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If the chocolates had been bitter, Io might have found them more palatable. As it was, the chocolates were rather too sweet; Ryuu was of the “more is more” school when it came to sugar (and, it must be said, when it came to everything else as well). The lumpy, amateurish chocolates made such an odd contrast with the clearly store-bought packaging that Io found himself transfixed by it. Had Ryuu really bought a perfectly serviceable box of chocolates from the store, only to dispose of the contents and use the packaging as a blind for his own homemade chocolates so he could pass them off as a meaningless bribe? That was hardly an efficient use of resources – not that Ryuu had ever cared much about efficiency, admittedly. The whole thing was even less efficient when you considered how utterly transparent the dodge was. Ryuu must have known it, too; when he’d handed the box over, his fingers had been trembling as much as Io’s had been. So who had the theatrics been intended for? Their classmates? Ryuu’s own pride? The whole thing was really a bit absurd, and as long as Io focused on that, he didn’t have to focus on why their fingers had been trembling, or what was tied around those fingers, or why Io had come back to the clubroom to pick up his bag after their impromptu visit to Kurotama to get Yumoto some help (or at least to find someone else to be the target of his cuddling), only to end up sitting in the empty clubroom, staring into a box of chocolates as though he were trying to read the future in it, instead of trying not to.

“Seriously, they can’t be that bad,” Yufuin-senpai said from somewhere behind Io. Io started at the unexpected sound but recovered himself just in time to smack away the hand that was reaching over his shoulder and toward the chocolates. Perhaps the clubroom wasn’t as empty as he thought. Of course, Io was hardly the only one to leave his bag behind in their hurry; Io supposed he was just lucky that the entire club hadn’t come barging in.

“Please leave them alone, Yufuin-senpai,” Io snapped, tugging the box closer. Io might not be entirely certain how he felt about what the chocolates represented - but he was quite sure that he didn’t want to share them with Yufuin-senpai. “You received your own chocolate from Kinugawa-senpai, didn’t you? You must be pleased.”

“You really can’t take a joke, can you,” Yufuin-senpai complained, rubbing his hand as he dropped into his usual seat. It wasn’t said as a question, and Io did not dignify it with a response. “And yeah - I mean, Atsushi has given me friendship chocolate every Valentine’s Day since we were kids, so it’s not a big deal or anything, but of course I’m happy. Have you ever had Atsushi’s chocolate before? It’s great.”

Yufuin-senpai’s flippancy was not entirely convincing, but Io chose not to press him about it. After that initial, mostly silent acknowledgement of Oh, you can see the strings too, when they’d both caught each other eyeing lines that shouldn’t have been there, they’d never really discussed their… entanglements - not the string that only grew shorter as Io and Ryuu got up in each other’s faces as they quarreled, or the way Yufuin-senpai would sling a companionable arm over Kinugawa-senpai’s shoulders and draw him in close, to all appearances completely oblivious to the way their strings trailed off in different directions. They probably should have discussed it, Io supposed; he’d only ever met two or three other people who could see the strings, after all. But then, the Defense Club had made an art out of ignoring matters that were far more immediately pressing than the strings that coiled quiescent around them, and if Io did happen to catch sight of the string tied around his finger, he chose to use it as a reminder to check his stocks, rather than… anything else.

(And in the end, it wasn’t as though he’d ever needed a reminder to look at Ryuu; if anything, he was finding it harder and harder to remember why he ought to look away.)

“Gotta say, though, for someone who’s willing to commit violence over the sanctity of that chocolate, you really don’t look that into it,” Yufuin-senpai continued conversationally, as he pulled his bag out from under the desk and started digging through it. “What’s wrong? It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You guys aren’t exactly subtle. He’s priceless or something, right?”

Was it what Io had wanted? Ryuu was priceless, certainly, and in a perfect world, there would be nothing Io wanted more. But as it was…

Io automatically glanced down at the string wrapped around his pinkie, and at the knot he’d tried to untie so many times when he’d first begun to grasp the implications of it. His fingers always slipped right through the string, as if it were only a trick of the light.

Well. As it was, the world they lived it wasn’t exactly the one that Io would have chosen - and it was that lack of choice that he found truly galling.

Yufuin-senpai didn’t seem concerned by Io’s lack of response; he just hummed a little in satisfaction as he fished out the bag containing the last of Kinugawa-senpai’s chocolates, then popped a piece in his mouth. “You know, sugar was pretty much the ideal food back when people were hunter-gatherers,” he commented rather indistinctly as he chewed. “High-energy, plus it helps people store fat. It’s why we evolved to like it so much - people who liked sugar were less likely to starve to death. Not that most people would call junk food the healthy option these days, but…” Yufuin-senpai shrugged and pulled out another chocolate.

“Yes, vestigial instincts can be troublesome,” Io agreed absently, looking back to his own chocolates. It looked like Ryuu had mixed some chocolate-covered fruit in with the solid chocolates, but the chocolate hadn’t set properly; Io could see cherry skin peeking out through gaps in the chocolate coating.

“Eh?” Yufuin-senpai asked around the chocolate.

“You said it yourself, didn’t you?” Io said impatiently, tearing his eyes away from the chocolate to glare at Yufuin-senpai. “We enjoy the taste of sugar because it used to be vital to ensure the continuance of the species, but between our increased capacity for food production and advances in sugar refinement, something that was once quite important to us from an evolutionary standpoint has now become a problem for many people. Human innovation is quite amazing, don’t you think?”

“Um,” Yufuin-senpai said, but Io continued, his voice rising despite his best effort to keep it level.

