Word Count: 5,109
Summary: AU. Too stable to doubt; too doubtful to trust.
Author's Note: Won first place in the fanfic contest at junbaday! Thanks to everyone who voted for me! And, of course, thanks to everyone who's been waiting for me to make a comeback. I'm sorry to have kept you all hanging, and I promise the agony won't last much longer. <3
I want to experience the world, thinks Aiba Masaki as fireworks ignite in the distance, crackling bursts of light that encompass the entire sky like an umbrella over the city. Aiba can see them all clearly from the back porch of his home in Tokyo; he lives with his three best friends in the whole world in a cramped cottage on the outskirts of the city, an urbanized countryside where farmlands meet metropolis in a blend of nature versus man. Cicadas sing a summer melody as Aiba breathes in the summer night, tasting the humid air.
He considers sharing this thought with Sho and Nino as he sits between them, biting into a slice of watermelon and wiping away the juices dribbling down his chin with the backside of his arm. He considers it, but holds his tongue because even though they love Aiba as much as he loves them, they wouldn’t understand. Aiba doesn’t understand himself. But he does let it slip to Ohno when he heads back inside for another chunk of watermelon after seeing the sketch Ohno’s working on. He’s drawing the three of them nestled together on the porch, the sight of their backs as they gaze up and watch the lights expanding throughout the twilight. Aiba says it in a whisper, breathless and anxious like a confession of love: “I want to feel the world’s heart beating.”
Ohno gives a soft smile, taking Aiba’s hand and wrapping his long, elegant fingers around Aiba’s wrist. “Then put your finger on its pulse,” he says. “It’s not like it’s stopped beating.”
Aiba doesn’t understand until the next morning when a stranger comes knocking at their door, wearing designer clothing and a polite but unconvincing smile. The man introduces himself as Matsumoto Jun, a photographer who was just driving by the area and thought that this place would be perfect for a project he’s working on, so can he come by a few times this week and take some photos?
Aiba places a hand against his chest and clutches his shirt, feeling his heart speed up in premonition, as if tomorrow will bring forth a phenomenon.
Jun takes pictures of anything and everything – a hubcap abandoned on the side of the road; a flower combatting the wind; the broken bench-swing in the corner of their porch – but he never lets them see. Sometimes he mumbles to himself or holes himself up in the guest room for the entire day, coming out with a handful of shredded photographs and throwing them away angrily before snatching his camera and stomping back outside.
He tries to do it without them noticing, but Aiba often catches Jun capturing them on film. He photographs Ohno hunched over his easel with a furrowed brow and his bottom lip caught between teeth; Nino waving his hands in an exaggerated manner while performing his magic tricks; Sho leaning back in an armchair while he sips coffee and reads the morning newspaper.
But Jun doesn’t take pictures of Aiba.
It hurts a little for some reason. It feels like a world where Jun lives and Aiba isn’t permitted access.
Jun’s world seems so… lonely. Sad. Jun is polite enough, but his laughter is always reserved and his smile is strained. Jun scowls and frowns even when snapping photos of the prettiest sights. He always looks so angry and unhappy, but there’s no real indication of why he would be either of those things.
“You should be happier!” Aiba attempts to encourage him, flashing him the brightest smile he can manage.
“Fuck off,” Jun growls in reply.
Aiba remembers reading about aggressive animals in that book Sho bought him for his birthday a few years ago, so it’s nothing Aiba can’t handle. And he remembers watching a talk show on TV that said behavior like Jun’s was a cry for help.
Aiba is always happy to help.
“Matsumoto Jun, aka Matsujun,” Sho says quietly that night. “He’s very famous – the biggest name in photography right now. His work is extravagant: pictures of the city, chaos of the streets… his photos are famous for being chaotic and loud. I wonder why he’s taking pictures here, by our little rural cottage.”
Aiba gives a noncommittal shrug, but he lies awake the entire night thinking about it. Why is Jun there? Why did he even agree to stay?
Aiba asks him the next day.
“None of your damn business.”
Or so he says. Aiba thinks otherwise.
It surges up inside of him like divine inspiration, with such conviction and determination that there are no other options in his head. Aiba Masaki will help Jun find whatever it is he’s searching for here; he’ll take whatever it is that’s making Jun unhappy and fix it.
