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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday morning, and it was business as usual, sitting around the dining table with Professor Ito and Mr. Suzubishi and chatting over a large breakfast. There were pancakes with homemade strawberry compote and whipped cream, lots of bacon, scrambled eggs, coffee, juice, and toast. It was far more than the three of us could eat in one sitting, but most weekends, the three of us ended up grazing on the leftovers all afternoon and completely skipping lunch.

I'm gonna have to run a 10k this afternoon to burn this off. And to escape the temptation of munching on bacon all day, I thought, pulling another pancake from the serving platter to my plate. "Ah, are we out of strawberries already?" I peered into the compote dish, disappointed to find it empty.

"It's because Keita is incapable of sharing strawberries." Mr. Suzubishi shot him a glance, grinning.

Professor Ito turned as red as the leftover berry juice. "That's not true! You just didn't make as much as usual, so of course there wasn't enough for everyone..."

"Hmm," was the only response, and Mr. Suzubishi tapped his phone screen again. He'd been poking at it every few minutes, not doing anything, just checking for something.

"Are you expecting an email?" I asked, dumping syrup onto my pancakes instead.

He sighed. "Sorry, I don't mean to be distracted during breakfast. I'm waiting for a call from the American office, one of the guys from the banking division had a question about the security software that I couldn't solve through email."

"He could just ask the security team over there," Professor Ito pointed out sullenly.

"Yeah, but if it's a problem that even I can't solve over email, then it's something I need to look at personally because I coded the blasted thing." Mr. Suzubishi poked at his scrambled eggs. "I don't like the idea of spending family time on work either, but this could be a security issue for the entire company. Every location is using the same system, and if there's a hole somewhere, that means everything needs to get patched."

Family time. It was amazing how quickly phrases like that had become normal to my ears. I still didn't truly feel it, but the thought wasn't so uncomfortable anymore. But it was going to take a little more time before I could really accept it.

"Um, if there's a security hole that needs patching on all those different systems, isn't that going to be a ton of work?" I took a bite of bacon.

"Multiple tons," he agreed with a sigh. "A lot of it can be handled remotely, but I'll want to handle the locations with the most critical information personally, which means more travel. At least locking down the Bell Labs servers won't be a big deal." He forced a smile.

"Well... if it comes to that, I could do it. I mean, I have a general idea of how that system works, and it would be good experience, right?"

Mr. Suzubishi's expression grew serious. "Kasahara-kun, you don't have to get involved in that sort of work if you don't want to. There are plenty of other things to learn. I don't want you to feel uncomfortable about your work in any way."

I shook my head. "I don't mind it. Actually, I'd like to try applying my skills in an honest way. At the very least, could we handle the patching together, if it comes to that?"

"Well... only if you're sure about it." His phone rang, cutting off any further comment, and he snatched it up from the table immediately. "Ah, finally. Sorry, I have to answer this right away. Go ahead and finish breakfast without me, I don't know how long this is going to take."

He disappeared down the hall, and just before the bedroom door shut behind him, I heard Hello, this is Kazuki in clear, accentless English. I made a face. Sure, I knew he'd attended high school and college in America, so of course his English would be perfect, but I couldn't help feeling discouraged by the countless hours of lessons that I would need to take in order to reach that level. Maybe it would never happen, since I wasn't forced to use it all day, every day, just during lessons.

Professor Ito echoed my sigh. "Ugh, English... I really need to practice more."

"Seriously. I'm surprised we're not forced to speak English all weekend."

The professor waved his hands at me. "Shh, Kasahara-kun, don't say that! If Kazuki hears you, he might get some ideas!"

"Ugh, I'll keep my mouth shut, for sure."

We continued picking at breakfast for a few more minutes, the silence between us comfortable rather than awkward. Ever since the conversation a few months ago after I'd found Mr. Suzubishi's expired passport, the three of us had been getting along better. Well, it hadn't been bad or anything, but everyone had been so awkward at the beginning, not sure how to behave or what topics to discuss. With that last major secret out of the way, Mr. Suzubishi had finally been free to talk about some of his experiences that wouldn't have made sense if he was the same age as Professor Ito.

And ever since the day Mr. Suzubishi had rushed back to Japan to confront Professor Sakaki, only to be deflected and confronted by me instead, he'd been showing a lot more respect for me. Despite that development, I still felt most comfortable around Professor Ito, not just because I saw him every day, but because he was cheerful and silly. He reminded me of Yuki.

