KAT-TUN, Next Stage Mezashite

Title: Next Stage Mezashite [Junno, KAT-TUN]
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for drinking, vague possible drug use, and other illicit partying.
Summary: Junno’s birthday starts with his girlfriend breaking up with him, but then his friends fix it (College AU).
AN: I wrote KAT-TUN fic? So somebody tweeted this picture and it just looks so much like KAT-TUN stayed out all night together, the next thing I knew I had written this whole thing. If I only have one more KAT-TUN fic left in me, I’m pretty pleased this is what came out. Title from “12 o’Clock.”

Next Stage Mezashite

The best birthday of Junno’s life starts with his girlfriend breaking up with him. It would be less annoying if she would have had the decency to do it on the phone or by text, but instead she waits until Junno’s classes are done for the day and he’s standing in the hallway in front of her dorm room. He’s supposed to be picking her up for his birthday dinner, which they planned two weeks ago and is supposed to involve the best Mexican food in a 20-mile radius.

Not so much with her saying she needs her space and slamming the door shut in his face, after which Junno can hear a decidedly male voice through the door. Junno stares at the ceiling for a few seconds, debating yelling through the door that the HIV test came back positive, or the pregnancy test, or both, before just giving up and turning to go back to his own dorm.

A half hour later Junno is still staring at the ceiling, but at least it’s his own ceiling and he’s sitting on his couch.

“I can’t believe she did that,” Kame, Junno’s roommate, says for the fourth time as he paces beside the couch. Kame is the most high-strung literature major on campus, and although he didn’t approve of the girlfriend that much in the first place, at the moment he seems hilariously fixated on the method of her breakup. “She let you come the whole way over there! You had plans! You made a reservation! Canceling plans without at least 24 hours notice is just…just rude!”

Junno starts laughing, quietly at first, but then he can’t stop, because it’s his birthday and his girlfriend dumped him and his roommate is only offended that she didn’t schedule it properly.

“Okay, okay,” Kame grumbles, dropping onto the couch beside Junno. “Sorry, I mean I’m sorry about it, you know.”

“S’okay,” Junno lies. It’s not okay, but that’s what you say.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Kame asks. Junno turns his head to raise an eyebrow at Kame, but Kame somehow seems to be asking seriously.

“N…othing?” Junno says. “I’m not gonna take my boombox and stand outside her window, if that’s what you’re asking. Unless you think that would spoil the mood over there.”

“Not about her,” Kame rolls his eyes, “good riddance to her. For your birthday? You aren’t going to just sit here.”

“Why not?” Junno slumps a little more against the couch. “I guess I could take you out, but Mexican is a lot less pleasant coming out of you than going in, and I’m sure they gave away my table already anyway. You can help me eat the half-gallon of rocky road ice cream that’s in the freezer if you want.”

“No, no, no,” Kame scolds, standing back up. “We’re going to celebrate! It’s your birthday and we aren’t going to let that…that…reservation-breaking trollop win!”

“No, we really really are,” Junno says, falling over onto his side and pulling up his knees to curl up in a ball of misery like he richly deserves. “Just turn on the Lifetime Channel and leave me here to die.”

“I’m calling them,” Kame announces.

“What?” Junno cranes his neck, but Kame is already pulling out his phone and flipping it open. “No! No, I refuse! Just let me wallow in peace!”

“Hey, Ueda,” Kame says, dancing just out of range of Junno’s desperate grab from the couch. Giving up with a wail of despair, Junno just flops back down and hates everything as hard as he can. “Is Maru there? It’s a birthday emergency over here, are you guys busy tonight? It’s…no, she dumped him…when he went to pick her up. She…I know, right? That’s what I said! Rude…”

Junno tries to smother himself with a couch cushion, but he isn’t even half of the way there before Kame plucks it off his face and tells him to get up, they’re going out.

They meet Ueda and Nakamaru in front of Jin and Koki’s door, Kame knocking with three precise raps while Nakamaru thumps Junno supportively on the shoulder and Ueda asks if Junno would like him to arrange an accidental meeting between his fist and new guy’s face.

