Part IV: Kagami

The message arrived halfway through fourth period, just as the math teacher was explaining Poisson distributions. Despite being on silent Kagami's cellphone produced a surprisingly loud nose vibrating against his desk.

Several classmates stared, including Kuroko, and the teacher shot Kagami a dirty look. There was no choice but to wait until the bell rang to check his mobile mail.

As always, Akashi's words were brief and polite and to the point. Please teach me how to cook.

Akashi rarely emailed during school hours. Kagami puzzled over the message throughout the early afternoon; keeping him awake during Japanese literature class for the first time in six weeks.
By the time he arrived at basketball practice he'd given up trying to work it out.

As with most ideas of Akashi's, the plan would eventually be revealed bit by bit. Kagami had faith in that. Mostly.

#

These days Akashi's idea of using Skype was to start a video call, leave it running for hours, and then potter around doing his homework (less often) or playing tactical board games (more often) until some topic he wanted to talk about occurred to him. Then he would catch Kagami's attention, and Kagami would wander back from whatever he was doing (food, laundry, food, NCAA Youtube videos) back to the laptop screen to listen to Akashi's little speeches.

(They really were much more like one-way speeches than two-way conversations – long and clever and soothing to the ear, even when Kagami couldn't make head or tail of them, which was most of the time.)

Akashi wasn't making much more sense than usual today.

"Let me get this straight," Kagami said. "You're organising a cooking contest. Between the home economics club and the basketball club."

"It's the third time we're running it." Akashi had a knack of looking directly at the camera lens when speaking, so that Kagami had a false sense of eye contact being made. "Perhaps it will become a yearly Rakuzan tradition."

Kagami tried to think of something to say in reply, failed, and stayed silent.

Akashi raised one finely arched brow. "If you have questions, Taiga, it's usually better to express them than to stare with a befuddled expression."

It was impossible for Akashi to physically stab him via video call. Probably. Kagami plunged ahead: "Did you cook in last year's competition?"

Akashi made a fleeting moue with his lips. "Over the last twenty-six months the basketball club at Rakuzan has participated in no fewer than thirty-four amicable contests with eighteen other clubs within our school. I am pleased to say that in thirty-two of those instances I was an active contestant and made crucial contributions to our club's treasury by leading the team to victory in all thirty-two cases. However, both last year and the year before, it was Reo who led the cooking team."

Akashi had a habit of speaking in unnecessarily complicated sentences. It took Kagami a little while to untangle what Akashi had just said. "I didn't know Mibuchi was good at cooking."

"I like your cooking better than Reo's," Akashi said, and long before Kagami could stammer out a response to that, Akashi had already moved on. "I expect you'll have free time this weekend to instruct me?"

"You'll come to Tokyo this weekend?" Kagami asked, immediately hating how his voice came out, hopeful and a little raw.

"I'll be at your apartment at Friday at 8pm," Akashi replied. Which meant he was unlikely to arrive anytime before nine o'clock.

Not that it'd make much difference, since Kagami would be waiting all evening anyway. Lately it felt like he was always doing this, waiting for Akashi.

Even if he wasn't sure exactly what he was waiting for Akashi to do.

#

True to form, Akashi didn't arrive until half-past nine.

He was carrying two suitcases: a wheeled Cordura one, maroon, that he was still holding by the extendable handle, and a smaller black case in his left hand that Kagami instinctively reached for.

Akashi handed over the piece of luggage with a polite nod of acknowledgement. "Good evening, Taiga."

"Hello," Kagami said, before being distracted by the sudden surprising weight of the bag he'd taken. "That's...heavy."

"There are recipe books in there." Akashi stepped into the apartment, pulling his other suitcase behind him. Kagami shut the door and followed him further inside. "We'll look at them tomorrow."

He hadn't seen Akashi in person in nearly three months.

Akashi hadn't changed much. His fringe was a little longer, his skin more tanned than it had been in winter. He wore a dark green windbreaker, fully zipped, over boot-cut jeans.

