Chapter 1: Coffee Cream
Soubi had never been much of a writer; his education had been brief and perfunctory. Why bother to teach a child more than the basics of reading and writing when there were more important lessons to learn? Like: how to forget your humanity and become the perfect weapon. Like: how pain could motivate.
The main lesson that Soubi had learned, after what had seemed a lifetime of loneliness and hurt, was this: to be the best weapon he could be, else the person he cared for most – was ordered, was made to care for most – would be hurt. And Ritsu-sensei had applied his teachings with utmost care: first beating Soubi until he never thought anything could hurt as much, and then casting him aside to teach him that physical pain was nothing – nothing – compared to what his own mind could cast up to hurt him with.
But as time went on – as the hurts that would never go away faded, if only a little – Soubi found that keeping a diary helped to sort things out in his mind. Ritsuka approved – and if Soubi was completely honest with himself, he probably wouldn’t have started, or continued with it, if Ritsuka hadn’t approved. But that was okay – because he could admit that to himself, and know that it was a little weird, and understand why.
It was progress, of a sort.
One thing that Ritsuka had insisted on – had even sat down and drawn in the columns and, biting his lip, written in headings in painstaking calligraphy – were lists of “Things Soubi Likes” and “Things Soubi Doesn’t Like”.
Soubi had thought it dumb – his favourite word, because Ritsuka always said it about him, but in such a warm, affectionate way these days that it made him tingle right down to his toes. But once he’d tried to fill it out, with Ritsuka standing over him and all but forcing a pen into his hand, he’d changed his mind. It was hard. What didn’t he like? Things that Ritsuka didn’t like, he supposed. (“That’s dumb,” Ritsuka said, in the privacy of Soubi’s head, and Soubi couldn’t help but agree with him.) It had taken a week, but he’d finally written, in an unusually shaky hand, butterflies in the ‘dislike’ column. Then, biting his lip, had crossed out ‘doesn’t like’ and written over it ‘hates’.
After that, it had seemed easier. What did he like? Cooking. Fresh bedlinen. The first cigarette of the day. Naps in the daytime. (“I’m not on your list,” Ritsuka said, looking over his shoulder. Soubi smiled down at the notebook, drew up a ‘love’ column and wrote Ritsuka’s name with a definite full stop after it, to indicate that he had no need to go on. It was true, and it stopped Ritsuka looking over his shoulder again – which until then Soubi hadn’t realised was something he wanted. Privacy. He’d never had it before, not really – his heart/body/soul/mind belonging first to Ritsu, and then Seimei, and neither caring anything for the gift he’d bestowed on them – but now he was finding that, secure in Ritsuka’s embarrassed, prickly affection, he wanted a few things for himself.)
It was progress, of a sort.
But it wasn’t until the coffee incident that Soubi really thought about how much he and Ritsuka had in common. How they were glued together by more than the obvious. He knew it deep down to his bones, in his very blood, but he hadn’t really known it, not really.
Why Ritsuka ate his potatoes boiled, but never roasted. Why he never wore red. Why he kept his hair a certain length, a certain style.
Suddenly Soubi realised that in some ways Ritsuka was no different to himself – why had he never noticed it before? Ritsuka didn’t know what he liked, because he’d spent so long trying desperately to be the “real” Ritsuka, the one his mother loved. Trying to please his mother by pretending, just as hard as he knew how.
It was something that Soubi had had more than a little practice of.
If it hadn’t been for the “real” Ritsuka, Soubi might have taken a while longer to notice – but he knew that the old Ritsuka, the Ritsuka who the new Ritsuka still sometimes longed to be (just quietly, when he thought Soubi wasn’t looking) had hated coffee. And so, true to form, Ritsuka never drank coffee.
Except . . . recently, Soubi had noticed odd signs. Like, his coffee cups inexpertly washed and stowed away. Coffee grounds in the bin at times when it couldn’t possibly have been him. The sugar bowl lightening dramatically, when Kio was the only one of the three of them who ever usually indulged.
It didn’t take a genius to work out that Ritsuka had started to drink coffee – and in vast quantities.
At first, Soubi resolved to say nothing. If Ritsuka wanted to drink a non-alcoholic beverage surreptitiously, then so be it. It was nothing to him.