The next day, when Jun returns from his picture-taking, he brings home a puppy. She’s a mixed breed with a beautiful brown coat, and she can’t be more than two months old. It’s love at first sight for all five of them; they drive her to the vet together, all resting a hand on her back as she shivers in Jun’s lap despite the heat.
The vet informs them that the puppy is very, very sick. She has probably been living all alone out on the streets for quite some time, leaving her severely malnourished. He gives them medicine for her and some instructions for nursing her back to health, but it comes with the warning that even with their best efforts, there is still a chance that the puppy wouldn’t make it.
But no one says anything about the money it would take to care for her, or about how there isn’t even enough room for the five of them, or whether Jun would take the puppy with him when he left. An unspoken agreement is made.
“What should we name her?” Ohno wonders aloud as they drive home. The puppy is anxiously curled up between Ohno and Nino now.
“Happy,” Aiba says instantly. “Her name is Happy.”
Nino and Jun roll their eyes, but don’t object.
Happy lets out a squeak as she yawns.
Perhaps he was a little naïve to assume that with the addition of Happy to their family, Jun would be a little… happier.
Jun loves the puppy, even if he’d never admit it. He’s always snapping photos of her, and when he thinks no one is looking, he’s on his knees, trying to get her to play or just holding her close. It’s progress, at least: no walls torn down (he still puts up his guard around the others, acting all aloof once another person enters the room), but Happy is at least chipping away at them.
Looks like it will take more to get the walls to crumble…
Aiba halts as he spies Jun on the couch. His face is buried in his hands and he’s letting out a harsh, frustrated sigh.
Aiba pulls him to his feet and leads him outside to where his car is parked. “We’re going on a date,” Aiba declares when Jun shoots him a confused look from the passenger seat. Aiba’s surprised that Jun didn’t start yelling at him from the second he forced him to his feet.
Jun raises an eyebrow before slouching in the seat with his arms crossed, reluctantly going along with whatever Aiba has up his sleeve.
They explore the city streets and shop without actually buying anything, diving into the thrill of nightlife at full speed, leaving everything else behind. They belt out cheesy ballads and pop songs from the latest chart-topping boy bands at karaoke. They play nearly every game in the arcade, keeping score of who’s won the most games but losing track by the time they leave. They buy takoyaki from a stand down the street and eat it at the park, stealing one another’s food playfully. It’s all the type of magic that Aiba has seen and heard but never known quite like this: his heart beats faster every time their shoulders brush together, and seeing Jun actually enjoy himself makes Aiba feel as though the entire world is at peace, filled to the brink with joy and overflowing with love.
“Thank you, Aiba,” Jun whispers. Aiba wants to reply, but he just stuffed two whole balls of takoyaki into his mouth and it comes out as choked noise, so Jun continues. “I’ve been an asshole, but you’ve been kind to me… all of you have. I’m sorry if I’ve treated you like a jerk, it’s just that…”
Jun pauses, eyes drifting to the empty merry-go-round and see-saws on the other end of the park. They rock back and forth lazily from their places on the swingset, faced with the prospect of real conversation now that they’ve completely devoured their food. A cool breeze ripples the leaves and shakes the chains, keeping them from silence.
“Lifeless,” Jun finally says, voice sharper than it was moments ago. “That’s what everyone’s been saying about my latest photos. Dull. Lifeless. Uninspiring. That’s what my pictures have always been about, you know? Things that are thriving with life. But now, I look through the lens and I can’t find it anymore. Things that were vibrant are monotone. Things that were beautiful are passing images.”
Aiba gulps his mouthful of takoyaki down. “Is that why you wanted to take pictures outside of the city? To find inspiration or something?”
Jun nods slowly, turning to face Aiba. Aiba’s heart is skipping beats and he can’t seem to make it stop. Jun licks his lips and clears his throat as if the words are there and just refusing to be spoken. “I don’t understand it. There’s nothing in my life that I have to be discontented about. I get along with my family. I have friends. I do nice things for people and people do nice things for me. I have a job that I love. It’s like… like I’m driving down a highway at a hundred miles an hour and all of the scenery is blurring together.”