He smiled slightly as he looked up at Kagami, only to have the smile turn into a yawn. "My apologies. I'd hoped we could start the lessons tonight, but I think I'd better go to sleep soon."

"Have you had dinner yet?" Kagami asked, placing the suitcase of books down on the floor next to the couch.

Akashi shook his head.

"There's leftovers, if you like, or I can make something quickly," offered Kagami.

"Either will be fine."

He heated up the food while Akashi went into the spare room to unpack his things, then laid out the dishes and rice and soup for both of them.

Akashi came back out and raised a brow when he saw the meal spread out on the table. "You've eaten already, haven't you?"

Kagami shrugged. "I'm still hungry."

Akashi tilted his chin upwards, and Kagami shifted uncomfortably as he felt Akashi's gaze rake his torso and upper arms. "You've gained four kilograms since the Winter Cup." Then, in a disgruntled tone: "You've also grown two and a half centimetres."

"...Sorry," Kagami said, as they seated themselves.

"Insincerity doesn't become you, Taiga." Akashi placed his palms together. "Itadakimasu."

As usual, Kagami finished eating long before Akashi. He ended up sitting there, watching Akashi in silence. There was a practised elegance to the way Akashi ate, just as there was with almost everything the smaller boy did.

Akashi took a sip of shiro miso soup and looked across the table. "By the way, have you decided what you'll do next year?"

They'd talked about college the last time Akashi visited Tokyo. Kagami had been avoiding the topic since. It was still difficult thinking about Akashi and the future at the same time: both subjects seemed so distant and elusive, so out of his control, that when placed together they made Kagami feel frustrated at best and hopeless at worst.

"UCLA," he answered after a few seconds. "My old man's still working in California, so it makes sense."

"What do you plan to study?"

"Hell if I know." The only prep he'd done for college so far (besides asking Akashi for SATs tutoring) was sending video footage of his recent Interhigh games to as many Pacific-12 colleges as he could. Tatsuya had done the same thing last year and was planning to help Kagami sort through the email responses from coaches over the next few weeks.

"I would recommend not majoring in English, or Japanese, or history," Akashi said thoughtfully. "I would also advise against mathematics, physics, chemistry and geography."

Kagami glared at him. Akashi just smiled.

"Sports science would be an option, I suppose, if I weren't worried about your ability to pass human biology." Akashi finished eating with a quietly spoken "Gochisousama."

Kagami began to clear the table.

The last time they'd discussed this topic Akashi hadn't even decided which country he was going to attend university in; he'd mentioned Harvard, and Oxford, and Toudai, and finished by saying he might as well apply to all of them, for the sake of the experience. Kagami had mentally categorised them as far, further, and with that timezone difference even Skype's gonna be difficult, even while realising he really shouldn't care where Akashi went for college.

"Another bj-league team tried to recruit me last week," Kagami mentioned, as he was rinsing the dishes; Akashi was drying the clean ones with a tea towel. "Ryukyu."

"You turned them down, of course."

"I said I'd think about it." He finished washing the last of the rice bowls. "I'm not planning to accept, I just wanted...to think about it."

"Well, it's your choice." Akashi put away the dishes as Kagami wiped the dining table down. "I do rather think it's a waste of time, dwelling on possibilities that you're certain won't come to pass."

Kagami didn't – or rather couldn't – say anything to that.

#

He awoke while it was still dark. He knew from experience that Akashi wouldn't stir until seven in the morning at least, so he put on his trainers and went for a run, breathing in the sharp morning air.

Akashi was in Tokyo until Sunday afternoon. It was hard not to feel content.

Dawn was in full progress by the time Kagami got back to the apartment. He took a shower, changed, did a quick inventory of the refrigerator (dangerously low on groceries), and at 6:55 AM heard the sound of a news broadcast emerging from the spare room; the morning alarm on Akashi's smartphone activating.

It was another twenty minutes before Akashi had finished dressing and brushing his teeth and hair. Once he had, he sat down on the living room floor and set to opening the black suitcase Kagami had found unexpectedly heavy last night.

A half-dozen hardcover books, each of them at least five hundred pages long to go by the thickness, emerged from within the trunk. Akashi spread them out on the floor.

