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Secret Recipe - Part 2

Title: Secret Recipe (Part Two)
Word Count: ~11,500 words (in two parts)
Pairing: Ohba, Sakuraiba (bff)
Genre: Slow Burn, Drama
Rating: PG
Summary: Aiba family loses the famous annual baking competition for the first time in years. It becomes Masaki’s responsibility to figure out how to trump the new winner and win the family’s honor back.


[“I am home!” Sho cries out excitedly as he enters the apartment.]

“I am home!” Sho cries out excitedly as he enters the apartment.

“Welcome home, Sho-chan.” Aiba calls out brightly from the kitchen. “I bake some tarts again.”

After putting his bag and coat away, Sho walks straight into their kitchen and sits at the counter watching Aiba removing the tray out of the oven.

“Wow… It smells delicious! And right no cue too. It’s like you time it so the tarts would be ready exactly when I am home.” Sho jests. Aiba giggles happily before answering, “Of course, I do. Otherwise it wouldn’t be perfect. I make sure they are ready when you arrive.” Aiba puts a freshly baked tart on a small plate and Sho takes it right away.

“Umm~… Yum!” Sho comments. “I like this one better than the one last week. This is not too sweet.” Sho has been so much better at noticing the taste and texture of cheese tarts than months earlier. He has to be, after countless cheese tarts testing he has done for Aiba over the past few months.

“And?” Aiba still waits for the only comment he wants.

“Sorry, Masaki. It is still not like Ohno’s." Sho admits but quickly adds, "The texture is close though. I love the gooey center.” Sho tries to be encouraging. He hates seeing Aiba looking disappointed.

Aiba understands Sho's intention and gives him an appreciative but reserved smile. Aiba has been trying to figure out the cheese tart recipe for months now. He can figure out some bits, like the texture of the crust, the gooey middle, or the lightly sweet but tangy taste of the filling.

But Aiba can never incorporate all the partial successes into one perfect tart.
He still cannot make a tart like Ohno's.

“By the way, does Ohno know you still try to copy his recipe?” Sho changes the subject.

“For the nth times, Sho-chan, this is not copying.” Aiba insists rather strongly.

“Okay, fine, 'recreating'. You are recreating his recipe.” Sho corrects his wording rather teasingly, “But, seriously Masaki, does he know?”

“Yes, he does. He asks me pretty much once every two weeks.” Aiba replies as he takes a few cheese tarts from the tray and leaves them on a plate for their after-dinner dessert.

“Well, what did he say?” Sho inquires. He secretly has been worried, especially because the  Aiba and Ohno relationship has grown stronger week after week. Not that Aiba would notice, Sho does not believe his friend understands what really is going on.

“It's more or less the same. He looks indifferent. But it bugs me, Sho-chan. If he doesn't care, he would not ask, right?” Aiba sounds genuinely confused.

“Maybe he wants to know if you are still obsessed with him. You have to admit you are pretty stubborn about this. If I were you, I would have given up ages ago.”

“I am not obsessed! Not with him. Not with his tarts.” Aiba denies grumpily. “Why are you making it sounds so weird? This is just a simple task I do all the time with my job.” Aiba ends in a pout.

“Well, your job doesn't include dating the original recipe baker." Sho jests lovingly. "And I am getting chubbier eating your tarts. My pants are too tight now. You have to stop making them. You know, they may not be like Ohno’s but they are delicious.”

“Half of your pants are tight pants, Sho-chan. That's how they are supposed to look and feel. I thought you aim for being sexy in those pants.” Aiba reminds Sho with a knowing smile.

“Whatever, Masaki. What I am trying to say is, I think you should confront the real issue here. Are you sure they are separated things, dating him and copying his cheese tarts?”

“Once again, Sho-chan. I am not dating him. And this is not ‘copying’. 'Copy' sounds so distasteful. There is art in what I am doing.” Aiba tries to sound annoyed, yet he evades Sho’s teasing stare. Aiba is not sure why his face feels hot. He tells himself it must be the heat from the oven. This has nothing to do with what Sho said.

“You really should see how you look right now, Masaki.” Sho comments affectionately. He reaches to pinch Aiba’s cheek. “You are so adorable.” Aiba cries from the surprise. But before he can react, Sho has darted toward his room while still shouting out to Aiba, “Think hard, Masaki! I am serious!”

Aiba pouts. What is there to think about?

The more Aiba gets to know Ohno, the more he realizes Ohno is lonely. He does not particularly like Chiba and he has always missed Hokkaido. Aiba is convinced more than half of the time that Ohno sits still and thinks pensively is the time when Ohno thinks about his hometown.

“Why did you move here?” Aiba cannot refrain from asking the question one late afternoon while they are preparing dinner. He notices Ohno’s chopping movement stops for brief seconds when he hears the question. However, Ohno’s facial expression does not change when he replies,

“I can have my own shop if I move. Jun’s relative could give me a good deal on shop rental right here.”

“I am sure Hokkaido must have some good shop locations too.” Aiba counters.

“It might. I wouldn’t know. I never checked.” Ohno answers uninterestedly. It surprises Aiba. “But you love Hokkaido! It is clear you still miss it so much. It was natural to look for a place in Hokkaido first, wasn’t it?” Aiba protests.

“No, it was not. You got it wrong.” Ohno replies shortly and remains quiet. Aiba gauges the mood and decides against asking Ohno more questions. But Aiba still wants to know.

Since Ohno is not going to give him anything, Aiba decides it’s better if he asks Jun. Jun and Ohno used to work at the same famous bakery back home. When Ohno decided to move, Jun left with him and became the shop assistant at the new bakery. Aiba gets a feeling that he can learn more about Ohno's life in Hokkaido from Jun than from the man himself.

From the time he started hanging out with Ohno, Aiba has gotten to know Jun better too. Jun often remains at the bakery long after closing time, doing account, checking inventory, and generally making sure that everything is in proper order; so Aiba and Jun meet and talk at the shop from time to time. Jun does not live at the bakery like Ohno. Instead, Jun stays near his relatives on the other part of town. Nonetheless, he occasionally has dinner with Aiba and Ohno on Saturday when he does not have any other plans. Aiba likes Jun because he is charming and quite talkative when he is in a good mood. Jun is friendly and caring, especially toward Ohno. But he can also be very quiet and pensive, like how Ohno is. It makes Aiba wonder how Jun and Ohno are like when they are alone.

When Aiba asks Jun the same thing he asks Ohno, the answer is different.

“It’s not that Ohno did not bother to look for a place in Hokkaido. It’s more like he could not look for a place there. Staying in Hokkaido wasn’t an option.” Jun’s explanation ends with a heavy sigh. He looks gloomy when Aiba asks about Hokkaido.

“Not an option? Why?” Aiba knows that Ohno had been an apprentice of Hokkaido famous bakery. Maybe he wanted his own bakery. That makes sense. Still, it doesn’t mean he cannot have a place in Hokkaido though.

“It makes perfect sense if you know the real reason, really.” Jun assures him, “The thing is, when you want to run away, you would go as far as you possibly can.”

“Huh? Who was he running from?” Aiba’s thought runs frantically. It pains him to think that Ohno is running away from someone. A lost love? A fail relationship?

“It’s not who he ran away from, Aiba-san. It's what he ran away from.” Jun stresses the vital difference. “It was his dream he ran away from. The dream of running the old place." Jun's voice trails off. He seems unsure whether he wants to add the last part. Then, he decides it is better that Aiba knows. "Ohno ran away so Master Ninomiya could not give the bakery to him. He wanted Nino to have it all to himself.”

Aiba first knew of Nino’s existence through a picture. The only picture displayed in Ohno’s apartment tells Aiba that there are only two persons of significance in Ohno’s life. One is Jun. Another is Nino. Ohno keeps a picture of the three of them standing in front of their old bakery back in Hokkaido. They look quite young in the pictures, probably no more than fifteen. Aiba learns from Ohno that he and Nino grew up together. And that they are very close, like brothers. Ohno mentions about Nino affectionately and he seems happy reminiscing on the past.

Nino has always been like a distant shadow for Aiba until one day Ohno asks Aiba to come straight to a dinner at the bakery in the evening instead of their usual afternoon meeting. Nino is the reason for the change. He is in Chiba visiting Ohno and Jun. Ohno also asks Aiba to bring a date to the dinner. It is a request that confuses Aiba. Even though he insists to Ohno that he is not currently dating anyone, Ohno insists that Aiba should bring someone along anyway. "You would need someone for a company," Ohno explains, not that Aiba understands what he means by that though.

Unable to refuse Ohno, Aiba asks Sho to accompany him.

“And who is this Nino?” Sho asks after agreeing to join Aiba. Aiba decides to tell Sho everything he knows about Nino, which is not a lot. However, by the end of Aiba’s explanation, Sho turns grim. “Masaki, this is serious.” Sho looks at Aiba bleakly. “This is like ‘Meet the Family’. You are going to be grilled.”

Aiba does not understand what Sho means and he isn’t sure he wants to.

Ohno has decided to close the bakery for the weekend so they would be able to enjoy the Nino’s visit. The dinner is set up in the bakery kitchen area instead of Ohno’s small living room, and Jun is responsible for cooking for the special occasion. It is supposed to be a farewell dinner as Nino is about to leave early in the next morning.

It is the first time Aiba meets Nino in person. Ninomiya Kazunari, or Nino as Aiba has known him through Ohno’s and Jun’s stories, is a small man with a youthful look and an air of confidence. He is now the sole proprietor of Ninomiya bakery in Hokkaido – the shop that has been in his family for many generations. From the first impression Aiba has, Nino is quite friendly and chatty even with strangers. Within minutes of their meeting, Nino has Aiba and Sho calling him ‘Nino’ instead of ‘Ninomiya-san’ and he starts talking livelily with both of them. Nino is interested in all things Aiba and the friendship he and Sho has. Sho is too obliged to tell him many stories, which create so much laughter around the table throughout the dinner. During that time, Aiba notices Ohno, who sits quietly listening to those stories, steals glances in his direction from time to time. For some reasons, Aiba feels uncomfortable by Ohno’s glances. The way Ohno is looking at him is different from what Aiba is used to.

After they are done with dinner, they continue drinking. As far as Aiba can tell, drinking and getting drunk are not something Ohno has the privilege to do often since he has opened the shop here. Ohno does not waste the time to get right to alcohol and he is soon nodding off on the kitchen counter, along with Sho. After Ohno falls asleep, Jun volunteers to the dish-washing job and excues himself to tidy up the place. Aiba, who is Sho’s designated driver (thus, remains sober), notices that Nino is looking straight at him from the other side of the kitchen table. Without any other conscious souls nearby, Nino speaks what really is on his mind.

“So, you and Oh-chan hang out every Saturday, huh?” Aiba does not like the way Nino is looking at him while saying it. The friendly Nino from earlier seems to disappear. Aiba is certain he’s imagining things. Nino is certainly up to something.

“Yes, Ohno asked me to be his friend,” Aiba replies affirmatively. He tries to keep his tone normal and not at all intimidated.

“Oh-chan does not make friends.” Nino gives Aiba a sharp look. Aiba unknowingly retreats a bit in his chair. He isn’t sure what Nino wants but he definitely does not like where this conversation is heading to.

“The thing that bothers me is that I still cannot figure it out. What is your angle?” Nino narrows his eyes, “Oh-chan told me you wanted to copy our cheese tarts. So, what? Do you think Oh-chan will let you in on our secret?” Nino asks in a hostile tone. Aiba wants to protest that it is not ‘copy’ but Nino looks scary so he doesn’t. Instead, he denies it all together.

“What? No, no.” Aiba babbles. “Why would Ohno tell you something like that?”

“You should know, Aiba, Oh-chan tells me everything.” Nino emphasizes on the word ‘everything’. “You should also know he is not going to give you our secret recipe. It’s MY family recipe.” The strength in Nino’s voice is just enough to make Aiba knows he is serious. “So, really, what are you doing here? What is it that you want?”

“You’ve got it all wrong, Nino. I don’t want anything from him.” Aiba protests desperately. “He asked if we could hang out, so we did. It is just that.”

“What? you are going to tell me you hang out with him because he’s fun to be around, really? Come on, I have been with Oh-chan all my life. That’s one thing he isn’t. Fun.” Nino scoffs.

“He looks like he could use a friend here. That’s all.” Aiba says in all seriousness. Of course, it’s the truth.

“I told you, Oh-chan does not make friends.” Nino repeats what he has said earlier. This time with added annoyance. Then, Nino moves forward until his face is so close to Aiba’s. “Tell me the truth, do you like him?”

“Oh, God, no! No. Why would you ask that? We are friends. There is nothing of that kind.” Aiba squirms. Nino looks irritated. “How many time do I have to repeat myself until you get it?” Aiba evades Nino’s sharp gaze. He wishes Ohno or Sho would wake up or Jun would return so he would be relieved from Nino’s interrogation.

“Look, Aiba,” Nino falls back into his seat. His hand reaches to caress Ohno’s hair. Nino starts to get these serious looks again, “Oh-chan is very dear to me but he can be so stubborn sometimes. He should not be here. He should be back in Hokkaido, running our bakery. He has been avoiding it for long enough.” Now, Nino turns to face Aiba with the most serious expression. “If you guys are in a relationship, I would hate to make Ohno suffers by breaking it off. But if you are telling the truth, if you are truly his friend, it would be okay.” Nino narrows his eyes, “I am going to bring him home.”

“And he said that to your face?!?” Sho asks in disbelief when Aiba fills him in on what happened while Sho was drunk and sleeping. They are back at their apartment and Aiba is safe from the scary Nino.

“Yes, he did. He made it sound like I have something to do with it. You know, like I am keeping Ohno here.” Aiba crinks at the idea.

“Of course, you have everything to do with it! You are dating Ohno. Why didn’t you tell him that?!?” Sho almost yells at him.

“I am not dating anyone!” Aiba cries in frustration. What’s up with people around him trying to put wrong label in his relationship?

“Okay, fine, Masaki.” Sho sighs. “For your sake, I hope it’s true. Because if it’s not, you are running out of time.”

After many months of hanging out together, Aiba admits it is not only Ohno that changes; he also does. Aiba has learnt to accept and even appreciate silence and tranquility that associate with being around Ohno in his natural state. Aiba no longer feels strange staying in silence together with Ohno from time to time. He no longer needs to fill in the silence with his own voice every moment he and Ohno meet. It seems Ohno appreciates Aiba’s understanding of his nature. Now, they would spend some afternoons at the park like they did the first time they hang out. Ohno would bring desserts and Aiba would bring a book. As Aiba eats and reads, Ohno would stare into the lake, the sky, or the line of trees, lost in his own thoughts. They would just sit in silence. Strangely, Aiba thinks it would still bother him if it were other people. But somehow it seems alright when it’s Ohno. They may not talk but Aiba still feels that they are connected and Ohno is there with him.

However, things seem different after Nino’s visit. Aiba notices that Ohno’s quietness is not the same kind of quietness Aiba has grown to accept and appreciate. Ohno’s recent quietness is disturbing. Aiba tries to avoid mentioning about it as long as he can. Until finally, he can no longer pretend everything is okay.

“Oh-chan, something is bothering you. What is it?” Aiba finally asks. Ohno seems reluctant to say anything so Aiba urges him a few more times. Finally, Ohno caves in.

“It’s Nino.” Ohno lets out a heavy sigh. “He asked me to move back home.”

Since his talk with Nino a few weeks ago, Aiba has been expecting this. Yet, it still takes Aiba by surprise. Aiba is not sure how long it is until he gathers enough strength to breaks the silence again.

“What did you say?” Aiba's voice sounds dry even in his mind.

“I said no.” Aiba breathes a relief but Ohno is not finish. “Nino hasn’t given up though. He still asks every time we talk on the phone.” Ohno looks troubled and glum. “I don’t know how long I can keep saying no.”

Aiba keeps thinking about the conversations he had with Nino and Sho. About what is best for Ohno. About what it is that Ohno truly wants. Maybe it is time.

“Oh-chan, why don’t you say yes?” Aiba suggests with the most encouraging and supportive smile he could muster. “You have been missing home all these time. I think you would be happier there.”

“But, what about my life here?” Ohno glances at him and sighs. “What about the thing what I have here?”

“What do you have here that you cannot have back in Hokkaido, Oh-chan? Think about it. You will have a bakery there. Jun would return with you. And there will be Nino there too.” Aiba knows that Nino would offer co-ownership of the bakery to Ohno. It would be everything Ohno has wanted but has refused to accept before. “I really think you should go. There is nothing else for you here.” Aiba says firmly.

Ohno has a forlorn look on his face. The way he is looking at Aiba is undeniably piercing. Yet, Aiba pretends he does not realize the shift in Ohno's sadden eyes. Aiba pretends to be oblivious and continues to smile at Ohno encouragingly.

“You really mean that?” Ohno finally asks almost too quietly.

“Of course, I do.” Aiba sounds convinced. "You really should go."

This would be the best for Ohno.

Aiba has a bad feeling about their meeting the week after. He waits for Ohno at their usual spot in the park. The weather is warm and breezy. It should have been a nice day if it is not for something that Aiba knows is going to happen. Although Ohno hasn’t told him anything, Aiba knows in his heart Ohno is leaving. Ohno is going back home.

Aiba does not have to wait long until Ohno arrives. Aiba notices right away that Ohno does not come carrying his usual pastry box. Instead, there is a small paper-wrapped package under his arm.

“Hello, Oh-chan. How’s today?” Aiba greets Ohno with his usual optimism. He tries to sound cheerful. Ohno does not response with the same enthusiastic greeting though. He only mumbles a hello. Then, Ohno hands Aiba the package he has brought with him.

“I want you to have this.” Ohno says with a soft smile. Aiba takes the package and unwraps it to reveal an old notebook with a dark blue cover. He flips though pages of the notebook slowly. The pages are filled with hand-written notes and hand-drawn illustrations of bakery and pastries. Aiba realizes it’s a recipe notebook.

“What is this?” Aiba asks weakly. In truth, Aiba has guessed.

“It’s my note of all baking recipes I have learned from Ninomiya family.” Ohno answers matter-of-factly. “I am giving it to you.”

Aiba turns page after page until he finds what he suspects would be there. He points to the page.

“Is this what I think it is?” Aiba's mouth feels dry as he utters the question.

“Yes, it’s Ninomiya’s cheese tart recipe.” Ohno answers in affirmative. Aiba feels his hands are slightly shaking as his eyes glance through the details on the page. It is filled with a lot of hand-written notes and added comments on almost every line. “There are quite a bit of tricks and additions to the regular cheese tarts recipe. Maybe that’s why you find it’s hard to replicate. I also add the list of our suppliers in there, so you know where to get all ingredients. Master Ninomiya, my mentor, had always been very specific about that.” Ohno smiles as he reminisces.

Aiba cannot believe what he is holding in his hands. “How is this possible? Nino said he would not let anyone have it.”  What Aiba actually means is that Ohno’s notebook is too valuable to be given to him.

“I make an exchange with Nino. I promise him I would go back to Hokkaido if he lets me give you this. I guess Nino is desperate enough to make an exception and agree to such exchange.” Ohno jokes. Aiba does not know what to say. He is completely awestruck. With Aiba staying quiet, Ohno continues, “This is what you want, isn't it? The secret to our first prize dessert. Now, you don’t have to be obsessed about it anymore.”

“What?! No. God, no." Aiba cannot find a proper response to continue. Of course, finding the secret to Ohno’s cheese tart has been Aiba’s wish for several months; but this is not how he wants to figure it out. Why would Ohno entrust him with something so important and so valuable? Aiba hastily hands the notebook back to Ohno.

“I cannot accept it. This is too much.” Aiba's voice is shaky, his eyes are pleading. Ohno cannot possibly be doing this to him.

Ohno shakes his head. He would not take the notebook back.

“It's okay, really. I want you to have it." Ohno’s hand reaches out and rests on Aiba’s. Ohno presses his hand lightly. The touch sends a spark through Aiba's skin. “It is my thanks to you for spending those Saturday afternoon with me.” Ohno smiles, “I am flying to Hokkaido on Tuesday. Maybe you will visit me sometimes.”

Many thoughts run through Aiba's mind at that moment but Aiba cannot make himself to say a single thing. He can only blink while staring into Ohno's gentle eyes.

Aiba bites his lips. Ohno is leaving.

Of course, Aiba has encouraged Ohno to go. It would be what Ohno has wanted. But this is not what Aiba wants. Aiba looks up at Ohno who is still standing close. Tears threaten to fill Aiba's eyes. He takes a deep breath. Why would he cry? He should not cry.

Ohno is staring at him. Then, Ohno bends over slightly and plants a kiss on Aiba’s forehead.

“Thank you, Aiba-chan. For everything.”

With that, Ohno walks away.

Aiba remains on the bench. His hand grips the notebook tightly. Ohno has left him.

Ohno loves Summer time in Hokkaido. When the temperature rises, trees are full of leaves, and birds are singing, Ohno would go to his usual spot in a park near Ninomiya bakery. Here, he would do the same thing he always did growing up. He would spend his afternoon sitting alone in silence and enjoying the serene surrounding.

He never tells anyone the park was the reason why he picked that location of his bakery in Chiba. Because he planned to spend his free time the same way he did in Hokkaido. Because it would remind him of home. However, for the majority of his time in Chiba, he ended up not sitting alone in the park. Ohno had found someone in Chiba, someone that stayed with him, someone that made his day brighter, someone that made him happier. Ohno thought he had found his new home.

But that was all in the past. Ohno has been back in Hokkaido for over three months now. Nino begged him to return because he could not bear running the kitchen by himself anymore. Ohno is working at the same place he did before he left for Chiba. The only exception is that now he is the head baker. Jun is also back at the front. He had helped Ohno closing the store in Chiba and reunited with him and Nino at their Hokkaido store. He was visibly happy to be returning. Jun had never said it but Ohno was certain he missed Hokkaido a lot more than Ohno did. Because of that, Ohno would forever be grateful that Jun went away with him for his sake.

Aiba keeps in touch with Ohno after he returns to Hokkaido. It is to be expected from someone as nice and friendly as Aiba. After all, the guy agreed to hang out with him for such a long time. Ohno knows he can be a difficult person to be around. It usually requires a lot of energy and patient to stick around him. Lucky for Ohno, Aiba has both. Ohno think it’s a miracle that Aiba sticks around as long as he did despite not being interested in Ohno the same way Ohno was interested in him. Their only connection was probably the cheese tarts Aiba had been trying to make. Ohno was convinced it was the only thing that made Aiba interested in being around him. It was only a mystery Aiba wanted to solve.

Aiba is kind enough to give him a call from time to time. But it is usually just Aiba talking. Ohno doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t not have anything he wants to say. What’s the point, really? What Ohno wants is to be physically close to Aiba. He got that when they met every week back in Chiba. It didn’t matter what Aiba thought or felt about him. It didn’t matter what was the reason Aiba agreed to spend time with him. Aiba might not think about their time together as a date but so what? Once a week, Ohno got Aiba to himself. Ohno was happy that at least they were together. Now they are far apart, what good is a phone call to him?

Call him coward, selfish, or whatever. Ohno wants a relationship not a friendship. And he does not want a long-distance relationship.

Now Ohno is back to the same old routine. He comes to the park right after his work at the bakery ends. He sits on the same bench and rests his eyes on the beautiful scenery around him. Everything is exactly the same as it used to be before he left. Everything, except this strange feeling of an empty hole in his chest, as if something has been taken away from him. Ohno knows something is missing. It probably will remain missing for as long as he lives. Ohno is learning how to live with that.

Ohno has lost in his own thoughts until something appears in front of him. Ohno blinks at a yellow pastry box and the man holding it.

It’s Aiba. How can Aiba be here?

“Please have some tarts.” Aiba smiles as he opens the box and thrusts it in front of Ohno. “You may want to try them.”

Surprised and perplexed to see Aiba standing in front of him, Ohno reluctantly takes a cheese tart for a bite. What he feels and tastes in his mouth surprises him further. He looks at Aiba in confusion.

“Aren’t these tarts from the bakery? But, I didn’t make them.” Ohno absorbs the taste and the feel of tart crust and cheese filling in his mouth. He slowly realizes it does not taste exactly the same as his. It is not his tart.

“No, you didn’t make these tarts. I did,” Aiba smiles happily, “They are for my job interview.”

Ohno jumps to his feet. A job interview. It can only mean…

“Yes, I just had an interview with Nino. He seemed approve of my baking skill.”

Ohno gasps. He knows Nino has been wanting to get another baker to help Ohno instead of him for weeks. Nino has never been the one that enjoys working in the kitchen. The workload is killing, really, but Nino has to do it. Ohno understands Nino’s hesitation to let anyone in on his family secret. Now, Aiba has applied for the job. Aiba who already knows all about Ninomiya family recipe. Nino's perfect candidate.

“Are you going to work – here?” Ohno cannot stop the quiver in his voice. If this is a joke, his heart would not be able to take it. Aiba seems to understand how Ohno is feeling because Aiba sits down beside him and looks right into Ohno’s frightened eyes.

“I wasn’t sure about the thing we had back then. Our weekly meetings, the time we share, I didn’t know what they were.” Aiba starts to explain. “I didn’t understand you, not really. And more importantly, I didn’t understand myself.” Aiba’s eyes glister at every word. Ohno holds his breath as he waits for Aiba to complete his train of thoughts. “I still do not understand those things, nor these feelings, but whatever they are, I would like to find out more.” Aiba squeezes Ohno’s hand a little as if to reassure him before he continues. “Would you help me understand?”

Ohno does not realize he has cried until Aiba’s soft palm wipes a strain of tear on his cheek.

“I am sorry I haven’t been very understanding before.” Aiba whispers an apology.

Ohno's hand cuffs Aiba’s hand on his cheek and Ohno allows himself to cry.

In the years after, Ninomiya bakery still prospers. Like any other working day, Nino spends his time sloughing behind the counter while observing Jun taking care of their customers. The bakery is busier than before because of the store expansion since last year. It was Aiba’s idea, really. Aiba told them they had to think about future and claimed the expansion was a logical business strategy. Larger kitchen, more customers, and higher profit. Nino is not going to complain.

Now, Ohno and Aiba work together side by side in the kitchen. Occasionally, Nino would pop inside and pretend to boss them around even though they are all the owners of the bakery and have the exact same authority. Nino still steals a taste of the bakery famous cheese tarts from time to time, pretending to do quality checking. It is unnecessary, really. Nino can no longer differentiate the difference between Ohno's and Aiba's tarts. If it was before or if it was someone else, Nino would be very angry. But this is Ohno and Aiba and it is now. It is okay that both can make his grandfather’s most treasured recipe to the exact taste that his grandfather would approve.

