Midorima is glad that Akashi has returned to his former self. Akashi is growing his bangs out again, and he uses appropriate pronouns when they meet for a quick basketball match or a game of shogi, and he is polite instead of smug and/or dismissive when he wins the game. It’s good to have Akashi back again. Midorima is certain that one day he will be able to forgive Akashi for not shaking his hand during the Winter Cup semifinals last year.
When Akashi invites Midorima to “a day out on the town” two Saturdays before the start of their second Inter-High, Midorima is glad, mostly. Akashi is a fascinating person after all (a horrible friend, and difficult, but always fascinating), and Midorima would never say no to an opportunity to learn more about him. He still has questions about what happened to Akashi at Teiko and what losing the Winter Cup meant to him.
While waiting for Akashi to arrive, Midorima finishes all of his homework for Monday. He remembers, just as Akashi’s fancy car pulls up in front of the house, to hide his porn stash in his laundry basket. Just a precaution. Akashi used to be unnecessarily inquisitive about the contents of Midorima’s locker back in junior high. Midorima doesn’t want Akashi to flip through one of those magazines and raise his eyebrows over the pages that are more worn out than the others and then make unnecessary and accurate connections.
Midorima hears his sister opening the door. He grabs his lucky item of the day, a jar of toothpicks, places it in the right pocket of his pants, and then hurries downstairs. Before he can escort Akashi out of the front hallway and safely close the door between themselves and his inquisitive, bratty sister, she has already managed to subtly insult both their outfit choices, insinuate that they are going out on a date, and also directly ask why Akashi has such bad taste in men. Midorima’s cheeks and ears are burning as he marches to the sidewalk.
When he glances at Akashi, after they are a block away from the house, he sees that Akashi is looking as unruffled as ever. As handsome and put-together as he does off the court too. The white scarf is a nice touch, looks very regal and not hipsterish at all over a nice but powder blue sweater.
“Where are we going first?” Midorima asks.
He expects Akashi to mention a place related to their interests, like a museum or a concert hall, but Akashi replies, his tone perfectly serious, “We are going to watch a movie at the theater.”
Midorima suddenly has a very bad feeling. A premonition that today is not going to end well. Cancers are ranked third today, but being in the company of Akashi’s presence always affects his personal ranking adversely.
“I can’t stay out too long,” he says, adjusting his glasses. “I have things to do at home.”
“Oh, Shintarou.” Akashi smiles. “Relax. You may find the movie enjoyable. It doesn’t hurt to try something new once in awhile.”
Midorima does not believe him, of course, but he likes the way Akashi says his first name, is glad that this hasn’t changed because of the disappearance of Akashi’s second self. When Akashi starts towards the intersection, Midorima follows.
Akashi selects a horror film to watch. Midorima doesn’t mind, much, because none of these films are truly frightening. Just cheap CGI and overly exaggerated expressions of fear.
He does mind, however, having to buy popcorn for Akashi and then holding the popcorn box when Akashi decides he does not like the taste of it. The box is greasy, and Midorima’s fingers are starting to stink of butter. The smell, coupled with the screaming on screen, is starting to give him a headache.
Akashi is watching contently, his eyes wide. One would think that he has never been to a theater before.
Perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps his father still requires him to spend hours studying extra subjects with tutors. As befitting his position as heir to the Akashi conglomerate. Midorima sometimes wishes he was an heir to a corporation too. But then again, he might have had a breakdown from all that extra work, like Akashi did at Teiko.
Midorima whispers, “Akashi, have you never been inside a theater before?”
“Sshh,” Akashi replies, not bothering to look at Midorima.
It is midafternoon when they leave the theater. Midorima’s head is still throbbing dully. He stops at a public restaurant to wash his hands.
When he rejoins Akashi on the sidewalk, Akashi says, “Let’s have lunch.”
Midorima has gone out to lunch with Akashi before, back in junior high. Only twice, but it was a pleasant experience each time. Very peaceful, just the two of them at a nice, traditional Japanese restaurant close to Teiko. Akashi has very refined tastes.
Akashi is accidentally walking into a barbecue restaurant right now. Midorima is about to tell him when Akashi turns and says, “Hurry up, Shintarou. There is only one grill available.”
Midorima follows Akashi into the restaurant, missing the uncomplicated days he had enjoyed with the first Akashi. He isn’t sure what to talk about with this new, strange Akashi, who is as bossy and secretive as he was before but also mainstream. So Midorima sits in silence until the meat arrives.
