This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.

Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.

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Eight thirty rolled around, and I arrived at Rob's place with Melanie and Rick. Steph and Trevor were already there, chatting out front with Mrs. Greene. They seemed pretty chipper, given how early it was, how late they'd probably been up the night before, and the presence of Rob. Mrs. Greene probably had a lot to do with that. She was really tough to be grumpy around, something I knew from personal experience.

Rob, on the other hand, was looking profoundly uncomfortable. Not too surprising, I guess. While he may have come to some reconciliation with Trevor last night, three years of hard feelings don't just go away, and I knew Steph didn't much like him either. I didn't think she'd say anything with Rob's mom around but, then, I wasn't sure she wouldn't either.

When I got out of my car, everyone swung around to look at me.

"So, what's the plan?" asked Trevor.

"First, we stop in at a bookstore that's on the way to lunch and I pick up a few things. Then it's on to lunch, then to downtown for a run through the stores, and finally we catch the 7:30 showing of either the original Godzilla or Shichinin no Samurai." Everyone was looking at me blankly. "The Seven Samurai?" More blank looks. "Famous Kurosawa flick? One of the best films of all time?" Still the blank looks. "It's a Japanese version of The Magnificent Seven," I said with a sigh. That, at least, got a look of recognition. Philistines.

"Are you going to hang around with all of us all day?" I asked Mrs. Greene. "I think I can stuff everyone into my car if they don't mind getting friendly on the way back."

"I may. We'll see if an old lady like me can keep up with all of you," she said with a grin. Personally I think she could run us all into the ground, but who was I to argue if she wanted to give us a way out? "We can trade cars if that happens, Justin. I think my car will hold everyone more comfortably." Given that she was driving one of those big suburban assault vehicles, she was definitely right. We'd all fit in her car with room to spare if we had to.

"Great. Here, I got directions to the place we're going first," I said, handing Mrs. Greene the MapQuest map I'd printed out that morning. "You know where the restaurant is?"

"Yes, I've got directions."

"Great. We'll meet you at the store."

Rick and Melanie rode with me, together in the back seat, while Steph, Trev, and Rob rode with Mrs. Greene. I expect things might've been tense in their car, but we chatted and had a good time in mine.

The first stop was a Japanese bookstore I'd found on the Web. I'd stocked up there with reading material over the Christmas break, and I could've kept up by ordering books online, but... it's just not the same. I like browsing, and in three months it's not like there were likely to be any new volumes of the series I follow, and you really can't browse right on the Internet anyway.

Like all the other Japanese bookstores I've been in, there was a collection of 'cultural' merchandise, something to drag in the otaku and gaijin, I guess. Steph and Melanie were digging through the Hello Kitty stuff, Trevor was standing by a Sailor Moon display with a very disturbing look on his face, and Rob was over in the corner looking at the imported art supplies. Rick just sort of hovered and looked uncomfortable.

"Hey, what's up?" I asked as I went past Rick.

"Nothing, it's just..." He trailed off and looked around. It was pretty obvious something was bothering him.

"It's something. C'mon, spill it," I said as I led us over to the back shelves.

"I just feel really uncomfortable," he said hesitantly. "I mean, I really like bookstores, but I can't even read the titles here. It's just kinda... alien."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I said, as I started pulling volumes out and loading Rick up. "I felt like that all last September. Just hang with me a second and we'll go, OK? I've got a hundred dollar limit today." Didn't take long to reach it either, even with the favorable exchange rate that a lot of the books were marked with.

I wasn't the only one to load up and hit the registers. I had books, Rob had pens, brushes, and ink, and Melanie and Steph each had an armload of Batz Maru stuff. Trev was still at the Sailor Moon display, but I was trying really hard to not think about that. Really hard. If my stay in Tokyo taught me nothing else, it taught me that no good can come of Sailor Moon, though Trevor would look really good in a tux and top hat. I was half-tempted to say something to Steph about that.

