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The Fast Train to Kyoto

Chapter Text

Akashi Seijuurou was less than eager to board his train.

He stepped out onto the airy platform. A chilly spring breeze gusted past his face, as he paused to check his phone. Nothing. No messages from his friends, no last minute demands from his father to remain in Tokyo for the evening.

He sighed, with something halfway between relief and regret. He had no desire to visit his family estate. But now he had nothing left to do, except locate his reserved seat on the train and wait for the two-hour ride to Kyoto to begin. He had enjoyed the afternoon he spent with his old teammates from the Generation of Miracles. But their time together always seemed too short, somehow.

Still, Akashi cheered himself with the notion that once he returned to Kyoto, he could seek out a few of his Rakuzan teammates and see what they were up to. They seemed more than willing to include him in their activities. Even though he was their captain, and had spent most of the last year as a different person. A person who—well, whose capacity for warmth and charm was questionable, at times.

Of course, his other self would have plenty to say about that assertion.

Akashi smiled wryly at the thought. His little brother had been asleep for weeks. He was exhausted, it seemed, from the fallout of the events of the Winter Cup, and was spending most of his time unconscious lately. Akashi didn’t blame him. Truth be told, it was something of a relief, not to hear from him at the moment.

Gradually, Akashi made his way across the platform, beside the silver-gray bullet train that rested upon the tracks. As he walked along, he studied his phone again. He could always message Mibuchi, he supposed, to find out in advance what his teammates would be doing with their evening free time. He opened the mail application, and began a new message. His fingers hovered over the letter keys.

He furrowed his brows. He wished this sort of thing were easier.

It ought to be. It was just a simple message. But in a way, that was the problem. Akashi didn’t send many casual messages, as a rule. Not because he found such communication difficult, or because socializing was unpleasant for him. It just felt… unnatural, somehow. Perhaps it was due to the fact that his acquaintances were always so painfully surprised, whenever he suggested that he enjoyed their company. Or maybe it was the echoes of his father’s voice inside his head, just another series of frosty words he ached to forget.

“It is not for an Akashi to associate with just anyone. Your time is valuable, Seijuurou, and so is your reputation. See that you don’t waste it, on trivial pursuits, or persons unworthy of your stature.”

Akashi cringed. ‘Persons unworthy of his stature? What a ridiculous idea. Everyone he had ever known who had made his life worthwhile, had no particular wealth or rank to speak of. (With the notable exception of his mother.) He had long ago discarded this principle of his father’s as nonsense.

But even so, he didn’t really have the slightest clue how to be an ordinary friend to anyone. No matter how much he might wish otherwise, he was still a product of his father’s training. An Akashi. Someone like him did not put others at ease.

Regretfully, he slid his phone back into his coat pocket. The platform was a dull blur, as people came and went around him. His heart weighed in his chest, as he trudged toward the middle of the train, where the first-class compartments were.

He couldn’t help but notice how even here, in an anonymous setting, most of the passersby gave him a wide berth. They veered out of the way, giving him sidelong glances that made it clear they were trying not to stare. It was as if they could sense, just from his appearance and posture alone, that Akashi Seijuurou was different. Set apart. A person always to be kept at a distance.

Akashi was growing tired of it.

He was so lost in thought that he no longer registered his surroundings. At least, not until his shoulder bumped hard into something. He frowned. Someone had been standing directly in his path, just behind the warning line. He couldn’t imagine why a person would stand in front of a waiting train like that. But it wasn’t his concern.

“Excuse me,” he murmured.

“N-no, excuse me.” The other person shifted out of the way. “Sorry.”

Akashi strode past the individual in question. But as he did, he realized several things at once. The person was male. He was around Akashi’s height, a little shorter, with a similar build. He also wore a pair of smudged shoes on his feet. Basketball shoes. Their shape and size and color tugged at Akashi’s mind, like a detail out of a familiar dream.

Akashi blinked. He halted, then turned around.

The boy he had bumped into was ordinary, in every possible way. Flyaway brown hair. Average, if pleasant, features. He had one notable quirk: eyes that were too wide, with small irises that gave him a constantly surprised look. He was dressed plainly, in a light brown jacket and a faded pair of jeans. Yet despite his nondescript appearance, Akashi was certain that he knew him.

“Furihata-kun?” he said.

The other boy had started to walk away. He froze, and turned around. He stared straight at Akashi, with an alarmed look the latter knew too well. Akashi’s insides twisted. Yes, there was no mistaking it.

This boy was from Seirin. Their first-year point guard. The unusually timid one, who constantly seemed on the verge of having a panic attack.

Well, this promised to be awkward.

Now Furihata—Akashi was certain that was his name—was shaking, to the point where he managed to drop a notebook he held. Which was a bit extreme, Akashi felt, even for a person his other self once terrorized on a basketball court.

Furihata scrambled to retrieve his notebook. He knelt, fingers fluttering, as he struggled to grip the cover. He dropped the book a second time, and Akashi fought the urge to wince. The last time he had seen Furihata was at Kuroko’s birthday party. That was awkward too. Furihata had fainted when he first laid eyes on Akashi. Which was… alarming, at best.

Akashi knew why Furihata was always so nervous around him, of course. He shared every memory of the Winter Cup with his other self. He tried not to recall other times he had seen Furhata looking like this. Especially not the first time, on that clear winter day, with the sunlight glinting off a pair of scissor blades… It was difficult, when the other point guard was quite literally on his knees before him.

(Really, was the universe trying to mock Akashi? He’d just had a run-in with Takao Kazunari in front of an antique shop, not an hour before. Clearly fate had decided that what he needed right now was to encounter every single point guard his other self had intimidated during the Winter Cup. As to why, he couldn’t imagine.)

Still, Akashi had to admit that he hoped Furihata had overcome some of his fear at the party. They exchanged pleasantries over dinner, and even conversed a bit. Furihata was still extremely nervous, though. And it had been two months since then. Now they were alone, instead of surrounded by their friends. Perhaps it was only natural he was frightened again.

Akashi drew a breath. He forced himself to speak in the gentlest tone he could.

“My apologies,” he said to the other boy. “It is Furihata-kun, isn’t it?”

Furihata stared up at him. He was still kneeling, clutching the notebook to his chest. His mouth moved, as if he was attempting to reply, but no sound came out. In the end, he only nodded.

Marvelous, Akashi thought. He had finally become so imposing that he could rob an acquaintance of the ability to speak. (He had gathered that Furihata was an uncommonly anxious individual. The fact remained, however.)

“Are you all right?” He stretched out his hand, with the intention of helping Furihata to his feet. The other boy flinched away. He let his hand drop to his side.

Yes, the universe was definitely mocking him.

He eyed the notebook in Furihata’s trembling hands, as well as the bag at his side. It wasn’t large enough to be a traveling bag. (Akashi was reasonably certain it was the standard-issue bag for Seirin students.) He glanced at the far side of the platform. It was empty. The only train present was the one Akashi was about to board.

“You wouldn’t happen to be a passenger on this train, would you?” he asked, nodding to it.

Furihata’s thin eyebrows flicked upward. He shook his head.

“N-n-n-o,” he finally managed, in a desperately stuttering voice. “U-u-um… I-I-I…”

He lowered his head, and fell silent. Well, two parsable words of speech were better than none, Akashi supposed. He tried to think of it as progress. Furihata hadn’t said much at the party either, apart from one-word replies.

“In that case, could I ask—” He hesitated. He had glimpsed the handwritten title on Furihata’s notebook. Trains: 2009~, with a blank space clearly meant to be filled in at a future date. Now he understood.

“Oh, I see,” he said. “You’re trainspotting, then.”

Furihata’s eyes widened. “Y-you… You know what that is?”

“Of course,” Akashi said, with a slight frown. “It’s a common enough hobby, isn’t it?”

Furihata straightened, and gradually rose to his feet. His knees were still wobbling. Not quite as much as before, Akashi thought.

“U-um, I guess,” he said. “N-not with most guys our age though.”

Akashi considered this for a moment.

“That’s true,” he said. “Though I’ve never given much weight to such generalities. It strikes me as senseless to choose your leisure activities based on your peer group, as opposed to personal interest.”

Furihata gaped at him. Akashi didn’t understand why. At least, not until his own words echoed inside his head, and he realized he was talking in his most natural voice. Which happened to include a great deal of multisyllabic vocabulary, and formal sentence structures.

Well, you certainly proved your point, he thought with chagrin. Namely, that you’re incapable of blending in. Well done, Seijuurou.

At least Furihata didn’t seem overly put off by it. That was a comfort. (And he wasn’t likely to tease Akashi either, the way his old teammates sometimes did.) Furihata blinked, then blinked once more. The look on his face reminded Akashi of a deer who had just stepped into a sunbeam.

“I—I guess so,” he said at last.

Akashi raised his brows. He found he couldn’t read Furihata quite as well as he could read most people. As if there was something behind the other boy’s behavior, some crucial piece of information he lacked.

Of course, he barely knew Furihata. And his temperament seemed a bit… unsteady, to put it mildly. So maybe this was to be expected. Akashi kept to the topic at hand.

“Is this train of some particular significance?” He gestured toward the silver-gray cars. “I know it’s one of the newer models, but I don’t recall very much about them.”

Furihata’s expression shifted again. His eyes had brightened a little, Akashi observed, with something like relief. He tightened his grip on his notebook.

“Y-yeah,” he said. “It’s f-from the N700 series. They’re the f-fastest trains on the Nozomi line right n-now.”

“That does sound familiar.” Trains weren’t Akashi’s area of expertise, by any means. But he tried to stay abreast of any major developments in national transportation. From what he could recall, these trains were a recent innovation, and exceptionally fast. The Nozomi line ran through many of Japan’s most prominent cities, so it made sense that it tended to showcase the most advanced technology.

Furihata was gazing at the nearby train. He appeared to be studying the linked cars: their sleek, streamlined contours, and the slate blue stripe painted down the side.

“I’ve always wanted to ride one,” he murmured, as though he didn’t quite realize he was speaking out loud.

Akashi pursed his lips. “You’ve never been on a shinkansen before?”

Furihata gave a jolt. He waved his hands, in an apologetic motion, and the pages of his notebook rustled. “N-no, I have! Been on a bullet train, I mean. B-but, um, uh… Not on the Nozomi line. It has a lot of the best r-rolling stock… Best trains, that is.”

He fumbled his notebook, almost dropping it again. Akashi couldn’t decide if Furihata still looked nervous, or closer to sheepish now. Either way, he was starting to turn a very visible shade of pink.

“A-anyway, I should really get going,” he said, backing away. “B-but it was n-nice talking to you, A-Akashi-kun.”

Akashi couldn’t help thinking that his frantic tone of voice implied the opposite. Before he could even reply, Furihata turned and scurried across the platform. Akashi watched him, motionless. His heart sank toward his shoes, and he gripped the leather strap of his satchel.

Was he really so intimidating?

He knew what his other self would say to that. “Of course. We both are. It can’t be helped. Still, we can always use it to our advantage.” He knew what his father would say, too. “It is expected, and appropriate, for those of lesser merit to find our family unapproachable.” He didn’t know what his teammates, new or old, would say… He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, honestly.

Akashi grimaced. His stomach churned, and he felt vaguely sick. He looked to the train. Through the windows, he could see the seats inside the first class car. Two by two. He looked back at Furihata as he retreated.

In that moment, an idea took root in Akashi’s mind.

It was a terrible idea. A terrible, absurd, foolish idea… Just the mere thought of it made his heart beat a little faster.

It was truly idiotic, for so many reasons. It was likely to fail, for one thing. And if it did—which it very much could—it would fail spectacularly. Akashi would hurt himself, and inconvenience (or even harm) what amounted to an innocent bystander.

But it went even further than that. Because Akashi was about to do something that went against his upbringing, his father’s principles, and his own deeply engrained habits… And he was fairly certain he was going against himself, too.

His other self would never approve of this.

Akashi cracked a bleak smile. His little brother was sleeping. But he knew how he would react to this idea. First, he would say that Akashi was being ridiculous. Then he would probably mock him, in a misguided effort to try to save him from himself.

“Oh yes, that’s an ingenious plan. You’re not going to frighten this random boy at all! And you’re certainly not going to mope about it for months and months afterward, once you fail and the whole thing goes up in smoke.”

Akashi’s mouth tightened. He could almost hear his brother’s laughter: sharp, and drier than his. A sense of defiance gripped him, flaring up like a flame. He was the one in charge of his actions now. Not his other self. Or his father, or anyone else.

Besides, he wasn’t frightening. And he intended to prove it.

He certainly would, if he managed to accomplish this.

“Furihata-kun,” he said. “Wait.”

He marched toward Furihata, and soon overtook him. He reached out and lightly tapped the other boy on the shoulder. Furihata gave a start. He stumbled to the side, and narrowly managed to regain his footing. He turned to Akashi, with eyes as wide as bone china saucers.

“Please excuse me, Furihata-kun.” Akashi’s heart skittered inside his chest. “But I… I have another seat.”

Furihata goggled at him. “Huh?”

“I reserved two seats on the train,” Akashi said, forcing his voice to sound calm. “So if you like, you could join me on the ride to Kyoto.”

Furihata’s mouth hung open. For a long moment, he didn’t say a word.

“You—” His eyes darted toward the train. “You have t-two seats in first class?”

“Yes,” Akashi said. “I usually ride that way.”

Suddenly he realized how that must sound. Seats in first class were expensive, particularly on the Nozomi line. And he had taken the trip for nothing more than a daytime visit with his old teammates. He doubted Furihata knew why he was in Tokyo. Even so, it was a clear extravagance to have purchased an extra seat, for no apparent reason.

Furihata probably assumed Akashi did it because he didn’t want to sit next to anyone else. Anyone who might be ‘beneath him.’ Warmth spread across his face. Part of him wanted to blurt out, “It’s not what you think. I’m not that full of myself.” But that would have betrayed his discomfort. Besides, if Furihata already thought such a thing, he would never believe Akashi’s true reason for doing so.

Fortunately, Furihata let the subject drop. The way his eyes darted around was less fortunate. It looked like he was searching for an escape route.

“Um, I—I d-don’t think—” He shook his head. “Th-thanks, really, but I c-can’t afford a ticket back.“

“I would be more than happy to purchase one for you,” Akashi said, gently but firmly. “Since I invited you to join me. It’s no trouble.”

(He already sounded like a hopeless snob at this point. He supposed he might as well go all the way.)

“And it’s not such a long ride,” he added. “You would be in Kyoto around seven or so, and back here by evening. Would your family mind if you missed dinner?”

“I-I d-don’t-t—” Furihata faltered, looking utterly helpless.

Akashi breathed a sigh.

“Forgive me, I don’t wish to pressure you,” he said, as kindly as he could. “It just seems a waste that I have an empty seat on my hands, when someone who has such an evident interest in trains could be enjoying it.”

He reached into the front pocket of his satchel, and slipped out his red leather pass case. He removed the tickets, two per seat, and showed them to Furihata.

Furihata looked at the tickets. Then he glanced at the train. Akashi could have sworn his eyes glistened. In the end, though, he shook his head once more.

“I’m s-sorry,” he said, in a tiny voice. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

Akashi’s heart dropped. He had expected as much. Furihata clearly wanted to make the trip, but he didn’t want to sit next to someone like Akashi in order to do so. Which had been Akashi’s idea, more or less: to prove he could sit next to a near-stranger and put him at ease. He held back another sigh, and revised his plan.

“Would you prefer a non-reserved seat instead?” he said, a bit reluctantly. “I’m sure there must be plenty left over. I could purchase one for you.”

“N-no! I meant—” Furihata wrung his hands on his notebook. “I meant the c-cost, of the tickets… I couldn’t pay you back and… I r-r-really don’t want to owe anyone like that.”

“Oh,” Akashi said. “I see.”

He was well acquainted with this particular concept. He fought the temptation to argue, to persuade Furihata not to concern himself with such things. Even if he didn’t feel the same way about the situation, he wanted to respect other people’s principles. And he could relate to the desire to rely on oneself alone. He lowered his gaze, to the tickets he still held.

“Well, in that case, I understand,” he said in a soft voice. “Of course, these tickets are already purchased. And… I would be glad of the company.”

He swallowed. Dear god, he was being ridiculous.

“But as I said before, I understand,” he repeated, more firmly this time. “I hope my offer didn’t offend you. And I hope you have a pleasant evening, Furihata-kun.”

He gave a nod, and turned to go. All the while, he did his best to ignore the icy ache that spread through the pit of his stomach, the nagging regret that not only had he made a fool of himself, but he had failed in his resolution. And right out of the gate, no less. Still, he should have expected this. It was a terrible idea, after all…

It was probably better that it hadn’t gone too far.

“W-wait. Akashi-kun.”

Akashi froze. He looked back at Furihata, whose face was turning a color he had never seen before. Most of his skin had gone white as milk, but there was a curiously rosy flush blooming on his cheekbones and his forehead, beneath his disheveled hair.

“Yes?” Akashi said. He felt a stab of concern. He hoped Furihata wasn’t about to faint again.

“U-u-um… I s-still feel pretty bad, about the c-cost…” Sweat beaded on Furihata’s temples. “B-but… If you really don’t mind, then…”

His voice dropped, word by word, until it was little more than a whisper.

“I would like to go,” he said.

Akashi almost didn’t dare to move, or speak.

“You would?” he finally managed.

Furihata raised his head. To Akashi’s surprise, he looked him square in the eye. His pupils were dilated, so much so that they almost eclipsed his small irises, but he didn’t look away. He nodded, rather strongly, an odd contrast to how his mouth trembled.

“Yeah,” he said. “S-since, um… You have an extra seat.”

Akashi blinked. Furihata would even sit with him, rather than attempt to obtain a seat elsewhere? He almost couldn’t believe it.

He felt his heart lighten a little. Though he didn’t know exactly why.

“All right,” he said. “Here you are, then.”

He held out one of the ticket pairs. Furihata’s throat pulsed, with a visible swallowing motion. He reached out to take the thin squares of paper. As he did, their fingertips brushed lightly together. Akashi gave a slight start; Furihata jumped. The tickets flitted to the ground. Akashi moved to catch them, but scarcely missed colliding with Furihata as he lunged to do the same. Fortunately Akashi’s reflexes were quick enough to avoid him.

“S-sorry!” Furihata cried. He didn’t seem to have noticed the near accident. “My fault. I’ve got it.”

Akashi straightened, and forced himself to take a breath. This was starting to feel a bit like trying to corral an easily frightened animal. His misgivings came back in full force, slithering across his train of thought. This really was a terrible idea…

Furihata retrieved the tickets, and stood up again. They both eyed each other.

“Well, I suppose we should board, then,” Akashi said, trying to smile. He tipped his head in the direction of the first-class cars.

“Y-yeah,” Furihata said.

Akashi hesitated. He was tempted to lead the way, as he usually did in such situations. But he was half convinced that the instant he turned his back, Furihata would bolt. Predictably, Furihata didn’t seem eager to make the first move either. Akashi took a few cautious steps toward the train. Furihata mirrored him.

In the end, Akashi gave a silent sigh and walked at his usual pace toward the ninth car. If Furihata really wanted to leave, he didn’t want to force him into staying. He wasn’t going to march him across the train platform like a captured prisoner, just because he was in an inexplicable and reckless mood.

But to his continued surprise, Furihata followed him, and largely matched his quick pace. His movements were wobbly, but his steps didn’t drag. As they entered the train car, he did trip over the threshold, though. (Despite Akashi’s attempts to warn him to watch his step.) Akashi moved to help him up, but once again, Furihata backed away. He staggered to his feet on his own, as pale and unsteady as ever.

This was not the most promising start.

At this point, Akashi realized the full reality of what he had just done. He was about to spend over two hours sitting next to a virtual stranger, who obviously had a severe tendency to panic. (Not to mention a history of being scared of Akashi in particular.)

Really, it would be a miracle if they both made it to Kyoto with their sanity intact, he thought grimly. To say nothing of Furihata going into cardiac arrest. Or worse.

He tried to tell himself it would be fine. He would be pleasant, and make his best effort to put Furihata at ease, just like at Kuroko’s birthday party. In the end, Furihata would enjoy the ride, and Akashi would have the satisfaction of having done an acquaintance a small favor. And in the process, he would prove he wasn’t someone to be feared, or avoided.

He did his best to ignore a looming feeling that no matter how hard he tried, that final outcome was impossible.

Chapter Text

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.

“Furihata-kun.”

“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.

Chapter Text

Well, Furihata hadn’t fainted yet.

This was what Akashi kept telling himself, during the first half hour of the train ride. No, Furihata had not collapsed from fright. Nor had he suffered a heart attack, or tried to hurl himself from a window or door. As a matter of fact, he had spent most of the time in his seat, and not because he had passed out or was otherwise too petrified to move.

Akashi had to admit he was a little surprised.

Not that it had been the smoothest of sailing. The first time Furihata sprang out of his chair, Akashi was fairly certain he wouldn’t see him again until the ride was over. He was probably going to find somewhere to hide. Or perhaps he would even try to leave at the next stop. It took all Akashi’s self-control to remain in his seat, and wait for the other boy to return of his own accord.

After all, if Furihata was frightened about something, it wouldn’t do any good to chase him across the train. At best, the ensuing spectacle would be alarming to the other passengers. Besides, Akashi didn’t especially want to witness Furihata launch himself from a high-speed shinkansen. Accidently or intentionally. (Not that Akashi had the slightest idea how that was possible, but he had no desire to risk it.)

Still, it was an uncomfortable wait. Akashi couldn’t help going over the situation again and again in his mind, in an attempt to figure out what might have upset the other boy. The only thing he could remember was offering him tea. He had even asked if he liked it, and Furihata said yes. So it couldn’t be the tea that disturbed him. It had to be something about Akashi offering it.

Akashi’s only theory was that Furihata thought he was trying to poison him.

It was such an outlandish idea. But he couldn’t come up with anything else. Maybe it wasn’t as outlandish as it should have been…

Akashi could still recall how after Kuroko’s birthday party, he had walked with some of his old teammates to the nearby train station. Then one of them—Kise, was it?—brought up the allegedly hilarious way that one of Seirin’s members passed out when he saw Akashi. At which point Akashi admitted to feeling some confusion about the incident, and they all stared at him like he was touched in the head.

“Akashi, don’t you remember?” Midorima finally said. “That boy saw you swipe at Kagami with a pair of scissors. He probably thinks you’re homicidal. He’s clearly not altogether there, if you know what I mean.”

Midorima was clearly trying to soften it with that last comment. Still, Akashi spent the remainder of the day reliving all of his worst sins, wishing he could somehow take back every ruthless thing his other self had done. He had remembered Furihata’s encounter with his other self at the finals. That was why he had been as kind to him as he could at the party, in an attempt to show him that he was different now, and that there was nothing to fear.

But he had forgotten that someone else witnessed the moment with the scissors, besides Kagami and his former teammates. Kagami understood, it seemed, that it was partly for show, and Akashi knew his teammates were aware of that fact. By that point, they were accustomed to his little brother’s theatrics, even if they didn’t approve of them. (Akashi, of course, didn’t either.)

But Furihata had no reason to know that. The moment was, after all, his very first impression of him. Sometimes Akashi wondered how many people had witnessed his other self’s cruel behavior, in one form or another, and how many rumors must be floating around about him. At least the incident with the scissors was the worst of it. He thought.

Ugh. Sometimes he really wished his little brother weren’t so cold-blooded.

In any case, this meant that out of everyone in the entire world, Furihata had the most cause to be afraid of him. Akashi felt almost guilty now, for sitting next to him at the party, and trying to talk to him. Given the circumstances, it must have been utterly nerve-wracking.

And as he sat alone waiting for Furihata to return, Akashi started to feel more than a little guilty again, for convincing the other boy to endure this train ride. Furihata reappeared then, with a strained expression on his face. Akashi tried to look as cordial as possible, and even gave him an excuse to leave, by suggesting he came back to retrieve his notebook. (Of course, he knew Furihata's earlier departure had nothing to do with looking around the train.)

Then Furihata surprised him, again. He sat down beside Akashi as though it was somehow vital that he not move from that chair. He still seemed anxious, but not panicked like before. Then he asked, on his own, for a taste of his tea.

Akashi had to admit, this Furihata individual was really starting to confuse him.

He was contemplating this during a lull in their conversation, which had been largely about trains. (Furihata was talking more than Akashi was, as a matter of fact.) The sun was still setting, casting a faint glow across the compartment.

“Oh,” Furihata said abruptly beside him. “It’s Fuji-san.”

Akashi raised his head. Outside the window, Mount Fuji towered in the distance. Tipped with snow, the high-peaked mountain took on a violet cast in the twilight.

“Ah, it’s visible,” he said, in a calm voice. “It seems the weather has cleared.”

Furihata rummaged through his bag. “You couldn’t see it on your way here?”

Akashi shook his head, as Furihata took out his phone. He watched while the other boy took several photographs. The mountain did look especially picturesque tonight, with wisps of cloud ringing its broad base. Still, Akashi couldn’t help noting the distinct sparkle of excitement in Furihata’s eyes.

“Has it been some time since you’ve seen it?” he asked.

“Y-yeah,” Furihata said, in his shy way. “Since elementary school.”

“That long?” Akashi was a bit startled. But then, he was more accustomed to this route than most. “I take it you don’t have much cause to travel in this direction.”

“Not really. My relatives all live around Tokyo.”

“You’ve been to Kyoto, though, I assume?”

Furihata nodded. “My family went once when I was small. But I don’t remember it all that well. A-actually, I was supposed to go there on my class trip last year. But I got sick and couldn’t.”

His face fell. Akashi could well imagine why. Not only had he missed a class trip, but most likely a train ride similar to this one.

“I see,” he said. “That is a shame. Kyoto is my favorite city, all things considered.”

Furihata gave a small smile, one Akashi couldn’t quite read. “I guess Rakuzan was your first choice for high school, huh?”

“Yes.” Akashi hesitated. This was something of an understatement. He had considered Rakuzan for many reasons, as a prestigious school in a city he treasured. But their basketball club was the primary consideration.

This had not been a consideration for his father, however, and it became the source of more than one argument between them. Rakuzan was a worthy school, even in Akashi’s father’s eyes. But he preferred the high school he had attended, a Tokyo institution renowned for educating famous businessmen and politicians. He argued for months that Akashi should follow in his footsteps, and apply for admission there.

Then at the most crucial time, Akashi was no longer in control of his decisions. It was fortunate his other self held similar convictions about basketball. In all honesty, his little brother had handled the decision even more deftly than he would have.

“Father, you have said it is important to excel in everything. While your school is of course prestigious, Rakuzan has lately outpaced it in both academics and athletics. I wish to lead the school with the highest possible credentials.”

He followed this declaration with what amounted to a business meeting, with data and sources to prove various claims. For his part, Akashi didn’t think that portion of the argument had been necessary. But his other self seemed to think it was the best way to appeal to his father’s sensibilities. Whatever the case, his other self’s approach had convinced his father of Rakuzan’s merits.

And as Akashi thought over the past year he had spent at his school of choice, he couldn’t resist a smile. True, he didn’t always approve of the actions of his other self. But then, he did owe him for a great deal.

“It was indeed,” he said, in a voice that was warmer than before.

Furihata eyed him, almost curiously. Akashi returned his attention to the conversation at hand.

“And what about you? Was Seirin your first choice?”

“Oh, um…” Furihata chuckled a little. “Yeah. It’s close to where I live, and it’s a pretty good school, for being so new.”

Akashi nodded. He couldn’t help wondering what it must be like, to choose a high school based on such simple criteria. He suspected Furihata hadn’t discussed any data projections with his parents during the process. A question occurred to him, but before he could ask it, Furihata rose halfway out of his seat.

“Hey, um, would you mind if I went around the cars for a little bit?” He gestured to his phone. “I was kind of thinking of taking some pictures.”

“Of course not,” Akashi said. “Please do.”

“Th-thanks. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Akashi intended to tell him not to hurry on his account, but Furihata was already making his way down the aisle. With a muted sigh, Akashi settled back into his seat. He couldn’t help wondering why Furihata seemed more companionable around him now. He wanted to believe that he had put him at ease over the course of their conversation, by being as polite and kind as possible. Much like he had tried to do at the party.

But he had a nagging suspicion that wasn’t it. Furihata’s demeanor had changed the most when he ran off. Until then, he seemed just as nervous as he was on the train platform. It was as if Furihata had simply resolved to return to his seat, not because of Akashi, but for some other reason. He even seemed to feel the need to tell Akashi he would be back soon. As though he felt obligated to do so.

Akashi frowned. Did that have something to do with it? Perhaps Furihata thought he needed to remain with him as much as possible. To… to…

To repay him for the train ticket.

Akashi’s heart gave a lurch. It only made sense. Furihata seemed all too aware of the cost of the tickets. He was probably forcing himself to remain with Akashi, despite his unease, because he knew he was doing him a favor.

It was understandable. Akashi didn’t blame him for reaching that conclusion. But it wasn’t what he had in mind, when he invited Furihata to accompany him.

The truth was, Akashi had tired long ago of social interactions based on obligation. It first began in grade school, when his father insisted on enrolling him in a prestigious academy. Most of the students there were heirs to large fortunes, or children of renowned geniuses, or even relatives of the imperial family.

But even there, Akashi stood out among his peers. Unfortunately, it seemed most children tended to be less than fond of a fellow student who succeeded at everything he tried, and never lost, and was generally correct in his observations but hadn’t yet learned to soften his declarations in that regard. It didn’t help that Akashi was so busy with his private studies that he rarely had time to socialize.

Needless to say, he didn’t have many friends at that school.

He did have a few, though. Or thought he did, until various children informed Akashi that these students were only being nice to him because his father was rich. He didn’t want to believe it, of course. Still, it was difficult to deny that the friendships at that school were often based on status.

Then sometimes, these friends of his would ask to visit his estate. His father didn’t allow him to have many visitors. But on the rare occasions when he did, these children would mainly play with Akashi’s toys, or chase each other across the grounds. They didn’t ignore Akashi, exactly… But they never asked him what he wanted to do, or seemed very interested in getting to know him.

One boy was different from the others. He was quiet, and followed Akashi around constantly. Whenever Akashi asked him what he wanted to do, he would say, “Whatever you want.” Akashi would talk to him about various things, and the boy would always listen. Akashi liked him a great deal.

Then one day, very abruptly, the boy stopped following him around. He was in a different class, so Akashi sought him out after school, and invited him to his home. But the boy declined. He did the same thing, when Akashi asked him again a week later. Finally he couldn’t help asking why not.

“I can’t,” the boy whispered, staring at the floor. “I’m sorry. My dad said I should be friends with you, because he was supposed to do a lot of business with your dad. But it didn’t happen, so now he wants me to be friends with someone else.”

In retrospect, Akashi felt deeply sorry for this boy. At least his father had never ordered him to be friends with the children of potential business partners. At the time, though, he could only think about how his closest friendship hadn’t been a friendship at all. Just an obligation. He still had no idea if the boy enjoyed the time they spent together. Most likely, he had not.

At first, Akashi had tried to take this revelation in stride, tried to act every one of his ten years in age. But he ended up crying to his mother about it a few days later. She held him, and said she was sorry. She asked him to keep doing his best, and to see if he could finish his last few years at that school. Then she made a promise. No matter what happened, she said, he could go to any school he wanted for junior high.

“A school with plenty of new students,” she said. “Perhaps you’ll find good friends there.”

At the time, there was only one place were Akashi felt at ease among other children: the local basketball league he had joined, at his mother’s recommendation. No one knew about the Akashi family there, and Akashi never told any of the other boys he was wealthy. They didn’t know about his perfect grades, or all the private lessons he took, or that he never lost. They were just impressed with his basketball skills.

So when his mother promised that he could choose any junior high he wanted, Akashi decided he would go to the school in Tokyo with the strongest basketball club. Which he did. His father never objected, though Teikou wasn’t as impressive as his grade school. (Akashi often wondered if his mother had asked him to honor her promise, before she passed on.)

At Teikou, Akashi made a fresh start. He was careful not to reveal his background to anyone. He didn’t mention his lessons, or his various talents, or the fact that he had never lost in his life. He joined the basketball club, and liked it from the beginning. (The outcome of that first practice was a little bizarre, but that was another subject.)

All the while, Akashi couldn’t help remembering his mother’s words, about finding friends at his new school. He was a tad nervous about the idea, but he resolved to give it a try. Perhaps the secret to making friends was to start the relationship on equal ground, he thought. Such as being members of the same basketball club.

Then, sure enough, one of his new teammates became his first true friend.

Midorima Shintarou was exactly what Akashi needed, at that point in his life. He was impressed, but not overly intimidated, by Akashi’s skills. He enjoyed competing with him, but no matter how many times he lost, he still remained Akashi’s friend. Midorima was also strangely fastidious about not owing Akashi for anything. He always repaid whatever he borrowed from him, an action he only did with great reluctance. He later admitted that he had assumed from the start that Akashi was well off, and didn’t want him to think he was trying to profit from their connection.

Even after Akashi told him about his family, Midorima never gave him the slightest reason to doubt his intentions. He knew Midorima wanted to be around him, just for the sake of his company. It was like a breath of fresh air.

One thing between them remained a bit awkward. This was Midorima’s sense of obligation, to never owe Akashi anything. Akashi still admired that trait. It was a blessing—but it was also a curse. Now that Akashi knew he could trust him, he didn’t want Midorima to feel as though he had to pay him back for every little thing. He wanted to be able to be generous toward his friend.

Still, all things considered, Akashi’s friendship with Midorima remained the closest one in his life so far. Likely the most equal one, too.

All of this was why Akashi loathed the idea of anyone spending time with him out of a sense of duty. No matter the reason behind it, the notion left him cold. So the possibility that Furihata was forcing himself to sit beside Akashi on a long train ride purely because he had paid for his ticket…

Well, it made Akashi feel like his insides were frosting over.

He tried to remind himself that this was more or less the point of their unexpected arrangement. After all, he knew perfectly well that Furihata wouldn’t choose to accompany him on a train ride under ordinary circumstances. He wasn’t trying to make a friend; he was simply trying to prove that he wasn’t a frightening person. It didn’t matter if they were on unequal ground, or that Furihata felt obligated to talk to him. If anything, that would help. All that mattered was whether Furihata could endure his company, for the duration of their time together.

… But how could Akashi ever truly claim that Furihata didn’t see him as frightening, if he was only there because he thought he had to be? In that case, all Akashi had done was bully a timid person into talking to him.

Akashi rubbed his temples. He was clearly thinking about this too much. The sun had set, and the train compartment was now dark. He switched on the seat lights, and forced himself to turn on his laptop. He opened a spreadsheet with data from Rakuzan’s recent practices. Then he took out a notebook, and a pen, and a pad of adhesive notes. He would need something truly distracting, if he was going to make himself stop thinking such dreary thoughts.

Before long, he was thoroughly occupied with studying his teammates’ records, and devising strategies to suggest to their coach. He was staring at his work when a voice pricked at his ear.

“H-hey… I’m back?”

Akashi raised his head, only to see Furihata blinking down at him. It took him a few seconds to understand why the other boy looked so confused. Clusters of adhesive notes were stuck to the backs of the chairs in front of him. Akashi had also torn pages out of his notebook and arranged them across the seats.

“Oh, Furihata-kun,” he said. “Excuse me a moment.”

He cleared the papers from Furihata’s chair.

“Um, you don’t have to—I mean, if you were doing something—”

“No, it’s quite all right,” Akashi said. “This is your seat. I’ll just leave the notes on the backs of the chairs, if you don’t mind.”

“S-sure.” Furihata slowly resumed his seat. “Um… What is all this?”

“Nothing so elaborate as it looks.” Akashi managed a wry smile. “You could say I was brainstorming.”

Furihata eyed the notes on the chairs. Each one had a single kanji written on it. They were arranged in distinct groups of five, with subtle variations between the groups.

“Huh, they’re like basketball plays,” he said. Then he gave a jolt. “W-wait, should I be looking at this? I mean—”

“Not to worry.” Akashi tried not to look too amused. “You may be on a team I consider to be formidable rivals, but none of this is finalized. Also, I doubt it’s legible to anyone but myself.”

“Right,” Furihata said, in a meek tone. He looked back at the notes. Akashi watched him, studying each shift of his wide brown eyes in the constrained light, and wondered how Furihata liked to handle strategy on the basketball court.

Furihata was a point guard, like him. Most point guards didn’t have as much say in a team’s game plan as Akashi did. But it was every point guard’s job to direct the flow of the offense, and set up plays. Akashi had memories of observing Furihata’s style in this regard, but they were brief at best. He mainly recalled Furihata trying to guard his other self in the championship.

He did remember forming the impression that Furihata was the sort of point guard who thought through plays before initiating them. He wasn’t the type to revise his approach on a whim, or attempt something purely by feel. As it happened, Akashi had similar preferences.

“Oh, they’re not positions,” Furihata said suddenly. “They’re players.”

“Hmm?” Akashi snapped out of his train of thought.

“The kanji on the notes,” Furihata said. “They’re from your teammates’ names. So those groups are different player combinations, aren’t they?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“I guess you were right then,” Furihata said, sounding disappointed. “I can’t really tell my team what you’re planning if I don’t recognize most of the names.”

Akashi couldn’t help a laugh. “I see your loyalty to your teammates outweighs your earlier concern.”

Furihata looked flushed. “Maybe a little.”

Akashi chuckled again, and took up his notebook. He had just thought of another possible play to try. He jotted a few quick notes. He could sense Furihata eyeing him. With a slight smirk, he tipped the book in his direction so he could see.

“Shorthand,” he said, one brow raised. “Can you read it?”

He already knew the answer, since most of the abbreviations were of his own invention. Predictably, Furihata hung his head.

“Darn,” he said, in a small voice, and Akashi suppressed another laugh.

He continued to work. After another minute or so, Furihata spoke up again.

“So, um… Why do you put those notes up like that?” He gestured to the chairs. “Wouldn’t it be easier to write it in your notebook or something?”

“If I want to keep a record of it, yes,” Akashi said. “Sometimes I write it there, if I think it might be useful later. I do this primarily to view as much information at once as possible. It helps me determine the best course of action.”

“That sounds… overwhelming.”

“It can be.” Akashi scrolled through the data spreadsheet. “But I find that I am less likely to miss something, if I have all the relevant facts where I can see them. That way, I can grasp the complete picture.”

Furihata stared at the numbers on the laptop screen, his mouth slightly open. “So what are you trying to figure out? Uh, n-not that you have to tell me! I just meant… Does your coach really let you come up with plays and everything?”

“Occasionally,” Akashi said. “Rakuzan has many established plays, on offense and defense. But our coach often wants us to try new ones, so that our approach doesn't stagnate. He feels I have a gift for devising the ideal version of a play, based on the specific talents of our players.”

“Wow,” Furihata murmured. “That’s really impressive.”

Akashi gave a start. He glanced at Furihata, trying to decipher his expression. Furihata hadn’t sounded envious, or sarcastic. The look on his face was a tad wistful, but he mostly looked interested. As if he admired Akashi’s abilities, nothing more.

Well, Akashi thought, that was odd.

“Thank you,” he said, a bit slowly. “Of course, I’ve had more opportunity to develop these skills than most.”

Furihata raised his brows. His eyes were even wider than usual. “I’m p-pretty sure most people couldn’t do that, even with practice.”

“I suppose.” Akashi wasn’t sure what to say to that. Usually he needed to change the subject in these situations, before the other party became upset somehow. It was still his first impulse, but he couldn’t quite decide how best to do that.

Then Furihata spoke again. “Is… Is that why you reserve two seats on the train? So you can spread everything out like this?”

He looked around at the notes. Akashi blinked. He had never expected Furihata to make that connection. It seemed perhaps Furihata didn’t assume the very worst of him. Even though he had reason to.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s easier, and avoids inconveniencing others.”

Furihata nodded, thoughtfully.

“Makes sense,” he said. “I guess you probably have a lot of stuff to do all the time.”

Akashi eyed him. He couldn’t help thinking that Furihata was insightful, more so than most people their age. He seemed to have a rare ability to look outside himself, to perceive others’ circumstances, and even respect them. Perhaps this was how he became a point guard.

“I keep busy,” he said, in what was a severe understatement. He preferred not to discuss the minutiae of his absurd schedule. “Incidentally, how long have you been playing in the point guard position?”

“Huh? Oh, since last year.”

“Really?” Akashi said, surprised. “What position did you play before?”

“I, uh, I didn’t,” Furihata stammered. “I never played on a team before I joined Seirin. I played for fun sometimes, mostly with my brother. But that was all.”

“I see.” This possibility hadn’t occurred to Akashi. It was so different from his own experience, for one thing. “Why did you decide to start competing in high school?”

Furihata looked distinctly uncomfortable. He fidgeted in his seat.

“Oh, um…”

He gazed at the floor. His color rose again, a ruddy flush that spread through his face and up to his ears. Akashi couldn’t understand why the question would prompt such a response. Not, that is, until Furihata finally answered.

“There was this girl I liked,” he murmured.

Akashi’s stomach dipped in a strange way. Though he couldn’t quite say why.

“A girl?” he repeated, calmly.

“Yeah. She…” Furihata gave a hesitant laugh. “She said she would only go out with a guy who was the best at something. I never competed in anything before, so I…” He ran a hand through his tousled hair. “I decided to try basketball. I thought it might impress her, if I won.”

Akashi furrowed his brows. “And did it work?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Furihata said in a quiet tone. “She asked to go out with me a month after the Winter Cup. I guess she decided she was interested. I had kind of forgotten about it, to be honest. I mean, not about her, I still liked her a lot, but—I guess I was more focused on team stuff.”

Akashi’s expression softened. For him, basketball was so intertwined with his sense of self that he couldn’t imagine joining a team just to impress someone. But clearly Furihata had learned to care about the sport regardless. As for his motives, well…

It wasn’t something Akashi understood. But that problem was entirely on his end, he knew. He managed a smile.

“I see,” he said. “And the date went well, I hope. Are you still seeing her?”

Furihata looked away. “N-no. That is—we had fun the first time, and we went out again. But after that, I—well, I sort of realized, um—”

“That she wasn’t a kind person?” Akashi said, as gently as he could.

Furihata nodded a little.

Akashi had already suspected as much. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Furihata shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad, to be honest. She wasn’t mean, exactly, but… I don’t know. Mostly we just didn’t have much to talk about.”

Akashi blinked. He had never heard anyone express that particular regret about a romantic interest before. Not anyone their age, at least.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find someone better suited to you,” he said.

“Thanks,” Furihata said. He was smiling, but his voice was rather faint. “It’s a little hard, though, when you don’t stand out much.”

A chill rippled over Akashi’s skin. He couldn’t help thinking that Furihata needed to be more careful about what he wished for.

For his part, Akashi rarely received female attention of any kind. For a while in middle school, he simply assumed he wasn’t popular in that respect. He was content with that, since he had other priorities. Until one day Kise said something about how Akashi had nearly as many female admirers as he did. Which Akashi found absurd, but then everyone else agreed with Kise.

“He’s right, you know,” Midorima added. “They’re just too afraid to approach you.”

After that, Akashi noticed that some girls did have a tendency to stare and whisper behind his back, from a distance. Still, very few of them ever spoke to him, even on Valentine’s Day. He sometimes received love letters, but they were typically anonymous, and included sentiments like, ‘I know I could never be good enough for you.”

Once in a very rare while, he would receive a love confession in person. He usually knew the girl’s name, but little else. He never had to formally refuse her, either. She would always conclude with, “It’s all right, Akashi-sama. I already know you don’t return my feelings. Thank you very much for listening.” Then she would run off, usually in tears, or trembling from head to toe.

None of these girls ever tried to win him over. Akashi knew why. He was, quite simply, unapproachable. Even the manner in which they addressed him gave it away. He intimidated all kinds of people. Girls, boys, random strangers. They might admire or resent him, but they didn’t truly wish to know him. His mere presence made most people feel uncomfortable, even frightened.

That was what it meant, to be a genuinely exceptional person…

To be kept at a distance. Because you made others feel lesser. And to be left with no idea how to bridge that gap.

Which was why Akashi was tempted to blurt out, “Believe me, that’s not what you want. Not if you ever want to get close to someone.” He drew a breath, and forced himself to think through the issue from Furihata’s perspective. Every situation had its drawbacks, after all. He tried to think of the most helpful thing he could say.

“That may be true at first,” he said finally. “But from what I understand, most people want kindness and empathy in a romantic interest. More so than talent, or status. You strike me as a kind person, Furihata-kun. I doubt you will have much trouble finding someone who cares for you, once they grow to know you better.”

He resisted the urge to add, Which will be easier for you, because I assume you don’t make people feel wretchedly inferior.

Furihata gaped at him. He had that odd blank expression on his face again, the one that Akashi couldn’t read.

“Um…” His voice was so low Akashi could barely hear it. “Th-thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Akashi said, holding back a sigh. “But it’s simply the truth, as I understand it.”

There was a long pause. Furihata twined his fingers in his lap.

“Have—have you ever dated anybody?” he asked, in a squeaking voice.

Akashi stiffened, despite himself. It was an innocent enough question.

“No,” he said, forcing an answer. “I have not.”

His tone was sharper than he intended. Furihata tensed beside him. “T-too busy?”

“Something like that.” Akashi turned away. He stared blankly at his laptop screen.

Too busy… Or too heartless.

He didn’t have the slightest idea how to explain the true answer to Furihata’s question. He was busy, yes. His father was unlikely to approve of anyone he might wish to date. And of course, he intimidated people. But it was more than that.

As far as Akashi knew, he had never felt that kind of interest in another person. He had never felt the urge, for instance, to kiss someone. He didn’t even know what sort of person he might want to kiss. He couldn’t tell if he was repressed, or frigid, or what was wrong with him.

Romance didn’t disgust him. He didn’t loathe the idea of sharing his life with another person. He just felt… detached. Like he couldn’t quite understand such feelings, even though some part of him wanted to. And he didn’t know why.

He busied himself with examining the spreadsheet. He sensed Furihata shift beside him. Squirming, most likely.

“S-sorry,” Furihata said, after a long moment. “I, uh, didn’t mean to be nosy.”

Akashi drew a breath. “It’s quite all right.”

He tried to give Furihata a smile. Furihata didn’t return it, however. His gaze darted away, and he looked tense. Nearly as much as he had at the start of the train ride. Akashi swallowed. His throat felt odd: a little tight, and almost painful.

It was just as well, he told himself, that he didn’t understand romance. He was already reluctant to try to grow close to others, no matter the reason. It felt like such an imposition, in the end. No matter how polite and kind he tried to be, most people seemed so ill at ease around him. The Generation of Miracles, and his Rakuzan teammates, were rare exceptions. Akashi always had the sense, deep down, that other people would rather be somewhere else.

He had that sense with Furihata now.

“I hope you can forgive my rudeness,” he said, slowly. “Incidentally, Furihata-kun…”

He swallowed again. His pulse thrummed in his ears. He knew better, than to say what he was about to say. He knew precisely what would happen if he did. Still, he couldn’t help wanting to find out, just the same…

“Don’t feel that you need to remain here on my account,” he said, with a masked smile. “If you would prefer to keep looking around, that is. I meant to tell you earlier. I know there must be a great deal of the train you would like to see.”

