"There he is, ladies and gentleman," said Akoya lightly, as Kinshiro slid into his chair. "The man with everything but a social life."
"Akoya, be nice," said Arima.
Akoya smiled and looked utterly unapologetic. Kinshiro simply scowled. It was a lovely day: the sun was shining, the air was pleasantly warm with a brisk breeze to keep things fresh, and Kinshiro was taking the day off from work. He should have been getting credit for that, not getting teased by Akoya for his admittedly unsociable ways.
"Not everyone's social life needs to be as complicated as yours," he said tartly.
If Akoya felt the implied criticism, he didn't let it show. Akoya was a champion at pretending he didn't mind criticism.
"I prefer," he said, "to think of myself as having a rich and rewarding love life."
Kinshiro merely grunted and opened a menu. He was beginning to rethink the wisdom of this invitation. All right, so he didn't get out much, but so what? He had a business to run, he had his hobbies, and he had Arima to keep him company. He even let him and Akoya lure him out once in a while for get-togethers like this one. The two of them had been his friends since high school, and they were all the companionship he really wanted.
"Perhaps," said Arima cheerfully, "Kinshiro thinks that he needs to stay single to compensate for your unorthodox arrangements."
Akoya tossed his hair. "Is it my fault so many people find me irresistible?"
"Two isn't that many," Arima pointed out.
"Those were the only two I liked," Akoya retorted.
Actually, if Kinshiro remembered correctly, there had been only one he'd liked - a boy named Naruko Io that he'd apparently had a crush on back in school and finally worked up the nerve to ask out. This had resulted in another young man, Zaou Ryuu, becoming jealous and trying to convince Naruko to drop Akoya and be with him instead. By some means that Kinshiro didn't quite understand, the situation had not worked itself out with Naruko choosing one or the other of them, but with the three of them agreeing to start seeing each other, sometimes as a group and sometimes in varying combinations of two. Strangely enough, the arrangement seemed to make everyone happy. Akoya enjoyed the sense of having a stable of admirers to pick from. Zaou, who Kinshiro gathered had been something of a playboy in his early years, enjoyed the stability of a long-term relationship while still having some variety. Naruko seemed to like that his two boyfriends occasionally went off and occupied each other, thereby allowing him some privacy without feeling guilty that he was ignoring them. It all seemed to work very well for them, but Kinshiro thought that keeping up such a juggling act would leave him exhausted.
"Really, though," said Akoya, "it isn't natural for you to spend so much time alone."
"I do spend time with people," said Kinshiro. "I have you two. Arima lives in the same house with me."
"Which you use as an excuse not to get out and socialize," said Akoya. "It isn't that we don't both care about you, but we have lives away from you. I have Io and Ryuu, Arima has his gardening club and his backgammon playing friends. You just have us and work."
"I like it that way," said Kinshiro sullenly. He looked to Arima for support.
Apparently he wasn't getting any.
"It wouldn't be a bad thing," said Arima thoughtfully. "I'd like to see you open up more. It would be healthy for you."
Kinshiro frowned. "What do you propose I do?" he asked sarcastically. "Join a knitting circle?"
Akoya laughed. "That would be cute, actually."
"Don't count on it," said Kinshiro.
"Actually," said Akoya, "I was considering something in the order of a blind date."
"No," said Kinshiro. "Absolutely not."
"Why not?" said Akoya. "It isn't as though you aren't interested in romance. I've seen your bookshelves."
"That's different," Kinshiro grumbled. "Anyway, where would I even find a blind date?"
"Oh, we'd take care of that," said Akoya. "Since Ryuu has had to give up his wandering ways, he's taken to matchmaking, and he has a wide circle of acquaintances. I'm sure he'd be willing to find you someone."
Kinshiro thought of Akoya's flashy, feisty friend and shuddered at the thought of being paired off with someone he'd consider appropriate.
"No, thank you," he said stiffly. "If I want a date I will get one myself."
"Kinshiro," said Arima, "you know I think the world of you, so I hope you'll forgive me when I say I don't believe you."
Kinshiro slumped in his chair. "You two are ganging up on me."
"It's because we love you, darling," said Akoya lightly.
"Fine, have it your way," said Kinshiro. "I'm done with this conversation. Can we talk about something else?"
