NB: I think this pairing needs more love. And I'm not above using Tsukitachi to make that happen.

Also, I appreciate all comments and concerns, particularly regarding characterization. I took Akari's slight penchant for deviousness in chapter 59 and ran with it. I hope it works.

Nearly all of Circus knew that Second Commander Hirato was a carefully-constructed house of cards. They were cognizant of the fact that his formal politesse was more a function of soft sadism than any real desire to be deferential or self-effacing towards his colleagues.

What most of Circus didn't know was that First Commander Tsukitachi was as adept at wearing masks as his friend. Actually, Tsukitachi was better. While no one knew the real Hirato, they were keenly aware that the kindly gentleman they met in their everyday interactions wasn't him. In terms of Tsukitachi, however, all his coworkers were convinced that he was a feckless alcoholic who was competent when necessary but ultimately lazy. In fairness, the real Tsukitachi was every bit as cunning and observant as Hirato. And because he was better-received, his interlocutors rarely apprehended his game. The redhead preferred to be underestimated. It gave him tremendous advantage.

Case in point: Tsukitachi often invited Hirato and Akari over for drinks. To be more precise, he often found novel ways of gathering the three of them in the same room. This was no small feat, particularly when the work-addicted researcher positively hated the second ship's manipulative bastard of a captain. But in the first captain's expert opinion, such animosity could only be a product of sexual tension, and while it often felt like a miasma settling on a nighttime swamp, he had no intention of allowing said tension to suffocate the trio. Unfortunately, this meant that Tsukitachi's subordinates would have to find clever ways of waylaying the doctor. Jiki became inordinately skilled at contriving new traps for the unwary strawberry blond.

Tsukitachi made it a habit to drink in obscene quantities during such occasions, giving the impression that he was thoroughly inebriated and consequently not at all in control of his perceptive faculties. If his companions ever learned that his tolerance for alcohol was a scientific wonder, they might have been more mindful of how they betrayed themselves. But because he always appeared to be too far gone, he was able to see with startling clarity the way that Hirato's eyes always lingered upon Akari's mouth, or how the distance that the doctor endeavored to maintain between himself and the captain had been shrinking steadily since the first such "tea party". Once, he caught his friend gently tucking a blanket around the snoozing blond before the same hands pulled him to his feet and guided him to his own bed with rather less care.

He never mentioned these things to either of them, knowing that doing so would unravel all the incremental progress he'd made. No, he spoke not a word. But that didn't mean he couldn't speed things along.

One rainy evening found the three of them settled around his dining table, sharing a bottle of scotch under the pretense of Tsukitachi's latest failure as a profligate inamorato (yet another mask he wore). He'd thrown back three glasses while Akari nursed his first and Hirato ran a bored finger around the rim of his untouched glass. Perfect, he thought, imbibing yet another and pretending to sway slightly.

"Tsukitachi, maybe you ought to take it easy, hmm?" Hirato asked, a rare tone of genuine concern underscoring his words. "She couldn't have been worth the sort of hangover you're headed towards."

The redhead sighed melodramatically and slurred his words for effect. "S… S... She was a goddess, Hirato. I mean, a goddess!"

"Oh?" The curve of the second captain's mouth suggested that this conversation could and would be used against him for blackmail, but he wasn't much concerned. He'd have something far more scandalous against Hirato if he played his hand properly. "Tell me about her."

He nodded and attempted a grab of his drink. Missing widely, he sent the glass flying off the table and to the floor, its contents spilling on the freshly-cleaned carpet. Tsukitachi made mental note to brush the ship's bunnies in the morning.

"Well… she was like Eva!" Hirato suddenly looked like he'd swallowed something incredibly bitter.

"Did she kick your ass?" Akari asked in an uncharacteristically mischievous tone. Oh, so the doctor isn't just a workaholic cyborg, Tsukitachi thought bemusedly.

"You guysssss—" he whined, stretching out the "ssss" as long as he could. "She wasn't exactly like Eva," he said incredulously, as though his interlocutors were severely lacking the intellectual acuity to understand him. "She had Eva's body, and her smile, and her fashion sense… oh, and her hair. Her hair was silvery, like Nai's." He knew he had them now. Hirato's violet irises sparkled in amusement while Akari was looking at him with a physician's concern etched in every line of his face. "But you should have seen her eyes…" he said, allowing his own eyes to go a little glassy as though remembering something positively sublime. And then he stopped talking abruptly.

