Word Count: ~10,300
Summary: When Sho goes to Hawaii for two months, he writes the rest of Arashi letters to keep in touch. But the ones for Aiba are a little different than the rest...
Notes: Five hundred years ago (aka September 2009) kotobayori's theme challenge for the month was 'travel.' I set out to write a short Sho-and-Aiba-themed genfic on the subject. Instead, that fic exploded into what you see now, which just proves that I have no self-control whatsoever, and I can't decide whether that's good or bad. Anyway, thank you to my SuperBeta aeslis for all of her magical tricks and beautiful incentives.
Hawaii shows up at Aiba's door in tiny packages filled with glossy pamphlets. They are all wrapped in the same thin, brown paper that reminds Aiba of the word caramelized; even the string used to tie the packages are like the leftover bits of onion that his mother calls wasteful. It's odd that Hawaii and letters from Sho and travel packets make Aiba think of cooking, but then again, he grew up around a kitchen, not in it. Maybe it's that vague familiarity that sparks his mind to those connections.
"Mom, mom," Aiba says to his mother during her visit, balancing a pile of mail in his arms. The frames surrounding his apartment walls are weak but he leans against the doorway anyway, socked feet crossing to hold his balance. "Look, I got lots more of these!"
Grinning, Aiba holds up the stack of tropical correspondence--come visit Hawaii, come swim in the ocean, come eat pineapples, come get beat up by giant waves. He hands each pamphlet to her one by one and she oohs and aahs over the pretty ocean photographs and swaying, clichéd palm trees.
"Where are the letters from Sakurai-kun?" Aiba's mother asks once she has looked through all of the brochures. "He does send you those too, right?"
"Oh, yeah," Aiba says, and straightens up quickly. "All he talks about is his work."
Sho's been sending all of them letters. He doesn't need to, because before he left they all got international phone cards for really cheap, but it's Sho. Not that that means anything really, Aiba thinks--you can't bottle Sho; you'd need a cup the size of Jupiter with a lid to close everything in--but snail mail fits him. The others try to joke about Sho's uncharacteristic negligence of technology and love for licking the backs of stamps, but in reality his being in Hawaii of all places makes the rest of them want to be there too. Aiba calls it a severe case of 'you are my soul soul' syndrome, and he knows the others agree even if none of them will admit it (except Ohno, with a tiny smile and a nod of his head).
In the dressing room they compare Sho-mail: Jun's are the longest, filled with the tiniest details about where Sho went that day and how he liked it (there are even stars used as ratings; Nino makes a snide comment about how Sho has entirely too much time on his hands to be penning tiny, semi-perfect shapes, but Aiba doesn't think it's really a joke). Ohno's and Nino's letters are almost the same length down to the line but they get different things with them--clippings of diagrams from English-language fishing magazines and DVDs of American magic shows that run hours long.
Aiba's letters are the shortest. He gets paragraphs that are barely the minimum number of sentences and they are written in the style of potpourri, trivial topics scattered about on a single sheet of paper.
Masaki, the very first one reads. It came in late September, a few weeks after Sho had first left and just when a rainy spell took over Tokyo. There's A TON of pineapples here. You'd think that would just be a Hawaiian stereotype, but it's actually true…and delicious. The Zero crew bought me an entire box, but they probably won’t last by the time I come back so I’ll have to buy more. Wish you were here, Sho.
The second flew in just days later and long before Aiba had even decided he wanted to write Sho back. By that time the rain was an everyday thing and the humidity was digging into Aiba's bones; he read the note in bed with the covers bunched at his feet. Masaki--I did my 'perfect body' imitation at a party last night and I think some people laughed, which is better than none, right? They also have this thing here where you can stand in a cage and get lowered into the ocean to see sharks. And I don't mean just see them, I mean practically swim with them. Pretty dangerous but I think some of the other newscasters want to try it. I didn't come here to be shark bait. Wish you were here, Sho.
Nobody else got this story, and maybe for the right reasons: who else would be excited by the thought of slipping quietly into a shark-infested ocean but Aiba? He read the letter over and over, lingering on the perfectly styled kanji and how each stroke flowed into the next. They almost looked like minuscule flowers (hibiscuses, Aiba thought, stretching; Sho was turning tropical, after all).
The letters kept coming--a third, a fourth, a fifth, and sometimes wet because of the frequent downpours and the carelessness of the mailman. And even though Aiba hadn't been lying when he told his mother that all Sho talked about in the letters was work, there's the wish you were here at the end of every one that makes Aiba's fingers tingle. He didn't think much about the closing line for the first few letters but after noticing that Jun's ended with hope things are well and Nino and Ohno's just dashes followed by Sho's signature, he figured that wish you were here meant something only intended for his eyes.
Jun insists that it's nothing.
"He's just homesick," he says to Aiba. "It's been a long time now and you know it takes a toll on someone, being away that long."
"But it's weird that my letters are so short," Aiba says, evading the actual subject completely. He opens his mouth to say other things, but quickly falters. It feels that lately he's been talking through letters and that all of his words are reserved for the paper only; when he tries to talk it's difficult and his sentences stick in his mouth. The unfairness of it frustrates him and his gestures have become more pronounced and dangerous to be around. "Yours are super long, Jun-kun. They've got stars on them and everything!"
"Yeah, but I'm going to Hawaii in a few months. I'll need to know those things."
Of course Jun doesn't mean anything by it, only that he is lined up for a movie that has plans to film in Oahu come winter. But Aiba still backs off. He doesn't have anything else to say, anyhow, that would make sense outside of the careful privacy of his mind. Instead he says, "That's true, Matsujun--hey, you should bring me back a turtle!" And Jun just frowns at this, because obviously (as they all know, they were taught so in 1999) you are not allowed to touch the sacred Hawaiian turtles.
Aiba waits a long time to reply to Sho's letters, which is not exactly a good thing--when he actually sits down to write back, he has five in all to get through and of course each one of them needs its own reply. Even so, the return letters are all very commonplace; there is nothing sprinkled through the sentences to suggest that Aiba has excitement--no, electricity flowing through his bones (because it's true, he found this out on television, and at the time it sounded like the most fantastic, even romantic, thing in the world).
