He couldn't sleep, so he called Shinji up. It was before midnight, and Shinji was sure to be asleep...but since Shinji was his best friend, he figured the bother was warranted.

"Tachibana-san said he wanted to meet up with me..."

"So?"

"So well...I dunno. What do you think that could mean?"

"Maybe he wants to talk to you about tennis club business."

"Nah, we already talked about that earlier. I think we've talked about everything that needs talking about regarding the club..."

"Then...maybe he wants to talk to you about something else. Maybe he has girl problems."

A pause on Akira's end. "How the hell can Tachibana-san ever have girl problems?"

"I don't know." Shinji yawned with disinterest. "But I don't know anyone else he can talk to about stuff like that, either. He's open with you, and you're his vice-captain. He depends on you for things."

Akira saw some logic in that. But Shinji's disaffected air was starting to tick him off. He no longer wanted to pursue this discussion. "You're right. It's probably something like that. Well, I won't keep you up any longer about it. I'll see you Monday, okay?"

Click.

Akira knew he had just been an ass, but maybe Shinji was used to it.

He appreciated Shinji taking him seriously, for the most part. But he did wonder if Shinji was the best person to talk to for some personal things. Sometimes Shinji just brushed him off, and Akira thought it unbearable that his best friend could do that -- just brush off his issues like any other guy.

If Shinji wouldn't understand him, who else would take the trouble to? If Shinji didn't even want to make heads or tails of the apprehension eating away at Akira, what was the hope of Akira finding anyone else who could?

Not for the first time, he wished Shinji knew how he felt. He wished Shinji could just wake up and realize that his sheltered existence gave him no room to identify.



"Good. You're on time."

Akira hadn't let his apprehensions rob him of sleep. Invigorated, he greeted back, "Ohayou! Tachibana-san. What's on our lineup for today?"

"Have you had breakfast? We could go to A.Hamburger if you haven't yet. It's not too far from here."

Akira blinked. It was strange to have someone else ask him a fussy question like that. Normally he would be the one asking. "No, I've had breakfast, Tachibana-san. I'm okay..."

"All right then. We go shop."

He turned around and walked off without checking to see if Akira would follow him. And of course, bewildered as he was, Akira did. There was no one else to follow.

"Shop??"

"Shop."

"What do you mean? Are we shopping for the tennis club? I thought Ishida and Sakurai already took care of all our supplies last week!"

Tachibana stopped in his tracks. Akira froze. When Tachibana looked over his shoulder at him, looking stern as all out, Akira pulled himself upright stiffly, wondering if he'd said something wrong...

"All the shopping for everyone else in the world's been done, Mr. Vice Captain. So today, we're going to shop for you."

The words came like thunder. Akira couldn't believe his ears.

"But -- Tachibana-san -- that is..."

"That bargain store you went to yesterday didn't hold a lot for teenage boys. There are better shops near here, almost as cheap."

"Tachibana-san -- I don't need anything! And -- I didn't bring any money!"

"You're not supposed to spend."

Akira's feet turned to lead. Sensing that, Tachibana also stopped walking altogether.

Tachibana turned back at the red-haired boy gaping at him a few meters away, so still that if anyone brushed against him, he would probably fall over.

"Kamio," he said, suddenly compassionate, "don't you think I'm aware of your financial situation? I try to know everything about everyone on the team. Now that you know this, go ahead and tell me yesterday's shopping trip with your sisters didn't clean you out."

Akira couldn't say anything. He knew he should be joking or something to lighten the mood, because he was the only one suffering here, but this was the first time something like this had happened to him -- his body was having trouble knowing how to react.

"Ta...tachibana-san..."

"Just don't tell the rest of the team. If anyone else found out that I treated you to a shopping trip and started expecting favors from me, I'll know who to go after."

"But...Tachibana-san...the money..."

"Don't worry about the money, Kamio. I can't possibly overspend where I'm taking you to."

That was such a relief to hear. In fact, those were exactly the right words.

Was he lying?

"You're not going to make this difficult for me, are you?"