"All right, all right," said Arima. "So, how is work? Did you ever sort out that matter with the accounting department?"
Kinshiro decided to forgive Arima for not backing him up. At least he was willing to make a conversational save this time. Kinshiro willingly began to recount his troubles with his accounting department and the other annoyances that came with running his own company. Arima, who'd heard most of it before, agreeably nodded and made the right encouraging noises, while Akoya at least made a pretense of paying attention while he enjoyed his tea and cookies. Eventually, Kinshiro began to relax. This was more the outing he'd expected.
And this is all I really need, he told himself. I'm certainly not going on any foolish blind date!
Atsushi smiled back at the barista and called out a pleasant thank-you before returning to his table with his drinks.
"Hey, guys," he said. "Sorry that took so long."
En reached eagerly for his latte and took a long drink. "I can't be awake this time of day without my coffee."
"You aren't awake this time of day with your coffee," said Io, not looking up from his tablet. He took his tea apparently without looking at it. "You aren't awake at any time of day. Or night, for that matter. Thank you, Atsushi. You're always so helpful."
Ryuu stirred the whipped cream on top of his mocha with the tip of his straw.
"You know," he said to Atsushi, "that barista was totally flirting with you?"
Atsushi blinked. "Was she? I guess I didn't notice."
"You are so oblivious," said Ryuu. "I don't understand it. You're a good-looking guy. You're smart, you're from a good family, you've got a decent personality, you've got a nice stable job... you shouldn't have any trouble attracting all the dates you want. You just don't put any effort into it." He shook his head. "It's worse than that - people come on to you and you don't even take them up."
"He's right, you know," said Io. "You can't just go through life never attempting anything. You can't get anywhere without effort."
Atsushi smiled. "En gets through life pretty well without making any effort."
"En is a savant," said Io. "Not everyone can be like him."
"Well, maybe," said Atsushi. "I guess I just always feel like I'll know the right person when I see them."
"It would help if you'd talk to people for more than five minutes," said Ryuu. "Let's face it, love at first sight is great in the movies, but in real life, it takes more than 'hi, how are you, enjoy your coffee' to know if they're the one or not."
"If he's really got all that going for him," said En, rousing from his torpor, "seems like sooner or later someone would come after him. Why not just wait?"
"Because I have a better idea," said Ryuu.
Atsushi shook his head. "I should have known this was leading up to something."
"Come on, just hear me out," said Ryuu. "I got a call from Akoya last night, and he says he's got a friend who needs a date, and he asked me to find somebody who'd be a good match for him."
"So you're setting me up for a blind date?" Atsushi asked. "I don't know..."
"Oh, come on. Give it a shot," said Ryuu. "It sounds like it could be fun. I mean, the way Akoya tells it, the guy's a catch. He's smart, he's rich, he's good-looking... and you know if Akoya says a guy's good-looking it means he's damned hot."
Atsushi conceded the point. He had met Akoya often enough to be aware of his standards. Still...
"If he's so wonderful, why is he single?" he asked.
"Apparently he's just kind of introverted. Not good at socializing," said Ryuu. "That's one reason I thought of you - you're good at putting people at ease."
"Well, maybe so," said Atsushi, thawing a bit. It had been the right thing for Ryuu to say. Atsushi was one of nature's caretakers, and the idea of someone needing him automatically engaged his interest. "What's his name, do you know?"
"Kinshiro," said Ryuu. "Kusatsu Kinshiro."
"Kusatsu," Atsushi repeated. "Isn't that the family who owns all those hotels?"
"That's the one," Ryuu agreed.
"Wow," said Atsushi, impressed. The Kusatsu family was one of the wealthiest in the country, with chains of hotels, restaurants, and luxury resorts stretching to every part of the globe.
Ryuu grinned. "See? You can't pass this up. How often do you get a chance to go out with a celebrity?"
"All right," said Atsushi, nodding. "You talked me into it. I'll do it."
Kinshiro glanced over the edge of the book he'd been reading when he heard the front door open. The house had been far too quiet without Arima in it. That shouldn't have been true, since it wasn't as though Arima made a lot of noise even when he was at home. He was just a familiar, constant presence in Kinshiro's life, and when he wandered off without explanation, it made Kinshiro nervous.
