk a lot about keeping things secret. A few times we've wondered about what it would be like coming out to our families, but I don't like to dwell on that. I get this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I even think about it, like my intestines are tied up in knots. But one thing Takato has made very clear since the very beginning is that he does not want Juri to find out. Not ever.
I wonder sometimes how much he still likes her. I can still remember the times he wanted my advice on asking girls out. I was obviously not the best person to go to for that, but I think it helped calm his nerves at least. Ever since I first met him he's had a thing for Juri; everyone knew it. It was only a matter of time until he got up the nerve to tell her how he felt.
He was a wreck after she turned him down. He told me a little about her reasons. I don't think anyone can truly understand without going through what Juri did. Don't get me wrong, I care about Juri like a sister, but I've never felt close to her. I'm not sure anyone ever has, except for maybe Takato. I don't think she wants anyone getting close.
He loved her, I'm sure of it. Maybe he still does. Maybe that's why he won't say it to me. If Juri decided she could love him back, what chance would I stand? He could be with the one he loved. The girl he loved. I could never compete with that. As long as he's with me he's a pervert. A sicko. A freak. We both are.
He could be normal and I could go back to being alone.
"Jen?" Takato asks.
"Huh?" I look up. Takato and Kenta had been talking, but now they're looking at me.
"We should get in there," Takato says.
"Can I come too?" Kenta asks. "Maybe I can help."
"Sure. It would be great to have another friendly face," Takato says.
"Let's get this over with then," I say. And there's that feeling again, the same one I had before I tried talking to Kenta. At this point I almost hope that Hirokazu was the one that covered Takato and I with the blanket, if only so that I won't ever have to do this again.
The three of us file back into the apartment, Takato leading the way while I bring up the rear. I think it would be best if I gave him a little space right now. Ruki and Juri are just like I left them.
"Took you long enough," Ruki says from the couch. "All done with your tea party, ladies?"
"You guys take all the time you want," Juri says helpfully. "I'm just getting started on breakfast."
"Do you need a hand with anything?" Takato offers.
"Thanks, but I think I've got a handle on things here," Juri says. "You don't grow up in a restaurant without knowing how to crack eggs. Could you make sure Hirokazu's up, though? And ask him how he likes his eggs."
"Sure thing! Happy to help," Takato says, nodding to Kenta and I.
"…Oh! I'll, uh, help you, Takato" Kenta says after a moment.
"Me too," I add.
"Weirdoes," Ruki grumbles as the three of us head for Hirokazu's room.
Being the last one in, I close the door behind me. Hirokazu's already up and about, more or less, sitting at his desk. "Morning, guys!" he says cheerfully. "Breakfast ready yet?"
"Not yet," Takato says. "How are… things?"
"No complaints," Hirokazu says with a shrug.
Kenta and I exchange glances. He seems like his usual self. Maybe he doesn't know. Maybe.
"That's good," Takato says, pausing for a moment.
Hirokazu looks around at us. "How are things with you guys?"
"Fine. Things are fine," Takato says. "How'd you sleep?"
"Still a little tired," Hirokazu says. "That floor isn't the best place to spend the night."
Takato breathes a small sigh of relief. "Uh-huh."
"The couch isn't a whole lot better," Kenta points out.
"Not with three people," I add.
Hirokazu laughs. "Yeah, I bet. I've slept there a few times, but only by myself."
"Heh. Yeah…" Takato nods. Hirokazu seems like himself, at least. If he does know, then he's not showing it.
"Is everything all right?" Hirokazu asks. "You guys seem a little weird."
"We're good," Kenta speaks up.
"You sure?" he persists.
"Definitely," Takato says.
"Good, 'cause I was thinking about this trip," Hirokazu says.
"Trip?" Takato asks.
"Yeah, the camping trip," Hirokazu explains. "We were talking about it last night."
"Oh yeah. Sorry, I forgot," Takato admits.
"Don't worry about it," Hirokazu tells him. "Anyway, how's next week for you guys?"
"Next week?" Takato asks. "Isn't that kind of short notice?"
"C'mon, I know you don't have anything better planned," Hirokazu points out.
Takato hesitates. "I don't know. I didn't think it would be so soon."
"Where's your sense of adventure, man?" Hirokazu asks. "Kenta's in and you wouldn't want to leave him all alone in the woods with me, right?"
"Wait, what?" Kenta asks. "Who says I'm in?"
"Kenta, dude, you're supposed to back me up on this," Hirokazu says in a hushed tone. "Besides, we all know you'll say yes sooner or later."
Kenta grumbles at that but doesn't actually disagree.
"Well, I guess next week might work," Takato says reluctantly.
"Awesome!" Hirokazu cheers. "So that's the four of us, then. Think we should ask the girls, too, or—"
"Hang on, I didn't agree to anything yet," I point out.
"But Takato's coming!" Hirokazu says. "When was the last time the two of you didn't go everywhere together?"
I hesitate before answering. "That's not… We don't do everything together. Besides, I have other stuff to do, okay?" Hirokazu could be implying… something by that, but he's not wrong. Takato and I do spend a lot of time together. It doesn't mean anything.
"Live a little, Jen," Hirokazu pleads. "Are you telling me you want to stay home and study instead of spending a week of your summer vacation camping out?"
"Who said anything about a whole week?" I ask. "I can't miss a week of classes."
Hirokazu scoffs. "You and your cram school. It's not like you even need it. You already got into the college you wanted. You remember: the one the rest of us aren't going to."
Takato shakes his head at that. "Give him a break, Hirokazu."
"Yeah, take it easy," Kenta adds. "If you keep going on like that, Jen might start to think you're jealous."
"Pfft. Yeah, right," Hirokazu says. "Everyone knows Nihon has the best parties. Point is, you're talking about going to dumb old school, which you already told us you were so bored with, instead of spending a week camping, swimming, hiking and drinking in the woods with Takato and us."
Why Takato especially? "I'll have plenty of time to hang out with you guys all summer long and next year too," I say. "But I still have to go to class."
"I don't know that I can make it," Kenta cuts in. "I don't even have a sleeping bag or anything."
"So borrow Takato's," Hirokazu suggests. "He can share with Jen anyway, right guys?"
