It was snowing, light snow, the kind that muted sound and light, softening the edged of the world. Cars drove slowly by, headlights on, and the remaining day light was dimmer and slightly yellowish, softly hazy. Snowflakes fell in fat, lazy clumps and caught on Miya's hair and scarf and made Kazuya think about stars and the night and how beautiful Miya was, and how he never understood how girls could dress like that, in just their school uniform skirt and socks in the middle of winter, without freezing to death. His feet were cold and wet, slush on the pavements soaking through his school shoes and the wall they were perched on was cold, but he felt oddly private, like the snow was sheltering the two of them.
He leaned against Miya and resolutely ignored the cheers from across the road where his dorm-mates cheerfully shouted out encouragement. "You can't take her somewhere nicer than here?"
"Shut up! They're being romantic!"
"That's his idea of romance? Miya, you can do better!"
"Suka-chan! You should set a better example for your kouhai!"
"Hope for us all!"
Miya rolled her eyes at them and kicked her heels against the wall. "We're going skiing again," she said "For New Year's. I wanted to ask if you could come, but mum's still a little..." She made a face. ; "I didn't want to push her."
"I'd probably just break my leg," Kazuya said. "Both of them." He wriggled his toes to try to keep them warm.
"Hmm." She didn't deny it, then looked at him sideways under her lashes. "You didn't tell me to be careful, you know. Not to break my arm again."
Kazuya blinked. "It's not like you did it by choice the first time. I mean, I hope you don't, but me telling you not to isn't going to make it not happen, if it happens again."
"I know," Miya said, smiling at him. "I love you." She laughed, like she'd surprised herself and pushed herself off the wall. "I didn't mean to say it like that, but. Well." She turned slightly, looking away. Her hair was shorter now, but she still stood like she'd be comfortable with a bike chain wrapped around one fist. Instead, she grabbed for his hand.
"I love you too," Kazuya said, and ignored the way his face felt hot with embarrassment and slid off the wall, still holding on to hand.
There was a loud whooping call from behind them and someone yelled out, "Go for it, Suka-chan!" but it was a lot easier to ignore them when he kissed Miya.
His feet were soaked through when he went back inside, but his heart was warm and that meant something, even if just thinking of it like that made his face go red.
"Ah, young love," Shun said when he got back to the room, putting on a deep, rich tone. He was plaiting his hair in a distracted way, study guide open in front of him. "The springtime of your youth."
"Cut your hair," Kazuya said. "Or stop talking like that, one or the other."
Shun made a rude gesture and then put on his normal voice for strangers, lighter and polite. "I do apologise, honoured dorm-head. Please, accept these token gifts as proof of my sincerity and come here and help me practise my French. Je suis desolée, monsieur, mais la chambre n'est pas... clean?" He frowned at the paper in front of him and swore.
"That's not going to impress your guests," Kazuya said.
"I know! I told my mother I'd be ready for the New Year's guests, and it's the first time we've had such a big name foreign tour company book with us and-- why don't they speak English in France anyway? They're right next door, and I'm much better at English!"
Kazuya patted him on the shoulder sympathetically. "No, you're not. Your English sucks almost as badly as your Korean. Sometimes, I'm impressed that you can even speak Japanese"
Shun looked up at him, soft and wistful. "Do you remember when you first came here? And you were anxious and worried all the time, and gullible and easily bullied? I miss those days." He looked down at his paper. "I don't think I like this mature, confident you, it's just not natural. If Mitsuru and Shinobu were still here, you wouldn't be like this." he finished plaiting his hair and started unravelling it. "Are you taking Mitsuru up on his offer?"
Kazuya shrugged. "I don't know. I think I should spend it with my brother. But it would be..." He hesitated, because 'nice' was the wrong word, and 'torture' was accurate, but didn't explain why he was actually considering it. He settled on, "it would be something I could do over the holiday. But I should spend it with my family." He should, and he could. He could picture that now, Christmas cake and New Year's day with his brother and Sumire and Midori, and only feeling a little pang when he thought about it.