We finished up pretty quickly. Steph had to drag Trevor out of the store, but luckily he came out empty handed. I'm not sure what she'd said to get him moving, but he was blushing furiously when he got into the car.

It only took twenty minutes or so to get to the restaurant, and we ended up there a few minutes early. The place was an upscale sushi joint, all done in rice paper screens and light colored wood. The guy working the door wasn't too much older than me, maybe twenty, and definitely Asian, done up in a suit and tie. I felt positively underdressed, though a quick glance around the restaurant showed pretty much everyone else there was in casual clothes or jeans.

"Good afternoon," he said. His speech was easy enough to understand, but it was clearly Tokyo-accented English, though he wasn't the guy I'd spoken to on the phone last night. That actually made me kind of happy -- most of the sushi places back home were run by folks from China, and the sauces were always a little off. With two Tokyo accents I figured this place must be run by an expat family, so we had a good chance that things were going to be good.

"Good afternoon," I said, switching into Japanese. Last night had reminded me how nice it was to speak the language again. "Payne Justin. Reservation for seven. I'm afraid we're early."

The maitre d' gave me a grin and matched my Japanese with his own. "No problem, sir," he said. "Your party has seats at a table in back. It will be a few minutes before we can seat you."

"Thank you very much," I replied, and gave him a bow that was probably deeper than it should've been. I'd never quite gotten the hang of where adults stood relative to me socially, so I always acted like everyone was a step above me. It wasn't always right, but the worst thing that happens is you get tagged as a polite kid. There are worse fates than that. He gave me a grin and matched my bow.

"Guys," I said, as I turned back to everyone. They were all giving me a weird look, all except Mrs. Greene, who looked like she thought it was all a little funny. "Should be a couple of minutes."

"Damn," said Rick, with some admiration in his voice. "You're good at that, aren't you?"

"Yes, your Japanese is quite good for a foreigner," the maitre d' threw in.

This, I admit, pissed me off more than a little. I had gotten that a lot last year. The first dozen or two times it was OK, but after that it got a little tiresome, especially after I realized how condescending it was. What was worse was that I only realized people were patronizing me by overhearing some of my classmates laughing about it. Besides, my Japanese accent was better than his English one. On the phone nobody could tell I wasn't a native, but he'd never pass.

"Thanks so very much," I said, so politely that it should've been obvious that I was going over the top. "Your English is quite good for a foreigner." I phrased it exactly the same way he did. If he was going to be condescending, I could be too.

"Thanks. It was such a change when we moved here from Marietta," he said, grinning like a fiend, with an accent that was close to Mrs. Greene's. Marietta was one of the Atlanta suburbs, maybe twenty miles from where we were right now. I was pretty sure I'd just been had, and when Mrs. Greene started laughing I knew for sure I had been.

"Sorry," I mumbled. I was kind of embarrassed.

"Ah, don't sweat it," he said, laughing a little. "And your accent really is good. You sure confused Jimmy last night when you made reservations."


"Yeah, my brother. Phil Nakamura," he said, holding out his hand. I shook it. "Pleased ta meetcha."

"Justin Payne," I replied. "Embarrassed as hell."

"Don't sweat it," he said, switching back to Japanese. "It's nice to talk to someone who's not family and not sixty and on vacation."

"I understand. I was getting rusty."

He laughed. "Yeah, right. You're better than Jimmy, and he did his undergrad work at Todai. Granted, he only learned enough to pass his classes and pick up girls. You spend time in Tokyo?"

"Exchange student last year."

"That must've been fun."

I snorted. "Hated it."

"I bet. Pet gaijin on display?" I nodded. "Welcome to my world," he said with a little smile.

"Yeah, that's got to suck," I said. "So why the accent?"

He shrugged. "It's what people expect. Who wants to eat redneck Japanese?"

It took me a second to work that one out, but it was pretty obvious once I did.

The table opened up right then, and a waiter brought us over to our seats -- he looked like he was probably Phil's brother or something. I didn't even bother taking the menu when he handed it to me. "This one's on me, guys," I said.

