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The Vanishing Prince

Chapter Text

Bells of the temple

Ring to chase away the ghosts

The sun hides her face.

The cat casts a spell

He gives his house victory

A two-tailed curse.

A red-haired boy of ten years old sat at his desk, with tears blurring his eyes. He didn’t want to do this anymore. The books were piled around him. No matter how fast he worked, there was always more to do. More reading, more essays, more practice and projects and compositions.

It all had to be perfect. If he made any mistakes, he would just get even more work.

His tutors weren’t cruel, far from it. They praised him constantly, reminding him that their assignments were much more difficult than what the other boys his age were learning. He was gifted, they all said. Brilliant. A credit to his very honorable and prestigious family. Somehow, that didn’t make him happy.

Deep down, he knew it would never really be enough.

He choked back a sob, as he buried his head in his arms. He was tired. And he was lonely, so unbearably lonely. He didn’t have a single real friend his age. He spent almost all of his waking hours in school, or with his tutors at home. His father was always busy with work, and lately he seemed even busier. Whenever they did speak, his father would ask about his studies, than sternly tell him to keep working.

And his mother was gone, now…

He cried harder and harder, until the tears dripped down and smudged his paper. His chest hurt, badly, and his head hurt too. He just wanted to give up. There had to be a way to give up, didn't there? Some way to escape all of this…

“I’ll stay with you.”

Akashi blinked through the stinging tears. The voice was familiar.

“I’ll stay with you,” it said again.“I’m right here. It’s going to be fine.”

It sounded a lot like his own voice, Akashi noticed. Like it was coming from inside his head. But at the same time, it felt separate too. He wasn’t controlling it at all.

Which shouldn’t have been possible, but… It didn’t frighten him. It felt natural, somehow. The truth was, he had been talking with this voice for a while.

“You do know me. You can even see me, if you want.”

Akashi closed his eyes. He tried to look into his thoughts, or maybe recreate some kind of memory. But everything in his mind was simply blank. He could picture himself, alone in that darkness. That was easy, because it was how he felt right now. But no one was there with him.

His eyes were starting to water again. Then, someone touched him. It was like a light tap, something inside his mind, to catch his attention.

A little boy stood in the imaginary darkness beside him. He looked just like Akashi, except one of his eyes was lighter than the other. The boy smiled.

“You see? I’m here,” he said. His voice was brisk, and matter-of-fact. “We can be together all the time. As much as you want.”

Akashi stared at the other version of himself, disbelieving. He came closer, reaching out to take the boy’s hand. When they connected, it didn’t feel like a physical touch. It was more like a sensation of warmth, of unexpected completeness, that radiated through him.

“You’ll be all right now,” the boy said. “I’m going to help you.”

At that, Akashi couldn’t help bursting into tears again. The boy looked confused, but he put his arms around Akashi, holding him firmly.

“You’ll be all right,” he said again. “We both will. Everything’s going to be fine.”

His final words shimmered in the dark, like the spark of hope they were.

“I promise.”

Everything was going to be fine.

Akashi Seijuurou was doing his absolute best to convince himself of this. He had begun his efforts on the previous night, then persisted through many hours of sleeplessness, until it was well past dawn. It was common for him to get a minimal amount of sleep, so he didn’t feel particularly tired.

What he did feel, however, was nervous.

Akashi gazed out his bedroom window at the brightening Tokyo sky. He tried to measure his breaths, to keep them slow and even. He had learned this technique a while ago, as a way to mask any discomfort during public speaking. He hadn’t used it for that purpose in quite some time. Still, it often proved useful, in cases like this. It reminded him of a similar technique, that a friend of his liked to use.

Akashi took out his phone, and scrolled through the photos. He clicked on one in particular. Furihata Kouki’s face appeared on the screen, beaming up at him.

Somehow, just seeing his best friend’s face helped Akashi relax.

Remember why you’re doing this, he told himself, as he gazed at Furihata’s photo. He slipped his phone into his pocket, and began the lengthy walk through the halls of the Akashi estate.

As he descended the stairs, he came to a startled stop. His father stood at the front door, conversing with Ginhara, the butler of the house. Neither of them looked in Akashi’s direction. Akashi set his jaw, an automatic response. He inched down the stairs, more hesitantly than before.

“Certainly, master,” Ginhara was saying. “Please have a safe journey.”

His father gave a curt nod. His sharp amber gaze darted around the front hall, then landed on Akashi.

Akashi’s spine stiffened, but he forced himself to say, “Good morning, Father.”

“Good morning,” his father said, with no change in expression. Sometimes Akashi struggled to remember if anyone in his family had ever said that greeting with genuine feeling.

Well, besides one person… But she was gone, of course.

“You won’t be coming to breakfast today?” Akashi forced himself to ask, even as he inwardly cringed. The question sounded so inane, and childish in the bargain. But he had his reasons.

For a moment, he considered asking his father permission, for what he was going to do later that morning. But he knew he couldn’t go through with it.

“I have to be in Sendai by this afternoon,” his father said, in place of no. He stared at Akashi for a long moment. “I will let you know when you’re to come to Tokyo again.”

“Yes, Father. Of course.” The words echoed strangely in Akashi’s ears, as though someone else was saying them. But he had come to expect that, whenever he tried to converse with his father.

He was still the one speaking. The days when he would rely on a certain other person to speak in cases like this were over.

His father hovered on the threshold. Which was odd… Usually he would have left in a hurry, after such a direct dismissal. Akashi forced himself to stand still, and wait. As the seconds ticked by, he felt increasingly on edge.

For the past few days, Akashi kept getting the feeling that his father was studying him. They hadn’t spent more than a few hours of time together, but Akashi still sensed that his father was mulling over some issue, debating the merits of discussing it with his son. Which was rare, and likely didn’t bode well.

Now his father was eyeing him again. His icy, focused expression sent a rush of tension through Akashi’s body. The rising discomfort finally prompted him, without any finesse whatsoever, to blurt out, “Will you be coming to Kyoto at all?”

His father’s frown deepened. For a moment, he looked almost confused.

“No,” he said, as though this should have been inherently obvious. Akashi felt his face getting warmer. He had no idea how his father was interpreting this exchange. He had intended to ask that particular question in a much subtler way.

Please don’t discern why, please don’t discern why…

His father was silent, his bladelike eyes narrowed.

“I trust you’ll be able to keep yourself busy,” he said at last. His voice was even sterner than before. “As usual.”

“Yes, Father, absolutely,” Akashi hurried to say, in his most genuine voice. He even managed a small, though uncomfortable, laugh. “Like always.”

Akashi wondered if, to his father, that last part sounded more like a child’s passive attempt at complaining. Not that it would have mattered, if it did.

“Good.” With that, his father headed out the door, toward the black Lexus with bulletproof windows that was bound to be waiting for him.

As soon as he left, Akashi felt his jaw unclench. He braced his hand against the banister, trying to keep his balance. It took him a minute to realize his heart was pounding, beating emphatically against his ribcage.

He couldn’t recall ever trying to lie to his father so directly before.

Ginhara was watching him, with a keen expression. Akashi was careful not to acknowledge this.

“Your breakfast is ready to be served, young master,” Ginhara said.

“Yes, thank you,” Akashi replied. Which was something of a slip—he wasn’t supposed to thank the servants—but it didn’t matter so much, if his father hadn’t heard.

Come to think of it, this particular mistake was understandable… Akashi had been spending most of his time recently with a person who tended to thank everyone he encountered, including Ginhara himself.

Akashi didn’t realize he was smiling slightly, until he noticed Ginhara watching him again. He cleared his throat, trying to loosen it a bit further. “Is Onoda ready to drive me at seven thirty, like we discussed?”

“He is, young master.” The butler gave his customary bow.

“Very good.” With that, Akashi turned and headed toward the dining room. In all honesty, he was relieved. The first thing he needed to do that morning was survive any time spent with his father, however long that proved to be. Now that part was over.

The second thing he needed to do wasn’t as intimidating. Well, not quite.

It was still early morning when Akashi arrived at a sprawling white building in the Setagaya ward. He instructed his driver to wait, then left the car at a brisk pace. He wasn’t certain where he was headed, but he didn’t want to look lost. Not, at least, until he was inside the facility.

His driver didn’t know why they were there. Akashi had described it merely as an “errand.” With any luck, it seemed like something his father would have instructed him to do. It was far from the first time that Akashi had entered an impressive-looking building, to consult with an elite professional for some purpose related to his family’s empire.

This wasn’t such a case, however. For once, Akashi was doing it purely for himself.

He entered through the sliding glass doors. Summer light streamed into the broad windows, and through the glass ceiling. Akashi stopped to consult a directory, then made his way to the elevators. Three other people boarded the elevator with him. They were dressed in professional clothes, and one man wore a doctor’s coat.

After leaving the elevator, Akashi made his way into a new wing of the building. Eventually, he found a pair of closed doors that led to what looked like a lecture hall. Glancing through the windows, he saw a woman who looked to be in her late thirties, addressing a large group. Akashi didn’t go inside. Instead he stood near the far wall of the hallway, and waited.

To his surprise, only a minute passed before people began streaming out of the room. He felt several looks directed at him, but no one stopped or asked him why he was there. Eventually, the woman came out, lugging a satchel that was overstuffed with folders.

She glanced up. For the briefest instant, her eyes widened behind her glasses. Then her expression fixed itself in a calm, professional smile.

“Are you Akashi-kun?” she asked, as she strode up to him.

“Yes. I am Akashi Seijuurou.” Akashi did an introductory bow, polite but not overly formal. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me so suddenly.”

“Of course.” The woman also bowed, with a little more deference than was normal. Akashi already knew the reason for that. She introduced herself, then gestured down the hall. “I apologize for the unusual setting. Would you mind following me?”

They ended up in a small office, that didn’t seem like it was often used. The woman rearranged some of the furniture, then set her satchel behind a desk. She offered Akashi a seat. Soon they were facing one another, and she had a notebook open.

Akashi clasped his hands in his lap, to keep them still. Most of the time, he didn’t suffer from urges to fidget. But he had to admit that in a situation like this, he was out of his element. For once, he had absolutely no idea what was expected of him.

“Normally I would have invited you to my office in Kyoto,” the woman was saying. “Since I was here for a presentation, I thought we could do a consultation in person. You seemed anxious to meet with me.”

“Yes, thank you,” Akashi said. He hesitated, not sure how to begin. “I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

“Not at all.” Her eyes were keen, Akashi noticed. He got the sense that she might be analyzing his behavior already. The thought made his insides twist, in an odd way. “You mentioned this is your first time seeing a professional. How often were you hoping to meet?”

“As often as you recommend. Weekly, if possible.” Akashi felt his fingers winding together, and stilled them. “Or—or more, if you think that would be beneficial.”

She nodded. “Are you planning to come to any future appointments alone?”

“Yes,” Akashi said. He tried not to say it too quickly. “I live by myself in Kyoto. I’m attending school there.”

“I see.” Her tone of voice was kind, but her expression was knowing. Akashi suspected that she was debating whether to press the issue.

A pause stretched between them.

“I don’t receive many calls from patients who are looking for first-time treatment,” she said at last. “Most of my patients are referrals, who happen to fall under my areas of expertise. You said that I was your first choice. May I ask why you decided to contact me, Akashi-kun?”

Her voice was even gentler now. Akashi couldn’t help wondering if she thought he was confused or misguided, about seeking her out instead of a general counselor. She probably agreed to see him out of curiosity, because of his family name. Or perhaps she had already guessed the true reason…

Whatever the case, Akashi’s heart was beating a little too hard, as he contemplated his answer. He had never had to say these particular words out loud before.

“I was hoping to see you because of your expertise,” he managed. “I… I have reason to believe I am mentally unwell.”

She nodded patiently. “Can you describe some of the symptoms you’re experiencing? What in particular has you concerned?”

She waited, clearly ready to listen. Akashi knew they were both waiting for the same thing. His mouth felt strangely dry, and his throat too.

“I’ve been living as two people,” he said, finally forcing out the words. “That is, I have an alter. Or alternate self state.”

He wasn’t sure which was the correct term to use. He had always called the second Akashi his “other self.” (Or sometimes, in the privacy of his mind, his younger brother.) He also wasn’t sure how to describe his experiences. Was he supposed to explain his other self as something he was imagining, that he made up in his head? To him, it felt real. As real as subjective consciousness could.

If the psychiatrist was surprised, she didn’t show it. “And as far as you know, you only have two of these alters?”

“Yes.” Akashi hesitated. When he spoke again, his words made the psychiatrist frown, for the first time in their conversation.

“But the other me didn’t want to come here. I don’t think he will cooperate…”

He swallowed, before adding, “He is deeply opposed to either of us seeing you.”

Furihata Kouki was in trouble. Major, serious trouble.

Well, he felt like he was supposed to be? He kept getting this increasing sense of doom, like his whole life was about to go horribly wrong. Except he had no idea why… It probably had something to do with the fact that he was standing inside a gigantic sports arena. The arena was full of people, which meant that at least some of those people were watching him.

Okay, just chill, he told himself. You’re totally fine. You’ve done this before.

Which was true. Furihata had been inside this massive arena plenty of times. Today he was with his basketball team from Seirin, like usual. They were doing their standard warm-up shots on the court before a game, and everything was going to be great.

As far as he knew, he wasn’t even going to play. Wait, was he playing…? Furihata glanced over at his coach, who was on the sidelines shouting a bunch of directions. For some reason, he couldn’t remember what she said about the lineup before the match. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember which match this was, either.

He looked around, trying to figure it out. His teammates were all around him, practicing shots: Hyuuga the captain, and his other senpais. Kagami and Kuroko were there, too, though the phantom sixth man took a few seconds longer to find. Kawahara and Fukuda weren’t there. They were probably on a quick errand to get more water or something.

Who are we playing? Furihata wasn’t sure if he said it out loud or not, but nobody answered. He turned to the other side of the court, where the opposing team was warming up. And instantly, he knew. He would have recognized those immaculate white jackets with pale blue letters anywhere.


Something inside Furihata gave a weird leap. It wasn’t from fear or nerves, though. Obviously, Rakuzan was the scariest team they could be playing. But if Rakuzan was here, then that meant someone else Furihata knew was here, too. Someone he cared about, who was his closest friend in the entire world.

A pale jacket sleeve fluttered in his peripheral vision. Sure enough, there he was: Akashi Seijuurou, second-year captain of Rakuzan. (Not to mention student council president, and their all-around superstar.) Furihata felt another weird, giddy thrill when he realized Akashi was walking right toward him.

Half a year ago, Furihata never would have thought a guy like Akashi Seijuurou would talk to him, for any reason. Now Akashi was gliding straight up to him. He had that happy smile on his face, the one Furihata knew so well.

“Hello, Furihata-kun.” Akashi’s voice was smooth and calm, like always.

“Hey.” Furihata fiddled with the basketball he held. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

Wait, did that even make sense to say…? Furihata was strangely conscious of the fact that his teammates were glancing in their direction. By now, they all knew he was friends with Akashi, but they’d never seen the two of them talk like this in person.

“I hope you’re prepared for our match,” Akashi said. His red hair looked even brighter than usual, under the towering stadium lights.

Furihata grinned. “Yeah, of course!” He still didn’t remember if he was playing or not. But if it was a Rakuzan match, he definitely wouldn’t let himself chicken out. He really wanted to play against Akashi again, now that they were friends.

They were still talking, when something flitted past Furihata’s eye. He looked again, and there it was… A tiny sphere of light hovered just above his head. It moved in a weird way, that struck him as familiar. He couldn’t place it, though.

He wanted to ask if Akashi saw the light too. But Akashi was walking over to the sidelines, and Furihata hurried to follow him. By then, Furihata had lost track of the light. Maybe he just imagined it.

They were still talking, but Furihata had trouble following the conversation. Akashi was smiling at him again. His eyes were sparkling, beneath his long lashes.

“Well, best of luck,” Akashi said, suddenly.

He drew Furihata into a hug. Furihata gave a startled jolt… They’d hugged before, but not really in front of other people. Akashi didn’t seem self-conscious at all, though.

Furihata returned the hug, without really thinking. Akashi felt so good to hold. They were basically the same height, but Akashi’s body was a lot more toned. More perfect.

Akashi’s expression softened, and his eyelids lowered slightly. His face was so close, Furihata realized. Suddenly it felt like everything around them was pounding. Was it the basketballs bouncing on the court behind them, or just his heartbeat…?

Akashi leaned in, with his beautiful smile, and their lips met.

Akashi brushed his parted mouth against Furihata’s, over and over. Furihata kissed Akashi right back. He couldn’t help it, it felt too amazing. He started to feel like he was floating. His arms snaked around Akashi’s waist, while Akashi’s palms pressed against his shoulder blades. They pulled closer together, and closer.

Akashi tugged lightly on Furihata’s warmup shirt. The next thing Furihata knew, he was on his back on the nearest bench. Akashi was kneeling over him, and they were still kissing. Their lips were moving so fast that Furihata forgot to breathe. Or maybe he couldn’t breathe at all, he wasn’t sure. He was starting to feel like he was going to explode.


He barely sputtered out the name before Akashi’s lips were caressing his mouth again. Meanwhile, Furihata was starting to remember that they were still inside a crowded stadium. Everyone was there—their teammates, rivals, parents, complete strangers—and the two of them were just lying on a bench, out in the open, kissing each other like they couldn’t stop.

Akashi’s jacket was slipping down. It finally fell from his pale, sculpted shoulders, draping over one of Furihata’s knees. Furihata’s feet were resting on the hardwood, twitching. His warmup shirt was hiking up, and Akashi’s fingers were tangled firmly in his hair. And it felt good, so good…

It was weirdly quiet now. Everyone had to be looking. They had to be, at these two random guys who were making out, right there in public. Nobody did that in Japan. Especially not two boys, right before a basketball game.

Furihata was starting to panic. They couldn’t do this, they couldn’t… Everyone was going to see. Everyone in the world was going to know how he really felt about Akashi, about his best friend in the whole world…

Another tiny light passed over Furihata’s head, gleaming in the corner of his eye.

Then he jolted so hard that he finally woke up.

Furihata stuffed his face into his pillow, and let out a loud groan. Now that he was conscious, his heart was fluttering like crazy. Sunlight glowed around the edges of his bedroom window. He wasn’t surprised when he looked over at the clock and realized he was awake early. As in, super early. He pressed both hands to his face, squirmed, and groaned again.

God, he hated this.

He took a deep breath, trying to ignore how the blood was pounding through his body. Or how his stomach was doing backflips. Or the million other reactions he couldn’t control, that he recognized way too well.

Most of all, Furihata tried not to remember anything from the dream. Like Akashi’s face, hovering so close to his, or the way their bodies were pressed together, with just their loose warm-up clothes between them…

Furihata took a long draught from the glass of water on his nightstand. Then, on second thought, he splashed some of it on his face.

Okay. That was a lot better.

He sighed and got out of bed, drying his face with the front of his shirt. Since he was awake, he might as well get dressed. It was still summer vacation, so it wasn’t like he had school. But it was better than going back to sleep.

Better than risking another dream like that, he couldn’t help thinking.

It was no big deal, Furihata reminded himself. It was just a dream. Dreams didn’t have to mean anything… They were just weird unconscious parts of his brain, that were thinking totally random thoughts for no reason. Like about kissing Akashi. Some part of his brain was really stuck on that idea, ever since a few nights ago.

Sure, the first time he dreamed about it, he freaked out. But that was just him overreacting, right? Furihata was sixteen. Of course he was going to dream about kissing people. All kinds of people. He’d dreamed about kissing a bunch of different girls from his class, even a few he didn’t really like that way. Back when he used to have a girlfriend, he had this one dream about making out with another girl, and felt horrible afterward. But it wasn’t like he could control it.

It was probably totally normal to dream about kissing your best friend. Wasn’t it? Everyone probably did at some point, just by accident. Like you would be talking to them in a dream, because you talked to them all the time, but then some weird hormone switch would get flipped, and bam—kissing, for no reason.

It didn’t mean Furihata had a crush on Akashi, or anything. Definitely not. He’d only had a few dreams like that.

Like, three or four. In a week.

Furihata winced, trying to focus on pulling his damp shirt over his head. He was halfway undressed, when a soft buzz sounded. It took him a few seconds to realize it was his phone. He had to dig through the blankets on his bed to find it.

When he flipped the phone open, his pulse immediately started to skip.

From: Akashi-kun

He hurried to open the message.

Good morning. I very much enjoyed our time together yesterday—as well as our late-night discussion.

Furihata was already smiling. Akashi had to be the only person on earth who sent messages like this. He talked the same way: courteous, and well-spoken. Furihata liked it, because he knew it meant Akashi felt free to be himself.

Akashi probably wasn’t expecting a reply this early. So Furihata eagerly typed a message back. Same! Hope you’re having a good morning too.

By the time he finished getting dressed, the phone buzzed again. He felt weirdly light, as he went to grab it.

It’s going well, thank you. Though I’m sure I would find it far better if you were here.

Furihata stared at the screen, as a familiar feeling bloomed inside his chest. It was warm, but also kind of painful… He didn’t know how to describe it, except he had only ever felt this way around Akashi.

Furihata had recently realized just how much he cared about his new best friend. They were always talking, and hanging out as much as they possibly could. Furihata never got tired of it, even though he was usually such an introvert and needed time alone. The weirdest part was, Akashi had told him that he felt the exact same way.

Furihata never had a friendship on this level before. He never even knew that friends could act like this with each other. He didn’t know if it was weird, or just really rare, or what.

But he knew that he treasured it more than pretty much anything.

He glanced at the damp t-shirt on the floor, and swallowed. Before he could tell himself again that a dumb dream didn’t matter, his phone buzzed a third time.

Since I’m returning to Kyoto tomorrow, would you like to spend the evening together? You could stay the night, if you’d like.

Furihata blinked. He almost couldn’t believe Akashi was inviting him over. They had slept at each other’s houses for the first time earlier that week, and it was… intense. They hung out after that, whenever they could sneak it into Akashi’s super-busy schedule. But Furihata hadn’t stayed at Akashi’s house again. Not yet.

He kind of wondered if the subtext behind this particular message, and its timing, really meant, “My father won’t know, if we do it tonight.”

Akashi had never talked to his dad about that first visit, as far as Furihata knew. And Furihata still hadn't met him, except for a glimpse in the middle of the night. Furihata forced himself not to contemplate Akashi’s dad too much. Instead, he typed his reply, as fast as he could so he wouldn’t overthink it.

Yeah, of course! That sounds great. When can I come over?

As he waited for Akashi’s answer, Furihata couldn’t help noticing that his stomach was doing flips again. He didn’t know why he was suddenly nervous. Earlier that week, he would have been overjoyed to spend the night at Akashi’s place. And he still was, in a way. Even though he had found out that Akashi’s house was kind of intimidating and creepy, and his dad was genuinely terrifying…

Those things didn’t bother Furihata. Not enough to keep him away, at least. Spending time with his amazing friend was more than worth it.

But as Furihata glanced over at his unmade bed, his dream raced through his mind again. He shook his head, frustrated. He just hoped his stupid brain would be normal for a night, and not make him think about anything weird. Like, say, kissing his best friend.

Because he definitely didn’t want to do that.

It wasn’t like he had a crush on him, or anything.

Seijuurou strode purposefully through the darkness of his mind.

It was his mind, for all intents and purposes. True, he shared it with his other self—his elder brother, who had two red eyes, and who everyone seemed to believe was the “real” Akashi, to various extents.

Presumably, this was due to the fact that his brother had spent far more time in control of their shared body. As a result, more people knew him first. (Well, as much as anyone really knew either of them, of course.)

Also, it was infinitely easier for most people to validate the existence of “nice” and “kind” individuals, than to do the same for someone like Seijuurou. For the moment, though, that inconvenient truth was neither here nor there.

Seijuurou rarely traveled directly through the darkness like this. It was too difficult to make any headway, when every part of it looked so similar. Instead, he would allow himself to simply drift through this vast, unexplored section of his mind, unaware of anything around him, or what was happening in the outside world. It was like he was asleep, more or less.

It was the closest he could come, at least for a while, to not existing.

Originally, Seijuurou had avoided this place as much as possible. Once upon a time, he preferred to spend the bulk of his existence in the more conscious part of his brain, keeping his other self company, and seeing everything that he was seeing. For a long time, that was the only form of life that Seijuurou knew.

Then, for two years, he took his brother’s place. He controlled their body, while his brother slept inside the darkness. For the first time, Seijuurou learned what living in the outside world, being fully present in a human body, really felt like.

Of course then he had fucked it all up, in a truly spectacular and irredeemable fashion. So none of that mattered anymore.

Seijuurou halted, peering into the void that stretched before him. He couldn’t be certain, but this part of his mind seemed vaster somehow, as though the darkness had dropped out into a bottomless chasm. Sometimes, Seijuurou would glimpse fleeting images in this place, accompanied by misty, ephemeral shapes. Whenever he focused on them, they would instantly vanish. It was deeply irritating.

When he and his other self were much younger, Seijuurou had regarded this part of his mind as tumultuous, and terrifying. The shadowy images would writhe and churn like fog, and there was a great deal of noise. But for the past few years, the darkness had grown calmer, and almost completely silent.

Now, as Seijuurou gazed into the void, he could see that the shadows were starting to churn again. Amid the rising chaos, he heard a familiar sound.

He grimaced, as the sobbing echoed in the distance. These cries were usually small and muffled, when they were there at all. But for some reason, Seijuurou had always found them difficult to ignore.

He hadn’t noticed the crying in a few years. He thought perhaps it had disappeared for good. Now it was returning.

Which was almost certainly his idiotic brother’s fault.

Seijuurou couldn’t understand what had possessed his other self lately. He kept doing the most absurd, incomprehensible things. Apparently, he still wasn’t content with his life, despite the fact that he had regained all his friends from middle school. He had easily befriended his Rakuzan teammates as well. Everything ought to have been perfectly fine in his happy little world, for the past several months.

But no, instead he kept sulking and fretting about who-knew-what. Every time Seijuurou ventured to regain consciousness, he would find his brother upset again, lost in some fresh and largely self-imposed emotional wreckage. It was all very familiar, like the Teikou days. Which was the last thing either of them needed.

Still, his older brother’s constant friendship crises and tendency to succumb to his emotions were nothing new. And regardless, Seijuurou had intended to stay out of it. His brother had matured since middle school, and he understood how to relate to others. Certainly more than Seijuurou ever did, or would.

But then Furihata Kouki came along. Now everything was slowly but inexorably spiraling out of control.

Seijuurou didn’t understand it. Why had his brother gone out of his way to befriend this Furihata person? Misplaced guilt aside, he was so ordinary. Seijuurou simply couldn’t fathom what his brother found appealing about such a timid, weak individual. Now they were spending all their time together, cozying up at every possible opportunity, to the point that it was actually a bit nauseating.

Not that it mattered. In the end, Seijuurou couldn’t care less about his brother’s odd tastes, or this bizarrely intimate “friendship” he insisted on forming. What did matter, however, was that his brother was starting to take far too many risks.

Really, what had gotten into that idiot? They both agreed long ago that they’d never expose any of their true friends to their home life. They agreed to never defy their father, especially not in ways he might discover later on. Now his brother was inviting the Furihata boy to their Tokyo home, without bothering to get their father’s approval. Not to mention he was actively seeking therapy.

Seijuurou grimaced, as the crying in the distance grew louder. His other self had no idea, absolutely no idea, what he was doing. And the consequences could prove dire.

Deep within the darkness, a silhouette flickered into view. Seijuurou squinted, trying to see, but he couldn’t make out anything except the general shape. It seemed to be human, and very small. It soon vanished, chased away by one of the other shadows.

The second shadow was clearly a woman. Seijuurou had encountered her before, but he could never decipher her face, only the hazy outline of her dress. Where her features were supposed to be, there was only blankness. He stared her down, unfazed. She shrank away, and disappeared.

The hiss of running water had joined the constant crying. Seijuurou never understood that particular noise’s presence here. It seemed so innocuous. There was a less mundane noise too, that was harder to hear over the others…

It sounded like a strange, high-pitched growl.

His older brother didn’t know about any of this. Of that much, Seijuurou was certain. He was equally certain that his brother would be incapable of dealing with it properly. Which meant he was going to have to handle it himself, one way or another.

There was something in here, hiding inside this massive darkness, that they had both forgotten. Seijuurou wasn’t altogether certain how, or why.

But whatever it was, it was dangerous enough to utterly destroy them.

Akashi didn’t quite understand why his head was aching.

This wasn’t an entirely unusual phenomenon, of course. His overbooked schedule, along with all the reading required for his private lessons, more or less guaranteed that he would suffer the occasional tension headache. But this week had been far less stressful for him than most. He took multiple days off, and even cancelled some of his lessons in secret.

As a matter of fact, everything about the week had been exceptionally pleasant, as far as Akashi was concerned.

He glanced down at his phone, and smiled. He was scrolling through a long list of messages, all the different conversations he and Furihata had over the past several days. This was especially remarkable, given that they were also visiting each other in person on a daily basis.

Akashi sighed. He would certainly miss seeing Furihata, now that he had to return to Kyoto for basketball practice. It was a shame, especially since they were both still on summer vacation. As much as Akashi enjoyed basketball, he would have preferred to spend as much time with his best friend as he possibly could.

Best friend. That phrase still left Akashi feeling strangely in awe.

Another ache burst behind his forehead. Akashi took a moment to rub his face, trying his best to release any tension there. He certainly didn’t want to be feeling unwell when Furihata arrived.

He was drinking another cup of tea, hoping the caffeine would help, when he heard the front door creak. Instantly, he was on his feet. He rushed toward the front hall.

He arrived just as his valet, Takeda, was escorting a familiar figure inside. There stood Furihata, handing Takeda an overnight bag. He wore a cheerful, relaxed expression. Akashi had just seen him the previous day. Somehow, though, his presence instantly lifted Akashi’s mood. Akashi wasn’t sure why, exactly, but…

He found himself thinking Furihata was a sight for sore eyes. Literally, in this case.

As Akashi hurried up to the door, Furihata turned. His friendly features immediately brightened. “Hey, Akashi-kun!”

Takeda excused himself, as Akashi stepped onto the landing. “Good afternoon. I’m glad you were able to come today.”

“Yeah, of course,” Furihata said, in that meek-but-warm way that Akashi found so endearing. “I’m glad too.”

They were standing beside each other now. Akashi studied his friend, to see if he appeared hot or fatigued. Furihata lived in Tokyo, but it was still something of a trek to Akashi’s neighborhood. “And how are you doing? Well, I hope?”

“Yup,” Furihata said, in an easy tone. He hesitated, then frowned a little. “Are you okay? You look kind of tired.”

Akashi chuckled. He still didn’t understand how Furihata was the one person in his life who consistently noticed the changes in his emotional and physical state.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he said. Which was true, as far as he was concerned. He could hardly feel the headache anymore.

He had an abrupt impulse to take Furihata’s hand. They had done this before, and they had more than enough privacy, to show that level of affection. Then, on second thought, he drew Furihata into a full-blown hug instead.

“Especially now that I’m with you,” he murmured softly, beside his friend’s ear.

He tightened his hold, wrapping his arms all the way around Furihata’s shoulders. Something odd happened. For just a moment, Akashi could have sworn that Furihata went a bit… stiff, somehow. It was almost like a feeling, something deep inside Furihata that Akashi sensed, more than anything in his actual posture.

Whatever it was, it was already gone, as Furihata relaxed into the embrace and hugged him back.

Akashi shut his eyes, enjoying the feeling of closeness. He could have stayed there for quite some time. But after a few moments, he forced himself to let go. As he met Furihata’s gaze, he was surprised to discover that his friend’s face was visibly rosy.

“I’m sorry, did I embarrass you? That wasn’t my intention.”

“No,” Furihata blurted, in a way that Akashi found charming. The blush on his face deepened, inching up toward his forehead. “Not really, it’s just… You’re being really nice, that’s all.”

“I’m only speaking the truth,” Akashi said, with a kind smile.

Furihata’s mouth melted into a grin, as though he couldn’t help mirroring him. “Yeah. I know.”

He reached out and took Akashi’s hand, giving it a solid squeeze. Akashi felt a twinge of relief, despite himself. This type of friendship was still so new to him. He couldn’t help but worry on occasion, about the possibility of making some misstep. He never wanted to go too far, to cause Furihata to feel awkward or uncomfortable.

Whenever he started to worry, however, Furihata would do something that reassured him. He would take Akashi’s hand, or walk closer beside him. And Akashi would realize yet again that as much as he wanted to be close to Furihata, Furihata seemed to want the same thing from him, as well.

Furihata was always so genuine, when they were together. It made Akashi feel secure, and safe. These were not emotions he was accustomed to feeling. He couldn’t help but treasure this, for the precious gift it was.

“Well, how should we spend the evening?” he asked Furihata. “I was having tea in the library just now, if you happen to be interested in joining me.”

Furihata’s grin widened. “Uh, do you seriously have to ask?”

“I assume that’s meant as a yes.”

Akashi led the way down the hall. His chest felt oddly light, as he noticed Furihata’s eager pace. He felt lighter still when they entered the library, and he witnessed the familiar sparkle in Furihata’s eyes.

The library had always been one of Akashi’s favorite rooms in his family’s Tokyo house. But he liked it even more, now that he knew how much his dearest friend enjoyed it. As they hunted among the shelves for books to read, Akashi found himself wishing that Furihata could come and visit the library as often as he wished. Every day, even, if he wanted.

Furihata settled into one of the overstuffed sofas, and waved for Akashi to join him. For a moment, Akashi imagined what it would be like to find Furihata already there, waiting for him, whenever he came to Tokyo.

He wasn’t quite prepared for the way his heart panged at the thought.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Furihata asked, as Akashi sat down beside him.

Akashi blinked, startled. “Yes, of course.”

“Right.” Furihata sounded apologetic. “You just seem kind of quiet.”

Akashi leaned toward the tea tray. Carefully, he prepared a new cup, pouring the rich amber liquid from a gilded teapot. He handed the steaming cup to Furihata, before picking up his own.

“I really am fine,” he said. He sat a little closer to Furihata, letting himself relax into the intimacy of setting. “It’s very kind of you, to be concerned.”

Furihata nodded thoughtfully. His expression shifted, into a bashful half-smile. “I don’t know if it’s that kind. You’re my friend, you know? But you’re welcome.”

As they sipped their tea, they began to sift through the gathered pile of books. All the while, Akashi wondered why Furihata didn’t seem to understand how rare his compassion really was. True, it was natural to care for one’s friends—that much, at least, Akashi knew firsthand—but in his experience, it was unusual to express it so freely, to take such obvious care to inquire after their well-being.

Perhaps Akashi didn’t have enough experience with friendship yet. Or it was possible that his own guardedness and self-sufficiency had hindered his other friends from expressing these things in the past. But…

Even so, he was fairly certain that Furihata Kouki was a remarkably kind person.

This was one reason why Akashi found himself saying, as he set another book aside, “I had an appointment this morning.”

Furihata glanced up from a comically large volume. He seemed to be perusing it more for the old-fashioned illustrations than anything else. “Yeah? For what?” He hurried to add, “I mean, you don’t have to answer. If it’s private.”

Akashi chuckled. His arm rested on the back of the couch. He leaned his head against his hand, as he gazed at Furihata.

“I know. I wanted to tell you,” he said. “I’m seeing a psychiatrist.”

Furihata’s eyes widened, even more so than usual. “Really?”

Just like that, he was setting the book down. He inched closer, as a feeling of gratified warmth spread through Akashi. He expected Furihata to be interested, since they recently discussed this particular subject for the first time. But Akashi hadn’t realized how much it would mean to him, that Furihata seemed to understand the significance of this development.

Somehow, it made him feel far less… alone.

“That’s great,” Furihata said, in his genuine way. “How’d it go? Was it okay?”

Akashi nodded. “It was only the first meeting, so we didn’t go into much depth. But she seemed very knowledgeable. And we agreed to start regular treatment.”

“That’s good. And you like her?” Furihata paused. “I mean, she makes you feel comfortable and everything?”

Akashi hesitated. He understood the theoretical importance of that question, but he wasn’t certain how to answer it.

“I believe so,” he said at last. “I obviously don’t know her. But she seemed courteous, and professional.”

He was less certain how to say the second part out loud, or if he even should… “I never feel wholly comfortable around others, save for a few rare people. Like you.”

Furihata’s expression was sympathetic. “I’m glad. It can be pretty awkward the first time. But it gets a lot easier—or at least, it did for me.”

He clasped Akashi’s free hand, and gave it a squeeze. Akashi returned the gesture. He was continually surprised by how soothing he found his friend’s touch.

“Does she know about the dissociation, and all that stuff?” Furihata asked. “Or did you even get to that yet?”

Akashi gazed down at their joined hands. It still felt so strange, to be speaking out loud about his mental state like this. “Briefly. I decided to contact her based on her expertise in that area.”

Furihata smiled. “I should’ve guessed. Sounds like it’ll be helpful, then.”

“I hope so,” Akashi said, with full sincerity. That was the one thing he wanted, after all—to get whatever help he needed, to become a better, healthier person. To learn how to avoid his own worst tendencies.

He was starting to understand that he couldn’t afford to do otherwise.

“She did say I appear to meet many of the criteria for those disorders,” he added. “Though we weren’t able to go into specifics. I may need to give some of her questions more thought.”

Akashi furrowed his brows, as he recalled it. For the most part, the conversation wasn’t as uncomfortable as he feared—but he was surprised at his own uncertainty, at how to describe various things. He had long sensed that the way he experienced consciousness would sound strange to other people. But he never fully realized how difficult it would be to articulate, or even understand, some parts of it himself.

“Do you experience gaps in the memory of your day-to-day life? That is to say, do you ever find that you’ve done something without recalling it, or you black out and regain consciousness somewhere else?”

Akashi already knew that this was a criterion for Dissociative Identity Disorder. It was the symptom that always gave him the most pause, because he couldn’t decide if it accurately described his own case or not.

He didn’t recall losing track of events against his will. But there used to be many instances where he would let himself drift away, on one level or another. He would lose a few minutes of time, while his brother would talk in his place.

Did that really count, however? And then, on the other hand, could he ever know for certain if he remembered everything…?

“I don’t believe so. But there are times I have let my—my alter speak for me. And when we switch places, I can choose to stop being aware of my surroundings.”

The psychiatrist wrote this down, and said they would discuss it in more depth later. She seemed surprised, when Akashi explained that his other self had been in full control of his body only once, for a period of multiple years. She went on to tell him that a complete diagnosis would take time. Then she broached the subject that Akashi dreaded most.