Shun nodded and frowned back at the paper. "It's a good time to be with family," he said, then leaned back on his hands. "if you were any better than me at languages, I'd make you come back with me to help out."
"I'd refuse," Kazuya said. "Just so you know."
Shun shot him a baleful glare. "Our friendship means nothing."
The infirmary was decorated with tinsel and pictures of Midori. He wasn't a particularly photogenic baby, in Kazuya's opinion. Cute, sure, and loveable, but in almost every picture his brother had put up, Midori looked upset or snotty or possibly malformed.
Kazuya looked a picture of a red-faced, bawling Midori. "He wasn't that bad the last time I was home. You don't have any better pictures?"
"My son is adorable," Kazuhiro said in face of the evidence. "But I don't want to encourage the students to get one of their own. Boys your age, with your first girlfriend, getting a little too romantic..." he smiled at Kazuya and raised an eyebrow. "You'll catch a cold, sitting out in the snow like that," Hiror said with disturbing cheer. He tossed a clementine at Kazuya. "Here, vitamin C. What are Miya's plans for the holiday?"
"She's going skiing with her family." Kazuya started to peel the clementine and offered a piece to Hiro.
"Ah. Sumire wants us to spend New Year's eve with her family, at her grandparents'. It'll be the first time they see their new great-grandson, and she's asked if you want to come."
"I don't want to go," Kazuya said, then felt his eyes widen because he hadn't meant to say that, didn't even realise he had. The words had come out before he'd had time to even think about what Kazuhiro had said. "It's not you," he said, feeling the words come out too fast, his brain trying to catch up with his mouth. "It's not you or her or-- I don't hate being around you or anything." He hesitated, then added, "I mean, not like I used to. You're much less annoying now, maybe you're too tired from being a dad, or you're just getting older or I'm immune from living in Greenwood, but-- And it's not her, I really don't-- Miya, I don't--" and then he had to stop, because mentioning Miya did that to him, distracted him from everything else and made him feel like he was running towards a goal, like there was her at the finishing line and he didn't even need to think about what to do or how to do it.
Kazuhiro coughed loudly and Kazuya realised he'd stopped talking. Kazuhiro was smiling, just a little, and he reached out and ruffled Kazuya's hair before he could stop him. "Not me, not her, just...?"
"It's just... family," Kazuya said. It was almost a surprise to have an answer, but there it was. "They're very nice," he said, and they had been, when he met them at the wedding, at Midori's first birthday, but they weren't-- they were Sumire's parents and her cousins and it made him miss his own, the vague memories he had of his parents. Made him miss, as well, the New Year's holidays when it was just the two of them, and their own traditions that might have looked lonely from the outside, but were theirs. "But they're not..."
"Got it," Hiro said. He pulled Kazuya in for a hug, fast and suffocating and just enough of a joke for Kazuya not to fight it. "Sumire might say something else, but I don't think I'm ready to give up my only little brother to them either. Do you know what you want to do instead? The dorms will be closed for a week"
"Mitsuru invited me to his," Kazuya said, breaking free. "They need extra help. His dad's in China for something."
"He misses his kouhai," Hiro said. "Or maybe just misses having someone to bully." He sighed deeply, dramatically. "I know the feeling."
"You think they won't have found new people to terrorise?" Kazuya laughed, trying to put two years of bitter experience into it.
"But they won't be you," Kazuhiro said. "Everyone knows there's no-one as fun to tease as you."
There were times when Kazuya wondered just how Greenwood had scarred him. In his experience, the only ones that left Greenwood in one piece, with their mind and body intact, were the people that were twisted or broken to begin with. People like Shun or Furusawa were protected by a coating of oddness that meant the weirdness slid right off them. People like him, who were normal and sane and sensible, the kind of person that wanted a quiet, sincere life, they were the ones that Greenwood warped.
