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curiosity kills

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Kenma makes his way home just as the sun begins to dip below the horizon, casting dark shadows across his path. He keeps his eyes focused on his phone, head tilted downwards as he pointedly avoids the people around him. They’re wrapped up enough in their own lives, anyway, and barely notice he’s there.

It’s mostly dark when he reaches his apartment building. He quickly ascends three flights of stairs, stopping on the last step when he senses someone’s gaze on him. Slowly, he turns his head.

For the past three days, whenever he’s come home, he’s seen two golden eyes gleaming at him from the shadows of the small balcony across from his apartment.

Tonight, the golden eyes blink twice at him before disappearing entirely. They must belong to an animal, a stray cat that’s gotten too set in its habits. There’s been a problem with strays in the neighborhood, lately— the city has been talking of rounding them up, clearing off the streets.

“Don’t get caught,” Kenma whispers towards the shadow. As he fits his key in the lock and enters his small home, he realizes those were the first words he’s spoken aloud all day.

A few days later, his afternoon class gets cancelled. Kenma briefly considers staying on campus to finish up a few assignments, but the idea of making space for himself in the crowded library is decidedly unappealing. He can manage being around people in his classes— he’s mostly taking courses in computer science and graphic design, which allow him to duck down behind a screen for most of the day. His professors don’t care if he never volunteers information in class, as long as his assignments are turned in on time and his work is good. It’s a comfortable, predictable existence.

But now that his afternoon routine is disrupted, Kenma packs his laptop into his bag and catches an earlier train home. His neighborhood is three stops away from the university, a crowded street filled with cheap apartments, mostly populated by students. There’s a convenience store at the end of the street, owned by a charming older couple who employ an increasingly delinquent-looking string of young men to man the front counter.

Kenma passes by the store entirely, making a mental note to check and see when he’ll need more milk. When he climbs the stairs to his apartment, there are no golden eyes waiting for him at the top. Of course, there wouldn’t be— the animal has only been around in the evenings. In the harsh light of day, all Kenma sees is an empty balcony, covered in old newspapers and a few stray beer bottles.

He sighs as he steps into his apartment, removing his shoes and setting down his bag. It’s still early, and he opts for cleaning up the small space before he starts in on his work. By the time he’s dusted off his television and three computer monitors, vacuumed his bedroom and sitting room, and bundled up all his trash, it’s late afternoon. He grabs the trash bags and heads back down the stairs, towards the dumpsters behind the building.

A loud shriek splits the air before he can get there.

Kenma drops his trash bags, hands coming up to cover his ears instinctively. Before he can react, the same noise repeats— a grating shriek that sounds like it’s being ripped out of something, or someone.

This is supposed to be a peaceful neighborhood.

Gritting his teeth, Kenma edges around the side of the building until the dumpster comes into view. The sight he sees explains the shrieking, but also begs a hundred new questions.

A crow and a cat are battling on top of his dumpster.

The crow is bigger than any Kenma’s ever seen, wings spread wide as loose feathers fan out around it. It’s in mid-air, hovering just above the dumpster where the cat crouches low, braced for an attack. It’s jet-black, fur jagged and unkempt. When it leaps towards the crow, Kenma catches sight of its eyes— golden and luminous.

He knows this cat.

This cat apparently has a death wish, because it has launched itself off of the dumpster and towards the crow in midair. It swipes one paw through the air, slashing at the crow. The crow shrieks again, its caw rising in pitch every time it does. It flaps its massive wings, pulling away from the cat’s attack, before swooping forward, claws extended.

Kenma inhales sharply when the crow’s claws connect with the cat’s stomach. The cat yelps and scratches at the crow, but it’s clear who has the advantage. The cat is firmly caught in the crow’s grip, twisting and squirming in an attempt to free itself, but the crow holds fast.

Are cats and crows natural adversaries? Shouldn’t both of them be going after mice or rats, or something, instead of each other?

The crow lifts itself back into the air, cat still held tight in its claws. It shouldn’t be able to fly with that much weight, should it? What’s it going to do— carry the cat back to its nest? Eat it?

The cat’s mouth is pulled open defiantly, and it keeps trying to scratch at the crow, but it’s losing—it’s obvious it’s losing, it never even had a chance. It’s a stupid cat that should have run away, should have hid in the dumpster where the crow could never get to it. But instead it’s fighting, and losing, and now it’s probably going to die.

He wants the cat to live.

Kenma’s nails dig into his palms, his hands shaking even as the pain clears his mind a bit. Before he can think better of it, he dashes forward, clapping his hands together as loudly as he can.

“Hey!” His voice isn’t as loud as he wants it to be, comes out sounding hoarse and weak. He goes on, anyway. “Drop him!”

The crow’s wings are flapping too erratically for Kenma too see what happens, next. Another ear-splitting shriek cuts through the air, and he hears the cat yelp in three short, abortive syllables. Wind rushes past his face as the crow releases the cat and pulls itself into the air, flying away immediately.

There’s blood splattered across the lid of the dumpster. The cat lies on its side, black fur matted with it. Its chest rises and falls erratically, weak hisses escaping from it at intervals.

“Oh,” Kenma says, stepping towards it. “Hold on, I’ll help—”

He extends one hand towards the cat— that’s how you show animals you’re not a threat, right? But the second he gets within a few inches of the cat it yelps sharply and jumps back, away from Kenma.

Kenma freezes, hoping to give the cat a second to adjust to his presence. Instead, the cat looks at him through narrowed eyes, teeth bared. Its eyes focus on Kenma for a moment, and then two— and Kenma thinks the cat might recognize him, for a fleeting moment.

The moment shatters as the cat snarls at him, jumping back and running behind the dumpster and out onto the street. It all happens so fast, and Kenma can’t even follow the cat’s movements beyond that.

Kenma’s left on the street with the dumpster and his forgotten trash bags, only a few crow’s feathers and a splattering of blood to prove what just happened.

He tries not to think about the cat for the rest of the day. When he returns to his apartment, Kenma puts on his headphones and dives into his coding assignment, content to forget the erratic behavior of neighborhood animals. Maybe radiation has poisoned them, making the crows grow too big and the cats suicidal. Maybe they’re lab animals, escaped from one of the university’s less-scrupulous science departments. Maybe Japan’s wildlife population has finally gotten the memo and is now turning its evolutionary energies towards making Pokémon a reality.

So maybe he’s not doing such a good job of not thinking about it. Kenma shakes his head at himself, pulling off his headphones as he catches his reflection in his computer screen. His hair is growing out again, black roots visible at the crown of his head. The rest of his hair is is yellow-blond, a color that requires three hours of bleaching to achieve. He doesn’t know if he has the patience for all that again, just to touch up his roots.

It’s not as if there’s anyone around to comment on his hair, anyway. No one pays him that much attention.

Before he can travel too far down that train of thought, he hears a scratching noise against his front door.

His first inclination is to ignore it— it could be just the wind. But then the sound repeats, more insistently. Eyes wide, Kenma gets up from his desk chair and crosses his small apartment, pushing the door open and glancing around.

There’s no one standing outside. A shiver runs down Kenma’s spine, but he coughs and calls out, “Hello?”

No one responds. He doesn’t think to look down until he hears a pathetic whine, so faint it might have been a trick of the wind. But he does hear it, and when he looks down by his feet he sees the cat, curled into a ball and breathing erratically. Its stomach is smeared with blood, but when Kenma kneels down beside it it opens its eyes and stares at him.

He’s being judged, by the cat. For an impossibly long moment, their gazes are locked, and it seems like the world around them is holding its breath. Then, the cat bears its teeth at Kenma, and the expression looks more like a smirk than anything else. Kenma wonders if that means he’s passed muster.

He doesn’t question it further. Scooping the cat up in his arms, he carries it back into his apartment and shuts the door behind him.

All energy seems to have deserted the cat, which Kenma quickly discovers is a male. He wears no markings of ownership, and Kenma guesses he’s a stray, based on his matted fur and long, sharp claws.

“You’re stupid,” he tells the cat, laying it down on one of his bath mats as he he uses a washcloth to clean off the blood. It takes awhile, but eventually he cleans the cat up enough to see two wounds on its stomach, near his upper-left leg. He must’ve gotten them when the crow grabbed him, but the wounds don’t look like scratches— more like a snake’s bite.

His fur is a rich black, longer at the top of his head and around his eyes. Kenma thinks he’s pure black, at first, but then he spots the cat’s paws— the toes on each of his front paws are white, visible once Kenma’s rubbed at them with the washcloth. It makes him look like an athlete who’s taped his fingers.

He’s only semi-conscious, regarding Kenma through half-lidded eyes. The blood keeps flowing from his wound, no matter how much pressure Kenma puts on it. He doesn’t have any cloth bandages to tie it off.

“I don’t know what else to do for you,” Kenma tells him, seriously. “Why did you run away, before? How did you get here?”

The cat doesn’t answer him. Because, of course, he can’t.

“You’re stupid,” Kenma says again, scathingly. “And I think you were stalking me.”

He really doesn’t want to be doing this.

Kenma’s standing outside of his next-door neighbor’s apartment, holding the cat close against his chest. He’s wrapped in an old towel, but still trembling, letting out plaintive, pathetic mewls every so often.

At least he’s still breathing, still alive enough to make noise.

But who knows how much longer he’ll last? That’s why Kenma has to do this.

Gritting his teeth, Kenma kicks three times against the door in quick succession. Knocking would be more polite, probably, but his hands are currently full of cat.

It takes only a few moments for someone to pull the door open, casting a looming shadow over Kenma. Keen green eyes stare down at him as his neighbor’s face pulls into a decidedly thrilled expression.

“Kozume-san!” Haiba Lev cries. “What are you doing outside my door?” His voice is all eager curiosity, which is only overtaken when he glances down and sees the shivering bundle in Kenma’s arms. “Is that a baby?”

“No.” Kenma purses his lips, trying to decide how to phrase his request.

Maybe the cat is trying to help him along, because he sticks his head out from underneath the towel and fixes Lev with his piercing, golden stare. Lev steps back, startled at first, but then he’s letting out a small gasp and reaching forward.

Kenma side-steps him neatly, keeping the cat away from Lev’s long, reaching arms. “Stop that,” he says. And then, “I need to ask you a favor.”

“I didn’t know you had a cat, Kozume-san! He looks a little mean, don’t you think? Is he a he? Or a she? What’s his—her?—name?”

“He’s not my cat.” This is why he didn’t want to come to Lev for help. Ever since he moved into Kenma’s building, he’s been an over-loud presence. He’s like a rushing waterfall, impossible to stop or contain. He’s never been anything but friendly, but Kenma has the distinct instinct that he and Lev would mix like oil and water. He avoids Lev, most of the time, for this reason.

But the cat.

“I need you to watch him for a little while.” Kenma says, quietly but distinctly. Lev, to his credit, goes quiet and leans in, clearly paying close attention. “He’s hurt, and bleeding. I need to go get some supplies, but someone needs to keep pressure on the wound. Can you do that?”

Lev immediately nods, but then his face scrunches up as he thinks. “Why don’t you just take him to a vet?”

Kenma bites the inside of his cheek. “He’s a stray. They won’t try to save him.”

Lev’s angular eyes go wide, and suddenly he’s nodding emphatically. “That’s horrible! Bring him in inside! I’ll take good care of him, I promise!”

It takes a few minutes, but eventually Lev settles down on the couch in his living room and gestures for Kenma to place the cat in his lap. Kenma does, guiding one of Lev’s large hands down to where the towel is covering the cat’s wound.

“Just, keep the pressure there. I’ll be back soon.”

Lev nods, and Kenma’s about to turn and leave, but then he thinks better of it. He kneels down, tracing his fingers along the top of the cat’s head. He’s gone quiet again, gold eyes glossy and mouth slightly open as he pants.

“Stay put,” Kenma tells him. “I’ll be back, I promise.”

He nearly gets dragged into another unwelcome conversation at the corner store, but thankfully the clerk’s younger sister, Akane, is sitting on the counter and keeping her brother on task. Kenma buys cloth bandages and a weak antiseptic, and then a bag each of cat food and litter before he can think better of it.

The street is dark by the time he gets back to his apartment building, the wind whispering ominously as it rustles through the trees.

He finds Lev just where he left him— he has the cat held still between two hands, the cat looking up at him with an unimpressed expression.

“Kozume-san! I thought of some names for your cat!”

“He’s not my cat,” Kenma mutters, reaching out to take him from Lev nonetheless. “Can you get me some hot water?”

“Sure.” Lev gets to his feet, seemingly unperturbed by the blood that’s stained his hands. “How about ‘Tchaikovsky’?”

“I can’t pronounce that.”

When Lev returns with the water, Kenma gently cleans off the cat’s stomach again. He has yet to succumb to unconsciousness, which Kenma takes as a good sign.

“What about Anastasia?”

“He’s a boy,” Kenma says, ripping a length off the roll of bandages. “I think.”

The cat looks directly at him and blinks, once. It seems vaguely affirmative.

“Oh, I know! ‘Ace’! Doesn’t that sound cool?”

Kenma rubs antiseptic over the cat’s wounds. The cat hisses and lashes out with both paws, his claws leaving parallel scratches against Kenma’s knuckles.

“Don’t be a baby,” he tells the cat. And then, to Lev: “That sounds like a name for a dog.”

He’s wrapping the bandages tightly around the cat’s stomach when Lev leans in and asks, calmer than Kenma’s even seen him, “Kozume-san likes video games, right?”

The fact that Lev has noticed him enough to remember such a thing is uncomfortable. Kenma shifts, tying off the bandage and then smoothing his hand over the soft fur of the cat’s back. “Yeah,” he says, at length.

“Then name Black Cat-san after a video game character!” Lev is startlingly proud of himself, smiling wide.

Kenma has a brief image of Cloud fighting Sephiroth, thinking the cat was equally unmatched when it took on the crow. But he shakes his head.

“Too complicated,” he said.

“You have to give him a name,” Lev whines, distressed. “We can’t just keep calling him Black Cat-san.”

“Why not?”

“Kozume-san!” Lev sounds absolutely scandalized. “That’s so boring!”

All together, the name is a bit clunky. Kenma rolls the syllables over in his mind for a moment, thinking it over.

“Kuro,” he says, finally. He looks to the cat, not to Lev, when he asks, “What do you think?”

“No! So boring!” Lev answers, anyway. “You can’t just call him a color!”

The cat is lying on his side, regarding Kenma quietly. When Kenma looks down at him, he closes his eyes slowly and then opens them again. His mouth opens slightly, revealing his sharp teeth. Kenma feels like he’s just gotten a nod of approval.

“He likes it,” Kenma announces.

“You’re both terrible!” Lev replies.

Kenma picks up the rest of his supplies, then kneels down to pick Kuro up in his arms again. He’s outstayed his welcome, he’s sure, if he was ever welcome at all. Shifting from foot to foot, he glances sideways at Lev.

“… thank you. For the help.”

“Of course! What are neighbors for?” Lev walks Kenma back to his door, asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to stay for dinner? My sister will make something delicious, once she’s home.”

Kenma shakes his head. He doesn’t think he’s ready for two Haibas at once.

Kenma arranges a makeshift bed for Kuro with his couch cushions and more towels. He puts bowls of food and water next to him, laying Kuro carefully on his side. He warms up some curry and rice, eating his dinner mechanically as he watches the cat drift in and out of an agitated sleep.

Eventually, he decided to go to bed. There’s nothing more he can do, for the moment.

“Stay alive, okay?” he whispers the words into the darkness of his living room. “Kuro.”

He dreams in shattered fragments of ideas, black crow’s feathers and sharp claws punctuating a blur of noise and color. Briefly, he sees his childhood neighborhood in one of the city’s suburbs. He hasn’t thought about that time in ages, and yet suddenly he’s seeing his parents’ yellow house, and the one beside it, painted white with a simple but well-kept garden.

No one has lived in his parents’ house for years and years. The one beside it has been empty for even longer.

