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Year One

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Ryuunosuke was always one of the quieter students in his class - he'd accepted his role long ago. An average student who didn't stand out all too much, approachable enough to speak to but too shy to become good friends with. He was absolutely fine with this kind of life. He'd foresaw the rest of his college days to pass like this. A mild presence, striving for good enough grades to get by. Not sure yet of where he was headed with his English major, but not fretting too much about it, taking it one day at a time.

Well, all of this was what he'd expected. But actually, soon after his college days began, a certain hot-blooded man sorta…wedged himself into his life.

"Good morning, Naruhodou!!"

Ryuunosuke found himself automatically going to sit next to this guy everyday for their English lecture after they'd discovered that they shared a class. Honestly, he wasn't sure why…the guy seemed friendly enough, he supposed. For some reason, he felt obligated.

"Morning, Asou-," that day, he cut himself off, blinking. Uh, hm. There was something strange about his classmate…he was wearing a new flashy red hachimaki. But that wasn't the strange part. It's just, the long ends of it seemed to be….fluttering? Indoors? He could only stare.

"What's the matter?"

"A-ah! Sorry! It's nothing much but, um…h-how are you doing that?"

His classmate seemed totally clueless somehow…so Ryuunosuke just reached out and gave the red cloth a very gentle tug. Even with a momentary disturbance, it wouldn't cease its fluttering. "This hachimaki is freaking me out a little."

"Ah! So you've noticed it?!"

"N-no, it's a bit difficult to miss!! How is it doing that?!"

"Hmph, relax. You know, in my youth, my father wore something similar - a pure white hair tie. The ends of it constantly fluttered in the wind, even indoors. It's perfectly normal."

"Th-that's absolutely not normal!! Are you saying it's hereditary?! Is your family actually magic or something?"

His classmate threw his head back and let out a booming laugh. Ryuunosuke winced, feeling most of the eyes in the lecture hall turn to them. "You sure ask the strangest questions Naruhodou!"

"I-I think they're perfectly reasonable. Also, watch your volume!"

"Hmph, why should I? Lecture hasn't even started yet."

"B-but…" Ryuunosuke's eyes darted, somehow simultaneously avoiding and trying to look toward the people staring at them. His classmate seemed to understand that look, giving a sigh.

"Pay the prying eyes no mind, friend. Who cares what they're thinking?"

' I kinda do,' Ryuunosuke thought with a grimace. Though, as he paused to think further, maybe his classmate was right. Ever since he'd started hanging out with this guy with his terrifyingly bold attitude, he'd been rethinking his irrational thoughts and anxieties. He'd grown aware of all the times each day where he'd try to recede back into his shell, sometimes at even the slightest inconvenience. And he'd catch himself - resist the urge, and stand his ground. Maybe that was one of the reasons why he allowed this guy to continue being loud at his side. That, and that gallant aura of his just never ceased to amaze.

Kazuma Asougi…honestly, Ryuunosuke didn't know much about him before they met. But for some reason, after they competed against each other at that speech contest, he'd started hearing his name everywhere he went. Excited whispers of passing conversations - he heard snippets here and there. Asougi-kun - the top of his class, a strict perfectionist, aspiring attorney, an expert swordsman, both an inspirational and intimidating individual. After meeting up in lecture, after starting to sit next to each other, he finally realised that he'd somehow made a very high-profile acquaintance. And by that time, it felt too late to back out. It made him extraordinarily nervous at first, after hearing all the rumors. But…him managing to make a friend like this was also kind of incredible.

“Hey!”

One day, a hearty pat on his back along with the loud voice made him stop in his tracks in the hall and let out a weak startled yelp. He’d been spacing out, trailing after his usual lunch group, he completely failed to hear the confident footfalls coming up behind him. Before he could realise what was happening, he was face to face with a grinning Asougi.

“Fancy meeting you here, Naruhodou.”

“A-Asougi-kun?!”

Asougi gave a short sigh. “Didn’t I tell you, just ‘Asougi” is fine? We’re more than mere acquaintances, after all.”

“Umm…we are?” Ryuunosuke’s look was blank as he blurted out the question.

“We did battle on a grand stage! The bond we’ve forged from such an encounter is something truly unique. That’s what I think.”

“E-er, if you say so?” Ryuunosuke blinked. ‘This guy is really dramatic,’ he thought.

“Better dramatic than leaving no impression.”

“Wh- huh??”

Asougi’s sigh was a bit heavier as he patted him firmly on the shoulder again. “You know, Naruhodou, you have a bad habit of letting your ‘inner thoughts’ leak out…anyway, what’s up with those guys?”

Ryuunosuke followed his gaze to the group ahead of them - his lunch group had continued walking without him, like they hadn’t even noticed his absence. Well, one or two of them had clearly noticed. They were glancing back at Ryuunosuke with uncertainty, looking like they wanted to say something, but the presence of Asougi was making them hesitant. The rest were all absorbed in cheery conversation, as usual.

“Ah, well, I usually just tag along with them for lunch,” Ryuunosuke mumbled, scared of them overhearing him even when he didn’t have anything incriminating to say.

“Your friends?”

“I guess,” this response came out even quieter. Well, the truth was, they only hung out during lunch. And everyone else did most of the talking…though he was grateful that they let him sit with them, and it was fun to listen! It was…nice…he could feel Asougi’s judging gaze on him. When he heard the other suddenly take a deep breath, it was too late to react.

“Hey, you lot!!!”

The entire group halted immediately at the booming voice - the other unrelated students in the hall all froze up as well, all eyes falling on this pair…Ryuunosuke started sweating. But Asougi glared forward with only one concern on his mind.

“One of your friends has fallen behind, and you don’t even notice?! Worse yet, some of you saw him and said nothing?! Leaving one of your own behind, isolated! How shameful! Have some consideration for your peers!”

Those guys looked…totally stunned, if not already starting to cower. Asougi’s angry aura really was something else - Ryuunosuke felt like he was going to melt into a puddle just by standing next to him. To ever be the target of this…he couldn’t even imagine how he’d cope. It was so scary. Though the next thing that happened was enough to bring him near death - Asougi threw an arm around his shoulders, starting to steer him away.

“Well, if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, then I will! I’ll be taking this one with me. Let’s go, partner!”

“P-’partner’?!” Ryuunosuke stuttered, his face burning up. “Wai- wha- wh-where’re we going???”

“To lunch, of course! Come on!”

“E- ehh?! ” He couldn’t even find any words as he was helplessly dragged along. Once they left the limelight, Asougi released his shoulders only to grab his hand, leading him through the gaggles of students. Ryuunosuke flinched, trying his best not to think about how sweaty his hand probably was right now. It was just one more tiny anxiety flung on top of the mountain. But, now that they’d been walking for a bit, he somehow felt…happy. Staring at this man’s back, tilting his head slightly to avoid a hachimaki fluttering into his eyes, he couldn’t help a little smile. This guy…stood up for him, huh. While he didn’t mind going unnoticed, this felt alright, too, once he got past the initial shock…

“Naruhodou, what do you feel like? It’ll be my treat today.”

The question snapped him out of his thoughts. “H-HUH?? N-no no, you really don’t need to-”

“Have you tried the cafeteria’s beef hotpot?”

“EH- beef hotpot…isn’t that a bit on the expensive side?!”

“A ha ha ha ha!! Don’t worry about it! Like I said, it’s my treat!”

“B-but…!!”

“If it bothers you that much, just treat me next time!”

“Next-??” This guy was far too assertive. Ryuunosuke didn’t stand a chance. But, the prospect of a ‘next time’ made him flush pleasantly. “Alright, fine, It’s my treat next time. That’s a promise, right?”

“Hah! That’s the most confidence I’ve heard from you all day. It’s a promise!”

The taste of that first beef hotpot was unforgettable. It brought tears to his eyes…truly incredible. While he knew it was expensive, he was determined to have this again. At least once…no, twice…three times. A week. Surely he could afford it, he just needed to make a few calculations (and some apologies to his parents). Asougi laughed when Ryuunosuke turned towards him after that first bite - it was clear that his emotions shone through completely.

Aside from being introduced to some amazing food, having Asougi as company for lunch was also surprisingly relaxing. The man never ran out of things to talk about - nary a moment for an awkward silence. They chatted about so many things, from English lecture to tongue twisters to politics. With everything he spoke about, there was an air of passion to it that Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but feel resonating deep within him. There was something special about how Asougi carried himself…and then he stumbled on a tongue twister, and that fiery passion would flare into a comical flustered inferno. What an interesting guy, indeed. Their lunch period flew by, and Ryuunosuke had the premonition that they’d be doing this many, many more times in the future.

Chapter Text

That lunch group of his, after that incident, seemed apologetic to him. They remained on good terms - he’d still sometimes join them. Though when he did, he was flooded with questions about Asougi. “What’s he like, really?” “Are you seriously friends with him?” “What do you even talk about?” He hesitantly answered them, and they seemed to either express admiration or disbelief in response. He really is as cool as they hear, or that’s not something they expected from him…things like that. Ryuunosuke felt even more uncertain about these conversations - like maybe he shouldn’t have answered, even though they were talking about subjects so trivial. Either way, they had him thinking.

He didn’t notice the first time, but he slowly came to realise…Asougi lacked a “lunch group” of his own, huh? It was always just the two of them grabbing lunch together. And when Asougi had other lunch plans, he’d let Ryuunosuke know. A lunch meeting with a professor, or his family friend “Mikotoba”, or…sometimes someone shockingly important, like a court judge or something. He never mentioned other students…Ryuunosuke wondered, did this guy have any friends their age, besides him? …No, he had to, that was such a silly question. He banished the thought quickly.

But anyway, their friendship only blossomed even more from there. Chatting over beef hotpot in the cafeteria led to hanging out after lectures for long study sessions. Reserving a table at the library, revolving between studying, napping, and hanging out until it closed. And eventually, for those later hours, they headed for Ryuunosuke’s family home. On the first night, his mother greeted them with an excited smile.

“You’re Asougi-kun? It’s so nice to finally meet you! We’ve heard so much about you from Ryuunosuke. He really can’t stop talking about you sometimes,” she chuckled. Ryuunosuke’s face grew beet red.

“Mother!! I-I wouldn’t go that far!!” He threw Asougi a glare - he saw that grin he was trying to hide. His friend stepped up with a polite bow.

“I’m terribly sorry for intruding - thank you very much for allowing us a space for our study session.”

“Oh my, there’s no need to be so formal. Please, you’re free to come over whenever you’d wish! Thank you so much for looking after our son. It’s a relief to see that he’s made friends with such a gallant, upstanding young man.” She threw a subtle wink at her son who resisted a groan.

Ryuunosuke led his friend to his room, though they stopped on the way to greet his father similarly. Their house wasn’t small, but it was modest by the standard of most of their classmates. And Ryuunosuke’s room was a bit of a mess, much to his embarrassment - this decision to study at his house was a split second one. He didn’t have time to tidy up at all. Still, Asougi immediately made himself at home, finding a clear spot on the floor to sit. He seemed entirely relaxed. Ryuunosuke’s mother brought tea and snacks at some point. His parents’ soft muffled voices could be heard occasionally throughout the night.

“Your household is…warm,” Asougi mused, after a while.

“Eh? What do you mean?”

“It’s just nice, is all.” When Ryuunosuke looked over, he saw a soft, thoughtful expression on his friend’s face…but that quickly changed when he looked up with a weary look. “Anyway, you haven’t flipped that page in ages. Have you been stuck reading the same paragraph over and over?” Ryuunosuke jumped at the sudden accusation, almost shutting the textbook in his lap on instinct.

“I…I am.” He hung his head guiltily. Asougi sighed, setting his own notes down and crawling over to his side.

“Let’s see what you’ve got, then.”

“Sorry…”

“Chin up, partner! It’s far too early to be giving up!”

Asougi never let up when it came to studying, huh? He stayed strong for both of them…Ryuunosuke really appreciated that. Though they studied for different classes most of the time, his friend's sheer motivation was starting to have a positive impact on Ryuunosuke's grades. He never imagined scoring this high on his own, it was amazing.

Anyway, Asougi's offhand comment managed to stick with him. That look on his face when he said it…though it was brief, he'd never seen him make such an expression before. Unbeknownst to him, he was closer to understanding the reason for it than he thought. They'd always study at his house after that, when they had to. Asougi got pretty well acquainted with Ryuunosuke's parents, and they always welcomed him. Though one day, some relatives dropped by. Ryuunosuke noted how noisy it was in the morning when he left for class, letting his mom know that he might be home late.

"I don't think my house is a good study place today. And they're gonna be staying overnight, too," he grumbled to Asougi after class. "My aunt is just so loud, I've lost sleep because of her…"

"That sounds rough, indeed," Asougi snorted. Though past the jokes, he looked a bit troubled. "I wouldn't want to be a bother when your family already has their hands full with this."

"Y-yeah, sorry. Do you know if there's anywhere else we could go?" He'd been thinking about it for a while, but, obviously they've never been to Asougi's house before. He was a little curious, though he wouldn't say it outright. His friend seemed deep in thought for a minute. Then, he sighed.

"I suppose it can't be helped. I know a place."

The place in question was oddly closer to the university…though immediately after stepping foot in the household, Ryuunosuke felt something of an uncomfortable stuffy atmosphere. House "Karuma" was written at the entrance. This place was… huge. There was even a small dojo that they passed, currently in use. A peek in there showed many people moving in perfect synchronization. It was a little scary. Unfortunately, as they were passing it, they were spotted.

"Kazuma-kun!! You are back exceedingly early." A man who looked one or two decades older than them stepped out to greet them. Asougi stiffened. He moved subtly in front of Ryuunosuke, as if to protect him. It felt justified, as the older man shot Ryuunosuke a look of pure disapproval. Um…he had no idea why he was being looked at in this way, but he felt his back straighten immediately, and he gave a very nervous bow.

"My classmate and I simply need to use the study room for today. I hope that you will allow it." Asougi bowed as well. It was incredibly stiff.

"Of course. You are free to use it at any time! Our household is always open to the Asougis, as we always say. It's the least we could do in the name of your fath-"

"Thank you very much," Asougi interrupted, giving another curt bow. "I'm terribly sorry to have disturbed your practise, please do not let us hold you up any longer. We'll be going now."

"…Right." The man seemed displeased for a moment, but he returned the bow and turned back to the dojo. As he disappeared through the open door, Asougi grabbed Ryuunosuke's hand, leading him very quickly to their destination. No time to stand and gawk at how massive the place was…in any other circumstance, Ryuunosuke would've found that a shame. But this oppressive atmosphere made him follow his friend eagerly, wanting no more than to get out of this place. Fortunately, once they were alone in the study room, the tension ebbed. Mostly. Asougi huffed - he looked tired. He wandered to the middle of the room and just laid down on his back with a weighted thump, his hair and hachimaki splayed out.

"Sorry about that, partner."

Ryuunosuke hesitated at the door, but then walked over, laying down next to him. "It's alright, though I don't know what you're apologising for."

"I was hoping to sneak us past with no incident, but I failed."

