One thing you could say about Kinshiro: he was reliable. He got up at the same time each day, ate his meals at the same time each day, went to bed at the same time each day, and in between those times he followed a schedule that varied only according to what classes he had at school. There was never any uncertainty about where you would find Kinshiro at any given time. As long as you knew his schedule, you knew exactly where he'd be.
Kinshiro had not shown up for afternoon tea.
Arima had been puzzled by this at first, though only mildly. Yesterday had, after all, been something of a wild ride, and he could believe that even so solid a rock as Kinshiro could be shaken by everything they'd been through. After thinking about it for a few minutes, Arima had excused himself from the table (leaving Akoya to peruse a fashion magazine and probably steal all the cookies while his friends weren't looking) and had gone looking in the last place Kinshiro was supposed to be. Since this was Saturday, and the school didn't have classes, the most likely possibility was that Kinshiro was at the library compensating for the half-day of class that he felt he was missing out on. Sure enough, Arima spied his tell-tale pale hair at a table near the back of the building, where he seemed to be crouched intently over his studies.
No, on closer inspection, that wasn't quite true. Arima smiled a bit as he stepped closer.
Poor Kinshiro. Undone by your own insistence on schedules.
Kinshiro was sound asleep, mouth half-open, drooling gently on his notes. Arima carefully rearranged him into a better position. Kinshiro didn't even stir. It was obvious to Arima what had happened: after last night, the three of them hadn't gotten home until the wee hours of the morning. Arima and Akoya had compensated by sleeping in or taking midmorning naps, but Kinshiro always got up on time and always went to the library on Saturdays, no matter how exhausted he was.
"Well, at least he's sleeping now," said Arima, to no one in particular.
A couple of their classmates wandered over, the better to investigate this strange phenomenon.
"What's wrong with him, anyway?" one of them asked. "Is he sick?"
"Just worn out, I think," said Arima. "He had a rather long night last night."
A couple of people snickered. One of them said, "Hey, you don't mean...?"
Arima realized he'd just put his foot in it. He thought quickly, filtering through possible responses for the one that wouldn't make a liar or a fool of him.
"Well, it's like this," he said at last. "He missed his riend in Binan so much that last night he couldn't take it anymore and flew back to see him. He only got back in a few hours ago and he's exhausted."
One of the girls giggled. "Oh, I see, his friend. Is she pretty?"
"Actually, it was a boy he went to see," said Arima, and regretted it immediately. The girls shrieked and giggled.
"Kinshiro has a boyfriend!" one of them squealed, and the others chimed in with equally insightful remarks.
"Wow," said one of the other boys. "Must be nice to be so rich you can just fly around the world whenever you want."
Yes, and it's nice to have wings, too, Arima thought, and smiled to himself.
"So, wait, he's really got a boyfriend? You aren't kidding about that?" another boy asked.
"Not at all," said Arima, figuring that at this point there was no chance of fighting it. Besides, at this point, it was practically true. "It's very serious between them."
Well, it had been serious. Anything that could drive a person to try to conquer the earth had to be serious.
"What's his name?" asked one of the girls. "What's he like? Is he cute?"
Oh, well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
"His name is Atsushi Kinugawa," said Arima helpfully. "About my height, dark hair, brown eyes, wears glasses, nice smile. But don't go pestering Kinshiro about it - he's protective of his personal life, you know."
Everyone agreed solemnly that they wouldn't make a fuss about it, and eventually Arima got them all to disperse so Kinshiro could get some well-deserved rest.
"Now," he said to his dozing friend, "do I wake you or let you sleep? You're going to be cranky, I know, when you wake up and realize you've dozed off, but if I wake you up, you're still going to be annoyed at having dozed off and embarrassed at being caught out. Ah, well, I suppose I had better just let you sleep."
Gently, he took Kinshiro's jacket, which had been draped around the back of his chair, and tucked it around his shoulders. Kinshiro still didn't twitch. Arima patted him on the head, which also got no reaction.
"I hope you're at least having nice dreams," he said. He smiled a little at that. He wouldn't be at all surprised if Kinshiro was dreaming about Atsushi, and that would be, as far as Kinshiro was concerned, the nicest thing of all.