After all, Nino continues to keep his promise to save the secret recipe only for the family members.

Because they are all family now.

Secret Recipe - Part 1

Title: Secret Recipe (Part One)
Word Count: ~ 11,500 words (in two parts)
Pairing: Ohba, Sakuraiba (bff)
Genre: Slow Burn, Drama
Rating: PG
Summary: Aiba family loses in the famous annual baking competition for the first time in years. It becomes Masaki’s responsibility to figure out how to trump the new winner and win the family’s honor back.

Notes: I ate a lot of cheese tarts while writing this story ;) Written for aibaexchange 2016. Big thanks to aibaexmods for being super awesome, as always <3 Also those who have been so nice and kind to read this story back in the Exchange, thank you! I am so very grateful <3<3

[Aiba Masaki has been busy in the kitchen the whole Sunday morning.]

Aiba Masaki has been busy in the kitchen the whole Sunday morning. He carefully removes a tray of piping hot cheese tarts from the small oven and puts it on the kitchen counter.

“It smells delicious!” Sakurai Sho, Aiba’s roommate, cries out. Sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, Sho perks his nose up in the air and breathes in the appetizing scent. Their apartment is full of sweet, delicious aroma from the freshly baked cheese tarts. Sho licks his lips in anticipation.

Seeing how his friend is like, Aiba cannot help smiling. He has never seen anyone being more appreciative of food than Sho is. Aiba uses a spatula to remove a tart from the baking tray and puts it on a small plate in front of Sho.

“This is exciting! You know, you have never baked even once since we’ve lived together.” Sho comments as he helps himself with the piece. “Umaiii~,” Sho cries out in surprise. “Oh man, this is fantastic!” He continues to give compliment with his mouth full of tart.

Aiba gives Sho an appreciative smile before taking a bite from another piece. “Hmm… The base is too dry… Needs more salt.” Aiba mumbles quietly. “The cheese filling...hmm. the taste, the texture… None is right.” Aiba shakes his head. He puts the rest of the tart away, losing appetite to finish the whole piece.

On the other side of kitchen counter, Sho starts munching the second cheese tart he takes from the tray. There is no need to wait for Aiba to serve him. “You are too hard on yourself, Masaki. These tarts are great. You are such a good baker.” Sho is clearly enjoying the dessert far more than Aiba does. Aiba smiles at him endearingly. It is heartwarming to see Sho eat. Also, Aiba must admit, it is encouraging to have someone expressing the appreciation for his skill.

“If you like it, you can have them all.” Aiba offers, still feeling slightly dishearted from the failure. The tarts don’t come out right. They are of no use to him now. However Aiba quickly corrects his offer seeing Sho enthusiastically reaches for the third tart right away, “You know, Sho-chan, I didn’t mean you have to eat all of these right now.” Aiba certainly does not want Sho to get a heart attack. He quickly pulls the baking tray back and places it on the counter behind him. Sho stares at the tray with pleading eyes. Aiba knows he needs to stay strong. “I will pack them for you. You can bring some to the office tomorrow if you’d like.”

Realizing that he will eventually get to eat the tarts later, Sho smiles happily while rubbing his hands together to get rid of the left-over crumbs. Aiba is not done with Sho though. He slides a small plate that he has put aside just minutes earlier. On it, there is another piping hot cheese tart.

“Can you also try this one?” Aiba offers. Sho does not hesitate. He takes one bite and stops right on track. Noticing the change in Sho’s expression, Aiba’s lips curl up.

“How’s it?” Aiba asks. Sho does not answer right away. He slowly munches through the piece with wide eyes. His beaming and radiant smile is noticeable through his chewing mouth.

“This is…” Sho swallows the tart before continues, “This is unbelievable! THE best tart I have ever had!” Sho’s voice is almost a scream. His eyes glister with joy it makes Aiba smiles. “You are such an amazing baker, Masaki. This tart is absolutely fantastic. Even better than the ones before.” Sho cannot stop giving compliments.

Then, Sho notices something, “Wait, isn't this from the same batch you’ve just baked. How come it tastes different?” Sho asks, bewildered.

“Because I did not make that last piece, Sho-chan. I only re-heated it in the oven.” Aiba explains. Sho’s expression suddenly turns into question, so Aiba continues with the explanation, “It is from a bakery in Chiba. I got it yesterday.” And it still tastes wonderful… Aiba leaves the last comment to himself. The fact that one-day-old cheese tart still tastes unbelievably great reflects the exceptional quality of the tarts and the skills of its baker. It makes Aiba’s heart heavy just thinking about what he needs to accomplish for his family.

Recreating that cheese tart is going to be one tough challenge.

It all began two weeks ago.

Aiba Masaki loves coming back home. His Family gatherings are always joyful occasions. Aiba remembers fondly of love, warmth, and laughter as the family members exchange stories, share jokes and enjoy homecooked meal together in their Chiba family home. However, Aiba family gathering two Saturdays ago was not one of those merry occasions. They had just gotten back from the Annual Chiba Baking Competition where the entry from Aiba family won the second prize in the tart category. It was a significant difference. Last year, and many years before that, it had always been the first-place trophy sitting on their diner table after the competition. It was safe to say the emotions around the table weren’t the best.

“This is outrageous!” His father cried from the head of the table. Although he had retired as the head baker, he still supervised the operation. The loss hit him hard. “How could the judges think our family entry was inferior to some unknown bakery?” His grandmother said dejectedly. It was heartbreaking to see a gentle elderly woman looking so brokenhearted. Their wins at the annual competition had been their family’s pride. The recognition also helped bringing in customers from all around Japan. Everyone, local and tourists, knew that they must visit Aiba’s family bakery for the best cheese tart in town. After this year competition, it was no longer the case.

On the far side of the table, Aiba’s brother turned paler every passing second. His brother had been the head baker for the last three years after their father had stepped down. He also represented the family bakery in the competition. “This is all my fault. I am so sorry.” His brother said in a bitter voice. He probably took the loss harder than anyone else.

“No, it’s not.” Aiba could not stay quiet and let his brother feeling miserable for the loss. “I tasted your tarts. It was as delicious as ever." Aiba knew the family tart was as perfect as it could possibly be. There was no change in taste and texture of the tarts from the years before. However, Aiba never ate the winning entry, so he could not vouge for its taste and quality. But Aiba’s testament only left one possibility. The winning entry must be better than theirs.

Everyone at the table became quiet. The family understood the implication of Aiba’s sincere and truthful observation. Aiba noticed his mother staring at him with narrowed eyes. He knew the look. THAT look. Trouble was brewing. To be specific, his trouble was brewing. Aiba knew his mother was concocting a plan to fix this serious family problem. And Aiba, whether he liked it or not, would be the center of the plan.

“You are going to fix this for us, Masaki.” His mother stated plainly.

Aiba blinked, twice.
Fix this? How?

Ignoring Aiba’s perplex and confused expression, his mother continued, “If that tart tastes better than ours, we need to figure out how to make it, what go in those tarts, what techniques are used, and Masaki can do that.” She turned to her eldest son, “Use your skills. Figure out the tart recipe for us. We are going to make our tart better. Next year, we are going to take the title back!”

Aiba blinked. His mother made it sound like an easy procedure – duplicating a recipe. Aiba was about to protest when he saw flare in his mother’s eyes. Her eyes were full of confidence – the confidence in her eldest child. The one that previously denied his family responsibility and refused to work in their bakery.

Consumed by the guilt, Aiba did not have a heart to say no.

His mother always says Aiba has great taste buds. Since he was little, Aiba would be able to describe the taste of what he ate to descriptive details. Through his parent training, Aiba learned to differentiate the taste and the smell of various ingredients. He grew up being able to tell the components of a dish to its almost exact composition. Aiba’s mother had always been so proud of him. She thought Aiba’s “gift” would be helpful to the family, especially when Aiba took over the business.

But Aiba never took over the family bakery. He moved away and attended university in Tokyo. Aiba’s natural, God-gifted ability to detect ingredients in food has been used for something else. Aiba landed a job as a culinary consultant in Tokyo. Now he works for various employers, from food companies to celebrity chefs to television producers, creating and recreating food recipes. Aiba thinks the job is fun and challenging. He never thinks about going back to his family business. Yet, he still feels guilty for not taking up the family responsibility. That's why, when his mother requires his help, Aiba feels obligated. This is one thing he can do for them. This is when they really need him. Aiba must figure out how to replicate the recipe of the winning cheese tart.

For the past few weeks, Aiba has been visiting the first-place bakery to get the prize-winning cheese tarts as samples. The bakery was so much smaller than what Aiba expected. There is a small cash register with a shop assistant in the front section of the bakery. A small open window and a door connect the front room to the kitchen in the back of the building. Rows of pale blue boxes and  paper bags used in packing the tarts fill the two sides of the walls. The bakery has been opened for just a few months and it still looks very new. Aiba was told that, since the competition, the order line has been long. The waiting time is almost unbelievable, especially on weekend, which unfortunately is the only time when Aiba is free to come. Aiba guesses that the shop only makes the tarts in small bashes. That, coupling with each customer buying a lot of tarts, results in the line moves very slowly and almost always remains long.

Today is the same as any Saturdays, Aiba is in line waiting for his turn to purchase freshly baked tarts. The only difference is that Aiba is not alone. Sho has accepted his invitation to come and try the tarts fresh out of the shop’s oven. They have been in line for more than an hour. With the wait this long, it helps to have a friend being in the queue with you. Unfortunately, Aiba forgets to tell Sho in advance that his hometown this time of the year can be quite cold and windy.

“I didn’t know Chiba would be this cold.” Sho complains through the pulled-up collar of his fashionable jacket. He has buried half of his face underneath it for the last hour. Sho’s voice is partially muffled by the fabric but his misery is evident. Aiba laughs seeing Sho tries to lower his face further. This is too adorable. “Why did I believe you when you said this is the only proper way to appreciate cheese tarts? I was happy with the re-heated ones.” Sho grumbles.

Aiba giggles good-naturedly. He knows that, given how much Sho loves and appreciates great food, Sho only complains jokingly. “It’s going to worth it, Sho-chan.” It is true from Aiba’s experience. When he first set out trying to crack the winning recipe, Aiba only had supply of cold cheese tarts that his family purchased for him. After a month or so of prolong frustration of not being able to figure out how to match the exact taste and textures, Aiba drove to Chiba and got in the line to try the fresh tarts for the first time. That first experience was eye-opening. Aiba wants Sho to experience the same blissful enjoyment he had with the dessert.

“Of course, it is going to worth it." Sho admits although he looks like he's about to sneeze. "I just figure out that the baker of this shop is so famous. I mean, the previous bakery he worked at in Hokkaido is legendary.” Sho explains quickly through his jacket's stretched collar, “I heard it from Toma. You know I love talking to him about food, right?” Of course, Aiba reminds himself, Toma is their university friend and a food magazine columnist. He travels all around Japan visiting and doing scoops on great restaurants and bakeries. “Toma said the original shop in Hokkaido has the best cheese tart in all of Japan.” That may sound a bit over-reaching to others but Aiba knows Toma has tasted a lot of food all over the country and abroad. His opinion on food means a lot to Aiba and Sho. If Toma says the tart is the best, it surely is.

That kinds of make Aiba’s life difficult though. How is he going to imitate the same quality cheese tart as that one?

“It’s good that the baker moves to Chiba. Lucky you, Masaki. You can have it every time you visit home.” Sho says with a trace of real envy in his voice. It makes Aiba laugh.

They stay in the line for some more before Sho breaks the silence again with a completely different subject, “Hey, you never tell me the shop assistant is this good-looking.” Sho mutters when the line moves along far enough to see inside the shop. “Oh, you mean Jun. Yeah, I guess he’s kind of cute.” Aiba agrees, looking in the same direction as Sho. Aiba has befriended the shop assistant over his weekly visits to the bakery. Like Sho commented, Jun is what anyone would call ‘attractive’. He always stands behind the counter receiving order and packing cheese tarts for customers. He always wears white shirt with the bakery’s signature dark blue apron wraps around his waist. His constant smile brightens the store significantly. Aiba wonders if Jun’s attractiveness contributes to the long line of housewives queueing for the tarts as well.

“He does help making the long queue bearable, doesn’t he?” Aiba teases. Sho’s cheeks suddenly turn red. Sho mumbles a weak protest that causes Aiba to laugh again. Aiba wishes Sho could see how he looks right now. Sho is cute when he’s embarrassed.

The line moves again and they are almost in the front. Then several ladies before them start to order the maximum amount of cheese tarts each customer can buy. Jun busily packs the tarts to their orders and those women leaves the shop with many bags full of cheese tarts.

So when it comes to Aiba and Sho's turn, the store has run out of tarts.

“Aiba-san, I am very sorry. There are no more tarts.” Jun tells them and bows apologetically. Sho whimpers in disappointment, which makes Aiba feeling guilty. He drags his friend to wait in the bad weather for nothing.

“Isn’t there any left at all? I mean, not even just one? My friend here comes from Tokyo for the first time. I really hope he can taste your fresh tarts.” Okay, Tokyo is not exactly that far but Aiba really does not want his friend’s misery to be a waste.

Jun looks at Aiba understandingly. His thick eyebrows narrow in as Jun considers his options. Then, he seems to find it.

“Please wait here for a moment. Let me check in the back.”

Jun excuses himself and disappears behind the door. Aiba turns to smile his most encouraging smile to Sho. Behind them, people from the long line disperse and disappear. They know the tarts are gone and the shop is closing. There are only Aiba and Sho still standing in front of the counter. Aiba can hear faint conversation from behind the door. Two voices are talking back and forth.

Finally, Jun emerges, holding a small paper back in his hand. He hands it to Aiba and Sho.

“Here you are, Aiba-san. A complimentary from our baker.” Jun says with a polite smile. Aiba takes the bag and hands him an appropriate banknote for the cost of the tarts. However, Jun does not take it. He shakes his head a little and explains, “These tarts aren’t for sale. They are our baker’s. He wants you and your friend to have them.”

“Then, at least let us thank him in person for his kindness.” Sho chips in. Jun looks reluctant at first, then he nods and says he will go get the baker. Another minute and another round of conversation later, Jun returns. This time, a small man follows him.

“Here are the customers I told you, Aiba-san and his friend. Aiba-san, this is our baker, Ohno Satoshi.” Jun introduces everyone. Ohno, the baker, bows slightly to Aiba and Sho who return bows.

Seeing that Aiba hasn’t said anything after the initial greeting, Sho decides to take initiative. “Ohno-san, thank you so much. You are so kind to give us these delicious tarts.” He gestures at the bag of tarts they received from Jun earlier and nods at Ohno appreciatively. Aiba mumbles something in similar nature. Sho continues, “My friend Aiba here is a big fan of you and your tarts.” Sho turns to Aiba’s direction before adding, “He has been trying to make tarts like yours for the last two months.”

Aiba is shocked at Sho’s unintentional reveal of his secret. But to be fair, Aiba hasn’t told Sho why he has been making so many cheese tarts lately. It is only natural Sho would think that Aiba is obsessed with Ohno’s tarts. Feeling embarrassed, Aiba glances at the baker to check his reaction.

“Is that so?” Ohno comments on Sho’s reveal and gives a slightly nervous and shy smile. “Then, please enjoy the ones I give you.” He mumbles before quickly excuses himself. Ohno walks back where he comes from. His movement is surprisingly smooth and graceful.

Aiba’s eyes secretly follow the back of Ohno until it disappears behind the kitchen door. Without realizing, Aiba lets out a relieved sigh as soon as Ohno is gone.

After the visit to the bakery, Aiba and Sho spend the rest of the day visiting Aiba’s family. They joke about Sho keeping Aiba in Tokyo and about Aiba’s countless fail attempts to make cheese tarts as good as their rival’s bakery. In the evening, Aiba drives Sho to a train station. Sho has to return to Tokyo while Aiba intends to spend the rest of the weekend at his family home. Aiba has a lot to talk to his mother and he is yet to spend enough quality time with his nieces.

While driving to his parents’ home, Aiba spots a familiar man walking on the side of the road. Looking carefully, Aiba realizes it is the baker he met earlier. Ohno is walking alone to where Aiba can only assume is his home. Aiba hesitates for a bit before he decides to slow his car. He lowers the window and shouts at the walking man.

“Ohno-san, do you need a ride?” Aiba hopes he looks friendly enough because Ohno is giving him a strange look. Aiba adds another reassuring smile as he leans toward the door on the passenger side. “Please, it is cold and it is getting dark around here.” Ohno hesitates so Aiba shots him another friendly beam. Finally Ohno agrees to get in. He mumbles a weak ‘thank you’. Aiba notices Ohno does not look straight at his face while saying it. Ohno must be very shy.

“Are you heading home?” Aiba asks in a friendly tone. The baker mumbles an affirmative reply.

“So, Ohno-san, tell me. Do you stay at your shop or it is somewhere else?

“The shop.”

“Right on. The shop it is.” Aiba confirms enthusiastically. “And what are you doing around here? Come to send someone off at the train station?” Aiba asks further. Ohno’s reply is hardly audible. Aiba isn’t even sure whether it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. He can only guess that Ohno does not want to talk about it. So Aiba asks a few more questions. However, all of them get only lukewarm responses.

Then, he realizes.

“Oh God, I must look like a stalker to you.” Aiba blurts out.

Of course, Ohno does not want to talk to him. He just learnt that Aiba was obsessed with him earlier today. Now Aiba just magically appears, offers to take him home, and asks so many questions about his whereabouts and schedule. Aiba knows he sounds just like a crazy fanboy.

“I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to look like a crazy stalker.” Aiba babbles anxiously. He tries to laugh it off but even that sounds weird.

“It’s okay.” Ohno mumbles in reply. He still does not meet Aiba’s eyes.

Surprised by another indifferent response, Aiba chuckles nervously and decides to keep his mouth shut. He lets the song on the radio fills the uncomfortable atmosphere inside the car.

After a few songs on the radio, Ohno breaks the silence.

“I remember you, you know?” Ohno states quietly. Aiba is puzzled. He turns to Ohno with a big questioning expression. Ohno elaborates, “I mean, from the competition.” Oops…Aiba does not expect that. Ohno’s eyes fixate on the road ahead as he continues, “You are the other son from that famous bakery, right? The one they said always won the first prize.” Of course, Aiba and the rest of the family were there in the audience cheering on his brother. Their competition space was right next to Ohno’s. It was possible that Ohno would notice them. There is no point denying.

“Yes, you are right. I am the eldest son.” Now, his behaviors would look even more ill-intended than before. “I don’t work at the bakery though. I work in Tokyo.” Aiba is not sure why he makes the excuse. Or why it would even matter that he does.

“Do you really like my tarts?” Ohno asks another unexpected question.

“Of course, I do. It tastes better than any tarts I’ve had.” There is no point in lying. Aiba does love the tarts. Ohno turns slightly red. “You are too kind.” He mumbles. Aiba believes he is not imagining it when he sees Ohno blushes. Aiba feels a little warm on his face so he turns away and keeps his attention to the road ahead.

They remain quiet for a while before Aiba realizes the car has reached the destination.

“Here we are. Your shop.” Aiba parks in front of the bakery; however, Ohno does not leave the car. Instead, the baker turns to face Aiba. This time, Ohno no longer looks shy nor nervous. Aiba is surprised at the sudden change. He cannot help giving Ohno his full attention.

“Your friend said you have been trying to make cheese tarts like mine.” Ohno pauses a little before he ends, “Why?” This voice is so soft it is surprising that Aiba can still hear the question. Aiba is not sure how to respond. He decides to go with the truth.

“My family wants me to recreate your recipe." Aiba admits,  "The thing is, I may not work at the bakery but I work as a culinary consultant. My usual job is to create new dishes, as well as replicate various recipes. Desserts and pastries, included. So, I am to recreate yours.” Aiba looks at Ohno guiltily. Secretly Aiba cannot help wondering how Ohno would be knowing Aiba's intention. He is so ready for Ohno to be angry and start yelling at him.

To Aiba’s surprise, Ohno does not look angry or even disappointed. In fact, he looks kind of…sympathetic. Huh?? No matter what, Aiba still wants to apologize. “I am sorry. I should have been more straight-forward with you earlier this morning.”

“Why? There is nothing related to what happened this morning.” Ohno smiles softly and reassuringly. “Also, now that I ask, you decide to tell me truthfully. It’s all good.”

“If that’s going to make you feel any better, I can tell you I cannot recreate your cheese tarts.”

“You mean, not yet.” Ohno says playfully. He laughs a little. That’s the first laugh Aiba hears since Ohno got into his car. Aiba is surprised. He would not expect Ohno to laugh about it. Isn’t the recipe of his famous, award-winning cheese tart supposed to be his livelihood? Aiba’s attempt to imitate it should be considered a hostile offense and a risk. Yet, Ohno only responds in good-nature. If Aiba doesn’t know better, he would say Ohno looks almost like he does not care.

With that cleared up, Aiba expects Ohno would leave his car. But Ohno still doesn't. After another brief moment of silence, Ohno stares into Aiba's eyes again.

“Aiba-san, since you are so straightforward and truthful to me, I will be blunt with you. I have a favor to ask.” Ohno gentle smile still plasters his face. His eyes suddenly glister differently. “I am new to this town and I don’t have a lot of friends. In fact, I don’t know anyone here.” His smile changes for a brief second into something Aiba cannot put a word on. But Ohno soon looks friendly again. “You sound like a nice guy. Maybe we can hang out sometimes?”

Aiba looks at Ohno’s soft eyes staring at him. Somehow, Aiba cannot say no.

The next Saturday on his weekly visit to Ohno’s bakery, Jun greets Aiba with a knowing smile and hands him a small note from Ohno. The baker asks Aiba to meet him at a nearby park after the bakery closes. Aiba looks the time. It should be around noon when the tarts are sold out and shop closes. Aiba decides he can go straight to the park and wait for Ohno there.

The local park is relative small. There are a few benches scattered around a small lake. Ohno’s note does not say where they should meet exactly so Aiba randomly picks one of the benches. GIven the park size, Ohno should not have a problem locating him wherever he sits. With nothing significant to do, Aiba stares into the peaceful lake and soon loses in his own thoughts.

Aiba does not know how long the time has passed when he is pull back from his thoughts. A blue paper box appears in front of him and Aiba’s senses return to the present. He glances up to the hand holding the box and finds Ohno smiling warmly at him. Ohno pushes the box forward in Aiba’s direction.

“Please take the tarts. Jun told me you didn’t get any today.” Ohno adds. Aiba gasps realizing that he was so distracted by the note and the prospect of their meeting that he forgot why he was at the bakery in the first place. Aiba smiles sheepishly and takes the box. There are four small tarts neatly arranged inside. The tarts are still very warm. Ohno must have baked them right before coming here. Aiba mumbles a ‘thank you’ before taking the bite.

Aiba is temporary lost in the wonder of Ohno's cheese tarts until he realizes that Ohno is still standing awkwardly in front of him. Aiba moves to one side and invite Ohno to join him on the bench. “And please, share these tarts with me.” Aiba offers, handing Ohno the box. The two men sit quietly munching the dessert. Aiba is uncertain how he would break the silence. Despite his cheerful, friendly exterior, Aiba has never been the one with a lot of courage to initiate conversation with strangers. Strangers often make him nervous. Since Ohno is the one that wants to hang out, Aiba secretly hopes that Ohno would start conversations. Instead, Ohno seems content to just sit on the bench and appreciate the view.

The tarts are long gone now and they are still sitting silently side by side on the bench. Aiba tries hard to dream up something for his brain to do while sitting quietly. Next to him, Ohno continues to gaze toward the lake. It seems he keeps staring at a few ducks swimming here and there in the clear water. The quietness is becoming too weird for Aiba to handle.

Then, Ohno suddenly gets up, which prompts Aiba to stand as well. The baker turns toward Aiba and bows slightly.

“Thank you for hanging out with me today. Maybe we can do it again some time.” Ohno says softly and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute! This is it?” Aiba cannot contain the surprise in his expression. Ohno looks at him questioningly as if he does not understand Aiba’s bewilderment. Aiba feels the need to clarify, “I mean, don’t you want to do something?”

“I thought we just did.” Ohno replies. There is a hint of confusion in his voice. Aiba gasps.

“Er, Ohno-san, may I ask what do you usually do during your free time?”

“Well, I would sit in a park, like today, or taking a stroll, like last week.” Ohno replies.

“I mean the things you do for fun.” Aiba cannot help prying further.

“What do you mean? This is fun.” Ohno looks like the most confused kid in class. It is adorable. Obviously, Ohno does not get off on the same “fun” stuffs most people do. What he does in his free time wouldn’t help him making any friends. No wonder Ohno said he did not know anyone here.

Now, Aiba understands the situation. He reaches out and pats Ohno on a shoulder,

“Look, Ohno-san. You ask me if we can hang out. Why don’t you let me show you how I hang out?”

“So, let see if I get this right. You drove him around Chiba the whole afternoon?" Sho reconfirms Aiba’s weekend story after Aiba got back to Tokyo. Aiba nods.

“And where did you say you brought him for dinner afterward?"

“You know, my favorite seafood restaurant near the beach we’ve been to in July. The place you said they got the best grilled clams." Aiba explains patiently. He smiles just recollecting the experience the past Saturday afternoon.

“And you finished with a night time sightseeing of harbor.” Sho concludes in astonishment.

“Yes, yes. All that. I have just told you what we did minutes ago. Why do you ask me to repeat it all again?” Aiba begins to question Sho’s unnatural amazement in something Aiba finds very simple and normal. Seeing Aiba’s naïve expression, Sho shakes his head. Sho lifts his chair and relocates it to the spot right next to Aiba. He bends forward until thier faces are right in front of each other. Sho stares directly into Aiba's eyes.

“Masaki, it's a date.”

“What?! A date?!? No, no, no!” Aiba protests in high pitch noise. “It's two guys spending time together in a friendly manner.” Aiba insists. “Besides Ohno hardly say anything. We didn't 'connect'. I don’t even think he enjoys it that much. He definitely doesn't think anything of sorts.” Aiba talks so fast Sho cannot help grinning at how obvious his roommate is. Aiba suddenly realizes he gives too many denials and excuses. It makes the truth sounds like the opposite.