“No thanks,” Junno says, smiling wanly at the offer and fisting his hands deeper in the pocket of his jacket. Ueda might be a classical performance major, but he’s also captain of the boxing club, so Junno’s reasonably sure Ueda isn’t kidding. “Maybe just dating her will be punishment enough,” he suggests, and that gets a bark of rare laughter out of Ueda.

“What’s the password?” Koki hollers through the door, and Kame turns around to look at the rest of them with a look that’s half-exasperated, half-pleading.

“It was ‘bag of dicks’ last week,” Nakamaru says. Kame’s expression turns pinched. Junno shrugs, and Ueda smiles enigmatically. It’s completely possible he knows but won’t say.

“No guesses?” Koki calls through the door. “Weak sauce, Kame-chan!”

“Open this door right now or I’m going to put my boot so far up your ass—” Kame cuts off as the door swings open, revealing a grinning Koki slouched in the doorway. His hair is blond for some reason, making Junno’s eyebrows rise, and sticking out all over like he’s spent all day in bed. It’s possible he has.

“It was ‘up yours,’ so close enough,” he says. Kame repeats it more forcefully as he pushes past Koki into the room, but it only makes Koki chuckle. He bumps fists with Nakamaru and Ueda as they follow Kame inside, and slaps a high-five with Junno. “Bitches, right? Fuck ’em.”

“That’s how I solve all my problems,” Jin announces. He’s sprawled across the couch, shirtless, one leg hung lazily over the arm and looking if possible more rumpled than Koki, a wireless PS3 controller in his hand and focus mostly on the television. Neither he nor Koki seems a likely friend for Kame, but they were in Kame’s Business Apps class a couple semesters ago and after a particularly brutal group project, somehow it just stuck.

Junno likes the contrast of Jin’s attractive sloppiness to Kame’s neat precision, of Ueda’s graceful hand gestures to Koki’s casually abrasive language. Where he and Nakamaru fit into that, Junno isn’t sure sometimes, but once in a while they catch eyes across the group as if to say did you just see that shit, and that’s a kind of belonging too.

“It’s what causes your problems in the first place,” Kame says crisply to Jin as he shoves Junno down onto the couch by the shoulders, but it just makes Jin laugh. Jin shoves a second controller into one of Junno’s hands as Koki pushes a beer into the other one. Junno doesn’t actually want either thing, but it feels nice that they’re trying to cheer him up even if the actual execution of it is predictably terrible.

They spend a half-hour passing controllers and beers around while they argue about what exactly they should do for the night. Junno protests that staying here is fine, wanting nothing more than to lie limply on the couch and let them shout at each other over top of him. He’s two beers and a shot of something from Jin that burned the whole way down, and everything still sucks but at least it’s going a little fuzzy around the edges. He’d be fine just lying here curled up half on top of Jin, feet kicking against Kame’s thighs on the other end of the couch.

“Deltas are having a party,” Koki suggests. Kame makes a face and opens his mouth, but then closes it again after a a glance at Junno’s limp form.

“I think I’ve been banned from their parties,” Ueda says. “Actually I think it’s illegal for me to go within 500 yards of their house.”

“That happened weeks ago, I’m sure they’ve forgotten,” Koki says dismissively. “Anyway, we won’t stay long, those things are only good for like an hour, two tops, before campus security shows up. We’ll just warm up a little there.”

“Warm up for what?” Junno asks, even though he already knows it’s hopeless. The promise of a party is about the only thing that can get Jin off the couch in a hurry, and Junno’s cheek hits the couch with a soft thump as Jin vanishes out from under him.

“You can wear one of my hats, Uebo!” Jin calls happily as he sails into his room to get ready. He returns thirty seconds later tugging on a soft, black T-shirt that leaves his collar bones bare and shoving a knit beanie down over his hair. Trust Jin to dress up for a party by making himself look even more like a slob, but Junno is a little jealous of how appealing it is, the thin t-shirt clinging to Jin’s waist and the hat turning Jin’s long hair into soft curls around his neck and shoulders.