Yuki... The piece of toast I was chewing suddenly felt stale and heavy in my mouth. I took a sip of milk to help swallow it down, but that only made the cramp in my stomach worse. The image of Yuki's confused expression leapt to the forefront of my mind, and my gut lurched as I remembered why he'd made that face, the way my hand had wandered down his back as if it had a mind of its own. But that was a cowardly way to think about it, blaming my own crappy actions on instinct or whatever. The truth was, I'd taken advantage, and on some level, I'd wanted to do it. I'd wanted to touch him, to feel his body against mine.

I said I was going to do something about this... promised myself I wouldn't let it go until the weekend, and here I am, mindlessly eating Sunday breakfast like nothing's bothering me. You suck, Tomo.

"Kasahara-kun?" Professor Ito had some sort of sixth sense that could always detect when something was bothering me. "What's the matter? Is there something happening at school?"

I glanced over at him, only able to meet his wide blue eyes for a second before staring down at my plate again. "Um... it's not really a school thing, but..." Ugh, there was really no way to deal with it except to ask directly. I took a deep breath and spoke before my brain could stop me. "Have you ever had a crush on someone who was already going out with someone else?"

"Huh?" The professor tilted his head and blinked, not understanding. "What are you... huh?"

The moment he looked at me like that, confusion etched on his face, I realized how stupid my question was; he'd been with Mr. Suzubishi since the beginning of his first year at Bell Liberty, same as Yuki and his rumored lover. I really doubted that the professor had been dating in middle school. There was no way he had experience with something like this.

I ducked my head, feeling stupid. He didn't understand, right? "Um... sorry, I didn't really think it through... maybe I should ask someone else..."

The professor's chair squeaked as he leaned in to touch my shoulder lightly, and I reflexively looked up at him. His expression was serious, no, concerned, as he asked, "Did something happen this week? I noticed that you were more subdued than usual during class. I want to help."

"Um," I lowered my eyes, uncomfortable, but I didn't let myself pull away. This was one of those defining moments, wasn't it? Chicken out here and maybe never have the guts to bring it up again, or push through the discomfort and make progress. It was the same as working on the track, only this was emotional training instead of physical. I swallowed the knot in my throat and nodded. "I... well, it didn't start this week, but I finally realized that I can't let things keep going like this..."

He was silent, waiting for me to continue. The hand on my shoulder was warm, a gentle weight, not expectant, just patient.

I bit my lip, taking a deep breath to steady myself and summon my courage. "Actually... it's Yuki."

The fingers on my shoulder tightened, then pulled away. "A, Asahina-kun?" He sounded a lot more surprised than I expected, and my face got red. "O, oh, I'm surprised... honestly, I thought the two of you were a couple. S, sorry, Kasahara-kun, you two are so close, I just assumed..."

"Y, yeah..." I'd heard all the different variations of the rumors about Yuki, including the one that said I was his boyfriend. After all, to outside observers, it must have seemed like one of the most likely possibilities; we both left the school island without fail every weekend, never returning until Sunday evening. The fact that we never left or returned alone just added more fuel to the fire, and the story was that we purposely avoided being seen together in an attempt to throw everyone off.

I'd cried myself to sleep the first time I'd heard that rumor, wishing it was true.

"S, so, Asahina-kun is..." The professor desperately tried to recover from his blunder, but I cut him off with a shake of my head.

"Actually, Yuki and I haven't been close for a long time," I sighed, resting my elbows on the table. "It's my fault... it seems like he found someone almost immediately after the Bell One, and when he tried to tell me about it, I just, I couldn't hear it. I didn't know why, not at the moment it happened, but I got so upset and angry. I felt like he'd betrayed me somehow." My face grew hotter as I remembered my shameful behavior that day. "I ran away from him. My best friend, my brother, almost. All he wanted to do was share something happy with me, and I was so cold to him. It's disgusting. And on top of that, I've been awful to him ever since..."

There was a brief silence, then, "Were you jealous?"

My shoulders slumped. "I'm still jealous. I just... when Yuki tried to tell me that he was dating someone, I had this awful feeling. When I got back to my room, I realized I'd had a crush on him for a while without realizing. I've never been really interested in anyone before, so I never made the connection. We're best friends, but I felt like we were even closer than that, like it was something even more special that couldn't ever be broken."

I stared down at the crumbs on my plate. "Except I broke it by being stupid. The more I think about it, the more I start to think that maybe I never actually liked Yuki in a romantic way to begin with. I just wanted to be the only one who was special to him. He was the only one who tried to help me without giving up, ever. He didn't expect anything from me, he just wanted to help me make the right choices and to support me." I glanced at the professor, who was leaning forward, nodding slightly in silent encouragement to continue. "But I don't know how to untangle all these feelings of being jealous, feeling betrayed, maybe being attracted in some way. I want everything to go back to the way it was before I ran away, but I feel like it's too late."