Dear Sho-chan, Aiba scribbles on cheap stationary. Did you know that when you put pressure on bones, they produce electricity? Isn't that the best thing you've heard all day? It was when I heard it.
He continues on like this, so many sentences filled with did-you-knows and hey-this-happened-the-other-days--all generic things, the stuff of small talk. Every letter that Sho sends gets a reply, but Aiba addresses everything except for the wish you were here. He signs his letters with his signature instead, and a tiny drawing of something Hawaii-esque (palm trees, girls in bikinis, swirling waves, shaved ice).
He wants to say it, though: I wish I were there too. In Aiba's daydreams there are images of him sprinting across the beach, tripping over thick piles of sand and falling into oceans full of volcanic activity and kingdoms of coral.
Dear Sho-chan, how many times do you swim a day? It's getting cold here. The other day we went on location to the seafront and the water was gray and sad. I know in Hawaii it's not like that, though. The pictures you sent with Jun's letter the other day were really great. Everything is so green! Don't forget to bring some for us…I want to give one to my mom. She'll like the landscape ones.
And of course, that sly P.S., three little words packed with unsaid feelings: Come back soon!
Aiba hopes that his letters make Sho jittery; that when the mail arrives and the postman says for Sakurai, for Sakurai in a very blatant American accent Sho will perk up and hope there's something from Japan, from Arashi, from Aiba. It's almost like they're playing some twisted game of hide-and-seek where the paragraphs and pens are the counters and Aiba and Sho are the ones missing.
But how it all began is the question. Nino and Ohno don't write Sho back and Jun has only responded once or twice to a whole packet of starred letters, which means that Aiba is the only one who feels compelled enough to sit down and think about what Sho would like to hear. Except Aiba doesn't think about it that way--it's more of his wondering what he'd say to Sho if they were together in the break room, reading magazines and talking about absolutely nothing.
Anyway, Aiba doesn't exactly care about what Sho would like to hear. He just cares that Sho will listen to whatever he has to say, no matter how unexpected or out-of-the-blue it is, because he always does.
Nino and Aiba go drinking one night, on the eve of the seventh letter and when Aiba has given up trying to tell Sho all about his day. Nino insists that Sho doesn't have the time or even the patience to read about what goes on in Aiba's head.
"Which isn't much," he says in the taxi to the bar, sunglasses pushed right up to his eyes. If Aiba looks close enough he can see Nino's eyelashes brushing against the lenses. "What do you say to him? 'Hi Sho-chan, today I ate miso ramen! It was good!'"
Aiba frowns. He actually did tell Sho that he had miso ramen today, except he'd woven that topic into a question ("How is the ramen in Hawaii? Not as good as the original, I bet. Nothing is ever as good as the original. Except our remakes of A-RA-SHI, but that doesn't exactly count"). Still, Nino is missing the point entirely. It's not about what Sho reads, it's that he understands that Aiba is taking the time to write back, to hold Sho's letters close to his face until he squints just to think what would I say to this if Sho-chan were here talking to me? And that has to mean something, anything, of worth, because Aiba's P.S.s won't do a thing if they just stay on the page, festering in a pool of maybes and unknowns.
"What do you think he's doing right now?" Aiba thinks aloud.
"Gross, do you ask him that?" Nino makes a face. "Because it's only slightly bordering on creepy."
"I do," Aiba says, and it's the truth. "But really, what do you think?"
The taxi jumps violently over a pothole and Nino falls against Aiba; his shoulders smack into the window and Nino's glasses come off askew. While the taxi driver grumbles under his breath, Nino breathes into Aiba's ear, and the breeze is hot and wet against his neck.
"Doing this," he says, and then moves away with a smirk. "To some Hawaiian girl in a taxicab, heading downtown for drinks."
And maybe something more, Aiba thinks, finishing Nino's sentence. He can't help but wonder if, were he in Hawaii just as Sho's letters wished, he would be the one keeping Sho company after hours instead of some girl that probably worked at a local TV station and just wanted to climb the corporate ladder. If Aiba were there right now, they'd be playing Monopoly. They'd be riding along boulevards on little silver cars and shedding paper money all over the board. Afterward they would sit together, pieces strewn about, and scour the guide books, looking for places circa 1999 and going into them, marveling at how they (in a sense) and those stores had the same birthday. They'd be swimming in the ocean at midnight, then two AM, then four, and their towels would get lost in the dark sand. Aiba would dig for them; Sho would roll around, laughing until he cried.
Nino comments viciously about grains of sand in places Aiba doesn't even know about, and for the next five minutes they discuss Nino's trip to the beach with his sunshine-loving girlfriend (Aiba remembers this; Nino came back sunburned and with an intense hatred for crabs).
When the night is over and they've had their fill, Nino is fumbling around for his jacket, which is hanging somewhere on the back of his chair. "Do you want to?" Nino asks, moving his hands clumsily behind him. "See Sho-kun, I mean."
"Arashi is four," Aiba says in what he imagines to be a tone full of wisdom, only it comes out more slurred than he intends it to. "It's lonely without the last leg of the body."
Nino goes cross-eyed. "Without the final stretch of the storm," he adds. He is always more eloquent when intoxicated. "But that's not what I mean."
Of course Aiba knows what Nino means. He has been thinking the same thing all night: do you want to see Sho-kun just to see Sho-kun? And maybe Nino expects answers, or at least nods and noises of agreement, but he must understand that they are too drunk to comprehend anything more than each other's presence and the patterns of shadows on the leather seats in the taxi as it cruises home.
"Hey," Aiba whispers, tracing the outlines of the shadow-drawings with his fingertips, "what do you think this looks like?"
Nino squints downward. "Banana bunches," he says. "You?"
"Baby sharks," Aiba mouths, and his eyes go wide like the full moon.
The seventh letter is so crumpled that the sentences almost run together, but Aiba gets the basic gist of it anyway: Sho saw dolphins. He saw lots of them, actually, and they were cute and maybe Nino would have liked them (cue a round of Sho-drawn smiley faces that look more like tiny worms than anything else). Also, he misses real Japanese food. And home.
