Looking through the limo’s window, Kinshirou was restless. His pale fingers were holding the package on his lap in such a way that its wrapping paper was already fairly crumpled.
Kinshirou startled a bit, turning his eyes back to that voice. “Hm?”
“Are you okay?” Ibushi’s tone was concerned. “Would you like a moment?”
“We can ask the chauffeur to go somewhere else if you need to collect yourself,” Akoya added. “We’re a bit early, actually. I mean, commoner gatherings aren’t as punctual as ours usually are.”
“I’m fine,” Kinshirou replied as dignified as he could. “We can’t allow ourselves to indulge into peasant habits, anyway. It’s our duty, as the Student Council, to set an example. If it’s said that it starts at seven, we’ll be there at seven.”
“As you wish,” Ibushi smiled. Kinshirou noticed his two friends exchanging a meaningful look, but he didn’t bother.
The limousine stopped in front of a house and Kinshirou, Ibushi and Akoya got out of the vehicle, looking at the building. It wasn’t nearly as large and imponent as their own mansions and Akoya frowned a bit — Commoners! — but the place wasn’t that small either. It was well maintained, a lovely garden in front of the entrance welcoming the visitors.
Kinshirou walked through the lawn, his steps slower than usual, looking around. The door was pretty much the same from his memories.
“Kin-chan, you’re almost reaching the doorbell!”
“Next year I won’t even need to stand on tiptoes, you’ll see!”
He rang the doorbell.
“Oh, dear! You’re here! Punctual as always, huh?” The woman smiled at him and then turned to his nanny. “We’ll take good care of him, don’t worry. Please feel free to call us anytime to check on him if you want!”
As Kinshirou’s nanny left with the chauffeur, the woman hugged him tenderly. “I’m so happy you’re here! He’s really excited! Can’t stop talking about tonight. Come in, dear, we’ll accommodate you. Do you have everything you need? We have spare towels and toothbrushes if you need.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Kinshirou said shyly. He was starting to get used to that type of physical contact and it felt really nice.
She gestured, ushering him inside the house. “I’ll take your backpack to the bedroom. He’ll be with you in a minute.”
As the door closed behind him, leaving the cool autumn breeze outside, Kinshirou’s heart was as warm as it would always be every time he visited that cozy place.
“Oh, dear! It’s really you!”
A bespectacled woman in her mid-forties, light brown hair and chocolate eyes was staring at him with a joyful smile. She didn’t look too different from Kinshirou’s recollection — a few more wrinkles, some white hair here and there, but the same warm reception.
He stiffed a bit as her arms wrapped him in a tight, tender hug, but mostly because he spent so many years without that kind of contact that he got unused to it. He missed that coziness.
“Let me take a look at you,” said the woman as she broke the embrace. “You’ve grown so handsome! And the same intelligent eyes! I’m so glad you’re here again!” She finally noticed the two other boys at the doorstep and smiled at them as well. “Ibushi-kun! Oh my, you’re so tall! You look like a prince! I’m really happy to see you again…”
Another hug, this time reciprocated by Ibushi. “Kind as always. It’s nice to see you again.”
“And you’re as gentle as always,” she replied. “The same smile… Oh! And you must be Gero-kun, right?”
Akoya startled when the woman turned to him — if because he wasn’t expecting her to know his name or because he was afraid of also being hugged by her, Kinshirou couldn’t tell. “Um… yes. Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
“I see,” she replied gently. “You’re as beautiful as my son told me. I would really like to hug you too, dear, but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
Akoya was visibly conflicted, but being called “beautiful” probably helped him to be more at ease. “I… I don’t mind, actually,” he murmured, and his arms even moved a bit. “Also… I’d prefer to be called ‘Akoya’ if you don’t mind…” The woman beamed and hugged him too, her motherly warmth enveloping Akoya gently. Kinshirou tried his best not to grin.
“There you go,” she said while separating from a slightly flushed Akoya. “Oh, please come in! He’ll be with you soon!”
As she gave them passage, Kinshirou took a deep breath before stepping inside the house.
“Kin-chan! Hey, are you sleeping over tonight?”
The teenage girl looked at him from the couch, a thick book in her hands. She was about six years older than him, and quite taller. When she was sitting on the couch, her feet could touch the floor. In Kinshirou’s mind, being able to keep your feet on the ground while sitting on a couch or a normal chair was one of the very first signs of adulthood.