“Maybe you just need to slow down,” Aiba mumbles. Jun is so close to him; he can feel Jun’s breath against his cheeks.
Jun gives a sad smile. “If I slow down, I’ll never go anywhere. If I speed up, nowhere will be worth going to. I just want to find out if there’s a balance – some speed limit that will make you content as long as you obey. Because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with my life anymore.”
Aiba nods sympathetically, but is unsure of what to say. On the drive home, Aiba tries not to watch the world speeding past and falling behind him, and tries not to think of how they’d never make it home before morning if they took the scenic route.
“They say that the ends justify the means,” Jun mutters more to himself than Aiba when they arrive home where Sho, Nino, and Ohno are sleeping. Happy is awakened by the door opening and closing and cries until Aiba goes to her and picks her up gently, hugging her close. Her tongue flicks out and she licks his chin in gratitude.
As Aiba puts her down and heads off to his own bed, he asks no one in particular why there couldn’t be justice in both.
When Aiba goes to feed Happy the next morning, she doesn’t wake up. The vet can’t tell them why for certain, only possibilities, things like a severe seizure overnight or a problem that they just didn’t catch. They bury her by the tree in the backyard in the big box they had made into her bed, pretending that she really was just sleeping and that a week wasn’t really long enough for them to have grown to love her so deeply.
It’s strange, Aiba thinks, how susceptible lives are to change; it’s mysterious how every day there is a person or animal somewhere who’s dying and it doesn’t faze them, yet the death of a puppy they only found a week ago can shatter their hearts. Encounters are such powerful things: once you encounter someone, they’re an irreversible part of who you are.
Aiba sputters this all out to Jun that night, wailing and not making any sense at all. Jun holds Aiba close but doesn’t cry with him; he silently listens, suppressing any signs of sadness. If Aiba hadn’t been watching Jun care so lovingly for Happy over the past week, he’d think that Jun didn’t care at all. Aiba wonders if Jun is being strong for Aiba’s sake, letting Aiba fall to pieces but making sure to hold it together so that he’s there to pick them up again.
“You’re not going to leave too, are you?” Aiba mumbles into Jun’s shoulder, face pressed against the tear-stained material. “You said you were going to stay here for a week. It’s been two. But I don’t want you to go.”
Jun stiffens, pulling Aiba off of him. Aiba looks away from the pained expression on his face. “Aiba…”
“Please, Jun-chan,” Aiba begs. “Please stay here with us. Please stay here with me.”
Jun sighs, pulling Aiba back into a hug. “I’ll stay for a little while longer, okay?”
Aiba nods, pretending that he didn’t hear what Jun didn’t say.
But I have to leave eventually.
Ohno gets worse. They can only blame it on Happy’s death.
He brushes them aside and says he’s fine, but then he’s bent over coughing and Sho is helping him to the couch, forcing him to lie down while Nino runs to the kitchen for a wet rag. Ohno’s face is flushed with fever that refuses to subside, even though thankfully it doesn’t go any higher. He curls up on the couch, shivering and frighteningly weak.
Jun doesn’t go out to take pictures that day. He stays by Ohno’s side with Aiba, Sho, and Nino. He doesn’t ask questions or show surprise, as if he somehow knew, even though Ohno was doing so much better until then…
But maybe Jun saw something through that lens of his – a sickly paleness, an unnatural fatigue, a telling frailty – that not even they could catch.
They stay with Ohno all day, until his fever finally breaks and his breathing grows steady. Sho carries him from the couch to his bed, and they fall asleep bunched up beside him, refusing to leave him alone the way they did with Happy, fearing the plot of empty land beside Happy’s grave.
When Aiba wakes up, Jun is already awake and he’s holding Aiba’s hand.
A flawless picture of the sunrise flashes onto the camera’s screen. Jun adjusts the zoom and looks through the viewfinder, snapping three more before lowering the camera and watching the scene with his eyes. Aiba asks if the scenery is any different.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jun says after a moment of hesitation, reattaching the lens cap. But Aiba doesn’t really need an explanation. He just wanted a yes or a no.
But Jun has said nothing about Ohno. Aiba feels like he’s returning the favor by not pushing it further.
