Yumiko tells him to make a wish on the rarest day of the year, pointing one white finger at the candles spread out in a flickering ring.

It's just him and her tonight, brother and sister against a background of high class Italian restaurant where the silverware and service both shine with a polished professional gleam. Yuuta is in his dorm, their father in his office overseas, their mother at home. Birthdays are not an occasion for the Fuji family; it's as if by refusing to acknowledge them, the years will forget to pass.

"I've heard it's a western custom," he demurs, downing the last of his drink.

Yumiko picked him up on a whim, brought him here when the decorations outside took her fancy, ordered an angel's food cake because it happened to be one of the house specialties; he wouldn't have accepted, otherwise. This is the the way things are done. Conventions build expectations, dull the pleasure of acquisition, and only the unexpected gifts are worth giving.

"So we'll only do it once," she smiles at him, their eyes turning into identical new-moon slits. Yuuta always stretches his eyes as wide as they'll go when smiling; more often, he tries not to smile at all, and Fuji wonders where their education went wrong.

"I already have everything I want."

A waiter passing by with an empty cart stops beside their table. He's tall and tanned, a Ken doll in black waiter's tux, and his gaze as it rests on Yumiko is openly admiring. Fuji doesn't think she goes for the Vogue model type, but then, she might surprise him tonight; others dye their hair green and gold, etch grotesque designs into their skins; in their family, there are other methods of rebirth. "You should wish for a continuation of everything you have, then," says Ken-doll with the smile that adults reserve for adolescents unversed with the fickleness and changeability of fortune.

Fuji transfers his own smile upwards. "You're right, how stupid of me." He turns back to Yumiko, clasps her hand, brushes a light kiss upon the back. "May our love be long and everlasting, free from the presence of third parties." Yumiko goes along with the cue, giggling with a rosy blush, which tells Fuji more than anything that his original assessment of Ken's chances was on the mark -- she isn't generous in the sharing of her toys, fights like a bobcat for sole teasing rights. Ken stands stiffly, hunting for a graceful exit, and Fuji, because he is rarely intentionally cruel, leans over and says, "Could you bring me another glass of water?"

Ken leaves, tail between legs, while the Fuji siblings exchange a glance of shared mischief over the table. They both know what he meant: I want the sea, I want the sky, I want more than I will ever, ever have.

Later, when they pull away from the restaurant in her sportscar, he says, "Drop me off at the bus stop, please"

Yumiko purses glossy painted lips, a pantomime of a kiss in the rearview mirror. "Do you want to tell me where you're going?"

"Not particularly," and he dons his prettiest smile just to see her glare.

Upon reaching the bus stop, she slams on the brakes, hard, sending him into a nosedive that stops a centimeter away from the windshield. "I'll tell 'Kaasan that you're staying with a friend overnight," she tells him sweetly as he extricates himself from his seat belt, adding just before he shuts the passenger side door, "Do remember to use protection."

"I'll keep that in mind," he returns with equal benevolence, neither confirmation nor denial, and waves to her as she departs.

They know each other too well, he thinks while stepping onto the bus. Translation: it's time for a change.

It's time for a change, he thinks when Eiji points at his current girlfriend, the one he hasn't yet introduced to anyone, saying "Ne, ne, Fuji, how about that one? She's just your type."

"Is she?" he says, leaning out over the railing to catch more of the sunlight being eaten by overcast. The girl moves on with her friends, all dimples and smiles, braid falling down her back like a leash connected to the heart. Fluff between her ears, but smart enough to know her limits, pleasant to look at, and as fickle in her fancies as a weathervane. Going out with her is the definition of ease; breaking up is just as simple.

There are a number of candidates, but he doesn't stop to consider. The next time he catches Tezuka's eyes grazing his body in the locker room as he changes -- perfectly innocent on the side of their former captain, he's sure, at least on the level of conscious intent -- he intercepts the gaze with a smile, lingering and slow to blossom, the lure of pollen that has never failed to captivate.