Arima had been his closest friend since grade school. When he'd finally moved out of his parents' house and into a place of his own, Arima had been there with him, overseeing the packing, shipping, and unpacking of his belongings, arranging for the necessary hired help, making sure that Kinshiro's utilities were connected. It had been almost two weeks before Kinshiro had consciously recognized that Arima had moved into the guest room and made himself at home. Even when he'd realized it, he neither asked about it nor even commented on it. Kinshiro had been adopted, rather in the way a stray cat might adopt him, and there was no point in trying to undo it even if he'd wanted to.
"Where have you been?" he asked, as Arima ambled into the living room.
"Out visiting people," he said. "Akoya told me he found a blind date for you, so I've been vetting him to make sure he's an appropriate match. As much as I know you value Akoya's companionship, you have to admit that his taste is not necessarily your taste."
Kinshiro had mixed feelings about this statement. He said, "Ah."
Arima smiled at him as he wandered through the living room and into the kitchen. The reassuring sounds of tea being made emanated through the doorway. The sound soothed Kinshiro in spite of his misgivings. There was a small part of him that devoutly believed that as long as Arima was making tea, the world couldn't be too terrible a place. A few minutes later, Arima returned with a tray containing teapot, cups, and a few assorted sweets. He settled himself on the sofa next to Kinshiro, placing the tray on the coffee table in front of him. Kinshiro waited until he'd had his first sip of tea before pursuing any further conversation.
"Well?" he said at last.
"He seems quite nice," said Arima. "Educated, well-mannered, and not at all bad-looking. I think you two will get along."
"Hm," said Kinshiro dubiously. On the one hand, he still wasn't sure he wanted to get along with anyone. He was, he felt, getting along fine the way things were. On the other hand, no one knew him as well as Arima, and he said Kinshiro would like something or someone, he was probably right. And really, if he'd been forced to be completely honest, there was a tiny part of him that was curious. Didn't almost everyone, at one point or another, wonder if there might be someone out there just for them? Kinshiro would have called himself a practical man, if anyone had ever had the nerve to ask, but there was a romantic streak buried in him that only his closest friends ever even suspected.
"What's he like?" he asked at last.
"Oh, he's an amiable sort," said Arima, helping himself to a piece of cake. "Cheerful, easy to talk to. I gather he's fond of books. And jigsaw puzzles. And apparently he cooks."
"That's a useful skill," said Kinshiro dryly.
Arima laughed. "I don't want to tell you so much that you'll have nothing to talk about when you meet him."
"That's assuming I'm going to," said Kinshiro.
"Well, are you?" Arima asked.
"Do you really think I should?" Kinshiro asked.
Arima gave that question its due regard.
"Yes," he said at last. "I think you should."
"Then maybe I will," said Kinshiro. He considered. "What's his name, anyway?"
"Atsushi," Arima replied.
"Atsushi," Kinshiro repeated. It meant "warm". A friendly sort of name, he thought. Maybe that was a good omen.
"All right," he said, feeling as though he were taking on a great responsibility. "I'll do it. Who knows?" He said his next words as if they were in a foreign language, one he just barely understood. "It might even be fun."
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Kinshiro muttered.
"Nonsense. You look splendid," said Arima serenely. He straightened Kinshiro's tie and stood back to admire the effect.
Kinshiro shot him a glare, which went totally unnoticed. "That isn't what I mean and you know it."
"Well, there's no getting out of it now. You promised to be there," said Arima. "It would be rude to leave him there waiting for you."
"You could call him," said Kinshiro, a little desperately. "Tell him something came up. Tell him I got sick."
"That would be lying," said Arima, as if he would never dream of doing such a thing. Kinshiro, who had heard Arima lie fluently and convincingly to all manner of telemarketers, door-to-door salesmen, and other irritating people on Kinshiro's behalf, scowled at him.
"You're no help at all," he complained.
"Nonsense. You're going to have fun," said Arima. "You'll thank me for this later."
"Spending the evening making small talk with a perfect stranger is not my idea of a good time," Kinshiro muttered.
"You should have thought of that sooner," said Arima implacably. He handed Kinshiro a flower. "Here, you'll need this."
Kinshiro studied the carnation he'd just been presented with. "What am I supposed to do with this?"
"Anything you like," said Arima, "but we told your date that you would be the one holding the yellow chrysanthemum."