The others are still asleep when they return. The morning sun is up high enough to filter out the hues of red and orange, opening up to a brilliant blue. Dark clouds are in the distance, but too far off for concern. Jun prepares miso soup while Aiba brews some supposedly healthy tea they’d bought with Ohno in mind, and they chat about the latest big-name comedic duo and how the forecast predicted stormy weather for the rest of the week.
When the food is done, they set it aside and walk out to Happy’s grave together, hands entwined. They head back inside to wake the others for breakfast after only standing there for a minute – never forgetting her, always loving her, but having no choice but to move on.
“Ohno’s sick,” Aiba whispers, interrupting the silence.
Jun is quiet for a long moment, as if he’s waiting until it’s safe to speak. He already knew, but even known words can be safe, dangerous once spoken. “With what?”
Aiba shrugs even though they’re both lying down, facing the sky, but his shoulder bumps against Jun’s and Jun gets the message. “…Will he be okay?”
“He’s not dying or anything. Just…” The air is chilly in spite of summer and the stars shrouded by thick clouds. Aiba searches the sky for beads of light, the uncovered stars that assure him that all is normal. “He used to sing, you know. Nino would write songs and Ohno would sing them. His voice was beautiful… but it got weaker, little by little, and now he can’t anymore.”
Knowingly, Jun nods and says quietly, “Life isn’t always fair.”
Aiba charts the paths that the fireflies above him are taking. Makeshift stars.
“I think I love you,” Aiba says.
And that’s it. There’s no affirmation that the sentiment is mutual, no snort of disgust or shying away. No gasp or gaping look of shock at the sudden confession. No kiss or movement to get closer together. (Did Aiba really say it? Have either of them been saying anything at all?) They lay there in silence and watch the fireflies flicker on and off again above them, as if the entire world has gone black and no amount of light could ever fix it.
Is this Jun’s world, Aiba wonders? A world where nothing can be confirmed or denied; all is uncertainty, and every step is on shaky ground: too stable to doubt; too doubtful to trust.
The horizon reddens and speaks up for the dawn that’s hidden by grey storm clouds. Drops of rain fall on them as they stand up and start to head home, and still neither of them speaks. They walk in silence, contemplating the brevity of life and questioning the longevity of love.
Neither of them come up with answers by the time they arrive back home.
One month, one week, and three days after Matsumoto Jun arrived at their home, he leaves. A note is left on the table that morning, a simple Thank you and goodbye written in pen (because there was no question of him staying; no change of mind that he’d want to erase). Their lives go on in the same way as always with just the four of them. No Jun.
But the makeshift tombstone that Ohno made for Happy is right there under the tree, proof that change truly did occur. Aiba and Jun had made a habit of visiting her grave every morning. Now Aiba goes out alone, and instead of standing with her for a minute, he sits beside her for hours, knowing that he has to move on but not knowing where to move to.
Nino rests a hand on Aiba’s shoulder and sighs. “Aiba-chan, it’s raining. Come inside.”
Aiba doesn’t realize until Nino says so that he’s soaking wet and shivering. But he still shakes his head.
Nino kneels next to him, and Aiba almost expects a hug. Instead, Nino slaps him – hard. “Get a hold of yourself,” he hisses, forcing Aiba to his feet. Aiba never knew Nino had that much strength. “Ohno is fine. Sho called from the hospital. The treatment they’re giving him is working so well, in fact, that Ohno might be even better than fine. He might actually be well. But you’re so fucking stuck in the past that I had to stay here with you to make sure you didn’t fucking kill yourself while Sho took care of Ohno.”
His words sting in places that Aiba thought had gone numb. “Nino…” he whimpers, sniffing. “I’m sorry, I… I just don’t know what to anymore. Everything feels so…”
Lifeless, Jun said. Driving too fast for the scenery to mean anything.
“Aiba,” Nino says, voice pleading, “Happy is dead. Jun is gone. But Sho, Ohno, and I are alive, right here with you. You’re alive, right here with us.”
But slowing down means never getting anywhere.
“You’re scaring us.”
