Furihata Kouki was about five seconds away from losing his mind.
He was on a train. And not just any train. He was sitting in a first-class car on an N700 shinkansen. He had peeked into these cars so many times he had lost count, ever since the N700 series was introduced a few years ago. He had never imagined he would actually sit inside one.
Sure, he always figured he would get a chance to ride an N700 eventually, once they made enough for the less expensive railroad lines. (And once his family scheduled a trip out of town, which didn’t happen often.) He assumed he would be in one of the regular cars, though, with the smaller blue seats. And he would be with his family. Or maybe, if he was really lucky, with friends.
He was pretty sure the guy next to him didn’t count as either of those things.
How in the world did he get here, again?
Furihata rubbed his sweaty palms against his jeans. The whole thing was a blur. One minute he was doing his weekly survey on the shinkansen platforms—he was lucky enough to have an uncle who worked at the station, who let him look around on Sunday afternoons—and the next minute, there stood Akashi Seijuurou, saying hello and talking to him about trainspotting.
(Which didn’t even make sense, because usually when Furihata said the word ‘trainspotting,’ people just looked at him like he’d sprouted a third arm. With the exception of really nerdy guys, maybe. Akashi Seijuurou was not that type of guy.)
Anyway, they talked, and Furihata made a complete idiot out of himself. Which was kind of his thing, especially around Akashi. Then, out of the blue, Akashi invited him to come with him on the train. Furihata still had no idea why he would do that.
So now here he was. Somehow. And he was trying his best not to freak out.
He took deep breaths, and tried to focus on studying every detail inside the compartment. The rectangular shape of the overhead lights. The geometric pattern on the gray seats. There was a little light embedded in the back of his chair, that was cool. The hard plastic pads on the armrests were black. And why the heck was he paying attention to that, again?
Oh, right. So he wouldn’t have to think about how he was sitting inches away from the most imposing person he’d ever met. Which was saying a lot, because he had also met a guy who was over two hundred centimeters tall, and liked to talk about crushing people.
(Okay, so maybe ‘met’ was too strong a word… If you were once at the same party as the Generation of Miracles, could you technically say you met them? Even if they still kind of terrified you, and they barely had a clue who you were? Akashi knew his name, though. Somehow that was even weirder.)
Furihata glanced beside him. Even a quick look was enough to make his heart sprint in his chest. Akashi Seijuurou was one of those people who just didn’t look real. That feeling only increased, the closer you were to him. At a distance, he was a teenage guy of fairly average size. He moved with a strange kind of grace, though, and his hair was an unnaturally bright shade of red.
Up close, he was just… Impossible. Nobody on earth looked like that.
Except Akashi, apparently.
His red hair looked even brighter, when every strand of it was visible. His eyebrows were the same color, and they had an unusually high arch. But his eyes were by far his eeriest feature. The catlike pupils, the low-curving lids, even the crimson irises… They were both the same hue now, but that didn’t make them any less alien.
Furihata had tried to tell himself repeatedly they were just eyes. Unusual eyes, but that was all. He knew tons of people who had weird eyes. Like Kuroko, with his blank blue stare. Or Kagami and his dark red irises. Or that weird-but-awesome way that Izuki-senpai’s pupils changed size when he really concentrated. Coach’s eyes did a similar thing sometimes. Like some kind of human camera lens. No big deal.
But no matter what Furihata told himself, it didn’t make any difference. Because every single time that Akashi looked in his direction, his chest tightened, and he couldn’t breathe right. It was like those brilliant red eyes pierced straight through his lungs.
Seriously, what was wrong with him?
He swallowed, hard, and looked across the aisle through one of the huge windows. They were still in Tokyo, for now—all those high-rise buildings and enormous ads and apartments with laundry lines on the balconies—but the train was accelerating, and soon they would be out of the city. Furihata reminded himself that this was exciting. He was on a state-of-the-art piece of technology, that could travel at incredibly high speeds.
He was also trapped inside a moving vehicle. In a closed compartment. With a bunch of strangers, and one unsettling not-stranger. And no way out.