“People talk about pleasant things as though they were some sort of gift, but of course that’s absurd,” Io said. “Life doesn’t give us things because it wants us to be happy; it provides stimuli to encourage certain behaviors that accomplish a particular purpose. That’s reasonable enough; one can hardly expect a free lunch, after all. But it does mean that one should consider those behaviors and purposes carefully before following their instincts, in case they no longer work in our favor in the modern world. It’s a simple risk-benefit analysis.”

There was a pause, and then Yufuin-senpai said, “So is this some sort of elaborate metaphor you came up with to justify chickening out of going out with Ryuu because You Can’t Trust Love or something? Because - ”

“It’s not love that I don’t trust!” Io snapped, thrusting his hand palm-first toward Yufuin-senpai. The string dangling from his pinkie flopped around a little with the force of the movement.

“What, that thing?” Yufuin-senpai asked, glancing at it only briefly before turning back to the bag of chocolates. “Just ignore it. That’s what I do.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible for me,” Io said rather stiffly as he let his hand drop; Yufuin-senpai’s dismissive tone had rankled. “I would be quite a poor businessman if I wrote off variables just because I didn’t understand them. They say that a red string represents destined lovers. That’s all well and good as far as it goes - but it doesn’t go very far. What exactly is destiny? Who decides it? What strings are attached? As it were,” Io added severely as Yufuin-senpai snorted. “For that matter, why can only a few people see the strings? Why can we? There are simply too many unknowns. It’s bad business to accept an insider tip without investigating it thoroughly, after all.”

Yufuin-senpai leaned back in his seat and scrubbed a hand through his hair, muttering something about legality, but Io wasn’t listening. “As I said earlier, nothing is more terrifying than free,” he concluded bleakly, his eyes dropping back to the chocolates and the promise they offered under their impersonal wrappings. “If you wanted a metaphor, here it is: They say not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but you should at least check its stomach for Greeks.”

“You’re making way too big a deal out of this, you know,” Yufuin-senpai said. Io looked back up to see that Yufuin-senpai had dropped his hand and was letting his head fall back even further, as though the effort of trying to talk sense into Io had been too much for him.

It was irritating, and Io snapped, “I would think that you of all people wouldn’t be so willing to accept this nonsense.”

“I didn’t say anything about accepting it,” Yufuin-senpai said, giving Io a flat look without lifting his head. “I said to ignore it. You’re the one treating the whole thing like some big tragic forgone conclusion that you’re a martyr to. It kind of pisses me off, to be honest.”

That brought Io up short. It was perhaps the one point he would concede - that if Io’s own lot was hard to bear, Yufuin-senpai’s was by far the harder. At least Io had Ryuu, regardless of what that meant. Yufuin-senpai...

“Have you ever met your soulmate?” Io asked quietly.

Yufuin-senpai’s expression didn’t change, but the bag of chocolates dangling from his hand crinkled as his grip tightened around it. “Yeah,” he said, without much inflection. “I never really cared when I was younger - I figured I’d meet them eventually anyway, so why waste the effort - but after I fell for Atsushi, I followed the string back. I had to be sure, you know?”

Io understood the need for certainty only too well. “How did it go?” he asked.

Yufuin-senpai twitched his shoulder in an approximation of a shrug. “It went fine,” he said. “He was a nice guy. I liked him all right. I just like Atsushi better.”

There wasn’t much Io could say to that, and the pause in the conversation stretched out into a heavy silence. The bag of chocolates crinkled again as Yufuin-senpai shifted, and Io reached out to brush his fingers along the ribbon on his own box of chocolates, pausing on that ridiculous tag. Only Ryuu would go to the trouble of drawing a little caricature of himself winking, and Io didn’t realize that he was smiling at the mental image of Ryuu bent over the drawing until he felt the smile fall away. Io was lucky, he knew - or at least, he thought he was. He hoped he was.

Io traded on many things, but hope was rarely one of them.

“Your ability to pursue what you want regardless of the circumstances is admirable,” Io said, his voice still low. He kept his eyes on his fingers as he idly traced them back and forth against the silky ribbon. “But I can’t help resenting being forced into a bargain I never agreed to, without even having read the terms and conditions. Besides - ” Io faltered a little, suddenly not at all sure that he wanted to voice the thought that had kept him awake through more than one long night over the years, that saying it out loud might not somehow make it true. That was superstitious nonsense, of course - but then, who was Io to case stones at superstitious nonsense, all things considered?

That didn’t mean Io was inclined to humor such ideas, however. If superstition forced Io to give an inch, he would take a mile in return. He plunged on grimly. “Besides, if there is such a thing as fate - if some things are decided before we’re even born - what else is decided for us? Is it fate that made me an investor and got me this far? When I make a bad investment, is that fate too? How many of my choices have been mine, exactly? I’ve always found predeterminism to be an appallingly nihilistic school of thought, but the evidence is rather damning.”

Yufuin-senpai hummed a little in the back of his throat. “That’s fair, I guess,” he agreed. “I’d probably be a lot more worked up about it if I thought that way. Personally, though, I don’t think the string means all that much.”

“Oh?” Io asked, fingers stilling in surprise. Io had been appalled by the idea of destiny, as he’d said - but he also wasn’t in the habit of doubting his own eyes simply because it was convenient to do so. “What do you make of it, then?”

Yufuin-senpai straightened up in his seat - then promptly collapsed forward on the desk in front of him, rubbing his neck. “Ow. I shouldn’t have sat like that. Ugh. I don’t know, I think it’s probably a quantum thing. Like chikuwabu.”

“...Chikuwabu is a ‘quantum thing,’” Io repeated, after a suitable pause in which he tried and failed to process that statement.