Koki doesn’t even try as they all stand up, grabbing a gray hoodie, but he does look the rest of them over as if to decide whether he can be seen with them or not. He gives an approving nod to Junno’s leather jacket and Kame’s vest plus skinny jeans combo, but tsks at Nakamaru’s varsity-style jacket.

“You look like we’re hazing some freshman from the tennis club,” Koki says. “Or do you have high school musical practice after this?”

Nakamaru just rolls his eyes. “One of us has to look respectable or the convenience store wouldn’t even let you in.”

Ueda refuses Jin’s questionable hat but lets him run fingers through his hair, scrunching it up cutely. The corner of his mouth twitching up in a tiny smile, Ueda tells Jin to put a hoodie on at least so he doesn’t catch his death.

“Idiots don’t catch colds,” Jin grins, hair falling in his eyes just so, and then away they go.

The walk across campus is brisk, Junno’s breath making it look like he’s smoking along with Kame, Koki, and Jin. The first real cold snap started just this week, and even though the campus cafeteria is still serving dinner, it’s already dark out, campus street lamps lighting them in oranges and yellows. The group herds Junno along in the center as if they’re his bodyguards, as if he might make a break for it before they reach Delta House on the edge of campus.

“All right, 90 minutes is the time limit,” Nakamaru warns. “Unless we want a repeat of last weekend.”

“We don’t want a repeat of last weekend,” Ueda says; Jin scuffs a boot and Koki grins unashamedly.

Nakamaru nods. “Synchronize watches.” Everyone holds up their wrists, but only Jin and Nakamaru actually have watches. Koki has a sweatband, Ueda has a couple hair elastics, and Junno and Kame’s wrists are bare. Nakamaru gives them all a bland look. “Fine, I’ll text you.”

There’s a bored pair of juniors standing on the porch checking IDs and handing out wristbands, and once they’ve all been summarily marked, the six of them troop inside. Junno winces at the volume of the music as soon as the door opens. Jin drags Kame and Koki immediately off to find the booze, shouting something over his shoulder that none of them can hear. Nakamaru strolls through the crowd over to the DJ’s setup, apparently somebody he knows, while Ueda push-pulls Junno onto the dance floor. Junno tries to lose himself in it, in the way the beat makes the soles of his sneakers thump and throbs between his back teeth, and it works for a little while.

After a bit, he realizes that he’s lost Ueda, but that’s all right. They’ll find each other again. The crush of people has become just a little too much, though, as more people arrive at the party, and Junno escapes out into the hallway, figuring he might as well get a drink for himself. He shuffles quickly by the entrance down to the basement, where the couples clinging showily on the stairwell and the slower, more deliberate throb of the music says to Junno that there’s a different kind of party going on down there, and it’s a kind that interests Junno at the moment. He hopes Jin hasn’t gotten sucked in down there or they probably won’t see him again until Monday.

In the kitchen the wall mercifully muffles some of the music, and Junno finds Nakamaru and Koki holding red solo cups. They wave him over and shove a cup in Junno’s hand, and when he takes a sip, it’s something way sweeter than the beer he was expecting. Koki is trying to explain something to Nakamaru, his lit cigarette trailing smoke rings while he gestures, Nakamaru looking bemused.

“Hey,” Jin’s voice says suddenly in Junno’s ear, making him jump six centimeters. “Try one of these,” he says, and shoves a brownie into Junno’s hand. When Junno holds it up, wondering if he dares, he sees there’s two neat bites taken out of opposite corners.

“What did I say about repeating last weekend?” Nakamaru interrupts Koki’s slurred story to scold. “I caught you trying to shampoo your hair in the bathroom sink with a jar of cinnamon.”

“Is that how you got your hair that color?” Koki asks, looking Jin over with deeper consideration.

“Relax,” Jin laughs. “It’s not that kind of brownie, it’s just good as fuck. The freshmen had to make a million of them for rush this morning, although I hear they had to stir them with their hands tied behind their backs wearing only aprons. Oh shit, Koki, did you make that drink we invented last week? Trade, trade.”