So that was great.
“Y-yeah?!” He all but jumped out of his skin.
Akashi gazed at him steadily. He was always so composed. It must be nice to be so self-assured, Furihata thought. Not that there was any way a person like Akashi Seijuurou wouldn’t be.
“Forgive me for startling you.” Even Akashi’s voice didn’t sound real. It was calm, and quiet, but somehow a little sharp. “I was merely wondering if you had contacted your family yet.”
“O-oh. Right,” Furihata said. “I’ll do that. Th-thanks.”
He zipped open his bag, and rummaged around for his phone. His fingers were shaking again, but he stubbornly ignored that. He tried to reach down toward the bottom of the bag, where his phone usually ended up, but all the books inside it were in his way. So he removed a few and set them on his lap.
He finally managed to take out his phone, and sent a quick message, to let his parents know he would miss dinner. (He didn’t say why, exactly. It was too long a story, and he didn’t want to worry or confuse them. He just said he was ‘hanging out with a friend.’ He would tell them about it later, maybe.)
He was putting his phone back when he felt a weird shiver down the side of his arm. He glanced up. Akashi was watching him, with those eerie red eyes. Furihata’s pulse raced. He looked away, and started replacing his books into his bags.
“Do you read a great deal?” Akashi said, softly.
Furihata gave a start. He glanced at the books that remained on his lap. They were all books he had checked out of the school library.
“Um, I guess,” he said. “N-not really smart books or anything. B-but I’m on the library committee at school, s-so…”
He ducked his head. He didn’t know why he bothered to mention the last part, when Akashi hadn’t asked. To explain the books, he guessed. Not that it made him sound like any less of a nerd.
When he glanced back at Akashi, though, the corner of his mouth had tilted into a smile.
“You are?” he said.
Furihata managed a nod. Akashi sure smiled a lot now, after the Winter Cup. At least he didn’t seem to think the library thing was dumb. (Or he was too polite to let on, anyway.)
“Kuroko is t-too,” Furihata added. Akashi probably knew that, but it was easier for him to talk about a mutual friend than about himself. “S-sometimes I think I’m the only one who knows that, though.” He laughed weakly. “We don’t do that much. Just reshelve books.”
Akashi’s smile widened at the mention of Kuroko. But at Furihata’s last comment, he drew his brows together.
“I’d say reshelving books is a fairly crucial task,” he said. “At least where the welfare of the students is concerned. Even if it’s the sort of duty that tends to go unnoticed.”
Furihata gaped at Akashi. He couldn’t help it. Because there it was again… That strange feeling, like he had just heard some kind of echo…
Furihata believed strongly in doing things without expecting credit. Sometimes, though, he wondered if he felt so strongly about it because he never did anything amazing, the kind of stuff that people noticed. In any case, he didn’t expect a standout person like Akashi to say those things. And not like he was trying to be nice. More like he just felt it was important to say, for some reason.
It reminded Furihata of that moment on the train platform, when he said that most high school guys weren’t into trainspotting. After a second’s thought, Akashi said it was more important to choose hobbies you liked. Deep down, Furihata always thought the same thing, even if he got teased.
But Akashi had said it so perfectly, like a line out of a book. For Furihata, it was almost like hearing a remix of a thought he had. Except the remix was way better done than the original.
“Oh. Um…” He fumbled for a reply, but his brain felt stuck, somehow.
Akashi gestured toward the books in his lap. “That wouldn’t happen to be a recommendation of Kuroko’s, would it?”
On the top of the pile lay a mystery novel. It had an unusually plain cover, and was a little worn around the edges. Furihata nodded.
“I thought it looked familiar.” Akashi’s expression was knowing now. “Are you a fan of mystery novels as well, then?”
Furihata gulped. This was the sort of question he never knew how to answer.
“Uh, s-sort of? I like mysteries, but some of them are a little t-too… much. For me.” He shrank in his seat. That sounded so weak. He hurried to add, “Kuroko’s been showing me some that aren’t as intense. He’s really good at figuring out who the criminal is. He catches all the clues. I p-pretty much never do.”
