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Hiroki looks back on the "cold" times in his life. In appreciation of Don't Preach, now Daniel Lazerus', brilliant stories, i.e. The Escort, College Daze, and On Another Path.

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Chapter 1

Hiroki sat nervously. The hotel room he had rented was adequate. It actually had a rather lavish bath tub, but Hiroki paid no heed to that. There was only one item in the entire room that had his full attention.

The bed.

It was queen size. He had only turned on one light, but even in this pale glow the white linen sheets looked clean and crisp. Hiroki stared at the object that would be witness to this one important moment in his life. He gulped.

No, stop making it seem so dramatic. Men do this all the time. This is 'normal.' Nothing special. Nothing more.

Hiroki turned toward the room's simple dresser and looked at himself in the mirror suspended above it.

Will I look different somehow afterwards? Will people be able to tell?

He closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing. Beads of perspiration had suddenly appeared on his smooth forehead. The cool air-conditioner failed to extinguish the raging fire of anxiety deep in the pit of his stomach.

Must it be this way?

For the hundredth time the question popped into his befuddled mind. Hiroki swallowed hard. Then he slowly opened his eyes. The dimly lit room still looked the same. But the eyes looking back at him in the mirror were not. His usually bright, clear gaze was clouded.

I chose to put myself into this situation. I will take the responsibility. And I will live with the consequences.

These thoughts lingered in his conscience. Together they wove a blanket that smothered the internal flame of long-held arguments. With this fire out, Hiroki shivered.

He breathed a bit easier now. He started to feel the soothing presence of the humming breeze from the air conditioner on his heated skin. A chill suddenly shook his lean frame.

I'm cold.

He stared at the bed again. This time, impassively.

The knock on the door startled him. Hiroki turned his head to the thin veneered barrier separating him from the rest of the world. It was time.

"Come in."

Hiroki hoped the slight quiver in his voice was lost on the other side. The door opened to reveal a fine looking young man dressed in semi-formal attire. The handsome face immediately broke into a pleasant smile. Without further prompting, the man stepped in and closed the door behind him. Hiroki steeled himself.

"Good evening. Takahiro-san, I presume?" The voice was both congenial and nonchalant.


"So, Takahiro-san," the voice went on at Hiroki's silent affirmation, "as I understand, this is your first time. So how do you want to go about it? I don't mean to brag, but I am quite well versed in a variety of techniques that might be of interest to you." The man smiled all the while as he said this, but his eyes remained cloaked in coolness.

Hiroki was relieved. He had picked the right one.

Restraining from clearing his throat and revealing his nervousness, Hiroki spoke in the growliest voice he could muster, "Cut the act and let's get down to business."

The man smiled amusedly. "Yes, Takahiro-sama."

Hiroki sat quietly watching. He had reached the drinking age a few months ago, enabling him to legally visit some of the bars in Ni-chome. Not that he could yet enter these easily: he was still always mistaken for a teenager due to his youthful appearance.

His sharp gaze swept over the dimly lit room. Thankfully it was not too crowded. Some people chatted quietly in one corner table. Others sat alone at center tables. A few singles and doubles sat at the bar's counter.

He only came to this kind of bar when he couldn't bear it any longer, though his visits were becoming far more frequent than he would ever admit.

In high school, often in the locker room after sports practices among the hearty banter of the other boys, Hiroki had heard a lot of sickening stories and jokes about his kind of people, these kinds of places.

He'd caught other tales whispered amongst adults when they thought no young ears were about: lost sons, disgraced uncles, wayward fathers.

Bullied. Abused. Disowned.

The rows of bars in this district had become a sanctuary where every one could be themselves without the rigid social prejudices. And where they could find the means to relieve themselves without shame.

A roar of laughter brought Hiroki's eyes to a table at the far end. He recognized one of the two men sitting there as a regular. Unlike the last time Hiroki had seen him, this time, the man was without the nasty bruises on his beautiful features. Hiroki's eyes moved to the man sitting opposite. The one who had emitted the hearty sound, a seemingly cordial salary man, judging from his clean but worn out suit.

But one could never tell what another would do once they'd gone off somewhere private and the door closed.

Hiroki's face darkened. He was lucky he had learned some basics of self-defense, enough to escape with few scrapes.

Not so the other party, though, Hiroki thought wryly.

Seeing the positive atmosphere surrounding the beautiful man tonight, Hiroki quietly exhaled. He watched as the two men chatted amicably.

Good luck.

He swept his gaze around the room again. The smiling faces, the hunched shoulders, the forced laughter. No matter what mask each of them put on, they all bore a similar burden deep in their soul. They all kept on with their farce in the false hope of tomorrow. Of finding a true partner. Of finding love.