“If you do work with me, I would want to discuss your past with you, particularly your early childhood. This tends to be a crucial period for those who experience a pattern of dissociation. From what we know, it very often stems from sustained forms of trauma, or neglect.”

Akashi forced himself to explain that his mother died when he was ten. He always considered that to be the first genuinely traumatic experience in his life. He also recalled recognizing that he had another self around that period. The psychiatrist agreed that it likely played a role in his disorder’s progression. Then she said…

“Typically, the most formative trauma occurs before age nine. But we would explore all of the possible influences, to help you better understand the root issue.”

This confused Akashi. He had a strict upbringing, obviously. But particularly when his mother was alive, he wouldn’t have characterized it as “traumatic.” “Privileged” seemed far more appropriate. Still, he knew that psychotherapy sessions often involved discussing a patient’s childhood, to determine how their psyche developed. So it couldn’t hurt, he supposed.

Akashi had to admit that it would be a struggle, to talk about such personal subjects with a stranger. But it was well worth it, he reminded himself. As long as he became a more stable, reliable person in the end.

Back in the present, Furihata was quiet, watching him. Akashi had expected him to ask more questions about the session, but he seemed hesitant to broach Akashi’s privacy. Which Akashi appreciated, deeply. He trusted his friend enough to tell him what he wanted to know. But it was still difficult, at times.

Furihata gave their intertwined fingers a soft squeeze.

“So was it kind of a relief, when she said that?” he asked. “Or was it just something you already knew?”

Akashi considered the question. He hadn’t processed any particular emotional reaction to the appointment, apart from nervousness. For some reason, his head was starting to ache a bit again. “Closer to the latter, I suppose.”

Furihata nodded. “Are you going to see her every week? Is her office around here?”

“Her main office is based in Kyoto,” Akashi said. “So I’ll be able to see her two times a week, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh.” Furihata’s expression flickered, before he added in a cheerful voice, “Well, that’s good.”

Akashi studied Furihata. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m fine.” Furihata sounded sheepish. “Sorry. I just, uh… It’s pretty dumb? I was just kind of hoping you’d have a reason to visit Tokyo more.”

Akashi softened. He leaned closer to Furihata, until their foreheads were nearly touching. “I would have liked that as well.”

Their linked fingers were resting against his chest. Furihata laughed a little, but he looked wistful. “I really wish you didn’t have to leave tomorrow. You stayed a whole week, but it’s like you just got here.”

“I feel the same,” Akashi said, honestly. He couldn’t recall a week ever passing so quickly for him before. “Have you given any thought to visiting me in Kyoto? I need to attend practice, but we’re still on vacation otherwise.”

He couldn’t help but smile, at the idea of Furihata visiting him. They hadn’t been in Kyoto together for months—at a rather pivotal and early stage in their friendship. It would be nice to show Furihata around his family estate there, since it was the place Akashi considered his true home. And also…

“I promised to show you Gion at nighttime,” he added. “You never did take me up on that offer.”

Furihata’s face lit up immediately, to Akashi’s delight. “Oh yeah! I totally forgot. Yeah, that’d be great. Um, so… I have practice too. But I have a half-day coming up, I think? And I could probably skip the day after, if I want. I’ll check with my coach tomorrow.”

“All right. Though I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”

Furihata shook his head. “A bunch of people had to take days off for vacation. I didn’t miss any. So I’m pretty sure one is fine.”

“I’m glad,” Akashi said. He added, in a more playful tone, “And it’s good that you’ve been so diligent. I hope you’re prepared for a rematch.”

“Obviously.” Furihata was grinning, like before. Then an odd expression crossed his face. It was gone in an instant, and Akashi wasn’t sure how to describe it, but he was certain it was there. It somehow reminded him of that moment in the front hall, when they shared a hug.

He didn’t understand why. Did it have something to do with him leaving?

“In any case, we still have the rest of the evening together,” he noted, hoping to reassure his friend. “And you’re welcome to stay in my room later on, if you like.”

He said this in a slightly hushed voice. Akashi had instructed the household staff to prepare a guest room for Furihata, like they did on his last overnight visit. But on that night, for various reasons, Furihata had ended up sleeping in Akashi’s bed instead. The truth was, they had both preferred that outcome. They wanted to spend as much time together as possible, rather than sleeping in separate rooms.

Akashi wasn’t sure how the servants would react, to instructions that he and Furihata would be sharing his bed. But either way, there was no reason to tell anyone. Such an arrangement was just between the two of them.

Akashi didn’t care if it was unusual. Just like he didn’t care if their friendship was unusual. He treasured it far too much.

He treasured it enough, frankly, to do just about anything. No matter what sort of risk it might pose—to him, or to anyone else. The feeling was a heady one, and deeply unfamiliar.

“Oh, okay! Um. Sure.” Furihata looked wide-eyed again. (Or, well, more so.) His voice lowered too, as he added, “Yeah, that’d be nice. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Akashi couldn't help noticing that his friend had gone a bit pink. That didn’t exactly surprise him. The truth was, he felt slightly flustered himself. The suggestion was unusual enough—and forward enough, in a sense—that a certain degree of self-consciousness was understandable.

Still, Furihata clearly wanted to accept the offer, for the same reason Akashi had made it. So Akashi didn’t regret broaching the subject.

But as he observed Furihata, something else began to concern him. Something he hadn’t noticed in his friend’s behavior, until now. Akashi didn’t understand the source of it—but it was something he never wanted to cause, for any reason.

He could have sworn that Furihata seemed almost, well…


Just don’t be weird, Furihata told himself for the thousandth time.

Okay, it wasn’t the thousandth time. Or even close, actually… For the most part, Furihata was trying not to think about anything related to his own weirdness at all. Which seemed to be working, so he was going with that, as much as possible.

But now that he was climbing into Akashi’s gigantic canopy bed, he was getting nervous again. And he couldn’t help it.

Furihata wanted to stay in Akashi’s room again. He really did. But until Akashi made the offer, he hadn’t fully considered the possibility, or what might happen because of it… They would probably talk for hours instead of sleeping, which was totally fine. Furihata wanted that.

But eventually, they were going to fall asleep. Right? Which meant Furihata would be sleeping in the same bed as Akashi. He would be lying right beside his best friend, and then he might dream about some of the stuff he had been dreaming about lately, and that…

That seemed really, super awkward.

Furihata gulped, as he slipped beneath the covers. He realized there was another layer of sheets underneath him, so he had to rearrange everything again. (Seriously, how many bedclothes did Akashi use? There was a down comforter and a blanket and like three layers of silk sheets… Didn’t he get hot at night?)

“Is there anything I can get you?” Akashi was shutting his bedroom door. He crossed over to his nightstand. “Some water, maybe?”

A silver pitcher sat on the stand, beside a pair of crystal glasses. Akashi picked up a glass, and it sparkled in the lamplight.

“That’s okay. I’m good.” Furihata watched, as Akashi poured water in a curving stream into the glass. He still didn’t know how his friend managed to make such everyday gestures look so graceful.

“All right.” Akashi took a sip, then another. “You can help yourself later, if you like.”

Furihata nodded. He was trying not to let his eyes wander down to the swallowing motion of Akashi’s throat. Akashi’s pale neckline was more visible than usual, with his silk pajamas lying loose around his collarbone. For some reason, that reminded Furihata of his weird dreams all over again…

It really didn’t help that one of those dreams had been about this exact bed, either.

“You brought your pajamas again,” Akashi observed. A smile of recognition was playing on his lips. “They suit you.”

“Oh, uh… thanks?” Furihata managed a laugh, as he straightened his blue and white pajama top. His heart gave an uncomfortable, shivery flutter. Which was dumb, and made zero sense.

Sure, if a girl had said something like that, Furihata would have wondered if she was flirting. But this was Akashi, who said nice things like that all the time, to everybody. Obviously, it was just a friendly compliment.

Which was exactly what Furihata wanted it to be. They were friends, best friends. Furihata didn’t think of Akashi that way at all… He didn’t even like boys in the first place. He liked girls, and he knew it.

The whole thing was seriously ridiculous. He just needed to stop worrying about things that weren’t real, and were never going to happen.

Akashi set down the glass. He lifted himself onto the mattress, and it gently shifted. As he settled next to Furihata, a familiar sensation of warmth flooded into Furihata’s senses. He focused on it: on the powerful energy that always seemed to accompany Akashi’s presence. Like some kind of magical, comforting aura.

Just like that, all his dumb nerves melted away. Furihata relaxed into the pillows, and Akashi said something random about one of the books they read earlier, and then they were laughing. Like normal.

The whole thing was surprisingly easy. Before he got to Akashi’s house, Furihata was worried he would start acting strange, and make everything all weird. But as soon as he was with Akashi, they slipped right into their normal friendship.

It wasn’t hard to do at all. Which was a huge relief.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to visit?” Furihata couldn’t resist bringing this up again. He was excited to go back to Kyoto. “I know you only have practice, but you’re the captain. And you don’t have any student council stuff?”

Akashi seemed to think. “I have a meeting that morning. But it shouldn’t interfere with your visit. The other members just needed approval on some of the activities for the school festival.”

Furihata gaped at his friend, while his brain boggled. He couldn’t imagine having to deal with the pressure of being the captain of a basketball team like Rakuzan’s, then having to keep track of the whole student council on top of that. Not to mention the fact that Akashi was number one in his class, grades-wise. Sometimes it really was like he was superhuman.

Furihata shook his head. “You’re seriously too much, you know that?”

“Hmm.” Akashi leaned further into the pillows, and gave Furihata an amused look. “I suppose that could be a fair assertion. Seeing as there are two of me.”

He chuckled. Furihata wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not. Honestly, he was kind of stunned. He couldn’t remember Akashi ever bringing that up on his own before. He had definitely never joked about it.

The first time they talked about his other self was just a few days earlier. Akashi had seemed so tense, like he was struggling to admit any of it out loud. Now he sounded way more relaxed. Furihata wondered if seeing a psychiatrist was already helping Akashi become more comfortable with himself. Or maybe Akashi had just come to trust him that much, as a friend.

Either way, Furihata felt really honored.

“Can I ask you something?” he said, kind of softly. “You don’t have to answer.”

Akashi looked more serious now. But he nodded as he said, “Of course.”

“Are you doing the therapy for your other self, too?” Furihata hesitated. He was really curious, but he didn’t want to pry too much. “Or—I mean, is your other self even going to talk to her? I guess I don’t know how it all works. For him, I mean.”

Akashi was silent. His brows furrowed, as he gazed toward the foot of the bed.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I don’t think he’ll speak with her. He… He doesn’t agree with my decision to try therapy.”

Furihata frowned. “Really? Why not?”

“I’m not certain. Which is rare.” Akashi was speaking slower than usual, as though he was deciding how to explain. “Most of the time, we’re fully aware of the other’s point of view. As though we can read each other’s minds, almost… I suppose because we share one.” He gave a slight shrug.

“Oh. Yeah, that makes sense,” Furihata agreed.

Akashi seemed lost in thought. His lashes were lowered, veiling his bright red irises.

“But I don’t know why he’s objecting to this,” he added, in a low tone. “And I don’t understand why he won’t discuss it.”

Furihata wasn’t sure what to say. A lot of this was going way over his head, he knew. He didn’t know anything about what it was like to have another self—much less how relationships with them were supposed to work.

He did get the feeling, though, that Akashi wanted his other self to be a part of what he was doing. Or to support his decision, at least.

“Do you think therapy would be good for him?” Furihata shifted a little closer. “Maybe you can talk him into it. You know, later on. If he sees how it helps you.”

“Maybe.” Akashi was frowning. “But I assume we’d have to switch. And he can’t come out without my permission. He doesn’t seem interested in doing that anymore… We both agreed it was better, if I remained in control.”

For how long? Furihata almost asked this out loud, but stopped himself. He got the feeling that it was going into pretty sensitive territory. And technically, it wasn’t his business. He had interacted with Akashi’s other self only a few times, and that was before he and Akashi got to know each other.

Still, Furihata had to admit that he wondered how it all worked. Was Akashi’s other self basically sleeping, right now? Or was he just… existing, deep in Akashi’s thoughts somewhere?

Either way, Furihata could tell that Akashi didn’t want to talk about it much. Like there were some things he had a hard time explaining, for whatever reason. That was his choice, and Furihata wanted to respect it, as much as possible.

Furihata inched closer to Akashi. One of Akashi’s hands was rested on the pillow. Furihata gently wound their fingers together, in the way that was becoming so familiar to them.

“Well, I think what you’re doing is amazing,” he said. “And I really hope it helps you feel better, about everything.”

“I hope so as well,” Akashi murmured.

They were lying face to face, smiling at each other. It felt so natural, and Furihata was struck yet again, by how easy their friendship was becoming. He didn’t have to try too hard, or worry about being misunderstood.

He shifted, propping his head up a little more. “So, what’s your house in Kyoto like? I’ve got some of your pictures, but they don’t show much.”

He thought back to the photos that Akashi had sent him over the last few months. Usually Akashi would take a shot of his desk, or the tea he was drinking or something like that. There were glimpses in those pictures, of fancy furnishings and marble floors. But Furihata couldn’t tell much about the house itself.

Akashi’s eyes were shining. “It’s very pleasant. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

He paused, letting out a content sort of sigh.

“The main house is very broad, and open,” he murmured, sounding distant. “It’s in the countryside, outside the city. I’m the only one in my family using it, so most of the rooms are vacant. But I wouldn’t say it feels overly empty, just… spacious. There’s a great deal of light, unlike here. The grounds are like that, too. Long, grassy fields, with no tall buildings at all.”

Furihata lost himself in Akashi’s words, trying to picture it. The house they were in now seemed incredibly large. It was definitely bigger than his home, times about a million. So it was difficult for him to imagine somewhere even bigger, a place with more rooms and broader windows. A place with no city skyline in the background. Furihata had lived in Tokyo his whole life, to the point that it sounded like a story.

He shut his eyes, and imagined a massive building of pale stone, surrounded by grassy fields. He didn’t know if such a place even existed in Japan.

But as he pictured Akashi living there, on his own and content, he knew that he wanted to find out for himself.

The two of them talked for hours, exactly like Furihata figured they would. And it didn’t feel weird at all. It was just effortless, and amazing. Furihata was starting to forget how it felt, when he didn’t have a friendship this close. He couldn’t imagine not having Akashi in his life, at this point.

And he wasn’t going to let anything—not family members, or mental hang-ups, or his own weird subconscious brain—come between them.

Furihata drifted off. He had no idea what time it was, but he kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He was dreaming, about holding hands with a red-haired prince. He knew this prince really well. They walked through empty room after empty room, inside an enormous palace of light.

At some point, he opened his eyes. A lamp was still on, glazing the bed curtains with a muted glow. Akashi lay beside him, asleep. Furihata sighed and drifted away again, into a drowsy fog.

Something shifted, and Furihata stirred. The room around him had changed, somehow. At first, he thought it was something about the lighting… Then he sensed it again. It was almost like electricity, crackling in the air beside him. It sent a swarm of tingling shivers cascading over his skin.

It was energy, from a very strong aura. He had felt this aura before.

Furihata started awake. His face was pressed into the pillow, so that he couldn’t see the half-lit room around him. He lay paralyzed, completely still.

He could feel it. A pair of eyes were watching him. Fierce, piercing eyes.

He forced himself to turn. A person was sitting upright on the bed, silhouetted by the lamplight. At first it was difficult to see any facial features. But Furihata didn’t need to. He had this storm-like energy memorized, burned into the back of his mind. The memories were all traced over with a musty residue of fear.

He knew this person. He would’ve known them anywhere.

Furihata raised his head, ignoring the instinct to stay as still as possible. His gaze was locked on the newcomer. The room was silent, swirling with hypnotic tension. Furihata sat up partway, using both hands to steady himself.

His insides were quaking. Just like in the memories that shadowed the air.

The newcomer had Akashi’s face. But it wasn’t him.

“Hello,” Furihata whispered, his voice rasping in his throat.

Akashi’s other self didn’t respond. He stared down at Furihata, unblinking.

Even in the dim room, his left eye gleamed a smoldering, lionish hue of orange.

Chapter Text

“H-hello,” Furihata said, to Akashi’s other self.

The other Akashi gazed down at him. His asymmetrical eyes were just as sharp and intense as Furihata remembered. But the rest of his expression was blank, almost like a statue.

After a moment, he turned away, as though he hadn’t heard Furihata at all. He rose swiftly from the bed.

Furihata watched him, speechless. The other Akashi braced his hand against the nightstand. For a split second, it almost looked like he had lost his footing. He crossed the room, with oddly familiar grace. He didn’t look back, or say a word. As soon as he reached the door, he opened it with a rasping creak, and swept over the threshold. And he was gone.

The door stood ajar. Furihata felt kind of ajar himself. He glanced at the empty space in the bed beside him.

What in the world had just happened?

He could barely think straight. Goosebumps were crawling all over his skin. He was too freaked out to move.

Then, for some reason, he wasn’t. He scrambled out of bed, and dashed through the sitting room until he reached the outside hall. He spotted the other Akashi, who was already halfway down the dimly lit passage.

“W-wait,” he called, as he lurched forward. Blood pounded in his ears. “Uh… I’m…”

He wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. The other Akashi stopped, and peered over his shoulder. His stare was like a blow, knocking the air out of Furihata’s lungs.

“We—we’ve met,” Furihata managed. That weird feeling of paralysis was back. The darkness in the hall felt strangely solid, like it was pressing in around him. “B-b-before. I don’t know if—”

The other Akashi’s eyes gave a subtle flash.

“I know who you are, Furihata Kouki,” he said, in a grim voice.

He turned away again. Furihata’s mouth had gone dry, and his legs were wobbling. The feeling of déjà vu was overwhelming. It was like he was right back at the Winter Cup, facing down the most intimidating person he had ever met in his life.

Who knew his full name… That kind of shocked Furihata, to be honest. He was pretty sure the other Akashi hadn’t bothered to learn it, back when they first met.

The other Akashi stalked into the shadows, until he disappeared from sight. The squeak of aging wood sounded in the distance. Was he going downstairs? Furihata’s thoughts raced.

He didn’t know what to do. The other Akashi was acting like he didn’t want to be followed. Furihata really wanted to know what was going on, though. He hadn’t seen Akashi’s other self for over six months.

But his legs felt stuck. In all honesty, he had forgotten just how unapproachable the other Akashi could be.

Furihata glanced back at Akashi’s rooms. The doorway glowed softly. His feet felt cold for some reason. He forgot to put on slippers, he realized suddenly. He was just standing with his feet bare, against the polished hardwood.

He moved toward the doorway, to get some slippers at least… The house shifted. Something farther down the hall gave a long, low creak.

Furihata froze. He had managed not to think about it until now, but… Akashi’s house kind of terrified him at night. It didn’t bother him too much, as long as he was with Akashi. But whenever his friend wasn’t around, he started to notice all these weird noises, and how the shadows crept in his peripheral vision.

A few nights ago, Furihata saw something in that hallway that sent him into a full-blown panic. Something truly, bone-chillingly horrifying…

He scurried toward the stairs. His bare feet slipped a little, as he stumbled down the grand staircase. The house was mostly dark, but a few of the sconce lights were still on, enough for him to see his way.

Furihata reached the ground floor. A brighter area shone up ahead. Golden beams were spilling out of a half-open doorway. As he came closer, Furihata recognized the door. It led to the library.

He slowed as he neared the threshold, until he was standing still. He could sense that electric aura again. It felt almost like a barrier, stopping him from coming closer. His breath thinned, and his stomach gave a panicked twist.

Furihata closed his eyes. Why was this so hard? He wasn’t afraid of Akashi’s other self… He didn’t think he had any reason to be. It was just oddly overwhelming, to be around him. Like the intensity of his energy was almost too much to handle.

Furihata clenched his jaw, and inched toward the door. His knees felt like they were turning to water. Still, he forced himself to take another step, then another.

At last he was able to peek inside. The chandelier in the center of the room was lit, along with some of the lamps. Thudding and scraping sounds echoed from one corner, along with the whispery flip of pages. Furihata edged into the room, just enough to see the source of the noises. He halted, stunned.

The other Akashi stood high in the air, perched on a ladder beside the shelves. He was balanced on the second step from the top, and rifling through a row of books. He took them out one by one, then flipped through the pages with such lightning-fast speed that Furihata had no idea how he was seeing anything on them.

The other Akashi reached the last book in the row. He thumbed through it, but instead of putting it back, he simply let it drop. It plummeted to the ground with a bang.

Furihata felt like his entire body had jumped so hard it hit the ceiling.

He watched in rigid disbelief. The other Akashi gripped the sides of the ladder and slid down partway. Then he let go, leaping onto the floor. Weirdly, he made almost no sound when he landed. He was barefoot too, Furihata realized. Did he forget about his slippers? Or did he just not care?

It was hard for Furihata to imagine the Akashi he knew wandering around barefoot. Even in his own house, Akashi was always careful to wear the right footwear, and keep his appearance neat. Now that fiery red hair was mussed from sleeping, and his silk pajama top was askew. The other Akashi didn’t seem concerned about these things at all.

The other Akashi grabbed the ladder, swinging it farther down the rails that were built into the shelves. It rattled loudly as it went. He climbed halfway up the steps, then started ransacking another row of books.

Furihata was totally bewildered. He had no idea why Akashi’s other self would want to look through a bunch of books in the middle of the night. Not to mention why he was even here in the first place.

Akashi had said that his other self didn’t come out on his own. That he didn’t want to come out. What was going on?

Furihata drew a tight breath. He forced himself to step all the way into the room.

“Um… do… Do you need any help?” His voice sounded weirdly small inside the huge chamber.

The other Akashi didn’t even glance in his direction. He flipped through a massive leather volume, then crammed it back in place. Furihata just stood there, hovering awkwardly, while the other Akashi paged through book after book. It was almost like he didn’t care if Furihata was there or not.

Furihata couldn’t decide if that was a bad sign, or a good one.

As the other Akashi slid back down to the floor again, Furihata blinked, then frowned. For a second, he got the weirdest feeling. Like he was looking at a warped mirror, at a reflection that got messed up somehow. But at first, he wasn’t sure why.

The other Akashi picked up the book he had dropped. He paced alongside the shelves, skimming the titles on the spines. Furihata noticed the brisk, busy way he moved around. It was similar to the Akashi he knew, for the most part, but… It was slightly different? The motions were quicker, and sharper. Not quite as careful, or as fluid.

The longer Furihata looked, the more differences he spotted. The other Akashi’s gaze darted around, almost like a hawk’s. It was like he was trying to take in all of his surroundings at once. Furihata kept watching him, fascinated. The Akashi he knew had a softer gaze, and tended to smile from his eyes a lot. So far, the other Akashi hadn’t smiled at all.

(Furihata kind of remembered what this Akashi looked like when he smiled, at least sometimes, but… He was trying not to think about it. Because honestly, the memory was pretty unnerving.)

When he first met Akashi’s two selves, Furihata hadn’t noticed any of these details. Not consciously, at least. He would have missed it this time, too, except he knew the red-eyed Akashi so much better now. As the other Akashi stalked around the library, Furihata felt like he understood, better than he ever had.

This person really was different. The other Akashi was using the same body, but in his own way. He had his own gestures, and facial expressions. Even the way he carried himself, and his tones of voice, had slight variations to them. For Furihata, it felt genuinely strange to watch. Eerie, almost.

Even if he hadn’t been able to tell, Furihata still wouldn’t have mistaken this person for his best friend. The energy around him was just way too different.

Furihata wasn’t sure how much time passed, until the other Akashi climbed back onto the ladder. He grabbed yet another book. This time, he sat down on one of the dizzyingly high steps, and began to read.

Furihata gaped up at him. Who tried to read a book on the top step of a ladder?

“Is there some reason you’re still here?” The other Akashi’s voice cut through the silence.

Furihata’s heart convulsed in his chest. The words were cold, indifferent. Until now, Furihata wasn’t completely sure the other Akashi even knew he was still around.

Okay, so getting ignored was definitely a bad sign.

“U-u-um…” Furihata’s stammer was back in full force. He hadn’t felt this self-conscious around someone in months. He honestly had no clue what to say.

The other Akashi still didn’t look up from his book. Or, well, down, in this case… Some part of Furihata really wanted to beg him to get off the ladder. He was pretty sure he would get ignored, though.

Seconds ticked by, one after another. Finally, the other Akashi raised his head. The corners of his mouth were pinched, as he glared down at Furihata.

“I don’t know what it is you think you want.” He sounded annoyed. “But as you can see, I’m busy.”

His chest pulsed, in a rigid sigh. He reached over his shoulder and re-shelved the book, without even glancing at where it was supposed to go. Then he came back down the ladder, barely skimming each step. Furihata was positive that he was going to lose his footing. For some reason, though, he didn’t.

At this point, Furihata couldn't stand it anymore. “Busy with what?”

The other Akashi gave him a withering look. He walked straight past him, toward a spiral staircase that led up to another landing full of shelves.

Furihata’s pulse was pounding, to the point that he felt kind of lightheaded. Somehow, he forced the words out of his mouth again. “S-seriously, why are you in the library? Are you—are you looking for something?”

The other Akashi didn’t even pause, as he scaled the staircase. His voice echoed as he climbed. “Observant, aren’t you? And to answer your earlier question, no, I do not require your help. In any way whatsoever.”

Furihata flinched. Well, that was about as thorough a refusal as anybody could get.

“O-okay.” He stepped toward the stairs, and reached out to clutch the gilded railing. “Is it important, though? Does… Does Akashi-kun know you’re looking for it? Are you helping him out or something?”

He stumbled over the questions, not sure if he was asking them right. For one thing, he didn’t know what this Akashi called the other version of himself. Or what he wanted to be called, either. Technically, they were both ‘Akashi-kun.’ Weren’t they?

Furihata knew the red-eyed one better, though. And that was what he had been calling him for months… It was obvious who he meant, wasn’t it?

“Does Akashi-kun know you’re out like this?” he added.

A series of thumps sounded from the landing. The next thing Furihata knew, the other Akashi was descending the staircase again, with an armful of books.

“I fail to see how any of that is your business.” He was thumbing through one volume with his free hand, reading as he went. “Why don’t you run along back to my bed? Then you can return to your quaint little dreams about being with my brother forever after.” His catlike eyes flicked up toward the ceiling. “Or whatever it is you fantasize about.”

Furihata stood frozen. His shocked gaze was fixed on the other Akashi, who had already reached the ground floor. The blood was draining from his face, as his heart tried to climb its way out of his throat.

Did he really just say that?

There was no way, Furihata reminded himself, as he gulped down a breath. There was no way the other Akashi knew what he was dreaming about lately. Sure, he could do some things that were borderline supernatural on a basketball court. But he couldn’t literally read minds. Right?

And okay, Furihata was having a few weird dreams. But that was all it was. He wasn’t fantasizing, and definitely not about being with Akashi ‘forever after’—whatever that was supposed to mean.

Was it just some kind of joke? It had to be. But… Did the other Akashi even have a sense of humor?

Furihata stared at the back of that familiar crimson head. The other Akashi had reached the sitting area beside the fireplace. He dropped the pile of books onto a low table, then sat in one of the couches. He kept his posture oddly straight, as he started sorting the books into different piles.

Furihata waited, pulse pounding. The other Akashi didn’t say anything more. He was looking through books again.

At this point, Furihata couldn’t decide if this was a relief, or just getting annoying.

He steeled himself, and walked closer. The other Akashi didn’t seem to notice. He was rifling through a thick book filled with black and white photographs. As Furihata came nearer, he squinted, trying to recognize them. They just looked like random historical photos, mostly portraits of people.

Eventually, the other Akashi set the book aside. He paged through another book that was similar, then added it on top of the first one.

Furihata screwed up his courage. He said, a little more loudly than he meant to, “Can I put those back for you? If—if you’re done with them, I mean.”

This time, the other Akashi looked up at him. He was expressionless, without the slightest hint of emotion. For a stomach-lurching moment, Furihata was convinced that he was going to say something sarcastic, or just ignore him again.

Weirdly, he didn’t do either.

“Fine,” he said. And then he went right back to reading.

Which was how Furihata found himself going up and down the spiral staircase, to put a bunch of books away. The other Akashi never gave him any instructions about what to do. He just left the books in a growing pile. Not surprisingly, Furihata spent most of his time searching the upstairs shelves, trying to figure out where each one came from. He didn’t want to ask the other Akashi.

Honestly, though, he wasn’t going to complain. At least he had something to focus on. Anything was better than standing around awkwardly and trying to figure out what in the heck to say. And the longer he was in the room, the easier it was to get used to the other Akashi’s energy.

He didn’t feel totally exhausted by it this time. Not like he had in the Winter Cup. He wasn’t sure why that was, though.

Furihata examined the books as he put them back, trying to figure out what they were for. He couldn't find much of a pattern. Most of the volumes came from the same corner of the library, but they seemed pretty random. Some were historical tomes about the rise of industrialization and international trade in Japan. There were records of lineage, too, from various families with old-sounding names.

They might all have something to do with the Akashi family, Furihata guessed. But he couldn’t figure out what the other Akashi would want with them.

He came back down the stairs. The piles of books were mostly gone now. The other Akashi was inspecting the last book, searching carefully through its yellowed pages. His brows were furrowed. He shut the cover with a firm thump.

“So did you find anything?” Furihata held out a hand, offering to take the book from him.

The other Akashi pursed his lips. “I don’t see any need to share that information.”

“Okay.” Furihata hovered, waiting. Eventually he just started picking up the last few books that remained on the table. “Are you sure, though? I could help you look some more, for whatever it is. I mean, if I knew what—”

“No.” The refusal was sharper than ever.

Furihata couldn’t hold back a sigh, as he clutched the books to his chest. “Fine. So where are you going to look next?”

“I’m not.” The other Akashi’s voice was kind of tight. Furihata had the sense that he was uncomfortable, somehow. “Not here, anyway. I have other things to go do now. And you are certainly not permitted to accompany me.”

That last part startled Furihata. Not because it was particularly mean or anything. It was more how it was worded—like it was something the other Akashi said all the time, and he just expected people to listen.

But Furihata had never heard anyone say such a stuffy, commanding phrase out loud. He sounded like some weird cross between a king, and a snotty little kid.

Furihata couldn’t stop a surprised laugh. He tried, and it came out like a snort.

The other Akashi’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you laughing?”

“S-sorry,” Furihata said, as his heart skipped a beat. He forced himself to add, “I was just thinking… I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to follow you, if I want. I don’t really need your permission. You know?”

The other Akashi blinked. He looked almost confused. Which was kind of weird… Even if he was used to having his orders followed, his authority must get challenged once in a while, right? Furihata had seen it happen in person, actually. A few times.

But maybe he was just surprised because it was coming from a person like Furihata?

Which… was kind of insulting, but seemed pretty likely.

“Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to find,” Furihata added. “But are you sure you don’t want to take a break? It’s been like an hour.”

The other Akashi seemed even more confused. And maybe slightly annoyed.

“A break.” His voice was paper-dry. “And what, exactly, would be the point of that?”

“Uh, because people need them, sometimes?” Furihata resisted the urge to say, “Wow, you sound exactly like Akashi-kun.” It was the first time he was reminded of the Akashi he knew. It helped him relax a little, like maybe this conversation wasn’t as intimidating as he thought.

The other Akashi scowled. “If there are individuals who legitimately require a break after a single hour of reading, then I pity them. I have no interest in sitting here and wasting time.”

“You don’t have to just sit. I mean, you could, um…” Furihata faltered. The other Akashi was giving him an increasingly cynical look. His mind raced, as he glanced around the room. Every corner was filled with books and chairs, but not much else. His hurried gaze landed on the table by the fireplace.

A chess set was sitting there, with its large gold and silver pieces arranged in rows. Furihata had played several games with that set, just a few nights ago. As the memory flickered in his mind, he brightened.

“What about that?” he said, gesturing to the chessboard. “I’ll play you, if you want. You’re really good, aren’t you?”

Furihata remembered what the red-eyed Akashi had told him. Supposedly, his other self was even better at strategy games. Which was honestly pretty hard to imagine.

The other Akashi fixed him with a stare. It was somehow both aloof and bewildered.

“You’re offering to play chess against me,” he said.

“Uh-huh. If you’d like that.”

The other Akashi spoke very slowly, almost like he thought Furihata wouldn’t understand any of the words. “You realize, I hope, that I would annihilate you. It would be an exercise in utter futility.”

“Well, yeah,” Furihata said, and the other Akashi made a weird face, like he tasted something sour. “I mean if you’re as good as, uh… As your brother says? I’m not expecting to win or anything.”

“But then what is the point?” the other Akashi pressed.

“For fun?” Furihata shrugged. “I’d like to play you. You don’t want an easy win?”

Silence stretched between them. The other Akashi’s gaze darted back and forth, between the chessboard and Furihata. His expression was as stony as ever. Then, for an instant, his heterochromatic eyes gave a subtle flash.

“Very well,” he said. “If you’re so determined to suffer a defeat.”

“Sure thing,” Furihata said cheerfully, as he set the books aside. The other Akashi watched him like he was some kind of alien.

They sat on opposite sides of the chessboard. Furihata couldn’t help remembering the last time they were face to face like this. Back then, they had been on a basketball court, getting ready to compete on the most intense night of his life. This felt oddly similar… Maybe because the outcome would be roughly the same.

(At least this time he wouldn’t collapse from sheer exhaustion? Hopefully.)

Furihata checked the board, making sure everything was in the right place. He was on the side with the silver pieces. “You’re going first, right?”

The other Akashi didn’t answer. He just shifted a gold-plated pawn forward two squares. It wasn’t one of the two center pawns, which was kind of a surprise. Those were the most popular opening moves, with beginners and experts.

Furihata moved the pawn in front of his king, to avoid losing his piece at the start. The other Akashi immediately moved a pawn on the other side, almost before Furihata had set his down.

Furihata chewed the inside of his lip. This Akashi played even faster than the other one. He tried to remember some of the general advice the red-eyed Akashi had taught him, during their games together. Fight for the center, free your knights as soon as you can…

Furihata ended up letting the other Akashi capture a pawn, but that was okay. Plenty of early strategies required losing a pawn. His brain sprinted around, trying to recall all the different approaches. He sort of knew how to open a game of chess, but later stages of the game were way harder to figure out. Still, they were only a few turns in. He hadn’t lost total track of his strategy yet.

After a minute of frantic thought, Furihata swapped his king and his rook.


Furihata looked up. “Huh?”

“Wrong,” the other Akashi repeated. “You’ve lost.”

Furihata scanned the board. Almost all of his pieces were still in play, and his king was now protected by a row of pawns. “No, I didn’t. We just—”

Before he could finish, the other Akashi moved his golden queen across the board, and captured one of Furihata’s pieces. Then, weirdly, he moved one of Furihata’s silver pieces too. He moved another one of his, then Furihata’s again. He kept going, back and forth across the board.

“What are you doing?” Furihata said, but the other Akashi just kept moving pieces. His fingers were darting so fast that Furihata’s eyes could hardly keep up.

Finally, the other Akashi moved his queen diagonally, to capture Furihata’s king. He reached out, and tipped over the silver piece. It fell with a clatter.

“Those were the strongest moves you could have made from that point,” he said flatly. “As you can see, you lost.”

Furihata stared, mouth open. His king was still rolling. “How could you even know that?”

The other Akashi raised a pointed brow. “Are you saying you don’t believe me?”

“No, it’s just…” Furihata looked back at the board, trying to remember exactly how each piece had moved. The number of captured pieces was even on both sides. Whatever had happened, it was a really close game. A spark of curiosity fizzled inside him. “Can you do it again?”

“Of course I can.” The other Akashi sounded almost offended. “If you have some bizarre, masochistic desire to lose again.”

Furihata was already moving the pieces back into position. Once they were back in shining rows, he nudged a center pawn forward. (Technically the silver pieces were supposed to go second… He had a feeling his opponent wouldn’t care, though.)

The other Akashi moved one of his pawns two spaces. Furihata choose a few more moves. Then, as suddenly as before, the other Akashi declared that he had lost, and took control of the board. Silver and gold flashed back and forth over the squares. Furihata tried harder to follow along this time. He still didn’t really get it. But each of the moves he saw made sense, at least.

In the end, Furihata’s king was cornered again, surrounded on multiple sides.

“That’s amazing,” he said, with a hushed sort of awe.

The other Akashi studied him through narrowed lids. Like he didn’t understand.

“It’s not amazing at all,” he said, with something like disdain. “Chess is largely a matter of rote memorization. A computer program can be made to compete on a similar level as many of the finest grandmasters.”

Furihata was starting to feel like he couldn’t close his jaw anymore. “You’re comparing yourself to a computer program.”

“I am not. I’m simply stating how the game works.”

“But you’re saying you’ve memorized the entire game?” Furihata persisted. “Like, every move that someone could possibly make, and what to do about it?”

The other Akashi shrugged.

They played again, at Furihata’s request. The exact same thing happened. Furihata tried to study what the other Akashi was doing, but he couldn’t. It changed every time. At some point during his fourth or fifth loss—he forgot to keep count—the other Akashi started naming some of the strategies as he went. His sharp voice rattled through lists of old, European-sounding titles. Ruy Lopez, the Caro-Kann defense, the Sicilian defense, Queen’s Gambit…

Furihata was starting to feel like he was watching a war. A brutal, decisive one. Where each of the battles was being won, over and over, by the world’s only sixteen-year-old general.

Around the tenth game, something changed. Not the outcome, obviously… The other Akashi won, as easily as he did every other time. But as he pushed his king into the final position, his lips shifted. It took Furihata a moment to recognize the other Akashi was smiling. As soon as he noticed, it was gone.

Gradually, it happened a few more times. The other Akashi seemed to be enjoying himself, even though it was obvious that this wasn’t a challenge for him. He genuinely liked strategy games, Furihata realized. It was something more, too… His heterochromatic eyes sparkled, each time he placed the finishing move.

It was like even these small, easy wins were satisfying to him. Fulfilling, in some unspoken way. He looked oddly… content.

Furihata couldn’t explain why he hadn’t expected that.

He tried a different strategy for the next match. Which only prompted the other Akashi to start rearranging all the pieces even earlier. Sighing, Furihata handed him the knight he was reaching for.

