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A Break in the Weather

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Rain was falling over the mountains. It wasn’t a winter rain, fine and stinging as needles, but a warm rain, one that fell in droplets the size of grapes and hit the ground with splashes like tiny silver flowers. Beautiful, if you happened to be inside looking out. Traveling in it was less enjoyable, even in a car.

It was a very nice car, though. Atsushi glanced up from the video game he’d been playing to look through the window of the sleek gray limousine. The world beyond the window was gray too: gray rain, gray clouds, rocky gray mountainside, and the gray shadows of trees looming up on either side of him. The overall effect, he had to admit, was just a little spooky. The road they were traveling was narrow, curving back and forth up the side of the mountain, bringing things looming suddenly into view with every turn. Somehow, the comfort of the limousine, with its plushly appointed interior and gently tinkling classical music on the stereo, only seemed to heighten the sense of unreality.

“About how far are we?” he asked Arima, who was sitting in the seat in front of him.

Arima looked up from the magazine he’d been browsing and glanced at his phone.

“We’re going a bit slowly because of the weather, I believe,” he said, “but it shouldn’t be more than another fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“That’s good,” said Kinshiro, who had up until then had his attention fixed on a book. Peering out the window, he added, “I don’t care for this weather. It will be a relief to be properly inside.”

Atsushi smiled a little. “I suppose if we’re that close, I’d better start waking En up.”

Arima smiled back. “Let him sleep. If he’s that hard to wake, I’ll just ask the staff to carry him in with the luggage.”

“I heard that,” En mumbled.

Kinshiro, predictably enough, ignored him. To Arima, he said, “Thank you for having us over. It was considerate of you to invite us.”

Arima smiled broadly at this mild praise. This jaunt had been his idea. The house they were staying in had once been the Arima family’s summer home, but it was currently unoccupied and unused, and his parents were thinking of giving it to him after he graduated and was ready to move out on his own. Since he hadn’t visited it since he was a child, he wanted to look it over to see if he still liked it, and had thought it might be fun to bring some friends along and make an event of it. Atsushi suspected that this was just a well-reasoned excuse, and the real idea was that it might do all of them some good to do a little bonding on neutral ground. Whatever his reasons, they had all accepted the invitation readily. To Atsushi, it had all sounded very pleasant: spend the evening relaxing with his friends, enjoy a good dinner, sleep in a luxurious guest bedroom, perhaps spend Sunday morning doing something fun before they all packed up and went home.

He hadn’t reckoned on the rain. No one had really bothered to look at the forecast, it seemed, because they had left Binan in a gray drizzle that had evolved into a steady rain, and then into a downpour that blocked out all visibility beyond about three feet away. Atsushi found himself glancing repeatedly out the window wondering if they were about to be swept off the side of the mountain in a flash flood, but Arima didn’t seem nervous at all, and he presumably would know if these roads were safe. Then again, he never seemed nervous about anything.

Maybe this will be a good chance to get to know him, Atsushi mused, as the car wound further and further up the side of the slope. He had always rather liked Arima, or at least not disliked him. They were in separate classes and had never done much more than say hello to each other when they passed in the halls. All Atsushi really knew was that Arima was the student council vice president, and that everywhere Kinshiro went, Arima went with him, smiling and supporting him through whatever came their way. Atsushi had tried to be grateful for that, grateful that someone was looking after Kin-chan and making him happy even if Atsushi couldn’t get near him anymore. He had tried not to be too jealous that Kin-chan had found a new best friend. After all, Atsushi had a new best friend, too, and fair was fair.

But the point was, Atsushi didn’t really know anything about his host. He knew at least some things about Kinshiro, even if they’d lost touch for a few years, and Akoya had a way of making his presence known, but Arima was given to simply being there, silently smiling, staring off into space as if only vaguely aware of what was going on around him. Atsushi hoped that this trip would give him a chance to learn something about what hid behind that facade.

“Oh, look,” said Arima, brightening suddenly, “here’s the gate.”

And so it was: a tall wooden gate set in a matching fence that extended off into the forest. The car slowed down as they pulled off the road and up the asphalt drive that led up to it. The gate swung majestically open as they approached, no doubt alerted by some signal from the driver, but nevertheless looking magical and mysterious in the silvery semi-darkness. Everyone, even En, sat up straighter and craned their necks to watch as the gates moved silently to admit them.