"It's not too late, Kasahara-kun." Professor Ito's smile was soft, his tone reassuring. "I don't know Asahina-kun very well, but he doesn't seem like the kind of person who would reject you if you wanted to talk to him about this."

"I know," I mumbled, looking down again, "I know, and that's what makes it worse. Yuki isn't the kind of person who holds grudges or anything petty like that. That's what makes me feel like a total jerk for treating him like crap for so long. It's been more than half a year already. Honestly, I've kind of thrown myself into track and English lessons and visiting you guys so I'd have excuses for not trying to hang out with him on weekends. Yuki's busy every weekend, but I know he'd make time for me if I was around, and I kind of resent that. He's so nice and I'm so petty, it makes me realize how much of a horrible friend I've been..."

We were quiet for a while, and when I peeked at the professor's face, I could tell that he was thinking about something, his expression a bit distant as he played something over in his mind. A moment later, he gave a subtle nod, eyes refocusing on my face. "Actually, there was a time when Kazuki and I had similar troubles. It was during the MVP Battle, the worst possible time..."

Now that was unexpected. I leaned closer, curious. "What happened?"

"Ah, well, I'd rather not get into the details," he blushed lightly, "but I was starting to suspect that Kazuki was somehow related to the older boy I'd been friends with in the past. But since he was my classmate, it was impossible. And with Kazuki sneaking around to do his work as director, the holes in his story were starting to show. My trust began to waver."

"So that's when he told you the truth?"

Professor Ito shook his head. "No, but that's when he promised to tell me as soon as possible. It was a really tense moment. You know, the kind when you realize that you're about to make a decision that might change everything if you do it wrong, or even if you do it right."

My heart lurched. He actually gets it. He totally gets it... I swallowed back my excitement and said, "I guess you made the right choice."

His serious expression softened into a smile. "Yeah... it was hard, maybe the hardest thing I'd ever done, but I decided to trust Kazuki. Even though I knew he was lying to me, or rather, holding a lot of things back from me, I couldn't push him away. I didn't want to. Maybe on some level, I already knew the truth, or maybe it was my luck that kept me from making a rash decision."

I sighed. "I'm sure Yuki's the same way... even though I've held myself apart from him, he wouldn't hold it against me. I know that. I know it, but... it's hard. I'm not strong or positive like he is." My words caught in my throat. Until just recently, every time I reached out for something, my hand got slapped away right before I can grasp it. I can't help expecting that things will go wrong, no matter how much of an effort I make. Even with you guys... I keep wondering when you're going to realize that I'm just an inexperienced kid, I'm not good enough to help make your dreams come true.

Professor Ito looked like he was trying hard to come up with something to say. As expected, he didn't have any experience with stuff like that. He was just like Yuki, so lucky that his life had never been touched by any real or lasting tragedy. I tried not to feel defeated, but I couldn't hold back the sting of disappointment. No matter how kind he was, he couldn't understand this part of me.

We both jumped as a familiar voice said, "Mm, forgive me for overhearing your conversation, but maybe I can help." Mr. Suzubishi slipped into the seat across from me, resting one elbow on the table to peer thoughtfully at my face.

I resisted the urge to turn away, settling for biting my lip. "U, um..."

"But you don't have any experience with this either, Kazuki."

"Not exactly, no, but I understand the feeling of being attracted to a close friend."

Their eyes locked, and after a few seconds, Professor Ito blushed. "W, well..."

Mr. Suzubishi turned back to me with a faint smile. "I still remember that moment clearly, when I realized that all those brotherly feelings I'd had for Keita for so many years had changed into something completely different. When I was studying in America, the thought of the promise I'd made was sometimes the only thing that kept me going. If I became a worthy heir to the Suzubishi name, I'd be able to fulfill that promise. I could see Keita again, the kind boy who chased away my loneliness that summer. At first, I planned to just invite him to Bell Liberty, but because of the data leak at the school, I decided to pose as a student so I could gather information directly."

I nodded; I'd heard the story from Professor Ito, and I was sure he'd told Mr. Suzubishi that I knew, or he wouldn't be repeating it in front of me.

He continued, "I'd convinced myself that I'd be fine with simply watching over Keita, making sure he got the most out of the activities and education that the school could provide. But when we met face to face again, it was so hard to hold back. I couldn't let him know who I really was; after all, it wouldn't make sense. I was supposed to be a classmate of the same age, so of course I didn't expect him to make the connection. I made myself be content with that, but..."