"I'm not going to ask him - you ask him!"
"It was your idea first - you ask him!"
Ask me what, I wonder? Akoya mused. He took a sip of his tea. Really, Arima was taking too much time getting back from wherever he was. The tea was going to get cold, and then what were they going to do? Ah, well. At least there was no one around to chastise him for eating all the tea cakes.
"Excuse me?" said a voice.
Akoya glanced up from his magazine. Several of his classmates - mostly female, but a few of the boys as well - were clustered around watching him with nervous expressions.
"Yes?" Akoya replied, always intrigued by anything that brought him to the center of attention. "What can I do for you?"
"Is it true what your friend Ibushi said?" the girl in front asked. "That Kinshiro has a boyfriend?"
Well, I wonder what brought that little tidbit out into the open? I suppose Arima must be short on sleep too today. Still, if he said it, he must have had his reasons...
"Oh, yes," said Akoya lightly. "They're devoted to each other. It's very sweet. Would you like to see a picture?"
Everyone wanted to see a picture. Akoya obligingly slipped out his phone and flicked through a few stored photos until he found the one he'd want - a candid he'd snapped a few days before they'd left Binan. The Student Council had been sitting at an outside table at a café, and had happened to see Atsushi wandering up the sidewalk and called him over to chat. It was a good picture, Akoya thought, with the light of the setting sun catching them both just right and the two of them framed so perfectly by the shapes of the street and the buildings. Akoya had always had a good eye for lighting and composition. Everyone crowed close to look.
"That's him! He looks just like Ibushi said he would."
"Oh, my gosh, they're so cute!"
"Look at Kinshiro - he's smiling! I've never seen him smile before."
"He looks so happy..."
"I guess it really is love!"
Akoya smiled, amused. "Oh, yes. They're almost too cute to bear. Poor Kinshiro has been so miserable being apart from Atsushi."
"And they were really visiting last night?" someone asked.
Ah, so that's what brought this on.
"Oh, yes," said Akoya happily. "It was a dramatic reunion. Poor Atsushi was simply dying without Kinshiro there for him."
"Awww!" said several of the girls.
"I never would have guessed he was so romantic. He always seemed so aloof."
"I guess you never can tell about people."
"So they, like, go on dates and everything?"
"Indeed," said Akoya, cheerfully embroidering the truth. "They go stargazing. And take baths together."
His audience loved that. They were still pressing him for details when Arima reappeared.
"Oh, my, what's this?" he said. "You've gotten popular all of a sudden, Akoya."
"I'm always popular," said Akoya, raising his head. "Did you find Kinshiro?"
"He's having a nice nap," said Arima, "so I decided to let him rest. I did take some of his things back to his room, though, since he wasn't awake to look after them."
"So he's asleep after all?" said Akoya. "I shouldn't be surprised, after the night he had."
The audience murmured and snickered at that. Arima glanced at them.
"Do you mind?" he asked. "Akoya and I are trying to finish our tea."
With gentle persuasion, he was able to shoo the crowd away. He inspected the cooled tea and the remains of the snacks with a grimace.
"It looks as though bringing him back wouldn't have done any good anyway," he said. "Where did all the cake go?"
"Oh, well, you know," said Akoya, waving a hand vaguely. "There were people. It would have been rude not to share."
Arima looked at him flatly. "You've spoiled your appetite for dinner, you know."
Akoya smiled smugly. "Then it's a good thing Kinshiro isn't awake to scold me."
Kinshiro stormed into Arima's room, cheeks burning with fury and embarrassment. It was unbelievable. In all the time they'd known each other, Arima had never managed to do more than mildly annoy him - a major accomplishment, Kinshiro was willing to admit. To do something so utterly infuriating...
Arima looked up from the book he'd been reading. At least he looked guilty, not that it helped. It just meant that he knew what he'd done wrong.
"You seem upset," said Arima.
"I am upset!" Kinshiro shouted. "Everyone around school is spreading rumors about me! They're saying... they think I... that Acchan... They're saying I have a boyfriend! And that it's Acchan! They're saying that he and I are a couple and that you told them it was true!"
"I'm sorry," said Arima contritely. "I didn't realize things were going to get quite this out of hand. The idea seems to have rather captured everyone's imaginations."