Arima had told them all a little about the house before they’d departed. It was undisputed ruler of the top of one of the other peaks neighboring Mt. Binan. It had been built nearly a century ago by some long-ago industrialist, and Arima’s family had purchased it and brought it up-to-date while maintaining much of the original Art Deco style interior. It also had extensive and equally well-maintained grounds, something that Arima had spoken of with a note of wistfulness. He might have been a mystery in some respects, but it had not taken Atsushi long to realize that Arima had a deep fondness for gardens.

I hope the weather lets up while we’re here, Atsushi mused as their cars pulled up in front of the house. Otherwise he won’t get to enjoy them very much.

Before the cars had even stopped moving, several servants emerged from the house, carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the driving rain. A moment later, Atsushi revised that thought: the umbrellas were clearly there for the comfort and convenience of the young master’s guests. The servants were getting soaked as they hustled to fetch the heaps of luggage and get them inside. Atsushi made a move to try to help them, but Kinshiro stopped him.

“Don’t,” he said. “They’ll just get rained on even more while you argue with them about wanting to help.”

Atsushi smiled sheepishly as he climbed out of the car. “I guess I’m not used to the celebrity treatment.”

“Please try to relax,” said Arima, as he reached for one of the umbrellas and held it up for Kinshiro. “You’re a guest here. Everything is arranged for your convenience.”

“Atsushi’s not good at that sort of thing,” En remarked, as he ducked under a proffered umbrella.

The little troupe began sloshing their way up the front walk. Behind him, Atsushi could hear the sounds of the second foursome making their own arrival. He’d had some reservations about letting those four ride together, considering Ryuu and Akoya’s attitudes toward each other and Yumoto’s inability to be still and quiet for any length of time. A small part of him had been dreading the possibility that making the four of them ride in a car together for two hours would end in bloodshed. Actually, they seemed to be finding common ground. They were talking, of all things, about Switzerland, which appeared to be something they could all agree on. Ryuu, an enthusiastic snowboarder, was speculating about the potential snow in the Alps. Io was rhapsodizing about the country's financial systems. Akoya was dreamily recollecting a stay he'd once made with his family in some elegant little Swiss chateau. Yumoto, it seemed, didn't know anything about Switzerland, but someone had told him that they made chocolate there, and that was good enough for him. Also, Ryuu had given him the impression that there were snow bunnies there, and no one, not even Akoya, had the heart to disillusion him. All of them were talking more or less amicably to each other as they made their way into the house, the older boys clustering close together to continue their chat while Yumoto raced ahead of them, jumping in puddles and thoroughly discomfiting the dignified gent who'd been trying to hand him an umbrella.

The front doors were handsome affairs of dark wood, with opaque stained glass panels set into them depicting stylized flowers in shades of green and gold. The entry hall beyond them matched the facade: a wide entry hall in the same Art Deco style, with a parquet floor of varying colored woods and walls tiled in a mosaic of square tiles in subtle variations of black, dark brown, and dark red. The high bronze-colored ceiling was supported by tall square pillars with tiered headings and footings, all of mirror-glossy black stone and edged in gilt trim. A handsome chandelier of black iron and more gold glass shed a soft light, as did several matching lamps in sconces set in the wall. Two sweeping staircases of the same glossy black materials as the pillars were framed by ornate bronze balustrades. They framed a tall statue of a stylized winged woman holding up a glowing gold glass orb that seemed to represent the sun. The overall effect was of a place that was somehow both dark and luminous, warm and welcoming yet somehow mysterious. Arima beamed as his guests took in the unaccustomed view.

"Just come on in and make yourself at home," said Arima, shepherding the last stragglers through the front door. "There's a sitting room through that door, where you can relax while your things are being unloaded. The bedrooms are all upstairs - just pick one out that you like.”

“Any one we want?” Atsushi asked. He was already reaching to try to take his bag, only to find it whisked out of his grasp by one of the blank-faced servants.