"So all I have to do is throw this away and I'm off the hook," Kinshiro muttered.
"Please don't waste my flower," said Arima, looking slightly hurt. "I work hard to grow those, you know."
"All right, all right," said Kinshiro. "I suppose I can get through one cup of coffee without losing my mind. Expect me back home at about eight."
Arima's smile was unreadable. "I'll wait up for you."
Atsushi sat at a table, hands curled around a paper cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would take a sip from it, but without really tasting it. His attention was fixed solely on the door of the shop. He had gotten there almost twenty minutes before the time when his date was supposed to arrive, just so he wouldn't be late. Every time the door began to open, his breath caught. Then whoever it was would come in, and he'd sigh and slump down in his seat again.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, he thought. He resisted the urge to chew his fingernails. I've never been good at this dating stuff...
Then the door opened again, and Atsushi caught his breath, and... held it. He stared at the young man who had just walked in.
This can't be right, was his first confused thought. He looks like a model...
It wasn't just his clothes, although they were certainly very fine, and they fitted him as though every stitch had been made just for him. He wasn't tall, but he carried himself with a confidence and grace that made him stand out among the rest of the coffee-house crowd. His sleek hair gleamed like a mirror, and the fine lines of his face could have inspired a sculptor. He was altogether too good for Atsushi, but he was definitely carrying a yellow chrysanthemum and looking around anxiously. Atsushi took another gulp of his drink, trying to moisten a mouth that had suddenly gone dry.
Well, here goes nothing.
He rose from his seat and walked over to the newcomer.
"Hi," he said. "Are you Kinshiro? I'm Atsushi."
An expression of... what? Surprise? ...flitted across the newcomer's face. Then he nodded gravely.
"That's right," he said. "Pleased to meet you."
He held out the yellow chrysanthemum in a gallant gesture, and Atsushi smiled in spite of himself. As he took the flower, their fingers brushed, and he had a brief impression of how smooth Kinshiro's skin was. A little thrill ran through him.
"Have you been waiting long?" Kinshiro asked politely.
"Oh, um... not long," Atsushi lied, face warming. "I saved us a table, anyway."
"I'll get a drink and be right with you, then," said Kinshiro.
He made sure of where Atsushi was sitting and then went to take his place in line. Atsushi dropped into his chair with a sigh.
He decided he was going to have to thank Ryuu when this was all over. If meeting people like Kinshiro was part of the bargain, then he really was going to have to get out more.
By the time Kinshiro reached the coffee shop, he'd more or less gotten his nerves under control. He had been to this place before, after all, often with Arima or Akoya or both of them for company. Meeting this new person, this Atsushi, would not be such a big deal. It was less of a challenge, he told himself, than meeting a client at work. All he had to do was drink coffee for a while, make polite conversation, and leave. It couldn't be that hard.
He walked through the front door and scanned the room, trying to find... what? He wasn't sure. Someone who looked like he was waiting for a date. He held his flower in front of him like a shield, or the token that would justify his presence in the building.
Then a young man separated himself from the crowd and started towards Kinshiro.
"Hi," he siad. "Are you Kinshiro? I'm Atsushi."
Kinshiro's thoughts at that point were somewhat incoherent, but if they could have been translated into plain language, they would have come out as something like, "Oh, help, he's cute."
It wasn't that Atsushi was extravagantly attractive, although as Arima had said, he was by no means bad-looking. The attraction had more to do with his attitude, the way he carried himself, the slight hesitance in his voice, the eager, hopeful light in his eyes. To a businessman like Kinshiro, who was used to dealing with people who were selfish, calculating, and cynical, the effect was altogether charming. Kinshiro realized that whatever Atsushi was hoping for, Kinshiro wanted to be it.
"That's right," he said. "Pleased to meet you."
He held out the chrysanthemum as gracefully as he could, privately thanking Arima for insisting he carry it. If he hadn't had it, he'd have been forced to think of something else to do with his hands, and he was not altogether certain he could have managed it. As it was, he hoped his expression didn't give too much away when their fingers brushed. On the whole, he found that he was glad Atsushi had gotten there early, so that Kinshiro had an excuse to disengage himself for a moment and go order coffee while he collected his wits.