"But?" I prompted, curious.

"That fierce urge to protect was more than a brotherly desire. I didn't understand it myself at first, convinced that I was acting as a good friend should. But early on, something happened that made me realize that my feelings weren't as pure as I thought." His eyes lowered. "Honestly, I didn't know what to do. At first, I was disgusted with myself. Keita was so young, just sixteen, an honest but inexperienced young man, and I was an adult. I tried to crush those feelings and forget them. When that didn't work, I made the most difficult and most important decision of my life."

"What... what do you mean?" Professor Ito was the one to ask. I glanced at him, surprised; was there a part of the story that even he didn't know?

To my surprise, his eyes were on mine, not the professor's, as he replied, "I resolved to be Keita's friend and confidant, no matter what happened. No matter what I felt. My emotions were my problem and my responsibility, not Keita's, and I wasn't going to allow them to taint our friendship or burden him. Even if, by some miracle, Keita realized who I was and didn't hate me for all of the necessary deception, I wouldn't push it. And," his voice faded, wavering a little, "I knew Keita would fall in love someday. I would let him go gracefully, and give that couple my full support. Remaining lifelong friends with Keita was far more important than my own trivial feelings."

"K, Kazuki!" Professor Ito looked horrified, and he couldn't manage any more words. He simply sat with his mouth open, the stunned expression jarring on his normally smiling face.

But I let the words turn over in my mind, absorbing the message. He was right. He'd weighed the potential romantic relationship against a deep, lifelong friendship, and made the choice that would be most meaningful in the long run. It was painfully honest, incredibly difficult, and required more courage than I thought I could ever possess. But that was what I had to do.

"Even now," Mr. Suzubishi continued, eyes still locked with mine, as if he knew that I understood the depth of his words, "if Keita wanted to leave, no matter how much it might hurt, I'd let him go with a smile on my face. I can't imagine the possibility of not being part of his life. That is how dear Keita is to me."

The professor banged his fists on the table, rattling the silverware. "Kazuki! That's crazy! How can you say something like that?!" I didn't have to glance in his direction to know that tears were gathering in his eyes. "I'm not that special or important!"

Mr. Suzubishi's eyes finally left mine, and my shoulders slumped with something like relief. Damn, he's way too intense... he really is crazy...

"You are that special, Keita. You're the only one who can't see it."

I didn't realize I was nodding until the professor turned toward me with an exasperated, "Not you too, Kasahara-kun! Don't agree with Kazuki on this!"

My spine stiffened, habit forcing me to sit upright at the sound of a teacher's voice. "Right! Uh, no, wait..." I glanced at Mr. Suzubishi, a newfound respect welling up in my heart. He and I are alike in ways I never imagined. I have to shake this habit of thinking that he's cold and scary; that's just the serious persona required by the business world. He's actually... pretty amazing...

And then he leaned back in his chair with a smile. "Thank god I haven't been tested yet, though. At this point, I'd probably crumble like a sandcastle at high tide..."

"You're an idiot, Kazuki!" The professor looked like he was about to grab a plate off the table and launch it at his face. "You're saying you wouldn't fight for me? How is that supposed to make me feel special?!"

Mr. Suzubishi's eyes widened; clearly, he hadn't considered the implications of his words. "Ah, wait, Keita, that's not what I--"

"Then what did you mean, Kazuki? That you're just going to stand back and let someone else swoop in and steal me away?" I'd never seen Professor Ito so fired up, face turning red and voice cracking as he shouted, "I'll never forgive you if you let me go that easily!"

Ohhhh shit, I am not sticking around for this one!

I scrambled out of my chair with a mumbled excuse me and made a hasty retreat, dashing down the hallway so fast I nearly collided with the closet door. If either of them noticed that I'd fled the scene, there was no indication except for an increase in volume, their inhibitions relaxing now that I wasn't around to witness the argument directly. I shut the bedroom door firmly behind myself, but I could still hear scraps of the disagreement through the closed door.

I flopped onto the bed, letting out a deep sigh, and tried to ignore the nervous tension that was building in the pit of my stomach. The professor and Mr. Suzubishi didn't bicker often, and their fights were nothing like the ones my adoptive parents had on a regular basis, accusing each other of everything from embezzling to cheating. I knew it would be less than half an hour before they made up, and I'd probably be embarrassed to find them snuggling on the couch, apologizing to each other between semi-chaste kisses.