"Her eyes?" Hirato asked, brow arched in barely-concealed mirth.

"They were indescribable…" He offered a sloppy smile and leaned forward, chin resting in one palm as his hat toppled off his head. "Like garnet, but not as severe. Or ruby, but less fuchsia and more peach. Like, like—" And the fighter inside him celebrated victory as he pointed excitedly to Akari and said, "Like Akari-chan's!" The First Commander smiled proudly, as though his latest pronouncement had laid bare all of the secrets of the universe. "They were gorgeous!"

And if Akari's innocent surprise morphed into more of a sheepish blush when the Second Commander regarded him appraisingly, it was nothing compared to the astonishment that overwhelmed Tsukitachi when Hirato's knowing smirk melted away, only to be replaced for the briefest of instances with something resembling sincerity. "She must have been breathtaking then." But almost immediately, the sly glint returned to his eyes and the plastic smile to his lips.

In the ensuing silence, the doctor's discomfort manifested in conspicuously short order. Akari cleared his throat awkwardly and rose from the table. He hauled Tsukitachi up by the arms and insisted that he drink enough water to rehydrate himself before bed. "Come on, I'm not going to prescribe you anything if you feel awful in the morning."

The redhead had not completed the night's mission, so he compelled the physician to linger over him, complaining of headaches and stomachaches and all manner of sundry health problems until he noticed Hirato dozing lightly in an armchair, his long legs crossed atop Tsukitachi's coffee table, glasses skewed and hair mussed.

Plan B then. Tsukitachi always had a Plan B. He was a top official at the nation's elite defense agency, after all.

"Okay, I think it's time for bed." Akari said, irritation apparent in his glare as he tried to send a resisting captain to the bedroom.

"No deal." Tsukitachi was petulant. "I just had my heart wrenched out of my chest and stomped on. As my wingman, you don't get to leave me alone tonight. Pleeeeeeeeeeease," he pleaded while grabbing fistfuls of the blond's shirt. He could perform stubbornness and immaturity better than a horde of hormonal teenagers. Akari had no idea who he was dealing with. But the captain had to admit that the doctor was doing a remarkable job of not throttling him. Maybe the researcher had more patience than he was credited with. Or maybe he's more forgiving when he's not dealing with Hirato.

"Fine, but this doesn't make me your wingman." Akari huffed in resignation, gingerly extracting Tsukitachi's fingers from his now-wrinkled shirt. He knew that his considerable skills did not extend to dealing with intransigent children. Yogi was a prime example of that shortcoming. "Go sleep on the sofa," he ordered, one hand pointing to the living room where Hirato still sat undisturbed, the other pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. "I'll read until you fall asleep."

"I don't want to fall asleep."

"I can make you." Akari's voice was just bordering on this edge of murderous.

Tsukitachi relented, mostly because he was certain that the blond had reached his threshold for indulgence. "You're so mean, Akari-chan!" Internally he was dancing a jig. Okay, they're both still here, but how to get them into my bed and me into Eva's? He stretched out on the couch and considered the next step, but no manner of procedure presented itself. They seemed to have arrived at an impasse and Plan C had been indeterminably deferred, apparently. If the doctor's ramrod posture at the dining table was any indication, the situation showed no signs of being rectified anytime soon.

Eventually, he steadied his breathing and closed his eyes, knowing that he'd likely have to consign this mission to failure. It was getting too late for playful romps, even by his very generous standards. And that said nothing of the nocturnal habits of his two targets. Even so, his mind whirled madly in hopes of a plan materializing. Circus' commanders were used to salvaging impossible situations.

The scheming captain had almost drifted off himself when the soft rustle of clothing caught his attention. He slit an eye open, expecting to see Akari gathering his things and making an escape. But the doctor was only regarding Hirato curiously. The Second Commander's closed eyes twitched behind his spectacles as a lock of inky hair struggled to free itself from his eyelashes. Akari smiled softly as he reached forth to brush aside the offending strand. And Tsukitachi would have staked his life on the fact that the physician would never look upon Hirato like that in public. A small thrill of success shot through him. Score!

Tsukitachi's triumph was short-lived.