“You’re too cautious,” the other Akashi said. It was the first piece of advice he'd offered all night. Furihata blinked, but the other Akashi didn’t seem to notice his surprise. His concentration was fixed on the board. “You need to play aggressively, right from the start. Players like you stop to think ahead, at least, which is more than can be said for most. But if you’re only reacting to the pace of your opponent, you’ll lose every time.”

The other Akashi reached checkmate, yet again. He started resetting the board himself. He seemed to have completely forgotten that what they were doing was supposedly pointless.

“Oh,” Furihata managed. He watched the other Akashi’s long fingers, as they flitted back and forth over the squares. “But, um… what are you supposed to do if the other person figures out what you’re planning?”

He had never been able to adjust to those situations. Which was why he always focused on reacting to the other person. (In chess, and in basketball, actually.)

“You plan for that in advance.” The other Akashi frowned, like this was the most obvious concept in the world. “Of course a competent person will figure it out. That’s why you have multiple strategies in place, so you can adjust them. At every possible step, you should know how your opponent will interpret your approach, each way they’re likely to respond, and exactly how to counter it.”

Furihata’s head was already spinning. Again, all he could manage to say was, “Oh.”

He kind of knew all that stuff, in theory. But he couldn’t figure out how Akashi—both of them—were able to do it so easily. Every single time.

Furihata had only been able to outsmart this Akashi once. That was during the finals, when he guarded him and made a shot. From what he could tell, it only happened because the other Akashi assumed he couldn’t score under pressure. Honestly, Furihata wasn’t sure he could, either… He basically just followed his coach’s instructions. And got lucky.

He knew he lucked out, that the other Akashi just got overconfident. Because this Akashi had taken down opponents who were way scarier, and way smarter, than him. Furihata saw it firsthand, during the Winter Cup.

As the other Akashi moved more pieces around, Furihata recalled the one basketball match that had most reminded him of a chess game. It wasn’t when Seirin played Rakuzan in the finals. It was a different match—and it was the first time Furihata ever saw this Akashi play. It was one of the most intense competitions he’d ever seen.

“So, basically what you did when your team played Shuutoku?” he said quietly.

The other Akashi’s gaze flicked toward him. “Yes. Exactly.”

He didn’t seem like he was going to say anything more. Furihata couldn’t resist pressing him a little. “Because it kind of seemed like you and Midorima were trying really hard to out-strategize each other. It was like watching a board game, almost? Kuroko told us that you guys used to play shougi a lot.”

The other Akashi furrowed his brows. Furihata couldn’t quite read his expression.

“We did,” he said. His voice sounded a little flat.

A minute passed in silence. Furihata was starting to think that maybe he shouldn’t have brought that up, though he didn’t know why.

The other Akashi’s eyes were unusually dim. He reached for his king, then paused. His fingers hovered on the cross-tipped crown.

“Shintarou always was one of my better shougi partners,” he murmured. He sounded distant. “The match was interesting. He took more risks, for once. But I’ve told him before that entirely new, untested strategies will have the most weaknesses. He was too optimistic.” He gave a slight shrug. “And naïve, as usual.”

Furihata wasn’t sure what to say. Or if the other Akashi was even talking to him, at this point… It seemed more like he was remembering what happened. It was hard not to picture the way the match had played out. The way Midorima had coordinated with his teammate Takao was amazing. It was even more amazing how Rakuzan won anyway. Amazing, and pretty terrifying, too.

The other Akashi’s words kept echoing in Furihata’s ears. Especially the first part. He was tempted to ask something he’d wondered for a while… He was curious, why this Akashi always called his old teammates from the Generation of Miracles by their given names.

It had stood out from the beginning. The other Miracles used their family names with each other. (Or weird nicknames, in some cases.) So when the other Akashi first appeared at the Winter Cup, at the top of those stairs, and he addressed them all, at first Furihata was like, “Wait, who?”

It almost seemed like it could be kind of insulting? None of the other Miracles called Akashi by his given name. They all seemed uncomfortable around him, on that first day at the Winter Cup. And when the red-eyed Akashi showed up, the one Furihata knew, he called the Miracles by family names. Just like the rest of them did.

But the way the other Akashi said Midorima’s given name just now, in that hushed tone… It didn’t sound like he was belittling him. Maybe even the opposite.

Furihata wanted to ask. But for some reason, he kind of got the feeling like it was a sensitive subject. Even though he still couldn’t put his finger on why.

“It was an incredible match,” he said instead. “You were really good.”

The other Akashi looked like he didn’t understand why Furihata was saying this. Which made sense. It was obvious, after all.

“You were always incredible, though,” Furihata added, to show he understood. “All season, I bet. Though I didn’t see most of your games. And in the finals? That was amazing.”

It was probably the biggest understatement in the history of words. The other Akashi had almost decimated Seirin's entire team, all by himself.

Which was why Furihata was startled, when the other Akashi’s expression darkened.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “My performance wasn’t incredible in the slightest. And my season wasn’t either.”

“What?” Furihata’s brain couldn’t help doing the obvious math, of all the matches that Akashi must have won. Rakuzan dominated the national tournament, and only missed winning the Winter Cup by one game. But the other Akashi had to know that already…

“If it had been exceptional, I wouldn’t have lost,” the other Akashi said, in a tight tone. “That’s self-evident. There is no possible equivocation. I failed, in all of it. And I have no choice but to acknowledge that fact.”

Furihata was speechless.

“But—” His voice was so hoarse that he was pretty sure it was inaudible.

He had no idea the other Akashi thought that way. It was nearly impossible to comprehend. That someone so amazing, who had won so many times, would genuinely believe that none of it mattered.

The other Akashi stared down at the remaining pieces, with his head bowed. His eyes were stormy, clouded over.

“I lost,” he said again. “Everything.”

Furihata’s insides wrenched. The aura around the other Akashi was shifting. Furihata swore he could even see it, for a second. Like there was this dark core—this huge, gaping, horrible hole—that had opened up inside the electric energy that swirled around him.

And it hurt. It really, really hurt.

But Furihata didn’t get what the other Akashi meant. He had only lost once, just a single game. Sure, it was his first loss ever. But he seemed to think it meant more, way more, than that.

Furihata didn’t understand, at all. Still, in that moment, he realized something. This Akashi thought in black and white. All or nothing. He always had—and this was the other side of it.

“I am absolute.”

He had all but called himself a failure. But how could he seriously think that…?

The other Akashi moved a piece, then another. He tipped over the king, and it collapsed onto the board. It was the golden king, Furihata noticed with a start.

Somehow, even in the middle of winning the game, the other Akashi had found a way to make himself lose.

The other Akashi rose to his feet. He wasn’t looking at Furihata anymore.

“I’ve wasted far too much time with this,” he muttered. “I need to return to bed.”

“What? Why?” Furihata said. The other Akashi didn’t answer. He was already heading toward the door.

Furihata glanced back at the chess set. He hurried to put the pieces back the way they originally were. He rose shakily to his feet, and sped out into the hall. It felt weirdly cold, since his feet were still bare. He crossed the fancy rugs and smooth wood floors as fast as he could, trying to make sure he didn’t trip.

He finally caught up with the other Akashi upstairs. “Hey, you don’t have to go back to sleep, if you don’t want. We could keep looking for that thing from before.”

The other Akashi reached the door to his sitting room. He pushed it farther open. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but no. We can’t. Not that I intended to go along with your intrusion in the first place.”

Furihata was lost. He couldn’t think of any reason why the other Akashi couldn’t keep searching. (For, well, whatever it was.) The Akashi he knew kept late hours every night of the week. It seemed weird that his other self would be particular about bedtimes.

“Listen, I’m really sorry, if I said something that upset you.” He swallowed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

The other Akashi looked even stiffer than usual. He shot Furihata a glare.

“You don’t have the slightest clue what’s happening here.” His words were edged with something like bitterness. “Not that I expected otherwise.”

He stormed through the door. Furihata felt a little like he had just been stabbed. He wasn’t sure if the wound came from a sense from guilt, or humiliation, or what.

But it was obvious that the other Akashi wanted to insult him. To shut him up, probably. Like before.

Weirdly, this whole pattern was just starting to make Furihata exasperated, more than anything. “Well, then why don’t you just explain it?”

The other Akashi didn’t seem to hear. He was already striding through the sitting room. Furihata shadowed him into the bedroom, then jerked to a halt. The other Akashi had stopped, right in the center of the floor.

He was gazing at the lamp, at the glow it cast on the scattered bedclothes. Two indentations were visible on the mattress, where they woke up earlier. There was a long silence. Furihata’s stomach knotted, from a sudden feeling of emptiness he didn’t understand.

“You offered to help me earlier.”

The other Akashi’s tone startled Furihata. It was faint, and hollow. Maybe even a little defeated.

“Um, y-yeah.” Furihata wasn’t sure if his reply was loud enough to hear or not. It felt caught in his throat.

The other Akashi lifted his head. He peered over one shoulder at Furihata, and his jaw subtly tightened.

“If you really, genuinely want to help…” His eyes flickered. “Then don’t tell my brother about tonight.”

Furihata’s pulse skipped a shaking beat. The other Akashi’s posture flagged. He looked almost tired. Furihata could sense the energy around him wavering, like it was threatening to fade away.

“Please,” the other Akashi added.

His voice was so soft that Furihata didn’t get why it made him feel like he had been punched in the chest.

Furihata stood motionless. A million questions raced through his mind. Before he could figure out how to ask them, or say anything at all, the other Akashi approached the bed. He pulled back the sheets, and climbed onto the mattress.

He lay down, and turned over. Then he tugged the sheets up again, and slumped against the pillows.

Seconds ticked by, then a full minute. Finally, Furihata managed to find his voice. “Um… A-Akashi?”

There was no reply. He inched toward the bed, and tried again.

“Akashi?” He came even closer. “Akashi-kun?”

The other Akashi was breathing slower. His shoulders shifted, in a gentle, effortless rhythm. Like he was no longer conscious.

Furihata couldn’t believe it. Carefully, he crawled onto the bed beside Akashi. He craned his neck, to study Akashi’s face.

He was asleep. Or at least, he really looked like he was.

Furihata nudged him lightly on the shoulder. Akashi didn’t stir. The expression on that sleeping face looked strangely familiar… It was more like the Akashi whom Furihata called a friend, in the softer tilt of his brows, and the way his lips were at rest.

There wasn’t much energy around Akashi right now. It was like it was hibernating, deep inside him. But the electric energy from before had faded. Furihata held his hand closer, and what he sensed was more like a glowing flame.

Like the Akashi he knew so well. His Akashi.

And the other one was gone.

Furihata let out a long, quivering breath. He leaned against the headboard, and curled his knees to his chest. He felt almost dizzy.

He wanted to wake Akashi up. To see that kind, reassuring smile again, and those matching red irises—and to ask what in the heck was going on.

“Don’t tell my brother. Please.”

Furihata shook his head. He still didn’t understand, at all.

He leaned in a bit closer, to see Akashi again. His face looked so peaceful. His fiery hair was slipping over his eyes. It had gotten longer, since the Winter Cup. Furihata smoothed it back, away from his pale brow.

Furihata’s breath hitched. Akashi’s hair was soft, in a way he hadn’t expected. It was such a brilliant shade of red that it had always kind of seemed like an illusion. It was real, though. A familiar sense of amazement crept over him.

This was the first time Furihata had seen Akashi sleeping, when he wasn’t half-asleep himself. It reminded him of another dream he had, just a few nights earlier. A dream where he found Akashi in his bed, fast asleep, like a prince who was under a spell. And Furihata woke him and kissed him…

Furihata flinched. He scooted away from Akashi, and slid under the covers. His heart was fluttering again, and his insides were jumping around, in an uneasy sort of way. He shut his eyes tight, and forced himself to ignore it. He forced his brain not to think about dreams, or kissing.

And especially not both.

He was drifting aimlessly, across a breezy sea of grass.

Furihata had never seen such a big, open field before. The wispy blades rippled in waves of green beneath his feet. He had forgotten his shoes again. He was wearing just shorts and a t-shirt, which whipped in the balmy summer wind.

Someone was calling him. He already knew who it was.

“Furihata-kun.” Akashi’s crimson eyes were as bright as always. He looked so happy. It made Furihata feel like he was about to sprout wings, and fly over to him. “There you are.”

He looked like he was in his school uniform. But he wasn’t wearing his blazer, and his tie was gone. His collar was open, showing the smooth lines of his throat.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” He took Furihata’s hand, and led him through the grass. It was getting taller and taller, until it reached past their knees.

They were laughing as they went. The sun was beginning to set, and everything was turning red, until the grassy sea blazed like an ocean of fire.

Furihata glanced up, and saw something strange. Two tiny lights floated above his head, one after the other. They bobbed around him, then flew up higher.

“What are those?” he thought he said. He never got a reply.

Akashi kept smiling at him, in that way that made Furihata feel like he was turning into bubbling water. He grinned back, because he honestly couldn’t help it.

It was dark now, and the stars were out. Or they looked like stars… They were moving strangely, in woozy circles. Furihata stood beside Akashi, as they watched the shivering heavens. Akashi’s graceful features were edged in starlight. He put an arm around Furihata, and Furihata drew in closer.

“They’re really beautiful,” Furihata said. Or thought he did. Maybe what he really said was something else. Something truer.

“You’re beautiful.”

Akashi’s smile glowed. Now they were grasping each other’s shoulders. They were so close that Furihata could see every curve of Akashi’s lips, how they dipped in a gentle, rounded slope and then pursed together in the middle.

Furihata leaned in, aching to feel those perfect lips against his…

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Two differently colored eyes glared at him. One was red, one orange. Furihata jumped back, dropping his arms. The Akashi with two red eyes was gone.

The other Akashi scowled fiercely at him. Electricity sparked above his head. The darkness swirled in clouds, like a gathering storm.

Furihata backed away, horrified. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“You said you wanted to help.” The other Akashi’s voice was like a knife. Honed, and deadly. “You lied. The only thing you really want is him.”

“I’m sorry,” Furihata said again. “I’m r-really sorry!”

The other Akashi only looked angrier. Bolts of lightning began to strike the grass, setting it ablaze. Furihata was panicking. He turned and tried to run. He darted through the grass, but it was all turning black, everywhere he looked.

Then he tripped and fell, just as the stormy darkness caught up with him…

Furihata jerked awake, with a flurry of apologies still quaking in his throat. He looked around, frantic. He was alone in a huge bed, with layers of sheets twisted around his legs. It took him at least a full second before he remembered that he was sleeping over at Akashi’s house.

He sat up, heart pounding. He glanced around the sunlit bedroom, but it was empty. Something creaked, just beyond the open door. A person was out in the sitting room. Quiet footsteps sounded, and Furihata held his breath. He could feel a powerful energy, getting closer and closer…

Akashi appeared, smiling, in the doorway. He had two red eyes.

Furihata let out his breath again, quicker than he meant to. “G-good morning.”

“Good morning,” Akashi said, in his usual polite way. “Did you sleep well?”

“Uh, yeah,” Furihata managed. Akashi looked like he was about to say something else, so he hurried to add, “It is still morning, right? I didn’t mean to oversleep.”

“That’s all right.” Akashi sounded cheerful. “It’s only ten. We were up late anyhow.”

Furihata couldn’t help thinking, You have no idea. “But… what about your train?”

That wasn’t the question he wanted to ask. At all.

“It leaves at three. There’s no rush.” Akashi tilted his head toward the sitting room. “Would you like breakfast? I had some tea, but I was waiting for you for the rest.”

“Yeah, sure.” Furihata felt a familiar burst of warmth. “You really didn’t have to do that.”

“I know.” Akashi’s whole face was practically shining. He gestured to a nearby chair. “I brought your bag, so you can change. I’ll go ring for breakfast. Come out whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks,” Furihata said. He watched as Akashi vanished over the threshold, taking that familiar, glowing energy with him.

Furihata twisted the fine-woven sheets between his knuckles. The space in the bed beside him was empty. The comforter was folded, and the pillows were straightened. The whole room looked very neat, and normal.

Unlike Furihata’s thoughts, which were speeding a mile per second, about a whole bunch of stuff that made absolutely no sense.

Akashi was back to his usual self, obviously. He wasn’t acting like anything weird had happened. He was being so nice, in fact, that it was basically impossible to imagine him being any other way.

Furihata was starting to wonder if he could have dreamed the whole thing up, about seeing the other Akashi. It was just so random. Akashi said his other self only came out with permission. So if it actually happened, then this Akashi would know about it. Right?

But he didn’t seem to know. The other Akashi even implied as much:

“Don’t tell my brother.”

Furihata pressed his lips together. He didn’t get why the other Akashi would want to keep the previous night a secret. It sounded oddly important, but he never explained why. Besides, Furihata had promised a long time ago to be honest with Akashi, about anything in their friendship that made him uncomfortable.

Furihata couldn’t put his finger on why. But this situation was definitely making him uncomfortable.

Maybe he did imagine it, though. Because it just didn’t make sense. Did it?

Furihata went over to his bag, to hunt for a change of clothes. His mind was still whirling, as he tried to figure out what to do. He should probably say something to Akashi. Even if it was just, “Hey, so are you sure the other you can’t take control of your body without you knowing?”

Except that sounded kind of rude, and creepy. He really didn’t want to make Akashi feel bad about his mental health. And maybe it was rude in another way, too… Furihata couldn’t figure out if this counted as talking about another person behind their back. It almost felt like tattling, in a bizarre way? If Akashi’s selves were ordinary brothers, he wouldn’t say anything, unless one of them was in trouble.

But he had no idea if this was even like that. Or what the other Akashi was doing.

Furihata shrugged out of his pajamas, then pulled a t-shirt over his head. Maybe he could just ask a few questions about Akashi’s other self? Find out how he was doing, and if Akashi thought anything weird was going on… He wasn’t sure what to do next. But it was a start. As long as he could figure out how to phrase everything.

The name issue was still kind of tripping him up, though. Now that he had spoken to the other Akashi for more than a few seconds, it seemed mean to just keep calling him “the other you.” Like he didn’t count as a person or something.

Maybe he could just call him “Akashi”? That was what Furihata used to call both of them. Then he started talking to the Akashi with red eyes, who was super polite and called him “Furihata-kun.” So Furihata switched to “Akashi-kun,” because it seemed awkward not to use an honorific when the other person did. Now it just felt natural, to both of them.

But the other Akashi didn’t use honorifics. So maybe just “Akashi” was okay? Or was it enough of a difference? Furihata wasn’t sure. Akashi’s given name was another option. But that name also belonged to both of his selves. Plus, it was kind of a mouthful.


It was a really nice name, though. Long and elegant, with that extra ‘u’ sound in the middle. Honestly, Furihata thought it fit the Akashi he knew better. It sounded just like him. Kind of graceful, and sophisticated, and… perfect.

No wonder it was the name Akashi’s parents had given him. The name that was really his, that was only meant for the people closest to him to use…

Furihata’s face was getting hot, all of a sudden. He tried to focus on getting dressed. Afterward, he brushed his hair in front of a gilded mirror on Akashi’s wall. He was glad he remembered, since his hair was sticking out all over the place, even more than usual.

Not that it mattered, that he looked good or whatever… He didn’t know why he was even thinking about that.

Furihata went out into the sitting room, where Akashi was waiting in one of the wingback chairs by the fireplace. His valet had just arrived with a silver tray, which was heaped with Western-style breakfast foods. The valet set the tray on a table, beside the tea set that was already there. He then bowed and left.

Furihata came up to Akashi, who greeted him cheerfully. “Can I interest you in some coffee or tea?”

“Probably both,” Furihata admitted, with a sheepish sort of grin. “But I’ll start with the tea, if that’s okay?”

He was more of a coffee person, and didn’t usually get the chance to have it for breakfast. Akashi always drank really good tea, though. So Furihata was curious to try some.

“Of course.” Akashi immediately began to prepare another cup. His hands moved with their usual poise, as they navigated back and forth across the tea tray. Furihata couldn’t help watching, like he always did.

The warm, milky brew was delicious, obviously. Furihata asked what kind it was. Akashi seemed happy to explain what went into a classic English breakfast tea, and why it tasted better with milk and sugar. Furihata listened while savoring each sip, in between sampling the pastries on the nearby platter.

He liked this, a lot. It was nice to be able to have breakfast with Akashi, and see him first thing in the morning, instead of just texting him. He wished they could do it all the time… Even though that was impossible, and didn't really make sense.

Akashi seemed to like it, too. He was talking in an animated way, moving his hands more than usual. At one point, Furihata noticed a smudge of pastry cream on the corner of Akashi’s lips. Which was kind of weird, since he was so meticulous about table manners. He was so involved in their conversation that he must have missed it, for once.

Furihata kept staring at that little white smudge. He was tempted to reach out and wipe it off. To trace his finger along Akashi’s mouth, or maybe kiss the cream away…

Except no, he obviously didn’t want that. Furihata forced himself to stop looking. Akashi wiped his mouth clean with his napkin a minute later, to Furihata’s relief.

He kept meaning to ask those questions, about the other Akashi. For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Akashi looked so glad to be spending time with him. Furihata wanted them both to be able to enjoy every minute they could.

And the longer he was awake, the harder it was to believe all that stuff really happened. Maybe it really was just a dream.

They ended up in the library, for the rest of the afternoon. They were sitting on their usual couch, when Akashi looked over at the table and frowned. “Was someone in here earlier?”

“Huh?” Furihata followed Akashi’s gaze. The chess pieces sat crooked on the board—just like how he left them, in the middle of the night. His mouth went dry.

Akashi leaned over, and picked up a small pile of books. Furihata had forgotten to put those back, too.

So the whole night was real. He almost couldn’t believe it.

“Hmm.” Akashi’s lips were pursed, as he read the titles. He didn’t seem to have any idea why they were there. “Maybe the staff was cleaning. It’s odd, though. I believe these go upstairs.”

“Oh. Uh…” For a second, Furihata was about to spill the whole truth. It trembled on his tongue. “They do?”

Blood was whooshing in his ears. Why did he say that? He needed to just tell Akashi what had happened. Then they could both figure out what was going on.

But he kept seeing the other Akashi’s expression, when he asked Furihata to keep it a secret. He was all but pleading. Which seemed so out of character that it was kind of unsettling. Maybe it was an act? It didn’t come across that way, though.

And maybe Furihata just imagined it, but…

Something deep in those two-toned eyes had looked, well… sad.

“If you really, genuinely want to help…”

Furihata’s heart gave a lurch. It felt like it was a rock weighing in his chest. He didn’t say anything, as Akashi climbed the stairs to put the books back. He needed to think about this more, he finally decided. Instead of just blurting everything out.

Later, when Akashi was done packing, he invited Furihata to come with him to the train station. Furihata gladly agreed. He never turned down a chance to visit Tokyo’s biggest station, after all. Plus the station was closer to his house anyway.

Also, well… He might as well admit it? He wanted to spend every last second with Akashi that he could.

Now that they were getting into the car, reality was setting in. Akashi was about to leave. They would have to go back to text messages and phone calls, instead of hanging out in person. The thought made Furihata’s insides feel hollowed out. He reminded himself that he was going to visit Akashi again, in only a matter of days.

He didn’t know why that didn’t help more. Or why he felt like he was already missing a part of himself.

Akashi seemed to notice his falling mood. They were sitting together in the back seat of the car. He held out his hand, and Furihata took it, right away. They stayed like that, holding hands all the way to the station.

“I’ll call you tonight,” Akashi said, in the tone he used when he was making a promise. Furihata nodded. His throat felt kind of knotted up.

“Thanks. Sorry, that I’m being kind of clingy and weird—”

“You’re not.” Akashi looked firm. “Even if you were, I feel the very same way.”

He squeezed his hand, and Furihata squeezed right back.

At the station, they took their time, even though the valet had dropped them off near the terminal for the Kyoto shinkansen. Furihata wished he could hold Akashi’s hand, to stay close to his friend for as long as he could… He forced himself not to, since they were in public. Still, he wondered if Akashi was wishing the same thing. His pace was definitely a lot slower than usual, as they walked beside each other.

Akashi even invited Furihata into one of the convenience stores, to help him pick out something to eat on the journey. Furihata pretended to buy his favorite gummy candies for himself, then gave them to Akashi to try instead. Akashi seemed oddly charmed by that, and thanked him for the gift. Furihata couldn’t help but laugh, because it was just cheap candy.

The whole time, he could feel this weird ache growing inside his chest and stomach. It was like some part of him sensed the seconds slipping away, faster and faster.

Then they had stalled as long as they possibly could, and they were standing next to the turnstiles that led to the shinkansen platforms.

“We’ll see each other soon,” Akashi said. Furihata got the feeling that it was meant to comfort both of them.

“Yeah. We will.” He smiled, trying to focus on that thought. “It’ll be great.”

“And I’ll call you tonight,” Akashi added, even though he had said that already. Furihata chuckled a little. He was going to miss the train if he kept this up.

“Thanks. Have a safe trip, okay?”

Akashi nodded. As they stood there, Furihata debated whether it would be okay to take his friend's hand, just for a second. To feel that familiar warmth one more time.

Suddenly, Akashi took Furihata into his arms. He was still carrying a bag, and Furihata had no idea how he was able to hold on so tight. His breath caught, and he hugged Akashi right back, so that they were embracing in the middle of the terminal. People were bustling all around them, and Furihata had no idea if they were looking or thought it was weird or what.

Honestly, he didn’t care.

Akashi didn’t seem to care either. He took a deep breath, beside Furihata’s ear. And he murmured, “I’m going to miss you, very much.”

Furihata’s heart gave a weird sort of stagger. He choked out a weak little, “Same,” as Akashi let go.

Akashi gave his hand one last, quick squeeze. Then he turned away and passed through the turnstile. For a second, he looked back at Furihata, flashing a gentle smile.

After that, he joined the crowd heading for the platform, with his usual brisk stride. His hair was a splash of vivid red, in a sea of gray and brown and black.

Furihata stood watching, with his pulse still skipping around from the unexpected contact. His stomach was doing all kinds of awkward, fluttery gymnastics, and his face was really warm. Every inch of his skin was tingling, all the way down to his toes.

He had felt this way before. The sensations were just too familiar, and obvious. To the point that he couldn’t even try to pretend they were something else.

Okay, so maybe he did have a little bit of a crush.

Akashi gazed at the passing countryside. It was strange how quiet the train ride was, given that they were darting over the landscape at such a breakneck pace. The Nozomi shinkansen hurtled along the tracks like always, mile after mile, a speeding testament to advancement and technology.

And every mile put more unwanted space between Akashi and his dearest friend.

Akashi closed his eyes, still holding on to the feeling of their last-minute embrace. He couldn’t explain what had possessed him, to make such a demonstrative gesture. He didn’t even stop to ask if Furihata would be comfortable with it, in such a public setting. He simply succumbed to the impulse, yearning for one more moment of closeness—and Furihata seemed to feel the same, given how they clung to each other.

Akashi felt almost as though he had sensed, on an instinctual level, that Furihata wanted him to do it. But presumably that was just some absurd excuse on his part.

He sighed, and eased back in his chair. The scenery drifted out of focus, as he lost himself in the memories of the previous week. It was something of a whirlwind—and had left him feeling closer to Furihata than ever. Now Akashi found himself mentally calculating how many hours had to pass before he could see his friend again.

He couldn’t explain it. They had spent most of the week together, and Akashi had plenty of other friends, whom he hadn’t seen in the interim. Even so, he was already longing for the next time that he and Furihata could be together…

More and more, he couldn’t help but wonder if this was normal, or if it should alarm him in some way.

‘Codependent’ is the word you’re after. Which is clearly the case.

Akashi raised his head, at the sound of that familiar voice. He caught sight of his reflection in the window. The brilliant afternoon sun was spilling into the cabin. Something about it was causing his eyes to look a bit lighter than usual.

It was almost as though his other self was gazing back at him.

“I thought you’d gone back to sleep,” he said, inside his mind. He sounded a little relieved, despite himself. “You weren’t answering me yesterday.”

You’re dodging my point. As usual.

Akashi took a measured breath. “I hardly think it’s fair to characterize my friendship with Furihata-kun as codependent. Regardless of my feelings, he isn’t depending on me.”

Hmph. His other self made a skeptical sort of sound. I expect you would know.

Akashi didn’t understand the evident sarcasm behind that statement. He couldn’t resist retorting, “Surely my relationship with you is far closer to what codependence truly is?”

His other self raised an eyebrow, in the shadowed room they shared inside their mind. Yes, it’s a tendency you have. Which only bolsters my argument.

Akashi forced aside a prickle of annoyance. He was tempted to point out that this was exactly why he was in therapy. Not to mention why they both should be… He started to ask his brother again why he refused to try it, when he was interrupted.

Why are you so attached to him? His other self was frowning. It makes no sense.

He looked puzzled, like for once he genuinely wanted to know the answer. Akashi hesitated. He couldn’t help but wonder why his other self was asking. Wasn’t the answer obvious? Even if it wasn’t, his other self had never shown any interest in his reasoning before.

“If you really think that,” he said, “then you don’t know him well enough.”

To his surprise, his other self bristled. As though this statement irritated him, somehow.

I have no desire to know him. His differently colored eyes flashed. He’s weak, as I’ve told you before. Utterly ordinary.

“I don’t find him ordinary.” Akashi couldn’t quite hold back a smile, as he thought of his friend. “Not at all.”

Obviously. Now his other self was rolling his eyes. Which was more along the lines of the reaction Akashi had expected. You’ve made your infatuation embarrassingly clear. Not that it explains anything.

Akashi’s heart jumped a few beats, even as his mouth flattened.

“I’ve told you before, I’m not infatuated.” He ignored the subtle warmth rising in his face. “He’s my closest friend, and I care for him very deeply. But I have no desire for anything between us besides friendship.”

His other self fixed him with a honed stare. You certainly have a desire to embrace him. In public, no less.

“Yes.” Akashi remained calm. “Which is perfectly acceptable between friends.”

Of course. You’re not in denial at all, clearly, or ignoring the obvious. And you’ve never done that in the past.

Akashi resisted the urge to retort. His brother knew him well. But Akashi knew his own emotions better than anyone, including his other self. There was a very good reason why he knew his feelings to be platonic in nature. And his other self was deliberately ignoring that fact, in an apparent attempt to be irritating.

Honestly, he was so much like a little brother at times that Akashi tended to forget they weren’t literal siblings.

“Either way, it doesn’t change what I think of him,” he replied, as calmly as possible. “I respect him. He’s truly kind, to an admirable extent. And your failure to understand the importance of that doesn’t diminish its worth.”

Hmph. His other self went silent. He seemed to have nothing more to say on the subject. His expression was unusually blank, like he was pondering something.

“May I ask why you were gone earlier?” Akashi said, sensing an opportunity. “I was hoping to speak with you—”

I was tired. His other self stood, inside their shared headspace. And if you’ll excuse me, I should continue to remedy that.

He strode toward the darkness, that swirled at the edge of their thoughts.

Well, best of luck, brother dear, with this “friendship” of yours…

“Wait,” Akashi tried to say, but his other self had vanished. He leaned back in his train seat, and let out a frustrated breath. Clearly, his other self was refusing to hear him out on the subject of therapy. He wasn’t even willing to wait for it to come up.

An odd tightness twisted in Akashi’s chest. He and his other self weren’t on the best of terms anymore. Still, he had assumed they’d reconciled, in the months following the Winter Cup. Akashi had sincerely apologized for treating his other self as a scapegoat, and for hoping he would disappear after their loss in the finals. His other self had remained somewhat cold since then. Akashi thought it was just residual irritation.

Now he was starting to wonder if his younger brother was still angry with him… Perhaps he hadn’t repaired their connection after all.

Akashi wondered what it said about his mental health, that this prospect made him feel unhappy, and alone.

He looked back at the window. His eyes still looked lighter than usual, in the falling sun. As he gazed at the reflection that reminded him of his brother, Akashi thought back over their conversation. He had a strange, growing sense of unease.

His brother had been upset with him before. He usually didn’t cut their conversations short, however, or fail to appear when Akashi called. Maybe he was just that angry. And yet… Akashi’s other self was spending so much time in the unconscious part of their mind, where Akashi couldn’t reach him. And when he did appear, Akashi couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

Akashi was starting to think that something else was going on. A situation that had never occurred between them, as far as he knew…

It was almost like his brother was hiding something.

But even stranger, he was succeeding. Because Akashi didn’t understand what his other self would want to hide, at all.

Chapter Text

Akashi was awake again.

He knew he was supposed to be sleeping. At eleven years old, he needed enough energy to get through another day at school, to say nothing of his lessons afterward. Yet night after night, he would lie awake in his bed, and stare at the shadowed canopy. He was starting to feel as though he had forgotten how to rest.

So he closed his eyes, and pictured the little room that he liked to visit, on endless nights like this.

Sure enough, his other self was already there. He sat on a box-shaped stool, with his legs dangling in a boyish manner. He jumped down as soon as Akashi appeared. They were wearing the same striped pajamas, Akashi noticed… They were always dressed similarly.

“I was waiting for you,” the other him said, in his brisk way. “Can’t sleep again?”

Akashi managed a nod. “I thought I’d be able to. I felt tired before.”

He hung his head. His other self reached out, and took his hand.

“It’s all right.” His other self’s voice was firm, and a bit sharp. But it was reassuring, somehow. “We can talk, until you nod off.”

Akashi smiled gratefully. His other self led him over to the seat, and offered it to him. Akashi sat down, and glanced around. The room was so stark—just an empty space, with a single seat. There were no walls around them, only darkness.

“Why does this place always look the same?” he murmured. “Is it just something I’m imagining?”

“Maybe.” His other self shrugged. “I prefer to think of it as a shared construction of our conscious mind. That is to say, it’s a figurative representation of our ability to communicate, which we’ve fashioned together. A meeting place, if you will.”

Akashi stared at his other self. Usually, he was the only person his age who talked like that… Of course, that made sense, he supposed.

He couldn’t help chuckling a little. Was this how he sounded to other people? “Well, you seem to understand it better than I do.”

The other him raised a brow. “Of course. I’m here all the time, aren’t I?”

Akashi was quiet, thinking. His other self often said things like that, but he didn’t fully understand them yet. “If you’re always here, even when I’m not… What’s that like?”

His other self’s face darkened. After a moment, his expression evened out again.

“It’s like this.” He nodded to the room around them. “I can see and hear everything you’re doing from here. If I concentrate, it’s like looking through your eyes.”

“Oh,” Akashi said. This explained why his other self always seemed to know what was going on in the outside world. “You aren’t too lonely?”

“No.” His other self looked confused by the question. “You talk to me now.”

Akashi felt a sharp little pang. He had always thought of their conversations as a kindness on the part of his other self, to keep Akashi company when he was feeling alone. He hadn’t realized that the benefit might be mutual.

He gazed around the room again. As he did, the area in front of him seemed to grow lighter, more transparent… Almost like if he focused, he might be able to see the outside world from there. Maybe this was where his other self was looking, when he watched what Akashi was doing.

Akashi looked over his shoulder, and paused. The space behind them looked much darker, almost pitch black. Stranger still, it seemed to move and pulse, like mist. He stared at the swirling darkness, entranced.

“What is all of that?” He rose to his feet. “Can you go back there?”

His other self looked startled. “Yes, but—”

Akashi was already walking. He had never tried to explore anything beyond the narrow boundaries of this imaginary room. Suddenly, he was curious if he could.

Though he was distracted, he faintly heard his other self cry behind him, “Wait!”

Akashi had already stepped outside the room, plunging into the black cloud. He squinted, trying to see around him, but he couldn’t make out his surroundings. When he raised his hands, he could see himself. But that was all.

His other self came up alongside him. For a moment, they both stared into the distance. Akashi was starting to feel strangely numb.

“It’s so dark,” he murmured. It was much more peaceful than he expected. He got the strangest feeling that if he ever wanted to, he could rest in this place for a long time.

His other self studied him, frowning.

“I don’t think you should be back here.” He sounded tense—maybe even shaken. “I used to be out in this mess all the time. But you can’t let yourself get lost… You’re the one who controls us, you know.”

Akashi wasn’t really paying attention. The darkness pulsed around him, ebbing like a soft, soundless fog. “Why is it so quiet?”

His other self blinked. “Quiet?” His brows furrowed tightly. “You don’t hear anything?”

Akashi shook his head. He turned to his other self, confused. “Do you?”

There was a long pause, as his other self met his gaze.

“Not really,” he said at last. He held out his hand to Akashi, who took it automatically. They walked back into the confines of the small room. It suddenly seemed much brighter than before, in comparison to the darkness around it.

Akashi was starting to feel a bit drowsy, finally. He smiled at his other self. “Thank you for staying with me. It’s very nice. Almost like having a brother to talk to.”

His other self appeared startled at first. Then he smiled too. He seemed oddly pleased.

“We could be brothers,” he said. “Why not? We’re fairly alike, in many respects. And we’ll be together for the rest of our life.”

He said this in such a matter-of-fact tone, that Akashi felt an unexpected burst of happiness. The room around them looked even brighter.

“I’d like that very much,” he said, honestly. “But what should I call you?”

His other self seemed to think about this.

“I don’t know,” he said, slowly. “We’re both Akashi Seijuurou. Maybe you could just call me your brother?”

They looked at each other. Somehow, Akashi knew without even asking, that this felt right to the both of them. He chuckled.

“Younger brother,” he suggested, with a hint of humor. “I was here first, after all. That makes me the older one, doesn’t it?”

Akashi didn’t know if this was true, in a literal sense. The question of when his other self had started to exist was one that neither of them were able to answer. Still, the idea had a certain degree of logic to it.

His other self rolled his eyes, much to Akashi’s amusement. “Fine.”

From that moment on, they were brothers, in their own mind at least. And each night, the two Akashis whiled away the hours together. In that bare little room, which existed only for the two of them.

Akashi was strangely tired again.

He knew he didn’t have the most generous sleeping schedule in the world. But he was getting the same amount of rest he always did. True, he was busier than ever in high school, and teenagers were supposed to require more sleep… Still, Akashi couldn’t help but wonder if his increasing weariness over the course of the past few days had more to do with the quality of his rest, than the quantity.

Each time Akashi awoke, he felt oddly spent. He got the impression that he had slept fitfully… He could recall looking around several times, and finding himself in different parts of the bed. He was dreaming, too—a rarity for him. But the dreams were mundane, from what he could remember. Mostly about walking around different parts of the house.

More often than not, he would wake up with another headache.

On the third morning after his return to Kyoto, Akashi was particularly fatigued. Thankfully, a shower and plenty of tea helped him regain some ability to function. By the time he arrived at Rakuzan, he was alert enough to make it through a meeting with his coach, followed by a grueling, all-day basketball practice.