Kuro lives through the night. When Kenma stumbles into his living room the next morning, he finds the cat sandwiched between two cushions, his head entirely hidden from view and his lower half and tail hanging out over the edge of the cushions’ striped pattern. Kenma shakes his head, pulling the cushions away to see the cat sleeping. Kuro’s face is scrunched up, his eyelids fluttering like he’s having a bad dream.

Kenma gently strokes his fingers down Kuro’s spine, once and then twice. “It’s okay,” he tells Kuro. “They’re just dreams.”

A few minutes later, Kuro stretches and yawns, his jaw opening comically wide. Kenma heart stutters when those golden eyes pin him with a focused look— there’s a depth to Kuro’s gaze that seems more than animal, too keen and intelligent to belong to a simple stray cat.

As if reading his thoughts, Kuro huffs and bats at Kenma’s hand with one paw, chiding him.

“Okay,” Kenma says aloud. “Maybe cats are just smart.”

Kuro seems pleased by that, rubbing up against Kenma’s hands as Kenma pets through his jagged fur. It’s amazing, feeling Kuro’s heat and the beat of his heart under Kenma’s fingertips. When was the last time he’d actually touched another living thing? Aside from incidental things— getting his change from the corner store, being shoved up against others on the train— he can’t remember. He can’t remember the last time he touched someone else just because he wanted to.

Kuro’s fur is soft, and he’s so warm, and Kenma curls around his small body, fanning out his fingers to hold onto as much of the cat as possible. Maybe it’s because he’s weak and injured, but Kuro allows this treatment. Kuro breathes out in a single puff of air, pressing close to Kenma’s chest. They stay like that for long moments, hearts beating close together.

The cat refuses to eat. He lays on his side in Kenma’s living room, watching Kenma work at his computer. He drinks all the water in his bowl, every time he refills it. He uses the makeshift litterbox that Kenma makes for him. (And there’s a question— how is a stray cat trained to do that?) But Kuro never touches the store bought food that Kenma puts next to his water.

“You won’t heal if you don’t eat,” Kenma tells him, a bit helplessly. “You acted all big and tough, with the crow, but you’re just a big baby, aren’t you?”

Kuro looks mildly affronted, turning away from Kenma and burrowing back into his pillows. He always nudges between them headfirst. Kenma’s beginning to wonder if he’s trying to hide from something.

Kenma doesn’t have any classes today, so there’s no reason to leave the cat alone in his apartment. He works through his assignments and watches Kuro watching him. Their silence is companionable, but every so often Kenma will speak aloud, telling Kuro about the program he’s working on or why one of his professors isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

He doesn’t usually talk through his work (or talk much at all). But when there’s someone else in the room it feels natural, even if that person is only a cat.

At night, Kenma pulls some mackerel out of his freezer and fries it on the small stove in his kitchen. He’ll have to prepare his meals for the rest of the week, tonight, and set up his routine for the next few days. If he doesn’t bother to prepare his food ahead of time, he’s often too lazy to eat or make himself lunches to take to university.

He’s just about to serve the fish out onto a plate when he hears Kuro meow plaintively behind him. He turns around to find the cat sitting at attention in the doorway, watching him keenly.

“I thought you were too tired to move,” Kenma tells him slowly. “You’ve been in the living room all day.”

The cat meows again, more insistently.

“Did you get hungry?” Kenma wonders. “You have food. You can eat it.”

This time, Kuro hisses, frustrated. He walks forward until he’s rubbing up against Kenma’s legs.

“Go eat your food,” Kenma tells him. “I’m having my dinner.”

He takes his plate back to the couch in the living room, chopsticks gripped in his other hand. But as soon as he sits down to eat, Kuro climbs up beside him, reaching for the food on his plate.

“This is mine.”

Kuro doesn’t listen, keeps trying to edge around Kenma to get at the mackerel on his plate. Apparently cats are keen to live up to their stereotypes.

“You’re annoying.” Kenma holds the plate above his head, but Kuro just walks over his legs and positions himself in Kenma’s lap, looking up at him with challenging eyes.

They have a standoff, apparently. But Kenma, while stubborn, has never been particularly good at keeping up a fight. Sighing, he lowers the plate, ripping off a piece of his fish fillet and holding it out in his hand. Immediately, Kuro lunges forward and begins eating it out of Kenma’s hand, gently licking against his fingers when he’s through.

When he’s done, he looks back at the plate expectantly. Kenma sighs again and pushes the plate towards him.

“Greedy,” he says, getting up to wash his hands and grill himself another fillet. But when he’s a few feet away, he allows himself to be happy that the cat’s eating something— that means he’ll get better, right?

Kenma fidgets nervously with the straps of his backpack. Kuro’s lying on his side again, watching him through half-lidded eyes. There’s a plate of mackerel in front of him, a full bowl of water beside it. Kenma had changed his bandages this morning, and the old ones had come away mostly clean. Kuro’s healing remarkably quickly, and Kenma’s too grateful to really question it.

“You’ll be okay, right?” Kenma asks him. “I have to go to class. I can’t miss handing in these assignments. If I don’t go, I’ll have to explain why when I get back. I don’t want to do that. I don’t like being asked questions. People don’t notice me much because I’m always there. If there’s a gap in my seat one day, they’ll pay more attention when I get back.”

There’s a darkness whispering at the back of his mind, telling him that he would not be able to handle it if his classmates were to suddenly become aware of his presence. He’s survived the first few months of university like this because no one speaks to him, beyond formalities and platitudes. And it’s lonely, of course it’s lonely, but he can handle it. He’s not sure if he could weather any changes to the existence he’s carved out for himself.

“I don’t want to leave you alone,” Kenma says after a moment’s pause. “I’ll lock to the door, but what if you need something? What if you want to leave? I hate feeling trapped. I don’t want to trap you.”

He shifts awkwardly from one foot to the other. It’s been a few months since he’s felt this uncertain about anything, and the dull beginnings of panic rise up in his throat. It’s like he’s physically separated from his own breathing, his chest rising and falling even though he feels cut off from oxygen.

Should he stay? Could he stay? What if—

Suddenly, there’s a warm body pressed up against his legs. Kuro is rubbing against him, his tail curling around Kenma’s ankles. Kenma can’t react. Kuro presses against him more insistently, and before Kenma even realizes he’s kneeling, picking Kuro up into his arms and pressing his face into the warmth of Kuro’s fur. He can feel Kuro’s small heart beating, and after a few long moments his own heart calms to the same tempo. He breathes in, and out, and though Kuro doesn’t exactly smell good— he smells like cat, slightly dirty and a bit like the fish he’s been eating— it’s something to focus on.

“I’m going to go now,” Kenma tells him, when he finally manages to pull away. “But I’ll be back.”

As he’s leaving his apartment building, Kenma sees the shadow of a bird cast over the sidewalk in front of him. For a moment, he thinks it’s the same crow as before— his gaze shoots up to the sky, looking for it. Instead, however, he sees an owl, feathers a chaotic smattering of gray and black and white. It lands on a nearby tree, hoots despondently.

It’s the middle of the morning. Aren’t owls supposed to be nocturnal?

Kenma has always done best with patterns, with routine. And somehow, after he takes Kuro in, his life reforms around the changes and finds pattern once again. He goes to his classes in the morning after frying fish for Kuro and eating his own breakfast— having to feed Kuro means that he doesn’t forget to feed himself as often as he used to. He gets home from his classes in the evening and checks Kuro’s bandages, then boots up his computer and works while Kuro watches from across the room, or, on some days, climbs into Kenma’s lap while he types away at his code. Kuro slowly builds up more and more energy, and Kenma takes that to mean that he’s on the mend, that he’ll soon be as good as new.

There’s no pattern to when Kenma sees the owl. He thinks it must be the same one very time— it’s a big bird, feathers sticking out on either side of its head like horns. He constantly sees it circling over the neighborhood— sometimes in the morning, sometimes after dark. It must be looking for food, Kenma decides, because the way it turns its head from side to side can only mean that it’s looking for something.

It probably shouldn’t be hanging around populated Tokyo. Aren’t there forests around, anymore? Surely the owl would be more comfortable there. But every time it’s been a few days, and Kenma is sure it must have moved on, he sees it again. It’ll hoot three times in quick succession, then pause as though it’s waiting for a response. When nothing answers, it hoots again, and Kenma imagines it sounds sad.

A week and a half after he first finds Kuro, Kenma unwraps the cat’s bandages to find the wounds completely closed over. There are two pinpricks of new skin to show where the injury had been, but the wounds themselves are definitely healed.

Kenma looks helplessly at the roll of bandages, unsure of what to do with himself now that he doesn’t have to replace them.

“…you’re all better,” he tells Kuro as the cat rests in his lap, against his knees.

Kuro turns his head to regard Kenma carefully. A lot of the time, when Kenma talks to him, he gets the feeling that Kuro is laughing. His eyes will scrunch until all he sees are slits of gold, and Kuro’s mouth opens slightly as he lets out a breathy noise. It’s not the same hiss of distress he made when he was in pain, and Kenma is starting to think this cat is a bit of an asshole.

“Are you laughing at me, again?” Kenma doesn’t bother hiding the irritation in his tone. “Maybe that’s why that crow attacked you— you’re annoying.”

Now Kuro looks like he’s pouting, heading dipping to rest against Kenma’s thigh as he flattens himself down.

Kenma huffs, but reaches out to scratch behind Kuro’s ear. “What are you going to do, now?” he asks. “Now that you’re better, you don’t have to stay.”

It isn’t until he says it that he realizes he doesn’t want Kuro to go.

Kenma sees the owl again the next day, when he’s coming back from his last class. But instead of flying overhead, it’s perched on the arm of a young man.

He’s standing a few feet away from Kenma’s apartment building, face turned away from where Kenma’s walking up the street. He’s taller than Kenma, with thick, dark hair and pale skin. Dressed all in black, he has one arm extended parallel to the ground to allow the owl to rest against the thick leather gauntlet he wears. The owl lifts its feet one at a time, shifting against the man’s arm restlessly. The man lifts his other hand to gently brush his fingertips over the owl’s feathers.

Kenma’s just behind them, transfixed.

“It’s alright, Bokuto-san,” the man says quietly. He has a soft, uninflected voice. “We’ll find him.”

Is the owl his pet? Is that even legal?

Maybe he should be worried about the way the man is talking to the owl, but Kenma isn’t really in a position to talk, when he’s the one who’s been narrating his life aloud to Kuro for almost two weeks. At least he doesn’t refer to Kuro with honorifics.

(Kuro had stuck around, yesterday, even when Kenma has purposefully left his apartment door open. He doesn’t know what to make of that, would rather Kuro just go now if he’s going to leave eventually—)

The man turns around abruptly, his cool eyes narrowed with suspicion as he focuses on Kenma. Kenma jumps backwards, startled by the sudden attention. The owl hoots loudly, launching itself into the sky in front of the man in a way that seems almost protective.

“What are you doing, there?” The man’s voice is still calm and steady, but there’s a tension in his body language that Kenma can’t source. He’s hiding something.

Every self-preservation instinct Kenma has screams at him to get away from this man and his crazy bird as quickly as possible. He turns so that the man can no longer make direct eye contact, mumbling, “I live here.”

There’s a pointed question in his tone.

“Ah,” the man says. He makes an abortive gesture with one hand, and the owl flies higher into the sky— so high that no one would know he belonged to the man, Kenma thinks. “I’m sorry if we— I was in your way. Excuse me.”

He turns and walks calmly up the sidewalk, but when Kenma glances skyward he notices the owl following behind the man, keeping pace with him easily.

There is definitely something strange going on.

Kuro cries in his sleep.

It takes Kenma awhile to notice, because he usually doesn’t fall asleep himself until odd hours of the night, after finishing up snatches of work or playing video games at marathon pacing. But two days after he sees the man and his owl, he wanders into the living room at five am, intending to head to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Instead, he finds himself kneeling in front of Kuro’s nest of cushions and towels while the cat lets out choked off, whimpering cries.

He’s got his head buried between the pillows, again, but Kenma can still hear him. In the dim light of the room, it seems like all the shadows are slanted towards Kuro, covering him in darkness.

What do cats have nightmares about? Is he imagining being carried off by the crow, again? But every time Kenma mentions the crow, Kuro just looks mocking, irritated— not frightened. It’s not as if the cat understands the word “crow,” through, right? So perhaps in his sleep he sees visions of the enormous bird, and that’s what he’s actually scared of.

What else could it be?

Whatever it is, Kenma can’t let Kuro suffer it alone. He delicately picks the cat up in his arms, cradling him close to his body as he carries Kuro back into his bedroom. When he climbs back into bed, he continues holding Kuro against his chest, feeling him shift around until he’s nuzzling his head into Kenma’s stomach.

When they’ve settled, Kenma closes his eyes and tries to get back to sleep. But for a long time, all he can think about is that Kuro isn’t a house cat. He was stray before Kenma took him in, and he’s probably meant to be stray again. Would he even want to stay as Kenma’s pet? He’s made no motions to leave, but people always leave, eventually. And if Kuro’s naturally meant to be out in the world, away from Kenma’s insulated existence, then Kenma won’t even be able to blame him for leaving.

“I want you to stay,” Kenma admits into the quiet of the room, holding Kuro close. “I don’t want to be alone again.”

He dreams, again. The yellow house has a fresh coat of paint, looks new and taken care of. There’s a child playing out in the front yard, his dark hair falling over his eyes as he thumbs his way through a handheld video game.

A shadow falls over him, and when the child looks up there’s another little boy next to him, with a shock of messy dark hair and a gleaming, mischievous smile. He says something, and the first child rolls his eyes. A moment later, they’re both laughing together.

The image flickers— instead of two children, there’s only one and the small black kitten he holds in his lap. He’s looking down at it adoringly, stroking over its fur with small, delicate motions.

“Kenma!” a woman’s voice cuts through the air, sharp and authoritative. “Put that thing down, it must be filthy. Come inside and wash your hands, it’s almost time for dinner!”

He doesn’t notice it happening, at first. He knows he feels calmer when he’s at home, but that’s always been the case. He’s a homebody, has always avoided crowded, public places when he can help it. But lately, it’s different. He doesn’t just feel more comfortable at home— he feels distinctly unsettled when he’s out in the world, has the creeping feeling that he’s being followed, or watched.

He can’t keep his thoughts straight, most days in class. He wonders what his classmates think of him, if they think of him at all. He wonders what he’s accomplishing, by going through the motions of his life day in and day out, never feeling truly plugged into the world around him. He wonders if what he’s doing has any true meaning.

It’s so tiring. Today, as he’s walking down the street towards his building, it’s like he’s trapped between the urgency to be home and the languid, dragging motion with which he’s walking.

There are people walking around him, headed off in their hurry to go through the motions of their own lives. Some of them are talking animatedly on their cellphones, and his chest aches with jealousy. They make it seem so easy, having people to talk to. They probably don’t even mention anything important, just tell each other about what they ate for lunch or how excited they are for the next episode of their favorite TV show. It’s meaningless— but it means everything, just for someone to be there.

He doesn’t know when he stopped walking and crouched down on the sidewalk. No one pauses to look at him, but their shadows pass over him and make him shiver. He feels a wetness against his cheeks and lifts his fingers to brush against them— oh. He’s crying. When was the last time he cried? And why now, when he’s in the middle of a crowded street, when he could just get up and be home if he just kept walking—

Kenma yelps as he feels something dig into his leg. He glances around, startled, until he sees Kuro, his teeth sunk into Kenma’s leg, biting through his pants and what feels like his skin.

“Kuro—!” It hurts, but the bite snaps Kenma back to awareness. He’s standing on the street, two blocks away from his apartment. The sun is hanging low in the sky. And Kuro, the cat who he’d left in his locked apartment this morning, is standing on the sidewalk beside him, teeth stained slightly red. “How…?”

Kuro doesn’t give him a chance to ask questions. He walks around Kenma until he’s directly behind him, then presses his head into the back of Kenma’s leg like he’s trying to push him forward. He keeps pushing until Kenma actually starts walking, his steps slow and stumbling at first. But Kuro stays behind him, nudges him every time Kenma stops. It’s a slow, aggravating process, but somehow they eventually end up in front of Kenma’s door.