He lasted about three weeks, but as Ritsuka got more and more irritable, and his bedtimes got later and later – and the bags under his eyes grew and grew – Soubi couldn’t keep his temper any longer.
“You’re making yourself ill,” he said one night, putting down his notebook and trying not to sound cross as he looked over at Ritsuka, who was yawning for the umpteenth time. “Too much caffeine isn’t good for you.”
Ritsuka flushed right to the tips of his ears, and then scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he denied – pointlessly, as far as Soubi was concerned.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” Soubi suggested. “I’ll tuck you up,” he added when he got no response – in the past, such an offer would have had Ritsuka fleeing the room as fast as his legs could carry him, his cat ears flat on his head and the back of his neck a brilliant red.
Ritsuka just scowled even harder. “Why don’t you go to bed?” he said.
There was an accusatory tone to his voice that puzzled Soubi. He’d never slept well, and even now that Ritsuka was safe – now that Seven Moons had released his claws from his sacrifice, and Seimei was no longer, and even Ritsuka’s mother was as far away from Ritsuka as Soubi could arrange – he found it tricky to nod off for more than an hour or two. He’d awake in a panic, convinced that Ritsuka was gone, that Seimei had him, that his sacrifice was dead, that . . .
Soubi cleared his throat. “I’m not so good at sleeping,” he said apologetically. He managed to keep the I’m sorry, Ritsuka safely in his head, where he knew it belonged.
“I know,” Ritsuka said shortly. And yawned, so widely that Soubi could see his tonsils.
There was a silence. Soubi wondered how to break it, but to his surprise, Ritsuka spoke again.
“I . . . don’t want you to be sulking in here on your own when I’m asleep,” he said crossly. He shrugged his shoulders. “So here I am, staying up with you.” He looked up, suddenly. “Why can’t you go to bed a bit earlier! I’m absolutely knackered!” he accused. “I like coffee, but not this much of it!”
Soubi blinked. Sulking? “I . . .”
“Tell the truth,” Ritsuka interrupted, still looking at him, his expression stern. “Why can’t you sleep? I’m not an idiot. Even when I go to bed, I can hear you pacing about, and I-I-I don’t like it,” he said stubbornly, as if determined that now he’d started he’d see this thing through, no matter how much it embarrassed him.
Ritsuka was growing up, Soubi realised. It made him feel sort of odd inside. “I wake up and panic because I can’t see you,” he said, honestly, and watched a tide of red sweep across Ritsuka’s face. “If I go to bed later, I only wake up in a panic once or twice rather than a dozen times.”
Ritsuka looked away and his tail swished moodily against his leg. Then he looked back. “Then why the hell aren’t you sleeping in the same room as me?” he demanded. “Not in the same bed, pervert,” he said, pulling a face. “But I don’t mind if you want to move your bed in to my room.”
“You . . . don’t?” Soubi asked, his head a whirl of contradicting things. Then: “You’re mainlining coffee so you can stay up with me?”
Ritsuka rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I give up,” he said tersely. “Come on.”
Soubi didn’t move.
Ritsuka turned back in the doorway. “What?” he said. “Why aren’t you moving?”
“You mean . . . you want to share a room right now?”
“What else?” Ritsuka snapped. “Move it, dumbass!”
Soubi moved it. And marvelled at Ritsuka’s consideration, when Ritsuka all but shoved him into his – admittedly roomy – double bed, mumbling that he wasn’t moving furniture this late at night, what did Soubi think he was, some sort of removals man? Ritsuka turned his back, but Soubi couldn’t help but think that some important, but indescribable, barrier had come down between them.
The next morning, when he tried to get up without waking Ritsuka, Ritsuka grabbed his wrist. “You’d better not write this in that book of yours,” Ritsuka said, accusingly.
Soubi smiled and went to do just that.
Chapter 2: Milk Chocolate
“You got me a present?” Ritsuka said, irritated beyond belief. “What are you, some sort of moron?”
It seemed that lately everything that Soubi did irritated him. Though it wasn’t stupid Soubi’s fault, Ritsuka thought, feeling a stab of guilt. These days pretty much everything was guaranteed to make him mad – or sick. If he breathed in, he could still smell the ashes. He wanted to hate Seimei, so bad it made his knees buckle and his vision blur if he thought about it too hard, but he couldn’t. And he hated that he couldn’t – even for Soubi’s sake. And part of making Soubi better was, in Ritsuka’s opinion, making sure that Soubi hated Seimei properly, thoroughly, for how he’d treated him.
