The usual chatter of the bath house fell silent when Gora opened the door. Up until that point, Atsushi and his friends had been enjoying a round of pointless conversations, circular arguments and occasional descents into outright surrealism with their usual good humor. It was so unusual, however, for Gora to step away from his wood-chopping for any reason that all of them stopped what they were doing to stare at him.
"Oi, Kinugawa," he called. "Your phone is ringing."
"Oh! Thanks," said Atsushi. He stood up and began splashing his way out of the bath. "Hang on, guys, I'll be right back."
A few minutes later, wrapped decorously in a towel, Atsushi was in the changing area digging through his bag. His phone had stopped ringing, but the missed message notification was flashing, and the name it gave made his heart give a jump. Quickly, he pulled on his clothes, and, with his hair still damp, slipped around to the back of the building where he could talk in private. He settled himself on the back steps, where the flowing stream provided soothing background noise and the sun slipping through the trees could finish the job of drying him. Once he was settled, he slipped the phone out of his bag and tapped the call-back button.
Kinshiro picked up on the second ring.
"Atsushi," he said. "I thought you must have been busy."
"I was in the bath, that's all," said Atsushi. He leaned back, making himself comfortable. "I'm really glad you called, though."
"It's good to hear your voice," Kinshiro replied. "I suppose it was selfish of me to expect you to call back... Do you want to hang up and let me call you again? This is an international call..."
Atsushi laughed. "You sound like Io. Don't worry about the cost. It's worth it to me, honestly. I can afford it." Something occurred to him, and he sat up a little straighter. "Wait, isn't it the middle of the night where you are?"
"More or less." Kinshiro sounded slightly embarrassed.
"Should you be asleep?"
"I tried," Kinshiro admitted. "I suppose I'm just not used to the different time zone yet."
An affectionate smile stole across Atsushi's face. "You really are a creature of habit, aren't you?"
"There's nothing wrong with keeping to regular habits," Kinshiro huffed.
"Of course there isn't," Atsushi assured him, trying to keep from laughing. "It's all part of your charm. So, you decided to call me? I'm surprised you haven't got Arima making you herbal tea. He always seems to know when you need something."
"He's probably already asleep," said Kinshiro. "He can adapt to anything. I didn't want to wake him. Besides..."
He trailed off. Atsushi sobered, hearing the hesitation in his friend's voice.
"It isn't just the time zones keeping you awake, is it?" Atsushi guessed. "You're homesick, aren't you?"
"Homesick," Kinshiro repeated grumpily. "That sounds so childish. I don't want to say I'm homesick, but... I miss you. I miss Binan High. I miss talking to people in my own language. The tea here tastes funny and you can't get kinstuba or amanatto here for love or money. I even miss that bathhouse. At this point, I'd be happy to see a dish of that spicy curry you love so much, just because it would remind me of home."
"Oh, Kin-chan..." said Atsushi softly. "I miss you too. But it's only for a little while. You'll be home before we know it, and you'll have a lot of interesting stories to tell when you get back."
"I know," said Kinshiro. He sighed. "You know what I really miss? In my back yard, there was a shishi-odoshi. Do you remember it?"
Atsushi nodded. He could remember many afternoons spent at Kinshiro's house, playing board games or working jigsaw puzzles with his friend while the shishi-odoshi made its rhythmic noise in the background. Kinshiro had explained to him once, in his usual serious fashion, that it had been meant to frighten deer away. Even back then, Atsushi had been puzzled as to how a deer might manage to find its way into town and leap over the monumental fence that encircled Kinshiro's fence, but he'd taken it as an article of faith that this was so. Since he'd never seen a deer on Kinshiro's property in all the time they'd been friends, he supposed the fountain-like contraption was doing its job.
"I remember," he said.
"Back home," said Kinshiro, almost to himself, "whenever I couldn't sleep, I'd just listen to the sound of it and try to synchronize my breathing with it. No matter how worried or irritated I was feeling, it always put me right to sleep. I think I'd be able to sleep now, if I just had that shishi-odoshi to listen to."
"It's too bad I can't pack it up and send it to you," said Atsushi. "But I promise I'll pick up some of the sweets you like and mail them to you."
"That probably would make me feel better," Kinshiro admitted. "Thank you, At-chan. Just hearing your voice has helped a lot."