"But why did you say it at all?" Kinshiro demanded.
"I had to say something," said Arima. "They wanted to know why you were acting so exhausted."
"And you had to tell them that?"
In response, Arima turned as if addressing an invisible companion. "Well, you see, the reason why Kinshiro is so tired today is that he was having portents of doom all day yesterday, so we decided we should all put on our angel wings and fly to Binan, where it turns out our old nemesis the talking hedgehog and a couple of intergalactic pop stars were forcing our friends to face them in a life-or-death talent show with the fate of our favorite bath attendant on the line."
Kinshiro stared at him. "Couldn't you have just said I'd been having trouble sleeping?"
"And what would you have said if someone in the dorms had noticed we were all out last night?" Arima asked. "The house heads do check sometimes, you know."
Kinshiro scowled. "He's not my boyfriend."
"It could be worse," said Arima. "Look at it this way - in a few more days, we'll be leaving here for good, and you'll never see any of these people again, so it won't matter what they think of you."
"Hmph," said Kinshiro.
"Anyway, it isn't as if they're taking it badly," said Arima. "The prevailing opinion seems to be that it's sort of cute."
Kinshiro continued to scowl. Yes, everyone seemed to feel that his being a foreigner, not to mention being rich and handsome, made any peculiarities of his love life acceptably entertaining rather than something to give him a hard time about. Still, it could have just as easily gone the other way, and he didn't appreciate running that risk for no good reason.
"You're going to make this up to me," he said.
"I know," said Arima contritely. "It was an error in judgement, and I'm sorry. I suppose I must still be tired and rattled from last night. But if you're going to lecture people, I hope you're having this conversation with Akoya, too. I might have started it, but he was the one who embellished it."
Kinshiro sighed. "Maybe I can just hide in my room for the rest of the semester."
He returned to his room in a gray mood. He'd been almost happy when he'd awoken that morning. He'd seen Atchan, if only for a short while, and seeing him so happy to be with him again had gone a long way towards raising Kinshiro's spirits. He'd been so afraid, when he'd left, that somehow Atsushi would forget about him, or realize that he was better off without Kinshiro in his life. And now this had to go and happen...
Kinshiro lay on his bed for a long while, lost in thought. At last, he sat up and contemplated the time. He might be more of a creature of habit than most, but he thought he knew something of Atsushi's habits by now, too. He doubted if Atsushi had managed to replace the phone he had so serendipitously killed by now, but there were other options he could take. If he wanted to.
Did he want to?
Well, that was a silly question - of course he wanted to talk to Atsushi. He always wanted to talk to Atsushi, and even when he didn't want to talk, he wanted to feel that Atsushi was there to be talked to. The question really was, did he want to let Atsushi know that he wanted to talk to him just at this moment?
It's all right. I can tell him I'm checking up on him after last night. We all had a hard night - it's understandable that I might be concerned.
He took a few calming breaths. Then he picked up his phone and searched the internet for a particular number. Within seconds, he was waiting for someone to pick up a distant phone. Then...
"Kurotama Bathhouse," said a pleasant male voice.
"Hello, Hakone-san," said Kinshiro politely. "This is Kusatsu. How are you today? Is your head feeling better?"
"Oh, it's you! Hello there," said Gora. "Yes, I'm fine. Couldn't be better. So what can I do for you?"
"I was just wondering... is Kinugawa Atsushi there?"
"I think so. Want me to put him on for you?"
"Please," said Kinshiro.
"All righty. Just a sec."
Kinshiro heard the clunk of the receiver being put down, and the muffled sound of distant voices. After a short while, he heard Atsushi's voice saying, "Hello?"
"Atchan," said Kinshiro. Just that one word released more tension than he'd realized he'd been holding. "Sorry I've interrupted your bath."
"That's all right. I was just getting out anyway," Atsushi replied. "I sure am glad to hear your voice, though."
"I'm glad to hear yours, too," said Kinshiro. "You gave me a scare yesterday."
"I'm sorry," said Atsushi. "It wasn't on purpose."
"I know," said Kinshiro. "Just be more careful next time, all right? Don't go rushing into things without backup."