He was standing in front of his clubroom locker that afternoon, rifling around in his schoolbag, when he was suddenly forced to cover a yawn with his hand.

“My, my,” said a familiar voice beside him. “Am I hallucinating, or did the invincible Sei-chan actually yawn just now?”

Akashi looked up to meet the gaze of his vice captain. (A constant necessity, given the difference in their heights.) Mibuchi’s impeccably tweezed brows were pinched together, with something like concern.

“Possibly,” Akashi admitted. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d yawned in public. “I’m just a bit tired. I haven’t been sleeping well.”

Mibuchi tilted his head. “More so than usual, you mean?”

Akashi had to concede that Mibuchi had a point. Most of his friends knew about his minimal sleeping habits, by now.

“Are you sure you aren’t getting sick?” Mibuchi added, in a motherly tone. “There’s a summer cold going around. Maybe you’ve caught it, for once.”

Akashi shook his head. He was fairly certain that his characteristically strong immune system hadn’t failed him. “It’s no reason to be concerned. I just had difficulty getting comfortable. And I might have had a few dreams that were mildly disruptive.”

At this last admission, Mibuchi’s jewel-green eyes flickered with interest. “Oh? And what were these dreams about?”

Akashi resisted an impulse to sigh. He knew where this was going. “They were quite dull, I’m afraid. And I barely recall them… All I remember is walking through my house. Nothing of substance, when it comes to any mystical portents.”

Mibuchi clicked his tongue. He was rifling through his school bag.

“I’ve told you before, Sei-chan.” His tone was chiding. “Dreams don’t need to be complicated to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes the simplest signs are the most important.”

He took out a drawstring bag made of purple silk. Delicately, he tugged the string loose, and a deck of tarot cards slid out. He stopped to lay a towel down on a nearby bench, then settled on the bench and began shuffling the cards.

Many of the other Rakuzan players gave Mibuchi interested looks, as they milled around the locker room. Mibuchi often read the fortunes of the members of the team, especially when they were at training camps.

It was an intriguing practice, Akashi had to admit. He wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of fortune telling in general. But Mibuchi had an undeniable gift for reading other people, and giving them sound advice on how to approach their problems. Akashi had benefited from this gift, more than once.

So despite the fact that he couldn’t understand why Mibuchi felt the need to divine his fate at this exact moment in time, Akashi gave him his full attention.

Mibuchi handed him the deck. Akashi dutifully cut the cards into three piles.  He gave them back to Mibuchi, who continued to shuffle. He was peering at Akashi, as his thick-lashed gaze grew distant.

“Please tell our dear friend Sei-chan about his dream,” he murmured, as if to the deck. “And reveal what he needs to know the most right now.”

He dealt a card in the center of the towel. It featured an image of a crowned woman with a scepter, seated upon a throne. The caption beneath it read, “The Empress.”

Akashi had seen this card many times in Mibuchi’s readings. It seemed to mean various things, depending on the context. He knew one of them was motherhood, or a mother figure… An old, familiar ache ghosted through him.

Mibuchi’s expression was pensive, while he pondered the card. But then he smiled.

“This is a happy time for you, Sei-chan,” he said. “And an important one. You’re being cared for and supported, in a way you weren’t before. Which is why you’re learning to take better care of yourself, as well.”

Akashi blinked. He hadn’t expected such a prediction… Oddly, he found himself recalling the week he had just spent with Furihata. They had spent so much time enjoying one another’s company. Akashi even decided to start going to therapy, because of how supportive Furihata was.

He watched more carefully, as Mibuchi placed a second card over the first. The new card depicted a man balancing a coin in each hand. Below this, Mibuchi laid another card named “Strength,” of a young woman and a lion. A fourth card went to the left of the Empress, showing a man ferrying a cloaked figure across a river. Then a fifth card was placed at the top. It featured a couple embracing under a rainbow and overlooking their home, with children playing nearby.

The final card in the cross-shaped cluster was of a tower being hit by lightning, as shrieking people tumbled from its parapets. It was labeled simply, “The Tower.”

A troubled look crossed Mibuchi’s face, as he inspected the dire visual. Akashi couldn’t resist remarking, “Well, at least you haven’t drawn the Death card. Yet.”

Mibuchi chuckled. It was a long-standing joke between them, that he often drew that particular card when he read for Akashi. (Mibuchi claimed the card’s meaning wasn’t meant to be literal… For Akashi’s part, he wasn’t overly concerned by an omen in a deck of cards, however bleak.)

“True.” Mibuchi returned his attention to the cards. He studied their overall layout, with a thoughtful sort of frown. After a moment, he pointed to the crossed card in the center, with the man balancing two coins.

“You’re juggling many responsibilities, as usual. Focusing on them too much could hinder your progress. This isn’t the best time to stick to your routine.” He pointed to the left-most card, the one with the man on the ferry. “You’ve just passed through an extremely difficult time in your life. This journey helped lead you to a better place, to the emotional security you’re feeling.”

Akashi couldn’t help but admit that all of this sounded curiously accurate, yet again. (Not that it was overly specific, or surprising… Still.) Meanwhile, Mibuchi’s gaze was lingering on the rightmost card, on the image of the crumbling tower.

“But…” He hesitated, as if deciding how to phrase his thoughts. “There’s another trial coming, because of all of this. It will be a very difficult change for you, Sei-chan. And painful as well. You’ll be inclined to see it as a disaster, because it will destroy something you’ve worked most of your life to build.”

Despite himself, Akashi felt a twinge of misgiving. Not so much from the violent image on the card, but from the way Mibuchi had phrased his explanation.

Akashi didn’t relish the idea of something he valued being destroyed. It reminded him too much of particular experiences in his past. Of a lurking fear, that those things could happen again…

“But it may be for the best, in the end.” Mibuchi said, to Akashi’s confusion. He tapped the top card, the one with the couple beneath a rainbow. “The Ten of Cups is about ultimate happiness. This is what you’re searching for. The decisions you’re making now could help guide you to true fulfillment—and lasting love, whatever that means to you.”

He looked at Akashi, in a significant sort of way.  Akashi lowered his eyes, at a loss how to respond. The drawing of the couple seemed to blur, the longer he stared at it.

In all honesty, he didn’t know what ‘ultimate happiness’ would mean to him. It wasn’t something he pondered, as a rule. So much about his life was already set in stone. And Akashi certainly didn’t know what he wanted, when it came to the idea of romantic love… He knew how it felt to care deeply for others. But he still wasn’t sure if he had ever been drawn to anyone, in that specific way.

Akashi was under the impression that romance was supposed to include particular urges, about wanting to kiss and touch the other person. Supposedly, it involved a form of physical desire and attraction that was intense, even explicit. As far as he knew, Akashi had never experienced those feelings.

True, he was still young. But teenagers were supposed to want to kiss one another, at the very least. Weren’t they?

He did know he wanted his friendships to last, as long as possible… Perhaps that was ‘lasting love,’ of a sort? He found himself thinking about Furihata again, and about the new intimacy they were sharing.

Mibuchi was quiet. He seemed to be studying Akashi’s face, but Akashi didn’t understand why.

After a moment, Mibuchi pointed to the last card, the one labeled, “Strength.” A willowy woman stood over a lion, clasping its snarling jaws between her slim hands. She seemed to have overpowered the beast, somehow.

“This card is the most important,” Mibuchi said. “It’s the root of the problem, so to speak. The Strength card is about integrity of character—a sense of grace, and virtue. Which certainly applies to you, Sei-chan.” He gave Akashi a fond smile. “But it can also be about trying to tame or suppress parts of yourself that you don’t fully accept.”

Akashi was even more perplexed now. On the one hand, he didn’t regard himself as particularly virtuous. But at the same time, he didn’t understand why self-discipline could ever be a problem of any kind.

When Mibuchi spoke again, his tone was slow, and careful. “I think this means that you’re struggling with a version of yourself, one that you don’t consider good. You’re in control, for now. But you aren’t at peace.”

Akashi’s insides dropped. Suddenly, he had a far better idea of what Mibuchi might mean… Or rather, whom.

He couldn’t help but recall his last conversation with his other self. The two of them hadn’t spoken since the train ride. Akashi still didn’t know what was troubling his brother, or why he seemed to be avoiding him.

Mibuchi picked up the remaining pile of cards. “Now let’s see where this is heading, in the long run.”

He dealt the last four cards, placing them to the right of the cross formation. The lowest card showed a man with a bandaged head, clutching a staff. He was on his own, and seemed to be guarding some kind of wall.

“You’re being too guarded, like always,” Mibuchi said in a knowing tone. “You’re protecting yourself, trying to face all your burdens alone. You can’t shake that habit just yet.” He tapped the next card. It showed two people holding hands beneath a makeshift arch. “Fortunately, there are people who are encouraging you to change. They want to support you, and celebrate your progress. You should continue to accept their help.”

Akashi nodded, without thinking. Mibuchi was frowning at the second-to-last card. Upon closer inspection, the card showed a man carrying several swords in his arms. The man had a sly look on his face, as he glanced over his shoulder.

“But you’re afraid someone is deceiving you,” Mibuchi said. His brows were knit. “I’m not sure if it’s true… I believe this has some connection to your dreams, and the Tower. It’s possible that this person will try to betray you, in one way or another.”

He hummed, in a thoughtful fashion. Akashi wasn’t sure what this meant. Still, he couldn’t help remembering his recent suspicion, that his brother might be hiding something from him… It seemed like an odd coincidence, if nothing else.

“I wish I had more to go on.” Mibuchi gave a sigh. “Can you recall anyone appearing in your dreams? Were you in a certain room, or was anything missing?”

Akashi tried to remember. “I don’t believe so. I was just walking through my home. Everything was normal.”

“Ah, well.” Mibuchi sighed again, then shifted into a smile. “Fortunately, everything should still turn out for the best.”

He pointed to the last card. It was labeled, “The Sun.” A beaming, blond-haired child sat upon a white horse. The sun shone above him, its rays blazing across the sky.

“If you can stay on this path, and endure the challenge of the Tower, then you’ll be rewarded,” Mibuchi said warmly. “You’ll find joy and good fortune, and rediscover your inner child. A sense of innocence and trust, that you were forced to leave behind.”

Akashi stared down at the Sun card. He found the imagery curiously comforting. Perhaps it was due to certain memories from his childhood, of riding on horseback. First with his mother on the back of her horse, Shirahime—and then when he was old enough, on Yukimaru.

At least the meaning of the card seemed pleasant enough. Mibuchi was inspecting the layout of the cards again, as if to ensure that he hadn’t missed anything.

“I think the actions of others will be important here,” he said. “But the final outcome depends on how you react—and how much you allow yourself to change.”

He picked up the Strength card, and held it out to Akashi.

“You need to remember this, Sei-chan,” he said. “A noble spirit like yours can certainly silence a lion. But learning to work in genuine harmony with every part of yourself, including the aspects you don’t like, is a much better kind of Strength.”

Akashi took the card. He swallowed, as he studied the image again. He had been compared to a lion before—or rather, a certain part of himself was.

He rarely discussed his younger brother, even with his closest teammates. But they were aware of his existence, for obvious reasons. His other self had been Rakuzan’s captain for nearly a year. In some ways, they knew him better than anyone.

“You’re talking about him.” Akashi’s voice was low. “Aren’t you?”

“It could be about him.” Mibuchi’s eyes were gentle. “It could also be about other parts of yourself that you don’t like or acknowledge. It may very well be both.”

Akashi pursed his lips, frowning. He wasn’t sure what other aspects of himself were relevant… He had plenty of faults, more than he liked to consider. But he didn’t entirely grasp what it would mean, to ‘work in genuine harmony’ with his own shortcomings.

Still, he was in therapy, he reminded himself. He was trying to understand those flaws, if nothing else.

“Well, I’ll try to keep that in mind,” he managed, as he handed back the card. Mibuchi nodded, and replaced the deck of cards inside the bag of silk.

Akashi was rummaging through his school bag again, when he came across his phone. He took a moment to check it. No replies from Furihata yet. Not surprising, since he was likely at practice. Akashi added another text to their ongoing conversation.

“I’ve survived practice, and hope you have as well. Thank you for your concern earlier. I’m well, just tired. And of course I’ve been growing increasingly impatient for your arrival tomorrow.”

He was smiling, and putting his phone away, when Mibuchi spoke beside him. “Sei-chan, who have you been texting so much?”

Akashi wasn’t expecting this question. He didn’t think his messaging habits had changed over the past few weeks. “Furihata-kun, mainly.”

His friends at Rakuzan were aware of his newest friendship. At this point, it was far from a recent development, since its inception in the spring.

“I see.” Mibuchi had an odd look on his face, one that Akashi couldn’t read. He rummaged inside his locker, taking out a sizeable bottle of lotion. “Did you visit him when you were in Tokyo?”

Akashi nodded. “I stayed at his home, as a matter of fact.” He felt a burst of fondness at the memory, as he added, “And he’s coming to visit tomorrow.”

“Really?” Mibuchi blinked. He looked as though he wanted to ask something more. But in the end, he simply smiled, in his motherly way. “Well, that sounds very nice.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Akashi said with warmth. He noticed the time, on a clock on a nearby wall. He gathered up his bags.

On his way out, Mibuchi called after him, “Oh, and Sei-chan? Don’t take the main road on your way home.”

Akashi murmured a noncommittal agreement. Mibuchi often made these cryptic suggestions, but never fully explained his concerns. He would only say something like, “It could be dangerous.” Once in a while, he mentioned the time of year, or an upcoming eclipse or equinox. Akashi didn’t bother to question it in detail. After all, Mibuchi wasn’t the first superstitious person he had befriended.

Akashi did take the suggestions, sometimes. Other times he didn’t. Truthfully, he was unable to discern any noticeable difference in the outcome.

As he left campus, Akashi thought back to Mibuchi’s reading. He couldn’t explain why, but he kept picturing the image of the sly man with the stolen swords.

It was just a card, Akashi reminded himself. It didn’t mean that he had a reason to mistrust his brother. Even Mibuchi wouldn’t predict whether such a suspicion was founded. Besides, Akashi still couldn’t think of any motive for his brother to conceal something from him. Or what would even matter enough to hide.

But it was a strange coincidence. A strange one indeed.

Furihata was so freaking sick of dreaming.

The whole thing was getting ridiculous. It was like every time he went to sleep, he had another dream—and they were all about his best friend. He would be hanging out with Akashi in some strange and beautiful place, or maybe at his Tokyo house. Or they were randomly at one of their schools, for no reason. Even though Furihata had never been to Rakuzan, and didn’t know what it looked like.

One time, the other Akashi even showed up again… Which was scary, but also confusing, because somehow both versions of Akashi were there? And they started fighting, and Furihata had no clue what to do.

But every time, without fail, Furihata would end up kissing the red-eyed Akashi. The one he called his best friend. Again.

It got to the point where Furihata tried to put off sleeping. He thought maybe if he was extra tired, he wouldn’t dream so much. But it didn’t work. And then he had to muddle through basketball practice on minimal rest, which… wasn’t the best plan.

“Furihata-kun, if you don’t get enough sleep tonight, you’re cleaning the whole court tomorrow.” Aida Riko used that cheerful, singsong voice she got whenever she said something terrifying. “Just you, no first-years. And when you’re done, I’ll drag you home and strap you down to your bed myself.”

“Yes, Coach,” was all Furihata managed to say. The combination of a brutal practice and being so tired had left him struggling just to stay on his feet.

Hyuuga was muttering something to Riko like, “Should you even be saying stuff like that?” Furihata didn’t catch their whole exchange. It probably came down to Hyuuga projecting again, somehow, about his massive crush on their coach. Which literally everybody on the team knew about.

Furihata staggered toward the clubroom. A friendly clap on his shoulder almost sent him toppling. His friend Kawahara had joined him, and Fukuda too.

“Hey, so what kept you up so late, dude?” Fukuda grinned. “Your eyes have got some Kuroko-level shadows going on there.”

“Uh…” Furihata felt a weird flash of embarrassment. He settled for the only part of the truth he could admit out loud. “Nothing much. I was just talking with Akashi-kun. Lost track of time, I guess.”

“What, again?” Fukuda and Kawahara traded looks, which Furihata was too zonked to read. “You’re at it every night with that guy.”

Furihata nodded absently. He couldn’t stop a yawn.

“What kind of stuff do you talk about? Seems like you’d run out at some point.”

Furihata shrugged. Even if he were more awake, he wouldn’t know how to explain the type of friendship he had with Akashi. “I don’t know, everything? We don’t run out. He’s just… really nice.”

“Yeah, okay.” His friends still looked confused. As if on cue, Furihata heard a buzz coming from his locker. He hurried to open it, and grabbed his phone.

Sure enough, he had a message from Akashi. As tired as he was, Furihata couldn’t hold back a smile as he typed out his reply.

“I survived too. Glad you’re okay. I really can’t wait to see you either.”

Furihata was heading out to Kyoto the next day. He really did need to get more sleep tonight, he realized. He didn’t want to be tired, now that he finally had a chance to go back to that amazing city. And to spend more time with his best friend…

At the thought of seeing Akashi again, his heart did that weird fluttery thing. And his smile melted away.

This was getting annoying. Furihata couldn’t understand why some dumb part of him seriously thought he had a crush on Akashi. It was like a wire got crossed somewhere, over the last week. Now every time Furihata thought of his friend, he got all those squishy, warmed-up feelings that he usually associated with a crush.

Which he didn’t want, at all.

It didn’t even make sense. Furihata always got crushes on girls. It wasn’t a friend thing, either. (Except for his neighbor Mari, maybe, but that was forever ago.) Nope, when Furihata liked a girl that way, it was because he thought she was pretty. And smart, and super confident… In any case, he was attracted to her. He always noticed that feeling, right away. It was unmistakable.

He never noticed that feeling, back when he met Akashi.

So maybe his brain was just getting his relationship with Akashi kind of mixed up? Their friendship was so intense. Furihata never had anything like it before. So maybe now he was having some weird, misplaced feelings, like an accidental side effect of getting so close to another person. But it wasn’t really like that. Right?

It couldn’t be. Because Furihata wasn’t attracted to guys. Like if he had an actual, real crush on Akashi, then he would have to be attracted to guys, at least some of the time.

… Right?

Around him, the clubroom was a rowdy clamor of voices. His teammates were joking around, making plans to hang out. When Furihata turned his head, he saw the same thing he saw after every practice: a bunch of teenage guys, either half-dressed or undressing. Some were walking around shirtless, as they gave each other friendly slaps on the back, or a light punch on the arm.

All normal guy stuff. Furihata never thought anything of it, really. And didn’t that prove something? If he was into guys, he figured he would feel way more uncomfortable, with a bunch of them walking around half-naked. (Especially since just the thought of a girl changing could make him flush.)

His senpai Koganei was standing barefoot on a bench, bragging about something that happened during practice, while Tsuchida teased him for taking all the credit. Neither had shirts on, and Furihata kind of eyed them and just… didn’t feel anything.

Like, really. Nothing. He glanced in Fukuda’s direction too, and Kawahara’s. But he had been around his friends when they changed a million times. He wasn’t attracted to them at all. He was one hundred percent positive.

“Oi.” That was Hyuuga, snapping at Koganei in his grumpiest captain voice. “Next time make the shot in the first place, if you’re gonna run your mouth.”

He snapped a towel at Koganei’s leg, while Koga just laughed in his sunny way. Hyuuga had already stripped down to his boxers. The only thing Furihata felt when he stared at his team captain was the usual gratitude that he wasn’t on the receiving end of that infamous “clutch time” glare.

“And that goes for you too, all-star,” Hyuuga was saying, as he delivered another crack with the towel. Except this blow was directed at Kagami Taiga, Seirin’s star player, who was deep in conversation with what appeared to be a locker door.

“Ow! What the hell, senpai?” Kagami flinched away. Furihata couldn’t blame him—that blow to his bare back wasn’t exactly gentle.

“You know what. Your dunks were all over the place.”

The two started arguing. And Furihata kind of lost track of the conversation. Because at that point, a super weird thought occurred to him.

Kagami was still grimacing at Hyuuga, as he rubbed the back of his shoulder. He was also shirtless—and it was kind of impossible not to notice that. Because when Kagami didn’t have a shirt on, it was muscle city.

It was seriously ridiculous, just how ripped the guy was. Furihata didn’t get how someone who was sixteen, the same age as him, could have such big muscles. His torso alone was like some kind of magical ab factory.

So, Kagami was obviously attractive, in a macho sort of way. More than anyone else on the team, in fact. His body looked like a fitness ad, like some totally unattainable ideal. Furihata knew a bunch of people were attracted to guys with that type of appearance. (Some other guys included.)

So maybe, if he was actually attracted to guys, then…

Furihata studied Kagami’s broad chest, followed by those thick, tanned shoulders and rippling arms. He eyed those ridiculous abs. He even took a few seconds to follow the curving line of one solid, muscular leg.

And Furihata just sort of felt the way he always did, when he saw some unbelievably ripped guy. Like, “Wow, that’s impressive, and I totally get why people make statues of guys who look like that.”

Because yeah, Kagami looked good. Great, even. But Furihata wasn’t sure he was into it? Like, on a personal level.

He did feel something else, though, like always… A powerful, fiery energy hovered around Kagami. It was similar to the aura around Akashi, and all the members of the Generation of Miracles. When Furihata first joined Seirin’s team, he didn’t notice Kagami’s energy that much. But during the Winter Cup, it seemed like it had gotten a lot stronger. Now the blazing feeling of heat sent tingles up and down Furihata’s spine, whenever he took the time to focus on it.

It still weirded him out, to be honest. He didn’t get why Kagami and the Generation of Miracles had such strong auras, compared to other people. There was something about them that felt almost… the same? He didn’t know how to explain it.

Furihata was about to look away, when a flicker of motion caught his eye. It was so subtle he almost didn’t notice, even though he was looking in that direction… Which was how he knew, before he even zeroed in on the source, that it had to be caused by Seirin’s phantom player, Kuroko Tetsuya.

Kuroko had materialized from behind the locker door. He stared up at Kagami with his usual deadpan expression, and said, “I believe that our captain does have a point, Kagami-kun.”

“Hey!” Kagami growled at him, like a tiger with its tail caught. “What the hell, dude? Why’re you throwing me under the bus?”

Hyuuga didn’t look any more amused.

“I don’t want to hear it from you, phantom sixth man.” He was seriously surly today. Furihata couldn’t help wondering if his conversation with Riko went badly. Or was he just worrying about their roster again? Since Kiyoshi-senpai was still California, and the Interhigh was only a few weeks away. “Ninety nine percent of the time, you’re the one distracting him.”

Kagami sputtered, while Kuroko simply blinked at their captain. “Please excuse me, but I don’t quite understand what you mean.”

“Oh, like hell you don’t—”

Furihata stopped listening again, as Hyuuga muttered a bunch of vague things that basically amounted to how Seirin’s shadow and light were super gay for each other. Which everyone also knew.

Kuroko was listening calmly to the captain’s rant, with his pale blue eyes fixed in their usual blank stare. And at that point, something else occurred to Furihata.

Both Kuroko and Kagami were attracted to guys. Actually, they were the only guys on the team who didn’t seem to be into girls… Teenagers in Japan didn’t always talk about their sexuality much. But Kagami came out as gay back in America, so he was comfortable enough to mention it once in a while. Kuroko didn’t say it outright, because he rarely said anything outright. It was pretty impossible to miss, though.

So, they were attracted to guys. And each other. Which was kind of interesting, because they couldn’t look more different. Furihata understood the visual appeal of a guy like Kagami. Then there was Kuroko, who was, well…


Furihata had never thought about it before. Because looking at Kuroko was a bizarre experience. Mostly you never saw him at all. If you did, he’d startle the heck out of you. Then you would notice what he looked like, and that—well, that was kind of impossible to describe?

He had a ghostly sort of appearance, with wispy blue hair and large, mirror-like eyes. His skin was so pale it was practically translucent. It was hard not to stare, if you saw him… But it was even harder to look past the eeriness of certain features.

Come to think of it, Kuroko was a lot like the rest of the Generation of Miracles. Their appearances were so unusual, with their bright hair and intensely colored eyes, that it was hard to pay attention to much else about them. (Because who had naturally green hair? Or blue? Or a red so radiant it looked like a literal sunrise… Anyway.)

Kuroko didn’t have a strong aura, though. Furihata couldn’t feel anything from him at all. He had started to sense a little energy around most people. But with Kuroko, there was just… nothing there.

(Though every now and then, Furihata could swear he sensed something. Like Kuroko’s energy was hiding, or spread out, somehow? It was weird.)

Kuroko could be considered attractive too, in a different way. Most people probably didn’t notice. But Kuroko was slim and fit—though, like Furihata, he seemed stuck being permanently skinny—and his facial features had a kind of soft, ethereal quality to them.

A certain Japanese aesthetic had existed for a long time, about slender young men with pretty, delicate faces. And actually, Kuroko kind of fit that description.

The strangest part was, Furihata felt like he understood the appeal of that aesthetic a little better… Maybe? He wasn’t sure. When he looked at Kuroko, he mostly saw the guy who looked like a ghost, and who was in the same library club as him. Who was pretty strange, and amazing in his own way, but mainly just a nice dude.

So maybe Furihata was right, and guys just didn’t do it for him?

He scanned the rest of the room, trying not to be too obvious about it. Mitobe was in one corner, trying to get Koga’s attention. He was good-looking in a quiet kind of way, the type who might be attractive to girls as “future husband” material. But Furihata didn’t feel any personal interest.

“Now, Hyuuga,” said a new voice, interrupting the captain’s lecture. Izuki had sidled up to the center group. He had already changed into regular clothes. “You shouldn’t try to force Kagami and Kuroko to be apart. You know why, don’t you?”

“Not now, dammit.” Hyuuga was clenching his teeth, obviously bracing for some kind of horrible pun.

Izuki was already grinning, as he held up his notebook. Which made Furihata look twice, and remember something else. Because actually, Izuki was considered the most good-looking guy on Seirin’s team… The girls at school ogled him sometimes, and he got a lot of chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and all that stuff.

Furihata had never thought about it much. Izuki was probably his favorite senpai on the team, all things considered. He gave him a lot of help over the past year, with how to be a better point guard. But Furihata never paid serious attention to the fact that Izuki was good-looking.

He was, though. He had a nice, athletic body shape, and clear skin. His shiny black hair always looked good, even when it was mussed or sweaty. Izuki had an attractive face, too, that was somehow pretty and handsome at the same time.

His eyes were especially striking. They were dark and deep, framed by thick eyelashes. But sometimes, they would start to look more intense all of a sudden, and then they would turn kind of sharp and bright, like quicksilver…

As Furihata stood there, staring at his senpai, he realized a faint flutter was happening, way deep down in his stomach. Like it was so faint that normally he wouldn’t notice, but… It was there.

Definitely, unmistakably there.

Furihata’s mouth dropped open. His entire body froze up, as he gaped at Izuki. His pulse pounded, doing a frantic kind of tap dance in his throat.

“Because,” Izuki was saying. “If you separated them, it would be a broken heart-nership.”

There was a pause. Hyuuga and Kagami had familiar expressions on their faces, which involved a lot of eyebrow twitching. Kuroko was straight-faced, as usual.

“There it is!” Izuki declared, like what he just said wasn’t the most unforgivably corny thing in all of history. And Furihata turned and dropped his forehead against his locker door with a muffled bang.

No wonder he never fully processed that his senpai was good-looking. Because seriously.

Behind him, Hyuuga growled some version of “Shut the fuck up,” and a pained, drawn-out groan sounded like Kagami. Then, in the relative silence that followed, Kuroko’s soft voice spoke. “Please excuse me, but… Are you all right, Furihata-kun?”

Furihata gave a jolt. He managed to turn around, and face the group. All four of them were watching him now. Everyone else in the locker room glanced their way, too.

“What? Y-yeah,” he said. He forced the words out, trying not to stammer. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You just hit your head on your locker door,” Kuroko noted, politely. Furihata got the distinct feeling that he was leaving a few things unspoken on purpose. “Also, you were looking this way earlier. You seemed a little tense.”

Which was when Furihata’s heartbeat broke into a sprint. Because oh god, did Kuroko see him staring at everybody? And what if he wasn’t the only one? Furihata was just standing in the middle of the locker room, trying to ogle all his teammates on purpose. Like a complete weirdo.

And oh god, what if they all noticed? And they started to wonder if he was into guys, or only half into them, or whatever in the heck this even was? When he still had no idea himself, and then what if they asked and what would he say and…?

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god…

“No! I mean I w-wasn’t. I mean it was nothing!” Furihata kept blurting out words, as though that could somehow fix the situation. “I’m just super out of it because I’m really tired and I didn’t get enough sleep and that kind of stuff. And actually, that’s, uh—I should probably get going, come to think of it? Coach told me to go to bed. So uh, yeah. Bye, thanks!”

He grabbed his school bag, and darted for the doorway. Except then he remembered he forgot his gym bag, so he had to scurry back to get it. Furihata slammed his locker shut, and sprinted out the door.

His face was flaming. He knew he had to be fire engine red by now.

He just really, really hoped that none of his teammates noticed.

Furihata’s teammates watched him run out. Like the high-strung point guard thought it was a hundred percent vital for him to leave the clubroom at that exact second. He vanished into the hall, a flurry of limbs and flyaway brown hair. And as the door slammed shut, they were all quiet.

They had all seen Furihata get awkward and anxious—even panicky—before. But this just seemed random.

 “Uh, so what in the hell was that about?” Koganei finally said. “Like, is he okay?”

“Beats me.” Hyuuga gave a gruff sort of shrug. “The kid was pretty useless out there. Riko chewed him out about it.”

“Okay, but is he seriously going to sleep right now?” Koganei looked like he wasn’t sure if he should laugh or be worried.

“He’s been acting weird for a while,” Kawahara chimed in suddenly. “But it’s worse this week. He keeps zoning out, like, all the time.”

“Yeah, I kind of tried to ask him what was going on, but…” Fukuda held up his hands. “He just said he was up late talking with Akashi. Again.”

At that, Kuroko and Kagami exchanged a look.

“What, seriously?” Hyuuga made a scrunched-up face. “What the hell is even happening there?”

By now, everyone on Seirin’s basketball team knew that against all odds, Furihata had managed to form a friendship with the infamous captain of Rakuzan. Which seemed even more bizarre given that only six months ago, he literally fainted when Akashi showed up at Kuroko’s birthday party.

“No clue,” Fukuda said. “Doesn’t seem like they’d have that much in common, to be honest. Like Furi’s great, don’t get me wrong. But he’s such a normal guy, you know? And Akashi… uh… isn’t. Or he sure doesn’t seem like it. No offense.”

He added this last part for Kuroko’s benefit. They all tried to be sensitive about the whole “The Generation of Miracles are a bunch of freaking weirdoes” topic around him. Kuroko raised his brows slightly.

Mitobe made a few emphatic gestures, with a troubled look on his face. Koganei nodded, like this was a very important point.

“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “Weird friendship stuff or not, he was basically freaking out. So what’s eating him?”

“I believe I may understand what it is,” Kuroko said, in his quiet voice. Kagami gave him another look, like he suspected his partner of knowing even more than he was letting on.

“Yeah? And what’s that?” Fukuda prodded.

Kuroko was wearing a small, nearly invisible smile. It was thoughtful, with a trace of concern. But all he said out loud was, “Getting to know a person like Akashi-kun can be something of an adventure.”

At which point the rest of them went, “Uh, okay, sure,” and mentally filed it under, ”More Generation of Miracles Related Weirdness.” Because that was definitely a thing. Which they all knew a little too much about.

After that, most of Seirin’s team forgot about the mystery of what was bugging their second string point guard. Except for those who knew him best—along with the one person in the room, who knew both Furihata and his new friend quite well.

Kuroko wasn’t worried, however. Because if it had to do with Akashi-kun, he had a feeling this particular situation would work out just fine.

Akashi had to confess he was growing nervous again.

He was uncertain as to the reason for this. He was in his car, on his way to see the psychiatrist for the third time. The first two appointments had gone well, at least as far as he was aware. While it still felt strange to share personal details about his life, Akashi didn’t find the process upsetting or unpleasant. Not thus far, anyway.

He took out the notebook he’d brought with him. According to the psychiatrist, journaling would be a useful tool for processing his thoughts and emotions between sessions. Akashi dutifully followed the suggestion, but he wasn’t sure if he understood the purpose of it. Not being the type of person who struggled for words, he wrote several pages each night. But he often found himself wondering why it was valuable, to recount his impressions of the day.

The entries thus far were rather dry, in Akashi’s estimation. He had recorded some of his concerns, about recent interactions with his other self. Perhaps that part would be useful, at least… The psychiatrist had advised him to note any conversations between the two of them, and what they tended to discuss.

She also told him to write down any initial triggers he noticed, when he started to dissociate or feel disconnected from himself. But Akashi hadn’t experienced that feeling lately.

In fact, he felt rather more connected to himself than he wanted, all things considered… Akashi rubbed his brow wearily, as he leaned back in the leather seat. He was still tired, and his head was beginning to throb again as a result.

Absently, he flipped through the pages of the journal. He was skimming a few lines, when a certain name caught his gaze, almost automatically. He reread the passage, not entirely recalling what he had written.

“I’m conversing with Furihata-kun, as usual. We’ve been messaging one another every night this summer. And as I write this, it suddenly occurs to me that I cannot recall the last time we skipped our nightly exchange.”

Akashi smiled a bit, as he continued to read.

“In all honesty, I am uncertain why I anticipate these conversations as much as I do, when we rarely discuss anything of particular importance. Perhaps the simple truth is that I treasure the consistency of our communication, as well as the faithfulness and depth of the friendship that Furihata-kun has extended to me.

“I still struggle to convey how much our association has changed my life. Furihata-kun is such a kind, thoughtful person. He seems so eager to empathize, and to open his heart to others, myself included. And while I have been fortunate to know many people whom I would describe in that way, he still reached out to me in a manner that felt unprecedented. After all, were it not for him, I would not have attempted to seek help in the first place.”

Akashi clasped the journal’s binding tighter. He recalled his conversation with Mibuchi, just that afternoon. It was remarkable how often he thought about his friendship with Furihata, and how much it had improved his life.

It truly did amaze him, he realized.

“I don’t entirely understand how it happened. Nor do I understand how he has come to regard me as his closest friend. I can only say that he is a truly wonderful person—and I consider myself extraordinarily privileged to know him, though I suspect he may never realize the full truth of that sentiment.”

Akashi closed the journal, feeling oddly overwhelmed. He couldn’t account for the abrupt sensation that had come over him: a curiously sweet ache, that seemed to twine around his heart and between his ribs. He shut his eyes, and forced out an unsteady breath.

He had felt this way before. It seemed as though these emotions were gradually building, as he and Furihata grew closer.

No one had ever told Akashi that it was possible to be this fond of a friend—even a best friend. To care so much, that simply thinking about the other person could have such a powerful effect. That it could somehow leave you aching, in the pleasantest way imaginable. It was such a paradox.

Not to mention the fact that the more he spoke to his best friend, the more he wanted to speak to him, instead of ever growing weary of it…

Akashi took his phone from his pocket. Not for the first time, he felt an urge to express some of these thoughts to Furihata. He had tried to do so before. But it never felt entirely adequate, given the weight of what he was trying to express.

Still, he couldn’t help wanting to convey how much he treasured the connection they shared. However insufficient the words were bound to be.

Akashi typed a quick little message, as the car inched through the traffic. As he waited for the reply, he tried to think what more he could say.

And he couldn’t help but smile, at the thought of his dearest friend, who had helped him so much.

Furihata was pretty sure he was losing it.

He was sitting in one of his favorite coffee shops, in the middle of Shibuya. This was the type of place he liked to go, whenever he was trying to make sense of his life. There was a weird amount of privacy that came with the bustling Tokyo crowds. Even though you were surrounded by massive groups of people, almost no one ever approached or talked to you.

Which was exactly what Furihata needed, because he needed to figure out what in the heck was happening to his brain.

He stared down at his latte, watching the swirling foam melt into the pale brown liquid. His mind spun, as he thought over what happened after practice.

Seriously, what was going on? Why did he suddenly feel like he might be attracted to two different guys, when he’d never felt that way before?

He swallowed. It had to be some weird fluke, didn’t it? He was probably just overthinking everything again. But… what if he wasn’t? What if he really did like guys like that?

Since grade school, Furihata had always assumed he liked girls. He thought for sure he did. He got crushes on them, and kissed them, and even dated them. He never felt any urge to stop, to try those things with a guy instead.

But… Was he wrong, or something? Did he really like girls, or did he just think he did? What if he found out that he didn’t like them that way anymore?

Frantically, Furihata scanned the coffee shop. Two fashionably dressed women were sitting in one corner, and a man in a suit was across the way. But they were all older adults. A few college-age girls were chatting nearby, and they were cute, but not the type who usually caught his attention.

His gaze skimmed past the counter. The girl at the register was really pretty, he realized. He hadn’t even noticed when he ordered. Which kind of freaked him out, because that never happened.

Furihata made himself notice her now. He didn’t gape at her or anything, obviously. Because that was incredibly rude to do at her workplace. But he snuck a few glances, in between gulping down his latte.

She was short and slim, and her eyes were super bright. Her long black hair was tucked under a visor, but it was nicely styled. She had a confident smile, too, and a way of looking each customer in the eye as she was taking their order…

A familiar flutter uncurled in his stomach, and Furihata slumped in his seat, relieved. He set his latte down again, trying not to spill it.

Okay. So that hadn’t changed. He wasn’t sure what he would do, if he felt differently all of a sudden. The idea that everything he did with girls up until now was just some kind of mistake was way too unsettling.

Furihata gazed out the wall-to-wall window, and let his eyes wander. People were hurrying back and forth. Sure enough, he kept noticing when a pretty girl walked by. Like he always did.

One of the women was in her twenties, and she was wearing this pair of thigh-high boots on her ultra-long legs and that was, uh… wow. (Not that Furihata was in her league, like at all. But it was okay to look, right?) There was this other girl clad all in pink, and her hair was done up in big, bouncy curls. She had the most amazing, doe-like eyes. She looked like an actual princess.

Furihata didn’t ogle every single girl who passed. But yeah, from what he could tell, he was pretty sure he still liked girls.

He sipped his latte a little slower. He was trying to think if he had ever watched guys like this. He didn’t remember doing it. Which seemed weird, if he was attracted to guys sometimes… But he still wasn’t sure if that was an actual thing or not.