Bad. Evil. That was what Seimei had been, underneath. And that was how Ritsuka felt when he cried for his dead brother, knowing that every time he did so, he made Soubi’s heart break just a little harder.
Ritsuka knew he was dead, this time, properly dead; they’d stood together and watched him burn. To Seven Moons, it had seemed a fitting end. And when Ritsuka had ordered Soubi to burn down Seven Moons Academy itself – well, that had seemed equally fitting, at least to Ritsuka, the ashes of the building mingling with the ashes of his beloved, benighted brother on the wind.
“I . . . made a decision,” Soubi said, sounding oddly breathless. He wouldn’t meet Ritsuka’s eye. “Here.”
Ritsuka looked down at the present – at the envelope in his hand that he’d taken from Soubi almost automatically. His stomach lurched. “You’re not leaving are you?” he said, the words taking him by surprise almost as much as they seemed to take Soubi by surprise.
A smile quirked on Soubi’s lips, and Rituska stared at it, memorising it. It wasn’t often that Soubi smiled these days.
“No, Ritsuka. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me,” Soubi said, and his voice sounded like a smile.
It made Ritsuka feel odd and stupid. He opened the envelope up, aware that his tail was swishing too quickly even though he was trying to look nonchalent. He scanned the letter inside quickly. “You’re giving up smoking?”
Ritsuka felt himself smile and tried to school his expression into something sterner.
“I thought it was an important decision. So I wrote it down,” Soubi explained, somewhat needlessly.
“How come you’re quitting?” Ritsuka asked, hoping against hope that he would get an answer that wasn’t . . .
“Because you don’t like me smoking,” Soubi said simply.
It was the ‘simply’ that made Ritsuka’s blood boil, every time. As if Ritsuka was his lord and master and Soubi didn’t even mind. As if there was no need for thinking, because as long as he followed Ritsuka’s every whim, he would be content.
“This again?” Ritsuka snapped, and then felt bad when Soubi’s face fell, his hands twining themselves together.
“But it’s true – you don’t like it,” Soubi said, his voice a little helpless. He shifted from foot to foot. “Ritsuka?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Ritsuka said. Hating how cold his words sounded. Hating Soubi for being so fucked up when he wanted him to be strong and take the weight for even just a day or two. And hating himself, pretty much all the time these days.
True to his word, Soubi quit smoking. He just seemed to . . . stop. As if one day he was a smoker, and the next he wasn’t.
Ritsuka relaxed for about five minutes, until he noticed that Soubi had started to paint more. It was as if one morning the house they shared was bare and blank – and the next, butterflies flapped on every surface and stared at him with their odd little eyes from every wall. Ritsuka didn’t feel better until he’d burned them all, Soubi watching him in some sort of quiet trance from the sofa. It hadn’t taken Ritsuka long to realise that Soubi only painted butterflies when things were really bad inside his head; he didn’t want those creepy things hanging around and giving them all nightmares.
The smell of the fire didn’t make him feel as bad he’d thought it might.
After, Ritsuka flopped down on the sofa and poked Soubi in the side. He felt alarmingly thin – bones held together with skin. “Okay?”
Soubi snapped out of whatever hell-hole he’d been trapped in. “I . . . really need a cigarette,” he murmured. Then smiled, almost wholeheartedly.
Ritsuka felt himself grin back. “Want something to eat?”
“I . . .”
“I’ll go get something,” Ritsuka said, determined not to allow Soubi to irritate him, at least today. Sometimes it was just easier to let Soubi relax into the submissive, permissive state that Ritsuka knew he longed for – the one that sometimes made Ritsuka feel as if he was sitting next to a shadow, rather than a real-life human being. He loved Soubi so hard it made him feel sick and weak and useless; and it made him mean and tetchy.
For fuck’s sake, he was only a teenager! How on earth was he meant to feel? What was he supposed to do?
Ritsuka shot up, lest he say something unkind that would only make things worse, and rummaged through the kitchen cupboards, his hand alighting on a bar of milk chocolate. That would do.
“Here, eat some of this,” Ritsuka said, storming back into the living room and sinking into the sofa next to Soubi. “It’ll help.”