“Have you ever grilled meat before?” Midorima asks.
“Does it matter?” Akashi replies.
He picks up a pair of tongs. When he holds it out, Midorima takes it. Their fingers brush in the process. Midorima withdraws his hand quickly.
“Ryouta told me that you’re very skilled at barbecuing,” Akashi says.
“Kise is an idiot,” Midorima says. “Don’t talk to him. And I’m not grilling all of this by myself.”
“Well, the meat isn’t going to cook itself.” Akashi picks up a spatula and pokes at the meat.
“You’re the one who wanted to come here. What’s gotten into you?”
Akashi looks at him for a moment, eyes wide, lips pressed together. He doesn’t look pleased. In fact, he looks like he did during the Semi Finals game whenever Takao was trying to block him. Midorima is not happy either, neither with this situation nor with that match. Akashi had played them for fools there. Losing hurts, and it is worse when you lose to someone who does not consider you a worthy opponent.
“Fine,” Akashi says, looking away. He picks up a rib. “We will barbecue together.”
“Fine,” Midorima replies.
He ends up having to grill more than half the bowl, however, because Akashi keeps burning the meat. And then Akashi eats only a few pieces before declaring that he does not like the taste of barbecue. The whole lunch is a waste of money and time.
As they leave the restaurant, Midorima decides that he needs to take charge. He can’t just let Akashi drag him around. “Akashi,” Midorima says, “if we return to my house now, we’ll have enough time to play a few games of shogi before you leave.”
Akashi steps closer to the curb, flags down a taxi.
Midorima frowns. “Are you tired already?” he asks. “My house isn’t too far away. We can walk.”
“We can play shogi any day,” Akashi says as the taxi comes to a stop in front of them. “Look how nice it is today, Shintarou. I will take you to a special place.”
“It is supposed to rain later,” Midorima protests, climbing into the taxi after Akashi.
Their elbows bump as Midorima closes his door. Akashi smiles and pats Midorima’s knee. “A little rain never hurt anyone,” he says. “Trust me, it will be fun.”
The words “trust” and “fun” sound stilted in Akashi’s mouth, like they are words of a foreign language he is trying to learn. The taxi smells of cigarettes. The skies are already turning an ominous gray. Midorima wants to know what this “special place” is. He hopes that this is the first time Akashi is taking someone there.
As soon as Akashi veers towards the boathouse at Inokashira Park, Midorima turns back towards the street.
“Don’t be so tiresome, Shintarou,” Akashi says.
Midorima isn’t going to listen anymore. He would rather be considered tiresome than go rowing. There is nothing fun about sitting in a tiny, rickety boat, and it is certainly not fun to get splinters from the oars.
“Shintarou,” Akashi says, and catches hold of his sleeve.
Midorima turns back around, straps on a life vest, and climbs into the boat. Akashi sits at the stern, of course. Sighing, Midorima sits in the middle and takes both the oars. He has only rowed once before, but after a few strokes he gets the hang of it.
“Where to?” Midorima asks.
“This is nice,” Akashi says, dipping his fingers into the lake. He smiles a little. “You row so well, Shintarou. Is there no end to your talent?”
Midorima glares at him. “You didn’t think so highly of my talents during our semifinals match.”
“That is a story of the past.” Akashi tilts his head back. “The past belongs to the past.”
“So you don’t care that Kagami and Kuroko beat you and your famous team last year? You don’t feel like you’ve failed? The Winter Cup showed us that you’re not the strongest amongst us. ”
“Ah, always so direct, Shintarou.” Akashi is still looking up at the sky. “Always so direct except when it matters.”
“When what matters?”
Akashi sits up properly, glances at a point beyond Midorima’s right shoulder. “Shintarou, you’re rowing us into a bank. How are you going to steer the boat around?”
Midorima lets go of the oars and crosses his arms. The boat drifts for a while until the helm grazes the shoreline. Akashi is scowling.
“I’m not rowing anymore,” Midorima says. He wonders if this is how Takao feels when pulling him around. But then again, it’s not his fault that Takao almost always loses at rock-paper-scissors.
“You’re spoiling our day, Shintarou,” Akashi says, crossing his arms as well.
“You’re the one who has been bossing me around all day! You really need to fix your horrible personality.”
Akashi opens his mouth, but no sounds come out. He looks like he has been slapped. He starts to turn red.