I almost choke when he says that. Is he joking? Is he serious? He looks serious enough. If it was a joke he'd be smiling or something. But if he's serious, there's no way he'd come out and say it like that. Maybe he thinks we're close enough friends for that.
Takato forces out a nervous chuckle. "Why can't Kenta share yours?" he asks.
Hirokazu snickers at that. "What makes you think I won't already have some company? I was thinking about maybe inviting a girl from school along."
Kenta grumbles. "You can't be serious."
"Don't worry, I'm sure I can find a girl for you too," Hirokazu adds.
"That's not what I meant," Kenta insists.
"C'mon, man. Half the fun of a camping trip is getting a little action," Hirokazu says. "Why should Jen and Takato be the only ones having a good time?"
I feel my heart jump up into my throat. Kenta clears his throat and starts to mumble something, but his voice cracks and it dies in his throat. The best Takato can manage is another half-hearted laugh. Hirokazu isn't laughing. It has to be another one of Hirokazu's dumb jokes. It has to be. He's just… playing it straight-faced this time.
Hirokazu rolls his eyes at us. "What's the matter, you two getting shy all of a sudden? Don't worry, I promise nobody's going to ruin your 'private time'."
"How long have you known?" Takato asks suddenly.
Hirokazu looks at him, seeming surprised. "Huh?"
"About Jen and I," Takato clarifies. I can't bring myself to look Hirokazu in the eye. I'd prefer he not see my face right now.
He shrugs at the question. "I don't know. A few months at least. Winter, maybe?"
"Winter?" Kenta repeats in a stunned tone.
"I guess," Hirokazu says nonchalantly. "Why?" He knew about us the entire time? And he never once said a word?
"We, uh, didn't think you knew," Takato says. "Or anyone else for that matter."
"Really?" Hirokazu asks. "What, was it supposed to be a secret or something?"
Takato's eye twitches. "Sort of."
Hirokazu snickers at that. "Then you guys should probably stop making out where just about anybody can see you."
I have to hide my face on hearing that. I can sense Takato shrink down a bit too. "O-oh," he says.
"…Winter," Kenta repeats to himself. "You knew… since winter."
"I don't have a problem with it or anything," Hirokazu adds. "As far as I knew, you guys didn't either. I mean, the way you two were always running off to go on dates or fool around at Takato's place, I figured you—"
"We get it," I interrupt him.
"Okay, jeez. Sorry," Hirokazu says.
"How come you never told us?" Takato asks.
"How come you never told me?" Hirokazu shoots back.
"I guess we weren't sure how you felt about that sort of thing," Takato admits.
"C'mon, you guys know me better than that," Hirokazu insists.
"But weren't you even surprised?" Takato asks.
"A little," Hirokazu admits. "After that whole thing with Juri I figured you were probably off the market for a while."
"No, not that," Takato says, sounding a little frustrated. "I mean because we're, you know… both guys."
"Oh, that," Hirokazu says. "Yeah, I guess Jen surprised me. You, though? I had you figured out after you couldn't stop checking me out in the locker room years ago."
I don't think I've ever seen Takato turn so red so fast.
"I—I wasn't… You were…" he stammers before petering off awkwardly. "…I need to lie down."
"Anyway," Hirokazu says, "I'm surprised you guys thought I didn't know."
"Well it's not like we ever told you or anything," I point out.
"Yeah, but I figured you didn't have to," Hirokazu insists. "It was just 'understood', you know what I mean? Like last night I had Takato call you to see if you were free. I didn't want to butt in if you two had some plans. A little private celebration for the start of summer, maybe? Or how about that whole roommate thing? Why do you think I was tryin' so hard to get Takato to go along with it? You two wouldn't mind sharing a room, right? Maybe even just a bed?"
I hope Hirokazu has some aspirin around here, because I suddenly feel a headache coming on. I let out a long sigh as I pinch the bridge of my nose between my fingers. Hirokazu's sudden fit of giggles is not helping.
"Winter," Kenta repeats yet again, sounding angry this time. "You knew about this since freaking winter? And you never told me?!"
"C-calm down, Kenta," Takato interrupts him. "It's not such a big deal."
Kenta is fuming. "I'm your best friend and you never once thought about maybe—just maybe—telling me about any of this?"
"I figured you knew," Hirokazu explains weakly.
I have to ask one more time. "Kenta, are you sure you're okay with—"
"Yes," Kenta says through gritted teeth. "No problems here… at least with you two." He glares at Hirokazu. "You though…"
"Honest, I didn't know it was such a big deal," Hirokazu says in his defense. "Sorry about not telling you, okay? If it'll make you feel better, I once saw Ruki and Ryou—"
"Like I give a crap about that!" Kenta snaps.
"Kenta, seriously, relax," Takato pleads.
Kenta inhales sharply and lets it out slowly. "S-sorry," he apologizes. "I lost my head there for a minute. But I mean it, Hirokazu. You should have told me."
"I'm amazed he didn't," I have to point out. "No offense, Hirokazu, but I didn't think you could be so discreet with something like this." I figured if anyone could be worse about keeping this secret than Xiaochun, it would be Hirokazu. But he's actually kept quiet… and, in his own way, he's even been trying to help us. He'd really be okay being our roommate? Even knowing we're together? Hirokazu, you never fail to surprise me.
"Give me a little credit," Hirokazu says. "I've got much better stuff to talk about than my friends' sex lives. Don't get me wrong, that's great for you guys and all, but I don't want to know any details."
"We wouldn't tell you anything even if there were details to share," I let him know.
"See, that was one of those things I didn't need to know about," Hirokazu points out. "It's none of my business how, where, when, or even if you're getting laid. If I need to vent about that sort of thing, I can talk about girls with Kenta."
Kenta grunts at that. "Lucky me."
"Don't be mad, Kenta," Hirokazu begs. "At least you know now, right? So what's the big deal?"
"Only because Jen told me," Kenta says. "I thought best friends were supposed to tell each other stuff like this!"
Now that the cat's out of the bag, I have to check something for my own peace of mind. "Hirokazu, did you put a blanket over Takato and I this morning?" I ask.
He looks at me blankly. "Blanket?"
"When we fell asleep last night it wasn't there," I say. "And this morning it was. I figured that someone must have put it over us."
Hirokazu shrugs. "Wasn't me."