Aiba tries to write back something of substance but he ends up going on and on about how the shadows around him are looking more and more like sea creatures and coral reefs every day. He tries to play it off as some kind of new homesickness and then realizes that he can't be homesick for Hawaii because the only thing he loved about that place is still with him today. He's homesick for Sho, for his bandmate, for his friend. He's homesick for Sho-laughter and dumb Sho-jokes and that steady Sho presence, the one that somehow keeps all of their feet on the ground despite Sho's constant worrying. He's homesick for after-dinner drinks and taxi rides home, because he loves Nino, really he does, but there's something about those rides back with Sho (pulsing heartbeats, heads slowly dropping to chests, Aiba sliding all over the leather and Sho having to grip his wrist, gently: "You're not that drunk") that make Aiba feel safe, that make him wish they lasted for hours.
He signs his reply the usual way: Come back soon.
Then he draws a tiny picture of a plane.
Ohno is the first one to bring up Sho's homecoming. It's almost like an afterthought the way he says it, but Aiba's ears catch everything nowadays if there's any mention of Sho's name and Hawaii in the same breath. He kind of hates it but there's nothing he can do; he's like that long-ago dog that was trained to salivate whenever a bell rang. And then Aiba's brain moves to thoughts of salivating and Sho, and he has to force himself to move on from that point.
But it's quick, like a punch to the shoulder: "Sho-kun comes back in a couple of days, huh?"
Aiba forgets to be excited. In fact, Sho's letters have become something comforting and commonplace and wish you were here is like a steady mantra, echoing quietly throughout his mind whenever the mailman shows up or when Nino comes in with his cards, brow furrowed and mouthing English words with horrible pronunciation. After seven and a half letters (the most recent doesn't count--it was two sentences: If you get this when I think you will then I'll be back in three days. Too many souvenirs; airport customs will kill me), the only thing that Aiba can bring himself to do during a moment like this is smile. His insides might tell a different story entirely, but that is a secret left only to twist Aiba's guts.
"Yeah," he says, grinning hugely. "He comes back in two days!"
"Good," Ohno says, breathing out, and closes his eyes. "Finally."
Two simple words and yet it's how they all feel, even if they show it differently. Aiba pens letters so fast the ink smudges on every word, making his already bad handwriting even more illegible; Nino switches between card tricks and his DS until his eyes get so red they make everyone else's burn with pity. Ohno is quiet about it, but Aiba sees him when they sit at the five-person table and his look is a little forlorn. And Jun, poor Jun: he just works, five million times harder than he usually does, and Aiba is scared that when Sho comes back Jun will just collapse.
Even so they keep counting, and finally there are only two more days. They counted like this when Nino left too, and then it was worse--there were splashes of red ink on desk calendars and cell phone notifications and mothers calling, reminding them that 'Ninomiya-kun will be home soon.' And it was expected, since he was the first to leave and stayed away for more than a month. Still, Aiba thinks, they would have learned something from that experience, anything to keep them from going crazy, from eating too little and looking too tired.
The night before Sho's arrival the four of them do a half-joking rock, paper, scissors game to figure out which one of them will show up with the staff to bring their newscaster boy back. Of course it all boils down to schedules and work times, so in the end the contest is rigged. It has, according to Nino, been that way since the very first slim package popped up in Aiba's mailbox, a single letter and Polynesian brochures tied together with faux-onion strings, cheesy travel slogans and subtle pleas for togetherness.
"The van," Jun says, pressing his knuckles into his eyelids, "leaves early, Aiba."
"Early," Aiba echoes, because it's all he can do not to protest and say but we should all be there. He knows it's a futile request and one that will only be welcomed by heavy sighs and lots of rolling eyes accompanied by acidic remarks from Nino.
"Ten o'clock," Ohno says. From the look on he's face it's a guess, and not even an educated one. "Eleven?"
"Six," Nino says, smacking Ohno on the elbow. "Though we all know fishermen only tell time by the number of fish in their nets."
If Sho were here he would laugh in his booming, contagious way of finding something funny. That sound has been absent for awhile and Aiba's heard it in his head every time he knows it should be played; he wishes that the sound would broadcast from the depths of his eardrums into the space surrounding him so that they could all be reminded of that silly, familiar noise.
But it's always better live. Aiba knows this from ten years of experience, and not just with concerts. "I'll be there," he says firmly. "I'll pick him up on the runway."
"Aiba," Jun breathes, but his voice is full of amusement even when clouded over by exhaustion. Aiba can tell Jun is giving up, but in a good way--with each hour that goes by it's an hour closer to Sho coming home, and Jun is loosening up, slowly but surely. Come six o'clock in the morning he'll be exhaling into a cup of coffee with all the relief in his heart. "You can't do that. They'll make you wait in the van."
Aiba thinks about the help Sho might need with all the souvenirs he's supposed to bring back, but that might just be an excuse. He knows Jun is right, and no matter how much Aiba protests the managers will make him stay in the van to avoid anything risky that might happen in the airport (because somehow fans know weird things like airplane arrival times). He'll stay strapped into his seat for a good twenty minutes before Sho stumbles out of the automatic doors, wearing sunglasses and a hat and carrying more luggage than he left with.
"Watch," Nino whispers to Ohno, but Aiba knows this is intended for him. "He's so excited he won't be able to sleep and then he'll miss the van."
Ohno chuckles, but Aiba shakes his head. "The Arashi taxi service is always on time," he says, and means it.
Aiba isn't out the door until 6:10.
He'd been stuck in a dream about the News Zero documentary on Hawaii. It was exactly how Sho described it to them as soon as he'd gotten the assignment: a history of the islands with a special focus on volcanic activity, narrated by the Zero crew. In Aiba's dream he watched minute-long scenes of ash tumbling noiselessly down volcanoes, close-up shots of sea foam leaving behind salt on fresh sand and bird's-eye views of Oahu, Maui, Lanai. Even through his fake television Aiba found himself blinded by rays of sunlight thrown across Pacific waters.
But all of the scenes that Sho narrated were, for some reason, in black and white. It was strange to see such a colorful landscape in grayscale and it unnerved Dream Aiba so much that he had to ask his (still annoying) little brother about it.
"It's because they lost him after they finished filming," Dream Brother said after the documentary finished and the credits rolled onscreen. "They never found him again. So it's kind of like a memorial."