“Come on, Masaki, he could remember you from the baking competition. No one remembers anyone that day. There were so many people. It was so crowded even I couldn't find you.” Sho tries to reason with his friend. If Aiba needs someone to help him see light, Sho would gladly be that person. “If he said he noticed AND remembered you, I'd say he's got something about you.”  Sho points out.

“You always think something is up whenever I hang out with someone other than you.” Aiba protests.

“But, am I ever wrong?” Sho jests lovingly.

Aiba makes a face. Of course, both know the answer. Aiba just does not want to be reminded that most guys he befriends with are more interested in hooking up rather than hanging out with him.

Aiba decides it's probably better not to argue when Sho has his mind set on something.

Aiba never expects that the one seemingly random request from Ohno for them to hang out would develop into something much more.

Despite what he said to Sho, Aiba finds himself getting seriously committed to hang out with Ohno and to be his friend. They continue to meet every Saturday afternoon. Ohno, as Aiba finds out, is a very quiet man. He is reserved and sometimes shut-in. Left to himself, Ohno would just sit quietly until he eventually dozes off. This makes it difficult for Ohno to befriend people. Ohno also does not open up to people – at least not naturally. After several weeks in, Aiba learns that he cannot just ask Ohno what he wants or what he likes. Ohno would not give him any answer except a mellow glance and a soft smile. Instead of asking, Aiba has to observe Ohno’s reactions during the time they spend together. Gradually, Aiba learns to notice small hints of Ohno's happiness, the brief moments of when Ohno's eyes light up, his lips curl, and his eyebrows raise. It takes Aiba a few trials and errors to figure out which activities Ohno enjoys and which he doesn’t.

All the while, Sho continues to tease Aiba that he spends more time figuring out the baker than the cheese tarts. Aiba pretends he is not listening.

Little by little, Aiba begin to figure out Ohno's likes and dislikes. Ohno likes the sea. He likes fishing and hanging out on a beach. Some week, Aiba would drive him to a beach where Ohno would walk along the beach and sometimes teach Aiba how to fish. Aiba likes taking a stroll on the soft sand alongside Ohno but he does not particularly enjoy fishing. Aiba tends to feel bad for the fish he (un)luckily catches, yet he likes to listen to Ohno explaining fishing techniques and various types of fish. Ohno, who is usually quiet and lost for words, becomes talkative and lively every time the subjects of fish and fishing come up. It’s something that always makes Ohno happy. And with Ohno being happy, Aiba is also happy.

Ohno also enjoy going to supermarket. He turns a completely different person when he is in a supermarket. The excited and child-like Ohno would glide from one section to another of the supermarket while Aiba picks up grocery. After that, Ohno and Aiba would return to Ohno's bakery to cook dinner. It's another activity that Ohno likes. In fact, it is something that they both can enoy together. They use kitchen in Ohno’s apartment on the second floor of his bakery to transform ingredients they pick up at the supermarket into a meal. Despite being an exceptional baker, Ohno is near hopeless in kitchen. He can cook a few things just to get by but he does not normally cook. Ohno usually eats out at the near-by ramen shop or calls for delivery. Sometimes he eats stuffs that Jun prepares and brings to the bakery. On the other hand, Aiba always like to cook. Even though cooking is a part of his job, Aiba still finds cooking fun and relaxing in therapeutic way. So he teaches Ohno how to cook and how to have fun cooking. After a few times of sharing homemade dinner at Ohno's small dining table, Ohno admits to Aiba that he did not enjoy cooking before because it was sad to cook just for himself.

“Aren’t you lucky you have me to cook for now?” Aiba teases.

It is supposed to be a joke but Ohno doesn’t laugh.


That NinoAi and Giant Crash

Yesterday morning, I woke up to that VS嵐 clip.
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I probably gonna come back and rewrite this post later. I did come back. I didn't rewrite anything but there is an afterthought at the end now. #warning# I am not being nice and kind in this. Please pardon my harsh words if they offend you in anyway.

Let me say something about 紅白 this year.
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Title: The Most Difficult Thing of Being BFF (Part Two)
Word Count: approx 12,000 words (in two parts)
Pairing/Focus: Aimiya, Junba
Genre: Drama/Angst
Rating: PG13
Warnings: Moody and angsty Nino appears in this story.
Summary: Aiba has made too many wrong choices of boyfriends so Nino encourages him to go out with the best choice in Nino’s opinion – Matsumoto Jun. The Problem is Jun is not the one Aiba truly wants.
Notes: Written for murrponchan in ninoexchange.


[It is weeks past the New York trip when Aiba comes to Nino with a life-changing statement.]

It is weeks past the New York trip when Aiba comes to Nino with a life-changing statement.

“Jun asked me to move in with him.”

They are alone in the green room. Nino is certain Aiba has made sure they are alone before telling him this. At first, Nino does not reply. He only turns and stares at Aiba pensively. Nino knows it would come to this one day but it still surprises him. In truth, there is nothing that can prepare him for what havoc he is feeling inside his gut now.

After a long uncomfortable silence, Nino collects himself and responds.

“That’s…umm… good news.” His voice comes out dry. He clears his throat before continues, “I am happy for you, Aiba.” Nino tries to sound as cheery and sincere as possible. He is not sure if his face betrays him.

Aiba’s smile continues. Yet, for a very brief second, Nino swears he sees a flicker of worry and sadness in that innocent pair of eyes. That is before Aiba throws himself on Nino and almost squeezes the life out of Nino’s much smaller frame.

“Thank you Nino. I will try my best.” Aiba’s voice is muffled by overwhelming emotions. “You will be happy, right?” Nino is so occupied with the voice of Aiba breathing into his nape to realize how strange Aiba’s final words are.

After Aiba tells him that he is going to try moving in with Jun, Nino has braced himself for the inevitable change. Moving in is the next giant step in a relationship. For Nino, the change that happens to Aiba is clear.

Aiba is in love.
Aiba is happy.
Aiba is going to move on.

Nino holds his breath upon realizing the fact.

Nino should be happy that his plan succeeds. Finally, Aiba has a long, stable relationship with a dependable good man.

How come he feels like someone has just ripped his heart out?

When the Pandora’s Box is open, Nino is forced to live with his own demon.

Nino is unhappy.

When Nino is unhappy, he fixes it the same way he always does. He retreats back into his own private world.

“You are so quiet.” Sho probably notices that the amount of conversation Nino has made during the taping today has been to the minimum. And if he’s paying attention as much as Nino does, he would also notice that Aiba talks too much and Ohno only speaks one sentence throughout the recording. Nino pretends to be glued to his game and ignores Sho’s comment. He is not looking at his bandmate yet he still can hear Sho’s long, heavy sigh.

“Nino, you know we are here, right? If there is anything you need…” Sho expresses his concern and worry in the only way he knows. But what can Nino say? How is he going to explain to Sho what is going on inside his head and inside his heart right now?

Nino should have said something. Maybe he should thank Sho for being there for emotional support. But Nino does not. He remains quiet. His eyes fixates on his portable game console while his fingers press buttons incessantly.

Even with all the help he knows he can get, even with all the people he knows he can rely on, Nino has made the decision. He is going to go through with this, alone.

And Nino fixes the problem in the only way he knows how. He believes he has problems because he interacts with people. He hates himself because of the way he reacts to human interactions. Hence, the solution, in Nino’s mind, is to get away from people as much as possible. In that way, he wouldn’t have to deal with the problem. In that way, he wouldn’t act out badly and hurt everyone. Then, maybe he would be better, maybe he would feel better. So, Nino spends more time at home. He rarely attends any social events unless he really has to. He still goes to work, he still functions normally, yet he quietly shuts himself in.

It’s not overly obvious to those working with them. But for Arashi, every member can feel it.  Nino tries not to look and not to care about Aiba and Jun. Somehow the two seem to be purely professional when they are with the others too. Nino thinks they do that for his benefit, because they are worried about him. And that makes Nino hate himself even more, then he retreats away from the world even more.

The vicious cycle continues. Nino knows that eventually something is going to break.

He just does not realize it would be Aiba.

One night, Aiba comes knocking his door and cries his heart out. Aiba has been in a fight with Jun. They have never fought before. Aiba does not tell Nino what it is that they fight over. Aiba does not want to talk about it and Nino does not want to ask. Nino is afraid it’s because of him. So what Nino does is to tug Aiba in his bed and comforts him in the same way he always does every time Aiba comes crying with him.

“Sleep, Masaki. You will feel better in the morning.” Nino tells his friend softly. He is sitting on the side of his bed while Aiba is wrapped inside a large comfy blanket. His hand is running through Aiba’s hair gently. Outside, the cold wind is blowing and Nino can feel the chill even inside his room. It looks like winter is coming early this year.

Aiba turns on his side away from Nino. Probably Aiba needs some alone time. Nino lowers his face down so close to Aiba’s ear when he whispers, “I will be outside if you need me.” Aiba only murmurs something inaudible yet his slow nod tells Nino he is listening. Nino’s hand moves gently in Aiba’s hair a while longer before he steps aside and leaves the bedroom.

Nino is about to call Jun to let him know that Aiba is at his home when Jun calls first. Nino knows he probably should not butt in their relationship. Whatever they fight over, it is their personal life. But Nino cannot help himself. It is Aiba after all.

“What is this about, Jun?” Nino tries his best not to sound accusing. Although Nino is worried about Aiba, Jun is his friend too.

“Funny you should ask that.” Jun’s tone is not amused. Nino waits for the explanation but none comes. Instead, Jun asks. “Can you look after him tonight? I am going to your place tomorrow morning, if that’s okay with you.” Nino murmurs in agreement and hangs up the phone.

Outside, the sound of wind blowing is getting louder. Nino does not need to look out the window. He knows a storm is coming.

Jun comes to meet Aiba the next morning like he promises. Nino does not know what they talk about. He leaves them in his apartment while he makes a trip to a neighborhood grocery store. He spends quite some time there before coming home with only a carton of milk and a ready-made meal. Nino expects that by the time he gets back, both Aiba and Jun would be gone.

Nino finds out that Jun is but Aiba isn’t.

Aiba spends the rest of the weekend at Nino’s. He passes most of the time by sitting quietly next to Nino on the sofa while Nino concentrates on clearing stage after stage of his game. Once in a while, Aiba would lean on Nino, tilting his head a bit until it rests on Nino’s small shoulder. It is an awkward position but neither of them says anything about it. And even though that position has restricted Nino’s movement and caused him to fail unnecessarily in his game quite a few times, Nino does not say anything. He does not ask Aiba to move. He does not want Aiba to move.

It is late at night but Nino and Aiba still remain where they have been on the sofa. Aiba’s soft hair brushes his skin and Aiba’s breathing rings softly in Nino’s ear. There is only a dim light from the television illuminates the room.

“Nino.” Aiba’s voice breaks the relative monotonicity in the room.

“What is it, Masaki?” Nino mumbles.

“Are we going to be okay?” Aiba asks. His voice is so soft and so quiet Nino hardly hears the question clearly. Nino does not reply right away. Instead, Nino turns his head slightly and places a light kiss on top of Aiba’s hair. Nino’s lips linger on Aiba’s smooth hair for a little while. A million thoughts run through Nino’s mind at that moment. The same exact moment that the guy at his side moves. Nino is back from his thought in time to see Aiba moving in on him.

Then, Aiba’s lips place on top of Nino’s.

They remain connected, both are absorbed into the moment. Until slowly, Aiba pulls away but just for a little. Their faces are still close enough for Nino to still feel Aiba’s breath on his cheek. Aiba’s eyes shine in dim light. It looks like tears are welling up in those round eyes.

“I love you.” Aiba’s voice is barely audible but its meaning echoed strongly. Nino suddenly feels like his body has dropped from the top of Tokyo Tower. Aiba’s hand reaches for Nino’s waist. The warm hand goes under his shirt and lingers on Nino’s soft skin. Nino’s hand suddenly grabs Aiba’s wrist, stopping him from advancing. This cannot be happening. Before Nino can stop himself, he blurts out.

“Stop, Masaki.” Nino wishes he hadn’t said that so harshly. Nino’s frightened eyes meet with Aiba’s sad ones. Tears roll down Aiba’s cheeks as he nods. Nino has to turn away when he adds, “I can’t. Not like this.”

“I know, Nino.” Aiba tries to smile but it pierces Nino’s heart. “I know.” Aiba repeats as if to reassure Nino that everything is okay.

It is almost dawn and the two of them are still on the couch. Aiba is sleeping with his head resting on Nino’s lap. Yet, Nino is wide awake. He sits propped up. One hand caresses the sleeping man’s soft brown hair. Nino’s mind keeps running in circle. Of course, Nino knows that Aiba loves him. Aiba has said it so many times. Yet, Nino pretends he does not understand the meaning of Aiba’s frequent admission. But the truth is Nino knows that Aiba has been in love with him.

But Nino decides never to do anything with such knowledge. He does not want to discuss it with Aiba. He does not want to acknowledge it. So that’s exactly what Nino has been doing. He has been avoiding the issue and pretending he does not know.

Nino hopes that if he keeps ignoring Aiba, one day Aiba would find someone else. Someone who is ready to give Aiba happiness. Someone who is not broken like Nino.

If Aiba keeps looking, he will eventually know that there are better fish in the sea.

To everyone else, Aiba and Jun’s romantic relationship ends quite abruptly and unexpectedly.

While Nino gets so little information of the break-up from Aiba, the information he gets from Jun is even less. As much as Jun is careful about his private life while he is dating Aiba, Jun remains discrete and secretive after the break up. Both of them remain professional. It does not look like anything has happened between them and both Aiba and Jun look perfectly well every moment they are with staff and in front of the audience.

But they are Arashi and they know each other better than everyone else. To members, the break up clearly affects Aiba and Jun. For the first week, they hardly make eye contact. Both of them are hurt. Good thing this is Aiba and Jun – the two persons who care about others more than themselves. So they make more efforts for the sake of the others. Things quickly return to normal, or as close as normal as possible in Nino’s opinion, given the strangeness of the situation. Sho has always been so graceful and understanding since the beginning and he remains quite so after the break up. He gives them space when they need and helps smooth things out when it’s required – on and off screen. Ohno has always been Arashi’s much-needed emotional supporter. He does not talk much but his gentle smiles and random encouraging statements are there at the right time. Nino is certain Aiba and Jun are grateful for the both of them.

But what has Nino been doing during this time? Well, Nino cannot think of anything particularly constructive. He acts like he has always done – like nothing really happens. The banter with Aiba continues and his kind but snarky remarks on Jun go on. By the time the concert tour ends, things seem to go back to the way they are.

Well, almost everything. Except those occasional strange, knowing glares Jun gives him once in a while and the carefully disguised forlorn look Aiba has when he thinks no one is looking.

No one is accusing Nino of anything. But why is Nino feeling like he’s the bad guy in this?

Things between Aiba and Jun come to a peaceful closure on Aiba’s birthday.

It is the last day of their concert tour of the year. So naturally, there is a surprise for Aiba’s birthday celebration during the concert. Nonetheless, the members decide to spend some time celebrating Aiba’s birthday in their unique and private way a little before that.

Starting from the morning, they all take turn congratulating Aiba and wishing him healthy and happy years to come. Ohno and Sho have given Aiba their respective birthday gifts. Even Jun has done it. In the dressing room before their last concert, Jun gives Aiba his gift – a fashionable knitted sweater. Aiba smiles happily and gives Jun a bear hug in front of everyone. It is the first real hug the two have after their relationship ends.

That is when everyone knows Aiba and Jun would be okay. Arashi would be okay.

Jun and Aiba are fine. Ohno and Sho looks relieved.
There is only Nino that still feels that tickling feeling inside his chest when he sees Aiba and Jun hugging.

Everyone else would be okay. Nino is certain. For himself, Nino isn’t quite sure.

But as long as everyone else is fine, Nino can live with that.

It is already a few days after New Year. The busiest time of the year for Arashi has passed. Their concert tour has just ended. And they have spent almost a week during the New Year on a crazy TV show schedule. Now everything is over.

Nino spends the first of his free days in almost a month at home. His eyes are fixated on the television screen. His mind tries so hard to concentrate on the game he is playing. Nino doesn’t want to think about anything else. And his games never fail to provide him the safe sanctuary he has always needed.

Nino especially needs it now. A distraction. Without the unbelievably busy work schedule like in the past month, Nino’s mind wanders to places he does not want it to. Nino does not want to think about what happened before the work frenzy begins. Nino does not want to think about that night when he and Aiba kissed. He does not want to think about the past few weeks of slightly awkward air among Arashi members while Aiba and Jun have tried their best to mend their relationship and recover their friendship. So he buries himself in games and more games.

On his kitchen table, a gift-wrapped box has been sitting there, untouched, for the past three weeks. It is Aiba’s birthday gift. Nino has bought it weeks before Aiba’s birthday. The gift he carefully chose but is too afraid to give to Aiba. Nino hardly ever does that anyway - giving Aiba his gift on his birthday. It would look too obvious. It would look like he tries too hard. So for him, it would always be either days before or days after. For this year, maybe a few days after they come back to work, Nino would give Aiba the gift. He would apologize half-heartedly for giving the gift so late, blame their busy schedule, and pretend that he has just remembered to buy Aiba the gift days after his birthday passes.

Nino knows that despite the lateness Aiba would look overly happy. He would thank Nino with a crushing hug and say “thank you” with that bright smile of his. Nino would slap him on the head for embarrassing him, even if there is no one around. Aiba would laugh like he is the happiest person on earth.

It is the laugh Nino craves so much. It is the reason why Aiba’s gift for this year is still on the kitchen table even though Nino wants to throw it away and pretend he forgot about it so many times. But given everything that’s happened in the past several months, Nino cannot say he deserves that kind of treatment – that kind of happiness - from Aiba.

The “Game Over” appears on his huge TV screen and it brings Nino back to his present. He lets out a deep long sign before throwing the game controller aside. This is useless.

Then the doorbell rings.

When Nino opens the door, he is genuinely surprised to see Jun standing at his doorstep.

“My doorman is letting everyone in nowadays, isn’t he? I am going to have a serious talk with him tomorrow.” Nino says in pretend annoyance, yet he steps aside to let Jun walk inside his apartment.

“Don’t be so snarky, Nino.” Jun makes his way inside Nino’s living room and heads straight toward the kitchen. Nino notices he is carrying a large bag. “You did not show up at my house party yesterday and you didn’t pick up any calls. They were worried.” Jun says casually while unpacking food from the heating bag. He carefully rearranges steak and side dishes onto plates.

Nino doesn’t tell Jun that he didn’t forget the party invitation. He just decided not to go. But then, Jun probably knows that already.

Nino isn’t exactly hungry but he hasn’t eaten anything proper in the last two days. More importantly, he is not going to say no to expensive beef when it is offered to him for free. So he wastes no time when Jun offers him the plate.

“You shouldn’t simply disappear. Retreating into your own world is not going to solve anything.” Jun starts as Nino digs into the food. Jun also wastes no time. He hits right to the point way too quickly. Nino grunts. Jun should at least give him some quiet time to enjoy his meal.

“This is how I like to spend my days off. I thought you knew.” Nino replies, intentionally avoiding the question. Jun snorts, not minding any of Nino’s reaction.

“The present on the table in your kitchen. It’s Aiba’s birthday present, isn’t it?” Jun nods his face in the direction of Nino’s kitchen. Nino’s lack of answer probably confirms it for Jun. “The receipt in the bag said you bought it three weeks ago. Way before Aiba’s birthday. You still haven’t given it to him.” Of course, Jun would notice it. Jun is always good with details. Nino just stares at Jun. Sometimes it is better not to tread on some specific topic he does not want to talk about in the first place.

Jun looks at Nino’s unusual quietness and sighs. Although Nino is normally full of witty remarks, trying to pry Nino’s mouth open when Nino does not want to can be extremely hard.

Knowing it is not the right time yet, Jun stays quiet. He sits on the sofa next to Nino and pushes a can of beer in the other man’s direction. Nino takes it and starts drinking. Jun lets Nino finish the rest of his food in peace while he flips through channels on Nino’s cable TV.

As Nino slowly goes over his food, his mind wanders away. Nino knows he has to talk to Jun. He owns the man that much. Jun has made the first step by visiting him, alone, hence giving him an opportunity to say things that need to be said. It’s Nino’s turn to clear things up with Jun.

Over an hour passes and all the food is gone. It’s the longest Nino has ever spent eating something alone. Nino still sits rather quietly on his sofa with Jun patiently waiting, observing him, in an armchair close by. Jun is polite enough not to stare directly at Nino’s face for the past hour but his occasional glances in Nino’s direction tells Nino that Jun certainly has something to say. Nino can tell Jun is not leaving his apartment until he gets to say what he has in mind.

“I know it’s you who played matchmaker for Aiba and me.” Jun gives up waiting for Nino to start. He brings them back to the real reason for his visit as soon as he sees Nino looks comfortable enough for the discussion. “I want to thank you for that.”

It is certainly not what Nino expects. He did not think he will get a “thank you” from Jun. He definitely does not deserve a “thank you” given everything that happened.

Jun lets his back fall into the comfort of the armchair. “You may not know it but the truth is I have always liked Aiba. A lot.” Words come out of him so casually. Jun looks relaxed. “Thanks for allowing me to be with him, even just for a little while.”

Nino looks at Jun in confusion. Doesn’t Jun say “allow”?

Jun meets his eyes and chuckles.

“I know Nino. We all know.” Jun gives Nino an understanding smile. “Aiba is in love with you. He has always been.” There is a hint of sadness in the last statement. Jun shakes his head a little to clear his thoughts. “But you are not ready for him. So Aiba looks for love somewhere else instead.”

Nino’s whole body becomes rigid. He wants to deny, to scream, and to yell at Jun for talking all the nonsense. But he cannot. Of course, he can’t. What Jun is saying is true.

“But Aiba isn’t looking for just anyone. He has found what he is looking for a long time ago.” Jun pauses. He looks straight into Nino’s eyes as he finishes, “It’s you, Nino.”

There is no words in exchange between them for what Nino feels like an eternity. Jun has said what he is here for. Nino knows it is his turn. Despite being the witty one in Arashi, at the moment like this Nino finds that words are hard to come by. He thinks and thinks again, carefully trying to rearrange his thoughts and feelings into the right words. Finally, he speaks, although he sounds so weak and uncertain.

 “He will get hurt if we are together. I am not the right type for him. Aiba will realize that.”

Nino admits he puts himself in this scenario so many times before. The what-if that involves him and Aiba going out. Nothing that ever plays in his mind ends well.  “Sooner or later, I am going to hurt him. I am going to disappoint him.”

All love leads to heartache. Every relationship leads to broken hearts. No one is staying with you forever. Same sentences keep playing in Nino’s mind. They are always there in the back of his mind, dominating his every thought and action.

“I don’t want to hurt him.” Nino whispers.

The thought of Nino hurting Aiba either intentionally or unintentionally is unbearable for Nino. Yet, he knows it is unavoidable if he goes out with Aiba. He won’t be able to help it. He is going to hurt Aiba, again and again. It is the possibility Nino cannot live with.

Jun looks at him with an unreadable expression for almost one full minute. Jun is thinking about what Nino says and about how he can convey his thoughts at that point. Jun wonders whether it is his place to say such a thing. Finally, he makes up his mind. Jun decides Nino needs a push.

“You say you don’t want to hurt him. But you are, Nino. You are hurting him by pushing him to someone else.” Jun says emphatically. He leaves out the part where the others also get hurt. There is no need to rub salt in the wound. Nino already knows. They all have been hurt by Nino’s avoidance and indecision.

“Aiba is not going to be able to get on with his life, you know.” Jun continues. “He keeps looking for something he is not going to find. Not unless you give it to him.” Jun’s tone is solemn. Jun never blames Nino outright for his and Aiba’s failed relationship. All he talks about is what would make Aiba happy. As long as Aiba still has his heart fixed on Nino, being with Jun, or anyone else, is not going to make Aiba happy. But Jun also knows he cannot force someone into a relationship. In the end, we cannot get everything we want.

“Aiba probably denies this but I believe he is still waiting. If you don’t ever want to have a relationship with him, you should make it very clear to him, Nino. Tell him there is no hope. So Aiba can move on. So we can move on.” Jun’s final words are strong and forceful. He is pushing, challenging Nino with the decision Nino hopes he would never have to make.

Are they going to stay the same or are they going to move on?
It is time Nino decides.

After talking to Jun, Nino slowly and reluctantly packs his bag. He knows it has to come to this someday. He should talk sincerely and openly to Aiba. Jun is right. Nino’s reluctance to move in either direction would cause Aiba to remain unclear about his life. Aiba would be unable to move on. As Jun suggests, Nino probably should clear things up with Aiba. He should let Aiba know that he should no longer wait for something that will never happen.

They are friends and that’s it.

Standing in front of Aiba’s apartment, Nino knocks on the door weakly. Nino may look confident and secured most of the time but right now his heart is beating so fast. There is a burning inside him that Nino isn’t sure what it is.

Soon, Nino can hear Aiba’s voice coming toward the door. Aiba is talking. Is there someone else here too? Nino wants to bail right at that moment but the door is open faster than he can disappear.

Aiba’s face lightens up as soon as he sees it is Nino at his doorstep. He quickly excuses himself off the phone and lets Nino inside his room.

“It’s Sho. He is wondering if I want to go hiking with him tomorrow.” Aiba states informatively. There is no need for Aiba to let Nino know who he is talking to on the phone. Nino would never ask. Yet, that simple declaration of plain fact makes Nino feel better. It is like Aiba worries Nino would think it’s someone else. Aiba cares about Nino’s feelings.

Then Nino realizes. This is exactly the kind of thoughts he should not be having. He needs to let Aiba be. Aiba should get on with his life and his personal relationships. Aiba should not be concerned with what Nino would think of it.

Almost right after he makes his way to the sofa, Nino takes the present out of his bag and hands it to Aiba. .
“It’s late. Sorry.” Nino mumbles.

“No. No. This is perfect. It can be my birthday and New Year present at the same time.” Aiba throws his arms around Nino and gives him a squeeze of his life. “Thank you, Nino.” Aiba mumbles into Nino’s nape, “I am so happy.” Aiba’s words are a little shaky.

Nino is about to move away when he realizes he cannot. Aiba is holding on to him firmly. “Please, can we stay like this…just for a bit longer?” Aiba’s voice is so quiet Nino can hardly hear what he says. Aiba is not letting him from the hug anyway. They remain like that for what Nino feels like eternity. A flood of emotions rushes through him. Jun’s words play over in his mind.