Midorima sometimes regrets saying hello to Akashi on their first day of junior high. He had heard of Akashi Seijuurou before, but he had thought the Akashi heir would be a spoiled, snobby brat who was more interested in showing off his wealth and breaking the hearts of girls than anything else. But after five minutes of watching Akashi interact with other students, Midorima had been pleasantly surprised. He was fascinated by how intelligent and poised Akashi was, by the smooth voice and the polite smile, and Midorima had gone over to Akashi’s side to make conversation. And he had stayed for as long as he could.
But here they are now, about a foot apart physically, but a foot that feels like miles. Their uneasy, post-Winter Cup friendship is in tatters. This was bound to happen. A friendship that has been broken once can’t continue without a firm reconciliation first. There is only so long that two people can pretend everything is fine between them when it is not.
A raindrop lands on Midorima’s cheek. He glances up at the dark sky. The wind is picking up. They are far from the boathouse, but he doesn’t want to leave the boat here and walk all the way back to the main road. It is probably better to take their chances and row back to the boathouse. And then he is going to say goodbye to Akashi and go home and never think of Akashi Seijuurou outside of the court. Midorima inhales and then grasps the oars again.
He tries to steer the boat out into deeper water, but the boat keeps bumping against the bank. The wind is tugging at his hair and jacket now, and the rain is coming down faster. Akashi is watching him with a calm expression again, clearly unconcerned that they are both going to drown.
A woman in a passing boat yells at them to return to the boathouse. Midorima says, “Alright, one of us needs to push the boat out of here.”
“Let’s switch,” Akashi says.
“Don’t get up until I come to the middle. The boat is going to tip over.”
Akashi crawls to the middle and takes the oars. Midorima gets up unsteadily, and wobbles over to the stern. The jar of toothpicks falls out of his pocket in the process. They were of no use anyway.
He watches, half-angry, half-impressed, as Akashi expertly turns the boat around. In no time, they are back on course, headed back to the boathouse.
“Have you rowed with your father before?” Midorima asks, before he remembers that Akashi hasn’t been answering any of his personal questions and also that he shouldn’t be asking any more questions because he doesn’t give a damn.
He takes his glasses off and folds them into his shirt pocket. Everything is a blur either way. He will just have to trust Akashi to take them safely to shore.
After a long moment, Akashi replies, “No. But my nanny taught me. We used to row on this lake. I told you it is a special place, didn’t I?”
Midorima is too stressed out and cold and wet to remember what Akashi told him prior to this hazardous boat ride. But it is nice that Akashi is finally sharing information with him.
“She won’t be happy to hear about my bad personality,” Akashi continues. “Or about my bad sportsmanship during a certain Winter Cup semifinal. I guess I should reform myself before going to see her again.”
Midorima squints at Akashi, who smiles a little, says, “Of course I care that I failed, Shintarou. Losing is excruciatingly painful. But.” He shrugs. “I have learned how to move on after defeat. I suppose it was a necessary learning experience.”
Midorima feels something ease in his chest. He takes his glasses out and wipes them on his pants, over and over, as they approach the boathouse.
When they reach the dock, Midorima gets out of the boat, puts on his glasses, and after some hesitation, holds his hand out. Akashi grasps it, lets himself be helped out of the boat.
Before he can lose his nerve, Midorima says, “I am glad that you didn’t let your loss defeat you.” He squeezes Akashi’s hand.
Akashi gently draws his hand away, turns to tie the boat to the dock. Midorima curls his fingers into his palm, wanting to preserve the coolness of Akashi’s touch there for as long as he can.
Akashi says, tone light, “I’ve learnt from the best. Are you ready to lose to me in shogi again?”
“Akashi!” Midorima protests, letting his hand drop to his side.
“Just a joke.” Akashi smiles up at him. He looks happy, from what Midorima can see through his rain-splattered glasses. “It’s nice to joke sometimes, right?”
Midorima feels himself blushing. “I’m not going to lose today,” he says, adjusting his glasses.
“I’m not going to lose at the Inter-High,” Akashi says.
“I won’t lose you again either.”
Midorima glances at Akashi, startled. Akashi adjusts the collar of his jacket unnecessarily, starts towards the main path. “Hurry up, Shintarou,” he calls.
Midorima falls into step behind Akashi, a step to the left. Then he moves up, until they are walking together, their arms brushing. His socks are heavy with water, and his shoes are making squelching noises with every step he takes, and his shirt and pants and underwear are all soaked through and through. But he can’t remember the last time he felt this happy.
“Will you stay for dinner?” Midorima asks when they reach the street.
“Yes,” Akashi says.