He managed a sheepish smile, and resumed placing the books back inside his bag. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Akashi rest his chin in his hand, in a thoughtful way. Like he was actually interested in this conversation. Which seemed weird, but then again, Akashi was clearly a polite, refined sort of person. Maybe it wasn’t so much interest as good manners.
“What do you like to read most?” he asked.
“U-um…” Furihata faltered. No matter how he answered this question, he always ended up sounding like a nerd. And not the sophisticated, grown-up kind, either. More like a six-year-old kid. “I don’t know. I…. I read a lot of n-nonfiction, and, um….”
Don't ask what kind. Please don’t ask what kind…
Akashi didn’t, thankfully. He asked something worse. “And what types of fiction do you like?”
He must have caught the way Furihata’s last answer trailed off. So Furihata couldn’t pretend he never read fiction. He wondered helplessly why Akashi even wanted to know. He still didn’t get why he was on this train in the first place. It wasn’t like he was an interesting person. Akashi must have known that, after their mostly one-sided conversation at Kuroko’s party.
Yet Akashi had invited him to use his extra ticket, and even buy him a ticket back. Which was so nice Furihata couldn’t even comprehend it. The least he could do was answer an innocent question. Even if it made him look stupid. He could already feel the blush starting, a prickling heat that spread all over his face.
“It’s, um… p-pretty dumb,” he said. He took a deep breath. “But I… I like folk tales and fairy tales and stuff. I don’t know why. They were my favorite stories as a kid. And, uh… I still r-read them sometimes.”
There. He said it. He finished cramming the books back into his back, too nervous to observe Akashi’s reaction. Until Akashi spoke, in his serious voice.
“I hardly think that qualifies as dumb.” His brows were slightly raised. “Folk tales are the oldest and purest form of storytelling. Do you have a particular favorite?”
Furihata sat very still. There was that echoing feeling again. He had a sudden and impossible urge to take out a pen and underline all of Akashi’s words, so he could remember them later.
“The oldest and purest form of storytelling.”
He had no idea if Akashi really felt that way. If it was a deeply held belief of his, or just a casual opinion. Still, Furihata had never met another guy who would say something like that out loud. He didn’t know what it meant, exactly, but…
Somehow, Akashi’s response made the whole thing seem a little less embarrassing.
“Um, I don’t think I could pick a favorite,” he said. “I like p-pretty much all of them. I guess I know the Japanese ones best. But I like ones from other countries too.”
Akashi nodded. “I enjoy both as well. Although when it comes to international lore, I am usually partial to epics.”
He picked up his bag, the fancy brown leather one with all the straps. (A satchel? Furihata was pretty sure that was what it was called.) He opened it, and rifled through the center compartment. Meanwhile, Furihata couldn’t help but give a slight smile. Because Akashi’s last comment just kind of figured.
Epics, huh. As in, all-powerful gods and legendary heroes.
“Sounds about right,” he mumbled a bit wryly, under his breath.
Akashi looked up from his bag. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“N-nothing!” Furihata jerked backward, heart leaping in his chest. “It’s nothing.”
Jeez, what are you doing? You can’t say something like that! What if he thinks you’re making fun of him?
What if Akashi Seijuurou thinks you’re making fun of him?
Furihata shrank down into his seat again.
The truth was, he didn't know what would happen. Nothing, maybe. But a comment like that definitely sounded rude. Even if Furihata tried to explain it was more or less a compliment, he’d probably mess up the whole thing and manage to make it worse. What the heck was wrong with him?
At least Akashi didn’t seem to have heard. He was taking something out of his bag. Furihata did a double take, as the other boy removed a long container that looked kind of like a thermos. Except it had a lever on the side, and a weird handle near the bottom. As he watched, Akashi removed the bottom part and set it to one side, and Furihata realized it was a teacup.
Akashi glanced at him. “I generally prepare my own tea on long rides like this. I hope you don’t mind?”