Are they going to stay the same or are they going to move on?

It is time Nino makes a decision.

Nino lets out a heavy sigh. This is too difficult.

Nino gently pushes Aiba away from him but he still holds both of Aiba’s arms. “I am sorry, Masaki.” Nino rests his gaze towards the background. The only thing he certainly is not looking at right now is Aiba’s pleading eyes. “I am sorry.” Nino repeats. “Between us. It is not going to happen.” Even Nino feels that his voice is so weak it lacks conviction. But it is as best as Nino can manage under his circumstance.

There is a spark in Aiba’s eyes. His facial expression does not change but his eyes say it all for him. Aiba’s heart has just been broken. And with it, Nino’s heart.

Eventually, Aiba finds his voice. He whispers so quietly, “Don’t you love me?”

“Of course, I do.” Nino replies truthfully. His voice is soft and sincere. He forgets that for his purposes a lie would probably be better. But Nino does not want to lie. He does not want to pretend. Not right now. “You know I love you.”

“So what’s the problem?” The look Aiba gives Nino is so honest. Aiba is truly confused. Nino has to gather himself a bit before he can answer the words that he has carefully prepared before he came here.

“I am an anti-social pessimistic loner, Masaki. You deserve someone better.” Nino has played this scene in his mind so many times. He turns away from Aiba, like he has pictured it. “We are better off as friends, trust me.” Nino is about to turn and walks away when Aiba’s clear voice stops him.

“No, you are wrong.” Aiba says it so simply and matter-of-factly. “I don’t deserve anyone better. There is no one better.” Aiba moves forward and takes Nino’s hand in his. He squeezes it slightly. “And no matter what you say or do, one thing will never change, Nino.” Aiba’s smile is so gentle and so loving Nino forgets to breathe, “I will always love you Nino. Only you. That will not change no matter what happens in our lives, no matter what happens between us.”

Aiba slowly lets go of Nino’s hand, allowing Nino to step away, but Nino does not. Nino cannot. Aiba still stares into Nino’s frightened eyes as he continues, “You can walk away from all we have today and disappear, and I will still be here, Nino. Even when you don’t love me anymore, I will still love you.” Aiba’s smile saddens a bit as he looks past Nino to the door. “I know you don’t want a relationship. You want me to be happy with someone else.” Aiba’s voice gradually weakens. “If you want me to try being happy with someone else, I will do it – for you. But don’t expect me to be in love with someone else, Nino, because I never will.”

Nino is frozen in place. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t turn. He remains absolutely still.

Aiba waits for Nino’s response patiently but only silence is Nino’s reply. Eventually, Aiba’s head drops dejectedly. His posture slumps. Aiba stands silently for a bit longer then he chuckles. A smile returns to his face and Aiba turns back to his usual cheery self. The serious yet sincere Aiba has retreated back deep inside the cheerful exterior once again.

“Anyway, thanks for the present, Nino.” Aiba beams. He turns and about to reach for the present now resting on the table in the living room when Nino’s hand snatches his arm, stopping him from moving away. Aiba looks at Nino in surprise.

“Are you sure, what you’ve said?” Nino asks in almost a whisper. Aiba’s eyes are full of surprise at first, then they turns into strong determination.

“Every single word of it.” Aiba replies firmly.

“Then, let’s try it.” Nino’s voice is strong and firm. Nino’s expression changes. Nino has found his confidence. It may go against his better judgement but his heart tells him this is the right thing to do. One more look at Aiba and Nino knows.

Aiba looks at Nino questioningly. He does not want to assume. So, Nino makes it clear.

“Let’s try ‘us’. If you are not going to change your mind, there is only one thing left for us to do.” Nino lowers himself on one knee, he takes Aiba’s both hands in his and squeezes them firmly. He looks up to Aiba’s bewildered face as he says each word carefully,

“Aiba Masaki. Would you consider going out with me?” Nino’s eyes are so full of determination while tears form in Aiba’s brightened eyes.

“I would love that.” Aiba replies before he lowers himself next to Nino. They merge into one as their lips reach each other’s.  

As they part for air, Nino whispers, “It’s going to be difficult, you know. Being with me.”

Aiba smiles softly and reassuringly before he replies, “Don’t worry, Nino. I am going be with you every step of the way.”

Title: The Most Difficult Thing of Being BFF (Part One)
Word Count: approx 12,000 words (in two parts)
Pairing/Focus: Aimiya, Junba
Genre: Drama/Angst
Rating: PG13
Warnings: Moody and angsty Nino appears in this story.
Summary: Aiba has made too many wrong choices of boyfriends so Nino encourages him to go out with the best choice in Nino’s opinion – Matsumoto Jun. The Problem is Jun is not the one Aiba truly wants.

Notes: Written for murrponchan in ninoexchange this year. The dear nino_mod and the exchange beta reader were absolutely awesome. It has been really fun, thank you! On personal note: I can never get anything posted on my account unless it's an exchange fic :P

[It is well past midnight when the call comes.]

It is well past midnight when the call comes.

At first, Nino hardly moves from where he has been in the last six hours. He has spent his entire evening on the couch in front of his big flat screen plasma TV. His eyes concentrate on the human-like characters moving around on the screen. It is just like they say, games nowadays look just like real movies. And Nino is not intending to miss a second of the show.

The ringing stops, only a few seconds, before the cellphone starts ringing again. It is late at night. No one in the right mind is going to call Nino at this time because of the fear for Nino’s revenge. Well, no one, except THAT person. The person Nino knows never to bother with any etiquette when dealing with him. Nino does not have to look at the caller ID to confirm who it is.

“Hey. What’s up, Aiba?”

Nino is half-expecting Aiba to begin chatting like usual. It is not uncommon for Aiba to call him on trivial matter. But there is no word coming from the other end. Just the familiar faint breathing tells Nino that Aiba is there. It is awfully quiet.

“Hello? Anyone there?” Nino sounds annoyed but his worry is causing a stir inside his chest. It doesn’t sound right. Yet, Nino continues to pretend, “If you are a pervert calling, you can wait till the morning. I am busy.”

“Nino,” Finally, a voice comes from the other end. Aiba’s voice is hoarse. Something is definitely wrong. “Are you really busy?” Aiba sounds uncertain. “I mean, really, really busy….”

Nino has to bite his lip. Aiba’s voice sounds so pleading even when he does not mean it. And although Nino would never admit it, that voice is Nino’s kryptonite. He does not want Aiba to know but he cannot say no to Aiba’s request.

“What is it, Masaki?” The change in name would let Aiba know that he now gets Nino’s full attention. It is like their secret code. It is a signal that lets both of them know that they have entered their private space, their own private world.

There is another pause, this time longer than the one before. Nino is holding his breath but he tries to remain as calm as possible. It has been too long since the last time Nino is not strong in front of Aiba.

“Kei-chan,” Aiba breathes out the name of his current boyfriend. Why is it that Nino knows it must be about him? “I left him,” Aiba adds.

Nino waits for more explanations, complaints, or any stories Aiba would like to share. But there isn’t any. Instead, Aiba asks.

“Can I come over?”

“Sure. Of course.” Nino replies automatically. His mouth has done its job way before his quick brain starts to process. In front of him, the TV screen is still showing a pause of his game. He’s two-third into killing the big boss of the last stage. There is no save.

Nino presses a button on the controller initiating a shutdown of the console.

It is going to be a very long night and his game will have to wait.

It takes Nino several hours to calm Aiba down.

It is the same as most of Aiba’s past relationships. It starts out promisingly. Kei seems to be the guy Aiba is looking for. Kei is a fun and outgoing guy. He seems to understand Aiba and never complains about Aiba’s weird hours and strange rules that come with being a national idol. But after a while, Aiba comes to feel he cannot be himself in front of his boyfriend. The more Aiba spends time with him, the more stressed Aiba becomes. Until Aiba feels he cannot stand the relationship anymore.

Nino feels sad for his best friend. Aiba worries too much. He cares too much about what others thinks. He does not want to disappoint anyone, especially those who are close to him. That is why Aiba always keeps what he really is to himself. He never lets out what he truly feels if he fears that it can make the others unhappy. Even within Arashi, Aiba is always slightly reserved. To the others, Aiba looks shy. But for Nino who has grown up with Aiba, Aiba is not shy. Aiba is someone who is too afraid to show his real self to the others. So he does not talk about anything too personal. He does not share his true feelings.

Except with Nino.

Now, Aiba is lying in Nino’s bed and feeling too tired from all the crying. He turns on his side to face the man who has been consoling him over the past hours. Tears still trail from his eyes but he does not look so sad anymore. Aiba's puppy eyes glitter even more in the dimness under Nino’s bedroom light. He looks at Nino expectantly. His lips pursed into a line resembling a smile.

"Nino..." Aiba's voice is slightly breathy. It still cracks slightly from so much crying in the past hours. Aiba's hand slowly leaves the safety and comfort of the warm blanket and reaches toward Nino's smaller hand resting on the bedside. Aiba's warm hand takes Nino's slightly colder one and squeezes it lightly. Nino switches his glance from Aiba's face to his hand, and back to Aiba's face again.

“Thank you, Nino.” Aiba looks grateful. All of Aiba’s body language states very clearly that he appreciates and values what Nino has done for him.

“What would you ever do without me, huh?” Nino teases. His free hand reaches out and ruffles Aiba’s hair. Aiba lets out a light-heartedly laugh. He squeezes Nino’s hand a little.

"I love you." Aiba's voice resonated warmly in Nino's small bedroom. Aiba smiles and closes his eyes. Soon, Aiba has fallen fast asleep.

While Aiba is sleeping soundly, Nino looks at the man on his bed with heavy heart. This is the fourth time this year that Aiba comes crying his heart out over some fail relationship. It is an alarming rate even for someone who changes boyfriends and girlfriends often enough like Aiba. Every time, it ends like this – with him hurt and dejected. Every time Aiba comes crying, Nino sees something inside Aiba die a little. It is like the light that is usually in his eyes has dimmed from the heartbreaking experience. It's clearly taking its tow on Aiba's mentality and his overall emotional strength. Thinking about how miserable Aiba has been, Nino feels something stirring inside him. He is angry. He does not know what is he angry at but he knows he cannot continue like this. Aiba should not continue on like this. Aiba has been searching for that love of his life. He has been searching for someone that would complete him and would make him whole. He tries and he fails. The story has repeated itself for several years already. Nino has seen his best friend getting hurt so many times already. It has to come to an end.

Nino knows Aiba better than to hope that after today everything would be alright and that Aiba would learn from his previous failures. Aiba is not going to change, no matter how many failed relationships he has. Aiba’s nature is to keep pushing, hoping, and believing for the best to happen. Aiba believes that someday he would find someone that understands him. It is someone that he could be himself around that person and could share his thoughts, his happiness and his sorrow. And that someone must be the one that Aiba can love wholeheartedly.

Nino does not want to burst Aiba’s bubble. But Nino doesn’t believe anything like that exists. In a soap opera, maybe, but not in real life. Irrational love is cruel illusion that only causes heartache. Nino knows nothing good would ever come from love like that. What Aiba needs is someone practical and suitable for him. Aiba needs someone that is “right”. But Aiba wouldn’t realize this by himself. After Aiba picks up all the pieces and mends his heart, he would continue looking for love in the wrong place again. And it is not going to end well once again.

What Nino fears is true. Only two weeks has passed when Aiba starts mentioning about a new guy (or guys? Nino isn’t quite sure) he meets at some bar. He keeps on and on about how fantastic he is. Nino knows it is the first sign of Aiba falling in love – to the wrong kind – again.

While listening to Aiba chatting and chirping about his sexual encounter the previous night, Nino’s mind keeps going somewhere else. Nino still does all the “u-hu” and “a-ha” at appropriate times; but he is not really paying attention.

This is too much, Nino tells himself. He cannot let Aiba continue on this road anymore. Whether Aiba realizes it or not, Aiba needs a stable relationship. He needs someone reliable in his life. Someone that he can depend on. Someone that can take care of him.

Aiba clearly is not capable of picking such a guy all by himself.
It is up to Nino to do something.

Nino’s eyes pan around their surroundings. Staff is running around, removing the old set and installing the new one. The audiences are talking, smiling, and waiting for the show recording to resume again. Ohno is sitting in front of him, seemingly looking straight into nothing in particular. Sho has disappeared from where he is supposed to be. He probably has gone backstage with Aiba. Nino notices the two have been chatting quite a bit since the start of the day. Next to Nino, their plus-one guest is standing, having a conversation with the competitor team.

Off-camera, Nino has spent the whole day thinking about his resolution last week. He is going to find a good guy for Aiba. Nino needs to find someone who is good enough to be Aiba’s boyfriend, someone that would pass Nino’s approval.

Then, Nino sees what he is looking for, right in the middle of the studio. Nino scolds himself quietly. How could he overlook such a perfect choice so close to them all this time?

Reliable. Dependable. Caring.

Who is going to be better than MatsuJun?

Arashi have been together for so many years. Nino knows what kind of person each and every one of members are. Ohno is free-spirited, quiet and temperamental. Sho is well-organized, good-hearted but overly serious. Jun is, as Nino wants for Aiba, passionate, caring and considerate. Just the right type for Aiba. The type that would stay with Aiba. Jun is the best candidate for Aiba’s long-term, dependable boyfriend. Jun clicks all the boxes. He has all the things that Aiba needs. Jun would be a constant in Aiba’s life. Jun would be caring and thoughtful. Jun would be able to care for and look after Aiba the way that none of his earlier boyfriends cannot.

Looking at Jun talking attentively to staff, Nino smiles proudly at himself. Aiba has overlooked the best candidate but Nino has not. Nino is certain Aiba would find the piece that has been missing in his life with Jun. Now that Nino has decided on the person, what is left for him is to make the relationship happen.

Arashi has been together for so long. They know each other like the back of their own hands. For the others, this intimate knowledge may be useful when they are on variety shows, so they can tell anecdotes and other entertaining stories in the interviews. But for Nino, it also means he can manipulate the other members if he ever wishes to.

Matsumoto Jun may appear to be a bossy and moody perfectionist. But Jun is also a sensitive and caring guy. As long as Nino has known him, Jun always thinks of the others. He always makes sure that everyone he cares about is well-taken care of. If Jun knows Aiba is in trouble, Jun would certainly come to his rescue. On the other side, dealing with Aiba isn’t hard. Nino knows all Aiba’s preferences. It is the result of growing up and going through many tough times together. Because of that, making Aiba falling in love with someone is not exactly rocket science for Nino. Aiba is almost always complying. He seldom argues. And he is a softie. Just knowing someone is interested in him can make Aiba half-fall in love with that person already.

Getting Aiba and Jun to start considering one another romantically is not much of a challenge for Nino’s mastermind brain.

“Nino, you are looking at me funny.” Aiba voices out as Nino intentionally stares at him a little too often during their weekly variety filming. “What’s wrong?”

“I think Jun has looked at you several times now. Don’t know why.”  It may be a lie but it does not matter for Nino because the end justifies the means.

“Jun?” Aiba looks puzzled. Nino pretends to look at Jun and Aiba questioningly for a brief moment then he goes back to focusing on something else.

Next to him, Aiba still cannot stop looking at Jun with a questioning gaze. Nino hides his smile. It’s Aiba’s nature to be curious. Now, he won’t be able to stop thinking about this. About Jun and why he would want to look at him. Not long after, Jun turns to their direction and his eyes meet with Aiba’s. And that’s the beginning.

Nino continues dropping a hint here, a suggestion there, telling either of them (separately, of course) that they look like they are interested in one another. Aiba is curious and adventurous while Jun looks pleasantly surprised. None of them looks averse to the idea. That’s a good start. Nonetheless, it’s not like both of them believe Nino much at first. That’s why Nino needs to recruit Sho to help him with the scheme. When two members randomly start mentioning similar stuff, it is not difficult to believe there may be a grain of truth in it.

“You know this is a bad idea, right?” Sho’s voice enters into Nino’s consciousness as Nino is looking at Aiba and Jun from afar. Aiba and Jun are chatting by themselves – the product of Nino’s month-long plan to get them more personal time together.

“Yet, you agreed to help me, didn’t you?”

“You were very convincing.” Sho admits. When Nino wants Sho’s help, he tells him about Aiba’s chronic boyfriend problem and the road it is leading Aiba to. Nino plays it into Sho’s weakness. He lets Sho picture Aiba being sad and miserable, spiraling toward a doom future. Nino, Aiba’s best friend, pretends to be very worried and distressed, as if he is certain Aiba’s disastrous end is near. Sho cannot say yes to Nino fast enough.

“I hope you know what you are doing, Nino.” Sho says weakly, thinking about the reason he decides to help Nino in the first place. He still trusts that Nino would do what is best for Aiba but something else keeps bugging him.

“Of course, I do. Who do you think I am?” Nino replies confidently. This is a good plan, Nino is certain. This is going to be great for Aiba.

Nino’s plan does work eventually.

After two months, Aiba finally comes to him asking for an advice.

“Jun has asked me to join him for a dinner this weekend.” Aiba bursts out one day when they are sitting on a sofa in Nino’s living room. Aiba has dropped by with grocery and Nino asks him to make dinner. After the meal, they end up like they usually do – on a sofa side by side, Nino playing his game and Aiba watching and being a distraction.

It has been five weeks after Nino begins his plan. Things are moving exactly in the direction Nino has hoped for. Aiba and Jun interact more when Arashi are together. Nino sees Jun’s number in Aiba’s phone call history. Some are in the late hours. They are certainly talking.

“You know. This is Jun.” Aiba looks frightened and a little disturbed. “Dinner. And it’s at his apartment.” Aiba looks like he is going into panic mode. He most likely hypes himself up, like usual.

“Well, so?” Nino sounds amused and innocently surprised. Nino knows Aiba is almost there; he just needs a little push.

“I don’t know.” Aiba said in uncertainty. Aiba is clearly afraid. “It’s Jun.” He repeats, as if that word infers a deeper meaning to Nino.

“Jun is a nice guy. We all know that.”

“That’s the point!” Aiba’s voice is suddenly louder almost like a shout. “We all know him. We’ve been together for so long, Nino, I don’t want anything to change.”

That comment causes some strange feeling inside Nino. It hurts a bit and Nino is not sure why. He discards that feeling quickly. His facial expression remains the same. His plan is almost completed. Nino needs to focus. The thing is they both know what is going to happen if Aiba accepts the invitation to Jun’s place for a romantic dinner, there will certainly be more than just “dinner”.

“Aiba, don’t fret. You know it in you that you really like him. He will make you happy.” Nino reaches out. He wraps his hand around Aiba’s shoulder pulling him in for a comforting and friendly hug. “Believe me, Aiba. Jun is right for you.”

Aiba glances at Nino with an uncertain eyes. He contemplates on Nino’s words for a moment. Then, he slowly nods.

The weekend passes and Aiba calls him the next morning with the juiciest details of what happens the night before at Jun place. Some part Nino wishes he did not hear.

All in all, it is safe to say that Nino’s plan is a success.

Nino has to admit that Jun is really discrete when it comes to courting another member. It is hardly noticeable that Jun and Aiba have more interactions than usual even inside the greenroom.
When all of them are outside of the public eye, Jun doesn’t approach Aiba any more frequently than he does the other members. Yet, Nino knows things are developing between these two. The way Aiba looks at everyone is different. Aiba looks like a teenager sneaking a peek into something prohibited. Somehow, Aiba can look excited and guilty at the same time. Maybe, that’s exactly the appeal of it. Getting into a relationship with Jun is something Aiba feels he shouldn’t. It is both frightening and fun at the same time. To tell the truth, Nino does not see why Aiba has to worry. No one is going to object if these two go out for real.

The only time Aiba and Jun look like a couple publicly is when they go out for drinks. When Aiba is drunk, he forgets about his worries. When Jun is drinking, he lets out his caring and considerate part of him a lot more.

So when several of their entertainment friends get together after a concert of their senpai, Nino gets a chance to observe what Aiba and Jun really are like together privately. Nino normally wouldn’t come to any party or get together after work. But this one is different. It’s for their senpai. And most of all, it is Aiba that calls and asks him to come out. So Nino does. And now he is sitting quietly on a sofa sipping his beer. On the other side of the room, Aiba is sitting almost on Jun's lap. The clearly drunk Aiba is all over Jun. He snugs his face on Jun's neck, almost burying it inside Jun's lightly curled hair. His lips kiss Jun's soft skin before moving to Jun's ear. He must have whispered something amusing or interesting to the man because Jun's eyebrows rise up noticeably and he chuckles a little. Aiba moves back. He looks at Jun with his glittering eyes and smiles so widely Nino can feel it radiates to his side of the room.

“It does not make sense to drink an empty glass, you know?” Sho says to him nonchalantly. He deposits himself next to Nino, almost too close, given the sizable empty space between Sho and another Jr next to him right now. Nino can feel his sleeve brushing the skin of his arm but decides to ignore the strangeness. He lowers his glass on the table and allows Sho to fill it with new cold beer. Nino takes a sip. The cold beer goes down his throat and Nino feels slightly refreshed. He lets his back fall into the sofa again. Unlike Nino, Sho does not sit back and relax. With his back propped up straight, Sho keeps staring meaningfully at Nino. The stare makes Nino uncomfortable but he does not break away from the gaze. Instead, Nino looks intently at Sho and asks, “What do you want?”

Nino knows he sounds slightly ruder than he intends to. Yet, Sho does not seem to mind.

“Just want to see how you are holding up.” Sho sounds so concerned and overbearing it annoys Nino almost immediately. However, a look into Sho’s eyes makes Nino forgive Sho’s intrusion into his personal space almost immediately. Sho really is worried.

Nino just does not understand why.

“I am not drunk, if that’s what you are asking.”

“You know I did not mean that.” Sho’s tone is still condescending it starts to really get on Nino’s nerve.  “Do you still think it’s a good idea? You know, Aiba and Jun.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Nino replies with a fire. He wants to ask Sho to clarify his question when, on the corner of his eye, Nino sees a movement from the other side of the room. His eyes automatically follow. On the other side, Aiba’s sleeping figure is left alone on the sofa while Jun heads directly toward him. Nino feels his throat closes up as his eyes meet with Jun’s. He quickly turns back toward Sho.

“That’s what I mean.” Sho says under his breath. But he does not leave a chance for Nino to react. Sho stands up and walks away, almost at the same time that Jun reaches Nino.

“Aiba fell asleep. I am taking him home.” Jun says plainly. Nino looks at him with questioning eyes.

“Well, it makes sense. You being his boyfriend and all.” His tone is so sarcastic Nino himself feels a bit bad about it. What is it with him and his mood tonight? Why is he attacking Jun?

“I think Aiba would want me to tell you. So you wouldn’t be worried.”

“I am not going to be.” Nino says almost too quickly. There is a silence between them for a few seconds. Jun still does not leave. Instead, He drops on the sofa next to Nino and looks at Nino with unreadable expression. It makes Nino feel uncomfortable.

“Aiba talks about you a lot.” Jun finally says.  “Are you okay about us?” Jun must have seen Nino looking confused so he adds, “You know, Aiba and I, are you going to be cool about us going out?”

Nino almost spits out his beer. The comedy of that question is too much, especially when it is Nino that has played matchmaker for both of them in the first place.

“I don’t know why you need to ask me about that. I am not Aiba’s parent.”

“I can assure you we are not at that level. Not yet.” Jun looks at him, amused. “But who knows. I think I really like him.” Jun pats Nino’s thigh lightly. “I am glad you are cool with this.”

And with that, Jun leaves.

Nino look follows Jun.  What does Jun want from him by saying these things?

Even with them officially going out, Jun has remained discrete. Nino thinks it is Jun’s personal preference. He never likes to have his private life to be shown to public. In fact, he does not want his private life to be shown to anyone, including Arashi members. Nino is impressed at the degree of secrecy and Jun’s effort to keep things in his life private.

Yet, this is Aiba Jun is going out with.  Aiba is not like Jun. He lives and acts on impulse a lot. And Aiba doesn’t keep quiet with Nino. He would call at all time of a day to talk to Nino about various things he and Jun do. Aiba sounds like a teenager on his first date. Aiba still comes to Nino’s house sometimes. It’s far less often than before because he spends a lot more time with Jun now. Nino also hardly visits Aiba’s place nowadays. And every time he does, there are some remanences of Jun scattering around the apartment, which makes him feel like he is intruding into someone else’s personal life.

As time passes, the house visit stops almost completely.

Nino tells himself that it does not bother him. He likes being alone anyway.

Since Aiba and Jun become an item, Nino’s mood hasn’t been the best. Nino feels something inside him has changed. He just cannot pinpoint what exactly but that change makes him moodier. Despite this, Nino tries his best to keep it to himself. His work must not be affected. Yet, it is difficult to hide it completely from the others. On a good day, most people would just look at him strangely but leave him alone. A moody Nino is a scary Nino. It is best to avoid a scary Nino.

Today, however, is not a good day.

It is almost fall now but their location shoot is hot like hell. Nino is sitting on the side waiting for member close-up shot. The three layers of clothing he is wearing for the MV is making it worse.

“You look miserable.” It turns out Sho is the only person brave enough to irritate Nino with an intruding but well-intended comment. But it is his look that gets on Nino’s nerves. Sho probably intends for it to be caring but it is also condescending.

“It’s hot. I hate the outdoors.” Nino’s reply is filled with fire. He is not in the mood and he cannot help latching on anyone coming close enough.

Sho glances toward the pair standing just a distance away. Sho is implying the cause of Nino’s anger and irritation. It is true that in front of the staff Aiba and Jun are exceptionally discrete. They don’t even hold hands or touch each other. They don’t smile those crushing smiles of happiness they often do when they are in the green room. But, just seeing both of them standing close to one another makes something inside Nino stir like never before. In the background, Sho is going on and on about something that includes words like "awkward," "uncomfortable," "unhappy," etc. Nino isn’t paying attention. He cannot help staring at Aiba and Jun. They are standing so close to one another. Aiba is chatting lively. Jun is tugging his hands in the pockets and rocking his body a little. The way Aiba is looking – staring – at Jun…

Nino is not angry at Aiba and Jun. That, he can truthfully say. He just isn’t comfortable seeing them. Of course, it’s not their fault. Nino just wishes he wasn’t here seeing all these things.