Tezuka only looks at him, mouth flattening into a horizontal slash. They're both very good at keeping their secrets, and what's hammered home in that moment is that this prey is something new, that he was looking for a different breed but found another species entirely.

His smile changes from seductive to provocative; he's always up for a challenge.

Weeks later, when Tezuka presses him up against the locker room wall, he thinks to himself that that wasn't so hard, after all.

It's almost an hour before he reaches his destination. Tezuka's house is in a district far from his own, distant in every sense of the word.

The second time Tezuka brought him here, he spent an hour dawdling in the front yard, running his palms across ancient stones soft with moss, pretending he was in a Shogun's garden, the training ground of a samurai, that at any moment a warrior in period dress would stumble through the gates, panting, reporting fires in the city, uprising of the peasantry...what he got was Tezuka pulling him inside, offering tea or ice water.

The first time, he had other things on his mind.

They both come from wealthy families, but the word for Tezuka's home, Tezuka's life, he thinks, is traditional. That's the novelty that attracts him.

Tezuka's mother answers the door, smiling as always, cordial as always, concealing her surprise at his arrival so well that his thoughts turn towards Yumiko and her gift of foresight with the inevitability of water running downstream. She's the anomaly in Tezuka's family, parallel to Yuuta in his own, but deals with the circumstances with more grace; it's impossible to tell if she ever stifles in the atmosphere of stagnation, yearns for escape the way Yuuta did before taking wing.

"Fuji-kun, how pleasant it is to see you; that troublesome son of mine, he never prepared us for your visit. May I take your coat? Would you like to call your parents, let them know you've arrived safely?"

"You're too kind, I'm terribly sorry to impose; yes, please, and I doubt there's anyone home yet," and they part without having exchanged a single word of truth, understanding each other perfectly.

Tezuka's father offers a kind but absent-minded greeting, lost in the evening paper, while Tezuka's grandfather looks his way and grunts in what can loosely be interpreted as a sign of approval. Tezuka told him once that each of the classmates he brings home is subjected to a terrifyingly vigorous interrogation, and the ones who show up a second time automatically qualify as worthy.

"So tell me, how many have returned?" he'd asked, dragging a finger down the line of Tezuka's back, and didn't pause when Tezuka said, with all the detachment of a weather report,

"Just the one."

Tezuka himself is less welcoming. When he sees Fuji, his eyes only widen briefly before he regains his usual composure, but Fuji can read him well enough to know what that means.

"I'm here for our history cram session," he explains brightly. "You're not going to tell me you forgot, are you?"

Underneath the smile, he's nowhere near certain of the response. Fuji reigns as champion of getting his own way, but Tezuka is completely capable of ordering a hundred laps in the rain, of exposing the lie to his face. It was one of the first things he learned in their relationship: Tezuka takes no more nonsense from one who shares his bed than anyone else, gives no more leeway, is no less exacting. Fuji is aware of his own ruthlessness, the ability to dissociate action from emotion, but it fades into triviality -- the proverbial molehill to mountain -- when compared to Tezuka's.

"Let's go to my room," says Tezuka finally, pushing at his glasses, and Fuji knows he's being granted this round.

He follows Tezuka past closed doors and down the hallway, an obedient little duckling, until they reach what's privately labeled in his mind as the blandest place on the planet. There's nothing of Tezuka here, just the usual ubiquitous desk and bed, a small wardrobe, shelves and shelves of books with titles that make no sense. He used to give Tezuka gifts: gilt-edged music boxes from curio-shops, wooden picture frames from street vendors, an urn he wrought himself at a pottery class, before realizing that they appeared once and never again; nowadays, he no longer bothers. They take their pleasures from different sources, and there is nothing to be done about that.

"I wanted to see you," he says the minute the door closes behind him, striking before Tezuka can start his own offense. "It's my birthday, you know."

