The days were growing shorter and cooler, though St. Didacus’ summers were long and autumns warm. It meant that when Yuki made his way through the quiet campus after a late archery session, the sky was already hinting pink.

He tried to convince himself that his heart was thundering in his chest was from the work out he’d just had. Never mind that he was fresh from a shower after practice, hair still a little damp. A shower that he’d let run too long as he contemplated if he could actually do this.

“Of course you can,” Winter said with the usual gentle, fond encouragement. “You’re going to have a lovely time.”

The walkways were empty enough that Yuki could murmur his reply under his breath. “What if I do something embarrassing? Or worse, what if I can’t think of anything to say at all?”

“Perhaps you will. Perhaps he will. But your friend is kind and I’m sure you’ll sort it out.” It was the closest to teasing Yuki had heard from his quiet spirit. “Just do your best to enjoy yourself and remember he’s there because he likes you! No reason to be afraid.”

“Are you kidding?” Yuki tugged his hood tighter around his face. “That’s exactly the reason to be afraid! What if I disappoint him after all?”

Winter wound around him, refusing to let him escape into the folds of his sweatshirt. “There’s not a thing disappointing about you, Yuki.” The words were so earnest and confident that it made Yuki’s stomach twist. Especially because they were approaching the spot where Alex would be waiting. “I’ll leave you to some privacy now. I’ll return later this evening and expect to hear about everything.”

“No! Wait, you’re gonna leave?” Yuki felt his heart thud harder suddenly. “I can’t do this without you!”

“Of course you can,” Winter insisted. The energy that enveloped Yuki was as good as a hug, wrapping him in affection and encouragement. “You’re so much braver than you believe. And in no time you’ll be too happy to be nervous.”

“You are way too confident in me,” Yuki muttered, but he squeezed himself a little, almost unconsciously, as though trying to feel Winter’s hug just a little more.

The spirit’s voice chuckled softly in the back of his mind, the presence slowly fading from his consciousness. Back to wherever it was the spirits went when the boys needed some time apart from them. “Best of luck,” was the last thing Yuki heard before he was alone as he so infrequently was these days.”

Soon the school’s proud walk of flags was in view and Yuki’s heart stuttered when Alex sprang from a bench at the entrance of the amphitheater. He jogged up the path to meet Yuki, skidded to a stop before him and raised a pair of paper bags.

“Hey! So, uh, I really hope you like burgers. Cause if not, I’m gonna be really embarrassed. And I’m gonna have to eat two burgers.”

Yuki tried on a smile, doing his best to mirror Alex’s expression instead of passing out from nerves. He nodded, cleared his throat, answered. “Uh, yeah, that’s… that’s great. I mean, I like burgers.”

Alex breathed a dramatic sigh of relief, shoulders sagging. But then he beamed at Yuki and gave a nod toward the path that cut through the sprawling school grounds. “Thank goodness. Don’t think I’m too cheap either. They’re not just regular Back ‘N’ Forth burgers. I ran downtown and back to get some real /fancy/ burgers.”

Yuki found himself laughing despite his nerves. “Did you actually run?” He could imagine it, Alex– all long legs and warm skin, jogging through town…

“Oh, yeah,” Alex said easily. “I needed to get a couple of miles in today anyway.”

The sidewalk was littered with drying leaves in spite of the daily maintenance, letting brown and yellow and red crunch under their feet. The soft light filtered gently through the thinning autumn leaves.

“I was tempted to come watch your practice but I didn’t want to make you nervous since it’s only what, your second one? And I was hungry. But maybe I can come another time.”

“Oh, ah, yeah, sure. That’d– that’d be okay.” He was relieved though — glad that Alex had not showed up to watch him fumble through getting his footing in the archery club. It wasn’t kyudo and he hadn’t stopped practicing on his own, but it was… good, he thought, to learn a new skill, to try and be social.

It earned him another bright smile from the corner of Alex’s eye and the brief, awkward silence that followed wasn’t even that awkward.

At the end of the path, the ocean came into view, beyond the cliffs that skirted the edge of the school grounds.

“How do you like it? Is it all that different than what you’re used to?”

Yuki glanced at Alex’s profile, then back to the panorama that stretched out before them. “I’m not used to… looking at the ocean with… with someone I l-like at all,” he admitted.

For a moment, Alex looked at him blankly, his cheeks flushing. But then he laughed, rubbing at the side of his head. “I uh– I meant archery versus kyudo,” he explained. “But if it’s okay, I /was/ hoping to look at the ocean with someone I like.”