"But," Dream Aiba mused, "he's still alive, isn't he, somewhere out there. It's not like he's gone."
"You were supposed to get him that one day," Dream Brother sneered. "But you forgot and the plane took him all the way to Venezuela."
"Oh my God Venezuela," Aiba had squeaked, and his own voice woke up him up in a panicked rush. He hadn't even needed to look at the time to know that he was already late--Aiba only dreams that lucidly in his sleep when he has somewhere to go the next morning, which is why he's never on time for anything, but it's not like this is an excuse most employers accept--and all he could do to make it downstairs in time was to pull on the first items of clothing he saw and brush his teeth (at the same time).
When Aiba finally slides into the backseat of the van, hair totally mussed and shoelaces not exactly tied, he's already apologizing in hurried breaths to Sho's manager about how late he is and that there's no excuse, really, unless strange dreams count. But she doesn't seem as bothered as Aiba expected.
"You're fine," she insists as the van takes off. "He'll be there even if we're a little late, Aiba-kun, and anyway I'm sure Sho-kun will be glad to see that nothing's changed with you."
She's right, of course, and even though Aiba should feel stung he can only agree. Nothing has changed, at least among Arashi. They're still the same, all five of them, down to the way they talk to each other like nobody else is paying attention. But they've been hibernating in a harsh Japanese winter while Sho has been touring Hawaii.
Aiba wonders if Sho has undergone some sort of metamorphosis in the course of his absence: is he now tanner than Ohno on a bad day? Will Aiba be able to see the outlines of where Sho has worn his watch, his t-shirt, his sandals? And will he have gotten a little plumper, a little squishier round the edges, from all of the food he's been getting for free?
None of that really matters, though. As long as he gets off the plane safely and Aiba gets to bring him back home to Arashi, everything will be fine.
Dear Sho-kun, Aiba writes in his head as the van cruises over miles of highway, I'm coming to get you. It's not as heroic as it sounds, though, because your manager is here too, and the driver of the van. I won't be allowed to come help you because even though it's pretty early they don't want anything to happen, especially to the both of us, so I'll be waiting for you when you come out of the airport. I can't wait to see all the pineapples you have.
Sho-chan, begins the second unwritten letter. The exit for the airport is coming up very soon, and Aiba's nothing less than a ball of jitters. So we're right about to take the exit for the airport. Are you about to land? Or have you already landed? Don't forget any of your things on the plane! And I'm crossing my fingers that the airline hasn't lost your luggage. You know if you'd have flown Arashi Airlines, we'd have kept you safe and sound. Except we're all really busy, so I don't think that there's any way one of us could have flown you to Hawaii…we don't even have pilot's licenses. But anyway! I'll be waiting for you when you come out of the airport. I can't wait to see all of your pictures!
Finally, finally, the van pulls up to a nearly deserted international terminal and lets Sho's manager out at the curb. She's wearing impossibly high stiletto heels and can't move away fast enough; it is hours in Aiba's world before she disappears into the airport and the automatic doors swish closed behind her. Aiba stays behind to count the seconds in his head, each minute blurring into the next, but he keeps getting distracted by the endless pounding in his ears. So much, he thinks, for being calm about this whole thing.
Hey Sho, so I'm in a van outside the international terminal and I'm freaking out. WHERE ARE YOU? I'll be right there in front of you when you come out of the airport. Well, I'll be in the backseat of the company van, but you know what I mean. What should I say when I see you? 'Hi, Sho-kun! Welcome back to Japan!' Except I'm really nervous, which is stupid, so I'll probably just talk about anything that pops into my head. Like what I had for breakfast. Oh, Leader says I should've worn a kimono to remind you of what you've been missing (I think he had a little too much to drink last night), but it's only been a couple of months, not years.
It sure feels that way, though. Maybe I'm crazy, but it really does.
There's a sudden tapping beside him and Aiba turns, squinting past the heavy tint and fingerprint smudges on the window. He can't make out much except for a dark figure standing close to the van and a lot of luggage-shaped objects standing on the sidewalk.
"Masaki," Sho says, laughing, "you won't believe how much pineapple I bought. Come look!"
Aiba can't scramble out of his seat fast enough. "Sho, Sho-chan," he's saying before the door has even been opened, "you have--so much luggage! Oh, for all your souvenirs, right? That’s right, you bought a lot--let me, let me help you, hold on!"
Sho is chuckling; he has a hand out for Aiba to grab and when Aiba does there's a squeeze, then a pull, and then the feeling of being surrounded completely by a certain warmth that only Sho could provide. In Aiba’s chest his heart is dancing frantically, fueled by sugar and adrenaline and the scent of faint cologne and laundry detergent.
And then there they are, two-fifths of Arashi standing in the shade of the company van and hugging for one, two seconds before Sho pulls back and apologizes for his grossness, having been on the plane so long, and God he must smell like stale cabin air and maybe that was a little embarrassing, but there are no reporters around or anything so it's okay, right? Right, Masaki?
Aiba is dizzy. When he shuts his eyes he imagines for a second that this is a moment from one of their concerts, a five-second backstage hug and garbled word of encouragement before Aiba’s solo, or their next song. Or this could be rehearsal, when they’re both standing on some stage looking out into the hundreds of thousands of empty seats and Sho slings an arm around Aiba, nonchalant but close. Somehow, this is like all of those times woven together into a single instant of overwhelming emotion, a flash of breathlessness and weightlessness, like swinging too high or flying—Aiba is sure that this is what flying feels like.
But he manages to speak, though most of him is still in the air somewhere, tumbling through clouds.
"You’re back," Aiba says. "No more letters! Now you can actually tell all of us about Hawaii and eat real Japanese food and sleep in your own bed."
"I can’t wait," Sho sighs, and by the look on his face Aiba knows he really can’t. "I’m glad you’re here, though. I really didn’t want to ride back alone."
Behind them Sho’s manager is instructing the driver of the van to start the car, and the roar of the engine fills the early morning with white noise. Soon, Aiba knows, he and Sho will be called back so that they can leave and return to Tokyo. But he’s still flying over the city without wires and standing on his concert stage, so high up off the ground he might as well be in the sky. As far as Aiba is concerned, it’ll be awhile before he returns to ground zero.