Kagami sat down next to Akashi and examined the titles. "Larousse Gastronomique?" He stared at Akashi with a sinking feeling; it wasn't as if he was surprised, but still...

"Quite effective bedtime reading, I assure you. It's staved off my insomnia at least three times within the last fortnight." Akashi picked up a slightly smaller tome. "I found Julia Child much easier to follow. I brought English-language cookbooks where possible; it seemed pointless for me to be engaging you in esoteric kanji vocabulary lessons just for the sake of learning how to make duck confit."

"You do know I can't cook French food."

"Rest assured that I harbour no illusions regarding your knowledge of European haute cuisine. Hence, the recipe books."

Kagami's stomach growled.

Akashi cast his eyes on Kagami's abdomen. "I'm rather hungry myself. Shall we prepare breakfast?

"Sure." Kagami checked the pantry; he was down to his last dozen eggs. "What do you want to eat?"

"I'm rather inclined to start with French cooking," Akashi mused. "My father and I last visited Paris three years ago. Our hotel in Saint-Germain served the most delightful little mini-croissants for breakfast, accompanied by pain au lait and a selection of Christine Ferber artisan jams."

"...we're not making croissants."

"No, pastry-making is more Atsushi's forte than yours. I'll be visiting Akita next weekend." Akashi continued through the the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

"Omelettes are French, right? We can make some of those." Kagami reached out and took the book out of Akashi's hands. Despite himself he was feeling irritated.

It wasn't even as if Akashi would be sleeping over at Murasakibara's home – Murasakibara lived in the dorms, and Akashi would have to book a hotel in Akita. And Akashi could and would do exactly as he pleased. Kagami had figured that out the first time he met the elegant, arrogant, absolutely maddening former Teikou captain.

It didn't necessarily mean anything that Akashi was asking Kagami for help.

"I suppose it's good to begin with the basics," Akashi said.

#

As far as Kagami's cooking students went, Akashi showed more aptitude than Coach Riko (not saying much), made fewer messes than Tatsuya (again not saying much), and possessed even less culinary experience than Kuroko did (which was saying quite a lot).

"Omurice in junior high," Akashi said, when Kagami asked him if he'd cooked before. "It was a moderately successful attempt, although admittedly Teikou's home economics curriculum was very unexacting. "

"You only cooked once in home economics class?" Kagami tossed the empty egg carton into the rubbish bin. They were up to four omelettes so far: two scrambled, two rolled, all perfectly formed. Akashi was making a fifth and final one au fromage.

"As I said. The curriculum was most unexacting." Akashi gently flipped the last omelette onto a plate. "Shall we eat?"

For breakfast Akashi consumed one piece of toast, a mouthful of each of the five varieties of omelette he'd created – plain, aux fines herbes, aux épinards, sprinkled with diced ham - and one cup of black filter coffee. (Akashi had surprisingly low-calorie, low-protein tastes in food given how sensitive about height he was.)

Kagami finished eating two omelettes in the time it took Akashi to finish half his toast. "Can you tell me more about this cooking contest?" Presumably Akashi had some reason for for doing this competition. Not that Akashi usually needed reasons to get involved once the word 'competition' was uttered.

Akashi picked up the pepper grinder and gently scattered white pepper onto his chunks of omelette. "There isn't much to tell. Five members will participate from either club. A selection of four dishes will be required, and the judging panel consists of three teachers, two students, and an independent guest judge. The losing club will be required perform a specified task for the winner."

"So there are prizes."

"It'd hardly be worth this time and effort if there were no material gain involved." Akashi drained his coffee cup. "For instance, if the basketball club wins we will expect the Home Economics Club to cater food at all club events for the rest of the academic year. This includes supplying refreshments for our players at official matches."

Kagami shrugged. "Seems like a harsh punishment for losing one contest."

"It's what they've been doing for the last two years. This competition is merely a formality to justify the status quo." Akashi stacked the dirty plates in the sink. "Have you ever considered investing in a dishwasher? Or preferably, a housekeeper? All this manual labour seems like a singular waste of time."