Furihata glanced up. His lips trembled, a miniscule movement, but Akashi caught it.

“Um…” He looked almost pained. “A-are you sure? I mean—”

“Quite sure,” Akashi said, very firmly.

Furihata flinched. “Um, okay. Th-thanks.”

He took out his notebook, the one with the trainspotting notes, along with a pen and his phone. He mumbled something Akashi didn’t catch, and made a hurried motion, halfway between a nod and a bow. Akashi sat very still, watching Furihata scramble down the aisle. Like before.

He had known, of course. He knew from the start what Furihata would do, if he insisted he could leave.

Despite the light that ringed his chair, Akashi had the sense everything around him had plunged into darkness.

He gazed at the digital screen mounted at the end of the compartment. It read, “Kyoto.” The next stop, in thirty minutes. The ride was almost at an end.

What was it Akashi had told himself, back in Tokyo? That he would invite Furihata, a near stranger, to join him on this train, to prove he wasn’t to be feared or avoided?

Why had he thought that was possible, again?

Akashi returned to his work, ignoring the way his insides were contorting into knots. He passed the remainder of the ride in this way, scrolling through charts, taking notes. Every now and then, Furihata would stop by his seat, and talk to him. Akashi didn’t understand why he was doing that. A lingering sense of obligation, perhaps.

Still, Akashi tried to appreciate it for what it was: a polite gesture by a good-hearted person. Because Furihata truly was kind, Akashi could see that now. He resolved not to pursue his own plan any further, and risk making Furihata any more uncomfortable.

After all, it had been unreasonable to expect more from him. Unreasonable, and selfish.

The train soon reached Kyoto. Furihata had returned to his seat by then, so Akashi led the way out onto the platform. It was a gusty spring night. He ushered Furihata down into Kyoto Station. Furihata looked all around as they walked through the sleek and crowded passageways, filled with shops and restaurants.

“It looks a lot like Tokyo,” he murmured.

“Yes, Kyoto Station is known for being startlingly modern.” Akashi approached a ticket counter. “Now then, I believe I promised you a return ticket.”

“Oh… Are you really sure…?”

“Of course.” Akashi gave him a look. “I hope you consider me a man of my word.”

Furihata ducked his head. “O-of course.”

“As for departure time, the trains leave every fifteen minutes,” Akashi said, glancing at the schedules. “Did you want to spend any time looking around the station?”

Furihata let out a sheepish laugh. “I would like to, but, um… I’d probably get carried away. And I should be going home.”

Akashi had assumed as much. He purchased a reserved seat on the next shinkansen. Then he handed the ticket receipts to Furihata. “Here you are.”

Furihata fumbled with his wallet. “Are you sure I can’t pay you back for part of the ticket? You even got the Nozomi line again—”

“No, I won’t hear of it,” Akashi said. “This was my idea, after all.”

“But—”

“Please, don't concern yourself,” he said, with a firm wave of his hands. “It was nothing more than my selfish wish, to have you accompany me tonight.”

Furihata gripped the strap of his bag. He looked at Akashi for a long moment.

“I—I don’t understand how something like that can be selfish,” he said, in a soft voice. The gentleness of it pricked Akashi in the heart.

“Believe me, it can,” he said, with faint dryness. “In any case, thank you for humoring me. I appreciate it.”

Furihata’s slender brows were furrowed. Akashi couldn’t quite tell if he was troubled, or confused. Either one would have been plausible.

“And if you ever happen to be in Kyoto and have more time, I would be glad to show you around the city,” he added. And immediately regretted it. Honestly, was he trying to put Furihata in an awkward position?

Furihata nodded, a slight motion. He was avoiding Akashi's gaze again. Akashi pressed his lips together, as a feeling of emptiness welled up within him.

“Well, good evening, Furihata-kun,” he said, as kindly as he could. “I hope you have a pleasant ride home.”

He gave a nod, and turned to go.

“Akashi-kun… Please, wait.”

The tenor of the words was almost desperate. Akashi stopped. He looked over his shoulder at Furihata. The other boy looked smaller than he really was, somehow, standing alone in that broad corridor, with the ticket receipts in hand. For an instant, neither spoke. To Akashi, it felt very much like when Furihata called out to him on the platform in Tokyo Station. Except Furihata wasn’t as pale now.

“Th-thank you,” he blurted, accompanied by a clumsy bow. “For everything.”

Akashi stood still, as a crowd of commuters hurried around him. Furihata really was kind, he thought. The sort of kindness he didn’t want to exploit, or abuse.

“You’re welcome,” he said, forcing one last smile. "Goodbye."

He turned and continued down the passage. Then he rode an escalator into the central part of Kyoto Station. As he walked swiftly through the enormous structure of glass and steel, he couldn’t help noticing how everything felt exactly the same as it always did. People still veered out of his way, giving him sidelong glances as they passed. They still kept their distance.

Nothing had changed. And why would it? The experiment on the train was just a foolish, self-centered impulse. Akashi had suspected from the start that it would be an exercise in futility. It was no surprise that nothing revolutionary had happened.

At least he had done Furihata a favor, Akashi told himself. That counted for something. He hoped.

But of course nothing had changed, in such a small space of time.

Akashi didn’t know why he had expected it to.


 One week later, Akashi was changing in the basketball clubroom at Rakuzan, when his phone rang. He took it out with a frown. He didn’t often receive calls on school nights, since his schedule dictated he could rarely answer them.

The number on the screen was unfamiliar. He recognized the Tokyo area code, but that was all.

“Hello?” he said into the receiver. There was a pause, then an odd noise—Akashi almost thought it sounded like the yelp of a small dog—followed by more silence.

“Hello?” he repeated. “Excuse me, but who is this?”

The call ended. Akashi studied his phone, perplexed. He might have thought this was some sort of prank, but he already knew the numbers of the only people in Tokyo who were likely to prank him.

“Sei-chan, who was that just now?” Mibuchi stood nearby, smearing some sort of lotion on his arms. (Akashi had to admit that he didn’t fully grasp the particulars of his teammate’s skincare regimen.)

“I’m not certain. I believe the call was cut short.”

Mibuchi looked like he was about to respond, when an ear-crashing holler interrupted him, followed by a series of booming laughs. Which was either someone being killed in the shower room, or Nebuya and Hayama were horsing around again. Akashi strongly hoped it was the latter. There had been no deaths during his tenure as captain, and he wished to keep it that way.

“Animals.” Mibuchi sighed, with a hand to his cheek. “Really, how can we be expected to control such bestial young men? Speaking of which, were you planning on joining us tonight, Sei-chan?”

Akashi vaguely recalled their earlier discussion about after-practice plans. “Thank you for asking, but I’m afraid not. My work for the student council is piling up again.”

Mibuchi tsked at him. “You work too hard, you know.”

“So I hear.” Akashi gave a faint smile as he straightened his tie. He hoisted his school bag over his shoulder. “I will see you tomorrow.”

Mibuchi hummed a goodbye, along with a motherly reminder to take the occasional break, and Akashi left the clubroom. As he walked along at his usual brisk stride, he tried to tell himself he hadn’t stretched the truth. He did have work piling up. Still, he could have made enough time to spend the evening with his teammates, if he so chose.

Somehow, lately… It felt easier to simply return home.

He approached the southern entrance to Rakuzan’s campus, where his driver was waiting. (For his part, Akashi preferred not to be chauffeured to school. The arrangement had been negotiated between his other self and his father a year ago, though, and he hadn’t tried to renegotiate it yet.) As he entered the back of the car, his phone rang again. He hurried to retrieve it. The screen showed the same number as before.

“Hello?” he answered, trying to speak as clearly as he could. “May I ask who is calling?”

There was another long pause. Akashi was about to repeat himself, when…

“U-u-um, i-it’s… uh-h-h-h…”

Akashi nearly lost his grip on the phone.

“Is this…” He hesitated to voice his thought. It couldn’t be. Yet he couldn’t think of a single other person he knew who sounded like that. “… Is this Furihata-kun?”

An odd strangled noise sounded on the other end. Akashi couldn’t tell if it was a moan or a laugh.

“Y-yeah,” said the familiar shaky voice. “S-s-sorry, um… J-just give me a second?”

Akashi’s jaw was becoming increasingly slack. Why on earth…? The questions raced through his mind. He didn’t know how Furihata had obtained his cell phone number. Moreover, he had absolutely no idea why he would have sought it out in the first place. Akashi quickly decided which question was more pressing.

“Please, don’t apologize,” he said, with all the calmness he could muster. “But may I ask why you’re calling?”

He waited patiently for a response. Furihata was like a deer, he reminded himself. Or any timid, tawny-haired sort of wildlife. No harsh noises, no sudden movements.

“Um, yeah… I m-mean, that is, uh…” Furihata’s voice faltered, and faded. Then, all at once, he started speaking very quickly. So quickly Akashi could scarcely follow him.

“Well actually I was just calling because I was thinking, well I found out I could buy a train ticket and it’s kind of a long story but that doesn’t matter now, sorry uh never mind that was dumb, anyway I just remembered that you were talking about Kyoto before at the station and I still really want to visit there since I couldn’t because of missing my class trip, I think I told you about that already? So I just wanted to ask… Did you really mean it? Before. The thing that you said before. About Kyoto. Because, um, yeah.”

Akashi pressed a finger to his temple, trying to force his brain to process all of this. Which was remarkable, because he was generally skilled at keeping up with fast-talking people. Where did he learn to talk like that? He should be a speed debater.

“Pardon me, but what did I say about Kyoto?” he said at last.

“Oh right, sorry! When you said you would show me around.”

Akashi jerked upward. He balanced on the very edge of his seat.

“When I…” He drew a shallow breath. “Yes. I did mean that. Are… are you…?”

He couldn’t even finish the question. This was about as close as he ever came to being speechless.

“Uh yeah, I was, uh… I th-thought I might come over there for a day. Like… Like a day trip? If… If you wouldn’t mind showing me around, that is.”

Akashi’s heart thrummed between his ribs. This didn’t make the least bit of sense. Because if he didn’t know any better, he would say…

He would say that Furihata was asking to spend a whole day with him. Voluntarily. In fact, he had actively sought Akashi out to make this request. Of his own accord. Furihata, the high-strung point guard from Seirin, who had all but run away from Akashi in the past.

It was unthinkable.

Wasn’t it?

“But, um, you don’t have to!” Furihata sputtered in the ensuing pause. “I mean, if you don’t feel like it, or—”

“No,” Akashi said, far too quickly. He tightened his grip on the phone. “No, I would be happy to do that. And I gave you my word. When were you planning to be in Kyoto?”

“Um, I was thinking maybe next Sunday. A week from now?”

“That would be fine, yes,” Akashi said. He was trying to ascertain why his nerves were tingling with suppressed energy. “Was there anything in particular you wished to see while you were here?”

“Oh, u-uh… Not really. Anything would be cool—great! Anything would be great.”

Akashi’s mind whirled. Possibilities stacked up in his mind, one after the other. He would need to consider this at length over the coming week.

“All right,” he said, struggling to think. “In that case, why don’t you send me a message once you’ve reserved your train ticket, and inform me of your departure time? Then I can meet you at the station on Sunday.”

“Y-yeah, okay! Um, yeah. I’ll do that. S-see you then, Akashi-kun.”

“See you then,” Akashi murmured, barely conscious of how he was echoing him. Furihata had already hung up.

He lowered the phone. An odd flutter worked its way through his stomach, and up toward his heart. He still couldn’t believe what just happened. He never, ever would have expected this. It was utterly unprecedented. Furihata was going so far out of his way, to spend time with him. And he had nothing in particular to gain from it. Not that Akashi could discern, at least.

Perhaps something was changing after all.

Akashi sank back into the leather-covered seat of the car. He stared out the window at a passing line of cherry trees, clouded with buds that were about to bloom. And he let himself wonder, not for the first and certainly not the last time, why Furihata had sought him out.

Chapter Text

It was going to rain, Furihata just knew it.

The weather in Tokyo was sunny, but there was a forty percent chance of rain in Kyoto. Furihata had carefully checked the forecast—and then went and forgot his umbrella. It always rained when he forgot to bring it. It was way too late to go back home and get it, though. By the time he remembered, he was already fifteen minutes into his train ride.

Well, he had his jacket, at least. It was sort of waterproof. He would still end up looking like a drowned rat if it rained. But he always kind of looked like a drowned rat in damp weather anyway…

And why was he even worrying about that? When there were so many bigger things he could be worrying about?

Probably so he wouldn’t throw up from sheer nerves, he realized. His stomach gave a familiar lurch. He took a short breath, and tried to focus on keeping down his breakfast. Not that he’d eaten that much, what with the nonstop queasiness—he was starting to feel like he’d been queasy for nine days straight, but it was a lot worse today—and all the questions from his mom over the breakfast table.

Who is this boy you’re meeting?” she kept asking. And Furihata would explain, for the thousandth time, that he met Akashi Seijuurou during basketball season. (Not that this explained anything, if you actually knew who Akashi was. But his mom didn’t need to know the full weirdness of the situation.)

For some reason, his mom kept acting like she didn’t believe him. Finally she narrowed her eyes and said, “Are you sure this isn’t about that girl you like? Some kind of secret date you’re going on?”

“Mom, I told you!” Furihata couldn’t help whining a little. This was seriously embarrassing. “I’m not seeing her anymore.”

“All right, all right.” She fixed him with a steady look. “But she had better not be convincing you to hide things from your mother.”

“She’s not, I promise. I really am going to see a friend.”

Furihata knew Akashi wasn’t his friend. He was positive Akashi didn’t think of him that way. But he didn’t have a good word for “this amazing guy who’s on our scariest rival team, and I used to think he was terrifying, except he did this unbelievably nice thing for me the other day, which I never actually told you about.”

In the end, Furihata didn't tell his mom about the train ride to Kyoto. Or his dad, or his brother. He felt bad keeping it a secret from them. But he knew his mom would be upset that he had accepted such a huge favor, when he couldn’t pay Akashi back. His dad would probably agree with his mom, and his brother would find some way to tease him about the whole thing. So he kept it to himself.

Furihata didn’t know how to explain that saying yes to Akashi’s offer had seemed like the right thing to do. It didn’t make any sense.

Especially since he was pretty sure he had messed the whole thing up.

When Furihata thought back on the train ride, most of it went okay. He had the one stupid freakout, but he hadn’t panicked after that. He got embarrassed when he had to explain why he joined Seirin’s basketball club, since he had a feeling it sounded dumb to an amazing athlete like Akashi. Akashi was nice about it, though.

But then Furihata asked Akashi a nosy question, about if he had ever dated someone. He could tell right away that the whole subject made Akashi uncomfortable. Instead of letting it drop, Furihata tried to ask him why, like an idiot.

Why had he done that? They weren’t even friends, but he had tried to figure out the details of the guy’s love life. How rude could he get?

It was just… Furihata didn’t expect Akashi to say he had never dated before. He probably had about a million girls chasing after him. Plus he had just finished saying that unbelievably nice thing, about what other people wanted in a romantic interest. It was hard to believe Akashi could have such firm beliefs, or seem to know so much about it, if he never had any experience.

Then Furihata realized that somebody like Akashi probably didn’t have a lot of free time. Or maybe he wasn’t allowed to date, because his family believed in arranged marriages. Or…

Well, it wasn’t his business. But curiosity got the better of him anyway. He never should have tried to figure it out. He apologized, but…

But then Akashi told him he didn’t need to stick around, if he wanted to look around the train. Honestly, Furihata got the feeling he was upset. He didn’t look it, but he was definitely trying to convince Furihata to leave.

So Furihata tried to give him some space. He didn’t want Akashi to think he was avoiding him because he was scared, so he still spoke to him after that. But it wasn’t the same. Akashi seemed closed off, like he didn’t want to talk to him anymore. Which kind of made Furihata feel like he was being punched in the chest. Probably because he felt stupid for being a jerk.

Then they reached Kyoto Station, and he felt worse. Because Akashi really did buy him a ticket back, and it was on the extra-expensive Nozomi line again, and he wouldn’t accept a single yen in return for it. Then he said something about how it was selfish to invite Furihata on the train, which made exactly zero sense.

Furihata never felt so confused in all his life, as when he stood there in Kyoto Station, watching Akashi walk away. He didn’t know why Akashi had done any of that for him, or what he did to mess it up, or why he felt so depressed suddenly, like he just wanted to hide in a corner. He felt terrible, the whole train ride home.

Akashi had been so kind. But Furihata felt like he wasn’t nice enough back. He should have done more, to show Akashi how much he appreciated what he was doing. It was almost like Akashi thought he had dragged him onto the train or something. He even thanked Furihata for “humoring him.” But that just wasn’t true.

He couldn’t seriously think that. Could he?

Furihata wanted to figure out a way to fix it. But Akashi didn’t seem to want to be around him again. He said something about showing him around Kyoto, but then he winced, like he wished he could take it back. He even said ‘goodbye’ when he left, and nothing else. (Not like Furihata blamed him, after he was such a nosy jerk.)

It wasn’t like they were friends. Furihata didn’t have his phone number or anything. He had no right to bug him, especially if Akashi didn’t want him to.

So as bad as he felt, he figured he would just have to look back on the whole experience as a mistake. One he would kick himself about for years.

And then… Well, then he overheard something he shouldn’t have.

Furihata let out a shaky breath. His train was slowing to a stop again. He couldn’t afford a ticket on the Nozomi line today, so he was on the Hikari, which had more stops. He didn’t mind a longer ride. But it definitely gave him that much more time to think about why this daytrip to Kyoto was such a bad idea.

He didn’t know why he let himself get talked into it.

It was his own fault, he guessed, for eavesdropping. Five days after the train incident, he was heading into the clubroom after basketball practice, when he heard Kuroko and Kagami talking. And he caught a name that made him freeze.

“—Akashi-kun,” Kuroko said.

“Seriously? You guys are talking again?” This was Kagami’s voice. “Your epic romance is getting out of control, you know.”

Furihata nearly choked. He was pretty sure Kagami wasn’t serious. But what were they talking about, exactly?

“Yes, we’re planning a spring wedding. We just picked out our rings,” Kuroko said, in his driest voice. Okay, yeah, not serious. “To tell you the truth, he’s hardly replied to me since Sunday. And his messages have all been brief. It’s not like him.”

“Yeah, you showed me that essay of his before. Have you tried explaining to him that texts are conversations, and not like, exams?”

“Kagami-kun.”

“Okay, okay. Enough with the glare. So, what? You worried about him?” A short pause followed this question. “Did something go down at the coffee shop?”

Furihata frowned. He wasn’t sure what coffee shop Kagami meant, but it sounded familiar. Had the Generation of Miracles met there recently or something?

“No, I don’t believe so,” Kuroko said slowly.

Kagami hmphed. “You don’t sound very sure.”

“Nothing happened at the shop,” Kuroko said. “But I had the sense he was troubled. I don’t think the last few months have been easy for him.”

Furihata’s heart thudded heavily in his chest. He couldn’t help remembering how Akashi was acting on the train ride, and at the station. He didn’t know anything about what kind of behavior was normal, for a person like Akashi. But the idea that something was wrong with him… That seemed to fit, somehow.

And some dumb part of him wanted to know what it was.

“I thought everything was cool between you guys,” Kagami was saying, as Furihata’s thoughts continued to race. “After all that drama on the bridge.”

Now Furihata was really lost. What bridge?

“I don’t think it’s about that,” Kuroko said.

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. Akashi-kun can be very… private, sometimes.”

Furihata clenched his hands. He shouldn’t be listening to any of this. He knew that, but apparently his curiosity was way out of control. He peered through the doorway. Kagami and Kuroko were standing by their lockers, with Kagami leaning against his locker door. Kuroko was holding his phone.

“And that’s coming from you,” Kagami was saying, eyebrows raised.

“It’s not the same thing at all. Akashi-kun is…”

“He’s what?” Furihata blurted. They both looked up. He stepped into the room, not sure why his heart was pounding. “Sorry. I just overheard you, and…”

They were gaping at him. Furihata understood why. It wasn’t like him to be this rude. He had almost never talked to either of them, about the Generation of Miracles.

Of course, he had never had a reason to before.

“Is—is something going on with Akashi-kun?” he said timidly. “Because this weird thing happened on Sunday, and—”

“Wait, what did you call him?” Kagami’s mouth hung open.

“Excuse me, but did you say something strange happened?” Kuroko’s brows were pinched together, creasing in the middle. “Did you see Akashi-kun somewhere?”

“We ran into each other at Tokyo Station.” Furihata swallowed. “And he, uh… He asked me to come on his train with him. To Kyoto.”

“He did what?” Kuroko said, at the exact same time Kagami said, “What the hell?”

“I, uh, I was trainspotting?” Even as Furihata began the explanation, he couldn’t help feeling like it wouldn’t explain anything. “He saw me doing it. And he was riding on this great train and had an extra ticket, so… I think he was trying to be nice.”

“And you said no to him?” Kuroko said, in a faintly tense voice.

“No… I said yes.”

“You went with Akashi. On a train to Kyoto.” Kagami said this like it might as well have been the moon. “You did.”

“Yeah.” Furihata cringed. He didn’t want to admit that it had turned out badly.

Kuroko gazed at him for a long moment. He sat down on one of the benches, and gestured beside him. “Please tell me exactly what happened, Furihata-kun, if you wouldn’t mind. From the beginning.”

Which was how Furihata ended up sitting beside Kuroko, and spilling the whole story. The more Kuroko listened, the more concerned he looked. Until at last Furihata tried to explain the exchange at Kyoto Station. Then Kuroko pursed his lips, and asked the last question Furihata would have expected.

“Akashi-kun offered to show you around Kyoto?” he said.

“Um, yeah. But I don’t think he meant it. He basically looked like that was the last thing he wanted to do.” Furihata grimaced. “Not that I blame him or anything. He was being nice, but I wasn’t good company at all. I just… I don’t understand why the whole thing happened in the first place.”

“Join the club, dude,” Kagami said, still goggling. “Seriously, what the hell?”

Kuroko sat in silence. He seemed lost in thought.

“Kagami-kun.” He glanced at his partner. “Would please you give us a moment?”

Kagami raised his brows. They were exchanging their weird eyebeams again, those shared looks with way too much subtext. “Yeah, sure.”

Kagami left the room. Kuroko turned to face Furihata. He looked serious, even for him.

“Furihata-kun, I have a favor to ask of you,” he said, in his quiet voice.

Furihata bit his lip. “Okay.”

“Would you please consider meeting with Akashi-kun again?”

“What?” Furihata’s mouth went slack. “Why? After everything on the train…”

“You don’t have to,” Kuroko said firmly. “But would you please consider it? Akashi-kun rarely invites people to accompany him anywhere, even friends. I don’t believe he would offer to show you around Kyoto if he were truly opposed to it.”

“But I don’t understand,” Furihata said, in a desperate tone. “Why would he want to spend time with me at all?”

“I don’t know.” There was that trademark Kuroko bluntness. “But Akashi-kun isn’t the type of person to do something thoughtlessly. He means what he says.”

Furihata twisted his fingers together. He couldn’t help recalling what he had just overheard. “Is—is something wrong with him? You said he was troubled before. Is it because of the stuff you told us about Teikou, or—”

“I’m sorry.” Kuroko lowered his gaze. “I don’t believe it’s my place to discuss it. He confided in me recently, but…”

His expression darkened. He definitely thought something was wrong, that much was obvious. Furihata’s stomach tensed, and weird shivers crawled on his skin.

“I’ve known Akashi-kun for years,” Kuroko said, slowly. “But the truth is, I still don’t know much about him. He tends to avoid sharing anything about himself. I don’t know the exact reason why. But I do know that he’s been through a great deal lately. So will you please think about it?”

Furihata didn’t know what to say. “Um… I… I guess I can?”

He couldn’t imagine doing what Kuroko was asking him. But he couldn’t bring himself to say no, either. Kuroko asked for Furihata’s phone. Furihata gave it to him, confused, and watched as Kuroko entered a number into his address book. He typed ‘Akashi-kun’ in the name field, then handed it back.

Furihata stared down at his phone. He had Akashi Seijuurou’s cell phone number.

This couldn’t get any weirder.

Except then it did, of course. First, though, Furihata spent a sleepless night trying to figure out if he was going to call Akashi or not. He kept staring at the number on his phone, like it would know the answer. He didn’t have to do this, he told himself. It was a bad idea, for so many reasons. He had no clue why Kuroko even asked. It was like he hadn’t heard the train story at all.

Furihata was on edge the whole next day. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, somehow. The thought of actually calling Akashi made him feel like his stomach was turning itself inside out. He hated talking on the phone. And what would he even say, if he did call? What would Akashi say back…?

Honestly, Furihata didn’t know why he decided to call Akashi, in the end. Maybe he felt guilty, for messing up the train ride. Maybe he didn’t want to have to tell Kuroko he was too nervous to talk to him. Or maybe he was just too curious, or too stupid, to live.

But after a whole afternoon of figuring out what he would say, he finally hit ‘Call.’

Of course he freaked out, the second he heard Akashi’s perfectly calm voice on the other end. He even hung up, and had to call him back. Which was humiliating, but Akashi just sounded sort of confused. They then made plans to meet up in Kyoto. Furihata had a hard time believing any of it was real, until he reserved his train tickets and texted Akashi—texted Akashi—his arrival time. And he got a message back.

‘Thank you, Furihata-kun. I will see you on Sunday.’

So yeah, it was real. Which was good, because Furihata already went through the convoluted process of buying the tickets. First he had to figure out how to afford them. (This was even before he had called Akashi.) He had money saved up, but he would have to use all of it for the train. That didn’t leave any left over for doing stuff in Kyoto.

But then his uncle showed up for an early dinner, to congratulate Furihata on making it through his first year of high school. He offered to get him a new model train set. Furihata asked if he could have the money instead, so he could shop around for one. (Which wasn’t a lie… He would just have to save up some more allowance before he could pick the new set out.) This was how he was able to buy the tickets on his own, and have more than enough money for the trip, too.

Except now he was on the train to Kyoto, and he still had no idea why he was doing this, and all he could think about was the million-and-one ways it could go so horribly wrong.

What would they even do together? Furihata left it up to Akashi. But he could just imagine having to spend the day at a bunch of high-class places he was too dumb to appreciate. And what if Akashi wanted to go to a fancy restaurant for lunch? Kyoto was famous for super expensive restaurants, but Furihata wanted to pay his own way this time. He could ask to go somewhere cheap, but what if Akashi had already made reservations? And then what if he didn’t even like the food? Ugh, and now he felt sick again. Maybe he wouldn’t even be able to eat.

He just knew he was going to mess everything up. Like on the train.

He couldn’t get Kuroko’s words out of his head, either. All that mysterious stuff about Akashi having a hard time lately, and then asking Furihata to see him… None of it made any sense. If something was wrong with Akashi, why would it help if Furihata hung out with him? They were basically strangers.

Somehow though, when Kuroko asked, Furihata just got that weird feeling again…

That feeling like he needed to do this.

He flinched, and tried to focus on the book he brought. He needed to stop paying attention to these dumb feelings of his. They were all in his head, he knew. He just had an overactive imagination.

Seriously, a really overactive imagination. Akashi was the perfect example of that. Because the first time Furihata ever saw him, at the Winter Cup…

He shook his head, and went back to reading. He didn’t want to think about that right now. It always made him feel crazy, plus his stomach would feel strange and he’d get shivers all over. He didn’t need that, on top of his already fraying nerves.

Before long, the train ride was over, way faster than seemed possible. Furihata gathered up his stuff, checking twice to make sure he hadn’t left anything, and headed into Kyoto Station. It took him a while to find his way out of the shinkansen wing—jeez, his legs were wobbling—and when he finally entered the main part of the station, he couldn’t stop staring everywhere. The building was massive, an airy structure of metal and glass. It was packed with people.

Normally, Furihata might wonder how he would find the person he was meeting, in such a huge crowd. But he wasn’t worried about that. Sure enough, once he stepped off the escalator, it took him exactly two seconds before he saw a flash of brilliant, eye-catching red.

There stood Akashi Seijuurou, inspecting his phone, and looking impossible as ever. Furihata didn’t know anyone else who could pull off a lapelled coat and vest like that. (Who even wore vests now, outside of magazines?)

Furiahta froze, staring. Akashi put his phone away. He glanced up, and those red eyes darted in Furihata’s direction. They flickered with recognition, and Furihata’s heart gave a jerky leap.

It seemed so weird, that a person like Akashi could even see him. He always had, though. From their very first encounter.

Still, Akashi hadn’t smiled like that the first time they met. That was different.

“Good morning, Furihata-kun,” Akashi said as he approached. Furihata should have been the one to move, but he hadn’t started in time.

“M-m-morning.” All of a sudden, he realized he was smiling too.

“Welcome back to Kyoto,” Akashi said. “How was your train ride?”

“It—um—good. It was good,” Furihata said. Jeez, tongue, work already. Also, I could’ve done without the nerves and the queasiness, but that wasn’t the train’s fault.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Akashi said in a warm tone. Furihata was struck all over again by how polite he was. He always seemed to know the perfect thing to say. “Well, shall we be on our way, then?”

“Um, sure.” Furihata followed him, as they began to make their way through the station. “Wh-where are we going?”

“You’ll see soon enough.” Akashi gave him a shrewd sort of look. “By the way, I’m open to suggestions for our itinerary, if you have any. But I must insist that our first stop is non-negotiable.”

“Um, why?” Furihata said. He paused. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

Akashi chuckled, and shook his head.

Furihata tried to take a deep breath, even as he scrambled to keep up. Okay, so Akashi was the type who liked to surprise people. Which meant he couldn’t mentally prepare for whatever was coming. Just relax, he told himself. They were probably going to some incredibly fancy place, but there was no point in freaking out about it now. He had signed up for this, after all.

They left the station. The sky was gray and cloudy, but it wasn’t raining. Throngs of people milled on the pavement, waiting for buses and taxis. Akashi maneuvered expertly through the crowd—or that was what Furihata thought, until he saw how everybody moved aside for him. Apparently, Akashi’s presence even extended to walking down the street. Most people were eyeing him as he passed.

It was like they could feel it too. That weird thing Furihata had sensed, the first time he saw Akashi Seijuurou…

He forced the thought away, again. A shudder worked its way through his stomach.

Akashi glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, pardon me, am I walking too quickly?”

“N-no,” Furihata said. His breathless tone probably wasn’t convincing. “S-sorry. I can keep up, if we’re in a hurry.”

“Not at all.” Akashi waited until Furihata reached his side, then resumed walking at a more gradual pace. “That’s just a habit. I often have to remind myself to slow down.”

Not surprising, Furihata thought, given what his schedule probably looked like.

“Since the weather seems to be holding up, I thought we could walk to our destination,” Akashi added. “It isn’t far. Unless you would prefer to take a bus?”

“No, walking’s fine.” Furihata scanned the bus lines, and the packed sidewalk. “Wow. Is Kyoto always this crowded?”

“Far from it,” Akashi said in a cheerful tone. “This is the height of tourist season, since the cherry blossoms are in bloom now.”

“Oh, right.” Warmth spread over Furihata’s face. He should have made that connection. Everyone in Tokyo was excited about flower-viewing season too. He was so focused on meeting Akashi that he hadn’t really thought about it.

“Despite the crowds, I would say you’re visiting at an ideal time.” Akashi’s eyes were bright. “Out of curiosity, what do you recall about the family trip you took here?”

Furihata gave a slight start. He wondered why Akashi was asking.

“Um, n-not much,” he said. “I kind of remember the Golden Pavilion, and the temple with all the statues inside—”

“Sanjuusangen-dou?”

“Uh-huh. I think we went to Heian Shrine too.” Furihata tried to recall. “We saw other stuff, but… It was mostly a lot of temples, and I was five.”

Akashi chuckled. “Well, Kyoto is the city of a thousand temples. They have a tendency to blur together, if you visit enough at once.”

“Are we going to one now?”

Akashi gave him that shrewd look from before. Furihata resisted an urge to sigh. Clearly he wasn’t going to get anywhere by asking. A temple was a decent guess, though. He studied his surroundings. Offices and hotels lined the streets, and Kyoto Tower loomed nearby. Occasionally they passed a cherry tree, sprinkled with tiny pink flowers.

As they crossed the street and walked a few blocks, the buildings became smaller. Soon they were heading toward a long green stretch of trees and grass. A concrete building with a semicircular roof stood nearby.

Furihata blinked, surprised. “Are we going to the aquarium?”

Akashi shook his head. They strolled into the grassy area. ‘Umekoji Park,’ read a sign. It sounded familiar, but Furihata didn’t know why. Cherry trees dotted the grounds, but not many. It seemed more like a place for locals than a tourist spot.

“So, uh, why did you say this first stop was non-negotiable?” Furihata joined Akashi on a walking path. “Is it that special?”

“I can’t say for certain, as I’ve never visited it before. But I’m looking forward to the experience.”

Furihata squinted at him. Now he was really confused. They reached the other end of the park. They headed beneath an overpass, just as a train rattled across it. Furihata was craning his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of the train, when he heard an unusual but very distinct sound. A loud, steamy whistle. He spun around.

An old wooden building stood before him. It was small but elegant, almost castle-like. Furihata’s bag slipped halfway down his arm.

“You—” He gaped at Akashi. “We’re—?”

Akashi looked downright sly now. “I assume you have no objections?”

Furihata couldn’t even bring himself to stammer out a reply. The sign over the entrance read, ‘Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum.’

Akashi laughed lightly, and gestured to the door. “Well, shall we?”

“O-okay,” Furihata squeaked.

He had heard about this place. He totally forgot it was in Kyoto. Even if he had remembered, he never would have thought in a million years that Akashi would take him to a dinky little museum about old trains. They approached the machine for admission tickets. Akashi began unclasping his satchel.

“Oh wait,” Furihata cried. Akashi looked startled. “Um, that is… Hang on a second.”

He jammed a few yen notes into the machine, and pressed what he hoped were the right buttons. (He was pretty sure they were, but his hands were shaking.) Much to his relief, two tickets slipped out. He held out one of them to Akashi.

“You paid for everything last time,” he said, in the firmest voice he could. “S-so at least let me pay for this. Not that it makes up for the train, or even close, but…”

He trailed off. Akashi was looking at him kind of blankly. Hopefully he hadn’t offended him somehow.

In the end, though, Akashi simply gave a nod. “Fair enough. I appreciate it. Thank you.”

He took the ticket and smiled. Furihata mirrored it, with a sense of relief. They made their way through the entrance. Okay, now just be chill, Furihata told himself. Akashi already knows you’re a giant train nerd, but that doesn’t mean you have to bore him by talking his ear off about all this stuff.

Yeah, so much for that.

The first display was about how steam trains worked. Which Furihata could have talked about for hours, by itself. Akashi knew the basics of combustion engines, apparently, but then he started asking questions specifically about trains, and oh god… It reminded Furihata of their conversation on the N700, when Akashi dared him to talk about engine mechanics. Except why Akashi would subject himself to this stuff twice when he wasn’t even a railfan was beyond Furihata’s comprehension.

That was far from the end of it. The museum was full of fascinating stuff, from panels from the Imperial Train covered in gold-painted insignias, to video stations with historical footage, and even a cutaway of a C11 with the controls visible. Furihata babbled about everything the whole time, no matter how much he tried to hold himself back. Even though a voice in the back of his head kept shouting, “What the heck are you doing? Any minute he’s going to tell you to shut up and stop being such a dork.”

He gulped, and his stomach quaked. The truth was, being around Akashi sometimes reminded him of middle school. Back then, he somehow managed to make friends with a group of popular kids, who were cool and incredibly talented. He ended up following them around, being their lackey for two years. Until they decided he was a nerdy loser, and started ignoring him. He spent his last year of middle school with no friends.

(He could have gone on his class trip to Kyoto, if he really wanted to. But when he came down with a bad head cold, he chose to stay home instead. What was the point in forcing himself to go, if there was no one to get excited with anyway?)

Furihata would never forget what his brother said to him, before he graduated.

“You’ve got a problem, kid. You always want to hang out with guys who are too cool for you. Their attitude isn’t worth it.”

His brother was right. Ever since he became friends with Fukuda and Kawahara, Furihata was much happier. Seirin’s basketball team was full of goofballs. He could just be himself, and not worry that they would shun him. It was great.

But now whenever he looked at Akashi, that old dread stirred in the pit of his stomach. A cold, creeping fear that he would say something unforgivably stupid, and Akashi wouldn’t want to talk to him anymore. After all, even a guy as polite as Akashi had to have a breaking point…

He needed to calm down, Furihata told himself, as he drew a breath. He hid his train obsession from his old friends for years, but Akashi already knew about it. Besides, Akashi wasn’t his friend. Furihata knew better, than to want him to be. He didn’t know why the thought of not talking to him bothered him so much.

Akashi was busy inspecting a display filled with an engineer's belongings: dust goggles, a pocket watch, a briefcase. He had an oddly concentrated look on his face. He wandered over to the coal shoveling display, and read the sign. He hefted the shovel into both hands, studying the fake coal fused to it.

His catlike gaze flickered toward Furihata. “What is it?”

“Uh, sorry.” Furihata ducked his head. “You just—you look really serious about that.”

“Well, shouldn’t I?” Akashi said, eyebrows raised. “Surely you, of all people, have considered it. How this simple motion changed the world.”

Furihata blinked. Akashi made a scooping gesture, then held out the shovel. Furihata lifted it in both hands, confused. It wasn’t that heavy, but it was definitely clunky.

“A boilerman could move two kilograms of coal with that, correct?” Akashi said. “The sign says that twenty shovelfuls fueled the engine for a distance of one kilometer.”

Furihata managed a nod. “Yeah. Two thousand for a hundred kilometer run.”

“And it was all done with manpower,” Akashi said. “One of the most important innovations of the nineteenth century, and it still required a willing man with a shovel. Remarkable, don’t you think?”

Furihata stared down at the shovel in his hands. He looked back up at Akashi, only to find him gesturing toward the other end of the museum.

“Well, come on,” he said, his voice bright. “We should go see the real ones.”

Furihata set down the shovel and hurried to join Akashi, as he walked out of the station. The back of the building stood open to the outside air. They stopped beside a gigantic turntable set into the ground. Furihata stared at it in wonder. It was used to funnel the locomotives in and out of the museum.

But to their right was the most beautiful sight of all. Steam engine after steam engine stood lined up like cars in a garage. Except to Furihata, these huge iron machines were even more stunning than a sports car. They were massive, so much bigger than they looked in photographs. One of the oldest was a Type D9 (later remade into a Class 1070), a clunky locomotive once used for hauling coal. Furihata stared up at it, feeling like he was in a trance.

“Are you more of an enthusiast of modern trains, or steam locomotives?” Akashi asked beside him. It took Furihata five whole seconds to register what he had said.

“I don’t really think I could choose,” he murmured. “I know more about the modern ones, but… Looking at a steam engine is like stepping back in time.”

He was so captivated he forgot to be embarrassed about saying something like that.

Akashi gazed up at the D9. “I feel the same. Trains were one of those rare inventions that changed civilization profoundly. They made humankind more connected.”

Furihata looked at Akashi. He had that strange feeling again, like he was hearing his own thoughts repeated back to him.

“You could even argue they were the most important invention at the start of the nineteenth century.” Akashi hesitated. “Of course, I’m sure you remember the most important invention from the end of that century.”

Furihata knit his brows. He was never good at these questions. “Uh, electricity?”

A smile quirked the edge of Akashi’s lip. “Basketball.”

The corners of his eyelids creased with humor, and he headed toward the next locomotive. Furihata laughed. Akashi’s enthusiasm was weirdly catching. Of course, it was equally weird that he was so enthusiastic in the first place.

Here they were, in one of the nerdiest museums in Japan. But Akashi kept talking about everything like he thought it was interesting, and valuable. Furihata had never had any friends who talked about trains—or anything historical—that way. Not even if they were trying to be interested, like Fukuda and Kawahara might. His friends in middle school would never have even tolerated the museum in the first place.

Furihata was thinking about this, as they explored each steam engine in the garage, climbing into some and taking pictures of others. They even saw one engine in the process of being repaired. At one point Akashi checked his watch.

“Hmm, five minutes,” he said.

“Until what?” Furihata said, still taking pictures.

“Museum guests can ride in one of the locomotives. It would be best for us to go on the first run of the day, if you’re interested.”

Furihata fumbled his camera.

“Can—can we—?” he gasped.

Akashi smiled and nodded, as a whistle sounded nearby. Furihata realized it must be coming from the train in question. They bought tickets—he insisted on paying again—and lined up to board. A few small carts stood hitched to a C62 locomotive, with benches for guests. The whole thing looked pretty childish, from the multicolor canopies provided for shade, to the short track they would ride on.

Somehow, though, Furihata couldn’t stop beaming.

The track was so short that they went backwards for the first part of the ride. Little kids around them squealed and pointed at the completely ordinary sights—the park, a modern train passing on an adjacent track—and covered their ears in delighted terror when the whistle blew. Furihata kept eyeing the engine, and the clouds of steam billowing up from the smokestack. C62’s were the biggest and fastest steam locomotives to ever carry passengers in Japan, he remembered. It was amazing to think about.

Very soon, the train lurched forward again. In minutes, the ride was over. Furihata glanced over at Akashi, only to see the last thing he expected. Akashi was laughing. His hand was pressed over his mouth, but he was definitely doing it. For a second, Furihata’s heart dropped. Maybe Akashi was laughing because he secretly thought the museum was stupid, and he couldn’t hold it in anymore.

Then Akashi shook his head. “Forgive me. It’s only… That felt very short. I knew the ride would be brief, but I didn’t expect…”

He muffled another laugh. The sound was as strangely melodic as Furihata remembered. All at once, Furihata realized he was on this goofy little contraption with Akashi Seijuurou, surrounded by toddlers, for a ride that only lasted ten minutes tops. And he was laughing too.

“Yeah,” he choked out. “It really was.”

He grinned at Akashi, and Akashi did the same right back.

“Worth the ticket, though, I hope?” Akashi said, his crimson eyes glittering.

“Yeah, definitely,” Furihata said.

Oddly enough, he didn’t feel as self-conscious anymore. Akashi was the one who made the plans to visit the museum. And he obviously did it to be nice. If he wanted to make fun of Furihata, he would have done it already. Anyway, there was no point trying to impress someone as amazing like Akashi Seijuurou.

Furihata might as well just be himself.

They got off the train. Then came the most dangerous part of the visit, as Akashi ushered Furihata toward the gift shop. Rows of model trains gleamed inside glass cases. Furihata stood with his jaw agape.

“You shouldn’t have brought me here,” he mouthed to Akashi. Akashi laughed again.

In the end, Furihata managed to limit himself to just one souvenir, a simple model of the C62 steam engine they rode on. He kept eyeing one of the nicer train sets, to the point where Akashi offered to help him purchase it, but Furihata politely refused. As they left the museum, Furihata made sure to thank Akashi, for bringing him there.

“It was my pleasure,” Akashi replied. The weird thing was, he sounded like he meant it.

In a few minutes they were on a bus, making their way across the city to their next stop. Furihata peered out the window at the passing landmarks. Temple after temple, the walls of Nijo Castle, and the red torii gates of various shrines.

Eventually, they ended up at a famous street in Higashiyama called Chawan-zaka, or Teapot Lane. They began walking up the old-fashioned street, which was situated at the base of Otowa Mountain. The street was cluttered with wooden shops and restaurants. Near the top of the sloping path loomed a pagoda belonging to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most renowned temples in all of Japan.

“Is that where we’re going?” Furihata said.

Akashi nodded. “Kiyomizu is something of a tourist trap. But it’s not to be missed at this time of year.”

They took their time getting there, stopping at various shops on their way to the temple. At one point Akashi purchased some yatsuhashi, which Furihata had never tried, so Akashi insisted on sharing it with him. It was the unbaked kind, so the rice flour dough was soft like pasta. It was coated in cinnamon. Furihata liked it so much he went back into the shop to buy some of his own.

“You like Japanese sweets?” Akashi asked, sounding curious.

“Uh-huh. My mom’s obsessed with mochi and stuff like that, so I had them a lot growing up.” Furihata was tempted to buy his mom some yatsuhashi too, but he had never told her he was going to Kyoto. He figured could always hang on to a few, and decide whether to give them to her later.

Akashi was quiet as they finished climbing the sloping street. They reached the temple, and paused to take a look. Kiyomizu was perched halfway up the side of the mountain, circled by cherry trees. Their lithe branches framed the temple in a flurry of pink flowers. Behind the wooden buildings stretched forest as far as the eye could see, crowned by a hazy gray sky. Tourists milled everywhere.

“Wow,” Furihata said. He stopped to take pictures of the three-storied pagoda, followed by the Deva gate with the statues, and the west gate. Akashi insisted on taking pictures of Furihata beside all of them, much to his embarrassment. (He never knew what to do in photos. Well, other than smile like a dork?)

Afterward, they made their way to the main hall. Furihata stepped onto the outer platform, and felt like he couldn’t breathe. They were standing on a veranda thirteen meters off the ground, with Kyoto spread out before them. The city lay below, a swarm of buildings, and the sky stretched high overhead. The mountainside loomed beside them, covered with trees.

Furihata wasn’t that good at describing things. But the word that came to his mind in that moment was ‘infinite.’

He glanced beside him, wondering what his companion thought of the view. Akashi was gazing into the distance. After a moment, he smiled in Furihata’s direction.

“Words are inadequate, aren’t they?” he said. Furihata nodded, sheepish.

A tour group left, so they edged up to the wooden bannister for a better view. Now it was easy to see the space below the platform, that world-famous drop.

“To jump off the stage at Kiyomizu,” Akashi murmured, reciting the familiar proverb. “It’s difficult, isn’t it? To fathom that level of resolve.”

This time, Furihata couldn’t manage a reply. Everyone in Japan had heard that ‘do or die’ phrase. Centuries ago, people had literally jumped off this platform, in the hopes that their dearest wish would be granted. But what sort of reckless people would choose to fling themselves from such a height?

It was unthinkable, to Furihata at least. The ground was so far away. It was easy to see how some people had died, trying to make the jump. Even the ones who survived must have been awfully hurt.

“No turning back…”

Furihata drew a thin breath. The faraway ground wavered, and swam before his eyes like water. He teetered a little. He shook his head to clear it, pitching forward, and then…

Akashi held out his arm, bracing him upright. Furihata froze. Akashi had his arm around him. Their faces were inches apart. He stared at Akashi, and he stared back.

“Are you all right?” Akashi’s voice sounded oddly distant. He asked something else, but Furihata didn’t hear it. Blood rushed to his face, and his heart pounded. He knew he had no reason to be afraid—he wouldn’t actually fall off the platform, with the banister there and all—yet a quiver of fear gripped his throat.

Akashi was just trying to help him keep his balance. Furihata knew that. But he was petrified anyway. Because in that moment, he felt the strangest sensation, coursing through him like fire. It was powerful, impossible… Just like the first time he saw Akashi…

Furihata had never told anyone the truth, about what he felt on that day. About the real reason why he was so spooked around the Generation of Miracles, and why he couldn’t move when the other Akashi asked him to leave. Because it sounded crazy. Way too crazy to say out loud.

It was because of their auras.

