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Consolation Prize

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Midorima has never come second, except the first piano recital he'd ever participated in, when he'd foolishly forgotten to bring his lucky bear and had blanked out on the song halfway through.

He never forgets a lucky item after that, but when Akashi pushes his way into Midorima's life, it's too late.

He's already fated to second place for the rest of his life.

*

Midorima spends two days memorizing all the possible Tic-Tac-Toe algorithms, but when he shows up to Akashi's classroom with pre-made Tic-Tac-Toe grids, Akashi merely looks at him, amused.

"Shintarou," Akashi says, in that way that's patronizing and reassuring at the same time. Midorima hopes to emulate it someday, but for now all he feels is annoyance. "People like us don't need to waste our time on childish games like Tic-Tac-Toe. Let's play something more sophisticated, like Gomoku."

Midorima scowls, but he sits down as Akashi pulls out a piece of graph paper from his bag. Gomoku is the same as Tic-Tac-Toe, but five in a row instead of three--what could possibly be so hard about it?

After his fifth loss, Midorima surrenders, and Akashi gives him a smile that is at once cruel while it is kind.

*

As Midorima sits down for their captain meeting, he places a hanafuda deck on top of the Shogi board. "It shouldn't take long," Midorima says.

Akashi sighs, but he smiles and starts shuffling the cards. "You should deal," he says.

"I don't need the advantage," Midorima grumbles, settling himself into his seat. "I'll play for fifty points and start with ten."

"As you wish."

Akashi deals the cards--eight to Midorima, eight face-up in the center, and eight to himself.

Midorima glances at his hand. It's not a bad hand, by any means, with almost one of each suit. He even has the Rain Man card. On the table, there are a few Ribbons and even a Bright Pine...

Akashi is staring at his cards. Midorima watches as Akashi's pupils move from the face-up cards to his hand, and then to Midorima himself.

Midorima startles. "What," he says, pushing up his glasses.

"Nothing," Akashi says, smiling. "Let's start."

On his first turn, Akashi captures the Bright Pine and manages to draw Bright Pampas and match it with a Plain card.

Midorima feels his stomach sinking.

"Don't fret," Akashi says.

"Don't patronize me," Midorima snaps, and throws down a Plain Chrysanthemum to capture the Ribbon.

Five turns later, Akashi has koi-koi'd twice and won twenty points.

"Good... game," Midorima mumbles.

"It was a pleasant meeting," Akashi says. "Perhaps you should practice on Tetsuya next time. I heard he's a fan."

Midorima glares at him. Akashi is smiling, radiating with ... what, victory?

"You knew you were going to win," Midorima says.

"Of course," Akashi says, "but with you, it's the journey there that's interesting."

Midorima wishes looks could kill, but as it is, he can only resolve to work harder, and pay more attention to his horoscope.

*

Midorima suggests Street Fighter, and Akashi tilts his head. "I've never played," he says.

"Oh," Midorima says, immediately running down the list of other games they can play.

"No matter." Akashi smiles. "I will visit you this weekend, and we can play at your house."

"I don't have it," Midorima says. "They have a machine at the local arcade."

"I see," Akashi says. "Then, in that case, we shall meet at two p.m. on Saturday."

Midorima nods. He spends the rest of the weekend with both hands bandaged. If he chips even a nail, he knows he will lose.

Luckily, the week passes smoothly, but when Saturday rolls around, Midorima is second in Oha Asa. Predictably--or unpredictably--Akashi's sign, Sagittarius, is first. Midorima wonders who has cursed his life. The lucky item of the day is a small, rubber duck. Midorima packs three.

He arrives early to the arcade and exchanges five dollars for quarters. He lets himself play two practice games before Akashi taps him on the arm.

"Shintarou," Akashi says. "I hope you're ready for the ultimate battle."

Midorima thinks he is, but he really, like everything else that concerns his battle with Akashi, he isn't ready at all.

When Chun-Li kicks Ryu's ass for the third time, Midorima sighs and gives up, but he can't help smiling, too.

"Akashi," he says. "You're just too good."

Akashi chortles. "You're wrong," he says. "It's not skill or goodness, but rather, absolute power."

Midorima hates it when Akashi gets philosophical after winning, but then Akashi suggests they go out for red bean milk tea and Midorima doesn't say no.

At the bubble tea shop, Akashi says something about his wrist hurting, and Midorima tries not to stare, tries not to wonder, what is it about Midorima that Akashi sees that he would admit such a small and insignificant weakness.

Midorima packs a small rubber duck in Akashi's bag when he's not looking.

Akashi never mentions it.

*

Midorima is practicing piano when the idea of playing Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters comes to him.

He opens his phone and finds Akashi's name, typing faster than the fastest prestissimo he's ever played. ‘Have you ever played Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Monsters?'

The immediate response is, ‘No, but we could play this weekend.'

Midorima spends the rest of the week studying his lessons, practicing three-pointers, and planning his Yu-Gi-Oh deck strategy. He tries to decide what deck he wants, but he's not sure. He doesn't even know what Akashi will pull out--but that's the surprise, isn't it?

He decides that he's going to run a Photon deck. It's a strong LIGHT deck with swarming tendencies.

In their next captain's meeting, Akashi defeats him in one turn with a Hieratics deck.

Midorima doesn't even bother asking for a rematch.

"You have to believe in the heart of the cards, Shintarou," Akashi says cheerfully.

Midorima wishes he knew where Akashi found time to study, play games, and watch children's cartoons.

*

At their last captain's meeting, Midorima says, "Akashi. What is your dream occupation?"

Akashi looks up from the Shogi board and meets his eyes. He smiles. "A professional Shogi player," he says. He moves his bishop. "Your turn, Shintarou."

Midorima stares at the board. He knows, objectively, that life is not a game to Akashi. Or rather, games are Akashi's life, and they are something Akashi cannot lose, because otherwise, who is Akashi?

But Midorima knows the answer to that question well. If Akashi were to lose, he would, at least, always be Midorima's friend.

"Don't become distracted," Akashi says.

Midorima clears his throat. A question clings to the back of his throat, sticking like a heavy film. Am I someone you would consider a friend, Akashi?

Midorima banishes the thought. It's a ridiculous question.

Besides, if he has to ask, then the answer is probably ‘no.'

*

His first week at Shuutoku, Midorima thinks about texting Akashi and asking him how Rakuzan is.

In the middle of typing out the text, Takao calls him, asking if he wants to look at the new cards he's received in the mail.

Midorima closes his eyes. "All right," he says, "I'll be there in fifteen minutes."

"Great, Shin-chan!" Takao chirps, and for a split second, Midorima misses being called Shintarou. It was intimate, but at least it didn't have a humiliating honorific at the end of it.

*

Akashi looks at him, eyes cold. There isn't a trace of the friendliness in his eyes, from when Midorima would call him, text him, ask him to play some foolish game with him. Instead, all Midorima sees reflected in Akashi's heterochromatic eyes is the same look Akashi always gave the Shogi board during their meetings.

"I want to be your enemy, Shintarou."