Soubi eyed it, and then did as he was told.
Ritsuka relaxed again, for a while; anything was better than the butterflies.
Some weeks later, Ritsuka returned home earlier than usual from school, to find Soubi asleep. He was stretched out across the bed, his shirt open and his hair a mess.
Ritsuka couldn’t stop staring.
Soubi’s skin was so pale and beautiful, the scars fading into nothing. And . . . and he was less like a skeleton, Ritsuka told himself, as a way to give himself permission to stare. Still thin, but now Ritsuka could no longer count each rib.
Soubi cracked open an eyelid. “Want to join me?” he murmured.
Ritsuka felt himself flush; and then felt happiness fizz through him. It had been a while since Soubi had made an inappropriate comment. Somehow, the world felt better when Soubi was being Soubi, even if Ritsuka didn’t like it all the time. “You’ll catch cold,” he scolded, going to close the window. “Hungry?”
Soubi laughed. “No more chocolate, I beg you.”
Ritsuka blinked – and then rolled his eyes. “I didn’t mean you had to eat chocolate all the time, you know. It’s not an either/or – smoking or chocolate. Dummy.”
He didn’t want to look over at Soubi in case his face was puzzled or sad or any other variation on ‘you’re still no good at orders and it makes me feel bad’. But he did – and found that Soubi was smiling.
“So do you want anything or not?” Ritsuka asked, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“I want a cigarette,” Soubi said, his lips quirking. “And lots of fruit and vegetables. And a trip to the dentist.” He paused. “And a hug from my Ritsuka.”
Ritsuka felt his cheeks burn. “Okay,” he mumbled.
Soubi got up, stretching, and then bent down to wrap his arms around Ritsuka. For once, it didn’t feel as if he was squeezing Ritsuka to death.
After a while, though, Ritsuka felt too weird. He shoved at Soubi. “Off!”
Soubi smiled down at him. “Yes, Ritsuka.” Then he frowned, very slightly. “Would . . .”
“Would it be okay if I didn’t give up smoking, after all?” Soubi asked, in a tiny, controlled voice. “Would you mind?”
Ritsuka blinked. “What do you want to do?” he decided on saying, his heart beating curiously fast.
Soubi took a deep breath. He screwed up his face and said, in a rush, “I-want-to-smoke-even-though-you-don’t-like-it.” Then his face relaxed and he blinked, as if surprised by the words that had come out of his mouth.
Surprised? Ritsuka felt that he’d fall over if there was a gust of wind; lucky thing he’d shut the window. Soubi? Making a decision on his own? A decision that was bound to piss Ritsuka off?
“You’re not ever kissing me again,” Ritsuka warned – the first thing that came into his head. “I hate the smell.”
Soubi grinned, widely this time. “I didn’t realise that was an option.”
And, once more, Ritsuka felt the familiar heat of embarrassment pass through him. “Dummy,” he said.
“Yes, Ritsuka,” Soubi said.
“Idiot,” Ritsuka added.
“Yes, Ritsuka,” Soubi said.
“Huh,” Ritsuka said, unable to think of anything witty to add.
“Yes, Ritsuka,” Soubi said. He opened the window and went over to the chest of drawers, opening a drawer and retrieving cigarettes and lighter. “I’ll just have to eat chocolate,” he said, lighting up.
“Ew, don’t smoke in the bedroom,” Ritsuka complained.
“Before I kiss you,” Soubi added. “To take away the taste.”
And he took a deliberate drag, before advancing on Ritsuka.
“Idiot,” Ritsuka said. And then fled, before Soubi could carry out his promise.
He’d forgotten just how annoying Soubi being Soubi could be; but it was okay, he guessed.
He’d just have to make sure that chocolate never entered their house again.
Chapter 3: Rose Cream
It takes Soubi longer than he wants to pluck up the courage to ask Ritsuka why he always takes his mother roses when he visits her in the clinical, safe, white place where she is, basically, incarcerated.
He wonders if Ritsuka blames him, even hates him, and that holds him back. It was Soubi himself, after all, who called the authorities when Misaki finally snapped, after Ritsuka told her that Seimei had been alive and was now finally, truly, actually dead. After she’d tried to . . . Well. Soubi doesn’t know what she was planning with that knife, but it still makes him sweat when he thinks about it.