Yeah. Furihata didn’t even believe in auras. Or at least he didn’t, until he met the Generation of Miracles. They all had some kind of invisible energy hovering around them. Furihata couldn’t explain it, but he felt it all the same. Like the charge in the air before a thunderstorm. It rolled off them in waves, and made his skin shiver. Kagami had said something once, about how strong opponents ‘smelled’ different. When Furihata was around the Generation of Miracles, he kind of felt like he understood.

Akashi’s aura was the most electric of all. When Furihata saw him the first time, he felt like he had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Totally paralyzed. He felt it again later, when he guarded Akashi in the Winter Cup finals. Like whatever it was kept zapping him, until he could hardly stand. He admitted this to Kawahara and Fukuda, after they were benched. To his relief, they said they felt weirdly tired too. (They didn’t get the aura thing. Furihata never mentioned it again after that.)

But then when Akashi changed in the final, his aura did too. The energy around him no longer felt like lightning. Furihata noticed. It felt more like a glowing fire, spreading out to ignite everything it touched. Which made sense, when Furihata thought about how the new Akashi could extend the Zone to his teammates… Except wait, none of this made any sense at all, and he sounded like a crazy person.

After that, Furihata just tried to ignore it. To pretend he couldn’t feel anything weird at all. The feeling had caught him by surprise at Kuroko’s party, and was probably part of why he had fainted. It was also why he felt so overwhelmed at first, when he ran into Akashi on the train platform. Still, he kept pushing that strange sensation to the back of his mind, trying to pretend it didn’t exist.

Now, with Akashi standing so close, Furihata couldn’t ignore it anymore. That radiant warmth, a feeling of smoldering power, made his knees tremble. It was so strong, and so overwhelming, that he could hardly breathe.

And now everything was spinning, and he was probably going to pass out again. And oh god, how was he going to explain it this time, without sounding like a nutcase…

Furihata shoved his way out of Akashi’s grasp. He pushed against him so hard that they both stumbled backward. Akashi gaped at him. Furihata felt a rush of dismay.

“S-sorry!” His breath rasped in his throat. “Sorry, I—I j-just… C-c-could you give me a minute?”

He hunched beside the banister, with his head in his hands. There was a long pause. Furihata cringed, too afraid to look and see what expression was on Akashi’s face. At last Akashi’s voice crept into his ear, a little tighter than usual.

“Of course,” he said. “Forgive me for startling you. I’ll wait on the walkway.”

Furihata managed a weak nod. He could have sworn he actually felt the energy of Akashi’s presence fade, as the other boy left the platform.

Jeez, he really was nuts.

Why was he acting like this? It was horrible. Akashi was just trying to help him. And he jumped away from him like he was some kind of monster. Then he clearly started to panic, to the point that he was even breaking out in a cold sweat. All because Akashi touched him, basically.

What in the heck was wrong with him?

Furihata struggled to take slower breaths, to count them out, until he no longer felt like he was choking. Gradually the knot in his throat loosened, and his eyes began to sting. This whole thing was so humiliating.

What was it he had decided earlier? That he should just be himself? Because he couldn’t impress someone like Akashi, since he already knew he was a weirdo?

Well, he had definitely made sure of that.

He couldn’t even explain why he had panicked. Yeah, the aura stuff was weird, but he should be used to it by now, right?

There was something about it that still bothered him, though. It was hard to explain, but Furihata felt like the energy around Akashi was a little off, somehow. He noticed this with all the Generation of Miracles, back at the Winter Cup. Back then, their presence made Furihata’s stomach sink in a strange way. Like something was wrong with them.

At Kuroko’s party, he noticed that feeling was mostly gone. Being around them no longer made him feel queasy or on edge… Except Akashi still kind of did, a little.

But that didn’t make any sense, right? There was nothing wrong with Akashi. He was intimidating, but he was clearly a good person. He was polite and kind. And he seemed happy enough, when he was around Kuroko and his other friends.

Except that Kuroko had kind of implied something was wrong with him… And Furihata still didn’t know what that could be…

Furihata exhaled, hard, and gripped the banister. He was going to have to go find Akashi. But what should he say? Apologize for being such a loser? Pretend nothing was wrong, to try to show he wasn’t scared? Akashi probably wouldn’t buy that, after he had panicked right in front of him. It wasn’t like he could explain why he had panicked, either. It sounded like such a stupid, crazy lie. Akashi would never believe him.

Furihata bit his lip. Did it even matter what he said? It wasn’t like Akashi cared about his opinion. They hardly knew each other. Except… Something in Akashi’s voice before he left made Furihata think he did care. Maybe…

Maybe his reaction had hurt him.

Furihata’s eyes widened. It was so bizarre, to think he could ever hurt a person like Akashi. But it wasn’t like Akashi didn’t have feelings. Maybe he was sick of Furihata acting so scared around him. Anyway, he didn’t deserve to be treated like that. Weird supernatural stuff or not. The least Furihata could do was explain that it wasn’t Akashi’s fault. Even if he ended up looking like an idiot.

He needed to be honest. As honest as he could.

Furihata clenched his jaw, and left the stage. As he crossed to the nearby walkway, he caught sight of Akashi, standing farther down the path. A knot climbed back into Furihata’s throat. He swallowed it down, and kept walking. He walked straight up to Akashi, with his pulse throbbing in his ears.

“H-hey, um, Akashi-kun…” He stopped. Then he abruptly bowed. “I’m s-sorry! About that just now. It was r-really stupid of me. And rude. And it wasn’t your fault.”

He peeked up at Akashi through his messy bangs. Akashi blinked.

“There’s no need—” he began, but Furihata interrupted him.

“No, r-really, I mean it! I know I was acting like a nutcase. U-um, I… I guess you can probably tell I freak out about stuff a lot. Dumb stuff. S-sometimes I panic and it takes me a minute to calm down. It’s stupid and embarrassing, but… y-yeah.” Furihata’s ears burned. “It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess? Anyway, I was just s-startled, that’s all. S-so I’m sorry if I scared you. And thanks for looking out for me back there. You’re really kind.”

There was a pause. Furihata wavered, trying to decide if he should mention the aura thing or not. But he couldn’t figure out how to say it. It was way too weird. Besides, it was just an excuse, in the end.

Akashi pursed his lips. He looked almost sad, Furihata thought. But at the same time, a subtle light warmed his eyes. He nodded, slowly.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “And Furihata-kun… Please, don’t worry about it. I believe I understand. Truly.”

He smiled, but the expression was sympathetic. Like he really did understand what Furihata was talking about. Furihata gaped at him. There was no way someone as composed as Akashi knew what it was like to freak out around people on a semi-regular basis. Did he have experience with people like him? People who panicked easily? Or was there some other reason he could understand where Furihata was coming from?

Furihata almost wanted to ask him. In the end, though, he just managed a spaced-out nod. Akashi gestured to the pathway.

“Well, shall we continue?” he said, in a friendly tone.

“S-sure.” Furihata joined him.

They strolled along the mountainside, visiting various halls in the temple complex. At one point they were looking down into a lower section, where the basin of Otowa Waterfall was. A massive line of tourists buzzed around it. They were waiting their turn to drink the water, which flowed down from a stone rooftop in three separate streams. Akashi mentioned offhandedly that each of the streams were supposed to grant a different kind of good fortune, from academic success to love and long life.

That reminded Furihata of something. Something he had always wanted to do, if he ever wound up at Kiyomizu.

“Would you like to try it?” Akashi was saying, with a nod to the fountain.

“A-actually…” Furihata shuffled his feet. “Um, yeah, in a little bit, but, uh… I was just wondering…”

He hesitated. Maybe he shouldn’t even bring this up. He recalled the train ride with Akashi, and how he seemed upset when he mentioned the subject of romance.

“Yes?” Akashi said. He looked confused.

“Um, I’d like to go to Jishu Jinja,” Furihata blurted. “I—I just remembered it was here. It is, right? B-but I can go by myself. I was just thinking since it’s in the same place and everything…”

Akashi raised an eyebrow. “No, of course we can visit it. The shrine is back that way, actually.”

“Oh, o-okay!” Furihata whirled around, to the place where Akashi was gesturing. They headed down the path until they reached another set of stairs, bordered by a huge stone gate. He glanced back at Akashi. “Um… Are you sure you really want to come? I… I know it’s kind of stupid.”

Akashi’s eyes flickered in a strange way. He shook his head. “No, I don’t mind. Truly. I would like to accompany you.”

They started climbing the stairs together. Akashi was quiet for a long moment. Furihata couldn’t help noticing his brows were furrowed. Oh god, I hope I’m not making him uncomfortable… Please, please don’t be uncomfortable…

“Furihata-kun, may I ask you something?” Akashi said.

Furihata stumbled a bit over one of the steps. “Y-yeah? I mean, uh, sure.”

“Do you worry about that sort of thing a great deal? About others finding your opinions and concerns unimportant, or less than intelligent?”

Furihata stopped. Akashi did the same, one step below him.

“Uh…” Furihata gawked down at him. “I… What?”

That was the last thing he expected Akashi to ask. He didn’t even know where to begin. No one had ever asked him something like that before. Not outright, anyway.

“You said your desire to visit the shrine was stupid,” Akashi reminded him. “But I don’t understand what could possibly be stupid about it.”

Furihata’s thoughts whirled. “W-well… Uh, it’s just… It’s a shallow thing to be doing at a place like this, right? Going to a shrine for romantic stuff. And it’s more of a girl thing anyway. Plus it’s just kind of… cheesy… I guess?”

Akashi gazed at the step beneath his feet. He looked troubled. When he looked up at Furihata again, though, his expression was firm.

“I don’t believe it’s a shallow thing, to desire love,” he said. “Not when it’s supposed to be one of the greatest joys we can have. I think it’s admirable that you know what you want in this regard, Furihata-kun. And that you’re seeking out something that is clearly important to you.”

Furihata just stood there, stunned. His heart quivered, in a weird way. He couldn’t explain why, but somehow, whenever Akashi said things like that… It made him feel a million times better. No matter how dumb he had been feeling before.

Akashi just didn’t seem to care about whether something was cheesy or uncool. At all. (Maybe because he was so confident and talented that he didn’t have to?) And he was so sincere about everything. He said things most people would never be brave enough to say out loud. Plus it was hard not to take him seriously, because he spoke with so much conviction.

It was kind of… amazing.

As Furihata looked down into Akashi’s fire-red eyes, he almost wanted to ask, “So what about you?” He was still curious, about what Akashi thought of romance. Then he remembered the train ride, and how he was too nosy about it before. He let it drop.

“Th-thanks,” was all he said instead.

“Not at all,” Akashi replied. He looked almost thoughtful.

They continued up to the shrine. With every step, Akashi’s original question echoed inside Furihata’s head. Akashi probably had no idea what it was like, to worry so much about what other people would think of what he said or did. But Furihata couldn’t stop worrying about that stuff, even if he tried. That was probably one reason why he felt so drawn to confident people. Just like his brother said. His friends in middle school were one example.

His ex-girlfriend was another.

Furihata kind of couldn’t help thinking about his ex right now. Since he was headed to a famous love shrine and all. Not that she would have been into the shrine. She would have thought it was boring, actually.

It was still so weird to think she really had been his girlfriend. He first met her when he was in his third year of middle school. Well, he didn’t exactly meet her, but she was a new student in his class. Right from the start, she was the coolest person Furihata had ever seen. She talked loudly and confidently, and walked around like she owned the school. She wasn’t the least bit afraid of being the new girl.

And she was smart. Jeez, she was smart. She never paid attention in class, so the teachers kept calling on her. Except she always knew the right answer, somehow.

Furihata spent the whole year admiring her from afar. Then the next year, by some weird coincidence, they both went to Seirin. They even ended up in the same class. Weirder still, she recognized him. At lunch she came right up to him and said, “Hey, you went to my junior high, right? What’s your name again?”

Long story short, Furihata confessed the very next day he had a crush on her. Some delusional part of him was convinced the whole thing was fate. She shot him down, of course, saying she wouldn’t go out with someone whose name she barely knew. Which was fair. Then she added, “Also, no offense, but I’ve got high standards. I want to date an amazing guy. The kind who’s the best at something.”

Which was how Furihata got his whole out-there idea to join the basketball club. It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him. He was still grateful for that, honestly.

Then she ended up going out with him after the Winter Cup. He couldn’t believe it when she asked. She took him all over Tokyo on their first date, and they did things together he would never do on his own. Like he sometimes got freaked out when it came to heights, so he usually avoided Ferris wheels. But somehow she talked him into riding the huge rainbow one on Odaiba.

They kissed for the first time there, looking out at Tokyo Bay. His heart practically beat out of his chest, it was pounding so hard. He thought she was amazing.

After a few more dates, though, he started to notice she was also kind of… blunt. She had a way of insulting anything she didn’t like. “Look at that loser,” she would say, whenever they passed a guy in Akihabara carrying lots of anime stuff. “You just know he’s a shut-in. Or a huge pervert.” Furihata wondered what she would think of his train obsession, if she knew. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything, even though it made him uncomfortable.

They didn’t talk much, either. Whenever Furihata said he wanted to go somewhere where they could talk, so he could get to know her better, she would just groan and say, “Ugh, don’t be boring.” So naturally he started to worry about boring her. The weirdest part was when he realized he was kind of getting bored too.

The breakup turned out to be mutual. Furihata brought it up first, actually. He was so nervous about it. She just shrugged and said, “Yeah, I was thinking same thing. We’re not really compatible. You’re a good guy, though.”

And that was that.

It was weird, Furihata thought. How you could get your dream girl, and then the whole thing could just turn out to be sort of… disappointing? No big deal, no broken hearts. Just not what you wanted.

He still wasn’t sure what he wanted instead.

Furihata finished climbing the stairs to the shrine. Statues of the love god Okuninushi and his rabbit companion stood by the gate. Beyond the gate, the buildings of Jishu Shrine were clustered close together on either side.

And there, on the paved ground between the buildings, sat the famous love stones. The rocks weren’t that big, not even high enough to come up to Furihata’s knee. They were spaced several meters apart, and draped with rope and folded gold paper.

Furihata swallowed. He knew the myth about the stones, of course. He watched a large group of girls stumbling around between the rocks with their arms out and their eyes shut. They were giggling.

The legend went that if you could find your way from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, then you would be lucky in finding love. If you failed, though, love would take a way longer time to find you.

“So are you going to try it?” Akashi said beside him. Furihata jumped a little.

“Oh, uh… I don’t know.” He gave a weak laugh. “It looks pretty crowded right now. Maybe I’ll just get a charm instead?”

He nodded to a counter where they were selling love charms.

Akashi tilted his head slightly. “Really? It seems a shame to miss the opportunity, while you’re here.”

Furihata swallowed again. “I guess.” He took a breath, and squared his shoulders. “Y-yeah, okay. I’ll give it a shot. I mean, I’ve got nothing to lose, right?”

Akashi’s eyes sparkled. “My sentiments exactly.”

Furihata managed to return his smile. Akashi truly was kind, he thought. He didn’t make fun of people, or dismiss the things that were important to them. Instead he encouraged them to pursue those things. No wonder he made a great leader. And, Furihata realized, he would make a great friend too.

Not that Furihata dared to think they could ever be friends, or anything impossible like that.

Still, he had to admit this day was turning out so much better than he had expected. First the train museum, and now this. Even when he messed up on the platform, and had to explain about his whole awkward panicky thing, Akashi not only forgave him, but seemed to understand. It was almost enough to make Furihata wish they really could be friends…

He shook his head. That wasn’t going to happen. He returned his attention to the rocks. He stood beside the nearest one. Hesitating, he squinted across the gap, trying to measure the distance in his mind.

“Why don’t I walk to the other side?” Akashi suggested. “That might give you some idea of how far it is.”

“S-sure. Thanks.” Furihata waited, as Akashi approached the opposite stone. (Akashi’s eyes were open, of course. Furihata was pretty sure he wasn’t into this kind of thing?) Some of the girls, who stood around watching their friends, gaped as he walked past. Furihata smiled wryly.

He couldn’t blame the girls for staring. Because in moments like this, Akashi looked like an actor straight out of a romance drama. It wasn’t so much his face, exactly. It was more the elegant way he carried himself. With his head held high, and his bright red hair and his coat rippling in the breeze. He just looked really… mature. To those girls, he probably looked like some kind of fairy-tale prince.

Akashi reached the other rock, and turned to face Furihata. Furihata clenched his hands. From where he stood, Akashi looked surprisingly distant. Apparently the stones were farther apart than he thought.

“Good luck,” Akashi said across the space between them.

“Th-thanks,” Furihata said again, forcing a shaky smile.

His palms were sweating. Some of the girls were watching them both curiously. He tried not to think too much about that, and to ignore the warmth rising into his face.

Instead he focused on what he wanted to do. Because he really did want to reach that rock. Yeah, it was goofy and superstitious. But it couldn’t hurt to have a bit of extra luck for what he wanted, right?

The truth was, Furihata was such a romantic it was embarrassing. He believed in true love, and soul mates, and all that sappy stuff. He really wanted to find a great girlfriend. A kind, understanding person who was just right for him.

If he was being honest, he wanted that more than anything else in the world.

He peered at the rock beside Akashi’s foot. All he had to do was reach it, he told himself. He would probably bump into a bunch of people and look like an idiot in the process, but oh well. He could stumble around as long as he needed to. As long as he didn’t get too turned around, and touched the stone before he opened his eyes again, he would find love. Soon, supposedly.

(Of course, if he couldn’t find the stone, then he would be a loveless guy for years. But hey, no pressure.)

Furihata closed his eyes. He shut them tight, just to make sure he wouldn’t open them on accident. A gap of darkness now stretched between him and the unseen stone. He drew one last breath. Akashi’s words from before throbbed inside him, and he clung to their approval.

“I don’t believe it’s a shallow thing, to desire love.”

With a fluttering heart, Furihata stretched out his arms. Then he took his first step, toward his fate.

Chapter Text

Every once in a rare while, Akashi wished he could take someone else’s place, and succeed for them.

It was a contradictory feeling. He liked to help his friends and colleagues reach their true potential, to give advice when needed. But there was no point in helping them prematurely. As a rule, Akashi succeeded at everything he tried. If he did that for others, they would never learn to achieve anything with their own strength.

So it was a strange and troubling experience, when Akashi actually felt the urge to step in, and rob someone of the chance to succeed alone.

Akashi had this urge now, as Furihata staggered across the paved ground of Jishu Jinja. It worried at him like an invisible tug upon his heart. Furihata had just started to walk toward the love stone. His thin mouth was pressed in a hard line, and his eyes were shut so tightly that creases bent all along his brows. He showed no signs of giving up, or wishing for help.

So why did Akashi have the oddest urge to hurry to the other boy’s side, to take him by the arm and lead him safely across?

He resisted, of course. But he watched intently, measuring every step Furihata took. He winced when Furihata bumped into one of the young women who were trying to find the rock. But to his surprise, Furihata held his course.

Two of the girls had just reached the stone beside Akashi. One had her eyes open, as she guided her friend. According to tradition, you could accept help to find the stone. This meant you would need help to find love as well. An intermediary, between you and your future soul mate.

It could also mean something else. Though Akashi couldn’t quite remember what…

He racked his memories. He had visited Jishu Jinja many times. When he was very young, his family vacationed at their Kyoto estate for several months out of the year. His father was usually occupied with business, so he would tour the city with his mother, just the two of them.

Akashi still recalled his first visit to the shrine. He had asked his mother about the stones, and why people were walking around with their eyes closed. She explained the legend to him.

“Did you ever do it, Mother?” Akashi stared, wide-eyed, at the stones.

She laughed in her gentle way, and nodded. “When I was a schoolgirl. But I lost my way, and needed a friend to help me find it. That could be why I met your father through a marriage meeting. I needed an intermediary.”

At five years old, Akashi didn’t know anything about love or romance. But if the stones had predicted his mother’s future, it stood to reason they could predict his. “Should I do it too?”

“No, Seijuurou, I think it would be best to wait until you’re older,” she had said, in a thoughtful voice. “When you’re old enough to know what you truly want in love. Then the gods can give you the most guidance.”

This made sense to Akashi. Years later, when his mother passed away, he began to spend less of his time in Kyoto. The next time Akashi visited Jishu Jinja was in middle school. Teikou’s basketball club had a practice match with a team in Kyoto. The team stayed overnight, and did some brief sightseeing before returning to Tokyo the next day.

When they arrived at Kiyomizu-dera, Akashi explored the temple with a particular group of his teammates, along with a certain manager. At one point, Momoi asked if they could all go to Jishu Jinja. Aomine tried to shoot her down—”We’re not a bunch of girls, Satsuki, go by yourself”—but Kise, a newcomer to Teikou’s first string at the time, seemed excited by the idea. He insisted they should go together. So the future members of the Generation of Miracles all went to the shrine.

Momoi was the first to try to find the love stone. She insisted on Kuroko helping her, but Akashi couldn’t remember why (if indeed she ever voiced a reason). Regardless, Kuroko agreed. He carefully took her by the arm, and led her to the opposite stone.

Akashi had watched from the sidelines. He was standing between Midorima and Murasakibara, his closest friends on the team. Kise was trying to convince them to look for the stone too.

“Don’t you guys wanna see if you can find love?” he said, hands clenched in that animated way he had.

“I have far more important goals,” Midorima said, nose in the air. “I refuse to waste any of my effort, or the fortune of the gods, on such things.”

“Who cares,” Murasakibara said.

Which settled that question. Kise turned to Akashi and asked if he would try. Akashi simply smiled and, thinking of his mother’s words, said, “Not today.”

Eventually, Kise and Momoi managed to convince Kuroko to attempt it. Kuroko examined the stones, sizing up the distance between them. He closed his eyes—and walked slowly but steadily to the opposite stone. He felt around with both hands, until his small, pale palm brushed the top of the rock. He spread out his fingers, clasping the rock with his whole hand, and opened his eyes with a slight smile.

All in all, it was one of the most seamless searches for the rock Akashi had ever witnessed.

“Wow, Kurokocchi! I guess you won’t have much trouble finding your true love,” Kise said. Momoi was blushing. (Akashi knew the reason for that, of course. Not that it was particularly difficult to guess.)

“I don’t know about that,” Kuroko said. He sounded a little surprised at his own success. “Are you going to try it, Kise-kun?”

“Yeah, don’t you wanna join in all this girly garbage?” Aomine said with an eye roll.

Kise grinned at him. “Sure, why not? I bet I can do it way faster than you can.”

Everyone else exchanged looks. It had only been a month or so since Kise joined the first string, but they already knew where this was going.

“What? Don’t be stupid.” Aomine’s eyes narrowed. “It’s obviously easy. I just don’t give a shit.”

“Suit yourself,” Kise sang, as he bounded over to the stone. “But I’m pretty sure turning down a challenge is the same thing as losing.”

“Fine, whatever,” Aomine growled. “You’re on.”

Which led to one of their childish contests, as usual. Kise seemed to think he would be able to copy Kuroko’s walk to the stone, just like he copied basketball moves. But once his eyes were closed, he immediately lost track of where he was. He stumbled around in circles, searching for the stone. In the end, he found it by whacking into it with his shin, and flailing around in a less than graceful manner. Which prompted the usual teasing from the group, and whining from Kise.

Then it was Aomine’s turn. He had more success, at first. He moved mostly in a straight line, but at the moment of truth, he walked right past the stone. They were all sure he wouldn’t find it after that—“Oh no, he was so close,” Momoi said, with Kise hissing, “Shh don’t help him!”—but then Aomine turned and tapped the stone with a smirk, to everyone’s surprise.

At first Akashi couldn’t figure out how he did it. But then he noticed Aomine had chosen to start at the stone farthest away from the group. Kise, Momoi, and Kuroko were all standing near the other stone. Clearly Aomine had used either Kise or Momoi’s voice to reorient himself and find the rock. Akashi wondered offhandedly whose voice had been the giveaway.

In any event, Aomine declared himself the winner, and Kise conceded defeat with a sigh. Momoi went to buy a love charm. While they waited, Kise tried one more time to talk his remaining three teammates into finding the stone. They all refused.

“But why not?” Kise pouted. “You believe in this kind of thing, right, Midorimacchi? Fate and the supernatural and stuff.”

“I told you, it’s a waste of energy,” Midorima snapped. “Unlike you, I have no interest in romantic nonsense. Now be quiet, Kise. You’re annoying.”

Murasakibara hummed in agreement, a rare moment of harmony between the two of them, while Kise continued to pout. Momoi rejoined them, and they turned to leave—at which point Midorima tripped over one of the love stones, and crashed straight to the ground. Everyone else burst out laughing. Akashi tried to suppress it, to ask if Midorima was all right. Midorima just sat in a shocked heap, with one of his long legs still entwined about the rock.

“Looks like the shrine is trying to tell you something.” Kise howled with laughter. “You know, about romantic nonsense.”

“Is this what it means to fall head over heels?” Kuroko quipped.

Midorima just glared at them both.

Suddenly, footsteps pounded up the stairs to the shrine. Their captain, Nijimura Shuuzou, appeared beneath the stone torii gate.

“Yo, Rainbow Convention,” he called in his gruff voice. “You brats seen Haizaki?”

They all shook their heads. Momoi said, “I saw him pretending to jump off the platform a while ago. One of the guides was giving him a lecture.”

Nijimura sighed. His striking features were creased in a frown.

“Great. Just great. I’m gonna have to bust him out of jail before this damn trip is over.” His silver eyes flashed. He paused, finally studying the scene before him, then crossed his arms. “And hey, would you Color Patch Kids do me a huge solid and not wreck the cheesy love shrine? The rocks aren’t responsible for your dating failures, Midorima. Or whatever angsty teenage bullshit you got happening. I don’t care what your horoscope said.”

Aomine and Kise exploded with laughter again.

Midorima sputtered. “I—I wasn’t—”

Nijimura wasn’t listening. He turned and scanned the temple grounds.

“Goddammit, is that him down there? What is that bastard doing?” he muttered. “I’m gonna murder him.” He made his way back down the stairs, saying, “Be at the bus in ten minutes, kids. Or I’ll have your weirdly colorful heads.”

“Yes, Captain,” they all chorused.

“Keep ’em in line, Akashi,” Nijimura added, with a final look over his shoulder.

“Of course,” Akashi said. He watched as Nijimura left, as his broad back and sleek black hair disappeared from view.

Warmth stirred in Akashi’s chest. He wondered why he felt happy—and why lately his heartbeat quickened a bit—whenever he noticed how much Nijimura trusted him. It was strange. He had never felt something toward another person that he couldn’t explain. Even now, he usually assumed that his growing fondness for his captain was nothing more than friendship, coupled with a deep admiration.

Still, in moments like these, he was uncertain. He wasn’t naïve. He knew the possibility existed… Perhaps, for the first time in his life, he was feeling for a boy what he hadn’t yet felt for a girl.

His teammates were all leaving the shrine. Akashi paused beside the stairway. He glanced back at the love stones. He took a step toward them, then stopped.

He still didn’t know what he wanted in love. He was far from knowing what kind of person he wanted to be with, or what it felt like to fall for someone. His admiration for Nijimura could easily be platonic. His mother’s words echoed again in his mind.

“Wait until you’re old enough to know what you truly want in love… Then the gods can give you the most guidance.”

He wasn’t ready, Akashi decided. He was still too young. He left the shrine, without looking back again. Someday he would return, when he knew for certain what kind of love he wanted, and try his luck with the stones then.

Now, three years later, Akashi was in high school. He still had no idea what he wanted in love or romance, or whether he was attracted to anyone at all. Yet here he was again, at Jishu Jinja. Watching someone else earnestly seek out the love they craved.

Akashi had meant what he said to Furihata. He thought the other boy’s desire to find love was admirable. At the very least, Furihata knew what he wanted in that regard.

In many ways, Akashi envied him for that.

Furihata was only a few meters away from the stone now. He stumbled abruptly, and nearly fell over. Akashi had to stop from rushing forward to aid him. No, he told himself, Furihata could do this on his own. Whether the legend of the stones was true or not, it was better if Furihata succeeded under his own power.

Furihata righted himself, and kept going. But he was clearly disoriented. He veered away from the stone, and Akashi’s heart sank. Minutes passed, as Furihata fumbled around, feeling for a goal that was now out of reach. Akashi cringed. He didn’t see how Furihata could make it back to the stone at this point.

Akashi couldn’t explain why he wanted Furihata so badly to succeed. It just seemed a shame, when the other boy was so obviously in earnest.

Then, all at once, Furihata stiffened. He stood very straight, and turned, slowly. Though his eyes were still closed, he appeared to be looking right at Akashi. He inched forward, with a concentrated frown. Akashi watched in disbelief as Furihata took step after step directly toward him. Furihata’s whole body shook, knees clattering. A memory floated through Akashi’s mind, one he had seen through his other self’s eyes…

A memory of a boy, a certain substitute point guard, trembling as he walked toward him in the Winter Cup final.

Furihata was only a few feet away now. His arms were outstretched, and his hands were so close that Akashi could see his fingers quivering.

Was Furihata going to touch him? Or walk straight into him, even? Akashi thought back to Furihata’s bout of panic on the platform, when Akashi had put an arm around him to keep him from falling. Furihata had seemed so upset at the time. Perhaps he had some sort of touching phobia. Should Akashi warn him…?

Furihata’s fingers were inches away from Akashi’s chest. With something bizarrely close to alarm, Akashi realized he had raised his own arms, as if he were preparing to catch Furihata. He took a step back.

Furihata froze, then jerked backward too. Akashi’s pulse hammered in his throat. What on earth was going on? Suddenly Furihata hunched over. His hands groped beside the ground. The stone was close now, within his reach. Furihata seemed to know this. But he kept barely missing it.

Furihata’s eyelids fluttered. Akashi realized with concern that Furihata might be preparing to open his eyes, to give up. But he was so close. So close to the thing he wanted… Without thinking, Akashi opened his mouth, and the words flew out.

“It’s to your left,” he said.

Furihata gave a start. He shifted, reaching with his left arm. His palm finally met the rock. Akashi let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

Furihata opened his eyes. They looked even wider than usual, after being closed for so long. He gazed down at the stone, with an expression Akashi couldn’t read. One of relief, perhaps—or ambivalence.

“Hey, um, thanks,” Furihata murmured.

All at once, Akashi realized what he had done. His stomach knotted.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said anything. You were so close… I wasn’t thinking.”

Furihata blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I assisted you,” Akashi said. “Surely you’ve heard that part of the legend? If you receive any help in your search, then you’ll require help in finding love as well.”

“Oh, right.” Furihata laughed a little. “Well, that’s okay. I don’t mind help. And… I’m glad you said something. To be honest, I was about to give up.”

Akashi felt himself relax a bit.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” he said, sincerely.

The corners of Furihata’s mouth tiptoed outward. “Me too.”

His smile widened. His sunny expression was a stark contrast, to the cloudy day around them. And Akashi found himself hoping, once more, that Furihata would find exactly the kind of love he wanted. One way or another.

Akashi accompanied Furihata, while they visited the rest of Jishu Jinja. Furihata stopped to pray at the main hall of the shrine. With Akashi’s encouragement, he also purchased a charm, a small red pouch that he tucked inside his bag.

As they walked back down the stone steps, Akashi once more recalled those old memories, of the other times he had been to the shrine. He would come back again, he thought. Someday.

Someday, he would seek out love for himself.

They were halfway through the line for the temple waterfall when a muffled grumble sounded beside Akashi. He gave Furihata a knowing look. “Would you happen to be getting hungry, by any chance?”

Furihata looked sheepish. “Y-yeah. Sorry. We don’t have to rush out of here or anything.”

“It’s all right,” Akashi said, in what he hoped was a reassuring tone. “I’m quite hungry myself. It’s well past noon, after all.”

They finished their time at Kiyomizu, and Akashi offered to lead the way to lunch. Furihata agreed readily, though he looked uneasy about something. Akashi couldn’t think why. He did, however, know a reason why he might feel ill at ease…

He took a breath, and reminded himself that his plan would be a success. He simply had to follow it to the letter.

The truth was, Akashi had been laboring all week over the day’s schedule. Ever since he received that unexpected phone call, his mind had been racing with possibilities, of all the places in Kyoto he could show to Furihata.

Kyoto was arguably the most historic city in Japan, with more temples and shrines than anyone could visit in a month. It also had museums and markets and parks, not to mention events that only took place during the cherry blossom season. Akashi had decided on the visit to the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum right away. (Given the circumstances, it was an obvious choice.) But apart from that, it was difficult to narrow down all the options, and devise the ideal itinerary.

Akashi was determined to manage it, however. So determined, in fact, that he told some of his teammates about his plans during a break at Rakuzan… And oddly, the question of where to go for lunch turned into the biggest debate of all.

“Your itinerary sounds very smart,” Mibuchi had said with a smile. “As expected. I assume you haven’t forgotten the matter of food?”

Akashi nodded. “We won’t have much time for dinner, since his train leaves so early. But for lunch, I thought the yudofu restaurant by Nanzen-ji would—”

He noticed right away when Mibuchi and Hayama started exchanging telltale looks.

“What is it?” he said.

Hayama opened his mouth, but Mibuchi abruptly clamped a hand over it.

“Sei-chan,” he said, in his most diplomatic voice. “That place is indeed wonderful. But the cuisine there is rather specialized. Do you happen to know if it would be to your friend’s taste?”

Akashi knit his brows, not entirely following the point. “Yudofu is a local specialty. Arguably the local specialty.”

“Yes, that’s true, but—”

Hayama wormed his way out of Mibuchi’s grasp. “Dude, Akashi, not everybody likes tofu as much as you do. It’s all they serve there! Tofu, tofu, tofu. Seven courses of tofu. It’s really good tofu. But I thought I was going to die. Like, a white squishy death.”

“I believe you are exaggerating,” Akashi said. “The courses aren’t all tofu.”

Hayama goggled at him.

“In any case, such an elaborate meal might not be the best idea,” Mibuchi added. “That one isn’t kaiseki, but it still has multiple courses, and the price could be an issue. And this friend of yours isn’t an adult.”

Akashi blinked. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. What does being an adult have to do with it? We’ve all gone to kaiseki restaurants together before.”

“Yes, but Sei-chan,” and here Mibuchi adopted a lofty sort of tone, “Not everyone our age is as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as we are—”

“Also you paid,” Hayama chimed in. “That helps.”

“I was planning to pay in this case as well,” Akashi said.

Mibuchi and Hayama exchanged looks again. (This was starting to get a bit vexing.) Mibuchi sighed and shook his head. “I do understand your thought process. Kyoto has the best cuisine in the country. But this is like taking a lover to a five-star restaurant on the first date. It creates pressure.”

And they were back to the date analogy again. Akashi wasn’t sure why that kept coming up.

“But you all never seemed to mind that part,” he said, hesitantly. He understood that people were often uncomfortable with others paying. He already knew Furihata had felt that way before. Still, it seemed making an occasional exception for worthwhile food was reasonable enough.

“Totally different,” Hayama said in a cheery voice. “We get our butts kicked by you every day. So once in a while you pay for our food. It’s like our wages for being your loyal retainers.”

“Kou-chan.” Mibuchi shot him a glare.

“What?”

“Don’t say things like that around him,” Mibuchi mumbled out of the side of his mouth. Akashi still caught it, though. He tried not to look too uncomfortable.

“Why not?” Hayama said, in a very poor attempt at a whisper. “It’s just a joke. I said it to the other one, and he thought it was great.”

“Yes, but we’re not talking to him right now, are we? We’re talking to Sei-chan.”

“You call them both the same thing.”

“Anyway,” Mibuchi said, in a much louder tone. “The point is, something simpler is probably a safe bet. And when it comes to boys and food—”

“Hey guys,” a deep voice said, behind their heads. “What’s this about food?”

Nebuya towered over them. Mibuchi looked exasperated. “Speak of the devil.”

“Akashi is trying to figure out where to take his friend for lunch,” Hayama said cheerfully. “They’re going sightseeing on Sunday.”

“Well, that’s easy,” Nebuya said with a loud laugh, as he sat down beside them. “Just take ’em to our place.”

‘Our place’ was a reference to the yakiniku restaurant where Rakuzan’s basketball team often celebrated their victories. The meal consisted primarily of meat fired over a grill. Naturally, the recommendation was unsurprising, coming from Nebuya.

“They can’t go there,” Mibuchi said. “It’s an hour’s walk across town. Ugh. If only all the restaurants around Kiyomizu weren’t so touristy.” He wrinkled his nose.

“There’s a really cheap yakiniku joint in Gion,” Nebuya said.

“Dude, enough with the yakiniku. They’re just having lunch.” Even Hayama was rolling his eyes now. “Meat is probably better than tofu, though. Oh hey, you should go to that awesome place with the tuna bowls! It’s cheaper. Plus it’s harder to find, so you can be all smooth like ‘Yeah, I totally knew this was here, I know my way all around this city.’ That always impresses the girls.”

“This isn’t for a girl,” Akashi protested, for what felt like the hundredth time. His teammates just kept talking, though.

“Tuna is better than tofu,” Nebuya conceded. “If you have to have fish, anyway.”

“Yes, but what if Sei-chan’s friend doesn’t like meat?” Mibuchi said.

Nebuya looked at him like he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just saying it would be better to go to a place with more options,” Mibuchi said. “I know the food isn’t quite as outstanding as some, Sei-chan, but you could go to the one where the owner has that lovely lacquerware collection on the second floor—”

“Reo-nee.” Hayama groaned. “Nobody cares about lacquerware.”

Mibuchi looked highly offended by this. “I care.”

In the end, they took over thirty minutes to come up with a suggestion they all agreed on, and Akashi still wasn’t sure about it. He did see the wisdom in the place, however. It was reasonably priced, the food was excellent, and people generally liked udon. The most popular set meal had noodles, tofu, and tempura, so all major food groups were represented. There were other options on the menu too.

Truthfully, though, Akashi had been tempted to phone Furihata in advance, and simply ask what sort of food he liked. But apparently this was another pitfall, because when he proposed it to his teammates, Hayama blurted, “No, man, no! That’s not smooth at all. Just ask if it’s cool when you get there. Then you look awesome, but like you didn’t try too hard.”

(Akashi still had the distinct feeling he was being given advice that applied better to a date, but oh well.)

After further deliberation, Akashi decided to follow his teammates’ advice. Now he was having second thoughts, though. The restaurant was on the cheaper side, and udon wasn’t exactly a Kyoto specialty. Furihata might be expecting something grander, in a city so famous for its cuisine. On the other hand, perhaps the restaurant wasn’t cheap enough… Akashi forced these worries aside.

His plan had worked thus far, he reasoned. It was better to see his strategy through, than improvise something at the last minute.

Akashi led Furihata down the slanting streets, through Sannenzaka with its small wooden storefronts, onto Ninenzaka. They stopped beside a two-story building, painted yellow, with a dark wood frame. Purple curtains flapped over the entrance. Half a dozen people stood in a line outside.

“Do you mind waiting?” Akashi said, trying to mask his concern. Furihata was already hungry, and he didn’t want him to be uncomfortable. “It shouldn’t be long.”

“No, it’s okay.” Furihata craned his neck toward the windows. “Um, s-so… What is this place?” He sounded oddly nervous.

Akashi showed him the menu that hung outside. “Their udon is well regarded locally. I thought a more efficient meal might be a wise choice, given our schedule. Do you like udon?”

(Akashi had no idea if that sounded ‘smooth’ or not… He was fairly certain that he couldn’t ask if udon was ‘cool’ as per Hayama’s instructions, without causing the person he asked a considerable amount of alarm. Or inciting ridicule, perhaps.)

“Yeah! Of course I do.” Furihata suddenly sounded cheerful. “This place looks great.”

“Excellent.” Akashi mentally erased all the hurried alternatives he had been brainstorming. (He didn’t know why he was second-guessing himself like this… Usually his intuition was flawless, and he trusted it implicitly.)

He directed Furihata to the back of the line. Fortunately, they seemed to have arrived at a rare ebb in the lunchtime rush. Twenty minutes later, they were splitting wooden chopsticks and dipping thick, pale noodles in mentsuyu broth. A tray of seasonal vegetables came with the set meal. Akashi added most of the vegetables to his bowl of mentsuyu, with one exception.

“You don’t like ginger?” Furihata asked, amid the hum of the bustling restaurant.

“Not especially,” Akashi said. “I don’t mind it as a seasoning, but I’ve never cared for it when pickled.”

He prepared himself for the inevitable questions, and perhaps a hint of teasing. (Akashi didn’t understand why, but people always seemed to find this preference of his humorous… As though it was strange for him to have dislikes, maybe, apart from a food’s pedigree.)

“Yeah, I could see that. Um, s-so… C-could I maybe have yours?” Furihata ducked his head, when Akashi blinked at him. “If you don’t mind, that is. I really like ginger.”

Well, that wasn’t the usual response, Akashi thought. Though he couldn’t explain why it brought a smile to his face.

“By all means.” He nudged the dish toward Furihata. “I’m happy to be relieved of it.”

“Thanks.” Furihata carefully picked the slivers off the plate. “Do you want anything to trade? There’s no way I’m eating all my green onions.”

“You don’t care for them?” Akashi said, curious.

“It’s not that,” Furihata said. “I like them okay. It just seems like there’s always a big pile, and I don’t really like them that much? Restaurants are obsessed with dumping green onions all over everything. I don’t get it.”

Akashi chuckled, as he helped himself to some of the onions. “You’re reminding me a bit of Kuroko.”

“Okay, there’s no way I’m as picky as he is!” Furihata gave a half-grin. “We agree on this, though. We’ve officially declared war on the green onion epidemic. Sworn to put up a united front.”

Akashi raised an amused brow. “United against whom?”

“Our captain mostly, I guess. He thinks being picky about that stuff is unmanly or something.” Furihata shrugged. “And Kagami is always like, ‘Don't waste food.’ But, I mean… I don’t think a guy who inhales cheeseburgers whole should be an authority on what to do if a food doesn’t taste great.”

Akashi barely managed to choke back a snort. He took a breath, in a failed effort to regain his composure.

“I know a few people like that,” he managed to say, before breaking down into laughter. He didn’t even attempt to muffle it, like he usually did.

It was odd, he realized, as he pressed a hand to his shaking chest. He couldn’t remember laughing like this in a long time. Freely, and without a thought. Now he had done so twice in one day.

(He couldn’t quite help it, after the train ride… He had thoroughly prepared for the experience. But somehow, amid the squealing children and Furihata’s poorly hidden excitement and the shockingly short ride, Akashi found himself needing to laugh by the end. Not because it was humorous, exactly—but because his heart felt curiously light, and laughter seemed like the only release.)

Furihata laughed along with him, but his laughter faded a bit early. He looked almost startled. Akashi couldn’t think why. (Had he been laughing strangely?) Furihata returned to his udon. His forehead looked slightly pink.

“What is it?” Akashi said. “I don’t have something on my face, I hope.”

“N-no! You don’t.” Furihata gulped down a noodle. He added in a quiet voice, “Um, th-this is really good. All of it. Thanks for bringing me here.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Akashi said, and he meant every word.

They finished their meal. Furihata insisted on paying for his food, which didn’t exactly surprise Akashi. (Clearly, a cheaper meal had been the right choice. The price was probably the source of Furihata’s earlier anxiety as well, come to think of it.)

As they left the restaurant, Akashi studied the sky. It remained gray, an unbroken nest of clouds. He just hoped the weather would hold for the afternoon.

“Are you still comfortable walking?” he asked Furihata, who nodded.

“Where are we going?”

Akashi smiled. “I want to show you one of my favorite parts of the city.”

They strolled down the cobbled lane, heading north. Akashi knew every step by heart. (He had been exploring the area since he could walk, after all.) He ushered Furihata through a series of winding streets, bordered with regal wooden houses, and traditional restaurants with windows draped in bamboo screens. They paused near the Shirakawa River to look at a tiny shrine, with a stone torii and red-posted lanterns. Here and there, cherry trees stood bursting with pale blooms.

“This is amazing,” Furihata said, looking all around. “Is this… Are we in Gion?”

“That’s right,” Akashi said with approval. Most everyone in Japan knew about Gion, Kyoto’s historical entertainment district. But it was impressive that Furihata had guessed it from the more residential streets.

“Wow.” Furihata’s voice was hushed, even though other people were walking and talking around them. “I’ve seen pictures and everything, but… It looks like another world. Like something out of a movie.”

“It’s stunning,” Akashi agreed. “I never tire of coming here. And it’s even more beautiful at night. If you had been able to stay longer, I would’ve shown you how it looks when the lanterns are lit. It’s as if you’ve wandered into the spirit world.”

Furihata’s eyes were distant, like he was trying to picture it.

“Darn,” he said, with a sheepish glance at Akashi. “I’d really like to see that.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Akashi said. He tried not to look unduly pleased, when Furihata gave an eager nod.

It had been a while, Akashi realized, since he had simply spent the day with another person. It was a pleasant feeling. He wanted Furihata to enjoy his visit, more than he could really explain—but he was enjoying it too, far more than he expected.

After their fateful train ride, Akashi had assumed that Furihata had no interest whatsoever in his company. When Furihata called him, he was stunned. Now they were spending the day together, at Furihata’s request. He even seemed open to the idea of doing it again in the future. The thought made Akashi’s heart feel even lighter than before.

The streets of Gion gradually widened, growing more and more crowded. Akashi and Furihata soon reached Shijo, one of the most hectic avenues in the district. Throngs of people milled on the sidewalks, and cars roared down the road. They passed a sprawling building, with striking red and black walls. Akashi gestured to it.

“Do you recognize it?” he said. Furihata’s brow crinkled, and he added, “It’s the Ichiriki teahouse.”

Furihata’s eyes grew comically wide. “Oh. Oh. Jeez, that’s so weird. It’s right there!”

He gaped up at the building.

Akashi chuckled. “You’re a fan of the Forty Seven Ronin, I take it?”

“Um, yeah,” Furihata said. “Who isn’t?”

Ichiriki Chaya was the most well known—and most exclusive—geisha teahouse in Gion. Geisha entertained their wealthiest customers inside its high walls. In the Edo period, powerful men had plotted to overthrow the Shogun there. And a century and a half earlier, one of the forty-seven loyal samurai of Asano Naganori pretended to be a drunken patron of the teahouse, before leading the famous plot to slay the lord they blamed for the death of their disgraced master.

Akashi pointed out the entrance of the teahouse, and a few details of its traditional architecture. As they walked away, Furihata gave him an odd look.

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “You’ve been inside or something.”

Akashi shook his head. He neglected to add, “But my father has.”

Akashi could easily recall his earliest memory of Ichiriki Chaya. One night when he was four years old, he sat between his parents as they drove through Gion. Their driver stopped beside the teahouse. His father bid them goodnight, and exited the car. Akashi asked his mother why he was leaving. She explained that he was having dinner with some very important men.

Akashi pressed his face to the window, as his father went up to the teahouse. His father passed through the entrance, in his dark suit, and vanished from view. And in that moment, it somehow looked to Akashi as though the wide black frame of the door, with its shadowy curtains, was like a mouth.

Even now, Akashi felt a faint shiver whenever he gazed at the building. That old memory wasn’t the cause, however. The patrons of Ichiriki were elite politicians and businesspeople. Someday, Akashi would frequent the teahouse himself. But he had never discussed this reality with anyone.