Who are we kidding? We are unwanted. Rejected. Defective.

Hiroki grimaced at the thought.

No, that doesn't apply to every one. That only applies to me.

Hiroki gathered his sport coat around himself.

Damn, I'm cold. Why am I always freezing?

Hiroki felt a shiver threaten and brushed it off as restlessness. He hated what he was doing but he had his needs. He had also learned that he was not the only one navigating the world with unreturned feelings. The pain of longing, the despair of loving, he could forget all this in the pleasure of giving and receiving… At least momentarily.

I brought myself into this situation. I will take the responsibility. And live with the consequences.

Unable to contain his uneasiness any longer, Hiroki set out to do what he'd ventured here for in the first place. He quickly scanned the available and lone figures. His eyes stopped at a petite figure sitting at the other end of the bar's counter. Hiroki frowned. The small man looked like a child. He smiled inwardly at the irony.

Hiroki stood and walked slowly but purposely over, this was no environment for cowardice. "Hello there. What's your name?"

The small man looked up. He didn't seem to be surprised at the intrusion. In fact, it was as if he had been expecting it. He gave Hiroki an appraising once over, and his face immediately took on a satisfied expression.

"Kisa Shouta. And you?" The voice was also child-like, but the smooth tone belied his innocence and carried the distinct undertone of world-weariness.

It was a sound Hiroki had become quite familiar with. Nonetheless, he arranged his usually serious face into as light an expression as he could muster.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Kamijou Hiroki."

Hiroki sat disconsolately. The coldness of the tiles behind his back was nowhere near the ice in his core. His forever unrequited love had just left, leaving him to clean his mess.

"Let's see you revise this story, Kamijou. There's no way in hell you can edit this tale to have a happy ending," Hiroki muttered to himself, head bowed into his hands.

I brought myself into this situation. I will take the responsibility. And live with the consequences.

The mantra he'd lived with for so long felt hollow to his ear. He had done a terrible thing. There would never be forgiveness for his sin. There would never be a darker hole he could fall deeper into.

He had done it at last. He had tempted and persuaded his best friend to consummate their relationship. Their long and pure friendship.

Hiroki had wanted so badly for the hollow in his heart to be filled. He had desired above all things, if only for an instant, for his unrequited to return what he had been giving. He had even refrained from entering his beloved and had taken the bottom role, painfully knowing before they had begun that he would never complete his childhood friend.

He had been selfish.

Why? Why can't I be selfish? I love him and I want him to love me back. I want his eyes to look at me and only me. Is that wrong?

Yes, knowing his friend as he did, it was wrong. And selfish. And childish. And foolish.

Hiroki hated his rationalization. But more than anything, he was profoundly shocked by one numbing realization: his so-called love, the one he had thought would be never-ending, ever-lasting, that boiling, blistering love, had ended in a silent burst at a single word uttered from his unrequited's lips.

Just like that.

No ear-deafening exclamation. No earth-shattering explosion. Nothing.

In this state of hollowness, strangely, Hiroki felt a sense of tranquility. He had fought with all his might. He had proven himself right. He had found one irrefutable truth.

We were never meant to be. I am beyond love.

Hiroki knew he should feel more anguished. But he had played the plan over in his mind for so many times the actual reality had felt anti-climatic. At this thought, Hiroki grinned bitterly at another realization.

I didn't come.

Hiroki slumped back in exhaustion. The burden of loving his childhood friend for so long had taken its toll. He was dead tired. He was empty. He was spent. There was nothing else he could do. A shudder shook him.

I'm cold.

Hiroki wondered initially if this was because the flame of his love for his unrequited was now finally, irrefutably extinguished. Ash. But as the fog cleared from his mind he realized there was a much more obvious explanation.

Hiroki slowly lifted one hand and stared at his wrinkled fingers. He looked up to the shower above his head. When had he turned it on? He looked around. How had he got into the shower?

Ah, right. He had felt dirty. He had wanted to purge his body of any remnants of tonight, knowing full well the memory was forever imprinted in his mind.

I've been in here so long all the hot water is gone. That's why I'm cold. Simple. If only everything could be so easily explained.

Hiroki knew he had to get himself together. He had to be strong. He had to be ready the next time he saw him. He had to take the responsibility. He would live with the consequences. He was an adult. The adult.

Having made his decision, Hiroki's rampant mind had become suddenly silent. There was no sound now in the shower except the hiss of the falling water. Hiroki's trembling fingers managed to hold the soap. He rubbed it over his tainted body slowly and methodically. The cold spray pierced through the foamy bubbles.