The stories sound just like Aiba thought they would. Sho talks about making eye contact with dolphins, with stingrays, with sharks; the sand getting lost in his clothes, disappearing into pores and the in-betweens of his wiggling toes; the sunsets lulling him to sleep. He recounts the way the monstrous waves at the North Shore threw his body around without mercy and how he had to crawl out of the ocean afterward, literally dragging his hands across the heavy sand just to get back to solid ground.
Aiba hangs onto every single word. It doesn't matter that he's read about all of this already, even if he's memorized practically every word by heart--it's how the tales are told that make all the difference. The trip back to the company is filled with Sho's sleepy voice, traipsing up and down in pitch as the memories play out in his head, still vivid. But he's tired, overcome with jet lag and the dry coldness of a too-long plane ride, and soon his excited mumbles about coconuts and surfboards fade into quiet, gentle snores.
Aiba's eyes are slowly shutting, too, but before he can let himself doze off his phone buzzes loudly in his pocket.
Did you get him? It's Jun, of course. How is he?
Brown, Aiba texts back. He can just imagine Jun's face when he sees the message: a flash of confusion, but only for a split-second, before the relieved smile. If Aiba could see Jun now he'd sling an arm around his shoulders and they'd laugh for ages about the stupidest things just to release all of the tension that's been shut inside their bodies for the past few months. They'd make fun of themselves for being so uptight over Sho's absence, and wonder why such a trivial thing got them so worked up. It's just Sho, after all. Yet every breath the four of them took for sixty days was careful, let in and out slowly with the deliberation of someone walking on tiptoes, waiting impatiently for things to change, for planes to land and puzzles to be put back in their right order.
Nino came back with all those weird American jokes, Jun replies. And Sho managed to actually get a tan? What's going to happen when I come back from Hawaii?
Aim for bigger things, says Aiba. Gain fifty pounds and shave your head. You'll lose all your fans, but the four of us will still love you!
(Jun doesn't message back.)
The van hits a long line of traffic in the middle of a tunnel, and the sudden slowdown, the loss of rhythm, wakes Aiba halfway.
"So how is he?" he hears the driver ask over the fuzz of the radio station.
"Oh, he's fine," Sho's manager says, clucking her tongue. "I don't get why everyone is so worried. He's a perfectly capable adult."
"Really," says the driver, and Aiba's lips twitch. "Do perfectly capable adults sleep all over their co-workers?"
Oh, Aiba thinks, but doesn't move. Anyway, it's not like he can, what with the extra weight. Sho stirs against him, but settles soon enough. He's too exhausted--and comfortable, Aiba hopes--to wake up just from this.
"Come on, they're cute," Sho's manager says. "You'd be clingy too if you were separated from your family for anything longer than two weeks."
The driver only sighs. "Well, my wife, you see…"
Aiba drifts back to sleep.
When the others finally get to see Sho, the only thing Aiba can think of is that the whole thing is like out-of-body osmosis. Sho, slightly embarrassed, tries to turn the focus over to all of the pineapple he's trying to drag into the room, but nobody cares about acidic tropical fruit and Aiba is the one left to haul in the box while Jun and Ohno and Nino gather Sho back into the group through a push-and-shove process.
The room is throbbing with the usual smells and voices and touches--Sho trying to get a word in and failing, Ohno practically sparkling with a straight face, Nino talking too fast for regular comprehension and Jun worrying his head off about absolutely nothing--and Aiba leaves the souvenirs by the doorway to join them.
"You're so tan," Jun is saying, comparing his arm to Sho's. "Is this okay for you? I mean, does your manager not care?"
"Seriously, Jun-kun," Nino says from Sho's left. It's like Sho somehow became a father to three baby boys who would like nothing else but to hang onto their daddy. "It's not like he fishes all the time or anything. It'll fade."
Sho looks like he's having a hard time keeping up with all the noise and the movement. He's got huge circles under his eyes and he must want to sleep for the next month straight, but his grin is still bigger than anyone else's.
"Hey," he says, "it's not my fault, you know, it's just really sunny in Hawaii. Remember?"
"Yeah," Ohno joins in, chin sticking out. "And Okinawa's sunny, too."
"Wait, wait," Aiba says, "stand next to each other, maybe we can tell that way whether Hawaii or Okinawa has a warmer climate--!"
Quickly Sho backs away, hands held out, mumbling something about cruel and unusual punishment, and Aiba grabs his hand, his fingers, and pulls him back into the circle. In the background Jun's going on and on about how there are pineapples to be handed out and that Sho should be resting at home right now, and Ohno is mourning his sunburn and Nino is putting bets on who'll turn white again the fastest--but Aiba's not listening.
Sho isn't letting go. Their fingers are locked together somehow, index tangled with ring and middles entwined, thumbs brushing, and when Aiba tugs Sho readily steps into his space.
Aiba tries to tell himself that Sho is tired. He's acting on impulse, his judgment is hazy, he just wants something to hold onto because he doesn't feel like standing--excuses puddle at the base of his brain and leak through his body into the pit of his stomach. This is different than a hug, it means something else, and it makes Aiba tingle all over with uncertainty.
But Sho's hand is warm and comfortable, like Aiba's felt this before, and it doesn't take him long to remember: it's like opening one of Sho's letters lying in bed and watching the colorful brochures fall out onto the white of his blanket, then snuggling into the futon and mouthing every word that Sho wrote with whispers so quiet Aiba couldn't even hear himself over the rain.
"Hey, hey," Nino calls suddenly, and Aiba jolts himself back into the present, "Captain says he wants to pickle the pineapple and eat it with rice."
"Don't you think that would be tasty?" Ohno asks. He has a pineapple in each hand and is holding them up as if appraising them. "I mean, really tasty."
Jun puts a hand over his face and groans.
"Pineapple abuse--," Sho starts, but Aiba cuts him off.
"Leader!" Aiba laughs, and squeezes Sho's hand without noticing. "You should do it! It'll be just like A no Arashi all over again, and then you can bring it in and we can all have some." Someone in the room chokes. "You never know, it could be delicious."