"E-eh?! No, it'd definitely be best to let someone know we're here!! Anyway…who are these people? 'Karuma'…isn't that the name of your katana?" He eyed the blade at Asougi's side. It was always strapped there, every day, no matter what. Asougi nodded, pulling it from his belt and holding it up above him.

"They adopted its name. They were my father's disciples. My family household is too far to commute from, so they were kind enough to give me a place to stay at night." That last part was definitely said with an air of sarcasm.

"They 'were'?"

Asougi looked puzzled for a second before blinking in realisation. "Ah, I've never told you yet, have I? My parents are…no longer with us."

"O…oh." Ryuunosuke stared blankly. That possibility never occurred to him before. And thinking about it now, some pieces fell into place, though at the same time…he felt like such an idiot. "I'm sorry, Asougi…"

"Hah, don't fret about it. That's some eight-year-old news, anyway."

"Eight?? That’s-…isn’t that even worse?!” When he was…fourteen?? Ryuunosuke was flooded with dreadful thoughts, but a nudge from Asougi snapped him out of it.

“Hey. Don’t worry so much, I’m fine.” He crossed his arms, holding tightly onto that katana’s scabbard. “It’s more like…because they’re gone, I’m motivated to do my absolute best. For the sake of our family name.” Ryuunosuke stared at him. That sounded like so much pressure. Though looking at the usual fire in Asougi’s eyes, he understood fully for the first time. Where this man’s passion came from…this was something he’d decided for himself, right from the start.

“Asougi…you’re really amazing, you know that?”

“A ha ha ha! What’s with that, all of a sudden? I’m merely pursuing what feels right.”

“That’s exactly what’s so amazing! To be able to just… do things like that.” Asougi looked over, raising an eyebrow.

“That’s something you can do, too, you know. Nothing’s stopping you from aiming for a dream.”

A dream…Ryuunosuke didn’t have one yet, really. He’d been searching, slowly, but…really, what was something he was truly passionate about? Something he took seriously, not just a frivolous hobby. He couldn’t decide on anything. That was the difference between them, he supposed - the doubt that made him hesitate. It seemed like Asougi managed to read his mind, again.

“You’ll find your path, I’m sure of it. Someone like you has so much potential. You just need to realise your resolve.”

“Resolve…” Ryuunosuke gave a thoughtful hum. No, he didn’t know at all at this point. But, if his friend believed in him, then he’d continue searching, like his life depended on it. Which, frankly, it kinda did. Asougi sat up with a grunt.

“But anyway, shall we get started? This place is quiet enough, we should be able to focus well. Though, I have to warn you, there will be some needless interruptions.” He grimaced toward the door. “These Karumas…they really like to kiss ass.” A laugh escaped Ryuunosuke in surprise.

“Er, really?”

“You didn’t notice?” Asougi rolled his eyes. “I really can’t stand them…they’re exceptional people, sure, but they’ve been this way to me since Father passed. It’s painfully obvious what they’re after.” He looked down, holding Karuma firmly in both hands. “This blade, their namesake…they want to inherit it, in some way or the other. It only makes sense. But they’re dreaming if they think I’d ever hand it over to them.” Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but smile. He didn’t know the full story of this katana - maybe he’d ask some other day. But he could already see just how important it was to his friend. It was something passed down from his late father, he knew this much now. That alone was enough. He sat up as well, with an air of determination.

“I will do my best to completely ignore them, then!”

Asougi blinked at him, surprised. But then he burst out laughing, holding Ryuunosuke’s shoulder. “That’s the spirit!! You know, partner, now that we’re here…this place feels much more bearable with you beside me.”

“Ah…” Ryuunosuke’s face flushed automatically. Though he pushed the shy feeling away the best he could, giving a bright grin. “I’m glad I could help.”

That was his one and only visit to the Karuma household. There was never a need to go back, and he had a feeling that they were both grateful for that. If this same situation had ever arose again, he would’ve much preferred dealing with his noisy aunt.

Chapter Text

The new things Ryuunosuke had learned about his friend knocked around in his mind for the next few days. He’d certainly admired him before, but now it was all in a new light. And he was thinking…was his inference that he’d brushed off back then actually correct? Asougi didn’t seem to have any other close friends. They’d spent enough time together for Ryuunosuke to grow suspicious of this. That, along with hearing how all the other students talk about him…

“Hey,” Ryuunosuke spoke up once while with the usual lunch group. “Sorry but…could you guys stop asking about and discussing Asougi like he’s some kind of myth?” All the guys looked at him in confusion.

“I mean, he is pretty legendary! You can’t deny that,” one of them exclaimed.

“Right?? He’s way out of our league. How else are we supposed to talk about him?” another questioned.

“He’s…still just another person, you know,” Ryuunosuke muttered, looking away.

“Huuuuh? You got some dirt on him or something??”

“Wha- n-no way! Nothing like that! It’s just…” he trailed off, not sure of what to say. ‘It’s just that he seems kind of lonely.’ He made extra sure to keep this inner thought from leaking out. The others continued the discussion.

“So you want us to stop asking you stuff? Man, that’s no fun.”

“Maybe you could introduce us or something?? Would that be better?”

“What?! No way, I wouldn’t be able to handle a conversation with that guy! You saying you could?”

“Hmm…fair enough, it feels kinda scary.”

One of them turned their gaze to Ryuunosuke. “I can’t believe someone like Naruhodou-kun can handle it, though. How the hell do you two get along? You seem like you’d just get eaten alive by someone like him.”

“Thanks a lot,” Ryuunosuke grumbled. “We get along fine, though.”

“It’s true,” another guy piped up. “Y’know, I’ve seen you two meet up on campus a few times. His face totally lights up at the sight of you. What’s up with that, huh? I never see him look that cheery any other time.”

“I- huh?! ” Ryuunosuke’s face turned bright red. “H-he does??”

“Wooow, you don’t even put in effort for it, huh?? That’s pretty unbelievable!”

“I- well-” He shrunk back, feeling beyond embarrassed. “I just never noticed…”

“Hah! Well, now you know! Keep an eye out for it next time!”

“O…okay…” Ryuunosuke had completely lost track of the conversation. What was he talking about again? The flow of it was snatched from him in his instant of weakness. Oh well, maybe it was for the best to just let these guys chatter away again. He was too flustered to continue. Though later he realised that they’d respected his wishes, keeping their prying questions to themselves.

The next time he met up with Asougi, he did in fact keep an eye out for that lit up face. And when he saw it, his face turned redder than an apple. It took many strangled words to convince a confused Asougi that everything was absolutely fine.

 

With the cooling weather came exam season. The two of them spent a lot of time in Ryuunosuke’s room, bundled up and studying like their lives depended on it. Their first university exams…it was such a stressful time. But somehow Ryuunosuke survived. He pulled through with a sense of confidence, even. It was all thanks to the study sessions…after they were let out, he found himself being all but tackled.

“Partner!! How’d you do?!”

Ah, someone was full of energy despite it all. Ryuunosuke himself was ready for a nap. But he managed a genuine, if tired, smile. “Pretty well, actually. I hope. We’ll just have to see.”

“Hah, what’s with that decreasing enthusiasm? If you feel good about it, it’s bound to turn out well! Don’t downplay it. Anyway, we ought to celebrate our efforts! Let’s go out to eat!”

“H-huh?? Right now? I kinda want to go to sleep…”

“Hmph! And let this high go to waste?!” Asougi did pause, observing his friend for a moment. “…Though I guess those bags under your eyes are worrying enough. Fine then, it’s no fun if only one of us is having a good time. Go get your rest, we’ll meet up afterwards!”

Ryuunosuke murmured gratefully, shuffling on home. He felt like he was only unconscious for a blink, but he awoke to the chill of a winter night, feeling a bit more coherent. Asougi was already waiting for him outside, wearing a thick kimono. Ryuunosuke hurried out bundled in his own winter clothes.

“Um…how long were you out here? You could’ve come inside, you know,” he said. Asougi laughed.

“Don’t worry about it! I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“Ah, it’s alright, really…”

There were only thin layers of snow on the ground this time of year - not much of it had begun to stick yet. Still, it was chilly. Ryuunosuke stared at Asougi’s uncovered hand as they walked along the street. Without thinking, he reached for it, not noticing when Asougi turned and blinked at him. It was as cold as ice…

“You did wait a long time,” Ryuunosuke sighed. “Sorry.”

“Hey, what’re you even apologising for? I told you, don’t worry! I’ll warm up quickly once we get there. Not to mention…this certainly helps.” His icy fingers curled around Ryuunosuke’s hand - that was the moment the latter realised what he just did, and suddenly his face was once again burning up. Asougi gave a knowing(?) smirk, and before Ryuunosuke could figure out a response, he picked up the pace. “C’mon, partner!”

“W-wah! C-careful, if we go too fast we’ll slip!”

“Hah, I’ll catch you if you do!”

“That’s not the issue!!”

Asougi’s laugh rang out in the quiet night. Ryuunosuke could’ve sworn that they both really almost slipped on the way to the bar, as much as his friend denied it. Though once they got there, his thoughts were completely occupied by the warm food and hot sake that fueled their lively conversation.

After a while, Ryuunosuke noticed that his friend’s face had grown a bit red. Er, how much had they been drinking? They were only on their first pitcher…and they’d been sharing it. But here Asougi was, swaying and boasting loudly about things that made less and less sense. Something about…cutting watermelons from seven meters away? Ryuunosuke found himself nearly choking on his drink while trying not to laugh.

“Hey, what’s so funny, I’m being serious here,” Asougi grumbled with a face, leaning hard against Ryuunosuke like he was trying to elbow him but didn’t have enough balance to do so. “Don’t tell me you’re doubting the credibility of the Asougi Sword Drawing Technique.”

“N-no no, not at all!” Ryuunosuke patted him reassuringly on the back. There was just something really amusing about seeing his friend like this - already in a drunken frenzy after just half a thing of sake. “I believe you, really!” Asougi squinted at him, giving him a scrutinizing look. Then he huffed, headbutting him lightly in the jaw.

“You’ll see! I’ll show you! Next time I get my hands on a watermelon. Sliced clean in half, I tell you!!”

“I look forward to it,” Ryuunosuke chuckled. That’d have to be sometime in the summer, though…

Toward the end of the night, he was mostly the one listening while Asougi rambled on and on. His friend was a bit…clingy when drunk, while abrasive at the same time. Ryuunosuke tried to subtly steer him away from drinking much more. The whole time, he was contemplating what to do when they were done here…ultimately, he decided he’d take them back to his place, which was closer than any alternatives. It was difficult helping a stumbling Asougi back there, but he managed it somehow. The guest rooms weren’t heated, unfortunately, so he had to settle for his own room. This wasn’t the first night they’d spent together here, though it was the first without the stress of exams hanging over their heads. He worked quickly to set Asougi up with a futon and went to set another up for himself, as usual.

“Hey. What do you think you’re doing?”

Ryuunosuke stopped straightening out the futon for a second to throw a look toward the sour mumble. His friend was glaring at him from under his blanket. He glanced around in confusion.

“Making my bed…?”

“It’s cold. C’mere.” Asougi sluggishly pat his own futon.

“U…um, what? No, I’m fine-” Ryuunosuke tried to insist. But then Asougi shot up like some kind of coiled snake, iron grip snatching and dragging Ryuunosuke over by the sleeve. He yelped, struggling weakly. “A-Asougi! Hey!” It was useless - Asougi was somehow even stronger when drunk, easily wrangling him into the futon. Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but groan, trapped by his friend’s hug of steel. So clingy. And his breath reeked of alcohol. But Ryuunosuke noticed immediately…how cold his arms felt, even through their clothes.

“Eh- so you were the cold one??”

Asougi grumbled something unintelligible, snuggling against his shoulder somewhat aggressively. Ryuunosuke slow-blinked, then let out a sigh. What happened to shrugging off the cold, like earlier? This guy sure was a handful when it came to drinking, huh. He just didn’t get it. He snaked his arms around his friend anyway, doing his best to warm him up. It was still worrying to feel how cold he was. Though as soon as Ryuunosuke did that, Asougi seemed to stop fussing, relaxing with a murmur. It was hard to tell whether he was actually awake or not…

“Well…goodnight,” Ryuunosuke said anyway. He got some kind of content hum in response. Awake, then? Hmm. Anyway, he wasn’t so sleepy himself, having taken a nap earlier. But lying there trapped, listening to his friend’s soothing breaths and feeling the comfortable warmth of sake in his stomach, he soon drifted off regardless.

Despite the drinking, Asougi was up at the break of dawn, back to his normal self. And the strange events of that night all but slipped Ryuunosuke’s mind.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks felt much more relaxed now that exams were done, though while Ryuunosuke sat back for a bit, Asougi seemed as busy as ever. The former still accompanied his friend whenever he wanted, and the latter was still always happy to spare a little time to hang out. Though sometimes, Asougi still brought his books and notes along with him.

“Say, Asougi, what’re you so busy with lately?” Ryuunosuke finally asked one day over lunch. His friend looked up from the book that he’d been reading all day.

“I’m studying to become a defence attorney.”

“Er…yeah, haven’t you been this whole time? Law is your major…”

“Obviously. But I’m aiming on getting an official license very soon.”

“Official- eh?!” Ryuunosuke blinked owlishly. “Y-you mean… becoming an attorney?? Like, getting ready to stand in court? Like, actual court??”

“Exactly. I’m working hard on my credentials as we speak. If all goes well, I’ll have it before autumn of next year.”

“N-next year-…you say this all so nonchalantly…we just got done with our first set of exams, you know! What’s your rush?” Asougi gave a little sigh, shutting his book.

“The truth is…an opportunity has been announced recently. An exchange program with the Great British Empire - it’s a chance to go study abroad in that country. They’re only picking a single candidate from our university.”

“What?! So, you’re aiming for that? A single candidate…that sounds so intense.”

“It really is,” Asougi admitted, pinching the bridge of his nose. His fluttering hachimaki faltered for just a moment. “But! I will fight for that place to the best of my abilities! I want to…no, I must go to England.” Ryuunosuke stared at him. Going all the way to England…while it sounded really impressive, for some reason, the first thought that came to his mind was that they wouldn’t be able to hang out anymore. He shook that thought out of his head, quickly.

“Why?” He had to ask, in spite of himself. It may have been his imagination, but he thought he saw Asougi hesitate to answer. But his friend looked upon him firmly a split second later.

“I’ve spent a lot of time observing our country’s court system. It’s still in its infancy…it lacks many things that the great English court, that has withstood the test of time, possesses. As it stands now, Japan’s law is weak, and so easily corrupted. We mustn’t sit around and watch it head in that direction. Our courts should be fair and just! Something that we can look proudly upon. And I’ve decided to help bring that vision to fruition, as one of our country’s first defence attorneys. Studying the workings of a well established system is the first step. That’s what I think.”