“It’s a thing that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time,” Yufuin-senpai said into the desk. “Kind of like Tawarayama-sensei, for that matter. Really, have you ever read anything about quantum physics? Once you get to a subatomic level, the universe is weird as hell.”

“I see,” Io said. He did not see, not in the slightest, but after nearly two years in the Defense Club, Io had learned better than to expect a conversation to go from Point A to Point B without stopping by the other twenty-four letters first.

“Yeah,” Yufuin-senpai said, dropping his arms and pillowing his head on them as he turned his face toward Io. “Like, some scientist wanted to figure out whether light was made up of particles like solid objects are, or whether it’s a wave like sound, right? So they set up this experiment where they took photons of light - which are about as small as you can get; they’re way smaller than atoms - and they shot the photons one at a time against this board, so they could see whether the photons splatted like particles or like waves when they hit it.”

“Ah,” Io said. His fingers twitched, and he folded his hands together very deliberately to keep them from tapping out his irritation. Politely suggesting that Yufuin-senpai get to the point already would likely only result in another five tangents. To Yufuin-senpai, time was only valuable if he was wasting it.

“And I mean, the setup worked great,” Yufuin-senpai continued, to all appearances oblivious to Io’s impatience. “Good job them.” He waggled the fingers of his visible hand in what might have been a celebratory gesture if he’d been willing to put a little more effort into it. “Except it turns out that the photons are sort of both at once, and not in some normal hybrid way. They act like particles when you’re watching them and like waves when you’re not. It’s called the observer effect, or something. Subatomic stuff can be in multiple states at the same time, unless you’re watching it. Then it just sort of freezes in one state and basically sticks its hands in its pockets and whistles, like ‘Nothing to see here, officer,’ until you go away again, because apparently at the most fundamental levels, the universe runs on the same logic as American cartoons.”

“There’s a similar phenomenon in business,” Io said. “It’s called the Hawthorne effect. Essentially, it says that people modify their behavior when they’re aware that they’re being observed, which can undermine attempts to establish cause and effect and draw conclusions about proposed courses of action.” The problem of too many interconnected variables was one that Io was only too familiar with. “But I don’t see what the behavior of subatomic particles has to do with the strings.”

Yufuin-senpai was quiet for a few moments, evidently distracted by the way his string lay draped across the desk, bunching up on itself a little before sliding off the edge of the desk and onto the floor. “Classical physics says that we live in a clockwork universe,” he said finally. “If you had a powerful enough computer and knew how to sort through the data, you could predict the future down to the last detail, because it’s all been a chain of inevitable cause-and-effect since the first bang started things off. That’s why quantum mechanics was such a big deal - if the building blocks of the universe can’t even pick a state and stick with it, the word ‘inevitable’ sort of loses its punch, you know? There’s an inherent element of randomness there. That’s why some scientists say that quantum physics reintroduced the possibility of free will. Of course, there's still plenty who say that’s bunk, but.”

Yufuin-senpai shoved himself back until he was sitting up. “Anyway, the whole soulmate thing is just stupid no matter how you look at it,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to say that we’re made for a specific person, or that it’s inevitable. It’s not like people have just one relationship in their lives. What makes that one so much more special than the others? I think that - you and I just happened to look, that’s all. The universe had to commit to one state, so it flipped a coin. It’s just chance that we ended up tied to the people we did.”

Io looked down at the string trailing away from his tightly folded hands, the red stark against his bloodless knuckles. The string certainly looked solid, for all its intangibility; there was a visible weight and volume to the way it slid along the desk as he shifted, and to the way the light played along its surface. “I don’t know,” Io said. “It’s certainly an interesting perspective, but without more evidence to back it up, I can’t bring myself to put much stock in it.”

“Then test it yourself, or come up with your own theory, or something,” Yufuin-senpai said, sounding irritated. “It’s not like I’m some kind of expert on this stuff.” His chair scraped, and Io looked over to see Yufuin-senpai standing up, craning his neck first one way and then the other to pop it. “Anyway, I’ve got to get back,” he continued, leaning down to stash what little remained of the bag of chocolates back in his schoolbag. “I don’t want to be late for dinner.”

Yufuin-senpai swung his bag up on his shoulder and headed toward the door. As he passed Kinugawa-senpai’s usual desk, he reached out and caught hold of Kinugawa-senpai’s bag too, slinging it over his other shoulder without comment. Io could think of several comments himself, but chose to forgo them; Yufuin-senpai’s determinedly casual air gave the impression that neither teasing nor encouragement would go over particularly well at present.

At the doorway, Yufuin-senpai paused. “I don’t really care about evidence, personally,” he said, looking back at Io with one hand clutching the strap of Kinugawa-senpai’s bag where it dug into his shoulder. “I don’t need to be a hundred percent sure I’m right. I just need the possibility, you know? That’s good enough for me.”

Io didn’t know how long he sat there after Yufuin-senpai left, but the red of the early winter sunset had long since faded into night by the time he unfolded his hands and snatched up his phone, tapping out two messages in quick succession. Io didn’t bother to wait for the buzz of a response, throwing on his coat and scarf and tucking the box of chocolates into his bag rather more carefully before hurrying out the door. He’d already wasted enough time, after all, and his arrangements would hardly make themselves.