"It will be," Ohno says, and gathers the pineapple in his arms like children.
"Anyway, what the hell were you talking about, Sho-kun?" Nino says. "You can't abuse pineapples."
"You can," Sho says confidently, with a look on his face that suggests he'd rather not talk about it. "And I know it sounds crazy, but I missed all of this." He's beaming from top to bottom. "You'll feel the same way when you leave too, Matsujun."
"I'm not so sure about that," Jun mumbles. Ohno gives him a pineapple.
Aiba-chan, this Saturday--after our meeting, begins Sho's text, and Aiba can only stare at it. It's Wednesday morning and he'd planned to relax, what with not having work until noon, but at this rate he'll never eat his breakfast while it's still warm and the tea kettle will have screeched itself to death. But those are all trivial things compared to what lies in Aiba's hands right now.
Do you want to grab some drinks, the message continues, and Aiba's eyes widen, widen, widen. I mean, it's been awhile, hasn't it?
Saturday isn't for another three days. This is an invitation made so far in advance, especially for the two of them, that Aiba can't help but wonder.
He types back a furious yeah that's cool, I can't wait and doesn't include any of his other, more intangible thoughts. This feeling is not something he enjoys--why can't love be easy, he wonders, and why can't you just feel nice things instead of imagining that your guts are being wrung out?--and he throws his phone on the couch with the intention of not finding it for another couple of hours. Right now he needs a cup of tea.
A week passes, slow to everyone else but swift, like lightning, in Aiba's mind. He's trying to shove two months' worth of Sho into seven days without anyone else noticing, and maybe Jun's become too accustomed to boys hanging all over each other and Ohno's too busy trying to get through this month's horde of fishing magazines because they don't say anything. But it's not even Thursday before Nino's already staring Aiba down over the top of his new hibiscus-themed deck of cards.
"You're ass over elbows for him," Nino remarks, so amused, as he and Aiba exit the studio together on Saturday evening. The meeting they'd been in finished earlier than planned, and the five of them branched out, a little unsure of what to do with this unexpected free time.
"I am not," Aiba retorts, and sniffles as the winter night crawls all over him and into his lungs. "I just missed him. It's nice having him back."
Nino laughs and Aiba moves in closer, mostly for warmth but also because he doesn't want to feel like he's alone in this right now. "He wasn't even gone for that long. And anyway, you missed me too," Nino says, "but when I came back I don't think you were drooling all over me."
"Leader was," Aiba points out. "And it's not even like you wrote him letters saying 'wish you were here,' right? He was just being--how he always is with you, times two. Oh, and you told me that he gave you five thousand yen before you left and he just wanted to know what you'd done with it. But still, it’s not like…" he trails off. "It’s not exactly like this, I think. This is different."
"Leader is different," Nino says, and laughs a little. "He’s not you and I’m not Sho-kun. What happened when I came back--that wasn’t anything. That was just the way we reunited."
They go their own ways at the same train station that they've been using for the past eleven years. Aiba has too much to say and not enough courage, for once, to say it; he wants to ask Nino if they ever thought something like this would happen when they were lanky teenage boys sitting elbow-to-elbow on the morning train, but he can't. This isn't like asking whether or not Nino wants to debut, if he's ready to put himself out in the open to be the dream lover of thousands of generic female faces. This would be asking if Nino thinks it's okay that Aiba let himself get all messed up over a bunch of letters and a four-word phrase and missing someone so much it made his insides hurt all the time.
"Where are you off to?" Aiba says instead. He's hanging on a little too much for a Saturday night, but his feet won't move just yet.
Nino looks up to the sky. It's a funny gray color, tinged with the promise of snow. "She's kind of pissed that I've been working so much lately," he says, and Aiba watches his breath climb upward. "So I have to do my duty, I guess."
"She's a good girl," Aiba says, and claps Nino on the shoulder. "You've done well."
For a second Nino looks confused, and then he laughs shortly, hand over his mouth. "Shut up--you're not my mother," he says, and he reaches out to poke Aiba in the elbow. "Look--," he begins, then stops mid-sentence. "What are you doing tonight?"
"Stuff, you know," Aiba says lamely.
"Do you want to see him?" Nino asks, except this time they're not drunk and stumbling over chairs in a fancy bar, trying to find their way to the door with at least a little dignity. This is a serious question, even if Nino's tone is light and his eyes are narrowing slightly like they do when he's being coy. "Sho-kun, I mean."
"Of course," Aiba replies, after a beat. "Of course I do." He's sure of it this time.
Nino exhales carefully and Aiba's expecting something profound to leave his mouth, something full of wisdom and advice that he picked up from some older actor one night, words packed with sincerity and hope. But all Nino does is shake his head.
"Ass over elbows," he sighs. "Completely."
"I'm going to get so drunk," Aiba confesses suddenly. He grabs fistfuls of the lining in his pockets and scrunches the material between his frozen fingers. "I'm going to get really, really drunk and then I'm going to tell him that my priority was to bring him back to Arashi and I did, I did do that, and everything's okay again, but maybe--maybe, you know, not everything's okay with me."
Nino flags down a cab with a wave of his hand before Aiba can say anything else. Whether he did it for comfort or silence, Aiba will never know, but they ride together for half a mile until Nino has to get off.
He has one foot out the door and Aiba's about to say goodbye when suddenly Nino turns around and smiles reassuringly. It's a fleeting moment that is gone within a second, but it's a flicker of warmth in Aiba's chest, and he keeps it close to him for the rest of the night.
Aiba walks into a bar.
It sounds like the beginning of some bad joke, but when Aiba pushes the door open to an obscure corner place with a single light in the entranceway he can't help but think it. Aiba Masaki walks into a bar and orders a drink, trying not to make it obvious that he's trying to swallow a bundle of nerves--those old friends of his--in a shot of tequila with a pinch of salt. Anyway, that's Leader's thing, not his.
And it turns out that he doesn't even need to order himself a drink. When Aiba shuts the door behind him (and kicks at it, it has a tendency to stick) Sho is already sitting down with two bottles, arm resting lazily on the seat beside him and dressed in some navy-blue jacket thing and jeans that look fancier than anything Sho usually wears in his private time.