"Jen?" Takato asks. "Is that why you thought someone knew about us?"
Hearing it out loud, it sounds a lot sillier than it did in my head. "…Yeah."
"Well you were half right, Jen," Kenta points out. "Someone did know. Someone who was keeping his big, dumb mouth shut for once."
"Hey, I keep my mouth shut plenty," Hirokazu insists.
"Since when?" Kenta asks. "You can't even stop yourself from bringing up that time the whole world saw Takato's… birthmark."
Takato blushes at that while Hirokazu chuckles. "I could stop myself if I wanted to," he says. "I don't want to though."
"You're not helping, Hirokazu," I tell him.
"Jen?" Takato asks. "I, uh… I have to tell you something."
"What is it?" I ask.
"This is… a little embarrassing," he admits, "but I was the one that covered up with the blanket."
My mind freezes. "…You?"
He nods. "Are you mad?"
I slap my own forehead. "Only at myself," I say. At least that mystery has been solved.
"I didn't think you'd go telling anyone about us over that," Takato says in his own defense.
"It's my fault anyway," I tell him. "I thought you wouldn't want to spend the night like that where anyone could see us."
Takato sighs. "All I wanted was to spend the night with you."
"Dude. Gross," Hirokazu says, making a face.
"Way to ruin the moment," Kenta says to him.
"It's what I do best," Hirokazu says with a crooked smile.
"Well, thanks anyway, Hirokazu," Takato speaks up again, "for being so cool with all this."
"No problem, man," Hirokazu says.
So that's that. We don't have to bring anyone else in on this. Unless…. "Hirokazu, do you know if anybody else knows about us?" I ask.
He thinks for a couple seconds before answering. "Sure. A few."
Great. If Hirokazu caught us, who else might have?
"What about, um…" Takato hesitates. "Does Juri?"
Hirokazu shakes his head. "Don't think so. I know I haven't said anything to her."
Takato breathes a sigh of relief and I do the same for his sake. At least there's that.
"I guess Ruki might have told her though," Hirokazu goes on.
I feel my heart skip a beat and I can see the color drain from Takato's face.
"Ruki knows?" Takato, Kenta and I all ask at once.
Before Hirokazu can answer there's a loud banging on his bedroom door. "Get your sorry butts out here if you want any food!" Ruki shouts in her best I-am-not-a-morning-person tone of voice.
Takato hangs his head and balls his hands into fists. "Okay, okay, okay," he grumbles. "So Ruki knows. We can deal with this."
"Yeah, we can think of a way to handle it," I say. "I'm sure if we talk to her we can—"
"No," Takato says abruptly. "Just… Just leave this to me, okay? No one say a word to her or Juri. I'll deal with this later, but for now act like nothing happened. Okay?"
I shrink down. "Okay." Takato's right. All the thinking I've done today, every time I tried to talk to someone, it only made things worse.
Takato turns to Kenta and Hirokazu next. "Okay, guys?"
"Cross my heart," Hirokazu says.
"Of course," Kenta adds.
Takato sighs and stands up again. "Good." He takes a deep breath and walks out into the living room, shutting the door behind him again.
A quiet moment passes before Hirokazu speaks up. "Dude, what's eating him?"
"He's a little angry," I say, knowing full well that I'm the one he's angry at.
"He's not the only one," Kenta says, glaring at Hirokazu once more.
"I don't get it!" Hirokazu says defensively. "I mean, even if I didn't say anything, I don't know how you could miss it!"
"Still not helping," I say as I stand and inch towards the door.
"So you won't talk to me about it, but you'll talk to Ruki?" Kenta asks.
"She's the one that brought it up!" Hirokazu tries explaining.
Thankfully I manage to slip out of the room and avoid the rest of that awkward situation, only to walk right out into another one. Ruki is leaning against the kitchen island, drumming her fingers on the laminate, while Takato has gone over to help Juri finish breakfast. I'd offer to lend a hand, but that would not help matters. Even if Ruki didn't immediately say something snarky about how much time Takato and I spend together, I can't help but think that Takato could use a little space right now.
So I'll just play along. I'll keep my head down and my mouth shut. I'll act like I don't know Ruki's jokes are entirely serious. We'll have breakfast and then I'll go home. Takato will be mad at me for a few days, but I'll apologize and then things will start to calm down again. If we can at least keep Juri in the dark Takato won't be too mad.
Everything we went through to save Juri from the D-Reaper… That was when Takato went from liking her to really falling in love. I don't even know how many times he called me just to ask what he should do. By the time high school rolled around he was dead-set on asking her out, but he worked himself up so much that he couldn't bring himself to actually do it for the longest time. In a way, it was a relief for all of us that he finally got it over with. Even though she turned him down he could finally move on.
The way Takato said it happened, Juri said that she couldn't see herself dating at all. She liked him, but not in that way. She didn't like anyone that way. I always expected I'd hear something like that if I ever told Takato how I felt about him. I understand why he'd want to keep this a secret from her. Coming out to anyone is scary enough, but telling someone you were in love with, someone you poured your heart out to, someone who rejected you… Back when we first came out to each other, before we even had our first date, I asked Takato why he made me promise not to tell Juri of all people.
"Why not make me promise not to tell you family?" I asked.
"I'm not sure, really," he admitted sheepishly. "I mean, I don't want you to tell them either. But Juri means a lot to me, you know? I don't want to hurt her."
"You think she'd take it hard?" I asked.
"No. Well, maybe, but… I don't think so." He shook his head and looked off into space. "I'm not proud of this, though. If she knew…"
I could relate. Ever since I first had an inkling that I was "different" I felt so ashamed of it. I'd do everything I could to hide it. I tried forcing myself to be normal, but that failed. Of course it did. It was stupid of me, but I still had to try.
I gave Takato a hug, then. We both needed it.
"She'd blame herself," Takato went on. "I know she would. Not for making me this way, but… for other things. For breaking my heart. For every time she could have helped but didn't. For every time this hurts me. She'd think she could have helped me if only she had said yes."
I wonder, sometimes, whether Takato thinks the same thing. If only she'd said yes. I worry that he's holding out hope that one day she'll change her mind and he can dump me and be with her. Then he can go on with his nice, normal, heterosexual life with his adoring wife and two-point-five freaking kids. Not everyone has that option.