"Ugh," I rolled over, burying my face in the pillow. Maybe I'd stay hidden for more than half an hour to protect my virgin eyes from that spectacle.

The important part was thinking about what they'd told me. Not the personal stuff, though I couldn't help feeling a little happy and relieved that they'd felt safe enough to share those stories with me, but the deeper messages behind them. Having absolute faith in a friend, to the point that someone else might label it blind, unfounded trust. The hard decision to put aside romantic feelings, choosing a deep and lifelong friendship above all else. They probably didn't consider themselves strong, but those were impressive achievements that most people weren't willing to reach for, never mind honoring them for any length of time.

Except, from the spirited argument that was still raging in the dining room, it seemed that they'd made a crucial mistake: not being completely honest with each other. Or rather, Mr. Suzubishi had kept Professor Ito in the dark, and now he was paying the price. He was the problem.

I'm the problem. Yuki's the honest one.

I had to make the hard decision right now. What was I doing, sacrificing the relationship with my best friend out of bitter spite? He'd already chosen, and it wasn't me he wanted. All the disappointment, all the longing and jealousy and inability to be happy for him was my problem, not Yuki's. And if I really stopped to examine my feelings closely, did I honestly want him in that way?

I flipped over onto my back again, staring up at the whirling ceiling fan, gaze following a single blade around and around until my eyes got tired. I closed them with a sigh.

Yeah, it had been fun to fantasize about Yuki. He had a cute face and a reasonably lean body, and his smile tied my stomach in knots. But that was just physical, and honestly, I wasn't all that excited by guys. I just wanted Yuki to look at me, to pay attention to me, sharing secrets and emotional intimacy. I wanted a permanent study partner who wouldn't judge me for being tired all the time, a friend who I could safely share all the details of my new life with, someone who would always be there in the dark moments when I thought I couldn't make it or when the reality of losing Brother hit me with the force of a slap. I needed a friend who would push me to better myself, offer the encouragement I couldn't seem to summon from within, but who also knew when to back off.

"You have that already, stupid," I mumbled. "Quit being an idiot and talk to him."

Yuki would understand. Yuki always understood everyone's feelings; no matter how tangled or messed up they got, he was able to tease them apart and get at the heart of the problem. Isn't that what had made me think I was in love with him in the first place?

I don't know if I am. Or if I ever was. I had all sorts of feelings tangled up inside me, too many horrible things happening in such a short time... of course I'd fixate on the one person who made a real effort to help me with all that.

My head swam. Too many thoughts, too many emotions, everything that had been shoved into a closet in the back of my mind flooded forth with the force of a tsunami. Somehow I managed to roll onto my front before the first wave hit, burying a sob in the pillow.

Ever since I was little, it had been rare for me to cry. All of us at the orphanage were like that, bearing the uncertainties of our daily lives without complaint, having learned early on that tears wouldn't bring back lost family members or attract new ones. It was like meeting Yuki again had broken the seal on my heart, his gentle understanding creating a safe environment for raw emotion. Since then, I'd cried at the park, on my birthday when he'd given me the last page of Brother's final letter, after my second meeting with President Sakaki, during the confrontation with Professor Sakaki and Mr. Suzubishi, and now.

It sounded like a lot, but the times I'd forced my emotion back into the dark corners of my mind far outnumbered the few where I'd lost control. Every day was filled with a mountain of worries that had gnawed at me since losing Brother. How would I manage the work of director by myself? How deeply did I want to be involved with the Suzubishi family? What was I going to do when they revealed their hopes that I could become the heir to a massive multinational corporation? How could I stop shoving Yuki away? Why did I still feel so numb all the time? Why couldn't I cry for Brother, even when I felt so alone?

Tomo... I think it's okay to cry at a time like this.

I could feel his hands on my shoulders, steadying me. I saw his gentle smile in my mind's eye.

"Yuki," I nearly choked on his name. "Yuki..."

I love you, Yuki. I really do... but maybe it's different from what I thought. Even if it's not, I'll make it be different. I can't stand this anymore, I can't lose you over something so petty and stupid...

My mind drifted. I didn't remember falling asleep. All I knew was that I jerked awake and it was dark, harsh streetlight streaming in the open windows. I picked my face up from the pillows at a knock on the door, realizing that I'd been roused by the sound.

"C, come in," I mumbled, forcing myself upright and rubbing at my eyes. Ugh, they felt gross. I probably looked gross too, but it was too late to do anything about that. The door squeaked open, and to my surprise, Mr. Suzubishi was the one who peered in. I straightened up unconsciously, shifting to swing my legs over and sit at the edge of the bed.