Skeptical is the keyword for this moment of Tezuka Kunimitsu. "Since when did you start caring for those?" and this is why he'd settled on Tezuka, why he'd never listed him for consideration previously; one year, and Fuji still isn't used to being penetrated by one who isn't of his ilk.

He lifts his chin in response, smiles brilliantly, steps closer with the knowledge that Tezuka is too dignified to back away. Presses his hands against Tezuka's chest, lightly, undemanding, almost no pressure at all, and enjoys the feeling of rough cotton over skin over bone over the heart pulsing underneath his fingertips. Knows that he couldn't rip it out if he tried.

Tezuka has no braid, no leash, and if he ever grows one, it won't be entrusted to Fuji. He is the first of Fuji's companions to understand that the only plants that flourish under Fuji's care are the ones that don't need him in the first place, and Fuji applauds him for it, doesn't stay up nights wondering how it might be otherwise, if they were either of them capable of being anything other than who they choose to be.

"Never take anything for granted," he murmurs later, when Tezuka's fingers are pressing into his skin, when he's scratching lines down Tezuka's back, drawing blood, trying and failing to find purchase, "never, never, not when you're in my world."

Tezuka doesn't answer, but then, he thinks, Tezuka never needed to be told.

And then he doesn't think at all.

He doesn't think at all when Tezuka dangles the resignation slip before his eyes, just sighs and rests his cheek on one propped hand, preparing to weather the storm with determined obtuseness. It's been a pleasant day so far, and he prefers his fights to come lumped atop a thousand other annoyances; it's difficult, otherwise, to gather up the strength to care.

Tezuka looks as dispassionate as ever, but with Tezuka, expression is rarely a reliable indication of emotional upheaval. "The captain asked me if there was some mistake," and his voice is even as well, steady and with a minimum of inflection. "I told him you don't make mistakes, but he wants a reason."

"Family difficulties," Fuji proffers the rehearsed excuse without much hope. His ability to gauge what people want to hear is formed in part from practice and in part from natural aptitude, both formidable, but tricks don't work on Tezuka, who has an uncanny faculty in detecting evasion, who doesn't accept bullshit and only ever wants to hear the truth.

Predictably, Tezuka's raised eyebrow indicates 'try again'.

"This is as far as I can go," he says finally, offering it like an apology. The truth often sounds paltry beside prevarication; Fuji doesn't and doesn't want to understand Tezuka's devotion to it.

"As far as you can go, or as far as you consider it wise to go?"

"Is there a difference?"

"Is there?" and Tezuka would go straight to the heart of the matter, disdainful of all the side-paths Fuji thoughtfully paves out for him to explore. He twitches, smooths his hair, watches his pleasant day go down the drain. Dante should have reserved an extra layer in hell for the ungrateful, laid it out with the spikes of single-mindedness.

"No," he says, and this is why Fuji dislikes truth, ignores it as assiduously as Tezuka searches it out: truth is a blade, and the harder you press, the deeper it cuts. "I can't play the fool, Tezuka," can't, not won't, and they've had this conversation already, they've had it a thousand times, and it never ends any differently.

When he wakes, it's to the golden half-light of the lamp throwing dark shapes across the walls and ceiling. Outside, rain pummels down on the roof and windows, melting harmoniously into the background in one trembling, silvery sheet. A cat yowls its lust in the distance.

Tezuka is at his desk, fully dressed and doing sums; his body, stretched out in lean and graceful lines, stands between Fuji and the harshest glare of the light.

He doesn't speak, watching through his lashes as Tezuka concentrates on the Mathematics workbook with a tiny frown on his face.

If he were a surgeon, Fuji thinks, he would like to dissect Tezuka's brain, that elegant organ that schools are already competing to possess. It would be orderly and neatly compartmentalized, one section for family, one section for school, the biggest for tennis, and a small, hidden one at the back where Fuji would carve his name, lightly so that it could be washed away by time.