He knew it was possible. There was such a thing as liking both girls and boys. “Bisexual” was the word, which was borrowed from Western culture. (There were some other words too, which Kagami tried to explain to Furihata once, but it got way too confusing.) Still, borrowed or not, it didn’t seem weird to think some Japanese people felt that way, too.

The problem was… Furihata didn’t actually know a single person who did? It just wasn’t the kind of thing anyone talked about. If a guy never dated girls, then some people might wonder if he was gay. But that was pretty much it.

Furihata sometimes got the feeling like it was some kind of giant switch. You were either one way, or the other. Even if that wasn’t how it worked in real life, it was sure how a lot of people acted like it worked.

He studied the guys walking by. They were all pretty average, looks-wise. A few minutes later, a lanky guy in a suit was crossing the street. He had ultra-styled hair, like he could be a host or something. Furihata was squinting, trying to figure out if he was into that or not, when a voice spoke beside him.

“Excuse me, are you finished?”

He started and looked up, at a guy holding a tray. “Oh, uh, yeah.”

The guy gave a nod, and smiled as he took Furihata’s empty mug. Furihata smiled back without thinking. The guy wore the same shop apron as the girl at the counter. He had thick brown hair on the longer side, and a slender type of face.

He didn’t stand out, in any particular way. But for some reason, Furihata’s eyes instinctively followed him, as he went to the next table. The guy had a nice voice, kind of smooth and quiet. When he reached for another cup, Furihata watched how the lean muscles in his shoulder shifted, and the long curve of his back.

And something deep inside Furihata gave a weird little ping. Almost like it was saying, “Cute.”

Furihata sucked in a breath, as the guy headed behind the counter. When he got up enough courage, he eyed the guy again. And he still got the exact same feeling. That soft, squirmy little, “Yes, please.”

The guy wasn’t even super handsome, or pretty. He was kind of ordinary, actually? But Furihata still felt like he might be attracted to him. The more he looked at the girl behind the register—ping—and then back at the guy—ping—it seemed like it could be basically the same deal.

So, okay, maybe this was real after all.

Furihata winced. He tried to tell himself that it wasn’t some huge, earth-shattering crisis. It wasn’t like he thought being attracted to another guy was wrong or bad, or whatever. Sure, it felt like it came out of nowhere, and that was unsettling. But it was just there. He never even had to act on it, if he didn’t want to.

It didn’t have to matter at all, really.

He always assumed he knew himself better than that, though… And it felt kind of strange and embarrassing, to find out he was wrong. Maybe even a little scary, to be honest, though it was hard to explain why. And he still couldn’t figure out if this was a completely new thing, or why he didn’t notice before, or what…

His phone buzzed on the tabletop. Furihata glanced down at the screen. When he saw the name on it, his heart gave a familiar jump.


Furihata flipped open his phone, trying not to notice how he felt super tingly all of a sudden. There was no reason to be excited, he reminded himself. He got messages from Akashi literally all day long.

“I’m on my way to my appointment,” the message read. “Thinking of you.”

Furihata’s pulse hopped around, in a giddy sort of rhythm. The message wasn’t flirting. He knew it wasn’t. But somehow, the way it was worded almost sounded like it could be… Just a tiny bit, maybe…?

Maybe the truth was that he just wanted it to sound that way.

“Yeah? Why’s that?” As he typed, Furihata worked his lower lip between his teeth. Suddenly, he realized he was making a lopsided, self-conscious kind of grin. He stopped, weirded out.

Why would he even make a goofy face like that? Like he was talking to a girl?

Furihata shook his head, as he pressed ‘Send.’ While he waited, he scrolled back through their conversation. For some reason, just rereading Akashi’s replies made his insides squirm… Every word made those fluttering sensations in his stomach even worse.

Was it just because everything Akashi wrote sounded so much like him? To the point that it almost felt like hearing his voice?

On impulse, Furihata clicked on Akashi’s name. A contact page appeared, along with Akashi’s photo. The photo was small and kind of blurry, but Akashi’s features were still visible. His rose-red eyes were twinkling beneath his lashes. Every slim, elegant line of his face was curved in a smile.

Furihata always knew Akashi was attractive. He had noticed plenty of times. In a totally platonic, objective way—or at least that was what he thought. But as he stared down at his best friend’s picture, his face was growing steadily hotter, and his chest began to throb.

The feeling wasn’t like a ping at all. More like a clanging alarm.

Akashi wasn’t just good-looking, or handsome. He was, well, beautiful. To the point that it almost went beyond being a guy or girl, somehow. Furihata wasn’t sure how to describe it. But why had he never noticed how it made him feel before?

You did notice! a voice inside him snapped. You just ignored it. You’ve been staring at him for weeks, remember? You thought he looked like a prince.

Furihata tried to swallow, but his throat felt too stuck. As the memories crowded in, he hung his head. It was really obvious, looking back. So obvious it was painful. All those times he had been gazing at Akashi, and admiring his face and his smile and even his body, had to be more than just friendly appreciation.

So he had been attracted to Akashi for a while. And the problem didn’t stop there…

Furihata was in trouble. Serious trouble.

Because the truth was, he hadn’t felt this way in a long, long time. Where even reading a message could make his pulse race. Which meant this wasn’t just a random attraction to someone. It was more than that. Way more.

Like his whole body was singing, “You like him. You like him, more than anyone else.”

The phone vibrated again. Furihata opened the new message. As he read, his heart gave an abrupt pang. Then, little by little, it steadily began to sink.

“I never would have done this, if I hadn’t met you. And I can never thank you enough. I feel uncommonly fortunate, to have someone as kind-hearted and caring as you in my life.”

Just as he finished reading, another message popped up.

“I know I’ve said all of this before. But I want you to know I will always be grateful, that you’ve chosen to extend your friendship to me.”

Furihata set the phone down on the table. The screen was still glowing, as it displayed the last message. Each sincere, affectionate phrase echoed inside his brain. He bent forward, and buried his face in his hands. And he muffled a choked-up moan, that came out more like a whimper.

He didn’t want this. He really, really didn’t.

He didn’t want to like guys sometimes. He definitely didn’t want to have a crush.

Because if he did, it was going to ruin everything.

Seijuurou crouched in the darkness of his mind, alone.

He was staying quiet, waiting for nightfall. In the meantime, he mulled over all the research he had done, over the past several days.

He had searched through countless books in the Kyoto house. He had uncovered household records, and studied all the photographs he could find. So far, he had located only one piece of potential evidence—one photo that struck him as being out of place, that didn’t quite fit with what he already knew.

Seijuurou kept thinking back to that photo. He had found it in one of the unused sitting rooms. It seemed so insignificant. Yet if his brother’s childhood memories were anything to go by, it was a very peculiar photograph.

There was something in this picture that didn’t make sense. Or rather, someone.

Ordinarily, Seijuurou would ask his brother about it. But his brother didn’t know that Seijuurou was coming out at night, for hours at a time. He simply thought he wasn’t getting enough rest.

At first, Seijuurou was unsure as to whether he could actually take control of their body of his own volition. He had never done so without his brother’s consent. He also didn’t think he would be able to prevent his brother from finding out about it… Yet he had, it seemed. As a matter of fact, it was far easier than he imagined.

Which was unsettling, for various reasons. Seijuurou had never tried to usurp his brother’s authority to such an extent before.

Still, it was necessary, in this case. Or so he convinced himself, over and over, as he sat in the swirling darkness.

He sat motionless for hours, contemplating his findings. And every now and then—very much against his will—he would think about chess. And about Furihata Kouki.

It was utterly ridiculous. Just a stroke of poor luck… That on the night Seijuurou had begun his search, his brother had invited the Furihata boy over. And then, by some bizarre coincidence, the boy happened to wake up, right when Seijuurou came out.

In hindsight, Seijuurou should have waited for another evening. But it had been his last opportunity to search the library in the Tokyo house for a while. And as an unfortunate result, he was forced to endure a slew of probing questions and general interference, from this random boy he had no interest in knowing.

At least the Furihata boy kept quiet about the incident. He hadn’t gone tattling to Seijuurou’s brother, apparently. For whatever reason.

Still, the whole situation was irritating. Curiously irritating. It needled at Seijuurou, and he couldn’t understand why.

Seijuurou had no opinion regarding Furihata Kouki, the first time they met. He was just some average, ordinary person, with no name or reputation to speak of—who happened to play on the same team as Kuroko Tetsuya. Admittedly, Seijuurou was preoccupied, on that day at the Winter Cup. He wanted to make sure the rest of the Generation of Miracles were still on track with his master plan, to fix what went wrong at Teikou.

Still, he was as polite as possible, when he asked the interloper to leave. It was a bit annoying, certainly, that this awkward, mouse-eyed boy had just stood there and gaped at him… Wasn’t it rude, to not respond to someone’s request? But then a certain Kagami Taiga came along and was infinitely ruder, in some misguided attempt at posturing. So Seijuurou chose to overlook it.

He had forgotten about the mousy boy’s existence, until the finals. And that… Well, in all honestly, Seijuurou still didn’t know what to make of that.

The entire sequence of events had been nothing short of absurd. This nameless, whimpering boy had staggered off the bench, to play point guard in a championship game… Against him. Him, Akashi Seijuurou.

The boy fell flat on his face, as soon as he stepped on the court. (Which did have a certain quality of déjà vu—except for the fact that Furihata Kouki was nothing like Kuroko Tetsuya. At all.) He was shaking violently, for no apparent reason, to the point that he appeared to be hyperventilating. In the end, he barely lasted for a few plays.

It was all a farce. Even more so, given that he somehow scored a shot.

(And yes, Seijuurou knew in hindsight the whole thing was a trick—a desperate gambit, on the part of Seirin’s clever coach. But it shouldn’t have worked. This boy was clearly a wreck under pressure. He should have missed any shot he tried.)

Seijuurou had to admit, that one shot lingered in his memory. It was a mistake, one he should have prevented… Without it, his other self could have won the match for Rakuzan.

But Seijuurou still had no opinion about the mousy boy named Furihata Kouki. Or he thought he didn’t… There was certainly no reason for him to have one.

He wasn’t holding that one lucky basket against the boy. Was he? It would have been ridiculous, and childish. The boy was just a pawn. And even if Seijuurou had stopped the shot, it wouldn’t have prevented his personal failure.

He deserved every bit of the outcome. He was callous and foolish, to say nothing of incompetent. If he were half the leader he promised he was, the game should have never even been close.

He wasn’t about to blame his own implosion on some random boy. It was irrational.

And yet when Seijuurou later discovered that his brother was befriending Furihata Kouki, it did annoy him. Really, it was just so predictable. Of course his brother went overboard, out of some nonsensical feeling of guilt, and fell all over himself to be kind, to this random person who had nothing to do with either of them.

Still, it wasn’t Seijuurou’s business. He was preoccupied with concerns of his own. Then he was forced to interact with Furihata Kouki again. And now he knew for an absolute fact…

Something about that boy irritated him.

Actually, Furihata Kouki irritated him a great deal.

On the night they once again came face to face, Seijuurou was filled with an inexplicable sense of frustration. He tried his utmost to ignore it. But the more Furihata Kouki persisted in speaking to him, the more annoyed he grew. To the point that it was clearly irrational—an instinctual reaction, that he couldn’t altogether suppress.

Several times, Seijuurou had felt an overwhelming urge to order the stuttering boy out of his sight. He checked himself. But it was a struggle, somehow.

Which was troubling… Why should Seijuurou be experiencing any sort of emotion, toward someone so bland and insignificant? He ought to feel indifferent, at most.

But he hadn’t. He had simply wanted this Furihata person to go away. He didn’t want to be civil, or polite. He didn’t want to see him, at all.

In the end, Furihata Kouki was just another reminder, of the day Seijuurou lost almost everything he had learned to care about.

Seijuurou winced. The mere notion that he was having some misplaced emotional response to a near-stranger was humiliating. He always prided himself on remaining levelheaded. It was his most useful trait. No matter how dire the situation, Seijuurou approached it with cold, calculated resolve, to accomplish whatever was needed.

Of course, that wasn’t the case in the Winter Cup finals. And apparently, it was becoming even less so as time went on…

Seijuurou couldn’t escape the growing suspicion that this was further proof that his usefulness had outlived itself.

The din of crying echoed around him. It was unrelenting, lately. The cries were louder in some moments, and softer in others. But either way, they persisted.

Seijuurou scowled, as he began to consider his next search. He had exhausted his most promising leads. Perhaps he would wait a night, and allow the body he shared with his brother to rest. If only to avoid rousing his brother’s suspicions any further.

Seijuurou didn’t rest, however. Instead he lost himself in contemplation, trying to piece together a puzzle whose solution was entirely unknown. He still had the sense that it was vital to solve it. For his own sake—and arguably more so, for his brother’s.

Perhaps he hadn’t outlived his usefulness just yet.

So Seijuurou’s thoughts roamed, as the crying went on. And occasionally, for reasons he couldn’t begin to comprehend, he thought back to those chess games he played a week earlier.

They were pitiful excuses for matches. No challenge whatsoever. The company was far from ideal, in his personal estimation…

Yet it was nice to play chess again. Somehow.

True, Seijuurou had once considered it a favorite hobby. But hobbies were irrelevant, as far as his lackluster existence was now concerned. It was a pointless amusement at best. Still, Seijuurou had the nagging sense he did enjoy it, for whatever reason.

Even while playing against Furihata Kouki.

Furihata sat in a green shinkansen car, staring blankly at the seat back in front of him. He was riding on one of the fastest trains in the country. But he wasn’t thinking about trains at all.

Which was incredibly weird.

Sure, this wasn’t his first time riding on an N700. (It was his third, actually?) But that didn’t mean Furihata was bored with it… In fact, if he ever had to choose a favorite train class, he might have picked the N700. Because it was amazing, and also part of one of his favorite memories.

Furihata couldn’t think about trains right now, though. He had tried, in a desperate attempt to distract himself. But it seemed like all he could think about was Akashi.

He couldn’t deny it anymore. He definitely had a crush. On his best friend.

It wasn’t a little crush, either… More like the huge, painful kind, that was going to slowly but surely take over his brain, until there was zero space for anything else.

Furihata just didn’t get it. Now that he had finally admitted the truth, it was the only thing he could think about, somehow. He didn’t know why the feeling was so strong, all of a sudden. Like he couldn’t escape it.

He sighed, looking down at the bento box on his seat tray. His mom had packed him some leftovers, since he had to catch the train right after basketball practice. Normally, Furihata would be super hungry, and need to scarf down some kind of snack just to make it until dinner.

But he didn’t feel like eating. He didn’t have much for breakfast, either. His stomach felt way too weird. Every time he tried to eat, he would end up randomly remembering the whole crush thing. His mouth would go dry and his throat would tighten up and he just… wouldn’t feel like it anymore.

It was weirdly familiar. He had the same problem, back when he started liking his ex-girlfriend so much that he joined the basketball team to impress her. It had been almost a year, since Furihata had a full-blown crush on a specific person…

He had forgotten how he actually kind of hated it.

His insides were in knots, and he couldn’t concentrate at all. He kept trying to read one of the books he brought. No matter how hard he tried, he just ended up staring into space, and thinking about Akashi more.

Like about how good-looking he was, and what it would be like to see him again, and how it felt to hug him and hold his hand… Not to mention how Akashi kept sending him messages, full of unbearably nice things like, “I’ve been counting the minutes until I can see you.” Until Furihata was pretty sure all his internal organs had been replaced with permanent colonies of hyperactive butterflies.

And that was bad. Really bad.

Usually, when he had a crush, Furihata would turn into a nervous wreck. (Like, even more than usual.) He’d get all jumpy and awkward, and act like an idiot, especially around the person he was crushing on. Which sucked. He hated making a bad impression on someone he was dying to impress. But at least it wasn’t surprising, if a teenage boy started acting that way around a pretty girl he knew.

This was different. Akashi wasn’t a girl—and way more importantly, he was a friend. The two of them were really, really close. They were comfortable together. Furihata wasn’t supposed to feel nervous, around the person he called his best friend. (Especially since he knew how bad it had made Akashi feel, back when he used to act afraid of him.)

So what in the heck was Akashi going to think, if Furihata started acting weird? It would seem like he had lost it.

Which was probably why he was in denial for so long.

Furihata kind of knew for a while, in the back of his mind, that he was lying to himself. Definitely since he slept over at Akashi’s house the first time. He was dreaming about Akashi, even before that.

But how long had it really been? How long had he felt like this, and ignored it?

Furihata was glancing around the cabin, when he froze. He thought he had just seen a man, seated across from him… But the row was totally empty. A weird chill edged down Furihata’s spine. He squinted. That empty row reminded him of something.

He had seen Akashi sitting like that once, he realized. In a flash, it was like he was there again: the crimson light of sunset poured into the cabin, as he marched down the aisle. Akashi sat alone, typing on his laptop, with his shirtsleeves rolled up. Furihata had stared at him, and thought he looked really grown up. Like a picture, even.

Furihata’s heart plummeted as he remembered. Was he attracted to Akashi, even back then?

He probably was, and just never noticed, somehow… Maybe because he was too busy being a nervous wreck. Then when they became friends, their connection was so amazing that Furihata didn’t want to see the truth anymore. Because deep down, he knew these feelings would only get in the way.

If Furihata had known from the beginning that he found Akashi attractive, he might not have been brave enough to get to know him at all.

He looked around, remembering. He was so anxious, when he rode on this train with Akashi the first time. But Akashi was super nice about it. They talked for hours, and shared a thermos of tea. And Furihata realized what a great person Akashi was.

One week later, Furihata rode this same train back to Kyoto. He knew he would always remember that day: how Akashi showed him around the city, and all the great places they went, and everything they talked about. He would remember how Akashi looked when he laughed, and the pressure of Akashi’s arms around him, when he got too dizzy on the platform at Kiyomizu temple.

There was even that time at Jishu Jinja. Furihata had closed his eyes and staggered toward the love stones—and Akashi—while he wished as hard as he could to find love.

The memories kept crowding in. Furihata was so upset, when Akashi didn’t want to see him again. Then Akashi changed his mind and they became friends, and Furihata was never happier. They ended up hanging out in Tokyo, and talking for hours on the phone. Later on, Akashi met Furihata’s family, and he was so polite. A few days after that, he rode up to Furihata on a snow-white horse, and welcomed him into his impossible, fairy-tale world.

Maybe the truth was that a part of Furihata had been falling for Akashi all along.

Furihata shut his eyes, suddenly queasy. He didn’t want to see it that way, at all. He didn’t want all of the amazing, important stuff that had happened between them to be about some silly crush. Not even a little bit.

To be honest, he wished he could just forget the whole crush thing. He really did.

His friendship with Akashi meant so much to him. Furihata treasured it for exactly what it was—and he didn’t want it to be anything else. Most of all, he didn’t want to ruin what they had, just because his dumb hormones wouldn’t shut up anymore.

He just wanted to be Akashi’s friend. His best friend.

And now he was terrified that he was going to mess that up, for both of them.

But maybe it would be okay, Furihata tried to tell himself. Like last time, when he did his best to act normal around Akashi, and it worked. Maybe these feelings didn’t have to matter. It wasn’t like he wanted to feel them.

Just months ago, he would’ve given anything to find someone he liked this much… The whole thing was almost funny. In a way that was seriously not funny at all.

The N700 shinkansen hurtled toward Kyoto. Furihata gazed out the huge window, as the ancient capital city got nearer. It was the place where he first got to know Akashi, where the connection they shared really began.

Furihata didn’t know what was waiting for him in Kyoto this time. It was supposed to be a casual overnight visit. For some reason, he had a feeling it would change everything between them, again.

No matter how much he really, really didn’t want it to.

Chapter Text

When Furihata finally stepped out of the train and onto the platform at Kyoto Station, he could hardly breathe.

It was just so hot. Late summer in Japan was hard to stand anyway… After the rainy season ended, the air got so humid that the temperature felt ten times hotter than it really was. Furihata was already a sticky mess when he left Tokyo. This was a whole new level, though.

The air in Kyoto felt even heavier than what Furihata was used to. And it was oddly still. Like it was just hovering there, slowly pressing in on everything around it. The sensation was basically suffocating.

Furihata wiped his misting forehead, as he hurried across the train platform. He and Akashi had agreed to meet inside the station. It was a relief to step into the air-conditioned building.

He headed to their planned meeting spot. Tons of people swarmed around, from tourists to commuters. There was no sign of an impossibly bright head of red hair. Furihata tried not to think about how his heart was skipping, as he looked around for Akashi.

He jumped, when someone next to him said, “Pardon me, Furihata-san.”

Takeda was standing there. Furihata blinked, startled. It felt strange to see one of Akashi’s servants outside of his house in Tokyo. But it made sense. Obviously his personal valet would go with him back to Kyoto.

Takeda was smiling, as he greeted Furihata with a bow. He seemed more relaxed than he did at the Tokyo house. Though Furihata wasn’t sure why that would be.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Takeda was saying. “The young master has sent me on his behalf. Unfortunately, he was delayed due to an unforeseen change in his schedule. Would it be acceptable for me to take you to meet him?”

“Oh, yeah. Of course.” Furihata couldn’t help feeling curious. “So he’s still at school?”

“He is, sir. I was instructed to take you to the Rakuzan campus.”

“Okay, sure.” Furihata followed Takeda to the station’s entrance. Takeda insisted on carrying Furihata’s backpack and overnight bag. He held the door, and Furihata awkwardly stepped outside. The heat hit him again, in a sweltering wall of moisture.

A shiny black car sat near the front of the station. Takeda ushered Furihata toward the vehicle. He opened the door, and handed him a fan. “Please forgive the heat, sir. I will have the car cooled as quickly as possible.”

Furihata thanked him, with his usual clumsiness. He wasn’t sure what Takeda was concerned about… The car was a lot cooler than he expected, like it wasn’t parked there for long. Only seconds passed before Takeda turned on the engine, and more cool air was blasting through the vents.

Furihata didn’t mind having a fan, though. He flapped it beside his face, trying to stop himself from sweating. (Which was basically impossible at this point, but oh well.)

“Would you care for a cold drink, sir?” Takeda said from the front seat. “Or anything else I could get you?”

“Uh, no, that’s—” Furihata hesitated, unsure. “Well, do you have any water?”

“Of course, sir.” Takeda opened a hidden compartment, then took out a frosted bottle with a fancy label. In the blink of an eye, he filled a cup with ice, and poured the water inside. With a slight bow, he handed the cup back to Furihata.

“Thanks.” Furihata’s head spun. He never realized this car was so fancy it had a tiny refrigerator in it. He didn’t even know that was a thing, except in super expensive limousines. (Not that he’d ever been inside one of those.)

“Please make yourself comfortable, Furihata-san.” Takeda shifted the car into gear. “We’ll arrive at Rakuzan shortly.” Before long, he was weaving through the backed-up traffic of downtown Kyoto.

Furihata sipped the water, as he watched the city outside. People kept glancing at the car as it passed. They were probably wondering who could afford to be driven around in an expensive car like this… The windows were tinted and everything.

It did feel strange, getting chauffeured around in a vehicle with fancy leather seats and state-of-the-art air conditioning. Furihata wasn’t used to this type of luxury, at all. He found himself comparing it to the dingy buses and crowded trains he used the rest of the time. It was definitely nice.

He kept thinking about how Akashi had gone to so much trouble for him, and how kind of him that was… Furihata could have found his way to Rakuzan on his own, by taking a bus or something. Instead, Akashi had sent his personal valet, just so Furihata could be more comfortable.

It was almost like Akashi wanted to take care of him, in a way…

Furihata winced, at that painfully dumb train of thought. Oh come on! It doesn't mean that! He’s just being nice, and normal.

… Well, the super-rich kind of normal. He’d do it for any of his friends, probably.

Furihata gulped down more water. His face felt warmer, all of a sudden. He reminded himself to get a grip. He was here to spend time with Akashi as a friend. Not moon over him like a complete dope.

He just needed to ignore the whole massive crush thing. Somehow.

They left central Kyoto, with its towering buildings and world-famous temples. Furihata studied the changing scenery. Some of the streets were still pretty packed, with old-fashioned houses and shrines. But gradually, the buildings got more spaced out. They passed a few cultural museums, and a community center.

Then Takeda drove through an open gate, which was bordered on both sides by a familiar crest.

Furihata stared at the Rakuzan campus as they approached. It was a lot bigger than he expected. The buildings were long and wide, with tons of space between them. Seirin didn’t take up nearly this much room. Of course, real estate in Kyoto wasn’t at the same premium as Tokyo, and this campus wasn’t located downtown…

Still, Furihata was starting to get the feeling that Rakuzan had a lot of funding. And he had a few suspicions about why that might be.

Takeda parked the car beside the main walkway. By the time Furihata retrieved his backpack, Takeda was already opening the door for him.

As Furihata stepped out, he scanned all the buildings. The campus seemed pretty empty, since it was still summer vacation. A few teenagers were walking around, dressed in casual athletic clothes. Probably for their club activities.

“The young master said that you are to find him in the central gymnasium, with the basketball club,” Takeda said. “If not, he will have informed someone where he is.”

“Oh. Okay.” Furihata gripped the straps of his backpack. “So, uh, where’s the gym?”

“I believe it’s located near the middle of the campus. You should see it if you proceed straight ahead.”

“Thanks.” Furihata started down the walk, trying not to seem too uncertain.

The buildings loomed all around him. They were an interesting assortment of brick and modern-looking materials. Furihata got the sense that everything had been carefully renovated, to keep the school looking its best. But it wasn’t a brand-new school like Seirin.

He wasn’t sure why the look of the place reminded him of Akashi. Kind of dignified and refined, in a classic sort of way.

The walkway opened up into a broad courtyard. Furihata stopped, surprised. A big group of students were setting up a massive stage. One girl was giving directions to a few taller guys, as they lugged a support beam between them. Another group were unfurling a bunch of long silver curtains.

It looked like they were getting ready for a school festival. The stage was so big and grand, though. It looked professional, not like a typical student set-up.

These students were wearing their school uniforms, Furihata noticed. They looked really focused on what they were doing. Nobody was goofing around at all.

“Can I help you with something?” A firm voice put his thoughts on pause.

The girl who was giving directions came up to him. Furihata tensed, despite himself. He must have looked lost. He still didn’t know exactly how to get to the gym… This place was harder to navigate than he expected.

“Are you from another school?” The girl was frowning. Her straight-cut black hair was pulled back with a shiny headband. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

Furihata’s mouth slipped open. “Uh…” He couldn’t help wondering how she had immediately figured out that he didn’t go here. Rakuzan seemed to be a pretty big place. And who knew everybody who went to their school, anyway? “Y-yeah, I, uh—I was just looking for somebody—”

“Sacchi, who are you talking to?” Another girl bounced up. She had curled brown hair. A third girl followed behind her. She was super tall, and unlike the other girls, she wore what looked like a tennis uniform.

“Yeah, who’s this?” the girl in the tennis outfit said. She had a direct, confident way of speaking. “Are you a spy or something?”

Furihata gave a start. The girl sounded friendly, though. Not like she was mad.

“You don’t really seem like you’re from here, you know?” the brown-haired girl added in a bubbly voice, like it was an explanation of some kind. She was holding a flowery paper fan, and using it to fan her face.

Furihata was getting increasingly flustered. He was awkward around pretty girls at the best of times. Being in an unfamiliar setting didn’t help, either… He couldn’t shake the self-conscious feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Not to mention he apparently looked out of place. Was it because he wasn’t wearing a uniform, or athletic clothes? He had changed into a regular shirt and shorts for the train ride. (Which he was already sweating in. Again. He wished he’d thought to bring the fan from the car.)

“He said he was looking for someone.” The girl in the headband turned back to him. “Who was it you wanted to find?”

“Uh, err—” Furihata did his best to force the words out. “His name’s A-Akashi. Akashi Seijuurou. Do you know where he is?”

There was a pause, as all three of the girls exchanged looks. Furihata couldn’t figure out what their expressions meant. The girl in the headband raised her brows, and the brown-haired girl let out a bell-like laugh.

“Well, that’s the solid gold question, isn’t it?” The headband girl sighed. “Everyone’s always looking for him.”

The brown-haired girl giggled again. “At least it’s a guy this time. One his own age. Right, Sacchi?”

The girl in the headband looked annoyed. All three of them clearly knew Akashi, on one level or another. (Which was probably a given around here, come to think of it… Now Furihata felt even dumber, for asking the question the way he did.)

“Yup, definitely a spy,” the girl in the tennis uniform was saying. “You’re from a basketball team, right? Like a manager or something. It’s cool, I get it. Come to check out the best players in the country?”

“Uh, n-no,” Furihata stammered. He was getting increasingly bewildered. (Did he look too average to be an athlete himself? Probably.) “I mean, I—I play basketball. But I’m not—I’m from Seirin.”

“Seirin?” echoed the girl in the tennis uniform. “Isn’t that the team that—”

“Uh-huh,” the brown-haired girl said. The girl with the headband knit her brows.

“Hoo boy.” The girl in the tennis uniform let out a long whistle. “Well, that explains it. You’re way gutsier than you look.”

Furihata was speechless. Did these girls seriously think he came all the way to Rakuzan’s campus, just to try to figure out how to beat their basketball team again? … Although that did make sense, now that he thought about it.

“I’m not a spy!” he blurted. “R-really! Or—or anything like that. I just—I know Akashi-kun. He wanted me to meet him here.”

Now the girls looked more confused than ever. And Furihata had no clue why.

“Well, he should be in the main gym,” the girl in the headband said, finally. “Unless he’s still with the chairman. But I can show you where the gym is, if you’d like.”

“Um—” Furihata was getting increasingly anxious to end this awkward interaction. On the other hand, he didn’t want to get lost or something. That would be even more embarrassing. “Okay? Th-thanks.”

“I’ll be right back,” the girl said to the other two. They nodded.

Furihata followed the girl in the headband down the nearest walkway. As they left, he glanced back at the other two girls. They were exchanging another odd look.

The girl in the headband turned a corner, at a business-like stride. Furihata had to scramble to keep up with her. She wasn’t tall, but she had a self-assured presence. She looked like the kind of person who was super smart, and had accomplished a lot.

It was a lot like Akashi, honestly.

Furihata was getting the feeling that a lot of Rakuzan’s students were like this. He knew it was a prestigious school, and had a bunch of admission requirements. But he didn’t expect the students would give off such a high-achieving vibe.

It was pretty… intimidating.

“It’s over there.” The girl gestured to a building with an arched roof. It was huge, even compared to most of the other structures on the campus. Furihata’s face burned. It obviously wasn’t hard to find at all.

“O-okay! Thanks, for all your help.” He inched toward the gymnasium doors.

“It was no trouble.” The girl added, “If you do talk to Akashi-kun, I would appreciate it if you’d let him know that his vice president wants to speak with him. Though I’m sure more than enough people want that already.”

She left, with another sigh. Furihata stared after her. Was she the vice president of the student council? It explained a lot. She was probably a third-year, along with those girls who were her friends. Furihata couldn’t remember the last time he’d dared to talk to a female student who was a grade above him, besides his coach.

Akashi did it all the time, apparently. No surprise there.

Furihata inched up to one of the doors, and peeked in. The gym was mostly empty. A few guys were shooting baskets, at the opposite end of a massive hardwood court. But it looked like practice was over.

Furihata slipped inside. In one corner, two lanky guys with clipboards were talking to a bunch of younger guys with cleaning equipment. They were probably first-years, getting directions for their post-practice chores. (Furihata could relate, in spite of not being a freshman anymore… Although their court looked so good that he wasn’t sure why they needed to do any cleaning right now?)

Furihata thought about asking where to go, but decided against it. He’d spotted an archway that seemed to lead to a clubroom. Guys in warm-up clothes were going in and out. There was also a sign for the coach’s office. Maybe Akashi was in there?

He had just reached the archway, when someone right behind him said in a booming voice, “Well, what do we have here?”

Furihata felt like his heart had jumped out of his chest and sprinted off for good.

He whirled around, only to come face to face with one of the biggest guys he had ever seen on a basketball court. (And it was ridiculous that he wasn’t the biggest.) Nebuya Eikichi, Rakuzan’s massive center, towered over him.

“Pretty sure I’ve seen you before.” Nebuya crossed his arms. Furihata was positive those biceps were larger than his head. “Looks like we’re being infiltrated.”

He said this over one shoulder, like he was calling to someone. In a flash, another player darted across the court. He moved like a bolt of lightning.

“Sure does.” Hayama Koutarou, Rakuzan’s best forward, had joined them. He gave a knowing grin. “You’re Furihata, right? I remember you.”

Furihata gaped up at them both. He had forgotten just how imposing Rakuzan’s top players could be. Honestly, he wasn’t sure the Uncrowned Kings would remember him from the finals, since he barely played. Apparently they did, though.

Now they were probably wondering why a player from Seirin had randomly shown up at their gym… Furihata was starting to sweat again, and his mouth twitched, as he tried to force out some type of sound.

I’m not a spy, really! I swear!

“Guess we should take him to Akashi, huh?” Hayama’s grin widened. His unusually sharp canine tooth glinted in the overhead lights. “He’ll know what to do with you.”

He sounded almost ominous, in a weirdly cheerful sort of way. Then he winked, to Furihata’s increasing confusion.

“You’re here to see him, right?” he added. “He told us.”

Furihata blinked up at Hayama, for a full second.

“Oh. Uh—” He let out a shallow breath. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him that they might already know why he was there. “Y-yeah? I am.”

Hayama gave him a smack on the shoulder, that was probably supposed to be lighter than it was. “Well, come on, dude! He’s over here.”

He waved Furihata toward the archway, already bounding toward it. Furihata rushed to follow. He was oddly conscious of the fact that Nebuya came along, looming behind them. (One of the weirdest things about playing basketball, to Furihata at least, was being constantly surrounded by guys who were so much taller than he was.)

They passed into a broad white hallway. One of the doors was open, revealing tiled walls. Voices echoed inside, along with the hissing of water. It was a shower room, Furihata realized. Apparently, Rakuzan’s basketball club had way nicer facilities than most high school sports teams.

Another extremely tall person emerged through the open door, dressed in a flowery silk robe. It took Furihata a full second to absorb that this person was Mibuchi Reo, Rakuzan’s most talented shooting guard.

He was also the only guy Furihata had ever seen wrap his hair up in a bright purple towel.

“Hey, Reo-nee!” Hayama bounded right up to Mibuchi. “We found the enemy. We’re taking him into custody.”

He beamed back at Furihata, as Nebuya prodded him forward with a chuckle. “It wasn’t too hard. He seems pretty willing.”

Mibuchi raised a sculpted eyebrow. He really was tall, even more so than Furihata remembered. He was probably the tallest shooting guard in high school basketball in Japan, besides Midorima… In any normal situation, guys who had that much height would have to play as centers.

Furihata realized for the millionth time that he really hadn’t known what he was in for, when he signed up to play basketball his freshman year.

Mibuchi tsked his tongue, as he eyed his teammates.

“Stop your teasing, both of you,” he said in a scolding tone. “And you’re really much too loud.”

He turned to Furihata, as his robe swished around him.

“Hello, Furihata-kun,” he said, in a musical sort of way. “It’s just lovely to see you again. I assume you’re here to see Sei-chan?”

Furihata fought an urge to stare. He already knew from the Winter Cup that Mibuchi had a feminine way of talking. But he had honestly never met another guy who spoke like that—or who could pull off that much floral print. “Um, yes?”

Mibuchi’s long lashes fluttered, as he smiled down at him. “Well, he’s right in here.”

With a graceful hand, he gestured to another door. He swept toward it, and Furihata meekly followed. They entered a massive room filled with lockers. It was mostly empty, but a few guys were still getting changed.

“Sei-chan, darling,” Mibuchi called. “Your friend’s arrived.”

Furihata spied a familiar shade of red, near a center locker. His heart froze for a second, as his feet came to a lurching stop.

Oh, god.

Akashi was standing with his usual graceful posture, while he tied a necktie with practiced ease. Unlike at Seirin, the Rakuzan boys uniform was a suit. The shirt and trousers were tailored to Akashi perfectly, skimming his slender waist and legs. The neutral gray palette drew attention to his smooth complexion, and the delicate lines of his profile.

As he glanced up, his whole face kindled in a smile. Like he had just heard the best news ever.

He was beautiful. Really, seriously beautiful. And as he came rushing over, Furihata felt like he was melting into the floor.

So yeah, he was definitely screwed.

As Akashi got closer, a wave of heat washed over Furihata’s senses. He wobbled, letting that familiar aura envelop him. It was strangely calming… Furihata hadn’t realized just how anxious he was, since arriving in Kyoto. Being near Akashi made him feel better, somehow.

It was like rediscovering the center of the universe. Like just sensing that powerful, steady presence was enough to put him back into balance.

Which was… kind of terrifying, in a way? Furihata couldn’t remember having a crush that felt anything like this before.

“I’m glad you made it,” Akashi was saying. The sudden nearness of him, and the sincerity in his voice, was overwhelming. “It’s very good to see you.”

“Yeah,” Furihata managed. He sounded weirdly out of breath. “Same.”

Akashi’s voice sounded so warm in person. And so close. Furihata hadn’t realized how much he missed it. Even though it had only been a few days, really.

They gazed at each other. Furihata had the weirdest feeling that Akashi wanted to embrace him, to share a hug like they did during their last visit. He probably felt like he couldn’t with his teammates around, though…

Which was good. Right now, the last thing Furihata needed was to have to act normal, with Akashi’s arms wrapped around him. He wasn’t supposed to want something like that to happen.

The stupid thing was, he kind of did anyway.

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to meet you at the station,” Akashi said, with audible remorse.

He took Furihata’s hand. Even that small, hurried contact sent a jolt through Furihata’s skin. Sparks zinged up his arm, lighting every corner of his brain. He was so focused on that touch that he could barely process what Akashi was saying. Something about a school chairman, and his coach, and a meeting…?

“They were hoping I could speak with some donors,” Akashi went on. He squeezed Furihata’s hand lightly, before letting go. “I wasn’t anticipating it at all.”

Furihata released an unsteady breath, as his brain slowly started to work again. Now that his thoughts were catching up, he was even more stunned. Donors?

“Would you mind waiting here, while I take care of that?” Akashi’s lips were pursed. He looked genuinely worried. “It shouldn’t be long. And I truly am sorry, for asking you to wait.”

Furihata’s thoughts were still racing, as he blurted out, “It’s fine! I don’t mind.” He paused to process all this, before adding, “A-and besides, it sounds really important.”