I know I'm just being stupid when I think things like that. Takato wouldn't do that. He's always saying how happy he is, how he looks forward to the time we spend together. I know I'm just being neurotic. But knowing something doesn't change how I feel. All that time spent wishing I could be with him, and now that I have him I'm afraid of losing him. I'm afraid I already have lost him, or that I never had him to begin with. He loved Juri. Maybe he still does. So what am I to him? I'm still more his best friend than his boyfriend. Maybe that will never change.
"Come and get it!" Juri calls out, breaking my focus. I have to jump out of the way as Hirokazu comes charging out of his room.
"We are sooo not finished talking about this," Kenta chides him, following close behind.
I guess I spaced out for a minute. Takato and Juri are finishing up breakfast. It's nothing too fancy, just eggs and some trimmings, except for Ruki's miso soup, but with Takato and Juri cooking it's sure to be great. I could use it too; after all the excitement this morning I am starving. I bet a good meal would help settle my stomach. Ruki sits on a stool against the counter while the rest of us grab plates and start dishing up. Hirokazu sits at the table first, followed by Kenta, who sits next to him even while still glaring daggers at him. I take the seat across from Hirokazu.
"Go on and have a seat, Takato," Juri says as she serves herself.
"Oh, no, that's alright. You go ahead," he responds.
"I'm fine, really," she tells him.
Takato shakes his head. "No, you should take it. You made breakfast and everything, so you should at least get to sit at the table."
I should have known better. Of course Takato wouldn't want to sit next to me.
Juri chuckles. "Thanks, but I think I can handle eating at the counter perfectly well. Ruki doesn't mind a little company. Isn't that right?"
Ruki barely acknowledges her, but she does nod.
"See?" Juri asks. "Go on, now, before your eggs get cold."
Takato hesitates again. "Well then maybe both of us can—"
"Oh shut up and go sit next to your boyfriend, Matsuda," Ruki snaps at him before going back to her soup and muttering under her breath.
I sink lower in my chair. I notice Kenta looking back and forth between Ruki and Takato. The silence is crushing until Takato finally breaks it. "I'll just eat over here," he says as he makes his way over to the couch.
"Ruki, be nice," Juri implores her.
"So anyway, I was thinking," Hirokazu says. "Since we're all here anyway, who wants to do something fun for the first day of vacation?"
"I should get back home," Takato says.
"C'mon dude," Hirokazu insists. "It'll be great!"
"I'm really not in the mood, Hirokazu," Takato says.
"Are you okay, Takato?" Juri asks as she goes to sit next to him.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," he says. "Just a little worn out is all."
"Have a bit to eat," Juri suggests cheerfully. "You'll feel better on a full stomach."
He nods at her. Then he does the strangest thing. He looks past her, first at Hirokazu and Kenta, then over at Ruki, and finally at me. I'm so ashamed of the mess I've made of this morning that I can barely meet his gaze, but when I do I don't see anger or frustration in his eyes. Just… exhaustion. It's almost like he's begging, pleading for my help, but I don't know how to give it. The only comfort I can offer him from where I am is the slightest smile.
He sighs and looks down at his feet. "Hey Juri, can I… Can we go, um…?" He stumbles over his words. He glances my way again with the same look, and in that moment I think I understand what he wants from me. I give him my blessing in the form of a slow nod. "Can we talk for a minute," he continues, "in private?"
"What is it?" she asks.
"I just need to ask you something," he says, his voice shaking just enough to betray how nervous he is all of a sudden. "It's… personal."
"Okay then," she agrees.
They get up and head outside without another word. After screwing up as much as I have this morning, Takato can do whatever he wants. He didn't even have to ask.
As soon as the door closes behind them, Ruki speaks up. "Well that was—"
"What the hell, Ruki?!" Kenta snaps. "What gives?"
"Something on your mind?" she asks coolly.
"You knew this entire time?" he asks.
"Going to have to be a little more specific," she says with a shrug.
"Don't play coy," Kenta growls. "How can you live with yourself after making all those jokes?"
"Jokes?" Ruki asks. "I've been sitting here eating soup!"
"Jen and Takato are supposed to be your friends, Ruki!" Kenta fumes. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
"Take it easy," Ruki says. "You've never had a problem with a few jokes at their expense before."
"That was when I thought you were kidding!" Kenta practically shouts.
Ruki pauses for a moment, considering Kenta's reaction. "Ah… So, we're doing this now, are we?"
"We all know you know," Kenta hisses.
"And I take it you didn't?" Ruki guesses.
Kenta shakes his fists in the air. "I didn't know any of this!"
Ruki snorts at that. "I'll give you credit, Li: you two actually managed to pull the wool over somebody's eyes. First time for everything, right?"
"I can't believe you sometimes," Kenta says angrily. "Didn't you ever think that they might not want the whole world to know?"
"Then they should stop being so blatant about it," Ruki shoots back.
"They tried to keep it private and you know it," Kenta points out.
"Yeah, but they're so bad at it," Ruki says.
"Hey how come you never told me it was a secret, Ruki?" Hirokazu butts in. "I would've been a lot more careful if I knew that."
Kenta turns back to Hirokazu again. "You… didn't tell anyone, did you?"
Hirokazu runs his fingers through his hair nervously. "You remember that girl who was always following Jen around back at the start of the school year?"
"You told her?" Kenta demands.
"I didn't want her to get her hopes up," Hirokazu explains. "Besides, she was cute. I figured if she wasn't going after Jen anymore…"
"So you'll tell Ruki and some random girl from school but not me?"
"Hey, cut me a little slack," Hirokazu says. "Ruki knew before I did and she never said a word about it to you either."
"I'd expect it from her," Kenta explains before turning back to Ruki. "But what I wouldn't expect is that you could be so… callous!"
"Look, it's barely even a thing," Ruki explains. "Maybe where you come from gay guys live under bridges and eat goats or something, but I met enough of my mom's fashion friends when I was growing up that I didn't know boys were even supposed to like girls until I was eight. Why would I give a shit if those two are gay?"
"Um, Takato's bi, by the way," I point out.
"What difference does that make?" Ruki asks. "Whatever you guys want to call yourselves or whoever you want to grow old and bitter with doesn't matter to me. Do whatever you damn well please with your own lives and to hell with anyone that says different."
