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Take Off Your Shoes, Make Yourself at Home

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It was the sound of wind and rain against his bedroom windows that woke Kinshirou early that Saturday morning, rousing him from a less-than-restful night of something that only nominally resembled sleep. He'd left his phone charging within arm's reach, and after a half-awake moment of fumbling in the dark he had it in his hand, ready to check the weather report. He blinked at the sudden brightness of the screen in the darkened room, and grimaced when he saw the day's forecast.

For the past two days, the remnants of a late-season typhoon, working its way over land, had seen fit to dump an impressive amount of precipitation onto Binan and the surrounding region. Thursday had been wet, but Friday morning had been foul and blustery enough that by lunchtime Kinshirou had decided to issue a formal student council notice cancelling all after-school activities in the interest of student safety. As it happened, most of the clubs and sports teams had already gone ahead and dismissed their members even without his official permission -- which was probably for the best, because by that point the rain had turned the town into a waterlogged mess. When he'd gone to bed that night, he had hoped that the rest of the typhoon would pass over quickly and be gone before noon. But if the updated weather information he was seeing was to be believed, the rain had stalled out over their area, and the aftereffects would probably linger until late afternoon at the least.

Kinshirou set his phone down, and rolled over onto his back with a frustrated sigh. This was not how he had hoped to start today, of all days.

He had always been an early riser, and it felt uncomfortable to remain in bed now that he was fully awake. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, he switched on the light and was soon out of bed and on his feet, shivering as a particularly sharp gust of wind whipped against the side of the house. He had taken the time to lay out his clothes the night before, and his own good personal habits meant that he was clean and presentable and ready for the day in almost no time. When he finished dressing, he took a moment to draw back the curtains and peer outside, but the sight of the rain beating against his bedroom windows and drenching the already sodden garden was not something he wanted to look at for any length of time.

Once he had folded his pyjamas and made his bed, there was nothing else that he needed to straighten up or put away in his bedroom. As he left his room and walked through the house's silent corridors, he could tell that Shirane-san, the housekeeper, had already been through and seen to what little tidying was required in the rest of the house. Even the umbrella stand in the entryway was in perfect order, and his waterproof shoes were waiting below the step, ready for him to slip them on.

Kinshirou frowned. On a normal day, all of this would be fine, but this morning he was itching for something to occupy his time, and his orderly house almost seemed to be mocking him with its tidiness.

There was breakfast, of course -- some miso soup and chestnut rice with a lightly boiled egg, along with a small pot of plain green tea -- but he could only remain at the table for so long. Once he was finished eating, there was little to do but refold the morning newspaper he had been struggling to concentrate on during the meal, and check the time and the weather on his phone again.

It was barely eight-thirty. Three more hours to go. And the radar image showed a dark swirl of precipitation directly over Binan.

He left the dining room.

After several minutes of roaming aimlessly from room to room and watching the rain drip down from the eaves, he retreated to his bedroom and sat down at his desk. The best use of the morning, he told himself firmly, was to start on his homework and review his class notes from the previous week. He emptied his school bag onto the desk, sorted his study materials by subject, took out a fresh sheet of composition paper and a pencil, and prepared to get to work...only to find himself staring blankly at his literature notebook in a futile attempt to decipher his own handwriting, because his mind was wholly occupied by a single thought that filled him with equal parts excitement and terror.

Atchan's coming here. Atchan's coming here.

* * *

Their plans for that Saturday were simple enough. Atsushi would come over to Kinshirou's house around eleven-thirty for an early lunch. Once they had eaten, they would leave to collect Yufuin at his house, and would meet Arima and their underclassmen at the movie theatre by at ten minutes to three for a three-o'clock showing of a restored print of a classic samurai film, followed by dinner at a nearby noodle place and the almost obligatory trip to the Kurotama afterwards.

Scarcely two weeks ago, Kinshirou would have scoffed at the thought that his Saturday afternoon and evening would involve willingly spending time with any of the members of the so-called Earth Defense Club -- but then again, it had been a very eventful few weeks.