 


 

Ryuu took the stairs up the hill to school two at a time, then three; he tried for four but stumbled and nearly faceplanted, catching hold of the railing at the last moment and then using it as leverage to fling himself up another two stairs. Normally Ryuu would have preferred to take his time and arrive fashionably late, but then he also preferred - well, what he really would have preferred was not being a flushed, sweaty, shaky mess, but since that wasn’t going to happen, he preferred being a flushed, sweaty, shaky mess because he’d been running, not for… you know. Any other reason. Because Ryuu totally was not embarrassed. Or nervous. Or regretting, like, all of his life choices up to this point. Or anything. It was just that it would be rude to keep Io waiting, not that Ryuu’d gone into a tailspin of panic after getting Io’s message. But really, Ryuu had no idea how a simple sentence like “Ryuu, do you mind if I drop by for a few minutes?” managed to be simultaneously so innocuous and so gut-wrenching. It was like those weird chocolates that the Beppus had left for them, before they’d found out who’d sent them (and even after, for that matter) - sure, the chocolates looked pretty, but who knew what was lurking underneath? The only coherent thought that Ryuu had been able to pull out of the sixteen different levels of sirens going off in his head was that there were some conversations that you just hardcore did not want to have while dealing with the knowledge that your grandma was in the next room pretending like the walls weren’t about as thin as Ryuu’s chances of surviving this day with what remained of his dignity intact. Any conversation that you had on Valentine’s Day night with the guy you were kinda sorta maybe really into after you kinda sorta maybe gave him Valentine’s chocolates qualified by default. Yeah, no, Ryuu really did not need witnesses for this one, so he’d word-vomited something about being on his way to school to pick up his bag and meeting Io in the clubroom, jammed on his hat, and taken off without giving himself time for second thoughts.

And yeah, okay, maybe it was a little late to be worrying about privacy when Ryuu’d handed over the chocolates in front of half the class, but like. Look, Ryuu had a plan, okay? Maybe it was more of an exit plan, to keep things casual enough to give them both an out if they needed it, but it was a plan, which was already more thought than Ryuu usually put into things. That had to count for something, right?

...right.

Either way, there was no point fussing about it now; done was done, and Ryuu was just going to have to play it by ear from here. Which was fine - it wasn’t like thinking ahead had ever been Ryuu’s specialty anyway.

Like right now, for example - it hadn’t occurred to Ryuu that the school might actually be, you know, locked or something at this time of night until he was rounding the corner just before he hit the gates. Which could have been, you know, kind of a problem, except that the gates were standing open as wide as if Ryuu were running to class in the morning instead of to - to whatever this was, and the front doors opened easily when Ryuu pushed them. Huh. Some club must be staying late to get ready for an event and bribed whoever was in charge of locking up, or something.

...or else Io blackmailed whoever was in charge of locking up, which honestly seemed like the more likely scenario now that Ryuu thought about it. Whatever; Ryuu had more pressing things to worry about, like whether he’d given himself a serious case of hat hair in his rush to get out the door. He yanked off his hat and one of his gloves and finger-combed his hair in short, jerky motions as he hit the last flight of stairs leading to the clubroom. Luckily, it didn’t feel too bad; hat hair was rarely any match for the sheer amount of product that Ryuu poured onto his head on a daily basis. He wished that he could freeze his insides in place that easily. Ryuu didn’t know what sort of dance moves his stomach was trying to do, but he was pretty sure they weren’t flattering.

The door to the clubroom was standing open, and Ryuu could hear rustling coming from inside. The evidence that he was not, in fact, the first to arrive had him slowing down further and further the closer he got to the doorway, until he finally stopped just outside. Which was stupid, considering he’d been running the whole way up until now. Besides, what was the point? Ryuu’d made his move, for better or worse, and Io had made his decision, for better or worse - but as long as Ryuu didn’t cross that threshold, Io’s answer could be anything. Which wasn’t the same as a yes, but wasn’t the same as a no, either.

Ugh, this is so stupid. You’re being stupid. Just get it over with, seriously. He’ll say that he likes you or he won’t, and either way you get to stop skulking around the hallway like a creeper.

As pep talks went, it was admittedly not his finest. For a moment Ryuu wished that Yumoto was there, with some of his cheerful nonsense that somehow poked a hole in logic, like logic was the irrational one - but then Ryuu imagined Yumoto trying to wingman and backpedaled immediately and fervently. Not that there was much danger of Yumoto showing up at school at this time of night to shout non-sequiturs and horrifying and inadvertently backhanded compliments at them until they were embarrassed enough to start dating just to get him to stop, but the thought of anyone catching him like this - however unlikely - was enough for Ryuu to gather up whatever scraps of courage he could find and step forward into the doorway of the clubroom so abruptly that he almost toppled forward.

For all the good it did him, anyway - all that buildup, and Io never even looked up. He was standing in front of their cluster of desks, coat draped over the back of his usual chair like he intended to stay for a while. He was still wearing his school uniform, and he was leaning against a desk, evidently completely absorbed in one of his business transactions. His expression was severe as he stared down at the screen of his phone, one finger tapping the casing in irritation as he thought. His head was tilted down, and the longer part of his fringe had fallen forward and was getting in his eyes. It was all so normal that Ryuu felt a sudden pang at having done anything to change that. What they had right now, this everyday clubroom and Io’s everyday expressions and his everyday habits - it was good. Great, even. It was just that Ryuu really wanted - he wanted -

Io’s finger tapped out another irritated staccato, and Ryuu jerked his gaze away from Io’s face before Io had a chance to notice and Ryuu ended up making things weird. Weirder. Anyway. Ryuu cast around for something else to look at - something not weird - only to have his eyes fall on a smallish white paper bag that was sitting at Io’s feet. The bag was printed in shiny gold with the logo of a candy company that Ryuu vaguely recognized, and Ryuu could see a box that looked suspiciously heart-shaped poking out of the top.