Leave it to Ruki to make apathy sound encouraging. What was I saying about some people never changing? "Thanks," I say with a slight smile.
"Whatever," she scoffs. "I didn't do a damn thing."
I have to ask, if only so I know what to expect when Takato gets back. "Does Juri know?"
"She'd have to be blind not to," she says. "But I haven't told her. And unless Shiota did—"
"I didn't!" Hirokazu speaks up.
"—Then she could still be in the dark," Ruki finishes her thought.
I nod. "I see." This could still go either way then. If she does know, at least it means she doesn't have a problem with it. But even so, it would crush Takato.
"Seriously though, you two suck at keeping this a secret," Ruki announces.
"I didn't think we were all that obvious or anything," I sheepishly admit. "How did you—never mind. I don't think I want to know."
"From now on, you might want to try and keep it in your pants until you're indoors, at least," Ruki says.
"We never…!" I give up and sink lower into my chair. "Oh forget it." Sorry, Takato. Again.
"Wait, you saw… what exactly?" Kenta asks.
"Not me," Ruki explains. "My grandmother."
At that, I slump forward, close my eyes, and rest my forehead on the table. Hirokazu is, of course, cracking up.
"Your grandmother?" Kenta asks. "How? When? And, er, what?"
"She went to pick up some bread last winter," Ruki says. "And whatever it was she saw, I'm sure it was perfectly innocent. Right, Li?"
"Of course," I grumble. The scary thing is that I can think of too many ways she might have caught us. Maybe walking in the park? Or when he'd kiss me goodbye in the alley next to the bakery? How Takato's parents are still in the dark is anyone's guess.
"And she told you?" Kenta asks. "Wow. That must have been awkward."
"Not really," Ruki says. "She was actually pretty happy about it."
"Happy about it?" Kenta asks. "I wouldn't have expected that. It's good news though, right Jen?"
"Hooray," I say with as little enthusiasm as I can muster.
"Really, Ruki?" Kenta asks. "Happy?"
"Why shouldn't she be?" Ruki asks. "Thanks to those two she won her bet with my mom. Grandma got one hell of a vacation out of it."
"Wait, a minute," Kenta says. "Are you telling me that your grandmother bet your mom that Jen and Takato were…?"
"Of course not," Ruki replies. "The bet was over how long it would take for them to finally hook up. They both had those two figured out since we were ten."
Since we were ten? I can't catch a break, can I? Am I really that obvious? At this rate I'll never have to come out to anybody ever again because everyone already knows!
"So your mom and grandma can tell that sort of thing?" Kenta asks.
"It's not like it's hard, you know," Ruki says.
"And they've never been wrong?" Kenta asks.
"Not as far as I can tell," Ruki says with a shrug.
"Oh…" Kenta looks away. "Can you, uh, do it too?"
"Why? Do you want to put me to the test?" Ruki asks.
Kenta backs down. "Not really."
"Didn't think so," Ruki says before going back to her soup.
It gets awkwardly quiet for a few seconds before Hirokazu speaks up again. "Dude, if it helps, I thought you were straight until I saw you 'n Takato swappin' spit."
I sigh into the tabletop. I preferred awkwardly quiet over just plain awkward.
"You know we don't think any less of you, right?" Kenta asks.
"I know," I groan. "Not really feeling all that great about myself, though."
"Cheer up, Jen. It's not so bad," Hirokazu chimes in. "So what if you got a little embarrassed? I do that all the time. It's not the end of the world or anything. Relax."
"I know," I say. Hirokazu's right. Worrying about this now won't change anything. I need to relax. …Moumantai.
I could really use Terriermon right about now. He could be trouble sometimes, but if anyone could help me get through this with my sanity intact, it would be him. He'd tell me to moumantai. He'd say that I'm overthinking it, that I need to live in the here and now instead of worrying about what might happen way down the road.
Right now, all my friends know I'm gay, but they're okay with that. That moment I've been worrying about for years has come and gone, and not one of my fears came true. You made it through, Jianliang. You can finally relax. You don't have to hide it from your friends ever again. You can be yourself. Now take a deep breath and let it go.
…Maybe I need to do that a few more times for it to work.
I pick at my eggs while everyone else finishes eating like nothing happened. Even with my breakfast starting to go cold, I can't push it aside. Always clean your plate. For as long as I can remember, that was the rule at home. And mom made sure we followed it. It's second nature to me at this point. Even now, in someone else's house with cold eggs and my mind a million miles away, I am going to eat every last bite. I don't think moving out next year will change that.
The more things change, right? It's comforting, really. Even with my friends finding out about everything, it doesn't matter. I hope it's the same with my family. I hope, but I'm not about to test it. Even if you think you know someone, you might not know everything about them. Sometimes you learn something new about someone you've known for years and it's wonderful, like what Takato and I learned about each other. But other times…
I finally finish off my eggs and I've started washing my plate when I hear the click of the front door. Hirokazu and Kenta are watching TV from the couch while Ruki is checking something on her phone, but all eyes immediately look toward the door. (Yes, even Ruki's.) It's Juri, and she's smiling. Takato is right behind her. He looks… calm, at least. Maybe a little red in the face, but I don't think he's upset.
"Sorry we took so long," Juri apologizes. "Did everyone enjoy their breakfast?"
"Sure did!" Hirokazu says.
"Don't worry, Juri, I kept Hirokazu from eating yours," Kenta adds, leaving out the fact that he had to sacrifice a portion of his own breakfast to make that happen.
"I should probably reheat those," Juri says. "I'll get yours too, Takato."
"Actually, I think I'll take off," Takato announces, still standing by the front door.
"If he doesn't want his eggs, I'll take 'em," Hirokazu says quickly.
"Are you sure, Takato?" Juri asks.
Takato smiles at her. "I'll be fine, thanks."
"Okay, Takato," Juri says. "I'll stop by the bakery later, okay?"
"Looking forward to it," he says.
Sounds like everything went well. Or he didn't go through with it. Not that I'd blame him if he didn't. Building up the nerve to actually tell someone—
"Jen?" Takato asks.
"Y-yeah?" I reply.
"You, uh," he glances at everyone else for a moment, and then looks back at me. "You want to walk me home?"