"Sho-chan!" Aiba exclaims as he comes up behind Sho. "You bought me a drink already? Do you want me to give you my phone number next, or is this just a one night stand?"
Sho is already laughing before he turns, and it cuts Aiba to the core to hear that sound in such an intimate space. It truly has been awhile. "You know this is where we always go," Sho says, and moves his hand down from the rim of the chair to the seat, where his fingers curl invitingly. "I didn't even ask for yours, but they saw me save this seat and figured you were coming. It's what you usually get, right?"
Aiba pretends to be shocked as he hoists himself into the chair. "How could you forget? I guess we have a lot of catching up to do, huh?"
So they do that. It's almost like going back in time to when Sho was still deciding whether he should do the documentary and kept wheedling Aiba into coming with him to think it over (except Aiba didn't really need a lot of persuading, even then). They'd walk into this place and kick the door shut and slide into a booth, or bar seats, or anywhere they felt like sitting, and the drinks would come out of nowhere, popping out of hands Aiba never saw because he was too busy talking to Sho about how sometimes he'd just like to fall into a bed of beach and make sand angels where nobody could stop him.
Sho says now that he didn't make any sand angels, mainly because there were people there to stop him from doing that, and anyway he was too busy researching. Aiba can just imagine it: Sho's head stuffed in encyclopedias and written histories of the Hawaiian islands, tufts of sun-streaked hair peeking out from over the tops as he sunk into the pages and fell asleep. He did that a lot in his college days and sometimes Aiba didn't have the heart to wake him, even if Sho was going to wake up with ink marks all over his face.
The bottle in Aiba's grip is getting warmer the longer they sit, and soon his palm is wet with condensation and the passage of time. The topic of conversation swings back and forth from work to Sho's pseudo-vacation, and sometimes Aiba brings up one of the others, or Sho will take a moment to laugh breathlessly into his glass at something Aiba's said, or the way his drink keeps getting refilled without his asking, or just nothing at all.
They're thoroughly tipsy soon enough, and Aiba is all fluid limbs spilling onto the table. Sho kicks him underneath the table a couple of times (but it doesn't hurt that much, unless Aiba's just gone numb) and has started to turn new drinks away, leaving Aiba with a colony of empty bottles in front of him.
"He shouldn't have any more," Sho is telling the waitress as she comes over, tray heavy with another round. "But thank you."
"No, no, I could," Aiba insists, trying to lure the girl back, but then the tip of Sho's foot strikes his ankle--hard this time--and Aiba slumps forward, a mess of giggles and curses escaping from his mouth. "Or, ow, not."
"That's right," Sho says, and Aiba feels fingers wrap securely around his elbow, pulling him upright again. "I think it's time to go."
Aiba is sure that Sho is far from sober himself. He wants to tell Sho that no, it's not time to go, because there are more drinks to be had and more waitresses to look at (with double vision) and too many shades of red on Sho's cheeks that Aiba hasn't had the time to name. He's found a spot of scarlet resting on Sho's cheekbone, flushing gently into his left temple, but lower than that the hue turns to something cherry-like, bright like the lights that dance inside Aiba's empty bottles.
His fingers crawl along the cool surface of the table, reaching for Sho's arm, then higher, tips brushing against soft leather and warm skin. Sho is looking intently at the check, calculating figures in his head, and hasn't seen Aiba's traveling hand and the plans that lie beyond it, beyond the sticky door of the bar and the frozen sidewalk and wherever they'll be going back to.
"Hey, Sho-chan," Aiba quips as his fingers falter suddenly. It's the first time alcohol has ever let him down on a night like this. "Are we going to take a taxi? Let's take one, come on. We always do."
"We're not that drunk," Sho mumbles, but he's too flustered by how many bills he has to place on the table. "Okay, maybe we are."
Aiba admires his bottle-forest with all its little lights and dewdrops of stray liquor. When he stands, everything wobbles a bit and Sho presses his fingertips to Aiba's back, steadying him again.
"Why are you so--," Aiba begins, but answers his own unfinished question. "Ah, Sho-chan is such a reliable person!"
"It's kind of my job," Sho sighs, and leads them both outside. "Anyway, I don't want another drunken Johnny's roaming the streets of Tokyo. Especially not if that drunken Johnny's is you."
Aiba hums happily. "Then let's get a taxi! That'll make the roaming impossible. I'll wave for one, here, look--." He steps to the edge of the road, right up against the railing, and Sho starts freaking out ("Masaki, seriously, you'll either get kidnapped or you'll die") as Aiba raises his hand to the speeding traffic.
Eventually a cab slows to let them in. When the driver asks for a destination, Aiba gives his apartment address. Sho doesn't say a word.
It ends up raining, a freezing downpour that somehow manages to claw its way to Aiba's center even if he only takes a couple of steps from the taxi to his apartment entrance. Behind him Sho's teeth are chattering violently in between pleas to get the door open already, it's so cold, freezing down to my boxers, really Masaki, please. Aiba's numbing fingers lose the grip on his key a couple of times, and eventually the doorman comes striding over to let them into the lobby.
"Thanks, Jo-kun," Aiba quips oppositely to the doorman's pensive sulk. "Don't worry, I'm sure it'll stop raining soon!"
"You know what this weather does to my hips," the doorman mumbles, and slips away back to his post at the entranceway.
Sho laughs low, secretly, and Aiba feels the electricity tripping along his bones. All at once of his cells are zapped with feeling, and when Sho presses closer as they approach the elevator he can feel sparks behind his eyes, threatening to burst free.
And in that case, Aiba thinks, if he did indeed explode, the first things to go would have to be his ribs--right? Or would the trigger be a deeper organ, like his liver? But no, this isn't the time and place to think of something like that.
Even as they climb into the elevator Aiba is considering the process.
"You're talking out loud," Sho says mournfully, "about being popped open."
"But what do you think?" Aiba asks, and looks down: Sho has him by the wrist, thin fingers pressing lightly into his pulse. "It's a relevant question, Sho-kun."
"Mmm," Sho hums. He's turning Aiba's hand around in his own gently as if this is some kind of examination, fingertips probing knuckles dry from the cold weather and palm lines thick with fortune. Aiba's heartbeat quickens with every floor they pass: twenty-two, bump bump bump, twenty-three, bump bump bump bump, twenty-four, bumbumbumbump. Soon they stop at twenty-six.