Ryuu hadn’t realized how tense he was until all his muscles relaxed at once. He had just enough fine motor control left to step the rest of the way into the room. “Hey,” he said, a little breathlessly.

Io looked up, and a smile softened his features, although the skin around his eyes still looked sort of tight as his gaze dropped to Ryuu’s hand. Ryuu belatedly realized that he was still wearing one glove and busied himself with trying to take off both the glove and his coat at the same time. It had the bonus side effect of giving Ryuu an excuse not to meet Io’s eyes for a few seconds while he tried to figure out where his elbow had gotten to.

“Ryuu,” Io greeted him, straightening up and slipping the phone into his pocket. “Thank you for meeting me so late, and on such short notice.”

“Yeah, no prob,” Ryuu said through a mouthful of glove as he finally got his sleeve sorted and tossed his coat on a desk. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to actually, you know, make eye contact or something. Hoo boy. Ryuu was beginning to see why people used to be so big on love letters. He wouldn’t have minded doing this at a remove of, oh, a thousand kilometers or so.

Then again, Ryuu had no idea how they survived waiting for a reply; the ten seconds that Io hesitated were the most excruciating Ryuu had ever suffered through, and that included the entire morning and afternoon he’d spent obsessing about what Io might say about the chocolates. All the doomsday scenarios that Ryuu could come up with weighed on him less than the yes that hadn’t been said yet, that could still turn into something else now that he’d gone and gotten his hopes up.

“I realize that it’s traditional to wait until White Day to give a return gift,” Io said finally, sounding as though the effort of speaking weighed on him as much as the silence had weighed on Ryuu. “And I certainly don’t wish to undermine a holiday designed to celebrate one of my core values.”

Which might have sounded really romantic, if you’d never actually met Io before. “You mean rampant consumerism?” Ryuu asked flatly. Some of the strangeness of the moment, the feeling that their everyday reality had been irreparably changed, abruptly vanished. Ryuu wasn’t sure if he was relieved or not.

“Of course,” Io said, his smile turning sharp for a moment before it fell away entirely. “But… There are other things I value more,” he continued, meeting Ryuu’s gaze steadily in a way that made Ryuu’s insides lurch, and oh, ooooh, this was bad, this was really bad. Forget rejection; Ryuu’d been worrying about the wrong thing. There was no way he was gonna survive Io being sweet. Ryuu was so busy focusing on reminding his heart and lungs and stomach and knees and… well, his everything to buckle their seatbelts and not stand up on the ride that he only belatedly realized that Io was still talking.

“I have my weaknesses as an investor, but being too risk-averse usually isn’t one of them,” Io was saying. “But I think - well. I was speaking with someone today about a particular business phenomenon in which people tend to change their behavior when they’re being observed. It’s typically cited as an issue in efficiency studies - for example, in many cases employees will have a temporary boost in productivity when you change the lighting in an office or factory whether or not the building was too dark before, simply because the employees are aware that they’re under scrutiny. I’m so used to thinking of myself as an investor - an observer - that it didn’t occur to me that perhaps I was the one changing my behavior because I was concerned about…”

Io hesitated, and his gaze dropped to Ryuu’s chest. Ryuu glanced down himself and realized that he’d crossed his arms, hands gripping his biceps in what Ryuu suspected was an instinctive attempt to keep his heart from rabbiting right out of his chest. It wasn’t exactly the most welcoming pose from Io’s perspective, though, Ryuu guessed, and there was no way Ryuu was explaining that one. He pried his hands off his biceps with some difficulty and leaned back against one of the desks, hands gripping the edge of the desk in what hopefully looked more like casual support than a desperate attempt to keep from fidgeting too blatantly.

It must have helped, because Io’s eyes met his again. (Helped Io, anyway. Ryuu’s stomach was once again trying to swap seats with his lungs mid-ride, which was putting a serious crimp in Ryuu’s attempt to come off as cool-yet-approachable and incidentally total boyfriend material.) “Well, concerned about… observation,” Io finished, a little vaguely. He’d probably lost his train of thought, or something. Ryuu could relate. “But that’s counter-productive, of course. If I want to make the most profitable decision I can, I need accurate data, and skewing the data is just as unhelpful to me as it would be to any potential observer. Once I considered what choice I would make if I weren’t concerned about any outside influences… Well. I found that I don’t care to waste any more time worrying about theoreticals. So - thank you. For the chocolates.”

“Yeah,” Ryuu said, his stomach sinking back into place - and then down a little further. “Sorry I didn’t say, uh, anything, really. I just - didn’t know what to say or how to say it, I guess. I kept making all these lists of super-romantic ways to tell you - oh, I need to borrow your history notes for the last few weeks, by the way - but in the end, I didn’t have the guts to pull any of them off. You were saying all that stuff about people not acting like themselves when they think someone’s watching, but I dunno, no matter how bad I wanted to just tell you, the only way I could bring myself to do it was if I made it a casual thing in front of everyone, so they were watching but didn’t see, you know?”

Ryuu also apparently didn’t have the guts to keep looking Io in the face; he let his gaze drop to the cuff of his coat sleeve, poking out over the edge of the desk where he’d tossed it a few minutes ago. He’d only bought it a few weeks ago, but it was already showing signs of wear. Ugh, and Ryuu’d saved up forever for that coat, too. He hated it when big-name labels cheaped out on the materials.

“Well, you are a bit of an exhibitionist,” Io said faux-thoughtfully, and his flippancy was so unexpected that it startled a seriously uncool bark-laugh out of Ryuu.