There were times when he wondered and times when he knew. Greenwood had left him tough enough to survive almost anything, but too stubborn to avoid things and with a worrying tendency to find himself drawn into twisted situations or around twisted people. It was why, even though he knew better, he still ended up spending New Year's with Mitsuru's family instead of Sumire's, why he was more comfortable being bullied by people he knew then being treated kindly by people he didn't.
He sent Miya a New Year's card wishing her good luck on the slopes and asking her forgiveness if he didn't return alive. He sent one to Shun that was almost the same, but without the hearts and with a note about vengence and haunting.
Which was fine and sensible, but he still felt oddly cheerful when he waited outside the school gates for Mitsuru to pick him up. A car pulled to a stop outside and the side door opened, a familiar voice calling, "Hurry up and get in! You're letting in the cold."
Kazuya picked up his suitcase and threw it in the back, getting in and then blinked. He'd expected Mitsuru and his mother, maybe, but it was Shinobu in the driver's seat.
"You're driving?" he said. "You can drive?"
"I could let Mitsuru do it," Shinobu said. Mitsuru opened his mouth but Shinobu added, "I wouldn't, ever. But I could, theoretically."
He looked at Kazuya and Kazuya recognised a threat, even when Shinobu was being deliberately oblique. "I didn't know you were coming," he said, feeling outnumbered.
"We didn't want you running off," Mitsuru said, leaning around in the seat to talk to him. His hair was longer, more in his face than it was the last time he saw him.
Kazuya shrugged. "You think it's a surprise to see you two together?"
He caught Shinobu's expression in the mirror. It wasn't exactly displeased. "I suppose not," Shinobu said. "We should have invited Shun, too."
"Too busy with his family," Mitsuru said. "You know that." He sighed. "We've been cast aside, Shinobu."
"But not our dear Suka-chan," Shinobu said without taking his eyes off the road. "He chose us over a romantic Christimas with his girlfriend. Doesn't that make you feel special?"
"Eh, I'd have preferred Shun," Mitsuru said.
"I'm only here because Miya's in Nagano," Kazuya said. "What about you?"
"Mitsuru's taking me home to meet the family," Shinobu said.
"It's my sacred family duty," Mitsuru said. "Compassion for those in need."
And it was so casual that if Kazuya hadn't lived with him for two years, he might not have seen how deliberately, carefully casual it was.
"A good Buddhist upbringing," Shinobu said. "Aren't we lucky he's embracing it?"
They arrived at the temple and Mitsuru's mother promptly greeted them, hugging Mitsuru -which made Kazuya feel a mix of envy and glee at his embarrassed attitude- and then Shinobu -which made Kazuya think twice about her relative sanity- and then he made sure he was holding his suitcase so she couldn't do the same to him.
"Your brother's here already, he's put himself under the kotatsu in the living room" She pushed them inside. "You boys have six months worth of chores to make up for, but I think we can leave that for tomorrow. And Kazuya! Mitsuru told me you're seeing Miya! She's such a nice girl," she said before Kazuya could nod or agree or explain. "A little rough around the edges, but very herself, you know?"
"She is!" Kazuya said. "She's very herself, and she's more herself every time I see her." He knew his mouth was stretching out into a ridiculous grin, but he didn't try to stop it. "And I'm pretty sure her mother dislikes me less!"
"Oh, I'm sure she'll resign herself," Mrs Ikeda said cheerfully. "Me, I never knew why she liked that Tenma boy so much. There's something creepy about someone who's always perfect, you know? Without even trying not to be. I never had to worry about that with my sons." She sounded perversely proud of this, but she straightened away from the counter she'd been polishing and looked at him. "Perfection means nothing if it doesn't come from hard work and the heart."
Kazuya blinked and looked away, because yes, heart and hard work, that was Miya who didn't want things to be easy. She wanted what she had to matter, to mean something about her. "I-- thank you." He started to bow, caught himself midway, and turned it into an awkward duck.
"And you're much cuter," Mrs Ikeda went on, steering him into the living room. "Which is good. Everyone should have a pretty boyfriend in high school, just like mine. You can ask me, you know, if you want any advice." She pushed him through the doorway where he'd found himself frozen. "Get yourself warm, there's some hot chocolate on the table. It's an old family recipe."