“Ah, no, you don’t have to do that,” said Arima, taking him by the elbow and leading him away from the pile of luggage. “We have people to do that for you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Atsushi began, and realized almost at once that it wasn’t worth fighting about. If Arima was determined to be the gracious host, there wasn’t much Atsushi could do to stop him. All the same, he felt a bit disgruntled. His first impulse in any situation was to take care of other people. Most of the time, that meant En, since he was the least inclined to take care of himself if someone else was willing to do it for him. It just didn’t sit right with him to let someone do for him what he could easily do himself.

"Come on," En told him. "If he wants to do it, let him do it."

He slung an arm around his friend and began herding him into the sitting room. It was, in fact, what Atsushi would have called a "parlor", something you didn't ordinarily see in houses anymore. It had the same general color scheme as the entryway, patterned in the same angular designs, but with splashes of red and green worked in to make the room look more cheerful. It was definitely a vintage piece, the kind of place Atsushi could easily imagine Hercule Poirot rounding up the suspects to dazzle them all with his keen deductions, but it looked comfortable. The soft lighting and the mellow brown and gold spines of innumerable old books lent it a cozy feel, and the angular chairs, when he tried them, turned out to be surprisingly soft. Through a partially drawn curtain, he could see the rain drumming down on the lush gardens outside, and the sound of it was soothing now that he was safely indoors. A fireplace - gas logs, he thought, but entirely convincing nonetheless - was putting out a steady warmth. Altogether, he felt swept back into some simpler, more elegant time.

At least until Arima opened up a cabinet and revealed a hidden television and several neatly arranged rows of movies.

"Feel free to go through these," he said. "I'm going to start the tea. I'm sure we all could use some in weather like this."

Ryuu spiked an eyebrow and gave him a teasing grin. "I thought you said you had people to do that for you."

Kinshiro shook his head, radiating disappointment with Ryuu's mental faculties.

"No one," he said, "makes tea like Arima."

"Bring snacks, too," Akoka added.

Atsushi felt a pang of secondhand resentment - who were they to order him around like that? Wasn't he their friend? But Arima only smiled as if this were exactly what he'd expected.

"Not a problem," he said. "I'll be just a moment."

And he glided off, apparently perfectly content. Atsushi stifled the urges both to go with him and help, and to call his friends out on their behavior. He'd barely gotten his relationship with Kinshiro back on something like solid ground, and he hardly knew Akoya at all and didn't think it wise to antagonize him. They knew Arima better than he did. They should know where his boundaries were by now. It was not, he told himself firmly, his place to interfere. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he watched his friends bicker over what movie to watch.

I’m here to enjoy myself, not to try to solve everyone’s problems, he thought firmly. Giving himself a mental shake, he tried to turn his attention to the matter at hand, but he still couldn’t stop his eyes from straying to the door and wondering if Arima needed any help.

Night had fallen. Arima had gone to bed very pleased with the way his weekend retreat plan had been progressing. Watching videos together had been a more or less safe activity, once they'd settled the difficult task of finding a film they could all agree on. They had enjoyed an excellent dinner, after which they'd split off into small groups to do whatever they did for amusement - play with their smartphones, or chat with each other, or commune over a board game. When ten o'clock rolled around, Kinshiro, always punctual about bedtimes, had announced he was going to sleep, and everyone else took that as their cue to retreat to the privacy of their own rooms. It had all been gratifyingly peaceful, and Arima congratulated himself on a job well done. Playing host gave him excellent scope for his talents, and he'd been in a mellow mood when he'd finally gone to bed.

That did not explain why, sometime after midnight, he'd suddenly snapped awake again. He lay still in his bed, trying to pinpoint what had awakened him. A bad dream? No, as far as he could remember, he'd been enjoying a peaceful, pointless dream about riding in a boat and playing cards with his grandmother. A noise, then? He strained his ears, but all he could make out was silence.

Silence. Yes, that was it - the driving rain, which had kept up a steady tempo all afternoon and into the night, had stopped, and the world seemed almost unnaturally hushed by comparison. It must have been that sudden silence that had awoken him. He yawned, turned onto his side, and prepared to go back to sleep again.

Then he heard the sound of a door shutting. It was quiet, and he never would have heard it at all if the rain had still been coming down. Nevertheless, these old doors had unusual latches on them, which made a distinctive clack when they turned that couldn't be mistaken for anything else. As Arima continued to listen, he heard the slow soft steps of someone cautiously making his way down the hall.

