None of these things were imagined, for Akashi knew him, and knew how he deviated from his usual self.

Though their routines remained largely unchanged, there was a distance to his presence—an initial vacancy in his expression whenever Akashi addressed him, as if he was lost in his mind somewhere. Attributing it to work-related stress, as Shintarou had been spending extra shifts at the hospital, it was nothing Akashi thought to raise a brow at.

"Is everything all right at the clinic?" Akashi asks over dinner one day, and Midorima looks to him, a clump of rice balanced on his chopsticks.

"Everything's fine." He answers easily before resuming his meal.

"You seem distracted lately. Stressed."

"Do I?" He evades, leaving the last piece of tofu for Akashi.

Akashi would have dismissed things if it weren't for a most suspicious development. Shintarou's personal phone—which usually sat silent and forgotten, lost in between couch cushions or gathering dust somewhere—began to chime with frequent calls and texts. Suddenly Shintarou was acutely aware of its location at all times.

"It's nothing. Just Takao." And it was always just Takao. Shintarou would pocket his phone and adjust his frames, a sign of embarrassment. That was another thing—Shintarou's sudden reservation around Akashi, and the slow hesitant looks when he thought Akashi didn't notice.

Of course he noticed.

The changes were mentally tallied as they crept in and the details built up like a case study in Akashi's head. In between their irregular schedules, the meals they were lucky enough to catch together, the foray in sheets when neither of them were too exhausted, and the moments of calm too sacred to disrupt, Akashi was unable to find a time to broach the subject.

He returns home to find Shintarou in the foyer and in his coat, ready to leave. Shintarou looks a bit stunned to see him home so early. "Emergency at the hospital." The taller man offers a curt apology and shuffles past Akashi without bothering to meet his sharp eyes.

When Akashi sees Shintarou's credentials sitting on the kitchen counter, he wonders if this is what insecurity feels like.

"You left your pass." Akashi says, looking up from the evening's edition of news coverage as he hears Shintarou enter the room.

There's a second where the muscles of Shintarou's hands jerk in reaction as if reaching to pat his pockets, but he quickly aborts the gesture and rebounds smoothly enough for anyone were it not Akashi. "A colleague of mine swiped me in."

Akashi continues to stare, mismatched eyes breaking from green ones, drifting down the length of his form.

"Stop that."

"Stop what?"

"That thing you do," He accuses, and there's a hint of underlying anger. "Where you search me because you don't trust me."

"Words so easily belie facts. It's nothing personal, Shinta—."

"But it is personal." Shintarou cuts him off. He's visibly irate, jaw tightening and artery in his throat pulsing. "We've been living together for years and you've known me for longer. Don't tell me you still find the need to evaluate the veracity of my every claim."

"I simply make use of what I was given. Certainly you understand."

"And what of those who lack your extraordinary talents?" He made no effort to conceal his cool sarcasm. "You must think they live in constant doubt."

"No, but perhaps they live a bit ignorantly."

"How insulting," He snaps, and his eyes burn indignantly. "How insulting it is to be told that my devotion towards you is ignorant. It's true I can't assess you in the way you assess me, but you give faith too little credence."

Akashi falters a bit at this, because he doesn't want to make the same tired argument that this was him and what he knew. Plus, the conversation had spiraled into something else, and before he can reel it back, Shintarou's advancing towards him and pressing something into his hands.

"A man should be allowed his secrets." He says with a note of finality, and retreats moodily into the bedroom.

It's a small leather box, deep rouge and elegant in its plainness. He runs his fingers over the textured surface ponderously before deciding to open it, and a silver band seated upon a luxurious satin pillow gleams at him. There's a tiny diamond inlaid precisely in the center and oh, how expensive it looked and considering Shintarou's perfectionism, how long he must have searched and the people he must have consulted. Akashi shuts the box, thinks long into the night, and sets it quietly on the bedstand next to a sleeping Shintarou.

Shintarou says nothing to him the next morning as he sits at the table to a breakfast Akashi has prepared. For awhile, only the clinking of chopsticks against porcelain bowls permeates the silence. Green eyes never once looks his way, downcast and brimming with unspoken hurt and rejection.

"Forgive me, for I have caused you grief." Akashi sets his empty bowl and chopsticks down and Shintarou lifts weary eyes in answer.

"There's nothing to forgive." And Shintarou makes to stand, but Akashi stops him.

"No, there is much. I was not as right as I've always thought to be, and this is why I have you, Shintarou. This is why I need you by my side." He extends his left hand across the table and Shintarou looks dumbly at Akashi's fingers before understanding hits him. Suddenly his mouth feels dry and throat thick.

"It's not the way I wanted to do it." He says quietly, regretfully. His cheeks are stained with a sort of embarrassment that Akashi hasn't seen since their schooldays, when many of their firsts had occurred.

"And it's not the way I need it to be." Here and now. Just here and now, and no later.

With a one last doubtful look, Shintarou procures the box and gently removes the ring from its princely cushion. His fingers, those steady long fingers that never faltered, now tremble as he takes Akashi's hand gingerly in his, almost timidly. He nearly misses but he doesn't(a victory he credits to his lucky item), and manages to slip the band onto Akashi's ring finger before releasing him.

It's a thing of wonder as Akashi holds his hand up and observes it from several angles. This new weight on his finger, carrying a world of meaning, was not felt in his heart, for those sentiments and intentions had long settled there. But there is a tangible quality he appreciates about being definitively branded for a world of spectators.

Their fingers tangle, and a dazed Shintarou seems to be thinking something similar.

[ They never said it was going to be easy, and they never said it was going to work out, but boy, they're not ready to taste defeat. ]