The tension in my neck eases just a bit at hearing that. "I'll be right there," I tell him.
"Hey, don't forget, we've got a lot to do this summer, guys," Hirokazu says while I hurriedly scrub my plate. "That camping trip is happening if I have to drag you both out into the woods kicking and screaming."
"I'm sure you would," Takato says.
"I'm not so sure I'll be in the mood for camping," Kenta says while giving Hirokazu the stink-eye.
"I think that sounds like fun!" Juri chimes in. "Don't you think so, Ruki?"
Ruki shrugs. "I'll sit that one out."
"Let me guess, taking a trip down to Kyushu to see a certain someone instead?" Hirokazu asks slyly.
Ruki glares at him. "You know, maybe I will come along. Fewer witnesses in the woods and I can always say you were eaten by a bear."
Takato grabs the movies he and I brought while Ruki and Hirokazu snipe at one another until we meet up by the door. "See you guys later!" he calls out just before we shut the door behind us.
I keep quiet as we head down to the sidewalk, out through the gate and back toward Takato's place. It's a nice morning, but there aren't many people out and about. Last night's rainwater is still pooled in the street and its scent is lingering in the air.
Takato is the first one to speak after we walk a couple blocks in silence. "Well that was sure something."
"Yeah, it was," I admit. "Hey, uh, I'm really sorry about everything. I didn't mean for it to get so out of control like that."
"Don't worry about it," Takato says. "It had to happen sooner or later, right? I'm just relieved that everyone is fine with it."
"So you're not mad?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Everything turned out okay. That's what matters."
He didn't answer my question; that says enough. "So how did things go with Juri?"
Takato sighs. "It went alright. I guess."
"Did she know?" Given our luck this morning, it seems likely.
"Well…" Takato hesitates. "Kind of."
"What do you mean 'kind of'? " I ask.
"She didn't know about us," Takato explains, turning away. "Just, uh… Just me."
"Just… you?" I ask. "Oh. Sorry to hear that."
He sighs. "At least she believed me when I told her I was bi."
"How did she know?"
He groans. "Apparently I have a 'certain smile'."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I guess I used to smile a certain way when I was with her," he says. "She said she would love seeing me smile like that. Apparently I smile like that around you these days."
I laugh. "I think I know what smile she means." She's right. Since we started going out, Takato has had a different smile. His whole face seems to light up, like last night when I met him at his place. I haven't seen that smile at all this morning.
"Anyway, she figured out that I liked you," Takato goes on, looking at me again. "That's how she got the impression that I was gay. Thankfully this was after I told her how I felt and not before."
"I don't think that would have helped your chances any," I add. The last thing Takato needs is to think that Juri rejected him because she thought he was gay. "So you told her you were bi, but did you tell her about us?"
He meets my gaze again and nods. "Yeah. She was worried about how I was doing. She started saying how sorry she was that she didn't like me back, how she felt so sorry for me and… well, she felt pretty guilty. So I told her about us. I thought it would make her feel better."
A big smile crosses Takato's face at the same time that his cheeks flush. "She's… thrilled for us."
"Thrilled?" I ask, finding it hard to believe.
"Thrilled," he repeats. "She thought I must have been so miserable, being alone, rejected, and liking you on top of it. When I told her, she was so relieved. I don't remember the last time I saw her that happy."
I breathe a huge sigh of relief. "I'm glad it turned out that way."
He nods. "Me too. I was so afraid of how she'd take it if she found out about us that I never even thought how keeping quiet might make her feel."
"Not to mention how it might make you feel," I point out.
"Yeah, that too," Takato agrees. "I think we're better off now. I always felt bad about telling her I liked her, but seeing her so happy for us… I think she's over it now. I know I am."
"So, does this mean you forgive me for being such an idiot then?" I ask.
He laughs at that. "C'mon, Jen. You're not an idiot. You're the one who had the courage to come out to everyone, even if Hirokazu and Ruki already knew. I don't even want to know how Ruki found out."
"That's probably for the best," I tell him. "But I came so close to making a mess of everything over something as stupid as a blanket, so I think we can both agree I'm still an idiot."
Takato gives up. "Fine, have it your way then. I forgive you completely."
We come to a crosswalk and have to stop for traffic. Five or six other people are already waiting there. We've got a little way to go yet, with the park still between us and the bakery.
"Hey Jen, are you doing okay?" Takato asks while we're still waiting.
"Yeah. I'm a little shaken up is all."
"Are you sure?" he persists.
I nod. "Uh-huh." Please don't worry about me, Takato. I've got enough to feel guilty over today.
"You'd tell me if something was wrong though, wouldn't you?"
"Sure I would."
"Jen, do you remember our first date?" he asks.
Why does he have to ask things like that with all these people around? I know it shouldn't bother me, but it does, not that any of them even seem to notice. The best I can do is nod.
"Do you remember that promise?" he asks.
"Yeah." Of course I remember. The promise that no matter what happened we'd still be best friends. He'd leaned in for a kiss, but pulled back suddenly. I was afraid I'd done something wrong at first, but then he told me what was on his mind. He was scared that if things between us changed we couldn't be best friends anymore. We'd be boyfriends, but we'd lose something important. I swore that whatever else might happen between us, whether we broke up or we wound up getting married one day, I would still be his best friend.
"Before we started dating you'd always tell me what was on your mind," he reminds me. "So what's bugging you?"
I shrink down. Again, no one so much as flinches, but this is making me really uncomfortable. "It's nothing," I insist.
Takato follows my gaze and seems to catch on. He groans at me, but otherwise says nothing else. The signal finally changes and we cross the street toward the park. I breathe a little easier as we move away from the crowd again. That is, until Takato grabs me by the wrist and guides me off the usual path.
"What are you doing?" I whisper harshly.
"Shh," he hushes me. "Come on, we can talk down here."
I go along with it, and he leads the way toward the entrance to the old overflow tunnel, the one where we found Guilmon after he disappeared that one time. Takato pulls me on ahead wordlessly, and I go along with it. It's dark inside, with only pale red incandescent lights to see by and a damp, mildew smell filling the air.
"You've been really down on yourself all morning," Takato says suddenly. "I want to help."
"Don't worry about it. Okay?"
"Is it about us?" he asks.