He came inside, turning on the overhead light as he shut the door. I blinked, momentarily blinded as the sudden light stung my eyes, and I was surprised at a weight beside me on the bed. The few times he'd come in to speak with me before, he always sat at the desk if I was on the bed, or on the bed if I was already studying. My chest tightened, heart beating a little faster, unsure of what to make of the unexpected closeness.

"Um..." I forced myself to remain still instead of moving away.

"Are you okay, Kasahara-kun? You were gone for a long time, so we started to worry."

"Ah, no, I mean yes, I'm fine. I ended up taking a nap." I shrugged, forcing a laugh. "Well, you know me, that's how it always goes..."

Mr. Suzubishi was quiet for a few moments, studying my face, and I knew that he was examining the evidence of my emotional outburst. My cheeks were stiff with dried tears, and my eyes were still sticky from falling asleep immediately after a hard cry. I ducked my head after a couple of seconds, uncomfortable with the scrutiny.

"I do know," he finally said, "that's why I'm getting a little concerned."

Somehow his serious tone made me squirm. "No, really, it's normal for me..."

"Is it? Were you always sleeping all the time, even as a child? I realize that you have a lot of responsibilities, lots of physical and mental demands that require your attention, but even when you have time off, you never seem to get back to a hundred percent." He paused, then added softly, "To be honest, Nao-kun seemed rather energetic in comparison to you."

My cheeks colored. "T, that's because I have a lot of sleep to catch up on..."

"You're young and healthy, Kasahara-kun. When I was your age, I would go to bed after midnight and manage to get up at six in the morning. I'm not saying that's ideal or something anyone should want to do, but your constant state of tiredness is making me worry. As your guardian, it's my job to make sure you're healthy. If something is disturbing your sleep and making it impossible for you to get a proper rest in a normal amount of time, that needs to be addressed."

I didn't know what to say. Or rather, I knew that whatever I said, he would be able to counter it; the Suzubishi Group was famous around the world for its medical research and advances. I was sure that Mr. Suzubishi was pretty well versed in basic medical knowledge and wouldn't hesitate to push for a solution to something that looked like a problem. Basically, the Suzubishi Group was a big hammer just waiting to pound on the nails of disease, and he was one of the people who had a say in directing that tool.

"Is it because it's more than just physical fatigue, Kasahara-kun?"

"I don't know what you mean," I mumbled.

He was watching me closely, even if I refused to meet his gaze. "You've been through a lot in the past few years. The issues with your adoptive parents, returning to the orphanage, losing your brother, taking on responsibilities that are far more than what a teenager should be expected to handle. And then being cornered and blackmailed by unscrupulous adults..." His voice faded, and I knew he was probably remembering his own role in the pressures that had been placed on me. "But through it all, the only person you ever leaned on was Asahina-kun, isn't that right? That's why you two grew so close. But that started to fall apart too."

I shrugged. "Yeah, I guess..."

"That's more than anyone should have to handle on their own, Kasahara-kun. Especially someone young, who doesn't have a strong support system." He placed one hand on my shoulder, the touch light and tentative, and I looked up in surprise. "I feel like you might be sleeping in order to escape the weight of the burdens that have been placed on your shoulders. How would you feel about talking with someone and learning some strategies that can help lighten your load?"

It took a few seconds to realize what he was proposing. "You mean therapy?"

Dr. Matsuoka had tried bringing it up a few times before, but I always brushed his concerns aside; honestly, I didn't feel like talking to someone who hadn't made a real effort to help me back when I really needed it. And if someone found out I was doing something so touchy-feely... therapy was almost a dirty word, the need for something like that a sign of weakness.

Mr. Suzubishi must have seen something in my expression, because he continued without giving me a chance to protest, "I'd like you to keep this a secret from Keita, but I actually speak with someone on a regular basis. I've learned a lot about stress management and how to deal with my own negative thoughts and emotions. Those skills have helped me through some tough times."

That got my attention. "Wait, you... you see a therapist? Is it Dr. Matsuoka?"

He shook his head. "No, Jin-san knows me too well on a personal level. It would end up being a friendly visit, not something that would push me to examine my thoughts and work on them. Everything got very hard to manage on my own once I started traveling to the US branch on a regular basis. I see a therapist in America about once a week when I'm over there." His eyes met mine again. "I won't force you into anything, Kasahara-kun, but I strongly recommend at least giving it a try. It can take time to find someone who's a good fit for you and your situation, so it can be difficult to get started, but I'd honestly recommend therapy to just about anyone."