Kazuya blinked and fond himself in the living room. Shinobu was already firmly embedded under the kotatsu, hands around a cup and quilt tucked high around his shoulders.
"There's one already poured for you," he said. Kazuya had a moment to wonder how he'd managed to settle in so quickly, thoroughly at home in the time it had taken Kazuya to take off his coat, put down his suitcase and be embarrassed -or maybe shocked or traumatised- by Mitsuru's mother. He sat down and scooted under the kotatsu, bumping his knees against the underside as he tried to find the most comfortable position with maximum warmth.
The hot chocolate looked richer than Kazuya was used to, thick and dark and a little alcoholic, judging by the smell, not like the stuff he'd had as a kid. He took another cautious sniff and debated if he should refuse and try to stay sharp, or give in. Maybe it would just be easier if he was drunk. Maybe the inevitable suffering and trauma would be cushioned by alcohol, if he couldn't avoid it.
He started into the cup, took a long sip and burnt his tongue.
Shinobu and Mitsuru looked at him with expressions of mild curiosity when he slammed his cup down on the table. "It's hot! My tongue's gone furry!"
Shinobu looked at him, then took a sip from his own cup. "Mmm, so it is."
"You should have warned me!"
"Hot. Chocolate." Shinobu said the words slowly, like teaching a four year old letters. He took another large sip, then licked his lips. "Perfect."
"You're not human," Kazuya said.
"You're not original. I've heard that three times already today and two of those were from you."
Kazuya was about to answer back -something sharp and loud and original, he was sure of it- but they were distracted by the bustling sound of the Ikeda brothers coming back.
The Ikeda brothers, Kazyua thought, and the words didn't sound any more right in his head, didn't match the two people he was pushing and arguing as they settled down under the kotatsu. There was a jostling of position-- someone managed to step on his toes, even though he was sitting cross-legged, and there seemed to be something happening between Mitsuru and Shinobu which ended when Mitsuru said, "Your legs are too long!" and Shinobu said, "And your feet are too cold, like always."
Which made Kazuya fight the urge to blush, even though he knew it was-- well, he thought it was-- well, it was probably just the sort of thing Shinobu and Mitsuru said to make him flustered and put thoughts in his head that he really, really didn't want in there.
"Argh, don't!" Sho said, slapping his hands over his ears. "I don't want to know!"
And then Mitsuru broke off from his undercover fight with Shinobu and looked at Sho and if Kazuya hadn't been watching, he would have missed the slightest moment of embarrasment and sibling guilt, before a more familiar brotherly expression took over and he said, "Sho, there's something I-- we wanted to ask you."
"I want you to think of me as a brother," Shinobu said, leaning over to grab Sho's hands. He looked at him with deepest sincerity. "Please, do not reject my relationship with Mitsuru.'
Kazuya groaned loudly and said, "You know, I really haven't missed you at all. None of you. I don't even know why I'm here."
"Masochism," Sho suggested, pulling his hands free. And he was only two weeks younger than Mitsuru, but he seemed more like an ally, someone who understood how diabolical his brother was. He grew up with him, he had to know.
"Deep respect and admiration for your beloved sempai?" Mitsuru suggested.
"Inability to learn from your mistakes."
The hot chocolate was pretty nice when it had cooled down, and there definitely was alcohol in it. It was kind of odd, drinking something for kids like hot chocolate, and something for adults like alcohol, all together. It was probably appropriate for him on average -- too childish and too grown-up mixed together and divided by two-- but the alcohol really didn't seem to have any effect on Kazuya, not as far as he could tell. Not compared to the others, at least. It was fun, watching Shinobu go slower, lazier -reptilian, Kazuya thought, like a snake in winter- and Mitsuru go louder, and then sleepy, until he'd fallen asleep with half his body still tucked under the kotatsu and snoring slightly.