He thinks that perhaps Ritsuka can’t see that he was acting for the best, though; he thinks that all Ritsuka can understand is that his mother is locked away, and it was Soubi who made it happen.
Every week though, Ritsuka brushes his hair, stops by the local florist to purchase a bunch of red roses, and then makes his way to the ward where Misaki now lives. His last step, before he enters the squat hospital building, is to carefully compose his features into a smile. That’s the worst part.
Soubi thinks he shouldn’t know these things about Ritsuka; doesn’t know if Ritsuka knows that he knows. But he follows him, each week, just in case. In case Ritsuka needs him. And it stops him falling apart, if he’s honest with himself.
He knows that Misaki can’t hurt Ritsuka now – not where she is, surrounded by nurses and staff. But he still worries, so much it makes his stomach hurt.
But the roses . . .
He knows that Ritsuka doesn’t like roses. It was just a throwaway comment – but Soubi has learned to take throwaway comments from Ritsuka and treasure them, and press them like fresh flowers in the book of his heart.
The ‘real’ Ritsuka loved roses – even planted a rose bush in the yard and cut handfuls of the resulting flowers for his mother.
Soubi doesn’t know if Ritsuka’s newfound dislike of the flowers is a small rebellion against the self he can no longer remember, or if it’s something more innocent. Perhaps he just doesn’t like the smell. But it somehow makes Ritsuka’s visits to his mother, bearing the flowers, more worrying.
The knot in Soubi’s stomach tightens and tightens.
One day, it snaps. “You don’t like roses,” he says out loud. “You don’t like roses.”
Ritsuka looks at him as if he’s crazy. He guesses that he is crazy. Ritsuka opens his mouth as if to speak – probably to call Soubi an idiot – and then closes it again.
They sit there in silence for a while, the only sound the rustling of the trees that filters in through the open window.
“My mother likes roses,” Ritsuka finally mumbles. “At least . . . she likes that I like roses.”
“Oh,” Soubi says, and realises. Ritsuka’s still pretending; still play-acting the role of his old, forgotten self. Still not right to his mother. Will never be right.
“I think they smell revolting,” Soubi offers. It’s kind of a lie – he doesn’t mind them – but he’s pleased when Ritsuka’s lips quirk.
“The pollen tickles my nose,” Ritsuka pronounces after a time. He puts his chin up, as if he’s brave and self-confident and doesn’t mind – honest – that his mother is the way she is.
Soubi thinks he is brave and self-confident, and it makes him feel curiously breathless.
“You don’t have to follow me to the hospital,” Ritsuka says, staring fixedly out of the window.
“Oh,” Soubi says.
Ritsuka turns. “You could walk with me,” he says accusingly. “I wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh,” Soubi says.
“If you want to,” Ritsuka says, chin still high.
It’s impossible to resist sweeping Ritsuka into his arms and kissing and kissing and kissing the top of his sacrifice’s head, even though Ritsuka wriggles and bats at him ineffectually.
“Get off me,” Ritsuka splutters.
Soubi thinks he doesn’t really mean it. And when Ritsuka relaxes, and his head falls on Soubi’s shoulder, he knows it.
“You could take your mother—”
“Roses,” Ritsuka interrupts. “She wants roses. Don’t fuss, Soubi.”
He’s too brave for his own good, Soubi thinks.
He takes Ritsuka to the hospital the next week and says nothing when Ritsuka buys his flowers. But he dashes back to the florist’s whilst Ritsuka is busy and buys sufficient of those flowers that Ritsuka does like to fill their house, before running back to the hospital. He’s still out of breath when Ritsuka leaves, but his sacrifice doesn’t comment.
When the two of them get back, the place smells like a hothouse, and Soubi thinks he might have overdone it, just a bit.
But instead of going to bed and pulling the covers over his head – his usual routine after visiting his mother – Ritsuka rolls his eyes. And tells Soubi off. And starts to laugh, so hard that Soubi can’t help but join in.
“You’re insane,” Ritsuka gasps through his laughs.
Soubi agrees; and he hopes that Ritsuka wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chapter 4: Champagne Truffle
It was a small moment. Such a small moment. But for Soubi, it was everything
It was New Year’s Eve. He shouldn’t have let Ritsuka drink so much, but now Ritsuka’s older he’s harder to guide. He gets this . . . this look about him, kind of like a naughty child who knows he’s going to get his own way.