 “You should talk to them.” Sho’s voice reenters into Nino’s consciousness again.

“Huh?” Nino does not quite gasp the meaning of Sho’s most recent sentence.

"I think you should talk to them." Sho restates his opinion again.

“Talk to them? About what?” Nino is not going to admit he feels strange about the two. This is pity. Jealousy is pitiful.

“Well, for a start, about what you are feeling.” Sho sounds almost too hopeful. Nino looks at Sho unconvincingly. Sho is the type that believes in talking. As if everything can be solved by all parties involved getting together to discuss and brainstorm for the solution. That’s not going to work. In real life, you don’t talk everything through. And many things are better left a secret.

“And what do you think I am feeling right now, Sho?” Nino looks at Sho fiercely. He directs his stare toward his longtime friend. Nino hates talking about his own emotions and feelings with others. Maybe he used to do that when he was in his teens. But he does not anymore. Now Nino believes talking about feelings and emotions, particularly with the object of your emotions, never leads to something good.

Seeing Nino does not budge at his suggestion, Sho lets out a sigh.

“At least, think about it, okay?” Sho knows when he is defeated, but he is still optimistic. Nino thinks Sho is just over-worried like usual. Yet, Sho remains adamant in his conviction. He truly believes Nino needs to do something, to clear things up.

“I am serious, Nino. For everyone’s sake.”

Nino wonders what Sho means by that.

Sho leaves to do his close-up shots. Nino is left to his own thoughts. No matter how much he denies Sho’s concern, Nino cannot stop thinking about it. Nino does not know why or what he should talk to Jun and Aiba. His strange feeling, the discomfort he has every time he look at Aiba and Jun together. They are his problem, not theirs. They are problems that even Nino does not understand them just quite yet. There is no need for him to burden the others with his problem.

“Nino!” It’s Aiba calling for him from afar. He is jogging toward Nino. Jun is trailing behind him unhurriedly. Aiba is waving at him excitedly, as if he is so happy to have seen Nino for the first time in ages, when in fact they have just finished shooting together less than half an hour ago.

“Nino,” Aiba is beaming, “Jun just has the best idea. Let’s go to New York! He can arrange the trip for us. We will get Oh-chan and Sho to join. And we can spend time there watching baseball games, visiting the Statue of Liberty, and going to concerts. Jun says his cousin will let us stay in one of his apartments. It’s going to be just a few days. We can go there next month before we get busy with the tour prep meeting. It’s going to be like our recharge!” Aiba explains the plan animatedly. The more he talks the more excited he gets. His eyes spark and his lips curl up in a wide smile while he is talking. Aiba looks so happy. Aiba probably loves the idea of his best friend joining him and his boyfriend for an overseas trip so much he’s gotten hyped up already just thinking about it.

Nino is glad Aiba is happy. He has always wanted Aiba to be happy.

Yet, what Nino hears his voice reply is firm and strong, “No.”

Aiba clearly does not expect that answer. He looks at Nino bewildered. Nino continues, “No. I don’t want to go to New York with you and Jun. I hate going abroad. It is going to be expensive. I don’t want to see anything there.” They are lies. Nino would love to go abroad with Aiba. He would love watching a baseball game with him, sight-seeing with him, and going to a concert with him. He does not know why he says otherwise. Yet, his mouth does not stop. “Can you stop pestering me with all these stupid ideas? Go ask Leader. He’s probably free enough to be your third wheel.” That is totally uncalled for. Nino frightens himself. Why would he say such things? Aiba’s eyes widen in shock. Aiba steps forward and about to reach toward Nino when Jun takes his arm, stopping him on track. “Aiba, stop.” Jun’s voice is calm. He glances at Nino just for a second before switches back to Aiba. “Let’s not bother Nino now. We can talk again later.”
Jun pulls Aiba back and Aiba retreats closer to him. Their bodies almost touch one another. That’s the last straw for Nino. He walks out.

Aiba, Jun and Ohno go to New York together. At first, Sho was going to go with them but an urgent schedule change in his variety filming forces him to cancel the trip. Nino completely ignores any talk about the trip, hence he implicitly refuses to join. He spends all those free days when Aiba, Jun and Ohno are in New York staying home playing zombie games. Somehow, spending time shooting zombies’ heads off is a really satisfying way to spend those few days. That is until Nino checks Arashi’s LINE group. He almost spits ramen through his nose when he sees the picture of Aiba and Jun kissing in Central Park. Ohno accidentally sent it to all members’ LINE group instead of sending to just Aiba. And below the picture is Sho’s comment teasing the couple and an animated LINE sticker of two cats kissing passionately. Nino spends the next 10 hours shooting zombie heads non-stop.

Ohno stops by Nino’s apartment the day after he returns from New York with a wrapped gift. Inside is a yellow T-shirt with a monster-eating Pac-man logo on it. Only one look at it and Nino can tell.
“You didn’t buy this.” Nino states it like a fact.

Ohno is half-sitting, half-lying on the sofa with half-open eyes. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the effect of jet-lag or it’s the usual Ohno. He turns to look at Nino with a half-smile.

“Of course, I didn’t.” Ohno smiles amusingly. If it was any other person, Nino would probably feel offended. But Ohno certainly harbors no ill-will. “Aiba thinks you are still angry at him.”

“I am not. What give him that idea?”

“Maybe because you didn’t pick up any of his calls while he was in New York.” Ohno’s tone does not change. It’s smooth, calming, and slightly playful as ever.

Nino does not reply to Ohno’s slightly questioning glance. He does not want to indulge Ohno with the story.  Normally, Ohno would leave him alone but today it’s different. Ohno presses on.

“What’s going on, Kazu? Why are you avoiding Aiba-chan?”

Nino stares at Ohno in confusion. His mouth parts slightly as Nino is unsure of what to say. Nino would not imagine in a million years that Ohno would get involved.

 “Talk to me, Kazu.” Ohno’s voice is full of concern. Nino should have realized Ohno is always watching over them. With things that are going on with him and Aiba (and by default, Jun), Ohno certainly notices.

“I am not angry with Aiba. Or Jun.” Nino keeps his eyes on the coffee table and tries his best to avoid Ohno’s constant glance. “The only person I am angry at is probably myself.”

“Why is that?” Ohno asks the question slowly as if to give Nino time to find the right answer. Nino remains silent for quite some time. Finally, he speaks in a quiet and accepting voice.

“Aiba is happy but I am not.” Each word comes out like a whisper. “I want to but I can’t. I want to be happy for him.” The last words taste bitter in Nino’s mouth. He turns to face Ohno, who is already looking straight at him. Nino’s look is pleading. What he is thinking, what he is feeling, it is wrong.

“Oh-chan, why am I like this?”

Ohno does not offer anything in reply. Instead, he pulls Nino in and wraps his arms warmly around his trembling frame. Nino lets himself be absorbed into the only comfort he has felt in a very long time.


Into the Storm - Part 2

Title: Into the Storm (Part Two)                 
Word count: approx. 15000 words (in two parts)
Pairing: Junba, OT5-friendship
Genre: Space AU, Sci-fi, Action/Adventure
Rating: PG13 (pretty much harmless with a bit of actions, a certain level of violence and a little swearing)
Summary: Matsumoto Jun set out to hunt down slavers but he found his old roommate, Aiba Masaki, and his crew instead.

Author’s Note: Originally written for aibaexchange this version was edited and modified slightly from the original version. The story was based very loosely on Star Trek and Mass Effects AUs (with lots of stress on “very”). Basically, I borrowed the terminology without applying the same meanings in this story. For that, I have to apologize in advance if you are a serious Star Trek fan.

I also would like to thank Mod J. for the help with beta-reading. Thanks for your hard work and patience <3 Also, thank you other awesome AibaEx mods for organizing this exchange. It has been really fun. XOXO

Also, see the end for final note.


[Jun stood next to the large screen panel overlooking the deep space.]

Jun stood next to the large screen panel overlooking the deep space. It had been a few days since they escaped from the research station. Jun’s right side was still stiff from the mostly healed wound. Regardless of how advance the medical treatments had been, effects from injuries often lasted for some time. Jun let out a deep sigh, thinking back to what happened in the past few days. The visit on Plagia turned out to be a lot more dangerous than he had thought. If it was just him alone, he probably would not have made it. Jun tensed up when considering the outcome of that day. It turned out that both he and Aiba had been wounded. It was Ohno’s expert skills plus the ship’s ample medical supply that nursed them back to full health relatively quickly. The shot on Aiba’s left shoulder was pretty bad. Even with the medical care they had on Arashia, it would still leave a sizable scar on a large part of his left shoulder. Aiba looked relatively cheery at it though. He called it his “battle scar”, and seemed to be showing them proudly to Nino, who was clearly NOT happy about it. Nino hit Aiba’s head pretty hard a few times, reprimanding him on his carelessness. Aiba did not tell anyone how exactly he got the injury and Sho did not seem to witness the actual incident. So it’s only Aiba and Jun that knew what truly happened. Jun felt relieved knowing that.

A knock on the door had Jun instantly turned toward the entrance of his guest room. Were people still knocking at this age? Then, Jun remembered, the only person he ever knew that did not use the intercom to ask for permission to enter someone’s room at this time and age.

“C’mon in, Aiba.” Jun yelled out casually but did not turn back. His eyes were still fixed on the beautiful dark space. His heart beat a little faster but Jun tried to look calm and indifferent.

“Hey, Jun.” It was Aiba’s voice greeting him. Jun could hear Aiba’s steps walking across the room toward him. Jun took a deep breath before turning back toward the man. Aiba was beaming a bright, sunshine smile at him. Caught off guard, Jun lost himself for a second. He had to clear his throat before answering back.

“Hello, Aiba.” Jun smiled politely. “What can I do you for?”

“I stop by to see how you are doing. You did not show up for dinner yesterday and also breakfast today. I am worried.” Aiba said it so sincerely. One of the things Jun hated about the man.

“I am okay. I am feeling better, actually, if you are worried about my health.”

In fact, Aiba had a right to be worried. Jun was hit by an armor-piercing ammo, right on the right side of his stomach. The bullet went through his armor, tore through his abs muscle before exploding on the inside. It caused significant internal damage and bleeding but very little bleeding on the outside. That’s why neither Jun nor Sho realized it at first. And it seemed Jun was too preoccupied with what happened to Aiba to notice his own injury. When Ohno and Sho helped both Aiba and Jun back on Arashia, the Med Bay surgical bot had to operate on Jun for several hours before it could get all of the bullet pieces out. Jun’s intensive treatment was one of the reasons why Aiba would have a scar on his shoulder. Aiba would not let the only surgical bot on board Arashia work on him. He insisted that it must put all attention on Jun. Aiba survived his flesh-eating, acid-burning injury by the pure skill of Ohno – who amazed the rest of Arashia crew with his medical knowledge. Ohno quickly stopped the acid spreading and expertly treated the acid burnt wound before it had gotten worse. “You can do this AND you can fly a spaceship too?!? I seriously want to know what else you can do.” Nino asked mischievously amid awkward reactions from the others.

“I am glad you are feeling better, Jun. If there’s anything we can help you with, let us know, okay?” Aiba said firmly and Jun nodded at that. Seeing Aiba remained still, Jun tilted his head to signal the end of their conversation. But Aiba still did not move from where he was. Aiba was just standing there looking unsure. There was something Aiba wanted to say. He just did not know how to put it into words. In front of Aiba, Jun was holding his breath, hoping that Aiba wouldn’t say anything he did not want to hear.

“Umm…and also...” Aiba started. He was trying to summon his courage to say what was on his mind. Jun could not move even though he wished he could just walk away at that point.

“…also, thanks for saving my life.” There, Aiba just said what Jun certainly did not want to hear.
Jun shifted on his feet uncomfortably. He avoided Aiba’s intense stare that was fixating on Jun at the moment. Jun’s physical expression indicated quite clearly he was uncomfortable. That did not stop Aiba from continuing on with his awkward speech though.

“You risked your life to save me. I will never forget that.” Aiba said firmly. He made it sound so much like a promise. A promise was another thing Jun hated to hear.

Jun’s eyes subconsciously glanced at Aiba’s left shoulder where Jun still could see a patch of bandage on Aiba’s pale skin underneath his casual costume. The wound unsettled Jun. It reminded him of what had just happened and it reminded him of the past ten years. Before he could stop himself, Jun blurted out his first thought.

“You did the same for me. I will not forget that too.” There, he just said something resembled a promise. Jun bit his lip thinking what a mistake he had just said out loud. He did not want to give Aiba the wrong idea. Jun did not want them to discuss about what happened at the research station, ever. It was too awkward for Jun. But for Aiba, what happened at the station was like an epiphany. It told Aiba something he had been questioning for so long – so long that he had once given up on finding the answer. Now, Aiba felt he had gotten what he had been asking for these past years. Aiba’s eyes shined brightly. Aiba looked straight at Jun and Jun felt his heart beat a little faster. Then, Aiba moved closer and pulled Jun in for a hug. It looked like a warm and friendly hug but it meant something different for each of them. Jun felt like a flood of emotions hit him and he almost could not breathe. His body just did not know how he should react.

“You know I would risk everything for you, Jun. Always." Aiba pulled Jun in a little tighter but was careful not to disturb Jun’s wound. "I just never know you would do the same for me.” Jun’s whole body tensed up. Not knowing what to say, Jun remained silent.

While staring into the serene view of the vast space, Jun let Aiba hug him a little longer than he should have.


Back in his room, Aiba was sitting on his bed while staring at a photo frame in his hand. The photo had been on his desk since he moved in. It was among several photos portraying his life up to this point. This particular one was dated more than ten years back, when he and Jun were still in the second year of their training. Aiba’s arm wrapped around Jun’s shoulder. The young Aiba looked really happy. He was beaming radiantly while Jun looked slightly more reserved. Jun was smiling just a little but his eyes were glittering brightly. Aiba knew Jun was also happy back then. The picture was taken only a few weeks before Jun's parents passed away. It was then that things went downhill in their romantic relationship, when Jun decided that they were better off friends. Aiba remembered fighting so hard for them to remain the same. However, by the third year when Jun brought the issue of Nino cheating in the exam to the Academy committee, Aiba knew things could never be the same between them. Still, Aiba tried to keep in touch but Jun seemed to think it’s a bother. Aiba had thought he had lost Jun forever until they went to the research station.

There was a sound from the intercom at the door, asking permission to enter. It was Sho. Aiba put the photo frame back on his desk and asked the ship A.I. to let Sho in. He nodded a little to acknowledge Sho's presence.

"Hey, Aiba." Sho looked tired and troubled. It was not unusual for his first officer to look tired. But having a tired and troubled Sho in his quarter was extremely uncommon. Aiba responded with a brief, encouraging smile. He was certain what had happened in the last few days must put a strain on Sho, both mentally and physically. Aiba did not say anything though. With Sho, it was usually better to let Sho speak out what was on his mind first before asking anything specific.

“I want to talk to you.” Sho paused a bit, “You know, about the thing we are doing, about what we did.” Sho let out a heavy sigh. “I am worried. We should not be doing this.” Aiba could see clearly Sho’s serious and somber feelings. They were so apparent on his facial expression. Sho moved to sit in Aiba’s chair while Aiba sat down on his bed. Sho looked straight at Aiba, hoping to convey his message.
“I know you are worried about the colonists and about Jun. But we are too small a crew to be tackling the problem of this scale. We really should wait for the reinforcement.”

Sho’s concern was valid, Aiba understood that. Like Sho, Aiba also knew dealing with slavers was a completely different matter from catching new species or dealing with illegal merchants. These people were fully armed and more often well trained, with proper combat skills. In short, they were deadly. It would be a dangerous affair for everyone, Aiba understood that. He admitted he wasn’t sure if he was willing to put Sho’s and Nino’s lives in danger. Aiba was staring at Sho’s concern expression for a brief moment before he finally realized what Sho was actually worried about. Aiba’s eyes were wide open.

“Oh, you are worried about me, aren’t you, Sho?” Aiba finally got it. Instantly, he felt grateful. Sho had to turn away from Aiba’s direct stare. It embarrassed him.

“You know, with Matsumoto, I am afraid you are not thinking clearly.” Aiba could see Sho switched his gaze toward the desk – where the picture of he and Jun was. Aiba almost forgot that Sho had seen Jun before this mission, in one of his photos. Aiba just wasn’t sure whether Sho had talked to Nino or whether Nino had hinted anything to Sho.

“Aiba, can you wait until the reinforcement arrives? It would be safer for everyone.”
Aiba understood Sho’s concern but he did not know what he could do differently. Sho was always the voice of reason, Aiba hated going against what was best for everyone.

“Jun wouldn’t wait. He said he would go after them himself if we won’t join him. He was also given the direct order to follow up on this right away. I don’t think he could wait for the reinforcement.”

“So, can YOU wait for the reinforcement?” Sho stressed out. Aiba felt bad but he shook his head.

“I can’t. I won’t.” Aiba did not want to look at Sho’s eyes as he continued. “But I will understand if you want to do something different.”

There was a long pause before Sho let out a heavy sign.

“That was insulting, Aiba. Don’t you ever say that in front of Nino. He might kill you himself for belittling his friendship.” Sho stood up, prompting Aiba to follow suit. His soft smile plastered on his face. It was calm and reassuring.

“I guess that settles things then. You should rest. There are going to be a lot of work ahead of us.” Sho bowed slightly and left, leaving Aiba to stand next to his bed, feeling overwhelm. Aiba could never understand what he had done to deserve Nino and Sho.


The visit to the Research station did not turn up completely empty. In the last minute before the self-defense mechanism activated, Jun managed to download some important data from deep inside the mainframe of the station network. Nino could also hack into some information before he was blocked out. Nino had spent the last few days decoding and processing the information. Countless hours were spent sifting through millions of data codes, information and messages down in the engineering bay. Until, finally, Nino found something.

“I found where the slaver operation base is, but you are not going to like it." Nino opened their emergency meeting with a grim face. It had been exactly a week after the visit to the Research station. "I certainly don't like what I found." Nino’s eyes moved from Sho to Aiba then back to the screen of his portable comp pad. Nino typed in several commands to release a 3D hologram of a spaceship. A strangely looking medium-size space ship. "That's where their operation base is. It's on a traveling spaceship."

"Is that why no one was able to locate it? Because it's never at one place?" Aiba asked.

"Not only that. This one is a full scale combat-ready space cruiser equipped with highly advanced defense and stealth system. It could travel at a speed faster than light because of the FTL Drive, without a trace of energy particles left for tracking. Basically it's one invisible fortress." Nino sounded slightly impressed with the information. He totally forgot that not all of them understood what he meant but Nino probably did not care. He always liked good tech, regardless of whom it belonged to. "The way they operate is like this. They would find a target colony. An armed squared will be sent out for the abduction and the colonists would be transported by the main ship to the black markets. Sometimes, like the case in Plagia, they would use an abandon base for temporary hosting of the larger group of abductees. That's why we can access some information of them at the base – the Research station was temporarily connected with the slave ship. Anyway, they hardly ever use the same place twice and they often wipe the whole place clean after they are done. I think Plagia was meant to be a trap for Commander Matsumoto. They left enough breadcrumb to lure him in. He just happened not to go there alone." Nino sounded unmistakably disappointed and Aiba had to cough in order to bring Nino back to the point.

"Oh, right. One piece of good news, if you would call it good news, is that we know where it is right now." Nino could see Jun's eyes gleaming suddenly. Of course, it would be good news for Jun. Nino on the other hand hated the idea of going after a ship with this kind of technological and military capacity.

"We have to go after it now, before it travels too far away to be tracked down. This may be the only chance to take these slavers." Jun rose up when he said it out excitedly. His reaction wasn’t greeted with the same enthusiasm.

“Now we know where the abducted colonists are. We can let the Federation know. They will send the rescue squad. Our work here is done.” Sho said in a rather desperate tone. Although he had talked to Aiba and knew of his intentions, Sho still wished there was still a chance to change his mind. Sho considered what happened at the Research station a disaster and he did not want it repeated. He was worried, especially for Aiba. However, Sho could see it in Jun’s eyes, he wasn’t listening to Sho’s reasons. Jun had other ideas. That meant Aiba would also have that other idea.

“No, that would be too late. The slavers would just move away and escape by then. I am going after them.” Jun argued firmly. His eyes gleamed in determination. Everyone knew Jun meant what he said. If they weren’t in it with him, he would do it alone. Jun’s reaction was enough to make Aiba decide one way instead of another.

“Jun is right. If we wait, the colonists may be moved to another base. We would lose the only chance to help them.” Aiba sounded as determined as Jun – although for a different reason. The flash in Aiba’s big, round eyes worried Sho more than anything. Although the strong determination was what he loved about Aiba, Sho feared it would be his undoing this time.

“You two please be reasonable. There are only us. Arashia is not combat-ready, you know that, Commander Matsumoto. We cannot go all out against a fully equipped slaver ship. And all those slavers, how many of them are they on the ship? This is suicidal.” Sho was quite livid. Surely someone must still hear his reason.

“That’s why we need a plan. We are not going after the slave ship and crash it head on.” Aiba was quick to reply with a mischievous smile. And Sho could only let out a troubled breath.


They spent the whole day discussing the best strategy.

Aiba commented that their priority should be the abducted colonists on the ship. They should help them out first and think about getting the slavers later. Jun did not look too pleased with the idea. Helping colonists was a one-time solution, in Jun's opinion. Getting rid of the slavers, that was a long term solution.

So, Sho came up with the compromise. Sho proposed that they split up into two teams - one would target the database of the slavers. Given the Arashia's current occupants number, it would be impossible to apprehend the slavers. The whole ship probably hosted close to fifty, if not more, not including other operational crews. So it would be better to get to their database and to find out as much as possible about their operations and their network, including people behind them. They would need someone to access the information of the ship, which could only be done from the inside. The hacking into the ship’s advance system sounded like a job for Nino and his uncanny skills. Nino would also release virus and tracking code that would disable some of the ship advance stealth system, allowing for easier tracking in the future. Sho would act as Nino’s bodyguard and make sure that Nino get the job done safely. Meanwhile, Aiba and Jun would go look for the abducted colonists and try to get them out. And since docking Arashia to the slave ship undetected required far more delicate control of the spacecraft than Nino’s automate piloting system could offer, Ohno would be taking care of piloting Arashia the whole time. While everyone was on their respective assignments, Ohno would be responsible for Arashia and be ready to offer any assistance if needed.

“So, here's how we are going to do it. We are going to dock our ship with the slaver main ship. From the information Nino could get, it seemed there would be several empty hangers. Arashia will go in her stealth mode and the team will get inside the slave ship from there.” Sho explained his plan. “I am going to accompany Nino, keeping him safe. Nino, you try to find a secure terminal to get the info. The information would be transmitted to the Federation ComLink right away using Arashia as a relay.” What Sho was implying was pretty obvious to everyone. He wanted the information to be sent to the Federation immediately in case something bad happened to them. Their effort wouldn’t be in vain.

“Let’s look for information on the possible future targets, the black market locations, the operators, buyers and sellers, and any creditors. It should cripple the slaver operation.” Sho suggested. It got approving nods from both Aiba and Jun.

“At the same time, Aiba and Jun would search the ship for any abductees and rescue them. Arashia should be able to transport them to the closest Federation base for further help.” Personally, Sho thought this part of the operation was riskier – possibly too risky. But it was something Aiba believed was important. Jun seemed to want to meet with slavers. Sho guessed by going after the abductees, both Aiba and Jun would probably get their wishes.


The operation happened that night. Ohno piloted Arashia into the vicinity of the slave cruiser. Nino’s super stealth system worked like a charm and there seemed to be no sign of the larger ship knowing that they were there. The docking was done perfectly. There was no one in the hangar, like Nino expected. From there, the party split into two groups. Nino thought the best location to get access to the ship main computer might be in the engine bay because there would be just engineers and workers manning the area - with the ship’s highly automated technology, there would not be many people there. They just needed to be careful of the security drones. As soon as Nino was done, Nino and Sho would return to Arashia and wait for further instructions.

After seeing Nino and Sho set off to the engine core, Aiba and Jun followed through their part of the plan. Nino had given them the layout of the cruiser, courtesy of the information they obtained from Plagia. So, Aiba and Jun knew where to go. Before the docking, they had speculated the location of the slave holding cells and planned out the route beforehand. From the hangar, it did not take them long before they could reach the slave holding. There were just a few patrols along the way and they were easily disposed of. Aiba and Jun should have thought the lack of security was strange but then they believed the slavers did not realize someone had found out about their base. These were slavers, not military, after all.

As Aiba and Jun made their way to the holding cells and released the abducted colonists, they thought their work was almost done. The layout of the ship was surprisingly straightforward so there should not be much resistance on the way out. There were only tens of colonists in the holding cells. Aiba led the escaped party out on the same way they entered while Jun guarded the rear, helping the abductees keep on track. Everything looked so smooth until Jun was about to usher the last of the frightened colonists out. There was a loud bang and the last security door closed down right in front of them. Jun and a few colonists were cut off from the large group that Aiba led. Jun instinctively turned back and right there in the room, a sizable group of slavers were spreading out. Each one of them held weapons of various kinds. Before Jun could decide how to react to the surprise, shots flew left and right of him and the colonists around Jun dropped down like fallen leaves. Within seconds, only Jun was left standing in the room full of slavers.

On the outside, Aiba ran back toward the door in panic. Jun was still inside, with several colonists. Aiba’s intercom still linked with Jun so Aiba could hear gun shots that almost caused him a heart attack. Aiba wanted to cry out knowing that those colonists that did not make it out were shot dead inside. But he could not lose his nerve now. He had to focus. Aiba turned back to his original course and continued to move forward, leading the rest of the colonists toward Arashia. At the same time, he quickly switched the channel on his intercom to someone he knew he could always rely on.
“Sho, I need your help.” Aiba tried to sound calm. He did not want Sho to know how frightened he was. Sho was quick to answer him. His first officer was already back on the ship waiting for contact from Aiba. “I need you to help escort the colonists. They are on their way to our ship. I am sending you the route on the com now. Jun and I have cleared the path so they should be quite safe. But I want to make sure.” Aiba felt his own voice was so full of urgency. His speech was so quick the sentences almost slurred into one. Sho certainly would know be alarmed.
“What are you doing? Why don’t you and Commander Matsumoto return now?” Sho was indeed suspicious. “Is there something wrong?” Aiba was torn between letting Sho know in order to ask him to help Jun and having Sho taking care of the colonists. Aiba weighted the risk and his own priority. The safety of the colonists should come first.
“I don’t have time to explain, Sho. Just do as I say, okay?” And with that, Aiba ended the communication. He knew Sho must already be on the way. Sho was a good officer after all. He would make sure that his assignment was completed.
Being certain that Sho was coming, Aiba directed the colonists on the right path before he alone ran back toward the holding cells. Aiba’s intercom was now switched back to his original channel with Jun. Unfamiliar voices were ringing in his ears.