When he tries the handle, he finds the door locked. Kuro keeps nudging him until he finds his keys in his backpack and lets them both into the apartment. Abruptly, Kenma feels as though the wind’s been knocked out of him. He barely makes it past the welcome mat before he collapses onto his knees, his entire body shaking.

He’s crying again, his breath coming out in hiccupping sobs. He doesn’t realize Kuro’s climbed into his lap until the cat’s face is in front of his. Kuro gently licks at his cheeks with his small pink tongue, going over each of them every time a new tear falls. The taut tension in Kenma’s limbs loosens incrementally, and he wraps his arms around Kuro even though he’s still shaking.

When Kenma’s finally cried out, when he can finally breath again, Kuro presses forward until his his head is brushing against Kenma’s chin. His gleaming eyes are wide and sad, and Kenma is struck by the idea that Kuro is apologizing to him.

“What for?” he asks aloud. “You came to get me.”

He needs something to focus on, so he keeps Kuro held tight to his chest as he wanders towards the bathroom. He strips down to his boxers to examine the bite on his thigh— a small nip that broke the skin but probably hasn’t done any lasting damage. Sighing, he sits Kuro down on the bathroom counter as he reaches for a bandage.

“How did you get out?” Kenma asks. “The door locks automatically, but that doesn’t explain how you unlocked it in the first place. Or how you found me.”

Kuro has curled up into a C shape, head pressed down against his front paws. Of course, he can’t answer Kenma. Instead he just looks at him steadily.

He still looks like he’s trying to apologize.

That night, Kenma curls up in bed, exhausted and hollowed out. Kuro is tucked against him, his back rising and falling as he breathes evenly in his sleep. Kenma strokes over Kuro’s fur as he tries to lull himself to sleep, willing his mind to quiet down.

“If you can get out the apartment whenever you want to, does that mean you’re still here because you want to stay?”

The feeling of unease doesn’t lift entirely. There are cobwebs clinging to the corners of his mind, worries that never quite retreat. Maybe those are the parts of his mind that get the least use— the parts that want to reach out and connect.

“Oh, Kozume-san!” Lev is standing on top of the stairs, grocery bags hanging off of his long arms as he tries to balance. “Good evening!”

Kenma nods in response, mumbles some kind of greeting.

“I haven’t seen you in awhile,” Lev continues, bright and boisterous as ever. “How’s Kuro-san doing? All better?”

“…yeah. He’s doing much better.”

“Oh!” Suddenly Lev is leaning over him, looking directly at Kenma’s face. “Kozume-san, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile like that, before! You look really, really cute!”

His cheeks heat up immediately, and Kenma ducks his head so that his hair falls forward in front of his face. “Don’t be stupid,” he says, unable to meet Lev’s too-keen stare.

But the younger man just laughs good-naturedly. “Sorry, sorry! It’s true, though. Mostly when I see you walking by you’re looking at your phone, and I can’t tell what you’re thinking at all. But when you came over with Kuro-san, I could tell you were really worried about him. I’m glad he’s better, now.”

Kenma could say that Lev can’t tell what he’s thinking because Lev is never quiet enough to truly notice anything. But he’s indebted to Lev, isn’t he?

“…thanks. You were a big help, that night.”

“No problem, Kozume-san! Feel free to come over any night, even when your cat isn’t dying!”

Come over and do what? Sit on Lev’s old couch and play Super Smash Brothers with him? Listen to Lev rattle on about his last year of high school? Eat dinner with him and his elder sister?

Ah, Kenma thinks. Those are things friends do together, aren’t they?

He needs to say something, he thinks. The words are forming on his tongue when he’s interrupted by a loud, disapproving hoot.

Kenma whips around abruptly, only to see the owl balanced on the railing of his building’s staircase. The owl’s puffed up, its feathers expanded with air as it narrows its circular golden eyes in Kenma’s direction.

It hoots again, loud and reproachful.

What the hell.

Kenma takes a step back. Have all the animals in the world gone crazy? Are they all stalking him? Where’s the man that was with the owl before? It is the same owl, isn’t it?

Before he can register the movement Lev is in front of him, long arms splayed.

“Hey!” Lev shouts. “You’re freaking him out! Go away!” He waves his arms widely, right up in the owl’s space. The owl hoots again, but flutters up into the air before flying away entirely.

“That’s right!” Lev calls out behind it. “You better run!”

He turns back to Kenma after a moment. “Are you alright, Kozume-san? That was weird, don’t you think? You kind of froze, for a minute there! Kozume-san?”

Kenma lifts a hand, trying to dam the deluge of Lev’s worries.

“You don’t have to call me Kozume,” he says, slowly, after a long moment’s pause. Lev seems surprised at the non sequitor, so Kenma presses on. “Kenma is fine.”

Lev’s face lights up immediately. “Kenma-san, then!”

When he steps into his apartment a few minutes later, Kuro is sitting on the couch waiting for him. When Kenma sits down beside him, he’s still a little flushed. Kuro rises up on his hind legs and places his front paws against Kenma’s shoulder, sizing up the look on his face.

“It’s okay,” Kenma tells him, petting the top of Kuro’s head with two fingers. “I think I’m just happy.”

It’s the first time in a long time that someone’s called him by his given name.

Kuro comes and waits for Kenma at the station, now. When Kenma steps off the train and gets out to the sidewalk, Kuro is standing there waiting for him. He waits for Kenma to start walking home, then walks along casually beside him, tail poised in the air.

“You’re too smart,” Kenma tells him, not for the first time. “How do you always find me?”

Kuro’s tail curls a bit, a gesture like a shrug. Kenma just shakes his head.

But that doesn’t stop Kenma from worrying. Even if he’s been living with Kenma for weeks, now, Kuro still looks like a stray cat. If he’s wandering the streets by himself, it’s only a matter of time before someone calls him in as a nuisance, or something worse.

“You really like being here, right?” Kenma asks that night, laying out another fillet of fish for Kuro. Kuro just nuzzles against Kenma’s leg once before digging into his dinner.

The next day, Kenma gets off the train early and heads to a pet supply store. It takes him a few minutes to make a decision, but eventually he pulls a collar off of a wall of dozens of options— dark red leather, simple and about the width of his index and pointer fingers together. He has the singular kanji of Kuro’s name embossed right into the leather, his phone number sunken into the reverse side.

When it’s finished, he turns the collar over and over in his hands, fingers tracing the kanji. It feels right.

Kuro isn’t waiting for him at the station. Kenma is a bit later than he usually is, but he’s gotten used to seeing Kuro on the corner when he steps out of the station. It’s nothing to worry about, though. Kuro’s probably just waiting for him at home.

The shadows grow long as Kenma heads up the street. He’s about to turn the corner towards his building when he hears a vaguely familiar voice.

Please, Kuroo-san, we’re trying to help you.”

He probably shouldn’t be curious. It’s probably none of his business. But Kenma turns towards the voice anyway, comes to an alley in the gap between two buildings.

It’s the same man he saw with the owl. He’s wearing all black again, his pale face pinched in consternation. The owl isn’t with him, though— Kenma glances up at the sky and sees no tell-tale shadow of a bird circling overhead.

Instead, there’s another man beside the first. He has milky skin and dove gray hair, a beauty mark punctuating his delicate features. There’s a smile on his face, but it’s strained, and his hands are full of something dark, and squirming—

It’s Kuro.

The gray-haired man has one arm around his middle, the other pressed against his chest. He’s clearing trying to keep Kuro still, but Kuro is fighting him, twisting in his hold and hissing.

“It’s okay, Kuroo,” the man says, wincing slightly when Kuro scratches into his arm. “I know you’re confused, but if you just let us take you home—ow!”

Kuro has sunken his teeth into the man’s arm, golden eyes flashing dangerously.

“Stop it,” the first, dark-haired man snaps. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

“Akaashi,” the gray haired man chides. “You know he can’t help it.” He’s still struggling with Kuro, now trying to get an arm around all four of Kuro’s legs to keep him still.

“He’s being selfish,” the man— Akaashi— insists, voice flat even as his deep green eyes narrow. “Bokuto-san has been worried sick, and then we find him here playing house—”

“Don’t be mean, Akaashi,” the other says, chuckling despite the nervous scrunch of his eyes. “I know you’re worried about him, but—”

“Sugawara-san,” Akaashi breathes out with stressed patience, “You know as well as I do—”

Kenma’s still crouched behind the next building, heart hammering in his chest. He’s sure they’re speaking Japanese, can understand the words they’re saying in isolation. But why are they talking about Kuro like that?

He only knows one thing for certain— if these two succeed in what they’re trying to do, they’re going to take Kuro away from him.

Kenma hates speaking out to people he’s never met before. He’s not good at being authoritative, or making people listen to him. But he swallows down those doubts and steps into the alley, squaring his shoulders and trying to look as confident as possible.

“Hey,” he says, and his voice is soft but it’s sure, and that’ll have to be good enough. “What are you doing?”

Akaashi and Sugawara both start abruptly. Kuro takes advantage of their hesitation, twisting around until he’s free of Sugawara’s grasp. He lands neatly on his feet, haunches raised as he hisses at the two men in front of him.

“Um,” Sugawara stutters. “Please don’t worry! We know what we’re doing, we’re professionals.”

“Professional what,” Akaashi mumbles, but cuts off when Sugawara elbows him in the side.

Kenma isn’t interested in their explanations. “Kuro,” he says softly. “Come here.”

For a moment, he’s scared that Kuro won’t obey. Maybe he’s been spooked by these two, and will run off this time for good. But Kenma’s fears are unfounded. Kuro dashes towards him, curls around his ankles until Kenma reaches down to pick Kuro up in his arms.

“I don’t know what you think is going on here,” Akaashi says, taking a step forward, “but we need to take that cat home.”

“No.” The word is out of Kenma’s mouth before he’s even thought of it. “He’s already home— he’s mine.”

Sugawara and Akaashi are momentarily shocked, mouths open and eyes wide.

Kuro is burrowing against Kenma’s chest, hiding his face again.

It’s Sugawara who breaks the silence, raising both of his hands in a placating gesture. “Ah— are you sure about this?”

Something about his tone tells Kenma that Sugawara isn’t addressing him. But he answers anyway.

“Completely,” he mumbles, and with his heart beating several hundred times a minute he pivots on his heel and starts to walk away, Kuro still cradled in his arms.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Akaashi’s voice calls after them, darkly. Again, Kenma feels like he isn’t the intended recipient of his words.

He dashes back to his apartment, holding Kuro tightly the entire way. When he’s let himself in he shuffles over to the couch without even removing his shoes, breathing heavily as he drops Kuro onto the cushions and then bows over the seat. His mind is running like a hamster in a wheel, trying to make sense of it all.

The crow, the owl, Kuro, Akaashi and Sugawara, the fact that Kuro is so smart and so expressive and always seems to know when Kenma needs him—

“Kuro,” Kenma whispers, burying his face in the cat’s soft fur. “What are you?”

It takes him a few moments to catch his breath, but when he does he forces himself to his feet and heads to his front door. He swings it open, letting light stream into his tiny apartment.

“Do you want to go?” Kenma asks. Kuro is still on the couch, watching him silently. “I know you can get out, when you want to. And those two— they knew you, didn’t they? Do you want to go?”

Don’t go, Kenma thinks desperately. Don’t leave me, don’t go.

Kuro gets up slowly from the couch. He jumps elegantly down to the ground, walking over to Kenma slowly. But he doesn’t stop to nuzzle against Kenma’s legs, or touch him at all. Instead he goes to one side of the door, nudging it with his head as if he can get it to swing closed.

Oh.

Kenma slowly sinks to his knees, laughing with startled relief. Kuro tilts his head, regarding with Kenma with that familiar, slightly mocking expression. He walks over and climbs into Kenma’s lap, rubbing his head against Kenma’s arms, his chest, into the crook of his neck.

Kuro pushes up against the pocket of Kenma’s sweatshirt, reminding him of what he’d tucked in there earlier that day. He reaches into the pocket and pulls out the collar, holding it out to Kuro for approval. When the cat doesn’t pull away, Kenma reaches down and fastens the collar around his neck. The red stands out starkly against Kuro’s fur, but it looks good. Like it belongs there.

Smiling, Kenma gets shakily to his feet, holding onto Kuro all the while. He nudges the front door closed with his hip, and it clicks shut with finality.

Kenma goes to the kitchen to make Kuro his dinner, oblivious to the shadows growing up the walls.

Chapter Text

“Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking for you!”

Kenma sincerely considers dropping his groceries on the ground and running as quickly as possible in the opposite direction. That would be the appropriate response to this situation, wouldn’t it? What else is he supposed to do when the man who tried to kidnap his cat three days ago is standing in front of him, smiling beatifically?

“Remember me?” Sugawara tries again. He’s dressed normally, today, in well-fit jeans and a pale blue cardigan. His presence would be calming, Kenma thinks, if it wasn’t for the circumstances under which they first met. If he could consider that a meeting at all.

Kenma’s juggling three bags of groceries in his arms— one containing only cat litter and frozen mackerel fillets and a felt mouse attached to a bell that Kuro will be able to chase around his apartment— but then Sugawara lifts one of them out of his arms.

“Here,” he says. “I’ll walk you home.”

Kenma clutches the other bags protectively, looking up at Sugawara through his hair. “I don’t think I want you to know where I live.”

Sugawara laughs lightly, reaching up with his free hand to smooth down his hair. “I guess I can’t blame you, for that. Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to apologize?”

Sugawara certainly gives off an air of trustworthiness. He has an open face and honest eyes, and there’s a kindness radiating off of him that invites confidence. But Kenma looks down at his hands and sees the the parallel scratch marks that Kuro had left there, red skin blaring like a siren in warning. Around his wrist Sugawara is wearing a thin silver bracelet, engraved with strange markings. A gleaming orange stone the size of a marble is set in the middle of the bracelet.

“Ah, good eyes,” Sugawara says approvingly, shifting his wrist so that bracelet is partially covered by his sleeve. “It’s pretty, right?”

Sure, objectively speaking. But that isn’t why Kenma keeps staring at the gemstone. It’s giving off its own light, as if there’s a fire burning at its center. It’s unlike anything he’s ever seen before.

“I’ll walk you to the corner where we met,” Sugawara declares after a moment. “That should be fine, right?”

Kenma sighs heavily, but sees no other way out of this. He casts Sugawara a sideways glance before he starts heading up the street.

Sugawara sits down on the sidewalk by the alley where Kenma had seen him and Akaashi before, setting down Kenma’s grocery bag and gesturing for him to sit beside him. Kenma stays on his feet, still watching Sugawara warily. Sugawara grins wryly, not at all deterred.

“My name is Sugawara Koushi,” he says, “but most people call me Suga. It’s nice to meet you.” He pauses significantly, waiting for Kenma to jump in.

He’s left waiting for a long, awkward moment, as Kenma only continues to stare at Sugawara’s shoes.

“…right,” Suga continues. “I figured it might be easier for us to talk without Akaashi around. He didn’t really make the best impression, am I right? It’s not really his fault. His, ah, partner has been feeling down for a few weeks, now, and that’s taking its toll on Akaashi.”

Kenma should start carrying signs to interact with the world, he decides. The first one can read, Did I ask?

“And the reason his partner is feeling that way is because, a few weeks ago, his best friend disappeared.” Only now does Suga’s cheerful demeanor slip slightly. He looks pensive, staring down at his hands. “It’s a bit complicated to explain, I’m afraid. Usually Daichi’s the one who—” Somewhere overhead, a bird calls out. Sugawara cuts himself off, shaking his head.

He remains silent for a moment, and Kenma finally finds his voice.

“If you don’t have a point, can I go?” The sun will be setting, soon. For some reason, the evening’s been making him feel jumpy lately.

Suga looks up at him and grins sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I mean, not just for keeping you. We didn’t handle things that well, last time we met, and I didn’t want you thinking that we were evil villains after your cat, or something. If we’d known he was living with someone, well…”

He trails off again, and Kenma is left more confused than before. “Does he belong to someone else?” He doesn’t really want to ask the question, but feels like he has to.