Handing over his cup to Jin, Junno nibbles a corner of the brownie dubiously. When it proves a good fudgey match to whatever Koki’s mystery drink is made of, he takes a second larger bite, chewing thoughtfully as he offers it to Nakamaru. Nakamaru holds up a hand to pass, and Koki takes it instead, shoving most of it into his mouth at once.

“Owy sit, ood,” Koki pronounces, and Jin nods knowingly.

“I ate two and took that one just before they ran out,” he says proudly, “and some girl threw me up against the wall and made out with me for like two minutes just to get a taste of those. I think she licked my brain!”

“Dude,” Junno protests, wrinkling his nose and exchanging a ‘what the fuck’ look with Nakamaru.

“Time’s almost up anyway.” Nakamaru holds up the wrist with his watch on it. He glances over his shoulder as the sound of something crashing in the front room echoes through the doorway, followed by drunken cheers. “And I think this party is starting to turn. Anybody seen Kame or Ueda?”

“Ueda was out back a bit ago,” Koki says, and sure enough after Nakamaru texts, Ueda comes through the back door only a couple minutes later. His hair is mussed and his cheeks are pink, and he has a nice bruise blossoming across one of his cheekbones. Koki leers. “Dude, what were you doing, huh?”

“Eh? Oh,” Ueda thumbs back towards the doorway, “I was teaching a couple girls out back how to get rid of any creeps that bother them when they have to walk home.”

“Geez,” Koki says while Junno and Nakamaru laugh. Nakamaru’s phone chimes with a message from Kame.

“Kame says he’ll meet us out front,” Nakamaru reports. Downing the rest of their drinks, they turn to go, but get caught in a traffic jam when four girls try to come into the kitchen at the same time.

“Don’t mind, baby!” Jin, who happens to be in front, says without backing up. He gives a long once-over to the girl in front, a leggy brunette with a hot pink sequined tank top, who crosses her arms, unimpressed. “Wow, you’re the best thing I’ve seen in here all night! We’re just about to take this party somewhere less crowded, so if you ladies want to join us—”

The girl gives Jin a sharp elbow to the stomach and a shove with her knee that sends Jin to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

“Much better, Hana-chan!” Ueda calls from the back of the group. Hana-chan flashes him a peace sign, and the other four part to either side while the girls step over Jin and go on their way.

Out front Kame is waiting for them, leaning against the porch railing, with the news that there’s a house party down in the valley that sounds promising, even if it is nearly an hour’s drive. Everyone looks at Junno, who shrugs. He doesn’t really care at this point, and he gets the sense that the night’s already out of his control so he might as well roll with it.

“I can make that drive in like half an hour anyway,” Koki blusters, making the others exchange nervous glances. “Whose car is closest?”

“Kame’s,” Nakamaru, Junno, Ueda, and Jin all say promptly.

“NO,” Kame says. “There’s only five seat belts, and last time we took my car you poured a whole orange soda on my backseat!”

“My pants absorbed at least half of that soda,” Jin scoffs. “Besides, we did you a favor, because now your car always smells like orange, which is a hell of a lot better than whatever it smelled like before. Anyway we can’t take mine because the back window’s stuck down again and we’ll all freeze to death.”

“And I haven’t seen my keys since last weekend,” Koki adds, zipping his hoodie and yanking his hood up. “Come on, already, we can argue in the car.”

“We’re arguing ABOUT the car!” Kame tries to protest, but the others are already trotting away in the direction of Kame’s car.

Kame’s car was always the closest, because he was the only one who had actually read all the street parking signs with their conflicting directions and arrows. He’d cracked the system sophomore year, and as a consequence always knew which side lot or stretch of street parking was legal and not due for street cleaning, saving him from the three-block hike to the secured campus lot students were supposed to park in. Anybody else who tried inevitably got towed; Kame had never had so much as a parking ticket.

“Fuck, get in, hurry up!” Jin whines when they get to the car, and Junno is inclined to agree, his hands and feet feeling like ice from even the short trip. For once he doesn’t mind being squished into the middle of the backseat, if it means he can warm up even a second faster. “Turn the heat on!”