Sho has been here before, probably more times than anyone else ever has, and he knows his way around. He can probably name all of the spots in the hallway where the carpet has faded and surely knows where the wallpaper tends to peel.
Aiba ends up leading anyway, stepping out of the elevator and into the hallway before Sho can. He feels a little rebellious doing it, like he's taking over the procession. But this is where he lives, and he was the one who asked the taxi to come here. He's the one with the key, and logic dictates that he should also be the one with all the plans up his sleeve, letting them trickle down as the night goes by, hour by hour.
But Sho has always been the levelheaded one; Aiba has always believed that, even now, with both their heads clouded over and their hearts a jumble of beats and bumps. It takes a second or two for Aiba's key to cooperate, but the lock finally slides open to a promising darkness.
Behind him Sho pushes Aiba forward at the small of his back with fingertips that have written lines in white sand and that have always, always been careful.
"Sho-chan," Aiba says, choking halfway on nothing--or something, the thing that's been lodged in his chest for months. "Are you staying?"
Sho steps into the foyer, kicking aside shoes to the wall, and it's such a normal thing for Sho to do that Aiba almost feels like bounding into the kitchen to grope around for snacks and even more half-empty bottles. If he thinks about it hard enough, he can envision how any other night might go--they'd fall onto the couch and giggle for hours with breaks for conversation, however stilted and nonsensical, in between. And Aiba would wake up with a pounding headache and an armful of Sho-hair thinking, well hello world, are you ready for another night like last night at eleven in the morning with the sun on full blast.
This will end up differently, Aiba can tell. Sho has shut the door already, has slipped off his shoes, has placed careful hands round Aiba's waist, backing him into the wall. They're standing in the foyer still as a sheet of rain, each second of silence punctuated by a breath or digging fingers or the flutter of eyelashes, unsure of whether to shut or stay awake.
"I guess so," Sho says, but the decision was already made hours before this moment. "When's the last time I was here, after all?"
"Before you got a tan," Aiba says, stifling a laugh between his teeth. "And turned Hawaiian, with pineapples and a grass skirt."
"Don't talk about my grass skirt like that," Sho mumbles, and tentatively presses his lips to the corner of Aiba's mouth. "Or else you'll never see me in it."
Aiba turns his head and decides, as his eyes finally shut and Sho's chin tilts forward, that from now on all kisses should be like this. It should become common practice to initiate kisses in dark entranceways while one is pushed up against the wall and slightly drunk, veins thrumming with tucked-away feelings and the tingle of cold fingertips in warm places. This is just, he thinks, the better way to go about it--but then again he's been waiting so long for this, for anything, that if Sho had started kissing him in the backseat of the taxi Aiba would have felt the same. As unconscious as his feelings may have been, they're still real and they're thundering through him now.
Sho eventually has to breathe and Aiba tries to tell him he doesn't have to, but the window on the opposite side of the room is throwing multicolored city light on Sho's face and he forgets words in favor of touching every one of those bright spots instead, like a blind man feeling for laugh lines and signs of wisdom.
"If this were Hawaii," Sho muses, sliding Aiba's shirt up to his ribs, "it'd be so hot I'd have your clothes off by now."
Aiba manages to laugh this time. Half of it rings loudly through his empty apartment and the other gets lost in Sho's mouth, swept up by welcoming lips and a searching tongue.
"But this is Japan," Aiba says, breath almost gone, "and it's super cold outside, like minus thirty, and my feet are really, really cold."
"'Sokay," Sho mumbles into Aiba's ear, "it'll warm up soon." He tucks his hands inside the waistband of Aiba's jeans, skin to skin, and it's like ice hitting the scorched pavement in July, like the sprinkler hitting the burnt sidewalk. And like kids that don't want to go inside when the weather is lovely, Aiba doesn't want anything that's happening now to end, even if he knows that it has to.
Gone is the odd game of hide-and-seek that the two were playing before in their letters. Those days of counting to one hundred and hiding beneath sand piles and under bedcovers have grown into this moment of belt buckles hitting the floor and fingers playing along xylophone-spines, creating musical scores filled with the melody of stuttered breaths and wondering hums and the long, soaring note of finally, finally, finally.
Sho will probably want to talk about this in the morning as he sits awkwardly at the kitchen table, drinking too much bitter coffee with awful bed head. He’ll fumble for answers and the first words out of his mouth will probably be so about last night, and Aiba will provide teaspoons of cream, sugar, and smiles. That's all he can do, because there is no name for what's happening between them, no way to pin down exactly what grows from a heart gone awry with longing.
But that's perfectly fine. As long as they're both here, it'll all work out in the end.
"Ready or not, here I come," Aiba whispers, and Sho's grip on his shirt tightens.
Two weeks later Sho is writing a letter to his grandmother in the break room telling her all about his work trip. It ends up being a hefty six pages of retold stories, promises that he will get rid of his tan, and boyish wonderings about when he'll get to see her again. He makes the mistake of drawing a line of pineapples on the back of the last sheet of paper, just to give her an idea of the kinds of things he brought back to Japan. Soon enough everyone has to take a turn with the pen.
"Leader," Aiba says, squeezing in between Nino and Ohno at the table, "that looks more like a pomelo than a pineapple."
"The one Sho-kun gave me was really fat," Ohno explains as he passes the pen to Nino, whose own take ends up having a pair of eyes and a cheery grin. ("And maybe mine actually smiled, too," Nino whispers to Aiba as he slides by.)
In the end the only pineapple that actually looks like one is Jun's, if only because Sho's resembled a skinny volcano more than anything else and Aiba decided to draw a can of pineapple rather than the actual fruit.
"Next time we're there," Sho says offhandedly as he's stuffing the pages of the letter into an envelope, "just remind me to buy her an unripe pineapple so it'll get to her fresh in the mail."
Aiba smiles. It's not like Hawaii is going anywhere, after all; it will wait for the return of a certain group of five young men. It might even wait for just two of them, if that day should ever come.
"Next time," he agrees, heart warm and content. "Next time for sure."