"Finally!" Sho said, looking down at Mitsuru's sleeping face with gleeful pleasure. "He always does this. i don't know if it's the booze or the milk, but..." he rubbed his hands together and then seemed to remember he wasn't alone. He looked up anxiously. "Uh, not that I'm planning on doing anything bad, you know, nothing that would really hurt him, or humiliate him too much."
Shinobu waved a lazy hand. "Go on, we won't stop you. Serves him right for falling asleep in front of his guests."
"Right," Sho said. "Do you have a permanent marker? Oh, maybe I could still some of mum's hairdye!"
He hummed cheerfully as he got to work, bent over Mitsuru to write something across his forehead. Sho was pushy and loud and really, Kazuya thought, he was as close to Mitsuru as you could get while still being a normal human being. Physiologically. Genetically. He couldn't do the face thing and he wasn't handsome like Mitsuru was, but he had the same expression, the one that made Kazuya nervous just remembering it. It was easy to think of Mitsuru as someone unique, because there really shouldn't be more than one of him in the world, but maybe that was wrong, maybe it was something he'd caught from being in the Ikeda family.
"I don't know why it's a surprise. He had to get it from somewhere."
Shinobu raised an eyebrow and Kazuya realised he'd said that outloud. "It?"
"His, you know. Mitsuruness." He lowered his voice, not wanting to disturb the others. "I thought he might get it from his-- his biological parents, but they're all like that! They just hide it better. I thought they'd be normal."
"I think they'd be happy to hear that," Shinobu said. He smiled slightly. "Which, yes, does make them a lot like him."
It was, Kazuya thought as they watched Sho write "Ikeda-family forever!" on Mitsuru's cheek, quite pleasant to be on the side of the fence.
He woke up suddenly, utterly disorientated, and opened his eyes. Sho was asleep, mouth open and snoring slightly and Kazuya stared at his face, trying to pull his thoughts together. He was still in the living room. He should get up, find the futon, maybe wake up Sho too, because sleeping on a tatami mat was always more comfortable in theory than practice. He couldn't quite remember how to do any of that just yet and his thoughts drifted like he was still dreaming.
It took a moment for him to register that he could hear voices and then a moment more to recognise them. He could hear sentences and words and they didn't quite make sense, even though Kazuya knew they would if he tried, if he made himself wake up more. It was like listening to a foreign language, sounds and rythm of speech, and he couldn't quite translate it to words.
Shinobu was saying softly, quietly. "Mitsuru, your family are nothing if not sincere."
"You could be with yours," Mitsuru said back. "I'm sure they're disappointed, not to have you around."
"Mmm, Nagisa does hate a moving target."
He probably shouldn't listen in anyway. He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
The next morning was spent scrubbing walls and polishing tables and laughing, loudly, as Mitsuru tried to wash his face off, settling for smudging it slightly, so his whole face was tinged slightly blue.
There was something about cleaning up together-- something not exactly comforting, but a familiar combination of everyone-pulling-together and wanting-to-punch-the-two-of-them, because it was so like having to clean the dorms, right down to Shinobu and Mitsuru's statements that their advice and guidance was just a great a contribution as Kazuya's hard work and elbow-grease (a statement Mitsuru's mother did not agree with).
He caught himself looking at them, expecting them to be-- he wasn't sure. The same, maybe, exactly the same or totally different. They weren't. Mitsuru's hair was longer and Shinobu looked a little bigger -he'd taken up rowing, he said, which sort of explained Mitsuru's sweatshirt- and they didn't sound exactly the same, had new slang and talked about people and classes and things Kazuya knew nothing about, but they were still them.
He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He was the same, after all, but then he hadn't gone off to university. Nothing had even really happened yet, none of the dire predictions Shun had cheerfully made had come true, which meant all that stuff was still going to happen. It wasn't a pleasant thought, exactly, but it wasn't as terrifying as it should have been. It hadn't been boring since they left, couldn't be, living in Greenwood, but it wasn't the same.