How long had it been since Atsushi had set foot in his house? Kinshirou remembered every moment of the last day that the two of them had spoken -- years of rancour and bitterness had honed that particular day to perfect crystalline clarity in his mind -- but the days and weeks leading up to it had faded by comparison. He and Atsushi had walked home together from school nearly every day back then, and they had been in and out of each other's houses constantly on weekends and during the school breaks, but whose house had they been at last? His, or Atsushi's? For the life of him, he couldn't be sure. Every time he tried to think back to that time, to remember what had been normal for them, the memory of that fateful afternoon would pierce his thoughts like one of Zundar's blasted needles, pinning him down with the knowledge that he had only himself to blame for all of the time they had lost.

The sound of the rain driving against the roof wasn't helping his mood, either. In spite of the simplicity of their plans for the day, there were any number of ways for things to go wrong, and a typhoon certainly qualified as one such way. For one thing, it meant that Atsushi would have to walk over to his house in the rain. The distance between their houses had never been a concern before, but no matter how short the walk was it would be cold and wet and unpleasant from door to door. Briefly, Kinshirou had a wild thought of ordering a taxi to pick Atsushi up, but he immediately dismissed it as impractical. Even if Atsushi went along with the idea, he would want to pay for the ride himself, and then they would waste precious time arguing over how to cover the bill. Perhaps if he were to take an extra umbrella and walk over there instead...but no, Atsushi would only insist upon him staying for lunch there, and that would defeat half the purpose of the invitation.

He picked up his phone and stared at the blank screen, hesitating to turn it on. Should he text Atsushi to see what he would prefer to do? Should he call? Why was this so difficult?

He was saved from his own indecision by a soft knock on his bedroom door.

His phone nearly slipped from his hand in surprise, but he managed to catch it just in time and set it down properly. His parents had been out of town since Thursday evening, and for all intents and purposes he had the house to himself. But he wasn't completely alone for the weekend, and so when he got up to answer the knock he knew exactly who had come looking for him.

Shirane-san nodded politely to him as he opened the door. An older, round-faced woman with slightly stooped shoulders, she had worked for Kinshirou's family for almost as long as he could remember, taking care of the cooking and laundry and other necessary household chores. From an early age, Kinshirou had been taught that Shirane-san's job was not to clean up after him specifically, and so he had always tried to make as little extra work for her as possible. But she always seemed to know when there was something he wanted, something that he hadn't thought to ask for -- and from the kind but inquisitive look on her face, she seemed to be searching his expression for any needs that he couldn't bring himself to voice.

'I'll be going out shopping soon, Kinshirou-sama,' she said. She still had an apron on; judging by the handful of damp spots on the front of it, she had been washing his breakfast dishes until a few moments before. 'Lunch is in the refrigerator for you, as you requested, and the rice is set to be ready by eleven-thirty. Was there anything that you wanted before I left, or anything I should get for you while I am out?' She was smiling, but her eyes were sharp; Kinshirou knew that she missed very little of what he frequently left unsaid.

'No, thank you, Shirane-san,' he replied, a little stiffly. If he was going to have this lunch with Atsushi, it had to be just the two of them: if Shirane-san were around, he knew that he would be even more self-conscious than usual. That was why he had asked her to make a cold meal for two people, something simple that they could serve and clean up themselves. 'Please take care out there -- it does not look like the weather will clear before this afternoon.'

'If you happen to think of anything before you leave, please do leave a note for me. Your father and mother should be arriving home by eight-thirty, if the rain does not delay them.' Shirane-san paused, and then added lightly, 'And would you please give young Kinugawa-sama my regards, and my apology for not being here to welcome him when he arrives?'

She knew. Of course she knew. He hadn't mentioned who would be joining him for lunch -- an old friend, he had said, and left it at that -- but he wasn't such a fool as to think that Shirane-san hadn't noticed the change that had come over him lately, and drawn her own conclusions accordingly. When was the last time he had had a friend over, after all?

'I will,' he said, and managed a small smile. 'I am sure that he will be glad to hear that you asked after him.'

Once Shirane-san had left, Kinshirou returned to his desk. He no longer felt quite so tense as he had a few moments before, but still had the better part of two hours to fill. Schoolwork did not seem like the best option any longer. He couldn't sit completely idle, and yet --

As he was about to pull back his chair to sit down, a flicker of bright white caught his eye. The little light on his phone screen was flashing. He had a text message.