Suga shakes his head, an incredulous laugh bubbling up from his throat. “Oh—no! Not at all! In fact, I pretty much thought no one would ever be able to tame him. He’s got kind of a difficult personality, you know?”

“He’s a cat.” Kenma says flatly, as though that should explain everything. There’s a bright flash of relief going through him, however—relief that no one else has a claim to Kuro.

“There is something I should tell you, though,” Suga says, gentle smile fading back into a look of concern. “Having him around—it might not exactly be good for you. I want you to be aware of that. And if you decide that’s not what you want, I’ll take him from you, and you can forget about all of this. About me and Akaashi, about the cat, everything.”

It should be tempting, the opportunity to return his life to its staid normalcy. But if the cost of that is giving up Kuro, it isn’t worth considering.

“No.” Kenma’s answer is immediate. “I don’t want that.”

Suga gives him a searching look, like he’s trying to gaze into the depths of Kenma’s soul. After a moment he turns, shaking his head as though to clear it. “You know, there’s this old saying—‘People who shine brightly attract a lot of darkness.’”

Kenma shakes his head, unease gnawing at his gut. “I don’t know what that means.”

“I know.” Suga sounds genuinely frustrated by this, his lips pulling into a grimace as he casts a significant look skyward. “I really wish I could explain more of this to you.”

He pauses, as though he’s waiting for an answer. But Kenma isn’t sure what he could say to that.

Suga sighs, pulling at the hem of his sweater. “Listen, about Kuroo—”

A shriek splits the air, and Kenma takes a startled leap backwards as a huge crow— the crow, he’s positive it’s the same one— dives out of the air, flapping its wings. It comes to rest on Sugawara’s shoulder, and the strangest thing is that Sugawara doesn’t seem alarmed or upset— he just huffs, as though he’d expected as much.

“Don’t be upset,” Sugawara tells the crow conversationally. “You could’ve come and talked to him.”

It probably says something about his life that a sign reading Keep the crazy bird away from me would get more than one use.

The crow caws at Suga, dark eyes somehow managing to look reproachful. When the bird shifts, again, Kenma catches sight of something glimmering among its feathers— an orange stone, exactly like the one on Suga’s bracelet. It’s wearing a similar silver band, looped around its upper leg.

“Are you talking to that bird,” Kenma asks flatly, when he manages to force his tongue around the words.

Suga turns back to him, crow still casually perched on his shoulder. “Bad habit,” he says, apologetically. “But, you know, sometimes I think it’s good to talk to anyone you can! Even if it’s someone who can’t talk back.”

Kenma’s blood freezes in his veins. He can’t imagine that Sugawara, who seems so kind and open even when he’s suspicious and maybe slightly delusional, would ever be lacking people to talk to. He can’t possibly understand the loneliness that Kenma has lived with, the way his voice and feelings had slowly shriveled up like plants without water. It makes sense that Kenma needs Kuro, needs to talk to him, needs another living thing to need him, because Kenma has lived so long without anyone at all. It’s not a bad habit or some joke— having Kuro may have saved Kenma from his own despair.

“Hey.” Suga steps forward, face all concern, “Are you alright?”

He reaches for Kenma, like he’s going to touch his shoulder or his back, and Kenma abruptly edges away, reaching down to grab his groceries from between them while keeping as much space between him and the crow as possible.

“I hope you’ll be okay,” Sugawara says thoughtfully. His amber eyes seem to bore into Kenma, assessing him. “No, I think you will be. There’s a lot of light in you.”

“I need to go.” He doesn’t owe Suga any more of an explanation in that. Barely managing with his arms full of groceries, he ducks around the corner and begins racing up the street.

“Hey!” Suga calls out, his cry punctuated by another caw from the crow. “Be careful, please!”

Kenma doubts Sugawara’s concerned about him dropping his frozen mackerel.

He needs to talk to someone about what’s been happening, lately, if only so that he can begin making sense of it all. The only problem is that the only person Kenma talks to on a regular basis can’t talk back.

He changes into his loosest, comfiest sweater and sits on the couch, mug of tea balanced in his hands. Kuro is lounging on his cushions, pushing his new felt mouse back and forth between his paws. Every so often he’ll bat it across the floor, looking up at Kenma as though he’s expecting praise for having hit his new toy so far under the couch.

“You’re a ham, aren’t you,” Kenma mutters, rolling his eyes. He doesn’t tell Kuro that he finds that particular trait endearing.

“You know why I chose to study computer science?” Kenma asks Kuro, not waiting for a response. Kuro is busy wiggling under the couch, trying to retrieve his mouse. “I like numbers. They’re easy to calculate, and when you write programs there’s a predictable outcome. One particular output for every input. Everything has a pattern, and unless you’ve made a mistake, things tend to make sense.”

People don’t make sense the same way; they never have. Maybe Kenma’s problem is that he keeps expecting the world to become more familiar with time, and it only gets stranger and stranger.

He sighs, wrapping his fingers around his mug in an attempt to warm his cold hands. Kuro darts out from under the couch, mouse held between his teeth. He drops it between Kenma’s feet, looking up at him expectantly. Kenma huffs a laugh, but leans forward to pat Kuro’s head approvingly. It’s not the cat’s fault he’s in a bad mood, after all.

“Kuro,” Kenma murmurs, shaking his head. “What do you do when the world stops making sense?”

The cat blinks at him once, then twice. Then he turns back to his bed, shifting until he’s crawled between the pillows.

He’s sure he’s being followed, now. In the hallways at his university, on the streets headed home, just outside his doorway, on the balcony. The shadows curl like snakes, trailing his movements but retreating every time he turns his head to look for them. His anxiety builds against the dam of his self-control, and he begins to worry that it won’t hold for long.

The owl is waiting for him just outside his apartment building. It’s perched in a tree across the street, looking directly at Kenma with its round, golden eyes. Immediately, Kenma looks around for Akaashi— but he doesn’t see him in either direction of the street.

He steps forward, taking a closer look at the owl. It puffs out its chest, feathers expanding outwards. When it moves again, Kenma sees a glint of gold by its feet— a gemstone, like the orange ones Sugawara and his crow were wearing. Did Akaashi have one, too?

“What are you doing here,” Kenma mutters at the owl, as he begins to head up the street. He isn’t surprised when the owl takes to the air, gliding along right behind him. “What do you want.”

The owl hoots three times in quick succession. If it’s trying to tell Kenma something, he doesn’t get the message.

“Kenma-san!” Lev calls out cheerfully, racing up the street to catch up with him. “Good morning!” He’s dressed in his school uniform, tie slightly crooked and sweater-vest untucked.

“Morning,” Kenma says, not looking up. If people were programs, greetings would probably come from an over-used code. But at least it’s a pattern that Kenma can follow.

“Do you want to come over for dinner, tonight?” Lev asks, falling instep with Kenma. “My sister made friends with the girl at the convenience store, and she’s invited her and her brother over to eat with us! He’s pretty loud, you know, but I think it’ll be a lot of fun. What do you say?”

For a moment, all Kenma can think of is the distinct irony of Lev referring to anyone else as loud. He knows the family who owns the convenience store— their family name is Yamamoto, and Taketora is about Kenma’s own age. They aren’t unfriendly people. Akane is charmingly enthusiastic, and her brother thinks he’s scarier than he actually is. They don’t force Kenma to talk too much when he goes to the store, though they’ve been smiling at his latest habit of buying too much fish for one person to consume. They aren’t bad people.

The thought of being in a room with them and Lev and his sister is terrifying. Going over to someone’s home for a meal is the worst, because you’re held hostage until the food is actually served. And then, when you sit down to eat, the host will fuss if you haven’t taken enough onto your plate. Or, if you take too much and don’t finish it, they’ll be insulted and think you didn’t like their cooking. With five people around the table, it’s obvious if one of those people isn’t contributing to the conversation. They’ll look on, maybe concerned, maybe irritated, and no matter the end result will be the same— they’ll wonder why they invited you in the first place.

You don’t take an interest in anything, do you? It’s no wonder you’re always alone.

He shakes his head, trying to dispel the unwelcome thoughts, but they’ve latched on and won’t let him go. He sees himself at age seven, age thirteen, age seventeen— a constantly repeating cycle of reaching out hesitantly and then retreating when he realized it wouldn’t work. There’s never been anyone who’s put up with him, who’s accepted him unconditionally. And trying despite that is just exhausting. It isn’t worth it.

“Kenma-san?” Lev is leaning over him, hands against his knees as he tries to keep his eyes level with Kenma’s. “Did you hear me?”

“No.” Kenma keeps walking.

“Oh— I was saying that I wanted you to come to dinner tonight, with me and—”

“No, I don’t want to come. Not no, I didn’t hear.” His voice is perfectly uninflected, no bite to it at all.

“Ah,” Lev says, momentarily at a loss for words. “Are you busy, tonight?”

“No.” It’s the easiest word, now that he’s begun to say it. He uses it as a shield between himself and the world.

“Or maybe you’re not feeling well? We could do it another time, then—”

“No.” That’s easiest, right? If he never steps forward, there’s no danger of being pushed back. He can just stay where he’s always been, comfortably, and he’ll be alright as a result. Safe, even.

Lev has finally stopped walking beside him. He tugs on the strap of his school bag, looking confused. “I thought… we were becoming friends?” He says the words so hopefully, and Kenma remembers that any sliver of encouragement has Lev lighting up. It’s like he can take any tiny bit of positivity and multiply it.

Why can’t Kenma do the same? Why does it feel like he’s always doing the precise opposite?

He could say anything, in this moment. He could tell Lev that he’s forgotten how to have friends, if he ever really had any at all. He barely remembers how to talk to people, most days. When someone addresses him, he waits too long to respond, and his voice comes out too loudly or too quietly and the entire tempo of the conversation is stilted and awkward. He doesn’t know how to do any of this.

“I don’t have friends,” is what comes out, after a terribly long moment. It’s not what he means to say, honestly. But it’s what will get him away from this situation the quickest. “Especially not you.”

When he turns at the next corner, he catches sight of Lev’s face— no brilliant smile, no expectant glimmer in his eyes. Instead, he’s frozen in place, hands still clutching his bag, mouth slightly open.

He looks confused. He looks hurt.

Kenma doesn’t turn back.

He’s not sure how he makes it through the day. It’s as though a hive of bees has taken up residence in his brain, buzzing and pulling his thoughts in too many directions. He barely registers what’s said to him in class, catches his train mechanically and curls in on himself in his seat until the automated voice calls out his stop. He shoots up abruptly, pushing his way through the doors just for a chance to breathe.

Kuro knows. He’s waiting for Kenma at the corner, as always, and when he catches sight of Kenma he tilts his head and looks up at him questioningly. For the first time, his presence isn’t a comfort. Instead, it just feels like he’s one more person demanding answers from Kenma, answers that Kenma doesn’t have.

“Let’s just go home,” he mutters. Kuro meows plaintively, but follows Kenma down the street.

He sleeps in fits and starts. He glances at the clock around three, sighs and turns his face into the pillows. Kuro, curled up at his feet, doesn’t stir.

He dreams about the yellow house. As a child, he sits out in the yard, careful not to get too dirty as he kneels in the grass and observes the world around him. It’s peaceful, but it’s lonely. Then a shadow falls over him, and he looks up into the narrow, golden eyes of a little boy. He takes a step back, laughing, and Kenma can see his mess of dark hair and the charming tilt of his smile.

I live next door, he says, and we’re going to be friends.

At first, Kenma’s a bit resentful of the demand. Who is this kid to just decide these things for him? But the boy just keeps pushing, telling Kenma to come play with him day in and day out. After awhile, Kenma goes along with him. He realizes he’s looking forward to the boy’s visits instead of dreading them. He’s gotten used to the companionship.

I made a friend, he says at the dinner table, picking at his food.

What? Who?

The boy who lives next door. In the white house.

Kenma, what are you talking about? No one lives in that house.

My friend does.

That’s impossible. Are you making up stories? What goes on in that head of yours?

He’s upset, when he tells his friend. No one believes that he’s real.

I’m sorry, his friend says, biting down on his lower lip. He does that, a lot. He doesn’t like people seeing him truly distressed, even if that person is just Kenma, who is his friend.

The next day, his friend doesn’t come visit. He doesn’t come the next day, or the next day, or the next. Kenma tells himself he’s stopped waiting, but he still stops by the fence every day that he lives in the yellow house.

He never sees his friend again. The white house really is abandoned.

The dreams shifts in and out of memory. There’s a black cat darting along his path, chasing a crow, being chased by a snake. Shadows and light filter through the images, making them all hazy and blurred. The lights fade out faster than the shadows, and eventually his mind is just dark and fathomless.

He wakes up with a start, sitting upright in bed as his chest heaves. It’s difficult to breathe, but more alarming is the feeling of panic rising inside him. It’s like he’s drowning— every time he sees over one retreating wave another crashes over him, and he’s disoriented all over again.

Kuro has gotten up from his corner of the bed, headed towards Kenma. Kuro will try to comfort him, Kenma knows. He’ll let Kenma hold onto him until he calms down, and eventually the panic will retreat, and everything will go back to normal, until the next time.

“Stop,” Kenma wheezes, when Kuro is almost right next to him. “Stop, don’t.”

He doesn’t really know what he’s refusing, but Kuro freezes in his tracks. His golden eyes flit over Kenma’s face, and suddenly it’s too much. He doesn’t deserve Kuro’s comfort. He hurt Lev, and he pushes everyone else away, and no one has ever stuck around because Kenma isn’t worth it. Whatever Sugawara and Akaashi are involved in, Kuro’s probably better off with them. It’s not as if Kenma’s really needed.

He needs to get out of here. He pushes his blankets aside, rushing from his bedroom and out to his front door. He’s not thinking straight, doesn’t even put on shoes before he pushes open the door and lets himself out into the early morning air. The grass beside his apartment is wet with dew as he keeps walking, trying to put as much distance between himself and the stagnant places of his life as he can.

In the center of the city, there aren’t many places that Kenma can go to feel at peace. Everywhere is blocked off by tall buildings, lampposts and street signs. Except for patches of trees and grass, everything is concrete and pavement. There’s nowhere to even breathe.

He keeps walking. In the early morning light, the lampposts cast long shadows and pockets of darkness bracket the alleyways.

Eventually, he comes to clearer spot, an expanse of grass by the local elementary school. He sinks down to his knees, feels the dampness soak through the thin fabric of his pajama pants. The crisp air has cleared his head, somewhat, but he’s still left feeling hollow.

When was the last time he didn’t feel this way? When he talked to Lev, and felt that they might become friends? When he confronted Akaashi and Sugawara, and felt in control? When he realized that Kuro would stay, and knew he’d never really be alone again?

But he’s still alone, isn’t he? Kuro can’t fill the vast emptiness inside of him.

The shadows are coming closer, slithering through the grass. They coil and twist and writhe, surrounding him in a spiraling pattern. He barely sees them.

He curls in closer on himself, knees against his chest and hair falling forward over his face. How easy it would be to just sink into the ground, here, to disappear entirely. There would be no risk involved. There’s no one to miss him, to be adversely affected. Even Kuro had managed to fend for himself, before Kenma had taken him in.

The shadows are completely covering him, now. His mind vaguely registers the sudden darkness as strange. It really seems fitting— shadows are insubstantial, shapeless. They don’t truly exist. Kenma’s like that— a shadow of a person, just going through the motions. Not really there at all.

It would be so easy to just give up.

He cries out when something bites into his leg. He looks up, and Kuro’s got his teeth sunk into Kenma’s ankle, biting down viciously. The cat glances up and his eyes flash— he looks furious. When he meets Kenma’s gaze he pulls away from him, baring his teeth and hissing.

Kuro’s yelling at him, Kenma realizes. He’s being scolded.

It’s then that he sees—truly sees—the shadows forming around him. They’re spiraling around Kuro, too, circling like they’re trying to entrap him. Kuro hisses at them, jumping out of their coil only to be followed a moment later.