I managed a weak smile. "Except Professor Ito?"

My shoulder felt a bit cold as he pulled his hand away, covering his mouth to muffle a snort.

"Sorry," I murmured, but my grin got a little wider. "I couldn't resist..."

"Well, even Keita has his issues. We all do." He was serious again in an instant, watching me with intense blue eyes. "Remember, asking for help isn't a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength and self-understanding, knowing your own limits and being humble enough to admit that you can't do everything alone. That's what makes Keita stronger than me. And isn't that also what gives Asahina-kun his strength?"

I lowered my eyes, not in embarrassment, but because it was hard to see that serious expression so laser-focused on my face. Mr. Suzubishi wasn't a big, intimidating man, but he knew how to project a powerful presence. And he was right. "Yeah... Yuki never hesitates to ask for help... maybe I should think about stuff like that a little more."

"Take your time. I'm ready whenever you are." He reached out to pat my back, thump thump, the warmth of his hand evident through my lightweight t-shirt. Warm and safe, a bit like Brother and Yuki, and before I knew it, I'd turned toward him, leaning forward slightly. Mr. Suzubishi looked a bit surprised, but he didn't miss a beat, leaning in to wrap both arms around my shoulders in a brief but firm hug.

My face was red when we parted. "Uh..."

I could hear the smile in his voice. "Thank you, Kasahara-kun."

I didn't need to ask for what; I knew he'd been feeling kind of bad about the distance between us, despite how comfortable I felt with Professor Ito. And besides, it would be embarrassing to draw more attention to the hug. My heart was pounding stupidly fast, but there was something else I'd been thinking about too. Just suck it up and say it.

"Oh, actually, I was thinking... um, calling me 'Kasahara-kun' all the time is kind of overly formal and awkward." I glanced up briefly, lowering my eyes again right away. "Just call me Tomo."

He was silent for a few seconds, maybe surprised, but when he finally spoke again, his tone was warm and cheerful, more so than usual. "Sure, of course, Tomo-kun." Somehow the sound of my name in that bright tone made my face get even redder. "But that goes both ways, you know. You've been awfully formal with me too. It feels a bit distant."

I bit my lip. It was true, I'd been using the more formal honorific to keep a distance between us, not really on purpose, but because I had a hard time seeing him as more than that strict, businesslike man who'd failed to take responsibility for me almost a year ago. But things had changed since then, maybe more than I realized. At heart, he was a normal guy who just happened to be part of an extraordinary family, blessed with a quick mind and a warm personality.

"Y, yeah," I agreed. "So, um, Suzubishi-san... I can call you that, right?"

He patted my back again. "It's a good start."

Start? Just what does he expect?!

Mr. Suzubishi... no, Suzubishi-san stood, moving around the room to draw the blinds and close the curtains. "Tomo-kun, it's getting late, you'll have to get a move on if you want to take the bus back to the school island. Or do you want us to drive you?"

"Oh, no, I don't want to be a bother... you guys don't get a lot of time together, I don't want to cut into that. Besides," I got up and began gathering my school stuff, "I kind of want to have some time alone to gather my thoughts. Uh, nothing bad," I added, thinking back on our conversation just now, "I need some time to think things over and decide what I want to do."

"You're very considerate, Tomo-kun. You're not cutting into our time at all." That time, he was the one who couldn't meet my eyes. "I know we've already discussed this, but I feel like I can't apologize enough for the way I acted at the beginning. I want to do everything I can to make up for that."

I held up both hands, motioning for him to stop. "Ah, no, please stop. We agreed to start over, right? I don't want to dwell on the past. That's not going to make me feel any better about anything."

The look on his face made it clear that he wanted to say more, but instead, he nodded and moved toward the door. "You're right. I just..." He shook his head, as if telling himself to let it go. "If you don't mind, I'll give you some space so you can get ready to go without me hovering over you. And if you change your mind about wanting a ride, just let us know."

"Yeah, I will."

I breathed a sigh of relief once the door closed behind Suzubishi-san. It was weird to think of him that way, but it was kind of nice, like the wall between us had finally begun to come down. Earlier, I'd been really embarrassed to find that he'd been listening in to the conversation with Professor Ito, but I probably wouldn't have understood what I needed to do without his help. And now that talk about therapy, and even a hug...

None of that felt fake. He made a mistake in the beginning, and he's already owned up to it. It's okay to trust people, Tomo. I bit my lip, the image of Yuki's face springing to mind. Yuki trusts everyone...