Instantly, he scooped up the phone, and keyed in his password with fingers that had gone damp with cold sweat. The message was from Atsushi, a single sentence that made him sag in relief:

-- Is eleven-thirty still okay? --

Kinshirou wasted no time in typing back a reply. Yes, it is.

Atsushi must have had his phone close by, because his own reply came just as quickly.

-- Great! Finished that book you let me borrow, so I'll bring it over. --

'That book....' For a second, Kinshirou had no idea what he was talking about, but then recalled that Atsushi had noticed him reading a book of late Meiji–era travel essays at the Kurotama earlier in the week, while they were waiting for the others to finish changing back into their street clothes. When he'd expressed an interest in it reading it after Kinshirou had finished with it, Kinshirou had offered to lend it to him on the spot -- a little too forcefully, he remembered with some discomfort, since he had all but pressed the volume into his hands, overriding Atsushi's surprised protests. It was so very like Atsushi to actually read the whole book and return it immediately. Kinshirou was merely grateful that Atsushi hadn't seemed put off by the whole incident.

Appreciated, he tapped out on the screen. Please let me know when you leave your house? No sooner had he sent it than the reply appeared.

-- Will do --

That, at least, was one thing he would not have to worry about. He put his phone down on the desk, and gazed at his literature notebook with a friendlier eye. Perhaps he would be able to make progress on some schoolwork after all.

Outside, the rain showed no signs of letting up...but his room felt slightly less gloomy, for some reason.

* * *

In spite of his improved mood, Kinshirou soon found that he simply didn't have the concentration to devote his mind to their literature assignment, and gave up on the composition in some irritation after wasting three sheets of paper on it. Mathematics, with its straightforward formulas and rows of neat numbers, was a little more forgiving of the moments when he found his mind drifting to thoughts of lunch, and the movie, and Atsushi. He made a reasonable headway on the work, and was satisfied with his productivity when he set his pencil down at eleven o'clock. The timing of his break was unexpectedly good, because as he leaned back in his chair to stretch his cramped shoulder muscles, his phone vibrated again with another text from Atsushi.

-- On my way in five minutes --

'He'll be early,' Kinshirou murmured, as some of his earlier tension started to creep back in under his skin. Even with the downpour, it wouldn't take Atsushi twenty-five minutes to walk over.

His house's front gate wasn't locked, so Atsushi wouldn't need to use the outside buzzer, but Kinshirou knew that he would not hear anyone knocking on the door if he stayed in his room on the opposite side of the house. Phone in hand, he left his bedroom, heading straight for the front door -- but when he reached the entryway, he realised belatedly that he still had a good fifteen minutes to wait.

Almost without thinking about it, he sat down on the floor of the hallway, right on the step at the edge of the entryway. It was as much muscle memory as a deliberate choice: as a child, he had often sat in the exact same spot, his feet dangling over his shoes on the stone floor below, ready to slip them on the second that Atsushi arrived so the two of them could run right out the door to play. For now, he would wait, as he had waited back then.

So close to the outside of the house, the sound of the lingering typhoon was much louder, and the front door rattled periodically from the force of the wind. The entryway was much colder than his bedroom had been, and the air felt thick and disturbed. The minutes ticked by, five and ten and fifteen, as Kinshirou waited. He traced the familiar route between their houses in his own mind, trying to judge where Atsushi might be, but as the fifteen-minute mark passed he gripped his phone more tightly in his hand.

The knock on the door was less of a rap and more of a thud, accompanied by the sound of a fresh gust of rain hitting the side of the house. Kinshirou sprang to his feet, only just remembering to pocket his phone instead of tossing it to one side in his haste, and seized the front door with both hands to slide it open.

The blast of wind and water that greeted him was partially blocked by a taller figure in a bright yellow raincoat, who nonetheless looked like he'd been thrown into a bath with all of his clothes on. Rivulets of water were streaming down his coat, his wet hair was plastered to his head, and he was trying to shield himself from the elements with the remains of a severely battered green umbrella.