“That’s,” Kenma croaks, eyes wide, “that’s not normal.”

Kuro glances back at him, eyes narrowed. Maybe Kenma’s being scolded for stating the obvious, now.

There’s no time to dwell on it, because Kuro darting back towards him. He pushes against Kenma’s feet, trying to get him to stand. Kenma attempts to pull himself to his feet, but it feels like something’s tugging him down, anchoring him to the earth. He tries to push himself up, palms flat on the ground, but he only feels himself sinking further.

“Kuro—!”

The cat yelps in alarm, running round and round Kenma. The shadows grow darker and deeper, and Kenma feels them tying him down, pulling him in. He’s pushing against gravity, trying to fight them off. The path of least resistance would be to fall forward and stop trying to move.

Kuro hisses from his side.

“Okay,” Kenma mutters. “More resistance, not less. I understand.”

But even as he struggles, he can’t pull himself free. Kenma glances around, trying to find the source of the darkness, to quell his rising panic. The shadows are fanned out in ropes, but they’re all coming from a single point— a dark shadow on the far side of the field, a mass of churning darkness that looks like a coiled snake.

“I— What is that?”

Kuro has stepped between Kenma and the shadowy snake, as though his tiny body could possible act as a shield.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kenma says. “What are you going to do?”

Kuro turns back and tilts his head, as though he’s just accepted a challenge.

“You’re so— this is how you got into this mess in the first place! Stop trying to take on things that are clearly going to kill you!” First the crow, now this— this— whatever the hell this is.

Kuro is baring his teeth. The snake is inching closer, growing longer as the sun begins to light up the morning sky. One more curling rope of shadow extends from the snake, crawling out towards Kuro and falling across his neck, just over his collar.

The world holds its breath for a moment. When Kenma finally manages a shaking inhale, he lets out a startled cry.

The shadow is wrapping around Kuro’s neck, tighter and tighter. It’s choking him— it’s going to kill him.

“Kuro!” Why hadn’t he run away when he had the chance? Why did he follow Kenma in the first place? “Why are you so stupid?”

He knows why. It’s the same reason Kuro helps Kenma find his voice, helps calm him down and makes him feel confident, good, even. It’s the reason Kenma never even hesitated when Sugawara said that keeping Kuro might lead him to trouble.

It’s because they care about each other. It’s because, in a frighteningly short amount of time, Kuro has become the most important person in Kenma’s life. He’s given Kenma something to lose.

He doesn’t know if that caring is a strength, or a vulnerability.

Kuro is twisting on the ground, the shadow constricting his breathing. His eyes are bulging, short cries ripping from his throat.

And Kenma, weighed down and trapped, needs to move. If not for himself, then for Kuro.

The first step is the hardest. The shadows are burning through his skin, trying to force him back down. But Kenma moves, forces himself upwards and lunges towards Kuro with a pained cry. He only manages to move a few feet, but it’s enough. He reaches for Kuro, wrapping the cat up in his arms as if that will do anything at all to dispel the shadows.

It works, but not quite as he’d hoped. The shadow uncurls from Kuro’s neck, the cat wheezing painfully as he tries to force air back into his lungs. But then the shadow extends and wraps around Kenma’s neck like a vice. It burns against his skin, makes him stutter and gasp for breath. But even as he twists, there’s no way out of it. It’s clamped on tightly, and he can’t breathe.

He didn’t know cats could scream. But the sound coming from Kuro could be nothing else, a high-pitched wail that makes Kenma’s ears ring.

“Go,” he tells the cat, feeling the blood rushing to his head. “Go, run—get out of here.” Damn it, this hurts. He’s going to die on the wet grass, strangled by something he doesn’t even understand, but it’s not even the ignorance that bothers him. It’s the stupid thought that dying alone is better, because it means someone’s going to survive you.

“Go,” he says, voice weak as his eyes slide shut.

The next thing he’s aware of is a brilliant flash of light that he notices even from behind closed eyes. He hears something tearing, someone hissing in pain. And then there are arms around him— arms that feel strong, and remarkably human. The pressure around his throat lifts, and Kenma gasps, struggling to draw breath.

Kenma blinks open his eyes. He’s being clutched against someone’s chest, so close that he can’t get a good look at them. He looks up and is met by two startlingly familiar golden eyes.

“Kuro…?”

Kuro doesn’t say anything. He adjusts his grip on Kenma, one armed looped around Kenma’s waist, and extends the other in front of him protectively. The shadow snake is still laying a few yards away from them, and Kenma sees two bright flashes of red— narrowed eyes, watching them. The shadows are drawing back, all focusing around the snake.

If this were a video game, Kenma thinks distantly, this would be the moment at which the boss gathered its strength for a final, devastating attack.

The snake hisses, and the shadows turn faster and faster. Kenma notices the precise moment at which the shadows turn— not curling in on themselves, but radiating outward, about to come straight towards them.

“Look out!” he cries out in warning, trying to tug Kuro away from the shadow’s path.

Kuro shoves Kenma to one side, and he falls down hard on his knees, crying out in pain. Kuro barely gives him a second glance, darting between the shadows and Kenma and extending both his hands— it’s like he’s making a wall of himself, or a shield. Kenma opens his mouth to scream at the moment the shadows hit Kuro, but no sound comes out. Instead, he watches in startled silence as the shadows rush at Kuro, only to pulse in midair as they hit his extended hands. For a moment, Kenma fears the shadows will break through and consume Kuro, but instead he smirks— and oh, there’s a familiar expression— and the shadows are forced backwards with all the strength that they’d rushed towards him with. They rebound, colliding with the shadow snake. The snake hisses, high-pitched and agonized like a scream. Then sunlight filters through the early morning sky and the snake curls in on itself, dissolving as if it was never there at all.

In the light of morning, the shadows retreat. When Kuro turns to look at him, Kenma isn’t scared at all.

He’s much taller than Kenma, limbs long and toned. His tanned skin stretches over his muscles as he rolls his shoulders and extends his arms over his head. He’s not wearing anything. There are two circular scars on his upper chest, evenly spaced like a snake’s bite.

“Kuro,” Kenma says again, this time without any question.

Kuro turns towards him, golden eyes slightly shadowed by his mess of dark hair. The locks fall over his eyes on one side of his face, sticking up at odd angles. When Kuro meets his eyes, he smiles ruefully— a slightly crooked smile, all gleaming white teeth.

Kuro opens his mouth as if to speak, but instead he just coughs, sounding like something’s being scraped against his throat. He frowns, looking down at his hands and the length of his body as if they’ve betrayed him, somehow.

“It’s okay,” Kenma says, trying to push himself up to his feet. His pajamas are a mess, dirty and disheveled. His palms are scraped and muddy. “Let’s… let’s just go home, okay?”

Kuro seems to consider this, then nods. He kneels down, and Kenma can’t see what he’s doing until he’s stood up, again. When Kenma does see, he inhales sharply.

He’s picked up his collar, which much have split when Kuro… changed. He turns the red leather over and over in his hands, until he finally re-loops the collar and pulls it over his wrist. He extends his arm towards Kenma, looking at him expectantly.

It takes Kenma a moment to realize what he’s asking for. His heart is beating up into his throat when he reaches out to fasten the collar around Kuro’s wrist, like a bracelet.

When the task is complete, Kenma clutches at Kuro’s hand. Kuro looks down at him and smiles, though his eyes look almost sad. But he doesn’t let go of Kenma’s hand as they begin the slow walk home in the early morning light.

It’s too early for anyone to be out on the street, which is just as well. Kenma doesn’t know how he’d explain the very large, very naked man that he’s currently escorting back to his apartment. The front door is still open when they arrive, also fortunately— Kenma hadn’t thought to grab his keys when he’d run out the door, what seems like hours ago now.

His mind is racing with questions. But before he can ask them, Kuro makes a vague gesture towards the couch. He doesn’t ask for permission before he staggers towards it, laying himself down on his stomach and pulling two cushions towards him, clutching them over either side of his head. Within a few minutes, his chest is rising and falling in the tell-tale motions of sleep.

Kenma, more than a little shell-shocked, is left at a loss. Eventually, he settles for grabbing the blanket from his bed and draping it over Kuro, before curling himself up in his desk chair. He watches the steady movements of Kuro’s sleep for a bit longer, until he dozes off as well. It’s the first time in weeks that he sleeps without dreams.

Someone is calling out for him. Kenma is immediately awake, eyes searching around the room until they settle on Kuro, who’s shifting restlessly beneath his blanket.

“Kenma,” he mutters, voice muffled by the pillows he’s surrounded himself with. “Kenma.”

Maybe it’s the fact that he’s calling Kenma’s name, or the realization that Kuro has a voice at all—maybe it’s the thought that Kuro needs him. Whatever the case, Kenma’s kneeling by the couch in an instant, reaching out and grabbing Kuro’s hand.

“It’s okay,” he says, “I’m here.”

Kuro’s hand clutches tightly to Kenma’s, but he doesn’t wake. Kenma watches him as his breath evens out and he stills, wondering what Kuro’s having nightmares about now that he’s human.

“Kenma.” Someone’s shaking him by the shoulders, trying to wake him. “Kenma.”

He groans, shifting as his muscles ache in protest. Maybe kneeling next to the couch and falling asleep wasn’t his brightest idea. What time is it, anyway?

“Kenma.”

He looks up, his sleep-fogged brain clearing enough to be alert to the unfamiliar voice. A man is leaning over him, hands gentle on his shoulders. His voice is deep, pitched low. He’s saying Kenma’s name.

“Kuro,” Kenma blinks up at him, straightening up when Kuro steps away from him. He’s wearing the blanket Kenma had draped over him like some sort of strange toga, a weird show of modesty. Under Kenma’s keen stare, he looks sheepish.

“Yo.”

“You can talk.”

“Well, yeah.” Now Kuro’s lips curl upwards in a grin. “Before I just— that took a lot out of me. I had to get used to this, again.” He gestures down at his body, and has the gall to look rather pleased with himself.

“What are you?” Kenma asks. “A cat, or a person?”

Kuro tilts his head, running one hand through his messy hair. “Both,” he says, after awhile. “Also sort of neither. It’s hard to explain.”

“Try,” Kenma says flatly. He isn’t upset with Kuro, at least not actively, but after everything he’s been through he at least deserves an explanation.

“I will,” Kuro promises, so earnestly that Kenma immediately believes him. “But first— do we have any food? I’m seriously starving.”

Apparently, human Kuro is as fond of mackerel as cat Kuro had been. But instead of letting Kenma fry the fillets plain, he rustles through Kenma’s cabinets for salt and seasoning, and takes over the cooking on his own. Kenma watches from the sidelines, munching on an apple as Kuro curls the excess of the blanket over his arm to keep the fabric away from the flame.

Eventually, he and Kuro are back at the couch, Kuro digging into his fish with gusto. Kenma had handed him chopsticks, but halfway through he tires of trying to manage them and just eats the fish with his hands and teeth.

When he’s done, he sets his plate aside and looks at Kenma expectantly, like he’s waiting for questions. Kenma has a million of them, but he has no idea where to begin. This morning seems like a dream, far away and unreal. The only thing he’s sure of is that Kuro is sitting next to him, and he’s human.

“What’s your name?” Kenma asks abruptly.

Kuro looks down at him and chuckles. “Kuroo,” he says. “Kuroo Tetsurou.”

“Tetsurou,” Kenma says, trying the name out. It sounds heavy and awkward on his tongue.

Kuro wrinkles his nose. “Kuro’s fine,” he says, dismissing Kenma’s attempt with a wave of his hand. “I told you you were close, remember?”

“You blinked at me,” Kenma mutters. “And you were a cat.”

“I was trying my best,” Kuro says with one hand over his heart, feigning injury.

Kenma looks down at his knees, hands fidgeting in his lap. “…why didn’t you tell me?”

Kuro’s eyes are wide and sincere. “Oh, Kenma. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I swear. I just…” he trails off, looking embarrassed. “I didn’t really remember, myself.”

“How does that even happen?” Kenma has his knees drawn up to his chest, still dressed in his dirtied pajamas from earlier. He’s over-conscious of the foot and a half of space between him and Kuro on the couch.

Kuro looks down at his hands, his smile shifting to something self-deprecating. “It’s not supposed to,” he says finally. “But I… I wasn’t in a good place. It was easier to be a cat, than a person.”

Kenma’s heart twists. The events of this morning have made it almost impossible to dwell on what he’d been feeling, earlier, but that doesn’t mean the feelings are gone. “Not in a good place,” only scratches the surface.

“So what happened?”

Kuro sighs, tipping his head back. “I think I’m going to have to explain everything, from the beginning. It’s a long story, and to be honest I don’t really like telling it. The others are better at it than I am.”

“The others,” Kenma says carefully. “Your friends.”

It shouldn’t hit him as hard as it does, the idea that Kuro is a person, with a life. A person with a life and connections to other people. Even in the brief time they’ve spent together, it’s clear that Kuro is confident, and open, and—amazing. He probably has a million friends, and the ones who’ve been skulking around Kenma’s neighborhood looking for him are probably just the beginning. Maybe Kenma’s been foolish to think that Kuro needed him as much as Kenma needs Kuro.

Kuro blinks, keeping his eyes shut for a long moment. When he speaks again, his voice is carefully uninflected, but that only makes Kenma suspect his sadness all the more. “I don’t know if I can call them my friends, really.”

“Why not?”

Kuro’s hands clench, and when he laughs the sound is harsh and bitter. “They don’t need me,” he says at length. “At least, not anymore.”

His heart is pounding too quickly. Is empathy supposed to hurt this much? Kenma can’t make sense of it, so he digs his nails into his palms and shakes his head.

“Just—start at the beginning?”

“We’re called guardians,” Kuro says. “Over time, people have had different names for us, but it really all comes back to that. We’re shifters, shaper-changers… the name doesn’t really matter. What does is that we’re supposed to keep the two kinds of magical forces in the world balanced.” He rattles this off with a roll of his eyes, as though it’s something he’s heard many times over.

Kenma thinks back to the curling snake made of shadows, to Sugawara’s words: People who shine brightly attract a lot of darkness.

“Shadows and light,” he says, not quite a question.

Kuro nods approvingly. “Basically, yeah. There’s a bit more to it than that—shadow magic is born of independence, of isolation and loneliness. Light magic is connections, the relationships between people. Most people have a low dose of both, go through their entire lives not realizing there’s magic in the world.”

“But not you,” Kenma prompts.

“Unfortunately.” Kuro runs a hand through his hair again, sighs heavily. “There are two sorts of people who can actually use those magical forces—guardians, like myself, and wielders, like Akaashi and Sugawara. You remember them?”

“Since they won’t leave me alone? Yeah, I remember them.” He can’t help the pang of jealousy he feels, hearing Kuro mention them.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Kuro says, pursing his lips. “I’m not any happier with them than you are.”

Kenma wants to ask why, but trusts Kuro enough to get to the end of the story eventually. He nods at him to continue.

“Guardians attract magical forces,” Kuro says, words coming smoothly as though practiced, “and generate magical energy, themselves. It’s what allows us to shift from one form to another. But we can’t really use magic, beyond that. I can block magical energy, or redirect it, but I can’t turn it into something else. That’s a wielder’s job.”

He pauses, face pinched with frustration for a moment.

“Ever since I can remember, there’s been four of us—all guardians, all differently balanced in terms of shadows and light. Wielders are rare, and they aren’t as easy to detect as guardians, because they don’t give off their own magical energy. And for a long time, I figured we just didn’t need wielders, since the four of us managed just fine without them. And then, a few years ago, one of us found his wielder.”

Kuro stares down at his hands, face darkening as he remembers. “I wasn’t jealous. We didn’t really have that sort of relationship, so at first things didn’t change much. But guardians and wielders, when they find each other, they have to be close. It doesn’t work any other way. A wielder can take his guardian’s magical energy and use it, convert it from one form to another. When things get particularly unbalanced, the world needs wielders more than it needs guardians.”

Kenma sits silently, watching Kuro and listening intently. He’s not sure what else he can do, at this moment.