“Oh…wow,” was all Ryuunosuke could manage. He might’ve had sparkles in his eyes, watching Asougi’s gallant figure. This guy really was inspiring. It was clear that his passion for this ran deep. At this rate, he really was going to change the world. That’s what Ryuunosuke realised in that moment. He couldn’t help a proud smile. “I think…if it’s you, then there’s no doubt about it. You’ll absolutely succeed! I have total faith in you.”

“Hah, thanks partner.” Asougi beamed. “It means a lot to hear that from you. I won’t let up, that’s for sure!”

‘Oh, it does? I’m just a nobody, though,’ Ryuunosuke mumbled his thoughts again.

“Nonsense. You’re my dearest friend, you know. Maybe, if you could bear witness to it all…that’d make me very happy.” His friend seemed a bit thoughtful for a second - it sounded like that second part was directed mostly to himself.

“E-eh? Witness…?”

Asougi shook his head, opening his book again. “Nevermind, I’m getting ahead of myself…we’ll talk about it later. After I become an attorney!”

“Ah, alright…good luck on your studies!! Sorry if I’ve been bothering you.”

“Not at all. If anything, I feel that your presence helps somehow. Because studying by yourself is just so dull.” Asougi grumbled, making a face.

“Ahaha, we can both agree on that,” Ryuunosuke laughed. He wasn’t sure how he was helping, but he knew that Asougi definitely influenced his studying in a positive way. He was extremely grateful for that.

Ryuunosuke tried his best not to disturb Asougi those days. But he did notice when his friend was pushing himself a little too hard. If his tired face didn’t clue him in, then the drooping hachimaki did. Ryuunosuke would then intervene, suggesting a break, something fun to do, or just taking his friend on little excursions. They celebrated New Year’s Day at Ryuunosuke’s household, having a little holiday of warm food and drink. He even got around to finally introducing Asougi to his lunch group - while the other students were intimidated at first as expected, they all seemed to get along fine after a bit of ice breaking.

Despite his best efforts of keeping his friend from overworking himself, though, it was inevitable that Asougi looked sickly one day, face flushed with a fever. And yet he still showed up to class. It took a bit of bickering between them to finally convince him to go home and rest. After that, it was three days before Ryuunosuke heard anything from him - he didn’t have an answer for his classmates who questioned him about how Asougi was doing. Needless to say, he was a bit worried. Knowing that guy, he was probably still trying to study in that state. Ryuunosuke felt like he had to stop by and see how he was doing, but then again, stepping a foot in House Karuma again was such a frightening idea. After those days of anxiety, however, he was approached when walking home from class.

“Excuse me…are you Naruhodou Ryuunosuke-sama?”

Ryuunosuke turned, blinking. A young woman stood in front of him. She looked to be a teenager, though there was a certain air of wisdom to her. Standing there with a serious gaze and perfect posture, she looked very mature for her age. Ryuunosuke straightened his back subconsciously.

“E-er, yes, who may you be?” The girl bowed with such grace.

“I am Mikotoba Susato…though that is quite irrelevant. Kazuma-sama asked me to deliver this to you.” She reached into the sleeve of her kimono and pulled out a small folded piece of paper. Ryuunosuke took a moment to process this. Mikotoba…that name sounded familiar somehow.

“Kazuma-- ah, from Asougi?? Th-thank you?” He accepted the note, staring at it blankly. “…Ah! Um! What’s this about?? And how is he doing? Do you know?” Mikotoba nodded politely.

“I do not know what he has written there. It’s not my place to read messages that are not directed at myself. As for Kazuma-sama’s condition, please do not worry. I have been assisting him in his recovery myself. We expect him to return to his regular studies quite soon.”

“I-I see…that’s a relief to hear!” Ryuunosuke sighed. That’s right, Asougi did have several people who’d look after him after all, he really worried too much. Though he wasn’t exactly sure who this girl was. That was about to be his next question.

“Susato-chan!!” Another girl’s voice called from nearby. “The line’s going to be massive if we don’t hurry!!” Mikotoba jumped a bit, giving a surprised glance behind her.

“Ah! Right, just a moment, Haori-sama!” She turned back to Ryuunosuke and gave a hurried bow. “Now then, please excuse me.” Before he could say a word, she was gone, taking off at an unexpected speed. Ryuunosuke watched her go, stunned. That girl seemed like a powerful enigma…but anyway, his attention returned to the note in his hand. He unfolded it hastily.

Tomorrow after class, come to the North-West corner of House Karuma.

That was all that was written there. Ryuunosuke stared at it, puzzled, flipping the note over and back to make sure that that was it. Um…what did this mean? Why? Huh? Well, he supposed he just had to obey what the note directed to learn anything more. This was definitely Asougi’s handwriting, so he trusted it. It just would’ve been nice to have an actual explanation.

The next day, he waited around the meeting place. He had to triple check that this was the right corner of House Karuma, but there really was nothing here at all. He stood restless in the waning cold, underneath the shade of a large tree that poked out and above the household’s walls. Nothing happened at first, and he began to worry again, reaching for the note as if there was any possibility that he’d gotten something wrong.

“Naruhodou!”

He blinked, looking around. That was Asougi’s voice! Though it came from… above?? He looked up with huge eyes. There his friend was, grinning down from the tangle of branches. The sleeves of his kimono were tied back, evidently to prevent them from getting snagged.

“HUH?! ASOU-”

Asougi held a finger to his lips, and Ryuunosuke covered his mouth. But despite that, he inevitably let out a loud yelp when his friend dropped down from the tree right in front of him. While he landed on his feet, Asougi stumbled - there was still a feverish sway to him. Ryuunosuke snapped out of his shock to steady his friend, clutching him tightly. Asougi held his shoulder for balance and threw him a smile.

“Hah…thanks, partner. Let’s get out of here!”

“Wh-- hey!!” Ryuunosuke was too tongue tied to object as Asougi grabbed his hand and ran. “Asougi!! You’re in no state for this!!!” His friend just laughed breathlessly. Ah, this guy has lost it. For sure.

They ran for a block or two before Asougi finally stopped. He leaned against a wall, dangerously out of breath. Ryuunosuke looked at him nervously, a bit winded himself, and placed a gentle hand on his arm.

“Are you alright?? Gosh, what in the world were you thinking?!”

Though Asougi was panting, sweat dotting his brow, he still flashed him a brilliant smile. “I’m totally fine, don’t worry! Hmph, I couldn’t stand being cooped up in that place, so I decided to leave. That’s all.”

“You couldn’t just leave through the main entrance?!”

“And get caught by those damn ass-kissers? Yeah, right.”

Ryuunosuke opened and closed his mouth. He couldn’t argue with that…but he was still so flustered by what happened. This man really just did what he wanted, huh. He had such a wild spirit. “E-even so, you really couldn’t just rest quietly for a few more days? That Mikotoba-san said you were close to recovering…”

“Ah, she’s really put in work for me. I’m truly grateful for her efforts. It’s because of her that I could pull off my grand escape!” He laughed triumphantly, and Ryuunosuke gave him a tired look.

“Asougi…”

“In all seriousness…I wanted to see you, partner.” Ryuunosuke blinked. For some reason, those words flustered him even more.

“Wh-wh-huh?? I mean! You could see me in class! In a few days!” Asougi continued, ignoring him.

“I also wanted to find a better place to stay…” he gave Ryuunosuke a very obvious look.

“……I mean, you’re always welcome to stay at my house,” Ryuunosuke grumbled. This was what he was after, huh.

“Excellent! I knew I could count on you. I’m deeply sorry for troubling your household like this.”

“N-no, you don’t sound it at all…your tone really isn’t working…” Asougi really prepared for this, huh. He even had a bulging bag slung over his back and Karuma still strapped to his hip. Well, they both knew that Ryuunosuke’s parents already regarded him as something akin to family at this point - they’d have no problem with accommodating. Ryuunosuke sighed, straightening his school cap. “Alright…let’s go and get you tucked back into a futon as soon as possible!!” He grabbed Asougi’s hand insistently but his friend didn’t seem to mind, letting out another laugh as his fingers curled around Ryuunosuke’s fondly.

“Lead the way, partner!”

Chapter Text

They settled in at Ryuunosuke’s house quite nicely, as usual. As predicted, Asougi really was still trying to study at any chance he got, and Ryuunosuke did his best to stop him without flat out slapping the book out of his hands. Sometime in the night, that young woman Mikotoba showed up at their doorstep, clutching a note in her hands and looking worried. Asougi went and had a few reassuring words with her - while she was incredibly polite, she still sounded a bit cross and exasperated. Somehow, it felt like this wasn’t the first time Asougi had pulled something like this.

“You really shouldn’t worry people like that,” Ryuunosuke grumbled at him after the girl left. Asougi sighed.

“I left her a detailed note in hopes that that’d be enough, but she ended up coming to see for herself anyway…she’s always been like that.”

At that point, Ryuunosuke managed to recall that “Mikotoba” was the name of Asougi’s family friend. Though it was also easy to piece together without that memory. “You seem pretty close,” he mused, and Asougi nodded.

“She and her father have helped me a lot throughout the years…I’d say we’re as close as family. Though she has her own studies to worry about, and Professor Mikotoba has his hands full at the university. I didn’t want to bother them with something as trivial as this.”

“Professor…” Ryuunosuke muttered. The name finally clicked for him - he’d certainly heard of it around campus as well. A brilliant university professor and a doctor of medicine. He wondered if he’d get to meet the man himself someday. But anyway, he deflated, throwing his friend a look. “Trivial…so you came to me for help?”

“Why not? You’re pretty free right now.”

“Well……you’re not wrong.”

It was no use, Asougi’s logic was sound. And, honestly, Ryuunosuke didn’t mind helping his friend however he could, even if he did give him a little scare that day. Hmm. Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but ponder…just when did the two of them grow this close? It wasn’t something he could pinpoint. It’s been less than a year since they’d first met, shockingly. But somewhere along the way, he already felt comfortable enough to call Asougi his “best” friend. That thought made him feel really happy.

Asougi stayed over at his house in the guest room for the next few days. According to Ryuunosuke’s parents, he seemed to ask for as little as possible. Well, it was clear that he genuinely didn’t want to cause them too much trouble, though Ryuunosuke’s mother insisted on helping with a few things. Ryuunosuke hung out in that room after class, keeping his friend company. Despite that initial stunt, Asougi did seem to be improving.

“Hey, Naruhodou, you don’t have to stay in here so long,” he huffed. “I don’t want you to catch what I have.”

“It’s fine! I don’t mind getting sick, really,” Ryuunosuke insisted. He threw a look. “Besides, if I leave, you’re going to try studying with that book again, aren’t you?” Asougi scoffed, though he couldn’t hide the faint smile on his lips.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ryuunosuke tossed a pillow at him.

“Rest up properly!!”

There was a muffled laugh. “Alright, alright!”

Well, obviously, Ryuunosuke loved spending time with his friend. He stayed for as long as he could each day. The room was kept extra warm, so he found himself dozing off several times throughout the day and night. Asougi urged him awake the first few times, but it seemed like he’d started giving up after that. Ryuunosuke would sometimes wake up to find that his mother had come in and draped a blanket over him. His friend would laugh and tease him about that much to his chagrin.

On the third night, at some late hour, he awoke to something different. He wasn’t sure what it was at first, but something felt off. Then he heard a sound nearby. A…whimper? He pushed the blanket off of himself.

“Asougi?” He called gently. There was no response. Concerned, he crawled over to his friend’s side. Asougi’s eyes were closed, but his breathing was ragged and his brow was deeply furrowed. Ryuunosuke blinked. “A-are you alright? Hey…”

There was still no response - was he having a bad dream? Another whimper escaped him, and his expression looked pained. “F…fa…ther…”

Ryuunosuke’s heart sank. Poor thing…he didn’t know what to do. Was it better to try and wake him? He hesitated, his hand hanging in the air. His friend was suffering right now…taking a breath, he reached for Asougi’s shoulder, giving it a gentle shake.

“Asougi?” he called again. It didn’t seem to do anything. He supposed he should’ve shook him a little harder, but before he did that, he stared at Asougi’s face. Beads of sweat shone on his forehead in the dim light. Without thinking, Ryuunosuke reached over. His fingertips brushed Asougi’s cheek. In that instant, his friend’s eyes snapped open.

The next thing he knew, Ryuunosuke’s back hit the floor. Asougi was on top of him, glaring down with a fierce, wild gaze. He had Karuma, still sheathed, clutched tightly in his hand, snatched instinctively from his bedside. Time stood still for a moment - Ryuunosuke was completely frozen, staring up wide-eyed. Asougi’s chest heaved, his forceful breaths coming out as painful wheezes. Slowly, recognition crept into his eyes. His expression softened.

“…Naruhodou…”

As soon as he got his bearings, he backed off, letting go of Ryuunosuke and sinking back onto the futon. Karuma clattered faintly against the tatami floor. Ryuunosuke’s heart was racing, but he carefully sat up. His friend sat with his head buried in his arms. A muffled whisper came from him.

“I’m so sorry.”

“…A-ah, i-it’s alright!!” Ryuunosuke finally managed to find his voice, wincing as it cracked. “I shouldn’t have- I mean-…” He frowned, wanting to slap himself in the face. What the hell was he trying to do back there, really? “Are…are you okay?” Asougi gave a faint grunt.

“Those dreams happen more frequently when I’m sick…I’m sorry you had to witness that. I’m fine.” His flat tone said otherwise. Ryuunosuke frowned, inching closer gingerly.

“You were calling for your father…” He regretted the words the moment they came out. Him and his big fat mouth. Asougi took a sharp breath, raising his head just enough to look over. But he didn’t look angry…just dejected. He closed his eyes and after a pause, let out a sigh.

“You know…I don’t even remember his voice. And if it weren’t for the photos…” He trailed off, like the thought was too painful to finish.

“Eh…?” Ryuunosuke bit his lip before he could blurt out more things that he’d regret. But Asougi seemed to understand his confusion.

“He passed away eight years ago, but the last time I saw him was several years more than that. I was nothing more than a naive little child when I knew him. And yet…he still haunts my dreams. Why is that, I wonder?” Though it was a question, he sounded like he already knew the answer to that. Ryuunosuke felt like he did, too. Now, without so much caution, he moved to sit next to his friend, bumping shoulders with him reassuringly.

“It’s alright to miss someone. Even someone that far into your past. You must have some really fond memories of him, huh? Every time you’ve mentioned him…I can tell how important he was to you.”

Asougi was silent for a long time, staring off into space. Then, he rested his head against Ryuunosuke’s shoulder, taking steady breaths.

“Naruhodou…everything truly does feel more bearable with you by my side.”

“H-huh?! Er, I didn’t do anything, though…!” Asougi breathed out a faint laugh.

“You don’t need to.”

“Ah…okay…?” While Ryuunosuke was confused, a soothing calm had washed over the room. They sat together in comfortable silence, until the night faded away.

Ryuunosuke ended up catching that cold, after all. But with some thorough and proper rest, he’d recovered in half the time that his friend did. Asougi came by to visit with snacks and lecture notes during that period, though Ryuunosuke refused to let him apologise.

“I practically chose for this to happen! So don’t feel bad,” he reassured. Asougi raised an eyebrow.

