Kaoru stayed back after class because his teacher had requested to speak to him. He was curious when he saw one of his assignments printed on the teacher's desk.
It was a basic assignment to design a logo for a website.
"Aihara, you certainly have talent. I'm surprised you didn't choose to go to college full-time."
"There were circumstances," Kaoru explained although he was pleasantly surprised by her comments. Miss Tachibana was often severe but fair in her judgement during class.
She gave him a short nod. "I thought so. Have you considered an internship?"
"Not yet," Kaoru admitted.
He did think about getting a permanent job after completing course but was aware of how competitive it was. Getting a portfolio together also took time and expenses.
"You should," she admonished.
Kaoru nodded, unsure of how to respond.
Miss Tachibana noticed his embarrassment and softened. "I understand if your situation is not easy. But I hate to see talent go to waste."
The recognition touched Kaoru. He said gratefully, "Thank you, Miss Tachibana."
She waved him off but said, "I have a friend who works at a publishing house. If they have a position open, I will let you know."
Kaoru stared at her, warmed by the unexpected kindness.
"Thank you! I don't know.."
She shook her head with a wry smile. "No need to thank me, Aihara. It won't pay well being an intern. But it will be a good experience for you."
Kaoru was still beaming after he left the class. He hopped onto a bus and found a seat.
As the bus passed by the nameless buildings, he wondered if he could really land an internship. Hopefully, it would gain him some experience which would bode well for a future permanent role.
Only slightly under ten months ago, Kaoru would have never dared to think of this.
To Keigo, the money spent over their arrangement must have been negligible. Did he know much he had changed Kaoru's life, albeit unintentionally?
Shaking his head, Kaoru took out his phone to read any messages.
He blinked when he saw one from Eito.
'Hi! Remember me? We met at drinks last week.' – Eito
Kaoru typed back. 'Yes, hi!'
Eito responded immediately. 'Want to grab coffee this Saturday? I can come near where you work.'
Kaoru was puzzled. Then he realized that there were a bunch of unread messages in the group chat with Nakamura and Miyagi.
He read those first.
Nakamura: 'EITO IS TRYING TO ASK YOU OUT. IN CASE YOU DON'T GET IT.'
Miyagi: 'Is he trustworthy?'
Nakamura: 'Seems ok. A bit too smooth.'
Miyagi: 'Urgh. That type.'
Nakamura: 'He's asking Kaoru. Not you.'
Miyagi: 'I'm looking out for our FRIEND.'
Nakamura: 'Ignore him, Kaoru.'
Kaoru laughed and typed back.
Kaoru: 'He just asked me out for coffee.'
Swift responses came.
Miyagi: 'He better not be an ass, Nakamura.'
Nakamura: 'I'm not his damn babysitter.'
If that was Eito's intention, Kaoru really had only one answer.
Kaoru: 'Maybe another time.'
Nakamura: 'You sure?'
Miyagi: 'Hey, it's just coffee.'
Kaoru couldn't really tell them the real reason for the decline.
The offer from Keigo had been lingering on his mind. Kaoru was honest enough with himself that it wasn't the lump sum payment which had finally sealed his decision.
It was exactly as what Keigo said. Insurance for a definite period. So that he knew for certain that he would be able to see Keigo. Even if only for a few more times. Even if only for a short few hours each night.
Foolish. In denial. Naïve.
None of that mattered to Kaoru.
He had already been burned. He so desperately wanted to delay having to apply the salve to his wounds.
He typed back with resolution to the group chat. 'I'm sure.'
Then he responded to Eito. 'I'm sorry, another time?'
"You survived the concert," Kaoru teased when Keigo came out from the shower.
Keigo gave him an evil glance. "Barely."
A muffled giggle escaped Kaoru, who had already changed into fresh jeans and a T-shirt and was sitting on the couch. He sipped on the cup of tea he was having. Keigo noticed that there was a cup on the table for him too.
He took the cup and went over to sit next to Kaoru.
There was a faint blush coloring Kaoru's cheek when he realized that Keigo was still only wrapped in a towel and not much else.
Keigo pretended not to notice, inwardly delighted.
"You seem to be in a good mood," he observed.
"Something good happened, that's all," Kaoru averted his gaze and replied happily.
"That has nothing to do with me?" Keigo mocked a hurtful tone.
Kaoru shook his head and smiled. "Yes, nothing to do with you."
Keigo chuckled. "Shocking. What was it?"
Kaoru hesitated. "It's nothing actually."
"I want to know," Keigo insisted.
Kaoru looked at his cup. "Just something my teacher said. At my part-time class. She might look out for an internship for me."
He gave Keigo a quick glance.
Keigo knew what the hesitation stood for. Kaoru wasn't sure if he would find it unimportant or unworthy of a mention.
If he had a functionally human heart, Keigo's would have softened in that instant.
"That's good," he told Kaoru seriously. "Design, wasn't it? What you are attending?"
Kaoru nodded with genuine surprise that he remembered.
"You are always looking at the rooms, the brochures, the logos," Keigo remarked. "I do pay attention, Kaoru."
It was the way Kaoru would scan each hotel room, how he leafed through any booklet especially if they were not the typical standard hotel issue and although Keigo didn't mention it, the way Kaoru's eyes caressed every envelope rather than just caring about the cash inside.
It was also why Keigo made sure each one was different in style and color.
"I didn't know." Kaoru's lips curved into a small, happy smile as he took a sip of tea, as if trying to cover it.
Then it was Keigo's turn to be surprised.
"Oh, congratulations on the sponsorship! The singer's advertisement is going viral."
"Why, thank you," Keigo said graciously. "I didn't know."
Kaoru mumbled, "I-I pay attention sometime too."
Keigo was so enormously pleased that it was illogical.
"Her singing is terrible. Her ego rivals mine," he said wryly. "But she can sell anything."
"She's not that bad!" Kaoru protested.
Keigo shrugged. "Putting it mildly."
"Awful," Keigo finished for him with a smirk. "I know. You've told me. But as I said.."
Kaoru didn't wait for him to complete his sentence and stood up abruptly. "I need to get home."
He tried not to look at Keigo as he grabbed his bag but Keigo could see the flush clearly.
Kaoru truly didn't appreciate how gorgeous and unconsciously cute he was.
Keigo thanked his own great foresight for buying the insurance policy.
Kaoru couldn't help but smiled stupidly when he recalled what Keigo had said earlier. That he had bothered to notice how Kaoru took in the design details of the hotel.
Or that he didn't belittle the possibility of an internship, which was probably insignificant in Keigo's world.
Kaoru was so happy just then. Unreasonably, wholly happy.
He entered his flat and made sure that it was properly locked. Turning on the lights, he put his bag down on the table and took out the envelope. He should cash it immediately tomorrow to be safe since it was a large sum.
Kaoru stared at the banker's draft.
The amount far exceeding what it should be. His throat dried up.
Accompanying it, a short note.
'For seven sessions. Take the rest as a bonus. Do NOT decline this – Keigo.
PS: It's not charity. I enjoy your company.'
The envelope this time had an intricately drawn cherry blossom tree in full bloom. Weaved in that vibrant yet gentle pink and motifs of faded gold. A symbol of spring and a new beginning.
He would never know whether it was a deliberate choice.
Kaoru wanted to ask Keigo what he would do if he knew that at some point, Kaoru had remained not solely for the money? That he would stay even if Keigo stopped paying him anything?
"It doesn't work that way," Kaoru murmured. Not for Keigo anyway, when he could have anyone he wanted.
He doesn't need someone like you, Kaoru reminded himself.
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