“Uh, n-no,” Furihata said. He wasn’t sure in what universe people would mind tea being made in front of them. He couldn’t bring himself to stop staring, though.
Akashi took out a second container, clearly a thermos this time, and a small metal tin. He pried the tin open gently. As he did, Furihata noticed something odd. Well, maybe not odd, exactly… But it was weird that he even noticed.
Akashi Seijuurou had strangely elegant hands.
Furihata sort of recalled Kuroko saying something about that once. He didn’t remember in what context, though. Turns out, it was true. Akashi had unusually long fingers. They moved nimbly, with a precise sort of grace. The skin on his hands was smooth and pale, tapering into slender wrists that were just visible beneath his shirt cuffs. Even his nails were a picture-perfect length.
It wasn’t that his hands looked feminine, Furihata thought. They looked strong, and firm, and quick.
They were just kind of hypnotic.
Akashi opened the tin, which was filled with long black leaves. He measured some out with a small spoon. (Furihata had no clue where the spoon even came from.) He dropped them into the first container, into a basket inside it. Then he poured water from the second thermos into the first. Steam curled between them. The whole time, he didn’t spill a drop. Every movement was smooth, sure. Furihata was reminded of the way tea masters moved in ceremonies.
Akashi Seijuurou was on a train, making tea in a thermos. But somehow he was making it looking like some kind of ritual.
“You must do that a lot,” Furihata said. And immediately wished he could smack himself. What kind of stupid comment was that?
Akashi’s mouth flickered in another smile.
“I am something of a tea fanatic,” he said. “I studied it as part of my education, but it’s become a personal interest of mine.”
Well, that explained a lot, Furihata realized. He had probably studied under an actual tea master and everything. Akashi eyed his watch. (Because of course he wore a watch, with a leather band and gold all over the dial.) After a few seconds, he pulled the lever on the thermos, then opened it. A sweet, roasted scent wafted through the air, as he poured the amber liquid into the waiting cup.
“Do you like tea?” he asked as he poured.
“U-um…” Furihata felt another stab of nerves. “S-sure. But I don’t have it o-often.”
He didn’t know how to say that he liked it, but he mostly only had the green tea they served in restaurants, and the bottled kind, and this cheap apple-flavored stuff his mom bought in bags. That probably sounded dumb. He didn’t know the first thing about tea, really.
“Well then, would you care for some?” Akashi said. He held out the cup.
“Huh?” Furihata’s stomach gave a lurch. “Oh, n-no, I couldn’t.”
“Please. I insist.” The cup balanced gracefully in his outstretched hand.
Furihata wrung his fingers in his lap. They were trembling again. Somehow, he just knew this was a bad idea.
He groped for an excuse, a polite one. “B-but that’s yours, and—”
“I have plenty left over,” Akashi said, in his gently firm voice. “You can take the cup, and I’ll drink from the brewer. Honestly, it’s no trouble at all.”
Furihata’s heart quaked. Because it was bad manners to refuse at this point. But what if he said yes? Maybe he wouldn’t like it, and would make a gross face and look like a jerk. Or he would like it a lot, but he would make some kind of stupid comment that just proved he had bad taste or something.
He was starting to sweat again. Cold moisture gathered between his shoulders and down his back. Akashi was watching him, looking confused, and Furihata knew he was being rude. His lungs seized up.
“O-o-okay,” he managed, a hoarse whisper.
He forced himself to reach out to take the cup. Suddenly he realized how much his fingers were shaking. They twitched beside the cup’s thin handle. A memory flashed through his mind: the moment where he dropped the tickets on the platform earlier.
He was about to do the same thing. To fumble and probably drop the cup. Except it had tea in it, hot tea, which meant that when he dropped it…
An image seared his thoughts, of his lap and sleeves splattered with tea, big brown stains that would be there for the rest of the trip. Across from him, Akashi would be soaked. In steaming tea. Even if it didn’t burn him, it would definitely stain that nice shirt he was wearing. The thought alone was so awful that Furihata’s heart pounded against his ribcage like it was trying to leave his body.