'Atchan!' Kinshirou hastily moved to one side to let Atsushi enter, and threw his full weight behind the door to slide it closed and secure the latch. When he turned around again, Atsushi was struggling with the umbrella, trying to make it collapse enough to fold its ribs in properly. 'Are you all right?'

'Uh, hi,' Atsushi said sheepishly. His glasses were fogged over from his breath in the chill air, and the amount of water dripping off his coat was starting to form distinct puddles on the stone floor. 'Could I, uh, maybe -- '

He didn't have a chance to finish the sentence before Kinshirou descended upon him, trying to take the umbrella out of his hands and remove his raincoat at the same time and succeeding at neither effort. For a frantic half-minute, the two of them were all hands and elbows and voices talking over each other, a confused struggle that seemed to go on for an inordinately long time.

'Get you out of that -- '

'My umbrella -- '

' -- no, wait, let me take your -- '

' -- just a puddle -- '

' -- you don't need -- '

' -- wind gust at the crosswalk -- '

' -- shoes, over here -- '

' -- couldn't hold onto -- '

' -- see if your clothes are -- '

' -- fine, I'm fine!' Atsushi exclaimed at last, finally wrestling his arm free of his raincoat so that Kinshirou could pull it off him. 'It's mostly my shoes, from where I stepped in that one puddle.' As he shifted his weight to toe off his shoes, there was an audible squelch, and he winced as he looked down at his feet. 'And...oh, right, my socks, too. But your book's all right, see?' He held up a flat, square object that had been wrapped in a plastic convenience store bag. 'Thank goodness I had it under my coat.'

Gingerly, Kinshirou shook some of the water off of Atsushi's raincoat, then hung it on the coat stand close to the door. Atsushi's umbrella was an utter loss, ripped where it wasn't bent, and so he tucked it behind the umbrella stand to give it a temporary resting place until he could dispose of it. 'You should change out of those socks,' he said firmly. 'I'll lend you a clean pair for today and have yours washed here.'

'Thanks.' Atsushi turned around, with more squelching sounds, and sat down on the raised floor to remove his shoes and socks. He had to pause and wipe at his glasses to clear the fog before he could deal with his shoelaces. 'I should've worn boots, I know, but I didn't expect puddles like that one on my way over. It almost went up to my ankles.' He held up one of his shoes, and frowned at the thoroughly soaked leather.

Kinshirou's mind was already racing ahead of itself. 'Some newspaper should help....' There was a small table just inside the entryway where Shirane-san would set the day's mail, and beneath it was a woven basket that contained a few old newspapers. They were handy for wet or muddy days, where anyone might track dirt into the house inadvertently. 'Here's Tuesday's -- this will do.' Kinshirou seized a great handful of the sheets and started to crumple them into balls.

'You don't need to go to all that trouble, Kin-chan, honestly,' Atsushi said, though he looked relieved to see that Kinshirou had some idea for what to do with his shoes.

'They'll never dry properly otherwise,' Kinshirou said pragmatically. 'We can check on them again after we eat.' As he started to reach for another sheet of paper, he paused when he noticed a small cardboard box on the floor next to the hall table -- one he had set there the night before, when he was making all of his preparations for the morning. He hesitated for only a second before picking it up and rejoining Atsushi on the edge of the step.

Atsushi had one sock off and was just about to start removing the second one when Kinshirou set the rectangular box next to him. 'Kin-chan?'

'You should put these on as well.' Kinshirou wasn't looking at him; his attention was focused on squeezing the water out of Atsushi's dripping left shoe. 'Before your feet get cold.'

Atsushi set his wet sock down. He lifted the lid of the box to find a pair of simple green-and-white-striped house slippers, as sensible-looking as the plain white ones that Kinshirou himself was wearing. 'Oh, these are really nice!' he said, holding them up to get a better look at them. 'Thank you, Kin-chan -- did you pick them out especially for me?'

He'd meant it to sound like a joke, but his question had the complete opposite effect. Kinshirou didn't laugh or even smile. Instead, he seemed more fixated than ever on wadding up the sheets of newspaper and cramming them into Atsushi's shoes. His head was bent forward, hair falling over his eyes in a way that completely hid his expression.