“Well, I am a school idol, you know,” Ryuu said once he’d recovered his composure, looking up with a wink. “I’m used to all eyes being on me!” His amusement didn’t last long, though, and Ryuu could feel himself drooping as the atmosphere started weighing on him again. “It’s true, though,” Ryuu said, slumping further back against the desk. “Crowds are easy; I always know what to do or say in front of an audience. But now that it’s just you and me…”

It was Ryuu’s turn to hesitate, pride warring with the uncomfortable feeling that he owed Io some honesty after Io’d said all that stuff to him. Actually, Ryuu was pretty sure he was good with crowds precisely because he didn’t owe them any honesty. After all, a school idol’s job was to project an image for people to admire, and Ryuu knew his role inside and out. It wasn’t like who he was in front of a crowd wasn’t him; it just… wasn’t all of him. Io knew the less-public parts of Ryuu better than anyone; it was a little too late to try and posture around him. But how was Ryuu supposed to be honest about something he didn’t really understand himself?

Ryuu knew all about dating - the pull of attraction; the back and forth of flirting as they felt each other out, looking for openings; the mutual ego boost as they showered each other in compliments… Ryuu had it all down. This thing with Io, though - it was like nothing Ryuu’d ever experienced before. There was a tension between the two of them that was so thick that Ryuu could hardly breathe sometimes - but at the same time there was a gap there, as though Ryuu kept putting his hand out to grab hold of something, like he’d grabbed for the handrail on the stairs earlier, only to miss it and end up stumbling and flailing wildly as he tried to regain his balance.

Ryuu wanted to break them both - the tension that seemed to steal the air out of his lungs and the vacuum that felt oddly like loneliness, even when Io was talking and smiling right beside him. But how? Sure, Ryuu wanted Io to go out with him; that was what you did when you liked someone and they liked you back, after all. But for all Ryuu’s experience dating, he absolutely could not picture what dating Io would look like. He couldn’t begin to imagine Io sitting across from him in an ice cream parlour, listening to Ryuu spout off romantic lines with a wink and a smile as they both took selfies to post online. Even if he could wrap his brain around that, Ryuu didn’t really see how that was going to get rid of all the things hanging between them. But if that wasn’t the answer, then what was? Ryuu didn’t know. But Ryuu’d always been an action kind of guy, which was how he’d ended up plowing forward despite having no clue where he was going with this - and how he’d ended up face-to-face with Io in the empty clubroom at night, Io watching him worriedly as Ryuu’s words failed him for once.

“Ryuu?” Io asked softly, and Ryuu realized that he’d been quiet too long.

“I just - when it’s just you and me, I feel like I’ve got no idea what I’m doing,” Ryuu admitted, scrubbing at his face in frustration. When he let his hands drop, he looked up to see Io looking at him fondly.

“That’s impressive,” Io said, the worry lines on his face smoothing out into something weirdly like approval.

“Uh,” Ryuu said, because that did not seem like an appropriate response to what amounted to “I’m flailing around wildly in the dark and was hoping to drag you in with me so we can both be in over our heads, instead of just me.”

After a long moment, Io asked, a little diffidently, “Do you believe in soulmates?”

“Uh,” Ryuu said again, because now he was definitely hearing things. But Io was a little flushed and was refusing to meet Ryuu’s eyes, his posture unnaturally still, like someone who was trying as hard not to fidget as Ryuu had been earlier. Wait, was Io serious? No way. No way. There was no way that Io of all people went in for that kind of thing. But then why bring it up at all? Oh, unless -

“Wait, wait,” Ryuu said, as the lightbulb came on. “Is this about lit class last week, when the teacher was talking about those three Greek ladies and how they were supposed to measure out people’s lives as thread or whatever, and I was saying it would be way more interesting if they were measuring out red strings, even though there was no way I could disappoint all those girls by being tied to just one person?” Io had been weirdly pissy after class that day. “Because I was totally just - ”

“Not at all,” Io interrupted hastily. “I was just... discussing quantum physics with Yufuin-senpai.” Io gave an apologetic little half-shrug as if to say that he knew it wasn’t much of an explanation, but it was the only one he had. Ryuu knew the feeling. When Yufuin-senpai was in the mood, he could jump from subject to subject in a way that kept you up all night trying to figure out the connections while the guy responsible zonked out for twelve hours. Sometimes Ryuu suspected that Yufuin-senpai was actually some kind of incubus, but like, by planting a seed in your brain and using that to suck the sleep out of you.

“Yeah, no, I get it,” Ryuu said, waving it off. “I mean, I don’t get it, but yeah.”

“Good,” Io said. His posture relaxed a little, but he was still sort of flushed, and he still wouldn’t meet Ryuu’s eyes. “Then… do you?”

Ryuu almost said “uh” again but managed to bite it back just in time. Io was being weirdly insistent about this. Ryuu got the distinct impression that he was missing something important somehow, that there were lines that he shouldn’t cross, or was about to cross, or maybe should cross, but Ryuu didn’t even know what they were, much less where they were. All he knew was that Io apparently genuinely wanted an answer about soulmates, of all things, and that Ryuu still owed him some honesty here.

Of course, the really honest answer was that Ryuu had frankly never thought about it before. Sure, he had a dozen lines about red strings that he trotted out now and then with a wink and a smile in response to some coy comment from a girl, but it had always just been playing around on both their parts; Ryuu’d never stopped to think about what it actually meant. But Ryuu had a feeling that wasn’t exactly the kind of answer Io was looking for, so he tried to think about it now, to come up with an honest answer that was hopefully also interesting and intelligent and indicative of hidden depths.