The truth was, Akashi didn’t know if he was anticipating or dreading that period of his life.

They left the imposing building behind. As they wandered down Shijo street, Akashi checked his watch, as subtly as he could. He showed Furihata the Minamiza Theater, last of the famed kabuki theaters of Gion.

He also took Furihata to Yasaka Shrine, the heart of Kyoto’s yearly Gion Festival. They admired the famous stage, adorned with hundreds of lanterns. The area was bursting with noise and people, mostly from the nearby Maruyama Park. Huge crowds gathered there, to have hanami picnics under the cherry blossoms. Afterward, Akashi and Furihata crossed back onto Shijo, toward Hanami-koji. They passed some of the geisha teahouses again, and entered Gion’s most historic street.

“It’d be cool to see a geiko in person,” Furihata was saying. (‘Geiko,’ Akashi had explained, was the term for a Kyoto geisha.) “Or a maiko. I’ve heard you can see them walking around sometimes. But they don’t really go out during the day, right?”

Akashi tried very hard not to smile.

“That’s correct,” he said. “Generally speaking.”

“Too bad.” Furihata hesitated. “I guess that’s a really touristy thing to say, though. They probably get sick of everyone taking photos of them and all that.” He looked flushed.

“I imagine they do, at times.” Akashi reached into his pocket, to retrieve his pass case. “But the fascination that surrounds them is understandable. They have an admirable dedication to their art. And I would argue that they have more control and grace in their movements than many athletes.”

He nodded to a poster that hung nearby. It showed a picture of a white-faced geiko, posing with branches of cherry blossoms.

“I’m pleased to hear you would be interested in seeing one,” Akashi added. “Since you’re about to see a large group of them.”

He took out a ticket, and handed it to Furihata. (And did his best not to look too terribly smug.)

“Wait.” Furihata stopped in his tracks. He stared up at the banner, then down at the ticket in his hand. “You mean…?”

“The Miyako Odori is held only one month of the year,” Akashi said. “I could never allow anyone visiting Kyoto in April to miss it.”

Furihata’s mouth hung open.

“But… how’d you get the tickets?” he stammered. “Weren’t they sold out, or…?”

“It’s not difficult to reserve seats in advance,” Akashi said. “There are three performances every day, after all.”

“B-but—I couldn’t—” Furihata was beginning the usual speech, the Japanese refusal that was considered polite when receiving a gift. Akashi recognized it well—and he also recognized the reluctance pulling at Furihata’s frown, the mark of a person who genuinely wanted to accept what was being offered.

“I insist,” Akashi said, in his firmest tone. “I haven’t seen the dances in quite some time. I was all too glad for the opportunity. Please, indulge me.”

Furihata clenched the ticket in his hand. He gave a hesitant nod.

Akashi smiled. “Well, shall we then?”

He gestured down the street, where the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater stood waiting for them. It was an elegant structure, with a series of sloping roofs. Akashi led Furihata past the courtyard, into the theater proper. They followed other visitors through the narrow halls. Windows overlooked a garden, flush with cherry trees. They entered the auditorium, and walked halfway up the aisle.

As they took their seats, Akashi apologized for their location—only to receive a look of disbelief from Furihata. Akashi had to admit, there wasn’t really a bad seat in the place. Even the balconies had a clear view of the stage. Red lanterns hung over the stage and in the wings, glowing with rosy light. The stage curtain itself was a work of art, mottled with traditional designs of waves, butterflies, and vines.

Soon the lights dimmed, and the Capital Dances began. Curtains in the wings rose. On one side, a line of women in dark kimono sat with wooden instruments in their laps. The women began to play, slowly. The twang of shimasen strings filled the air, accompanied by the shimmering chords of koto.

In the far left wing, a woman in a bright blue kimono appeared. She stood at the top of the hanamichi, the stage’s wooden walkway. Her painted white face shone, star-like, in the stage lights. Akashi glanced at Furihata, who was gazing up at her with a slack sort of amazement.

The geiko took a step, and another. Each step was perfectly measured to the music, while the rest of her body remained as still as stone. A second geiko followed her, and a third, and a fourth, until a whole line of the dancers had crossed onto the walkway. They all wore identical kimono, and moved in perfect synchronization. Now and then they paused, to make smooth, steady motions with their arms. Their hands and trailing sleeves and the fans they held all stood at delicate angles to one another.

Akashi had seen the prelude dance of the Miyako Odori many times. But there was always something astonishing, even unearthly, about the way a geisha danced. Akashi was skilled at seeing every tiny tremor, the weaknesses in an average person’s movements. The geiko were, in a word, flawless.

The prelude ended, and the first dance of spring began. A group of geiko and maiko danced with cherry branches balanced in their arms, under strings of blossoms that hung from the stage.

During the nighttime summer scene, a soloist sang in long droning notes. A geiko danced alone beneath the moon, in a pale purple and white kimono. Suddenly, Akashi realized he recognized the performer. His mother had greatly admired her talent, when she was still an apprentice maiko.

“Do you see her, Seijuurou? Her movements are subtle, disciplined… But they have so much hidden feeling in them. She’ll be a true artist one day.”

Now the woman was a geiko, a child of the arts, and a solo dancer in the Miyako Odori. It seemed Akashi’s mother had been right—as she so often was. Akashi glanced toward the front of the auditorium. To a certain pair of seats in the far corner, where he and his mother had often sat to watch the performance. Akashi could recall craning his neck to stare intently at the geiko, as they smiled down at him with their painted red lips. How his mother would whisper in his ear, explaining what story the geiko were telling, and squeeze his small hand in hers…

Akashi shook his head. He didn’t know why he kept dwelling on old memories today.

He tried to focus on the present, on the subtle intricacies of the dances. But his mind continued to wander. He looked to Furihata. It had been over forty minutes now, and his guest was probably getting restless, or dozing. That wasn’t uncommon, given the slow, hypnotic pace of much of the performance.

But Akashi was wrong.

Furihata was sitting very still. His eyes widened now and then, at a new flash of color on the stage, or at a fluid movement from one of the geisha. His gaze darted everywhere, as though he was trying to absorb everything around him.

Well, this was unexpected.

Akashi knew most boys his age weren’t interested in traditional culture, especially the arts. Even if they were, they often tried to downplay it as much as possible. But Furihata didn’t seem to. Perhaps it was because he was so easy to read. His face truly was an open book, filled with earnest, thoughtful phrases—and in that moment, Akashi could read an entire story about Furihata’s sincere, captivated interest, in what was happening on the stage.

Furihata was appreciative, Akashi realized. Not only in the sense of being thankful. He appreciated things for their history and beauty, from steam engines to temples. And he appreciated people, for their talents and strengths. Akashi still remembered what Furihata had said to him, on the train.

“Wow. That’s really impressive… I’m pretty sure most people couldn’t do that, even with practice.”

Akashi realized, suddenly, that he could feel himself smiling.

No wonder he was enjoying their outing together. Furihata was the sort of person with whom he generally got along best. And Akashi found himself thinking, without really intending to, that Furihata would make an excellent friend.

Over fifty geiko and maiko came onto the main stage, for the last dance of the Miyako Odori. It was spring again, and the cherry blossoms had returned to the set, dangling from the rafters in an explosion of pink. The dance ended, and applause rushed through room.

The lights turned on, and the people around them began to leave. Akashi shifted to stand—only to notice Furihata wasn’t moving. He was gawking up at the stage, with eyes that resembled panes of glass frosted over.

“Furihata-kun?” he said. “Are you all right?”

“Huh?” Furihata’s gaze snapped toward him. “Oh, right! Sorry. I, uh… I kind of spaced out there. Sorry about that.” He scrambled to his feet.

“It’s not a problem,” Akashi assured him. They left the auditorium, following the rest of the crowd. “Did you enjoy the performance?”

“Y-yeah. It was… It was really amazing.” Furihata sounded shyer than usual. “I probably didn’t get a lot of it, though. Like I don’t know anything about what the dances meant, or the songs. But I recognized some of the stories.”

“That’s more than many people know,” Akashi said. “I would be happy to tell you more about the other aspects of the dances sometime. I’ve attended them since I was very young.”

He nearly came to a halt. That was odd. Why had he mentioned that? He didn’t usually talk about his childhood.

“Really?” Furihata looked interested. “Did you go on vacations here a lot?”

“My family keeps an estate in the Kyoto countryside,” Akashi said, a bit slowly. “When I was a child, I lived here for much of the spring and summer.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” Furihata smiled. “Is that part of why it’s your favorite city?”

“I suppose so, yes.” Akashi was startled, but he couldn’t entirely explain why. Maybe it was because he had forgotten that he told Furihata what his favorite city was, on their train ride weeks ago. Or that Furihata had even remembered. Or… Well, he didn’t quite know what.

They were walking in the direction of Maruyama Park. Akashi had intended to show Furihata the rowdy hanami parties, before taking him to a more modern shopping district, and one of the trendier dessert cafés in the city. The sort of places that most teenagers wanted to go. Suddenly, he found himself hesitating.

He looked over at Furihata. He recalled the entranced look on the other boy’s face, after the dances ended. He thought of how Furihata seemed to shrink a little at times, in especially noisy crowds. And how he had panicked on the platform at Kiyomizu.

(Akashi didn’t know much about anxiety, or panic attacks… He didn't have to contend with those particular things himself. But he was familiar with mental health issues more generally, and had on some level understood, when Furihata tried to explain what happened on the platform. The words, “It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess,” had stuck in Akashi’s brain, as something he found particularly resonant.)

And Akashi remembered something else as well. How Furihata had mentioned in passing, as they walked toward Kiyomizu-dera, that his mother loved traditional Japanese sweets… And that he did too.

“Akashi-kun?” Furihata hovered beside him. They had both stopped walking. “Are… Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Akashi said. In that moment, he did something unusual. He made a spur-of-the-moment, unforeseen, purely instinctual decision…

He decided to abandon his original plan, in favor of something new. (Or perhaps it was more accurate to say something old.)

“I would like to take you somewhere.” He turned around, and gestured for Furihata to follow.

“Um, okay?” Furihata’s thin brows were puckered.

Akashi led the way back down Shijo street, past Ichiriki Chaya. They hurried up the sidewalk to a traditional wooden building, with red curtains and a large display window. A black logo adorned the curtains. Akashi knew its angular design very well.

They entered the shop, and Akashi immediately felt as though he had stepped back in time. Women in simple gray uniforms stood behind counters with wood frames. All along the ceiling, antique higashi candy molds hung in rows. And inside the counters, displays of colorful sweets glowed in the installed lights.

Akashi could remember peering eagerly into those displays, when his head stood lower than the counters themselves.

A hostess escorted Akashi and Furihata to the back of the shop, into a spacious room with carefully arranged tables and chairs. She showed them to a table beside one of the enormous picture windows. The window looked out onto a tiny garden of stones and well-groomed trees.

“Wow, this is nice,” Furihata said as they sat down. “Is this place famous or something? The name sounded kind of familiar.”

“I would say so,” Akashi said, as a waitress served them roasted hojicha tea and a small plate of rakugan sweets. “This shop has been in business since the mid-Edo period. They provide catering for the geisha teahouses.”

“Oh.” Furihata looked sheepish. “So… yeah, then.”

Akashi made sure to give him a smile. “Would you mind if I ordered for the both of us? There’s something I’d like you to try.”

Furihata nodded. “Sure.”

Akashi couldn’t help noting, with secret satisfaction, that Furihata didn’t seem nearly as uneasy as he had at lunch. For a while, they sat sipping tea and looking out at the garden. They talked about the Miyako Odori, about some of the finer points of the dances. Akashi was glad then that he’d changed his mind, that he hadn’t spoiled the serene mood between them.

He was also careful to prompt Furihata to share his thoughts, about what he had enjoyed about the performance. Furihata clearly struggled with expressing himself at times. He seemed overly worried about what others would think of him, to the point that he could have trouble speaking. Akashi couldn’t honestly say he had that problem. He kept wondering if Furihata had a history of having his opinions belittled in some way. Furihata was more talkative now, though, and Akashi found himself enjoying their conversation a great deal.

The waitress returned, and began arranging various dishes on the table. Two matching plates, each with a round namagashi sweet in the shape of a cherry blossom, were followed by two bowls of thick matcha tea. Then she set down a pair of large lacquerware containers, blazoned with the shop logo, and left.

Furihata stared at the green and black containers. “What are those?”

“Allow me to show you.” Akashi separated the halves of the container. He opened the top lid, to reveal a pool of glistening dark brown syrup. In the other half of the container, submerged in ice water, lay a nest of transparent noodles that looked like molded glass. Akashi raised a noodle in his chopsticks, to show it to Furihata.

“Oh, are those kuzu kiri noodles?” Furihata exclaimed. “I’ve heard of those!”

“I hope you like them,” Akashi said. “They’re a favorite of mine.”

He dipped the noodle into the sugar syrup, and raised it to his mouth. Furihata did the same. As Furihata slurped up the noodle, his eyes brightened. “This is really good.”

They were quiet for a few minutes. Eating, enjoying.

“So how long have you been coming here?” Furihata said. “Since you were a kid?”

Akashi nodded. “I used to come here after the Miyako Odori. With my mother.”

The words were out, before he could even think to stop them. His throat tightened. Why on earth had he said that?

Akashi preferred to avoid discussing his past, for various reasons. But more importantly, he tried to make it a rule not to mention his mother in conversation. For one thing, it had a tendency to dampen his mood. He didn’t like to negatively affect the mood of a conversation in any way. But another reason was...

“You haven’t done it lately?” Furihata said. “Is she living in Tokyo now?”

Akashi lowered his eyes to the matcha bowl he held. He drew a calm breath.

“She passed away,” he said. “When I was in elementary school.”

Furihata stiffened. A noodle slid from his chopsticks back into his syrup.

“Oh.” His voice caught. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

He dropped into silence. Looking guilty. The way others always did, when they found out on accident. Akashi sighed a little. This was guaranteed to be awkward.

“It’s quite all right,” he said, in his most reassuring voice. “You didn’t realize.”

“Sorry,” Furihata said again, quieter this time. There was a fragile pause. “Um… s-so… She liked Japanese sweets, then?”

Akashi gazed across the table. That was a bit unusual, that Furihata hadn’t tried to change the subject. Akashi wasn’t sure how to respond. He supposed he ought to reply, as briefly as possible, and change the subject himself. Then Furihata would know that he hadn’t meant to talk about her. He opened his mouth.

“Yes,” he said. “She was very fond of them. Her favorites were the ones for cherry blossom season. This was her favorite time of year in general.”

Furihata gave a small smile. “Yeah, it’s beautiful. Especially around here.”

“She thought so,” Akashi said. Memories were rushing through his mind now, unbidden. “She often liked to say that she fell in love with my father in this city. Though their courtship largely took place elsewhere.”

He traced a finger along his matcha bowl. He was telling something so personal, to someone he barely knew. Not just about his mother, but his parents’ relationship. Yet for some reason, it didn’t feel as awkward as it should have.

“That seems really…” Furihata hesitated. “Romantic.”

“It was, from what I understand.” Akashi stared out at the garden, its hauntingly familiar greenery. He found himself picturing his mother’s face, how he used to see her delicate features reflected in the window, as she sat across from him. “She believed strongly in the ideal of love. That fate works to bring together people who need each other.”

“She sounds like a really beautiful person,” Furihata said quietly.

“Yes.” Akashi managed a smile. “She was.”

He eyed Furihata. She would have liked this, he thought. His mother would like that he was visiting the shop again, and sharing it with someone else. She had always taught him to be generous, to share what was important to him.

Perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing, to talk about her sometimes.

As they finished eating, Akashi felt relaxed. Peaceful, in a way he couldn’t precisely explain. Before they left the shop, he stopped at the counter, for one final purchase. At his request, the cashier arranged sticks of tri-colored hanami dango in a box. She wrapped it in patterned paper. Akashi then handed the box to Furihata.

“For your mother, when you return home,” he said. “She likes dango, I hope?”

“She—yeah. She loves them,” Furihata said, looking stunned. “But—I couldn’t—”

“Please,” Akashi said, warmly.

Furihata cradled the box, holding it close beside his jacket. “Thanks.”

Given his frame of mind, Akashi was a bit surprised to find the weather outside the shop grayer than ever. He took out his phone, and turned to Furihata.

“Would you be interested in seeing more cherry blossoms?” he said. “I was thinking of showing you one of my favorite walks in the city.”

Furihata beamed. “That sounds great.”

Akashi called his driver, and they waited a few minutes. Soon they were in Akashi’s car, taking the brief ride from Gion to Sanjo Street, on toward the eastern part of Northern Higashiyama. They arrived, and Akashi’s driver opened the doors for them. Akashi instructed him to park the car nearby, and wait for their return.

Akashi and Furihata made their way past Eikan-do temple, until they reached a quiet path that followed a winding canal. On one side stood a line of houses, and on the other, a lush tangle of forest. All along the canal’s length, cherry trees stretched their dark branches over the water, feathered with thousands of snowy pink flowers. The blossoms were reflected in the water’s surface, a rippling mirror.

The walkway was called the Philosopher’s Path, as Akashi told Furihata. It was named for a famous professor and writer, Nishida Kitarou, who used to walk up and down it after his sessions at Kyoto University.

The two of them ambled along the path, admiring the cherry blossoms and the serene neighborhood. Laughing, Furihata pointed out a cluster of cats all eating on a bench. Akashi told him how some of those cats had been around since before he could remember. They passed miniature armies of Jizo statues, hung with red bibs, and a stone engraved with one of Nishida’s poems.

They reached a bend in the path, near the base of Daimonji mountain. A small wooden sign on the right of the path read, “Honen-in.” Akashi led Furihata from the path, deep into the forest. There had been chattering tourists around them before, but now everything was silent, whisper-still. Trees towered overhead, a leaf-laced veil of green. The clouds hung thick and low over the hillside.

“Where are we going?” Furihata said. He sounded a little breathless.

Akashi tossed a smiling glance over his shoulder. “You’ll see. We have just enough time, before it closes.”

They scaled the sloping path, breathing in the mist-scented air, and reached a lone gate. Its thatched roof was covered in moss. They went up the stone steps, into the temple of Honen-in. Akashi sensed, rather than heard, Furihata draw a startled breath beside him. They had entered a garden, filled with low-hanging trees and stone bridges and cobbled paths.

Just before them stretched two mounds of sand, raked with designs in the shape of cherry blossoms. Akashi and Furihata passed silently between the sand mounds, meant to purify visitors. They wandered through the garden, admiring the ponds and statues. A carpet of moss crept everywhere, from the trees to the surrounding forest floor. Water in a stone basin shimmered, as it dripped down the basin's edge like music.

They reached the garden’s outer boundary, where boulders stood among the trees. The place looked ancient, untouched. They paused beside a line of stone lanterns. Furihata was peering up the hill, at the shadowed spaces between the trees and gnarled vines.

“Is this place even real?” His voice was hushed. “I feel like we’re in a story or something.”

He squinted, and Akashi remembered what he had said, about loving folk tales. He almost looked like he expected to see a youkai appear in the shadows. Perhaps the glowing light of a fox spirit holding its star ball, or a winged tengu, sword in hand.

Akashi craned his neck toward the sky. Clouds swirled between the overarching trees. A rumble sounded, and for a quaking, dreamlike instant, Akashi thought he was listening to the distant blows of oni clubs upon the mountainside.

“I feel much the same, whenever I come here,” he admitted, keeping his voice quiet as well. “I wonder what sort of story it is.”

Their eyes met. Akashi didn’t say such things often. Not out loud, at least. But he had the sense, the intuition, that a person like Furihata would understand. Furihata blinked, slowly.

“Yeah,” he said. “Me too.” He chuckled, a faint sound.

They stood side by side, looking at each other. As if trying to guess at one another’s thoughts. Something small and cold slid down Akashi’s face. He didn’t register it, until he saw dark spots scattering across the ground. Sprinkles of rain fell in a gentle shower between the trees.

“Heh. It finally started.” Furihata regarded the clouds with a resigned smile. Raindrops clustered on his jacket, and in his hair. “I kinda knew it would. Always happens when I forget my umbrella.”

Akashi promptly reached into his bag. “Would you like to borrow mine?”

He took out his umbrella, a red one with a retractable handle, and held it out.

“No, it’s okay,” Furihata said, rubbing his elbows. “I’ve got my jacket.”

Akashi opened his umbrella with a sweeping motion. It clicked soundly into place. “Why don’t we share? It’s more than big enough.”

He nodded to Furihata, to join him under the wide red brim.

Furihata hesitated. “Are… are you really sure?”

“Of course.”

With a grateful look, Furihata inched up alongside him. They walked back through the garden, and left the temple, just as it was closing for the day. Akashi was careful to tilt the umbrella so that it sheltered Furihata properly. They were so close they brushed against each other now and then, a soft bumping of elbows and arms. Furihata apologized every time, and Akashi insisted it was all right.

It was strange, he thought. Unless it was his imagination, Furihata didn’t seem nearly as on edge this time. Not like he generally did when they were in close proximity. Akashi couldn’t help recalling the earlier mishap on the platform at Kiyomizu, when Furihata had panicked at his touch.

He wondered what could have changed.

The raindrops fell thicker and heavier, as they descended through the forest and returned to Philosopher’s Path. It was late afternoon, nearly time for Furihata to return to the train station. Akashi and Furihata retraced their steps, southward along the canal. The stone-paved path soaked up the rain, until everything was coated in silver, misty and shining. Everything save for the cherry blossoms, that bobbed overhead in a pale pink fog.

A sudden downpour shook the branches of the cherry trees. Petals fluttered to the ground, a rosy flurry. Akashi and Furihata both stopped to look.

“Wow.” Furihata’s voice caught. “I—I’ve seen them fall like that before, but…”

Akashi eyed Furihata. He felt as if he already knew what the other boy was trying to say. Something he found difficult to say out loud, it seemed. He nodded.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, to show he understood.

Furihata let out a breath. “Yeah. It really is.”

Petals drifted all around them. Tossing, twirling, to the rustling song of the rain. Akashi smiled over at Furihata. He was right, he thought again, to abandon his earlier plan. It had felt curiously pleasant, to improvise for once. Freeing. And he was still certain the day had been a success.

Akashi did hope they would spend the day together again, and soon. Furihata was such likable company. It was easy to speak openly around him, somehow.

“I’m glad I was able to share this with you,” he said, with warmth.

Furihata met his gaze. His mouth twitched, like he wasn’t certain how to reply. His tawny hair was still a bit damp, smeared flat against his temples. It made him look smaller, and the whites of his eyes even larger than usual. He shifted on his feet.

“Hey, Akashi-kun?” he said, his voice soft. “Thanks. For all of…”

He stopped abruptly, and stared at Akashi’s arm. Akashi glanced down. His left sleeve was spattered with a large dark spot. He had been holding the umbrella far enough toward Furihata that some of the rain had fallen on him.

“Oh jeez, you’re all wet,” Furihata exclaimed.

He sounded worried. With quivering fingers, he reached out and touched Akashi’s sleeve. He started patting at it, almost like he was trying to will it dry. Akashi was startled. It was the first time Furihata had touched him voluntarily, that he could recall. But he didn’t seem to be panicking.

“It’s only my sleeve,” Akashi said. He had been aware of it, of the increasingly wet fabric clinging coldly to his shoulder and arm, but it hadn’t concerned him. “I can change as soon as I return home.”

“Yeah, but—b-but—” Furihata wavered, and his lips shook. He drew back his hand, and wrung it against his jacket, as though he didn’t entirely know what to do with it. “God, I… I— I don’t know. Akashi-kun, you’re…” His voice dropped, until it was scarcely more than a whisper. “You’re so kind.”

Akashi’s heart gave an odd skip. The mood between them had changed, in a way he hadn’t expected. The air around them felt closer, heavier. Furihata almost looked like he was about to cry. He turned his head.

“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, I know I’m being weird.” His voice was jerking in a strange way. Like he was fighting to push the words out of his mouth. “It’s just… You keep doing all this nice stuff. For me. Even though we barely know each other. And it’s, I don’t know… It’s really nice, and…”

He sucked in a sharp breath. Suddenly the words were pouring out, one after the other, like the rain that pattered around them.

“I mean, you’re spending the whole day just showing me around, when it’s your day off, and I bet you’re really busy and have a lot of other stuff you could be doing. And you took me to that train museum, when you’re not even into trains, and you were so patient when I was freaking out like a loser, and then there were those tickets you got, and the thing at the sweets shop, and now th-this…”

He sounded vaguely like he was choking. His shoulders slumped. Akashi didn’t understand. Furihata seemed almost upset. Though Akashi couldn’t imagine why.

“It was really nothing,” he murmured. “I enjoyed it.” He leaned closer to Furihata, not quite knowing what to do. “Are—are you all right?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.” Furihata gave a shaky laugh. “I’m okay. Really. I just… I just feel so stupid. I was so nervous about coming here, and I kept thinking you were going to make fun of me, or something.” He shook his head. “I don’t know why I even thought that. You never did before, on the train. Or at the party. You’re not like that at all.”

His small eyes were scrunched up, blinking fast. He pushed the damp hair out of his face.

“I just, I don’t know… I’m glad,” he said, wiping at his brows with the back of his hand. “I was so s-sure I was going to screw everything up a-again. And I thought Kuroko was c-crazy for t-telling me to call you, but—”

Akashi stood very still. “What did you say?”

Furihata looked up. “Huh?”

“About Kuroko.” Akashi’s body was as rigid as stone. “What did you say about him?”

The rain drummed in his ears, as it splashed into the canal.

“I—I told Kuroko about what happened on the bullet train,” Furihata said. “I felt really bad about it. He said I should hang out with you.”

Akashi’s pulse faltered. His fingers tightened around his umbrella.

“I thought I might come over… If you wouldn’t mind showing me around.”

Akashi had forgotten, in all honesty. About wondering why Furihata had called him on the phone. About why such a skittish, anxious boy would attempt to spend time with him in the first place… Part of Akashi had even started to think there might not be a reason. Apart from curiosity, or a genuine, unprompted interest.

But there was a reason.

Of course there was. It hadn’t made any sense before. Furihata didn’t even have Akashi’s phone number.

Of course Kuroko must have given it to him.

“I’m glad he did,” Furihata was saying. His voice was lighter, cheerful. “This was great! I had a really great time.”

Akashi heard Furihata’s words, but couldn’t entirely process them. His insides were twisting up like snarled knots. Now he understood why they were spending the day together. Why Furihata had taken him up on his offer, to show him around Kyoto.

Furihata wanted to repay him, out of some some sort of misplaced guilt about the train ride. And Kuroko had encouraged it, of course. Probably in his usual habit of being kind, of encouraging others to be just as selfless as he was.

That was the reason, for everything.

“You know the real reason why they talk to you, right?”

Akashi took a step back.

“I see,” he said. “Well, it’s good that you enjoyed it.”

Furihata was frowning now. “Akashi-kun, is something wrong?”

Akashi turned his head toward the canal. Its surface was churning, the once tranquil water scattering in every direction from the sheer force of the rainfall.

“No. I…” His mind spun, as he struggled for appropriate words. “I appreciate you thinking of me. You and Kuroko both. It was very… considerate. Thank you. And I’m grateful for your company today.”

He forced a tight smile.

“Perhaps we should be going now,” he said.

He hesitated, glancing at Furihata, and at his umbrella. He thrust the umbrella into Furihata’s hand. Then he turned and walked down the path, with brisk, jolting steps.

Behind him, Furihata’s feet swished through the rain.

“A-Akashi-kun. A-are you okay?” He hurried up alongside him, clutching the umbrella. “I, um… I feel like I said something wrong just now.” The words were timid, rushed. “I’m sorry, I know I was b-babbling and I probably—”

“You said nothing wrong,” Akashi interrupted. He shot Furihata a firm, insistent look. “And you did nothing wrong, either. There’s no need whatsoever for you to trouble yourself about this.”

He kept walking, just out of reach of the umbrella.

“B-but…”

Akashi stiffened. He walked faster, then faster still. He knew perfectly well that if he went far enough ahead, Furihata would stop attempting to talk to him. And indeed, after that he heard footsteps, but no more words. No meek voice calling out, stammering his name. Or another unwarranted apology.

The path stood empty in the rain. Water lurched around Akashi’s shoes, and clung to his hair, and soaked all through his jacket. He reached his car, parked just as instructed. His driver rushed out to open the door for him, but Akashi opened it before he could, and bolted inside. Furihata was not far behind.

Akashi and Furihata sat beside each other, in lingering silence, as the car drove back toward central Kyoto. Rain clouded the windows. Akashi’s driver had switched on the heater, but the air that blew through the compartment was still cool.

Akashi fought a shiver. It was always like this, he thought.

Most people didn’t genuinely want to get to know him. If they did spend time with him, there was almost always some kind of reason. Because they wanted something from him, or had some mandatory connection or perceived debt… Or because they were kind, too kind for their own good, and they obviously didn’t know how to refuse.

After all, hadn’t Furihata just said it himself? That he had been dreading this day, but went through with it because Kuroko persuaded him?

It was because of that distance, Akashi knew. That imposing, painful gap, that stood between him and others. Of course very few people would want to bridge that voluntarily.

But this whole thing really was his fault, Akashi scolded himself. He knew a person like Furihata would never spend time with him, purely of his own volition. He should have realized what was going on. He was the one had who started this mess in the first place, by inviting Furihata onto the train.

In the end, Akashi had only made Furihata feel obligated to pay attention to him.

And that was the last thing he wanted.

“Furihata-kun,” he said, finally breaking the stillness. His tone was calm, resolute. “I appreciate your kindness. I sincerely do. And I would appreciate it if in the future, you no longer concern yourself with me.”

Furihata’s head jerked up. “What? But I—”

“Ever.” Akashi’s jaw strained against the word. He didn’t want Furihata to think he blamed him for anything. But he needed to put a stop to this. Once and for all.

Furihata looked stung. Like he had been slapped, hard. He looked away. Another aching pause stretched between them.

“It… It wasn’t like that, though.” Furihata’s voice crept, mouse-like, out of his mouth. “Today, I mean. I…”

“I know.” Akashi sighed. “I realize you had no ulterior motive. You asked to spend the day with me out of friendliness. And to repay me, for my gesture on the train. But what you’ve done is enough. From now on, please, don’t bother.”

Furihata hung his head.

“But—but I had fun,” he said, hoarsely.

“As did I,” Akashi said, lower than he meant to. It sounded dull, hollow.

They sat unmoving. The car was starting to heat up, and the warm air was smothering, somehow. Akashi forced himself to clear his throat.

“Would it be all right if I took you to the station? I really ought to return home. I have a great deal of work to do.”

“Sure,” Furihata whispered.

Akashi redirected his driver to Kyoto Station. The car moved with agonizing slowness, through the tourist-clogged traffic. Akashi couldn’t bring himself to look over at Furihata, not even for a moment.

He was most likely sitting with his shoulders bunched up. Wringing his hands on his knees, and shrinking into himself, like he wished he could disappear. Just like he had when he sat beside Akashi on the bullet train, weeks ago.

That entire undertaking had been such a mistake, Akashi realized again. Why on earth had he ever thought to do such a foolish, pointless thing?

At last, the car rolled to a stop. The driver got out, and opened the door on Furihata’s side. Furihata unbuckled his seatbelt. He hovered on the edge of the leather seat.

“U-um, s-so I was thinking—” His lips trembled, more than ever. “I m-mean, the next time you’re in T-Tokyo, m-maybe we could—”

“Thank you, but no,” Akashi said firmly. “I would rather not.”

Furihata cringed. He got out of the car, and Akashi immediately felt monstrous. But he knew it was better not to leave any ambiguity. Not this time.

Furihata’s bag lay beneath the seat, forgotten. Akashi retrieved it. He slid across the seat, to hand it to Furihata.

“I will see you at the next national tournament, Furihata-kun,” he added, as politely as he could. “Thank you again, for everything. Goodbye.”

Furihata stood on the curb, looking crestfallen. Akashi did his best not to notice. The rain was pouring down in sheets, but Furihata was only a few feet away from the overhang of the station building. Akashi closed the car door, with a slam that tolled in his ears. He sank backward into the seat.

It was better this way, he told himself. He had no desire to continue an acquaintance with someone who felt obligated to interact with him. Or who was doing it in any way for his sake. Or Kuroko’s sake. Or anyone’s, for that matter.

Akashi shut his eyes. Once more he saw that long-ago memory, heard it echoing inside his brain. Of the timid little boy who had informed him they were no longer friends, after his father ordered him to be in the first place…

But no, Akashi told himself. This was not the same thing in the slightest. Furihata had never once pretended to be his friend. Because he wasn’t, of course. They barely knew each other.

The entire day was just a misunderstanding. A sheer misconception, on Akashi’s part. In fact, it was a kindness. Coming from a considerate person, who meant well. There was absolutely no cause to be upset, or on the verge of tears, the way his younger self had been. That would have been ridiculous.

No. Akashi refused to brood over this. He was not a ten-year-old boy any longer.

It was curious, though, how much a sixteen-year-old boy could feel like one.

Akashi swallowed, as hard as he could. He stared ahead without blinking, until his eyes stung with dryness. He didn’t see the view outside his car window, between the silvery trails of water that were spilling down the glass.

If Akashi had tried, though, he might have seen a figure standing just outside, on the curb. Holding perfectly still. As if waiting—hoping—for something.

But Akashi didn’t try, and so the car drove away. It glided toward his family’s Kyoto estate. To the massive, mouth-like doors that would yawn to admit him, and the line of servants who would greet him with stoic formality, and the long walk he would take, down those darkly paneled halls. To the work that would be waiting, like always, on his desk.

And all the way there, Akashi saw nothing outside the car window, except rain.

Chapter Text

Furihata stood on a platform in Kyoto Station, watching the trains pass like they were strangers.

Rain dripped from the awning, inches from his feet. Everything was gray—the sky, the platform, the gravel by the tracks. Even the train cars with their colored stripes looked kind of dull. He should have wanted to get out his notebook, and start taking notes about all these interesting trains that were so far from Tokyo. But he didn’t move to get it out of his bag.

It just didn’t feel like it mattered, right now.

Furihata sucked in a breath. His chest felt really weird. Like a huge weight was dragging down between his ribs, and he kept trying to breathe around it. The rest of him just felt kind of empty. And cold. It was probably the rain. His jacket was still pretty damp, and his shoes too. His hair clung in strings to the side of his face.

He had no clue how long he was standing there, before he finally realized he was on the wrong platform.

Normally, Furihata would have laughed at himself. Or felt stupid, or both. Instead, he just turned and dragged his feet in their squishing shoes toward the nearest staircase.

He checked and double-checked the numbered signs, then plodded up another set of stairs. He still had twenty minutes to wait for his train.

It already felt like it had been forever.

He had wandered around Kyoto Station for a while. Trying to get up the nerve to eat something, since he wouldn’t get back to Tokyo until past nine. There were all these great food places—but looking at the menus just made him feel kind of sick. He finally gave up and bought a sandwich from one of the convenience stores, and tucked it inside his bag. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to eat it.

Images kept flashing through his mind. Stuff that felt so far away now, like it had happened a million years ago. Like the goofy ride at the train museum, and the crowded platform at Kiyomizu, where he had that dumb panic attack. The love stone he finally found at the shrine, and the steaming udon at lunch, and that amazing walk around Gion and the geisha in their bright blue kimono and those kuzu kiri noodles in dark sugar syrup and all those cherry blossoms…

And Akashi.

Akashi laughing, so hard that his shoulders quaked. Akashi smiling, in that way that meant, I’m planning something, and I already know you’ll like it. Akashi holding out a box of sweets for Furihata’s mom, with that soft look on his face, after he mentioned those were one of his mother’s favorites. Akashi holding the umbrella over Furihata, so far that his sleeve got soaked.

Akashi saying, “I’m glad I was able to share this with you.”

And then…

Well, then all of that was over.

Furihata flinched. The screech of train breaks rattled in his ears. People were jostling him on either side, as they hurried across the platform. At some point, he read the marquee screen and realized that was his train, and he needed to get on. His feet carried him numbly to his seat.

He huddled in his chair, close beside the window. The sun was going down, and everything outside the glass was darkening from gray to charcoal. But no sunset. No blazing, fiery hues of red, like the first time he took an unexpected ride to Kyoto.

Oh yeah, and he was alone.

The weight in Furihata’s chest gave a sharp twinge. He curled up tighter.

He had been so scared, on the ride over that morning. That he would mess something up, or say something unforgivably stupid, and Akashi would think less of him. Sure enough, Furihata did tons of stupid things all day. They played on repeat inside his head, like always. All the embarrassing things he said and did and immediately regretted…

“It looks like another world. Like something out of a movie.” Uh, what does any of that even mean? Just keep it to yourself.

“It’d be cool to see a geiko in person.” Jeez, could you sound more like a tourist, and also maybe a creepy loser?

“I, uh… I kind of spaced out there. Sorry about that.” Come on, pay attention! Now you look like a nutcase.

“Is this place famous or something?” Wow, obviously. You could have just asked what it was, but no, you had to say something that sounded dumb instead.

“You haven’t done it lately? Is she living in Tokyo now?” You nosy jerk. Even if she hadn’t passed away, it wasn’t your business to ask why in the first place!

“Blah blah blah trains blah blah blah.” Seriously, just stop.

Worst of all was that panic attack on the platform. It was so humiliating that just thinking about it made Furihata’s face smolder. Akashi had seen him freak out, being a nervous wreck over nothing. And he was so nice about it—but in some ways, that just made it worse. That Akashi was so kind and gracious, when Furihata was such a mess. Because it only made Furihata think even more highly of Akashi, when it probably made Akashi think less of him.

But the weird thing was, none of that really mattered. It was embarrassing, sure. Furihata would kick himself about those things for months probably, but…

The only thing that actually hurt was the way it had ended.

Furihata ducked his head, and shut his eyes. He had been having such a great time. Akashi was so considerate. The more they talked, the easier it got to relax a little. Then Akashi said something at one point about hanging out in Kyoto again—“Another time, perhaps,”—and Furihata realized that he wanted to. Badly. He really wanted to talk to Akashi more, to get to know him better.

And even though Furihata knew he shouldn’t, because it was probably impossible… He wanted to maybe even be Akashi's friend.

Yeah, so much for that.

Furihata couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the conversation in the rain, that went so horribly wrong. He had rambled like an idiot, and said a bunch of dumb, awkward stuff. He had no clue why he’d felt so overwhelmed all of a sudden. But Akashi didn’t seem bothered—not even when Furihata mentioned his stupid fear that Akashi would make fun of him. He just seemed concerned. Furihata kept seeing that gentle frown over and over, like it was painted on the back of his eyelids.

He kept seeing how that gentle frown had changed, when he’d mentioned Kuroko.

In that moment, Akashi’s face went completely blank. He looked paralyzed, maybe even paler than usual. Then it was like a door slammed shut. His entire expression hardened. Eyes narrowed, jaw locked. And that was it.

“I appreciate you thinking of me. You and Kuroko both.”

Furihata felt horrible. Akashi clearly thought they had spent the day together just because of what Kuroko said. Like it was some polite gesture or something. Furihata tried to explain that wasn’t true—but he didn’t know how to explain why he had done it. And he couldn’t take back the parts about Kuroko, either.

And then…

“I would appreciate it if in the future, you no longer concern yourself with me.”

Ever.”

Furihata shut his eyes tighter. He pushed them against his hand so hard he saw stars. That was it. Akashi didn’t want to see him again. He had made that completely, one-hundred-percent clear. Furihata even tried inviting him to hang out, but Akashi had refused. Politely, between clenched teeth.

That was it.

Furihata sat in the growing darkness of the train compartment. Most of the other passengers had nodded off. A few were reading, beneath their tiny seat lights. No one was sitting next to Furihata. Someone had been there at one point—a salaryman, he thought—but whoever it was had left.

Furihata kept staring at the digital screen above the door. The one that showed the next stop, on the Hikari line. “Hikari,” as in “light.” The name seemed kind of ironic. Everything was so dark right now.

He looked at the gaping void outside the window, and shivered. It wasn’t cold in the compartment, not really, but his socks and the hem of his jeans were still wet. He shrank down into his chair. Trying not to think. Or feel.

The shinkansen train rode on into the night. With every mile, the weight in Furihata’s chest grew bigger, and heavier. Harder to breathe around. Because after everything that had happened in Kyoto, he understood.

He knew now, what was wrong with Akashi.

Furihata had no idea how he knew. But he did.

He knew exactly what was wrong. And the more he thought about it, the more it felt like this fact was trying to bore a hole straight through his ribcage.

Furihata had felt it, in the instant Akashi stalked away, into the rain. He had sensed it way deep down, in some intuitive part of himself he usually tried to ignore. This time, the truth kept stabbing at him from every side, until he couldn’t. Every word that Akashi spoke, every line of his rigid posture. A strange, simple, aching reality…

Akashi felt alone.

He was lonely. Painfully, bitterly lonely. So lonely it was messing up his thoughts and all his other emotions, until it bled into that strange energy that surrounded him. That was why Furihata had always felt so uneasy. But Akashi had been feeling that way long enough that he seemed to think it was normal. Almost like he thought that was how it was supposed to be.

But how could being alone ever be normal, for someone like that? Akashi was so kind, and thoughtful, and generous. Not to mention amazing in about a million other ways. Furihata just didn’t get it.

Except the more he thought about it, maybe he did.

Maybe it was because Akashi was so amazing. Furihata’s stomach ached at the thought. He recalled how people were always stepping aside for Akashi, and backing away, and gawking at him. Maybe even though they admired Akashi, most people didn’t approach him, or talk to him all that much. They were too intimidated. Just like Furihata was.

Because on one level or another, too many people in the world were exactly like him. Ordinary, insecure cowards.

It made a lot of sense, actually.

Furihata squirmed in his seat. His legs were starting to cramp up. A thump sounded, and he looked around weakly. His phone lay on the floor. He leaned over to grab it. He must have put it in his pocket, though he couldn’t remember when. Maybe after mailing his parents, to tell them when he would be home. Furihata flipped open the phone and checked the log. Which was where he saw a familiar name.

‘Akashi-kun.’

Furihata’s heart jumped into his throat. He still had Akashi’s number. If he wanted, he could call him. Or just mail him, maybe, to tell him…

What? That he was sorry for being such an average, self-conscious loser?

Akashi had already said that he didn't need to apologize. He all but ordered him not to. Even so, Furihata felt like he needed to say something. To tell Akashi he knew why the thing about Kuroko had upset him. And maybe try to explain why he asked to hang out with him in the first place.

Furihata tried to open a new mail. But his fingers were shaking so hard he couldn’t push the buttons. He clutched the phone, struggling not to drop it. That nasty voice in the back of his head kept on whispering. Reminding him of all the dumb, insensitive things he had said and done around Akashi.

What, you’re going to talk to him? Seriously? You are?

How shameless can you be? He already told you to buzz off. Loud and clear. Leave him alone. You honestly think he’s going to feel better, hearing from a pathetic coward like you?

You’ll just make him feel worse. You already have. Over and over again. You’re horrible. He’s way better off, without someone like you freaking out around him all the time. Stop making such a nuisance of yourself.

It’s too late. Way, way too late. Even if you send him something, he’ll just delete it. You screwed up, and that’s all. It’s over. He gave you plenty of chances. Give up already. If you keep pushing, he’ll just think you’re even more of a jerk.

Furihata shuddered, trying to force himself to breathe. Air squeezed through his windpipe in hushed, quivering gulps. His chest hurt, and his arms felt kind of numb and tingly. He finally realized he was panicking again.

So he started to do the train thing. To recite facts inside his head, and count out his breaths. As slowly as he could.

700 series. Top speed is two hundred and eighty-five kilometers per hour. Stops at Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Nagoya... No wait, that’s the Nozomi line. This is the Hikari. Not the Nozomi, like I rode the first time.

“Nozomi”…

Wish.

Wish. As in, what brave people do. Before they jump off a platform at some world-famous temple, maybe even to their deaths. Because they’ll do anything to make what they want happen. Not what cowards like me do. Who freak out, literally panic, just thinking about it.

God. That’s not funny. That’s really, really not funny.

His eyes stung, suddenly wet. He wiped at them and put the phone away, shoved it deep into his bag. He couldn’t do it. There was just no way.

Furihata tried to tell himself it wasn’t because he was panicking. He tried to think rationally, to figure out what the people he trusted would tell him to do. He was pretty sure most of them would say not to bother Akashi again.

His mom would tell him to stop being so nosy, to not impose on a boy who’d been so kind to him. His dad would say it was good that he wanted to make things right, but it was a waste of energy to try to force someone into an understanding if they weren’t ready to listen. His brother would tell him, yet again, to stop trying to make friends with the way-too-cool kids. And his current friends…

His friends…

Huh.

Furihata’s teammates at Seirin were his closest friends, by far. Both the ones in his grade, and his senpais. They were a weird bunch. Everyone at at school knew it. They were the basketball club full of oddballs and misfits, with zero history, that somehow won their school a national championship. They were all pretty different, apart from the oddball thing. They didn’t see eye to eye all the time.

But there were a few things they agreed on.

“The possibility of victory is only zero percent when all the players give up.”

Furihata gazed at the seatback in front of him. His pulse thrummed so hard that it fluttered in the veins of his neck. He took his phone back out. Held it in his quivering palm. The status screen was dark, unreadable.

He was getting that feeling again. The feeling that had started this whole awful mess. Like this was something he needed to do, somehow. It felt a lot like being called off the bench in a high-pressure game. When the last thing that Furihata felt like doing was stepping onto the court, and he was already half-convinced he would screw up and blow the entire match.

He hated it. It made him want to just hide in a corner somewhere. Or throw up.

The whole thing was dumb anyway. Akashi didn’t want to hear from him. Even if Furihata was right, about Akashi being lonely sometimes, he couldn’t actually help. Akashi already had friends who cared about him, who knew him way better. Friends he wanted in his life. Furihata was sure of it. A message from him wouldn’t make any difference. It didn’t make sense.

He needed to stop listening to these stupid feelings of his, once and for all.

But, for some reason… for some weird reason…

Furihata still felt like maybe writing to Akashi might help him somehow. He had no idea why. He was probably wrong, or he would screw it up, or something.

But whenever he thought of Akashi, and the way his face had looked in the car window, before he drove away… All closed off and tense, with those bright red eyes looking strangely dim… If somehow, maybe, a simple message could help him feel better at all…

Furihata’s jaw clenched. He held the phone tighter. Then he flipped it open.

It was the rude, obnoxious thing to do. It was annoying. Pushy. Conceited, even. Furihata was imposing on someone. Not letting well enough alone.

But at least he wasn’t doing the cowardly thing.

Furihata opened a new mail. Even though his fingers shook, he started to type.

“Akashi-kun,

“I know I’m being really rude by writing to you. And I don’t want to bother you or anything like that. But I just want to say I’m sorry about what happened today. I know you said I didn’t do anything wrong. And I guess maybe you’re right, mostly… But I’m still really sorry, about how it turned out.”

Furihata winced. Trying not to think too hard about that conversation in the rain.