Oh, god… No, please no, anything but that…
“I—I—I’m sorry!” he blurted, edging away. “I can’t.”
Akashi blinked, obviously startled. Guilt stabbed Furihata deep in the chest. He stared at the floor, and his ears rang. He was screwing up. In front of this eerily perfect guy, who probably never spilled drinks or acted like an idiot ever. Who invited him onto an N700 high-tech shinkansen. And Furihata still had no idea why, and he was already making him regret it.
You’re so stupid. You’re so stupid. Furihata was starting to feel kind of trapped, like the seats were shrinking. Because why were they so close together all of a sudden? And he couldn’t breathe right, and his ribs squeezed in his chest, and oh no not this again, why was this happening now…
He staggered to his feet. His breath dragged in his throat.
“I…” His voice came out in a squeak. “I’m going to go look around. If that’s okay.”
“Of course,” Akashi said. He sounded as calm as always.
Furihata winced. He turned and dashed down the aisle. Near the end, he tripped on someone’s bag, and smacked his elbow against a headrest—“Sorry, sorry,”— then burst out into the space between compartments. The walls were paneled with shiny imitation wood, which would have been cool to see if Furihata weren’t so busy feeling like he was about to pass out. He stumbled toward the toilets, but they were occupied. So he hid in a corner, and tried to remember how his lungs worked.
Just breathe, he told himself. In for four seconds, hold for seven, out for eight.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Come on, Kouki, you can do it. Just think about trains. Start with this one…
N700 series, Z set, Z4. Made by Hitachi Limited, delivered 2007. Summer, probably? Sixteen cars, thirteen standard-class, three green. Conductor’s compartment is in the eighth car, it also has a defibrillator—I might need it, no don’t think about that right now—and four cars have smoking rooms. Why do I even know that, no one in my family smokes. Top speed of an N700 is three hundred kilometers per hour, reaches speed of two hundred and seventy in three minutes, maintains on turns. They use fifteen—no, nineteen percent less electricity than N300’s…
He was breathing a lot better now. Which was good, except he was starting to feel a little sick, at the thought of what had happened. Just as his stomach was tying itself into a queasy knot, a well-dressed businessman came out of the restroom. Furihata darted inside, and locked the door behind him.
Slowly, he sank into a crouch, with his back braced against the wall. He wrapped both arms around his chest, and let out a choked whimper.
What are you doing?
Why are you acting like this…?
Furihata knew better. He honestly did. Yeah, he was a screw-up, but he wasn’t this bad most of the time. He had only made it fifteen minutes into the ride before he freaked out again. And for no reason. It would have been better if he messed up somehow. Like if he spilled the tea, or said something stupid.
Now it just looked like… Well, it looked like…
He covered his face with one arm, and sucked a breath through his teeth.
He knew what everybody thought. That he was nervous around Akashi because he saw him come at Kagami with scissors. And because he was so useless at guarding him in the Winter Cup finals. And okay, sure, maybe there was some dumb part of his anxiety-riddled subconscious that was still acting on that stuff.
But Furihata wasn’t an idiot. He was there when Kuroko told everybody about his past at Teikou. He knew that this Akashi was a different person. Even if he hadn’t known, it was obvious. Akashi was so courteous and friendly now. Even his expressions were different. Gentler, and warmer than before.
What Furihata couldn’t explain, though, was why he was still acting like a nervous wreck around the guy.
Furihata had fainted when Akashi showed up at Kuroko’s birthday party. Literally fainted. Which was so embarrassing that he basically wanted to die whenever he thought about it. He had tried to be less of a weirdo after that, and talk to Akashi like a normal person. But it wasn’t like he could take back what happened, and he felt like an idiot the entire time.
Later that week, Kuroko was helping him shelve books in the school library. They usually partnered up for the task, if only so they could talk in hushed voices about basketball. That day, though, Kuroko hardly said anything to him. But he could be really quiet, so Furihata didn’t think much of it. Not until Kuroko stopped in the middle of shelving a book and looked right at him, with that unblinking stare.