Except that was kind of a tall order when the other person was standing in front of you waiting for your answer and you could feel each second ticking away as your synapses abruptly shorted out all at once, leaving you scrambling around a big, empty, whistling void trying to find an idea, any idea, so after a few increasingly uncomfortable seconds, Ryuu just blurted, “I don’t know. I hope not. That would kind of suck.”

There was a moment there where Ryuu wished that he was the one with earth-related powers so he could just order the ground to swallow him up where he stood, but either his answer was way more interesting than it sounded to Ryuu or Io’s standards were unflatteringly low, because Io apparently lost interest in whatever he’d been focusing on that wasn’t Ryuu and looked back at Ryuu intently. “Why?” he asked.

“Eh… It just seems kind of depressing?” Ryuu said, which was not better, low standards or not. He tried again. “Like… I’ve put a lot of work into my image, you know? Being popular’s a skill. You’ve got to do research, find out what works for you and what doesn’t, plan how to play to your strengths, go on a bunch of crap dates so you can figure out what went wrong and how to do better next time, learn how to read people so you can be sure you’re leaving them satisfied, constantly up your game… Like, it’s a whole lifestyle if you really wanna be popular. So if you tell me that none of the work I’ve put into dating matters because it’s all inevitable anyway, it just… sort of takes the fun out of things. And maybe it’s not a great example, because you didn’t exactly fall for my image or anything, but I dunno. Your drive was the first thing I really noticed about you, you know? It kind of - resonated, or something. Even when I didn’t like you, deep down, I had to respect someone who knew what he wanted and threw himself into it with that kind of dedication. I think that’s probably why I was going on about cost-benefit analyses in dating right in front of you, that first time we talked - I think I sort of wanted to prove that we weren’t that different, even if I didn’t exactly think about it that way at the time.”

Ryuu… really wasn’t sure whether that was better or not - longer, sure, but better? Reply hazy, try again - but at least Io seemed satisfied. He nodded once, sharply. “I agree completely,” he said. “Success is far more satisfying when you feel as though you’ve earned it through your own efforts. Perhaps all investors are gamblers at heart. If I put my fortune into guaranteed-interest bonds, I could live comfortably for the rest of my life without ever touching the principle - but personally, I would rather pursue a higher payout with a higher risk attached, and know that any success or failure is my own doing. The thought of its being inevitable is… rather depressing, as you say.”

Io paused. “Your drive is… the first thing I admired about you as well,” he said after a moment, his lips twitching with a quick smile. “It seems that you and Yufuin-senpai both have quite a bit to teach me when it comes to identifying acceptable risk.”

Ryuu got a little distracted trying to figure out exactly what Io meant by that, and incidentally what any of this had to do with a conversation about quantum physics - sheesh, he was already getting caught up in Yufuin-senpai’s sleep trap and he wasn’t even there. Ugh. It didn’t help that Ryuu had only a vague idea of what quantum physics entailed, mostly involving “science” and “hard” and “an opportunity to break his previous record for number of emails sent during a single class period.” The rustle of paper caught his attention again, and when he registered that Io had reached down and grabbed the white paper bag that had been sitting at his feet this whole time, Ryuu stiffened, his posture straightening up as Io did.

There was no trace of diffidence about Io now; he had that same look he got when he’d made up his mind about something and good luck to anyone who got in his way. It was a good look on him. “I don’t really understand… this,” Io said, holding the bag up. “I didn’t think I could understand it, so I didn’t even try. It seemed like wasted effort. That was foolish of me. Effort is never wasted when it’s for something that matters. And this… this matters.” Io’s voice was always a little brusque, with a certain no-nonsense quality that was inherently Io, but right now it was feathered with something so soft that it gave Ryuu the shivers.

Io reached into the bag and pulled out a simple white satin box with a thin red ribbon dangling down as decoration. It was understated and classy and almost definitely from one of Io’s candy companies. Ryuu had a feeling he knew exactly how much Io had paid for it. That was also so inherently Io that Ryuu had to fight to keep the grin off his face, even as something in his chest softened the way Io’s voice had. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep a straight face as Io continued.

“I was impressed earlier because even though you don’t understand this any more than I do, you were willing to jump in head-first,” Io said. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t willing to do the same before. I’d like to try now, if you’ll allow me to do so.”

Io held out the box, and Ryuu took it carefully, trying not to make it too obvious that his hands were trembling as much as they’d been when he’d handed over his own box of chocolates earlier - only to realize that the box was way too light to actually have anything in it. Ryuu looked at Io, who was busy adjusting his perfectly orderly cuffs. “I believe that the tradition is for return gifts to be three times as valuable as the initial gift, but I had a difficult time thinking of something three times as valuable as the chocolates you made,” Io said. He was looking a little flushed again, but this time he didn’t look away. “In the end I thought - well, as you said, what makes something really valuable is the time and effort you put into it. Time spent with you is the most valuable of all, so I thought - perhaps we could make the chocolates together this time?”

Ryuu’s heart was so full that it felt like it was overflowing all the way up into his throat. His voice was thick with it when he finally managed to say, “Yeah. Yeah, I wanna do that. I want - I want - ”

All of a sudden, Ryuu knew exactly what he wanted and just where he was going with all this. His heart swelled even further, until it flowed up past his throat and out of his mouth in a bright laugh that made Io tilt his head curiously. “What is it?” he asked.

“I’m a genius!” Ryuu declared, crossing his arms - carefully, so he didn’t crush the candy box that he would put down when someone pried it from his cold, dead fingers - and sticking his nose in the air in a snooty pose. The effect was probably ruined by the way he couldn’t stop grinning, but Ryuu didn’t care.