'Oh!' Too late, Atsushi realised how awkward his remark might have sounded. He absolutely could picture Kinshirou making a deliberate trip to pick out a new pair of slippers for him, and treating the gesture as if it were only something to laugh about wasn't the best way to thank him for it. 'Er, well, that's...I just thought....'

'It's been a while,' Kinshirou said quietly, without looking at him. 'Your old ones wouldn't have fit you anymore.'

And that was an aspect that Atsushi hadn't even considered. He'd completely forgotten that once upon a time, he and Kinshirou had spent enough time at each other's houses to have their own pairs of house slippers at each residence. He knew that the Kusatsu family entertained frequently enough to have plenty of suitable guest slippers for anyone who might happen to stop by...but Kinshirou had bought a new pair, just for him. It wasn't about politeness, or even hospitality, and suddenly Atsushi was the one who didn't know where to look.

'These are very nice!' he said again, more emphatically this time. 'I really appreciate it.' Out of something like nervousness, he started to babble as he went back to taking off his other sock. 'I'd probably look silly wearing my old ones, even if they did fit. Didn't they have little cartoon hamsters on them? I think they had hamsters. Something like that.'

'They did.' Kinshirou picked up the right shoe and set to work stuffing paper into that one. 'The ones I had at your house had koi on them.'

'That's right, they did!' Atsushi was always impressed by how Kinshirou remembered such odd little details -- and it stirred up details in his own mind as he thought about it more carefully. 'You said you'd always be able to find them in the entryway because of the orange and white. It made them stand out.' He put the slippers on, and wiggled his toes in pleasure at the feeling of having dry feet again. 'They fit just right.'

There was no more room in the right shoe for newspaper, so Kinshirou set it down beside the left one, and sat back on his heels. He still seemed ill at ease, not quite sure how to respond now that he did not have something to occupy his hands. Having exhausted his own immediate stock of conversation, Atsushi glanced around, blinking behind his rain-smudged lenses.

'It's quiet here today,' he said. 'Are you the only one at home?'

'Shirane-san is out shopping.' Kinshirou got to his feet with the smooth grace of someone who was used to standing up from sitting in seiza. 'Our lunch is ready, and I told her that she needn't wait to serve it. My parents will not be back until the evening.'

Atsushi was a good deal less elegant as he stood up, clutching his wet socks in one hand and the plastic-wrapped book in the other. 'Did you want to eat right away?' he asked.

Kinshirou eyed the wet socks with some distaste. 'Clean clothing first,' he said decisively. 'And a towel for your hair. Then lunch.'

Atsushi was glad to see at least a glimpse of the old stiff-necked student council president in Kinshirou's demeanour. 'That sounds fine to me.'

* * *

Though he was obviously curious to see the inside of the Kusatsu residence for the first time in so long, Atsushi allowed himself to be ushered through the house without peering into any of the other familiar rooms. The two of them walked down the halls to Kinshirou's bedroom, slippered feet making little noise on the polished wood floors. They paused by the bathroom long enough for Kinshirou to retrieve a fresh hand towel for Atsushi to use to dry off his hair, but that was the only stop they made before Kinshirou opened the door to his room.

In the lingering silence of the house, the awkward feeling was back again, and Atsushi felt oddly reluctant to simply walk straight into Kinshirou's bedroom as if it hadn't been years since he'd last seen it. He hovered in the doorway, rubbing at his hair with the towel -- he could justify his hesitation to himself as being considerate, not wanting to drip water onto the bedroom floor -- while Kinshirou went straight for his chest of drawers to fetch the promised socks.

'These should fit,' Kinshirou said after a moment of rummaging, and held out a dark grey pair.

'Thanks.' Atsushi moved forward to take them, with an apologetic half-smile as Kinshirou took his wet socks in exchange. 'I'll just put them on over -- ' He was about to sit down in Kinshirou's desk chair when he noticed the papers spread out across the desk. 'Is that our homework?'

'Only for mathematics,' Kinshirou said quickly, as if he'd been caught uncharacteristically slacking off in class. 'I've done a little of the literature, and thought about starting on the history assignment, but -- '

'But it's only Saturday morning.' Atsushi shook his head, his smile widening. 'That's the Kin-chan I remember.'