"I'm glad," said Atsushi. "Call me any time, all right? Even if it is the middle of the night."
"I will," Kinshiro promised. "I'll let you go now, before your phone bill becomes too astronomical. I suppose I could offer to pay you back, but..."
"Don't worry about it," Atsushi assured him. "Goodnight, Kin-chan. Rest well."
They said their goodbyes. Atsushi put his phone away thoughtfully, turning ideas over in his head. Poor Kin-chan. If only he could be there to soothe him to sleep...
Maybe I can.
He darted back into the bath house and peered into the main bathing area.
"Hey, guys?" he said. "There's something I need to take care of, so I'm going to head out, all right?"
"Is something wrong?" Yumoto asked.
"Nothing serious," said Atsushi. "I just need to go pick up a couple of things. I'll fill you all in later."
"Have fun, then," said En, giving him a lazy wave.
Satisfied that his friends wouldn't miss him, Atsushi slipped back to the back of the Kurotama where he could have some privacy,.
"Maybe I should have asked Wombat if this is okay," he muttered.
Still, Wombat had always been nothing but supportive of his friendship with Kinshiro. He would understand. Atsushi raised his Loveracelet to his lips.
Kinshiro sat by the window and berated himself. What had he been thinking, calling Atsushi like that? They had just barely gotten their friendship back into some sort of working order, and now here was Kinshiro, calling him up just to unload all his negative feelings on him. Surely right now, Atsushi was wondering why Kinshiro had felt the need to leave him if he hadn't wanted to go, and now called up just to whine to him about it. Really, this was a wonderful opportunity and Kinshiro should feel grateful to have been presented with it. Where did he get off complaining?
But the truth was, he missed Binan, with all its familiar comforts. He had never been good at making friends, and now that he had finally found some, he didn't like being jerked away from them and landed in a place where he knew no one save for Arima and Akoya. The unfamiliar food upset his digestion, and his disrupted sleep schedule was making him cranky. If anyone had offered him the power to wave a magic wand and be transported instantly home, he'd have taken it.
A small chiming sound interrupted his thoughts. He turned to look at his phone, which was just now indicating that he had a text message. Curious, he picked it up and opened the message. It was from Atsushi.
"If you're still awake," it read, "turn on your computer and message me."
Puzzled, Kinshiro went to his desk and powered on the laptop.
"At-chan?" he typed. "Are you there?"
"Good, you're still awake," Atsushi typed back. "Could you open a video chat with me? I want to show you something."
"What kind of something?"
"Just trust me, okay?"
Well, there was no arguing with that. Kinshiro had made up his mind to trust Atsushi from now on, no matter what the circumstances. He opened the video link, expecting to see Atsushi on the other end.
Instead, what he saw was... home. The camera Atsushi was using was pointed at Kinshiro's own back yard, and when Kinshiro turned up the sound, he could hear the familiar rustle of wind in the trees and the steady beat of the shishi-odoshi.
"At-chan, is that...? How did...?" he blurted.
Atsushi, off-camera, laughed. "I jumped the fence."
"You jumped the fence?" Kinshiro repeated. "Atsushi, that fence is ten feet high if it's an inch."
"I might have jumped it while wearing green ribbons," Atsushi admitted. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
"Is that allowed?" Kinshiro asked.
"I don't see why not," Atsushi asked. "I think if Wombat had his way, we'd never be untransformed."
Kinshiro smiled. "That would make certain things awkward."
"Just a bit," said Atsushi. "Anyway, I can leave this running for as long as it takes for you to get to sleep, if you think it will help."
"This is wonderful," said Kinshiro, throat tight. "Thank you, At-chan. Thank you so much."
"It's the least I can do," Atsushi replied. "I'm sorry I can't be there for you, but I can at least be here for you."
"That's good enough," said Kinshiro thoughtfully.
He set the laptop up near his bed and tucked himself back under the blankets. The bed was still the wrong bed - the mattress was too soft and the sheets were too coarse - and the light slipping through his bedroom window was coming from the wrong angle, but that didn't matter so much anymore.
"Good night, Kin-chan," he heard Atsushi's gentle voice say.
"Good night, At-chan," he mumbled into his pillow, and drifted off listening to the sounds of home.