"I don't often have this many dishes to wash." Kagami opened his fridge door, and stared at the bare shelves within. "We're out of meat and vegetables. Tell me what you want to make today and we'll go to the shops."

"Just let me consult Julia," said Akashi.

He told Kagami more about the home economics club as the two of them walked to the supermarket. "The club president is the son of one of Kyoto's notable chefs, a Cordon Bleu graduate who works at one of the local three star Michelin Restaurants. The vice-president, on the other hand, is the daughter of a ryokan famed for its classical kaiseki cuisine."

"And you think you can beat them. In a cooking contest."

"I asked you for cooking lessons, Taiga, not lessons in how to win cooking contests. Leave the winning to me; I have a strategy in mind."

"Do I even want to know what your plan is?"

"It doesn't involve blackmail, intimidation, or physical violence." Akashi lowered his eyelashes. "Yet."

Some days, Kagami wanted Akashi to live in Tokyo so badly that he just felt stupid, longing after something as nebulous and unsafe and frankly, impossible as Akashi's presence.

On other days, though, he thought about the consequences of Akashi living so close to the rest of the Generation of Miracles, making all these little plans to conquer the world and then carrying them out, getting on Aomine's nerves (and by extension Kuroko's), and he felt grateful for every kilometre of distance between Rakuzan and Seirin.

Geographic distance wasn't even the main thing really. Mostly it was just...the stuff that should be more obvious. Like, You call all the time. Even when my grades got better.

Does that mean anything.

Is it just my basketball that matters to you.

Are you going to leave, once you're satisfied that you can win against me?

It was all the things he couldn't say, and wouldn't say, if only because he felt dead certain that if he were to speak, the only response he'd get from Akashi was a puzzled frown.

#

Himuro Tatsuya turned up on Monday with four boxes of pizza and a six-pack of imported beer.

"Thought you could use the company," he said, pulling the stay-tab off the first of the beer cans and handing it to Kagami. "I brought some moves, wanna watch?"

They watched an awful straight-to-DVD film about an inner-city high school basketball coach and the troubled and talented kids whom he was teaching math and spelling and how to say no to drugs (and occasionally, some basketball).

"Alex would have skinned us alive if she caught us smoking dope," Tatsuya said thoughtfully, "but the math and spelling do ring a bell in your case."

"Shut up," Kagami grumbled. "Why did you think I needed the company anyway?" On the TV screen, one of the delinquent basketball players performed a reverse dunk, accompanied by the crescendo of a cheery pop music soundtrack.

Tatsuya helped himself to a slice of Pizza Marinara. "It's a textbook pattern with you every time Akashi visits," he informed Kagami. "Thursday you're anxious, Friday you're pacing like a lion with an anxiety disorder, and by the time Monday comes around you're elated and heartbroken at the same time."

Kagami felt himself reddening. "That's not true," he protested weakly.

Tatsuya smiled. "It's absolutely true, but that's okay, Taiga," he said in a kind and understanding voice that just made Kagami want to drop through a hole in the floor.

He took a long swig of beer and pretended to be absorbed in that, so he wouldn't have to look at Tatsuya.

"So when do you plan on confessing?"

Kagami stifled a groan. "Can we not talk about this?"

"But it's so entertaining," Tatsuya said sweetly. "Plus your love life is pathetic and badly needs a well-staged intervention."

Kagami thought of some of Tatsuya's 'well-staged interventions' over the years and shuddered a little. "I can figure it out myself, thanks."

"The same way you've been figuring it out for the eleven months, yes." Tatsuya turned down the volume on the television, where the protagonist was in the middle of a fight with a neighbourhood street gang who had just tried to offer him heroin. "It's not healthy keeping your emotions bottled up, you know."

"Speak for yourself."

"Do as I say, not as I do," Tatsuya said lightly. "One of these days I really will have to meet Akashi Seijuurou and discover what the fuss is all about. Between you and Atsushi I'm starting to think he's a demigod come in the flesh."

"I don't think Akashi's a demigod."

"No, you think he's hot, which is worse."