Yuki instantly flushed pink from his ears to his throat and he stumbled in his steps. “O-oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t, oh my god, I’m so…” He groaned, palming his face. “Sorry,” he cast a chagrined look at Alex, peeking through his fingers.

“Don’t be sorry,” Alex grinned back. He bit lightly at his smile for a breath and then reached for Yuki’s hand with his free one. He eased it away from Yuki’s blushing face and for the second time, dared to take it in his. “Even though you’re insanely cute when you’re embarrassed.”

Yuki frowned deeply, brow furrowed above red cheeks. “Shut uuup,” he breathed, a tiny shy voice, muffled by the remaining palm that still pressed to his face. But he didn’t pull away, though he cast a quick look around, to make sure they were alone, that no one else was around to see.

Alex only laughed and gripped at Yuki’s hand tighter, tugging him gently along. “C’mon, this food is gonna get cold.”

The bench at the edge of the cliffs was a little dizzying and Yuki couldn’t help but think about Mike’s experience. When he swore something had grabbed his ankle and yanked him over the edge of the cliff. Whose great idea was it to build a school on the edge of a cliff anyway?

Alex released his hand and sank into the bench. He dug into the bag and handed a carefully wrapped package to Yuki. “Ta-da! I promise next time it’ll be something more special,” he added a little sheepishly.

Yuki shook his head a little, dug his toes into the dirt beneath the bench, and did his best to banish the thoughts of his other extracurriculars. He took the burger and smiled gratefully. “No, it’s okay. This is special.”

The smile he got back was also grateful, Alex letting out a sigh of relief. With a bag between them full of still-warm fries, Alex reached into the backpack at his feet and handed Yuki a bottled soda. He then picked up his own, confidently twisted off the top and soda hissed as wildly as a snake, overflowing and spilling down the side of his leg.

“Aw, no way!” he cried, jumping to his feet as the soda fizzled out, leaving his bottle half empty and his hands sticky. He groaned and shook his damp pant leg.

Yuki did try not to laugh– he didn’t want to be thought of as rude. But the way Alex hopped up, hands dripping and expression comically exasperated… well he bit his lip against laughing out loud anyway, and quickly rummaged through the bag of food for a wad of napkins to helpfully hand them over.

Alex collapsed back to the bench with utter chagrin. He did his best to clean up while Yuki calmly and slowly opened his own drink, letting the carbonation out a little at a time.

“Guess I shouldn’t have run with them,” he lamented. But he shook it off and apparently hadn’t been lying about hunger, finishing half his burger in two bites. Alex turned his attention back to Yuki, watching his face perhaps a little too eagerly for his reaction. “It’s — it’s nice to be able to see you out of class. I wish most days I could just talk to you all through botony. And not just cause it’s really boring.”

Yuki ate a bit more slowly, coaxing each bite down around his fluttering stomach, which was, thankfully much more settled after Alex’s unfortunate incident broke the tension. “Boring?” he wondered, just a little incredulous. “Half the things we study could poison or maim us.”

“Well, yeah, I guess that part’s interesting. But what about all the memorization and chemistry? I don’t think I’m gonna end up living a life where I need to know the latin names of like fifty plants.”

Yuki laughed a little, casting a glance from the corner of his eye. “If you need help with memorization, you can ask me. I’m all right at that.”

“Gladly!” Alex grinned back. His food was long gone.

The sky was hazy, thin clouds scattering light in muted, warm hues. The sun was a bit too obscured to make much of a sunset, but Alex was looking at him, not the view anyway. He was turned in the park bench, trying to catch Yuki’s eyes.

“My mom has always said I’m gonna have to find a smart wife to keep me on my toes. That I’m a ‘humanities’ type.”

Yuki fell quiet, wanting to ask if Alex’s mom knew he probably wouldn’t find a wife, but then he started thinking that he didn’t really know very much about Alex, and maybe he liked girls too. Or maybe somehow he’d totally misinterpreted everything and Alex didn’t like him or even boys at all, and somehow “I like you, would you like to go out sometime” actually just meant “as friends” and maybe Alex just wanted a gay friend because he thought it would make him more appealing to girls, and Yuki finally noticed he’d stopped chewing in the middle of a bite and the soggy burger in his mouth didn’t taste all that great anymore, so he washed it down with a swallow of soda that was too sweet altogether.

Alex chuckled into silence and then his face drew with nervous concern. “I — uh, I look forward to telling her how wrong she is,” he managed awkwardly. Then, meekly, “Did I say something wrong?”

Yuki startled a bit, but shook his head, embarrassed, wrapping up the last third of his burger to save for later. “No, no. You didn’t. I’m just…um… nervous.” He smiled only a little awkwardly.