Tezuka laid it down the first day they touched: 'I'm looking for someone, and it's not you.' Because it was Tezuka, the words were spoken with stark honesty; because it was Tezuka, the honesty came without attempt at apology. This is the way things are, take or leave as you please, and Fuji is perhaps the only member of their acquaintance who could have taken it as an agreeable surprise, looked up and said with corresponding truth I wouldn't have it any other way.

The way he thinks of it now is Tezuka inheriting more of his mother than is obvious to the eye, which goes further than anything else to make him a suitable playmate.

"Ne, Tezuka, do you think it's about time to give it up?"

Tezuka doesn't look up from his writing. Fuji keeps his eyes on the curve of Tezuka's neck, monitors the degree of its arch, and can attest in court that it doesn't indulge in a millimeter's shift. "You might as well make yourself useful, as long as you're awake."

"One might consider what I just did for you useful enough," and he smooths his voice into maple syrup, flutters his lashes like a cinema starlet. Stretches out to expose half his body to view. Tezuka isn't looking at him, which is no guarantee that Tezuka doesn't see him, a phenomenon he's long since made peace with and harnesses occasionally for use.

"Then one might consider the effort reciprocated and therefore neutralized." Tezuka's brand of humor, which surfaces at the oddest of times, all of them private; a shy, flickering thing, vanishing before it can be captured, as if saying in a secret language, You see, I do this only for you. It's a trap, a snare, like all things hidden out of sight, except Fuji knows every trick of the trade and is too wily to be caught.

(What distinguishes hunter from hunted? That was the lesson he learned while Eiji was listening to the story of Sleeping Beauty and Oishi fumbled about with building blocks.)

"Has anyone ever told you you'd have made a great slave driver in the olden days?"

"Would that make you the slave beaten to death for laziness?"

They trade desultory barbs between themselves, Tezuka's pen never stopping, Fuji construing stories from the cracks in the whitewashed ceiling, the evening passing away into memory. Their relationship is one that's bookended with question marks -- no certainties, no footholds, everything smooth and polished like the convex lenses of Tezuka's glasses, while words are deflected back and forth until stripped of both significance and meaning.

Inui says they bring out the best in each other. Eiji says they bring out the worst.

There's a picture book in Fuji's head of all the people he's met or expects to meet, and one page near the back devoted to Tezuka's lover, who'll slip into his shoes and walk beyond: dark-haired, pale-skinned, eyes slanting up and lashes slanting down, studious and serious like Tezuka but yielding where he's immovable, moon to his sun, shadow to his light. She composes poetry, fixes his meals, carries off kimonos like a royal princess, is knowledgeable about tennis but doesn't play, because Tezuka requires perfection and there's no one more perfect on the tennis court than himself. A soft voice, a sharp mind, and together they'll make pretty, clever babies.

She's very attractive; he expects to fall a bit in love himself.

Fuji has always been the one to break off relationships, press the stop button before the magic fizzles out, but this time, he knows, he'll be spared the trouble. This is the way it should be. This way each day Tezuka stays with him is like an unexpected gift, and the day the surprise wears off he will leave.

There are a number of things Fuji doesn't think about.

Fuji doesn't think about Yuuta's smile away from home, blinding and open-eyed and somehow triumphant, as if he's celebrating escape from a cage where the only chain they tried to press upon him was happiness.

He doesn't think about recessive genes, the blue-eyed child of brown-eyed parents, and the potential for blue eyes that slumbers in each of its siblings.

He doesn't think about Tezuka's expression when a girl in their class pretends to read palms, tells Tezuka he'll have two children and marry young, the twitch of an eyelid and the denial that was the first thing he read before evasion; the realization: I taught him that.

He doesn't think about how Tezuka's lover has become less of a successor to him than a fairy tale.

Above all, he doesn't think about self-deceit, which is the most convincing of all lies, and the only one of them that is unforgivable.