“And then, it happened again. Another of us found his partner. And again, it didn’t really bother me, because Bokuto and I were still on our own. And we’d always gotten along best, out of the four of us—our magics are nearly opposite to each other’s, and I figure that probably meant something. I guess a stupid part of me thought that if we had each other, neither of us needed a wielder at all.”

But Kenma already knows how this story ends—because he’s met Akaashi, and seen him with the owl, and of course, he had called that owl Bokuto-san.

“You don’t like Akaashi?” Kenma asks.

Kuro throws his head back and laughs, but it’s that same dark and bitter sound. Kenma finds himself wondering what Kuro would sound like if he laughed sincerely, happily.

“No, Akaashi’s great. You should hear the way Bokuto talks about him—like he hung the moon, and then stuck around to position the stars. I could never hate anyone who made my best friend that happy.”

Then why are you so sad? Kenma wonders. Aloud, he mutters, “That doesn’t explain anything. That doesn’t explain why you’ve been here, and not with them.”

Kuro shifts on the couch, turning until he’s facing Kenma directly, looking straight into his eyes. “It’s like I said. They were all paired up, and so damn happy about it. They didn’t need me anymore. And by myself, there’s not much I can do. And it’s not bad, it’s not wrong—they didn’t mean to leave me behind, and Bokuto always asked me to come along with him and Akaashi, and that was fine, but…”

“But?”

“It just got so damn lonely, after awhile.” Kuro finally drops his gaze, like he’s ashamed of himself. “Emotions were easier, when I was a cat. Cats decide who they like and don’t like immediately, and they don’t have to give explanations about why. So I started just… spending more and more time in that form. Not going back, most nights. It was easier, the more I did it.”

“How long?” Kenma asks, trying to imagine it. He’s often imagined that if he could be someone else, his emotions might be easier to process. But what if he was something else? Would it be even easier? It’s not difficult to understand the temptation.

Kuro makes a vague gesture in the air. “A couple of months—maybe six? It’s hard to keep track. Bokuto stuck around for most of it, but he never really pressured me to change back. Sawamura kept scolding me, which was getting annoying. So a few weeks ago, I decided I didn’t care what he thought, anymore. And I… acted out.”

Acted out, Kenma realizes, by attacking his friend by Kenma’s dumpster. Because who else could Sawamura be, except the crow? And if Kuro had been a cat for six months, at that point, it’s no wonder he reacted like a wild animal when Kenma tried to help him. How human was he, really, for the past few weeks?

“I guess it must just seem like I’m whining,” Kuro concedes, after a moment’s silence. “What happened this morning—that was my fault. I couldn’t get myself together, even when Sugawara and Akaashi tried to warn me, and that put you in danger.”

Kuro’s looking up at him again, eyes gleaming and sincere. Over the past few weeks, those eyes have brought Kenma nothing but comfort, and confidence.

“I’m so sorry,” Kuro says, fists clenched at his sides. “Kenma—can you forgive me?”

He’s really not sure how any normal person is supposed to process this much information. He’s barely able to react to Kuro’s humanity, much less the balance of magic in the world, or the fact that magic exists, or any of the rest of it. It’s too much, especially when he feels raw and vulnerable and fragile.

There’s only one thing he’s really sure of, one thing he knows he wants to say.

“Are you ever selfish?” Kenma asks, dodging Kuro’s question with one of his own.

Kuro blinks, taken aback. “What?”

“Why is it all your fault?” Kenma demands. “Your friends—the others—they’re supposed to take care of things too, aren’t they? Why didn’t one of them know about that snake?”

“…I don’t know,” Kuro mutters, after a moment, still looking surprised.

“You were just trying to protect yourself from what you were feeling—what’s wrong with that?” Kenma’s voice is still quiet, still contained. But he’s agitated, under the surface. He wants to understand.

“What’s wrong is that it didn’t work!” Kuro says suddenly. “It’s been ages, and now I’m human again, but it still sucks! I still feel shitty about it!”

“What did you expect? You never really dealt with it,” Kenma says softly.

“I know that!” Kuro leans forward, runs his hands over his face. He looks painfully tired, but there’s a fire burning in his eyes. “I know that, damn it. And now there’s this entire other thing I have to deal with, and I’m not any better at this than I was six months ago. Shit.”

“What other thing?” The question forces its way out, even when Kenma thinks better of asking it.

Kuro looks up, blinking at him before shifting his gaze away again. “Don’t you know?”

He has an idea. A very good idea, because there’s a feeling that’s been beating against his chest since this morning, knocking on his ribs and demanding a way out. Kenma keeps forcing it back down, unwilling and unable to deal with it just yet. He shakes his head, curling tighter around himself as he sits on the couch and tries to make himself as small as possible.

“It’s not all your fault,” Kenma says suddenly, and he feels something inside of him twist, and break. “If the shadows are loneliness, if that’s where they come from, then it’s my fault.”

“Kenma—”

“I’m not—I don’t think I have any light. I’m not good at talking to people, or making them want to be around me. I can’t make connections. And most of the time, I don’t even want to try. I—I hurt people. Even when I don’t mean to.”

“Hey, stop that—”

But Kenma can’t stop, now. He feels furious, a directionless anger that he suspects he should be aiming at himself. But instead he’s angry at Kuro, for feeling lonely when he doesn’t have to. He’s angry at Lev, for wanting to be his friend when he’s clearly inept at such things. And he’s angry at the rest of the world, for demonstrating what relationships can be like—what they should be like—and then giving him Kuro when he’s nearly positive he can’t keep him.

“If that snake came from anywhere, I think it came from me.”

It’s his fault, isn’t it? He’s the one who has these dark emotions, and can’t tame them. He’s the one who’s been lonely for so long, he doesn’t remember what companionship feels like.

“Can I hold you?”

What?” Of all the things he’d expected Kuro to say, to do, that wasn’t among them. But Kuro is leaning over him, looking at him expectantly.

“If I was—when I was a cat, I knew what to do when you got like this. But now that I’m—me, again, I thought it might be weird. So… can I hold you?”

He’s not sure what to say, so Kenma just nods dumbly. In an instant, Kuro has crossed the space between them and pulled Kenma into his arms, holding him close against his chest.

“You’re the one who’s always calling me stupid,” Kuro murmurs, strong hands rubbing up and down Kenma’s spine. “But you’ve got to be blind, not to see what you really are.”

Kenma just shakes his head, hiding his face in the crook of Kuro’s neck.

“If a room is dark in the first place, you can’t see it if a new shadow falls,” Kuro explains, voice light. “But if the room is bright, every shadow that crosses it seems darker. Magic is complicated. And people are even more complicated. But as someone who’s been around magic his whole life, believe me when I say this—I’ve never met a person with as much light as you.”

A sob hiccups up in Kenma’s throat, but he manages to hold it in. Instead, he reaches out and wraps his arms around Kuro’s shoulders, returning his embrace. The feeling of holding someone is foreign, but it’s more comforting that Kenma could have ever imagined. He can feel their hearts beating together, every touch of Kuro’s fingertips through his t-shirt like a jolt of electricity against his spine.

Oh, he thinks, maybe this is why people need each other.

“Kuro,” he says, voice muffled, “What do we do now?”

Kuro doesn’t let go of him, takes a few minutes before he responds. “I think we have to go see my friends,” he says with a sigh, as though he’s reading off his own death order. “But first, I think I should probably find some pants.”

Kenma can’t help it. He pushes Kuro away, covering his mouth with his hands in a way that does absolutely nothing to hide his laughter.

Chapter Text

He can’t bring himself to knock on the door. It should be so easy— he’s already steeled himself into coming here, is standing right where he needs to be. He just needs to lift his hand, and knock. There’s nothing difficult about it, but Kenma can’t make his body go through the required motions.

It’s partially guilt, he knows. Lev has done nothing to earn Kenma’s cruelty, and yet Kenma pushed Lev away at every opportunity. Lev has been helpful, even— he’d probably kept Kuro alive, that first night, and afterwards had been endearingly protective. But Kenma’s mind had never gotten the memo. He couldn’t make himself let Lev in, even though he wanted to.

“I could go with you,” Kuro had offered, when Kenma had told him what he was about to do. Kenma had fixed him with a flat look and refused. He barely knew how to phrase his request in the first place, never mind with the large and underdressed Kuro looming behind him.

“I could go as a cat?” Kuro had suggested, smiling as though it was the most helpful idea in the world.

Something inside Kenma had spasmed at the thought, and he pushed Kuro backwards onto the couch with an involuntary movement of both his hands. “No,” he’d said, unable to articulate how much the thought scared him. Kuro spoke as though going between forms was usually a fluid, easy thing, but he had forgotten how to be human for six months. Despite the weirdness of having Kuro as a person around, Kenma can’t bear the thought of losing this version of him. He loved Kuro as a cat, but he’s only beginning to discover Kuro as a person. It isn’t worth risking.

“I don’t think we can really get where we need to go with me naked,” Kuro had admitted ruefully, lying back lazily on the couch. “And literally nothing you own would fit me.”

“That’s not my fault,” Kenma had muttered, trying not to stare too much at the long lines of Kuro’s body. But Kuro had just smirked at him, until Kenma had rolled his eyes and turned away, exasperated.

After all that, he’s left here— raising his hand to knock on the door, and unable to complete the motion. Logically, he knows that his feelings about interacting with people are usually unfounded. But Lev is someone he’s given real reason to be upset with him. He doesn’t need affirmation that he’s ill-suited to being around people, especially not today.

Just before his thoughts can truly begin to spiral, the door swings open. Kenma jumps back, startled, until he realizes the person who opened the door isn’t Lev.

But she is a lot like him— tall, long-limbed, her skin pale and her hair silver-blonde. She looks down on him with keen green eyes, and her lips quirk into a knowing, but not unkind, smile.

“Kozume-kun?” Haiba Alisa asks. “Are you here to see Lev?”

Alisa waves him towards Lev’s room, not taking no for an answer when Kenma had begun to stutter through his apologies. He’s glad when she glides off in the opposite direction, leaving him to it. She’s perfectly nice, but that only makes her more intimidating.

But that leaves Kenma standing before yet another closed door. The Haiba apartment is slightly bigger than his own, with two bedrooms instead of one. The hallway and living room are immaculately kept, and there’s an old wooden nameplate hanging on Lev’s door. Something is written on it in unintelligible script—Cyrillic, maybe?

He’s never going to get anywhere if he tries to convince himself to knock on this door. So Kenma takes a deep breath, and just pushes his way inside.

“I’m not hungry—oh! Ke—ah, Kozume-san?” Lev sounds started, jumping up from where he’d been lying back on his bed. The room seems too small to contain him, large and gangly as he is. The walls are covered with posters— some from recent animated movies, some of ostensibly famous athletes—is that a volleyball? There’s a desk crammed into one corner underneath the single window, and the bed takes up the entire perpendicular wall. Lev’s sitting up, now, looking at Kenma with wide, expectant eyes.

Say something, Kenma demands of himself. Don’t just barge into someone’s room and expect them to understand what you want.

He might reject you, an unwelcome voice returns. You might have ruined this too badly to fix.

Another voice tells this one to shut up, and when it does, it sounds suspiciously like Kuro.

Kenma clears his throat, coughs. Then, he tries again.

“I’m sorry.” He mumbles the words, pushing them together until they’re indistinguishable.

“What?” Lev leans forward, like he genuinely hasn’t heard.

Kenma feels his cheeks heating, looks down at his feet. “I’m sorry,” he says, pronouncing each word slowly and deliberately. “I— I’ve been having a bad week. And I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Oh,” Lev says quietly, and when Kenma glances up he sees that Lev’s cheeks are dusted a light pink.

“Oh?” Kenma repeats, his entire body on edge. Was that a good sound, or a bad one?

“I’m sorry!” Lev exclaims suddenly, jumping to his feet. “I didn’t even notice that you were having a bad time! People tell me that I push things too far, a lot, but I can’t help it. I just got really excited, because I really, really like you, Kozume-san! You’re so cool and you have dyed hair and you have a black cat, like a witch in a fairytale! But the good kind, definitely. So I’m sorry, if I was annoying!”

“Um.” He’s not sure what to say to that. What on earth is Lev apologizing for?

“Will you forgive me?” Lev says earnestly. He’s a third year in high school, but at the moment he looks very much like a child. He isn’t stupid, but he’s… too genuine, sometimes. It makes Kenma scared for him, because surely anyone who’s this excited, this honest, will only end up being crushed by the darkness of the world.

He wonders if the magic Kuro had spoken of might be able to protect Lev from that eventuality.

“D-don’t be stupid,” Kenma says finally, struggling to keep his voice unaffected through his embarrassment. “I was the one who said those things to you. You don’t need to apologize.”

“But I wanted to!” Lev says, his grin blinding in its sincerity. “Friendships are always two-ways, you know! Kozume-san, if you felt like you needed to apologize, then there was definitely something I should apologize for, too!”

Friendships. The room is filling with more and more light.

“If we’re friends, stop calling me Kozume,” Kenma mutters, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie.

Lev’s laughter bubbles out of him, jubilant. “Kenma-san, then!”

He likes it when people call him by his name. He likes it when people know him well enough to do so.

Kenma shifts awkwardly from foot to foot, trying to hold onto the warm feeling in his chest. “I also need your help, with something.”

Lev looks at him, considering something. Then he lifts his chin, declaring, “Whatever it is, I’ll only help on one condition.”

Kenma scowls. Why can’t he ever make anything easy? “What’s that?”

“You have to agree to come to dinner! —no, wait, was that what made you uncomfortable, last time? Then maybe not with so many people. Or maybe just you and me could go to lunch. Like McDonald’s! That would okay, right?”

Kenma just gapes at him. His entire body feels warm, a mixture of embarrassment and some other feeling he can’t put a name too. It’s unfamiliar, but not unwelcome.

“Why?” he grits out, after a moment. “Why do you keep asking?”

Lev looks down at him, his smile suddenly sheepish. “Oh, don’t you know? It’s like I said. I really, really like you, Kenma-san! And I want to be your friend, for real.”

Kenma is probably going to explode, if the rising heat in his face is any indication.

“…fine.”

“Huh?”

“Fine, we can go to lunch. Or dinner. Just not today.” There’s a million other things he has to deal with, today.

“Yes!” Lev pumps his fist in the air. “Of course! You can give me your cellphone number, and I’ll give you mine, and we’ll set a time— oh, sorry. What was it you needed help with?”

“I need to borrow some clothes,” Kenma says. He’s already exhausted, and the day has barely even begun.

He gets back to his own apartment a few minutes later, ears ringing. Lev hadn’t asked too many questions, thankfully, but he had seen Kenma off with a “promise to give Kuro-san a pet from me, okay?” It’s definitely not the time to explain all the complications that that entails.

He finds Kuro more or less where he left him, sitting on the couch and flipping through a book he must’ve grabbed off of Kenma’s shelf. He looks up immediately when Kenma enters the room, soft smile coming easily to his lips.

“How’d it go—” Before he can finish the question, his eyes go wide and he glances at Kenma in open surprise. “Oh, wow.”

“What?” Kenma demands, glancing down to see if there’s anything visibly wrong with him.

“Nothing, nothing,” Kuro says, waving him off. “It’s nothing.”

Kenma shoots him a disbelieving look. “Whatever.” He shoves the bundle of clothes at Kuro, shaking his head. “Just go get dressed.”

“I knew there was a reason I didn’t like that kid,” Kuro mutters, tugging on the hem of his borrowed, lilac-colored shirt.

Most all of Lev’s clothes had been bright and flashy, neon colors and garish designs. He’s only a few centimeters taller than Kuro, but it makes a difference when Kuro’s dressed in his clothes. The jeans fit him oddly, the shirt scooping low on his neck but too tight at the sleeves. He’s still wearing the red collar around his wrist, absently thumbing at the leather with his other hand.

Kenma suspects that the clothes aren’t the reason that Kuro looks so uncomfortable, however. He’s been shivering oddly since he’d emerged from Kenma’s bathroom, freshly showered and dressed. Kenma can see him biting down on the inside of his cheek whenever a shudder runs through him, trying and failing to hide it.