“How about I turn the car on first?” Kame asks, tossing a dark look over his shoulder. He turns back to Koki, who is loitering next to the driver’s side door, keeping it from closing. “You aren’t driving!”

“You drive like my grandmother, it’ll take us twice as long,” Koki says patiently, not budging even when Kame kicks at his ankles. “Just hand over the keys and slide over, be a good boy.”

“Oh, just let him!” Nakamaru says, knowing the beginnings of a long argument when he sees one. “Even if he hits something, we’re too squashed in back here to fly out the windshield!”

Koki eventually wins out, and Kame slides over the gearshift and into the passenger seat, grumbling about Koki changing all his mirrors while Koki settles in.

“Hey, is anybody else hungry?” Jin calls, leaning forward to poke at Koki’s shoulder. “Can we grab some food first?”

Junno raises his hand. “I’m hungry too. What?” he asks when everybody turns to look at him. “I was supposed to be having Mexican hours ago!”

“Birthday boy gets his wish,” Koki shrugs.

They end up at a fast food place near the highway on-ramp, and everybody looks judgmentally at the pile of burgers and fries that Jin and Koki have heaped on a tray between them.

“Tell me again how normal that brownie was,” Kame says, nursing a root beer and eating barely half his fries before pushing the rest of them towards Junno.

“It’s because it’s winter!” Jin protests through a full mouth. He swallows before continuing, “I need a lot more calories when it’s cold to keep this finally-tuned machine running at full power!”

“The only thing running at full power is your mouth,” Ueda says, balling up a burger wrapper and bouncing it off Jin’s head.

“There’s a grocery store across the parking lot,” Nakamaru says, pointing out the glass window of the restaurant. “We should go get some beer to take along so we don’t look like assholes when we show up uninvited.”

“We got invited!” Kame protests. “Kind of!”

“You overheard a guy tell some girls they could bring any friends they wanted,” Nakamaru says, and Junno almost snorted a fry up his nose laughing at Kame’s protest that he totally knew those girls and ergo, they were friends who could be included in that invitation. “Oh, shut up and come buy beer with me before the store closes.”

“Ohh, can I come too?” Jin asks, on his feet before either of them can say yes or no, leaving Junno, Ueda, and Koki to roll their eyes at Jin’s enthusiasm for a grocery store immediately after stuffing his face with half a dozen burgers.

“We’ll meet you outside,” Koki waves them off, just finishing up eating himself. “Want anything else?” he asks Junno, and Junno tilts his head, thinking.

“A milkshake,” he decides, abandoning the rest of Kame’s fries. Ueda waves them off to the counter, staying behind to try and consolidate their trash onto a single tray. There’s no one in line, the place not long from closing up for the night as well, and Koki and Junno stand in companionable silence waiting for the counter girl to return with Junno’s milkshake.

“Hey, happy birthday,” Koki says after a few seconds.

“Sure,” Junno says, not exactly trying to be sarcastic, but he’s barely drunk at all anymore so that’s how it comes out. Koki looks him evenly in the eye.

“You’re worth a thousand crazy bitches,” he says sincerely, and Junno is touched for the second before the counter girl clears her throat and hands over the milkshake with a glare. But somehow it makes Junno smile a little around his straw as he takes the first pull of the milkshake on their way to meet the others.

Outside Nakamaru and Kame are just closing the trunk of the car when the three of them are strolling across the parking lot. It’s gotten even colder, and Kame takes one look at Junno’s milkshake and asks if he is actually insane.

“Plus that’s going to go so well with whatever else you drink later,” he says.

“Where’s Jin?” Ueda asks, looking around.

“We lost him when we drifted too close to the baked goods.” Nakamaru waves a hand. “Like a comet that gets too close to the sun…oh, here he comes.” Nakamaru pauses as they all turn to watch Jin’s approach. “What is he holding?”

“I think it’s a sheet cake,” Kame says, voice resigned as he opens the trunk back up.