He nodded and sat on the other sofa, looking at his own hands on his lap, his feet hanging from the couch.
“He’s late, isn’t he? Sorry about that. He’s in the shower. I was telling him about the Orion constellation and we lost track of the time.”
“T-that’s fine…” Kinshirou muttered.
She showed him the dark blue cover of her book, full of silver stars. “Got this new book about constellations. Lots of cool myths! I can tell you some stories if you want, but my brother probably wants to tell you himself… ”
Kinshirou smiled at her, a bit more at ease. “Thank you anyway.”
“No problem.” After looking around, she lowered her voice in a mischievous, conspiring tone. “Hey, you’re going to the hill tonight, right? This is a great night to stargaze, no clouds and no moon. Oh, and the Draconids are at their peak in the next few days, so there’s a great chance you’ll get to see a beautiful meteor shower!” She winked at the younger boy, supportive. “I’ll pack you some hot chocolate, though, it’s a bit chilly tonight.”
“Oh. My. God !”
Another woman, younger than the one who had greeted them at the doorstep, exclaimed as soon as Kinshirou, Ibushi and Akoya entered the living room, rising from the couch. She looked fairly like the older woman, except for being slightly taller and for having hazel eyes behind her glasses. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail just like in Kinshirou’s memories.
“Oh, I knew it! I knew you would come!” The woman rushed towards the trio. “I’m just surprised that mom didn’t manage to rumple you three with her Mommy Bear hug…”
“Harumi!” Her mother frowned a bit. She sighed and turned to the visitors, softening her expression. “I’ll be in the kitchen. Please make yourselves at home, okay?”
As she left the room, Harumi turned her attention back to the boys.
“Take a sit, take a sit! I’m just… wow, you’re so grown up…! I mean, of course you are, but… you’re all taller than me now. That’s really something...”
She smiled, a bit nostalgic, and gestured eagerly to the couch. As the three of them settled, Kinshirou stared at his own feet, firmly flat on the floor, with a vague feeling of unreality.
“Look at you… adults now. Time flies… oh, you’re Akoya, right?”
“Seems like your brother talks about me a lot…” Akoya tried to sound nonchalant, but Kinshirou and Ibushi grinned at each other, knowing that their kouhai was actually quite satisfied about that.
“Yeah, he said that you’re friends with Kinshirou-kun and Ibushi-kun now. Nice to meet you! My name is Harumi. I’m living in Tokyo but came here for his birthday… I came with my husband and also with the main reason for my brother’s delay…”
She glanced at the stairs — or rather at two men walking down the stairs. One of them, probably in his fifties, was tall and slim, and Kinshirou remembered him. Like his wife and Harumi, he also wore glasses ( The whole family does, that must be genetic , Kinshirou wondered), concealing friendly hazel eyes. His dark-blue hair, featuring some white hair strands, was a bit tousled and he was pouting slightly to the younger man beside him.
“Hiroshi-kun, that’s not fair! It’s my turn to spoil her!”
“But I could barely hold my own daughter the whole afternoon!”
“Stop this, you two!” Harumi intervened, although seeming amused. “Now it’s my turn to stay with her.”
Hiroshi sighed and approached the couch, handing a brown-haired baby over to his wife.
“This little girl here,” she said to the Student Council, “is the reason my brother isn’t ready yet. She’s my nine month-old daughter. Midori wouldn’t leave her uncle’s lap the whole afternoon!”
“Well, not that he would have complained anyway,” her husband smiled. “She is a friendly baby overall, but I’ve never seen her so attached to anyone aside from Harumi and I. I’m Hiroshi Aoki, by the way. Nice to meet you! My brother-in-law is really looking forward to meeting you all…”
“He really is,” the older man said. “Long time no see, boys! My son said you’re from the Student Council now, is that correct? I’m not surprised at all. You’ve always been smart boys…”
“Thank you, sir,” Ibushi replied. “Your son is an amazing person, too. You must be quite proud.”
Kinshirou nodded with a small grin at the man who smiled warmly to him, but his focus was stolen by a pair of curious brown eyes. The baby in Harumi’s arms was looking intently at him.
“Mi-chan? What’s the matter, love?” Harumi noticed her daughter’s behavior. “They’re your uncle’s friends. They’re nice.”
Midori mumbled something unintelligible and held out her chubby arms to Kinshirou, surprising him. Harumi giggled. “I think she liked you.”