"So, you're the guy who called in last night," the waiter said.

"Yes. Almost everyone's new at this. Could we just have a good assortment? With lots of tuna, please."

"No problem," he said. "You won me ten bucks. Jimmy didn't think you could be from around here."

"I'm not. I'm from Massachusetts."

The waiter just laughed as he took everyone's drink orders and headed off to the sushi bar to get things going.

"It's kind of... strange to hear you talk like that," Rob said softly to me. He was on my right and had near-whispered that into my ear.

"Yeah, well, no surprise. I'm probably the only person in town who speaks Japanese," I replied. I kept my own voice low, for some reason. Looking around, everyone else had sort of paired up and was speaking softly, looking around the place. It certainly wasn't anything like any of the other restaurants in town, so I guess that made sense. I remembered my first time in a Japanese restaurant. I'd stolen one of the menus and spent the next week with my dictionary trying to translate the thing, only to find out later that the typesetter had made a mistake somewhere and it didn't actually make any sense.

"It's not that, Justin. It's... never mind." Rob looked away. I sighed. He was so damn frustrating some times, and I had no idea what he was thinking.

The drinks came right out, with the sushi a minute or so behind. It was the fastest I'd ever been served in one of these places -- I guess chatting with the waiter's good for something besides practice.

The guys at the bar had gone all-out for us, too. Sushi for seven does take up some space, but we'd gotten a good display put together for us. The main platter was this huge wooden boat made of some light-colored wood, with a raised deck in the back complete with a little steering wheel, a tall mast, two smaller platters attached to the mast, one on top of the other, and some fake rigging strung from the mast to the sides of the platters and the ship.

The main deck of the boat was covered with sushi, little wads of rice with slices of raw fish on top, held together with little green bands of nori. There were twelve pieces on each side of the mast, eel in back, tuna in the middle, and salmon in front. The lower of the two platters attached to the mast were covered with slices of tuna, and the top platter had slices of yellowtail. The little back deck had three bunches of pickled ginger done up in the shapes of roses, and someone had made a little green sailor out of wasabi paste.

In addition to that we got two smaller wooden platters with the maki. Maki are great -- they're made by laying out a flat sheet of nori, covering it with rice, and putting in some sort of filling. Then it's all rolled up tight and cut into six pieces, each about an inch long. We'd gotten a couple of sets of tuna, some whitefish, and some cucumber rolls. The chef had even cut the rolls up fancy, arranging the roll pieces in a circle and setting things up so there was a tiered effect, with grated daikon radish, wasabi paste, and pickled ginger in the center. Most of the rolls had been done traditionally, with the nori on the outside giving the rolls a green shiny outer layer. Some of them had been done inside-out, with the rice on the outside and the nori on the inside. Those had been covered in either sesame seeds or sea urchin eggs.

Mrs. Greene and I grabbed chopsticks and started in on the platters in front of us -- beautiful presentation or not, it was food, and well-prepared food at that. The rest of the group looked a little uncertain. Rob picked up one of the sticks and poked at the sushi in front of him.

"Uh... Justin?"

"Yeah?" I half-mumbled that, my mouth full of food.

"This fish... it isn't cooked."

I swallowed.

"It's sushi," I said.

"It's raw."

"Rob, it's supposed to be raw. It's sushi." He looked very uncertain. "It's good, really." He wasn't buying that. I sighed and shook my head. Melanie, Steph and Rick were equally uncertain. "Okay, look," I said, "give it a try. The green rolls are called maki, and they've all got different things inside. Dip 'em in soy sauce first. They're good, but you might not like the seaweed wrap, which is OK. The pieces of fish just sitting out are sashimi -- they're just pieces of fish, nothing else. We've got tuna and..." I took a close look at it. "Yellowtail. The things on rice? That's sushi. Just pop 'em in your mouth, that's fine." I demonstrated, and it was a little bit of heaven. It'd been too long since I'd had good tuna.