"I'm just dealing with my own issues," I say. "It's got nothing to do with you."
Takato maneuvers his head around to meet my gaze. "Jen, please. Just for a little while, pretend we're not dating, okay? Talk to me like you used to."
Like I used to. Like when we were best friends and nothing more. Like how we had to act last night. Like at school, or the bakery, or my place, or anywhere that someone else might be. "Come on, Takato, this is silly."
"So Jen, how are things with your boyfriend?"
I roll my eyes. "Takato, you are—"
"I'm your best friend," Takato insists. "And as your best friend, I want to hear all the gossip about your boyfriend. So, what's he done now? I bet he calls you too much. Or you never get to see him because he's always working. Am I close?"
I groan. "Takato—" He glares at me and I have to adjust slightly. "Things between 'him' and I are fine."
"So what's up then?"
"I don't know…" I look away but can still sense his eyes on me. "I'm just under a lot of pressure right now."
"So tell me about it."
"School and all," I clarify. "And other stuff, too, like my family. Especially my brother and Xiaochun. You remember walking home with her yesterday. I guess this morning I… snapped."
"It's okay, Jen," Takato reassures me.
"It's silly," I say. "Everyone has stress to deal with."
"So talk it out," Takato says. "That's supposed to help, right?"
I sigh. "Why did it have to be her of all people that caught us? I could have sworn the apartment was empty. I'm really sorry about that, Takato."
"I already told you to forget about that," Takato says.
"Yeah, but still, I know you don't want anyone finding out. Especially not your parents." I shudder at the thought. "I know Xiaochun wouldn't say anything, at least not on purpose. But still, I wish we didn't have to deal with all this."
"'All this'?" he asks.
"You know, this," I emphasize. "Getting caught by Xiaochun. Coming out to everyone this morning. I even forced you to come out to Juri. The one thing you asked of me when you came out and I even screwed that up! Even though it turned out okay, I know you didn't want to. I'm so sorry you had to do that. Plus we still have to sneak around and worry about what would happen if our parents found out. I don't even know why you'd want to be with me after everything I've put you through."
"Because you're you," Takato says quietly.
I shake my head at that. "I'm me. But I'm not… her," I say. "If Juri liked you then… I wouldn't blame you. Not for a second."
"Jen, I'm not interested in Juri," he says flatly. "Not anymore."
"Takato, I remember all those times you wanted my help talking to her. Whenever you wanted to get her a present or tell her how you felt or… That kind of thing doesn't go away overnight."
"No, it doesn't," Takato admits. "It took a while, but thanks to you and everyone else I got over her. And now, I…. You remember that smile she mentioned? I don't smile like that for her anymore."
"Some other girl then," I say. "At least then you wouldn't have to deal with this."
"I don't want anyone else, Jen," he says, taking my hand in his. "The only one that can put that smile on my face is you."
"But why?" I ask.
He rolls his eyes at me. "Well, first of all, you're my best friend. You're a great guy. You're nice, you're sweet, you're smart, and when you stop beating yourself up you might remember that."
I groan. "I meant… why would you want to be like this? If you could like girls, why wouldn't you? You could be normal if you wanted."
He squeezes my hand. "Jen…"
"Not everyone has that luxury," I remind him, looking away from him and down the tunnel.
"Jen, stop," Takato insists, his voice cracking. "I can't pick who I like any more than you can. Sometimes I like guys and sometimes I like girls, but I can't control it."
I clear my throat. "S-sorry," I say humbly. "I wasn't thinking."
"It's okay, Jen," he says. "I know what it's like. When I first realized that I liked a guy in a way that I wasn't 'supposed' to, I wished I could change it. I can't imagine it was any easier for you."
I shake my head. "I thought I could force myself to like girls, back then," I admit. "I know that no matter what I do, I can't change it but…"
Takato doesn't respond right away. I almost let the thought drop when he speaks up. "But what?"
"But I'm… jealous," I admit. "I wish I could be like you. Or like Hirokazu or Kenta. I know that I can't, that this is who I am, and I'm glad that it means I can be with you. But isn't that the point of wishes? Asking for something impossible?"
"I know how lonely it can be," Takato says. "You're not alone, though."
"Thanks to you," I tell him. "Ever since you came out to me, I-I… I've been doing a lot better. I needed so bad to have someone to talk to. But it's not easy to get over it, you know?"
"Just like after Juri turned me down," Takato says.
I nod, hoping he can see it in the dim lighting. Just like him and Juri. "Just because I can accept it doesn't mean the pain is gone."
"It doesn't," Takato agrees. "But I want to be there for you. You were there for me back then when I needed you most. Let me return the favor."
"I don't know if there's anything you can do to help," I say.
"I still want to try, even if all I can do is listen," he persists.
"It's not that I can't accept it," I try reassuring him. "I've been dealing with it a long time, after all. I know that this is who I am and that there's no changing it. I'm even dating you and I love every minute of it. And now that everyone knows there's no reason to hide it around them, either. How could I not be fine with it?"
"Jen, some of the things you say make me think you're not fine with it," Takato says. "Like how you say you want to be 'normal'. How you're still so afraid of what other people might think that you can't even talk about it because some stranger on the street might overhear. You blame yourself for so many things, from what happened this morning to Xiaochun to Juri. You sound like you hate yourself."
"I don't hate myself," I insist. "But I am worried. Why shouldn't I be? What if the worst really did happen?"
"It won't," Takato says with unshakable certainty. "Even if it did, you'd deal with it. I know you would. If you can teach yourself to breathe underwater you can adjust to anything."
I sigh. "If my actions wind up hurting me that's one thing, but if I get you hurt too I don't know how I could live with myself."
"You don't have to protect me, Jen," Takato says.
"I know you don't want your parents to know about us," I say. "How can I risk that?"
"Jen, I keep telling you not to worry about that," he says.
"How can I not?" I ask.
Takato sighs. "Because… they already know."
They… they already… Takato's mom and dad already know? About him? About us? How? "…H-how?"
"I told them," he admits.
"When was this?" I ask.
"About a month ago," he says.
"A month…?" He's been out to his parents for a month? And he never said a word? How did I not notice?
"I decided the time was right," he goes on. "I didn't tell them about you, just that I was seeing someone. They understood that this 'someone' might not want everyone knowing about him. And no, they didn't freak or threaten to throw me out or anything like that. All we did was talk."