“Furihata-kun, could I ask you something?” he said, in his serious way.
Furihata blinked. “Yeah, sure.”
“Why are you always so nervous around Akashi-kun?” Kuroko was openly frowning now.
Furihata’s heartbeat actually stopped for a second.
“Um… I…” He gaped at Kuroko, his mouth hanging open. “That’s… I d-don’t…”
He cringed. He almost never stammered around his friends, not unless he was really put on the spot. He pressed his lips together tightly. Kuroko gazed at him, for a minute that felt more like an hour and a half.
“I apologize,” he said at last. His voice was as quiet as ever. “You don’t need to answer that. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
With that, he took an armful of books and knelt beside the bottom shelf to sort them. Furihata just stood there, stunned. His ears stung, like someone had smacked them. Kuroko never said anything more. He didn’t have to. Because Furihata knew what his question meant. It wasn’t exactly a question.
It was more like a reproach.
Furihata got it. Really, he did. He knew Kuroko and Akashi were friends. Of course Kuroko would think there was no reason to be nervous around him.
That was the thing about Kuroko, though. He wasn’t intimidated by anyone.
Seriously. No one. He hung around the Generation of Miracles like it was nothing. Of course, they were his old teammates. Which meant he knew them differently than most people… But then what about scary guys he didn’t know? Furihata had heard Kagami tell that story a dozen times, the one where Kuroko went up to a bunch of bullies on a basketball court and told them off. Without even stopping to ask for backup. Furihata could never do anything like that. Not in a million years.
He was a coward. And kind of a loser sometimes.
Didn’t Kuroko know that was the real answer to his question?
Furihata leaned his head back against the restroom door, and heaved a sigh. He was so pathetic. He had no idea, really, why he was so nervous around Akashi. Not now, when he was being so nice. Furihata was pretty sure he was just psyching himself out. He did that a lot, for no reason. There was something else, though… Something strange about Akashi, even now, that made every cell in his body shiver… But he refused to think about that. It was stupid, and made no sense.
No matter what, though, Akashi was just so intimidating. Even off the basketball court, he still had so much presence. An air of total authority. He was president of his student council, and captain of the highest ranking basketball team in the country, all in his first year of high school. Kuroko once said that Akashi’s grades were the best in his class, and he placed nationally in exams. Plus he was good at every single thing he did. So good he had only lost once in his entire life, apparently.
Furihata couldn’t even comprehend that last part. He had spent his entire childhood losing to his older brother, at every game he tried. He couldn’t count how many times he’d lost at something, but it was way, way more than he’d won. Trying to imagine what it would be like to always win was as alien as pondering the existence of an actual alien. As in, the kind from another galaxy. It was worlds away from Furihata’s life.
Worlds and worlds away… But somehow, here he was. On the same train as Akashi Seijuurou.
Furihata stared up at the ceiling. He still wanted to know why Akashi had invited him. He couldn’t think of an ulterior motive that made sense. But Akashi’s actions didn’t make much sense on their own, either. Plus, there was something odd about the way he had asked… Back when Furihata was trying to say no, because it was rude to accept such a blatantly generous offer…
“I would be glad of the company.”
Akashi had sounded like he meant it.
But that was just weird. Even if Akashi seriously wanted random company on a train ride—which seemed like a really bizarre assumption to make—why would he want it to be Furihata, of all people? Akashi must have noticed he was always freaking out around him. Obviously he would be a lousy travel companion.
Obviously. Furihata clenched his teeth. The truth was, he didn’t just say yes to Akashi because he wanted to ride on this train. (Although he did. Badly.) He had accepted because even though it was more polite to say no, it felt like chickening out. Furihata hated when his nerves got the better of him. He knew there was no reason to be freaked out. Not really. And he wanted to prove he could talk to Akashi like a normal person, instead of a tongue-tied doofus. Plus he didn’t want Kuroko to find out he told Akashi no.