Aiba tries to block out the sounds of Nino’s sniffing and shaky breathing and soft sobbing, tries to ignore the knowledge that it’s his fault that Nino is unhappy.
They say that the ends justify the means.
But Aiba doesn’t have a destination, and the scenery around him is blurry – maybe from driving too fast, or maybe just from eyes filled with tears – and Aiba doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. The rain sends chills up and down his spine, not heavy enough to drown out Nino’s crying, and the lettering on the tombstone (Happy’s name painted in katakana on a wooden plank) is smearing a little from getting wet. There can’t be justice in both the ends and the means. It had to be one or the other.
Or sometimes, neither.
The envelope is plain, white with their address written in neat strokes, and it gets stuffed between some bills and one of Ohno’s fishing magazines. It sits untouched on the kitchen counter for a week, until Ohno finally comes home and decides to flip through his magazine, accidentally knocking the pile of letters to the floor. Sho picks them up and opens them one by one. Aiba is coming back inside from visiting Happy again, rummaging through the kitchen for a drink. Sho reads the contents just as Aiba is taking a sip of water. The timing is as magical as the day he met Jun.
Sho shoves the letter in Aiba’s face, but it’s too close to read. Aiba leans back and squints until his eyes adjust and can process the words in front of him. It’s a cordial invitation to the private viewing of one Matsumoto Jun’s new collection.
Sho points to the date and time listed. “It’s tomorrow evening. Do you have a suit? The pant legs might be a tad short, but you can wear one of mine.”
Aiba blinks and frowns. “I don’t want to-”
“Yes you do,” he cuts in, forcing the invitation into Aiba’s hands. “It’s painfully obvious that you’re madly in love with him, and we all know that he loves you back. But you’re so afraid of moving and he’s so afraid of staying still that neither of you know what the hell to do about it.”
Briefly, Aiba wonders how long it’s been like this (never quite knowing what his wishes are or which star he’s wishing them upon and relying on others to interpret dreams he can’t see), and if he’ll ever figure out what he wants for sure.
I want to feel the world’s heart beating.
Then put your finger on its pulse. It’s not like it’s stopped.
Aiba stuffs the invitation in his back pocket and heads into his room to pack.
The train into Tokyo is smelly and crowded, and the sky is still dark from clouds. Aiba arrives mid-afternoon, but the world deprived of sunlight is deceitful. Aiba’s body feels treacherously tired.
The event isn’t as grand-schemed as Aiba expected; there are no limelights or red carpets or floods of paparazzi. Dignified guests in suits and gowns walk the halls and observe the pieces gracefully and quaintly, as if the world is keeping an eye on them to make sure they remain perfect citizens of high society. There are a few reporters and critics with judgmental eyes, and a few others who seem more normal, like Aiba.
Jun’s world is on display. All of the things Aiba saw him snapping pictures of (a hubcap abandoned on the side of the road; a flower combatting the wind; the broken bench-swing in the corner of their porch; Ohno painting; Nino’s magic; Sho reading the morning paper; the sunrise after a long, sad night) are there, fragments of places and times. Every photo is breathtaking, full of color and vivid detail, taking the simplest of things and capturing them in a way that makes them seem new and exciting, even though they’re things that Aiba’s seen countless times before.
The final photo brings Aiba to tears, and he has to escape to the bathroom to calm himself down. It’s a picture of Aiba smiling and lifting Happy up in the air, her nose pushed up against his. It’s the only photo of Aiba in Jun’s collection, but it’s so vibrant and bursting with life that it melts everything that had frozen over and sends his heart racing.
Aiba doesn’t notice, but underneath the photo is a small plate with the name engraved. The title of the photograph is The Meaning of Happiness.
Aiba somewhat expected the night to unfold like the scene of a drama, with Jun meeting him at the gallery. They’d run into each other’s arms and cling as cheesy music played in the background. They’d cry, declare their love for one another, kiss, hug some more, then run away together to the nearest love hotel and have hot sex as a sign of their true love.
Jun does see him at the gallery, but he’s too busy greeting his other guests and talking with reporters to run away into the sunset with Aiba. But Aiba stays late, huddled up on a bench and drifting to sleep when it gets too late. He expects Jun to at least play along a little with his fantasy by kissing him awake, but Jun decides to kick him instead.