An understanding smile met him, Alex’s obvious tension melting a little. “I’ve– I’ve never been out with a guy before,” he admitted, his eyes wandering to the horizon. “A couple times with girls but… I dunno. They were good friends but I couldn’t really fool myself. I told my grandma a few months ago and she said “Alex, you’ve been looking at pretty boys since you were six.”

Yuki laughed a little, a huff of something like foolish relief. “She sounds nice.”

“She’s the greatest,” Alex agreed. “I can’t decide if I want to tell her about this mostly because I know she’s gonna talk my ear off.” A pause for a smile and then, gently, “What about you?”

Yuki shook his head. “I haven’t told my dad. I guess the other guys in club know now, but Mike was the first person I really… you know, ‘came out’ to.”

Alex’s long frame sank into the bench and he let his arms sag behind the back of it. Not /exactly/ around Yuki’s shoulder, rather resting on the wood behind his back. “A few of my friends know, too,” he said. “It’s… kind of a relief every time I tell someone about it. And man it’s so much more complicated than dating girls… I mean, how was I even supposed to know if you were… you know, if you’d even be interested! I was more than a little afraid I was gonna get punched in the face if I asked.”

Yuki hated how his face heated, thinking about a nervous Alex planning his approach. But he laughed a little at the thought of punching someone, let alone someone larger and much more athletic than himself. “I wouldn’t punch you,” he promised. “Even if I tried, I think you’d be able to dodge.”

“I decided in the end that you seemed gentle and reasonable enough that it was safe,” Alex replied with a warm grin that managed to hold Yuki’s glance for more than a moment. “And the chance would be worth the risk of punching anyway.”

Yuki looked down at his feet, ears burning with the easy compliments that fell from Alex’s lips. “You’re much braver than me,” he admitted.

The shrug that answered let Alex’s arm rest on the top of the bench, touching along Yuki’s shoulders just lightly. “Less cautious, maybe,” he countered. “You seem like the kind of person that thinks everything through, considers all their options before they act. Nothing wrong with that.”

Yuki tensed a little at the touch, startled, but he forced his shoulders to relax, suddenly afraid he’d chase Alex away by reacting poorly. To combat this, he slid a little closer, knees locked together, toes pointed, swallowing nervously. “That’s true,” he said, “But I’d probably never act at all, is the problem.” He was ashamed of this admission, and frowned at himself for speaking it aloud.

He could only be thankful for the ease that Alex seemed to tackle everything with, practically unphased by this new, unparalleled closeness. “The first time for everything is always the hardest, right?” he said, gently. The warmth of his arm settled just a little heavier against his shoulders, the stance perhaps a little awkward… but not at all unpleasant. Instead of pursuing this rather emotional train of conversation though, his voice lightened up when he asked, “Hey, how’s the whole recycling club been going, anyway? You haven’t mentioned it lately.”

“O-oh, it’s good,” Yuki answered, lamely, both grateful for the change of subject and chagrined by the vague response he knew he’d have to give while keeping the “protecting the earth” stuff underwraps. Keeping a secret identity secret hadn’t seemed hard until he found himself faced with a new friend he couldn’t talk to about it. “It’s really more like general helpful community stuff though– we… do sort of like… volunteer work too.” Saving that animal shelter from militant activists counted right?

“Ah, that looks-good-on-college-apps kind of thing,” Alex smirked. “You make me feel guilty that all my extra-curriculars are sports, while you’re out there saving the planet.”

“I’m sure you don’t need any extra clubs to be able to impress colleges,” Yuki protested, swallowing back a small laugh at Alex’s choice of words.

“Well, thanks,” Alex laughed, his touch around Yuki’s shoulders settling with growing familiarity. “I gotta get through college somehow and what good are these legs if they can’t help me out?” He lifted his shoes in front of them, his shorts showing off his lithe runner’s legs.

Yuki was grateful he’d set aside the rest of his food, because he’d likely have choked on a french fry in that moment. “Th-they are good legs.” What. Really, Yuki? He pressed a hand to his brow, hating himself just a little more in that moment.

To his credit, Alex didn’t voice the laugh but Yuki was close enough to feel when he choked on it. And he couldn’t quite hide the grin, though it was a good effort. “Thanks,” was all he said, with all earnesty. He eased back into the seat and took a moment to inspect the view that had been forgotten in preference for the conversation. Orange was shifting to purple, quickly ushering in the cool night air off the ocean.

“What’re your dad’s rules like?” Alex wondered after a few moments of relatively comfortable quiet.

Yuki blinked, turned his head to look at Alex, not quite parsing the question for a beat. Then, he nodded, lips forming an ‘oh’ of understanding. “I have to be home before ten,” he explained. “I think he’s just glad that I finally have friends to stay out late with at all.”