Now, who could be up at this time of night? he wondered. All the guest rooms had en suite bathrooms, so that was no explanation. Someone looking for a midnight snack, perhaps? Or had someone else been awakened by the change in the weather or some noise made by the unfamiliar house?

Arima thought briefly of burglars and smiled with amusement. Anyone who came all the way out to this isolated house in the rain and had the misfortune to pick this night, of all nights, to rob it would be in for quite a surprise. He wasn't sure which would be more disconcerting: encountering a band of modern-day chevaliers, complete with swords, or being driven off by fireballs and hurricane-force winds supplied by a lot of men wearing outfits covered in hearts and ribbons.

Better go and check, he decided.

He slid out of bed, pulled on his robe and slippers, and began making a patrol of the hallways. There was no noise or light upstairs, and he didn't want to risk anyone's embarrassment by sticking his head into an occupied room. Instead, he simply made a circuit of the hallways, then picked his way down the stairs and began investigating the ground floor. From the foyer, he could hear faint sounds of movement, and he followed them into the kitchen.

Ah. So it is a midnight snack, then. That was harmless enough. He wondered who it was. Perhaps the Hakone boy? He seemed to be the sort who would happily eat at any time, and wouldn’t feel at all constrained by conventions of when one should eat or sleep. Then again, it might be Yufuin. It would be just like him to be asleep when he shouldn't be and decide to wake up and become active when everyone else was asleep.

What he didn't expect to find was Kinugawa Atsushi, attired like Arima in robe, pajamas and slippers, bustling about the kitchen with flour sifters and measuring cups. He jumped when he saw Arima watching him and adjusted his glasses defensively.

"Oh, um," he stammered. "I didn't think anyone was up." Apologetically, he added, "I didn't wake you, did I?"

He looked so dismayed by the thought that Arima decided that this was not one of those times when honesty would be the best policy.

"What are you doing?" he asked instead.

"Making mug cake," he said. Arima's face must have been expressive, because he added, "See, you mix up the cake batter in a mug and put it in the microwave to cook. It only takes a minute or so." He held out a mug partway full of unmixed ingredients as proof.

"I see," said Arima.

"I'm sorry I used your kitchen without asking," Atsushi added humbly. "I meant to clean everything and put it away, I promise."

"I'm not worried about that," Arima assured him. "You're my guest. Everything in this house is at your disposal."

"Thanks," said Atsushi, still looking a bit sheepish. "Ah... would you like some cake?"

Arima looked speculatively at the array of ingredients spread out on his counters.

"Yes," he said. "I believe I would."

He watched with interest as Atsushi fetched another mug for him - he'd learned his way around this kitchen fast, Arima thought admiringly - and showed him how to assemble the ingredients and whisk them together. Atsushi’s manner might be self-effacing, but his hands were as quick and clever as a musician’s at his instrument, never hesitating, never fumbling.

"That's one thing I never learned to do," Arima said, as they placed the mug in the microwave and set it to spinning. "I've never learned how to cook."

"I'm pretty good at it," Atsushi admitted. "The other guys say so, anyway."

Arima smiled. "Yes, I remember the success of your cosplay curry."

"I'm surprised you don't cook, honestly," said Atsushi. "You sort of seem like the type who can do anything."

"I confess, it's one of my failings," said Arima. "It would be nice if I knew how to make a few things, though."

"I could teach you, if you want," Atsushi offered.

"I'd like that."

The two of them exchanged quick, conspiratorial smiles. Arima felt his mood lifting. To tell the truth, he had been, in the darkest corners of his mind, prepared to dislike Atsushi. Not that he had any personal reason to dislike Atsushi - he'd always seemed to be a decent enough sort. If anything, he was almost aggressively normal. He never did anything to distinguish himself, either good or bad, unless he was being dragged into trouble by one of his friends. He seemed, if anything, to be perhaps just a bit dull. A small part of him had wondered just why it was that Kinshiro had been so fascinated by him. Even recently, the worst part of him had hoped that now that they were on speaking terms again, Kinshiro would realize what he was really like and lose interest. Now that they were here talking to each other, though, he was starting to get a feel for why Kinshiro hadn’t forgotten about him after so many years. There was something essentially reassuring about Atsushi. To someone who loathed disruption and uncertainty as much as Kinshiro did, Atsushi must have been the proverbial breath of fresh air.