It’s this, really, that always makes Soubi back off. Ritsuka never had a childhood, not really, so this evidence of a childish, carefree side to his far too grown-up sacrifice is always, always too much to resist. And, if he’s honest with himself, Soubi knows that he’ll always want to let Ritsuka have his own way – he loves him so much it almost hurts. It’s a cliché, but Soubi doesn’t know how else to describe how Ritsuka makes him feel. He’s always loved him – was ordered to love him, had no choice – but now it’s different. Like there’s a squirming creature that lives in his gut and won’t settle; sometimes when he thinks about Ritsuka he can’t breathe, and it’s happiness rather than fear that makes his breath catch.
Though sometimes he wakes up crying because he thinks it’s all been a dream – a nightmare – of happiness he knows he doesn’t deserve.
So when Ritsuka had asked Kio to buy in a case of champagne to celebrate the New Year with them, he’d just rolled his eyes and prepared himself to bite his tongue rather than say ‘I told you so’ when Ritsuka woke up with an inevitable hangover the next day.
The evening had been working its way to the inevitable conclusion – a miserable teenager getting acquainted with the toilet bowl – when it had happened.
It was dumb. It was so insignificant that when Ritsuka woke up the next morning, he barely remembered it – just flushed and then went green. But Soubi knew.
The clock had chimed midnight, and Ritsuka – without a flush, without hesitation – had turned to Soubi and smiled at him, his expression so warm and . . . and . . .
Kio had – of course – grinned and splashed champagne over them both, ‘apparently’ by accident, making Ritsuka laugh and splutter, and the moment passed.
But it would stay with Soubi forever – the moment when he’d first had hope, rather than a kind of desperate, painful longing – that one day Ritsuka would love him in the same way he loved Ritsuka.
Whole-heartedly. Passionately. And for the rest of his life, no matter what.
Chapter 5: Orange Cream
“What the hell is this? Soubi! Why are you giving me a box of chocolates?”
There was something about getting presents from Soubi that made Ritsuka feel like an idiot. He wondered if Soubi did it on purpose – his spontaneous gifts got more and more hideous as time went on. At least, not exactly hideous, but surely it wasn’t coincidence that the more Ritsuka blushed at Soubi’s presents, the more Soubi seemed to go out of his way to give presents that made Ritsuka blush.
Ritsuka liked chocolates. But he most certainly did not like pink.
The box sat, in all its pink hideous glory, in his hands. And it was heart-shaped, if the indignity of the pinkness wasn’t enough. There was even a ribbon, in an even more lurid shade of fuchsia (how was that even possible?)
“It's Valentine's Day. Aren't I supposed to give chocolates to the one I love?” Soubi said, reasonably.
Hah! As if that was a reasonable thing to say to him! Only girls gave valentine’s chocolates. Soubi was certainly not a girl. And as if Ritsuka wasn’t aware of that fact, Soubi leaned in closer, pressing his – ah – pressing himself hard against Ritsuka’s hip.
It seemed as if everything Soubi did lately was designed to get an – ah – to get a rise out of Ritsuka.
The one I love. For fuck’s sake! How could he say things like that so easily? As if that wasn’t the most embarrassing thing in the history of the world ever? How was he supposed to respond to that?
Ritsuka closed his eyes briefly and thought hard about cold things.
“Girls give chocolates on Valentine's Day, you idiot,” he said eventually. “And you are definitely not a girl.”
“Neither are you,” Soubi replied.
That doesn’t make any sense, Ritsuka said. At least, he thought it, and he opened his mouth to say it, when Soubi – the utter bastard – started nibbling on one of his cat ears. The words refused to come out. He closed his mouth with a snap, in case the embarrassing Guh that was on the tip of his tongue fell out instead.
Ritsuka was aware that for some months he’d been teetering on a precipice. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact moment when he’d become . . . aware of Soubi in a, er, different way to usual. Soubi had always been a pervert, and Ritsuka had never taken him seriously. People had screwed Soubi up in unforgivable ways, and Ritsuka had made a vow a long time ago that he would never ever do the same. He wouldn’t take advantage. No way.