“Well, well, well…. Look who we have here.” That came from a slaver, Aiba guessed he was one of the leaders. The voice was rather authoritative. “I cannot believe we finally have a Specter in our slave hold.” The man said amusingly but that voice sent shiver down Aiba’s neck. There was no question what the slavers had in mind. Aiba knew he had to find a way to help Jun quickly. He frantically searched for other entrance to the holding cells through the ship information when the voice in his intercom continued.  “Ah! And don’t think about doing anything funny with that gun of yours. My snipers would be faster than your trigger.” Aiba’s heart dropped for a second. Snipers meant less chance of survival and more difficult rescue. However, it also meant there could be other entrances on the upper floor. Aiba searched the blueprint and there it was, another way into the slave holding via upper floor.

Aiba moved as quickly as he could. His pistol was now in his hand. The slaver’s voice in his earpiece continued “What I see here, Specter, is that you are out-numbered. Don’t make it more difficult for you than it already is.” Aiba was now right at the door of the upper floor entrance. He slowly opened the door. And there it was one of the snipers lying flat on his stomach, in ready position. Aiba took care of him with the sound-muffled shot. The other slavers did not seem to notice. Now he could see that Jun was standing alone on one side of the room while a significant number of slavers were position on the opposite side. Jun was luckily close to the door. But the red light clearly indicated that the door was locked by the key pad. Jun looked calm but his posture was visibly tensed. The leader of the group looked at him sternly and continued.

“Normally a soldier or a fighter would fetch quite a higher price than a worker slave. They usually prove to be very loyal guards after some behavioral corrections. But in your case, I think we are going to kill you – just to be safe. You have been after us for too long already. Our boss does not like it.” The lead slaver said in an irritated tone. “We have been trying to get rid of you several times already. But you escaped every time. Even the last time on Plagia, I thought our plan was rather clever.” The slaver sounded disappointed. Aiba was in the sniper position now. He looked at all the enemies, thinking about the most strategic way to rescue Jun.

On the floor below, the leader of the group readied his gun, aiming it at Jun, who was standing quietly where he was. Jun did not raise his weapon up. Aiba knew whom he had to shot first.

As Jun closed his eyes, Aiba pressed the trigger.

A gun shot echoed in the room and Jun felt lighter. Jun wondered whether this was what it felt like when a person was shot dead. He heard a thudding sound and opened his eyes, in time to see the slaver dropped dead on the floor.


Aiba shouted at Jun loudly while releasing more shots on other slavers. Jun glanced up, quickly processing what had just happened.  Aiba took out the other snipper and began targeting the slavers on the floor. Taking advantage of the surprise, Jun crouched down and rolled to one side while shooting at several slavers standing confused around the room. A couple slavers who could not react in time and dropped dead by Jun’s shots, while some were able to run for the cover.

With the slavers unprepared and scattered, Aiba and Jun tried to control the situation. Using the dead slaver rifle, Aiba picked out slavers hiding behind covers quite easily. Aiba’s position was higher up and it would be hard for the slavers to target him. But then, Aiba posed a more serious threat to slavers than Jun. So the slavers seemed to be concentrating on subduing Aiba’s firing. Several slavers aimed at Aiba from their covers. It’s not effective but it did help stopping Aiba from shooting. Jun was gauging what to do when he heard Aiba shouting out to him. “Get out, Jun! Quick!” Then, Jun realized Aiba had shot the control panel locking the security door. It could be open now. Jun knew it was his only way out.

The slavers also heard Aiba’s words. Some turned to shoot at Jun, preventing him from escaping. But Aiba risked firing a few shots at them, stopping them from interfering with Jun’s escape.

“Jun, please. Just go.” Aiba was desperate. If Jun did not leave now, there might not be another chance. Aiba had only limited number of shots left and he wanted to make sure Jun got out before Aiba himself ran out of ammo. But Aiba knew Jun did not move because of Aiba. Because Aiba was still stranded on the second floor balcony with pretty much all slavers pointing their weapons at him. Jun saw some slavers was moving in. They brought out a larger gun – bomb thrower – maybe. Aiba was really in danger now. But Aiba did not care. He kept shouting for Jun to go first. If Jun was safe, maybe he could find a way to leave his position and make his way back to Arashia. He just had to survive this hail storm of gun shots from slavers on the floor below, somehow.

At that exact moment, something unexpected and horrible happened. Without any warning, Jun willingly stepped out of his cover and into the open. He put several shots into the slavers who were holding the bomb thrower.  He continued to walk straight at another group of slavers behind a wall cover and fired at them at point blank. Jun was completely out in the open, which allowed him a better angle on most enemy. Upon doing that, Jun opened himself up for attacks from all directions. More shots were flying straight at Jun and his body shook slightly when the shots hit. Even from afar, Aiba could see holes and cracks on Jun's heavy armor, results of the slaver fires. To Aiba’s horror, Jun continued to move from one slaver to another, disposing them and getting shot at in return. Aiba was close to losing his mind. He jumped down from the balcony onto some structure that helped break his fall. It still hurt but Aiba wasn’t paying attention. He screamed Jun’s name, yelling at him to stop, but Jun ignored Aiba completely. Jun continued to move toward a few remaining slavers, who were staring at Jun in disbelief, and traded shots with them. The sound of gun fires and his own cries was like Aiba's nightmare.

In just minutes, everything went perfectly quiet. With all slavers laid dead or disposed of, Jun staggered forward almost subconsciously.  He struggled to stay upright and was about to fall when Aiba finally made it to Jun. Aiba wrapped his arms around the bullet-ridden man before both of them collapsed on the floor. Before Jun’s conscious fade completely, Jun’s eyes met with Aiba’s and Jun’s lip pursed into a relieved smile. Jun’s weight fell completely on Aiba. Blood started to ooze out of numerous holes on Jun's armor, staining Aiba’s arm and body that were used for supporting the now unconscious Specter. Aiba looked at Jun’s lifeless face in total despair. Aiba had never been so afraid in his life. He cried out repeatedly begging Jun to stay with him.


A Month Later…..

The abducted colonists were now relocated to another human colony in Crescent Nebula. It was quite a distance away from their original home but the colonists seemed to be in good spirits. Sho always wondered about the resilience of these colonists. It was extraordinary.

Not a far distance away, Aiba was surrounded by children, all of whom were trying to get him to play with them. The mothers were looking at him gratefully that he had brought them home. When Aiba saw Sho, he waved at him happily, excused himself and ran toward his first officer.

“I just come to let you know that they have successfully apprehended the slave ship. The virus Nino left in the ship computer made the arrest so much easier. The slavers were all in custody now.” Sho reported the development he had just received via the communication room. Aiba looked pleased with the information.

“That’s good news. They deserved to be punished for what they did.” Aiba’s eyes were gleaming dangerously. Sho could tell there was something personal about that statement. Aiba was still angry at what happened last month. Jun was fatally wounded. He would have died if it’s not for Arashia’s Hyper-FTL Drive that allowed him to reach the main Federation Medical Center just in time. Nino did not want to admit it but it was his own engineering expertise that saved Jun’s life.

“Oh, and I think you may want to know. Ohno also called.” Aiba’s facial expression changed instantly. “Nino talked to him. He said Jun was recovering nicely. It may be a few more months before he could get back on the field again though.” Sho said in a more positive voice. He knew Aiba wanted to know about this news more than the capture of the slave ship. He was right. Aiba could not conceal his relief and happiness at the news. Yet, Aiba tried not to show it too much. Sho understood Aiba must have felt a bit uncertain and insecure. Since he left the hospital, Jun hadn’t been in contact with Aiba or anyone else at Arashia at all. Aiba probably felt left out now that he and Jun fell back into the same pattern of not really communicating again. Most of the news about Jun was coming from Ohno who had been in contact with Nino constantly.

“That’s good to hear. I guess Jun would be going back on the field when he’s fully recovered. He has always been serious about his work.” Aiba tried to make it sound normal but Sho could catch a glimpse of sadness in his voice. Aiba knew when Jun was back at his job, they would drift apart completely again like before. Sho looked at Aiba’s sadden face with sympathy. He let out a sign. He really could not stand seeing Aiba being miserable. So Sho decided to give Aiba another news against his previous resolution not to interfere in Aiba’s personal affair.

“You know, I also talked to my father. He told me Jun was to be given a medal of commendation and a promotion for his work in destroying one of the largest slaver operations. He was to be given a new ship to help with his future operations.”

“Is that right? I am happy for him.” Aiba was smiling but his eyes betrayed him. Sho smiled at Aiba softly before continued, “Jun accepted the medal but he refused the other offer.”

The new information made Aiba stopped on his track. He looked at Sho questioningly. Sho had Aiba’s full attention. “Instead, he has just requested to be instated on Arashia. He has asked the Council to allow him to work with you.” Sho paused a little. He loved seeing Aiba’s face slowly brightened up in recognition of what the news meant. “My father said the Council already said yes. Of course, you would be officially informed and asked about it before Jun can be a member of Arashia. The official communication would probably follow as soon as Jun was well enough to be on the field again.”

By the end of Sho’s sentence, Aiba was on his feet. He was beaming happily and started hopping back toward their ship.

“Hey, where are you going?” Sho shouted, asking the running Aiba, who slow down and turned back to answer Sho’s question.

“I am going to tell Nino. We have to get the ship ready for Jun and Ohno to move in.” Aiba beamed back at Sho. “Oh my god, there are so many things to do.” Aiba cried out excitedly. He waved at number of colonists whom he ran past. They all wondered what went on that could have changed the mood of Arashia’s captain so drastically.

Standing where he was, Sho’s eyes followed after Aiba with a smile. Sho knew he had made the right decision joining the team.

Arashia was going to have five members now and the new adventure was waiting for them.

[End Note]
Author's Note 2:

The original requester for the exchange had asked for a Space-AU and an open-ended story. So, for those of you who feel the story is somewhat not concluded, there are in fact something after this. I am currently writing the next part, which is going to be an Ohmiya story (well, Aiba, Jun and Sho are all still there too, of course). Anyhow, You probably could have guessed while reading this story that there are more to Nino and Ohno. Some of their story should have been in this one but because of the time constraint during the Exchange, I had to cut out quite a bit of Ohmiya. They will be there in the next one, promise. ;)

Into the Storm - Part 1

Title: Into the Storm (Part One)                 
Word count: approx. 15000 words (in two parts)
Pairing: Junba, OT5-friendship
Genre: Space AU, Sci-fi, Action/Adventure
Rating: PG13 (pretty much harmless with a bit of actions, a certain level of violence and a little swearing)
Summary: Matsumoto Jun set out to hunt down slavers but he found his old roommate, Aiba Masaki, and his crew instead.

Author’s Note: Originally written for aibaexchange, this version was edited and modified slightly from the original version. The story was based very loosely on Star Trek and Mass Effects AUs (with lots of stress on “very”). Basically, I borrowed the terminology without applying the same meanings in this story. For that, I have to apologize in advance if you are a serious Star Trek fan.

I also would like to thank Mod J. for the help with beta-reading. Thanks for your hard work and patience <3 Also, thank you other awesome AibaEx mods for organizing this exchange. It has been really fun. XOXO

[I cannot shake them off!!]

“I cannot shake them off! The shield is not going to hold.”

The pilot told Matsumoto Jun with unfamiliar urgency. For Jun, it was an alarming sight. His pilot, Ohno Satoshi, was usually a very quiet man. However, his calm and collected posture was in contrast to his panicked face right now. Ohno’s desperate tone told Jun that the current situation was dire.

There was another deafening boom and their spacecraft shook violently. This time, Jun had to hold onto Ohno’s seat to keep balance. Shit. This was bad. There were more hits and more violent shakes. The flashing monitor indicated that the ship’s left engine was gone and the right one was barely working. They were running out of options.

“The shield is down to 15%. We have to do something!” Ohno was as close to screaming as Jun imagined the man could be. The pilot was frantically punching in commands to the ship’s interface while trying to maneuver the spacecraft away from relentless fires coming at them. They were surrounded by several fighter jets, now encircling around a cornered target. This was hopeless.

“The ship is not going to make it.” Jun voiced what both of them already had in mind out loud. His thoughts ran wild searching for a way out. He was not going to die here, Jun swore to himself. They were NOT going to die here.


A deafening blast from a massive explosion rattled the whole ship causing Jun to drop hard on the floor. “Get in a seat quickly! We are going to crash.” Ohno yelled at him. Jun scrambled onto another seat in the cockpit. He barely managed to activate the seat buckle when a full blast of shockwave went through the ship knocking Jun out cold.


“Engineering bay to Bridge. Engineering bay to Bridge.” A voice from the intercom broke the serenity in the command deck and pulled Aiba Masaki back from his dreamy state. The voice continued, “Can anyone tell me again why are we in this star system?” Aiba knew right away why the ship engineer – Ninomiya Kazunari – called him out of the blue. Ninomiya, or Nino for those who were close to him, was bored to death. When Nino was bored, he’d like everyone to feel his pain.

“Seriously, there is nothing at all. Nothing to see. Nothing to survey. It’s like there are only death planets around here.”

Aiba could not resist smiling. He could see what Nino was like at the moment. Nino was sitting on his two legs in his love seat surrounded by many monitors and screens. Apparently, none of the screens and monitors could provide anything of interest to Nino.

“Nino, come up here. You should see the view. It’s breathtaking.” Aiba suggested good-naturedly. Nino always spent time in his own corner inside the engineering bay. Nino’s private corner was full of electronic equipment and devices that helped him keeping track on all the ship operating systems and other related things, but there was no screen with outside view. Nino was a bit of a hermit, not liking the usual ‘indulgences’ and ‘distractions’ (or things that Aiba would call ‘happiness’ and ‘natural beauty’). On the other hand, Aiba could never get enough of the natural wonder. And the Attican Traverse, the current Cluster they were in, was extremely beautiful.

“No way. Thank you. Staring into nothingness is not my thing. If you want some company, call Sho out from the gym then.” Nino replied back rather disheartened. The idea of removing himself from his private corner never appealed to Nino.

“Sho needs his daily two hours workout or he would be brooding all day. We don’t want that.”

Aiba thought that he might need to go to engineering bay and dragged Nino up himself. Or better, he was going to ask Sho to help him. Sho was his second in command, or rather, the one that actually made everything going according to plan. Sho always enjoyed poking Nino on his side just to remind Nino who was really the one in control.

“I told you. It’s so boring around here even Sho spent more time in the gym than usual. Why are we still here again?” Nino asked the same question. This time, his voice sounded a little more serious. It forced Aiba to think of a proper reply, but he found he did not have any.

“Umm…I am not sure. I just have a feeling we should be here. I don’t know why.” Aiba thought his answer was horrible. He had to admit he did not have a good reason.

“Is this one of your hunches again?” Nino sounded disapproving. “Last time you had that, we had to run away from a hoard of extremely displeased space traders. I swore I won’t get into that kind of situations ever again.”

It had been almost two years since Aiba was appointed the leader of an exploration team of the Federation. He and his team members, consisting of Sakurai Sho and Ninomiya Kazunari, had been travelled in their own ship, Arashia, ever since. Their job was to explore and investigate planets and star systems looking for anything of scientific interest. Their discovery would be recorded in the captain log and sent to the Federation every week. Usually, they were scientific records of new species, newly discovered resources and general planetary geographical and environmental conditions. However, once in a while, they would get themselves into sticky situations and they would act outside of their original responsibilities. Last time, they ran into a large number of illegal traders and Sho attempted to stop the trade of illegally obtained species. They could not run away with the rescued alien animals fast enough.  Their last expedition was counted as one of those rare but challenging occasions, something Nino did not want to repeat too often.

“I know you don’t believe in my hunch.” Aiba wasn’t a particularly superstitious person but he had faith in hunches and sixth senses. Some of the best things that happened to him in life came from his hunches – like joining the exploration division. “Just wait for a couple more days in this cluster, OK? If there’s really nothing here, at least we can record in our logs that there are nothing of significances around here and we would be done with another cluster.” Aiba tried to make the best of it. Several days had already pasted and there was still nothing really interesting. Aiba signed quietly. Yet, he tried to be positive. “C’mon, trust me. I’ve got a feeling something fun is going to happen.” Aiba sounded very confident. At the same time, he could hear Nino snorted at his positive attitude.

“If not, I am going to pick the next location myself.” Nino felt it would be better to take the important matter in his own hand next time. Aiba nodded in agreement before the transmission was cut off.

Back to his own, Aiba lazily looked at the console. He stared back into the beautiful space, enjoying a peaceful moment to himself, when suddenly, the distress call receiver started beeping red. Aiba jumped on his feet. He blinked a few times to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating because of the monotonicity of the journey. The beeping signal was still there. Someone was calling for help.

Aiba knew it’s wrong but he could not stop grinning. Nino could not say the trip was uneventful anymore.


Matsumoto Jun had always been exceptional. He graduated from the Academy the top of his class and served the Federation on one of its flagships right after the graduation. Jun had been a respectable security officer and he had successfully accomplished multiple missions. After almost ten years of services, Jun was chosen to be a part of the Specters – a semi-independent Federation agency, entrusted with the authority of the Council. The Specters were responsible for special operations crucial for security and safety of the Federation and its people. Jun was proud of the new responsibility. He took his job very seriously. As an option, a Specter may work with a team or alone. In Jun’s case, he chose to work by himself, except for Ohno who helped pilot his spacecraft. Jun had met Ohno a few years back when he was on the first mission as a Specter and Ohno had been with him ever since.

Jun’s current assignment was to investigate and eliminate slavers attacking Human colonists. In the past months, Jun had been hot on tail of the slavers. He was so close to locating their main operation base in the Attican Traverse cluster when his spaceship was ambushed by slaver fighter jets. Jun’s badly damaged spacecraft crash-landed in an overgrown jungle filled with strange-looking plants on a remote planet in the Dakka system. Ohno barely managed to activate the distress beacon before their ship blew up.

Now, they tried to make their way to some place they could camp out and wait for help. They ended up camping out in a small clearing, away from the thick of the forest, in case there were strange creatures in the vicinity. The outgrown forest was dark and musky. Jun shifted uncomfortably where he had been sitting. His right hand placed on the only weapon they had left. Jun was thankful to his habit to have a service weapon on him at all time – even when he was in his own spaceship, not expecting a fight, like hours before. At least Jun still had something to protect himself and Ohno. Jun looked at the man who had become his closest friend over the years. Ohno looked rather unfazed with the situation. Jun wasn’t sure if Ohno was very brave or he just did not let his feelings shown much even with Jun. With Ohno's usual silence, it's hard to tell sometimes.

With nothing else to do, Jun’s mind wandered. He was devastated at the loss of his spaceship, but he was more worried about their escape from this forsaken planet. Who was going to come near here? It was so far away from the usual territory of the Federation. He did not think the Federation agents even operated in this system, let alone anywhere near this planet. Jun probably would regret ignoring his superior’s suggestion to stay away from the Attican Traverse, an outlaw territory, which was so far away from the jurisdiction and support of the Federation. However, Jun knew he was so close to locating the slaver main operation base. He had to find a way to get off of this planet. He had to continue on with the hunt.

While Jun was thinking about all possible ways to send out a longer range distress signal, he could hear the low humming of a spacecraft engine in a distance. Jun wasn’t expecting help to come so quickly. Maybe it was a slave ship tracking them there. The slavers might want to take them as prisoners or finish them off, so Jun readied himself for combat. The unknown spacecraft landed in a large clearing behind the thick tree line so Jun could not see it. He and Ohno, who looked positively unfazed as usual, waited for the new party. His hand rested on his gun, ready to fire if he needed to.

Within minutes, the loud chatter of human language traveled through the thick tree line to where Jun and Ohno were. The new arrivals had no concept of stealth – so Jun was certain they were not slavers. But the chattering sound was somewhat familiar. Jun narrowed his eyes while his brain searched hectically where he had heard that voice from. That was when two figures in familiar uniforms emerged through the thick jungle. Dressed in Federation officer outfits, the taller guy saw Jun and Ohno first and quickly walked toward them. At that moment, Jun saw the face of who seemed to be the team leader. His own face turned hot as he recognized the man. Jun almost dropped his gun and he cursed his luck.

“No way, isn’t that Jun-kun?!” The rescuer brightened up immediately when he came close. He ran to Jun to give him a hug. Actually it was more like a squeeze. Jun could hardly breathe. When Jun was let go from the bone-crushing hug, he nodded only slightly in recognition. The same rescuer exclaimed happily, satisfied that Jun also remembered him – or was that a squealing sound he just made? Jun tried hard to keep a straight face.

Of course, Jun remembered Aiba Masaki, his old roommate from the Academy and Jun’s worst nightmare.


The group made it back to Aiba’s shuttle waiting in a clearing on the other side of the forest. On the way back to Arashia, Aiba was beaming happily in the pilot chair with Sho was looking all professional and reserved next to him. Behind them, Jun and Ohno cramped into the backseat. It was a relatively small shuttle that could barely carry four people plus a little bit of equipment. Aiba was positively cheery and talkative throughout the short journey. He was chatting, mostly by himself, about how great it was for him to see Jun again and began recollecting their past, the memories Jun already forgot or didn’t want to remember. Jun chuckled dryly while Ohno was smiling slightly. Ohno was probably amused at Jun’s unusual reactions.

As soon as they left the planet atmosphere, Jun looked through the screen panel on his passenger side and there she was, right at the outskirt of the planet, a frigate ship floating in the space. Just the sight of the ship made Jun lose his words. Arashia was different from any standard frigate ships Jun had ever seen. She was slimmer and looked more agile. There were four thrusters on the aft and the sides. The ship was slightly longer than the usual frigates and had several armaments equipped to it. Her silvery white exterior glittered in rainbow colors due to the reflection of starlight. Aiba turned back in his pilot seat to look at the reaction of the new guests. He smiled proudly when he saw the awe-struck faces of both Jun and Ohno upon seeing the spaceship.

“I know, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Aiba said happily and winked at Sho. Sho chuckled in amusement. He always liked it when Aiba treated the ship like his own kid and he was the proud parent. “Your ship….” Jun still could not find words, which made Aiba felt even prouder. “Well, you would be more amazed if I tell you the whole story of this ship. You know, she is not just any standard Federation frigate. Nino have modified her a lot from the original specs. Now, she is uniquely ours.” Aiba said proudly. Then Aiba suddenly remembered something.
“Oh, right! You remember Nino, right? You know, Ninomiya, our old roommate.”
Jun’s face turned slightly redden. He did not say anything in response. Aiba looked at Jun and realized that was not a good sign. Jun and Nino had a history. It wasn’t a particularly good one. Aiba’s mood changed suddenly from the realization. Well, in fact, they all had a history.

The truth was that Aiba had had a crush on Jun since their first year at the Academy. By the second year, Jun reciprocated. He also fell for Aiba – BIG time. They were roommates and they were attracted to one another. Things were great until Jun lost his parents to an accident in his third year. Jun shut himself in and started focusing only on his study after that. The thing was, Jun saw Aiba as a distraction. Aiba knew Jun always wanted to become a high-ranking officer, his father was one, and it was his promise to his parents. Jun probably thought Aiba and their relationship would have just gotten in the way. Aiba believed Jun would never regret focusing on his education and his career instead of his emotions and feelings. And Aiba was grown up enough to respect Jun’s decision. Nonetheless, they managed to stay roommates even after that, which was strange to everyone else. It was until Jun accused Nino of cheating in an exam and forced Nino to resign from the Academy that the thing between Jun and Aiba became too weird. It was like one day Aiba woke up and found Jun a complete stranger. Someone he could not understand anymore.

After their graduation, Aiba still tried to keep in touch. Generally they were nothing too fancy, just some messages and voice memos, but Jun had been ignoring Aiba ever since. Jun never responded to messages that Aiba sent through Starfleet mail system and his personal datapad. He also ignored every single New Year and Birthday old-fashion paper cards from Aiba. Aiba was a persistent person but everything had a line. Aiba wasn’t sure he was being a good friend that kept in touch with his former roommate or he was just a plain stalker clinging on to his ex-boyfriend. So, after being ignored by Jun for so many years, Aiba gradually stopped sending messages and cards. Aiba told himself he had to move on.

Now, with Jun just an arm length away, Aiba began to see the complication of inviting Jun and Ohno to their spaceship. Aiba turned his gaze away from Jun and back toward the screen in front of him. His eyes kept focus on the screens and monitors of the shuttle but his mind was elsewhere. Aiba was thinking about Nino and how his best friend would think about this. Nino was not going to be happy.


Nino had been friend with Aiba since they were just little boys running around a busy intergalactic market in a human colony. Aiba’s parents were travelling space merchants hopping from one planet to another looking for things to trade. Nino’s family ran an infamous repair shop near the colony shipyard – accepting legal and illegal customers alike. Aiba family received repair services of their merchant ship at Ninomiya’s, as well as doing some parts trading there. Aiba and Nino were tight even though Aiba could never stay in the colony for an extended period. Aiba felt they fitted perfectly. Because of Aiba’s family business, Aiba could not be in one place for long and it was hard to become serious friends with anyone. Friends, Aiba had learned since he was young, tended to prefer that you were there for them. But Aiba could only maintained long distance relationships, literally. He could not be there to share experiences with them. However, for someone like Nino who almost always preferred the solitude of his own working space, playing with machines and trinkets, Aiba and his lifestyle suited him perfectly. Nino wanted someone who could connect with him without having to try and Nino did not want to put so much efforts into socializing and hanging out needlessly. Because of Nino’s strange viewpoint and lifestyle, Nino hardly ever made any friends on the colony. He didn’t connect with anyone. Being in a repair shop, Nino learned that people just came and went in his life, except a very few long time customers of his family. Because of that, Aiba’s occasional visits were some of few constants in Nino’s life. For Nino, it did not matter that Aiba was never there for an extensive period. Every time they met, they connected. And throughout the years, they remained connected. Aiba had become the only constant friend in Nino’s life. And for Aiba, Nino was the perfect kind of friends Aiba needed in his life. Aiba was never in one place for a long time. He didn’t really have any place to call home, except his family merchant ship. Aiba yearned for a place he would belong to. For Aiba, Nino represented that place because Nino was someone who would always be there in his small shop, waiting for Aiba to return.

