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It was something akin to an itch. An irritant that shifted along his skin when he tried to scratch it.

It was constant, sometimes beyond reach, but never far enough to be forgotten.

And it grew in minuscule increments everyday. Every time he heard the soft, clear voice on the other end of the line. Every time he felt the warmth of the slightly smaller body wrapped around him in the early hours. Every time lithe fingers absently raked through his hair in mid-afternoon stillness.

It was something he had never been familiar with, having excelled at anything and everything he was presented with. Even now, at the top of his class at Keio University—the oldest, most prestigious university in Japan—he could not say that he truly understood it. His lecturers sang his praises, his coaches swooned over his performances, even his father nodded his approval.

He was, at the risk of sounding conceited, perfect.

Only, this was not so when it came to this.

And it didn't sit well with him. This need to have his worth validated by some exogenous element. This tendency to doubt himself at every action. This burden of being plagued by the same, aggravating question any time his thoughts fell on Tetsuya.

The foreignness of it left him cold. And vulnerable.

Am I worthy?

---

“I should be back at about six,” Tetsuya stated, adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder. Seijūrō nodded and offered a smile as he watched Tetsuya from his seat on the couch. The shorter man's head tilted in concern as he studied Seijūrō. “Are you not feeling well? I can always cancel-”

“Don't be ridiculous, Tetsuya. I'm fine.” Seijūrō rose from the chair and walked across the large living room of his apartment to stand before his lover. “In any case, I have a lot of work to get through. So go. Enjoy.”

Crystalline blue eyes stared at him for a moment, wide and unconvinced, before Tetsuya offered him that small smile that held more feeling than any of Kise's outbursts ever could. Seijūrō felt something inside of him recoil at the tenderness of the expression, as though burned by it. He moved to open the door, and watched as Tetsuya walked out.

Seijūrō had much to do—school work, club work, work from his father—having decided to occupy himself with these things as Tetsuya would be busy socialising the entire weekend.

His former team mate was only in Tokyo for the weekend—being enrolled at the University of Tsubuka—but would have little time to spend with Seijūrō, save for the evenings. Though it seemed an unreasonable trade off, Tetsuya had promised to come back to visit him for an entire week, later that month, to make up for the time they wouldn't have together during this visit.

It was just as well, really. The burden weighed heavier than usual when Tetsuya was nearby, warm flesh and pure heart, because there was no distance to hide the authentic looks of admiration and affection that his lover, unwittingly, offered him.

Am I worthy?

---

Lying on his back, Seijūrō stared up at the ceiling. He didn't know what time it was, nor did he care. Tetsuya would be leaving in the morning, and Seijūrō was not happy about it, though he was relieved that the burden of his vulnerability would be eased by the distance between them. Sighing quietly, he turned onto his side to watch Tetsuya sleep.

Aside from his ridiculous, gravity-defying hair, Tetsuya was the picture of near-angelic calm when he was asleep. It was as though the inborn purity that he possessed seeped onto the surface in the darkness of night. Seijūrō's heart twisted.

Guilt.

Regret.

Inadequacy.

They all thrummed in his blood as he stared at the man who had given unconditionally. The one who had broken him, so he could free himself. Rebuild himself.

Though Seijūrō had known it for a long time, he hadn't felt it as deeply until he and Tetsuya had begun this relationship a little over a year ago; that his former team mate—despite hidden flaws, sharp wit, fierce competitiveness, and underlying sarcasm—was good.

Morally sound.

Unconditionally generous.

Nobly sacrificial.

Untainted.

Seijūrō had also realised that he, in the face of Tetsuya's goodness, whether by nature or nurture, was not. After having this epiphany, doubt had descended, accompanied by a slew of regrets from their final year of middle-school, and subsequent year.

Reaching over, he lightly tangled his fingers in Tetsuya's hair for a moment, before slowly tracing the other's jawline. He watched for a few more minutes before he pulled his hand away and closed his eyes in an attempt to fall asleep. All the while, the question whispered through the corners of his mind.

Am I worthy?

---

It was in the silence of one dark, rainy afternoon that he forced himself to confront the legion of his demons; assembled for a reunion, reliving the past. It was a bitter experience as he mulled over what he had done, the person he had once been.