Arima had to admit, he found himself being charmed as well. He didn't like mess or disruption, either, after all. Besides, it was nice to be around someone who was so inherently undemanding. It made him feel as though he could really relax for a little while. It was a little strange, listening to Atsushi chattering about what sorts of recipes Arima could try learning. Arima often did things for people, but it wasn't often that other people did things for him. While Atsushi fussed with the microwave, Arima wandered over to the fridge to fetch milk.

"Normally I'd make tea," said Arima, "but this seems better, don't you think?"

Atsushi grinned. "Perfect."

The little cakes were steaming invitingly when Atsushi set them on the kitchen table. Arima settled in to enjoy ice cold milk and warm gooey cake in the dimly lit kitchen, listening to the sounds of the night insects outside and enjoying the sensation of being one of only two people awake. In a place like this, so quiet and so far removed from everything, it was easy to pretend they were the only two people for miles around. The kitchen was warm and full of the scent of cake, and the single lamp that was glowing over the kitchen table gave everything a golden glow. Arima took his first bite of the cake, letting the warm chocolate chips melt on his tongue, and sighed contentedly. His face must have been expressive, because Atsushi beamed at him.

“Is it good?” he asked, although he clearly knew the answer.

Arima, mouth full, simply nodded, and Atsushi glowed even more brightly. He really did have the sweetest smile. It was no wonder people flocked to him, just to have a chance to see that smile directed their way.

"I feel bad about not inviting the others down here," Atsushi confessed.

Arima gave him a thoughtful look. "You seem like the sort who feels bad about things you don't need to."

Atsushi blushed. "Well, I mean, we're down here enjoying cake and they're all just sleeping."

"That's so," said Arima. "On the other hand, they're all enjoying a peaceful sleep while we're down here baking cake, so it evens out."

"I guess that's true," Atsushi admitted. "I hadn't looked at it that way."

Arima smiled. "It's all right. I understand how you feel."

"I imagine so," said Atsushi thoughtfully. He pushed his glasses up his nose, studying Arima thoughtfully. There was more intelligence in that gaze than his usual good-natured facade let on. "You do a lot for your friends, too, don't you?"

"I do my best," said Arima.

"They treat you like a servant," said Atsushi, a little indignantly.

"They need someone to look after them," said Arima. He smiled. "Anyway, I enjoy playing butler. There's no harm in letting them humor me."

"It still doesn't seem right, somehow," Atsushi insisted.

"No worse than the way you look after your friend Yufuin," Arima pointed out.

Atsushi blushed a little. "Well, someone has to. He'd sleep through school if someone didn't come and drag him out of bed every day."

"Exactly," said Arima. "In this world, there are the people who are looked after and the people who do the looking-after. We're the second kind. I saw how uncomfortable you were letting the servants wait on you, even though you know they're getting paid well for it."

"Yeah. I guess you're right," said Atsushi.

"And now you're trying to take care of me," Arima finished.

Atsushi surprised him by laughing. "I guess you're right about that too."

Arima smiled. He had to admit, as much as he had to watch his tongue around Kinshiro and Akoya to avoid hurting their pride, it was nice to be around someone who was willing to accept his own faults. Arima pushed his empty mug away and drained the last of his milk.

"Let's go outside," he said abruptly.

Atsushi blinked at him. "Now? But it's dark. Everything will be soaking wet."

"The paths are gravel," said Arima. "Our feet will stay dry as long as we don't wander into the grass. Anyway, I want to show you something."

"All right," said Atsushi. "Just let me put the dishes away."

"We have," said Arima gravely, "people to do that for us."

"Oh. Right," said Atsushi, grinning sheepishly. He resolutely pushed his dishes to the middle of the table and stood up, looking for all the world like a man about to undertake a serious mission instead of a walk in the garden. Arima couldn't help but smile.

Yes, I do begin to see. There really is something charming about him.

It was, as Atsushi had predicted, dark outside, but not as dark as he'd thought it would be. The clouds had parted, and now the sky was full of stars and a bright round pearl of a moon. With the fresh rain still puddling and dripping from everything, the world seemed edged with silver. Atsushi walked with care, hating to disturb the peace of the night even with something so small as the crunch of his slippered feet on the gravel.