I can't believe it. "You're so lucky," I say after a long pause. "I can't even imagine doing that. Why didn't you tell me? I should have been there for you."
"I had to do it for myself," Takato says. "And I thought you might have a hard time with it. You're still having a hard time with it, aren't you Jen?"
"I don't know what to think," I say. "I… I'm still worried, though."
"That you might not want to put up with me anymore," I admit.
"Please don't think like that, Jen," he says. "I keep telling you how much I care about you."
"I know you do," I say. "You say that, but what about all the things you don't say or do? You didn't even tell me you came out to your parents. You won't even talk about living together next year. You won't sit next to me at breakfast in front of our friends. You've never even said 'I love you' to me. It's like you're pushing me away and… I can't blame you for it. I know I'm not as 'open' with my feelings as you are; I know I'm always overthinking things; I know I'm not the easiest guy to get along with. But it feels like… like you're waiting for something better to come along."
We both go quiet after that, and for the first time since we got here the sounds of our voices aren't echoing off the tunnel walls. I sniffle and have to wipe my face. This silence is terrible, like a huge weight pressing down on my chest. I feel sick.
Takato wipes his own face. "I'm so stupid," he croaks.
"Don't say that," I whisper.
"I was worried about you," he explains. "I didn't want to rush into anything. I thought since you were having a hard enough time just getting used to being gay it would only make things worse if I did something like telling you I came out to my mom and dad, or being too close to you around anyone else, or saying 'I love you'."
"I… I know I wanted to hear it," I say. "But at the same time, I don't know how I would have reacted. Look, I know how insane this must sound, but I'm scared. Okay? I'm scared of… being gay. It's not something I ever thought about or planned for and… I'm still struggling with it."
"It's okay to be scared, Jen," Takato says, squeezing my hand again. "Trust me, I know the feeling."
"I don't want to lose you," I tell him. "But I don't want to hurt you, and I'm afraid that being with me will hurt you."
"I don't want to lose you either," Takato says, suddenly letting go of my hand and wrapping his arms around me. I do the same to him and he buries his face in my chest.
In all the times I imagined what it would be like to be with Takato, I never once thought it would be this hard. "How?" I ask. "How can we do this?"
"Dating doesn't make things any easier, that's for sure," Takato says, chuckling despite the sadness in his voice.
"You got that right," I have to admit.
He takes a deep breath before going on. "I know it's not going to be easy. Some people will hate us for being together. We will have to deal with our own demons. There will be times when we fight with one another. It would be easier to give up now, but I don't want to. I'm happy with you, Jen. Even with all the bad things the world will throw at us, I am happier being with you."
"I can't stop you if you want to give up," Takato says sullenly. I can feel his teardrops through my shirt.
I spent years ignoring what I wanted. I told myself that I knew better, that I knew what I really wanted, and that I would be better off for it in the end. I was so full of shit. For once in your life, Jianliang, stop thinking and go with what your heart tells you. "I want you."
Takato's hold on me loosens, like all the tension was swept out of him at once. "You mean it?"
I nod, even though he can't see it. "Yeah."
Takato looks up at me and starts to say something, but then draws back. "Never mind."
Today is already full of things I thought I'd never do. What's one more? "I love you," I tell him, the words coming out almost too easily for me, like I've been waiting to say them for a thousand years.
Takato's expression softens. After a short pause he looks me in the eye and says, "Thank you." He laughs, and after the confusion wears off I remember back to the day he came out to me. I laugh as well. "I love you too," he finally says.
"Jerk," I say, still laughing.
"Feeling any better yet?" he asks.
"Much," I say with great relief. "So you're not going to dump me then?"
"I'm afraid you're stuck with me."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," I tell him before kissing him on the forehead.
Takato smiles at that, then lets go of me and turns away to wipe his eyes again. "You know what this means, don't you?" he asks.
"Now that we've said 'I love you', there's no stopping it," he explains. "Like it or not, I'm going to be saying it to you a lot."
"I'd better get used to it then," I say, smiling back at him while wiping my cheek dry.
"And I'll be holding your hand, too," he goes on, pausing only to sniffle. "In public!"
A twinge runs up my spine, but I push it out of my mind. "I can handle that." Takato is my boyfriend, after all. It's time to act like it.
"And kisses," he adds, "in front of our friends."
"I can deal with Ruki's jokes if you can," I say.
"So you really don't mind?" Takato asks.
"It'll be worth it to spend some time together as a couple," I assure him.
"Yeah, for a change," he says. "Sorry that working at the bakery has me so busy."
"It's okay. I'm no better with everything I have to do this summer."
"Some vacation, huh?" he asks.
"You said it. I guess we'll have to make the most of the time we can get."
"I like that plan."
"Hey Takato?" I ask.
"Since you'll be saving up a bunch of money from work, and since Hirokazu offered anyway…"
Takato backs off an inch or two. "Jen, come on…"
"I only want to talk about our living situation next year," I explain. "You don't have to say yes, but I want you to at least consider it."
Takato sighs. "I… guess it wouldn't hurt to talk about it. Maybe I can scrape together a few extra bucks. And if Hirokazu and Kenta join us then it might work. Maybe. No promises."
"A little consideration is all I can ask," I say. If putting up with Hirokazu is the price I have to pay to live with Takato, then so be it. It couldn't be any worse than living with my brother.
"I'm still worried about you," Takato says.
I nod. "I know."
"You don't mind if we talk about this some more, right?" he asks.
"No, it's fine," I tell him. "It feels good to get it out."
"I'm glad," he says. "But maybe we should talk about it someplace a little cleaner."
I laugh. "Good idea. I was supposed to be walking you home anyway, right? We should pick this up there."
"After you then," Takato says.
I take hold of his hand. "You said this was going to be the way things are now, right?"
Takato' smiles at me, that special smile that's only for me. "I guess I did."
"Well then, things are looking up if you ask me," I say.
We walk out of the tunnel hand-in-hand. It's going to be a good day.
Don't Ever Let Go
[This one was a long time coming. Would you believe me if I told you I spent over a year editing this beast? I can hardly believe it's finally done. As always, I hope you enjoyed it, and I welcome all compliments, comments, and criticisms.