It was when Nino told Aiba he was going to apply for the Academy that Aiba thought about the Starfleet life seriously. Nino’s mother wanted Nino to be in the military. Aiba guessed that, for someone who had lived off a shady business all her life, she wanted her only son to have a respectable and honorable life. Because that’s what Mom wanted, Nino decided to apply to the prestigious Starfleet Academy. It was true that Aiba kind of wanted to be in the military – mostly for the sense of adventure. For Aiba, it was either a super-cool Federation officer or a sexy space pirate. Aiba’s parents decided it would be better for Aiba (and the family) if he steered clear of the silly pirate idea and joined Federation. Nino and Aiba entered the Academy together. Nino was a talented and bright cadet although he was not keen in working with others in general. Aiba, on the other hand, flourished at the Academy. Aiba wasn’t particularly good at lessons but everyone was warm toward him and they had helped him in the study. People either liked Aiba a lot or felt benevolence toward him. As a result, Aiba began making friends while Nino stayed a rather secluded person. But that had never been a problem in their friendships. The two were almost inseparable.

However, Aiba knew Nino well enough to sense that Nino felt unhappy at the Academy. His characters didn’t suit a future of military life – it was not interesting to him and Nino hated following rules and regulations. He disliked interacting with too many people. Nino liked gadgets and computers. Machines were fun to him. They were preferable to untrustworthy people. Aiba knew that Nino felt that fixing machines and spaceships were more fun than leading soldiers or commanding a spaceship. Nonetheless, Nino remained in the Academy for the sake of his mother. Nino’s future plan (or what his Mom planned for him) suddenly changed when he was forced to drop out of the Academy by the end of his third year. His mother cried for almost a month and it hurt Nino more. Aiba was also very unhappy with the incident. Not only because Nino was miserable but because Nino would now return home while Aiba remained at the Academy.

After spending the next few years working in his family shop, Nino picked up all his pieces and decided to get on with his life. He went to an engineering school and graduated the top of his class. By that time, Aiba had already graduated from the Academy and was working in the exploration branch of the Federation. Aiba had kept in touch with Nino throughout the years and the two remained tight even though they were far apart. When Aiba was appointed a leader of an exploration team, he requested that Nino worked tech for him. At that time, Ninomiya family shop was just shut down because of the Federation’s stricter regulation on illegal trades with pirates and slavers. Nino was out of job (and barely managed to stay out of jail). Normally, the Federation would not allow suspected criminals or law-breakers to work in Starfleet, yet, because of Aiba's request and his mentor, General Shimura, pulling some strings, the Federation made an exception allowing Nino to join Aiba's exploration team. Although Nino was probably better off working away from the Federation, Nino would not say no to Aiba. So Nino had become a Federation engineering officer, working under commander Aiba. Since then, Nino had been the permanent residence of Arashia's engineering bay.



Nino was screaming his name so loudly Aiba thought the whole deck must have heard him – but then, their deck wasn’t very large to begin with. And there were hardly anyone there. Sho was out showing Ohno to the guest quarter, leaving only him and Jun, who was sitting on the other side of the command center, completely ignoring Aiba altogether. Aiba looked toward the direction of the shout. Nino was walking straight at him. His furious face was noticeable even from afar. Aiba knew right away that Nino meant trouble.

"Nino. What's up?" Aiba greeted Nino rather weakly. Angry Nino was one of the scariest things in Aiba’s opinion – probably second only to that weird kangaroo-like creature that jumped at him once on an expedition.

"Don't you 'what's up?' me. I heard it on the intercom. Why did you pick him up?!?" Nino was furious. His voice raised high, matching his expressive facial expressions. It was obvious Nino was very angry.

"Pick whom?” Aiba tried to play naive but seeing Nino looking positively annoyed made him change the act. “Oh, you mean Jun? His ship crashed. We picked up his distress signal – you know that – you were the one that helped me pinpoint the exact location. And you know, it was a distress signal. We had to help."

"You could have just left him some supplies and let him wait for the next cargo ship or Federation ship travelling this way. Why did you have to pick that jerk up and house him here in Arashia?" It did look like Nino was about to attack Aiba with more screams when a cough could be heard. Of course, they weren't alone in the room. The newest guest was also there and he heard every words that had just been said.

"Hello, Nino. It has been a long time." Jun broke the silence. Nino turned to stare at him intensely as soon as he realized Jun was also in the control room.

"Hello, Jun. It has been such a long time, hasn’t it? Oh, thanks for getting me kicked out of the Academy. I was surprised you weren’t named the biggest asshole at the Academy on your graduation.” Nino said sarcastically.

"You cheated, Nino. I had to tell the truth. We were going to be Federation officers after graduation. We had to have honor and integrity." Jun said it rather coldly but Aiba could see Nino's words were getting on Jun’s nerves. Aiba nervously stepped in the middle, hoping to rectify the situation.

"Ah...a reunion. Isn't this great? Just like when we were cadets." Aiba tried to remain cheery. It was difficult with Jun and Nino having a staring fight with him in the middle.

"I didn't cheat. You just couldn't accept the fact that I could score higher than you in the Strategic exam." Nino sounded murderous it scared Aiba. Okay, Aiba was beginning to feel that maybe getting Jun on Arashia was a bad idea.

"You manipulated the instructor into giving exams the way you wanted. That's cheating!" Jun started raising his voice. Aiba felt he was getting smaller and smaller.

"No, it's not! It's called being smart. You just couldn't accept me being smarter, you dumb pri..." Nino didn't get his insult through as Aiba grabbed and pulled him out of the deck before then.

Safe in another room, Aiba let go of Nino who was still venting his frustration in a struggle.

"You shouldn't be saying all those things to Jun, Nino. He is a Specter. He's all important now. We have to treat him with respect."

"A specter, so what? I respect a person for what he does, not because of a title. He can shove his title up his ar.." Nino's insult was cut short again. This time Aiba’s hand clamped on top of Nino's mouth, not letting the smaller man speak.

"I am serious, Nino. Don’t pick a fight with him. I don't want you to run into trouble again." Aiba’s voice was gentler. It was obvious he was worried about Nino’s past and what that could lead him to if things weren’t going well with the Federation. Nino had to turn away. He could not stand seeing Aiba being this serious especially when it was because of him.

“There is no need for that. I know how to stay away from trouble now. I won’t cause you any problems.” Nino said somewhat bitterly.

“No, no… I did not mean that.” Aiba responded quickly. “You know that, Nino. I would never think of you as a trouble.”

The sincerity and seriousness of Aiba’s voice was so endearing Nino had to hide his gaze and pretended to look all pissed off and serious. After getting himself composed again, Nino looked back at Aiba in the eyes. “Please take it from me who learned it the hard way, Masaki. Get rid of Jun as soon as you can. He IS trouble.” And with that, Nino left Aiba standing alone in the walkway. Aiba remained still, his gaze followed the back of Nino heading toward the engineering bay.

Aiba wished he could do what Nino said. But he just couldn’t.
After all these years, Aiba knew he couldn’t stay away from Jun.


“What do you mean I cannot work on this assignment alone?”  Jun bellowed at the flashing screen in front of him. He was using the ship communication bay to contact the Specter headquarter.

“If what you have been reporting us is true, the mission is highly critical to the safety of human colonies. We want every able man we can find to help identifying the source of the disappearance and locating the slaver operation base.” A calm but stern female voice said to him from the screen. It was Julie Fukushima, one of the Generals supervising all the colonial operations. She was the person giving Jun the case in the first place.

“That’s why I think I should work alone. Aiba and his crew would just drag me down. You have seen my records. I work better that way. I don’t want some inexperience officers to be responsible for something as crucial as this.” Jun did not mean to be angry or emotional, but by the end of his speech, he realized he was yelling at the screen. General Fukushima was visibly taken aback. Silence filled the room for almost a minute. Jun was breathing heavily trying to control his feelings. Why was he this angry? There was no reason, none at all.

“The decision has been made, Commander Matsumoto. You will follow our directive. The operation must continue with both you and Commander Aiba on it.” General Fukushima said to him in a strict authoritative voice. Jun knew that was the end of the discussion. He bit his lips, Jun was still not used to people not doing things his way. His head tilted down a little so the general would not see how furious he was.

“Aiba is a capable officer. Both Sakurai and Ninomiya are actually among the best in their fields. Get to know them, Matsumoto. You will find Aiba and his crew an extremely valuable ally.” General Fukushima commented. “Maybe it is time for you to stop working alone.” She gave him a final suggestion, in a much cooler tone, before the transmission ended.

Jun swore under his breath. He didn’t like what he just heard. He did not want to work with something he had been running away from for the last ten years. Would there really be no escape for him?


“Let me say this first. I don’t want any of you on this mission with me.”

Jun stated right at the start of the meeting. They were sitting in a round table in a makeshift “war room”. It was technically a part of the extended command center but, from what Jun could see, it had been used as a dining room and a break room for Arashia’s small crew. Some local snacks Jun recognized from various different planets: Valmalus, Slekon and Vebinok. Those were three different planets in three different systems from three different Clusters. This ship sure travelled a lot, Jun thought. Well, they might have been all over the Galaxy but it did not mean the crew would have any experiences running a critical mission. Jun sighed. An order was an order and Jun had to include Arashia’s crew in this. Jun looked around the room. Aiba was sitting closest to him on his right. His eyes glittered in excitement. Sho was on Jun’s left, opposite to Aiba. His posture was more reserved and he seemed quite pensive about the new development. Nino was standing at the exit, looking like he would rather be anywhere else but here. Ohno was in a chair that he dragged there to sit closer to Nino. Jun frowned a little, wondering how the two could get along so well so quickly.

Jun began the briefing. There were attacks on several human colonies in the past year – that part everyone knew. The patterns were the same in all of the attacks. The settlement would be ransacked and every colonist missing. Yet, the attacks were so random, it was impossible to predict where the attack would come next. Jun had been on the case after the first couple of mass abductions. Gradually, he started seeing something consistent in all the attacks. The settlements were usually composed of younger colonists or they were relatively early settlements. None of people that disappeared were older than 50. That led Jun to believe the slavers were behind this. What Jun still did not understand was the scale of the abduction. Jun could not believe a slaver ring would be as bold and ambitious as this. Jun believed someone was behind it. Jun’s investigation had led him to the Attican Traverse. Jun was certain the slaver operation base was on one of the planet in the Dekka system. But Jun’s ship was attacked as soon as it entered the system. They already knew the rest.

“There is an abandoned research base there in Plagia. I want to investigate it.” Jun concluded after giving a brief summary of his investigation. It had been his life in the past year. He was not going to stop until he saw it through.

“I see. Let’s go there.” Aiba concluded, rather too easily. All eyes turned at him instantly. Some were obviously disapproving of his too-quick decision making. Jun and Nino were the ones with strongest physical reactions.

“It’s not going to be easy. We don’t know what is waiting for us.” It was Sho who finally offered verbal protest.

“Won’t that make it interesting?” Aiba asked and tilted his head a little. He tried winking at Jun, but failed miserably. It came out more like someone trying to get dirt out of his eye. Jun could not believe this guy was the captain of the spaceship. “Sho and I are going with you while Nino can provide support from Arashia. Ohno can stay with Nino here and be our backup in case there is an emergency.” Aiba assigned roles to everyone – forgetting to ask Jun what he had in mind. Jun was about to voice his protest but a quick look into Aiba’s eyes and Jun knew he could not win over that kind of determination. Aiba had his mind set on the new “expedition”. For Aiba, they were all in the same boat and they were in this together. There was no other choice. Jun wasn’t sure he agreed to that, yet, he wasn’t going to protest. Jun was already given an order from General Fukushima.

“If we are going to investigate the research base together, you better prepare yourself. Show me the ship’s armory. We need to get equipped.” Jun said in defeated. Aiba was beaming eagerly like a kid getting his Christmas present early. Just a little behind, Sho looked really weary. Sho wasn’t sure Aiba knew what he had just signed up himself and everyone else for.

Sho’s inner thought matched exactly the sentiment Jun had in mind.


Although the research station seemed empty, Aiba, Jun and Sho moved cautiously and stealthily toward the main building. They had landed the shuttle some distance away and decided to make their way on foot. Jun was clearly not happy about two more people adding to his investigation. For Jun, it seemed like what he got were these two – a gangly scientist and his underachiever first officer. Jun would like to think of Aiba that way. He was a scientist, no matter what the HQ said. This guy was not up to the field operation. A field exploration and survey, maybe, but definitely not what they were up to right now.

Aiba was in a combat suit, something he had not worn since he was out of the academy. His pistol was right on his side and his sniper rifle on his back. After knowing about Jun’s mission, Aiba had put all of his hope in finding the abducted colonists and he was all confident that Jun was going to help him achieve that goal. Aiba could feel Jun wasn’t too trusting of him and Sho. And Aiba couldn’t really blame him. Secretly, Aiba felt slightly unsure of himself. Of course, he was an experienced field officer and his shooting skill was superb. He often used a tranquilizer rifle to capture various alien creatures during the expeditions. But Aiba didn’t often get into real combat situations. He could never be so sure of his own ability with the combat rifle with live ammo instead of the exploration one with tranquilizer shot. However, he had full confidence in Sho, given his long CV and credentials on field and combat experiences. Just a little to Aiba’s right, Sho looked relatively comfortable in his own combat suit. It was thicker and heavier than Aiba’s, providing better protection suitable for Sho’s style of combat. His shotgun was on his back while his assault rifle was ready in his hand. Sho had been an experienced field combat expert who traveled with the Federation top-level vassel before he transferred to Arashia. Sho was the first son of General Sakurai, a Federation Council member, and he was on his way to top level appointment. Yet, Sho decided to work with Aiba on Arashia - the decision that Aiba was yet to understand. But right now, in this situation, Aiba was thankful for Sho's decision. Sho was the one Aiba could rely on completely. That knowledge gave him courage and a peace of mind.

Jun had been on high alert since the team entered the facility. Jun felt something was off. He did not like how it felt since they had landed on the planet. For a start, everything looked too neat. It did not look like a place that had been abandoned for the last four years like it was stated on the Federation’s record.

“This is strange. The scanner shows that there is no one in the research base. It is completely uninhabited.” Sho looked toward Jun, expecting a comment from the specter. It was Jun’s intention to visit here after all.

“They probably knew we were coming. Now they are gone.” Jun said disappointedly. He did not like failure. This lead was the best one he had. Several informants and Intel suggested that this was the place. It was where the operation base was. It was confirmed by a slave Jun rescued earlier that he was held here for some time before being shipped out to the black market. If Jun came up empty right here, he would have to go back to zero – with no leads again. Already Jun felt anger boiling inside him.

“It is unlikely they could detect our ship. Nino’s advance stealth system never fails us. Maybe we should investigate this site a little more.” Aiba would not lose hope. His voice was as hopeful and expectant as ever. Aiba might not understand it but he had full confidence in Nino’s fancy tech. He was certain their visit was undetected. If there was anything on this station, they weren’t alarmed – yet. Jun thought about that just a bit before he nodded in agreement. They were already there. If this place was really the secret operation base before they arrived, there might still be some traces left for further investigation.

The team proceeded uneventfully to the control center of the research station. Jun headed the group, Aiba followed close by, and Sho trailed behind looking out for danger. Each one of them had different feelings from the other. Jun concentrated on finding more clues. Aiba looked overly excited. Sho was very concerned and on high alert. All of them had weapons out and ready, in case there were unwelcomed encounters. Jun kept rechecking the station blueprint on his monitor. So far, the path seemed uninhabited. There really was no one in the station.

Finally, they made it into the control center. Jun went straight to check the information on the station database. It was protected and coded so Jun had to spend some time letting his personal A.I. hack and decoder to work their magic. Aiba went to another computer trying to figure out what happened to the Research station. According to the official log, it was decommissioned four years ago because of the project funding cut. But Aiba found that there was traces of activities in the station mainframe as recent as last month. Something was really fishy.

Then, an alarm resonated throughout the Research station. “It’s the automated defense system!” Jun shouted in alarm. Somehow, the sleeping machine had come back to life. The automatic lock down was also in effect. The space brightened up in flashing orange and red warning lights and the digitalized sounds of the machine repeated the phase warning about intruders. Someone must have rigged the base computer, making the self-defense mechanism activated as soon as someone tried hacking into the database. The slavers must have laid a trap here and Jun walked right into it, dragging Aiba and Sho along with him.

The three exchanged glances. Sho's eyebrows twisted in a nod. He turned to meet Jun's eyes briefly before switching his gaze at Aiba, who looked surprisingly calm, just a spark in his eyes telling the others that Aiba wasn't all that calm. Aiba was in fact frightened, he just did not want it to show. He said repeatedly into the intercom in his ears,

"Nino? Nino? Can you hear us?" Nino had been in communication with them through this time, providing them tech support and important data feed from what Nino could get through the base mainframe and the Federation ComLink. Now, Aiba seemed to lose contact with his chief engineer. He turned to Jun and Sho to deliver the bad news.

"I lost Nino. The self-defense mechanism must have blocked all outside communications." Aiba speculated worryingly. They were going to have to break out of here by themselves. Sho suggested, "We don't have the layout of this place for alternate routes. We have to go back to the entrance." That was quite a distance. Jun’s expression clearly indicated he did not like the idea but he could not think of any other ways.

Seeing there was no other suggestions, Sho readied his shotgun, "I am going in the front. Commander Matsumoto, your automatic assault rifle does good mid-range shots, right? I will take care of anything coming close range to us." Then he turned to Aiba, "Take out the security cameras, defense guns and turrets, okay?" Aiba nodded understandingly. Jun was surprised at the sudden switch in roles between Aiba and his first officer. Suddenly, when they entered combat mode, Sho obviously took the leading role and included Jun into his roster too. Sho probably knew better of his own strength as well as Aiba's. Strangely, Sho seemed to know Jun’s strength. He knew Jun worked better with the mid-range target. Jun suspected that Sho must have studied him. So, Jun complied with the suggestions.

As soon as the group moved out of the control center, they were greeted by several security androids. Sho blew the closest ones with his shotgun and Jun took out a couple more in the rear. Aiba hid behind the cover of the back panel close to the control center entrance, aiming his rifle at the automatic guns at the center and the back of the room. Jun felt strange working with the other two and he had to admit, it was easier to get past different layers of the station defense than if he had to work alone. His combat style changed too. Instead of using stealth to get through a large group of enemies like he normally did, now he just went at them head on. He got an adrenaline rush from the different kind of combat and Jun had to admit he was liking this. But Jun tried keeping his face straight.

The three of them moved cautiously in close proximity. They were almost at the entrance when, suddenly, they were facing a large group of security androids and two turrets stationed at the gate. They dispersed quickly, trying to find strategic positions to get through the heavy group of enemies. Sho slowly advanced forward, taking a few androids along the way with Jun’s support, yet, there were still quite a few more. The androids were moving around the parameter to encircle them. Sho couldn’t move forward because of the relentless firing from automatic guns and several androids that camped out near the door way. He looked back toward his captain for assistance. “Aiba! A little help, please.” Sho shouted and Aiba responded quickly. A few androids fell on the floor – the results of Aiba’s marksmanship. He continued on to shoot at the turret guns near the entrance, disabling both of them. Jun could not help looking back to the sniper in amazement.

That was when Jun noticed a couple of androids closing in from the back. Aiba had no idea he was in danger and continued to support Sho’s advance. Instead of yelling a warning, Jun’s body responded instinctively to the threat on Aiba’s life. Jun dashed out of his cover, his assault rifle pointed at the sneaking robots, and he let out several rounds at the incoming targets. Right then, his eyes met with Aiba and Jun saw surprise and panic in Aiba’s eyes. To Jun’s surprise, Aiba hastily dropped his long rifle, jumped out of his cover and dashed at Jun. His arm reached forward. In that split second, Jun felt a blinding pain as Aiba’s body crashed into his. Both of them fell on the floor in a loud thud with Jun’s head knocking hard on the floor upon impact. Jun groaned painfully. He could hear Aiba, who laid on top of him, whimper weakly.

There was a loud shouting from Sho not far from where Jun and Aiba were. Jun raised his head just in time to see the cause of Sho’s urgent shout. Other androids were advancing on them. Unable to move freely, Aiba and Jun were practically sitting ducks. With impressive reflects, Sho ran and jumped as quickly as he could, heading toward the two. He took out his pistol and released multiple shots all around. His movement was quick and his shots were decisive. The androids fell down left and right, disposed by the precise and deadly shots from Sho’s pistol. Sho looked around making sure that all androids were destroyed before he knelt down next to Aiba and Jun.

At the same time, Jun pushed Aiba to the side. Aiba turned on his back but he wasn’t moving much. Both Sho and Jun looked at the man in alarm. Aiba was whimpering in pain. He was clearly hurt. Jun raised up and his hands reached out to survey any damage and injury on the laying man. Jun’s face changed when he saw it. Aiba had been hit on his left shoulder. There was a large hole in his body armor where the shot must have landed and Jun could see a scorching burn on Aiba’s skin. Jun bit his lips, trying to control his emotions. In seconds, Sho was right on his side. He was calling Aiba, trying to get the man on the floor to focus.

“Acid ammo. It is going to continue eating his flesh if we don’t get it off.” Sho said in an urgent voice. “We are getting you out of here, Masaki. Hang in there, okay?” Aiba breathed in and out deeply. It hurt but he did not want to worry his friends too much. Aiba tried to sound as assuring as he could.

“Okay…” Aiba replied with some difficulty and tried to get up on his feet with Jun’s support.

“Let’s go.” Jun balanced Aiba’s unsteady frame on his left side and started moving forward slowly. He noticed Sho looked at him funnily for a brief moment before turning back, leading them to the front gate. Jun still had his assault rifle in his right hand ready to shoot at anything coming their way. But no more androids could be seen at the entrance. Sho spent just a minute bypassing the control of the main gate, unlocking it. Both Jun and Sho had the same thing on their minds. They worried about more defense system installed around the station outer parameter. They had to make their way back to the shuttle through the large opening outside the station. And with Aiba injured, they would be very slow. Their future looked grim.

However, as soon as the front gate was opened again, all three men were surprised at the sight that greeted them. At the large landing out front, it was Arashia. Nino had decided to land the spaceship right in the front of the station after he had lost communication with the team. Sho looked around and saw that all of the parameter defenses were taken care off. It was quite a scene. All androids and automated machine guns were blown to bits. Sho never knew Nino was that good with guns and cannons. Nino was yelling at them through the now-functional intercom, asking them to get on the ship quickly. Seeing that the help had arrived, Jun was relieved. He glanced at Aiba on his side. Aiba was now half-unconscious but he was going to be okay.

Then, out of the blue, Jun began feeling light-headed. In the next step he advanced forward, Jun suddenly dropped on his knees. Aiba’s whole body trembled down with him. Everything was becoming a blur and the last thing Jun remembered was Sho yelling his name.


Correction - Part 2

Title: CORRECTION (Part 2)        
Word count: 10,653 words (in 2 parts)
Pairing: Ohba
Genre: Drama, Angst, Non-AU & Aiba-centric
Rating: R
Summary: The signs are always there but Aiba never notices.

Note: The story was originally written for the lovely mangamistrezz in Ohba & Junba Exchange. Big Thanks to my awesome beta-reader silverdoll14 without whom this story would never end up making me as happy as this. Thank you so much <3  Any remaining mistakes are my own.

[Their concert tour is about to start.]


Their concert tour is about to start. It is that period of the year again when they would be together for pretty much all the time. They will stay in the same hotel, go to concert halls together for rehearsals, preparation and show, then come back to the hotel together. It is when the members get to be close to each other – all five of them. Aiba usually likes this time of the year. This year, however, he is not so sure.

His feeling for Ohno is a whole big mess now. He already thinks dealing with a crush in a workplace is hard. Dealing with a crush who says to you in one drunken night that he likes you then completely forgets about it the day after, is definitely so much harder. It is already difficult for Aiba to get through the concert tour in one piece, now he has to deal with these butterflies in his stomach at the same time. With him being the weakest member of Arashi, Aiba feels he needs to put all his energy and effort in to the preparation and the performances. He needs to make sure he doesn’t screw up. Aiba doesn’t want to let Arashi down. Seriously, Aiba does not have time and energy to spare with these unnecessary, confusing feeling.

OK, I am over thinking it. Whatever has happened, it is not real anyway.

Aiba swallows hard when he thinks about Ohno’s thin lips, his perfectly lean and muscular body, and his mysterious eyes. Aiba knows he’s insanely attracted to all of those. Thus, he believes his feeling to Ohno may just be physical. He probably just needs the intimacy from Leader. If he can just have Ohno once, Aiba can get the silly crush done and over with. But Ohno is Nino’s. Aiba doesn’t intend to sleep with his best friend’s boyfriend.

Aiba needs to find a way out, and fast before something terrible happens.


The success of Arashi takes Aiba by storm. The first several years has been hard.  Their success comes completely unexpected, and Aiba tends to be overemotional over this especially during concert. When it comes to reminiscing about the past - how difficult it is for all of them back then and how their hard work seems to pay off in the end - Aiba would cry. Jun has told him to try keeping the sensitive issue off his mind during concert. He is afraid Aiba is going to break down in the middle of the speech or during a song. That would not be good for the show. “It’s good to show appreciation, Aiba-kun, but not too much sadness, okay? We should not make the fans worry.” Aiba remembers nodding to Jun when he has said those things. Of course, he understands. Arashi are idols. There are certain images Arashi are expected to uphold. The problem is Aiba cannot control where his mind goes sometimes.

So tonight in the middle of his concert speech, Aiba sees the dome filled with fans holding uchiwas and screaming their names. His thoughts wonder to the older days when seats have been empty everywhere, and Aiba breaks down to tears. He stutters and forgets the speech he has thought of earlier. So he lets out what really is on his mind and ends up crying. Something makes him even more sensitive than usual. Maybe it's the general atmosphere of that particular show, or maybe it’s his personal issue. Ohno is just right there, only a few feet behind him, and Aiba is overly-conscious about that fact all the time. It does not help with his mood swings.