Though Seijūrō could hardly claim sainthood, he had also, never been particularly cruel. Not until that year. He expected the best from people, because that is what he brought to the table. He simply refused to accept anything below that. And if one's best was not enough to secure victory, they had no place being around him. It wasn't cruelty, it was life. The life his father had taught him. The life that he had seen validated time and again.

Winners were affirmed, while losers were denied. Completely.

But now he knew that he had taken it too far, cheapening people down to mere tools. Treating them as means to an end.

Tetsuya had proved him wrong—proved them all wrong—in the most shattering of ways; by redefining what victory was. Seijūrō had pondered and agonised over that Winter Cup final for weeks, unable to make sense of this new information, this new paragon, that so greatly conflicted with the one that had become his logic. His guide. His standard.

It had broken him, yet mended him at the same time. Like building a new kingdom atop the ashes of an old regime.

Seijūrō suspected that it was during that time that the seeds of his affections toward his former team mate had been sown. Growing roots, gaining strength, blooming quietly, until he could no longer ignore them. No longer suppress them.

And Tetsuya had accepted them, with a quiet grace that denied Seijūrō nothing.

It was odd to win without having to fight for it, without earning it. Though, in retrospect, he supposed it was for the best. Though he would never admit to anyone, Seijūrō didn't feel that he was merited to win Tetsuya's affections, even if he had fought for them. Not with the way he had treated Tetsuya, trampled upon his former team mate's ideals, mocked his doctrine. That sense of undeservedness, however, had been smothered by the newness of his relationship with Tetsuya. And all was well.

Not for long, though.

Am I worthy?

Quietly, like an icy, winter breeze through bare branches, came a reply.

No.

---

“Can't sleep then?” Tetsuya asked, placing a hot cup of tea on the table in front of him, before settling on the couch across from him. His lover had arrived earlier that day for the week long visit that had been promised. Seijūrō reached for the cup, if only to occupy himself with something other than his thoughts.

“It's nothing new,” he said, sipping tentatively at the hot liquid. Tetsuya hummed in response, in his eyes were questions that he didn't voice.

“I hate chamomile tea,” Seijūrō stated, rolling his tongue about in his mouth, as though to wipe away the taste.

“Either you drink it, or you tell me what's bothering you.”

They sat in almost comfortable silence—Tetsuya searching for something to say to coax the other into divulging his emotions; Seijūrō trying to organise his thoughts into coherent, manageable bits, while contemplating another sip of tea.

“Why are you here?” Seijūrō finally asked, slowly and carefully phrased.

“Because I said I would be,” Tetsuya responded without pausing to consider the depth of the enquiry. The redhead settled the cup back onto the saucer, leaning forward so that his elbows rested on his knees—a terribly undignified pose, but that was the least of his concerns at the moment.

“That isn't what I meant, Tetsuya. I want to know why you're here, with me.”

Seijūrō was graced with a barely-there smile—of understanding, or humour over some thing the redhead was not grasping, or both—before Tetsuya nestled the cup between his hands. He briefly looked down at the steaming liquid before turning that gaze on Seijūrō.

“Because I want to be here, Akashi-kun.”

It was the most vague and open-ended answer he could have received. And it did nothing to ease the tension inside him.

Am I worthy?

No. But, does it matter?

---

“You're over-thinking,” Shintarou stated from his seat across from Seijūrō, who slowly raised his gaze from the shogi board to settle on his opponent's emerald greens. “Yet you're not focused on the game.”

This was the taller man's way of asking if he was well, if he needed to offload. Tetsuya was out gallivanting across the city with Kise, doing goodness-knows-what, so he had invited his friend over to pass the time. Seijūrō sighed, leaning back into the high-backed plushness of the chair, holding his friend's gaze. After a long moment of contemplation, he spoke.

“The past has a frustrating way of rearing its head at the most inopportune of times.”

“Only if one allows it to,” Shintarou pointed out after a pause, adjusting his glasses. “The past can only haunt those that won't let it lie where it belongs.”

Shintarou stared intently at his friend, trying to convey a myriad of things to his former captain through the visual contact—support, encouragement, understanding. Seijūrō wondered if he was that much of an open book to Shintarou. If he had become that predictable. If this was what it felt like to be ordinary.