“I get why you felt bad. Really. I would feel awful, if someone said they hung out with me because their friend told them to. You probably thought I was scared, and Kuroko talked me into it, just to be nice or something.”

Furihata’s fingertips hovered over the keys. He wasn’t sure how to say the next part. He took a breath, and kept writing. Trying to be as honest as he could.

“When I told Kuroko about the train, he said I should think about meeting you again. I was nervous about it. I didn’t really do it because he asked, though.

See, the thing is… I wanted to hang out with you again.”

Furihata chewed on his lip. Didn’t that sound self-centered? But there was an even bigger problem. He typed faster, struggling to keep up with his thoughts.

“Maybe you don’t believe me. I wouldn’t blame you, because I’m always acting like such an idiot around you. I know it must look bad, when I keep freaking out so much. But you’re such a nice person. I’m not scared of you. I was when I met you, but I know better now. I’ve known it for a long time. I was trying to tell you that at Kiyomizu, but I don't think I really said it, and I wanted you to know that.”

Furihata’s eyes were stinging again. He wished he’d just been honest with himself from the start. Admitted that the real reason he was so nervous around Akashi was because he wanted Akashi to like him. That he enjoyed talking to Akashi. No matter how anxious or intimidated he got, out of fear that he wasn’t good enough.

Furihata kept typing.

“You’re so kind, and generous. It’s seriously amazing. Maybe the most amazing thing about you, which is saying something, obviously. I’m starting to think that’s a big part of what makes me nervous around you. Because I really like talking to you, and want to be just as nice back—but I’m always worried I’ll screw up somehow and hurt your feelings. (Which I did today, even if I didn’t mean to.)

“I know that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. The stuff I worry about usually doesn’t, to be honest. Ask anybody. But anyway…

“I know you said you don’t want to hang out with me after this. And that’s okay. I get it, if you don’t. You shouldn’t spend time with anyone if it makes you feel bad. You don’t deserve to deal with that. But after what happened today…”

The screen was starting to look blurrier and blurrier. Furihata blinked, and wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. And he kept going.

He knew he had to write the next part, no matter what. Even if he was wrong, even if he sounded completely crazy or full of himself.

“I’m kind of worried about you. This probably sounds really weird, but I just have this feeling like you’re lonely. I think I know why, or part of why… I guess I should know, of all people. I bet everyone’s intimidated by how amazing you are, not just me. They probably figure they should keep their distance, because they’re not in your league and they can’t measure up to you.

“But that’s not your fault, and it must really suck. To feel like people are avoiding you, because of something that’s just a part of who you are.”

Furihata tried to swallow, but he couldn’t anymore. His heart felt like it was lodged in his throat. He kept thinking back to that first train ride. How Akashi said he would be glad of the company, and Furihata didn’t understand it. He had figured such an amazing person could never be hurting for company.

It felt awful, to realize he was wrong.

But there was something more Furihata needed to say. Because even though he was pretty sure he was right, about why people would avoid Akashi…

After everything that had happened, after the train ride and things Kuroko had said and the talk in the rain, he felt like there was even more to it than that.

“I also have this feeling like you keep to yourself a lot, when you don’t actually want to. Like you don’t want to hurt people, or impose on them, or something… So you kind of shut yourself away? In all honesty, though, I have a hard time imagining why a person like you would think you need to do that. It’s so much fun to be around you. Kuroko talks a lot about what a great friend you are.

“I felt the same way, being around you today. I know we’re not friends, but… To be honest, it really made me wish we could be.”

Furihata had to stop. The screen was just too blurry again. He bent his head, and curled his chest toward his knees. Everything hurt, somehow. It hurt to think about Akashi isolating himself. It hurt to remember the times when Akashi had opened up to him. It hurt, really hurt, deep down in Furihata’s chest, to admit that he still wanted to be friends.

And, more than anything, it hurt to know that this message probably wouldn’t make any difference.

Why would it? It was so long, and it probably sounded dumb. It was way too blunt, that was for sure. And there was all this weird, embarrassing stuff in it. Furihata couldn’t imagine actually hitting “Send.”

Furihata sniffed, shook his head. And forced himself to keep typing anyway.

“Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I don’t want to avoid you. I really wish we could hang out again. Not because I feel like I owe you, or because of Kuroko, or anything like that. I wouldn’t say anything, if that was why. I could tell how much that bothered you, and I don’t want to bother you.

“I just have fun talking to you, and I’d like to get to know you better. In all honesty, I would be honored. And I’ll definitely regret it, if I missed my chance because I was too much of a coward to ask you on my own before.

“But it’s okay if you don’t want to.”

Furihata signed the message. Tears slid down his face, to his humiliation. His lips wouldn’t stop trembling. He rubbed at his damp cheeks with his sleeve, so hard they stung, and stared at the “Send” button.

The more he stared at it, the more his heart raced all over again.

He should read the message over, he knew. It probably didn’t make sense. It was full of really rude stuff he should just delete, like that crap about wanting to be friends… Furihata didn’t want to put any pressure on Akashi, after everything that happened. And what about those parts about his weird hunches? He probably needed to explain that better… Oh god, he was starting to feel sick again.

If he read it back, Furihata realized, there was no way he would ever send it.

He hit “Send,” fast. With a muffled whimper, he shoved his phone back into his bag. Then he tossed the whole thing onto the floor. He crouched in his chair, and hid his face in his arms. Trying to calm down, trying to breathe.

Part of Furihata really hoped he had hit the wrong button. Like maybe he had just deleted the mail, and Akashi would never see it.

Maybe that would be better. He honestly didn’t know anymore.

For the next hour, Furihata sat alone in the train compartment. He gazed out the window, and watched as the unbroken stretch of darkness transformed into the hectic lightscape of Tokyo. He tried not to think about Kyoto, about how beautiful it was, and how this was probably his last train ride coming back from there, for a really long time.

Most of all, Furihata tried not to think about what Akashi might be doing, if he had read the message yet, or if he ever would.


Furihata woke up with his head halfway under his pillow. One of his shoulders was jammed up against the wall, and his arm was wedged in the crack between it and the mattress. Like his body was trying to just burrow all the way down and hide. His head pounded. He felt like he had been mostly awake all night, while his brain sprinted through some nightmare marathon that never ended.

Morning light shone around his window shade. He groaned, and ducked under the pillow again. He just wanted everything to stay dark right now.

A muffled voice called outside his door. His mom.

“Kouki, it’s time to get up.”

He lay motionless. She went downstairs, and the minutes slipped by. Eventually, a storm of footsteps boomed through the hall.

“Hey, little bro. Mom says get up.”

His older brother pounded on the door a few times. Furihata flinched, but didn’t move. The door creaked open. Furihata shut his eyes tight.

“You awake, kid?”

Furihata let out a noncommittal mumble.

“Okay, well I gotta head out. See you later.”

The door shut again. Furihata lay in his dim bedroom, staring at the wall. Listening to the bustling sounds downstairs—his brother leaving for class, his mom stacking the dishes from breakfast. He felt sort of hollow. Like his insides had been scraped out, and there was nothing left to make his body go anywhere.

He hadn’t felt like this in a while. Not since middle school.

He turned over, saw his bag lying on the rug. Right where he left it when he got home the night before. He thought about getting up. Putting on his uniform, packing his bag, eating breakfast. Like he was supposed to.

In the end he turned back to the wall, and hid under the blanket.

His mom’s voice came through the door one more time. “Kouki? You have to get up now, if you’re going to go to school.”

Furihata didn’t say anything. Still didn’t move. The door creaked a little, but it never opened all the way. His mom left again.

Furihata breathed a sigh. He had never told his family what happened the previous day. When he got home, he said he needed to sleep, and went straight to his room. His mom checked on him before bed, asked if he was okay. He lied and said yeah.

Now she knew for sure he was lying. But at least he didn’t have to go to school.

For the next few hours, Furihata drifted in and out of sleep. At some point, a muffled chime sounded. At first he thought he was imagining it. It chimed again. It was the mail alert on his phone.

Furihata shot into a sitting position. His bag was still lying on the floor. His heart lurched, and his pulse started to flutter. What if—what if—?

He scrambled to take his phone out of the bag. The little light was blinking. He flipped open the phone, and hurriedly scrolled through his mail—but it was just an update for some message board for railfans he was on. He slouched.

Furihata glanced at the sent folder. Sure enough, there was that mail he wrote, addressed to Akashi. His insides churned. He wished he could delete it, but it was too late now. He tossed the phone aside, and went back to sleep.

Eventually he woke again, and realized he was hungry. He was debating whether or not he should sneak downstairs to grab some food when his door cracked open. His mom padded to his bedside, in her slipper-clad feet.

“Sweetheart.” Her voice was soft, hushed. “Are you awake?”

Furihata grunted, and poked his head out from under the blanket. His mother was carrying a tray. He recognized the cozy, savory smell: ketchup, chicken, and egg. It was a rice omelet, his favorite. She set the tray down on his desk, and the mattress squeaked as she sat beside him.

“Are you ready to talk about it?” she said.

Furihata knit his brows. He couldn’t look at her all the way. The idea of explaining everything right now made his chest ache. He shook his head.

She smiled a little at him. One of those sad, patient mom smiles. She sighed, and ruffled his hair. “All right. Make sure you eat something, okay?”

“Okay.” Furihata swallowed a lump as it edged up his throat. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You’re welcome.”

She was halfway to the door when he remembered something. “Oh, wait a sec.”

He grabbed his bag, and took out the box of hanami dango. He handed it to his mother. She raised her pencil-thin brows, and removed the paper wrapping with careful fingers. She peeked inside the box. Then eyed Furihata.

“Aren’t these from—?”

“Yeah.” Furihata swallowed again. He wanted to say, “They’re from a friend,” but he couldn’t quite choke the words out.

She stared at him, for what felt like forever. With those sharp brown eyes, and the no-nonsense frown that usually meant he was about to get some kind of lecture. Or at least a lot of questions. Then the little lines on her forehead softened.

“Okay,” she said. “Thanks, honey.”

She ruffled his hair again, and left. Furihata lay in bed a little longer. Trying not to think about that sweets shop in Kyoto, how Akashi bought the box for him…

Furihata didn’t know why he couldn’t get that conversation off his mind. What Akashi told him in the sweets shop, about how his mom had passed away. Until then, Furihata had no idea. Kuroko never said anything about it. Which made sense. It wasn’t Furihata’s business.

He just… He couldn’t help wondering what that was like. It seemed like it would be hard. Furihata’s dad was at work a lot of the time. Most Tokyo fathers were. Akashi’s dad had to be even busier. And Furihata couldn’t help thinking, from the way Akashi looked when he talked about her, that he must really, really miss his mom.

Finally, Furihata got up. Forced himself to change clothes, before he sat down at his desk to eat. The omelet tasted perfect, as always. Warm, familiar, a little sweet.

He’d eaten two-thirds of the omelet when his phone started to buzz, over and over. The sound prickled the skin on his neck. He fumbled for the phone, just hoping… Well, he didn’t know what he was hoping for. A wrong number, maybe. He really did hate phone calls.

But maybe, just maybe it was…

The name on the screen read, “Fukuda.”

Furihata eased back in his chair. Suddenly he felt about a million times less tense. He took a breath, and hit the answer button.

“Hey, dude.” Fukuda's familiar voice made Furihata smile, in spite of himself. “You okay? Are you sick?”

He sounded oddly worried.

“I, uh…” Furihata tried to think what to say. “Kind of. I just felt under the weather this morning. I’m okay, though.”

“Cool,” Fukuda said. “Team says hi, by the way. Coach says you get one day of missed practice without a doctor’s note before she comes after you.”

Furihata couldn’t help a laugh. He sank farther in his seat.

“So you need class notes?” Fukuda added. “Rice porridge? Nerdy train stuff? You say the word, I’ll get it and bring it over.”

“Thanks. But I’m good. I’ll get makeup notes tomorrow.” Furihata made sure to sound grateful. That was Fukuda, all right. Always asking what other people needed, more than ready to help out.

It was really nice, Furihata thought, to have friends who checked up on him. Not like middle school at all.

“Right. Hey, so listen.” Fukuda's voice lowered, grew more serious. “I don’t want to be nosy or whatever, but… Has something been going on? You’ve been acting kind of weird lately. Not to get all touchy feely on you. But Kawahara and I were worried.”

Furihata sat for a moment, silent. He didn’t know what to say.

He was kind of choked up, to be honest. That his friends had noticed, and knew him that well. That they cared.

“Thanks,” he managed. “Really. I’m okay.”

He was lucky, he realized suddenly. He had a whole team of friends who cared about him. And a great family too. Like an understanding mom, who doted on him when he stayed home from school. Furihata’s gaze lingered on the half-eaten rice omelet. He couldn’t help thinking that not everyone was so lucky.

“Um, listen…” He bit down on the corner of his lip. “If Kuroko asks, tell him I’m fine. But he should probably talk to Akashi.”

“Uh, okay.” Fukuda sounded confused. “What’s this about Akashi?”

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later.”

“All right.” Fukuda didn’t push the issue, much to Furihata’s relief. “Well, later, dude. Take care of yourself.”

“Yup. Later.” Furihata hung up. He sat there for a minute, just looking at his phone. He went back to eating his omelet, and finished it. Set his plate aside. Slowly, he picked up his phone again. Scrolled through his messages.

For some reason, part of him kind of wanted to send Akashi another mail.

He wanted to ask if Akashi was okay. To check if he made it home, and if he was feeling all right, after all that walking around in the rain. Akashi had never replied, so Furihata couldn’t help wondering how he was doing…

But that was dumb, Furihata reminded himself. Of course Akashi got home. He had a driver, and probably a lot of servants, to take care of his family’s estate. Even if he did catch cold, he had a whole bunch of people right there to help. People he trusted, whose job it was to look after him. And he had friends, like Furihata did.

Besides, Furihata was the one who had hurt him in the first place. If Akashi actually wanted to talk to him, he would have replied to his mail.

Furihata really had no business bothering him again.

He heaved a breath, and hooked his phone into its charger. Then he grabbed a book out of his nightstand drawer, and curled back up on his bed. The book was titled Children’s Folktales. Furihata had been reading it since he was little. He mostly had it memorized. Which was why he liked to read it, whenever he felt crappy. It was soothing, somehow.

He dove into the stories, line after familiar line. Like the story of Little One Inch; that one always made him smile. He skipped over a few about failed love potions. People seemed to think those were funny, but he found them sort of depressing.

Honestly, Furihata had always felt out of place as a kid, when it came to his favorite stories. Other boys liked folktales about warriors, and boys like Strong Tarou who fought monsters. Furihata liked those, too. But he felt drawn to other stories more. He had a weird fascination with the ones where an ordinary person was spirited away to a supernatural world. Like Urashima Tarou and the undersea palace.

But his favorites were probably the simplest. Like the tales about an elderly man who would go into the woods and meet an animal, and be kind to it, and later the animal would repay him with riches. (There were always some awful neighbors who would try to do the same thing, just for the money, but they never got it.)

His brother always said those were boring. He’d preferred stories where a clever man outsmarted a supernatural animal, like a fox. Sometimes by taking a magical belonging of theirs, and making them do favors to get it back. Furihata had never really liked those. It seemed kind of cruel. Like just because those creatures were powerful and could do amazing things, that made it okay to bully them into helping you? Sure, they were magical and inhuman, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have feelings.

(And yeah, Furihata knew it was dumb to feel sorry for fictional characters like that. But he didn’t know how to not feel that way.)

Furihata used to wish all the time that he could live inside those stories. And he liked to think that he would be kind, to any of the animals or people he met.

Eventually, he came to the story about the nightingale house. A woodcutter got lost in the forest, and found a huge mansion. A mysterious woman sat inside. The woodcutter asked if he could rest there, and she kindly agreed, telling him to watch the house while she went out. But she asked him not to go in any of the other rooms. He said he wouldn’t—but he ended up doing it, of course. (Main characters were always doing the one thing they weren’t supposed to.) The mansion was amazing, with lots of strange and beautiful objects inside. Only then the guy was an even bigger idiot, and got really drunk and broke some eggs he found.

Then the woman came back, and cried, and asked why humans were such liars. She turned into a nightingale, and flew away. And everything—the woman, the house, the broken eggs—just disappeared.

That was so awful, Furihata thought. Why in the world would somebody be that stupid? The nightingale woman was kind to the man, and trusted him, and let him into her house. Instead of keeping his word, he stumbled around like an idiot and broke something important to her.

And then it was all just… gone. Because of his dumb, pointless mistake.

Furihata glanced over at his desk, where his phone was charging. No blinking light, no new messages. He was starting to have a feeling there wouldn’t be any. If Akashi had wanted to reply, he would have done it by now. He didn’t seem like the type of person to keep people waiting. Or change his mind.

It was almost like he had just… disappeared.

Suddenly, Furihata realized maybe he did know what it was like to be as stupid as the woodcutter in the story. To break things, and hurt an amazing person, because he hadn’t understood what was important to him. Even if Furihata didn’t mean to do it. Even if it was on accident.

Maybe that was the kind of story character he really was.

Furihata stayed in bed the rest of the day. His mom brought him dinner. Later, she stopped by his room again, just before she went to bed. She didn’t ask if he wanted to talk. Just ruffled his hair and said she loved him.

“Thanks for the dango, sweetheart,” she added. “They’re delicious.”

And Furihata wanted to tell her not to thank him, that the dango had nothing to do with him at all. That they were a gift, from a kind person who had trusted him, and opened up to him and been really generous—but then Furihata had gone and screwed it all up. Because he hadn’t been brave enough to return that kindness on his own. But his throat ached too much, and the words just wouldn’t come out.

All he could think as he lay alone in his dark room was that he had lost his chance. He had made a mistake, and hurt Akashi because of it. He could never undo that.

And that was the end of the story.


Furihata was in Kyoto again.

He was dashing through the narrow streets of Gion. Past wooden building after wooden building, all hung with red lanterns. He couldn’t catch his breath—or was he breathing? He couldn’t tell. Everything raced. His thoughts, his feet, the cobbled road as it rushed like wind beneath him.

He had no idea where he was going. He just knew he had to find Akashi.

He barged into the auditorium, the one with the geisha dances. Everyone stopped and stared at him. The audience, and the geiko and maiko too. Furihata just stood there asking for Akashi, if anyone had seen him. He asked over and over. They all just kept staring, motionless. Until finally a geiko gestured with her fan toward an exit door. Furihata thanked her. She looked kind of familiar, maybe, but Furihata didn’t stop to figure out why before he bolted outside again.

He ran up and down Shijo Street. Sprinting in front of cars, shouting Akashi’s name, even though no sound seemed to be coming out. Still no Akashi.

He saw a familiar red curtain. Relief washed over him, as he hurried up to the old-fashioned sweets shop. Akashi had to be in there, right?

He scrambled inside, and thought for sure he found him—standing right there by the counter, a guy with bright red hair—but no wait, that person was too short to be Akashi. It was just a little kid. And wait, it wasn’t even a little kid anymore, because whoever it was had vanished.

Furihata went to the café in the back of the shop, still searching. Furihata’s mom sat there. She was perched between some shopping bags, just like all the other moms and housewives who had stopped for dessert. Slurping up kuzu kiri noodles.

“Oh, hi, Kouki,” she said, in her most relaxed voice. “Are you having fun? I’m having such a nice time with Akashi-kun’s mother.”

“Oh, that’s, um. That’s great? Really great.”

The small woman on the other side of her table smiled up at him. He couldn’t quite see her whole face, somehow. Her auburn hair draped over her shoulders in gleaming waves.

“Listen, uh… I can’t find Akashi-kun. Do you know where he is?”

Furihata’s mother frowned. “Oh, honey. Are you ready to talk about it?”

“Not now, I have to find him! I’m r-really sorry.” He was talking to Akashi’s mother. He could almost see her face this time. Her eyes looked more in focus than the rest of her. Warm, sad, low-lidded eyes. “I’ll find him, I promise. Do you know where he is?”

The woman spoke, but he didn’t really hear her voice. It felt more like a thought.

“Seijuurou’s out riding,” she said.

Furihata had no clue what that meant. Was Akashi driving around in his car? He asked her, or tried, but he couldn’t get out the words.

He was running again. Light pink petals drifted down through the rain. He should have been soaking wet, but he wasn’t cold. There was the canal, on Philosopher’s Path… He started calling for Akashi. He staggered into the forest, on the path to Honen-in. He reached the mossy entrance to the temple. The rain had stopped.

He passed through the garden. Everything was silent. Tree roots and vines wove across the ground. He kept stumbling over them.

Suddenly, there at the garden’s edge stood Akashi. He wore a yukata, patterned with lines like rays. He looked like he was shining… Then Furihata saw Akashi was holding one of those big red lanterns, that cast a ruddy light on his skin and in his brilliant hair. He was looking away, into the forest.

“Akashi! Wait, Akashi! I need to talk to you!”

Akashi didn’t turn. He took a step into the woods, holding the lantern before him. His long sleeves fluttered like wings. He drifted out among the trees, and vanished.

Furihata reached the edge of the forest, struggling to breathe. He peered between the trees, and caught sight of a distant red light. Like a glowing fire, spreading out to ignite everything it touched…

An old man crouched beside a nearby tree. He had white hair, and wore the dark robe of a monk. He smiled up at Furihata.

“That’s where the monsters live,” he said. Calmly.

“What? I have to go get Akashi. He’s—”

“That’s where the bakemono live,” the old man said again. “You know all about them, don’t you?”

Furihata stared into the forest. All at once, the leaves and gnarled vines seemed to throb, pulsing with unseen energy. Twisted shapes moved among the trees.

“If you go in there, you’ll never come back out,” the old man said. “I should know.”

Furihata stood frozen, gaping at the strange shapes. He could have sworn he heard hisses and growls, in between crackles of thunder.

The old man hovered beside him. His pale eyes were large, unblinking. “Are you going after him?”

“I, uh—”

“You’ll need this.” The old man held up a paper lantern. Plain, ordinary, unmarked. Except for the kanji for “light” written on it.

Furihata took the lantern with trembling hands. It shone yellow-white.

“It’s in your name, isn’t it?” the man said kindly. “Your parents must have known. You’re different from me. Good luck, Furihata-kun.”

Furihata looked up. The man had disappeared into the shadows, as quickly as if he were one. Suddenly, Furihata felt like the man hadn’t been old at all. His hair wasn’t white, either. Close, but not really.

More like a pale shade of blue.

The forest stretched ahead into darkness, like a tangled, wild tunnel. The fiery light had vanished, Furihata realized. He looked back at the garden, looked all around. No one was there to help, to see where Akashi had gone. He was the only one.

Furihata plunged into the woods. With a quaking arm, he held the lantern out in front of him. It cast just enough light so he could see where he stepped. A weak, pale glow. The growls from before sounded closer now, and tree branches rustled.

Furihata walked faster, stumbling, trying to hold down the panic as it rose inside him. Huge, heavy footsteps thudded in his ears. Nearer and nearer.

He tripped and fell, and just barely managed to keep from dropping the lantern. Thunder roared overhead. He kept going. Trying to find that distant red light.

Eyes glinted in the shadows all around him. Pair after pair. In bright, inhuman colors, all glaring. They were everywhere. Furihata was running now, sprinting blindly in the dark. With nothing but the lantern to guide him.

A voice spoke, out of the darkness.

“Now tell me, Furihata Kouki.” The voice was sad, and strangely soft.

Other voices echoed it. Hissing like an eerie chorus, swirling. “Tell us.”

“What sort of story is this?”

Furihata cried out. For help, he thought… Then he realized he was just calling Akashi’s name. All at once, the sky lightened, and spread out above him. He was standing on the platform, of Kiyomizu Temple. Except there was no railing on the edge of it. Just a big open space. There, waiting.

“Give your year, class, and name,” said a familiar voice.

There was Aida Riko. Standing on the platform, her pink whistle in hand. She swept her free arm toward the open air beside her.

“Well, go on, Furihata-kun,” she said. “Say what your goal is.”

“Yeah, move it, freshman.” There was Hyuuga, Seirin’s captain. Arms crossed, standing beside Riko, like he had been there the whole time. “We don’t have all day.”

“Go right ahead,” Kiyoshi said nearby. “You’ll do fine.”

Then they were all there, all his teammates. Encouraging him. Furihata still had the lantern, for some reason. It wobbled as he gripped the handle. He inched toward the edge of the platform.

He didn’t want to do this. He really, really didn’t want to. He didn’t understand it at all. And he didn’t have a goal, not a real one. Or a wish. He wasn’t the sort of person who was brave enough to do this kind of thing in the first place.

Somehow, though, he knew he was going to do it anyway.

Furihata stood with his feet balanced on the platform’s edge. He couldn’t see the ground below, just empty space. And now there were branches growing everywhere again, and the glaring monster eyes were back. Everyone was waiting, on him.

“What sort of story is this?” the voice demanded.

“I just—I just want to find Akashi,” Furihata said weakly.

And he clutched the lantern, and leapt down into the dark.


Furihata scrambled upright, waking with a jolt. Air rasped in his lungs. His room was pitch black. The only light was the tiny one on his phone across the room. He stared at it. Sweat chilled his stomach, plastered his shirt to his chest.

What in the heck was that about?

He had woken up from creepy dreams before. But that one felt so vivid. He wasn’t even sure he felt scared. Just… really, really weird. Like goose bumps were crawling over him in waves.

The whole thing was so bizarre. The part about Kuroko—was it even Kuroko?—and the monsters. The temple platform, his Seirin teammates.

And the more Furihata remembered, the more he couldn’t stop thinking about Akashi’s mother. It wasn’t like he had seen her all that well. He had no clue what she looked like, so his brain must have made it up. But the woman in his dream didn’t look like anyone he knew. She didn’t look exactly like Akashi, either.

This was so weird.

“Seijuurou’s out riding.” That was what Akashi's mother had said. What did that mean? She had said it kind of sadly. Almost like it was important. Like she wanted him to do something about it.

Except it was from a random dream, so it shouldn’t have meant anything at all.

“I just want to find Akashi.” Furihata’s chest was aching again. He gazed at the phone light. Why couldn’t he stop thinking about all of this? Why couldn’t he just let it go?

He stumbled out of bed, and picked up his phone. And he wrote the mail he should have written, hours ago. Even though it was two a.m., even though it would look really weird if Akashi ever noticed when he got it.

“Hey Akashi,

“I’m really sorry for bothering you again. I just wanted to check to see if you got home okay, and you’re not sick from being out in the rain or anything. I know that sounds dumb, and you probably have plenty of people to check on you, if you need it. I just wanted to make sure, I guess.

“I know it’s not any of my business. And it’s okay if you still don’t want to talk to me. But could you just reply if you’re all right? If it’s not too much trouble.

“Sorry again.”

Furihata hit ‘Send,’ and laid back down. But he didn’t really sleep. When he finally got up to get ready for school, hours later, the phone still wasn’t buzzing or blinking.

No replies.


The nice thing about morning practice, Furihata figured, was that it was a distraction from thinking about weird dreams. And nonexistent phone messages.

What was crappy about practice was when you couldn’t concentrate, and you kept making really dumb mistakes. And your teammates were all encouraging you, and being great about it. But you mostly just hoped they would look the other way and not ask what the heck was going on.

Between fumbling the ball and bricking his shots, Furihata kept glancing at Kuroko. He had kind of expected Kuroko to talk to him before practice. To ask if he saw Akashi, and how it went. It never happened. Kagami was talking to Kuroko when Furihata came into the locker room. So Furihata knew he was there.

But maybe Kuroko had already talked to Akashi, and found out what a disaster the day had been. And he decided there was nothing more to say. Which stung. Because there wasn’t, really.

Furihata’s mind kept wandering, all through practice. Back to the Kyoto trip, and everything Akashi said and did. To all those weird instincts Furihata couldn’t ignore. That kept telling him, over and over, that Akashi was seriously lonely. The idea still seemed so strange.

He looked at Kuroko again. Suddenly he remembered something Kuroko said once. About how he and the rest of the Generation of Miracles used to hang out together at Teikou a lot. And he got this distant look in his pale blue eyes.

“Sometimes it almost felt like we were in our own little world,” he had said, smiling.

“What do you mean? Your basketball club was huge, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” His blank gaze lowered. “We were acquaintances with many of the other members, and our classmates. But, in all honesty… I don’t believe any of us was ever very good at making friends.”

At the time, Furihata thought that was kind of weird. He could see a guy like Midorima not making tons of friends. Murasakibara, too. They were pretty eccentric. Maybe even Aomine, though from what Kuroko said, he wasn’t as hostile back then. But what about Kise? He seemed so outgoing. And Momoi? It was hard for Furihata to believe that a gorgeous girl like her didn’t have lots of friends.

Furihata hadn’t even considered Akashi back then… But if what Kuroko said was true, he had been talking about Akashi too.

Maybe Furihata’s instincts were right. Maybe it really was hard to make friends if you were that amazing.

And something else was bugging him. Hyuuga had said once, that the Generation of Miracles were seen as villains in junior high. It was all too easy to believe that most people would resent players with that much talent. Hate them, even. Maybe not just their opponents resented them, but their teammates too, for keeping them benched all the time. It made way too much sense.

Except Furihata had hung out around all of the Miracles. Watched them at a party, relaxing, and being kind of goofy. And the thought that people could seriously hate guys like that was just depressing. Sure, most of them didn’t have the greatest people skills. They were eerily good at basketball. But in the end, they were teenagers. Who joked around and laughed and got upset and made mistakes.

Akashi, too. No matter how calm and controlled he was. No matter how amazing.

Furihata knew what it was like, to be bad at making friends. He was horrible at it. In elementary and middle school, he had just followed people around, hoping they would accept him. Which was how the whole disaster in middle school happened. When they found out what a nerd he was, and bullied him instead.

That was one thing Furihata knew all too well. If people thought you were weird, if you were too different or stood out in a way they didn’t like, those people wouldn’t accept you. And every member of the Generation of Miracles was definitely different.

Furihata never imagined he could have something like that in common with them.

He was jerked out of his train of thought by a basketball crashing through a hoop. Kagami had just pulled off another rim-rattling dunk. He leapt down, and grinned over at Kuroko, who returned his smile. Kuroko must have given him an awesome pass again.

That was the worst part, Furihata suddenly realized. Kuroko was a great friend. He got along with everyone on Seirin. But probably not enough people had given him a chance before. Because they didn’t notice him, or thought he was too weird.

Furihata could still remember what Kuroko was like, when he joined the team. Really quiet, didn’t smile much. He seemed a lot happier now. Was it like that for all the Generation of Miracles, with their new teams?

Was it like that for Akashi?

Practiced wrapped up, and they were dismissed. On his way to the clubroom, Furihata glanced around. Wondering if maybe Kuroko would talk to him now. But that mop of pale hair was nowhere to be seen.

“Hey,” a gruff voice said. “Can we talk for a sec?”

Furihata gawked up at Kagami. Unlike Kuroko, Kagami rarely took anyone by surprise. It was hard not to hear him lumbering up behind you. He also never asked to talk. “Uh, sure. What's up?”

Kagami nodded him over to a corner of the hall. “Okay, so… Did you see Akashi on Sunday?”

Furihata was speechless. How did Kagami even know? And why in the world was he asking? He managed a nod.

“Right.” Kagami let out a harsh breath. “Kuroko told me, about how he asked you to. He figured it didn’t go great. I guess Fukuda talked to him or something.”

“Oh,” Furihata said. “Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Anyway, I thought you should know,” Kagami said. “Kuroko was worried. He wasn’t sure what to do, so I told him to give you some space. I just didn’t want you to think he didn’t care or whatever.”

He hesitated. Scowling a little, not quite looking at Furihata.

“But yeah, to be honest, I don’t think you should talk to Kuroko right now,” he added.

Furihata straightened. “Why? Is he okay?”

“It’s not that.” Kagami rolled his eyes. “He’s fine. I just meant for yourself.”

Furihata blinked, confused.

Kagami ran a hand through his hair, scratched the back of his neck.

“Look, I have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “But whatever went down between you and Akashi, you should figure out what you want to do about it on your own. With no pressure from Kuroko, or anyone else.”

Furihata gaped up at him. He couldn’t help thinking that was actually pretty… observant. Given what had happened.

“Kuroko’s got his own point of view, you know?” Kagami shook his head. He stared out at the courtyard, the clear sky above it. “He can’t always see past that. He knows the Generation of Miracles, they’ve got all this history. And… it’s more than that. Even if I don’t get why.”

He shook his head again.

“I’m not saying he’s wrong, when he says they’re good people,” he added. He shot a pointed look at Furihata. “They’re all his friends. Even if they’re awkward as hell about showing it.”

He scoffed. Furihata managed a weak smile.

“But trust me,” Kagami added. “As someone who’s hung out with them before, you should only be getting messed up with them if that’s something you actually want.”

Furihata swallowed. For some reason, he remembered his dream. “If you go in there, you’ll never come back out.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“They’re… I dunno. They’re complicated guys. Or whatever.” Kagami shifted his feet. Furihata got the impression he was trying not to roll his eyes again. “If you ask me, they just make everything complicated. But you know, either way. The point is—”

“Why did you do it?” Furihata interrupted. “Get involved?”

Kagami raised his thick brows. “Thought you knew.”

“Not the rivalry stuff. I meant…” Furihata’s thoughts whirled. “Why did you start to hang out with Kuroko? I know he offered to be your basketball partner. But you were always around him a lot, even at the beginning. Why?”

Kagami looked taken aback. “What? What in the hell does Kuroko—” He paused. “Look, I don’t know. It just kind of… happened, at first. We didn’t even get along.”

Furihata studied the taller boy. He definitely remembered those days, when Kagami and Kuroko were always needling each other. Yet they had kept talking, kept playing together. As Furihata recalled each memory, he couldn’t help thinking that he knew the underlying answer. “Because I didn’t understand him, because he was interesting.”

Furihata knew, because he understood the feeling. How it felt to be intrigued by someone, to want to know more about that person, even if you didn’t know why.

“And then what?” he prodded.

“Then… I don’t know.” Kagami gave a massive shrug. “I just wanted to. He’s a good guy. You know him.”

He crossed his arms, shifted again.

“And… I don’t know.” His rough voice was lower now. “I didn’t think about it back then. But he kind of seemed like he could use someone around.”

“Yeah,” Furihata murmured. He recalled his earlier train of thought, and something else, too. Which was that Kagami had kind of seemed the same way, back then. Like he could use a friend.

“Anyway, that’s the whole point,” Kagami added, interrupting his thoughts. “You should only be dealing with the Generation of Miracles if you want to. Not because Kuroko had some fluff-brained idea of his.”

Furihata gave a slow nod. He gazed out at the courtyard. Remembering Kyoto. Remembering his dream, how he had chased after Akashi. How he stood on that platform, and jumped.

“And what if I want to?” he murmured, under his breath.

Kagami eyed him. “Huh?”

“Nothing.” Furihata chewed on the inside of his cheek, shifted his gaze toward the ground. “Hey, um… Do you know if Kuroko’s talked to Akashi at all?”

“No idea. Why?”

“It’s nothing.” Furihata took a breath. “Thanks. For letting me know all that.”

“Don’t mention it.” Kagami was frowning. “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” Furihata said, sincerely.

Kagami gave him a light punch on the shoulder, then hurried off toward the clubroom. Furihata watched him go. Without really thinking about it, he smiled.

Kagami was still pretty gruff. Rough around the edges. But Furihata remembered when Kagami first joined the team. Back then, Furihata was almost as scared of him as any of the Generation of Miracles. (Kagami even had that same weird energy around him they did. Especially when he was on a basketball court.)

But the thing was, outside of basketball, Kagami wasn’t nearly as intimidating. He was still a huge guy. He was way, way nicer than he looked, though. (He was pretty much a giant softie, actually. Not that Furihata would have said so to his face. But come on, he wasn’t blind.)

Yeah, Kagami was a lot like the Miracles. And he was a good friend.

Furihata was distracted for the rest of the day. All through his classes, and lunch, and afternoon practice. Weirdly, though, he really was okay. He was just thinking. About Akashi, and about his dream. About what Kagami had said.

Kagami was right, Furihata realized. From now on, he needed to decide what to do on his own. No going through Kuroko. No more lying to himself, about what he really wanted. And no more chickening out.

Because even if it seemed strange to him, maybe his wish could help someone else, too. Someone amazing.

On his way home from school, Furihata typed up another mail.

“Dear Akashi,

“Sorry if you’re tired of getting these. If you want me to stop, just let me know. Or you can block my number. I seriously don’t want to bother you.

“I just want you to know that I meant what I said before. I really would like to be friends with you. If I’m honest, I’ve wanted that for months. Probably since Kuroko’s birthday party, if you even remember that… I was being so weird and rude, and made a total embarrassment of myself. It’s hard for me to even explain why I was acting that way. But you never said anything. Just talked to me, like you did to everyone else.

“Have I ever mentioned how unbelievably nice you are?

“Anyway, I was thinking a lot today. About Kyoto, and a lot of other stuff.

“Kuroko told me a few weeks ago that you were having a hard time lately. He didn’t say anything about why. But I know a lot of last year was hard for him, because of what happened in middle school. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he’s told us some things. I think it was hard for him to open up, but I also think he feels like it helped. Just knowing that other people listened, and cared, and knew about some of what he had been through.

“So I was just wondering…

“Do you have people to talk to, about that kind of stuff? I really hope you do. I hope I’m just being nosy and dumb and worrying for no reason. But if you don’t, or you feel like you can’t always go to them or something…

“You could talk to me? I’d be happy to listen, whenever you want. I probably can’t give you great advice, but… You could even just send me mails like this. You don’t even have to read my replies, if you don’t want to.

“I just have this feeling like even though you have friends, you still feel alone sometimes. And I want you to know that you don’t have to be.

“Sorry for bugging you again.”

Furihata pressed ‘Send.’ Maybe it was weird to keep sending so many mails like this. Akashi might just be deleting them. Hopefully he wasn’t feeling harassed or anything.

For whatever reason, though, Furihata’s instincts kept telling him it was the right thing to do. He kind of felt like he was back in his weird dream. Like he was holding out that lantern, seeing only a little way in front of him. Taking one step at a time.

And it didn’t hurt to try, did it? If Akashi did see the messages, at least he would know that Furihata cared enough to keep trying to talk to him. That he wasn’t running away the first chance he got. Maybe it didn’t count for much anymore. But it was better than doing nothing.

Furihata was tempted to talk to Kuroko, to make sure Akashi was okay. But he didn’t. Akashi had friends, good ones. Somehow, Furihata knew they would check on him. It was up to Akashi now, if he wanted Furihata to know how he was.

Furihata sent a few more mails that week. Not because he thought they would convince Akashi to reply. Just because he kept thinking of more things he wanted to say. It was weird, because sending them started to feel almost normal. Typing stuff like, “Hey Akashi, it’s me again,” and, “I was just thinking about what you said at Kiyomizu, and I wanted to thank you because it honestly made me feel better. You’re really good at doing that, you know,” and, “I keep wondering how you’re doing. I haven’t asked Kuroko, because I don’t want you to feel like I’m trying to hunt you down or something. But I hope you’re doing okay, and having a good week.”

Furihata never got any replies. He was pretty sure Akashi wasn’t reading any of them. But that was okay, somehow. He liked to think that maybe Akashi wasn’t deleting them, and someday he might open one. Maybe something in it would help. Maybe at least Akashi would realize that there was a person out there who really appreciated all that nice stuff he did once. That it meant a lot, and it wasn’t for nothing.

On Saturday, Furihata sent another mail. He wasn’t sure if it would be the last one or not. But he wanted to make sure he said one more thing.

“I really do get why you don’t want to talk to me. I wish I could say we started off on the wrong foot, but it was more like we ran a whole marathon on it. (I’m not sure if that comparison makes any sense. It gets the idea across, I guess?)

“Just don’t shut yourself away from everyone else, okay? You’re amazing. Not that you need me to tell you that, but it’s true. And in case you can’t tell from all these messages, I think anyone would be lucky to know you. You deserve all the friends in the world.”

Furihata spent Saturday evening with his family. His uncle came over, and they had a long dinner. The two of them rambled about trains until everyone else said they never wanted to hear another thing about model numbers or engines ever again.

When Furihata finally went back up to his room, his phone was blinking. He unhooked it from the charger, and flipped it open. He figured Kawahara or Fukuda was messaging him about hanging out the next day.

When he saw who the message was from, his heart gave a gigantic leap. Like it was trying to leave his chest. Maybe to go take a dive off a platform.

From: Akashi-kun

Furihata opened the mail. The message was long. His stomach squirmed, suddenly all butterflies. He started to read.

“Dear Furihata-kun,

“I must confess I am uncertain where to begin. But I will start with an apology, for not responding to your messages earlier. I have to come to realize that you deserve, at the very least, an explanation for my behavior. It is my hope that this reply will help you to understand why I did not respond until now.”

Furihata kept reading, drinking in every eloquent word. And the more he read, the more his knees buckled, until he sank down slowly onto his bed.

Chapter Text

It was half past three on Monday morning, when Akashi first noticed the phone message.

He had worked all through the night—drafting essays, poring over basketball strategies, reviewing issues for the student council to discuss. Usually, he rested between such tasks to clear his mind. He would prepare himself a cup of tea, or play his violin for a few minutes. On this night, Akashi hadn’t bothered. Instead he simply asked his valet to bring him a pot of coffee and kept working.

He supposed that would explain why his head was now pounding, and his entire body felt like an over-tightened string. One on his aforementioned violin, that could break at the slightest touch of a bow.

Akashi leaned back in his leather desk chair, and rubbed his forehead. His gaze wandered to his bedroom door. He ought to sleep, if only for a few hours. Still, he kept putting it off. Lying in bed would only give him a chance to think.

Absently, he took his phone from his satchel, to check for messages. He had missed one, it seemed. It took him a moment to fully register the name—and when he did, his heart gave a curiously sharp squeeze.

From: Furihata-kun

Akashi’s first impulse was to snap the phone shut. It could wait, he told himself. Possibly forever. But a lingering thread of guilt tugged at him, for how he’d left Furihata standing alone on the curb beside the station. Suppose there had been some problem with the trains, and Furihata needed help…

Akashi opened the message, and skimmed the first few lines. He saw enough to know it wasn’t that sort of mail. Phrases like, “I don’t want to bother you,” “I’m sorry about what happened today,” “I get why you felt bad,” and “I’m still really sorry.”

Akashi hurled a sigh, and set down the phone.

There had to be a special circle of hell, he mused, for anyone who could guilt a boy as kind as Furihata into apologizing for nothing.

Akashi plunged back into his studies. But his eyesight was beginning to blur, and his concentration wandered. He glanced back at the phone. All at once, he was cradling his head in both hands.

How had he managed to create such a mess?

He had never meant for any of this to go so far. He never meant to make Furihata feel indebted to him. Or to hope that Furihata genuinely wanted to know him. It was an unfair expectation. Unfair to Furihata, and himself. Akashi had only primed himself for disappointment.

Now here he was, battling emotions that were completely unjustified. Resentment, and frustration. And that nagging, miserable sense of solitude that always demanded so much more from others than he could reasonably ask.

Akashi knew what he needed to do. He needed to allow everything to return to how it was before. To keep imposing himself on a near stranger, a person with no prior connection to him… It was selfish. For so many reasons.

No, he would not reply. And that would be the end of it.

He could not explain, for the life of him, why this fact literally pained him.

“I don’t believe this.”

Akashi raised his head. The crisp, even voice that spoke inside his mind was as familiar to him as his own.

“I sleep for a month. One month,” the voice said. “And I come back to this. I should’ve known. You’re a brooding disaster all over again.”

Akashi winced. He was far from being in the mood for this conversation. Empathy was not his other self’s strongest suit.

“You simply can’t function without me, can you?” his other self added. Dry as ever.

Akashi took a breath, steeled himself. He wasn’t about to give his younger brother the impression that he was incapable of handling this. He had assured his brother repeatedly, after their shared defeat at the Winter Cup, that he could rest. He promised to be the strong one, for a change.

Akashi refused to let his emotions overwhelm him, the way they once had.

“So then, what have you done this time?” His brother’s tone was a cross between smug and resigned. “Not that I don’t already know.”

Akashi couldn’t stop a grimace. His brother and he tended to share thoughts quickly. Filling in the memories the other had missed, when they weren’t both conscious. The process had become so streamlined over the years that it wasn't altogether voluntary.

“Go back to sleep,” he murmured. “I will be fine.”

He opened his planner, and began to jot down a few notes.

“Hmph. If you say so.” His brother’s frown was audible. “I think you just want to sulk.”

Akashi shook his head. He kept writing, and tried to ignore the growing ache that gnawed at his insides.

“Are you going to say I told you so?” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Even though you weren’t actually here?”

Akashi had known what his brother would say, after all. From the very start, during that ill-fated encounter with Furihata on the train platform.

“No, I’ll be gracious,” his brother said. Lightly.

Almost gently, for him.

Akashi blinked. He managed a wan smile. “Good of you.”

“I know.” His brother’s blatant self-satisfaction almost made Akashi want to laugh. Almost.

They both lapsed into silence, the familiarity that was their shared consciousness. The tip of Akashi’s pen hovered, halted mid-notation, as he gazed into space. At last his brother spoke again.

“You do realize this entire situation is ridiculous. That random boy has nothing to do with us. We both knew he was a coward. Frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea why any of this is affecting you.”

Akashi stared down at the page before him. Images flashed through his mind, unbidden. Of Furihata beaming on the train ride, and his panicked expression on the temple platform. His far-off look during the capital dances.

His dejected frown, as he stood drenched in the rain.

“I don’t either,” Akashi said, his voice low. “And you’re right. He doesn’t.”

“Of course I’m right. I always am,” his brother said. Akashi resisted the urge to remind him why they both knew that wasn’t true. “Well, I’ll leave you to your tragic moping. But you know where to find me. Try not to fall entirely to pieces.”

Akashi’s chest gave a tender twinge. He knew his other self better than anyone, after all. More than enough to understand what he was saying, in between the wry words.

“I’ll try,” he said, sincerely. With all the confidence he could muster.

“And go to sleep, would you? We both need this body to continue functioning.”

Akashi nodded. He finished his notation, and rose from his desk. As he prepared for bed, he noticed the earlier pain had eased a little. His other self was still with him, at least. Being kind, in his own way. Offering to help, if needed. Akashi had no intention of accepting his offer, but it was a comfort nevertheless.

Akashi had long known it was strange to take comfort in such a thing. Most people would never understand. They would say he was fooling himself, pretending another person was there. Out of desperation, most likely.

Akashi even knew that in many ways, it might not be healthy for him to keep relying on the existence of his other self. It was an open question, one he hadn’t answered to his satisfaction yet. There were downsides. But at the very least, the way his brain currently functioned came with a benefit.

He could honestly say he was never completely alone.

As Akashi’s head met the pillow, he heard someone else’s words, echoing inside his mind. From a memory that seemed more distant than only the day before. “It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess.”


Akashi endured the rest of the morning with grim resolve. He focused on completing task after task—a conversation with his coach, a student council meeting, classes—with a precision bordering on the mechanical. It was far from the first time he had felt like a machine. Simply doing as he was programmed, ticking through his agenda with no enthusiasm whatsoever.