He placed an order more or less on autopilot while he tried to think what to do. He'd gone into this thinking that all he needed to do was endure a few minutes of polite conversation. Now the rules of the game had changed, and he was not sure what they were anymore. The one thing he was certain of was that he desperately didn't want to make a fool of himself. If he did, not only would he have missed his chance at what was undoubtably the most attractive man he'd met in a long time, but he'd have to account for himself to Arima and Akoya later. No doubt, anything embarrassing he did tonight would be relayed back to Akoya by way of Ryuu and Io as well.
If I mess this up, I'm going to regret it for the rest of my life.
Trying not to think too hard along those lines, Kinshiro carried his order back to the table where Atsushi was waiting. Atsushi, he thought, looked nervous too. Possibly he was wondering what would happen if he did something embarrassing and Kinshiro told Akoya about it. The thought made Kinshiro feel a little better. He sat down across from him.
"I got us some cookies," he said. "I hope you don't mind."
"Oh, no, that's great. Thank you," said Atsushi. "Um..."
"I'll make you a deal," said Kinshiro solemnly. "I won't tell Akoya and Arima anything embarrassing you do if you don't tell Io and Ryuu anything embarrassing I do."
He must have been on the mark, because Atsushi laughed and looked relieved. "Deal."
Kinshiro smiled, feeling much more at ease. "So, tell me something you do that isn't embarrassing. Arima said you like to read?"
Atsushi nodded, eagerly seizing on this neutral subject. "I read a lot of things, yeah. Mysteries, fantasies, science fiction... sometimes romance, too," he admitted, blushing a little.
"Me too," Kinshiro admitted.
Atsushi brightened. "Right now I'm reading Beyond the Gray Mountain at work, and at home I'm reading Whisper on the Wind."
"I've read that one," Kinshiro said. "And Beyond the Gray Mountain is on my to-read list. Is it any good?"
"Oh, it's great!" Atsushi enthused. Those expressive eyes of his brightened, and his hands became animated. "It's about this prince whose sister married a noble from the next kingdom over, and then one day she stops answering his messages, and the prince has his informants try to check up on her, but it's like no one in that kingdom has ever heard of her, which is strange because her wedding to this neighbor prince would have been a big thing, so finally... oh, wait, maybe I'd better not tell you. You probably want to read it for yourself, right?"
"I'm enjoying listening to you talk about it," Kinshiro answered. That was true enough - he'd enjoyed watching Atsushi's graceful hands create shapes I the air, and hearing the enthusiasm in his voice. "I'll have to hurry up and read it so we can talk about it. She's written another book, though, hasn't she? The Crown in the Mist? I've read that one."
"Isn't it amazing?" Atsushi enthused. "I loved the part where the lady's maid steals the dagger and..."
He talked. Kinshiro listened. Occasionally, he talked back. Somewhere along the way, he began to realize he was enjoying this conversation. Over the course of their coffee and cookies, they moved from books to movies to their own jobs and lives. Atsushi asked Kinshiro intelligent questions about the complications of the hospitality business. Kinshiro learned that Atsushi was an aspiring restauranteur with a skill for cooking and a dream of someday publishing his own cookbook.
"Right now I'm just working at the Focal Point," said Atsushi, "but I'm trying to get up enough money to open my own place."
"I've eaten at the Focal Point," said Kinshiro honestly. "The food there has always been wonderful." Which was true. The Focal Point was the sort of restaurant even someone in Kinshiro's class wouldn't be ashamed of being seen in. The fact that Atsushi cooked there at all, even if it was only on the slower nights of the week, suggested that his goal of having his own place someday wasn't so unreachable.
Atsushi laughed. "Funny to think I might have made dinner for you without knowing it. Tell you what - I usually work Tuesday to Thursday evenings and lunch shift on weekends. Next time you're there, send a message back to me and I'll fix you something extra special. My treat."
"You don't have to do that," Kinshiro said.
"But I'd like to," Atsushi insisted. "What do you like to eat?"
"Traditional Japanese dishes, mostly. And tea." After a thoughtful pause, Kinshiro added, "And kintsuba."
Atsushi laughed. "A special dessert, then. I can manage that."
"I'll make it a point to visit, then," Kinshiro promised. "Soon. And if you ever decide to visit one of the restaurants my family owns, let me know. I'll see to it you get the best we have to offer."
"You know what I'd like even more?" Atsushi asked. "To spend some time in the kitchens working with the chefs. You must have some wonderful people working there. I'd like the chance to learn from them."