“Can… can I…?” Kinshirou started, but paused a bit surprised with his own impulse. He had never held a baby before.
“Are you sure?” Akoya grimaced. “I mean… babies drool ...”
“Well, there is that,” Harumi nodded, not even a bit offended by Akoya’s remark. “But if you’re fine with that, I think she won’t mind getting to know a new friend…”
“... I’m fine,” Kinshirou stated after a moment, and Harumi smiled at him.
Upon finally receiving the baby in his arms, Kinshirou got a bit nervous. What was he thinking? What if he dropped her? What if she got hurt? What if she decided she didn’t like him and started to cry or scream, trying to get out of his lap, and end up falling to the floor? So many terrible things could happen, so many accidents, so many—
But the little girl didn’t look afraid at all; she just snuggled into his chest, steady little fingers holding his shirt, and Kinshirou felt his heart melt.
“... I-is everything alright?” Akoya looked almost cautious, like his friend was holding a time bomb. “Is she going to… I don’t know, posset or something? Babies do that!”
“She is already too old to do that, don’t worry,” Harumi giggled.
“She is so… delicate…?” Kinshirou said, holding her carefully. “It’s… it’s kind of…”
He couldn’t find a proper word to describe the sensation of holding such a little human being, someone so vulnerable and so trusting of him. After so many cruel things he had done, after even trying to kill his once best friend over something as stupid as curry and jealousy, deep down Kinshirou didn’t feel completely worthy of forgiveness yet. Not that Midori could ever know what had happened before, but didn’t children have any sort of intuition or something?
Deep down, Kinshirou still wondered why that lovely family was still so accepting of him; why they were treating him like a special guest they’ve been waiting for so long, or even as part of their family; why would such an adorable baby feel so comfortable with hands that once pointed a sword at her beloved uncle’s heart.
With a lump in his throat, he looked down at the baby girl, who looked back and smiled widely at him. That gaze was quite probably one of the purest he’s ever received in his whole life, just like her uncle’s...
“You’re really cute,” he said to her after a moment, his soft voice and expression making Ibushi and even Akoya smile fondly. “Your eyes are just like your uncle’s, did you know that? Will you need glasses, though? I hope not. Still, they would look as lovely on you as they look on him, anyway…”
“Atchaaa!” Midori exclaimed happily.
“Are you talking to me…?” Kinshirou blinked at her, the interaction spreading warmth throughout his chest. “Yes, I’m talking about him!”
“Aaah, atchaaaa!” Midori repeated, looking somewhere behind Kinshirou and waving her hands enthusiastically.
“Yes, Mi-chan, I can see you got new friends,” another voice resounded in the room, equally amused and tender.
Kinshirou’s heart skipped a beat and, as he turned around on the couch to look behind, he was greeted by a warm, radiant smile, the main signature of Atsushi Kinugawa.
“Kin-chan, you’re here!”
Atsushi’s joyful voice made him blush slightly. “Of course! You told me to come!”
“Oh, right, it’s just…” Atsushi scratched his head, a bit bashful. “I’m not surprised, I’m happy! Um, sorry I’m late, I was in the shower...”
Kinshirou shook his head, smiling at him. Why would he complain about punctuality when he was able to see his best friend so happy to see him there? That sight, that voice, that smile, everything about Atsushi was worth it.
“Happy birthday, At-chan!” He handed him a package. “I hope you like it… I told dad that you wanted this puzzle, so…”
“Oh…” Atsushi opened the gift and beamed at its content. “Wow! I really wanted this one! Thank you, Kin-chan! Wanna play?”
“Dinner is almost ready, boys,” Harumi intervened. “You can assemble it later, okay?”
“Oh, yeah, let’s eat!” Atsushi turned back at Kinshirou without losing any bit of his enthusiasm. “I promise there’s no curry tonight!”
Then Atsushi held out his hand and Kinshirou knew he was home.
“You’re here…!” Although the smile was still there, Kinshirou spotted a hint of a different emotion in Atsushi’s voice.
“Of course. You told me to come.”
A moment of silence. It was not exactly a silence out of awkwardness, Kinshirou noticed; it was more a silence of people trying to fully grasp the real meaning of that single encounter after so many birthdays apart.
Oblivious to the atmosphere, Midori joined the conversation. “Atchaaa!” Then, her tiny hand patted Kinshirou’s shoulder like she was showing Atsushi her new friend, smiling expectantly.