“Well…you’re not wrong,” he agreed. “You’re the one who insisted on being glued to my hip that entire time.” Ryuunosuke bristled.

“G-glued-! What!!”

Asougi gave his usual booming laugh, ruffling his hair playfully. “Thank you for being there for me, partner. Now it’s my turn!”

After Ryuunosuke returned to class, everything resumed as normal. Long lectures, pleasant cafeteria lunches, looming exams. Though one day, several weeks after his recovery, something new occurred.

“Hey!”

Ryuunosuke looked up from his lunch group’s conversation at the familiar voice. “Hey, Asougi! Are y-” He stopped. His gaze fell upon his friend’s arm - there hung a new accessory. A pristine armband, shining with golden embroidery. Staring at it wide eyed, Ryuunosuke shot to his feet. “You got your license?!”

His confused lunch group reacted a little slower, but the delayed excitement burst from them all. “What?!” “Asougi-kun, you’re an attorney now?! Seriously??” “Waaah, he did it! He actually did it!!”

“A ha ha ha!! Thanks for all the support!” Asougi was grinning widely. He really looked like he was glowing.

“Congratulations, Asougi!!” Ryuunosuke exclaimed, He almost felt like he could rival that glow. He could cry right about now, but he resisted being that sappy in front of everyone. “All that hard work really paid off, huh?”

“I’d give some credit to your morale support as well, partner! Though this is only the beginning. In three days, I’ll be taking my first case and standing in court officially for the first time.”

“HUH? Already?!” one of the other guys beat Ryuunosuke to a loud reaction.

“Wow, becoming one of the few defence attorneys in the whole country’s rough from the get go, eh?” another mused.

“Th-that’s pretty intense,” Ryuunosuke muttered. Taking cases on top of being a full time student? “But…since it’s Asougi, he’ll definitely pull through! I believe in you!”

“Hah, of course I will! Don’t you dare have any doubts!”

“Hey, Asougi-kun…could we all rub that armband of yours for good luck?” One of the students asked.

“Yeah, yeah!! We need some of your godly energy for exams,” another agreed. Asougi gave another laugh.

“Sure! I don’t mind! Good luck and top scores to you all,” he answered. Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but chuckle. His friend was having fun, huh, if only for a little bit. He smiled until his face hurt, watching the others rigorously wiping down their hands before touching Asougi’s prized armband one by one. The newly appointed attorney crossed his arms proudly. He was dazzling to look at that day.

Chapter Text

Ryuunosuke saw his friend less often after that. It was perfectly understandable. Asougi had so much on his hands now and Ryuunosuke absolutely didn’t want to be a bother. He studied by himself most of the time. It felt a bit harder to focus, for sure - his mind kept wandering off to things like food and rakugo. After struggling with that for a long time, his thoughts wandered to Asougi. What would he say, if he saw him slacking off? With that thought, suddenly Ryuunosuke was able to study diligently again for a while.

It wasn’t like they didn’t see each other at all. They still had beef hotpot lunches at the cafeteria at least once a week. Asougi, as always, had a lot to talk about every time. He’d recall his court cases, complaining about the mundanity of some and weaving an exciting story for others. Ryuunosuke listened to the best of his ability, though sometimes he’d get lost by his own thoughts, while they were somewhat on topic - thinking about how passionate Asougi was about being an attorney, being this fired up all the time…but by daydreaming about this for a moment, he’d totally lose the plot. It was fine, Asougi didn’t seem to notice. It was apparent that he was trying to talk about as much as he could in the short time they shared. Ryuunosuke actually just needed to smile and nod. Still, he really did his best to absorb as much information as he could. He really appreciated all this effort Asougi went through to share these stories.

One day, his friend caught up to him on the way home, looking excited.

“Partner! You’ll never guess what I picked up.”

“H-huh? Asougi? You’re not staying after today?” Asougi planted a firm hand on Ryuunosuke’s shoulder.

“I’m heading right back after this.”

“Eh-- isn’t this an inconvenience for you, then?!”

“I’ll be quick! Don’t worry about it! Anyway, yesterday…” He reached into his school bag, producing…two tickets? He waved them in Ryuunosuke’s face, grinning. “I got my hands on these.”

“Wha- hey, stop that. What are they?” Ryuunosuke grabbed them out of his friend’s hand, though they were surrendered without a fight. He inspected them properly. “These are…hot spring tickets?? Where in the world did you get these? You bought them?” He passed them back and Asougi shook his head.

“You know, that Karuma - his kid got his hands on them, one way or the other. He wanted to go relax with a friend for the weekend. But his father snatched them away in an instant. ‘Your studies come first! You can go to the hot springs when you’re dead!!’ he said.” Ryuunosuke winced.

“Wow, that’s way too harsh…” His friend shrugged, seemingly used to it.

“It’s just how he’s always been, going overboard when he’s angry. Anyway, these tickets were going to be thrown away. That’d be such a waste, I thought, so I saved them.” He crossed his arms, looking pleased with himself. “So, what do you say, Naruhodou? Do you have time this weekend?”

“Wh- you wanted to go?! W-with me?!” He should’ve pieced that obvious fact together much sooner but that story was just too shocking, his brain stopped working for a second. “Is…is that allowed? I mean, these aren’t…”

“If you’re worried about that kid, I felt bad for him, so I reimbursed him. He’s spending it happily on a luxury lunch date instead, or something.”

“Ah…I see.” Ryuunosuke looked down thoughtfully. “Do you really have time to go to the hot springs? With all you’ve got to deal w-”

“Say no more, partner. I’ve already adjusted my schedule to accommodate. It’s about time we did something fun together, don’t you think? Sparing a weekend to spend with you is no problem for me.” Asougi eyed him cautiously. “Though, we don’t have to go if you’re really busy. Have you been keeping up with your studies alright?”

“Y-yeah, actually, It’s been fine,” he admitted, face flushing a little. ‘If I imagine your exasperated face when you see me slacking off, that motivates me immediately,’ he thought…not as silently as he’d intended, yet again. Asougi blinked at him a few times before bursting into a fit of laughter.

“Really? Well! I’m glad I’m such a great influence!” he guffawed. Ryuunosuke’s face went red, and he covered his mouth as he internally screamed.

“I-I mean- yeah…you’ve always been a great influence. B-but anyway! I can free up this weekend, I suppose. You went through all this effort, after all. And it’s been a long time since I last got to visit a hot spring, I’m pretty eager to go! It sounds like it’d be fun.” Asougi gave him a big grin and two hearty pats on the shoulder.

“That’s the spirit, partner! I’m glad we can finally hang out properly for once. I’ll come by your house on Friday after class, then?”

“Right, sounds good!”

“In that case, I’ll see you then! I need to rush back to the university now.”

“A-ah, see you!! Good luck!!”

With a quick wave, Asougi was sprinting back the way he came. Ryuunosuke stared after him. Sheesh, this meeting really was a major inconvenience for him, wasn’t it? Why’d he go so out of the way for this? Shaking his head, Ryuunosuke turned and continued his walk home. Hot springs…just the sound of it felt relaxing. Not to mention the great food they serve! And being able to spend time with Asougi on top of it all! He was really looking forward to it.

The end of the week couldn't come sooner. Ryuunosuke had a hard time focusing in class but he did his best. He notified his family and packed what he needed as soon as possible to get it out of the way. It seemed like Asougi was working extra hard that week to make up for the weekend’s break - they didn’t even get to have lunch together. This was the first time their streak was broken since the time Asougi was sick. Ryuunosuke barely even saw him around at all. But, as promised, they met up on Friday after class. It was strange to see Karuma absent from Asougi’s hip. Obviously, it’d be a bit awkward to bring a weapon to a bathhouse - his friend assured him that it was in Mikotoba’s diligent care.

This particular hot spring was just a short train ride away. It was a local and smaller one, clearly on the cheaper side. That was to be expected of a teenager’s budget. Still, going to any hot spring at all was nice. The rotten egg-like scent of sulfur was somewhat nostalgic. It brought Ryuunosuke back a bit to his last visit - it had to be several years ago, with his parents and grandparents.

“Hey, Asougi, when’s the last time you’ve been to one of these?” he asked when they were walking up to the entrance. His friend gave a thoughtful hum.

“Professor Mikotoba took us a few times before. Though the last time must’ve been a good amount of years ago,” he mused.

“O-oh, so it’s the same for you then, huh,” Ryuunosuke acknowledged. He knew Asougi said once that they were as close as family, but he still didn’t expect that. He gained a clearer picture of their bond from this information alone. Evidently he was staring, as his friend raised an eyebrow at him.

“Why do you ask?”

“N-! No reason, really! I was just curious!” He paused, looking down at the ground as they walked. “I’ve never gone to one without family before, if I’m honest…”

“…Technically, me neither. Hah. So, how is it, partner? Feeling like a true grown-up now?”

Ryuunosuke blinked. He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Not really! I feel exactly the same.” Asougi gave a snort.

“Likewise.”

They checked into their room, setting their things down before heading to the bath. Somehow, there weren’t any other customers around. Maybe it was because of the off-season random weekend. They washed up on opposite sides of the washroom - Ryuunosuke was in the middle of scrubbing his hair when he heard the sound of water being dumped. He blinked. Asougi sure washed quickly…before he knew it, Ryuunosuke found himself peeking over at his friend’s back.

He’d never seen Asougi without…uh…clothes. He himself had a towel wrapped modestly around his waist, but his friend didn’t even opt for that. As he probably should’ve expected, the body of a swordsman was quite toned. Ryuunosuke felt a little embarrassed at himself, thin as a stick, a bit of belly fat, nowhere close to the physique of his friend. Somehow, he couldn’t look away, watching Asougi brush his soaked hair back and out of his face and stand to full height, stretching his legs. It wasn’t until his friend started turning around when Ryuunosuke jumped, realising he’d been staring for way too long. He averted his gaze quickly, feeling his cheeks burn up.

“…Hey, partner, what’re you staring off into space for over there?” Asougi asked, and Ryuunosuke started again, looking over blankly, acting? Was he acting right now? Well, he didn't want any weird misunderstandings…or something like that?

“E-eh-what??”

Asougi’s hair stayed brushed back - his cheekbones and strong brow were fully visible for once, though said brow was furrowed slightly as he gave Ryuunosuke a concerned look.

“You’re gonna get soap in your eyes.”

Right as Asougi said that, he felt it. A drop of diluted soap finally finding its way into his eye, bringing on an immediate burning sensation. Ryuunosuke let out a little shriek, fumbling for the face towel floating in his wash basin. He heard Asougi’s laugh and felt his cheeks grow hotter, though he could only sputter.

“Well, I’m going on ahead - you better hurry up before you catch another cold.”

“O…okay,” Ryuunosuke groaned after struggling and failing to think of any kind of comeback fast enough. “Wait-- that was your cold!” Yeah, it was too late - Asougi had left the room. Sighing, Ryuunosuke rubbed his hot face with both hands, still feeling the sting of soap in his eye. Sheesh, what was wrong with him right now?

He finished washing up hastily, because he was starting to feel a bit too chilly. The sky was darkening and someone had lit the lanterns by the outdoor bath by the time he shuffled out there. He spotted Asougi soaking with just his head above the water, resting against a big rock, and as he carefully made his way over there, he could hear his friend humming a quiet song. As Ryuunosuke approached and eased himself into the steaming bath, he blinked. Asougi’s eyes were closed, and seeing him now with his head leaned back…he looked genuinely tired for once.

“Asougi, are you alright?”

“Mm.” His friend opened his eyes, blinking slowly at him. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Er, I shouldn’t even have to warn you not to fall asleep in here, right?” Asougi gave a little snort and flashed somewhat of a roguish(?) grin.

“You’ll make sure I stay awake then, won’t you?”

“I mean- yeah, of course. It’s dangerous, after all!”

“Right, I’m counting on you,” Asougi huffed. Somehow, it felt like he was silently laughing about something. He reached out for a wooden basin floating nearby - Ryuunosuke’s gaze followed his movement and he blinked owlishly, wondering how he totally missed seeing it earlier.

“Eh-- did you order sake?!”

“I certainly did,” his friend said proudly, pouring two cups out and handing one over. “I thought it’d feel luxurious.”

“…You’re not wrong,” Ryuunosuke mused, automatically accepting his share. Though after gazing into the clear alcohol for a second, he shook himself out of the tangent. “B-but!! Sheesh, right after what I said…you’d better not drink too much, either! I absolutely don’t have the strength to drag you out of here!”

“Hmm.” Asougi frowned into his drink and stared at him, like he was assessing this fact for himself - the gaze made Ryuunosuke’s face flush.

“I don’t!! I really don’t! Be careful!!”

“Alright, alright! Don’t worry so much, Naruhodou.”

‘I’ll worry all I want after the last time,’ Ryuunosuke mumbled.

“Huh?”

“Wh- nothing!!” He already felt like he was overheating and took a big sip of sake before reminding himself to heed his own warnings. Though after that, he started to relax, looking up at the stars. He realised that the two of them really didn’t get many opportunities to just sit and enjoy each other’s company. It felt like they were always catching up on something, or just too busy in general. But…this moment of silence was nice.

And then, as he thought this, at the corner of his eye he saw Asougi nodding off again.

“Asougi!!”

His friend started, very close to spilling his drink but saving it just in time. He had a stunned look about him, staring blankly at Ryuunosuke for a few seconds before he could get his bearings again. Then he sighed, smiling wryly at himself as he shook his head - his hair that had stayed up this whole time seemed to fall perfectly back into its usual place.

“Sorry. It’s too relaxing in here, I suppose.”

“You really are tired, huh,” Ryuunosuke frowned, giving a concerned look. “We could go back early for tonight, if you need to.”

“Hmph, early…I wanted to spend more time with you, though.”

“Well, we’d still be together. And we still have the weekend! Besides, you shouldn’t force yourself. It’s no fun if only one of us is having a good time, right?” He recalled those words exactly, from a few months back. That got a faint smile out of Asougi.

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there.” He set his cup back onto the basin, though he sunk back further instead of getting up. For a moment it looked like he was going to completely submerge himself. “Just a little longer. This feels really nice after today…don’t let me drown, partner.”

“L-like I said, of course I won’t!”

There was a ghost of a smile on Asougi’s lips as he closed his eyes again. Ryuunosuke couldn’t help but watch him for a bit, partly because he was concerned, but also because his friend just looked so peaceful right now. This kind of look was a bit rare on this guy, somehow. He always seemed at least somewhat on guard in public - it was only times when they were completely alone where he would relax this much. That was what Ryuunosuke noticed, anyway. It made him a bit happy to be someone Asougi could be that comfortable around. He sat back as well, letting the water rise to his neck as he enjoyed the soak.

While he also felt on the verge of nodding off at some point, no one drowned that night. He woke himself up by smacking his cheeks, though the loud slap consequently startled Asougi. Ryuunosuke apologised sheepishly as his friend gave him a look that asked “What the hell was that?”

"I think it's a good time to get up now," he added at the tail end of that apology. Asougi let out a snort.