He swallowed. Was Akashi seriously going to talk to a bunch of super-influential adults who helped fund his school? Without the chance to prepare for it, or anything? Although that explained why he had changed into his uniform.

Nearby, Hayama laughed. He opened a locker door so fast it rattled in its hinges.

“Akashi gets dragged off for super important stuff all the time,” he said. “It’s crazy. Someday the chairman is just gonna ask him to run the place.”

Akashi shook his head.

“I wouldn’t know the first thing about educational administration,” he said. Furihata wasn’t sure he believed that. “He was looking for someone to share the students’ perspectives. I simply happen to be the most obvious choice, as council president.”

Hayama snorted. “Uh-huh. And being from the Akashi family has nothing to do with it. Or the way you charm the pants off every adult you talk to.”

Akashi’s eyes gave a subtle twinkle. Furihata could sense that he was strongly tempted to laugh. “Well, I appreciate the semi-compliment.”

Suddenly, Furihata remembered something.

“Oh, uh, I almost forgot…” He hesitated. “I think I met your vice president on my way here? She said she wanted to talk to you.”

Hayama hooted. “Sachiko’s on the rampage again? Now you’re in for it, dude.”

Akashi was frowning now. “She’s been perfectly reasonable. She’s just under pressure with the festival. And I haven’t been as available as I ought to be.” His brow furrowed. “I’ll take care of it. As quickly as possible. Are you certain you’re all right?”

He looked back at Furihata. His concerned expression made Furihata feel all jumbled up and weird inside. For no reason that made sense.

He managed a nod, though, and a smile. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Go on, Sei-chan.” Mibuchi gently ushered Akashi in the direction of the door. “We’ll keep your friend company for you.”

“Thank you, very much.” Akashi shot Mibuchi a grateful look, and did the same to Furihata. Then he hurried out of the clubroom.

Furihata did his best not to stare after Akashi. Still, he was strangely aware of how that warm presence had faded from the room. He gulped, trying to act normal… He had no idea he would be hanging out with Akashi’s teammates. Honestly, he didn’t know what to expect.

Mibuchi was smiling, as he swept back toward the lockers.

“He’s a dear, but he works much too hard,” he said to Furihata, as he retrieved a shiny plastic case. He set it down on a nearby counter, along with an assortment of bottles. “I’m sure you know all about it. We were all so relieved, when we heard he was taking the day off with you.”

“You were?” Furihata was surprised. “I mean, I know he’s the captain.”

He felt kind of guilty, about spending the whole day with Akashi so close to the National tournament. Beside him, Hayama made a light scoffing sound.

“It’s fine. We’re a well-oiled machine here.” He smirked, as he glanced over at Mibuchi. “Reo-nee wants an excuse to boss us around anyway. He’s vice captain, but he never gets to do anything.”

“I think I do more than enough, corralling you.” Mibuchi eyed him back. “Speaking of which, go get in the shower with Ei-chan. I don’t know why the two of you were loafing around for so long out there, but you reek.”

He swatted at Hayama with a hand towel. Furihata blinked. He hadn’t even noticed that Nebuya had left to shower.

Hayama was rolling his eyes. “Fine, whatever, Your Highness.”

“That’s Your Majesty to you,” Mibuchi said, in a smug tone. Hayama groaned again, but he grabbed some clothes and headed for the door.

Mibuchi popped open the shiny case, which turned out to be filled with a bunch of tubes and brushes. It was a makeup case, Furihata realized. (At least, he was pretty sure it was? He had zero experience with cosmetics.)

“You don’t mind if I go ahead and finish my little routine, do you, dear?” Mibuchi pulled up a chair, and arranged a small mirror in front of him. “I like to look my best after practice, but it does take some work.”

Furihata was quick to nod. “Sure. That’s okay.”

The room was quiet. Furihata felt an odd pulse of nerves, like he always did around people he didn’t know very well. He tried not to stare, but he was kind of fascinated… Mibuchi was using some kind of sponge to bat makeup all over his face.

To be honest, Furihata wasn’t sure what Mibuchi meant by “look his best.” He was pretty sure he had never seen a guy with such nice skin before.

“You seem very sweet.” Mibuchi’s jewel-green eyes were bright, as their gazes met in the mirror. “Sei-chan told us how you’ve become good friends. I’m glad he was able to find someone he feels so comfortable with.”

Furihata’s face was growing a bit warm, though he wasn’t exactly sure why. He dropped his gaze to the floor, but he couldn’t hold back a small laugh.

“I’m glad too. He’s amazing.” He hesitated, thinking about just how true that was. “I—I still kind of can’t believe I get to be his friend, to be honest.”

There was a pause. It took Furihata a full second to realize that Mibuchi was studying him intently. A keen smile played across his lips.

“Well, aren’t you adorable?” he said. “No wonder Sei-chan is so taken with you.”

The temperature of Furihata’s face rose a few more degrees. “Um…”

He didn’t really get what that was supposed to mean? He knew Akashi cared about him. But he didn’t think that qualified as being “taken” with him or anything… Then again, Mibuchi seemed to like to phrase things in a different way from most people. (It was kind of like Akashi, come to think of it.)

Mibuchi dabbed some lighter makeup under his eyes, then down the sides of his nose. Each movement was quick and methodical. Then he started using a large fluffy brush to shade various parts of his face with brown powder.

As Furihata watched, he noticed something strange. An unusual energy was hovering around Mibuchi. It was stronger than what he sensed from most people. It felt like it was in motion somehow, a steady sort of spiral…

Furihata squinted, trying to see. He couldn’t usually see a person’s aura. But every now and then he got a glimpse, of a subtle light hovering around their bodies.

For some reason, Mibuchi’s aura felt familiar. But it was different from Akashi’s. It reminded Furihata of someone he knew, but he couldn’t remember who that was…

Furihata wasn’t sure how long it took, before he realized that Mibuchi had seen him staring. He was about to apologize, when Mibuchi broke the silence.

“You’re an empath, aren’t you?” His voice was gentle.

“What?” Furihata was pretty sure he’d never heard that word before. “What’s that?”

Mibuchi wore a soft smile. “It means you’re unusually sensitive, to the energy around you. And because of that, you can feel other people’s emotions, almost like they’re your own.”

Furihata frowned. “I don’t—“ He hesitated, unsure. “What makes you say that?”

He couldn’t help remembering how it felt to be around Akashi’s energy. He even used it to sense what Akashi was feeling, sometimes… But that was just because Akashi’s energy was so special. Not because Furihata could feel people’s emotions in general. Right?

“I can see it,” Mibuchi replied calmly. “It’s in your aura.”

Furihata froze, as Mibuchi turned around in his chair. His eyes were somehow distant and focused at the same time.

“You have a very pretty one,” he said, in a thoughtful murmur. “It’s like a white halo, with pastel colors and bright little flashes… But it’s a bit delicate in certain spots.”

A strange shiver rippled down Furihata’s back. His mouth was hanging open. He honestly couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“You—you can see those too?” he blurted. “I can feel them, and kind of see them, sometimes. I thought I was going crazy.”

Mibuchi’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be inspecting Furihata even more closely now. “You’re still getting used to it, then?”

Something about the depth in Mibuchi’s green irises made it seem like he was peering straight into Furihata’s soul. Which should have been impossible, but…

Suddenly, Furihata wondered if it really was.

“You’re awakening,” Mibuchi said after a moment, in an understanding voice. “No wonder you’re so open. You need to be more careful about that, you know.”

“Um, okay?” Furihata felt like most of this was going over his head. He couldn’t resist asking, “Are you an empath, too?”

Mibuchi shook his head. “No, dear, I’m clairvoyant.” He turned back to the mirror, and picked up another brush. “I see things most people can’t. Auras and so on. And you could say I’m something of a general psychic. I’m claircognizant as well.”

He swept shimmering powder onto his eyelids. Furihata’s mind was spinning, at the unfamiliar turn their conversation had taken.

“I, uh, don’t really know what that is,” he admitted. He’d heard the word ‘clairvoyant’ before. But he’d never had any real-life experience with it.

Then again, he had never expected to think that any of this was real.

“It means I just know things, sometimes,” Mibuchi explained. “Especially on a supernatural level. Do you ever feel that way?”

His tone was kind, as he looked at Furihata in the mirror again. Furihata swallowed. “I’m—I’m not really sure.”

Weirdly, he had felt like that before, kind of… Every once in a while, Furihata’s instincts would tell him to do something, even though he didn’t understand why. He had noticed it more when he started talking to Akashi. He just figured it was some kind of gut feeling, though. Not anything supernatural.

Mibuchi was giving him that keen-eyed look again. He glanced past Furihata… Like something was hovering behind him. When Furihata looked, there was nothing there.

“Can I ask you something else, dear?” For the first time in their conversation, Mibuchi sounded hesitant. “Do you ever see ghosts?”

Furihata’s throat clenched, as a cold knot bloomed in his stomach.

An image flashed through his mind. He tried not to let it, tried not to remember… But he couldn’t help picturing that transparent woman with tangled hair, that he glimpsed on his first night at Akashi’s house in Tokyo.

“Um, n-no,” he managed. “Not really?”

He didn’t see ghosts, he told himself. He had just imagined it that one night, because he was freaking out. So even if ghosts were real—and no matter what all the superstitions said, they probably weren’t, since there was no actual scientific proof—he had never seen one before.

“Hmm.” Mibuchi tilted his head, in a shrewd sort of way. “Well, if you ever do, and you’d like to talk about it with someone, just let me know.”

Furihata forced a nervous nod. Even as he reminded himself that he definitely wouldn’t need it. Mibuchi’s expression softened again.

“I’m sorry, I’m being terribly nosy,” he said, as he went back to applying makeup. “It’s just been a while since I’ve met someone as special as you.”

Now Furihata was actually speechless.


He really wasn’t. Like, at all. He was average at best—and below average, in a lot of things. He was tempted to say this out loud, but… Mibuchi had to know how normal he was, right? They even played on the same basketball court for a few minutes. It wasn’t like Furihata was hiding any amazing skills in other areas.

No one had ever called Furihata special before. Ever. (Well, except his grandmother, who passed away years ago. But that was because she loved him. Not because he really was.)

Furihata couldn’t explain why, but tingling shivers were crawling all over his skin again… He felt strangely overwhelmed, and confused. Mibuchi’s next question surprised him even more.

“May I call you Kouki-chan?” His voice was gentle, as he eyed Furihata in the mirror. “Your given name suits you so well.”

“S-sure, if you want?” Furihata wasn’t sure why, but he was kind of blushing.

He didn’t mind his name, or anything. It was just, well, his name. But for some reason, Mibuchi said it in a way that made it sound interesting, and important.

Like it really was special, almost.

“And you can call me Reo-nee, if you like,” Mibuchi added. “Most people do.”

Furihata managed another nod. He didn’t have a sister, and he had definitely never used that honorific for another guy before… But Mibuchi seemed to like it?

A hailstorm of footsteps made him jump. Hayama barreled into the clubroom, wearing a t-shirt and a towel wrapped around his waist. Furihata’s brain stalled, trying to make sense of this combination.

“Kou-chan, what exactly is the meaning of that ensemble?” Mibuchi said, with a strained calmness that said, ‘I’m too used to this.’“We do have a guest, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah. Forgot underwear.” Hayama was ransacking his locker again. He retrieved some boxers with a lightning bolt pattern, then abruptly dropped the towel. Furihata was careful to look the other direction. “Anyways, Reo-nee, like you can talk! You’re making him watch the full-blown beauty treatment.”

Mibuchi knit his newly redrawn brows. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Come on, not every dude is gonna be ready to see another guy turn into a full-blown glamor queen,” Hayama said, as Nebuya lumbered into the room behind him. “Your camp game is seriously next level.”

“Could be a shock to his system,” Nebuya agreed, with a laugh.

Mibuchi looked like he didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered.

“N-no, it’s fine!” Furihata hurried to interrupt them. “Really. I mean I know about being gay, and, uh, other stuff like that? It doesn’t bother me.”

Which was true. He didn’t completely understand all the nuances of gender and sexuality. But it wasn’t like other people’s identities made him uncomfortable. (Everyone on Seirin’s team had gotten pretty used to the gay idea, for one.)

Hayama looked startled. “Oh, so you know guys who’re—” He stopped, like he had just remembered something. “Uh, right. I guess that’s obvious.”

He sounded sheepish. Nebuya just cleared his throat. Furihata couldn’t exactly blame them. They had been at the Winter Cup too, after all.

“Painfully,” Mibuchi agreed, in a knowing tone. He started sweeping mascara onto his eyelashes. “Besides, if I know Teppei-chan, he was bound to attract plenty of bi-curious people to any team he founded. Like to like, you know.”

Furihata was watching again, fascinated. Mibuchi had such thick lashes, to the point that it seemed kind of strange to bother with adding makeup… So it took Furihata a few seconds to process what Mibuchi said, and who he was talking about.

When he finally did, it was like his entire brain had to reset.

“Wait, what?” The words flew out of his mouth. “Are—are you talking about Kiyoshi-senpai? Because I’m pretty sure he dates girls.”

Furihata was positive, in fact. It was a whole huge thing, how Kiyoshi used to date their coach and now Hyuuga had a crush on her, but they were all close friends so it was weird. He had never heard about Kiyoshi liking guys at any point.

… And what was that stuff about a bunch of people on their team?

“Bi-curious, dear.” Mibuchi sounded amused. “I’m not saying anyone’s acted on it.”

He put the mascara wand away, while Furihata’s thoughts spiraled. The “bi-curious” phrase was easy enough to figure out. Was it really true, that some of his other teammates were also interested in both guys and girls? His mind dashed through the possibilities.

He wasn’t sure. But suddenly he was wondering. About, well, a lot of stuff.

“On that note, Kouki-chan, let me ask you,” Mibuchi went on. “Has that adorable point guard of yours ever swung my way? Izuki-kun, wasn’t that it?”

Furihata’s jaw was slack again. He’d never had this type of conversation about his own teammates before. Or about guys in general.

(He never would have guessed Rakuzan’s players were the type to have them, either… They always seemed like such a serious team?)

“U-um, I don’t know...” He hesitated, trying to absorb all these new options. “I mean, I thought he just liked girls, but... Honestly he might like puns more than anything? I’m not sure.”

Nebuya snorted behind him, and Hayama doubled over. “Pffft!”

Mibuchi sighed. “Well, that’s a shame. He’s such a cutie. And just my type.”

Furihata felt an awkward twinge. He had just realized the other day that he found Izuki attractive. He couldn’t help wondering what Mibuchi’s ‘type’ was. Did… Did the two of them have similar taste in guys, maybe?

Oh god, this whole thing was getting weird.

“What, so you’re already over that Takao dude from Shuutoku?” Nebuya was saying.

“Reo-nee’s latest crush,” Hayama explained to Furihata, with a mischievous look. “He gets a new one like every tournament.”

“Oh hush, I do not,” Mibuchi huffed. “And I’m not over Takao-kun. I’ve just come to accept that it’s clearly hopeless, for the time being. A lost cause. Alas.”

He let out another theatrical sigh. Furihata frowned. He was getting bizarrely curious about this whole discussion. “Why? He doesn’t like guys either?”

“Oh dear, you’re too precious.” Mibuchi sounded almost motherly. “No, he’s a hundred percent gay.”

Furihata was even more confused now. He didn’t know Takao well. But he never noticed anything about him that made it seem like he absolutely had to be gay.

“I do feel a little bad for all those girls from his school, though.” Mibuchi sorted through his makeup case, then took out another shiny tube. “They obviously had no idea. Not that I blame them, of course. I’d come to his games too.”

Furihata tried to process this. He’d never noticed how many girls attended Shuutoku’s games—they had a lot of people who watched—but he vaguely remembered hearing something about how Takao was popular at his school.

“But then why’s he a lost cause?” he couldn’t resist asking.

Mibuchi was giving him that sympathetic look again, as he spread sparkly gloss over his lips. “Sweetheart, he’s in love with someone else. And I’d say I’m not his type, but… Hmm. He does seem to prefer significantly taller men with shooting skills. And green eyes.”

His tone was amused, as he smacked his lips together. Nebuya and Hayama were snickering again. One of them muttered, “Yeah, and uptight prissy dudes who believe in fortunetelling,” and Mibuchi hurled a hairbrush in their direction. Furihata was too lost in thought to really watch, though.

It was basically impossible, not to know who these jokes were about. Furihata kept remembering the match Rakuzan had played against Shuutoku… Honestly, he had kind of wondered the same thing, back then. (He’d seen partnerships that intense before, and, um, yeah.)  He never noticed any proof, though.

Well, except for some jokes Takao made. And how Takao was always around this particular green-eyed person. And… Okay, it was pretty easy to see in retrospect.

“How do you even know all this stuff?” Furihata asked Mibuchi, who was retrieving the hairbrush. He was so curious he didn’t even feel self-conscious about interrupting.

Mibuchi seemed a little startled. Hayama was the one who declared, “Reo-nee’s a wizard, when it comes to this shit. Always knows who’s crushing on who. And everyone’s sexuality. Like, before they even know.”

“Witch, wizard.” Mibuchi was smiling again. “I’ll accept either title. And it’s really not that hard, if you pay a bit of attention to your intuition.”

He winked at Furihata, who straightened a little, intrigued. He had no idea that intuition could be used for something like that.

… But wait, did that mean Mibuchi might know what Furihata’s sexuality was? Even though Furihata was still figuring it out himself? Not to mention who his crush was.

Oh god. Oh god oh god…

“Seriously, though, Reo-nee, I’m starting to think you’re just obsessed with point guards,” Hayama was saying. “Which ones haven’t you crushed on yet?”

“Well, there’s Makoto-chan, but I’m not a complete masochist,” Mibuchi said, as he returned to his chair. Furihata wondered if that was supposed to refer to Hanamiya Makoto, another one of the Uncrowned Kings.

Judging from Hayama’s wary expression, it did. “Uh, yeah no. What about that guy from Kaijou?”

“Hmm, not really.” Mibuchi looked thoughtful. “He seems like a very nice boy, of course, but I doubt we would get along. His whole aesthetic is just so functional.”

Hayama guffawed. “It’s the socks, isn’t it?”

“In any case, there’s just too much competition with team captains,” Mibuchi added. “Generally in the form of an army of eager female admirers. Or a few boys, who may or may not be in the closet.”

Furihata was listening, trying to figure out which of these scenarios was supposed to apply to Kaijou’s captain. He wasn’t sure why he was so interested… Maybe because Kasamatsu didn’t strike him as the type of guy who had a ton of girls chasing him? (Not compared to Kaijou’s star player, anyway.)

Then the conversation took a turn he didn’t expect at all.

“God, talk about it.” Hayama let out a long groan. “So over all those chicks playing hide and seek around our gym doors. Like just stand there and own it, if you’re gonna ogle him or whatever.”

Before Furihata could fully process this, Mibuchi added, “Well, Sei-chan is a little intimidating to most people.”

Furihata’s mouth went dry, as his pulse gave an abrupt flutter. A few phrases from his interaction with those third-year girls echoed in his ears.

“Everyone’s constantly looking for him.”

“At least it’s a guy this time.”

Suddenly, a few things made a lot more sense. Not that it was a huge surprise.

“He—um—girls come here to see him?” Furihata forced himself to ask. “And talk with him and stuff?”

“Goodness no!” Mibuchi replied. “They just like gazing at him from afar. Not that Sei-chan ever notices.” He rolled his eyes. “They rarely interact with him, so of course he assumes that most girls don’t find him particularly attractive. I love him dearly, but Sei-chan can be a bit dim sometimes.”

He shook his head fondly. Furihata swallowed. He was trying not to think too hard about how many girls at this top-tier school might have a crush on his best friend.

“Y-yeah, I kinda noticed.” He remembered all the times he’d seen girls staring at Akashi, when they were hanging out. “I mean, that he doesn’t notice?”

Mibuchi gave a knowing nod. Furihata was tempted to ask some more questions. He had been wondering for a while, why Akashi didn’t seem that interested in girls. Come to think of it, maybe Mibuchi would know if Akashi liked girls or guys. Or both.

Oh god, what if he does like guys sometimes? What if…?

“Sei-chan can be surprisingly modest,” Mibuchi was saying. After a moment, he added in a lower voice, “I think the other him knew, at least on some level. But he didn’t seem terribly interested either.”

Furihata stood very still. He almost thought he must have heard wrong.

He had been preoccupied, with the whole crush problem. But in the back of his mind, he kept thinking about the other Akashi, too. He kept wondering how Akashi’s other self was doing—and what he was up to, on that night in the library. Furihata really wished he knew more about him.

Now one of Akashi’s teammates had brought him up, out of nowhere. And Furihata didn’t know what to say—because he had way too many questions. Rakuzan’s players were probably some of the only people who even knew Akashi’s two selves personally.

The mood in the room had changed, Furihata noticed. It was quieter, and no one was joking around. Mibuchi didn’t seem like he was planning to say more.

Still, Furihata managed to ask, “What was the other him like?”

He braced for the answer. Mibuchi eyed him. Like he was contemplating the fact that Furihata knew about both Akashis.

“He was very different, in some ways,” he said. Then his face kindled, in a shining sort of smile. “But also very much the same.”

“I liked him,” Hayama chimed in. “A lot. He was super funny.”

He chuckled. Nebuya gave a nod, and Mibuchi agreed, “We all liked him.”

Furihata was bewildered. That didn’t match up with what he knew. He couldn’t help remembering all of the times he had seen the other Akashi leading Rakuzan’s team. “B-but it seemed like he was pretty mean, sometimes? To you guys.”

He gulped. He wasn’t sure if it was okay to point that out. Still, he had seen the other Akashi make a lot of strange threats, and then turn his back on his teammates, near the end of the Winter Cup… To be honest, it bothered him.

Because what kind of person would do things like that?

He expected the Kings to laugh, or make light of what had happened. To his surprise, though, they didn’t. Mibuchi heaved a sigh.

“Oh, Kouki-chan.” He adjusted his chair, then gestured to a nearby bench. Furihata sat down beside him, nervous. “I’m not sure you have any idea what our team is like. Especially last year.”

Furihata frowned, not following. Obviously Rakuzan’s team had to be a super competitive club. But he didn’t get why they would be all that different from other teams.

Mibuchi’s expression was firm.

“We named Sei-chan the captain because he swore he would be ruthless,” he said. “He promised us that he would do anything in his power to make us win. And we believed him. We were very much complicit, in everything you saw.”

Furihata’s mouth slipped open. Complicit? He glanced at the other two Kings. Hayama and Nebuya were both nodding.

In that moment, Furihata noticed something. Hayama and Nebuya’s energy was weirdly similar to Mibuchi’s. It had the same steady, swirling feeling to it. All three of them had really strong auras. Like the Generation of Miracles, but different at the same time. Furihata didn’t know how to describe it, or what it meant… But it felt strangely important. Like someday he would understand it better.

“It does things to you, when you lose for long enough.” Nebuya cracked a grim smile. “You cut deals you wouldn’t otherwise. Play with people you can’t stand.”

He shot looks at Mibuchi, and Hayama. They both chuckled. It was obvious they were remembering years of shared history—and a lot of it wasn’t good.

Furihata didn’t know much about the five Uncrowned Kings. But it seemed pretty awful, to be so amazing at basketball and get barely any credit for it, just because people with even more talent happened to play the same sport. Even their nickname was a snub. Unlike the Generation of Miracles, though, the Kings hadn’t played on the same team in junior high.

Furihata knew that a lot of people used to hate the Miracles. From the way these three looked at each other, he was getting the sense that the Kings were once bitter rivals too.

(He had seen even stronger proof of this, come to think of it… Just based on some stuff that happened to the one King who played on his team.)

Still, three of the Uncrowned Kings had decided to play together in high school. And now, Furihata was getting a much clearer idea why.

“True that.” Hayama snorted. “If anyone had ever told me that I’d make one of those bratty Teikou punks my leader, I would’ve punched their lights out.”

Furihata gulped. It was impossible to miss the resentment that shaded Hayama’s voice. He couldn’t help wondering exactly why the Kings had accepted Akashi’s other self as their captain. How did he convince them?

He had a feeling the other Akashi probably didn’t do it by being nice.

“Sei-chan wasn’t always kind,” Mibuchi said, almost like he could read Furihata’s thoughts. “I won’t say that some of his actions didn’t hurt. They did—particularly during the match with your team. But it just made us realize we’d all had the wrong priorities. For far too long.”

He looked really serious. Hayama and Nebuya did, too.

Furihata thought about the Winter Cup, and everything that happened in that tournament. He knew a lot of people who had learned some hard lessons during those games. (He’d learned a few himself, actually.)

So it kind of made sense, to hear that Akashi’s other self wasn’t the only person on Rakuzan’s team who made mistakes.

“I think Sei-chan always means well,” Mibuchi added warmly. “Every part of him. He just doesn’t always know how to handle certain things.”

Furihata managed a nod. He still wasn’t sure if he could trust the other Akashi, and he wanted to know what he was up to…

But maybe he wasn’t a bad person. At least, his teammates didn’t seem to think so.

Mibuchi smiled down at Furihata. “You really care about Sei-chan, don’t you?”

Furihata was caught off guard. He was way too shy to say how true that was out loud. He gave a bashful nod, though.

“That’s good.” Hayama sounded cheerful. “You won’t regret it.”

Nebuya grunted in agreement, and Mibuchi nodded too. Furihata’s chest gave a weird pang. He used to wonder if Akashi had any friends on his team at Rakuzan… From the way the Kings talked, it was obvious that he did.

“That’s the most important thing about Sei-chan,” Mibuchi agreed. “He won’t allow himself to let you down for long.”

He glanced meaningfully toward the door. All at once, Furihata felt a strong aura coming closer. Familiar warmth washed over his senses, as footsteps echoed in the hall outside.

Akashi appeared at the door. Furihata tried not to notice the small, aching thrill that rippled through him, just from seeing his best friend’s face.

“Well, how did it go?” Mibuchi was saying. “Did we put the whole school back in order?”

Akashi chuckled, in that silky way he had. “For now, I hope.”

His catlike gaze landed on Furihata, and his expression lightened. It was like Akashi had been scanning the room for him automatically. The idea made Furihata’s insides feel all wobbly.

Which was dumb. Akashi was probably just checking to make sure he was okay. He was just being nice, and the best friend ever…

“I heard my name,” Akashi said in a friendly tone, as he came closer. “Should I be afraid to ask what you were discussing?”

“Nothing so important,” Mibuchi said, and Nebuya gave a shrug. “Basketball stuff.”

“Ooh, and we were talking about crushes!” Hayama joined in. “And, like, Reo-nee’s whole thing for point guards.”

There was a split-second pause. Then Hayama stiffened. Like he had just realized he had said something wrong.

“Uh, before, I mean,” he blurted. “Before! You know, earlier. About other people.”

Another silence fell over the room. The energy felt weirdly uncomfortable, all of a sudden. Furihata didn’t understand why, though… Mibuchi was eyeing Hayama, with a narrowed gaze.

“Ah, I see.” Akashi didn’t seem uncomfortable, exactly. More like he was aware of something that could be awkward for other people, and he was trying not to draw attention to it.

Wait… Does that mean…?

“Hey, so what about him, Reo-nee? Our new Seirin buddy.” Hayama jabbed a finger at Furihata. He was obviously trying to change the subject as fast as possible. “He’s a point guard too. Right?”

He smiled in his broad, sunny way. At first Furihata didn’t get what he was saying.

“Well, Kouki-chan isn’t my usual type,” Mibuchi said, and Furihata finally caught up. “Adorable though he certainly is.”

His emerald irises glittered, as he gazed down at Furihata. Furihata wasn’t sure why this was even a question. Obviously a person as amazing as Mibuchi wouldn’t get a crush on him. He was way too boring.

(Furihata also wasn’t sure when he graduated to being a ‘buddy’ of the Uncrowned Kings… That seemed like a steep upgrade when he was basically a nobody, who just happened to be a friend of their captain’s. Akashi was giving him a curious look, too. Like he wondered how he became ‘Kouki-chan’ so soon.)

 “But… Hmm.” Mibuchi was still studying him, for some reason. “Can I ask when your birthday is, dear?”

“Err, November 8th?” Furihata didn’t get what that had to do with anything. Or what was even happening, with this bizarre turn in the conversation.

“Really now? Interesting.” Mibuchi raised his elegantly shaped brows, as he peered even closer at him. Furihata never knew just how pretty a guy could look in makeup. “Yes, I could see myself taking quite a fancy to Kouki-chan, now that you mention it. Going on a date or two. He’s very charming.”

A sudden flush heated Furihata’s face. “Wh-what?!”

“Of course by the second date I would be forced to tell him that we could never be.” Mibuchi exhaled dramatically. “That his soul was never intended for mine, and I refuse to keep him from his true destiny. It would be very cinematic.”

He gave Furihata a light pat on the shoulder. Furihata was lost. Was this supposed to be some kind of inside joke? Hayama and Nebuya were laughing and giving Mibuchi amused looks that said,‘Our friend is being weird again.’

But Mibuchi had almost sounded semi-serious… Maybe? Like about part of it? Or something?

“That does sound like quite the scene,” Akashi said, in his pleasant way. “Though I think it would dull some of the impact, to know the outcome in advance.”

He came up alongside Furihata. Furihata felt a weird little twinge, like something was off again. As though he could sense more discomfort resonating somewhere.

He was started to feel a little dizzy, actually… It just felt like there was just so much energy in the room, between Akashi and the Uncrowned Kings.

“Mm, true.” Mibuchi shot Furihata another wink. “Though I always say the future is never really set in stone.”

Furihata smiled back. He definitely got the feeling that Mibuchi was just being friendly. Maybe because of the conversation they had earlier.

“It means I just know things, sometimes. Do you ever feel that way?”

Furihata kind of wanted to talk to Mibuchi more, about all that supernatural stuff. (Well, minus the ghosts.) He wasn’t sure when he would get another chance, though. And he still felt way too embarrassed, to bring it up in front of other people.

“Speaking of nothing being set in stone,” Akashi was saying. “I really ought to take Furihata-kun somewhere to eat. I’ve kept him waiting for too long already.”

He frowned at Furihata, in a worried way. Furihata hurried to reassure him, “I’m okay. Honest.”

“Ooh, are you gonna do kawayuka?” Hayama perked up. “I wanna go! Can we come?”

Akashi looked hesitant. Mibuchi said in a scolding tone, “Kou-chan, don't be rude. The two of them planned this visit so they could spend time together. I’m sure they don’t need us interrupting.”

Akashi gave Mibuchi a slight smile, which he readily returned.

“That being said, I do envy you both,” Mibuchi added. “You’re certainly spoiled for choice. It’s the ideal time to be dining here, isn’t it?”

It really was, Furihata realized. He’d totally forgotten that he was visiting Kyoto in the middle of kawayuka season. Kyoto got so hot in the summer that a bunch of local restaurants set up tables on wooden platforms along the river. Supposedly, it helped keep everyone cool while they ate. Furihata had never tried it before.

Nebuya cut in, “You doing the yakiniku one? You gotta do that one,” which was followed by another whine from Hayama. “Ugh, lucky! Sooo unfair.”

Mibuchi was shooting them looks like he wanted to smack them. Meanwhile Akashi appeared kind of torn, like he wasn’t sure how to handle this turn of events. Which was pretty surprising… He usually seemed so confident in conversations.

“We could meet there tomorrow night, perhaps,” he said, with a cautious look at Furihata. “But I don’t know if Furihata-kun would be able to stay in the city that late. Would an arrangement like that be all right with you?”

“Yeah, of course!” Furihata said, and he could sense Akashi relax a little. “That sounds great. I don’t mind leaving later.”

Hayama and Nebuya whooped their approval. Mibuchi was smiling too. “That’s very sweet of you both. We’ll be looking forward to it.”

“Well, we probably should be going, if you’re ready,” Akashi said, and Furihata nodded. Akashi paused. “Coach didn’t want to discuss anything else, did he?”

“He can talk to me if he does. Now enough of your ridiculous work ethic.” Mibuchi made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on, you two. Have lots of fun tonight.”

“See you guys later!” Hayama said, and Nebuya gave a wave of his muscular arm. Furihata found himself waving back, without even thinking about it.

He and Akashi headed out into the hall. They were passing under the archway to the main gym, when someone came bursting out of the clubroom. Furihata turned, only to see Mibuchi in the doorway. His flowery robe billowed all around him.

“Sei-chan—” His dark-lined eyes were wide, as they fixed on Furihata. A weird chill curled around Furihata’s spine.

“Yes?” Akashi said. When Mibuchi didn’t respond, he pressed, “What is it?”

Mibuchi’s frown deepened. He looked really tense, like he was trying to make a difficult decision. He tore his alarmed gaze away from Furihata, and brought it back to Akashi.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Never mind. Just… You will stay together, won’t you? And be careful going home.”

“Yes, of course,” Akashi replied, and Mibuchi gave a slow nod. Then he turned and disappeared through the doorway.

Akashi glanced at Furihata. He sighed a little.

“Please don’t mind him,” he said. “He’s just a bit superstitious. Sometimes he likes to warn me about bad luck on my way out.”

“Oh. He does?” Furihata tried not to look too startled. He wanted to ask what type of warnings Mibuchi gave, not to mention why he would want them to stay together… But Akashi’s tone was light, even dismissive. Which meant probably didn’t believe in this type of stuff.

Furihata wondered what Akashi would think, if he knew he was starting to.

They crossed the gymnasium, keeping to one side. A few freshmen were still cleaning one corner of the basketball court.

“I’m so sorry about all of that,” Akashi was saying. “They’re very good friends, but they can be a bit much, I know.”

He nodded to the freshmen, who had stopped their chores to give the standard “Thanks for your hard work!” greeting. Furihata couldn’t help noticing the awed looks on their faces, as their captain passed.

“And I wasn’t sure how to refuse them when it came to dinner,” Akashi added, as he pushed open one of the doors. “We haven’t had much of an opportunity to make the kawayuka rounds this year.”

They left the gym, plunging into the sticky summer air. The sun was setting, as it bathed Rakuzan’s campus in fiery tones of red and orange.

“Why are you sorry?” Furihata laughed. “It sounds fun. I mean, I can’t promise I won’t be really quiet and awkward and stuff. But they were nice.”

He honestly wasn’t sure why Akashi was apologizing. It was obvious that the Kings had gone out of their way to welcome him. Yeah, they were quirky, but not nearly as scary as Furihata expected. And he was used to quirky people.

… Then he tried to imagine bringing Akashi to Seirin’s clubroom. How all his teammates would be there, and they were his good friends, but also a bunch of goofy dorks who did really weird stuff all the time…

And okay, now he kind of understood.

“Yes, they certainly seemed to like you,” Akashi said in a knowing voice. “Not that I’m surprised in the least.”

His expression softened, as their eyes met. Warmth spread through Furihata’s body, straight down to his toes. Until he was half-convinced that he was going to turn into a gooey puddle on the sidewalk.

It just wasn’t fair, when Akashi looked at him like that… How was Furihata supposed to act normal, when Akashi kept smiling like he was literally glowing?

Furihata tried to tell himself it was Akashi’s aura, or something. But he knew the truth: he was just crushing that hard. Pretty soon he was going to see a cloud of sparkly bubbles floating around Akashi’s head. Like in those mushy shoujo anime shows that he secretly kind of enjoyed.

… God, just kill him now. Why was he such a hopeless dork?

“I must admit, I’m looking forward to dinner,” Akashi was saying. “Practice was rather exhausting.”

“Yeah. Same.” Furihata did his best to sound normal, even though his stomach was twisting in that uncomfortable way again. “I could really go for some.”

He tried not to think about how what he meant was, “I really want to go out to eat with you.” Because all of a sudden his brain was making a bunch of super predictable associations, about how they were going to a restaurant and it was just the two of them. Even though he had eaten with Akashi a million times before.

It’s just dinner, stupid! It’s definitely not like that. You’re friends, remember?

“So what would you care to eat?” Akashi’s polite question interrupted Furihata’s internal scolding. “There are all sorts of restaurants with kawayuka platforms. Even a few Western-style ones, if you’d prefer.”

Furihata swallowed. Now that he was with Akashi, the butterflies were back in full force. He wasn’t sure what type of food sounded good, or if he’d even feel like eating.

Still, he could think of one place he really wanted to go. Hungry or not.

“A-actually, I was thinking…” He chewed the corner of his lip. “I’d really like to go to your favorite place. You know, the yudofu one you’re always talking about?”

Akashi’s brows flicked upward. “You’re requesting a multiple course tofu dinner?”

“Uh-huh.” Furihata couldn’t stop a smile, at Akashi’s reaction. “I really wanna try it. If you’re okay with that.”

Akashi had that shining look on his face again. The sunset cast his perfectly angled features in a crimson glow. Somehow it made his hair seem even redder.

“Well, I’m certainly not about to argue with you.” His eager tone sent warmth fizzing through Furihata’s veins. “Though it isn’t a kawayuka restaurant.”

“That’s okay!” Furihata insisted. “We’re doing that tomorrow. I’m just excited to be spending time with you.”

“I am as well.” Akashi gave him another perfect, amazing smile. Furihata mirrored it, as they strolled down one of the campus walkways.

And it kind of hurt, because the moment felt so nice, and simple. It was obvious that Akashi really liked being with him. He just genuinely liked being friends. Furihata wished that was the only thing he felt, too.

Maybe he could still get back to that. And forget all the crush stuff. Somehow.

The air simmered around them. For some reason, Furihata felt hyper aware of everything—the heat, the moisture, Akashi’s presence—and so he sensed it, when a subtle movement pulsed nearby. Akashi was reaching toward him.

Furihata stiffened, even though he tried not to. Was Akashi going to take his hand, like he did back in the clubroom? Furihata’s palm tingled in anticipation, as his brain spun in dizzy circles.

Akashi hesitated. Then someone rounded a corner, right in front of them. He drew back, and Furihata was able to breathe again.

Akashi greeted the student, who was apparently his senpai. Furihata rubbed his elbow, not sure if he was relieved or disappointed. Either way, he shouldn’t want Akashi to hold his hand. There was just no chance that he would be able to keep his cool right now.

He could hardly think straight, when Akashi had touched him earlier. If it happened again, Akashi might think something was wrong, or maybe even figure out the truth about his feelings… Furihata couldn’t let that happen.

Besides, Akashi was probably just going to give his hand another quick squeeze. They couldn’t really hold hands in public, right? Not at Akashi’s school, where everybody knew him and would wonder what it meant.