This garden really must be fantastic by day, he mused, as he looked around at the beds of flowers. Their buds were tightly closed now against the night and the chill rain, and their colors were washed out by the moonlight, but he could get a sense of how artistically they were laid out and make some guesses as to how they might look in full daylight. I hope it stays clear tomorrow so I can see them.

"I love these gardens," said Arima dreamily. Somehow, his soft, gentle voice seemed just right in this hushed place. "Even when I was a child, before I started working in gardens myself, I loved this place."

"It's beautiful," Atsushi agreed.

It must have been the right thing to say, because Arima's soft smile broadened. He looked so at home here, very much a man in his element. Atsushi had a sudden image of him a few years from now, striking out on his own and moving into this place, where he could have this wonderful garden all to himself. No, that wasn't right. He didn't like the thought of Arima living here all by himself. The very idea of it made him curiously sad. Better to let his imagination supply Arima with someone to keep him company, someone who would take care of him the way he took care of his plants.

"You haven't seen the best part yet," said Arima. "Come on, follow me."

He beckoned to Atsushi as he picked up his pace a little. Atsushi was forced to scramble to keep up with him, stumbling a little in the shadowy patches until Arima curbed his enthusiasm and slowed down again.

"Sorry," he said. "I just really like this part."

Atsushi smiled at this show of honest enthusiasm. He didn’t think he’d ever seen the normally calm Arima so excited about anything. "I can't wait to see it."

The path wound through several more flower beds, separated by neat hedge rows. Eventually, they came to a place where there were no more flower beds, only hedges. One of them spanned the path in a leafy green arch. Atsushi had to stop in place to admire it. He'd never actually seen a hedge maze before.

"What do you think?" Arima asked. "Want to try it?"

"In the dark?" Atsushi asked nervously. From where he stood, he could see that some portions of the maze had actually been spanned by the branches of the hedges, creating tunnels that would probably be only pleasantly shadowed during daylight, but at night, they were pitch dark.

"It's fine," said Arima. "I've been through this maze plenty of times before. I remember the way, and it isn't very long. You'll be fine as long as we don't get separated."

Atsushi nodded. "All right, then. Let's give it a shot." After all, he'd only ever seen mazes like this in movies or books. He didn't want to miss his best chance of actually experiencing one. He moved closer to Arima's side, and together the two of them plunged into the maze.

Almost immediately, visibility dropped to near-zero as the shadows of the hedges blocked out everything. Atsushi wasn't what anyone would have called short, but the walls of this maze were easily two feet above him, and the shadows they cast were so thick as to be almost tangible. As soon as they'd turned the first corner and put the entryway behind them, all Atsushi could see were hedges, the path, and a dark strip of starry sky above them.

That, and Arima, walking confidently alongside him. It was hard to see him in these dim leafy corridors, dressed as he was in a navy blue bathrobe that all but disappeared into the shadows. He even smelled like part of the garden. Standing so close to him, it was easy to detect the scent of herbs that clung to his clothing. It was a nice scent, Atsushi thought dreamily. After all, it was very early in the morning, and he wasn't fully awake. At a time like this, he could almost believe that Arima had emerged straight from the garden and the shadows, and could just as easily fade back into them if Atsushi took his eyes off of him. Without thinking about it, Atsushi moved a little closer, gripping Arima's arm.

"Don't worry," said Arima's warm, reassuring voice through the dark. "I won't let you get lost."

"I know," said Atsushi. "I trust you."

They reached the entrance to one of the tunnels. Beneath the arching branches, the way was pitch-dark, but Arima moved through it with confidence. Atsushi did his best to follow, matching the pace of Arima's footsteps so that they moved in perfect unison. Oddly, he didn't feel afraid. The rest of the world was outside this maze, all the things he worried about, all the things he needed to do. In here, there was nothing that needed his attention, and someone else was looking after him. Such a unique feeling, to know that he was the one being taken care of, for a change. Normally, he would have balked at it, certain that whoever was doing the work needed his help or had better things to do, but not tonight. If there was anyone in the world who was perfectly capable and willing to help, it was Arima. It was safe to feel relaxed around him.