"Hah, that's what that was all about, then? Fine, you're probably right." With a faint sigh, he rose carefully to his feet. Ryuunosuke did the same, pushing off of a rock with one hand. The other, he instinctively held out as an offer of support to his friend - or maybe it was a request for help. But in any case, Asougi took it without hesitation and they pulled each other out of the water.

After that soak, walking around in a yukata felt so refreshing. What a luxurious experience - Ryuunosuke forgot just how great it was. He wolfed down dinner, happily eating his fill. Not even worrying about money could bring him down. Alright, maybe it did a little. Asougi had to reassure him for a bit there as he sat and hung his head shamefully at the bill. But that moment passed quickly - Ryuunosuke could shake it off more easily when he had his best friend to chat with.

There was one true low point, though, and that was when they were settling in their shared room. Digging through his belongings, Ryuunosuke spotted something that made a dismayed cry escape him.

“Partner? What’s wrong?”

He felt Asougi drape himself over his back, chin resting on his shoulder. Ryuunosuke was busy trying to wipe a pocket watch clean. The once silver exterior had become dotted with dark, ugly blemishes. Whatever these were, they seemed to be melded with the metal. He gave up with a groan, lifting the watch for Asougi to see clearly.

“I have no idea what happened to this thing. My grandfather got it for me as a gift when I got accepted into the university, and it looked really expensive, and now it’s ruined??” He could feel the vibration of Asougi’s thoughtful hum.

“Maybe you could ask him about it.”

“Eh?! And show him it in this sorry state?! No way!” Ryuunosuke groaned, leaning back against his friend. A large part of him was filled with stress and guilt. “I don’t wanna upset him with the fact that I somehow destroyed his nice gift…” Asougi gave a snort.

“It’s not destroyed, don’t be so dramatic. If a gift gets damaged or worn, it just means you used it a lot, right? He should be happy that it was useful to you. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Besides…” He paused for a second, adjusting himself so that he leaned his back against Ryuunosuke’s, laying his head back. Ryuunosuke could feel his silky strands of hair tickling his neck. “…Maybe your grandfather was scammed, buying something that can be so easily ruined.”

“That’s not something I’d want to tell him either,” Ryuunosuke grumbled, trying to throw Asougi an exasperated look but failing at this angle.

“Then just don’t.”

“You keep saying these things like it’s so simple…”

But maybe Asougi was right. Ryuunosuke needed to stop fretting over this - if his grandfather found out, then so what? He’d own up to it. That was the right thing to do, after all. The watch still worked perfectly too, so he’d continue to use it. The blemishes weren’t so bad, after how Asougi described it. Ryuunosuke could live with them. Of course, he didn’t know that they’d continue to get worse, but that was beside the point.

While he told himself these things, he still kept staring at the watch, turning it over in his hands and fussing over it. As he did this, Asougi gradually increased the weight against his back. It was subtle, and Ryuunosuke failed to catch on - that is, until he found himself practically laying right into his own lap. Asougi’s breathing seemed to be growing deeper and slower as well. Ryuunosuke squirmed a bit, trying to push back, but his friend was heavy.

“U-um. Asougi.”

“Hmmm?” He sounded drowsy.

“You…shouldn’t we set up the futons, if you’re falling asleep??”

“This is fine.” As if to prove a point, Asougi rubbed up against Ryuunosuke’s back obnoxiously like he was trying to get comfortable. While he was clearly being annoying on purpose, Ryuunosuke couldn’t help the heat creeping into his cheeks at the feel of his friend’s well-toned back muscles. For a second, he felt okay about staying like this, actually, before he lightly smacked a hand against his cheek to snap himself out of it.

“I-is this even comfortable?!” he questioned, wincing as his flustered feelings seeped into his voice, making it crack. Asougi made a little thoughtful noise.

“It’s…like lying on a jagged rock,” he gave his blunt answer. Ryuunosuke let out an exasperated groan, squirming under him desperately.

“Hurry up and get off of me, then!!”

Asougi let out a loud laugh. It felt like it was reverberating through Ryuunosuke’s whole torso, but then it was gone as his friend mercifully pulled away. Ryuunosuke breathed a sigh of relief, sitting up and rolling back his shoulders. Freedom. The pain of getting squashed was gone, but along with it came a sense of emptiness? He shook his head - pull yourself together. He heard Asougi dragging the futons out behind him and sighed, climbing to his feet to go help. The pocket watch rolled out of his lap and he paused, glancing at it. All his stress about it felt evaporated now, thanks to…

He picked it up and tucked it into his pile of belongings before going over to his friend. As he helped straighten the futons, he looked to Asougi with a grateful smile.

“Thanks, Asougi.”

“For what?” His friend asked innocently, but there was a faint knowing grin on his lips.

When the lights were out, Asougi seemed to pass out the moment they laid down. This guy had really been fighting tooth and nail to stay awake, huh? Ryuunosuke sighed quietly, staring at the outline of his friend’s form. He felt like he should’ve been concerned - he didn’t know exactly how hard Asougi had been pushing himself these past few weeks, but he did know how this guy functioned. No matter how amazing he was, he was still human.

Well, because of that, Ryuunosuke was extra glad that they could have this weekend of rest. Asougi surely needed it. And during this time, if he tried to get up at the break of dawn like he usually did, Ryuunosuke was prepared to drag him back to bed for some extra hours of sleep, no matter the excuses. Even if he had to lose miserably at wrestling, he’d put in the effort.

And that he did. Squabbling, relaxing, getting drunk, talking loudly, passing out next to each other - so their time at the hot springs went, the two of them tossing aside their worries. It was quite the restful weekend, in the end.

Chapter Text

It was a humid night, the edges of Ryuunosuke’s yukata almost irritating against his skin. But he let out a sigh, fanning himself vigorously while swatting at the mosquitoes that buzzed by his ears. He stood out of the way of the festivities, waiting under a big tree as he watched the clusters of people walk by. The mood was lively, everyone eager to browse the stands. Further down the path, the temple was lit up with blazing lights. Faint music came from somewhere, an echoing sound of drums.

That first school year sure flew by quickly, especially after final exams kicked up. It was almost a complete blur, a flurry of cramming and praying. But now that it was all over, after the initial celebrations consisting of casual drinks and dinners with groups of classmates, it felt weird to have so much free time. Maybe he should’ve taken up more extracurriculars, Ryuunosuke thought to himself, idly kicking at the grass and pebbles at his feet.

Asougi remained busy, even with the absence of classes. That much was unsurprising. They still sat together during those little get-togethers. That was pretty much the last time they hung out - he hardly saw any sign of Asougi since. Maybe they wouldn’t do much together until the next semester began. But even if that was the case, Asougi insisted during their last session of drinking with classmates that they’d attend a summer festival together. Actually, he insisted heavily on this night in particular. Ryuunosuke still hadn’t figured out why, but there was no way he’d turn down the invitation.

A pair of girls walked by, chatting excitedly. One of them looked very familiar. Before he could figure out why, the voice that he’d been waiting to hear called out to him.

“Partner!” Ryuunosuke looked up to see his best friend walking over with a warm grin.

“Ah- there you are, Asougi!”

“Hey, sorry for the wait. I had to help Mikotoba find her friend before anything else.”

“Oh!! No wonder, I thought I saw her just now…Er, how have you been lately? Has work been alright?” Asougi laughed, patting him on the shoulder.

“Hectic, as always. But we’re not here to listen to me complain, are we? C’mon, let’s go!” With that, he steered Ryuunosuke toward the crowd. The moment the scent of street food came wafting over, Ryuunosuke’s stomach growled viciously. He tapped Asougi on the shoulder - his friend seemed to understand his look immediately. He knew him too well, at this point.

"Do you want me to get something for you too?" Ryuunosuke asked.

"I was…somewhat forced to take some snacks before coming here, so I'm still doing alright," Asougi sighed. Oh, from that Karuma again? His disdain always made it pretty clear. "Just worry about yourself, I'll get something later on."

Ryuunosuke didn't have to be told twice. He took the lead as they walked down the path and made a beeline for the closest food stand.

Asougi stood behind him and took in the sights as he ordered, looking at the different stands and all the well dressed people. Thankfully the wait wasn't long, and Ryuunosuke had a skewer in each hand, fresh off the grill. He tried biting into one right away and burned his tongue, his visceral reaction to that earning a laugh from Asougi. Ryuunosuke made a face as he blew on the hot food before trying again - still hot, still burning his tongue, but he managed. He was just that hungry. This wasn't even enough food for him, but he did want to try a variety of stands.

"Do you want some, Asougi?" He offered up the untouched skewer. Asougi blinked, then eyed it with a strange suspicious look.

"Yakitori?"

"Uh, yeah?"

"No thanks." Ryuunosuke blinked - he'd never seen his friend look at something with such scorn before.

"Eh? You don't like it?"

"If I try it, I may throw up," Asougi said, a little too casually.

"EH?! It's that bad?!" Ryuunosuke withdrew and frowned at the skewer. All this time, and he didn't even know Asougi had aversions to any food. Well, he did always gravitate towards beef, they didn't usually have that much variety of meat when eating together. "S-sorry." Asougi laughed.

"What're you apologising for? Don't worry about me, really." He reached up, playfully ruffling his friend’s hair, before continuing forward. Ryuunosuke felt his ears heat up at the motion - he stumbled to follow while quietly tearing free another chunk of chicken with his teeth. Well…this was really good yakitori. He enjoyed it on his own in silence.

They took in the sights and sounds together. Browsing the stalls, dodging the large parties of festival-goers. Ryuunosuke almost got tripped up more than once by kids running by, but Asougi was right there to steady him. It was a pretty good turnout this year, actually, and the crowd was only growing. There was talk of an impressive fireworks show later; maybe that was what attracted so many people.

Ryuunosuke stopped at two other food stands, ordering a variety of skewers. His friend eyed him with amusement and he threw a little pout back. He knew it was a lot of food, but it all looked so good, he couldn’t resist. This was a rare occasion where he’d turn a blind eye to his crying wallet. He did share quite a bit of it with Asougi too, who was glad to take a bite out of anything that wasn’t chicken.

The last stand they stopped by was one selling dango - Asougi insisted he’d pay for these skewers. “If you spend any more money tonight, I’ll worry about your future,” was what he said, mostly jokingly, and Ryuunosuke gave a sheepish laugh. Though as they were standing there, the flowing crowd brushing their backs, Ryuunosuke felt something snag the sleeve of his yukata.

Whatever it was, it was latched securely - at least, enough to pull him, startled and confused, into the sea of people. He gave a loud yelp, floundering. He managed to catch sight of Asougi’s surprised face before a wall of people separated them. Well, this was distressing. The first thing Ryuunosuke had to do was regain his balance - he’d die of embarrassment if he were to trip and fall over. He’d managed to free his sleeve, though being dragged by the crowd was disorienting enough that he didn’t catch what exactly had pulled him. No time to think about that, though, as he momentarily had to lean on a few random people to steady his footing, apologising profusely to them as he went. But even after he saved himself from falling over, he was still being carried by this alarming sea of people. It was difficult, or at least awkward, to stop walking in the middle of it all, and even more so trying to go against the flow. Normally he wouldn’t mind this much, but the panic of losing Asougi had him looking around frantically.

“ASOUGI?!” he shouted, once. It earned him a couple of funny looks from the people walking next to him and he shrunk back and apologised. Why did he have to be so short? He couldn’t see past many heads at all. Actual panic was just starting to set in, when he felt a familiar strong grip close on his wrist. He only had time to let out another faint yelp before he was pulled through the crowd. All he could do was brace and stumble, uttering another apology here and there for the people he inevitably bumped into. The seconds felt way too long, but Ryuunosuke soon found himself in a gap in the crowd, catching his breath.

“Y-you actually found me…aah, that was so scary,” he groaned. Asougi chuckled, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Of course I did! As if I’d let the tide carry you off like that. You alright, partner?”

“Yeah…I’m still in one piece, at least.” Ryuunosuke looked down and checked his limbs to be sure. Both of their yukatas were a bit jostled. Ryuunosuke's in particular had become a little too open for comfort, his sash coming loose. He made an embarrassed sound and let go of Asougi's hand to adjust it. His friend gave an amused snort - he reached over and helped adjust Ryuunosuke's collar for him, though it felt a bit half-hearted.

"We should go back," Asougi said. "I left our food with them so I could rush after you. Though after that, maybe we should move somewhere less crowded."

"Ahah, probably. I think we've seen everything there is to see in this area, anyway." Ryuunosuke looked back at the crowd - it didn't seem too bad now, the timing had just happened to line up to give him the worst possible experience. That was just him and his bad luck. Asougi grinned, taking his hand.

"Don't worry, Naruhodou. I won't let that happen again."

"Thanks, I appreciate it," Ryuunosuke sighed. He made sure to keep a firm grip on his friend from then on.

The night continued without incident, though they did steer clear of the crowds. It was a while more of wandering and chatting - Ryuunosuke really had to walk off all that food he had. It turned out to be far too much, even for him, but he didn’t regret it at all.

It took him a long time to notice - there was a lot to focus on, after all - but when they lapsed into a moment of silence, just enjoying the atmosphere for a good while, Ryuunosuke became aware that Asougi was still holding his hand. He glanced at his friend who was distracted and looking away. Huh. Usually when they held hands, it was for a purpose. And it was, earlier, when they were fighting to get away from the crowds without losing each other. But Asougi hadn’t let go yet, even as they were strolling leisurely. Did he not notice, either? It did take Ryuunosuke this long to, after all.

Ah, whatever. Ryuunosuke would have normally been nervous about his own hand sweating and being gross. But, well, it was humid tonight. Everyone was sweaty. He was able to shrug off that anxiety for once, and with that gone, he really didn’t mind this at all.

There was the sound of an explosion overhead, and Ryuunosuke blinked out of his thoughts, looking up just in time to see a brilliant blossom of colourful lights in the sky.

“It’s starting already?” Asougi muttered, glancing at the fireworks before looking at his friend. “Hey, partner, let’s go find a good vantage point.”

“Ah- yeah!”

It took a little bit of searching, but eventually they found a worn dirt path between the trees, leading to a comfortable little overlook. There were already a few parties of people here, but there was enough room for everyone. The two friends sat at a respectful distance away from the others, gazing up at the show. Ryuunosuke was dazzled.

“I feel like they get brighter every year,” he noted aloud. As if in response, a shocking bang rang out, making him jump. He made a face “A-and louder.” Asougi laughed, patting him on the back.

“In any case, they’re impressive, aren’t they?”

“Well, that’s for sure.”

They sat back and watched for a while, marveling at all the unique shapes and colours. The rest of the spectators were lively, family and friends alike murmuring and chatting with each other. Ryuunosuke glanced around to see the vibrant lights reflecting off of everyone’s faces. Though when he looked at Asougi, it was apparent that his friend was lost in thought. The lights shone brightly in his eyes, but he seemed like he was looking right through the brilliant display.

“Asougi? Are you alright?”