“I GOT A CAKE!” Jin hollers, so obviously proud of himself that Junno can’t help but smile harder around his milkshake straw. When he’s close enough not to yell, Jin repeats, “A whole cake! You can’t have a birthday without cake, right? They were just gonna throw this thing away since nobody picked it up, and I was like, are you crazy?! This is a birthday emergency, hand that cake over!”

Jin sets the sheet cake down in the trunk with an “oof,” and in the dim light of the trunk they all peer at the cake through the cellophane top of the cake box. The cake has a bunch of smiling blue and green-iced dinosaurs on it, and reads “HAPPY 5TH BIRTHDAY KEN.”

“It’s a really good cake,” Junno says, not feeling sarcastic at all.

“I know, right?” Jin beams. “Hey, is that a milkshake? Lemme have a sip of that.”

The trip to the valley takes more like 45 minutes, Jin and Kame working in tandem to convince Koki not to break his landspeed record, Kame for the sake of his car and Jin for the sake of the cake. By the time they find the right house and a place to park down the block, the party is in full enough swing that nobody really cares whether they were invited or not. Much to Nakamaru’s exasperation, the cake is received with much more excitement than the beer, and Jin triumphantly leads a mini-parade to the kitchen as if he’s returning from war to present the enemy’s head to the emperor.

“Honestly,” Kame says, but Jin only smiles benevolently and hands him in a piece with a whole iced flower on it. He gives Junno a corner piece and a kiss on the cheek before turning back to distribute pieces to anybody who wanders by, everybody saying hi to him like he’s a friend they’ve known all their lives.

“Who’s Ken?” somebody beside Junno asks, looking down at his own piece of cake in puzzlement.

“I think he’s me, maybe,” Junno answers, wishing Ken a happy birthday wherever he is. He might be the only guy in Japan having a worse birthday than Junno, because Junno at least has a cake. And it is a pretty bitchin’ cake.

“Right on!” the guy says, most likely more than a little stoned. “We’re all Ken sometimes, man.”

The house party is more Junno’s speed, more relaxed and the music less eardrum-shattering. Koki puts another suspiciously sweet drink in his hand and half a tab of something he swears isn’t that serious on Junno’s tongue before sending him on his way. Whatever it is makes the whole experience vague and pleasant, the transitions from one thing to the next indistinct. One minute Junno is dancing comfortably with strangers by the stereo, and the next he’s lying on a couch with his head in a girl’s lap, telling her earnestly about his breakup.

“Oh you poor thing,” she says, stroking Junno’s hair. Junno makes a sad noise so she’ll keep on petting him; truthfully the whole thing seems like it happened days ago instead of just hours.

“We were supposed to go out for Mexican for my birthday,” he sighs sadly.

“It’s your birthday? That’s terrible! Oh, wait, you must be Ken!” she says in sudden understanding.

“Uh-huh,” Junno says agreeably. He gets a sweet birthday kiss in reward, and fuzzily Junno thinks that Jin really knew what he was doing with this cake thing.

After that, Junno wanders about some more, until he comes across Kame and Ueda absolutely owning the shit out of the beer pong table. They’re a deadly combination, as most challengers quickly discover, because Ueda can hold enough alcohol to kill a bear, and the drunker Kame gets the more exacting his shots get as he loses the ability to focus on more than one thing at a time.

“How many rounds have you guys gone?” Junno asks, eyebrows raised at the detritus of cups and people lying around.

“Six or ten,” Ueda says vaguely, the glassiness of his eyes saying even that might be a low estimate. “Kame-chan, was that last game or three games ago we shut those girls out?”

“I’M CONCENTRATING,” Kame snaps, swaying a little, then makes a beautiful arc shot that would point any three-pointer to shame. The guys across the table groan, one of them flipping the ball back for the rollback while his partner downs the cup.

“He’s got half a round left, tops,” Ueda assesses affectionately. “Wanna sub in when he passes out?”

Junno declines, afraid of both drunk Ueda’s competitive streak and of being trapped in an endless beer pong loop. He heads back the way he came, mildly puzzled that the order of rooms never seems to be the same twice despite the fact that he’s been strolling through them for hours by this point.