“What’s wrong with you?” Kenma asks him, shoving his wallet and phone into his pockets and pulling on his shoes.

“Nothing,” Kuro says, pasting on a smile.

Kenma huffs. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not,” Kuro insists, voice pitching low. “I swear, I’m not. I’m just… getting used to myself, again. It feels a bit weird.”

Kenma shakes his head, but decides to believe him. Kuro’s a little unsure on his feet as they walk towards the train station, tilting awkwardly one way or another. The adrenaline must have kept him upright, this morning, but that’s long since worn off. Now Kuro seems like a foal taking his first steps.

“Where exactly are we headed?” Kenma asks, before they get to one of the ticket machines.

Kuro points out the spot on the map, and Kenma nearly does a double take. Every morning, he takes the train towards the center of the city, to his university. The line Kuro’s indicating heads the opposite direction, out to the suburbs. To the particular suburb that Kenma grew up in, in fact.

“You’ll have to buy my ticket, too,” Kuro says lightly. “I don’t have any money on me. No phone, either.” His tone indicates he wants pity, but Kenma just turns to him and lifts his brows, utterly unimpressed. Why did he want Kuro to keep talking, again?

Kuro sits close to him on the train, long legs splayed out in front of him. Kenma waits until they start moving, and then pulls his phone out of his pocket. Kuro gives him a curious look, but doesn’t insist that Kenma pay attention only to him. But he’s clearly paying attention to Kenma, because he hardly blinks when, a few minutes later, Kenma asks a question.

“How old are you, anyway?” Kuro doesn’t look much older than Kenma, but he’s also a magical cat person. There’s no telling if he’s a thousand years old, or something.

Kuro chuckles, tipping his head back. “Nineteen. My birthday was in November.”

The surprisingly normal answer emboldens Kenma. “That’s college age,” he says.

“I’m in college,” Kuro says, voice lilting with pride, or is it mockery? “Or, at least, I was. No telling what the status on that is, now.”

“That’s so… normal,” Kenma says, and he sounds almost disappointed.

“What were you expecting, Hogwarts?” Kuro laughs, as though the thought is ludicrous. “Nah, I was majoring in literature, focusing on myths and folklore. Sawamura’s pretty responsible, I’m sure he fed the school some story, for me. Either that, or I can pick things up again somewhere else.”

He speaks with such confidence, sure that things will work out. Kenma envies his surety.

“Do you have parents? A family?” He’s only really spoken about the other guardians with that sort of familiarity, so far. Where did they all even come from?

Kuro pauses before he answers, folding his hands in his lap and pulling at the collar. “My mom passed away— nine, ten years ago, now?” He lays that out with finality, and Kenma takes his meaning— there’s no one else he calls family.

“I’m sorry,” Kenma says, not really sure if the words are adequate.

Kuro waves away the sentiment. “It’s been a long time,” he says. “And it’s not like I’ve been on my own, since then.”

If he’d been with the other guardians for that long, did it hurt more to feel distanced from them? is that why he’d felt so isolated, when they’d each found their wielder?

“What about you?” Kuro asks, looking at Kenma with a tilt of his head.

“Huh?”

“Where’re your parents? It’s not exactly typical, university students living on their own like you are.” Kuro’s words are casual, but Kenma can sense the curiosity in them, like he’s been waiting all the while to ask this question.

Kenma’s lips curl slightly before he answers. “They live in America. We moved when I was thirteen, and I never really liked it there. I applied to universities here and came back on my own.”

“Oh.” Kuro’s eyes widen like he’s had some sort of major epiphany, but Kenma doesn’t think it’s such an unusual story. His parents email him pretty regularly, call when they remember, or when they think Kenma’s in a good enough mood to answer. There’s money in his bank account, and people to reach out to if he ever feels so inclined.

Kuro hums in thought, turns his head to glance out the window. The silence that falls between them is as companionable as the conversation had been, and Kenma looks back to the game on his phone, content.

Kuro leads them through the streets, steadier on his feet now. Kenma stays close behind him, even though he recognizes the neighborhoods they walk through. He’s not sure how to ask Kuro why he’s taking him to the town Kenma grew up in, so he stays silent. Maybe it’s honestly just a coincidence.

But he can he really believe in coincidences, anymore?

They stop at the end of an older, quiet street. The houses are painted pale colors— white, yellow, sky blue. Many of the yards are overgrown, and there’s no traffic. The entire street seems more or less abandoned.

Kenma’s family had moved away from the yellow house on the corner five years ago.

A shiver runs down Kenma’s spine, and he reaches out for Kuro’s hand instinctively. Kuro turns towards him, brows lifting in concern, but he doesn’t move away. His fingers intertwine gently with Kenma’s, and the points of contact are solid and sure.

“You okay?” Kuro asks. “We’re almost there.”

Kenma knows. He knows, with absolute surety, where they’re going.

The thought is only confirmed a few minutes later, when Kuro, still holding Kenma’s hand, stops in front of an old, white house. There’s ivy growing over one wall, a chaotic mess of plants jumbled together in the front yard. No one’s lived here for a long, long time.

Or so Kenma had thought.

Kuro walks towards the front door with steady steps, still tugging Kenma along. The ivy has grown over the door, but Kuro brushes the vines away easily. The door is heavy wood, something elaborate carved into its center. Kenma nudges his way forward so he can see it better.

It’s a circle, split into four quadrants. On opposite sides a fox and an owl are carved, the fox leaping upwards and the owl spreading its wings. Between them, pointing north and south, are a crow and a cat. The crow faces them head-on, looking menacing. The cat is rendered in profile, tail curled upwards.

“I guess you don’t have keys, either,” Kenma murmurs, when he’s done staring.

Kuro smirks, lifting his free hand. “No, but I think we’ll be alright.”

He presses his hand against the door, right over the carving of the cat. He closes his eyes, and Kenma watches as shadowy wisps extend outwards from his fingertips. Kenma swears he can feel the magic gathering where he and Kuro are still holding hands.

When Kuro pulls his hand away, the cat begins to move. It shifts gently against the wood, so seamlessly that Kenma would think it CGI if he wasn’t watching it with his own eyes, in real time. The cat blinks at them, golden eyes glowing. It glances at Kuro first, barely pausing over him before fixing its gaze on Kenma. He’s immediately struck by the sensation that this cat knows everything about him— his secrets, his fears, his hopes. It blinks once, twice, and then curls itself into a C-shape, the same way Kuro would as a cat when he went to sleep.

The door swings open.

He doesn’t know what he’s expecting from the inside of the house, but it’s not so different from his own childhood home. The floor is lined in linoleum, and there’s a staircase leading up from one end of the hallway.

Kuro leads him inside, shucking Lev’s borrowed shoes at the door. Kenma follows suit, unable to shake the feeling that he’s intruding even as he mutters the formalities under his breath.

“Our bedrooms are upstairs, and the library, and Shimizu’s office,” Kuro says, gesturing with one hand. “We got an apartment in the city, when we started school, but most of us still like spending time here. Easy enough for Bokuto and Sawamura, since they can fly.” Kuro sounds a bit put off, by this. Kenma can only imagines how long it would take to get around as a cat.

There are no lights on in the hallway, but enough sunlight is filtering in through the windows for it not to matter. The house is strangely empty, but Kuro walks forward with purpose until he’s led Kenma to the kitchen.

There are three people seated at the small wooden table there. Sugawara is one of them, and he looks up immediately as Kuro and Kenma enter the room.

“Kuroo,” he says, “You’re back! And… you’re you. I’m so glad.” He turns then to Kenma, eyes widening before a knowing smile comes over his features. “And you, again. I’m sorry, I never did get your name, last time.”

That’s a polite way of saying that Kenma had refused to give it to him.

The woman seated at the table doesn’t say anything, at first. Her eyes travel between Kuro and Kenma, glinting behind the thin frames of her glasses. Kenma can almost see her taking mental notes.

The third person gets up abruptly from his chair, letting it clatter behind him. He’s shorter than Kuro, but solidly built. His hair is close-cropped, and Kenma thinks for a split-second that his face is pleasant before it twists with anger.

“Kuroo,” he says, looking up with the most strained smile Kenma’s ever seen. His eyes are squinted closed, teeth gritted harshly together. “Welcome home.”

“Sawamura,” Kuro responds lightly, taking a step forward into the kitchen. His voice slips into a tone Kenma hasn’t heard before— smooth, carefully pleasant, blatantly disingenuous. “It’s good to be back.”

“We were so worried about you,” Sawamura continues— and although there’s something hostile in his smile, Kenma can’t reconcile this man with the crow. The bird had seemed so frightening, but Sawamura doesn’t feel genuinely dangerous. “You really shouldn’t do things like that, you know. Running off without telling anyone. What if something had happened to you?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’d be fine without me.” Kuro waves his free hand, all careful nonchalance. “After all, you’re so good at keeping things together, aren’t you? I knew you’d all be alright.”

There’s something truthful lingering amidst their words, something sincere in Kuro’s dismissal of his importance. Kenma grips his hand tighter, though he doubts he can be of any support to Kuro.

Sugawara shakes his head, looking exasperated. “You two are ridiculous,” he groans, brushing his pale hair back from his forehead. “Kuroo, we really are glad you’re alright. Daichi, sit down.”

Sawamura turns to Suga with an affronted look. “Suga,” he says, “How are you just alright with this? He could’ve—”

“Sit,” Suga suggests, voice light. Sawamura grumbles, but rights his chair and sits close to Suga. Kenma notices when Suga reaches down to grip Sawamura’s hand under the table. Suga’s wearing the bracelet with its gleaming orange stone, and Sawamura has a matching one on his opposite wrist.

“Maybe we should welcome our guest, before you two start fighting,” the woman suggests. She adjusts her glasses on the bridge of her nose, letting out a soft sigh. She doesn’t have the same calming air as Sugawara, but there’s something reassuring about her presence.

“I’m sorry,” Sawamura says, his attention now directed at Kenma. “We weren’t trying to ignore you. We’ve just had a…” He trails off, unsure of how to phrase whatever it is that he’s trying to explain.

“We’ve had a shitshow of a few weeks,” Suga supplies, and though there’s a laugh in his words there are also dark circles under his eyes that speak to the truth of them. He smiles kindly at Kenma. “I’m glad to see you’re doing alright.”

Kenma feels a step removed from the situation— there are threads of connection between each of the people in this room, too old and tangled for him to decipher. Suga and Sawamura are wielder and guardian, but how does the woman fit in? And of course Kuro is a part of their lives, has known them far longer than he’s known Kenma.

But Kenma’s connection to Kuro is strong and sure. Of that he can have no doubts.

“Kenma,” he says, looking at them through the curtain of his hair. “Kozume Kenma.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Kozume-kun,” Suga says with a genuine smile. “This is Sawamura Daichi and Shimizu Kiyoko. Thanks for bringing Kuroo back to us in one piece.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Kuro grumbles, and it take Kenma a second to realize that he’s embarrassed. “I can take care of myself.”

“Of course you can,” Sawamura mutters. “And that’s why we haven’t seen you in six months.”

Kuro glowers and steps forward menacingly, but then Shimizu clears her throat.

“Didn’t we already decide that you two fighting doesn’t solve anything?”

Sawamura runs a hand over his face. “I wasn’t trying to fight him, the first time. I was trying to bring him home. You turned it into a fight.” The last of this is directed at Kuro, daring him to disagree.

“The fifth time I hear ‘you’re shirking your responsibilities,’ I think I’m entitled to a fight,” Kuro mutters.

“That wasn’t just a fight,” Kenma says quietly, “You almost killed him.”

Four pairs of eyes focus in on him. Kenma shifts uncomfortably.

“What are you talking about?” Sawamura asks, with none of the fierce hostility he’d directed at Kuro. His voice is… kind, steady.

Kenma’s fingers fidget at his sides. “When I found Kuro, he was wounded. From when you tried to grab him.”

“Daichi!” Suga exclaims, whacking Sawamura across the shoulder.

“I didn’t do anything,” Sawamura protests. He looks at Kuro searchingly. “I didn’t grab you that hard— I would’ve noticed.”

Kuro looks shifty, chewing on his lower lip. “It wasn’t you,” he says finally. “I had a run-in with the snake that same day, and he may have bitten me.”

This is news to Kenma. He blinks at Kuro, feeling slightly betrayed. Of course, when Kuro had ended up on Kenma’s doorstep, he wasn’t in any position to explain what had actually injured him. And the wounds were those pin-prick indentations, that looked like a snake’s bite even once he was human again…

“The snake? The same one that—”

“Kuroo!” Suga shoots up out of his seat, alarmed. “You should’ve come home immediately! What if he poisoned you?”

Poisoned?

Again, it’s Shimizu who defuses the situation. “Take a look at him now,” she says softly to Sugawara. She has yet to raise her voice, but there’s something definitive and authoritative about her tone. “Kozume, why don’t you have a seat?”

Sugawara pulls out a chair, insisting that Kuro sit down on it. Kuro sighs in defeat, lifting Lev’s borrowed shirt over his shoulders. When his chest is bare, the white, barely-healed scars of the bite are again visible.

How could Kenma have been so stupid? He had just assumed that the crow—Sawamura—had caused the wound. What if Kuro is seriously hurt, because of him?

“It’s alright,” Shimizu says, sitting beside him. “I don’t know how much Kuroo explained to you, but Sugawara is a healing specialist.”

“He explained… a bit.” Not nearly everything, Kenma is quickly realizing.

“Then maybe you should just watch, for now. It’ll be,” Shimizu pauses, searching for the right word. “Instructive.”

Suga has rolled up his sleeves, glancing at Kuro’s wound critically. “It doesn’t look as bad as I feared,” he murmurs, “but it’s definitely not harmless. Daichi?”

Sawamura steps closer, extending one hand. Suga grips it tightly, eyes fluttering shut in concentration. His other hand he places against Kuro’s chest.

Several things happen at once— shadows and light begin swirling around Sugawara and Sawamura’s joined hands, gathering there in interlocking spirals. The orange gems on both of their bracelets glow, ignited from within. Suga presses his hand firmly against Kuro’s chest, and the gathered energy between him and Sawamura converges on that point. Kuro inhales sharply, eyes going wide and glassy. Suga winces, pressing down harder. The shadows between him and Sawamura flicker and then fade, the light shining brighter and brighter.

Kuro struggles to take rattling breathes, and in the spaces between Suga’s fingers dark shadows begin to rise, dissipating into the air. Suga maintains the contact for one long moment, then another. Kenma’s hands clench at his sides, heart frozen between beats.

Then Kuro exhales sharply, gasping for breath. Suga falters and falls sideways, immediately caught in Sawamura’s strong arms. All three of them looked drained, but Sawamura manages to stay upright. Kuro’s head tips back, his eyes fluttering shut as he builds up to shallow breaths.

Kenma’s beside him in the next moment, grabbing for his hand. He doesn’t directly ask the question, but squeezes Kuro’s fingers.

“It’s okay,” Kuro says after a moment, eyes opening slowly. “Kenma, I’m okay. How’d you like the magic show?”

Kenma wrinkles his nose. “I’m not sure I like magic,” he says.

Suga laughs lightly, still leaning on Sawamura for support. “It’s not so bad— pretty useful, actually. But Kuroo— I don’t think I got all of it. Enough that you’ll be okay, for now, but—”

“It’s fine,” Kuro says firmly, cutting Suga off. “If anyone can deal with a little excess shadow, it’s me.”

Sawamura shakes his head. “Stop trying to be invincible,” he says sternly. “That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.”

“I’m fine,” Kuro repeats, challenging.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kenma tells him softly. Kuro purses his lips, but doesn’t fight him on the issue.

Sawamura is leading Suga back to the table, insisting he sit down. Suga waves him off, but his legs are shaking when he finally sits down.

“I’m guessing Kuroo probably explained at least a bit of this to you, right, Kozume-kun?” he asks. “I don’t have any magic, on my own, but I can use Daichi’s to heal people.”