"The green paste is wasabi. It's good, but a little spicy..." I trailed off as I watched Steph find out first-hand exactly how spicy it was. Her eyes bugged out and I could see the sweat. Mrs. Greene handed her a cup of tea. "Don't eat it by itself."

"What's this stuff?" Rick asked hesitantly, looking at one of the rolls that'd been rolled in sea urchin roe, looking like it was covered in little orange candy balls. "That's garnish," I said, deciding to skip the truth. "Just for looks."

After a few minutes it was pretty clear that while Steph and Rick were developing a taste for sushi, Rob, Melanie and Trevor were going to go hungry unless we did something else. I waved our waiter over.

"Can we get a few more things?"


He handed me a menu, and I scanned it as I ordered. "Two yakitori assortments, beef negimaki, some gyoza and..." Oh, my god. My eyes bugged out as I read the specials. "Two orders of... Connecticut rolls." I winced. "With tartar sauce and ketchup, if you have any."

The second round came quickly, and the fact that it was cooked made a big difference. The rolls were a hit, though I couldn't bring myself to try one.

"This stuff's actually good," said Rob, his mouth full. "I like these. What are they?"

"The menu said Connecticut roll. White fish maki dipped in tempura batter and deep fried." He looked a little puzzled. "It's fish-stick sushi, Rob. It's gross. I really don't wanna talk about it." Mrs. Greene was laughing at me, but I didn't care. I had tuna, I was happy.

While we were eating, Rob was looking around the restaurant. It was done up in traditional American Sushi bar style, with lots of light colored wood and wall hangings that were a combination of poetry and oriental art. They were obligatory, I guess, in case the plates of raw fish weren't a clue you were in a sushi bar.

"Can you read that stuff?"

"What, the wall hangings? Sure," I said. "I passed the JLPT 1 before I went to Tokyo for school last year." He looked blankly at that. "I'm officially literate, Rob. Why?"

"Can you write that stuff too?"

"Yeah, no problem. Ask Rick, all my physics notes are in Japanese. Drives him nuts." And it did. We didn't have class the same period, but we both had it, and we studied together. I'd had physics last year but didn't manage to get credit for it, so I was essentially retaking it. I thought about physics in Japanese. Made exams tricky, but Dr. Smith thought it was funny that my test papers were covered with Japanese scrawl.

Rob looked thoughtful. "Can you write me something?"

"Like... what?"

"I don't know," he said. "I want to try doing something like that." He was waving at the wall hangings with his fork. I had an evil idea.

"Sure," I said. "You want something real, or something funny?"

"Funny how?"

"Funny like..." The waiter I'd chatted with when we came in was half-hovering behind us. I caught his eye. "Can I get a couple of pieces of paper, please?"

He brought them, I took out a pen, and sketched out four different things. "You want things to put up on wall scrolls with asian-style art, right?" I held out the paper to Rob. When the waiter glanced at them his eyes went wide and he started to laugh.

"What's so funny?" Rob sounded suspicious. I pointed at each of the four things in turn. "'Ignorant foreigner.' 'I have no idea what this says.' 'Pretentious and ignorant.' 'Confucius says never display sayings one does not understand.'"

Rob laughed at that one. "Hey, it could be worse," I said. "I saw someone with a rip-off Dragonball Z shirt that had 'asshole' written all over it."

There was more talk with lunch, but to be honest I wasn't paying attention. It had been way too long since I'd had good sushi and I wasn't going to miss a second of it. After lunch we wandered downtown over by the university. I thought I could get really used to hanging around places like this. Yeah, sure, it was March and cold, but there were lots of little shops all over the place, and it was nice to just be out and around. I was surprised how fast we burned five hours doing nothing of consequence, and how nice it was to do it.

The funny thing was that Rob actually knew more about the area than anyone else did. I'd sort of figured that Steph would be the one leading us around, since she'd seemed to know where she was going when she dragged me to the city for my makeover, but we were in a different part of the city today. It was all galleries, bookstores, dopey new age stores, and little restaurants and cafes, and Rob seemed like he knew them all. Hell, he fit in with all the college guys wandering around better than the rest of us did. It was cool, and almost like he was another person or something.