Not that it had crossed his mind for a remarkably long time that he and Soubi could be more than . . . could be . . . Ritsuka realised he was sagging against Soubi and straightened up with a jolt.
When he came to think of it, he supposed it was the idea – that had been nudging at him with increasing force for the past months – that there was nothing tying Soubi to him. They weren’t family. They had no financial ties. They were just . . .
Ugh, Ritsuka didn’t even know. He just knew – and couldn’t even really explain why – that somewhere along the line, after everything was over and there was no real reason why the two of them should stay together any longer, Soubi had shifted from a burden to a necessity.
“Are you sure you don't want to eat at least one?” Soubi said. His breath tickled.
Ritsuka rescued the now-crushed box from between them. “Only if you'll share,” he said, partly to distract himself from the sheer horror of pink on pink on pink. He tugged off the ribbon and opened the box. And laughed. “I see you’ve already begun,” he said, turning to poke an accusing finger in Soubi’s ribs.
“You wound me,” Soubi said, sounding more than a little self-satisfied.
Ritsuka checked out the little map in the inside of the lid and then compared it to the empty holes. “You ate all the orange creams.”
“You don’t like them,” Soubi said sanctimoniously. “I was saving you from yourself.”
Ritsuka beat him over the head with the lid from the chocolates.
Later, stuffed with chocolates, Ritsuka looked over at Soubi, who was licking his fingers with all the fastidiousness of a cat. He stifled a grin.
“What?” Soubi said without looking up, a smile fluttering on his lips.
Ritsuka looked at Soubi, who was wearing the pink ribbon from the chocolates in his hair, a streak of chocolate on his cheek, and felt very peculiar in his stomach. And knew it was nothing to do with the chocolates at all.
Chapter 6: White Chocolate
“Here,” Ritsuka said, shoving the small box at Soubi.
He’d thought long and hard – and panicked long and hard – about whether to do this or not. But it was traditional that if you got a present on Valentine’s day, you gave one back on White Day. Preferably one epically more expensive. At least, the present that Ritsuka had bought Soubi had felt epically expensive. And after he’d bought it, it seemed invested in a meaning he wasn’t sure if he intended or not.
Soubi blinked at the box and turned it over in his hands as if it would bite him.
“It’s a present. For you,” Ritsuka said. His neck hurt and he tried to relax. “Open it then.”
Soubi pushed his hair back from his face and untied the ribbon.
It was a white box. And a white ribbon. Ritsuka had been thankful at least for that; the shame of buying something pink and girly would have killed him, he was sure. As it was, the shop girl had thought him deeply bizarre, and the whole thing had been deeply, deeply embarrassing. “You want . . . what?” she’d said, and then had remembered that she was supposed to be polite.
He supposed it wasn’t exactly a romantic gift.
It was, if you thought about it another way, the weirdest present in the history of weird.
Soubi lifted the lid and looked in, sliding out the jewellery box within. He paused, as if he was nervous. What the hell did he have to be nervous about? Ritsuka thought crossly.
Ritsuka began to feel ever so slightly sick.
Soubi opened up the box and wet his lips. There was a pause that seemed to go on forever. Then he swayed, very slightly, and Ritsuka, alarmed, grabbed his arm.
“Will you . . .” Soubi said, in a voice that didn’t sound quite like him.
For a heart-stopping moment Ritsuka wondered if Soubi was asking him to take the present back, but then Soubi held his hair away from his neck.
“Oh,” Ritsuka said and took the necklace out of the box, feeling all thumbs, and managed – after a few false starts – to get it round Soubi’s neck and do up the clasp.
There was another silence.
Ritsuka wondered, slightly gloomily, if he’d done the wrong thing. The bleeding scar around Soubi’s neck had long since healed, but the letters – the brand – would always be there. He doubted they would ever fade. He supposed that a necklace with the word ‘Loveless’ could be thought to be tasteless – a constant reminder to Soubi of things he’d rather forget.
He hadn’t meant it like that. It was . . .
Ugh. He didn’t even know. And – a painful squeeze of his heart – was Soubi crying?
“I can take it ba—” he started. (A lie: he’d had it made specially. Who else would want a piece of platinum jewellery with such an ugly word on it?)
“Ritsuka,” Soubi said at the same time, turning. “Thank you.”