That evening, Aiba cries like he has never done publicly for quite some time. It just comes out. He barely manages to finish his speech. Then, they are supposed to move down the center stage and starts singing the next song. Aiba prods along dutifully, but inside, he is a bubbling mess. He stands where he is supposed to on the stage just a bit to the left of Jun. Aiba still tries to figure out how he could utter a single coherent words in the song when a firm hand reaches for his shoulder pulling him into a tight embrace. Sho has walked from where he is standing to get to Aiba. Everything is there in those strong arms - the strength, the warmth, the security. Aiba takes all of them willingly. He buries his face deep into Sho’s nape, and when he looks up again, his teary eyes lock with another pair of eyes looking directly at him from the right. For a second, Aiba sees sparks inside Ohno’s usually absented, almond shaped eyes.  Aiba’s lips unnaturally squeeze tight, blocking the sudden overwhelming feeling. Aiba decides to pull Sho in even tighter as if to absorb the last of Sho’s strength. The fans are screaming like crazy.

When Aiba lets go of Sho again, everything around them seems to go back to how it should be. The song continues playing. His band mates are singing. Sho has to rush back to his position. At the furthest side, Ohno is singing and responding to fan’s requests on uchiwas. Arashi’s leader is smiling and waving as usual. Aiba bites his lips and starts singing the part that is his. The pain is his chest is almost too painful.


Aiba has many chances to say No that night.

He can say no when Ohno asks him to stay behind after their get together in Ohno’s room – under the questioning eyes of Nino. He can say no when Sho asks if everything is okay. He can say no when Ohno wonders if Aiba wants the same thing he does.
If he says no even once, maybe he won’t be so close to Ohno. Maybe he won’t be naked like this.

Aiba looks at the man now standing so close to him. The smaller man is all muscular. The nice tone muscles on his arms, shoulders, chest and abs. They are all too familiar to him, but they are never as pleasing to him as it is right now. Aiba looks at the smaller man who is now staring directly at him. The normally sleepy eyes are now gleaming with something incomprehensible. Aiba is about to ask when Ohno takes his hand and pulled him lightly. Aiba lets Ohno lead him from the bathroom into the bedroom where Ohno gently pushes him onto the bed. Aiba's back lands on the soft, ruffled cover of Ohno's bed, and Aiba lets himself be absorbed into the softness of the cool blanket.

Ohno climbs on top of Aiba, his arms extend just slightly, allowing just inches of distance between their faces. "I want to see you while we do it." He says it with an intent stare. Ohno's voice is neither soft nor hash. Aiba does not know what to think, but he does not have much time to contemplate anyway.

Everything that night feels right – from the way they kiss, the rhythm of his body responding to Ohno’s movement and the warm sensation Aiba feels in his chest. When Ohno pushes inside him, Aiba almost screams from the sensation. Ohno's thin lips trail over Aiba's nape, kissing and whispering softly. "I want you, Aiba-chan," Ohno breathes into Aiba's soft hair. The smell of alcohol mixes with the sweet scent of peppermint. Aiba moans when Ohno presses his lips on to his chest, kissing and licking him, all the while increasing the speed of each thrust. The sensation gets more and more intense, making it harder for Aiba to breath and he starts seeing stars. Aiba whimpers while crying out Ohno's name breathlessly. He does not want Ohno to stop. He needs this. He has always needed this. Aiba lets out a loud scream from the intense joy. Almost right after, Ohno comes releasing inside him. He moans with pleasure before dropping on top of Aiba who accepts him into an embrace.

Aiba rolls both of them to the side, holding Ohno inside his arms. The smaller man breaths into his chest. Ohno is drunk and exhausted. Eventually, Aiba feels Ohno's breathing even out and turn into a steady breaths. Ohno' sleeping face is so peaceful and serene. Aiba leans his head closer into the short hair of Leader. The light smell of the foreign shampoo comes into Aiba's sense. The sweet, tangy scent of orange and flowers. He closes his eyes and lets his head dropped on the pillow. Ohno touches are still so real on his skin, yet he does not dare touch the sleeping man right now. Being certain that Ohno is sleeping soundly, Aiba allows his worry to float away, and he mutters into the dimness of the room what he is certain now. He whispers to Ohno, 'I love you.'

Aiba puts on his clothes and quietly leaves the room not long after. He does not dare spend the night next to Ohno. Aiba is afraid his beating heart could have misunderstood that all of this actually meant something.


If the last night of their first dome tour does anything to Aiba’s problem, it only makes things worse. The physical experience does not satisfy Aiba. It only makes him want more. Aiba is frightened. He is out of control.

After that night in Sapporo, they do it again in Nagoya, in Osaka and in Fukuoka. By the time they reach the last dome, Aiba is a train wreck. He feels like he is living a borrowed time. He loves every minute of being with Ohno, but Aiba knows it is not real. It is the concert tour. It is the wonderland. It is like they are living in a different time and space. Everything is going back to normal when the tour ends, Aiba is certain. The only thing he isn’t certain is whether the feelings would go back to normal like everything else.

Ohno’s fingers slowly trails from his cheek, down his neck, onto his collarbone. Aiba cannot breathe. Ohno does not say much because his eyes tend to do all the talking for him. Ohno wants him. Aiba can see that. Aiba closes his eyes and his lips stretch out into a brief smile. Tonight is their last dome tour. It is in Tokyo, so they are all supposed to go home afterwards. Aiba has at first before he drives to Ohno’s apartment. Next thing he knows, he is making out with Ohno in the living room. Ohno's hand moves to grab the back of his neck, pulling the taller man closer for a passionate kiss. The hand slowly guides Aiba’s face until his forehead touched Ohno's. "Masaki..." Ohno whispers seductively. Aiba holds his breath, he has no power over that voice. Ohno's soft lips touches Aiba’s again and presses gently. “Masaki,” Ohno calls his name again. “After today...” Aiba’s heart sinks. After today, they are going back to the way things were. Aiba understand that but he does not want to hear it. Aiba quickly stops Ohno with another kiss. It’s a little more intense and desperate than the ones before. He cannot bear to hear the inevitable from Ohno’s mouth.
“Don’t say it, Oh-chan.” Aiba tries to avoid Ohno’s eyes when he speaks. “Please… I don’t want to hear it.” Aiba tries so hard not to let his voice quiver. Ohno just looks at him questioningly but decides not to say anything. Aiba is relieved. What is left in Aiba’s mind is Ohno’s strange look, as if he’s hurt, as if Aiba has done something wrong.

That night, they do it in the floor of Ohno’s living room. Ohno is rougher than any time before, but Aiba does not voice it out. He is afraid to know why. As Aiba lies on his stomach with Ohno still in his back, pounding inside him, his eyes keeps wondering back toward the now closed bedroom door. Earlier, when Ohno went in to get something from the bedroom, Aiba’s eyes followed him. And right in there, inside Ohno’s bedroom, was a painting – probably something Ohno has recently been working on. It is just for a second but Aiba knows what it is. Aiba knows who it is. His guilt that is buried down deep during the concert tour instantly emerges and takes over all his senses. That painted eye flashes in his mind, and Aiba closes his eyes painfully. On top of him, Ohno’s pace picks up, and Aiba moans in response. Aiba lets out a breathy whisper of Ohno’s name. I love you. Aiba wants to add that as if to reassure himself that everything is still okay. What they are doing is not completely wrong. What they have here does not matter.
Aiba isn’t looking for anything from Leader. He just wants to be with him – whatever does that mean – even just for a little while. If Ohno just wants physical, Aiba will give him that. It is only temporary anyway. Aiba won’t ask about Nino and what is going on between them that make Ohno comes to him physically. One thing Aiba is certain of is that Ohno and Nino still belong to each other.
Aiba’s eyes shut tight. His body responds with Ohno’s final movement. The shock sends through his back and Aiba cries loudly. Still Aiba cannot get rid of the image of the eye from the painting in the back of his mind. It still haunts him. Aiba closes his eyes feeling Ohno’s breathing on the back of his nape.

It’s OK. This is not wrong. I never want Oh-chan to be mine….

What Aiba does not expect after that night is that Ohno does not stop asking him to come to his home. And Aiba, who always fears that this time would be the last, never says no.


It has been a long year for all of them, and most members would get a two-week vacation soon. They need to stock up a few tapes for their shows for the time they will be away. Aiba still has another week to go for his other variety shows, so his vacation will only be a week. Sho-chan is going abroad. Jun plans to do a lot of shopping. He also has a big party planned for the first weekend. Aiba can tell Nino will be staying at home, playing some games he missed out because of their busy concert tours. Ohno doesn’t say what his plan is. Most likely, it would be a week of fishing trip. Aiba is thankful for Leader’s plan. They would be far away from one another. The guilt is eating Aiba alive. He must find a way to stop all of this before everything burns to ground.


Aiba hopes Nino would never know about him and Ohno. In fact, he hopes no one would ever know about him and Ohno. But Aiba is Aiba. He is sometimes careless and absent minded. When Aiba is careless, he gets hurt and persons around him get hurt.  Aiba hates himself for that.

Nino's back has bothered him earlier during the Arashi ni Shiyagare taping. Aiba knows that. He just never dares asking. But Jun asks, and Ohno has been making sure that Nino is comfortable enough during the shoot. Aiba only pretends he does not see. Maybe he is too agitated. Maybe he is too nervous. Aiba lets slip after the filming that he is at Ohno’s place recently. There are only two of them in the greenroom, and Aiba is just trying to make a conversation with Nino. Clearly Aiba is not thinking carefully. When Nino asks why, Aiba gets panic. Instead of answering, Aiba immediately grabs his bag and runs away, forgetting that Nino will care enough to run after him. Aiba is afraid. He has done something unimaginable and is about to be caught red handed. Aiba does not know what to do.

When Nino collapses in the parking lot, Aiba's heart almost stops with it. What is so wrong with him to be so self-conscious that he forgets his best friend's pain? Nino’s back has gotten worse because of the running, and Nino is whimpering painfully on the floor with Aiba standing there not knowing what to do. Nino refuses to go back into the studio, probably trying to avoid meeting other people in such state, and he would not go see doctors. He already has pain medication on him, so Aiba brings him home. Aiba makes sure he has some food with the med and put him in bed. Nino has been sleeping since. They haven’t said a single word about the question that makes Nino run after Aiba. Nino is in too much pain, and Aiba just wants to forget about it.

Aiba looks through the half open door of his bedroom. The figure on his bed heaves up and down steadily. The pain has lessened now that Nino could sleep more soundly. His friend looks small under his oversize comforter. Nino is also pretty light when Aiba carries him into his apartment. Nino hasn’t been eating again, Aiba guesses. Aiba closes his eyes and the scene from just hours earlier comes to mind. He remembers Nino's agonizing face, trying to control the pain. Aiba's lips bite hard and his arm muscles tighten as he tries to control his emotions. He is hurting Nino. This is not right.

Aiba thinks of how he feels being with Ohno and how he feels when he sees Nino's fragile frame drops on the floor. He makes the decision. Aiba knows right then what he must do. To him, nothing matters more than Arashi. Nothing is more important than these four guys and the bond that they share together. Aiba is willing to give up anything for them to stay together as long as they could. Anything. That includes this tickling, burning feeling he has been having for the past months. Compared to Nino and Arashi, the senses and feel of Ohno in his arms, the light sweet smell in his hair and on his body aren’t important. Ohno’s mesmerizing movements in the dance practice, his beautiful voice, and those smiles that are directed to Aiba aren’t either. Even Aiba’s own happiness isn’t.  None of those are as important as the person lying in his bed right at that moment.

Aiba wipes away the tears and walks slowly into his own bedroom. He slides under the cover next to Nino and reaches an arm out to pull the smaller man closer to his body. His friend stirs a little, murmuring something incomprehensible and falls back into steady breathing. Nino's head turns to the other side so Aiba moves his face a little closer to the nape of the sleeping man. Aiba mutters an apology into the soft skin and tried to muffle the sound of his own crying. He tightens his arm around Nino, pulling his body even closer. He repeats the apology until exhaustion takes over him, and he falls into a restless sleep.

When both of them wakes up in the morning, Nino is still groaning and Aiba’s eyes are puffy from crying. Aiba hugs Nino so tight. Nino knows something is terribly wrong. But Aiba begs him not to ask. Because Aiba hardly ever begs Nino for anything, Nino decides to let it slide. Nino leaves Aiba’s apartment still wondering all about it while Aiba is left to ponder how he is going to end this as soon as possible.


Aiba has decided the best cause of action is the direct one. He is going to talk to Ohno formally and in person. So, Aiba waits until the end of the week to talk to Ohno about it. It’s just the day before their break. He makes sure the other three are definitely not present because of their schedules before he starts.

“Oh-chan, let’s stop this.” Aiba tells Ohno when they are finally alone in the greenroom. Nino has left the taping early because of the remote location filming of his new drama. Sho has a meeting with his classmate - Aiba already confirms it on his tightly-packed schedule book. Jun has also left for the office, where he would have another wrap-up meeting of their concerts. Ohno is free, and they are alone.

Maybe he should make this nicer, but Aiba does not have a heart. It is already too difficult for him to say those three little words. Ohno does not look up from the paper he has been drawing something on, but the abrupt stop of his color pencil tells Aiba that Ohno is listening.

“Whatever it is that we have, Oh-chan. I don’t want it anymore.” Aiba tries his best to make his voice sound more forceful. He must be firm. Everything would be okay.

Ohno just stares at him, almost blankly. Ohno is clearly confused.

Well, of course. There is no need to overreact. Aiba tries to calm himself. His body is shaking. It is not a big deal. Oh-chan is probably wondering why he has to make a fuss of this and say it out loud. There is nothing serious between the two of them to begin with anyway. And looking at it, Ohno hardly turns away from whatever he is doing. Aiba breathes in heavily. He has to be strong.

“I also think it’s better for us to stay away from each other for a while.” Of course, he only means anything outside work. Arashi is the most important thing for him after all. Aiba is not going to let his own mess interfere with their work. He just cannot stand being around Ohno for the mean time. It is already too painful even to stand right there. Luckily there is this two weeks break. At least, they won’t be forced to be together because of work.

“Umm ‘kay.” Ohno’s answer comes after a long, uncomfortable silence. Aiba thinks he sees Ohno’s frame hunchesa little. Then again, his mind tends to play tricks on him quite often.

When there is no response, Aiba decides to just leave it like that. He swings his bag across his shoulder and storms out of the room.


Aiba has been avoiding all of his band mates for the past week. He presses reject to all the calls from Nino in the first two days, and Nino stops calling after that. Nino knows that when Aiba does not want to talk, there is no way Nino can pry anything out of him. And don’t forget the fact that Aiba has not been entirely truthful with Nino. His friend has every right to be angry at him instead of trying to get in touch with him like this. Sho-chan is not that hard to reason with. After ignoring multiple calls and massive emails from Sho for a few days, Aiba sends a long email saying that he wants some time alone and wishes that Sho-chan would respect his request. That does the trick. Sho leaves him alone after that. After all, Sho is already on vacation abroad.

But there is still Jun. Jun hasn’t been in contact with him at all last week. Then, completely out of the blue, Jun takes him by surprise.

“Aiba!” A familiar voice shouts out his name in a not so kind manner as Aiba is walking in the hallway of NTV studio. Aiba knows instantly Jun means trouble. He turns toward the origin of the sound and sure there he is. Jun has just stormed into the NTV station and barks into the studio of someone else’s show no less. His large eyes spark with fire.

Shoot. I’ve gotta run.

Aiba quickens his pace and heads in the opposite direction. If he’s quick enough, he can make it out on the other side of the studio before Jun. Aiba makes his way into the parking garage half-running. Jun is close on his feet.

“Don’t you dare running away from me, Aiba.” Jun yells after him and starts to run now. That makes Aiba to run as well. Thank God the parking garage is pretty much empty, saved for several cars belonged to staffs still working late night shift. Aiba runs past his own car. There is no time to get in. Maybe he can catch a taxi outside.

However, before Aiba even gets out of the parking garage, a strong hand grabs onto the back of his jacket and yanks him back violently. Aiba loses his balance and is thrown onto the back of one of the cars. Aiba whimpers. He looks at his band mate who is now grabbing his shirt so tightly. Jun’s hand clumps into a fist. Jun is probably about to hit him, and knowing Jun, it is probably for a good reason. Aiba just wishes he knows how he has managed to anger the youngest member of Arashi, so much that it warrants such treatment. Aiba’s innocent, frightened eyes stare into Jun’s angry ones. That is enough to make Jun stop. Somehow, Jun manages to control his anger, just barely, and drops his fist. He realizes he cannot let out his frustration on the man when that person does not have the slightest clue why. Jun’s other hand, however, is still pulling Aiba’s t-shirt so strongly. It probably stretches the collar of his t-shirt to ruin already. Gulping hard, Aiba gathers his courage and speaks out.

“Jun,” his voice is a little shaky, “What have I done?”

Okay, Aiba knows he is wrong to avoid everyone, but surely Jun won’t be this angry with just that, right?

Jun’s eyes spark angrily again. He looks like he wanted to kill. He pulls Aiba not quite lightly back toward the parking garage. “Are you really that stupid for real?” Aiba is slightly taken back by the comment and is about to voice out his disagreement when Jun tells him to shut up. “I am not really in the mood, Aiba. Please don’t give me any more reasons.” Jun’s voice is murderous. In front of them is Jun’s SUV, Aiba knows they are heading somewhere. When Jun lets go of him, he obediently walks to the passenger side and climbs into the seat. He signs in frustration and decides to sit quietly as Jun pulls his car out of the garage and into the quiet Tokyo cold winter night.


By the time Jun drives off the highway, Aiba is certain where they are heading. The familiar tree lines and small buildings line up the street near Ohno’s apartment. Aiba wants to say something in protest. He wants to run away, but a look at Jun’s face, Aiba cannot make himself do either of those. He remains quiet when Jun finally pulls his car into the apartment underground parking garage and leads him up to Ohno’s floor. Aiba does not ask why Jun has Ohno’s keycard. He does not protest when Jun unlocks the front door of Ohno’s apartment, shoving him inside. The lights of the living room and the kitchen are already on. Aiba dutifully walks towards the living room, dreading the moment he will see Ohno for the first time in the week. He isn’t strong enough to face the man.

But the sight that greets him is not what he has been expecting.

Sho, who is supposed to be away for his vacation, jumps up from the purple sofa. Sitting on the other side of him is Nino, who turns his head toward Aiba as soon as Aiba enters the room. Sho’s eyes are tired and bags began to form underneath while Nino looks genuinely concerned. Worries make his boyish face looked years older. Nino blinks a few times as if he does not believe that it is Aiba standing there. Damn, why did Jun bring me here to meet Nino? Aiba knows he probably should be on his knees bowing and begging Nino for forgiveness, and that probably would not be enough. Yet Aiba does nothing. He just stands there staring at the coffee table. Aiba wish he weren’t here.

Right then, Nino’s eyes change from disbelief to anger. He jumps at Aiba, who is not expecting such reaction. Aiba loses balance, and the two of them crash on the wooden floor in a loud thud. A slap lands on his face so hard Aiba feels the burn on his skin. Before Nino can land another hit, Jun rushes in to pull him away from Aiba and Sho is quick enough to pull Aiba up on his feet. Nino is screaming in Jun’s tight grip. He resists, yelling angrily, for a minute before he calms down enough to only stares at Aiba furiously. Nino looks like he wants to tear him to pieces. Aiba looks at Nino’s reaction and his tear falls down silently. He feels something inside his chest snaps.

“Calm down, Nino. This is not helping.” It is Sho who breaks the silence. His hand reaches for Aiba face when he inspects to see the damage of Nino’s attack.

“That hurt, isn’t it?” Nino asks, anger is still in his voice, “That’s for hurting Oh-chan. You deserve more.” Nino’s furious but sincere comment hits Aiba harder than his slap. “You should not play with his feelings. Why did you treat him like that?” Nino’s voice is so loud, close to a scream. Aiba never feels as guilty or as ashamed in his life. He mumbles an apology muffled by his own sobbing.

“What happened, Aiba? Why did you break up with Leader?” Jun asks more calmly and in a tone of matter of fact. The contrast between the two voices is obvious, but Aiba knows the anger is boiling in both of them. Aiba tries to stop his sobbing. Jun is expecting an answer.

That’s when it hits him, the strangeness of Jun’s question.

“Why did I…break up…with Leader?” Aiba repeats the question, confused. His gaze shifts from Jun to Nino and from Nino to Sho. All of them are looking back at him, expecting his explanation.

“But I…” Aiba begins to look frantic, “Didn’t Oh-chan and Nino…?” He turns from one member to another. His confused eyes search for an answer in each one of them. Jun looks surprise at Aiba’s reaction. Sho looks like he feels sorry for Aiba. Nino is full of annoyance.

At that exact moment, Aiba finally understands. Aiba eventually realizes what kind of mistake he has just made. Nino is not Ohno’s boyfriend. He has never been. Aiba is. Or at least, he was, until he has broken it up with Ohno the week before.

“You never accept his feeling, didn’t you? You always made him feeling uncertain all the time.” Nino states it out rather coldly. “I would never have thought you are that type of guy.” There is a strong disappointment in Nino’s voice. Sho is quick to intervene and reminds Nino to be nice. On the other hand, Jun looks like he supports every single sentiment Nino has. “Whatever it is that you have done, it is killing Oh-chan. You may not be serious with him, but you cannot hurt him like this.” Nino sounds desperate. It is not easy to make Nino desperate.

Aiba can hardly stand. The realization of his mistake hits him harder than anything. What he has done to Ohno all these months come back to him. How cruel he must have looked to be. He walks out on Ohno when the older man confesses. Aiba always leaves Ohno to sleep alone after they make love. Aiba never commits, never confirms, and never shows his mutual feelings for Ohno. It is only Ohno who shows how much he wants Aiba and how much he cares. Aiba has been avoiding and running away from his true feeling all these time.

How can it come to this? Aiba is in total dismay. Then a soft but firm hand wrapped around his fingers, firm and assuring. Aiba knows whose hand it belonged to even before he sees its owner, standing at his side. Sho does not say anything when he pulls Aiba into his arms. Aiba takes in all the strength he can from what is offered. He is so broken, so confused. He never means any harm. Yet, it seems that he has hurt everyone. A familiar and comforting voice whispers into his ear, “Please, Aiba. Fix it.”


From what Jun tells him, Ohno has been shutting himself in the bedroom for the whole week. Nino is the first to know of the situation four days ago. He called Jun, who also has failed to get Ohno out. Sho has canceled his vacation and flies back to check on Leader. That did not help either. No one can communicate with Aiba, whom they know is the source of the problem. So Jun has decided to take action, trying to get Aiba to fix the crisis he has caused.
Now they shove Aiba into Ohno’s bedroom and tell him he cannot leave alone.
Aiba does not plan to.

The room is dark. The light curtain is drawn, allowing only little bit of moonlight and the suburbs neon to get through. At first, the room looks unoccupied. It is all so quiet. Aiba allows his eyes to adjust to the darkness and slowly takes in the contents of the room. The room is medium size equipped to the minimum. The bed is quite small even for the size and is located on the side closer to the door. The rather small bed is neat and tidy. No sign of anyone sleeping or has slept on it recently. A build-in closet is on one side and there is a door to what Aiba assumes to be a bathroom. There is no TV, no computer, and no other entertainment system. In fact, there is nothing else except for a large canvas propping against a bare wall on the far side. Aiba remembers it is Nino's portrait. He remembers that small section of the right eye that he catches a glimpse weeks before. Aiba cannot help himself. The next thing he knows, he starts walking towards the portrait. Something draws him in. His eyes stare at the unfinished painting. The dim light makes only some details visible. One side of the eyes is finished. Another is already outlined and partly colored. Aiba slowly takes in those information and the realization hits him, hard. The eyebrows, the outline of the face, the thin lips, it isn’t Nino. It is his own unusually sadden and distant gaze staring back at him.

Is this how he looks like in Ohno’s eyes during these past months?

And at the floor just in front of the painting, curled up into almost a ball, is Ohno Satoshi.

"Oh-chan." Aiba cries out softly. His voice is so hoarse from the lack of speak. There is a sudden stir of the body on the ground. Ohno has recognized Aiba's presence. Yet he does not turn nor does he move from the original position. Aiba calls his name again and when there is no response, Aiba drops on the floor and reaches for the small man. As soon as his hand touches Ohno’s shoulder, Ohno instantly jerks away from the touch. There is a soft whimper. Then there’s just absolute silence and stillness again. The reaction startles Aiba. He retreats to the wall, unsure of what he has to do. Why is Ohno like this? It is all Aiba’s fault.

Lost and confused, Aiba starts to cry. It is just tear falling down at first before it turns into full wailing and bawl. His chest hurts. His heart hurts. Aiba does not know what to do. He isn’t good with words like Sho. He is not quick-witted like Nino. He is not as willful as Jun. Aiba is just Aiba. He has tried to fixed the problem once when he chose to walk away. Look where it leads him to, where it leads all of them to. He has the best intention but how come things still turn out this badly. Aiba is crying so hard his body trembles from the overwhelming emotion. Suddenly, the shaking stops. A pair of arms wrapped around him. A slim, muscular pair of arms that is so familiar to him. Aiba realizes they are Ohno’s. The broken man on the floor decides that consoling Aiba is more important than his own sadness. That makes Aiba to cry even more. This man has been his from the beginning, yet Aiba throws it all away because he’s too self-absorbed and too frightened to say anything aloud. Aiba buries his face in Ohno’s nape while crying his heart out. He feels Ohno pulling him even tighter into his embrace.

“It’s OK, Aiba-chan. It’s OK.” Ohno’s voice is soft and tender. One of Ohno’s hands supports the back of Aiba while another ruffles Aiba’s hair affectionately. Aiba tries to say something but cannot. His emotions are too overwhelming. “It’s OK.” Ohno cupped Aiba’s face in his two hands as if he wants Aiba to pay full attention to his words, “I love you.” Ohno smiles gently at Aiba, yet it fills with sadness, “It is not your fault if you don’t love me. It’s OK.”

Aiba’s heart breaks and he cries even more. He pulls Ohno in a hug so tight he cannot breathe himself. “That’s not true.” Aiba mumbles through hiccups. Ohno’s look changes to confusion. Aiba’s face perks up then his lips reach Ohno’s. The older man responds to his advancement. Their lips crush as if searching for something more. Aiba lets his reaction does the talking.

Aiba cannot find words to explain how he truly feels about Ohno, but he hopes his kiss would.

Aiba hopes his body will tell Ohno that Aiba loves him too.