Kagami couldn't deny that, so he just flushed instead, which only added to the mirth in Tatsuya's eyes.

"Do what you want, Taiga," he said. And then, more seriously: "I'll always support you no matter what. But don't make the mistakes of you and me."

And Tatsuya looked a little sad, the way he did sometimes, when they talked about the two of them. It wasn't your fault, Kagami automatically wanted to say. But he didn't speak aloud, since Tatsuya wouldn't believe him anyway. And maybe it was partly Tatsuya's fault, but then it had been partly Kagami's fault as well.

Instead he said: "But we're good now. You and me." He met Tatsuya's eyes, and tried to look certain. But it had always been Tatsuya who decided, whether they were good or not, whether they were brothers or rivals or best friends. Kagami was getting better at speaking up, at asking, but it was still difficult changing old habits.

In a couple of months Tatsuya would get tired of hitting up Tokyo wine bars and moonlighting at host clubs and then he would return to Los Angeles, the place where their friendship had begun, where their basketball had begun. Alex's city.

And Kagami would join him, a year later. They'd be together, just like they'd always been.

If he had Alex and Tatsuya, he could just about deal with maybe never seeing Akashi again. Maybe.

Tatsuya gave a soft smile. "Yeah," he said, handing Kagami another slice of pizza, "We're good."

#

Akashi spent the better part of the next fortnight on a culinary rampage, going by the pictures he emailed Kagami on a daily basis. For the first few days he systematically cooked his way trhough a progression of classic French dishes: onion soup on Monday (Imperfectly prepared gratin is revolting to the tastebuds. I wish Ryouta were here to help me dispose of the failed attempts, given his peculiar weakness for this particular dish; as it is, most of the soup is going to the butler's compost heap), pot au feu on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, beef daube and bouillabaisse.

Unsurprisingly, Akashi seemed to be learning quickly. The photographs he sent would have made a pretty decent-looking Flickr album. (Of course it was possible to prepare food that looked great without being remotely edible, as Coach Riko had proven time and time again, but most of what Akashi had made on the weekend had tasted fine, not that Kagami knew what an authentic coq au vin was meant to taste like.)

Friday night Akashi sent no pictures, only a tersely worded On my way to Akita. Kagami emailed back wishing him a safe trip, and then, to help resist the urge to keep messaging, went out to the closest street courts to practice outside shots by lamplight. The moon was full; the summer air cool and heavy; the courts silent save for the rub of Kagami's shoes on asphalt and the bounce of the basketball. He played for two hours, then wandered home.

Saturday morning there was club practice, and after that was over Kagami ended up on a shopping expedition with Aomine and Momoi and Kuroko – which was to say, Aomine and Momoi shopped, and bought countless items, and argued with each other nonstop, while Kagami and Kuroko followed at a safe distance and carried shopping bags. Eventually Kuroko got fed up and pulled a disappearing act while Kagami wasn't paying attention. The three of them conducted a twenty-five minute manhunt before they finally spotted him drinking a vanilla milkshake in a bookstore cafe, surrounded by half a dozen of Aomine and Momoi's bags.

"Tetsu-kun, I'm so sorry," Momoi said, in a stricken tone, while Aomine said nothing and pulled facial expressions that were as close to being contrite as Aomine could manage.

"I just felt like buying some books," Kuroko said, and everyone took the hint and prepared to stay in the bookstore for at least another half-hour. It didn't take long before Aomine drifted over to the gravure magazine shelves as if drawn by some magnetic force. Momoi pulled a face and went to browse magazines in the adjacent section, health and beauty.

Kagami ordered five burgers and remained in the cafe section with Kuroko, who was perusing the dust jacket of a newly purchased Ruth Rendell novel in translation.

While Kagami was waiting for his order to arrive a message arrived from Akashi. Finally.

Today's handiwork: Gateau St. Honore, Crepes Suzette, Apple Tart. The accompanying photograph showed an entire dining table filled with desserts, each serving plate garnished with flowers and sliced fruit and colored ribbon. Thankfully, Atsushi appears to be more than equal to the task of eating it all, including the unused dough.