Just as Furihata was thinking this, another group of students passed by. Behind them, an older man with silver hair hurried down the walkway. He looked like the sort of ultra-dignified person who belonged in a portrait. He paused when he saw Akashi.

“Excellent work today, Akashi-kun,” the man said, while Akashi gave a polite bow. “You were a credit to the school, as always.”

“Thank you, chairman. I’m honored I could be of assistance.”

The man gave an approving nod, before heading on his way. Across the courtyard, a group of girls were sorting through some boxes, probably for the upcoming festival. They all started whispering to each other, as they snuck peeks in Akashi’s direction.

Every single one of the girls was pretty. Super pretty. The type Furihata would automatically assume was out of his league.

It went on like this, all the way to the front of the campus. Tons of people kept greeting Akashi, and thanking him. Some of them even asked questions as they passed. He answered every one with his usual poise, and greeted each person by name.

Furihata gaped at his friend with increasing astonishment. Akashi seemed so used to all of this, like it was no big deal. He was striding at a brisk pace, with his head high. In his sharply tailored uniform, he moved with confident ease.

He was just like a young emperor, passing through the kingdom he ruled.

Furihata had been hanging out with Akashi so much lately. But it was just the two of them. It almost felt like they were in their own world. Sometimes, Furihata kind of forgot just how amazing and extraordinary his best friend really was.

Ever since he had stepped onto this campus, Furihata was reminded of the truth.

Akashi was, well, Akashi. He was the student council president of Rakuzan, and captain of the strongest basketball team in the country. He was admired by his teammates, and all his classmates, and even super-powerful adults. Not to mention adored by who-knew-how-many girls. (And guys too, probably.)

This was the person he had a crush on, Furihata thought, as a creeping feeling of dismay overwhelmed him. Probably one of the most romantically desirable guys he had ever met. Desirable—and unattainable. Because who could measure up to that?

Furihata didn't just have a crush on his best friend. He had a crush on Akashi Seijuurou.

He honestly wasn’t sure which part was worse.

Akashi was truly starting to wonder how he had become so fortunate.

He was in the car, seated beside his dearest friend in the world, and they were on their way to his favorite restaurant. Akashi couldn’t recall enjoying a vacation so much before. He usually spent all of his time working, whether on schoolwork, or private tutoring sessions, or his various extracurricular responsibilities at school.

Now Akashi was taking yet another day off, simply to relax. And he wasn’t doing it alone, as he would have assumed just a short time ago. Instead, he was passing the time with one of the people whom he treasured most.

He couldn’t help smiling, each time he looked over and saw Furihata beside him.

“Are you really sure about the restaurant?” It felt oddly selfish, to take a guest to a place that would have been his top choice. “It might not be the most seasonally appropriate meal. And while I can promise the food is excellent, I’ve been told repeatedly that it is quite a lot of tofu.”

Furihata laughed, in that soft way he had. “Works for me. The tofu around here is supposed to be amazing, right?”

He glanced at Akashi, and the corners of his mouth dimpled a little more.

“Besides, I just want to know what your favorite place is like,” he added. “You know, see why you like it so much?”

He looked away again, apparently bashful. Akashi could understand why. Not everyone would be able to articulate such a caring sentiment out loud. It made his own chest feel curiously warm.

He was tempted to take Furihata’s hand, to silently thank him… Furihata’s slim hands were resting in his lap, his fingers tightly entwined. Akashi didn’t want to intrude too much upon his friend’s personal space.

He kept watching Furihata, though he couldn’t explain why he was studying those sensitive features so closely. Perhaps the truth was that he was still a bit concerned.

Akashi had been worried, when he was unable to meet Furihata at the station. Furihata often became nervous in new surroundings. Akashi certainly never intended to put him in the position of having to come alone to an unfamiliar campus, and then navigate the area by interacting with strangers.

When Furihata arrived in the clubroom, an entire novel’s worth of discomfort was written on his face. Then Akashi was forced to leave. While he knew his teammates would be kind, they weren’t exactly the most sedate individuals. Akashi had no idea how Furihata would feel, being left alone with them.

It seemed to go well, however. Furihata even agreed to a group dinner with them the next evening. The prospect made Akashi undeniably happy.

He didn’t know why a sense of concern still nagged at him… Furihata had handled the situation with grace and understanding. Nevertheless, Akashi found himself wishing that he could have shielded Furihata from even the most commonplace discomfort.

Akashi had felt this way before. And it troubled him.

Furihata didn’t require anyone’s protection. It was genuinely admirable, how he managed his anxieties and made an effort to do things he found intimidating. Akashi respected that trait, and wished to honor it.

Yet he kept feeling protective toward his friend, for reasons he couldn’t explain. Was he just being patronizing?

And something else bothered him… Admittedly, Akashi had been nervous, to leave Furihata with his closest teammates. All four were very important to him, and he couldn’t help but hope they would get along.

Still, Akashi wasn’t overly concerned. They were all kind, accepting people. And when he eventually returned to the clubroom, they appeared to be on even friendlier terms that he could have wished.

Then his teammates had started joking about romance. Hayama began it accidentally—which was awkward enough, for several reasons—and then Mibuchi teased Furihata about the idea of dating him.

And instantly, Akashi felt… uncomfortable.

Which troubled him immensely. He respected Mibuchi, not just for his skills, but for who he was. There was absolutely no reason for Mibuchi to avoid expressing his preference for boys. His little flirtation with Furihata didn’t appear serious, and yet… It made Akashi feel ill at ease. He supposed he was concerned that it would make Furihata uncomfortable, or even cause him to think poorly of his teammate.

Really, Akashi was disappointed in himself. He needed to learn to have more trust in the people around him. Especially when he knew how good-hearted they all were.

Akashi didn’t realize how lost he was in his thoughts, until the car came to a halt. Fortunately, Furihata didn’t appear to mind the quiet ride. Perhaps he needed the stillness, after all the activity earlier.

“So where are we?” Furihata asked, as they exited the car. “Is this a temple?”

Akashi nodded. “Yudofu was invented just outside the Nanzenji temple grounds. Some of the best versions of the dish are still served here.”

“Really?” Furihata was quiet, as he stared all around him. “Wow.”

Akashi understood. The whole area overflowed with greenery, much of it in the style of an elegant traditional garden. In the deepening shadows of twilight, the lush trees and flickering lanterns created a landscape that seemed otherworldly.

To Akashi, the sight was at once uncommonly lovely, and familiar. A hush hovered in the air, as he lost himself in old memories. He couldn’t count how many times he had visited this area as a child, when his family still spent their summers in Kyoto.

They approached the restaurant, passing through a traditional gate flanked by lanterns. The bustling hum that came from the wooden building only accentuated the peacefulness in the garden outside. Water trickled into a nearby fountain.

The host recognized Akashi at a glance. “Good evening, Akashi-san. We will have a table prepared for you and your guest at once.” He bowed low.

“Thank you, but there’s no hurry,” Akashi said politely. Furihata was giving him a startled look, so he murmured to him, “I might have been here a few times before.”

“Seems like it.” Furihata’s eyes sparkled. Akashi wasn’t sure why he always felt gratified, when Furihata seemed to appreciate his attempts at humor.

They were soon led into the restaurant. Behind a colorful screen door lay a private dining room, with tatami floors and a low table flanked by cushions. Once they were seated, a server in kimono brought them a pot of green tea to share. Furihata gazed around at the tokonoma alcove, and the window that looked out over the garden.

“This is so nice,” he said, in the awed voice that Akashi cherished.

“I’m glad you like it,” he said. “I considered bringing you here on your first visit. It’s very close to the Philosopher’s Path.”

“Wait, really?” Furihata looked surprised, then thoughtful. Akashi knew they were both remembering that day: how they walked together in the rain, admiring the cherry blossoms. After a terrible misunderstanding, Akashi pushed Furihata away, and told him they shouldn’t be friends.

It both sobered and amazed Akashi, to realize how far their friendship had come in just a matter of months.

He asked Furihata’s permission, to order a set meal to share. As dish after dish appeared, Furihata’s eyes grew steadily wider.

“Wow.” He was holding his chopsticks in mid-air, apparently unsure where to start. “This really is a lot. And not just tofu.”

Akashi chuckled. He explained to Furihata what each dish was, from the seasonal vegetables to the classic tofu courses. And he helped himself to generous portions of everything. (He was quite hungry, for once… He supposed the anticipation of eating his favorite meal must have something to do with it.)

Ordinarily, Akashi would have focused on savoring each bite, to the exclusion of everything else. But he found himself watching Furihata’s reactions closely as well. Each time Furihata sampled a dish, and his face lit up, Akashi felt an answering glow spark within him.

He was glad that Furihata seemed to appreciate the food the way he did. Even more than that… Akashi was just happy to see his best friend enjoying himself.

He couldn’t explain why it meant so much to him.

Their eyes met. Furihata fumbled his chopsticks and looked away, stammering something about being clumsy. Akashi was a bit startled. Furihata didn’t seem upset, exactly—he was laughing—but he did seem a little awkward, even tense.

Before Akashi could ask if he was all right, the server arrived with the yudofu course. She lit a warmer in the center of the table, then placed a large earthenware pot atop it. Milk-white squares of tofu glistened in the steaming broth. Akashi showed Furihata how to serve himself, then spooned out a portion of his own.

They both took their first bites at the same time, and murmured with approval.

“This is amazing,” Furihata said. His admiring tone made Akashi feel rather like his heart was bobbing around with the tofu squares.

He ate blissfully. It had been months since he had eaten his favorite meal. The soy curds were soft and silken, to the point that they seemed to melt in his mouth.

Akashi soon finished his first helping, and began his second. He swallowed another bite, then another, settling into a sort of meditative rhythm. As he lost himself in the delicate taste, an unexpected voice echoed inside his head.

“Do you like it, Seijuurou?”

The voice was soothing, gently musical, like a song Akashi had heard since birth. Because in a very real sense, he had. The familiar sound made his heart clench.

All at once, he seemed to forget where he was. Flashing images slipped through his mind: the edge of the table, closer to eye level. A women’s hand, helping him hold a pair of chopsticks. The light pressure of a kiss on the top of his head.

“He’s so discriminating, isn’t he? Even at such a young age.”Another woman’s voice spoke, sweet and warmed over with laughter. “Like a little prince.”

Akashi’s throat ached. He felt as though something was choking him, like he could no longer breathe correctly. He had an abrupt and terrifying urge to cry.

“There you are, little one. Have as much as you like.”

His head pounded. A clatter made him start. His chopsticks had dropped back into the bowl, he saw—but he hadn’t felt his fingers lose their grip. He couldn’t feel his own body, as though he was separated from it.

“Are you okay? Akashi-kun?”

Furihata was looking at him. Akashi only vaguely comprehended the concern in those wide brown eyes. He opened his mouth to reply, but the words wouldn’t come out. It was almost like he had forgotten how to speak.

His face was growing hot. He eyed the spread of food before him. Slowly, he became aware that his stomach was lurching violently, as if threatening to empty itself.

“Please—please excuse me,” he said, or thought he did, as he staggered to his feet. “I’ll just be a moment.”

He rushed out of the room. The next thing Akashi knew, he was inside a restroom stall, locking himself in. He braced his back against the door. Carefully, he counted out measured breaths, trying to force back the nausea. His head throbbed as if it was attempting to tear itself in half.

Gradually, the queasiness lessened. Akashi focused on his surroundings, on the scent of disinfectant and the cool metal door beneath his palms.

He gripped his forehead. Why did he still have the strangest urge to cry? He virtually never did that, even in private.

Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

“Are you awake?” His whispered voice shook despite himself. “Please, I need to speak to you. I…”

He choked back another tremor in his throat.

“I need you.”

He said it in desperation, not expecting an answer. After a moment, a sharp voice cut through his thoughts, like always. Yes, I’m here.

I’m right here. Everything’s fine.

Akashi slumped with relief. “You’re all right, then? Just now, you weren’t—”

No, that wasn’t my doing.

Akashi frowned. He couldn’t understand what had just happened. “Then… You don’t have a memory like that?”

Of course not. You have all our childhood memories, remember?

Akashi gave a faint nod. He was the one who had experienced their childhood firsthand—or kept all the recollections of doing so, at least. (Neither of them was sure which explanation was more accurate.)

So it made sense, that the memory would be his own. And it was so vivid, he reminded himself. Though he didn’t understand why it had been so upsetting.

You were obviously recalling another meal like this, his other self added. From when we were young. But there was nothing alarming about it, was there?

“No,” Akashi said slowly. “There didn’t seem to be.”

He tried to recall each detail. It seemed as though his mother was helping him eat, and talking to someone, about his early predilection for tofu. Nothing more.

You see? His other self sighed. You’re overreacting. This therapy business has got you overthinking everything. Which I fully anticipated.

“I see,” Akashi murmured.

He still didn’t know why the memory had disoriented him so much. He could record it in his journal, he supposed, and ask the psychiatrist if it was any cause for concern… She had warned that the treatment process might cause him to recall early memories, or experience symptoms that were different from what he was used to.

His other self was silent. He seemed to be trying to hold his tongue about the psychiatrist issue. Which Akashi appreciated.

“Well, I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” Akashi said, to his other self.

He shut his eyes. Inside his mind, his other self was watching him, in his blank way. Concern was etched in faint lines around his brow.

It’s all right, he said. He took Akashi by the shoulder, and squeezed it gently.

Akashi couldn’t explain why the gesture comforted him just as much as it would have, if his other self were physically there.

A pause stretched between them. His other self sighed again. He looked so tired. Akashi wondered why he seemed so worn out lately… It was genuinely starting to alarm him, given that his brother was already sleeping all the time.

He was about to observe this, when his other self said, Well, if that’s all, I suppose I should let you get back to your meal.

… I wouldn’t want to interrupt your date, after all.

Akashi stiffened, at the abrupt change in tone. His other self was giving him a shrewd look.

I do hope you’ll forgive me if I see myself out for the evening, he added wryly. Or I’m bound to experience some nausea of my own.

He backed away into the shadows of their mind.

“It’s not a date,” Akashi tried to say, but his other self didn’t acknowledge him. He was already gone.

Akashi let out a hushed groan. Why did his other self keep intentionally provoking him, then leaving so abruptly? He didn’t understand it.

He rubbed his forehead, which still ached. But the pain was no longer unbearable, at least. He had no sense of how much time had passed. Reluctantly, Akashi left the restroom stall, pausing to wash his hands.

As he stared at himself in the mirror, Akashi had the surreal feeling that he didn’t recognize his reflection. He had felt this way before, now and then—and he didn’t understand it at all. The face in the glass was the same as always: catlike pupils, red hair, narrow jawline. But the sight was disquieting, somehow.

He should have been used to his own appearance. And he was, for the most part… Still, Akashi tended to avoid spending too much time in front of mirrors.

He trudged back to the private dining room. His embarrassment was building, as he tried to decide how he would explain his abrupt departure. He was so lost in thought that as he opened the screen door, he almost collided with Furihata.

“Sorry!” Furihata took a step back. “Sorry about that.” Akashi could hear the worry in his voice. “I thought maybe I should check on you. Are you okay?”

Akashi’s face was hot again. He didn’t blush often, which only made the sensation that much more uncomfortable. Furihata was looking at him in a way that made it painfully obvious, just how out of place he had acted.

“I’m fine,” he said, struggling to mask an increasing sense of humiliation. “I was—I just felt slightly ill, for a moment. I thought it would be best to step out.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.” Furihata seemed to accept this. He still looked concerned, however, which only worsened Akashi’s guilt. “You’re feeling better now, though?”

Akashi gave a firm nod. “I sincerely apologize for my behavior.”

“What? That’s nothing to apologize for.” Furihata said it so kindly that Akashi took him at his word. Normally he would have argued that it was at least somewhat rude, to sprint out of a room without any explanation. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”

“I am,” Akashi made sure to say. “Thank you.”

Furihata stood very near. Akashi had an unexpected urge to wrap his arms around Furihata. To hold his friend as tightly as he could, and rest his head against his shoulder. Furihata had clung to him like that once, in a moment of distress.

Akashi held back. To actively solicit comfort and reassurance, even from his dearest friend… It felt selfish, and intrusive. Weak, somehow. Even though he didn’t regard it that way, when Furihata needed it.

Akashi simply wasn’t accustomed to that sort of intimacy. He had no idea how to ask for it—or if asking was even acceptable the first place.

Furihata was clearly waiting for Akashi to say more. Akashi knew he could tell him the full truth about what had happened. He had confided in him so much already.

Instead, he stepped to one side, and invited Furihata to rejoin him at the table.

They resumed conversation, about ordinary topics. Akashi directed it, in spite of a lingering sense of guilt. Why couldn’t he bring himself to confide more in Furihata? He was trying. Yet whenever it came to discussing his mental health, he seemed to recoil from the conversation with his entire being.

Apparently, he still didn’t want Furihata to know just how abnormal he was, even now. He was far too ashamed of it.

Akashi forced himself to eat the remainder of his meal. It didn’t taste quite as delicious as before, but he tried to focus on the pleasant texture, and the way the tofu melted in his mouth. And he ignored the fear lurking in the back of his mind, that he would experience another bizarre recollection that would leave him sick and shaking.

In the end, Akashi didn’t want anyone to know the full extent of his illness. (Or disorder, or whatever it was.) At times, he wasn’t certain if he even wanted to know the extent of it himself. He had avoided confronting the problem for so long.

He wasn’t mentally well, that much was obvious. He hadn’t been for years.

But now Akashi was starting to wonder if the scope of it, and the resulting damage, was even worse than he could have guessed.

Chapter Text

Seijuurou stared into the howling void that surrounded him.

The darkness had transformed into absolute pandemonium. A host of chaotic noises reverberated on every side. The place was so loud that Seijuurou couldn’t make out what half the sounds were even supposed to be. A watery roar was threatening to drown out a cacophony of cries and snarls. Seijuurou could have sworn he heard screaming, somewhere. It was excruciating.

His first thought was, Damn my stupid brother.

His second and third thoughts were much the same. He suspected this would happen. But that didn’t change how alarming it was.

Or how foolish his brother had been, meddling with things that he obviously didn’t understand.

Of course Seijuurou’s brother wouldn’t grasp the danger of the situation. He was never aware of the chaos in their mind. But if he couldn’t hear this awful mess… Then he likely wasn’t supposed to.

Their mind worked the way it did for a reason. It was a matter of survival, when it came right down to it. Seijuurou had always understood that much.

And he existed, in the end, to keep his brother alive.

Seijuurou was the only one who knew just how fragile his elder brother could be. He couldn’t handle this, Seijuurou was certain. And so as the din grew louder, he worried that at some point, his brother would start to hear it.

It was affecting them already, it seemed… When his brother had that strange episode at the restaurant, the weeping was louder than ever. Seijuurou didn’t know what it meant. But it clearly wasn’t good.

Whatever his brother had almost remembered, was better off staying forgotten.

Seijuurou glowered, as he listened to the wailing shadows. Silhouettes were darting back and forth in the dark. Their faceless figures writhed as they wept.

He was going to have to do something drastic. Very drastic indeed.

Furihata reminded himself, for the billionth time, that he was definitely not on a date.

He didn’t know why he kept thinking about that. Well, okay, he kind of did… First Akashi brought him to a restaurant that looked like something out of a movie. They were seated in a private dining room, so it was just the two of them, alone. Then they talked and laughed and ate a bunch of incredible food together.

It would have been the best dinner date Furihata had ever been on. No contest.

Except it was, you know, not that.

Akashi even looked like he was on a date, since he was still wearing his suit. Sure, it was technically a school uniform. But it made it so easy to picture what he would look like, if he got dressed up for dinner, and that made Furihata feel all quivery and weird on the inside.

(Which was, um, new. Furihata had never fantasized about a guy dressing up for a date with him before. Just girls in, like, actual dresses?)

The only thing that saved Furihata was the food. Because it was seriously delicious, to the point that he was able to eat in spite of his nerves. He had never enjoyed tofu so much before. Akashi seemed really focused on savoring it, which was adorable because it was obviously his favorite, and Furihata didn’t know anyone else who liked tofu that much and oh god stop it, don’t think about how cute he is, just concentrate on the tofu.

He was worried, though, when Akashi got sick all of a sudden. Furihata had never seen his friend look that pale, or run out of a room without any explanation. By the time Akashi came back, he seemed a lot better—and super embarrassed. So Furihata decided not to pester him, about whether he was really okay.

They had dessert, and Furihata surprised himself by finishing it. Then they explored the garden outside the restaurant. They took their time, admiring the trees and plants silhouetted in the lantern light. At one point, Akashi gently prodded Furihata’s arm, to show him some flowers. And even in the summer heat, Furihata’s skin bristled with goose bumps.

They were walking so close. Furihata tried not to stare at Akashi too much. But he kept imagining what it would be like if they kissed there, hidden from sight among the dimly lit foliage and trickling fountains.

Furihata was just glad it was dark out, so he didn’t have to worry about blushing too much. Hopefully it was hard to see any dopey looks on his face, too.

As they returned to the car, Akashi said something about making an important stop. Furihata was pretty sure he knew what that meant… Sure enough, they soon arrived in Gion, the most famous entertainment district in Kyoto. Furihata recognized the old-fashioned townhouses from his first visit. Akashi had once told him that he needed to see it at night. Now Furihata knew why.

It was like entering the ancient neighborhood for the first time. After dark, the wooden shops and narrow alleys were something straight out of an old folk tale. Lanterns hung in front of the shops, casting subtle haloes along the dusky avenues.

They strolled down the stone-paved street of Hanami-koji, which was bustling with tourists and restaurant-goers. Akashi pointed out some of the ochaya teahouses, where the geisha were entertaining their super-exclusive customers. Then he led Furihata to the area beside the Shirakawa river.

It was like traveling into another dimension. The cobbled streets were so quiet, winding their way between the clustered townhouses. The wooden buildings gleamed like they had been lacquered. Weeping willows and cherry trees lined the paths, their long branches twining overhead.

“It’s as if you’ve wandered into the spirit world,” Akashi had told him, months ago.

Furihata had to agree.

They followed the river, which reflected the lights that shone all around them. Windows glowed in the darkness, and the rolled-up bamboo screens revealed restaurants filled with customers. Still, a hush seemed to hang over the streets outside. It was like a strange enchantment worked to keep the place serene.

Furihata was gazing at a line of bright red fence posts, bordered by even more lanterns, when Akashi leaned in beside his ear. Furihata stopped short. Some stupid part of him ached, wishing more than anything that Akashi would bend forward just a little more, and brush his lips against his skin…

Akashi murmured, “Would you mind waiting here a moment? I’ll be right back.”

Furihata was basically paralyzed. He managed to squeak out, “Yup. Err, no? I mean, I don’t mind.”

Akashi gave him a questioning look. But he didn’t ask why Furihata was acting so weird. He just nodded and went into a nearby restaurant. Furihata staggered over to a railing, and tried to catch his breath.

He needed to get a grip. Sure, his dumb brain kept comparing this whole evening to a date. And sure, Akashi looked more handsome by the second, framed in the half-light of this magical place. But they were friends. Furihata couldn’t want him that way, not even in secret.

Yet here he was, barely holding on to his cool. Which was exactly what he figured would happen.

Jeez, I suck.

Furihata frowned. He really needed to stop thinking about kissing. Akashi wasn’t going to kiss him—and he wasn’t supposed to want it, anyway. He was supposed to be looking for a girlfriend for that stuff. (Or another guy, maybe?) Not pining after his best friend.

He peered at the shimmering river below. The water looked like a polished black mirror. The drooping branches danced in wavering reflections across its surface. Something moved among the ripples… A shadowed silhouette stood beside him, backlit by street lamps.

Furihata looked up, expecting to see Akashi. But no one else was around. Farther down the lane, something flickered. It looked like a ball of light, floating in midair. It was familiar, somehow.

Confused, Furihata stepped toward the light. As he came closer, it bobbed behind a tree. He reached the corner, only to see something unexpected on the next street. A tiny shrine stood in the middle of the avenue.

A woman was there, hovering in front of the stone torii gate. Furihata’s breath hitched in amazement. She wore an ornate kimono embroidered with sparkling threads, and her upswept hair was adorned with kanzashi ornaments. She had to be a maiko, a geisha apprentice. Furihata had never seen one in person before.

He inched nearer to her, without thinking. She raised her head, revealing a graceful profile that was painted white. She looked straight at him, with eyes that flashed in the dark.

Furihata’s pulse leapt. The woman smiled, so that her eerie eyes turned up at the corners. She had a slim, pointed face that was stunningly beautiful. She tilted her chin, a gesture for him to come closer. He took another step, without meaning to.

Her smile widened. She walked around the shrine, beckoning for him to follow. The air around her glowed in a strange way. It was almost like golden mist winding all around her body.

“Come to me, little spark.” Furihata heard the words so clearly, even though her mouth didn’t seem to move. “You’ll follow me down, won’t you?”

Furihata had the strangest feeling like he should go with her… Even though he was getting the distinct impression that she wasn’t a maiko at all…

“Furihata-kun.” A familiar voice broke through his trance. Akashi was hurrying toward him. “Why are you all the way over here?”

“I—ah—” Furihata glanced back toward the shrine. The woman gave him an impatient sort of look. “N-no reason. I was just, um—”

He hesitated, as Akashi came up alongside him. He didn’t know what to say. None of this made sense, but… The woman was still standing there.

“Can you see her?” he said, out of the corner of his mouth.

Akashi frowned. He looked at the shrine, right where the woman was. “See whom?”

The woman glared at Akashi with visible ferocity. She was bristling, almost like a wild animal. Furihata got the weirdest impression that she wanted to growl.

“Um, nothing,” he stammered. “Never mind. Just thought I saw someone. But—but I guess not?”

He turned away, and felt a shift in the air. When he glanced back, the mysterious woman was gone. A shiver crawled slowly over his whole body.

“A-anyway, it’s not important.” He shook his head. He faced Akashi, trying not to think about whatever had just happened. “So, um, what were you doing?”

Akashi held up a gift-wrapped box. “I thought we might want to enjoy some sweets later. That establishment we passed used to make deliveries to my family on occasion. They also supply several of the ochaya teahouses.”

“Seriously?” Furihata didn’t know anyone else with connections to a confectionary for a high-end geisha teahouse. “Yeah, that sounds great.”

As they left, Furihata glanced back at the shrine one more time. A few girls were posing and taking pictures with their phones. There was no sign of anyone who looked like a maiko.

He must have imagined the whole thing. Right?

… Or was he going crazy?

Akashi led him onto another street. They were talking, when Akashi’s phone buzzed. He checked it just as they reached a bridge. While they were crossing, Furihata spotted an elderly bald man, moving slowly in front of them. He was dressed in dark robes like a monk. As they passed the man, his features came into view.

The man had a single gigantic eye. It leered sideways at Furihata, like it was studying him. All the blood drained from Furihata’s face, and he froze.

A giggle echoed nearby. Two one-eyed children in yukata were skipping across the bridge. One appeared to be holding a plate of tofu. The other one saw Furihata, and his tongue slipped out of his mouth, long and curling.

Furihata jolted backward. Akashi was walking ahead, still looking at his phone. Furihata scrambled to catch up with him. As he did, a cluster of bright blue flames circled over his head. Something about them was terrifyingly familiar…

“Can I ask you something else, dear? Do you ever see ghosts?”

Slowly, Furihata started to see more people on the bridge. A women in white sat curled beside the railing. “Help me,” she moaned. “Please, help.” A man in samurai armor paced at the far end, with arrows sticking out of his chest. Their lower bodies trailed into mist.

No. It can’t be. It can’t…

Something snarled, long and loud, beneath the bridge. Furihata staggered beside Akashi, trying to convince himself that none of this was real… They had reached the street again. A tanuki passed them, wearing a human robe and walking upright. Another spirit in kimono strolled close behind. She noticed Furihata, and her neck began to stretch, until her head was dangling far in front of her.

“Hello, little one,” she said. Furihata refused to meet her eyes. “You have such a pretty light. Why don’t you come and play?”

In the shadows of an alleyway, a skeletal figure hunched beside a wall. It was crouched low, nibbling on something. A foul smell wafted through the air.

Just don’t look. Oh god, don’t look…

Furihata was starting to get dizzy. None of this could possibly be happening. But it wasn’t stopping either. It was like he had stepped straight into a nightmare, and he couldn’t wake up.

More and more spirits were passing by. They were all glowing, and giving Furihata eager glances. But they kept their distance, never coming close enough to touch him.

Akashi was typing a message on his phone. For some reason, Furihata could see his aura, even though it was normally invisible. Brilliant energy surrounded Akashi’s whole body. It was like crimson fire, the exact same hue as his hair.

Furihata edged toward his friend. As he did, some of the spirits winced. They seemed to be holding back, afraid to get too close… Furihata looked back at Akashi, stunned. He felt the warmth of that powerful aura, like always. It floated around them like a fiery shield.

Was that what the spirits were afraid of?

Furihata kept as close to Akashi as possible. The monsters continued to appear, one after another, like some otherworldly roll call. It was like the spirit realm had flung open its gates—or maybe it had been there all along.

This was the heart of Kyoto, the old capital. It was famous for all kinds of spooky Japanese stories. So either Furihata was going crazy—or all those legendary spirits were terribly, horribly real.

They were still walking along, when Akashi finally pocketed his phone. Furihata sensed a chill, as if something was sneaking up behind them. He didn’t dare look back. But the sensation was getting steadily stronger, as they approached another bridge. Furihata started to panic. He felt more and more light-headed, to the point that he thought he might pass out…

Desperately, he grabbed Akashi’s hand.

Akashi gave a start. Furihata squeezed Akashi’s palm, trying to hide how much he was shaking. Akashi’s warm energy washed over him. The creeping chill began to subside, until Furihata could breathe again.

He hung his head lower, and lower. Trying not to look at the ghosts, or meet Akashi’s searching eyes. He must have seemed like he was losing it. Since he probably was.

“Are you all right?” Akashi said beside him.

“Uh-huh,” Furihata squeaked. “Fine. I’m fine.”

He could still see the spirits, whenever he dared to look. Throngs of ghosts and monsters were parading past them on both sides of the bridge, a steady procession of ghoulish faces. Some grinned at Furihata, and some grimaced, mostly in Akashi’s direction. But they never tried to come any nearer.

Gradually, the spirits began to look sort of faded, like they were behind a hazy curtain. They were easier to ignore, Furihata realized, as long as Akashi’s aura was pulsing through his skin. The heat grounded him, somehow, and calmed him down.

All at once, Furihata realized something else… He was holding Akashi’s hand. In public. Without asking permission, or giving him any explanation at all. When it was the very last thing he was supposed to be doing.

His fingers were locked around Akashi’s, linking them together. Not just physically, but energetically. His heart was beating way too hard, and he was surrounded on every side by supernatural creatures. He was terrified—and intertwined with his best friend.

His best friend, and his crush. The one person Furihata wasn’t supposed to like that way. But he did. And he really, definitely couldn’t show it.


Akashi couldn’t quite understand what was happening.

Furihata was gripping his hand, as they traversed the dusky streets. He was clinging to Akashi like he was some kind of lifeline. People passed, and glanced their way… But Furihata wasn’t letting go. If anything, he held on more tightly by the second.

Each time their eyes met, Furihata cringed and bowed his head. He looked painfully embarrassed, even for him.

To tell the truth, Akashi was starting to feel rather flustered himself. He had never anticipated holding a friend’s hand in public like this. Even a best friend, one who meant as much to him as Furihata did.

Akashi also didn’t understand why Furihata seemed strangely, well, afraid… When he latched on initially, he was pale, and trembling. But why would he be frightened? True, they were in a somewhat unfamiliar neighborhood at night. But Gion wasn’t a dangerous area.

They crossed onto another street. Furihata kept staring at the ground in front of him. Akashi wondered why he wasn’t looking around, the way he did when they first arrived.

“Are you really sure you’re all right?” he asked, cautiously.

Furihata gave a quick nod. His pulse was thumping like a startled rabbit, as it beat away beneath Akashi’s fingertips.

Akashi opened his mouth again, but stopped himself. He didn’t want to cause Furihata to feel badly, by drawing even more attention to the situation. Still, the questions sprinted through his mind, one after the other.

Why do you seem so frightened? Is there something I can do to help? And why did you take my hand, if you’re embarrassed? Do you want me to let go…?

More people were milling around them. Akashi attempted to slide his hand free, so they could maneuver more easily through the street. To his astonishment, Furihata tightened his grip, winding their fingers even closer together.

“C-could—could you hold on?” he said, in a small voice. “Just—just for a little longer.”

Akashi nodded, still bewildered. It was almost as though Furihata needed his touch, somehow. The idea didn't make sense, not in the least… But it didn’t matter, in the end.

If Furihata needed something, Akashi wasn’t about to deny him. No matter what the reason for it might be.

Their eyes met again, and this time, they both looked away. It felt a bit strange, being anchored to another person for this long. Furihata’s palm was sweating slightly. But his skin was cooler than Akashi would have expected, on a summer night.

They passed a row of lamps. Even in the dimness, Furihata was turning a very obvious shade of red. As they walked along, Akashi began to grow flushed as well.

He couldn’t explain why this felt so different. Unprecedented. And it wasn’t only due to the change in setting.

Akashi had noticed throughout the day, that Furihata seemed more nervous than usual. He initially dismissed it as anxiety toward strangers. But even when they were alone, Furihata had been oddly tense. As though he was nervous around Akashi, specifically.

Now a curious tension vibrated between them, resonating in their joined palms. The feeling was entirely unfamiliar to Akashi. Yet something about it made his heart quicken, and his throat feel dry.

It did feel different. Too different. As though something had changed between the two of them, without any warning. Something Akashi didn’t want to fully contemplate or consider…

They approached the car, where Takeda was waiting. Furihata pulled his hand free, so quickly that Akashi blinked. Meanwhile Takeda opened the car door with an odd look. (Akashi couldn’t blame him… Takeda had been his valet for some time, and knew how he tended to act around his peers.)

Furihata entered the car first. Akashi settled in behind him, as the door shut. He wondered if Furihata would take his hand again, now that they were in private. But when he looked over, Furihata sat hunched close to the window, with his fingers knotted together.

Akashi swallowed. He really didn’t know what to make of this.

He was overanalyzing, he told himself, as the car shifted forward. Furihata was a sensitive person, easily flustered. And Akashi tended to fixate on minute nuances in body language. He was far too quick to assume the people around him were unsettled or upset. He had made that mistake with Furihata, time and time again.

There was no reason to think that something was truly wrong between them. There couldn’t be…

They were mere minutes into the drive, when Furihata gave a jerking nod beside him. Akashi looked over, only to discover that Furihata’s eyes were half-closed. His head bobbed subtly, and Akashi hid a smile.

Before he could speak, Furihata nodded again. He slumped against the leather seatback, as the passing streetlights illuminated his thin features. Then his head dropped down to one side, until he was resting against Akashi’s shoulder.

Akashi felt an odd quiver in his chest. He peered at the top of Furihata’s head, trying not to move. He had seen friends and classmates lean on each other like this. But he had never actually participated in it himself.

It was strange, he mused, how Furihata was continually able to break through all the barriers around him. Even the ones he never thought about.

No one else was ever this familiar with him. Not just emotionally, but physically. Akashi had always assumed that he would find such closeness uncomfortable. That he wouldn’t know how to respond, or reciprocate. He had certainly never expected to enjoy it so much.

Nor would he have expected to feel genuine relief at the experience. To be able to regard it as proof, that the intimacy he shared with someone was still intact.

Furihata stirred, and his feathery hair tickled Akashi’s cheek. Akashi quelled a chuckle, not wanting to jostle him. He could feel the peaceful rhythm of Furihata’s breathing, and measured out his own breaths, so they were better synchronized.

Moments later, Furihata abruptly straightened. He glanced around the car interior, as though he was trying to recall where he was. He seemed oddly concerned.

“Oh, sorry, I—” He wobbled, clearly still drowsy. “I didn’t mean to, I shouldn’t—”

“It’s all right.” Akashi gently guided Furihata back to his shoulder. “I don’t mind. Please, get some rest. You’ve had a long day.”

“Okay,” Furihata said, though he didn’t sound fully conscious. He mumbled something, that Akashi didn’t catch.

It almost sounded like, “That’s why I like you so much.”

Akashi felt a strange, halting pang. He must have misheard, he told himself. The wording was somewhat odd, and out of place. Still, whatever Furihata had said, the emotion behind it seemed clear enough. It was the same simple, honest affection, that Akashi had come to recognize and treasure.

He held Furihata closer, keeping him as secure as he could. The view outside the windows darkened, as they left the city. Akashi shut his eyes, feeling the warmth and weight of his friend against him. A feeling of gratitude swelled inside his chest.

They were the best of friends, he told himself again. He was convinced of that—of the nature of the connection they had come to share, and the stability and comfort it promised. Nothing had changed.

Certainly nothing that mattered, in the end.

Furihata fell in and out of sleep, with each shifting motion of the car. He didn’t know why he was so tired, like all the energy had been drained out of him. Akashi’s aura was hovering around him on every side. It felt like being wrapped in a heated blanket, and he relaxed into it, just resting.

At first, when the car slowed down, he thought he had to be dreaming. A lit-up gate with wrought iron bars shone outside the window. It slowly opened, and they drove along a winding road through clusters of trees. Furihata was so tired he couldn't even remember when they had left the city.

Then he must have started dreaming again… A gigantic structure sprawled in his peripheral vision. It had pale walls and columned arches, and it was so massive that most of it wasn't visible from the window. Furihata felt a nudge in the shoulder, and Akashi said something about how they had arrived.

Furihata shook himself into consciousness, and stumbled out of the car. Which was when he finally realized that he wasn’t dreaming at all. This huge, glowing building was Akashi’s Kyoto estate. His mouth slipped open.

Furihata knew Akashi’s family was unbelievably rich. Their house in Tokyo was bigger than any other home he had seen in person. He’d mentally compared it to a castle. But it was really more of a mansion, the kind from an old-fashioned English storybook.

Well, if the house in Tokyo was a mansion, then this was a literal palace.

Akashi led the way up the tiered steps, and Takeda followed behind with the bags. The heavy doors opened as they approached, to Furihata’s increasing amazement. They crossed the threshold, into a vaulted chamber that gleamed with light.

Several servants stood in a line, and greeted them with a bow. Furihata didn’t recognize any of them from Tokyo. It seemed like the estate in Kyoto had a completely separate staff. When he looked around, he could understand why.