Yet another fact about Circus' top two commanders is that neither truly lowers his defenses. Having bodies honed through years of rigorous training, both Hirato and Tsukitachi are always prepared for a fight. Even, or perhaps most especially, if disturbed in their sleep. So while Tsukitachi could only curse under his breath as Hirato's arm shot forward to snap around Akari's wrist with all the vehemence reserved for an enemy, Akari himself gasped in surprise as decidedly-not-sleepy eyes narrowed at him in accusation. A devilish leer snaked across the captain's face as he took in his prey.

"What a shame, doctor. You've been caught," he whispered, trademark smirk firmly in place, wicked amusement causing his words to curl upwards in delight. "What will you do now?"

Hirato, you stupid bastard! He's going to get all agitated and run. That's what he'll do. Tsukitachi loathed to see all his painstaking effort burn to ash because his fool of a colleague was more interested in teasing than getting laid, but he was powerless to do anything about it. He gave up, resolving to try again another evening. It was going to take a small miracle to recreate such favorable conditions, but he was nothing if not tenacious.

So, it was an especially staggering turn of events when Akari grinned in a manner worthy of his captor and threaded his free hand through Hirato's hair, pulling at it gently. Something uncommonly sinister flashed in those opaline eyes, and Tsukitachi was thankful that he wasn't on the receiving end of that look. Akari looked downright devious. Then, without warning, without the smallest shred of hesitation, the doctor caught Hirato's still-curved lips with his own. The brunet barely had time to inhale a breath before it was stolen from him. This was no ordinary kiss. Tsukitachi could feel its heat from across the room. Dexterous fingers tightened in ebony hair as the physician lowered himself, one knee folded into the chair and the other foot planted firmly on the floor. He pressed against the seated man, deliberate movements imbued with the sort of slow-burning intensity that could melt glass. And in a devastating coup de grace, Akari quite literally wiped the smirk off Hirato's face, teasing the seam of the captain's lips with his tongue and causing a gloved hand to clutch at the armrest so forcefully that it creaked.

Damn. Who knew workaholic cyborgs could be so seductive? Tsukitachi's brain could articulate nothing beyond that as he watched a thoroughly-defeated Hirato involuntarily loosen his grip on Akari's wrist.

The physician lightly wrapped his arms around the other man's neck before nipping gently at his bottom lip and finally pulling away, something more than conquest alighting his irises. He carded his fingers through untidy hair, allowing it to settle in place again. And then he stood, leaving a speechless and somewhat frustrated commander to process the events of the last several moments. It was no surprise that said processing was taking longer than average.

Akari wiped his lips with his thumb as he regarded Hirato thoughtfully. "Yes, I see the appeal now. It is rather enjoyable to torment, isn't it?" He smirked.

The captain opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, and closed it again as a slight crease formed between his brows. He shook his head as though things would be perfectly comprehensible if he could just rearrange the pieces of his fractured psyche.

The blond turned on his heel and walked briskly to the door, only glancing back long enough to say, "I much prefer you like this. It's so... cute." With that he left.

Hirato nearly choked. This was expected; Circus' Second Commander was unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of such provocation.

Oh, how it hurts to lose, huh? Especially at your own game. Tsukitachi could have shaken Akari's hand in congratulations for accomplishing what the whole agency could not achieve without benefit of duct tape, drugs, or other accoutrements of torture. But he remained still, knowing that things would progress more smoothly if he kept his silence. He managed to fall asleep eventually, still wearing his work clothes and the devil's smile.

Morning found the first ship's captain annoyingly cheerful, although the staff could not determine the precise reason for such exuberance when Tsukitachi ought to have been terribly hungover. He felt extraordinarily brilliant, like a cat that got the cream and the creamery too. Yes, Circus' First Commander was a stealthy genius, a master manipulator of the highest order. The joy of resounding success was enough to make him twirl around his desk in sheer pleasure. He'd won. He'd moved all the pieces on the board according to his design without their knowing. All of Circus would be dazzled by his ingenuity and prowess when they learned of his machinations. And they'd likely be eternally grateful that he'd managed to temper two of the most disagreeable persons ever to work for the defense agency. Truly, he was a virtuoso of stratagem.

To his great disappointment, he found a note and a bottle of very expensive scotch perched atop his dining table the next evening.

Thank you for your hard work. Doubtless such a difficult task would have proved impossible without your assistance. –Hirato.

And Tsukitachi wondered what sort of requital would await Akari.

AN: So, there's a sequel. It's called 'Requital' if you're interested.