“Let’s go for a drive,” Jun says as Aiba sputters and wakes up.
So they do, but it’s not to the nearest love hotel, or to some romantic dating spot. But Aiba is okay with that. That kind of dramatic ending doesn’t really suit them, anyway.
“What do you think happiness is?”
Aiba blinks and moves to face Jun a little more, surprised by the sudden question. They’ve only been driving for a couple of minutes, so it seems like something Jun wanted to ask so badly that he couldn’t hold it in for any longer. “Well… it’s sort of… like, a light in a dark room? You know, like something bright when the rest of the world feels dark, I guess. Why?”
He shrugs, eyes never drifting away from the road. “I don’t know. Just thinking to myself.”
Aiba glimpses outside when Jun falls silent, trying to make out the shapes of the world that’s whizzing by them in the dark. Jun mutters something under his breath, not even loud enough to be called a whisper, but Aiba manages to catch it: “Light in a dark room, huh?”
“Do you disagree?”
“No, it’s not that. Happiness is just a hard thing to define, isn’t it?” Jun glances at him for a split second and smiles reassuringly. “But let’s say that it is a light. Wouldn’t that mean that the secret to happiness is just… finding a light in the darkness?”
Aiba tilts his head to the side. “Sure, I guess.”
“So if you feel like you’re surrounded by darkness, does that mean you should leave that dark room and search for a light? Does that mean you can’t be happy there?”
The question is hard to register. Aiba understands what Jun is asking, but when he thinks back to the collection of pictures that Jun captured while he stayed with them, Aiba can’t even begin to fathom Jun surrounded by darkness. Not when the world through his lens is so vibrant and alive…
“Maybe the light isn’t in a different room at all,” Aiba finally offers as an answer. “Maybe it just hasn’t been turned on yet.”
Jun slows the car down, guiding it onto a turnpike and parking in the nearest gas station. He looks at Aiba with a strange anxiety. The shadows play off of his face, making him look distant and weary. “But maybe,” Jun says softly, “it’s better to leave. If you’re always waiting for a light to turn on, aren’t you at a standstill? You’re not moving at all.”
“You’re the one who said you felt like you were driving too fast,” Aiba reminds him.
Jun nods slowly, shifting the gear to drive and pulling back onto the highway. “I know,” he says, a sort of resolution in his voice. “I know. And I think I love you, too.”
And that’s it. Aiba is too stunned to react. (Did Jun really say it? Have either of them been saying anything at all?) They sit in the car in silence, surrounded by darkness, chasing the rays of light from their headlights. It’s a missed opportunity – but if they slow down a little, they might just be able to reach out and catch it.
Because life was never meant to be lived at the same speed. Things come towards at unpredictable speeds, sometimes slowing down to turn the corner and sometimes racing against the wind with the windows rolled down. Aiba stretches his arm out of the open window, pretending to be the wings that could lift them away into the dawn of a new world. (Aiba extends his hands and catches the fly-by chance he almost let pass him by, catching it firmly and not letting go.) The wheels never leave the ground, but Aiba can see it if he closes his eyes: the two of them flying up, up, and away into a world pulsating with light and illuminated with life instead of the other way around.
This isn’t their destination, Aiba thinks as they pull into the house that the four (five) of them share, as Jun leads him around the back to Happy’s grave. This isn’t a beginning or an end, Aiba says as he plants his lips against Jun’s, kissing him and holding his hands. It’s just a turnpike, and up ahead is still full of speed bumps and radio static, a chaotic mess of shifting and accelerating that never seems to end.
But sometimes it’s okay to slow down and take in the surrounding scenery – times like now, as they kiss while fireflies flitter above their heads. And one day, they would reach some unmarked destination, a place where they can lay against the grass sprinkled with morning dew and reminisce, thinking about all of the speeds at which they lived, regretting the roads not taken and taking pride in the roads they did. On that day, Aiba will remember this moment, the slow movement of lips and the increasing speed of his heart. It’s a snapshot now, scrapbooked in his mind, an image surging with life and depicting a world they live in together.
A/N: Oh, yes, and this is my new fic comm, in case you couldn't tell XD