“Probably,” Io agreed, so fondly that Ryuu had to give up the snooty attitude entirely, clutching the candy box to himself with both hands like a life preserver. “For any particular reason, or was that a generalized statement?”

“I was right about those Greek ladies after all!” Ryuu said, the words tumbling out in a rush. “It’s totally better if they measure out red strings. Sort of. I mean - ” Foreign languages had never really been Ryuu’s strong point, and the translation from “sudden enlightenment” to “actual words and stuff” left him flailing around, making abortive gestures as though getting into the right pose might somehow kickstart his brain. He tried again.

“I mean - I wanna make chocolates with you,” Ryuu said earnestly. “I wanna take you on a date to every café in the city and argue with you about which thing on the menu is the best value. I wanna find every place that’s doing a buy-one-get-one-free promotion so we can take advantage of it together. I wanna take selfies together at all the local landmarks - ”

“Binan has local landmarks?” Io asked, eyebrow raised. He clearly had no idea where this was going, but he seemed perfectly happy to play along anyway, and God, Ryuu loved this dork.

“Sure!” Ryuu said, nearly bouncing up and down in his excitement. Was this how Yumoto felt all the time? Ryuu had no idea how he managed. Scratch that, he had no idea how Goura-san managed. “There’s Mount Binan, and the world’s longest staircase, oh my God, and hey, did you know that Binan is where they filmed the mega-popular show Battle Lover Vesta and Friends Become Intergalactic Idols and Also Save the Earth?” he added innocently, or as innocently as he could manage through a grin that he could feel turning decidedly shit-eating. “We could do a - whatsit, a pilgrimage to all the sites they shot at!”

Io grimaced. “Please don’t even joke about that. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m fairly certain that wasn’t the name of the show.”

“Localization thing,” Ryuu reassured him. “Like Wom-san’s name. Anyway, what I’m getting at is - so my gramma’s embroidery thread, it’s made up of a bunch of thinner threads twisted together, right? If you ask me, we can make our own red strings by winding the threads of our lives together so tight they turn into one big thread and then stitching it all over the fabric of this town, so no one can pull it apart. That’s the kind of red string I can believe in.”

Io was staring at Ryuu like Ryuu’d just scientifically proven that quantum physics was actually a love story. Well, sure, why not? Right now Ryuu was absolutely certain that he could turn anything into a love story, if only he could do it with Io. The thought made Ryuu grin even wider. His face was starting to ache with it, but hell, that was a love story too. “So how about it?” he asked, as nonchalantly as he could. “Forget destiny - wanna make our own red string?”

Ryuu let go of the candy box with one hand so he could reach out and catch Io’s pinkie with his own in a loose grip. Even that tiny contact sent a jolt through him, like every nerve in his body was concentrated in his pinkie. Io might’ve felt the same way; he started at the touch, then stared down at where Ryuu’s pinkie encircled his own until Ryuu began to get a little nervous. Was it too much? Io’d flat-out admitted that he was kind of freaked out by this whole thing, after all. Maybe Ryuu’d better just -

Ryuu had barely loosened his grip when Io’s pinkie abruptly curled tight around Ryuu’s, cutting off his strategic retreat.

“I think the idea has… possibilities,” Io said, which would have been totally unromantic if the gobsmacked look on his face hadn’t been rapidly dissolving into something that Ryuu didn’t have a name for, but that was both new and achingly familiar all at once.

“Of course it does!” Ryuu said, only half-aware of what was coming out of his mouth as he tried desperately to figure out whether he wanted to commit every detail of that expression to memory or look anywhere other than at Io’s face right now. “And if it didn’t, we’d make some.”

You would,” Io said, and whatever it was that was in his face was also in his voice. Ryuu stood no chance against a double onslaught like that; he had to look away.

After a few seconds of silence as Ryuu scrabbled for whatever scraps of composure he could find, Io spoke again. “As I said before, for me most of the satisfaction in investing comes from an appreciation of the handiwork involved - particularly if it’s mine.” Io’s tone had lost some of the aching quality, and Ryuu dared to glance up. Io was smiling at him. “You may not have noticed, but I can be a bit egotistical at times.”

“I have no idea what that might feel like,” Ryuu said, very solemnly.

“You wouldn’t,” Io agreed, just as solemnly, which was the last straw for Ryuu. He cracked up, which set Io off too.

When they calmed down, Io added quietly, “Business and quantum physics - and social theory, too - all agree that the act of observation changes your results. Very well. In that case… I want to observe this world with you and see how it changes as a result. How we change it. Human innovation is quite amazing, don’t you think?”

Io’s pinkie tightened around Ryuu’s, then let go. Ryuu barely had time to register the loss before Io’s hand wrapped around Ryuu’s wrist instead, tugging him forward, and then Ryuu dropped the candy box after all as Io’s arms wrapped around his torso until Io was holding him so tight that he could barely breathe. Not that Ryuu cared; he just clung back even tighter. His head was spinning, and maybe it was just the lack of oxygen, but Ryuu felt like he was seeing double, their everyday clubroom and Io’s everyday expressions and his everyday habits and the way they were all still the same but also totally different when Ryuu looked at them now. Ryuu had always kind of sucked at those Magic Eye optical illusion things - why would you bother looking for a lamp when it was obviously two people kissing? - but now he thought he was finally starting to get it, how things could be two separate things at the same time, and how those little changes might build up over time until the world you lived in was completely different, even though it was still the same -

- but then Io sighed and nestled his face into Ryuu’s hair, and all at once the only world Ryuu cared about was the one right in front of him now, as he threaded his fingers through Io’s hair and cupped Io’s head to pull him in even closer.