Looks good, Kagami emailed back. Good luck with the brioches.

"I presume that's Akashi-kun?" Kuroko asked. "How is he doing?"

"Making pastries," Kagami answered.

Kuroko raised a brow. Kagami showed him the photos on his mobile phone.

Kuroko said nothing. Over the last two years, Kuroko and Kagami had build a firm partnership on the foundation of not saying anything to each other outside what was strictly necessary. It was a habit Kagami was profoundly grateful for.

(Of course they did talk when it came to the things that were necessary; Kuroko tended to be better than Tatsuya as far as that was concerned. But Kagami and Kuroko had talked about Akashi before and really, there was nothing left to be said.)

#

The competition is this weekend, messaged Akashi, early Monday morning. For the remainder of this time I will be concentrating on Japanese cuisine.

Monday afternoon: Unexpected developments. Will update you later.

Tuesday Kagami received a photograph of a beautifully-arranged traditional meal: cucumber pickles, broiled fish, a small black bowl of soup, tempura in a lacquer dish. There was no caption or accompanying message.

He logined to Skype on Wednesday, unsure if he'd find Akashi there; it was their usual day for academic tutoring, but mostly they just talked these days, since Kagami was no longer in constant danger of failing. And Akashi had been known to miss Skype chat, particularly when he was fixated on a goal like he currently was.

But Akashi did come online, at about eighty-thirty in the evening. He looked tired and a little harried, but he smiled as he looked into the camera.

"Good evening, Taiga," he said softly, in that light precise voice of his.

"Hello." Kagami shifted in his seat a little. He was used to thinking of Akashi as attractive, but it was always surprising, how the refinement of the other boy's features caught him off-guard, every time. Akashi's face wasn't beautiful in the way that Kise's was, but it was sharp and balanced and intelligent, and Kagami felt its draw far more strongly than he ever felt Kise's.

"How has your week been?" Akashi asked.

"Same as usual." Kagami shrugged. "Not as busy as yours."

Akashi looked reflective. "Busy but productive, I would say. Although I am beginning to weary of the culinary arts."

"You mentioned unexpected developments."

"Well. Those were not directly to do with the cooking process." Akashi gave a little frown.

"What happened?"

"Do you recall my telling you about the Home Economics Club vice-president? The young lady who grew up in a ryokan?"

Kagami nodded. "Yeah, I remember."

"At the beginning of this week she approached me, offering to let the basketball club win this weekend's contest. There was a condition, however." Akashi paused. "She wanted me to act as her boyfriend for the next three months."

Kagami had to struggle to find his voice. "Did you accept?" Inside, his heartbeat sped up, erratically, suddenly.

"I'm considering it," Akashi said. "To be perfectly honest, I had some inkling that this situation would arise. Ichihara-san also participated in last year's cooking contest, and the year before as well. On both occasions I had a strong sense that she was not performing at her best. Our club is a prestigious one within Rakuzan, and it has previously occurred to me that she might have her own reasons for wanting to spend time with the basketball team. I didn't realise that I was her object until yesterday."

"I see," Kagami said.

"You're sounding surprised," Akashi said. "For the record I get confessed to on a regular basis, although this is the first time someone has had the temerity to coerce me into a response."

"I know you're popular." Kagami felt a little annoyed now. Akashi was so...calm, so completely accepting of the fact that this girl had liked him, that she'd probably liked him for years, even though she'd probably waited. And hoped. And...nothing, because it was Akashi, and being in love with him was largely like beating one's head against a brick wall. Kagami would know.

"Winning the contest may be more complicated than I anticipated if I anger her," Akashi continued, oblivious to the changes going on in Kagami's emotional state. "The arrangement would be temporary, and my father probably wouldn't object to a young lady of her ilk."

"Turn her down."

Akashi stared at Kagami as if he'd temporarily grown a second head. "On what grounds?"

"Because you don't like her."

"I thought it was patently clear that this arrangement would have nothing to do with any affection on my part."

"And because I love you."

The words had slipped out during the split-second of courage Kagami summoned; now that the moment was over, he found himself completely tongue-tied.