His friend blinked over, his surprised look only lasting a second. He smiled and nodded. “Couldn’t be better,” he said, gaze drifting back to the fireworks. Still, it seemed like he had something to say, so Ryuunosuke watched him and waited. “…It’s been a year.”

“Eh?”

“Since we met.” Asougi leaned his chin in his palm, a soft expression on his face. “Right on this day, we competed against each other in that competition.”

“Ehhh, really…I’m no good at remembering dates like that,” Ryuunosuke laughed sheepishly. His friend threw him a look, though he didn’t seem surprised at all.

“That’s just like you,” he huffed with a smile. “You’re such a carefree man somehow, Naruhodou. Actually, I envy that about you.” Ryuunosuke raised an eyebrow.

“Well, you’re confident and you get things done - I envy that about you.” Among many, many other things, he added silently to himself. His friend was truly amazing…after a year, he’d admit that proudly. Asougi grinned, bumping his shoulder.

“That doesn’t make you any less special to me, y’know. You’ve got some captivating qualities, and that’s the truth.” These words made Ryuunosuke blush - he shrunk back shyly.

“I-if you really think so…”

“Hah! Don’t sell yourself short, partner. You’re really great. I mean it.”

“I know you do…” His inner thoughts leaked out again, and his face was burning. “Th-thanks,” he finally said, accepting the compliment. Ah, between this and Asougi’s cheery expression, he felt like he was going to die from his own awkwardness somehow. He wanted to change the subject, and thankfully, mentions of last year had him thinking. “Er, so…did you ever manage to conquer that saying in the end?”

“Saying?”

“You know…'rou nyaku nan nyo’ .”

Asougi seemed to bristle at the words, yet he also looked amazed. “Y…you can still remember and say it so casually. Are you a god?” Ryuunosuke had to resist a surprised laugh.

“It wasn’t that hard to remember, really! It stuck with me as a fun little phrase, so…”

“‘Fun little phrase’,” Asougi grumbled. “To answer your question, I’m never attempting it ever again. Those five minutes were enough to last me a lifetime.”

“It was that traumatic, huh…oh, that reminds me! I learnt another one recently, maybe you could try it.”

“Oh?” Asougi seemed cautiously curious, and Ryuunosuke cleared his throat.

“‘Kono kugi wa hiki nuki nikui kugi da.’”

Asougi stared blankly at him. The fascination in his eyes at Ryuunosuke’s tongue twisters was always a bit entertaining to see. “Sorcery…I could listen to you spout these all day.”

“But it also makes you want to try them, right?” Ryuunosuke knew him well enough, giving an encouraging smile. Asougi gave a sigh, narrowing his eyes.

“…One more time.”

Ryuunosuke repeated it, and his friend listened intently. He could just feel the concentration, the intense determination, radiating off of this guy. The ends of his hachimaki fluttered valiantly as he took deep breaths, steeled himself, looking straight ahead with an unwavering stare.

“‘Kono kugi wa hi- ku ni-’ AUUUUGH!!!” His loud frustrated yell turned some heads. His overreaction was always something to behold, too.

“I believe in you, Asougi! Just a little bit of practise, and you’ll get it for sure,” Ryuunosuke insisted. Asougi groaned - he rested his forehead on his friend’s shoulder, hachimaki strands falling limp on his back.

“One day, I’ll learn your secrets.”

“There aren’t any, really.”

His friend gave a snort. “Like I said, you’re truly captivating.”

Being good at tongue twisters isn’t that amazing or useful of a skill though, Ryuunosuke thought. Though Asougi already said not to sell himself short, so he made sure not to say that aloud. He still thought that his friend gave him too much credit. Asougi lifted his head, but he still stayed leaning against Ryuunosuke.

“You’ll deal just fine, won’t you…?”

“Huh?”

Asougi looked like he was hesitating again - it was strange to see him waver. But then he met Ryuunosuke’s gaze. “That exam is coming up soon. The one to determine the candidate who will study abroad.”

“Ah…to the Great British Empire?” Ryuunosuke perked up - they hadn’t talked about this in a while, but he quickly remembered. “Good luck!! I know you can do it, Asougi.” His friend’s confidence flared at that encouragement, and he gave a firm nod.

“That goes without saying! I must pass it - that’s what I decided. This is something I absolutely must do. But…” The hesitation returned. Asougi averted his eyes.

“But…?”

“…It’s a bit silly of me. I’ve just been thinking, imagining the future. Going to England. It’ll be quite a long journey, not being able to see home until I complete my studies.”

“Ah, that’s true. I can’t even imagine leaving Japan at all,” Ryuunosuke mused, frowning at his friend. “That’s not silly at all! It’s only natural to feel homesick, right?” Asougi sighed, shaking his head.

“That’s not it, exactly.”

“Huh?”

His friend hesitated a moment more, before leaning more against him, fondly. “Naruhodou Ryuunosuke…I’m gonna miss you.”

“Eh-” It took a second for the words to sink in, and when they did, Ryuunosuke felt his face heat up. “Eh- h-huh?? Me?” His friend even seemed embarrassed to admit it, but he gave a sincere look.

“The thought of not being able to meet up with you…quite frankly, it pains me. After I depart, it may be years until we see each other again. Or perhaps…we won’t see each other again, at all.” Those last words were quiet. His gaze sank to the ground. The warm summer night felt chilly all of a sudden, the fireworks muted, as Ryuunosuke stared at his friend.

…It wasn’t like he himself hadn’t had such thoughts. It was the first thing that came to mind, after all, the first time he learned about this program to study abroad. But he pushed it away, not bearing to think about it. He wouldn’t have such selfish thoughts when his friend was on his way to doing something amazing. But, hearing Asougi speak these words now, all those suppressed thoughts came rushing back. And watching him now, huddled next to him, the usual warm breeze completely absent for once and his expression melancholic, Ryuunosuke could feel it. A vast, desolate sense of loneliness…a fire of determination lit within him. Without thinking, he grabbed Asougi’s hand.

“I’d never let that happen!!” His friend looked startled, blinking at him.

“N-Naruhodou…?”

“I promise, no matter how many years you’re gone for, I’ll be waiting for you on the docks when you come home. And I’ll send you letters whenever I can, so you’d better write back! I have to know what kind of adventures you’ll get yourself into in a place like that! And I need to know what their food is like! I’ll look forward to reading all about it! I’ll be thinking about you, especially when I’m studying! And eating beef hotpot! And I- uh…” He finally faltered when he realised he was talking really loudly, and most of the people there were now staring at him. He looked away, beyond embarrassed, feeling like he was about to blow up like a firework himself. “I…I’m really gonna miss you, too,” he hastily muttered that last part.

There was a long pause. And then, he heard a snicker escape Asougi.

“D-don’t laugh at me!”

“Naruhodou, you’re not still hungry, are you?”

“Of course not!!” He was really about to blow up and die for real. But then Asougi’s fingers curled gently against his, and he realised how warm and heartfelt his friend’s smile had become.

“…Thank you, partner. Truly.”

Ryuunosuke couldn’t respond. His face was still on fire, and he opened and closed his mouth before managing a strangled sound and nothing else. He couldn’t believe he blurted all that out just now. It all came from the heart, and he was glad that he said it, but he said it so desperately, as if Asougi was leaving the next day or something. How awkward…at least the people who’d started staring were politely looking away now. And Asougi seemed relaxed, looking back at the fireworks with a short sigh.

“You know, I also considered taking you to England with me.”

“………HUH?” Ryuunosuke shot him a look, really not sure if he was joking or not. It was hard to tell with that playful grin.

“It’d be a fun time, don’t you think?”

“Well…!” He had to pause and think. He’d never considered such a possibility. And it was definitely still impossible!! But, theoretically, one could imagine it. “Obviously. I think that’d be great. But you’re not about to say, ‘then let’s do it,’ right?” Asougi gave his usual energetic laugh.

“What if I am? But, all jokes aside, obviously the choice would be yours. I wouldn’t spirit you away from all your studies and obligations without your permission.” Ryuunosuke frowned. So, in other words, Asougi could be serious about this, huh?

“Obligations…well, yeah,” Ryuunosuke replied vaguely, a little thoughtful. His first year of university had come and gone, and he still didn’t know what he wanted to do for his career. There was still time, and he shouldn’t throw it all away just to follow his friend to a foreign country. Yet. It sure was tempting, but…

“In any case, I’d also be happy to receive letters from you,” Asougi mused, flashing him a smile. “It’d be a highlight, for sure.”

“That, I’d definitely be able to deliver,” Ryuunosuke said with great confidence. “I really meant it, Asougi! We’ll keep in touch! And when you’re back, we can go out for some beef hotpot together.”

“…You really are hungry again, aren’t you?”

“I’m not!!!”

They laughed between themselves, their conversation turning to playful jabs and jokes as the fireworks went on, lighting the night up in warm colours.

Chapter Text

The sound of a slamming door woke Ryuunosuke from his nap. By now, he’d learnt not to panic waking up in this position. The darkness was still unnerving, but he stayed silent and listened for familiar footfalls. And there they were, sounding a bit low in energy compared to usual. He could even start to tell these details. He wondered if his hearing was getting sharper…and as he thought this, he heard the paper being peeled off of the closet door in front of him.

“Welcome back,” he yawned, rubbing his eyes as the opening door bathed him in light. Asougi looked grumpy, and Ryuunosuke could already start to infer why. “Is it…?”

“Chicken again,” his friend finished the sentence with a grimace. He moved aside to make room for Ryuunosuke to climb out. “Help yourself.”

The scent of dinner wafted over, and Ryuunosuke instantly felt his mouth water. He restrained himself from tumbling out of the closet in his eagerness. Stretch the legs first, then roll the shoulders back…he had a whole routine already figured out. He was still young and spry, but not so much to completely shrug off the effects of sitting in a hard, cramped space for long periods of time. While he was so looking forward to devouring that chicken, he paused to throw a worried look at his friend, who’d just laid himself down on the bed. Sulking.

“Will you be alright, Asougi?”

“I’ll feel better after you eat it all. It smells too delicious…”

Ryuunosuke winced. The last time they served chicken, Asougi was actually hungry enough to try some. He couldn’t even stomach one bite. Poor guy…

“At least come eat the vegetables!”

There was a long pause, then a sigh. Asougi got up and made his way to the table. Ryuunosuke was already hurriedly consuming a drumstick - he left the utensils for his friend. This specific situation really wasn’t his fault, but he couldn’t help but feel bad. Asougi had to share half of his food with him, after all, and he always insisted on splitting it perfectly. Those servings never lasted. And Ryuunosuke, who conserved his energy by sitting around in the closet most of the day, always got hungry hours too early. He couldn’t fathom what his friend, who had to run around and do actual work, was going through.

“Hey, Asougi…it really doesn’t feel fair to you, when I get to eat all the chicken,” Ryuunosuke said with a frown. “You can eat all of breakfast, if you want. Don’t you need the energy more than I do?”

“It’s fine. I can bear with it,” Asougi insisted, popping a piece of carrot in his mouth.

“At the very least, eat more of it this time. Please?”

“Alright, alright. I will…now, could you eat that faster? I can only breathe through my mouth for so long.” Ryuunosuke gave him a little smile.

“Right! I’m on it!”

Ryuunosuke lost count of how many meals there’d been so far. It was hard to tell time when he spent most of these days in literal darkness. How many days had it been? A week, maybe? Asougi definitely knew, but it didn’t matter enough to Ryuunosuke to ask. Knowing that this was a fifty day trip, maybe it was better to lose track of time. Just bear with it, and you’ll get there before you know it. That was his thought process. Still, he did his best to keep a vague sense of the days.

If he were honest, though, going half-hungry everyday was pretty terrible. Maybe they should’ve packed some snacks, if only Asougi’s luggage could’ve fit them along with everything else. Oh well, at the next port - Shanghai, if he remembered correctly? - his friend could hopefully go get some. The sense that they were no longer in Japan was still a difficult feeling to get used to. Hearing all the muffled Russian and English being spoken around him made it feel like he’d stepped into another world. But, well, he just needed a bit more time for it to properly sink in.

After dinner, Ryuunosuke took a little walk - though he wasn’t sure it could be called a walk when he was just pacing around in the same room. Asougi sat at his desk, recording the events of the day in his journal. Their days on this ship passed like this, strangely mundane. Everything went like clockwork. Ryuunosuke walked around after every dinner, ducked into the closet when the sailors came to gather the dishware, then continued walking around and hung out until he climbed back into the closet again to go to sleep. The thrilling concept of being a stowaway, breaking rules and dodging authorities, somehow turned pretty casual in the end. That was fine, too - Ryuunosuke couldn’t take that much excitement anyway.

“So, how are you holding up, partner?” Asougi asked from his desk, and Ryuunosuke frowned towards him.

“I should be asking you that…but I feel just fine.”

“No crippling back pains or anything?”

“Don’t say it like that. I’m not an old man, y’know.” Ryuunosuke made a face. But he did do a little stretch at the mention of it. “Obviously, I’m a little sore. That closet isn’t meant for sitting in, after all.” Asougi gave a thoughtful hum.

“I see…do you think you could really sleep in there for fifty nights straight?”

“Er, well, it’s hard to imagine it. I’m sure it’d be fine, though.”

Asougi looked at the closet, deep in thought. Then, without saying anything, he got up, opened its doors, and climbed in. Ryuunosuke blinked.

“WH- what’re you doing?!” He remembered to watch his volume at the last second. Asougi sighed, adjusting himself to lean upright against the side.

“Sating a curiosity.” He folded his arms, just sitting there for a moment. Then, he grimaced. “This is terrible.”

“It’s not that bad, really! It’s way better than your luggage.”

“Hmm…could you stand it better since you’re thinner and squishier?” Ryuunosuke made a disgruntled noise.

“S…squishier…I don’t know, but it’s pretty spacious. It feels like both of us could fit in there at the same time.” Those words seemed to pique Asougi’s interest, and Ryuunosuke regretted saying them immediately. But it was too late. His friend gestured at him.

“Get over here.”

With a bit of fussing and scrambling, Ryuunosuke managed to fit himself on the other side of the crowded closet. He almost kicked his friend getting in. It was awkward with their legs all tangled up. And now that his back was pressed hard against the wall, he was wondering why he even agreed to this. He pulled a face.

“…Now this is terrible.”

His friend let out a snort, and before he could react, Asougi threw his head back and laughed, loud as usual. Ryuunosuke felt like he almost broke his legs scrambling closer to slap a hand over his friend’s mouth.

“I-it’s not that funny!” he exclaimed in a hushed voice. Though even as he said that, he was struggling to keep his own laugh from escaping. Somehow Asougi was dying, clutching Ryuunosuke’s shoulders and leaning in as he shook in silent laughter. And then his stomach growled, loudly.

“Ah, fuck,” he grumbled against Ryuunosuke's hand, still with a bit of laughter in him. Ryuunosuke almost started laughing again, but sealed his lips tightly together. Shut up!! It’s not that funny!! Really, he should be worried.