Miserably Akira answered "No...Tachibana-san."



"Here," Tachibana-san was saying, "try this on."

This was the last leg of their expedition. They had been through shirts, jeans, shoes, headgear, and were on the accessorizing phase.

At Tachibana's request, Akira wore the jeans and t-shirt they had bought. And this was only because Tachibana insisted; Akira didn't really see how they were supposed to make him look better just because they fit more snugly around his body.

He had no idea what the necklace he currently wore was supposed to do to enhance his looks, either.

"...Uh...looks great."

"Wait, try this one on, too."

Tachibana took a large crucifix from the counter attendant's hand. He took off the thick gold hexagram necklace that he had placed on Akira and replaced it with the new item.

"Looks better, doesn't it?" Tachibana asked.

"...I look like Ohtori from Hyoutei."

Tachibana chuckled and detached the crucifix from around Akira's neck. He returned the crucifix to the counter attendant.

"Ah well...you and religious symbols just probably don't mix, imp."

Not for the first time that day, Akira found a warm flush creeping up to his cheeks. Tachibana was being unnecessarily indulgent. Yet when the older boy took him to shop after shop, getting him outfitted and helping him pick out clothing, Akira never found the strength to protest.

It wasn't that he didn't appreciate what Tachibana-san was doing. Only it felt terminally...awkward. He had tried to keep his purchases consistent with a budget that he would impose on himself, but more than once, Tachibana would say outright that his selections were not aesthetically correct.

According to Tachibana's superior wisdom, it was always the more expensive ones that suited Akira better and were going to last longer. So those were the ones they bought.

How long was Akira going to let this go on?

"...Tachibana-san."

Tachibana briefly looked away from the display case.

"I...appreciate everything. I really do. But...I don't understand. Even necklaces and things...which I don't really need, I -- "

"Wait. This is perfect."

The attendant had come back from a far end of the counter with a close-fitting azure bead necklace.

The last word on Akira's lips died off when that necklace approached him and wrapped itself around his neck.

Tachibana laid his hand on his shoulders and gently steered him to look again at the cosmetics mirror.

"There. See? I don't know why I didn't see this earlier. It has 'Kamio Akira' written all over it." He gave a soft laugh, he must have felt clumsy saying that too.

Tachibana's voice was so gentle. Like he was talking to a girl. Or a younger sister.

"It matches your eyes."

Akira decided it felt nice, having Tachibana's strong, steady hands on his shoulders. Sure it made him remember that his shoulders were painfully narrow and that he could use a little more upper-body training, but that realization took the back seat.

Tachibana was smiling at his reflection and it made him feel...

Like a work of art.

Like something to be proud of.

Something to be kept safe.

Tachibana's hands, the calm yet forceful tone of his voice, his unselfish smile, had shaped him into this.

It felt much too warm and much too wrong.

"I'm buying this for you, then we're done for the day."

Akira was silent for a while. Then he removed the bead necklace.

"...I can't accept this, Tachibana-san."

Akira laid the bauble on the counter. He couldn't look at the mirror. At Tachibana's surprised, puzzled face reflected on the mirror.

"You've already spent so much for my sake, and -- I shouldn't even accept any of it." He faced Tachibana and hung his head. "I should be able to take care of my own needs. I'm old enough, I'm your vice-captain and -- "

His voice had started to shake. He felt so small. He was so tired.

Then he felt a large and heavy hand on his head, not forceful. Not even angry.

He didn't dare look up.

"Kamio," Tachibana was saying, quietly firm. "Stop this foolishness. You've said it yourself -- you're my vice captain. But taking care of other people is different from taking care of oneself. If you can't properly do both, in the long run, you won't be of any use to me."

The hand ruffled his hair a little and tilted his head back gently before letting go. Akira had to look up now, at Tachibana's friendly, affectionate smile.

"We both know damn well you won't be able to take care of yourself if no one will start teaching you how."

This was the person who had said he was going to take care of his team. That he wasn't going to let his team down. That his team was a tightly-knit power group and they were going to make it far as such.