He said: "It's okay if you don't feel the same way, I just..." He trailed off and stared down at his lap.

"How long has this been going on?" asked Akashi. He sounded frighteningly calm until Kagami glanced at the screen and saw that Akashi's face had gone completely blank and still.

"Since the last Interhigh," he admitted.

"More than nine months."

"Yeah."

"Thank you for telling me, Taiga," Akashi spoke, and this time he did sound strained. "I...need to work out a strategy for winning this cooking contest. And I need to think. So we'll talk later."

Kagami blinked. "Huh?"

But Akashi had already reached out and terminated the Skype call.

#

Kagami didn't sleep that night.

Thursday he slept through all of his classes. In fourth period he was awoken by an angry mathematics teacher shaking his arm, but the moment she saw his face her anger turned to concern instead, and he was sent to the infirmary.

Kuroko followed him there. "Would you like something to drink, Kagami-kun?" he asked, already filling a cup from the water dispenser.

Kagami drank the cool liquid down gratefully; he'd skipped breakfast and hadn't bothered drinking anything since. "Thanks."

"There haven't been any issues at basketball club, and you told me the other day that Himuro-kun is doing well," Kuroko said. "So I assume that the problem is Akashi-kun?"

Kagami leaned back in the infirmary bed and shut his eyes. "He was talking about maybe dating this girl at this school. Not even someone he liked."

"I'm sorry," Kuroko said.

"So I confessed. Well, I kinda blurted it out."

"What happened then?"

"He hung up, saying he had to focus on winning the contest first."

"That rather sounds like Akashi-kun."

Kagami opened his eyes. "Yeah, I know." It wasn't as if he hadn't known what a jerk Akashi could be, all along. It was just...Kagami wanted to be with him. That was all.

Kuroko sighed. "I'll give Akashi-kun a call."

"You don't have to do that," Kagami protested.

"Who said it's for your sake?" Kuroko smiled at Kagami. "It's Akashi-kun's health that I'm looking out for. If things go badly between the two of you, there are several people who will want his head on a chopping block. Himuro-kun, for starters. But also Aomine-kun and Midorima-kun and myself."

It was an odd and touching thing, having friends who looked out for you. To Kagami that was almost a stranger thing than being in love with Akashi Seijuurou.

Then the finer details of Kuroko's words registered. "Wait, Midorima?"

"Well," Kuroko paused delicately, "I don't think Midorima-kun needs much reason to want Akashi-kun's head on a chopping block."

#

There was no word from Akashi for the next few days. It was the first time in months Kagami had gone this long without Akashi being in touch.

He didn't sleep much Thursday or Friday night either. Saturday there was no club practice, so he slept in, and woke up to text messages from Aomine, Midorima, Kise, and Furihata.

Aomine: Wanna go 1-on-1 tomorrow AM? Will let u know place and time.

Midorima: The idiot Skyped me yesterday. I have yelled at him. Effects of this conversation remain to be seen. PS. When I say idiot I am referring to Akashi, not (for once) to yourself.

Kise: I owe Kurokocchi a six month supply of milkshakes. Honestly, Kagamicchi, I thought you were going to make it all the way back to America without confessing.

Furihata: Heard from Kuroko that you're not feel well. Get better soon, okay? Don't forget prelims are coming up next week..

Briefly, Kagami wondered exactly how many people out there were gossiping about his non-existent love life and exactly what they were saying, but for the most part he didn't really care. Mostly it was good having people who cared about him besides Alex and Tatsuya.

Finally in the afternoon, Akashi emailed. I'm on the Shinkansen. Should be at your place in an hour.

It was the longest hour of Kagami's life.

Akashi knocked on his door at twenty-three minutes past four. Kagami opened it and stared down at Akashi, who was looking a little weary, but still perfectly groomed in a blue oxford shirt and taupe wool pants. He wasn't carrying any luggage this time.

"Hi," Kagami said, stepping aside to let Akashi in.

"Thank you." Akashi sat on the couch. Kagami dithered, then chose to sit down on the floor, about a meter away.