The path twisted and turned, but Arima guided the two of them through its tangled pathways and back out into the starlight. Atsushi barely had time to let his eyes adjust to this sudden influx of light before they rounded one last corner and stepped out into the open. They had come to the heart of the maze, and Atsushi stopped to take it in. Flower beds lined the edges, but they were small and almost incidental. The focal point was an immense metal trellis, rising up in tiers like some sort of miniature palace. Vines romped up its sides, some of them with white flowers open to release a sweet scent. Atsushi wandered closer to get a better look.

"Moonflowers," Arima said, coming up behind him. "Pretty, aren't they?"

Atsushi nodded in silent appreciation.

"When I was small," said Arima, half to himself, "sometimes when the adults thought I was in bed and they were all downstairs drinking and talking, I would slip out of my room and out the French doors in the library and come out here. One night I crawled into this gazebo and fell asleep there. There was quite a panic the next morning until they found me."

Atsushi laughed. "I never thought of you as a troublemaker."

"I wasn't making trouble," said Arima innocently. "I was behaving myself very well in the gazebo."

"Can we go in now?" Atsushi asked. Looking at the structure now, overgrown with vines as it was, he wasn't even sure how Arima had gotten inside in the first place, but if there was a way...

Arima thought about the question, then nodded. Silently, he walked around the perimeter of the gazebo until at last pausing at a point across from an ornamental sundial. Atsushi couldn't see anything different about that side of the trellis, but when Arima approached it, he was able to gently tease some vines aside and reveal a doorway. It opened just wide enough that they could squeeze through without damaging the greenery, and Arima crawled through it. Then he turned and held the draping vines back enough that Atsushi could easily creep in after him. The ground beneath the trellis was covered in fine gravel, like the paths, and dappled here and there with leaves that had fallen during the hard rain. Arima strolled over to the center of the circle of gravel and sat down. He patted at the ground next to him, silently inviting Atsushi to come sit next to him. Atsushi thought about it for only a moment or two before going to take a seat. The ground was only a little damp, after all, and his robe was thick enough to protect him from it. When Arima stretched out on his back, Atsushi followed his example, pillowing his head on his arms and gazing up at the twining vines above him. What had looked from the outside like an impenetrable wall of leaves looked surprisingly permeable from this direction. Even with all the vines and the crisscrossing bars of the lattice, he could still see the stars, and the brilliant white moon cast dappled shadows all around him.

"This is really nice," he said. "Thank you for showing me this."

"I thought you'd enjoy it," said Arima. "You like looking at stars, don't you?"

"Yes," said Atsushi, a little surprised that Arima had known. "Actually, I do."

Arima smiled. "I thought so. I thought from here, we could both look at things we enjoy." He sighed contentedly. “I love flowers, don’t you? They may never thank you for the care you give them, but it’s reward enough to watch them bloom.”

“I think,” said Atsushi slowly, “I can understand what you mean.”

Arima settled himself more comfortably and turned his attention back to the sky. "I'm glad we got a break in the weather so we could do this."

A break in the weather, Atsushi thought, looking up at the moon through the leaves. That was a good way to put it. Amid all the stress and weirdness of day-to-day life (and let's face it, even ordinary days in Atsushi's life could get pretty weird), it was nice to have a break. Here, for a little while, he could be in a place where he could relax, with someone who would never demand anything from him.

"Yeah," he said softly. "I'm really glad too."

The rain had returned. When Arima awoke the next morning, it was to a sky that was nearly black with clouds, and to rain lashing against his windows. For a moment, he found himself unable to reconcile this barrage with the peace of the previous night. Had he really woken up in the middle of the night to find Atsushi making cake in his kitchen? Had they really spent that time alone in the garden, watching the stars shine through the moonflowers? It seemed unlikely. And yet, when he reached for his bathrobe, he found that it was slightly damp and still had a few crumpled leaves clinging to the terrycloth. He pulled it on anyway, no longer bothered by the gray rain.

When he was finally dressed and showered and had made his way down to the dining room, he was unsurprised to find that Atsushi was already awake and in the process of making pancakes.

"You know," Arima began, "you really don't have to..."

Atsushi blushed. "I know, I know. But I woke up about an hour ago when the rain started, and there was nothing better to do, so..."

"You're going to frustrate the staff," Arima pointed out.

Atsushi just gave him his most brilliant smile. "Want to learn to make pancakes?"