This was the person who was working hard to make all of those dreamlike notions come true.

To Akira, he could never lie, or say anything unwise.

If he said there was something about himself that Akira needed to understand...no matter how foreign, no matter how painful...

"Put all your heart into the moment, Kamio. Enjoy your youth. I don't think you even have an idea how much you've been neglecting yourself."



He had to come up with an elaborate plan to hide his new acquisitions.

Akira hid the packages in the gap under the pile of scrap metal outside the apartment complex his family stayed in. Then he was going to keep an eye out, and when the coast was clear, he would step outside and bring the packages indoors.

It had to be late at night, too. Perhaps when he had put his sisters to bed, shortly before his father came home. His mother was also working late, which was a good thing tonight. It wouldn't do for his family members to ask where he got the money for his new stuff.

It would not be good either to let them know that someone else had bought them for him.

Akira thought he had timed it well. But he was heading down the stairs when he heard footsteps coming up, and he had to stop in his tracks.

He recognized those footsteps -- it was his mother.

He couldn't go all the way back to their apartment rooms, it was too far, his mother was going to spot him anyway. So he forced himself to be calm and walked on.

His mother met him halfway down the well-lit staircase. She glared at him as best she could, with eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

"Akira? What are you doing out of doors?" she demanded, her voice almost monotone with weariness.

"I was...just going to check up on my bike, mom. I don't remember if I'd locked it..."

"All right then, go check up on it. But next time, bring it up. Don't be lazy, everyone else brings up their own bikes."

He nodded and was about to sprint down the stairs, when he heard his mother call:

"Where'd you get that necklace?"

His fingers flew up to his throat on impulse. He didn't realize he was still wearing the necklace, after Tachibana had bought it for him. He was becoming much too comfortable with it...

"Ah...it's Shinji's. I just borrowed it."

"Oh, Shinji-kun's. Is that so." There was nothing to glean from the sound of her voice alone. "Too bad. It looks good on you."

The look on Akira's face softened. "Really?"

"Yes, it matches your eyes."

After a pause, Akira made a sound of dismissal, like any embarrassed teenage boy would when lightly praised by his mother. Then he bounded down the stairs again.

He took his time bringing up his packages. And now his timing was good. His mother had dressed for bed and was preparing to lay her tired head on the pillow. She wasn't around to see him stash his packages away in his room.



That night, Akira stayed awake a long time.

He sat up looking at his reflection in the mirror, absently running his fingertips over the necklace he had not taken off.

When he stared at it long enough, he discovered that it really DID match his eyes. He wasn't sure how, because the colors were absolutely different, but the contrast...somehow it made sense, and everyone else was right.

He also realized that it felt unbearably light. That was how come he didn't know that he hadn't removed it yet. It was probably made of plastic, but it didn't irritate his skin, like he imagined plastic would. It didn't feel like he was wearing a toy, albeit a highly-priced one.

And above all, finally, Akira realized that it took away the weight of the latchkey that had used to hang from around his neck. The weight he didn't know he had been living with up to that time.

When he lay down on his bed, he suddenly found his eyes filling up with tears.

Akira wasn't sure why he was crying. He felt hot inside. He hated himself for feeling hot, he hated himself for not knowing why.

He wanted to pick up the phone, but didn't know who to call. And even if he did call, and come up with something worthwhile to say, it wouldn't do for anyone else to hear his voice breaking. If only he could steady himself...

Tachibana's voice and face took over his mind, a pillar of support for the last few things inside Akira that had not yet broken down. Perhaps Tachibana-san was awake. Perhaps Tachibana-san wouldn't mind being called up at the dead of night. Perhaps Tachibana-san would be able to explain.

And perhaps he would hate Akira for being weak against his own emotions. Akira told himself firmly, he was an older brother. He was an only son. He was a vice captain. He had to learn to take care of himself.

Maybe it was Tachibana's fault for teaching him so many things all at once.

Because for the first time in Akira's life, he desperately needed someone to reach inside him and hold him together.



(The End)