It was kind of nice, actually. No asshole Bobby, or meek, cowering Rob, just a guy out enjoying himself with friends. I think Trevor and Steph even sort of forgot they didn't like him for a while.

While I held out as long as I could for Shichinin no Samurai, I was soundly outvoted, and we ended up watching Godzilla instead. Mrs. Greene'd bailed on us, claiming she had court stuff to do in the morning, so it was just the six of us. I'd only ever seen the U.S. version before, as had Rick, nobody else having seen it at all. The original Japanese version was definitely different, and a lot better. Oddly enough I found the subtitles downright distracting -- my brain kept getting yanked back and forth between reading English and listening to the Japanese dialog.

The one upside was that Godzilla was a short movie and let out at about quarter after nine, so there was still stuff open and we could kill a little time and have some late-ish fun. We ended up at a little coffee shop not too far from the theatre, smack in the middle of a mass of university-influenced stores. The crowd was mostly college kids. We didn't stick out too badly, though.

It took a couple of minutes to get us to get our drinks, find a table with some comfy chairs around it, and sit down. Rick, Trevor, Melanie, and Steph were all bouncing back and forth about the movie -- costumes, sets, and stuff like that. The thing was old enough that it was almost as much a play as it was a movie, and apparently there were deep metaphors in it disguised as a guy in a rubber giant monster costume, so the four of them were just going at it. Seemed a bit deep for me, I just enjoy movies with stuff blowing up in them

Not that it really mattered. They had all had a good time today, that was obvious even to me, and I liked that -- something I'd done had made other people happy. It was a nice thing, really. I don't think it'd ever really happened before. I was content to sit in a comfy chair, sip my tea, and know that my friends were enjoying themselves.

The place was about half full, and some college guy and his girlfriend walked past our table. "The freshmen are getting younger and younger," said the guy.

"Be nice," his girlfriend said, slapping him on the arm. "Besides, don't they make cute couples?"

I hadn't noticed, but we sort of had split into pairs. Rick and Melanie were sitting knee to knee, Trevor had his arm around Steph, and Rob and I were sitting pretty close, giving the other four some space.

Rick and Melanie gave each other a look, and just started making out at the table. Trevor and Steph looked amused, I was happy, and Rob looked... well, he looked uncomfortable. Not so much the 'my ex-not-really-girlfriend is making out with someone else' uncomfortable, but something a lot deeper. Maybe he was seeing something he thought he couldn't do, or something like that. I wasn't sure, and the only person around I could ask about it was busy playing Alien Face-hugger with Rick. I saw Trevor look at Rob, nudge Steph, and then the two of them locked lips and went at it.

At this point poor Rob was looking downright despondent, and I was feeling bad for him. I didn't think Melanie and Rick were making him uncomfortable on purpose, but I was pretty sure Trevor was. Not exactly nice, though given their history I couldn't really take much offense. Still, I figured I'd try and take his mind off things.

"Hey," I said quietly to Rob, "you OK?"

"Yeah," he replied, equally quietly. A second later he changed his mind. "No. I'm not." He looked sad and sort of haunted.

"What's up?" I think I knew, but I didn't want to presume. Didn't seem a prudent thing to guess at, especially given my social skills.

"That," he said, nodding at the pair of kissing couples. "They can do that. I... can't." The word came with a look I remembered, a look he'd had when we buried his dog.

"Why not?"

"Because I'm..." he caught himself, though I knew what he was going to say. I felt bad for him that he couldn't say it. "I just can't."

"Oh yeah?" And I grabbed the back of his head with my hand, pulled him in, and laid a long kiss on him. It was almost funny how the kiss progressed. There was a second or two of closed-lipped shock, then he opened his mouth, wrapped his arms around me, and we kissed. No stars, choruses of angels, or thunderbolts of true love, mind, but still, there's nothing like kissing a willing guy. The kiss was long, slow, hot, and very, very nice. If Rob wasn't so screwed up in the head I'd have popped the boyfriend question on him there and then. He was as into it as I was, judging by his hands and tongue. Certainly didn't take him long to move from self-pity to shock to near-mauling. Mmmm, mauling.