"My apologies for the delay," Akashi began, finally, after they'd looked at each other in silence for a little while. "The contest was this morning, and I didn't have time or focus to think about anything else until it was over."

"Did you win?"

"We did," said Akashi. "It wasn't done gracefully, or in the ideal manner; I had to call in some favours, and the Rakuzan vice-principal will probably never forgive me after what I've revealed I know about him. But there wasn't much else to be done, since I burned one of the soufflés I was making."

"You burned a soufflé."

"I haven't been at my best this week." Akashi pressed his lips together in a tight line. "I did have time to talk to Shintarou, and Tetsuya called me last night."

"Okay."

"Taiga, this isn't easy for me." Then, in an irritated tone: "Oh look, I don't even know why I'm attempting to talk to you, given your baseline level of verbal communication."

And in the next moment Akashi had moved in one swift movement to the floor, to kneeling in front of Kagami.

"I've never done this before," Akashi said, "so there if are complications along the way..." Without finishing his sentence he reached out and pulled Kagami's head towards him, so that their mouths met.

Between the fumbling and Kagami's surprise and their initial failure to coordinate, they eventually ended up flat on the floor, with Akashi half on top of Kagami. Akashi was a little breathless, his lips wet.

Kagami found his voice. "Does this mean-"

"Yes," Akashi tried to avoid meeting Kagami's eyes, which considering the position they were in just had the net effect of making him look coy.

"You turned her down."

"Haven't I said that already?"

"Actually you didn't," Kagami said.

Lying on the floor was uncomfortable so they eventually got up and moved to the couch, still sitting shoulder to shoulder, and it was only then that Kagami noticed how embarrassed Akashi was, his cheeks tinged slightly pink.

"I love you," Kagami said, which only made Akashi flush more.

"You've already told me that."

"And you-"

"I'm going to Oxford next year." Akashi said. "My father and I decided last week. If you're okay with that, then-"

"Okay with what?"

"Christmas and summer vacation, and three years of Skype," Akashi looked up at Kagami. "If you can accept that-?"

"Are you saying you'll be my boyfriend?"

"No, I'm asking you to be mine. Since I don't recall your ever telling me what you wanted from me."

"I didn't think—"

"That I would give it? Yes, I had extensive phone conversations with Shintarou and Tetsuya about my poor communication skills and my mixed signals and my complete lack of responsibility when it came to your feelings," said Akashi, looking disgruntled. "I'd rather have heard it from you."

"I want to be with you," Kagami said quietly. "Long-distance is fine."

"Very well," Akashi gave Kagami a small, startlingly vulnerable smile. "Now I'm going to go home and get my things, since I'm staying here for the night."

"You're going back to Kyoto?"

"The Tokyo family mansion, obviously. I didn't bring anything to your apartment since I wasn't sure," Akashi hesitated, "whether I'd be welcome here tonight."

"You have a home in Tokyo?" As far as Kagami knew, Akashi slept at Kagami's apartment every time he visited Tokyo.

"Well, yes, that that was apparently one of my mixed signals, according to Tetsuya, despite my insistence that my paternal great-aunt is reason enough for me to never stay at the main home, ever." Akashi shifted uncomfortably. "I think this conversation was doing better when we were kissing. That's a suggestion, by the way."

Kagami took the hint.

#

Touou Gakuen defeated Seirin in the quarterfinals of that summer's Interhigh. Kagami walked back to his apartment that evening, his legs leaden. Losing never got any easier, no matter how many times or how often it happened.

To his surprise, the lights were on as he entered the building.

Midorima opened the front door. "Come on in," he said, "Dinner's almost ready."

Kagami went into the kitchen and found Takao and Akashi in front of the stoves, grilling burger patties.

"I used the key to the front door you gave me," Akashi said. "Would you prefer to assemble your own meal, or shall I have Shintarou serve the food?"

Kagami gazed at Akashi, standing there, calm and present and beautiful, and for one moment entirely, forgot he'd just lost a game.

"Anything will be fine," he said.

END, THE BRILLIANCY OF ERROR