No one else appeared to notice. This did not surprise Akashi. He happened to know that he could be all but falling apart on the inside, and very few people would ever realize.

By lunchtime, Akashi felt ready to short-circuit. He tried to tell himself it was just the lack of sleep. (Even though he often functioned on less.) Not any inconvenient emotions that were threatening to surface.

He had already decided to take his lunch back to the student council office so he could study, when a voice in the cafeteria made him pause.

“Akashi! Yo, Akashi!” Hayama was waving, in his animated way. “Over here!”

He and Nebuya and Mibuchi sat at their usual table. An open chair stood there, the one they always saved for their captain. Akashi hesitated. He had more than enough work to do. He should just make some excuse, he thought.

The strange thing was, he didn’t.

“Hey, dude,” Hayama said cheerfully, as he sat down beside them. “Missed you this morning. This jackass kept hogging the ball.” He gave a nod to Nebuya. “Don’t know who he’s trying to impress with all his muscly bullshit.”

He jabbed Nebuya in the arm. Nebuya grinned back, and flexed. (Ordinarily, this wouldn’t look impressive while wearing a school uniform, but it was Nebuya.)

“Just getting pumped to put all those new first-years in their place,” he said.

“Ha, yeah. We’re gonna whip their asses so hard.” Hayama cackled. Nebuya gave him a look, like he wasn’t sure about how he had phrased that. “Oh, hey, Akashi. I almost forgot. How was your thing on Sunday?”

Akashi paused, in the middle of lifting his chopsticks.

“Did she have fun?” Hayama added.

Nebuya made a face. “Dude. It wasn’t a girl, remember?”

“Oh, right. Yeah.” Hayama nodded sagely. Then he frowned. “Wait, it wasn’t?”

“Both of you… Not. Another. Word.”

Mibuchi fixed the two of them with a glare. He had been watching Akashi, with his deep, veiled green eyes. Now he sounded outright fierce.

Hayama and Nebuya both gaped at him. They glanced at Akashi. Then, to Akashi’s utter confusion, they changed the subject.

Akashi sat there, stunned, while they continued to talk. He couldn’t understand what had just happened. He managed to follow his teammates’ conversation, to respond when prompted. But his mind raced.

Had… Had they actually noticed he was upset, somehow?

For a moment, Akashi nearly panicked. Was he really in such a state, that other people were noticing? That had never happened before. No one had said anything earlier, though. His teammates didn’t seem particularly alarmed.

The longer Akashi sat there, the more an odd lump inched up his throat. Perhaps that wasn’t it at all. Perhaps his teammates had simply sensed that he didn’t want to discuss it. He looked over at Mibuchi, and gave him what he hoped was a grateful look. Mibuchi smiled a little.

It wasn’t that Akashi didn’t trust them. But he wasn’t at all prepared to talk about the previous day. He was still their captain. He didn’t know how he would face them again—or anyone, for that matter—if he somehow managed to break down in the middle of Rakuzan’s lunchroom.

Akashi listened to his teammates’ conversation, while he ate his meal. (Or some of it, at least.) He tried not to think of recent events, to just enjoy their companionship. It was a relief, actually, not to be alone studying somewhere. He hadn’t expected that. Memories continued to shadow his mind, however. Troubling thoughts, that he couldn’t quite suppress.

The cafeteria was nearly empty, by the time they finished. Hayama bounced over to the kitchen to return his tray. Nebuya did the same, offering to take Akashi’s tray as well. Akashi thanked him, surprised.

He and Mibuchi sat for a moment in silence.

“If you ever want to talk about it, we’re happy to listen,” Mibuchi said quietly.

Akashi swallowed.

“Thank you,” he managed. “I will keep that in mind.”

Mibuchi rose to his feet. Akashi knew he shouldn’t say anything. For whatever reason, though, he couldn’t stop himself.

“May I ask you a question, Mibuchi?” He kept his voice hushed. “I’m afraid it will seem very out of place.”

Mibuchi gazed down at him. He gave a gentle nod. As if to say, “Please do.”

Akashi swallowed again. He looked away, down at the table.

“Why do you spend time with me?” he said. “You and the others? Not during practice, but… afterward.”

He had wondered this before. The Uncrowned Kings were enemies in middle school—and even more so, enemies of Teikou. Akashi knew how they must have felt toward the Generation of Miracles. And Akashi had joined Rakuzan’s basketball team as his other self. Suffice to say, he had not won their vote for captain by being their friend.

Yet over the past year, the four of them had started to spend time with one another. Passing their school breaks together, meeting for dinner, exploring the city. Akashi was even his other self when it began. He had never entirely understood that.

Mibuchi was silent, for a long moment. His expression was hard to read. When he spoke, the tone of his voice made Akashi’s breath hitch. Fond, but very firm.

“Because you are a darling person,” he said.

He shifted his tray, and squeezed Akashi’s shoulder. Akashi stared up at him. Astonished.

“For that reason alone, you should have all the company you can stand,” Mibuchi added, smiling. “And of course, there’s the most important reason of all.”

He gave a wink.

“Which is that we enjoy it,” he said.

He gave Akashi another pat on the shoulder. Akashi pressed his lips together, doing his best not to allow them to tremble. Mibuchi seemed to know, somehow, what was on his mind.

A sudden wave of relief, of heart-easing warmth, filled his chest. He recalled all the times his teammates had invited him to their outings. How they always smiled when they saw him. He managed a nod. Blinking quickly.

“I enjoy it as well,” he said, rather hoarse.

Mibuchi’s eyes were soft, as he tilted his head in a wordless goodbye. Akashi sat in the cafeteria a while longer. Watching the students pass in their uniforms. Studying the school emblem on one of the walls.

He was uncommonly fortunate, he thought. To be attending a school where he felt at home. Where he had, against all his expectations to the contrary, made friends. Friends who accepted him for the person he was, even though he had made some of the worst mistakes in his life in their presence.

That was more than enough, he told himself.


The rest of Akashi’s day passed in the usual blur. First came afternoon classes, then practice followed by independent training, and at last the various tutoring sessions required of him. At some point during these lessons, he missed a call. He wasn’t surprised to see the name, when he checked his phone.

“Kuroko.”

A voice message accompanied it. Of that soft, familiar voice saying, “Good evening, Akashi-kun. I’m sorry to bother you on a weekday, but I wanted to make certain you’re well. I also have something I would like to discuss with you, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Akashi was certain he knew what Kuroko wanted to discuss. But the prospect of having that conversation made his insides knot. It was with mingled surprise and guilt that he realized he resented the idea.

Akashi was in no mood to talk about what had occurred with Furihata. He had a feeling Kuroko would try to persuade him to change his mind, to see Furihata again. Instead of returning the call, he simply typed a message.

“Dear Kuroko,

“Thank you for your concern. I am well, but I am extremely busy. I will let you know if I have time.”

He knew Kuroko would read between the unusually terse lines. That he would recognize Akashi’s refusal—and, more than likely, feel forced to accept the situation. It always felt wrong, to deny Kuroko anything. He was so good-hearted. Akashi sent the message anyway.

He had no intention of changing his mind. Kuroko might as well know that.

Akashi set his phone aside, and went to work on his studies. An hour passed. The phone lay on his desk, unblinking.

Some ridiculous part of Akashi wished Kuroko would call again. Or Mibuchi. Or any of his teammates, new or old. To ask again if he was all right, or perhaps even request his company. It was absurd. Akashi was usually forced to refuse their invitations. It was a wonder, and profound proof of their kindness, that they still tried as often as they did.

Akashi opened his phone, to scroll through his alerts. There was that message again, the one from Furihata. He still hadn’t actually read it. His thumb hovered over the ‘Open’ button. For some reason, he was almost curious…

He shut the phone, and tossed it onto a nearby chair. It was pointless, to read a message from someone he had no intention of contacting. Hadn’t he already resolved to let everything return to the way it was before?

Enough, Akashi told himself sternly. This was the way things had always been. No more wishing it were otherwise.

It was past midnight, when Akashi finally allowed himself to rest. He stood, stretched. Contemplated his violin, which sat waiting in its case. He wandered over to the balcony doors, pulled back the curtains—and froze.

The grounds of his family’s estate glowed, as brightly as if it were daytime. Akashi opened the porch doors. The delicate chill of the springtime air wafted into the room. The moon hung overhead, a perfect sphere. He stepped out onto the balcony, and took a deep breath.

The grounds stretched below him. Vast, brilliant. Like something out of a waking dream. Gripping him, calling him closer…

Akashi glanced back at his sitting room. The darkly papered walls, the polished furnishings. Photographs lined his mantle, of pleasant memories long since trapped under glass. His desk stood nearby, piled high with books and papers.

A familiar urge took hold of Akashi then. A wild, foolish one. He retraced his steps, with the moonlight trailing behind him. He hurried to his closet, where he changed into a pair of close-fitting breeches. Then he snuck from his room, creeping to the ground floor of the mansion and out a side door.

As he broke into a run, Akashi felt suddenly lighter. As though his feet were gliding over the dew-tipped lawn.

He approached the stables, and heaved open one of the wide doors. Moonlight spilled through the high wooden rafters, and glazed the barred gates of the stalls. Warm, dusty smells, of hay and pine and musk, hung in the air. He hurried to the gilded stall in the center. He could hear rustling, a soft neigh. A beautiful white horse poked his head above the gate.

Then they were greeting each other, like always. Akashi stroked Yukimaru’s face and neck, as Yukimaru nudged the side of his head with his nose… Yukimaru blew beside his ear, and Akashi chuckled. He wrapped his arm up behind his horse’s ears, and pressed their faces close together. Loosed a sigh.

“I missed you as well,” he murmured.

He went through their usual routine. Slipping into the tack room, to change into his boots, and retrieve his gloves and helmet. Grooming Yukimaru, saddling him, bridling him. All the while, Yukimaru nudged at him, snorting impatiently.

“I know,” Akashi said, sympathetic. “You want this as badly as I do.”

In truth, the two of them were very alike. They were the same age, almost exactly. Privileged by birth, descended from a prestigious bloodline. Looked after by highly trained servants, given a certain amount of free rein…

But ultimately confined, with no genuine choice in the matter.

(They had one other thing in common: both their mothers had passed away. But Yukimaru’s loss was more recent. Akashi doubted any horse in history had been better cared for than Yukimaru’s mother, Shirahime. He had known her since birth, and rode upon her as a passenger, when he was still too young to ride on his own.)

Akashi led his horse from the stables. Yukimaru shone in the night, his pale coat blazing as brightly as the moon. He looked like a ghostly mirage.

Akashi glanced down the dirt lane, but it was empty. He took Yukimaru through some groundwork, finishing with a few circles of lunging. Yukimaru followed each of his directions perfectly. Changing pace, yielding, backing up—but there was a gleam in his eye, one that Akashi recognized. As if to say, “Can we get on with it?”

Akashi gave him a knowing smile. Which meant, “Yes, when I say so.” Yukimaru huffed at him.

Akashi laughed. He led Yukimaru down the lane, then put his left foot in the stirrup and swiftly mounted. They were on their way then, walking at first—to Yukimaru’s profound annoyance, but Akashi controlled him, erring on the side of being quiet. They reached a field, and started to trot. Then canter, at an eager pace through the shimmering grass.

All at once they were galloping, racing at full speed toward a wooded hillside. Moving together, their bodies shifting in longtime harmony. A thrill ran through Akashi like a bolt, and he sensed it in Yukimaru too. Both their enclosures were far behind them.

They were free, for now.

Soon the world was nothing but trees, clusters of dark branches lined with silver blue. The occasional cherry tree passed like a frothy cloud. Air rushed over Akashi’s ears. Before long, he fell into a sort of trance. Focused only on the ride—the strong, fluid motions of his horse beneath him, and the heady sensation of speed. No unwanted thoughts or emotions.

It was such a relief.

He guided Yukimaru through the forest. They loped over rougher terrain, wove through the underbrush. They built up speed toward a fallen tree, and leapt over it. Shadows danced on every side.

The more he rode, the emptier Akashi felt. He wanted this. To leave everything else behind, to chase after this nothingness and cling to it, until all the most painful parts of himself simply fell away. No longer feeling. No grieving the past, or wishing for things he couldn’t have.

He longed, more than anything else, to disappear.

His body gave a hard jolt. Yukimaru had stopped before a low gate, one they had jumped countless times. Akashi urged him forward, but Yukimaru shied away. Frowning, Akashi maneuvered him around the gate. It wasn’t like Yukimaru to balk at a jump, or fail to follow his lead.

They went slowly now. Yukimaru seemed hesitant. Alert, keeping his head too high. Akashi wondered if some wild animal was near, but no such creature appeared. They rode toward a small stream. Akashi urged Yukimaru to go faster, to dash across the gleaming water as they always did.

Yukimaru backed away from the water’s edge, then reared up. Akashi kept his balance. He calmed him, murmuring reassurances.

“There’s nothing to fear,” he said. “Have I ever steered you poorly?”

But as he looked out at the churning stream, suddenly he was no longer certain of that. How long had he been riding Yukimaru, letting his thoughts wander? Wishing he could vanish into nothing, or drown in some nameless void, like the rippling waves that stretched before them?

It was as if a part of him wanted to lead them both into danger. To take a fall, or worse.

Shame rose within him like a flood. Shame, and sorrow.

He was always doing this. Always. Insisting he had everything in hand, that he was capable of leading others, and then falling apart and frightening—even harming—those who had placed their trust in him.

He’d even disappeared before. Very much literally. He had only been back for a few months…

Was he already fantasizing about doing it again?

Yukimaru stood very still. Akashi dismounted, suddenly weak in the knees. He stroked Yukimaru’s neck, patted him lightly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice thick. “You’re right. I was being reckless.”

He turned away, eyes burning. Yukimaru gave a soft nicker. Akashi crossed his arms tightly about his own chest, as if that would somehow suppress the pain that had engulfed him. A gap of sky stretched above the burbling stream. In the moon, everything around the water looked pale and still, like stone.

A warm nose brushed his cheek. Velvet soft. Yukimaru was nuzzling Akashi, rubbing his neck and the side of his face. The way horses did to reassure, to comfort.

Akashi gave in. He turned and flung his arms around Yukimaru’s neck. Yukimaru craned his head, pressing gently against Akashi’s back. Akashi’s legs faltered, and he leaned into his horse. Burying his face beside his mane.

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I don’t know what is wrong with me.”

He breathed deeply. Letting that sweet, earthy scent soothe him. It brought back so many memories. Of growing up with Yukimaru, and the first time he was finally able to ride him alone. Of his mother, who taught him to ride—and who was the only one who ever seemed to anticipate his shortcomings, to help him work through his mistakes before the worst could happen.

The stars glistened above him. He heard his mother’s words, ones she had whispered from a sickbed. Words she seemed to know he would struggle to accept.

“I know how hard this is for you, Seijuurou. But it will be all right, in the end. It will be very hard, but you will be all right. Please try to believe that.”

Akashi clutched Yukimaru’s neck tighter. He had wanted to believe he was stronger, after the events of the past year. He thought he had acknowledged his weaknesses, confronted his worst mistakes. Yet all these old regrets and sorrows continued to surface, over and over. To haunt him, no matter how much he tried to convince himself that whatever wounds they’d left must have healed by now.

Maybe his other self was right, Akashi thought with chagrin. Maybe he was a brooding disaster.

And he didn’t have the least idea what to do about it.


Akashi couldn’t understand why his phone kept buzzing.

It was Tuesday. Ever since the midnight ride with Yukimaru, Akashi had been neglecting to check his phone. It wasn’t a wise thing to do, on a practical level. But given his current frame of mind, going through whatever messages were on it struck him as hazardous. Instead, he focused on surviving his daily schedule, trying to ignore any inner turmoil he was experiencing.

Then the phone buzzed again, while Akashi was trying to do his homework. He sat debating for nearly a minute whether to throw it against a wall, or finally check his damned messages.

With a sigh, he flipped the phone open.

There was a missed call from Mibuchi, which Akashi had expected, based on a conversation at practice. Another call from Kuroko, and a second voice message, which was more surprising. Akashi didn’t feel ready to listen to that.

Then there were two names he hadn’t expected to see on the screen at all.

A series of missed calls from Midorima, of all people. No messages, however. And finally, not one, but two more mails from Furihata.

Akashi couldn’t decide which of these was more bizarre.

Midorima was not one to make calls, generally. They had started talking on the phone on a semi-regular basis, but Akashi was always the one who initiated. Midorima tended to worry he was interrupting, imposing on Akashi’s busy schedule. It was especially strange for him to call on a weekday.

And Furihata… Well, that was strange for obvious reasons. Akashi had been certain such a timid boy would never try to contact him again. Much less repeatedly.

Akashi didn’t open the mails. He thought about deleting them, but he would decide what to do about them later. Instead, he selected Midorima’s number, and hit ‘Call.’

“Hello, Akashi.” The deep voice on the other end sounded as serious as always. Midorima didn’t sound distressed, Akashi noted. Hopefully it wasn’t an emergency.

“Good evening,” he said. “I’m returning your calls. I apologize for making you wait.”

“It’s not a problem. I apologize for bothering you,” Midorima said. All things that Akashi expected to hear. Then, “Are you all right? Did anything unfortunate happen on Sunday?”

Akashi’s heart gave a lurch. He stared at the wall, and took a breath.

Well, this is getting progressively stranger.

“Why are you asking?” he said, keeping his voice even.

“Because I neglected to warn you,” Midorima said. “You were ranked last in Oha Asa that day. I know I don’t usually contact you regarding your horoscope, as you never seem to need it, but… I had a bad feeling this time. Since Capricorn was also ranked eleventh.”

Akashi did not know how to respond to that. On any level.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” he managed, after a slight pause.

“You’re on the cusp, Akashi. You’re a Sagittarius, but also a cusp Capricorn. Which means both signs are in fact relevant to your fate.”

Akashi was decidedly torn, between a rising sense of confusion and the urge to just start laughing.

“I… see.” He hoped he sounded serious, or at least charitably open-minded.

“I’m sorry. I should stop.” Midorima let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ve been told I need to stop talking so much about astrology, when attempting to engage with someone on a personal level.”

He said this in a tight sort of tone. Now Akashi did laugh, a quiet chuckle.

“It sounds as if you’ve had a scolding,” he said. Smiling, despite himself.

“Something like that,” Midorima said. Akashi could almost hear him rolling his eyes. “In any case, are you all right?”

Akashi hesitated. He had no plans to recount Sunday’s events to Midorima. But he couldn’t help feeling grateful for his friend’s concern. And the idea of outright lying to him… He didn’t want to do that, either.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I—I believe so.”

He leaned on his elbows, and ran his free hand through his hair. This entire situation was starting to make him feel foolish.

“Midorima, am I the sort of person who broods?” he said suddenly. “I never thought I did. I always imagined myself to be quite rational, and level-headed.”

Even as he said it, he couldn’t help thinking that certainly didn’t describe the week he was having. Rational people didn’t avoid phone calls, or worry about breaking down in school lunchrooms. (Or terrify their servants, by disappearing in the middle of the night for a horseback ride.)

“Lately, however, I’ve been forced to consider the possibility that I brood,” he added. “A nontrivial amount. About a variety of things.”

He couldn’t help sounding wry, as he sank into his seat.

There was a pause, while Midorima apparently processed the question.

“I don’t know. Do you?” he said. Then he added to Akashi’s surprise, “I’ve been told that I do, if it’s any consolation or help. Even when I’m most certainly not brooding. Or sulking. Or anything synonymous.”

Indignation edged his words. Akashi sensed he was quoting the same person, or people, who had advised him not to frame conversations around astrology. (Akashi had an educated guess as to who these people were. They often wore a significant amount of orange.)

“Maybe it’s something we caught at Teikou,” Midorima said, almost as an afterthought.

Akashi raised his brows. He had the sense Midorima was partly joking—but not entirely. “What, as in a disease?”

“It would explain some things,” Midorima said. “If you think about it.”

“Hmm.” Akashi contemplated this. He didn’t think of his former teammates as the type of people who sulked without cause. But he couldn’t deny their years at Teikou had been, well, dramatic.

Perhaps that was the point. They did have cause, and the effects lingered. At the very least, it was fair to say the situation hadn’t brought out their best traits. Akashi certainly had to admit those years weren’t his finest.

He leaned back in his chair, studying the crown molding under the ceiling. It wasn’t just Teikou, he knew. Not for him.

His first year at Teikou had changed him for the better. He finally made friends he considered genuine. Even now they accepted him, liked him, for who he was. But… Akashi would be lying, if he said he never felt distant, even from them.

“How do you bring yourself out of it?” he asked, somewhat softly. “I know it’s an intrusive question. I apologize.”

“I don’t mind.” Midorima hesitated. “I suppose it helps, on occasion, to be around others. Preferably individuals who understand you on some level. They can serve as a distraction, if nothing else.” He hastened to add, “Although I often question whether it’s worth the annoyance of knowing said people.”

Akashi smiled.

“I wasn’t aware I was so off-putting,” he said, knowing full well what Midorima was about to say.

“Wait, I didn’t mean—I don’t find you annoying. I should have clarified—”

“I already knew you didn’t mean me,” Akashi said, his voice warm.

Midorima huffed on the other end. “Never mind. I forgot I could do without the failed attempts at humor. And how you think you know everything. And the never losing part, obviously.”

“In that case, I’m honored to be counted among your true friends,” Akashi said, amused. “Since it sounds as though the degree to which someone annoys you is equivalent to the depth of their friendship.”

Midorima muttered something unintelligible. Akashi was smirking outright now.

“Incidentally, this does mean Kuroko is your best friend, correct?” he added. “From Teikou, at least. I’m sorry to have been ousted from the position. Just another loss I must concede to him, I suppose. Though Murasakibara might also qualify.”

“… I am beginning to suspect this conversation is very much over.”

Despite Midorima’s words, the call continued for another half hour. Akashi made sure to thank his friend, before they hung up. In the end, he had never explained what happened on Sunday. Still, Midorima was right, he realized.

It did help, to talk to people who understood you.


Two days passed. Akashi simply assumed his glum mood would fade—but strangely enough, it lingered on. Akashi told himself he was being ridiculous. He reminded himself to be grateful for the friends in his life. To take comfort, in the sympathy they had already shown him.

He didn’t understand why he still felt so disheartened.

He persisted, convinced it would get better. He spent time with his teammates, forcing himself not to hide behind his schedule. He visited Yukimaru again, during the day this time. But no matter what he did, a feeling of misery seemed to nag at him. As if something deep in his heart was saying, “You can’t keep going on like this.”

Akashi didn’t know what he was supposed to do differently.

He finally concluded it was because he had unfinished business. He’d listened to Kuroko’s second voice message, and felt increasingly guilty over how that gentle voice urged him to return his call. He even sent Kuroko another mail, offering to discuss whatever was on his mind over text.

Kuroko had politely refused, saying he would rather talk verbally, and he would be waiting for Akashi’s call.

Akashi was beginning to wonder when Kuroko had become so stubborn.

(He had also received yet another mail from Furihata. This was probably Kuroko’s doing as well, Akashi realized. Kuroko was still encouraging Furihata to talk to him.)

So that night, he settled into an armchair, and opened his phone. This would be a good thing, Akashi told himself. He would speak to Kuroko, explain his decision, and put the issue of what had happened to rest. And that would be it.

Akashi was more than ready for this fiasco to be over.

“Hello, Akashi-kun,” Kuroko said. His voice was the same as always. Quiet, and mostly inflectionless. “Thank you for returning my call. I know you must be busy.”

“You’re welcome,” Akashi said. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

They both fell silent. Akashi suspected they were trying to sense each other’s intentions. The two of them preferred to read others, before showing their hand. It made for an interesting dynamic between them. Akashi had long suspected that if anyone could outmaneuver him, it was Kuroko. Which the Winter Cup had more or less proven.

This wasn’t a basketball match, though, or anything similar. Akashi supposed he might as well make the opening move.

“May I ask what you wanted to discuss?” he said calmly. Bracing himself.

“I wanted to apologize.”

Akashi sat up straighter. This, he had not expected. “For what, exactly?”

“For my part in what happened,” Kuroko said. “You saw Furihata-kun on Sunday, didn’t you? I’m under the impression it did not go well.”

Akashi’s chest gave a familiar pang. He forced away the recollections.

“That would be accurate,” he said. He did not elaborate. Ignoring how his brain insisted on adding, Actually, it was very pleasant, until I learned it was mostly a courtesy.

“I don’t know if Furihata-kun mentioned it,” Kuroko said, in a way that made it clear he thought so. “But I suggested he spend time with you. I’m getting the feeling that was not wanted. I’m truly sorry, Akashi-kun. You’re my friend. I should have asked how you felt about it first.”

Akashi could hear the strain in his voice. The worry. He leaned back in his chair.

“Oh, Kuroko.” He sighed. “I’m not angry with you. I already know you were being kind. You were worried about me, and thought I could use the company. There’s no need to apologize. Though I appreciate it.”

“I’m sorry, even so.” Kuroko hesitated. “I don’t mean to intrude, and you don’t have to answer, but… Could I ask what part of the visit went badly?”

Akashi frowned. “Didn’t Furihata-kun tell you?”

“No. I haven’t spoken to him at all.”

That was odd, Akashi thought. Then why was Furihata sending those messages?

“I asked Kagami-kun to make certain he was all right,” Kuroko added softly. “I’m planning to apologize, but… I don’t want Furihata-kun to feel any more pressure from me. I think I’ve been doing that for months. Even though it wasn’t my intention.”

“Doing what for months?”

“Pressuring him, regarding you,” Kuroko replied. “I noticed the way Furihata-kun was acting around you at my party. He’s not usually like that. I couldn’t help wondering why he was so nervous, and—I may have said something to him about it, briefly. The truth is, I thought the two of you could be good friends.”

Akashi sat very still. He had no idea where to begin, with any of that.

“Kuroko,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “It is entirely reasonable for him to be nervous around me. Nearly everyone is. The fact that you are not sets you apart from the vast majority of people I’ve ever met. I’ve also terrified Furihata-kun personally on multiple occasions. My other self is still me, and it’s understandable even for the most informed person to be uneasy with that fact.”

He took a breath.

“But apart from all of that,” he said, moving on to the most pressing issue. “Why on earth would you think we’d be suited as friends? We barely know each other.”

“I believe you have many things in common,” Kuroko said, to Akashi’s increasing confusion. Before he could ask what he meant, Kuroko continued, “If you don’t agree, may I ask why you invited Furihata-kun on a train with you?”

Akashi opened his mouth, then closed it again. His tongue felt curiously dry. He gazed at the ornate rug beneath his slippered feet.

“It was a foolish whim of mine,” he said at last. “I was hoping if I did him a favor, he might come to see me as less intimidating. I didn’t want him to repay me, or feel obligated to associate with me because of it.”

He could sense Kuroko was about to say something, so he hurried on.

“I know I’m not the easiest person to be around,” he said. “I did enjoy his company, but it was selfish to take advantage of his kindness. I should have been more mindful of that from the beginning. It’s just too much of an imposition.”

Akashi hoped he didn't sound bitter. He had to admit the reality of the situation still stung.

“I’m not certain I understand,” Kuroko said slowly. “You spend time with all of us from Teikou. You don’t seem to feel you’re taking advantage of us. Why is this any different?”

“You were my teammates,” Akashi replied. “I’ve always felt we were connected, in one way or another. And we’ve helped each other many times. But Furihata-kun is wholly unconnected with me. He is not my teammate, or a classmate, or a relative.”

A silence followed this statement. Kuroko seemed to be gathering his thoughts. When he finally spoke, the conviction in his voice was startling.

“I thought Furihata-kun could be a good friend to you for exactly those reasons,” he said. “That it would be nice for you to talk to someone toward whom you have no responsibilities or obligations. No pressure to act as a leader.”

Akashi blinked. “That’s… an interesting point, I suppose.”

Another silence stretched between them.

“I can’t speak for Furihata-kun,” Kuroko added. “But for my part, I don’t find it difficult to be around you. You’re a very kind person, Akashi-kun. I happen to think you’d be a good friend to anyone.”

Akashi’s fingers tightened around the phone. His throat ached, suddenly.

“Well, thank you,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate that.”

When he went to bed that night, Akashi found it difficult to sleep. Kuroko hadn’t said anything more about Furihata, or urged him to contact his teammate again. Akashi never felt the need to defend his decision. It was an unexpected relief.

But somehow, Akashi couldn’t stop wondering about those messages. Why was Furihata continuing to contact him, if Kuroko hadn’t suggested it? It seemed terribly strange. Akashi had thought it was equally strange, when Furihata called him weeks ago. Until he discovered Kuroko had urged him to do it.

Well, it didn’t matter. Whatever the reason, Akashi had decided to leave Furihata alone. That was all there was to it.

He wasn’t going to change his mind.


Akashi received another message on Saturday.

He shook his head, staring at the notification with Furihata’s name on it. He hadn’t replied to a single one of these mails, or even read them. Why wasn’t Furihata waiting for him to respond? Was he having a one-sided conversation with himself? Had his email been hacked, and this was some kind of spam?

It all seemed oddly… bold. Not like the way Furihata generally acted at all.

Akashi sighed. He still thought it was a greater kindness not to reply. But the more time passed, the more he regretted his behavior at the end of their visit. He was terribly rude. Furihata was probably still trying to apologize for some perceived mistake, all because Akashi hadn’t explained his own misconceptions were at fault.

He needed to apologize properly. If only to put an end to this.

Akashi closed his textbook, and picked up his phone. He would just go through all the messages very quickly, he decided, then send Furihata a brief mail to apologize. Nothing more.

He opened the most recent message. Expecting it to be some kind of exhausted attempt at an apology—perhaps even a plea, for another chance at repaying him. The more Akashi read, the more his eyes widened.

I really do get why you don’t want to talk to me.” “Just don’t shut yourself away from everyone else, okay?” “You’re amazing.” “I think anyone would be lucky to know you.” “You deserve all the friends in the world.”

Akashi’s pulse skipped. What in the world was this about? He had the distinct feeling he’d missed something. He scrolled down to the first message, the one from Sunday. He reread the opening paragraph, the one with the apologies—and was shocked to discover just how long the mail was.

He read, and read, until his mouth slipped open.

You probably thought I was scared.” “I wanted to hang out with you again.” “You’re such a nice person.” “I’m not scared of you.” “I know better…” “I’ve known it for a long time.”

“You’re so kind, and generous.” “I’m kind of worried about you.” “I just have this feeling like you’re lonely.” “I bet everyone’s intimidated by how amazing you are, not just me.” “It must really suck…” “I also have this feeling like you keep to yourself a lot.” “Like you don’t want to hurt people, or impose on them.” “So you kind of shut yourself away?”

“It’s so much fun to be around you.” “I know we’re not friends, but… To be honest, it really made me wish we could be.” “I really wish we could hang out again.” “I just have fun talking to you, and I’d like to get to know you better.” “I would be honored.”

“But it’s okay if you don’t want to.”

Akashi set his phone on his desk. He stood, and paced the length of his sitting room. He paced back again.

He couldn’t comprehend what he had just read.

Furihata had called him kind before. But Akashi had always assumed he was surprised—that he meant Akashi was unexpectedly kind, in spite of being so imposing. Was it really possible that Furihata became so nervous around him because he thought highly of him? Akashi didn’t know what to think.

Furihata hadn’t written a word about trying to repay him for the train. Instead he said he had wanted to come to Kyoto. That he enjoyed being around Akashi, specifically. He said he wanted to be friends.

And as much as Akashi didn’t know how to process any of this, it wasn’t the strangest part. Furihata had said things in that message Akashi had never heard before. No one had ever told him so directly that they understood how isolated he felt. But how could Furihata know, when they barely knew each other?

Akashi snatched his phone off the desk. He started opening the other messages. Each one only left him feeling more bewildered. Furihata had sent him a mail in the middle of the night—around the time he was riding Yukimaru—to ask if he was all right. He sent another one to say again he wanted to be friends, that he felt that way since Kuroko’s birthday party. (How was that possible?) He even offered to listen, if Akashi ever wished to talk.

“I just have this feeling like even though you have friends, you still feel alone sometimes. And I want you to know that you don’t have to be.”

How did Furihata know any of this?

Had Kuroko told him? According to Furihata, Kuroko had never specified what was troubling Akashi. It didn’t sound like Kuroko anyway. He wasn’t one to betray a confidence. And even during a certain conversation months ago, Akashi had never discussed this topic so directly with him.

He had certainly never discussed it with Furihata.

The more Akashi reread each message, the more confused he became. Confused, by his own rising emotions. Each improbably kind word seemed to jab at a tender spot beside his heart. He couldn’t make sense of any of this. He felt…

He felt frustrated.

What did Furihata expect him to do? Akashi was trying to spare him, from having to associate with him further. What was the use of sending all these inexplicably kind, thoughtful words, and making him regret his decision, when it was the right choice? Staying away was the selfless option. The cautious one. They had already hurt each other. There was no point in risking it again.

Furihata clearly didn’t understand.

Akashi drew a shaking breath. He didn’t know why he felt so agitated. He dropped into the nearest armchair, and opened a new message.

He just needed to explain. He would apologize, and clarify his position. Surely Furihata would accept it. Furihata had said it was fine that Akashi wasn’t replying—even if he didn’t seem to understand why. Akashi began to type.

“Dear Furihata-kun,

“I must confess I am uncertain where to begin. But I will start with an apology, for not responding to your messages earlier. I have to come to realize that you deserve, at the very least, an explanation for my behavior. It is my hope that this reply will help you to understand why I did not respond until now.”

Akashi felt another twinge. He did regret not replying sooner. And he dreaded replying now… He didn’t know which action he would regret more.

“First of all, I should thank you, because everything you wrote is very kind. Undeservedly so. I behaved horribly on Sunday, through no fault of yours. I apologize for that, and I must emphasize that you did nothing wrong during our time together. My own misconceptions were at fault—but it seems they were even more incorrect than I initially assumed.”

Akashi hesitated. It was still so mystifying to him. The more he thought about each message Furihata sent, the more overwhelmed he felt.

“I must admit I am flattered—to say nothing of bewildered—by your wish to befriend me. I am even more bewildered by your generous offer to listen to my troubles. I regret to say you are right, that my recent state of mind has been despondent at best. It feels deeply wrong to burden you with such an admission. But it seems equally wrong of me to omit the truth, when you have already guessed it. I suppose my erratic behavior toward you must be to blame.”

Akashi sighed. So much of this situation really was his fault. It only strengthened his determination, to do the right thing this time.

“However, I did not respond because I was, and still am, resolved to discontinue our acquaintance. Not because I do not enjoy your company, or because I think poorly of you in any way—rather, the opposite. I think very highly of you, Furihata-kun, and in an ideal world, I would have liked to know you better.”

He swallowed, hard. That was truthful, but it seemed dangerous to admit. Dangerous, and painful. He hurried on.

“But I cannot in good conscience allow myself to accept your offer, to confide in you, when I am all too aware of the burden it would place on you. I am far more aware of it, than you yourself could ever be.

“I am not as kind as you say I am. I am honored by your praise, but I am far from perfect in this regard. Still, I like to think I try. And part of that kindness is—part of it must be—to spare others from my burdens, to not let anyone else shoulder them, in whole or in part. They are my responsibility, no one else’s. They are certainly not yours, when you owe me nothing and indeed barely know me.”

This was easier to write. Akashi had long kept a list of reasons why it was better to keep certain realities of his life private. Many of the things that troubled him would cause others to treat him differently. They were fairly difficult to explain to outsiders. But most of all, some were simply a burden to know.

Akashi knew firsthand just how heavy that burden could be. He never wanted to saddle anyone else with such a weight by confiding in them. Certainly no more than necessary.

He took a breath, reread the words. Confident he’d properly expressed his reasoning, he went on.

“I am touched by your concern, your kindness, and your high opinion of me. I’m stunned by your assertion that I do not frighten you, when you should have every reason to think of me as a frightening, intimidating person. I do find most people perceive me that way, and take such reactions as a matter of course.

“So I must thank you, Furihata-kun, for choosing to see past that. It only reaffirms my belief that you are a compassionate person, with a remarkable amount of empathy. Thank you for sharing this gift with me.”

His fingers felt strange. Unwieldy. Akashi realized to his discomposure that they were trembling, as he typed out the words. He didn’t entirely know why.

Only… Only part of him did wish, in spite of his better judgment, that they could continue to spend time together. Clearly, Furihata was even more understanding than Akashi had imagined. If he truly wasn’t frightened of him at all… Akashi shook his head. It didn’t matter, he scolded himself. Such a thing couldn’t be.

“However, it would be inadvisable for us to associate further. I know I have hurt you, and caused you an undue amount of stress. And while I know it was not your intention, you have caused me some incidental hurt as well. I truly apologize, for having furthered our acquaintance against my better judgment, and for harming you in the process.

“I hope you will accept this apology, as well as my request that this message conclude our interactions. Thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.

“Sincerely,

“Akashi Seijuurou”

Akashi bent his head, as he sent the message. He hadn’t thought writing all of that would be so difficult. He rose, and placed his phone on the nearby mantel. Rubbed at the knotted creases in his brow.

It was done, he told himself. He had done the right thing, put an end to it.

Why did he feel so terrible?

It didn’t feel right, at all. He felt empty, and he loathed it, when he usually welcomed the sensation. He felt vaguely nauseated, as if with guilt—but he was certain he had done his best to be kind. He even felt like he wanted to… wanted to…

Well, that absolutely was not going to happen.

He ignored the damp ache building around his eyes, and turned back to his desk. But the thought of returning to work suddenly made him want to bolt from the room. He clenched his hands. In the end, he approached his violin case. It was just for a little while, he thought. Just so he could compose himself.

He rested his violin under his chin. Slipped the bow over the strings, and wrung out the first shivering note. He focused only on the sound, each precise movement. Soon his fingers were locked in a whirling dance upon the instrument.

The notes lengthened, and his violin’s cry grew mournful. Akashi knew he needed to stop. He had work to do, and this was beyond indulgent. But somehow, he couldn’t. The hour wore on, and the violin wailed and sighed. Giving release to tumultuous emotions Akashi couldn’t explain. Steadily growing softer, and softer. Fading.

A clatter pierced the quiet. Akashi raised his head. His phone was still on the mantel. The light was blinking.

It couldn’t be.

It was, however. A message from Furihata. Long enough that Akashi couldn’t fathom how he had typed it all out so quickly. To say nothing of why he had sent it.

Hadn’t he read what Akashi wrote, about not contacting him again?

“Dear Akashi-kun,

“Thanks for replying. Your message was really nice, and helped me understand where you’re coming from. I think maybe I should have known a lot of what you said already, given what kind of person you are. I also get the feeling it must have been hard to write all of that. So thank you, honestly, for telling me how you feel.

“And now I guess I should say I’m sorry… Because I don’t really think most of what you said is okay.”

Akashi stared down at the screen. He read that sentence again. Then a third time.

What in the world?

“What I mean is, I know you’re being nice. You’re just trying to keep me from getting hurt. But that isn’t really fair, to either of us. It isn’t right for anyone to deal with all their problems alone. Not even someone as mature as you. Life isn’t supposed to be like that. People are supposed to help each other. I have a feeling you believe that too, considering how much you help your friends and your team.

“And it isn’t fair that I’m supposed to miss out on getting to know someone as amazing as you because you’re having a hard time and you don’t want anyone to be sad about it.”

Akashi’s mouth hung open. He felt like he was in shock.

Was this even Furihata? It sounded like him, for the most part, but…

“I mean, I know life isn’t fair. So if you can honestly tell me that you’ll talk to your friends about whatever’s bothering you and ask for their help, and you just don’t want to talk to me, that’s okay. But I’m getting the feeling that’s not what you meant.

“I know you think you’re keeping the people you care about from getting hurt. And I wouldn’t even be writing this, except… The truth is, I’ve done the same thing. I feel kind of weird mentioning it out of nowhere, but I was bullied in middle school, by some people I thought were my friends. (You can probably guess why, because these people were really cool, and I was… well, me.)”

Akashi felt a misplaced pang of sympathy. He had wondered if something of that nature had happened, and he was sorry to hear his intuition was right.

But where was Furihata going with this?

“Anyway, when I was getting to know my teammates Kawahara and Fukuda, they asked me about myself a lot. At first I kind of lied, and didn’t tell them much. They invited me to hang out, but I only went some of the time. I was nervous, but I also felt like they were just being nice and I didn’t want to bore them with nerdy stuff or explain my dumb anxiety problems. It’s not like all of that was their fault. I figured they were better off not having to spend a ton of time with me.

“The more we hung out at school, though, the more I realized it wasn’t like that. They were nice guys, and they weren’t going to make fun of me. But they could also tell when I was being distant, and it bothered them. (I’m bad at hiding stuff… Everything shows on my face. Maybe I could have gotten away with it, if I was more like Kuroko. Or you.) So I sort of explained the anxiety thing, and I basically said I didn’t want to bring them down when I wasn’t feeling great. Then Kawahara said, ‘It’s okay if you don’t always want to hang out. We’re not going to stop liking you if you’re not happy all the time. It just sucks when you close yourself off. It’s like you don’t trust us.’

“That really stuck with me. Because I thought I was trying not to bother them, but all it did was hurt their feelings. I wasn’t trusting them enough. If I had to guess, that sounds a lot like what you’re doing. Not just with me, but with your friends.”

Akashi grimaced. Really, Furihata’s experience wasn’t the same as his at all. He supposed there were a few parallels, technically. Yes, Akashi avoided discussing certain things. He didn’t always spend time with his friends on the rare occasions when he could, but…

But that was different. He wasn’t nervous around others, or afraid they would mock him. He was trying to spare them. True, Furihata had thought something similar, apparently. But in his case, it was obviously unnecessary. Whereas Akashi had so many more legitimate reasons…

“Could you at least tell me why you’re so worried about hurting me? Because I can’t remember you doing that, to be honest. You’re so considerate, and you’re always thinking of other people’s feelings. The only times I felt hurt were when you left at the train station, and whenever you didn’t seem to want to talk to me anymore.

“But maybe you can tell me why I’m wrong? Or maybe you just don’t want to deal with me hurting you again. If that’s the case, it’s okay. You can just say so.”

Furihata’s message ended there.

Akashi stood frozen, gazing down at the screen. He felt unsettled. Caught off guard, in a way he almost never did.

Furihata was all but arguing in this message. Refusing to accept Akashi’s decision. Telling him it was unfair, that he was wrong. What’s more, it almost sounded like Furihata was trying to provoke him into answering back.

Akashi felt affronted. He was exasperated. None of this was Furihata’s concern, when it came right down to it. Akashi had already made it clear that their association could not continue, and why.

Why on earth was Furihata not listening to him? Why was he not giving up?

Akashi opened a new reply, and started typing. Punching the buttons with a vigor that was not, strictly speaking, necessary.

“Dear Furihata-kun,

“It is all too evident that you did not fully understand what I meant, when I said

Akashi paused. He wasn’t quite sure how to complete that sentence. He held down the delete key, erased it all, and began again. With the same furious speed as before.

“Furihata-kun,

“I really must insist you not contact me after this, when you seem to have completely overlooked the fact that

He didn’t know how to finish that thought either. He deleted it too. Slowly, he lowered his arm, until his phone hung at his side.

For some reason, he suddenly felt like he was standing on a basketball court. Seeing through his other self’s eyes, when Furihata guarded him in the Winter Cup. Akashi had always thought his other self was foolish in that situation. He’d underestimated both Furihata and Seirin, and let them gain a few points that turned out to be crucial, by failing to see through their strategy in advance. Akashi was certain he would’ve done better.

Now he had the vague sensation that someone had stolen the ball right out of his hands. That he'd been bested, to a stunning extent. More than his other self had been.

In that moment, Akashi heard his other self’s thoughts from that game, turned back at him. “I told you, didn’t I? These Seirin individuals are shockingly insolent.”

Akashi shook his head. He would regain the upper hand. He just needed a moment… But the more he reread Furihata’s message, the more he was at a loss for a reply.

The truth was, Furihata was listening. Too well, really. He had struck right at the heart of Akashi’s reasoning, and explained why he didn’t think it was the right decision. Even if the comparisons weren’t exact, Furihata’s logic was clear.

Akashi breathed in, and out. He didn’t need to respond defensively, he told himself. Furihata meant well. He just couldn’t see the holes in his argument.

Akashi read the message more carefully this time. He organized his thoughts, allowed himself to accept a few of Furihata’s points. Then he composed his reply.

“It is true enough that I am not eager to be hurt again. But even more so, I have no wish to hurt you. Regardless of your claims, I know for a fact that I’ve hurt you several times in the past month—particularly my reaction at the end of your trip here. I was unduly upset, chiefly because of some past experiences of my own.

“I also recall at least one instance when I spoke harshly to you on the train, to avoid answering your questions. So I suppose you might be right, and the most common hurt I have caused you has been in closing myself off, as you’ve fittingly phrase it.

“However, the unfortunate truth is that my reluctance in this regard is either part of my nature or my circumstances, or perhaps both. I do try to be upfront with others when I can, but it isn’t always possible. So if this tendency of mine causes you any distress, I see no reason why you should have to endure it further.”

Akashi sent the message, with a firm press of his thumb. He dropped into the armchair beside the fireplace, crossed his arms, and waited. Fully expecting that Furihata’s reply to him would be needlessly kind. Understanding.

But surely Furihata wouldn’t have a genuine answer for all of that. He had to give up eventually. To realize Akashi was right about this.

Akashi’s phone went off minutes later, as expected. He opened the new reply.

“Really? That’s kind of surprising,” it said, to Akashi’s confusion. “You don’t seem like the type of person who’s bad at sharing your feelings. You’re so good at expressing yourself. It’s more like you seem to think you shouldn’t talk about anything personal.

“To be honest, I don’t really get why. I get being raised not to impose on other people—my mom’s big on that, so I always worry about it—and I get being told not to show your emotions, even though that didn’t happen to me as much. But I don’t get why that means you can’t talk about yourself at all?

“It’s like you said, I was never hurt when you were talking to me. But if you really don’t like opening up to people, or you can’t for some reason, I don’t think it’s all that awful. I like talking to you anyway.

“What did you mean, when you said you got upset because of past experiences? Could you at least tell me about that? I just want to understand.”

Akashi frowned wryly. His fingertips hovered over the phone. Did Furihata seriously think he wouldn’t notice what he was trying to do? Did he expect Akashi Seijuurou of all people to fall for something so obvious?

And yet somehow, Akashi was already typing again.

Fine then, he thought, with something like desperation. He would play along. He would be direct in his answer, and take Furihata into his confidence. Even though it didn’t make the least bit of sense for him to do so.

Perhaps then Furihata would finally understand why he couldn’t keep doing it.

“I don’t expect my restraint to make a great deal of sense, because it shouldn’t make sense to most people. For one thing, part of my upbringing involved learning how to conduct myself around individuals whom I was sternly instructed to keep at a distance. (The servants who assisted in raising me, to cite one example.) This stemmed from the idea—to which I do not subscribe—that I am superior to said people in various ways, largely in terms of rank and overall merit. It’s possible this may have resulted in certain habits.”

Akashi cringed as he reread. He couldn’t go through with this. Yet in the back of his mind crept that nagging feeling from before. The sense that he couldn’t continue as he had been. That he had to do something.