Kinshirou flushed slightly, unsure as to whether he should take the statement as a compliment. He put Atsushi's socks in the small basket he used for laundry. 'We can eat in the kitchen, when you're ready.'

Kinshirou's socks were soft and warm, and when Atsushi put his slippers back on his feet felt even better than before, worlds away from the cold squish of rain-filled shoes. He draped the towel around his neck and left the plastic-covered book on Kinshirou's desk, and followed Kinshirou out of his room and back down the hall to the kitchen.

The lunch was simple and light, meant to be enjoyable in spite of the soggy weather outside. There was cold grilled salmon with a soy and citrus glaze, a green salad, fresh rice kept warm in the rice cooker, wedges of orange on a covered plate, a pitcher of iced oolong tea. The bowls, napkins, and chopsticks were laid out and waiting for them on the table. Rather than simply waiting to be served, Atsushi was quick to help out, dishing out the salad for them while Kinshirou scooped rice into their bowls and topped it with the glazed salmon. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Atsushi made the mistake of reaching for the orange wedges just as Kinshirou was starting to pour iced tea into their glasses. When his hand brushed Kinshirou's sleeve, Kinshirou startled, and a large splash of tea missed his glass and cascaded across the table -- and over the edge, right into Atsushi's lap.

Atsushi yelped at the sudden wet chill against his skin. Thankfully, he still had the mostly dry towel around his neck, and he had enough presence of mind to grab it and use to blot at his trousers, soaking up the liquid before it could spread. But just as he thought he'd succeeded, it was his turn to startle at the clatter of the pitcher hitting the tabletop. When he looked up, he saw that Kinshirou had set the pitcher down and was staring at the spot on the table where the tea had spilled with a tight, sickened expression. His balled-up fists were pressed into the tabletop, as if he were afraid that he would lose control of his hands otherwise.

'Kin-chan?' Atsushi froze, uncertain, towel dangling from his hand. 'What's wrong?'

Kinshirou made a choked noise, as if a laugh had gotten stuck in the back of his throat. He looked up at Atsushi, a bewildered light in his eyes. 'This is...rather harder than I thought it would be,' he whispered, sounding strangely lost.

Atsushi set the towel down on the table. The fabric of his trousers felt clammy against his skin, but that wasn't important any longer. His clothes would dry soon enough. Kinshirou was a more immediate concern.

'It's just me, Kin-chan,' he said quietly. 'I've had lunch over here a hundred times, haven't I?' He gazed down at his lap, searching for a possible way forward -- and suddenly, a memory from their childhood resurfaced, something reassuring that he could hold out for both of them to grab onto. 'Remember that one time I had breakfast here before the class field trip to the zoo, and I tried to act like a grown-up and refill your glass of orange juice, but the pitcher was more full than I thought it was? My hand slipped, and I totally flooded your plate.' He smiled to think of it, because looking back on it now their panic over the spilled juice seemed so simple and innocent. 'And you still ate the hotcakes anyway, even though they were completely soaked.'

'They tasted just fine,' Kinshirou said absently, as if there was never a doubt in his mind that he would have eaten them regardless. The memory seemed to have helped ground him, though; most of the strain had left his expression, replaced by a look that was more tired than upset. 'I'm...I suppose I'm being foolish, that's all.'

Atsushi shook his head. 'You're not being foolish. You're just trying a little too hard. Like with the spicy curry the other day,' he added, thinking back on their unexpected group trip to CoCoKaRa. 'You didn't need to order the same thing I was having.'

Kinshirou, to his credit, did not completely blench at the memory. 'I did eat it, though,' he pointed out.

Atsushi was kind enough not to mention that Kinshirou's victory over the curry had only been achieved thanks to a certain devoted vice president pouring water down his throat the entire time. 'I saw,' he said fondly. 'And I'm glad you came with us to eat it. But even if you hadn't eaten the curry, I still would have wanted to spend time with you.'

Kinshirou's mouth wavered, and he had to press his lips together briefly. 'I have a lot to make up for, Atchan,' he said, a bitter look furrowing his brow.