And before he could react, Ritsuka found himself in a tangle of Soubi – arms positioned awkwardly, and Soubi’s hair in his face.
Brushing Soubi’s hair away turned out to basically be stroking Soubi’s face. Even when he was out running, Ritsuka’s heart had never beat this fast before.
“Don’t cry,” Ritsuka managed, brushing the moisture on Soubi’s cheeks away with his fingertips.
Soubi smiled, very softly, and Ritsuka realised that Soubi wasn’t much taller than him any more.
“I love you,” Ritsuka muttered. “Did I screw up?”
It was kind of odd; he didn’t remember ever saying those words in the daylight. He knew he had said them before – at least, he had a fuzzy memory of nights when he was drunk with sleep, or just plain drunk, when they’d forced themselves out. Sometimes when he’d said them it had felt like punishment, though whether he was punishing Soubi or himself he’d never wanted to think too hard about.
Now, though, they didn’t seem too bad. Kind of mortifying to say – knowing that every time he looked at Soubi from now on he’d know that he’d said those words, and Soubi would know that he’d said them and—
“You’re perfect,” Soubi said, so quietly that Ritsuka thought he’d misheard at first.
He blinked. Soubi was being weird; he thought he’d never understand him, even if he lived for a hundred million years. There was . . . something. He was liked a coiled spring, waiting for something. Ritsuka felt more like an idiot than he had in a long time. “I’m not,” he said.
Soubi looked at him as if he was speaking a different language, and then shifted one of his hands, which was resting lightly on Ritsuka’s back. It was . . . Soubi was stroking him. In soft, gentle movements, he was turning Ritsuka’s spine to jelly. Did he know what he was doing? One glance at his face, and . . .
Soubi was looking the most nervous he’d ever looked. He was almost gnawing on his lip.
Ritsuka forced himself to ask, once more: “Did I screw up? Do you not like the present?”
Soubi gazed at him, almost guiltily. “Wearing your name is . . . second on the list of the things I want most.”
Ritsuka felt a great stillness come over him. “And first is?”
Soubi just looked at him helplessly.
Ritsuka knew; of course he knew. He’d always known, on some level. But he hadn’t wanted to speak about it, even think about it, until he was sure. Certain. He’d never thought he could be certain enough. It wasn’t something he could take back once he’d offered it: that would have made him worse than Seimei.
Soubi wanted Ritsuka to love him.
Oh God. Ritsuka leaned up and kissed Soubi. And felt such turmoil and love and sheer want for him that his knees almost buckled.
And he didn’t even mind so much when they had to pause just a few minutes later because Soubi was crying so hard with happiness he could barely stand up.
Ritsuka thought that if he never had a happier moment than this it would be okay; there was only so much joy one human being could take.
Chapter 7: Dark Chocolate
Soubi woke in the small hours as a matter of habit, and tonight was no different. Except . . . everything was different. He was used to watching Ritsuka sleep – at least, as much of Ritsuka was visible under a heap of covers. But tonight, instead of sleeping a world away in the bed the other side of the room, Ritsuka was in Soubi’s bed.
Ritsuka still had his ears; would still have his ears for a while yet, if Soubi had any say in the matter. He’d waited long enough – a little longer, just to make absolutely certain that Ritsuka was absolutely certain, wouldn’t hurt.
But Soubi knew that if a good fairy had appeared to him that night and offered him the choice of living his life again a different way, without all the hell and pain and fear, there was no way he’d accept. Ritsuka was worth it all – worth everything.
“Are you watching me sleep again?” Ritsuka said, muffled and accusingly from under his heap of blankets.
“Yes, Ritsuka,” Soubi confessed willingly.
“Stop it,” Ritsuka said. And tugged at Soubi until they were practically cheek to cheek, legs entwined.
Ritsuka fell asleep almost immediately; Soubi wouldn’t have gone to sleep if someone had paid him. Ritsuka wasn't perfect - and Soubi was wise enough and old enough and sane enough to know that, and to cherish it with all his heart. Tonight he would keep vigil over the most important person in the world – and in this small act of disobedience to his master's words, he'd prove to both himself and Ritsuka that he could be worthy of the gift he'd longed for for so long.
He'd never thought that he could ever be normal; but perhaps, after all, he could be normal enough for his Ritsuka. Just perhaps.