“I think she wants to introduce you to me,” Atsushi giggled fondly.
“Such a well-mannered little princess,” Kinshirou smiled back.
“Yes, Mi-chan, I can see him. Kin-chan is really nice. Have you met Ibu-ch— I mean, Ibushi-kun and Akoya-kun?” Akoya flinched, probably afraid of having to hold her too, but Midori just stared a bit confused at Atsushi before yawning. “Oh, she’s tired. Please don’t be offended, you two. She’s been up all afternoon, must be that…”
“No problem,” Ibushi winked gently. “I’ll get to know this charming little lady soon.”
Atsushi smiled gratefully at him and approached Kinshirou, who carefully handed him the little girl. Midori laid her head on Atsushi’s shoulder, yawning again, and even Akoya let out a subtle “Aw”. “There, there,” Atsushi said gently. “Get some rest, we’ll play later…”
Kinshirou watched the scene intently. He once thought it was impossible for Atsushi to be even more adorable.
Once Harumi got Midori back and went upstairs with her, Atsushi turned his attention to his guests once more. Kinshirou took a deep breath and got up, gift in hands.
“Happy birthday, At-chan. Um… I got you something. I’m not sure if… if you’re still into puzzles, but…”
“Oh, you didn’t need to!” Atsushi smiled, getting the object. “Thank you, Kin-chan! I’m sure I’ll like it!” As he opened the package, he saw a deluxe box with the picture of a nightscape — a lonely tree on a hill facing a gorgeous frame of the Milky Way. At the top right of the image, he spotted a few shooting stars crossing the sky in the same direction.
Somehow, he felt the very same sensation he used to feel when laying on the grass, holding hands with Kinshirou like he was afraid of falling into the skies above, his still naïve mind just beginning to grasp the idea of insignificance when facing infinity.
“... Wow. Just… wow.” Atsushi took a moment to collect himself, still in awe. His brown eyes wavered at Kinshirou, who understood.
But they could get back to it later. “I’m glad you liked it…”
“Of course I — geez, Kin-chan, this is…!” Atsushi shook his head, incapable of finding a suitable word. “Thank you, really. I’ll treasure it.”
As Kinshirou didn’t seem to know what to say and silence started to spread once again, Ibushi graciously stepped in. “Well, looks like our gifts can’t compete with that, Akoya.”
“Oh?” Took by surprise, Akoya blinked before getting back to his haughty posture. “I’m not so sure about that. The scarf I got him is one of the finest!”
“I’m sure it is, Akoya-kun,” Atsushi smiled gently as he received the gift from the second-year student and opened the package, revealing an elegant, dark-green silk scarf. “Thank you! It’s really beautiful…”
“Of course it is, I couldn’t choose anything otherwise!” Akoya pouted in an almost offended way. “I suppose commoners like you can’t wear scarves in the most appropriate fashion, so I can teach you how…” And Akoya took the scarf from his hands, draping it neatly around Atsushi's neck and shoulders. “Hmph. Not bad. What do you think, President?”
Kinshirou startled at the sudden question, blushing a little. “It… it suits At-chan really well.”
“Thank you,” Atsushi beamed again, also a bit flushed, and both Kinshirou and Akoya smiled quite satisfied with themselves. Ibushi giggled.
“It looks really nice on you, indeed. My gift isn’t this fancy or… touching ,” he said somewhat apologetically while giving Atsushi a larger box. “Please don’t mind, it’s just a souvenir . But I hope it serves you well.”
“Don’t be like this, you really didn’t need to give me anything! I’m really happy anyway!” Atsushi reassured him and started undoing the wrapping paper. “Oh, this is a big one! Thank you! I’m sure I’ll like it and—” As he opened the package and peeked inside the box, his eyes went wide. “... Could this be — is this a smart garden ???”
Atsushi’s shocked tone sounded more like a mix of That’s the most expensive “souvenir” I’ve ever got! and How rich can they actually be to say this is no big deal??? , but he politely didn’t say that aloud.
“Correct,” Ibushi smiled at him. “I got some seed pods too, so you can start right away. I thought it would be useful for you to grow herbs for your cooking anywhere you want, may it be here in Binan or in any other city you choose after graduating. Even a huge metropolis like, say, Tokyo…?”