“A-are you alright?? Sorry.” He didn’t know what the apology was for, exactly, but it slipped out anyway. Asougi huffed. He grabbed Ryuunosuke’s wrist. Momentarily, his lips pressed firmly against his palm - Ryuunosuke’s eyes widened, and just like that, his face was on fire. Then Asougi turned his hand, opened his mouth, about to bite down--

Ryuunosuke jolted against the closet wall behind him and let out a strangled shriek (as quietly as possible), and his friend snorted, letting go of his wrist.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” he reassured with a low chuckle. He swung his legs out of the closet, giving them a little stretch before returning to his feet. Ryuunosuke sat there, stunned for a moment - for some reason, his heart was pounding out of his chest. But thankfully, his friend didn’t seem to notice. “Well, sitting in that position does seem to help with hunger pains, at least.”

“Y…yeah, it kinda does,” Ryuunosuke managed to reply, shaking off his strange feeling.

“But you won’t have any tonight, huh?”

“Oh, I guess not…?”

“How about you take a break from it, then?” Asougi sat on the edge of the bed, giving it a pat. “There’s enough room for you. Definitely still not the best, but at least it’s more comfortable.”

"…Eh?" Ryuunosuke stared blankly. "Uh, where would you sleep, though?" His friend gave an odd look.

"Next to you?"

"……EH?" Asougi grinned wryly.

"I don't think I can be nearly as tolerant of the closet as you. But like I said, there's enough room here to fit the two of us." Well, the logic checked out, but Ryuunosuke didn't know why his mind was coming up blank right now.

"Uh…s-sleep next to you…?" His friend raised an eyebrow.

"Do you want to or not?"

"Y-yeah?" Ryuunosuke blurted it out without thinking. His mind was struggling to keep up. "Er! I mean, a break from the closet sounds nice, so, sure!" Asougi smiled - he seemed almost relieved that his suggestion wasn't rejected.

"Good! Hope you can get a nice, proper rest."

"Yeah…" was all Ryuunosuke could manage, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck. He should've been elated that he got to sleep in an actual bed for once, but he didn't know why he also felt nervous. It wasn't like the two of them hadn't slept next to each other in the same room before. Or even in the same futon once, he recalled. How was this any different? He tried his best not to think too much about it, shoving his anxieties away.

Come bedtime, after the sailors had done their last cleanup and check in for the night, Ryuunosuke heard the paper on the closet door peel off again. There was only a dim, flickering candlelight to illuminate the room now, and he could just make out the outline of his friend's silhouette.

"Still awake, partner? You didn't doze off, did you?"

"Almost," Ryuunosuke admitted with a light chuckle. His friend scoffed.

"I really don't know how you do it, in an uncomfortable space like this."

"I don't know, either…I just like to sleep, I guess."

"Hah. Come on." Asougi reached out, taking Ryuunosuke's hand. They got him out of the closet carefully. Ryuunosuke had to feel around a bit to make sure he wasn't about to trip on anything. Though it was clear that Asougi wouldn't allow that to happen, anyway, holding onto him firmly as they walked to the bed. Ryuunosuke sat on the edge, pulling his shoes off, and Asougi strode back to the desk.

"I've got a bit more work to do - you go ahead and get comfortable."

"Oh, alright."

Asougi's stomach growled as he went to sit down, and he gave an irritated grunt. Ryuunosuke frowned at his back. He had to resist asking him if he was alright again. They couldn't do anything to fix his empty stomach until breakfast came in the morning, after all. Come to think of it, with their last chicken dinner, Ryuunosuke recalled being able to hear Asougi's stomach growling even when sitting in the closet. It made him feel really sorry for him. But, doing his best to ignore it, he climbed into bed.

Once he was there with an actual blanket over him and something soft to lay on, he finally realised how much he missed sleeping properly. The pillow was still a bit awkward, elevated by a stack of law books. He remembered Asougi complaining a while ago that it'd sat too low, and that this was his makeshift solution. While Ryuunosuke agreed that without the books, it'd feel like he was laying his head on the ground, this was also rigid and uncomfortable. Beggars couldn't be choosers, though. He'd fall asleep fine, either way. Making sure he was laying as far to the left of the bed as possible, leaving Asougi plenty of room for later, he tucked in. Watching his friend's back as he worked under the soft glow of warm light, he soon drifted off.

He woke up several times after that. The first was when Asougi finally retired to bed. He'd nudged Ryuunosuke awake, fussing about the fact that he'd hogged all of the blanket. Ryuunosuke apologised drowsily, relinquishing as much of it as he could. Though when Asougi scooted closer to him, suddenly Ryuunosuke felt wide awake.

"Goodnight," his friend murmured. He could feel his gentle breath on his face.

"N-night," he replied, blinking. The room was pitch black now, but he could feel from their breaths that Asougi's face was dangerously close to his own. Well, there really wasn't much room, right? This bed was built for one person. They had to squeeze in if they didn't want any body parts hanging off the sides. Asougi's stomach growled again. He sighed.

"Sorry."

"Uh- it's fine, really," Ryuunosuke insisted. No, the thing that was keeping him awake was definitely not that. But he was too nervous to point out what was bothering him. Asougi's stomach cried out a few more times, as the minutes ticked away. But finally after a while, Asougi clicked his tongue.

There was a prolonged shift, and the breath on Ryuunosuke's face disappeared. He blinked again, waiting, but all he felt now was a comfortable warm breeze. Oh. Asougi must've turned and faced the other way. He resisted a sigh of relief, since it seemed like his friend was still awake. Would he really be alright? Ryuunosuke stopped himself from asking, yet again. Asougi would fall asleep eventually, he told himself.

On the other hand, this breeze felt really, really nice. Ryuunosuke was greatly relaxed by it, though after a year and a half, he was still questioning how it was able to exist. Nevertheless, it did wonders on his sleeplessness just now, and he soon drifted off again.

The next few times he woke up, it was just for brief moments. He wasn't even sure what had disturbed him, at first. But after about the third time, he realised that it was Asougi shifting around again. He'd disregarded it the first few times, but after the fifth, he'd started to feel worried. What time was it? Didn't Asougi always get up around dawn everyday? Was he going to get any sleep? Ryuunosuke couldn't just ignore it anymore.

"Asougi?"

"Oh- did I wake you, partner? Sorry."

"It's fine," he insisted again. "Are you…gonna be alright? Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No, no. Don't worry yourself. Just-" Asougi was interrupted by his own growling stomach, again. He let out an exasperated sigh. There was a strange repeating thump. Ryuunosuke frowned, and it took him a moment to realise what it was. Was Asougi…punching himself??

"H-hey, don't do that!!"

Without thinking, he shoved his arm over Asougi's side, trying to find and grab his hand to stop him. But instead, he found himself pressing his outstretched palm against Asougi's bruised stomach. His friend stiffened at the touch, his sharp inhale akin to a gasp. Ryuunosuke yelped, face heating up as he quickly withdrew his hand.

"S-sorr-!!"

But before he could pull away, Asougi roughly grabbed his hand. For a split second, Ryuunosuke thought he was angry, bracing for…something. But then, Asougi simply placed it back where it'd touched, squeezing it against his stomach.

"…Stay." It was only a faint whisper, but it felt somehow desperate. Ryuunosuke was frozen for a few seconds, hearing his heart pound in his ears. He didn't realise he'd started holding his breath, too afraid to make a sound. Asougi's hand was quivering, ever so slightly, against his. Slowly, his body relaxed. His mind was a jumble of thoughts, undecipherable even to himself, so he shut his eyes and threw them away, allowing it to go blank. Just do what feels right, said the last thought rattling in his head. He wrapped his arm snuggly around his friend.

"Okay," he finally answered. Asougi released a soft sigh, fingers intertwining with Ryuunosuke's. He curled up a bit more - trying to stave off the hunger pains, no doubt - but with that, his back pressed against Ryuunosuke's chest and also trapped his other hand under his side. Ryuunosuke hesitated, not knowing what to do with that. He wiggled his fingers a little bit, uncertainly, and Asougi responded in an instant, snatching that hand and pulling it to his front as well. Ryuunosuke made a confused, flustered noise. But gingerly, he wrapped that arm around Asougi too, hugging him gently. "Is…is this alright?"

"Mm." Asougi sounded exhausted, but comfortable. He cradled Ryuunosuke's forearms in encouragement, the tender touch giving rise to goosebumps.

Now that that was settled, both of them seemed to be in comfortable positions. Ryuunosuke was still in an inner turmoil, questioning what he was doing right now and if it was really alright and why his heart was still beating so hard and-

But he could hear Asougi's slow breathing and feel his hands relax. His crying stomach had fallen silent at last. All of Ryuunosuke's worries melted away, replaced with relief as he released a quiet sigh. Thank goodness, his friend was finally able to fall asleep. He realised now that that was the thing that mattered most to him. So long as Asougi was alright, everything else was a trivial matter.

Now Ryuunosuke was afraid to move a single muscle, dreading that he'll wake his friend after all that trouble. But, again, that warm breeze was working wonders on him. With drooping eyes, he gradually became, perhaps, too comfortable. Eventually forgetting himself, he snuggled into Asougi's shoulder, holding him close. The last thing he heard as he fell asleep was his friend's content murmur.

 

He felt like he heard his name being called, vaguely. But it wasn't enough to rouse him from sleep. Everything felt so comfortable, after all, and he'd like his dream to last a bit longer. But then the back of his head gently bumped against something hard and cold, and he blinked his eyes open.

"Oh, now you're awake??"

An exasperated whisper made him blink up - Asougi was throwing him an incredulous look. Ryuunosuke was completely confused for a moment, but he still felt really comfortable and warm somehow. That was a great night's sleep. He yawned, rubbing his eyes.

"G'morning, what's going o-?"

To his surprise, Asougi immediately slapped a hand over his mouth. That jolted him fully awake, and it seemed like it was perfectly timed when just a second later, there was a knock at the door. Asougi tensed up - he looked almost afraid for a moment.

"Kazuma-sama? It's me."

The muffled voice was very familiar. Ryuunosuke was getting his bearings back, slowly. And recalling the events of the night before, the realisation of what he'd woken up to set in, as did the shock and cold sweats. Asougi threw him an urgent look, holding a finger to his lips, and Ryuunosuke nodded vigorously, making it clear that he'd come to his senses. Satisfied, Asougi withdrew his hand and closed the closet doors. As Ryuunosuke heard him paste the seal, it also hit him that his friend absolutely carried him, still sleeping, over to the closet just now. He put a hand to his mouth, where he could still feel Asougi's touch, his cheeks flaring up yet again. Another knock at the door.

"Kazuma-sama?"

There was a lot of rustling going on in the room.

"Sorry, Mikotoba! Please give me a moment."

More rustling and hurried footsteps. Asougi was clearly grabbing his things. But soon, there was the sliding of a latch, and the door creaked open.

"Good morning."

"Good morning! Are you alright, Kazuma-sama? You seem…flustered, today."

"Y-yes, I'm fine. Please don't worry about it."

"Ah…I hope you slept well. You look a bit tired."

"Well, you know…they served chicken last night."

"Oh…! Oh no. I'm so sorry. Er, if you would like, I have some snacks in my cabin."

"No, we should get going. But thanks for the offer."

"If you’re certain…"

There was the sound of the door closing, and Asougi's and Mikotoba's voices faded into the distance. While Ryuunosuke was usually still fast asleep at this time of day, he sat there wide awake, sweating profusely as he stared at the crack of light leaking through the closet doors.

That was…too close for comfort, just now. He almost ruined everything by talking a little too loudly. And now that he sat here alone in silence, his anxiety was painstakingly recalling every detail of the night before and tormenting him with them. Did he really do all that? What in the world was he thinking?! Oh dear. It was going to be a long day, today.

 

Ryuunosuke was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't even hear the door this time. It'd been hours of torturous thoughts - no, it was still the morning before breakfast, so it was two hours maximum, but it felt like far too long. It'd been impossible to fall back asleep in this state. By this point, he'd convinced himself that everything was his fault. He'd have to apologise. He idly poked at his shoes that sat in the corner of the closet with his toe - Asougi had even remembered to toss these in here. Ryuunosuke's presence was such an inconvenience, wasn't it? They almost got caught. Maybe they already did get caught, and Ryuunosuke just didn't know the news yet. If that was the case, he was prepared to admit to his stowaway crimes and take all the blame. They could punish him however they wanted, so long as they left Asougi alone. It was Ryuunosuke's fault after all, for not being quiet enough. It was his fault for not waking up when Asougi called him. He remembered his friend's exasperation, and his heart sank. He couldn't believe he was such a burden, the one time he was offered something nice. He squandered it. God, he was a horrible person-

The seal to the closet sounded like it was being ripped off with one swift motion, and Ryuunosuke jumped. He had ten different thoughts at once, disoriented as the doors flew open. A hand grabbed his shoulder and he tensed up with a yelp. Oh god, this was it-

"Naruhodou, are you alright?? I didn't hurt you earlier, did I?"

Ah. Ryuunosuke blinked up dazedly. It was just Asougi, as usual, though he looked strangely worried, scrutinising. As Ryuunosuke struggled to find his voice, his friend turned him this way and that, patting his head, fussing.

"Er- no, I'm fine? What're you doing?"

Asougi breathed a sigh of relief, releasing him. "Thank god…I had to take off in such a hurry, I failed to properly consider your well-being. Please forgive me."

"Uh?" Ryuunosuke stared. Um. No. Something about this felt completely backwards. "W-wait, I should be the one apologising here!!" Asougi just shot him a confused look. What was with that face?? "I mean, I almost blew our cover, right?? Because of me not being able to wake up, you even had to carry me over here, and!! That girl almost heard me talking! Or maybe she did?? Did she? Are we done for?!" Asougi looked just as bewildered as he was, stunned for a moment. But then he let out a huff, crossing his arms.

"No, thankfully. She didn't hear you at all…not that we'd be ‘done for’ if she did. I told you before, I just wanted to keep her out of this if possible, but she certainly wouldn't happily turn us in if she found out."

"R…right." Ryuunosuke had been so freaked out, he forgot about those details.

“As for the rest of that, I woke up in… that state, and…well, it was my own selfish choice not to get up.” Asougi looked away. He seemed the most embarrassed he’d ever been.

“E-eh??”

“…It was really comfortable. So I thought, we could stay like that for just a little longer. But before I knew it, the time…” Ryuunosuke didn’t know what to say to this, mouth hanging open. His face was definitely bright red right now. Asougi cleared his throat. “So, all the rushing and panic that followed was my fault. I’ll admit that openly and own up to it.”

“B…but! You definitely tried to wake me at some point, right?! I remember that!”