Kazuya got to work polishing a heavily decorated and probably entirely useless table, while Shinobu polished something that looked vaguely like a jug, but not exactly. He could hear Mitsuru and Sho working outside, unless they were fighting or playing. It sounded much the same, until their mother went out and yelled at them.
"He was more awkward last time," Kazuya said, blurting it out. "He was more..." he gestured with his cloth. "About being..." he trailed of and went back to dusting, focussing on the lacquered surface in front of him.
"Adopted?" Shinobu said from right behind him. Kazuya jumped, knocking his knees against the table and spilling backwards so he almost tipped Shinobu off balance. he hadn't even heard him move.
"How did you move so fast! You're not human!" he said, rubbing his knee.
Shinobu raised one eyebrow in a perfect arch. "I see you've grown slow without us. We'll have to see how we can correct that."
"He's not," Shinobu said.
It took Kazuya a moment to follow that, to match it to what he'd said before. "He seems like he's more... like he knows it more."
"You hit someone with something often enough, sooner or later they get the message," Shinobu said. "In my experience."
"I don't think it works like that," Kazuya said. He thought about Mitsuru, who talked about outsiders and blood-ties of family, and then took on Shinobu and Shun and Miya and Kazuya with a combination of blithe sadism and ruthless affection that made Kazuya think of Hiro at his best and worst.
"You probably aren't aware of it," Shinobu said, the amusement in his voice as clear as a purring cat. "You're always on the receiving end. Permanently concussed."
He phoned his brother that night. The line was crackly and the phone got passed through three different people before Hiro got to it, so he as almost halfway through apologising again for his absence before he realised it was Hiro and he didn't have to. "I keep having to steal my wife or my son back from them," Hiro said, sounding more amused than anything else. "And her cousin's not even here to make it worse!" There was a moments silence, enough for Kazuya to wonder if their line had been cut, but before he could say anything, Hiro said, "Do you remember when you were-- no, you probably don't. Never mind, I probably have pictures somewhere. We went to the Hachiman temple together. You were so cute in your little jumper. Dad used to--"
He stopped and Kazuya felt that harsh lump in his throat he got sometimes, the one that wasn't about his own grief for his parents, but for his brother who missed them more because he remembered them better. Hiro missed things, ways of cooking and family jokes and solid moments, but it was so much less sharp for Kazuya. Kazuya had vague memories and frequent moments of envy, but he also had Hiro's way of making breakfast and Hiro's deeply unfunny and often repeated joke about potatoes and memories of Hiro reading to him, helping him practise for the school play. All the missing bits that Hiro had... well, Hiro had filled them up for Kazuya. It was the same thing that made him angry when people patted him on the head and said how awful it must be for him, being an orphan, having no parents, no family, because he did have that, he had Hiro. Hiro was all of those things for him, right up until Kazuhiro stopped being that, when he married Sumire and got his job as the school nurse and started being his own person, instead of Kazuya's.
Sometimes he felt guilty about missing that Hiro. Kazuhiro was happy now, without seeming to work at it, and it was selfish for Kazuya to want him to be anything else. It didn't stop him wanting that, but it did make him feel bad about it.
"Anyway, they have this tradition here, the whole family goes together, four generations in five cars, to be there as early as possible." Hiro went on. His voice sounded rougher than usual and he paused again. "Next year," Hiro said, after a moment, "when we're here, maybe we can all go to the Ikeda's together."
"Yes," Kazuya said, then swallowed when his voice came out as rough as his brother's. "I think Sumire would like that." He twisted the phone cord around his fingers and focused on one of the family photos that dotted the Ikeda household. "Good luck at the temple. Try not to let her or Midori get crushed in the crowds."
"Tell Ikeda and Tezuka the same," Hiro said. "They shouldn't risk an older brother's wrath." He sounded half-joking, the way he often did these days, but Kazuya could hear that protective note underneath, if he let himself. It was childish, maybe, but he still felt warmed by it, sheltered.
"I'm pretty sure they know that," Kazuya said. "They have siblings too."
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