“There you are!” Nakamaru calls when he spots Junno in the hallway, and before he knows what’s happening, Nakamaru has him by the shoulders and is steering him with purpose through the people milling about. As they pass through the kitchen, Junno is impressed to see that they’ve made quite the dent in Jin’s huge cake; there’s only half a T-rex left at the moment and the letters “THDA.”

When they arrive out on the back deck, the cold sobers up Junno just enough to realize that there’s a couple guys set as a live band next to the pool, and a few seconds after that he realizes that Koki and Jin have co-opted one of the microphones and are taking shouted song requests from the small, shivering crowd.

“I found him!” Nakamaru calls.

“Hey!” Koki grins, waving them over with the microphone with one hand while he motions at the crowd in front of him to part. When Junno gets close enough, Koki hauls him in by the shirt and slaps him on the back before addressing the crowd. “This guy here is one of my close personal friends, and do you know what today is? It’s his birthday! We’re gonna sing for him, okay? You guys sing too, everybody, on three. Ready? One! Two! Three!”

Junno smiles and shuffles his feet sheepishly while two dozen people he’s never met before sing the happy birthday song at him. Most of the crowd sings “Happy birthday, dear Ken-chan,” when they get to that part, but Junno doesn’t mind. It’s the thought that counts.

“Thank you, thanks,” Junno leans over to say into the microphone. “You can thank Jin for the cake, though.” The crowd obediently calls, “Thank you, Jin.”

“Aw, I love you, man!” Jin exclaims with drunken affection, throwing himself at Junno for a hug with his full weight. Junno’s feet go right out from under him, tipping both him and Jin backwards into the pool with a splash that Junno will be entirely proud of the next day, when Koki forwards him the YouTube link.

At the moment, he can’t be proud of anything because his brain shuts down from cold as soon as he hits the water. Fortunately they land in the 2-ft end of the pool or else they would surely drown before some of the other people manage to help them out. A few people who seem to know what they’re doing hustle Junno and Jin into the house, Junno letting them do whatever they want to him helplessly. When Nakamaru and Koki find them fifteen minutes later, they’re in a tiny laundry room with only beach towels wrapped around their shoulders, hugging the dryer for warmth as it tumbles dry their clothes.

“It’s not funny!” Jin protests when Koki points and laughs at them, his teeth still chattering. “We might die of exposure!”

“If I had to make a bet on what you would die of…” Nakamaru says. He’s got Junno’s leather jacket, and Junno whines with pleasure as he snatches it out of Nakamaru’s hands and tugs it on. “I found that in the kitchen. Good thing for it that you left it there, or goodness knows what the pool chemicals would have done to it. Like Jin’s hair.”

Jin gasps in horror and reaches up to clutch his head as if checking for damage. Koki suggests trying more cinnamon.

“Oh, you found them,” Ueda says from the doorway. He’s got a semi-conscious Kame leaning heavily against him with one arm thrown across Ueda’s shoulders, and Ueda uses his hip to pin Kame against the doorframe while he adjusts his grip. “You guys ready to go soon? Kame’s done.”

“Tell you when’m done,” Kame slurs.

Jin and Junno’s jeans are still a little damp, but the rest of their clothes are dry enough. Once they’re decent, or as decent as they started out, they make their way back through the house. A couple people in each room call happy birthday to Junno, and Junno is full of warm good will by the time they are out on the sidewalk walking to the car. Or it might be vodka, Junno reflects as they pause long enough for Kame to throw up in some bushes. Vodka and good will don’t feel that different sometimes.

Nakamaru is the only one in good enough shape to drive, and with Kame in no condition to demand shotgun, Junno claims it instead. The other three pile into the back with Kame sprawled across their lap; all four of them are asleep by the time they’re on the highway. Nakamaru flips on the radio to keep himself awake, and Junno cracks his window just enough for the cold air to clear a little bit of his head.

“You can sleep too,” Nakamaru offers. “I’m good.”