Kinshiro smiled, feeling a wave of warmth towards this humble, generous man. How many people, when offered the chance to dine for free at one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, would ask instead to be allowed a chance to work in the kitchen?
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Kinshiro assured him.
Atsushi beamed. "You mean it? That would be wonderful."
"I promise," Kinshiro assured him.
Anything if it means I can see you again.
He looked down at the table. The cookies had long ago been eaten. He'd nursed his coffee along as long as he could, sipping slowly at it long after it had cooled in an effort to make it last just that little bit longer. Even that tactic couldn't keep him there forever. The drink was long gone, most of the customers had cleared out, and the baristas were somewhat ostentatiously cleaning up behind the counter. It was time to go. He still hated to leave.
Atsushi seemed to be thinking along the same lines.
"It looks like they're closing up," he said. "I guess we should get out of their way."
"I suppose we should," said Kinshiro reluctantly. He slowly got up and began collecting his trash. "Thank you for meeting me here tonight. I've really enjoyed talking to you."
"So have I," said Atsushi, with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm. "I hope we can do this again sometime."
"We should," said Kinshiro, feeling his spirits rise slightly. "Soon. I'll call you after I check my schedule."
Atsushi smiled. "Let me walk you to your car."
They stepped outside together. The night was clear, with a full bright moon, and the air was pleasantly cool. This part of town was lit by old-fashioned lamps styled to look like gaslights, rather than the more utilitarian light poles used downtown. The effect was that of a gentle hazy glow, as if they'd stepped back to some simpler time. Kinshiro paused a moment to enjoy the peaceful scene.
"It really is lovely out tonight," he said. He gazed up at the sky, looking at the stars, drawing the moment out just a little longer.
"It really is," Atsushi agreed. More hesitantly, he added, "I don't have anywhere to be tomorrow morning. If you like, we could maybe just walk for a little while..."
He doesn't want to leave me yet either, Kinshiro thought, heart soaring. He smiled at Atsushi.
"Good idea," he said. "Let's go for a walk."
This, Atsushi thought, had been one of his better ideas. It was a perfect night for walking, just cool enough that a little physical activity was pleasant. The moon overhead lit everything as clearly as daylight, and the night insects were singing a peaceful song. He and Kinshiro had wandered down to the riverbank and were strolling slowly alongside it, chatting with each other or simply enjoying being close to one another. When all this had started, he'd been afraid that he and Kinshiro would have nothing to talk about - that Kinshiro was so far out of his league that their lives would have no points where they could meet. Now here they were, chatting about the interesting places Kinshiro had traveled to and funny things En had done. Even better, Atsushi was learning now that he didn't mind when the two of them weren't saying anything at all. Just now, it was pleasant to listen to the splash of the river, the glow of the moon, and the sense that there was nowhere else Kinshiro would rather be than right there with him. He looked even more perfect with the moonlight shining off his hair and making his pale skin luminous. Atsushi watched as his companion stooped to pick up a flat stone and skim it across the water, marveling at how gracefully he moved and thinking how lucky it was that this intelligent, sophisticated, gorgeous person should want to spend time with him.
A breeze blew past, carrying a chill from the river. Kinshiro shivered a little.
"Are you cold?" Atsushi asked, concerned.
Kinshiro shook his head. "No. Well, a little. Not enough to worry about."
"I don't want you to get sick because of me," said Atsushi. "Maybe we should go back."
"No, that's okay," said Kinshiro quickly. "I'm fine, really. It's just the breeze..."
Without thinking about it, Atsushi put an arm around him, just as he probably would have if En had been complaining of cold. Kinshiro froze, and for a moment, Atsushi wondered if he'd pushed things too far. Then Kinshiro relaxed and put his own arms around Atsushi, turning the friendly gesture into a true embrace. Suddenly, the night didn't feel cold at all. Atsushi sighed contentedly and nuzzled Kinshiro's hair, enjoying the silky feel of it against his skin.
"Feel better now?" he murmured.
"Mm," said Kinshiro. "This is perfect."