Not for the first time in the past week, Atsushi found himself wishing that the Battle Lovers and Caerula Adamas had not been quite so forgiving of Zundar and Hireashi. They had a lot to make up for, in his opinion. But what he said aloud was, 'It doesn't have to be made up all at once, though, does it?'

Kinshirou blinked, then opened his mouth -- and then shut it again, as he reconsidered what he had been about to say. 'Perhaps not,' he replied, with the air of someone who was not entirely convinced of the suggestion but was not wholly averse to the sound of it. 'Should I try again?'

In response, Atsushi picked up his glass and held it out. 'Please,' he said with a smile.

This time, the iced tea was poured without incident, and the two of them dug into the lunch. As it happened, much less tea had spilled than either of them had thought at first glance, and Atsushi's trousers were already drying without so much as a stain. Kinshirou's appetite had resurfaced after his lack of interest in food earlier in the morning, and though he was the first to take a second helping of the salmon and rice, Atsushi wasn't far behind in refilling his own bowl.

'I really missed Shirane-san's cooking,' he said, around a mouthful of rice. 'This was a good idea -- thanks for the invitation, Kin-chan.'

Kinshirou looked pleased, if a trifle embarrassed at being thanked so directly. 'She will be happy to hear you say that,' he said. 'She asked me to give you her regards, for that matter -- if you would like to come by at some point next week after school, I know that she would like to see you, and hear about your family.'

'I'm just hoping that we won't have to be like this poor salmon and swim uphill to school on Monday,' Atsushi said, poking at the remaining fish in his bowl. 'But I'm glad you still wanted to see the movie today. Even without the weather, I didn't think everyone would go for the idea -- Gero-kun doesn't seem the type who likes samurai dramas, for one thing.'

'He mentioned something about being interested in the costumes, I believe.' Kinshirou took a sip of tea. 'If I recall, the designer's work was quite well regarded at the time for its attention to fabrics and detail. Though I suspect,' he added dryly, 'that he will spend the entire time deliberately annoying Zaou by leaning over him to talk with Naruko about the film's production expenses.'

Atsushi laughed. 'Maybe we can have Yumoto sit in the middle to keep the peace.'

Kinshirou gave him a disbelieving look. 'Hakone Yumoto's overenthusiastic conception of peacekeeping,' he said, 'would see all of us ejected from the theatre, out into the rain, without a refund, before the end of the opening credits.'

'Okay, okay, fair point,' Atsushi conceded, still laughing. He picked up his own glass of tea and reached for a slice of orange. 'But what made you want to see it, Kin-chan? And don't tell me it's an educational experience or something like that -- it's historical, but it's not that historical.'

For such a casual, lighthearted question, Atsushi was alarmed to see how it unexpectedly made Kinshirou's face fall.

'I....' Kinshirou began roughly, then cleared his throat and tried again. 'I have not been to the theatre with anyone else quite some time. By myself, once or twice, but it has been...well, regardless, that is to say, I rather wanted....' He trailed off, seemingly at a loss as to how to finish the sentence.

Atsushi could have finished it for him with any number of thoughts. But the words with anyone else were the ones that stuck in his mind -- and they swiftly conjured up the mental image of Kinshirou sitting entirely on his own in a darkened movie theatre, silently watching the flickering screen. With anyone else.... Suddenly overcome by the awful, crushing loneliness of that image, Atsushi had to take off his glasses and polish the water spots away with the edge of his napkin, as if by doing so he could relieve some of the constricting pressure in his chest.

'We'll have a good time today,' he said, as he slipped his glasses back on. It was as much to remind himself of the fact as to convince Kinshirou of its truth. 'But we don't have to leave to pick up En-chan for a while yet. Do you think...would you mind if we hung around here for a little while longer?' He hastened to add, before Kinshirou could reply, 'My shoes probably still need some more time to dry, I'm sure. And this'll probably sound silly, but I don't really want to take off my new slippers just yet -- I ought to break them in a bit, if I'm going to be wearing them again anytime soon.' He smiled. 'Right?'

The faint flush came rushing back into Kinshirou's cheeks. 'If...if you want to, Atchan,' he said, with only a hint of a stammer. To cover it, he picked up his glass of iced tea again and finished the rest of it in a single draught. 'I wouldn't mind in the least.'