Another shiver shook his frozen flesh.

Then Hiroki rinsed himself.

Hiroki sat contentedly. He'd finally finished his grading. He would have tomorrow off, and so would Nowaki. Not that they would be doing anything spectacular. Just a quiet day spent in the calming presence of each other.

Well, maybe not too calm… we could always improvise.

A slight blush rose up on Hiroki's cheeks. He glanced down at Nowaki, sleeping peacefully next to him. One of Nowaki's hands circled Hiroki's waist at the front and the other hand at the back. Nowaki’s warm and steady breath heated Hiroki much better than the room heater.

So warm.

Nowaki had come home looking like a walking zombie.

This was not new. Nor was the childish longing in those dark eyes as Nowaki stood in the hall for a moment after getting out of his bath and watched Hiroki on the couch doing his grading. Nowaki had sighed in defeat and quietly slipped into the bedroom. He had been startled when the door had re-opened and his Hiro-san shuffled in carrying a stack of papers in one hand.

"I'm keeping the lights on. You got a problem with that?" Hiroki's gruff voice had not been able to hide his good intentions.

"Of course not, Hiro-san." Nowaki could not ask for more.

Hiroki had then sat on his side of the bed, leaning against the bed's head and straightening out his legs, while Nowaki had pulled the blanket to cover them both. Not long after, Nowaki had enveloped his waist with both hands.

So warm.

The giant goof had looked up smilingly and softly said, "Thank you, Hiro-san. I love you. Good night." As if that wasn't enough, Nowaki had pressed his lips to Hiroki's hip, squeezing him affectionately despite Hiroki's grumbles.

Aside from his gentle breathing, Nowaki hadn't moved after that.

Hiroki watched the sleeping Nowaki. The younger man was in deep slumber. Traces of exhaustion were visible on the handsome face, but they were outshone by the tilt of Nowaki's smile, present even in sleep on his luscious lips.

Hiroki couldn't help but smile a little bit himself. He brushed a hand to Nowaki's dark hair, reveling in the soft feel. Then he gently swept a finger down one closed eye lid, reliving the loving gaze Nowaki always directed at him.

Only me.

Hiroki blushed slightly at the smugness. He was glad that Nowaki's dark eyes could not see his proud satisfaction. He lightly caressed one smooth cheek, still always amazed by the feel of Nowaki's skin against his own. Then Hiroki trailed his finger down to those sensuous lips, his mind hearing the unique tone in Nowaki's voice coming out from them when calling his special nickname.

Hiroki felt so blissful. Full.

Who would've thought? Who would've thought that I could actually find myself in this peaceful moment?

In the stillness, Hiroki's mind played through stacks of memories from his life.

How curious.

The memories that used to be painful brought a new wisdom with them now. Other memories brought a flush of embarrassment, along with a new wave of happiness.

Looking back, Hiroki was overcome with gratitude and relief.

He no longer hated who or what he was.

How strange.

The thought that in his past he had so fallen hard into so many dark pits of despair. That in the hours after he had tumbled into his life's darkest chasm and smashed his anguished fists on what he thought was finally the entrance to hell; he found instead, he had unknowingly knocked on the door of heaven. And in answer, this typhoon had come swirling out; breaking all his rules and logic, reviving his dying spirit, loving and accepting all his virtues and vices.

I brought myself into this situation. I will take the responsibility. And live with the consequences.

Hiroki let out a deep exhale of contentment. He took off his reading glasses, put them on the nightstand along with his papers, and turned off the lights. Carried away in the emotional epiphany, Hiroki put his arm around the love of his life and moved to lie down. He carefully positioned himself facing Nowaki.

I had thought that I was forever beyond love. I didn't believe back then that someone of my 'type' would ever find something true. Could attain something pure. Now I do.

As if conscious, Nowaki shifted and arranged himself to accommodate the change of position. A shiver coursed through Hiroki's body, but it was one of happiness, not cold. Nowaki gathered him tighter. Hiroki marveled at the heat that seeped into his flesh. The different fire that burned constant in his chest, not searing or scorching, but comforting, life-giving.

I'm warm. So warm.

Hiroki was still for a moment after Nowaki's sleepy embrace, making sure that his exhausted goof was still asleep. Satisfied, his lips twitched in a secret smile and he kissed the ribs over Nowaki's heartbeats. He pretended not to notice as even in slumber Nowaki glowed and murmured something sounded like "I love you, Hiro-san."

Hiroki decided to let Nowaki tighten his hold once more. Rather than try to free himself, he would scold the giant in his dreams instead.

Live. Live on. You will see things. Meet people. And find yourself.

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