Arima decided that he did. For the next few minutes, Atsushi walked him through the process of mixing flour and eggs and milk, of heating the pan and pouring the batter, how to know just when to flip the cakes over and how to do it without making a mess. By the time the cook arrived, looking indeed rather disgruntled at finding the young master already there cooking, Arima felt he'd gotten the hang of it. He set the cook to scrambling eggs and frying sausages, insisting that this task be left to him.

Eventually, the rest of the group came straggling downstairs in groups of two or three, some wide awake and some still yawning. Ryuu and Akoya were, predictably, arguing about hair care products, while Io looked on in evident amusement. Yumoto had Wombat tucked tightly under one arm and was hauling a sleepy-eyed En along with the other.

"Come on! You're going to miss breakfast!" he was saying. "It smells delicious!"

Kinshiro peeked into the kitchen. His eyebrows rose as he saw who was manning the stoves.

"Arima, have you been cooking?" he asked. "I thought you didn't know how."

"Atsushi's teaching me," Arima explained.

Atsushi grinned. "Bet you can't tell which he made and which I made."

Kinshiro smiled back. "I'm glad you two are getting along so well."

And they were. They had their routine down pat by now, an efficient system of passing each other ingredients, pouring out batter, and flipping pancakes that was as regular as any machine. Arima had to be amused at that. He had come out here half-expecting to find an enemy, a rival, and had instead as good a partner as he could have hoped for.

"We should definitely do this again sometime," said Ryuu, as he dug into a large stack of pancakes.

"Yes," said Arima thoughtfully. "We definitely should."

But he was not looking at Ryuu as he spoke. He was looking at Atsushi.

The rain was slacking off by the time they all loaded their things into the cars. The pelting rain had used up the last of its force, and had become nothing more than a sporadic drizzle. The atmosphere inside the cars had mellowed, too. Maybe it was because they could see where they were going, now, or because they were on their way to their own safe homes. Maybe it was because they had all been going into this with no idea what to expect from each other, and now they knew. Whatever the cause, everyone was more relaxed. Kinshiro even unbent enough once or twice to laugh, quietly, at something En said. One by one, the drivers dropped them all off at their houses. Atsushi had to smile as he watched Yumoto waving frantically through the back window as their two vehicles went their separate ways.

"You'd think he was going to have to wait for years to see us again, instead of just until tomorrow morning," Atsushi remarked.

Arima smiled. "His enthusiasm is rather endearing. I can see why you'd enjoy his company." He considered. "In small doses, anyway."

"He takes getting used to," Atsushi agreed. He laughed. "I guess we all do."

"Some of you more than others," said Arima.

They dropped En off first, either because his home was nearest or because it took all three of them to convince him that he really did want to leave the nice comfortable car with his friends in it and drag his bag into the house. Kinshiro came next, as he was obviously eager to get back to the comfort of his own routine and familiar surroundings.

"A study in contrasts," Arima observed, as they pulled away from Kinshiro’s elegant home.

"Yeah," said Atsushi, "but they're nice anyway."

"The people or the houses?" Arima asked.

"Both! Have you ever been inside En's house? It's definitely different," said Atsushi.

"I can imagine," said Arima. "He has a unique mind. I think I can see why you like him.”

They reached Atsushi’s house, and Arima climbed out to help oversee the removal of his bags from the trunk.

“This has been fun,” he said. “I’m glad I thought of it.”

"Maybe we’ll have to do it again soon," said Atsushi. “And don’t forget, you’re invited over to my place too. I was going to teach you to cook, remember. But you’re welcome just to hang out too, if you want.”

Arima smiled. "I’ll definitely do that After all," he added, "you need someone to look after you."

"So do you," Atsushi pointed out. "Tell you what, let's make a deal. Let's promise that I'll look after you if you'll look after me."

"It's a deal," said Arima.

He held out his hand, and Atsushi gripped it. Even on this drizzly day, it was warm.

A wind brushed by, rearranging the clouds. A patch of blue opened, and Atsushi turned towards it, drawn by the first glint of sunshine he'd seen in days.

"Look," he said. "A rainbow."

Without letting go, Arima turned to look. The rain still fell in misty drifts around them, but against the cloudy sky, the glowing arc of a rainbow was clearly visible. Hand in hand, the two of them stood, taking pleasure in this brief break in the weather.