There was another reason, too…
Furihata didn’t know how to explain it. But the more he talked with Akashi, the more he felt like he should keep talking to him. He felt the same thing when Akashi walked away on the train platform. A weird compulsion to stop him. Like this was something he had to do, for whatever reason. He had no idea why.
Maybe it went back to getting over his nerves. Or maybe it was because of that echo thing. The way Akashi kept saying things that he didn’t expect. This new Akashi seemed so different. Maybe some part of Furihata just wanted to figure him out.
Which was a really stupid idea, given his track record around him, and he just proved it.
Furihata shut his eyes, tight. He could still see the startled look on Akashi’s face, just before he bolted. Whatever the reason, Akashi was doing him a favor. Couldn’t he at least be normal in return? He had to be able to sit in a stupid train seat, without acting like he was losing his mind. Maybe it didn’t matter to Akashi all that much, but still. He didn’t know what he was so jittery about anyway.
He staggered to his feet. With clenched hands, he left the restroom compartment, and went to the washing stand outside. At least he didn’t look too messed up, he thought, as he studied himself in the mirror over the sink. Kind of pale, but that was it. He washed and dried his hands, and gave himself a minute to look around. The whole time, he recited the same thing, over and over in his head.
No more running away. No more running away.
Before he knew it, he was marching back down the aisle of the ninth car. He did his best not to think about the questions that were probably waiting for him, once he returned to his seat. Questions he deserved. (“Oh, are you all right now, or should I call the men in white coats?” “Do you ordinarily have a nervous breakdown when someone offers you tea, or am I the only one to earn that distinction?”) The sun was already setting, filling the compartment with rosy red light.
He reached his chair, and stopped still. Akashi was sitting beside the window, just like before. He had a laptop computer balanced on his tray, and was typing away. Furihata couldn’t help noticing that he looked more unreal than ever. The ember-like glow of the sunset shone on his skin, mirroring his crimson hair and eyes. He looked like a picture of some kind, and way more mature than a teenager, with his blazer slung over an armrest and the sleeves of his tailored shirt rolled up at the elbows.
Furihata had meant to speak first, maybe make up some excuse for running off, or even apologize for being such a nutcase. But when he opened his mouth, his tongue and throat felt strangely dry. Before he could force himself to try to speak, Akashi glanced up. He stopped typing immediately.
“Oh, Furihata-kun,” he said. “I didn’t think you would be back so soon.”
This was not the reaction Furihata expected at all. “Huh?”
“You went to look around, didn’t you?” Akashi smiled faintly. “I just assumed you would be scouring every inch of the place. But I suppose you forgot your notes.”
He nodded to Furihata’s bag, still on the floor beside the footrest. Furihata blinked. Not only was Akashi not asking him any questions, he seemed to expect him to take his bag and leave again. Furihata had to admit it was tempting. He had been so busy panicking that he hadn’t looked around yet. But…
No more running away.
“Actually, I got a pretty good look,” he lied. His voice was too loud, but at least he wasn’t stammering. “So, um… Maybe I’ll go around with my notebook and stuff later.”
With that, he plopped down in the empty seat, and clasped his hands in his lap. There was a long silence. He stared at the seatback in front of him, not quite able to look at Akashi just yet. His heart kept skipping random beats, and he felt too warm, but at least he was breathing fine.
He kind of expected Akashi to call him out, on how he was lying…
“Well, what do you think?” Akashi said. Furihata looked up at him, confused. “Of the train. Is the N700 as interesting as you hoped?”
“Oh, yeah.” Furihata nodded, without really thinking. “It is.”
Akashi settled back into his chair, with his arms loosely crossed. “So what’s the most remarkable thing you could tell me about it?”
“Um. Heh.” Furihata managed a meek grin. Did Akashi really want to get him going on all that? Then again, maybe anything was better than silence. “Well, last year they installed wireless Internet for the first ti—and I’m guessing you know that already.”
He said the last part in a chagrined voice. He just noticed Akashi’s computer had an Internet browser open. A surge of warmth spread across his face.