Alas, all good things come to an end, this one when I heard Trevor say "Holy shit... ." Rob broke the kiss and pushed away from me. If I hadn't been holding on to him, I'm pretty sure he would've bolted out of the cafˇ. I looked over at Trevor as I hung onto Rob. I'm not sure who was more shocked, Rob or Trevor. It would've been funny in other circumstances. Melanie was amused, and Rick had this combination of shock and confusion on his face. I was only glad Steph didn't say anything, but I could tell from the expression on her face and the little bit of drool that she thought the kiss was kind of hot.

"You kissed him," Trevor exclaimed.

"Yeah," I said. I had. Hadn't planned on it, but I had. It had been nice, too.

"You're gay," he said.

"Well, duh. Old news."

"He kissed you back."

"Yup," I replied. No real point in denying that, given he had one of his hands in my back pocket before he'd pulled away.

"So that means he's..." Trevor trailed off. He'd apparently connected the dots. There was a parade of emotions across Trevor's face, and once again I cursed the feeble part of my brain that just couldn't pick them out. I'd bet on shock, realization, and something a little bit nasty, but I couldn't be sure. I'd have to talk to Trevor about it later.

I wasn't going to actually answer the question, but Rob was so obviously into the kiss, and so obviously desperate to bolt, that I didn't think it mattered if I said anything "You do realize," I said to Trevor, "that if you say anything about this I will have to kill you, right?"


"But nothing. The past is past. Be nice," I said, waggling a finger at him.

Trevor made a strangled sound and obviously struggled with something for a second. "You suck," he finally said, pouting.

"I think," I replied, "that we've already established that, yes. Your point?"


"I know, years of abuse, yadda yadda yadda. Over and done with, right?" I asked Rob pointedly. He nodded, eyes downcast.

"Good. Then we're fine, right?" Trevor and Rob both nodded, though Trevor did with obvious reluctance. He knew the sort of crap that could come back to Rob, and I knew he wouldn't say anything. Neither would any of the others -- I trusted my friends.

"Justin," said Melanie, breaking into the conversation, "I think it's time we should head home."

I looked at my watch. It was already ten thirty, and we had at least another hour before we got back home, and there was school in the morning. "Yeah, good point," I said. "You remember where we parked?"

"Yeah," said Rick. "No problem."

"Great, then. Why don't you guys head out? I want to grab another tea for the road. I'll catch you in a couple of minutes."

I walked up to the counter as everyone else made their way to the door. Well, everyone but Rob, who stayed. He kind of hovered behind me. I got a large green tea, and a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. This place did real whipped cream, too, I noticed, complete with a shot of vanilla.

"Here," I said to Rob as I handed him the cocoa. "Something warm for the road."

He took it, though with a little hesitation. "Um... thanks," he said.

"No problem," I replied, as we left the shop and started down the street to where the SUV was parked. We walked in silence for a couple of minutes. I felt like I ought to say something, but I wasn't sure what. The funny thing was that I wasn't feeling uncomfortable or anything -- just walking with Rob was nice. He was the one that ultimately broke the silence, though.

"Why did you kiss me?" he asked. Just blurted it out as we were two blocks from the car.

"Because you were looking miserable, pitiful, and were feeling sorry for yourself for no reason. We're an hour away from home, nobody here knows us, and we're in the middle of a university. Nobody cares, Rob." Nobody did, either. A couple of people in the shop had grinned at us, but most everyone paid us no attention.

"You're gay, Rob. No big deal," I said with a shrug. "I won't do it again, though. Not unless you want me to."

I was hoping he'd want me to, but he didn't say anything. Not then, not during the drive home, and not when I drove him to his house and picked up my car. Dammit.

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