They stayed there like that for some minutes, swaying gently, until a crowd of drunken bar hoppers wandered by and disrupted their peaceful moment. They moved on again, hand in hand. They said nothing, but there was a spring in both their steps now that hadn't been there before, a knowledge that some boundary had been crossed and they had come through it closer together than they'd been before. They were both smiling by the time they returned to the parking lot. Atsushi followed Kinshiro to the sleek silver car that could only be his.
"Thank you so much for this," said Atsushi. "It's been wonderful."
"It really has," said Kinshiro. "Um..."
He fidgeted, looking suddenly uncomfortable. For a brief moment Atsushi wondered if something was wrong. Then he observed the blush that had crept across Kinshiro's cheeks, and it clicked. He could almost hear Ryuu shouting in his ear, "He's waiting for his goodnight kiss, you idiot! Go for it already!"
Well, he'd been right about this date so far. Gathering his courage, he leaned down and pressed his lips to Kinshiro's. He was rewarded by the sensation of Kinshiro pressing against him and warmly returning the gesture. It was a long, slow, gentle kiss, exploratory rather than demanding. It was everything that Atsushi had been hoping for.
They pulled apart at last, a little regretfully, but not very. It was the right ending for a very good night, and neither of them wanted to spoil it by pushing it too far.
"When will I see you again?" Atsushi asked.
"Day after tomorrow?" Kinshiro suggested. "Lunch at the Dockside Cafe?"
"That sounds perfect," Atsushi replied. "Does twelve-thirty work for you?"
"I'll reserve a table for us," said Kinshiro.
"I'll look forward to it, then," Atsushi replied. "Goodnight, Kinshiro. I'll see you soon."
He waited where he was while Kinshiro got into his car and drove slowly away. It was only after Atsushi couldn't see the taillights of the car any longer that he finally got into his own car and started the journey home. The radio blared to life as soon as he turned the ignition, but Atsushi shut it off again, preferring the silence and his thoughts. This was, he thought, a very good night just to sit in silence and watch the stars as he drove.
By the time he got home, it was late, well past the time when he'd usually have gone to bed. Still, he really didn't have anywhere he needed to be tomorrow. He could sleep in a little if he wanted to, and he was feeling too wired to sleep. After considering his options for a moment, he decided to turn on his computer and play games for a while.
That was his plan, but as soon as he turned on the machine, he was greeted by a message from Ryuu.
"So, how did it go?" he asked.
"It went well," Atsushi replied. "I really liked him. Thank you for introducing me to him."
"See? I'm always right about these things," Ryuu declared. "Maybe now you'll go out with people more often instead of hanging by yourself all the time."
"I think I will," Atsushi assured him.
"Great! So, what do you think? Want me to introduce you to a few more likely candidates? It pays to play the field a little before settling down, you know."
Atsushi smiled, amused by his old friend.
"That's all right," he replied. "I think the one I've got is just fine."
Kinshiro crept into the house as quietly as he could. After all, he'd promised Arima that he'd be home by eight, and here it was past midnight. Arima had probably given up and gone to bed long ago. Moving cautiously through the dark hallway, Kinshiro slipped off his shoes and fumbled for his slippers. Then he began picking his way silently through the house on his way upstairs.
He only made it as far as the living room. He was surprised to find the lights there were still on, and when he went to investigate, he found Arima there waiting. He was dressed in robe and pajamas, sprawled on the sofa with a book in his hands and a cup of herbal tea on the coffee table in front of him. When Kinshiro came in, Arima glanced up from his reading, looked ostentatiously at the clock on the mantlepiece, and smiled.
"My, my," he said. "Is it eight o'clock already?"
"Funny," said Kinshiro. "Is there any more of that tea?"
"I had a feeling you might want some," Arima replied, "so I left the kettle warming in the kitchen. Help yourself."
Kinshiro nodded and went to do as Arima had suggested. The electric kettle was still sitting and burbling to itself, so Kinshiro grabbed a mug, filled a strainer with the blend he preferred on restless nights, and made himself a warm drink. Once he had that sorted, he carried the mug back into the living room and settled into his favorite chair.
"So?" Arima asked. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
Kinshiro didn't answer at once. At length, he said, "How many of these dates are you supposed to go on before you can propose?"
To his credit, Arima didn't laugh. He never laughed when Kinshiro was being serious.
"Usually more than one," he said, "but you always were a bit of an overachiever."
Kinshiro nodded. That answer was good enough for him.
After all, he had planned a second date.