He truly didn’t know what else to do, at this point.

“As far as my past experiences are concerned, I was referring to some unfortunate incidents when I was younger. In grade school it became clear that some of my peers were associating with me because they felt obligated to do so, or wished to gain something from it besides my companionship.

“I no longer worry overmuch about the latter problem, as I feel I am a better judge of character now. I also believe friends can repay one another in different ways. The former notion I still find distressing. Which is why I prefer not to engage in purely obligatory interactions, even if the other person is doing it out of kindness, or a desire to help me.”

He sent the message. Stared at the far wall of his sitting room, fidgeted absently with the cuff of his sleeve.

The reply was quick to arrive.

“I didn’t think about that. I guess you must have to be formal a lot of the time, even at home. That seems like it would be really hard. And it makes sense that it would make it harder to confide in people. Like it wouldn’t feel natural.

“I’m really sorry about what happened to you when you were younger. That sounds awful. You didn’t deserve that, at all. (Also I’m kind of amazed, that the second thing doesn’t bother you as much? I bet you probably don’t get why, though. Anyway.)”

Akashi furrowed his brows. Furihata was correct. He didn’t understand what was especially remarkable about that. But he kept reading.

“Those kids were awful, and also really dumb, if they seriously only hung out with you because they had to. You’re such a great person. I know how much fun I had being around you, and talking to you. (I really mean that, by the way… I know I screwed up and gave you the wrong idea before, and I’d like to help you if there’s any way I can, but mostly I just liked hanging out with you.)

“I’m really, really glad you didn’t give up on making friends.”

Akashi’s throat clenched. He was glad as well, as he recalled the many friends who had been so kind to him that week. And as he read back over Furihata’s words, he couldn’t help appreciating their kindness too.

Suddenly, the phone buzzed again. Furihata had sent a second message. It said only, “I hope you won’t stop trying to open up to your friends, either.”

Akashi shook his head. Furihata was indeed persistent. More than he had ever suspected. And now a troubling thought was starting to take root inside his mind…

For so long, Akashi had wished the distance between himself and others didn’t exist. He knew his upbringing could be partially to blame. That his restrained demeanor came across as unapproachable. But what if it was more than that?

What if Furihata was right? What if Akashi was keeping everyone else away?

Akashi recalled the conversation at lunch with his teammates. How Mibuchi said they would be happy to listen, if Akashi ever wanted to discuss what was bothering him. But he’d never confided in any of them. Then Midorima called. Instead of talking with his longtime friend about what had upset him, Akashi had danced around the issue. Even with Kuroko, who knew most of what had happened, he was never very direct. At every turn, Akashi avoided baring his emotions, anything too intense that he couldn’t control.

Yet at the time, he thought he was confiding in them all, more or less.

Perhaps it was no wonder he still felt so far away, even from his friends. Akashi had thought he was making an effort. That he only held back when he was trying to protect those he cared about, but…

Was he actually the one at fault?

He wrote a brief reply, though his fingers felt unsteady. “Even if I agreed with you that this would be the best course of action, not only for myself but for them, and I resolved to change my behavior…

“To be very frank, I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to do that.”

The admission pained him. Usually, Akashi knew how to go about something. Even when it wasn’t his area of expertise, he knew more or less where to start, to find the answers he wanted. Right now, he just felt at a loss.

He had never felt so inadequate before. So… powerless.

It all seemed pitifully obvious now. Perhaps this reserve of his was a compulsion, more than anything. A weakness. If so, he had never properly tried to overcome it.

He sent the message. Furihata’s reply was nothing less than confounding.

“Well, maybe you could practice with me? You don’t have to do it for real. It could just be pretend or something? I don’t mind.”

Akashi palmed his brow. His feeble laugh echoed in the silent room. Now Furihata was offering to be his pretend confidant? This was getting increasingly absurd.

He typed, “Putting aside the fact that what you are suggesting is rather bizarre, though very kind… As I said, I wouldn’t know how to go about it, even in pretense.”

He sent it, and waited. Furihata’s next reply was longer.

“Really? Seems like you’re doing fine to me.

“I think you just have to keep talking to people. It doesn’t have to be about anything big. Most of the time, it’s not. But if something painful comes up and you need to be honest, you don’t try to hide it. That’s all, really.

“It feels weird at first, and I’m still not that great at it. Sometimes it takes a while for me to work up the courage. But my friends know that, and they’re patient with me, and it gets easier with practice.

“Seriously, though, I think that’s pretty much all there is to it.”

Akashi tilted his head, rested it against the velvet wing of his chair. He read the message over again. There was no deep secret in Furihata’s words. But something about the way he had phrased them rang true.

Furihata was more eloquent when he was writing, Akashi noticed. His point of view came across so clearly. Akashi had always found Furihata’s face easy to read, but his thought process less so. Likely because he was nervous about speaking. To see it all written out made everything so much plainer.

Akashi had never fully guessed, until tonight, just how insightful Furihata could be.

“You make it sound so simple,” he wrote back, sighing a bit. “But perhaps I’m wrong, and it isn’t difficult.”

Furihata’s next reply was even more perceptive.

“I don’t think it is, once you decide to do it. Or at least, it’s not complicated.

“But that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary. You have to trust people, and let them disappoint you, or even hurt you sometimes. People are kind of terrifying like that. I still can’t do it with just anyone. (I’m not sure you’re really supposed to?)

“I find you a lot less scary than most people, though. For the record.”

Akashi didn’t know if that last line made him want to smile or frown. The idea that Furihata didn’t find him frightening was welcome. Undeniably so. Each time he contemplated it, it sent a strange feeling quivering through him—a soft, soothing warmth he couldn’t explain.

Akashi wanted to believe Furihata’s words. Furihata seemed to understand his struggle so easily, somehow… Yet now Akashi was reminded of his earlier reservations.

“I’m still very concerned about hurting you. Are you truly not uncomfortable around me? I must admit I find that difficult, if not impossible, to believe.”

Furihata’s response simply read, “Why’s that?”

Akashi shook his head. Where should he even begin?

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but you do have something of a history of panicking in my presence,” he wrote, trying to be tactful. “Also, I believe it is fair to say that there is still a great deal you don’t know about me. Some of it is unpleasant, to put it mildly.” He left it at that, and sent it along.

“That’s true, I guess,” came the reply. “The panicking was more about me than you, though. I felt way more comfortable the longer we talked. Maybe you couldn’t tell?”

Akashi blinked. The truth was, he had noticed. How by the end of their day in Kyoto, Furihata seemed more relaxed. He hadn’t fully understood why, but it did seem to be the case.

As he was pondering this, Furihata added, “How about I promise to tell you if you’re ever making me uncomfortable? (You’ll be able to tell anyway.) And I’ll do my best to tell you why. I mean, I can’t exactly say you’re supposed to be honest if I don’t work harder at it too. And you don’t have to tell me everything. We can just start small, and see what happens. If you want?”

Akashi pursed his lips. This was his cue to say no again, obviously. Furihata was still making an effort to befriend him. In spite of all reasoning to the contrary.

Then Furihata sent yet another message. “I know I would really like that.”

Akashi slumped down in his chair. He didn’t know what he was doing anymore. Somehow he couldn’t find it in himself, to persist in his former resolution. To do the selfless thing, to avoid Furihata. He was no longer even certain it was selfless.

So he gave in.

“I suppose that would be acceptable,” he wrote, and sent it. Feeling utterly foolish. Like a child who had been throwing a very long, increasingly elaborate tantrum—and now could barely recall why he had started in the first place.

Akashi might have expected Furihata to point this out. Or express some excitement over his hard-earned victory. But this was Furihata. Akashi no longer had any faith in his ability to predict the actions of this curiously improbable person.

True to form, Furihata’s reply wasn’t what he expected.

“Okay, great! Then how about we try it right now?” it read. “I’ll ask you something, and you have to answer as honestly as you can. Is that all right?”

Akashi gripped the phone. He was far from feeling prepared. But there was no time like the present, he supposed. His heart beat in his ears. “Very well. I will try.”

“Okay,” said the message. “First important question…

“Do you like cat pictures?”

Akashi gaped at the screen. He rubbed his eyes, but the message remained the same. It was already past two in the morning. Could it be he was hallucinating?

Still, he had given his word. He forced himself to answer the possibly hallucinatory mail. “While I am at a loss as to why you are asking, I suppose the most honest answer is that I have not given any serious thought as to my opinion on them.”

“Haha, I’m sorry! Really. That was dumb,” Furihata replied, to Akashi’s relief. It appeared he was not losing his grip on sanity. “I was just looking for photos for my team’s chat. Our coach and Kuroko have a thing for animal pictures, so we all started posting them. Most of the chat is just animals now. Or puns. Or our captain getting mad about it. (Have I mentioned we’re kind of a bunch of dorks?)

“Anyway. Sorry for not being serious. But it’s like I said, we can just talk? I missed it.”

Akashi’s mouth twitched, in the barest of smiles. He couldn’t help remembering all their conversations on Sunday. He had missed it too. More than he had dared to admit.

“I would not be opposed to that,” he wrote.

Furihata’s next message came with a photograph, of a Persian cat that looked overdue for a grooming. “Is this one cute? I can’t decide. Whoever posts the best photo gets a free milkshake from our coach. Kuroko always wins, though.”

For Akashi’s part, he rather thought the cat looked like it was contemplating homicide. It was amusing in its own way, but he was far from certain it was cute.

“I am no expert, but it looks somewhat put out,” he answered. In an attempt to be diplomatic.

“Yeah. I think I’ll keep looking,” was Furihata’s response. “Do you have any favorite animals? I’m kind of curious now.”

Akashi raised his brows. He gave it some thought, though it was far from the weightiest question. “I like most animals well enough. I’m fondest of horses.”

“Really? I don’t know much about horses. Though I read Black Beauty and thought it was really good. Why do you like them best?”

Akashi smiled, more fully this time. He was surprised Furihata had read that story. He hadn’t had a chance to reread it in years, but he had pleasant memories of it.

“I also enjoyed that novel. However, my affinity for them is primarily because I enjoy horseback riding, and I have a horse of my own.”

“Wow, you do? I had no idea. What does your horse look like?”

Akashi scrolled through the photographs in his phone. He sent one of Yukimaru raising his head beside a stream. He typed beneath it, “His name is Yukimaru.”

The reply came very quickly. “That’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen?! Is that picture honestly real?”

Akashi chuckled. He curled his legs up onto the seat cushion. “Yukimaru is indeed very real. As he seemed all too eager to remind me the other day, when he was being a handful.”

“Haha, really? What did he do?”

Then Akashi was writing all about it, somehow. Describing the intricacies of the saddling process, and the mischief a horse could cause during it. Furihata mentioned a few details he remembered from Black Beauty, and Akashi explained that while he did ride English, certain particulars had changed since the Victorian era.

They kept exchanging messages, until Akashi could barely recall what most of them were about. Eventually he was trying to determine why the room looked so odd—only to realize the sun was rising, casting a rosy glow behind the curtains. It was already past five o’clock, he noted with surprise. He asked Furihata if he knew what time it was.

“Oh wow, I didn’t actually! I’m not really tired though. What about you?”

“Not at all,” Akashi wrote back. “I function on very little sleep. My schedule doesn’t allow for it, but even when I have the opportunity, I don’t tend to rest a great deal.”

“Jeez, that’s rough. Are you sure you don’t have insomnia? I used to have that.”

“No, the mechanisms that serve to animate my frame simply do not require the stasis of your human rest periods.”

“Uh…?”

Akashi sighed, preparing for the inevitable. “That was a joke.”

A few minutes passed. Then the reply arrived.

“Oh jeez, I’m sorry! I can’t stop laughing.”

Akashi smiled. Was Furihata really laughing? Ordinarily his jokes never worked. He supposed that the late (or technically early) hour was a factor.

It was odd… Akashi rarely bothered trying to make jokes anymore. He wondered again why it was so easy to talk to Furihata. Even in writing, the things he normally hesitated to say just seemed to come out without much thought.

“In any case, I’m certain you will require sleep long before I will,” he wrote.

Furihata’s reply said, “Is that a bet or something? Because I’m seriously awake right now.”

The corners of Akashi’s mouth slid further upward. “If you would like it to be. Though you won’t best me, I hope you realize.”

“Hmm. A chance to beat the invincible Akashi Seijuurou? I mean I can’t really lose, can I?”

Now Akashi was genuinely smirking. “I’m afraid you very much can, Furihata-kun. Also, I believe I can hear you yawning from here.”

“Hey, I’m not yawning! Or I wasn’t, until you said so. But it’s not because I’m tired! All your fancy mind tricks aren’t going to work on me.”

“Shall I call you, and start humming lullabies?”

“NOT FALLING FOR THAT.”

In spite of Akashi’s tactics, they exchanged messages for another hour. And another. Around seven thirty, Furihata finally stopped replying. Akashi entered his closet to change—his tutoring sessions began at nine—when, to his surprise, he yawned. He felt curiously exhausted. Not so much physically, but a nap sounded pleasant. He didn’t bother changing into nightclothes, just set his alarm and collapsed into bed.

He was barely on time for his first lesson, to his tutor’s surprise. Still, his Sunday mostly proceeded as normal. Until in the afternoon, a phone message arrived.

“Okay, so you won. But don’t think I’m giving up! I’ll challenge you again sometime.”

“I look forward to it,” Akashi replied, and eased back in his chair at his tea table. He felt as bright and untethered as the sunlight shining through the mansion windows.

They messaged one another all day, and then throughout the week. Akashi couldn’t recall conversing so much with anyone on the phone before. He wasn’t certain why it was happening. But at one point, he found himself remembering Kuroko’s words…

“It would be nice for you to talk to someone toward whom you have no responsibilities or obligations.”

Perhaps that was part of it, Akashi mused. He had never had a friend like this before. A person who sought him out, not because they were attending the same school or had a shared history, but purely for company’s sake. Akashi didn’t have to worry about setting a good example, or maintaining a certain image. It was… freeing.

Suddenly, it was difficult to imagine doing without it.

Then came a moment of truth. Without thinking about it, Akashi mentioned he would be meeting with his father in Tokyo soon. Furihata didn’t reply straight away. When he did, the words made Akashi’s heart jump into his throat.

“So I don’t know how busy you’ll be, but… Do you think maybe we could hang out when you’re here? I’d really like to. Maybe for the afternoon or something?”

Akashi frowned. Only a short time ago, he had refused Furihata’s request to meet again. Since the night of their phone confrontation, they hadn’t discussed anything very serious. For Akashi to agree to Furihata’s invitation felt like a final acceptance, of this new direction they were taking.

Memories of all their time together flashed through Akashi’s mind. On the train, in Kyoto. Pleasant and unpleasant. He thought of everything they had discussed since.

In the end, he wrote his reply.

“Yes,” it said. “I would like that.”


The weather was perfectly clear.

Akashi gazed out the train window at Mount Fuji. Not even a wisp of cloud ringed its dusky slopes. It felt strange to be looking at such brilliant weather. Not that Akashi felt rain would be appropriate, exactly. But given his steadily fraying nerves, he felt at least some clouds would be fitting. To echo the worries that kept passing through his thoughts, like windblown shadows.

It was Sunday again. Akashi hadn’t returned to Tokyo since the day he bumped into Furihata on a train platform. Now he was once more riding in an N700. Speeding down the Nozomi line, as usual. Somehow, though, everything felt different.

Akashi looked down at his phone. He kept scrolling through all the messages Furihata had sent him. Down to the first few, the ones that hardly seemed real. Yet there they were, as unthinkably kind as ever.

Akashi’s insides gave a gut-wrenching twist. Over the last few days, he had come to realize something important.

Furihata was a wonderful person, with a deeply genuine heart. Akashi truly wanted to befriend him. He wanted it more and more as time went on. Whether it was wise or not. He hoped Furihata would still want it as well…

But Akashi had never told him the truth.

Akashi had been upset, when he thought Furihata met him in Kyoto out of politeness. He’d hated the idea that Furihata had done it purely for the sake of some motive, no matter how kind. Now Akashi knew that Furihata had wanted to see him, even then. That Furihata enjoyed his company, and liked him as a person.

But from the start, Akashi had only interacted with Furihata for his own selfish reasons.

Akashi didn’t invite Furihata onto that train because he wanted to know him. He did it to prove a point, largely to himself. He chose Furihata because he thought the other boy was frightened of him—and timid in general. Because if he could put someone like Furihata at ease, Akashi would prove he wasn’t intimidating.

In other words, Akashi had selected an anxious, sensitive boy as his test subject, in a self-absorbed experiment to measure his own friendliness. Without having any idea if that boy wanted to know him or not. (In fact, he’d assumed he didn’t.)

He really was the worst sort of hypocrite.

Akashi had rationalized it at the time. Told himself he was doing Furihata a favor. Perhaps there was some truth in that. And in the process, he had discovered he enjoyed Furihata’s company. But those things didn’t the change the fact that he’d been harboring ulterior motives.

It also didn’t change the fact that he needed to tell Furihata why they had started to interact in the first place.

Akashi put away his phone, and wrung his hands upon his knees. He recited his plan inside his mind. He didn’t know what they would be doing in Tokyo. He had left those decisions to Furihata. But when the time felt right, Akashi would explain what he had done regarding the train, and why. He would be entirely honest. The way Furihata had advised him to be.

And if Furihata was upset, if he no longer wanted to befriend him after hearing the truth, then Akashi would have to accept that.

Akashi’s stomach gave another lurch. He crossed his arms tightly, trying to stem the queasy feeling within him. He wished he hadn’t made such an error. Now it was as though he had been deceiving Furihata all this time. What if Furihata despised him for it?

Akashi shook his head. Such negative thoughts would only make him lose his nerve. After all, Furihata never did what he expected.

He only hoped that would be true this time as well.

Akashi slipped an envelope out of his pocket. It was small, little more than the size of a credit card. He had brought a gift for Furihata, to repay him for all his kindness. Originally, Akashi had considered revisiting the train museum, to buy the model set Furihata was admiring there. But he had a feeling that was extravagant by normal standards of friendship, and Furihata would have difficulty accepting it.

In the end, Akashi chose something else. But it wouldn’t be a very good gift at all, if Furihata didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore.

No, that wasn’t true, he told himself. It still had some use otherwise. At least he hoped so.

He gazed at the empty seat beside him. Remembering an evening when it had not been empty. He had never expected to wish so strongly that it could be occupied again.

The train arrived in Tokyo. Akashi diligently gathered up his belongings, and left the compartment. He felt strangely unsteady on his feet. He suspected it didn’t show—but on the other hand, he couldn’t recall the last time he felt so anxious. He stepped onto the platform, and made his way toward the stairs.

“Akashi-kun!”

Akashi’s heart nearly bolted out of his chest. He turned.

“Over here!” A familiar boy stood on the other side of the platform. Wearing a plain jacket and faded jeans. Waving with one arm, a notebook tucked beneath the other.

Furihata was smiling broadly. His face was even easier to read than Akashi remembered. His eyes were wide, but without any trace of fear. Instead they were bright. Sparkling, with obvious excitement.

Akashi felt himself smile back, without thinking.

Furihata rushed up to him. “Hey! Sorry for the surprise. I forget my uncle was working today, so… I kind of couldn’t resist?” He held up his trainspotting notebook with a laugh.

Akashi’s chest gave a strange pang. Furihata looked so at ease. Akashi had assumed Furihata would be nervous to see him again, at least at first. But he didn’t appear to be at all.

This was what Akashi had wanted… For someone like Furihata not to be afraid of him. To seek out his company. To treat him as a friend, an equal.

Somehow, it seemed that his impossible wish had come true.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m glad you did. That is, I’m very glad you didn’t hold back.”

Did I just repeat myself…? That was odd. And less than articulate.

“There’s no need to leave, if you’d like to continue,” he hurried to add.

Furihata beamed at him. “Thanks, but I’m good. I’ve been on this platform a lot lately, actually.”

He laughed again, and Akashi made sure to laugh as well. Even though this reminder of certain realities sent a sharp jab of discomfort through him…

His wish had come true, but there was still a chance he would lose it.

“It’s great to see you,” Furihata added, in a warm voice. “Was your ride okay?”

Akashi hesitated. His usual impulse was to stretch the truth—either say the polite, agreeable thing, or avoid the question. Furihata’s advice about being honest lingered in his mind.

“It was as I expected,” he managed. “The weather is very pleasant today.”

Did… Did I honestly just bring up the weather?

Furihata looked at him for a moment. He craned his neck, eyeing the clear daylight that gleamed past the station roof.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” he said with another smile. “So are you ready to go? I’m not keeping you from anything important, am I?”

Akashi nodded firmly. “My father won’t be available to see me until dinnertime.”

“Okay, great.” Furihata sounded cheerful. “Oh, I should probably warn you. I didn’t plan anything spectacular. There’s no way I could top all your genius ideas, so I thought we’d mostly just hang out? Hope that’s all right.”

He looked a bit sheepish.

“That’s perfectly all right,” Akashi assured him.

It was more than that, he thought, as he accompanied Furihata through the bustling maze of Tokyo Station. No matter how they passed the time, Akashi had decided he would focus on enjoying their day together. To enjoy Furihata’s company, as much as possible. Akashi had a suspicion, based on past experience, that it would not be difficult. Very much the opposite.

Even if it did prove to be his last chance to do so, in the end.

Chapter Text

Furihata couldn’t tell if he was being paranoid, or if something was actually wrong.

From the moment they met up at Tokyo Station, Furihata could sense that Akashi wasn’t his usual self. His gaze wandered, and he didn’t have as much to say as usual. Like he had something on his mind. Something bothering him.

Furihata felt a flutter in his stomach, each time he noticed. At first he thought he was just freaking out, in his usual dumb way. That he was nervous he had done something wrong. He reminded himself to calm down, that being too self-conscious had almost wrecked his chance to be friends with Akashi in the first place…

At some point, he realized that he was mostly just worried about Akashi.

Furihata glanced beside him, as they walked through the crowded station. Akashi’s eyes were lidded, as he stared down at the ground. He kept slipping his hand into his pocket. Like he was checking something inside.

The energy around him felt off. Warm, but unstable somehow? Furihata couldn’t explain why he was paying attention to Akashi’s aura—or, well, whatever it was—when he had always tried to ignore it before. It still made him feel kind of crazy, that he could sense something like that at all.

Still, Furihata found himself paying attention to those feelings, more than before. Like he had accepted them, at least a little.

Akashi looked up, and Furihata’s heart skipped a beat. (He wasn’t sure if he should pretend he wasn’t staring, or just ask if Akashi was okay, or what.) Akashi gave him a hurried smile. Furihata returned it.

“So, uh…” Furihata tried to sound casual. “I know you just got off a train, but do you mind taking another one?”

“Not at all,” Akashi said. “May I ask where we’re going?”

Furihata’s smile widened. “If you want, sure. But I’m pretty sure I remember somebody not telling me anything when I went to Kyoto.”

Akashi raised his brows, as his eyes gleamed with humor.

“This is your revenge, then,” he said. “I should have guessed.”

Furihata laughed. He handed Akashi a ticket as they approached the turnstile. Akashi didn’t protest, just politely thanked him. Furihata couldn’t help noticing again how quiet he was being.

Furihata led the way to the platform for the Chuo Line. He didn’t check any signs, since he knew them all by heart. Throngs of people rushed past them on every side. Tourists lugging suitcases. Families holding hands. Shoppers balancing too many bags in their arms.

Furihata always found the bustle of train stations oddly comforting. He had lived his whole life in Tokyo, where crowds of people were the norm. He didn’t like being around rowdy groups, or places that got too noisy. But the steady hum of commuters on their way to somewhere else was so familiar it was almost soothing. Like listening to thunder, maybe, or the ocean.

Furihata climbed the stairs, with Akashi close behind, and they got right onto the next train. It was kind of packed, so Furihata ducked between some people and looked around. He tugged on Akashi’s sleeve, guiding him to a corner on the opposite side.

“There’s a seat over here.” Furihata nodded to the bench. “Do you want it?”

Akashi looked a little startled. “No, please go ahead.”

“That’s okay, I like standing better.” Furihata slipped beside the doors, and leaned against the back of the seat divider. “I can look out the window like this.”

Akashi hesitated. “May I join you?”

“Yeah! Of course.” Which was how Furihata found himself standing next to Akashi Seijuurou, in his usual space beside the train door. The place where he stood with his friends so often, laughing and talking.

This time, though, he was with Akashi.

It felt a little strange. But not that much. Like they really were friends now, Furihata thought, as a feeling of warmth flooded his chest.

Even when more people crowded onto the train, and they were standing so close they bumped into each other a few times, Furihata didn’t feel uncomfortable. Just kind of giddy, actually. The truth was, he had been looking forward to this day all week. Seeing Akashi in person again, getting to talk to him…

He was so glad he still had the chance.

Every now and then, Furihata felt a tingling shiver, from that invisible energy that surrounded Akashi. But it just felt like a part of hanging out with him now. A reminder he was there.

It was weird, Furihata thought, how so much had changed between them.

Ever since they met, Furihata basically thought of Akashi as invincible. Confident, talented—and, it turned out, incredibly kind. Furihata just figured Akashi had never struggled very much with anything. That his life was as perfect as he seemed to be. Until that day in the rain in Kyoto. Then they ended up exchanging all those messages, and Furihata found out just how wrong he was.

Furihata sort of wanted to laugh, whenever he thought about it. On the night he got that reply, the one where Akashi said they shouldn’t talk anymore, he came so close to chickening out. To not sending Akashi a message ever again. But then he started feeling weirdly frustrated. And sad, honestly, about the whole thing. So he just typed out everything he was thinking, and sent it.

Before he knew it, they were going back and forth. Talking about stuff Furihata would never have expected to talk about in a million years, with a guy like Akashi Seijuurou. About how to open up to people. How to get past awful experiences, and trust your friends more.

They hadn’t really stopped talking since. Furihata’s phone was filled with their conversations. He even reread some of them, whenever he started to feel like none of this was actually happening.

He knew Akashi so much better now. He almost couldn’t remember what it felt like to not know him. To still think of him as some overly perfect person, who didn’t have any problems or weaknesses. Or normal feelings, really.

Which was why Furihata couldn’t help worrying, a little. He really hoped Akashi was okay.

He understood now, though, just how hard Akashi found it to open up to people. Furihata sure knew what that was like. So he could be patient. If Akashi wanted to tell him what was going on, he would. Somehow, Furihata’s intuition told him that was the right thing to do.

For now, he would just focus on how excited he was, about their day together.

Furihata even told Kuroko about it. The day after Akashi accepted his invitation, he went into the clubroom to change for practice. At first Furihata thought he was alone—until he saw a locker door shift, and realized Kuroko was there too. He said hello, in his most cheerful voice.

Kuroko returned the greeting. Kind of hesitantly. He looked like he was about to say more, when Furihata spoke first.

“Oh hey, I wanted to tell you something.” He went up to Kuroko’s locker. “Thanks. For talking me into going to visit Akashi.”

Kuroko stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“You know, in Kyoto? I guess you heard it didn’t go so well.” Furihata chuckled, kind of sheepishly. “Akashi and I have been talking, though. A lot. It’s been great. We’re hanging out again on Sunday.”

Kuroko blinked. Then blinked again. “You are?”

“Yeah! I’m excited.” Furihata couldn’t help beaming. “Though I haven’t figured out what we’re doing yet.”

“I see.” Kuroko still looked confused. “I… I’ve actually been meaning to apologize to you about that situation. I don’t think I should have pressured you like I did.”

“No, it’s okay! Really,” Furihata insisted. “I’m just glad it happened. That I’m getting the chance to get to know him. Akashi’s an amazing guy.”

Kuroko tilted his head. Like he was studying Furihata closely. His mouth twitched into a smile. Small, but warm.

“Yes,” he said. “He is.”

Furihata’s heart lifted at the memory. He looked at Akashi again—and to his surprise, Akashi was looking at him, too. Furihata couldn’t read his expression, though. (He looked sort of curious? Or something.)

They really were standing close together, Furihata realized all of a sudden. His stomach gave a funny jolt, which was weird, because he had no reason at all to be nervous… Or maybe it wasn’t that weird, because the train was lurching to a halt.

“Hey, just one more stop,” he said, glancing at the display board.

Akashi eyed the board too. “We’re going to Nakano?”

“Yup.” Furihata was pretty sure Akashi wouldn’t guess where they were going. He also couldn’t help noticing the way Akashi kept inspecting the train compartment. “You probably don’t ride on this kind of train that much, huh?”

“It’s not as though I’ve never done it,” Akashi said, almost like he was protesting. “You and I rode a bus to Kiyomizu, as you may recall.”

Furihata grinned. “Sure. And then you called your chauffeur to pick us up later.”

Akashi opened his mouth, then paused.

“A fair point.” He sighed. “Though I would like to note that this has no bearing on my ability to navigate public transportation systems.”

“Well, yeah,” Furihata said. “Little kids ride the train. And you can do anything.”

His voice was bright. Akashi had an odd look on his face again. Surprised, but also kind of soft. Furihata would have asked him about it, but the train was already slowing down again. He led the way onto the platform, and down into Nakano Station.

All week long, Furihata had been trying to figure out what he wanted to do when Akashi came to visit. He knew there was no way he could match their day in Kyoto. Akashi had lived in Tokyo, after all. He probably knew all about the best parts of the city, like the parks and major landmarks and everything.

So Furihata kept racking his brain. Trying to figure out what they could do together. Something Akashi might not normally get to do on his own.

The answer Furihata came up with was simple. Maybe too simple. But he hoped they would have fun anyway.

They strolled together down the street, past rows of brightly colored shops. They were heading toward a large building framed in red and silver. The sign over the entrance read ‘Nakano Broadway.’

“Have you been before?” Furihata asked. Akashi shook his head. “I come here all the time. It’s basically just a shopping center, but… It’s also pretty nerdy?”

He laughed a little, as they headed inside. They passed a line of tiny shops crammed with souvenirs, and windows covered in movie posters and anime mascots. Furihata took Akashi up to the third floor.

“A lot of the stores here sell older stuff,” he said. “Toys and games, that kind of thing. It’s sort of fun just looking around. Hope that’s not too boring.”

“Not at all.” Akashi was scanning the area, with what seemed like genuine interest. “How old do you mean? Not antiques, I assume.”

“Not really. Most of it is collector stuff. Like from the seventies and eighties. But some of it’s like that? Here, I can show you.”

They ended up in a shop that had a collection of post-war toys. Characters like Mickey Mouse and Astro Boy lined the shelves. Some of them sat in locked cases, made of plastic so old it was changing color. There was just something cool, Furihata thought, about looking at a toy that was so much older than you were.

Furihata didn’t recognize a lot of the characters. But Akashi seemed to know most of them, and he explained some of their history as they walked along.

“Are you interested in older cartoons?” Akashi asked him at one point.

“Kind of?” Furihata tried to think how to explain. “I used to read my grandpa’s old Tezuka Osamu volumes a lot. I like how the art looked back then. Classic, I guess.”

Akashi nodded thoughtfully.

“What about you?” Furihata said. “Do you like animation?”

“I know a fair amount of the history, in Japan at least,” Akashi said. “But I haven’t seen much of it firsthand. I do try to watch the most notable films.”

“So… A lot of Studio Ghibli?”

“Possibly.” A smile lurked on Akashi’s lips.

Furihata laughed. “Miyazaki movies are great.”

They wandered through a few more vintage stores, and headed to a lower floor. Soon they reached a corner of the shopping center that Furihata knew very well. He tried not to act too eager. But it wasn’t long before Akashi was giving him a twinkling look.

He gestured toward the model train shop. “I take it you come here often?”

“Um, maybe.” Furihata felt a little flushed. “But we don’t have to go in! I have everything in there pretty much memorized.”

“I insist,” Akashi said, leading the way. “You did say we came here to look around. And I’d like to see it.”

“Okay, but I tried to spare you,” Furihata said, more than happy to follow him.

They explored the shop, peering into case after case of pristine train models. Furihata couldn’t resist pointing out some of the more interesting ones, and sighing over the rare engines that sat gleaming in the biggest display. As always, Akashi smiled and asked lots of questions and actually followed along with all of Furihata’s geeky rambling, somehow.

Furihata couldn’t help marveling, yet again, at what a great guy Akashi was. Not even Fukuda or Kawahara could keep up with him when he was in full railfan mode.

It was just so easy for Furihata to be himself around Akashi. He never would have guessed, back when they met, but it was true.

“So I was thinking you might like this one place,” Furihata said, after they eventually left the train shop. “I always stop there when I’m with my friends. Mostly for Kawahara, he’s a huge puzzle geek.”

They entered a store filled with all kinds of games. A group of teenagers were huddled around a wall of trading cards. Behind them, board games and puzzles stocked the shelves. Furihata took Akashi to a corner of the store, where various chess-style game sets sat in a display case. Western chess, xiangqi—and, of course, shougi.

Furihata was glad to see Akashi’s eyes light up with obvious interest, as he started scanning the shougi sets.

“These are rather nice,” he murmured. “Not boxwood, but the maple has a consistent finish. I’m surprised they have painted pieces. Usually oshi-koma are all you can find in a store like this.”

Furihata blinked at him. Akashi raised his head.

“It means the kanji were stamped onto the piece,” he explained quickly. “The more traditional sets are painted or carved. Or both, in the highest grades. These are in running script, with the sakiwake dual coloring… They might be from Tendou, where many of the best craftsmen work.”

Furihata raised his brows. “Wow.”

“What is it?”

“I didn’t know there were so many kinds of shougi sets.” Furihata pressed his lips together, trying not to grin. “Also, um… I’ve never heard you sound so much like me, to be honest. When I’m talking about model trains.”

Akashi chuckled. “It was a lot of jargon, wasn’t it? I apologize.”

“No, don’t be sorry!” Furihata hurried to say. “Makes me feel like less of a huge nerd. Or like I’m in good company, anyway.”

“If I’m not mistaken, I believe I am being insulted,” Akashi said, tilting his head playfully. “And by a pot to my relative kettle, no less.”

“Akashi-kun.” Furihata tried his best to sound hurt. “Are you really calling me a nerd?”

For a moment, Akashi looked unsettled—until he saw the look on Furihata’s face, and they both started to laugh.

“Oh hey, I was wondering,” Furihata said, catching Akashi’s attention. “I don’t know anything about shougi, so… What should I get, if I wanted to learn how to play it?”

“You want to learn shougi?” Akashi repeated.

“Yeah! I thought it might be fun if we could play together sometime.” Furihata hurried to add, “I mean, I probably won’t be any good! I can sort of play Western chess, but I’ve never been able to beat my brother. Literally, never. So if you don’t mind having a really easy opponent.”

Akashi’s eyes were bright, and Furihata was sure he looked pleased, for a second. Then his smile faltered, and his face clouded over.

“Akashi-kun? Are you okay?”

Akashi nodded, firmly.

“Of course. Please excuse me.” He seemed to be forcing a smile. “I think it would be an excellent idea for you to learn shougi, if you’re interested. It’s a fascinating game.”

“Oh, okay. Great!” Furihata tried to sound cheerful, even as his mind was racing. He couldn’t figure out why Akashi would look kind of upset, if he really approved of the idea. “I’m kind of a slow learner, so… Sorry if I end up asking you a lot of questions.”

“I’d be happy to answer them,” Akashi said, as sincerely as ever. Furihata felt himself relax again.

They looked through some of the cheaper shougi stuff, and Akashi recommended a plastic pocket set. (Furihata hadn’t even known there were portable shougi sets.) Furihata eagerly purchased it, and as they left the store, Akashi mentioned a few sites that explained the rules of the game. He looked almost flattered when Furihata whipped out his phone to bookmark them.

They were wandering through another floor of the shopping center, when Furihata asked if they could stop in a large used manga store.

“Fukuda’s been looking for this one out-of-print series,” he explained. “I guess it’s based on an RPG he likes? He made us all memorize the title, in case we see it somewhere. I’ll just check real quick for him, if that’s okay.”

“Certainly,” Akashi said, as he trailed Furihata through the rows of manga volumes.

They ended up hunting for almost twenty minutes. Akashi clearly wasn’t familiar with popular manga, and Furihata didn’t know much either. But they looked for the title as best they could. Finally, Furihata was forced to concede defeat. As they made their way out of the maze, Akashi paused in front of a section of shelves. “We haven’t searched these yet, have we?”

Furihata froze. “Oh. Uh. It wouldn’t be in there.”

His face was growing a bit warm.

“Are you sure?” Akashi craned his neck and leaned into the aisle, much to Furihata’s alarm. “Why, what’s in this section?”

“Um, nothing!” Furihata sputtered. “I mean, I’m sure it’s not in there, that’s, um… That’s s-something else. I think! We should probably be going!”

He grabbed Akashi by the arm and dragged him across the store. Akashi was looking at him quizzically, and Furihata was blushing so hard his ears burned. There was no way he was going to explain how he knew what was in that particular section.

He had explored this store with Fukuda and Kawahara before. One time, they were thumbing through random manga, laughing at anything weird they found. At some point they passed by that section, and Kawahara said, “Wait, wait, you guys have to see some of this,” and the next thing Furihata knew, Kawahara was pulling out plastic-covered volumes of doujinshi. Which Furihata already knew about, but…

This was a specific kind of doujinshi. With boys posing provocatively on the covers. Holding and kissing each other.

The covers weren’t explicit. Just kind of… strange. A lot of them had pastel colors, and most of the boys were weirdly pretty. Like really, really pretty—to the point that Furihata could have sworn some of them were supposed to be girls. Except they were male characters from popular anime shows.

“Whoa, okay, I saw that anime,” Fukuda said, wide-eyed. “And those guys never did that. I’m pretty sure they hated each other.”

Kawahara shrugged. “I dunno, dude. I think it’s like finding it hot when two girls fight? And okay, you can’t tell anyone, but…”

He leaned closer to both of them.

“My sister is way into this stuff,” he whispered. “You know when she turned eighteen last year? She said her friends were all going to a cat café in Ikebukuro. But then a few days later I found a whole stash of these under her bed. And I looked through some of it and it was straight-up porn.”

Furihata felt his mouth drop open.

“Dude.” Fukuda whistled. “That is grade-A blackmail.”

“Pff, you’d think! When I told her I saw, she just threatened me.” Kawahara rolled his eyes. “Said if our parents found out she’d make me regret it. I can’t win with her.”

Fukuda snorted. The two of them started pulling out more of the comics, and comparing covers. “Why are they making such girly faces?” “Is this dude seriously in a nurse outfit? I don’t get it.” “Wow okay it would break your spine to sit like that.”

Furihata stood behind them, fidgeting, until he finally blurted out,” Um, guys, should we really be looking through these? I mean we’re not eighteen, so…”

“It’s fine, we’re not buying them.” Kawahara held up one that made Furihata feel like his eyes were popping out of their sockets. “You can’t actually see anything. See?”

The naked boy with cat ears giving Furihata a sultry look was, in fact, posed so the title covered the bare parts just below his furry tail.

Which didn’t stop Furihata’s increasing discomfort. Like, at all. He couldn’t explain why this situation felt so weird. Maybe it was because, well… He had seen porn before. (What curious guy his age hadn’t, really?) In Internet searches. Some of it was anime-style art. A lot of gorgeous girls with sweet, flushed faces and really big eyes.

The strange thing was, a lot of this “Boys’ Love” stuff looked pretty similar. (Apart from some, uh, anatomical differences.) Blushing faces. Delicate features. Longing expressions. Furihata didn’t know what he had expected. He’d never looked at this kind of thing before, but…

It was definitely making him feel weird.

At some point Furihata finally dragged Kawahara and Fukuda away from all the guy-on-guy porn. They teased him about getting so embarrassed, when the three of them had talked about sex stuff before. Furihata stammered out something about how that was fine but really wasn’t porn something you did in private, and anyway this wasn’t their type of porn so it was different.

(And okay, yeah, his argument didn’t make any sense. Plus it was kind of inconsistent… When Furihata first came to Seirin, he was extra determined not to seem like a nerd. So he tried to talk about porn and attractive girls like it was no big deal, and he wasn’t embarrassed, but… that wasn’t exactly true.)

Anyway, the last thing Furihata wanted was to go into those aisles again. And with Akashi, no less. Just the thought made him cringe.

He had no idea—absolutely zero idea—how Akashi would react to something like that. He was having trouble even imagining it. Akashi pulling out one of those comics and studying the cover and then…? Furihata had no clue.

Maybe Akashi would be embarrassed. Or just confused. Had he even heard of that stuff before? Or maybe he would know exactly what it was, and start talking about it the way he talked about everything, and share all these facts… Furihata didn’t want to contemplate that.

He glanced back at Akashi. Suddenly, Furihata wondered how Akashi even felt about porn. Or anything related to sex. Akashi never brought it up. Probably because he was too polite. Somehow, it was really hard to imagine him being interested. Not because he wasn’t—most guys were, right?—but it was just difficult to picture.

For some reason, it made Furihata wonder. What was a guy like Akashi into…?

He shook the thought from his head. No way he’d ever, ever ask. It was weird, and way too rude. Plus he couldn’t imagine trying to answer, if Akashi asked him back. Akashi didn’t even seem to like talking about romance. And Furihata didn’t mind that. They had so many great conversations, without that stuff.

But he had to admit, he was kind of curious.

They were safely out of the store now, and Furihata paused to get his bearings. (And let go of Akashi’s arm, whoops.) Akashi was still eyeing him, while Furihata was just praying he wouldn’t ask why they had basically sprinted out of the store. Furihata tried to remember what he was planning for the two of them to do next, so he could change the subject…

When he remembered, his stomach gave a queasy flip. Maybe now wasn’t a good time. He wasn’t sure why his plan suddenly seemed kind of awkward. Probably just because he was all flustered and weirded out.

He fumbled around for something to say. Not quite looking at Akashi. They were standing by the stairs, and Furihata had to step aside for a few people. He glanced across the way, only to see a teenage guy coming out of the nearest store. He looked kind of familiar…

The other guy caught sight of Furihata. His eyes widened in recognition. Furihata’s eyes widened too.

Takao Kazunari bounded straight up to him, to Furihata’s increasing astonishment.

“Hey! Hold on, I know your name. I got this…” Takao snapped his fingers. “Furihata. Right?”

Furihata managed a nod. He wasn’t sure he had actually talked to Takao before.

“Ha! Nailed it.” Takao grinned in his impish way. “Sorry ’bout that. I remember faces right away, but I suck at names.” He paused, and his silver-blue eyes got even wider. “Oh my god.”

Akashi had come up alongside Furihata. “Hello, Takao.”

Takao goggled at them. “Hey. Uh. Wow. Are you two hanging out?” He hesitated, like he was trying to process this. “That’s, err… unexpected. I mean after that thing at the…? Never mind.”

He cleared his throat. Leaned a little toward Furihata.

“But seriously, blink twice if you’re being held against your will,” he said, and then laughed really loudly. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding! This is so weird, though. Why am I always running into guys from basketball around here? We’ll have to rename this place Point Guard Alley.”

There was a pause. Furihata and Akashi both gaped at him. “Point Guard Alley?”

“Yup. For real. It’s like we’re all required to be giant dorks or something.” Takao gestured at the stores. “I see Kasamatsu-san here all. The. Time. He’s always in the music shops, looking up bands that broke up a million years ago. He buys vinyl, you guys. As in records. And cassette tapes. Like I wish I was kidding.” He snickered. “So what brings you here? Oh god, it wasn’t the shougi sets, was it?”

Another pause followed this barrage of words.

“We did see those—” Akashi began.

“Knew it!” Takao outright cackled. “I dragged Shin-chan out here one time—one time—and he thought the whole place was, and I quote, ‘in fact ridiculous.’ Except the shougi sets. It was like he started speaking in tongues.”

Akashi smiled faintly, brows raised. Furihata couldn’t help thinking he seemed at a loss for words, or at least, as much as he ever did. Furihata knew the feeling.

“Why do you like to come here, if I may ask?” Akashi said.

“Oh, right. You guys gotta see this.” Takao started to rummage through one of his shopping bags. “I’m a loser for trading cards. Magic, mostly—play a lot of Magic. But I just started collecting basketball ones, and I was talking with Kagami, you know, at the party? And he started bitching about how all the good card shops are in America, because you can’t find any older sets here, or whatever. And I was like no way dude I know my stuff, I will make you eat your words.”

He paused. (Furihata wasn’t sure whether it was to help his search go faster, or to finally take a breath.) A second later, he whipped out a card in a plastic case.

“Behold,” he said. “His Airness.”

The trading card had a vibrant foil coating, that glistened in a spectrum of colors. Furihata didn’t know that much about basketball history, but he still recognized the picture.

Michael Jordan, the most famous player ever, doing one of his legendary dunks.

“’96 Topps refractor.” The colors shifted as Takao brandished the card. “Ungraded but I’m poor. I’ve got a Kobe one in here somewhere, too.” He waggled the shopping bags. “Spent too much, but it’s gonna piss Kagami off so bad. Gonna wave that thing in front of his face like it’s the last cheeseburger on earth.”

His tone was downright gleeful.

“That’s a very nice-looking card.” Akashi nodded to the Michael Jordan one.

Takao looked pleased. “Right? It’s, like, rainbow. And we all know how much Bakagami loves him some rainbows.” He cackled again, as if the joke was obvious. Furihata wasn’t sure he got it. “Anyhoo, gotta run! Catch ya later, fellow nerds.”

He gave a wave. In an instant, he was heading down the stairs. Furihata watched, with increasing shock, as Takao snatched his phone out of his pocket and started chattering into the receiver.

“Shin-chan, hey! You won’t believe who I just saw!” His voice echoed all the way down the stairwell. “We’ve got real competition for best odd couple. Seriously, you’ll never guess.” He paused, then said in a fading mutter, “Jeez, would you chill out, it doesn’t even mean that…”

Furihata wasn’t sure how long he and Akashi stood there. Motionless, watching the empty staircase. At last Akashi shook his head.

“Well, that was a whirlwind,” he sighed.

Furihata cringed a little. That had been incredibly awkward, on about a million levels. (Odd couple? Seriously? What did that even mean?)

“S-sorry about that! Really.” He bit his lip. “I—I’ve seen him here sometimes. But we’ve never talked before.”

Which was true. Usually, when Furihata saw other high school basketball players around Tokyo, they didn’t notice him at all. He was more than okay with that. (He was way too shy to strike up a conversation himself.) He didn’t expect anyone to recognize the substitute point guard from Seirin, who only played in two games last season. He was stunned whenever somebody like Takao did recognize him.

It just kind of figured that it had happened today, of all days.

“There’s no need to apologize,” Akashi said, frowning. “It’s certainly not something within your control.”

Furihata managed a nod. He couldn’t help noticing that Akashi still looked unsettled. He could kind of sense it too, an uneasy feeling hovering around him… Furihata was pretty sure Akashi was on good terms with Takao. But maybe it was awkward to see a person you were kind of mean to once. (Well, a part of you.)

The longer they stood there, though, the more Furihata thought there might be another explanation. Takao’s words kept ringing in his ears, over and over. Not to mention the shocked expression on Takao’s face, when he saw Akashi standing beside Furihata.

“That’s, err… unexpected. I mean, after the thing at the...?” “But seriously, blink twice if you’re being held against your will.”