Akashi chuckled. It was the first time Furihata had really heard him laugh. It was soft, brief. The sound of it was strangely musical, though, like someone humming a note.
“I did happen to know that, yes,” he said. “And I’m reasonably familiar with most of the passenger facilities. But I don’t know anything at all about the train’s mechanics. Could you tell me about that?”
“M-more than you’d want to know,” Furihata murmured.
Akashi’s eyes gleamed, in the reddening light. “Is that so. In that case, why don’t you test that theory?”
Furihata gulped. His stomach felt kind of queasy again, and he didn’t know why. He tried to focus on the question. It sure seemed like a bad idea to answer. On the other hand, he was less likely to panic if he was caught up with train stuff.
That’s right, just think about trains… So what if he thinks you’re a nerd, it can’t be any worse than what he thinks of you anyway…
So Furihata opened his mouth, and started talking. He went a little too fast, and Akashi had to interrupt to ask him to explain again. But it wasn’t so bad. The part he had to repeat was one of his favorite things about the train: how it tilted slightly on turns, so it didn’t have to slow down the way the older models did. And of course he described it in way too much detail, and used a ton of embarrassing railfan lingo.
Akashi didn’t mock him, though. He just asked what each word meant. Before Furihata really knew what was happening, he was talking about track gauges and engine mechanics like it was almost normal, and not the geekiest thing on earth. And he probably should have known, but Akashi kept up with it pretty easily, asking all the right questions to show he understood.
“You do have a great deal of knowledge about this,” Akashi said, at one point. He sipped from his teacup, and set it down on the tray again. “How did you come to have such an interest in trains?”
“Oh, uh, my uncle works for JR Central,” Furihata said, almost absently. “He gave me a few model trains when I was a kid. I was pretty obsessed with them.”
He was staring down at Akashi’s tray. The teacup rested there. In the falling light, the amber surface of the liquid gleamed. He had managed to relax a little by now. Maybe… Maybe he should…
“Um, so I was wondering,” he blurted. “C-could I try a sip of that? I—I mean, if that’s still okay with you.”
Akashi looked at him for a long moment. Furihata couldn’t read his expression at all. He squirmed in his seat.
“It just, um, smelled really good before,” he added, as a mumbled afterthought.
One of Akashi’s eyebrows lifted.
“If you like,” he said. “It may be a bit lukewarm. Would you mind drinking from the brewer, or should I see if I can find another cup for you?”
“N-no, that’s fine! I d-don’t mind. If you don’t, that is.”
“Not at all.” Akashi picked up the thermos from before. He screwed off the top part, with the basket of tealeaves, and set it aside. He held out the container. Furihata’s fingertips quivered, and sure enough, they fumbled a bit as he took it. But Akashi had braced the bottom with his other hand, so it didn’t go anywhere. (Akashi probably figured he might drop it. Which was embarrassing, but Furihata was so glad about not spilling it that he didn’t care so much.)
Furihata raised the container to his lips, and traces of a roasted aroma wafted into his nose. He took a tiny sip. The tea was sweeter than he expected, almost like it had some kind of fruit in it.
“Is—is this flavored or something?” he said. “It’s really good.”
The corner of Akashi’s mouth tipped upward. “No, it’s just oolong tea. I find that one has a strong note of peaches, though. Would you say the same?”
“Uh, yeah. It d-does.” Furihata could still kind of taste it on his tongue. He studied the container. He never imagined it was possible to taste a flavor in tea that wasn’t just, well, tea. Unless you were some kind of fancy expert. Maybe it didn’t take as much expertise as he thought.
“Have as much as you like,” Akashi said, picking up his cup.
He took a sip. Furihata did the same. They both eyed each other, with hesitant smiles, and Furihata’s heart lifted. He had actually managed not to look like a complete idiot, for once. The sunset deepened to twilight, as the train bolted through the Kantou countryside. The ride wasn’t over. Furihata still felt weirdly on edge, and he couldn’t look Akashi in the eye for more than a few seconds…
But maybe he could get through this after all.