The place was enormous, and immaculate. Marble floors and columns gleamed, reflecting the crystalline light of chandeliers. A polished staircase of mahogany wound around the entire front area of the house. Sweeping hallways stretched to either side, offering glimpses of elegantly furnished rooms.

As he inched farther inside, Furihata’s skin tingled. It felt like some kind of electric charge was swirling in the air around him. Voices hummed in the distance, and he furrowed his brow, trying to hear better. It almost sounded like a party was happening in another part of the house.

He glanced up, and gave a start. A silhouette was crouched at the top of the stairs, beside the railing. It looked like a small boy with dark hair. But when Furihata blinked, it was gone. The voices faded, too.

A shiver pulsed through him. What in the heck was that?

He didn’t want to think about the obvious answer. But if it was a ghost… What were those voices? More ghosts? Furihata pushed the thought to the back of his mind.

He just wanted to stay away from all of this stuff. So as long as these spirits—or whatever they were—didn’t bother him, then he would keep ignoring them. Even if they were real. Even if he wasn’t going crazy.

At this point, though, Furihata was really starting to worry that he might be.

Akashi dismissed the servants, instructing Takeda to take their bags upstairs. He turned to Furihata, with a hesitant sort of smile.

“This is amazing,” Furihata blurted, before he could stop himself. “You really live here by yourself? I mean, besides everyone who works here and stuff.”

Akashi’s gaze grew bright. “Yes, I have the run of the place.”

He showed Furihata around the front hall, summarizing the general layout. The wings of the building seemed to go on forever.

“The main house is a relatively new structure,” he explained. “But the land has been in my family for centuries. It used to be our primary residence, before we started doing more business in Tokyo.”

Furihata was still looking around, stunned. He peered up at the ceiling, which was decorated with an elaborate fresco painting. It depicted a cloudy sunrise, in shades of rosy red and gold.

“Would you like a quick tour?” Akashi offered. “It’s too dark to see the grounds, but I could show you around the rest of the building.”

Furihata managed a nod. Akashi led him through an archway, until they reached another vaulted room. Towering windows lined the far wall, reflecting the bright chamber around them. Furihata could only imagine what the view looked like during the day. Akashi said that this was the parlor, and that he took most of his private lessons there, and sometimes his afternoon tea as well.

Furihata’s amazement only increased, as Akashi kept showing him around the ground floor. Oversized paintings covered the walls, and gilded furniture gleamed from every angle. Gradually, Furihata realized something.

The Kyoto estate felt different from Akashi’s house in Tokyo. It didn’t have the same gloomy, oppressive atmosphere. The layout of the house was more open, with ultra high ceilings and wide arches. Even the air seemed lighter, somehow.

Still, it felt sort of empty at the same time. Like an unspoken absence saturated every room—and all the fancy furnishings and amazing art couldn’t fill it.

For the first time, Furihata wondered where the rest of Akashi’s family was. Didn’t Akashi have any uncles or aunts or cousins, who might want to stay in a place like this? And what about his grandparents? Akashi never mentioned visiting anyone from his family, apart from his dad. It seemed really strange.

Maybe they all lived in other super-fancy houses somewhere? The thought made Furihata’s head spin.

He and Akashi were walking through another long passageway. This one was lined with life-sized portraits—and oddly enough, Furihata recognized some of the faces. He had seen them in paintings in the Tokyo house.

“Are these your relatives?” he asked. They didn’t resemble Akashi very much. But a few did have the same unusual, catlike pupils.

Akashi nodded, as he glanced up at the huge frames. “They led the family, several generations ago. This one was my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.”

He gestured to the largest painting. The steel-haired man in the portrait wore a piercing frown. Even his posture was severe, somehow.

“Wow. He’s, um…” Furihata couldn’t help noticing Akashi’s troubled expression. An uneasy energy was lurking around him. “He seems… impressive?”

Akashi relaxed a bit, at this weak attempt at humor. He even chuckled a little. “He was, according to the family history. Our present financial success is largely credited to him.”

Furihata continued to study the man’s features, from the deep lines in his brow to the slit-shaped pupils. His eyes were like Akashi’s. But his glowering expression looked a lot more like Akashi’s dad.

They proceeded down the hall, passing a pair of half-open doors. Unlike most of the house, the room inside was dark. Furihata peeked between the doors, glimpsing what looked like a bunch of glass cases. “What’s in there?”

“Oh, it’s…” Akashi seemed to hesitate. “It’s just a display area, for some old family heirlooms. Nothing overly interesting.”

Furihata nodded. He wasn’t going to pry. But he couldn’t help wondering why Akashi seemed uncomfortable again.

Akashi rarely volunteered information about his family. Furihata could understand why, when it came to his parents… His mother’s passing was clearly a source of pain for him. And his father came across like a really cold, frightening person.

But why did it seem like Akashi didn’t want to share that much, even about his distant relatives? What was there to hide?

They wandered through more rooms on the ground floor. One room was perfectly round, with a big spiral staircase. Akashi explained that the stairs led up to a tower that was the highest point in the mansion. He suggested they should climb it later, during the daytime, so they could enjoy the view. Furihata eagerly agreed.

He felt like he was having one of those dreams again. He was alone with Akashi, in a big, beautiful house. And everything was amazing and impossible, and he was probably supposed to wake up at some point.

He never did, though. He was with Akashi, and it was all real. Furihata tried to just be grateful, to remember how lucky he was…

Instead of wishing the kissing in the dreams could be real, too.

Akashi still looked so gorgeous. He had removed his jacket back in the front hall. In his shirt and tie, he came across as more relaxed. Effortlessly handsome, in a sophisticated way. He really was like a prince, at ease in his own palace. And Furihata was struggling not to think about how badly he wanted to loosen that tie, and the collar too, and pull the handsome prince in close and kiss him until they both couldn’t breathe.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t notice when Akashi spoke to him. They had started to walk down one of the main hallways, and Furihata asked where they were going. Akashi gave him a confused look.

“To my rooms, I thought?” he said. “You agreed that it was getting late, and we should start preparing for bed.”

Furihata’s face tingled as he flushed. “Right! Yeah. I knew that. Just, um, forgot.”

Oh my god, seriously? How is he even supposed to buy that?

Akashi looked like he really wanted to ask if something was wrong. Again. Furihata lowered his eyes, silently wishing him not to.

After a moment, Akashi just nodded. He led the way down the hall, and Furihata hunched his shoulders as he followed after. He not to imagine what Akashi must be thinking. He was obviously acting weird. Even a clueless person would have noticed—and Akashi was a long way from clueless. On the other hand, Furihata had a history of being pretty awkward and distracted when they were together.

So maybe Akashi just thought he was being a space case again? God, he hoped so.

They reached the grand staircase, and climbed the marble steps. Furihata wondered what Akashi’s rooms were like in this house, and if they were going to share a bed again… He gulped. Maybe he should ask for his own room this time? Although he had no idea how to do that without seeming even more suspicious.

At the top of the stairs, Furihata paused, to glance down at the front hall. It looked even bigger from the second floor. While he was standing there, another weird, electric shiver crept over him.

He could hear voices again. They sounded far away, just like before—but there were only two of them now. He inched toward the banister, trying to hear better.

A man and woman were arguing. Furihata couldn’t make out most of the words, and he didn’t recognize their voices at all. Then…

“Enough. You will do as I say. Now be silent.”

Out of nowhere, Furihata’s stomach gave a sharp twist. His eyes ached, like he had been crying really hard. He stumbled forward. Pained thoughts whirled through his mind, thoughts that didn’t feel like his own. Stop. Please, stop.

Don’t fight, please…

He felt cold all over, and dizzy. He gripped the railing, trying to stay upright. Everything went blurry, as tears clouded his vision. He had a bizarre fear that he was going to get caught and punished. For… for…

“Furihata-kun, are you all right? What’s wrong?”

A warm feeling spread over him, and he blinked. Just like that, he snapped out of it. Akashi was holding him by the elbow, giving him an alarmed look. It took Furihata a few seconds to figure out why.

He gaped back at Akashi. Tears were still brimming in his eyes.

“S-sorry,” he managed. Akashi clearly wanted to know why he was just standing there, about to cry, for no reason. Anyone would. “I—I don’t—um—”

He faltered, overwhelmed. What was he supposed to say? He had no idea what was going on. And he really didn’t want to talk about the ghost stuff. Talking about it would make it real.

But even if he wanted to, how could he begin to explain something like this? It made no sense. At all.

Akashi was obviously worried. And Furihata needed to say something, but he didn’t know what the truth even was…

“I guess I must be having allergies?” he offered. “Or—or something? I don’t know. I just felt kind of weird, all of a sudden.” He hurriedly wiped his eyes, and sniffled.

“Are you sure?” Akashi’s brows were pinched together. When Furihata forced a firm nod, he softened. “I didn’t realize you weren’t feeling well.”

“It’s okay.” Furihata took a deep breath, trying to pull himself together. He didn’t want Akashi to worry. “I’ll be fine.”

Akashi still had a look of concern in his eyes, as he led the way down the hall. Guilt gripped Furihata’s insides. Akashi was being his super-nice self, like always, and trying to look after him. Meanwhile Furihata wasn’t even brave enough to tell him the truth.

Though it wasn’t totally a lie, come to think of it… He didn’t feel super great. He was kind of light-headed, and his body ached for some reason. Maybe he really was getting a cold or something?

Still, Furihata felt bad. He always told Akashi that they should try to be honest with each other. Since they both struggled with that. Now he was starting to feel like he wasn’t being honest at all.

He tried to imagine saying it out loud. Just finally admitting the whole thing…

“Okay, so it turns out I can maybe sense auras, and ghosts. And I think some supernatural stuff might be going on with your house? I’m not sure, but I just felt something really weird, and that’s why I almost cried.”

And maybe Akashi would take it well, and say, “Furihata-kun, there’s absolutely no need to worry about ghosts or the supernatural. Those things aren’t real.” Or maybe he would take it way worse. “Just a moment, are you trying to say that you don’t feel comfortable here? Oh no, I’m terribly sorry, I shouldn’t have invited you to my home, I never do this sort of thing with my other friends and I shouldn’t have started now…”

Furihata’s throat clenched. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t risk making Akashi feel bad. And he really didn’t want Akashi to stop inviting him over.

He just wished, more than anything, that none of this stuff was happening. He didn’t want to sense ghosts or spirits, or anything supernatural. All he wanted was to be normal.

Which was the weirdest feeling… Since until recently, he always figured he was.

They passed an open door, that led to what looked like a guest bedroom. As Furihata peeked inside, another shiver rippled through him, and he cringed. He definitely got the feeling that if he went in there, something weird would happen again.

He stayed close to Akashi, as they continued down the wood-paneled hallway. As they went by door after door, he kept getting those creepy feelings. He tried his best to ignore them. At least he wasn’t seeing any ghosts here, he reminded himself. Unlike in the house in Tokyo.

Still, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to ask for his own room after all.

Akashi ushered him through an ornate doorway. Furihata glanced around, torn between a sense of amazement and déjà vu. The room was pretty similar to Akashi’s sitting room in his house in Tokyo—except it was even bigger. Carved mahogany bookcases were built into the walls, and a large antique desk sat in one corner.

At the far end, heavy curtains were tied back to reveal a pair of glass-paneled doors. They led out onto a balcony. Furihata could just barely see the shadowed slopes of mountains in the distance.

Akashi offered him a chair, and Furihata sank into the velvet cushions. He felt really tired again, suddenly. Akashi rang for someone using a high-tech intercom, and a few minutes later, Takeda brought them cups of herbal tea. Akashi said something about how the tea would be helpful for colds and allergies, and Furihata felt another stab of guilt. The liquid smelled so good that he drank it right up, though. And maybe it was just his imagination, but he did feel a little better.

By the last few sips, Furihata’s eyelids were drooping. He agreed right away, when Akashi said they should get some sleep. He stumbled into the next room, barely able to process just how beautiful it was.

In the center of the room sat a king-sized bed, piled with gold-trimmed brocade and tasseled pillows. An elaborate headboard was built into the wall, and it was draped with red curtains that flowed down to the floor on either side. Somehow it was even fancier than Akashi’s canopy bed in Tokyo.

There were two doors on the opposite side of the room. Akashi explained that they led to his closet and his bathroom. He offered Furihata the bathroom first, and asked if he wanted to use the shower. Which was definitely a good idea, Furihata realized, given how much he sweated earlier in the day.

He was so drowsy that he all but sleepwalked through it. The shower was huge, obviously, and everything was made of marble and it was super-shiny and there were way too many knobs and jets. He couldn’t figure out how to make the water hotter, but he was honestly too exhausted to care.

Then it was Akashi’s turn. Furihata sat on the edge of the huge bed and tried to stay awake. It felt like he lost track of time, because the next thing he knew, Akashi was coming out of the bathroom again. He looked fresh and slightly flushed, in a pair of navy silk pajamas. And even though Furihata was half-asleep, his heart still skipped a bunch of beats.

Akashi had brought out a gray monogrammed robe with a satin collar. He said Furihata should borrow it, and helped him put it on.

“It’s probably best to keep warm, in case you’re getting sick,” Akashi said, as he helped him straighten the lapels around his chest.

Furihata managed a nod. He didn’t tell Akashi that he did feel warm, all of a sudden—and it wasn’t because of the robe.

They climbed into the bed together, burrowing under the layers of sheets. On a different night, Furihata would have been wide-awake, and frantic. He would have been trying really hard not to think about how close he was to Akashi, as they lay down side by side and looked at each other.

Tonight, though, Furihata didn’t fight it. He was way too exhausted to freak out about how much he wanted his best friend. He just relaxed, and enjoyed the moment. How nice it felt to be near such an amazing person who obviously cared for him, who went out of his way to look after him—and who was pretty much everything he could ever want. More, even.

Furihata sighed a little, as he peered through half-closed eyes at that beautiful, smiling face.

He did want Akashi. He couldn’t help it.

He was starting to realize that in a way, he needed Akashi too. Because as long as he stayed close to the energy that surrounded his friend like a fiery halo, he was safe. Furihata didn’t understand why. But he had sensed it for a while—and now on some deep, fundamental level, he knew it was true.

He was like a moth drawn to a light, he thought dreamily. Except the light wasn’t going to hurt him. It just made it kind of hard for him to see anything else.

Furihata’s eyes shut, as he curled even closer to that familiar aura. He finally let himself drift away, as the smoothest, kindest voice in the world wished him goodnight.

Akashi was standing before a traditional screen door, painted with red and white flowers. He knew what the flowers were—spider lilies and chrysanthemums—but he was too young to realize what they represented.

His father loomed beside him. Akashi didn’t understand the somber expression on his father’s face. Still, even at four years of age, he could sense that whatever was behind this door was very serious.

His father was always serious… Akashi had rarely seen him smile. He smiled a little around Akashi’s mother, now and then, but that was all. Akashi wished his mother were there with them. But his father had asked to see him alone.

“There’s something in here, Seijuurou, that you need to see,” his father said, in his stern voice. “It’s very important to our family, and I want you to remember it, now that you’re old enough. Do you understand?”

Akashi nodded, to show that he would learn whatever his father wanted him to. His father gazed at him, almost blankly. And with a firm hand, he pulled open the door.

Seijuurou opened his eyes, and stared at the darkened ceiling.

It was something of a novel sensation, even now. He had passed the majority of his life drifting in and out of awareness. To physically open his eyes, and see what was around him of his own volition, was not his usual mode of existence.

He rose to a seated position. The hushed rhythm of breathing sounded beside him. He didn’t need to look; he already knew who it was. Still, he found himself sparing a reluctant glance. The Furihata boy lay curled on his side, his slackened features half-buried in the pillow.

Seijuurou grimaced. At least the boy appeared to be sound asleep. Now all he needed to do was leave, as quietly as possible.

He shifted carefully, slipping his legs free of the sheets. He offhandedly noticed the feeling of weight, how it felt to move around in a body he controlled.

Seijuurou had always known exactly how it would feel, to see and hear and touch the world around him. He knew from experiencing it through his brother. So when the time came to take control of their body, back in the Teikou years, it felt perfectly natural. Nothing about it fazed him. Actually, he was surprised at how easy it all was.

But there were still times when Seijuurou marveled at what it was like to inhabit a body on his own, without the filter of another consciousness. To choose the way he moved, and when, and to cause each muscle to move in response. The sense of physicality was both confining, and oddly freeing.

Seijuurou lifted himself from the mattress, so deftly it didn’t make a sound. He crept across the room, not bothering to put on slippers. It was better if he could move silently through the house.

The door of the sitting room was closed. He opened it slowly, taking as much care as possible. He managed to cause a slight squeak from the handle, barely more than the cry of a mouse. Still, he stopped to listen. Everything was quiet, and still.

Seijuurou began the long walk down the hall. He was halfway to the grand staircase, when a muffled creak echoed behind him.

He stopped short. Trying to convince himself that he couldn’t have heard correctly. Then, to his utter horror, the Furihata boy appeared in the sitting room doorway.

Seijuurou debated making a dash for it, but the boy had obviously spotted him. He loosed a sigh as the boy approached.

“Oh, honestly.” He stared at the boy in exasperated chagrin. “Why must fate insist on tormenting me further?”

Furihata Kouki seemed taken aback by this response. He paused halfway down the hall.

“Um,” he stammered, like he was actually considering the question. “I don’t—I don’t know?”

Seijuurou barely resisted a powerful urge to roll his eyes. This was his brother’s friend, he reminded himself.

“That was a joke,” he said. Though he couldn’t resist adding in a very low mutter, “More or less.”

He glared at Furihata, not bothering to conceal his frustration. The boy was already coming closer. Seijuurou crossed his arms.

“Why are you awake?” he demanded, tapping his foot slightly. “Tell me at once. You shouldn’t have heard me at all.”

“I didn’t,” the Furihata boy said, but then he faltered. “Err, I don’t think? It’s just—”

He fell silent. Which only increased Seijuurou’s building impatience. The boy was wearing one of his brother’s monogrammed robes, for some unknown reason. He started fiddling with the sash, as he lowered his head.

“Um. I don’t know really why,” he said.

Seijuurou narrowed his gaze. It was obvious from the boy’s manner that he was concealing something. What it was, however, Seijuurou couldn’t fathom. Perhaps this Furihata individual was more alert than he let on.

Or it was just a coincidence. Yet another stroke of misfortune. That seemed far more likely to Seijuurou at this point.

“Fine,” he said, as evenly as possible. “I don’t especially care. Assuming you mind your own business, which would be the appropriate course of action on your part.”

He approached the stairwell, making a dismissive gesture.

“Now if you’d be so kind, do go away and leave me in relative peace.” His tone was intended to be magnanimous, while brooking no disagreement.

Unfortunately, the Furihata boy still seemed to be inching toward him. Which was far from a promising sign. “But, um—I really need to talk to you.”

“I have no interest in talking,” Seijuurou said coolly.

An odd look crossed the boy’s face. As though he were the one thinking, Not this again. Which showed a remarkable degree of gall, in Seijuurou’s estimation.

“Look,” the Furihata boy said, with that bizarre stubbornness he occasionally displayed. It was like watching a deer work up the nerve to mouth off to a mountain lion. “I just want to know why you asked me to keep the other night a secret.”

Really now, Seijuurou thought. He often wondered how everyone around him could be so blissfully ignorant.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he replied, with frankly monumental patience. “My brother doesn’t know that I’ve been coming out like this.”

He turned and started down the stairs. He might as well be getting somewhere, he supposed, since there was apparently no curtailing this interaction.

“And I don’t want him to know,” he added, partway down the first flight. He didn’t bother to look up. “That’s all there is to it.”

Sure enough, the Furihata boy was following him, causing a series of uneven thuds as he scrambled down the staircase. Seijuurou wondered how someone so clumsy went through life without breaking his neck. Or the occasional limb, at least.

“But, ah—” The Furihata boy paused, presumably to regain his footing. “Why not, though? Can’t you talk with him about it?”

“No,” Seijuurou said flatly. He had reached the ground floor, and so he scanned the front hall, checking to see if any servants were about. At this late hour, they were likely in their own quarters. He frowned, debating how to proceed. Perhaps he would need to ring for someone, despite his reluctance to do so.

The clambering had stopped. The Furihata boy stood on the lowest step, gaping at him with those mouse-like eyes.

“What do you want?” Seijuurou said. The boy flinched. Seijuurou was starting to think that if he made the slightest wrong move, the boy actually would scurry off and find a hole to hide in.

Frankly, Seijuurou was strongly tempted to try it out. He couldn’t recall anyone daring to pester him so much before.

Which was why he was flabbergasted when the boy said, in his timid way, “Are you sure I can’t come with? Are you still looking for something?”

“Oh for god’s sake,” Seijuurou sputtered. “Why—”

He didn’t know how to finish the question. The boy’s persistence was utterly nonsensical. What did he hope to gain by following Seijuurou around? And why did he seem to think that he should be allowed to do so?

Oddly, Seijuurou was reminded of the night in the library, when the boy had insisted on putting all those books away. For no discernable reason or motive.

It was beyond comprehension. Clearly, Furihata Kouki understood Seijuurou was a different person, and nothing like his brother. The boy was visibly uneasy in his presence. It would take the slightest thing to send him running in fear, presumably…

As this thought rooted in Seijuurou’s mind, an idea sprouted along with it. A useful, convenient idea.

“Fine,” he said, more slowly. “Do you truly want to come? Consider carefully.”

He stepped toward the boy, sensing as his muscles stiffened in response. This would be laughably easy. Seijuurou leaned closer, until he saw the boy’s pupils dilate, partially eclipsing the slender brown threads of his iris.

“Because if you insist on accompanying me tonight, you may very well regret it,” Seijuurou murmured, allowing his voice to slide into a more menacing register. “You don’t strike me as an especially brave person.”

The boy seemed stunned, even petrified. A certain spot on his throat was pulsing, betraying his racing heartbeat. Seijuurou wondered if the boy had any idea how easy it was to read his physical reactions.

It was absurd, just how transparent this Furihata Kouki person was. Entirely unguarded, in spite of his overly sensitive, vulnerable personality. Seijuurou would have chided him for that, had he cared for him at all.

“U-um…” The boy hesitated again. Seijuurou watched as his throat twitched in a swallow. “Y-yeah. I want to.”

He straightened, squaring his shoulders. Seijuurou was rather proud of himself for not voicing the observation that this did not disguise the boy’s nerves in the slightest.

“Very well,” he said instead. “Then come along.”

He strode across the hall, not waiting for the boy to follow. Predictably, Furihata Kouki hurried after him. Seijuurou sighed under his breath. He supposed it was too much to hope that the boy would cower and flee straight away.

He navigated the labyrinth of passageways with accustomed ease. The Furihata boy kept up, to Seijuurou’s surprise, and gradually edged a bit closer, until they were walking alongside one another.

The boy’s beady eyes were darting around, in an apparent effort to track their surroundings. “So, um, where are we going?”

Seijuurou kept his expression controlled.

“I’ve been brushing up on my family history lately. Since you seem so anxious to know.” He glanced sideways at the boy, who at least had the grace to look sheepish. “I’ve been looking into a few unanswered questions. Trying to verify old records, that sort of thing. Your apparent desire to help is commendable.”

Or just unbearably nosy, he thought, though he kept that part to himself.

“But I don’t suppose my brother has told you much about the Akashi family, or our origins as a clan. Has he?”

As expected, the boy looked intrigued, if a bit startled. Seijuurou observed intently, as the boy shook his head.

“And would you like to know more, by any chance?” he asked, in a pleasant tone.

The boy paused, apparently unsure. Seijuurou knew why. Furihata Kouki didn’t come across as overly observant or insightful. Still, he had been associating with Seijuurou’s brother for months. Surely the boy must have noticed his brother’s reluctance to speak about certain things.

Still, the boy nodded in the end. Just as Seijuurou suspected he would.

“In that case, I really ought to show you a rather crucial part of our heritage,” Seijuurou said, as they passed some portraits of his ancestors. He assumed the boy had seen this hall already. It was largely unavoidable.

There was something else, however, that his brother would have avoided showing a boy like Furihata Kouki at all costs.

Seijuurou waved the boy toward a pair of doors, which had been carved with a massive version of the family crest. Seijuurou had seen the kamon’s design so many times he hardly registered it anymore.

The room inside was unlit. The shadowed corners and darkly painted walls were deeply familiar, however. Seijuurou knew their stark contours from memory—even though most of the memories were not truly his own.

He stepped over the threshold. With a flick of his hand, he turned on the lights.

The boy was inching into the room, with an almost guilty expression on his face. As the illumination flooded every corner, he stopped dead.

Seijuurou couldn’t begin to imagine what the collection looked like to an outsider. To him, the tattered banners displayed on the walls and cases filled with katana swords were as routine as a bedtime story. But even he knew that the suits of samurai armor, with their massive helmets and grotesque visors, were unsettling.

The suits sat all in a row. Each gnarled, demon-faced visor had empty holes for eyes. A bottomless void, where life ought to have been. The suits were arranged in such a way that they seemed ready to spring to action, phantom warriors itching to resume their bloodshed. It was like some undead conference of war-hardened generals.

The Furihata boy stood motionless. The whites of his eyes were visible all the way around. His tiny irises darted back and forth, scanning the weapons, as though he couldn't help trying to take them all in.

“Is—is all this real?” His voice was soft, hoarse.

“Of course.” Seijuurou passed beside a line of cases, which housed various types of daggers. “The house is filled with antiques the family has acquired over the centuries. But these are much more personal artifacts. The Akashis were originally a clan of warlords.”

The boy was silent. Gradually, he started to move around the room. He kept his distance from the samurai suits, Seijuurou noted. He wouldn’t even look in the direction of the demon-faced helmets.

The boy paused before one of the tallest cases. Longbows and quivers filled with arrows were arranged in a meticulous display. The bows easily stood higher than the boy’s head. He tentatively touched his fingers to the glass.

“Akashi-kun never mentioned any of this,” he murmured.

Seijuurou gave a shrug. “My brother isn’t particularly interested in discussing our background. And it’s something of a given. Plenty of old, powerful families were involved in warfare at some point.”

The boy nodded, looking confused. It was obvious he didn’t understand. Not yet.

Seijuurou strolled toward the opposite end of the chamber. Unlike the rest of the room, it was built in a traditional Japanese style. A wooden frame with screen doors had been set into the wall. Each screen was gilded and adorned with artwork, all painted by hand. The doors were shut, for the moment.

“Is that another room?” The boy sounded intrigued again.

Seijuurou hummed an assent, as he gazed up at the doors. This was his plan, to get the boy to stop following him and asking too many questions. But his elder brother would destroy him, if he knew… He never wanted the Furihata boy to know about their family history. The darker part of their heritage was just another thing his brother was hiding, out of fear of chasing his friend away permanently.

A fear that could very well be justified. For a moment, Seijuurou almost reconsidered.

Still, the boy hadn’t fled yet. And Seijuurou needed to protect the secrecy of what he was doing, at any cost. He would frighten the boy just enough to be left alone.

“This is the only tatami room in the house,” he explained to the boy. “We use it for our most valuable relics. I think you might find them interesting.”

He waited for the boy to join him beside the painted doors. The red spider lilies and white chrysanthemums formed an intricate floral mosaic. Both flowers were ancient symbols of death.

Seijuurou fixed Furihata Kouki with a steady look, as he slid the door open.

The room inside was nearly empty, its wide bamboo floors devoid of furniture. At the far end, a single suit of crimson samurai armor stood beside a pair of swords. Looming behind the armor was a carefully preserved mural, its colors somewhat faded with time. Akashi’s ancestors had moved this mural several times over the centuries, always with the utmost care. Its imagery was, without a doubt, disturbing.

In the mural, a lone warrior snarled, as he brandished his sword in victory. He was surrounded by heaps of prone, headless bodies. His armor was coated in blood, and beneath his imposing helm, he leered at the viewer with sharp golden eyes.

These eyes were, quite clearly, those of a cat. Or a demon, perhaps.

Seijuurou stepped toward the mural. He felt as though he knew every line of it by heart. The graphic image was burned into some of his earliest recollections. He had been in this room several times as a child. Well, in a sense…

The memories belonged to his brother, supposedly. Yet these recollections were strangely clear to Seijuurou. He used to wonder why, given how detached he felt from most of their childhood. Still, he had a few theories, about why this might be the case.

“Let me ask you a question, Furihata Kouki,” he said. His voice was low. “Do you believe in ghost stories?”

He glanced back at the boy, who seemed at a loss for words. Seijuurou suspected he was afraid to answer.

“Long, long ago, my ancestors were given this land,” he began. Just like any proper Japanese folktale. “We don’t know how we came by it. Some unpopular noble may have been stationed here, to oversee the peasants. It was centuries before Kyoto was the capital, in any case.”

Seijuurou shrugged again. He was skipping over some unverifiable oral history, about how they might be descended from a disgraced personage from the imperial line. It was unimportant.

“The family had no particular merit or renown—at first. Until quite suddenly, they came into an unprecedented amount of good fortune. They acquired considerable wealth and prominence at court, seemingly overnight.”

He faced the Furihata boy, hands clasped behind his back.

“They didn’t have a nice reputation,” he added. “They were known to be harsh with their vassals, even cruel. And so as their success increased, the rumors started. Some people claimed the family had made a deal with demons—and that a curse would surely fall upon them, for such an alliance. Peasant rubbish, the family said.”

And it was, Seijuurou thought to himself. Such things had no basis in fact or science. Still, he wasn’t about to point that out now.

He paused, to hide a knowing smile. The Furihata boy was still staring above his head. As though he wanted to look away from the mural, but couldn’t.

“But it is true, that some of their descendants were born with a level of talent that seemed borderline supernatural.” Seijuurou gestured to the painted warrior. “And this man was the most talented of them all.”

He gazed up at the man’s face, at each harshly inked line. The man’s features were contorted in apparent fury. Every detail, from his bloody armor to his tense posture, seemed to urge the viewer to recoil, to keep a safe distance.

His brother had never liked this image. But it didn’t particularly trouble Seijuurou.

“He was unbeatable on the battlefield,” he said, not bothering to keep the fascination out of his voice. “They say he had eyes that could spot an opponent’s weakest point at a glance. He was so skilled that in the course of a single fight, he could easily kill over a hundred men.”

Seijuurou had never actually counted how many bodies were depicted in the mural. It was closer to fifty than one hundred, he estimated. Still, it got the idea across.

“For his greatest victory, he defeated a rebel army that was marching on the capital,” he continued. “The Emperor was duly grateful, of course, and named this man the head of a new warlord clan. He even allowed us to use the imperial flower in our crest.”

Seijuurou bent down, to retrieve one of the katana blades from its stand. He handled it with exceptional care. The blade was priceless, forged by skilled artisans many centuries ago.

He held out the sword, to show the boy the kamon medallion set into the handle. It featured a half chrysanthemum, with the leaves of a Paulownia tree unfolding beneath it, and the tufts of two phoenix feathers rising around it on either side. The whole of the design was painted red.

“Akashi. As in, ‘red commander.’” Seijuurou pointed to the crest. “The red referred to the blood of this man’s enemies.”

He gave Furihata Kouki an amused smile. The boy looked predictably appalled.

“They say there was so much blood on the first Lord Akashi’s hands that even his two sons were marked with it,” Seijuurou added. “They were both born with red hair. ‘Red as the dawn,’ supposedly.”

He laughed aloud. This was hyperbole, clearly. Just some literary flourish, that had been added later to make the story more interesting. Yet the idea appeared to disturb the boy.

Seijuurou’s brother had never liked it, either. Because of the redness of their own hair, Seijuurou supposed.

“We’ll never be able to verify it, though.” His smile grew wry. “No images were ever made of the sons. Can you guess why?”

He let the question hang in the air. Now they were coming to it, at last.

“Because of them, the Akashi clan was nearly consigned to the ash-heap of history, before it truly began,” he said, in a sharper voice.

The Furihata boy blinked, startled. Clearly, this was not how he had expected the story to go.

Seijuurou returned the katana blade to its stand. He took a moment to ensure it was secure, before he resumed the tale.

“Both sons were reasonably gifted, or so they say. Of course you can never tell how much these accounts are sugarcoated.” He gave the boy a pointed glance. “In any case, they never satisfied Lord Akashi. The elder brother in particular did not meet his father’s expectations, when it came to martial skill. But for many years, both of the sons fought alongside their father, and did exactly as he directed.”

Seijuurou nodded to the suit of armor. Its crimson plates were so bright it appeared to shine. Like the beacon it had once been, to lead charge after charge into battle.

“Eventually, another war threatened the safety of the capital. Lord Akashi sought to stamp the rebels out early, in a single, decisive move, to gain even more renown for the family. But he was older now. So to accomplish this, he would need his sons to direct the battle on two different fronts.”

Seijuurou had heard this story time and time again. He used to wonder how sound his ancestor’s strategy was. It was impossible to determine, in a story with such vague details. Any strategy had its risks, he knew. Though some had higher stakes than others.

“Lord Akashi decided to put the elder son in charge of the more important incursion,” he went on. “He told his son it was time to prove his mettle, as the heir to the clan. Win this battle, Lord Akashi said, and you will be the rightful leader of our family. I have every confidence you will do it.”

Seijuurou recited the words slowly, just as they had been carved into his memory.

“I have so much confidence, in fact, that if you should fail, then I will gouge out my eyes and give them to you.”

He turned back to the Furihata boy, who stood open-mouthed. Clearly, the boy recognized the declaration, from a certain game at the Winter Cup. Seijuurou didn’t bother to acknowledge this.

“Naturally the elder son was so horrified, he vowed then and there to succeed,” he said. “He held the frontline for days, and fought with more bravery and skill than most men. But he did not have his father’s gifts. In the end, he was wounded, and his men were routed.”

Seijuurou paused. His voice was quieter now.

“They would have lost completely. But the younger son, who was considerably more talented, managed to hold off the enemy long enough to force both sides to make a strategic retreat.”

This part of the tale had always made the greatest impression on Seijuurou. He often wondered how that younger brother must have felt… Without him, the outcome would have been even worse.

Seijuurou had clung to that sentiment, over the years. Futile though it was.

“It was an impressive effort. A different father would have been pleased by the outcome.” He gave an empty laugh. “Lord Akashi, of course, was not.”

The Furihata boy’s face was ashen. He seemed to fully anticipate what was coming.

“A warrior must be true to his word,” Seijuurou said flatly. “And so he forced the elder son to watch, as he cut out his own eyes. ‘Wear these round your neck,’ he ordered, as he handed the eyes to his son. ‘So that everyone will see what you have cost me.’”

He spoke more quickly now, as the story came to its gruesome, inevitable end.

“Of course, the elder son was overcome with shame, and killed himself soon afterward. Lord Akashi died too, a maimed shadow of his former self. And the younger son—well, no one knows exactly what happened to him. Some think he went mad.”

Seijuurou resisted a dismal urge to laugh again. Small wonder if he did, he thought.

“And so the Akashi clan faded into relative obscurity,” he concluded. “We were never famed for exceptional prowess in battle again.”

Silence cloaked the room, as Seijuurou took a breath. He knew the story so well, yet even now, it still affected him. As it was always meant to. In many ways, the tale had defined him all his life. It had taught him what it truly took to succeed. It was largely inseparable, from his sense of self.

Perhaps in a certain sense, it had even caused it.

“Some time later, the Akashis became successes in the realms of trade and finance,” he noted, after a moment. “My sixth generation grandfather was the greatest of them. They say in many ways, he was as ruthless and talented as Lord Akashi himself. But that’s another story.”

Seijuurou wasn’t about to describe every single one of his ancestors who had been unusually skilled—or unusually brutal. There were too many.

“But in any case, that’s how our family began,” he said, with a nod backward to the mural. “With a cruel man who killed hundreds, if not thousands of men—and drove his son to die in the bargain.”

He studied the boy intently.

“There are even rumors that an eyeless warrior still wanders these grounds, bemoaning his sons’ disgrace,” he said, low-voiced. “And a disemboweled man follows behind, with a pair of eyeballs dangling round his neck.”

He didn’t have to wonder if Furihata Kouki believed in such things. The terror was scrawled clearly on the boy’s face.

Seijuurou craned his neck toward the mural. He lost himself in those familiar lines once again. Gauging their shape, their true significance.

“My father recounted this tale many times,” he said, almost absently. He wasn't quite sure why he was sharing this information. “My brother was four, in our earliest memory of it.”

The portrait towered above him. An odd trace of agitation, of wanting to run away, ghosted through Seijuurou. His brother had never wanted to endure these retellings. Seijuurou, however, had seen the use of it.

It was the means, to an indispensable end.

“The subtext was always clear. Unmistakably so.” He leveled a pointed stare at the Furihata boy. “‘Don’t be the elder son.’ Don’t be the one to destroy the family legacy, through your own incompetence.”

A misplaced stab of fury swelled in his chest. Over the past few months, Seijuurou had lost sight of who he was. He had questioned his own priorities and beliefs. But being in this room again reminded him why he had them in the first place

It reminded him of what his only defeat had cost him. And one of the witnesses of that very defeat stood before him now. He openly glared at the boy.

 “This is who we truly are, Furihata Kouki,” he declared. “Someone like you could never understand. No matter how much my brother may try to hide or deny it, out of a desire to shield you from the nasty, bloody truth.”

The boy shrank backward, but Seijuurou held his gaze, unblinking.

“And so he can indulge in all of his worst weaknesses, as usual,” he added, with unavoidable bitterness. “That way he can keep pretending to be pure and innocent, just to make everyone like him.”

He lowered his head. The cold consequence of that truth resonated within him. Yes, they will always like him. Far more than they could ever like me. The thought was unexpectedly painful. A festering, bitter wound.

He cast it aside, however. As he had cast aside everything else.

“A true Akashi succeeds at any cost,” he said fiercely, as he gestured to the swords and armor flanking him. “We will do anything—anything—required, to secure our victory. There is no room at all for failure. Ever.”

Seijuurou’s voice echoed across the chamber. It didn’t matter what this timid boy, or anyone else, thought of him. They would never comprehend his position. They could never understand the nature of his existence, or what was required of him.

The only thing that mattered was how he had failed. How he ultimately fell short, of the role he was required to fill, and jeopardized everything in his life as a result.

But failed or not, Seijuurou had accepted his role. There was no alternative for him.

He was the younger brother, after all.

“That is why I exist.” Seijuurou pressed his hand to his chest. “Who I am. And why my brother let me take control at Teikou.”

He smiled, with grim finality. This was his entire truth, his sole reason for being.

“That is what makes me—no, us—absolute.”