Furihata knew it was supposed to be a joke. He had no one to blame for other people being surprised but himself. He was the one who had panicked around Akashi so much. Of course it would look weird to people who knew them, that they were hanging out on a weekend.

But Furihata also couldn’t help remembering the past several weeks, and everything he’d learned about Akashi since then. How Akashi was so surprised that Furihata wasn’t afraid of him. How he worried that people only spent time with him to be nice, not because they would if they had the choice.

“Are you truly not uncomfortable around me? I must admit I find that difficult, if not impossible, to believe.”

Was that what was bothering Akashi so much? Was he still worried Furihata was uncomfortable? Or that he would rather hang out with other people instead?

The thought made Furihata’s chest ache. Because it was so far from the truth. He needed to prove to Akashi that wasn’t the case. He didn’t exactly know how to do that, but… At the very least, he needed to stick to his plan.

“Hey, so you wanna do something kind of weird?” he blurted.

Akashi turned his head, apparently startled from his train of thought. He gave Furihata a smile. “That does seem more or less in keeping with the present mood.”

Furihata chuckled, sort of uneasily.

“Heh, yeah.” He fiddled with the handles on his shopping bag. “I don’t know if you’ll like it or not. But you should try it at least once. At least, I think so.”

Akashi tilted his head. “Well, now I’m intrigued.”

Furihata brightened a little, and took him down the stairs. Before long, they were on the basement level. They passed a bustling supermarket and several stores, until they came to their destination. A small food stand sat there, hung with handwritten signs and the words “Daily Chico.”

“Do you like ice cream?” Furihata nodded to the front of the stand, which featured a display of plastic sample cones.

“I do.” Akashi sounded confused. “Is this considered an adventurous activity?”

“Yeah, when you get all eight flavors at once.” Furihata pointed out the last cone in the display. Eight different colors of soft serve were piled on it, forming a spiraling pastel tower. It was obviously the place’s specialty.

Even as Furihata spoke, the guy behind the counter handed a teenage girl one of the massive cones. The ice cream part stood taller than her head.

“That looks preposterous.” Akashi gaped at it, as the girl went by. “How on earth does it stay upright?”

“I dunno. Rainbow ice cream magic?” Furihata grinned. “I was thinking we could share one, if you want. It’s a lot for one person.”

Akashi gave him a funny look. But he was definitely smiling. “That does sound like it would be the wisest approach.”

Furihata insisted on paying for the enormous cone, since it wasn’t expensive. “You should probably be the one to hold it,” he said. “Just in case it starts tilting.” Akashi nodded agreeably. They watched as the man behind the counter stacked the flavors onto the cone, one after the other. He finished with a huge swirl of strawberry at the top. He handed the cone to Furihata, who gave it to Akashi.

“I don’t usually do this, but you kind of have to?” Furihata took out his phone. Akashi held up the cone with a smile. Furihata snapped a picture, then put his phone away. He grabbed a pair of small plastic spoons.

Then they were eating the gigantic ice cream tower. Trying each flavor, skimming their spoons along the sides to catch any drips. They huddled close together beside the ice cream stand, talking and laughing. Because this was the sort of thing where you just had to laugh.

Akashi turned out to be great at eating ice cream, of course. He noticed whenever a drip started, and kept the whole thing balanced. Furihata was glad he’d thought to give Akashi the cone. (He may have dropped part of one before, back when he was in middle school.)

“I like when the strawberry’s on top.” Furihata licked the pink soft serve from his spoon. “They usually give you more of that one.”

“Is strawberry your favorite?” Akashi was cycling through all the flavors, in a methodical sort of way.

“Uh-huh. They’re all pretty good, though.” Furihata took another spoonful of the strawberry. “They change some of the flavors every few months. It’s seasonal, I guess? They’ve had tomato before, that one’s kind of weird. And sesame.”

“Those do sound strange.” Akashi popped some of an orange-colored flavor into his mouth. “I’m enjoying this one. Caramel, was it? The matcha is also very good.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling you were a matcha person,” Furihata said, with a playful nod to the green part of the tower. There was definitely more of it missing than some of the other flavors.

Akashi’s eyes sparkled. He reached the bottom flavor, studying the pale blue spiral with suspicion. “I’m not as certain about this one. What is it again?”

“Ramune. You know, the soda?”

“Ah.” Akashi tasted it again, and shook his head. “I believe this is more of a Murasakibara flavor.”

“Oh yeah, Kuroko was saying he eats some weird stuff?”

“You really have no idea.”

“Heh, it’s kind of Kuroko-colored, come to think of it…”

They hurried to eat the ice cream tower before it melted. Soon they were scrambling to keep up. They started taking turns licking the smoothed-down ice cream, going through layer after layer. Furihata had Akashi finish the matcha, and Akashi offered him the mocha flavor, which Furihata gladly accepted.

Finally all that was left was the ramune. They both eyed it.

“So, do we give up?” Furihata said, and Akashi gave him a knowing look.

“I don’t believe either of us is that type of person, Furihata-kun.”

Furihata grinned. “Okay, but we both have to do it.”

They traded off, lapping up what was left of the blue ice cream. Exchanging determined looks over the top of the cone. They were standing closer than before, and Furihata felt his heart lift, as he watched Akashi. He seemed like he was in a better mood now.

The ice cream was almost gone. With one last lick, Furihata finished it off. Triumphantly, he tossed the wrapper into the nearby disposal.

“Well done,” Akashi said. “I’m surprised we managed to finish it.”

“Yeah, good teamwork.” Furihata noticed to his amusement that Akashi had ice cream at the corner of his mouth, and a small dab on his chin.

Akashi blinked, apparently confused why he was smiling.

Furihata gestured to Akashi’s face. “You’ve got a little…”

Akashi started to rub the spot with his finger, while Furihata scrambled over to the ice cream stand.

“Here,” he said, handing Akashi a napkin. Akashi thanked him and wiped his mouth. He didn’t catch the smear on his chin, though. Furihata chuckled. “Almost.” He took one of the spare napkins and wiped the rest away.

“Thank you.” Akashi nodded to the napkins. “May I?”

“Sure?” Furihata handed him the rest. At which point Akashi took a napkin, and gently rubbed Furihata’s nose with it.

Furihata’s heart skipped a weird, quivering beat.

“You’ve had some there since you finished the strawberry,” Akashi said, a bit slyly.

Furihata’s face flooded with warmth. “I-I did…?”

“I’m sorry, I should have told you before,” Akashi said in a kind voice. “I just found it endearing, somehow.”

Furihata’s mouth hung open. He had no idea what to say. Endearing…? He was pretty sure every inch of his skin was blushing. Maybe even his hair.

What did Akashi even mean by that? And why did he feel so weird again all of a sudden?

“I… y-you… what…” He made some sort of helpless gesture. “Argh.”

Without thinking, he punched Akashi on the arm. Akashi looked startled, and for a moment, Furihata was too. Had he seriously just done that?

Then Akashi burst out laughing. The sound of it was as musical as ever. Furihata groaned, flustered. But he couldn’t help smiling.

“I never thought the day would come,” Akashi managed, in between laughs. “When you’d dare to do that.”

“Yeah, well, it was your own fault!” Furihata said, still flushed. “And—and anyway don’t flatter yourself. You’re not even scary.”

Akashi’s eyes were twinkling again. “True, I seem to have lost my touch. You didn’t even faint when you saw me on the platform today.”

Furihata rolled his eyes. “You just had to bring that up.”

“Surely you understand why I’d find it memorable.”

Furihata gave Akashi’s arm another shove, as they made their way out of the basement floor. They left Nakano Broadway, glancing inside a few shops on their way back to the train station. They both agreed they wouldn’t mind another train ride before having lunch—that cone really was a lot of ice cream—so Furihata took Akashi back up to the Chuo line platform. Soon they were on another train, heading back toward the center of Tokyo.

All the while, Furihata kept glancing at Akashi. He was definitely smiling more than before. And that made Furihata smile too.

They left the train at Shinjuku Station, then hopped onto the Yamanote circle line. Akashi seemed curious about where they were going, as he examined the stops on the map, but he didn’t have to wait long to find out. The train stopped at Shibuya, and they left the station through the Hachiko Exit.

Furihata was used to the sights and sounds of Tokyo. But the sea of people crossing through the gigantic intersection at Shibuya was always pretty amazing. Masses of people moved in so many different directions through the five crosswalks that it was dizzying to watch. Huge buildings with colorful signs soared overhead, and supersized screens flashed through one ad after another.

It wasn’t the view from the Kiyomizu temple platform. But it still had a way of making Furihata realize just how big the world really was.

“Do you come to Shibuya much?” he asked Akashi, while they waited to cross.

“Fairly often. But I haven’t explored it in much depth.” Akashi’s sharp eyes darted around. Taking everything in, like always.

Furihata smiled. Not surprising, he thought, given that the area was popular with fashionable shoppers and teenagers. It didn’t seem like an Akashi kind of place. But, he figured, that was exactly why it might be fun.

He took Akashi to Tower Records, so he could pick up a CD for his brother. Akashi had never been inside, so Furihata showed him the English bookstore on the top floor. They explored a few shops around the block, then retraced their steps to Shibuya Crossing. Furihata guided Akashi to a large hotel, up to one of the higher floors and a little out-of-the-way café.

“Would this be okay for lunch?” Furihata showed him the menu. “It’s one of my favorites.”

“Of course.” Akashi nodded, examining the brightly lit café and quaint furnishings. They were led out onto a terrace with covered tables, surrounded by greenery. “This is very nice. How did you discover this place?”

“Just exploring. I like to check out different cafés. There are so many in Tokyo.”

They settled in, and a waitress brought them their drinks. Furihata showed Akashi the iced latte he ordered, which was served in a glass jar.

“So do you like coffee, or just tea?” Furihata asked, in between sips.

“I drink both,” Akashi said. “I do prefer tea. Probably because I’m more familiar with it. I don’t know very much about coffee.”

“Me neither, to be honest. But there are some great places around here,” Furihata said. He added cheerfully, “I’ll have to take you to Streamer Coffee next time. The owner wins latte art competitions. It’s pretty amazing.”

“That does sound like it would be interesting to see,” Akashi said, but even as he did, Furihata felt his stomach sink a little.

That’s weird. Suddenly, Furihata was getting that feeling again, that something was bothering Akashi. But he had no idea why.

Furihata set his cup down. He tried to think back, to each time he had noticed Akashi feeling like that. He couldn’t figure out what any of those moments had in common. Maybe he just needed to ask Akashi about it. They had talked before, about being more honest with each other…

That was what a friend would do, right?

“Um, hey, Akashi?” Furihata swallowed. His heartbeat was fluttering in his throat. “Is it okay if I ask you something?”

Akashi’s gaze flicked upward. “Certainly.”

Furihata hesitated. “So, um… You really don’t have to answer, but…”

They looked at each other, and the pause lingered. Furihata took a breath.

“Is something bothering you?” he said. “I kind of noticed you’ve been acting different. And it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. I just wanted you to know that I’m always ready to listen, if you do.”

He twined his fingers around the napkin in his lap. Akashi’s lips were pursed, and he looked kind of wide-eyed.

“Have I been acting that strangely?” He sounded troubled. “I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable.”

“No! No way. Not at all.” Furihata hurried to reassure him. “I don't think most people would even notice. I can just kind of… tell? Sorry. I know that doesn’t make sense.”

Akashi turned his head, and he peered down at the swarming street below them. A thoughtful expression crossed his face.

“You often do seem to know, somehow,” he murmured. “Though I was always told I’m very difficult to read.”

Furihata bit the corner of his lip. He didn’t know how to say, “You are. I think it’s just me and I don’t know why.”

Another long pause followed. Akashi took a sip of water from his glass. He set down the glass again. The silence was ringing in Furihata’s ears.

“I—” Akashi seemed to be hesitating. Which was incredibly strange. “I do have something on my mind, as it happens. Something I would like to discuss with you.”

“Oh, okay.” Furihata tried to sound as encouraging as possible. “So what is it?”

Akashi’s frown was drawn, tense. The air around him felt oddly heavy. Furihata’s stomach sank lower and lower…

“I don’t believe I’m prepared to do it yet,” Akashi said in a soft tone. “Would you mind terribly if we returned to it later?”

Furihata blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “Sure we can. Whenever you want.”

Akashi smiled faintly. “Thank you.”

Their food arrived, and Furihata did his best to lighten the mood. To just talk normally, and ignore that nervous voice whispering in the back of his head, “That doesn’t sound good, why would he want to talk to you about something unless he’s rethinking all of this, maybe he doesn’t want to be friends with you after all.”

There was no point in worrying, Furihata told himself firmly. All he could do was be the best friend he could. The rest was up to Akashi.

At least Akashi was being honest with him, about what was on his mind. That was what mattered, right? And Furihata was trying to be more honest too.

Furihata finished his latte. He asked the waitress for a glass of water. She set it near the middle of the table, past his plate.

At some point he reached for the glass, without thinking. Akashi reached out at the same time, probably to hand it to him… Furihata’s hand fumbled against the rim, and the glass teetered. Akashi’s fingers fluttered, as he moved to save it.

The glass fell, and water spilled all across Akashi’s side of the table.

“Oh jeez! I’m so sorry!” Furihata scrambled to mop up the water. “H-here.”

A misplaced chill went down his spine, as he dabbed at the tablecloth with his napkin. Like a strange, cold feeling of déjà vu. He didn’t know why, but he felt awful, suddenly. A rush of panic was coming over him. The first one he had felt all day. But why would he be freaking out about this, it didn’t make sense…

Akashi was trying to clean the spill too, with a worried look on his face.

“You needn’t apologize. It was my fault,” he said, scanning Furihata’s side of the table. “Did you get wet?”

“Me?” Furihata gaped at him. “Didn’t you?”

“A little. But it’s of no concern.” Akashi’s lips were tightly pursed. He shook his head. “I’m very sorry. Truly. How clumsy of me.”

Furihata stood frozen. Somehow, he almost felt like he was looking into a mirror. Then suddenly, he remembered. Why this feeling was so familiar, why he felt as though he had done something like this before, and panicked way too much…

He burst out laughing.

“Oh—oh.” He shook his head, as he sank back down into his chair. “I totally forgot. Jeez. That’s just…!”

He laughed into his arm, then bent forward until his forehead rested on the spattered tablecloth. His shoulders shook.

“Furihata-kun? Are you all right?” Akashi sounded concerned. Which was reasonable, Furihata thought, with another laugh.

He looked up at Akashi through bleary eyes. “Yeah! I’m fine.”

Akashi stared down at him.

“That wasn’t so bad, actually,” Furihata said, still chuckling. “Not like I thought.”

“Forgive me, but I’m not certain I understand.” Akashi glanced around. The people at the next table were probably looking.

“Sorry, it’s just… Do you remember that one time on the train?” Furihata took a breath. “You offered me your tea, and I freaked out. I thought for sure I was going to spill it all over you, if I took it… You must have thought I was crazy.”

Akashi raised his brows. He eased back into his chair.

“I do remember that,” he said, slowly. “Then… That’s why you ran away?”

“Yeah,” Furihata said, with a half-smile. “Dumb, huh.”

“I always thought… I thought I must have frightened you somehow.”

“With what? A teacup?” Furihata shook his head. “I was just worried about looking stupid in front of you. Which made me act even stupider. I mean, I'm not the most coordinated person to begin with.”

He gave Akashi a sheepish look.

“But I don’t really worry about all of that anymore,” he added. Slowly. As he realized just how amazing that was.

Because he wasn’t scared, that Akashi would think he was a dork. That he would get made fun of. He hadn’t been worried about that since they spent the day in Kyoto. He knew he had no reason to be.

“You’ve seen me do plenty of awkward stuff, but you’re always so nice,” he added quietly. “Even when I hurt you. And you’re always worried how I’m feeling, and if you did something wrong…”

Even as Furihata said this, a thought occurred to him. A weird one, almost too strange to consider. But as he recalled Akashi worrying over the spill just now, and apologizing for being clumsy—Akashi, of all people—and asking if he made him uncomfortable, and everything else Akashi had admitted he sometimes worried about…

“I guess we’re kind of alike, actually,” Furihata said. Stunned.

Akashi looked at him for a long moment. Like he was considering Furihata’s words, letting them sink in. His expression softened.

“I suppose we are,” he said, with gentle eyes.

Furihata asked the waitress for some extra napkins, and helped Akashi dry the wet spot on his pant leg. (It really was small, thankfully.) They split the check, and left an extra tip for the spill. They then returned to the busy streets of Shibuya.

Furihata was surprised at how calm he felt. Just walking beside Akashi, window shopping and talking. Suddenly it felt easier than ever before to be honest, to just say what he was thinking out loud. To explain his train of thought, and trust that Akashi would understand.

They were reminiscing now, going over all the times they had interacted over the past few months.

“Oh god, don’t even mention the train platform,” Furihata said with a groan. “That was so awkward.”

Akashi chuckled a little. Eyes downcast. “I must admit, I’m still not certain why you seemed as flustered as you did.”

“Well, I was pretty embarrassed you caught me trainspotting at all!” Furihata said, holding a hand to his forehead. “I didn’t want you to know I was such a huge nerd. But mostly I felt so bad for how I acted around you before, at the party… I never expected to talk to you, but then I opened the door and you were right there. With all your friends. Who are all pretty intimidating, for the record.”

Akashi’s smile inched wider. “That’s true.”

“And it’s like I said, we hadn’t even talked yet.” Furihata’s voice grew softer. “But then you talked to me anyway, and you were so nice, and I felt awful. I tried not to be weird after that, but it’s pretty hard when you screw up that bad.”

Akashi nodded, a little absently. “When you say we hadn’t talked…”

Furihata tilted his head. “Yeah?”

Akashi eyed him. For a moment, Furihata wondered if he was going to mention that they had talked before. Technically.

It was the one subject neither of them had brought up yet. The only person they both knew—more or less, anyway—but never talked about. Furihata wasn’t sure if Akashi was okay with talking about it. Or if Akashi even realized Furihata already knew, about his two selves and that they were different people. (Even if he didn’t totally understand it, or how it worked.)

Akashi opened his mouth, and…

“It’s nothing,” he said at last. “I never realized you felt so badly on my behalf. I just assumed you were hoping for an escape.”

“Yeah, well, being awkward does that,” Furihata said with a meek shrug. “I mean, you’ve seen me freak out about weird stuff all the time. You even got to see me full-blown panic. That was fun.”

There was a pause. He knew they were both thinking back to the temple platform.

“I always meant to ask you,” Akashi said, in a delicate sort of way, “Was there something that triggered that? I was wondering if there were certain gestures I ought to avoid.”

“Oh! Uh…” Furihata’s mind raced. Akashi was probably thinking he shouldn’t touch him or something. Which wasn’t the case.

But he had no idea how to explain that whole incident. Should he just come out and say it? “You’ve got this weird aura, and when you got so close I noticed it again and it kind of freaked me out?”

The silence stretched between them, as they cut through a crowd of pedestrians. Furihata worried at his lip. Aware that Akashi was eyeing him.

“It was a lot of things,” he started. “I’m not that great with heights. So I was already kind of dizzy, and getting scared that I’d panic in front of you. And I wasn’t expecting you to help me like you did. It was really nice of you, though!”

He hurried to add this, in the warmest tone he could.

“It was something else too,” he admitted, finally. “But I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet. I’ll tell you someday, though.”

He gave Akashi a shy smile. Akashi looked surprised, but he nodded.

They walked along, through streets shining in the golden afternoon light. Akashi’s hands were in his pockets again. Furihata wasn’t sure why he kept noticing that. It almost seemed like a nervous gesture of some kind—but then again, it didn’t really seem like Akashi to be nervous.

“Furihata-kun,” Akashi said softly, but he paused when Furihata stopped and gestured to a building.

“Last stop of the day,” he said. The entrance was decorated with the flashing signs of an arcade. “Well, second-to-last. But the next one’s not much of a stop, to be honest.”

Akashi craned his neck, as he studied the colorful entrance. “Have you been to this establishment before?”

“Yup. Fukuda and Kawahara and I come here pretty much every Sunday,” Furihata said. He couldn’t help sounding a little bashful.

“That was my plan, if you hadn’t already figured it out,” he added. “I thought I’d take you to all the places I like to go with my friends. Since I bet you’re already a Tokyo expert. Sorry if it’s been kind of boring, though.”

Akashi gazed at Furihata, motionless. Like he didn’t know what to say. Which was still so unusual for him, so Furihata couldn’t help fidgeting a little. Until Akashi spoke, in such a quiet, gentle voice that it sent a wave of butterflies dancing through his stomach.

“I haven’t been bored at all,” he said. “Thank you. This was very thoughtful.”

Furihata managed a laugh. “Not really! Kind of the opposite. But I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

They traded silent smiles.

“So, uh, should we?” Furihata nodded to the entrance, and Akashi followed him inside. “By the way, were you saying something before?”

“It was nothing,” Akashi said, as they wandered through a row of arcade machines. Lights flashed in every color, and strains of music jangled in a chaotic symphony, blending with the crashing sounds from racers and fighters.

“Do you come to arcades a lot?” Furihata asked Akashi.

“Not with any regularity. But I have been to a few before.”

“So what kind of games do you like to play?” Furihata chuckled as he added, “And I’m guessing I’ll regret this, but I’ll take you on in whatever you want.”

Akashi’s eyes twinkled. “Then perhaps the better question is, how would you like to challenge me first?”

Furihata grinned. He took Akashi around to each of the games he liked—a few racers, some competitive puzzle ones, even an old pinball machine—and lost them all. Which didn’t surprise him. He was far from a video game expert, and besides, this was Akashi. Who was somehow good at everything.

What did surprise Furihata, though, was Akashi’s freakishly high scores. One after the other, Akashi placed at the top of the leaderboard, on every machine they tried. Furihata even made him try a notoriously hard shooter just to see what happened. Sure enough, another high score blinked on the screen an hour later.

“How are you even doing that?” Furihata snapped a photo to show his friends. “I thought you said you didn’t play video games much.”

“That’s true,” Akashi said, as he replaced the plastic gun in its stand. “But the interfaces are designed to be reasonably intuitive. Other than that, I believe it comes down to hand-eye coordination, and some basic strategy.”

Furihata slowly shook his head. Akashi cocked his head, like he was trying to read his expression.

“Sorry,” Furihata said at last. “You’re just amazing. Really.”

Akashi blinked, and Furihata just smiled. He led Akashi to a different part of the arcade, the only rows they hadn’t explored. They were lined with glass-walled machines, stuffed full of brightly colored prizes.

“I always end with the UFO catchers.” Furihata nodded to the crane machines. “Otherwise I just waste all my money here.”

“Do you collect these kinds of prizes?” Akashi inspected a machine full of cutesy animal keychains. Furihata rubbed his neck, embarrassed.

“Not really,” he said. “I just find crane games kind of addicting, I guess. I’ve gotten pretty good at a few? Once I figured out how you’re supposed to do it.”

He showed Akashi over to one machine full of tiny plush toys. After slotting money in the machine, he aimed the crane carefully, letting it jostle the space between two of the smiling animals. On his next turn, he lowered the crane so it nudged a toy sideways. The toy slide down into the chute.

Akashi nodded. “So it’s better to use the crane’s strength as it moves downward. As opposed to the more traditional maneuver.”

“Yeah, exactly!” Furihata bent down to take the toy out of the prize chute. “Most of the cranes are too weak to actually hold the prizes.”

He held out the small red cat to Akashi.

“Here,” he said. “You might as well take this. I’ve got a bunch at home. I keep giving them away to my cousins.”

Akashi took the cat, with a good-humored smile.

“Thank you,” he said. “But if I’m to accept this, then it’s only right I return the favor.”

He glanced around at the machines. Furihata raised his brows, about to ask what that meant exactly, when Akashi approached a machine in the far corner. Inside lay stacks of large plush animals, about the size of Furihata’s head. Hovering above them was a massive but spindly three-armed crane.

“Oh, uh, I don’t think I’d try that one.” Furihata hurried after him. “The big ones are pretty much impossible? Even for the guys who really know what they’re doing.”

Akashi inspected the machine. “Yes, it looks difficult enough. No doubt a ploy to drain the money of any young men attempting to impress the girls they like.”

Even as he said this, he was already putting money into the machine. The crane jolted into motion, as Akashi surveyed the stuffed toys. His long fingers pushed the buttons with gentle precision. Furihata watched in confusion as the crane lowered into an empty space, against a toy that was clearly jammed in too tight to move.

But then, on the way up, the crane nudged the toy on top of it. The second toy fell down, rolling over beside the chute. Furihata’s mouth hung open as Akashi maneuvered the crane for his second turn. Somehow, the toy stayed in the crane’s spindly arms just long enough to fall beside the chute and tumble over the edge.

The next thing Furihata knew, Akashi was handing him the plush animal. It was a grinning brown puppy, with pink circles on his cheeks.

“Here you are,” he said. “I would have asked which animal you wanted, but I believe that was the only one that stood a chance at being won.”

There was so much Furihata wanted to say to that. Like, “How in the world could you know when you hadn’t even tried the machine yet?” And, “I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t have been able to get this one either.”

Instead he just said, “Wow. Thanks!” He examined the toy, and added with a laugh, “But this is so much bigger than the one I gave you!”

“That’s fitting,” Akashi said quietly. “As far as I’m concerned, I owe you a great deal.”

Furihata blinked. He didn’t understand why Akashi would owe him, when he was the one who hadn’t paid Akashi back for so many things. Like the train tickets, and all the amazing stuff they did in Kyoto. A day hanging out in Tokyo and one tiny toy didn’t make up for all of that, not by a long shot…

He wanted to say all of this out loud, but he wasn’t sure how. Akashi had that serious, troubled look on his face again.

So Furihata just cradled the plush dog in both arms, and said cheerfully, “Well, thanks. That was really cool.”

Akashi smiled. Like he genuinely appreciated the compliment. Even though Furihata couldn’t help thinking that he must hear things like that all the time.

They left the arcade, and Furihata led Akashi to a park. It was one of his favorite places to walk around and watch people, he explained. The sun shone down through the trees, many of them green with new leaves. But the cherry trees looked bare, now that their blossoms had fallen.

“It’s kind of too bad,” he said, when he mentioned how pretty the park was during flower-viewing season. “But I guess there’s always next year.”

“Yes, that’s the charm of cherry blossoms,” Akashi said. He sounded distracted. Otherwise Furihata was pretty sure he would have said something about nature and all things being ephemeral, with a bunch of poetic words that were scarily perfect.

“Yeah.” Furihata glanced around as they walked along. The park wasn’t too crowded, considering they were in the middle of Tokyo. But there were definitely people around.

He noticed a few of them shooting glances in their direction. At first he figured they were just staring at Akashi. All kinds of people had been doing that all day, and Furihata was getting pretty used to it, to be honest.

Except then a few college girls walked by. They started shooting glances over their shoulder, and giggling. He was pretty sure he caught the word “cute” more than once. One of them saw Furihata looking, and ducked her head.

Furihata was confused. What was that about?

As he walked along, an odd flutter uncoiled in his stomach. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the girl was looking at him, too. But why would she stare at him? He did have a big plush toy under one arm, he guessed. That was kind of a weird thing for a guy to be carrying. Unless he was doing it for a girl on a date.

Furihata’s stomach flopped again. Did this look weird or something? That he was walking around with Akashi, carrying a huge plush toy?

But no, that didn’t make any sense. They were two guys hanging out. There was no reason for it to look weird. Obviously. Why would it?

No, that didn’t make any sense at all.

Furihata shrugged off that whole train of thought. He slipped the plush toy into his shopping bag, to make it easier to carry, and showed Akashi down to a canal that ran through the park.

“It’s not as pretty as Philosopher’s Path, though,” Furihata said. Smiling at the memory. “I’ll never forget what that looked like. It was amazing.”

Akashi smiled back, faintly.

They walked alongside the canal, beneath the barren cherry trees. It was even less crowded down here. They were still talking, but Furihata was doing most of it. He was starting to wonder if he should ask Akashi again, if everything was okay. Then he noticed Akashi was no longer walking beside him.

Furihata turned around. Akashi was hovering beside the canal, gazing out over the water.

“Akashi-kun?”

Akashi’s eyes were a little dim, as he watched the tiny ripples.

“I never truly apologized to you,” he said. “For what I did that day.”

Furihata’s heart gave a quivery jerk. “What? Yeah you did. You mean about Kyoto, right?” He took a step toward him.

“Because you kind of apologized too much, to be honest,” he added, thinking back on it. “In your messages.”

“No, I didn’t.” Akashi’s voice was firm, and Furihata stopped again. “I may have apologized. But I never truly explained why what I did to you was so appalling.”

Furihata frowned. He could tell that Akashi was really upset about this. He hadn’t thought he was still worried about Kyoto. After all, none of that had mattered in the end, right?

“It wasn’t that bad. Really.” Furihata inched forward again, until he stood close beside Akashi. “You thought I didn’t want to be there. And you probably felt like I was like those kids you knew before.”

He paused, then added quietly, “I did the same thing, remember? I told you how scared I was that you would make fun of me. It was pretty awful, that I even thought you would do that. Not that I thought badly of you or anything, it was just me and my dumb hang-ups from middle school, but…”

He gave a weak sort of shrug. Hoping that made sense.

Akashi winced. He shook his head, slowly.

“But what you did wasn’t the same,” he said, his voice so low it was hard to hear. “I was upset with you for having an ulterior motive. But you didn’t. Not even a well-meaning one. Which makes me the worst sort of hypocrite, because…

“Because I did.”

Furihata stood very still. Akashi had a stormy look on his face now. One that was making his insides knot and squirm, even though he didn’t understand what it meant.

“You did what?” His voice was hushed. The words still felt way too loud.

“I had a motive.” Akashi turned to face him, looking pained. The surface of the canal glittered behind him. “From the very start, when I spoke to you at Kuroko’s party. But even more so, when we met on the train platform.”

Water splashed softly. A breeze nudged the trees, rifled through Akashi’s bright hair.

“I didn’t speak to you that day because I wanted to be your friend, Furihata-kun,” he said, stiffly. “I didn’t think of getting to know you at all.”

Furihata’s chest gave a pang. The words echoed inside his head, words he had been afraid Akashi would say all along. “I didn’t want to be your friend.”

Furihata drew a shallow breath. He had kind of forgotten, about how weird that whole day was. He forgot to wonder why Akashi invited him onto the bullet train. It hadn’t mattered anymore, really. Or so he thought. Akashi had said he wanted company, and Furihata believed that was true.

But…

“Why’d you do it, then?” His mouth felt weirdly dry.

This was it, he realized. This was what was bothering Akashi all day long. Now Furihata was finally going to find out. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to anymore.

He wasn’t sure he wanted everything that had happened between them to finally make sense.

Akashi turned away again, even as his face twisted into a grimace.

“Because you seemed so afraid.” He sounded a little hoarse. “I was tired of people being intimidated around me. I told myself that if I could put someone like you at ease, then it would prove everyone else was wrong.”

He crossed his arms tightly about his chest. The pale, elegant lines of his profile looked fragile, suddenly. Like they were made of porcelain or something.

“I used you,” Akashi said. “To feel better about myself. I put you in an awkward position, with very little thought as to the consequences. I was under the impression it would be a frightening ordeal for you. At first, if nothing else.

“And yet I did it anyway.”

He lowered his head, and fell silent. Furihata swallowed. His heart felt lodged in his throat.

“Oh,” he said. His thoughts were spinning, as he tried to take this all in.

So Akashi really had wanted to ask him onto that train. Furihata, specifically. Because he was such a nervous wreck around him. It made sense. From the start, Furihata had figured it wasn’t because Akashi thought he would be great company, or anything like that.

No, it was just because Akashi was so tired of people being afraid of him all the time. Furihata’s chest hurt, like it always did when he thought about that.

But why was Akashi telling him this now? Was that why Akashi had shown him around Kyoto? And everything else, too…?

Was that the only reason, for all of it?

Furihata stared at Akashi, as memories rushed through his mind. All the things they had said and done in the past few months. The way Akashi sounded so surprised, when Furihata called him up on the phone. The look that Akashi gave him when the rain in Kyoto started, and he said he was glad to have shared that day with him.

And one sentence, out of all the kind, eloquent sentences Akashi had written in his phone messages…

“I think very highly of you, Furihata-kun, and in an ideal world, I would have liked to know you better.”

Furihata closed his eyes. Letting himself feel everything he could. That energy around Akashi, and how it felt kind of hollow and painful… Then Furihata realized that Akashi was doing it again. Worrying too much, and being hard on himself.

Because he felt like he had made a mistake, and he wasn’t sure he should be forgiven for it.

And Furihata didn’t know if Akashi was trying to push him away again, or if he really had changed his mind about their friendship, or what.

But he definitely knew how he felt, about what Akashi had told him.

“I don’t care about that,” he said.

His voice shook slightly, as Akashi turned to faced him. Wide-eyed, and staring.

It kind of reminded Furihata of a different memory. How another friend of his once gathered up his whole basketball team, and told them all a long story about some teammates he had in middle school, and then at the end of it he seemed to think they would be mad, or not like him anymore, or something…

And then Kagami said what they were all thinking. Which was that was garbage, basically, and of course they were still Kuroko’s friends. That they had been from the start. At the time, Furihata kind of felt like Kagami had been way too blunt with Kuroko. But suddenly he knew exactly why he had done it.

Honestly, sometimes it felt like it was the only way to get through to these guys.

“I don’t care,” Furihata repeated, more firmly this time. His hands wound into fists. “At all. And you shouldn’t either, Akashi-kun.”

Akashi’s catlike eyes flickered, and Furihata knew that he wanted to argue. Like on that night when they had messaged each other, going back and forth, while Furihata desperately tried to convince him they should be friends.

This time, Furihata needed to do the same thing. Except this was in person, where he couldn’t cover up any stammering, or think through everything he wanted to say.

But he still needed to do it… He needed to just jump.

“To be honest, I really had no clue why I got on that train with you,” he said, before Akashi could speak. His mind was racing, and his heart thumped away in his chest. “But—but I found out eventually. Because… Well, that’s when I realized just how nice you are.”

He softened at the memories. Of Akashi talking to him, about books and mutual friends and the library committee. Of Akashi offering him his tea, and their whole talk about basketball, and every nice, perfect thing he said.

“And it took me a while,” Furihata admitted. “But… I know for sure now. It was because of that train ride that I realized how much I wanted to be your friend. That I decided to call you, and we had that whole great day in Kyoto.”

He crossed his arms, feeling like he was trying to keep his pounding heart inside his chest. He took a deep breath.

“If you had asked me back then, though?” He forced himself to meet Akashi’s gaze. “I wouldn’t have said any of that. I probably would have said I was just trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I wasn’t a coward.”

He watched as Akashi’s crimson irises flickered. Like he was taking this in, processing what it meant.

Furihata’s mouth crooked into a smile.

“We really are the same, huh,” he said.

Akashi looked taken aback.

“So I don’t care what your reasons were,” Furihata insisted. “And you don’t need to apologize. I’m just glad you asked me. I’m glad all this happened. It doesn’t matter why it started.”

He shook his head, and let himself glance out over the rippling water. The breeze skimmed his face, and he remembered the last time he had talked to Akashi beside a canal like this. When he still couldn’t explain what he wanted, or why he had phoned Akashi and asked to see him.

No wonder they had misunderstood each other so much back then.

“Maybe it was like that because we hadn’t figured this all out,” he said, trying to explain his train of thought. “Like we needed an excuse or something? I don’t know… I’m just starting to feel like maybe this whole thing happened for a reason. I don’t know what it is yet.”

A familiar shiver crept on his neck, as Furihata considered it. That weird dream he had, and how he felt from the start that he was supposed to talk to Akashi. That it was something he had to do. He still didn’t know exactly why.

But as he thought back to that awful day when Akashi stormed away from him in the rain, Furihata couldn’t help remembering how he had chased right after him. He had done it every time. In one way or another, even when he didn't know what to do or say to help. Whether it was a dream or not.

Not just like he was supposed to do it. But because he wanted to.

Akashi looked stunned. Like this was the last thing he expected to hear—but like he was really listening. Like he was honestly considering what Furihata said. Even though Furihata knew it must sound incredibly weird.

So Furihata made sure to say something else. The most important thing.

“No matter what, I want to be your friend,” he said quietly. “I hope you’ll still let me. Because none of what you said makes any difference. Not to me, anyway.”

He said this in his sincerest voice. Hoping he worded all of that right, that it was enough. Because Furihata was determined to be as stubborn as he could, when it came to this particular wish of his.

After all, the possibility was only zero if he gave up.

Akashi stood very still. Then his shoulders slumped a little.

“You really want that?” he said, in his softest voice. “Still?”

Furihata blinked. His eyebrows inched upward.

“You thought I wouldn’t?” he said.

Then he realized, all at once, that this was exactly what Akashi had been thinking all day. Especially whenever they talked about doing something together in the future.

He let out a helpless laugh. “Was that what all of this was about? You thought I’d be mad, and tell you to get lost or something?”

Akashi’s gaze shifted to the side. He looked uncomfortable.

“It seemed like that would be reasonable enough,” he said, slowly. At which point Furihata figured out exactly why he had thought that.

Because Akashi had done something along those lines. On a certain day in Kyoto. Even though he changed his mind later on. Furihata laughed again.

“Right. Well, I guess we’re still a little different,” he said. With a knowing smile.

“I think we might be very different,” Akashi said, in a serious tone. He looked embarrassed, almost. “In some ways.”

“Yeah, probably,” Furihata agreed. “But we understand each other pretty well.”

Akashi’s gaze was lowered, but he smiled at that. “It seems we do.”

“I’d like to understand more,” Furihata added. “I really do like hanging out with you. We can still be friends, right?”

He knew he was being pushy. But for once, he didn’t care.

Akashi’s brow crinkled, like he wasn’t sure what to say. Like maybe there was still some reason he thought he should say no. Furihata held his breath, without fully realizing he was doing it.

In the end, Akashi nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “Of course. If that’s what you want.”

Furihata let his breath out.

“Yeah,” he said, and he noticed that Akashi was watching him. “Definitely. Trust me.”

He smiled, a lot bigger this time. Remembering all the moments when he thought he had lost his chance. When he honestly believed he would never get to hang out with Akashi anymore. And all he wanted was for Akashi to reply to his messages, and say yes to seeing him in Tokyo.

Furihata was more than certain now, about what he wanted.

He had absolutely no doubt about that.

Akashi slid his hand into his pocket. Just like he had been doing all day.

“In that case…” He hesitated, taking out a small red envelope. “I hope you won’t mind accepting this from me. It’s a gift, but… It’s somewhat selfish, I’m afraid.”

Furihata knew he was supposed to protest, to try to refuse whatever it was that Akashi was giving him. That was the polite thing to do. This time, he didn’t worry about it. He did sigh a little, as he took the envelope from Akashi. Not because he minded the gift, though.

“There you go again,” he said. “Saying all the nice stuff you do is selfish. Somehow.” He couldn’t resist giving Akashi a pointed look.

Akashi smiled, a bit wryly. Furihata knew he remembered that conversation, the one where he said goodbye on that night in Kyoto Station.

“I think this time you might understand why,” was all he said back.

Furihata shook his head, even as he opened the envelope. Then he completely forgot what they were talking about. Because inside the envelope was a card. It was small and plastic, almost like a credit card, with multicolored stripes across the top. Red, orange, two shades of green, and two shades of blue.

Furihata recognized the logo, the one shared by all the different JR rail companies. But he didn’t get what it meant. The name “Akashi Group” was stamped on the back.

“What is this?” he said, raising his head to look at Akashi. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“It’s a rail pass,” Akashi said, to Furihata’s increasing bewilderment. “They don’t provide this particular type to the general public.”

Furihata looked back down at the pass. It sure didn’t look anything like the rail passes tourists could buy. Japanese nationals couldn’t get one of those anyway.

“I’ve never used one myself,” Akashi added. “But from what I understand, if you present it at a JR ticket counter, you can reserve seats on any shinkansen you like. It doesn’t expire.”

Furihata’s jaw dropped. His uncle worked for JR Central, and he had never heard such a thing existed. He had a feeling if he showed this pass to his uncle, he would say he had never seen one in real life before. Assuming he even knew what it was.

“Is that—is that even possible?” he sputtered. He knew his eyes had to be wider than a pair of dinner plates.

He held up the card. Like maybe if the sun hit it just right, it would transform into something else. Whatever it really was. Because there was no way there was such a thing as a pass for unlimited shinkansen rides, on any train he wanted.

There was just no way. Not even the most magical creatures in his favorite stories ever gave a gift this amazing.

He looked back at Akashi. Gaping. Half expecting at this point that he would just transform into a youkai, or a kami, or whatever in the heck he really was.

Akashi was smiling. More easily this time. (Furihata had a suspicion it was because his own face looked pretty goofy right now.) He even let out a slight chuckle.

“I hope you won’t mind using it to come to Kyoto,” he said. “On occasion. If… If you would enjoy that.” He hesitated. “I would still like to show you how Gion looks after nightfall. Assuming you’re interested.”

Furihata stood frozen. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh, or cry, or what. That conversation seemed so far away now.

Even when they had starting trading those long messages on the phone, and Akashi agreed to hang out with him again, Furihata never imagined he would get the chance to go back to Kyoto so soon.

Suddenly it felt like all his wishes were coming true.

“Of course I’ll come!” he cried.

In a flurry, Furihata swept Akashi into a hug. He wrapped both arms around Akashi’s back, and squeezed tight.

Akashi felt warm, surprisingly solid. Furihata didn’t know if he expected him to be some kind of illusion, or what. He just felt like a regular guy. It was like putting his arms around any of his friends.

Except that until this moment, Furihata never guessed the day would come when he would feel brave enough, to hug Akashi Seijuurou out of the blue.

To close that space between them, like it was nothing at all.

“Whenever you want,” he added. He couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice. “More than that. You’ll probably have to tell me to stop, actually. Or I’ll just end up bugging you all the time.”

He said this kind of meekly, as he let his arms drop down again. At which point he realized he had somehow dropped his shopping bag, so he bent to pick it up. Akashi looked startled—but not as much as Furihata might have expected. He mostly just looked relieved.

And happy.

Really happy. So much that his eyes were shining. As vibrant as the blooming sunset.

In that moment, Furihata could have sworn he even glimpsed the aura around Akashi. It looked like a fiery red light. Blazing up, like a candle that had just found a little more oxygen.

“Somehow, I sincerely doubt I’ll want you to stop,” Akashi said. In a voice that warmed Furihata straight down to his toes.

Furihata ducked his head. Suddenly Akashi’s face almost seemed too bright to look at. He wasn’t sure he had seen anyone look so happy before. At least, not when the person was looking at him.

“Thanks,” he murmured. Gesturing, with the hand that was holding the rail pass. “Really. This is really, really cool.”

And he knew he was saying “really” way too many times, but… At this point, he didn’t know how to express his thoughts otherwise.

“I’m very glad you think so,” Akashi said.

And Furihata could sense, mostly from Akashi’s tone of voice, that he was relieved. Akashi must have seriously doubted Furihata would want something like this. Apparently because he doubted Furihata would want to visit him. Furihata shook his head, incredulous.

Sure, it was an extravagant gift. Super extravagant. Furihata would probably never be able to pay his new friend back for this.

But if what Akashi really wanted was for Furihata to visit, to keep showing him around that beautiful city and talking and getting to know him better…

Well, there was no way Furihata wouldn’t take him up on that.

“Are you kidding?” he said. He glanced down at the pass again. “I can’t believe this is even real.”

Any of this, he added inside his head, and in that moment, he remembered thinking something along those lines before. As he peered through the trees of a mountainside forest, just before the overhanging clouds began to rain on a lush temple garden.

“Is this place even real? I feel like we’re in a story or something.”

“I feel much the same… I wonder what sort of story it is.”

Furihata smiled, at the misted-over memory. Maybe it should have been painful, given what happened afterward. But it wasn’t. Not even a little. Because…

“I guess we’re going to find out,” he murmured, thinking of Akashi’s words.

Akashi tipped his head in his direction. “I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking.” Furihata studied the sky. He suddenly noticed how low the sun hung over the horizon. “Hey, you have to meet your driver soon, right? Can I walk there with you?”

Akashi gave a nod. He said in his gentle voice, “I would like that. Very much.”

Furihata beamed at him. They walked side by side, through the sunset-flushed park. Talking, laughing. Just enjoying each other’s company.

Like they had from the beginning. Ever since Furihata accepted an unexpected gift, in the form of a train ticket.

Their day together in Tokyo was over. This time, though, there was no rain. And the best part was, Furihata knew this day was just one of many. There would be plenty more chances to see Akashi. To talk with him, to spend time with him.

Many times over.

Furihata gripped the rail pass, and his heart soared. He still couldn’t believe all of this. He had taken his own leap, just like at Kiyomizu temple. A leap he was almost too scared to take. But somehow, miraculously, everything had turned out all right. He even got his wish, in the end.

“I just want to find Akashi.”

Furihata glanced at his newfound friend. Akashi looked back at him. Like always, those piercing red eyes sent a shiver down Furihata’s spine… But actually, he was starting to realize he kind of liked that shiver. Akashi wasn’t some mythical, perfect creature from a storybook.

He was a pretty magical person, though, that was for sure.

Furihata slipped the rail pass in his pocket, and sidled up to Akashi. He looped his arm lightly around Akashi’s shoulder. The way Fukuda and Kawahara sometimes did with him, when they were hanging out. The way that always reminded Furihata just how much his life had changed in the past year.

His life was still changing now. And he hoped that maybe, in this moment, Akashi would feel the same way.

Akashi looked startled, but he leaned into the touch. Then, with a slight shift, he mirrored Furihata, and put his arm across his shoulder.

They walked like that for a while. Arms around each other, matching each other’s strides as closely they could. It wasn’t hard, since they were basically the same size.

Still different. But a lot alike, too.

Furihata laughed under his breath. He still felt kind of like he was dreaming. Being this close to Akashi, feeling so at ease. He hardly ever felt this way, around anyone.

He didn’t know where this was going. Where their unlikely friendship was headed, as Furihata took step after step, through this weird and wonderful story he had stumbled into. Whatever kind of story it turned out to be in the end.

But somehow, he felt a lot like he had boarded a train. Like he had just followed Akashi onto that first N700. Except this time he didn’t know any of the stops, or the name of the line. If it was “Wish,” or “Light,” or something else.

And he had no idea where the ride would eventually take him. But he knew there was no leaving it now.

For some reason, Furihata found himself remembering his dream from before. The part with the woods, and the monsters. He recalled how Akashi told him once, that there were a lot of things he didn’t know about him yet. Furihata didn’t know why, but he found himself thinking about a pair of differently colored eyes, and an aura like lighting, that once made him feel too weak to stand.

But the more Furihata thought about it, the more he realized he didn’t feel anxious or scared at all. As he walked with his arm around Akashi Seijuurou, feeling all that warm energy wash over him, trading smile after smile.

Furihata wasn’t afraid of what might happen in the future. He was looking forward to it. More than anything, he knew that this was exactly where he wanted to be.

Maybe, all along, he was a whole lot braver than he thought.