“I did call you, once. But you were sleeping so soundly, and I managed to slip free anyway, so I thought I’d bring you to the closet myself and let you continue to rest. But I really didn’t expect you to open your eyes the moment I set you down.” Asougi grumbled at that, strangely disgruntled. “Like a big baby, waking up when you aren’t supposed to…”

“D-don’t call me a baby.” Ryuunosuke covered one of his blushing cheeks, turning away. So, his only crime here was waking up at the last minute and then panicking about nothing for two hours? He really wished Asougi did put in more effort to wake him up, especially when he was in such a rush. He could’ve walked himself to the closet, sheesh. “But you really wanted me to keep sleeping, huh…” he muttered the rest of his thoughts aloud. Asougi gave a heated sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Good grief. The whole point of this was so that you could take a break from the closet and have a proper night’s rest for once, and yet it turned out so hectic, and I even ended up bothering you in the middle of the night…I truly hope you can forgive me.” He had a somewhat pained look, one that Ryuunosuke had seen before - notably, during that trial - when something didn’t go perfectly as planned.

“Hey, it’s not a big deal, really! And uh, it…was very comfortable, for sure.” Those words came out weakly. He still remembered that nice feeling he had when he was just waking up. If only he didn’t ruin it for himself. “I think, despite how it ended, that might’ve been the best sleep I’ve had since coming aboard. So please don’t feel bad!” He forced himself to shrug off his shyness and look his friend straight in the eye, asserting his honesty. Asougi looked surprised. But finally, he seemed convinced by these words, relaxing for possibly the first time this morning. And with that, he suddenly looked really tired. With a sigh, he all but fell forward, his head resting on Ryuunosuke’s shoulder. His hachimaki fell limp. “WAH- A-Asougi?!”

“That’s a relief,” he murmured, letting out a groan with his next breath. “Ahh……I’m so damn hungry.” Ryuunosuke sputtered, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“Go eat!!!”

Despite his suffering, his friend chuckled. He held onto Ryuunosuke, urging him out of the closet to join him. A stack of pancakes and fruit were waiting for them. Ryuunosuke hurriedly pulled his shoes on, hungry as always. But before his friend could split the food, he remembered the conversation they had at dinner and stopped him, reminding him to eat more.

“Hmph, I was hoping you’d forget,” Asougi sighed.

“No way! You’re starving, aren’t you?! Eat as much as you want, this time!” Ryuunosuke crossed his arms defiantly, turning aside in his chair. “I won’t have a bite until you’re satisfied.” His friend grumbled, starting to cut a bite-sized piece.

“Fine, fine…”

Despite how hungry he was, Asougi still minded his manners, eating slowly. Ryuunosuke was amazed by his restraint - if he were in his shoes, he’d have inhaled half of it already. He just sat and watched, through little glances, though his friend seemed too focused to notice them. Or, with his next words, it was evident that he was deep in thought.

“Hey, partner…obviously, that was a close call this morning, but I’m not against doing it again, if you wanted.” He met Ryuunosuke’s gaze, firmly. “You should sleep in a bed at least once in a while to rest your back. And, if I vow not to be so selfish next time, it shouldn’t be stressful.” Ryuunosuke blinked before looking away again. Why were his cheeks so prone to blush?

“E-er, I’m not against it, I guess. We can learn from our mistakes, right?” He rubbed his chin, trying to think of optimisations.

“Right…well, I think one thing’s clear. We shouldn’t attempt it again on nights where they serve chicken.”

“Huh? Why not?” Asougi grimaced.

“What do you mean ‘why not’? That was absolutely humiliating.”

“I didn’t mind it, really.”

“I kept you up with my nonsense, and neither of us got enough sleep.”

“Well, you’d just be suffering alone then, right?”

“I’d rather not drag you into my problems like that again.” His expression made it clear - he was going to be stubborn about this. Was he really that embarrassed about it? Well, yeah, Ryuunosuke knew him pretty well at this point. It made sense. Even if sleeping together like that seemed to help…

“Alright, if you’re sure.”

“I’m a hundred percent sure.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.”

They both looked away from each other, making disapproving faces. But after a grumpy pause of silence, broken only by the soft clatter of Asougi’s silverware against his plate as he continued working on his food, he spoke up again.

“Naruhodou.”

“Huh?”

Ryuunosuke turned to look back at him, mouth opened, only to immediately be met with a forkful of neatly cut fruit and pancake. His instincts made him react before he could finish thinking, and he happily accepted the bite. It took Asougi pulling back the fork and two chews for him to realise what just happened, and then he made an angry noise, fingertips covering his mouth.

“Asougi! What did I just say?!” Despite his feeling of betrayal, he found it hard to glare as he continued to enjoy that bite. He was blushing for another reason, now - this was absolutely delicious.

His friend laughed fondly, flashing him a smug smile. “It’s good, isn’t it?” Ryuunosuke nodded vigorously. Despite the mediocre cabin quality, it was no debate that the food they served on this ship was outstanding. Everything had a tradeoff. Asougi kept feeding him every other bite until Ryuunosuke became too flustered at this arrangement, scolding him again to just finish his share and pass over the leftovers.

Even in the moments of suffering aboard this ship, living like this with his best friend was…pretty fun. It felt so worth it to take the risk, in the end. He could say with confidence that he’d gladly survive fifty days of this, and maybe fifty more, even if it meant going hungry or sleeping in a dark closet. The latter part only made him look forward to the next time he’d be able to share the bed with his friend again.

But, unfortunately, that was the one and only chance they had.

Chapter Text

To Asougi,

I promised that I’d write letters to you, didn’t I? Although, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen it turning out this way. I doubt that these words can ever reach you. But I can only hope that you’re watching over us. It’s the least I could do, keeping at least one pathetic promise alive. I’ll tell you all about our adventures in London. I’ll write out all the details the best that I can.

Do you remember that strange detective? Apparently, he’s more famous than we thought. You should’ve mentioned him to Susato-san; she turned out to be a big fan that followed his novel series, or something like that. But something about his deductions is really off, it’s hard to believe that that’s what made him famous. Nevertheless, he’s played a big role alongside Detective Hosonaga to allow our voyage to continue. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing him in London. I suppose it’s nice to have someone familiar to greet in that country, despite how eccentric he may be.

We’ll be arriving in England in just a few days. Susato-san has been absolutely amazing at tutoring me in everything I need to know about law. These were the most intense cram sessions I’ve ever experienced. It’s no wonder you spoke so highly of her before. I can see you and her making an unstoppable team together. I just wish I could’ve seen the two of you in action, just once.

Your shoes will be so difficult to fill. I don’t think I could ever compare to you, even if I worked hard for the rest of my entire life. But for the sake of your dreams and Susato-san’s, I’ve decided, I’ll give it my all. I’ll keep them alive, no matter that. You’ve always inspired me, after all. I won’t allow everything that you’ve worked for go to waste.

I know that there were things that you never got to tell me. I decided to be patient, to wait until you were ready. Now, I regret that dearly. When I think of you, my heart aches so much that I can hardly breathe. It hasn’t gotten any easier. I still think about what would’ve happened if I did better if I were a better things turned out differently. If you were still with us. Maybe I could have prevented If only I

There are a lot of things that I could wish for, but they’ll never come true. All we can do now is keep pushing forward. That’s what you would say, right? I have to believe that everything will turn out alright. I hope I can make you proud. I miss you so much I’ll write to you again soon.

Sincerely,

Naruhodou

 

The once deafening cacophony of cicadas outside now only felt like a buzz at the back of his head. The man frowned, lightly running his fingertips over the aging paper. Rough, misshapen spots dotted its surface - traces of teardrops. Even now, years later, he could feel the scars of that incident radiating from this piece of writing. The grief, the rawness of it all. He closed his eyes and breathed a short sigh.

“…Ryuunosuke…”

Down the hall, the front door slid open.

“We’re home!!”

Ah, speak of the devil. The man didn’t look up, setting the letter aside and fetching the next in the stack.

“Welcome back,” he called, casually, eyes already scanning the next entry.

“Ahhh, it’s so hot today,” Ryuunosuke complained as he walked by, down the hall, hands full of groceries, blissfully unaware. But the woman behind him stopped in front of the room and gave a polite bow.

“Kazuma-sama, we’ve picked up your medicine - I’ll go prepare some tea momentarily.”

“Much obliged, Mikotoba.” Kazuma nodded gratefully at her. Before she could go about her business, however, she spotted the letters.

“Oh? What do you have there?”

“Something interesting,” he answered simply, knowing how to pique her interest. He grinned, beckoning her over with a wave of the paper in his hand. Susato tilted her head, making her way over to his side. She sat gracefully on her legs as Kazuma was, taking a closer look.

“Ah!! These are-! Naruhodou-sama’s letters to you, back then…how nostalgic. I haven’t seen these in years.”

“You’ve read them?” Kazuma eyed her eagerly, but she shook her head.

“I’ve only caught glances. Naruhodou-sama treated them more as a journal than anything else, I felt it rude to pry. Plus…” She frowned thoughtfully, tapping her chin. “I do remember him growing increasingly flustered with each entry, whenever I happened to walk in on him writing one.” Kazuma’s eyebrows shot up.

“Oh? What an interesting observation you’ve got there, Mikotoba.”

“I wonder if it’s alright to read them now.”

“Well, they’re addressed to me, after all. And I say that you’re allowed,” Kazuma said. Susato giggled softly.

“I’m not sure if Naruhodou-sama would agree…”

“Huh? Are you two talking about me?” Ryuunosuke’s head poked into view, at last. Kazuma didn’t even try to hide the letters, continuing to read.

“Yeah.”

“What do you mean, ‘yeah’? What about-? WAIT? KAZUMA, WHAT IS THAT?!”

“You tell me, partner.” Kazuma was doing his best to keep a straight face, while also reading through the rest of the letter as quickly as possible.

“Where did you find those?! A-actually, nevermind that question!! Stop reading them!!!”

“Why? They’re mine. They clearly say ‘To Asougi’.”

“B-but!! S-Susato-san, please help me out!!” Susato rose to her feet.

“My sincerest apologies, Naruhodou-sama, I must go prepare the tea. I believe a fascinating read such as this requires adequate refreshments.”

“Susato-san!!”

Kazuma couldn’t help a loud snort at that. Ah, the ever dependable Mikotoba. She darted off, slipping past Ryuunosuke. Kazuma picked up the next letter.

“Kazuma, seriously, please!! Don’t make me come over there!”

“And do what?” He shot a bored look over. “You promised me these letters, didn’t you? You said it yourself back then, and it’s even here, in writing.” He gestured at the first letter.

“W-well, it’s not like I wrote these thinking that you’d read them in the future!! For obvious reasons!!”

“That just makes them even more heartfelt.” He genuinely wanted to read more of these. It was already clear that Ryuunosuke poured his heart and soul into them. Kazuma was touched, even after reading just the first two. Though that didn’t mean that he was done joking around. “I don’t get how you can be so embarrassed by something so old. Honestly, how bad can they be? Is there a sappy love confession in here?” A pause. Then Ryuunosuke’s face turned increasingly vibrant shades of red. Kazuma’s eyes lit up. It was a careless little educated guess, but now he was just delighted . “There is?!”

Clearly, that was the last straw. Ryuunosuke rushed into the room, but Kazuma readily snatched the whole stack of papers up before he could reach him.

“Hand them over!!”

“Make me.”

“Kazuma!!”

Ryuunosuke had failed to build up any bulk in the past few years. And with Kazuma’s practical training in England, he didn’t stand a chance. The poor skinny defence attorney was easily pinned to the ground. All Kazuma had to do was lay his broad back on top of him.

“Shall I read them aloud, Ryuunosuke?” Kazuma asked, smugly. Ryuunosuke groaned loudly, burying his burning face against his partner’s shoulder.

“I will die. I’m dying. You’re killing me.”

“A ha ha ha!! Don’t be so dramatic!”

“I can’t believe you’d do this when we still have a case to go over…”

“I’m willing to spare an hour just for this. So? Which one is it?” He started flipping through the papers, skimming them.

“L-like I’d tell you!!”

“Hmm. ‘To Asougi; I’ve had far too much time to think, lately. As always, my thoughts keep drifting back to you’-” Ryuunosuke interrupted him with a terrified yell.

“NOOO!!”

Kazuma couldn’t help his loud laughter. It was almost like reading a cheesy poem written by a secret admirer. And yet, he absolutely loved that about it. “You’re so sweet.” Ryuunosuke sounded like he wanted to cry. He lay limp, in total defeat. Kazuma decided to show mercy, getting off of him, though not before neatly storing the stack of letters into his sleeve. “I am going to read through all of these, partner. You can’t stop me.”

“As long as we never speak of them again…”

“I can’t promise that.”

Ryuunosuke groaned, grudgingly accepting Kazuma’s helping hand to climb back to his feet. “It’s so embarrassing though…probably really weird too.”

“You’re saying I haven’t seen you at your weirdest yet?” Kazuma grinned, ruffling his partner’s hair. "You already wear your heart on your sleeve. There's nothing to be embarrassed about around me." Ryuunosuke made a face.

“Even if you say that, it’s still embarrassing.”

Kazuma just shook his head. He leaned against his partner, snaking his arm around his waist, hand resting comfortably on his hip. He gently urged him toward the door.

"Come on, let's discuss the case over lunch." Ryuunosuke eyed him cautiously.

"Really?"

"I've decided, I'm not cruel enough to read them in front of you. So I'll save them for later!"

"Ugh …well, that's the best I can hope for, I guess." He pouted against Kazuma's shoulder before pulling away, making his way down the hall. Kazuma followed close behind. "Ah, I'm hungry…"

"Did you manage to get some beef this time?"

"No, only chicken."

"Hey."

Ryuunosuke's laugh was like a crystal bell. Kazuma couldn't help but crack a fond smile. It was just another day in their peaceful household, and even their bleakest of memories brought forth a certain loving warmth.

 

To Asougi,

I’ve had far too much time to think, lately. As always, my thoughts keep drifting back to you. I often have dreams about that first year we spent together. If only I knew I had so little time to spend with you. Our friendship blossomed so quickly, it honestly made my head spin. Being around you made me feel so happy. I felt like I've never had a bond quite like the one I had with you. My dearest friend.

But thinking back, I’ve started to realise some things. Maybe, losing you is what it took for me to understand my own feelings. I’m such a fool. But, after all this time, I might finally be able to articulate it. My love for you was something more than admiration, and more than mere friendship. I think I truly adored you was smitten loved you. fell in love with you, somewhere along the way. And now I can’t help but wonder, did you feel the same for me? Would you have? Would you be disgusted?

I wish everyday that I could just speak to you again, if only once. There is still so much left unsaid between us. I want to sit next to you and laugh about pointless things together. I want to hold your hand, one more time. But I guess the best I could hope for is meeting up with you in my dreams.

I can’t believe I wrote all of this out. I might throw this entry away later, or burn it. I don’t know. But I think I just had to finally admit it, somewhere, before I imploded.

I miss you dearly, as always. But please don’t worry about me; I’m doing just fine these days. There are loads of paperwork sitting on my desk, so I should stop daydreaming and work on them. You already know how it is. I’m sorry that I don’t have many interesting events to report on recently, so you’ll just get my useless ramblings for now. But I made a promise. I would keep writing letters to you until we meet again, even if it has to be in another world. Maybe then, I can finally admit my feelings to you boldly, without any hesitation. I’ll write again soon, as always.

Sincerely, Love, Sincerely,

Naruhodou