“And,” Shintarou added softly, the corners of his lips tugging upwards slightly, “no one is better at showing people where they belong than you are. Things as abstract as the past can't be that different.”

Seijūrō chuckled, soft and amused, quietly uttering, “that is true”.

He turned his attention back to the shogi board, focusing for the first time that afternoon.

Am I worthy?

No. But, that may be of no consequence.

---

He felt the rounded edges of nails bite into his shoulders, the hot, wet gasps against his ear, the sweet friction of sensitive skin rubbing together. Seijūrō sighed into Tetsuya's neck, and twisted his wrist just so, inciting an obscene moan from his lover, who shifted slightly in his lap.

Tetsuya hissed, bringing a hand to cup his neck, crashing their lips together in a sloppy kiss that spoke volumes. Seijūrō could tell that the other was teetering on the edge, wanting—needing—just the right push to topple over it. So he obliged his lover, dragging his thumb over them slowly, agonisingly, wrenching a groan from his own throat.

It was in these moments—and the frenzied ones that preceded, the quiet ones that followed—where musings of the past and undeservedness melted away in the fire generated by two needy bodies. Two desperate hearts. Two tangled souls.

The fact that he was at his most content when Tetsuya was at his most exposed, probably said much about Seijūrō. But he had not the time, nor capacity, to dwell on that when Tetsuya placed his forehead against Seijūrō's, eyes barely open, barely seeing. Seijūrō slid fingers along his lover's spine, revelling the way Tetsuya shivered and whimpered.

“Akashi-kun, please...” the request was quiet, and earnest; desperate. And he couldn't refuse it, increasing the pace of his strokes, the pressure of his fingers. It didn't take long for Tetsuya to give a low, raspy groan, before a warm stickiness spilled over Seijūrō's fingers. He followed soon after.

They sat in a silence broken only by the sound of quiet breaths drawn in an attempt to regain composure. Tetsuya's face was buried in the crook of his neck, fingers dancing up heated skin to weave through his hair.

“I've missed you,” Tetsuya whispered. Seijūrō wasn't certain if Tetsuya was referring to the time they had been apart, or something else entirely—or both—but he smiled imperceptibly.

“I should hope so.” He slid his fingers up and down Tetsuya's back soothingly. “We should clean up, and get to bed.”

Tetsuya hummed him response. The sound was lazy and reluctant, but he moved. They cleaned quickly and quietly, only interrupted by a slurred comment from the shorter man, intoxicated by endorphins, tongue loosened by sleep.

“You're good to me, Seijūrō.”

The redhead's movement stilled for just a moment—partly surprised by Tetsuya's atypical use of his first name—as he tried to catch the reins on his heart, bringing it back under his control. He nodded slightly, though he was certain his lover didn't catch the motion. A short while after, they tumbled into bed. Tetsuya was asleep within five minutes while Seijūrō lay awake, an arm wrapped loosely around the other's waist, as the nagging question returned.

Am I worthy?

He paused, held his breath, searching himself for an answer. There was none.

Seijūrō couldn't say whether that was a bad thing.

---

Paging through the latest issue of the Economist, he sipped at his tea calmly—vanilla cinnamon—savouring the taste and scent. Tetsuya, having ignored his warning, was draped across the couch, head resting on Seijūrō's lap, reading a thick textbook on English Linguistics. It was a rather precarious position, with the cup of hot tea in Seijūrō's hand, but it was comfortable.

After a while, he abandoned the magazine and placed the cup on the small table to the side of the couch.

“I don't see how reading like this is productive,” Seijūrō stated.

“To each, his own, Akashi-kun. You have your ways, I have mine. But that's all right.”

“That it is, Tetsuya.”

He was rewarded with one of those smiles that did little to change the blank expression on Tetsuya's face, but lit up his lover's eyes like the moon. Had he believed that hearts could do so—without raising concern over a serious health problem—Seijūrō would have thought that he felt his heart skip a beat.

Am I worthy?

It was an ever-present constant that would probably never go away. But, now, he had a response. Uncharacteristically vague and uncertain, but an anchor nonetheless.

Perhaps not yet. But I am good enough.