"I hope there isn't a next time," said Atsushi. "At least everything is back to normal now. Maybe I should say better than normal. No more monsters to fight, Gora's safe, Yumoto's his old smiling self again, and the Beppu brothers seem to be happy. All's well that ends well."
"I'm glad you're having a good day."
Something of his mood must have crept into his inflection, because Atsushi said, "Kin-chan, what's wrong?"
"Someone's started a stupid rumor about me at school." Kinshiro thought it was incredibly forbearing of him not to mention the two someones responsible.
"Oh," said Atsushi, dismay clear in his tone. "What kind of rumor?"
"An embarrassing one," Kinshiro muttered. "Atsushi, people have found out about you somehow and they're saying you're my boyfriend!"
"Oh!" said Atsushi again, and this time, Kinshiro could practically hear the blood rushing to his cheeks. "Um. Well. I, uh...don't quite know what to say about that."
"You don't have to say anything. I know how you feel," said Kinshiro. "It isn't that... well, it's nothing to do with you. I could never be ashamed of you. It's just... unreal, hearing people talk about me this way."
"I think I've experienced something like that before," said Atsushi with a self-conscious laugh. "Even En won't let it drop. And it's probably a good thing you haven't been around to hear some of the things Kinosaki has asked me."
Quietly, Kinshiro said, "Do you want to know the worst part?"
"What's that?" Atsushi asked.
"The things people are coming up with. If you believe the rumors going around, I'm in the middle of an epic romance. Ask my classmates, they'll say I've taken you vacationing in Paris and weekending on our own private island, that we have candlelit dinners and take romantic baths sprinkled with rose petals..."
"And that's... bad?" asked Atsushi cautiously.
"It's terrible!" Kinshiro blurted. "I can't stand listening to it! It's driving me out of my mind, because I'm getting envious of myself! The me they're describing... I wish I was living his life."
"Kin-chan, you don't mean..." Atsushi's voice rose to a squeak.
"I know," said Kinshiro, feeling his own face heating until he was sure it was hotter than the Kurotama baths. "Ridiculous, isn't it?"
"No, no," said Atsushi hastily. "I don't think it's ridiculous. I think it sounds... well, wonderful."
Kinshiro felt his heartbeat stumble. "Atchan! You... you don't mean..."
"Well, it does," said Atsushi. "I'd like it if we could do that sort of thing together someday."
"I'd like it too," said Kinshiro. "Very much. Maybe when I get home, we could have dinner together or something? I don't know - I've never had a boyfriend before."
"We can definitely have dinner together," said Atsushi warmly. "So... does this mean I'm your boyfriend now?"
"Yes!" Kinshiro blurted. "I mean, you know. If you want to be."
"I do," said Atsushi. "That would make me really happy."
"It would make me happy too," said Kinshiro. "I think it would make me happier than anything."
"Then I definitely want to," said Atsushi. There was a pause. Then he said, "Um, I know this is awful timing, but there are customers coming in and I think Gora wants his phone back..."
Oh, right. In all the more personal matters, Kinshiro had forgotten about the public nature of this call.
"All right," he said. "But call me back the minute you get your phone replaced, all right?"
"Definitely," said Atsushi. "I'll call soon."
The two of them said their goodbyes. Kinshiro waited to hear Atsushi hang up before letting himself fall backwards onto his pillow and hug his phone to his chest. For a long while, he simply replayed the conversation he'd just had in his head, savoring the memory of every word Atsushi had said, convincing himself it was all real.
Eventually, he dropped into a peaceful sleep, and dreamed about what the future would be like.
Later that evening, the boarding school students gathered in the dining hall for dinner. Kinshiro breezed into the room with a smile still playing across his face, and dropped into his usual chair.
"Well, look who's here!" said Akoya, raising one eyebrow. "You look awfully contented."
"I take it you aren't still angry at us?" Arima asked.
"Angry?" Kinshiro repeated. "Why should I be angry, especially at you? You two are my best friends, and I'm very lucky to have you."
"Well!" said Akoya, glancing inquisitively at Arima. "Someone's mood certainly has improved."
"I suppose," said Arima judiciously, "his mood improves considerably when he finally gets enough sleep."