I pushed Yuki from my thoughts, promising myself I'd deal with that later. I wanted to get back to the school first, a safe and familiar place where I could take all the time I needed to sort out my feelings and figure out what I needed to tell him. For the moment, I busied myself with chucking all my school books and supplies back into my bag, then headed out into the hallway.

As expected, Professor Ito and Suzubishi-san were on the couch, watching TV. The professor stood, intending to open the door for me, or maybe to offer help with my bag, but I waved him off. "It's okay, Professor, I'll let myself out. And I don't mind taking the bus. You guys have fun."

"Ah... well, if it's really okay..." He sank back down reluctantly. "I'll see you at school tomorrow, then!"

"And I'll see you next weekend, Tomo-kun." Suzubishi-san gave me a little wave. The professor turned to give him a sharp look, but he ignored it and added, "I don't have any trips scheduled for a while, so hopefully we can spend more time together. Call if you need anything, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," I agreed. "Thanks, Suzubishi-san."

Professor Ito stared at me, but I pretended not to notice, saying a few final goodbyes as I slipped my shoes on and headed out. The hair at the back of my neck prickled as the door shut behind me, my body picking up on the tingle of the storm that was about to explode in the apartment.

I hope it's not too serious, I thought, dashing down the hallway to the elevator to ensure that I didn't hear any of it through the closed door.

~~~

"Kazuki, since when are you two so friendly?!" Keita cried, punching my arm. "Tomo-kun? Suzubishi-san?! What happened in that room just now?"

I turned my face toward Keita, not bothering to mask my smug smile. "I got a hug."

"You whaaat?! No fair! Kazuki, that's not fair, I'm the one who's here with him every weekend! Why is Kasahara-kun giving you a hug?" Keita flopped back into the couch cushions, folding his arms over his chest, pouting like a sulking child. "You suck, Kazuki."

I probably shouldn't have laughed. That's probably why Keita began crying.

"That's so unfair! K, Kasahara-kun even said, he said you were 'kinda scary' when I asked him why you two never talked! He said he was still mad at you about that time with Professor Sakaki!" He sniffled dramatically, but it wasn't for effect, he really was trying to keep his reddened nose from dripping. "And I, I, I'm the one who went with him to pick out new clothes, and got him lots of protein bars, and, and I told him our story..."

Keita really was too damn cute.

"Aww, Keita, don't cry, I'm sure Tomo-kun will--"

Keita pushed my arms away. "I can't believe he asked you to call him Tomo-kun and not me! Next thing you know, he'll be calling you Dad, and I'll be Professor Ito forever!"

Oh man, I knew he'd be disappointed, but I wasn't expecting it to be this bad...

I leaned back, giving him some space. "Look, Keita, why don't you just ask him?"

He peered at me sullenly. "Did you ask him?"

"Uh..." The moment I hesitated, I knew I was in for an explosion.

"I knew it! Ugggh, this is the worst!" Keita grabbed the nearest throw pillow and put it to the use its name suggested, launching it at my face. It bounced off with no effect and landed on the floor. I bent to pick it up, placing it back in his hands.

"Keita, don't get discouraged, this isn't a contest--"

"Then why were you gloating about it?!"

Boing. The pillow caromed off my face and hit the floor again. I sighed. "I wasn't gloating, I was just excited to finally make some progress with him. Listen, can we talk about it some more once you cool off a bit?"

"I don't need to cool off," Keita grumbled, folding his arms tightly over his chest, "and I don't wanna talk to you right now."

Yeah, you really are adorable.

But I tried not to smile as I made my observation, because next time it could have been the remote control or my knitting basket coming at my face. Instead, I got up from the couch, fixed the pillows, and said in the sincerest tone I could muster, "I'll make you something nice for dinner, okay? You just relax and I'll take care of everything."

There was a long pause before he sighed and muttered, "Fine, okay."

When I peeked out of the kitchen ten minutes later, Keita was still sitting there in the same position, eyes lowered and head pointing off to one side, staring at nothing. He heaved another sigh, and I ducked back into the kitchen before there was any chance he might notice me.

I'm sorry, Keita... I know it's not fair. Somehow I skipped ahead ten levels at once. I chopped a potato into evenly-sized chunks and added them to a pot of bubbling water. It'll be the same for you, I'm sure. Just hang in there a little longer. Kasahara... no, Tomo-kun likes you more than me. He simply had a vulnerable moment, and I was the one who happened to witness it.

For the first time since Tomo-kun had been placed into my care, I felt like the hope that we might become a real family was more than an insubstantial dream.

~ end ~