His tone was casual, but there was a hint of suggestion that didn’t go unnoticed by Kinshirou. If Ibushi wanted Atsushi to join them in Tokyo solely on Kinshirou’s behalf or if he was also longing for Atsushi’s company, Kinshirou wasn’t quite sure yet. Still, he felt a wave of gratitude towards his loyal friend.
Atsushi got reflexive for a moment, but quickly put on his well-known smile. “This is amazing! Thank you so much, it will be really useful! I’m looking forward to start growing crops!” After another pause, he added in a softer tone: “I’m sure you can help me with that in the future.”
Kinshirou blinked. Is he actually saying…?
“It will be my pleasure,” Ibushi replied, his serene expression denoting that he, too, understood what Atsushi had just implied.
Akoya looked at the sudden atmosphere enveloping the three third-years and, a bit uneasy, muttered, “My scarf remains the best present here, though.”
“We would never state it otherwise,” Ibushi replied, and the four laughed.
“Dinner’s ready,” Mrs. Kinugawa announced from the kitchen. “Please help yourselves!”
“I wanted to cook, but mom didn’t let me get into the kitchen today,” Atsushi pouted. Just then he blinked like suddenly remembering something really important. He turned to the other three. “Um, tonight we’re having curry. B-but we have other things too, non-spicy food, you know, so you don’t need to worry!”
Kinshirou smiled a bit at Atsushi’s clumsy attempt of reassuring them. “That’s fine, At-chan. It’s your favorite food, after all.” And I could smell it from the very moment I entered this house, so it’s not like I was unaware at all… “You don’t need to worry about us.”
“I must confess I was a bit curious about your curry after all the success in the festival,” Ibushi smiled. “Seems like I’ll get to taste your cooking another time.”
“Dessert’s on me, though!” Atsushi grinned. “We have manjuu , kintsuba and amanatto , of course, but I managed to make a little something last night. Actually, I saw a recipe of a rose-flavored Panna Cotta with edible flowers online and wanted to give it a try.”
“Why, that sounds really special,” Ibushi looked mildly surprised.
Atsushi then smiled at Akoya. “To be honest, I knew the other desserts would be fine for Kin-chan and Ibu-ch— Ibushi-kun, but I wasn’t quite sure about you. So I hope it suits your taste.”
Akoya looked puzzled for a moment. After a while, he got up from the couch, looking away. “My favorite dessert would be macarons, but I think this other one will be just fine. Now, what are you waiting for? It’s inelegant to keep Mrs. Kinugawa waiting, you know?”
And he walked away, flushed, followed closely by three amused boys.
As the four entered the kitchen, the doorbell rang. Harumi walked down the stairs.
“Leave it to me,” she said to her brother, who had just peeked from the kitchen’s door, and strolled towards the front door, opening it and smiling at the newcomers.
“Hello there,” Ryuu waved at the woman. “You’re Kinugawa-senpai’s sister, right? I’m Ryuu Zaou!”
“I know,” Harumi giggled. “Atsushi told me about all of you… how are you doing?”
“We would be better if Yufuin-senpai hadn’t delayed us! We had to wait for him to wake up and take a shower before coming!” Io huffed and turned to En. “Now I understand why Kinugawa-senpai is the epitome of patience! How can he manage to wake you up every morning and still be at school relatively on time is a mystery!” En just shrugged.
“Hiiii!” Oblivious to Io’s mood, Yumoto beamed at her. “I’m Yumoto Hakone! I brought a present!”
“... and a wombat,” Harumi added, glancing at the pink creature in his arms. “Well, please come in. Dinner’s served, please help yourselves!”
As she gave them passage, Yumoto, Ryuu and Io entered the house. A few moments passed before she turned her attention to the boy still at the doorstep.
En smirked. “Long time no see.”
“Indeed,” Harumi smiled. “Aside from getting taller, you are quite the same old En-chan.”
“Oh?” En seemed amused. “You changed a bit. But motherhood did you good.” After a pause, he murmured, “They’re already here, aren’t they?”
“I see. Atsushi?”
“He got a bit delayed,” Harumi said, and En rolled his eyes. “But they were able to chat a bit. Kin-chan held Midori for a while.”
“Aw, that must have been cute to watch,” En grinned.
“You can be cute, too, you know. Like arriving late and delaying your friends on purpose just so Atsushi could have a moment with Kin-chan, Ibu-chan and Akoya-kun.”
En just raised an eyebrow. “Did I? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t,” Harumi just shook her head, amused, as she gently ushered En inside.