“Nah, I’ll stay up with you,” Junno says. “A drive seems nice.”

They chat about inconsequential things for the hour-long trip back, about their classes and finals coming up in a few weeks, what their plans are for winter break, whether or not Jin will break his face snowboarding this winter. Nakamaru only brings up the ex-girlfriend once, and it’s only to say that he’s sorry nobody Junno dates seems to see how decent a guy he is. By the time they’re on the exit ramp, the sky is starting to turn light, barely but noticeably. Junno startles when Jin stirs and leans forward, trying to stretch in the cramped space.

“We should go see the sunrise,” he suggests. “The first sunrise of your new year!”

“That’s regular New Year’s, idiot. Go back to sleep,” Nakamaru dismisses his suggestion.

“I know a good place,” Koki speaks up, and when Junno turns around, Koki is yawning and scratching his head, making his hair stand up. “Last semester I worked at the radio station, yeah? I’ve still got my keycard, and the guys always leave the door to the roof unlocked so they can go up there and smoke between shows.”

That’s how Junno ends up on a rooftop leaning against a transmitting antenna watching the sun rise, shivering with cold despite Kame and Jin’s shoulder pressed close against his on either side. It is beautiful, though, all golds and pinks before the red sliver of the sun breaks through, the same wind that’s making their teeth chatter sending the wispy clouds scudding across the sky. It’s a nice new start, even if Junno is starting his new year hungover and smelling like smoke and chlorine.

“That’s that!” Jin announces once the sun’s cleared the horizon. He’s wearing a huge pair of aviators that he produced out of nowhere, and he seems none the worse for wear from his night of debauchery as he grins at Junno. “Let’s go get something to eat, huh? I’m starving!”

They aren’t the only batch of students at the family restaurant, but it’s not that surprising since it’s the only 24-hour place within walking distance from campus. They grab one of the circular booths, and the waitress brings them a pot of very strong coffee without them asking for it, then leaves it on the table along with the plastic laminated menus. Junno tells Nakamaru to order him some blueberry pancakes if the waitress comes back, then heads to the bathroom.

He’s surprised to find Ueda waiting for him outside the door when he comes out.

“Hm?” he asks.

“Hey,” Ueda reaches out to take a grip on either lapel of Junno’s jacket, “happy birthday,” and then he pulls Junno in for a firm, sweet kiss.

Junno knew that Ueda can go either way, but he’s never been on the receiving end of any of Ueda’s affections before. It makes him feel awkward and pleased, smiling shyly when the kiss breaks and Ueda looks him over as if to make sure the kiss took properly.

“This year will be better,” Ueda says. He cracks a knuckle. “Or else.”

“Yes, sir,” Junno answers.

When the waitress returns, Junno is barely surprised when she does not have any blueberry pancakes, but instead sits a plate of nachos in front of him with a bunch of candles somehow wedged in amidst them. She looks just as disgusted as Junno’s stomach feels, but also resigned to the antics of the college students that show up at 6am.

“What the hell?” Junno asks, laughing.

“You never did get your Mexican!” Jin says, as Koki produces a lighter and goes about lighting the candles. “This’ll have to do. Think of a wish.”

It’s ridiculous, and kind of gross, but Junno feels a wide grin stretch across his face. He honestly can’t think of a single thing he wants to wish for at the moment, but when Koki tells him to hurry it up already, Junno closes his eyes and hopes that they really did order him some pancakes before blowing the candles out. Everyone claps, Kame and Koki thump Junno on the back, and Junno pushes the plate of nachos as far away from himself as he can.

“You know,” he says shortly afterwards, through a mouthful of pancakes, “I think this is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“See?” Koki cuffs the back of Jin’s head, making him choke on his bacon. “I told you springing for girls was a waste of money, when this guy sets the bar so low.”

“Low enough to be friends with you all,” Kame snorts into his coffee. Koki says it takes one to know one.

Junno just goes on grinning and shovels another forkful of pancakes into his mouth. Maybe this year he can try setting the bar just a little bit higher, so long as there’s still cake.

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