“Oh, really?” Alex’s face lit up, his wide grin managing to catch Yuki in a rare moment of genuine eye contact. “That’s plenty of time! You wanna go see a movie?”

“Um.” Yuki shifted nervously, unsure if he could manage to pretend he wasn’t horribly socially awkward for so long. Still, at least in a movie, the focus would be off of him, and he wouldn’t have to come up with clever things to say. And he didn’t want Alex to give up on him after just one date. “Okay,” he nodded, tried on a smile. “What’s playing?”

“Oh, lots of things, I’m sure,” Alex said flippantly, as though that part was hardly important. He surged to his feet with a tug at Yuki’s sweater. A flick of his wrist and the ball of his trash thunked into a nearby can. “There’s a theater like a mile from here. If you’re worn out from practice, I’ll give you a piggy back ride.” He carelessly walked backward along the path that edged the cliff so that he could give Yuki his most winning smile.

Yuki’s face bloomed into fresh heat as he clutched his bag of leftovers and shook his head. “That’s okay– I can walk.”

Alex gave a soft laugh, though it clearly wasn’t aimed at Yuki. “Let’s see, what kind of movies do you like? Sci-fi? Or maybe horror movies?”

“Um,” Yuki fidgeted as he hurried his steps to keep up with Alex’s long strides. “I guess comedy and uh, fantasy, sci-fi?”

He felt Alex’s gait slow to meet Yuki’s as they followed the sidewalk that led off the school grounds. He palmed his phone as they walked, scrolling through the local movie times. “Hmmm… well, Pewter Man, what like 8 or something? That’s playing. I dunno if you like comic book movies. Oh, the new Thirst Match movie is out too. That first one was INTENSE!”

Yuki perked a little at this. “I liked the first one,” he agreed.

“Cool!” He thumbed over a few screens, the light of his phone a blue glow on them in a quickly darkening night. “That’s perfect. Did you read the books?”

Yuki hesitated, fairly certain it was uncool to admit being one of those nerds who had already read all the books prior to the release of a successful film series. But Alex’s face seemed so open and non-judgmental, so he nodded. “Yeah, I read them. You?”

“The first one,” Alex confirmed. He tucked his hands into his pockets as their walk let into the street where warm lamp light lit their way back to civilization. “But not the rest, so this’ll be all new to me! No spoilers!”

Yuki grinned at this and held up a hand. “I swear!” he promised. “I won’t even tell you how–”

Alex pounced on him, snatching Yuki up in a long playful arm to lightly slap a hand over his mouth. “Not even that!” he laughed, very nearly careening them into a parked car.

Yuki was startled, but laughed behind Alex’s hand, letting it stay there for even a moment before ducking out of his hold, a little too much to handle for long. Alex was all long limbs and warm skin and it made him light-headed to be too close. Still, just in case he offended him, Yuki let his shoulder bump Alex’s, caught his eyes with a grin.

The other boy beamed back at him, a blush evident on his brown cheeks. And then casually (perhaps a little overly casually) he turned back to their walk. “It’s pretty crazy that those books are for kids. They’re so violent! Has your little sister seen the movie?”

“No way,” Yuki shook his head. “I don’t want to giver her any ideas. She’s already overly obsessed with Mantis Man. If I let her watch Thirst Match, she’d demand I teach her to shoot a bow and arrow next and SOMEONE would end up with an arrow in their knee.”

“Mantis Man?” Alex laughed. “What an interesting kid. Sounds like she’ll make a great superhero.”

“She already thinks she is,” Yuki smiled fondly.

When they reached the theater, Alex had already purchased the tickets before Yuki could even open his wallet. Inside, he hemmed for a moment before inviting Yuki to the snack bar, in spite of the leftovers that were now stuffed in his backpack. He seemed chagrined by the bag of popcorn, soda and candy that it was likely he’d be eating on his own.

When they found seats, the theater was already dim with the preview for some feel-good family movie filling the screen. Once they were settled, Alex leaned close enough to say in an appropriately hushed voice, “Thanks for coming out with me. I was really nervous but it was totally worth it.”

Yuki was thankful for the low light that hid the worst of the red tinging his ears. “Thanks for asking me,” he answered back. “I was nervous too.” Nevermind that he still was, that he could hardly imagine NOT being nervous around Alex. Especially when he said such nice things, when he smiled like that.

The darkness created a warm sense of comfort, making it seem less overwhelming when Alex’s shoulder settled comfortably against his. He murmured a few jokes as the previews played, the closeness a little less terrifying under the guise of politely soft conversation.