So that’s what Kuro meant about wielders being able to utilize magic beyond what guardians can do. Are they all healers, or—

“Kuroo,” Sawamura says suddenly, brow furrowed in thought. “How did you change back, in the first place?”

Kuro tips his head back, runs his thumb over Kenma’s knuckles. For the first time, Kenma wonders if he’s seeking comfort from their proximity, rather than giving it.

“I didn’t mean to stay away as long as I did,” Kuro says, gazing up at the ceiling instead of at anyone else in the room. “You guys know I’d never do that, not on purpose. I just needed a little space.”

“Cats,” Sawamura mutters, as though that explains it.

“We generate energy, I told you that, right?” Kuro doesn’t look at Kenma, but he knows the question is meant for him. “Going between forms utilizes a bit of that energy, so staying in one form or another leads to a build up, over time. Turning back releases it.”

Sawamura has his chin against one hand, pondering. “You were gone a long time, Kuroo. After awhile you would’ve been—”

“Stuck,” Kuro finishes for him, nodding. “My body reached a threshold, where it needed to release the energy, but was no longer able to. Staying in animal form mutes your emotions, your human thoughts… it’s like I told you, Kenma. After awhile I didn’t even remember that I’d been human at all.”

“Which is why we had to intervene,” Suga says, pursing his lips. “The four of them are connected, did you know that? Their magics are supposed to create a circuit, that keeps things balanced. So Daichi tried to bring you home, and Bokuto tried to find you afterwards, and Akaashi and I…”

“Where are Bokuto and Akaashi, anyway?” Kuro interrupts.

“There was a disturbance in the southeast,” Shimizu says, voice slightly barbed. “They had to take care of it.”

“Oh,” Kuro says, sounding momentarily stricken. He sighs, shifting sheepishly. “Did I mention I’m sorry, yet?”

“I’ll add it to the tally,” Sawamura responds. “You’ll probably be at it for awhile.”

“I’m not apologizing to you,” Kuro retorts. “More to the situation, in general.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” Shimizu interrupts. “Every after everyone had come after you, you either didn’t remember yourself or didn’t trust them enough to come home with them. What changed?”

Sawamura, Sugawara, and Shimizu all turn to look at Kenma. It’s as though they already know the answer, but are just waiting on Kuro to confirm it.

“Kuro,” Kenma says softly, anxiety bubbling up inside of him.

“It’s okay,” Kuro says again, and this time, when he tightens his grip on Kenma’s hand, Kenma knows it’s for his own benefit. “You saw Sawamura and Suga just now, right? Suga used Sawamura’s magic— acted as a conduit, sort of. When I was a cat, I couldn’t change back. The magic had built up too much, and I couldn’t remember my way back again.”

Light magic is connections, Kuro had said, relationships.

“I had to find my way back for you,” Kuro says softly. Kenma’s acutely aware of their audience, determinedly looking down at the floor.

“I don’t understand,” Kenma says bluntly, even though he actually thinks otherwise.

“Not just anyone can get into this house,” Suga puts in. “You have to have some sort of affinity for magic, even if you aren’t a guardian.”

“Kuroo’s magic would’ve had to be focused, for him to change back. And if he couldn’t do himself, he would’ve needed someone else’s help,” Sawamura continues, voice low and patient.

“Someone able to use magic, that he also had a significant connection with,” Shimizu concludes, “a wielder.”

He feels like someone’s just slapped him across the face. Abruptly dropping Kuro’s hand, Kenma steps backwards, shaking his head.

“Is that— is that the only reason—” His tongue won’t move properly in his mouth. His thoughts are too overloaded, his emotions burnt out like electrical wires after too much use. The idea that Kuro had only wanted to be around him because of some magical connection is almost unbearable.

Kuro’s on his feet, now, wobbling slightly but stepping towards Kenma anyway. “No, of course not.” He turns briefly to glare at the other three, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I was never going to spring this on you, believe me—”

“Then why?” Kenma asks. “Why did you show up at my door, that night?”

This isn’t what he meant when he wanted Kuro to need him. He wanted Kuro to need him— to want him— in the same way that Kenma feels for him. An emotional need, a voluntary want. He’s always been able to make himself useful to people, but that isn’t the same thing. He doesn’t want that, anymore. It’s never been enough.

Kuro takes another step closer, and when he speaks again his voice is so low that Kenma doubts the others can hear him. “You noticed me, remember? When you meet the others, you’ll understand, but— they’re an annoyingly flashy group of people. I didn’t even know what I was seeing, the first time I noticed you. But I knew I wanted to see more of it. Do you get that?”

“Because it was magic,” Kenma says thickly. His emotions retreat, a cool shield of apathy rising up between them and the situation at hand.

Kuro shakes his head, frustrated. “They’re not so easy to separate, like that. Feelings— they are magic, in a weird way. So maybe that’s what I was seeing, but that magic— that light— it was showing me something about you. Just you.”

Hope rises in him, and he does his best to force it back down. “And what was that?”

“I’m not really sure,” Kuro admits, running a hand through his hair. “I just know that when I found you, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t want to be alone, anymore.”

The hope is back, like sunlight bursting its way through gray clouds after summer rain. Kenma’s not sure if he can trust the feeling.

Someone clears their throat, loudly. Kuro and Kenma turn back to the group, see Shimizu standing up and looking at them both too perceptively.

“Maybe showing him will be easiest?”

Shimizu, Sugawara and Sawamura all leave the kitchen to get whatever it is Shimizu needs for her demonstration. Maybe they sense that Kuro and Kenma need at least a moment to themselves. They retake their seats at the table, Kuro pulling Lev’s shirt back on before he sits.

“I’m sorry,” Kuro says, for what seems like the millionth time. He’s sitting across from Kenma, but looking down at the table. “This isn’t— you don’t have to do anything, here. When you first took me in, I didn’t know this would happen. You don’t owe me anything. You know that, right?”

Before Kenma can respond, the other three reenter the room. Kenma can feel Suga’s gaze on him, the way it shifts between him and Kuro like he’s trying to figure something out. Kenma’s trying to figure it out, himself.

Shimizu sits at the head of the table, holding a slim box in her hands. “I didn’t tell you, earlier,” she says, “but I’m a wielder, too.”

“The fox?” Kenma asks tiredly. Miraculously, his mind is still trying to fit all the pieces together.

Sugawara, Sawamura, and Kuro all choke on their laughter. Shimizu’s lips twist into an expression that strains to stay polite.

“No,” she says. “He and I wouldn’t be compatible.”

“It’s a miracle anyone is, with him,” Kuro mutters.

“I’m not sure you’re in a position to say that,” Sawamura says mildly.

Shimizu continues as though they haven’t spoken. “I’m a wielder, but I don’t have a guardian I’m paired with. It isn’t as simple as putting one person of each kind together. They have to be attuned on a number of levels.”

She places the box on the table, unlatching it on one side and flipping the lid open. Inside, ten small glass spheres rest against a satin lining. They’re white and opalescent, like pearls, each about five centimeters in diameter.

“There are two tests, generally,” Shimizu continues. She seems more comfortable in functional conversation like this, rather than before when they were all talking over one another. Kenma wonders if she’s actually shy, despite the calmness and confidence she displays. “Guardians and wielders need to have a personal connection, and those are hard to measure. But their magical affinities also have to be compatible. That, we can actually check. Sawamura?”

Sawamura comes to sit next to her, placing both of his hands palms up on the table. Shimizu glances at Kenma, to make sure he’s watching, and then she carefully places the pearls in a straight line between Sawamura’s hands.

For a moment, nothing happens. Then, each of the small spheres lifts into the air. The one on the far right spins in place, suspended. It’s becoming darker, turning a purple-black color within a few seconds. The one beside it repeats the motion, also becoming that darker color. Three more follow suit. The sixth pearl spins in the opposite direction, and when it changes color it becomes yellow-gold. The remaining four copy the color, leaving the string of pearls evenly split between black and gold.

“The pearls have their own magic,” Shimizu explains, “so they aren’t drawing on Sawamura’s. They’re just reading him, in a way. Half of his magic is shadow,” she gestures at the darker pearls, “and half is light.” She now points out the golden ones.

Easy enough, Kenma thinks. He nods, feeling like an elementary student at a lesson.

A moment later, the pearls float back down to the table, rolling slightly at they revert back to their original milky-white color.

“So I’m a pretty even fifty-fifty,” Sawamura says, leaning back in his chair. “When I first met Suga, I had a sense that we’d be compatible, but it never hurts to check.”

Suga’s cheeks color, and he walks up behind Sawamura’s chair to run one hand over his hair. “Daichi,” he says, sounding mildly embarrassed.

“What?” Sawamura asks.

“Never mind.” Suga shakes his head affectionately. “Scoot over.”

They switch places, this time with Suga laying his hands out on either side of the pearls. Again, they lift into the air and begin to spin. Starting on the right, five turn golden-yellow. The next five become purple-black.

He and Sawamura are exactly the same. What are the odds that that would happen, and that they’d find each other, and want to form a partnership, besides?

“Yeah, yeah, you’re perfect, we get it,” Kuro cuts in, waving a hand and causing the pearls to fall back down to the table. “I think he understands. Right, Kenma?”

He nods. It seems simple enough, at any rate.

Shimizu nods to Kuro, rearranging the pearls in front of him, now. He grimaces down at them, and Kenma briefly wonders if he’s done this before. Has he ever tried to be compatible, with anyone else? If they all knew Shimizu, another wielder, wouldn’t it have made sense to check?

He doesn’t have time to dwell on it. The pearls are rising again, and Kenma’s eyes are drawn towards them as they begin to spin.

The first one on the right turns yellow-gold. The next nine are all purple-black. Kuro’s magic is almost entirely shadow.

Kuro waves a hand again, letting the pearls drop back down to the table. “People who’re perfectly balanced, like Sawamura and Suga, are pretty exceptional. Most people are somewhere in the sixty-forty range. The closer you get to the edges…” He shrugs.

“Those are the most uncommon of all,” Sawamura comments lightly. “People who are either entirely shadow or light are almost legendary—they only come around once every few generations. It’s steadier, to have a more even balance. More stable.”

“Are you calling me unstable?” Kuro drawls, quirking a brow.

Sawamura smiles. “Your magic definitely is. You probably couldn’t produce enough light on your own to change back, before.”

“Whatever,” Kuro mutters. But then he leans forward on the table, looking at Kenma. “All that aside, do you want to try it?”

Kenma understands him immediately—if he wants to walk away now, Kuro won’t force him into anything. They’ve all said that he’s a wielder, that he can use magic, but Kenma doesn’t know whether he can believe that. For Kuro, it makes sense. He’s always been a magical presence in Kenma’s life. But Kenma is… not special, in the way. He’s too disconnected, from himself and the rest of the world, to be something so exceptional.

“Kenma?” Kuro asks again. Kenma looks up to meet his gaze, and Kuro’s eyes are bright and hopeful. He wants Kenma to do this, but he won’t tell him to.

“Fine,” Kenma mutters, putting his hands on the table. “What do I have to do?”

It turns out, all Kenma has to do is sit there. Shimizu instructs him to close his eyes, which he does after a moment’s hesitation. Everyone in the room seems to be holding their breath, the only sound the gentle chime of the pearls against the table as they rise into the air.

Something’s working, at least.

Kenma seems a burst of light behind his eyes, a flare of something golden and powerful. There’s a delicate shadow curling around it on the edges, but the light itself is overpowering. It’s like closing his eyes after looking directly at the sun.

He opens his eyes just as the first pearl begins to spin. In the privacy of his own thoughts, he can admit that he wants his pearls to look like Kuro’s. Even if it’s just something magical, he wants affirmation of what he’s feeling.

The first pearl turns purple-black. Kenma takes that as a good sign, since most of Kuro’s were the same color.

The next turns golden-yellow. And the next. And the next. And all the rest, until one dark pearl and nine light ones are hovering in front of him.

“Oh.” Suga is the first to break the silence, his voice awestruck.

“We’re not the same.” It’s the first fact that Kenma registers. As soon as he speaks, the pearls wobble and then crash against the table, rolling off in different directions.

“Hey,” Kuro says softly. He’s gotten to his feet, is reaching for Kenma. “This is…”

Kuro looks happy— happier than Kenma’s ever seen him before. His eyes are bright, his smile dumbfounded but genuine. He looks beautiful.

But they don’t match, not in the way Sugawara and Sawamura do. They couldn’t be more different.

Why would Kuro be happy about that?

He turns to look at someone, anyone else.

Shimizu is gathering the pearls, but Kenma can almost see the wheels in her head turning. She’s analyzing them, him in particular. The way she looks down, lashes heavy against her cheeks, it’s as though she’s waiting for bad news.

Sawamura is looking at Kuro, not Kenma— he isn’t calculating, seems almost relieved. He’s been waiting for something like this to happen for Kuro, has hoped for it.

And then Sugawara, reaching out to catch the last few pearls, looks up and meets Kenma’s eyes. He’s apprehensive about something, running one of the pearls between his thumb and index finger distractedly. He’s thinking about something else entirely.

Kuro’s next to Kenma, now. But before he can say anything he gasps, one hand clutching over his heart.

“What the hell,” Kuro hisses, clenching his teeth. “Kenma, you need to calm down. It’s too much.”

He has no idea what Kuro’s talking about. All he knows is that he’s being bombarded by sensation on all sides, everyone’s thoughts focused solely on him. It is too much.

The room is spinning, his vision tunneling. Kenma’s barely aware of Kuro reaching out his arms to catch him as Kenma tips forward. He registers the now familiar, comforting weight of Kuro’s embrace before he loses consciousness entirely.

“Alright, so maybe we didn’t handle that as well as we could have.” The voice is deep, tone sincerely apologetic.

“You think?” It’s Kuro, his words cracking like a whip. “We gave you and Suga two months to get your shit together, remember that?”

“Those were different circumstances. We had more time, then.”

“Well I don’t care how much time we have. I can’t just force him into this.”

“You know it’s not like that. He’s probably feeling it, too. Why else would he still be here?”

Kuro groans. “You don’t get it, Sawamura. He’s… different.”

“You’re not saying that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Because it isn’t. But you could just crash into Suga in a bakery and tell him you’d been looking for him your entire life, and that worked, because you two are unbelievable. Suga just took everything in stride.”

“Hey, don’t say it like that! And anyway, I didn’t even mean to say that to him. It just sort of came out.”

“Like you, that day— hey!” There’s a loud crash, someone being shoved off of their chair and toppling to the ground.

“Don’t be an asshole, Kuroo.”

He sighs. “Look, you know as well as I do that light is susceptible to darkness. Just look at Bokuto. I’m not going to do anything to Kenma that’s going to be bad for him.”

“You know Bokuto’s happier now than he’s ever been before, right?”

“Yeah.” The answer comes after a delay, begrudging.

“And he’s stronger now, too.”

“I know.”

“So. Maybe you need to give Kozume the same chance. It’s not just about you, you know.”

“…maybe.”

“We did miss you, believe it or not. I’m glad you came back to us, with this. You don’t have to carry everything alone.”

“Don’t you dare get sappy on me, now.”

“Whatever. You don’t have two months to get yourself together, Kuroo— you need to decide what you’re going to do. Now.”

He wakes up not feeling at all rested. Voices are bouncing around in his head, ricocheting off the inside of his skull. Kenma groans and brings his hands to his temples, rubbing at them wearily.

“Oh, hey. You’re awake.” Kuro comes into focus slowly, sitting on the desk a few feet away from where Kenma’s lying down.

They’re in a bedroom, he realizes. It’s small, two and a half walls entirely covered by crammed bookshelves. The bed Kenma’s lying in is up against another wall. Someone’s draped a blanket over him.

“Where’s Sawamura?” Kenma asks, glancing around the room for him.

Kuro blinks. “I don’t know. Downstairs, probably. Why?”

“I thought— I heard his voice,” Kenma says, somewhat lamely. Now that he tries to focus on it, the conversation he’d heard in his sleep is fuzzy and far-away. Maybe it was just a dream.

Kuro walks towards him, stops a few feet short of the bed. “How’re you feeling?”

Kenma swallows. His throat feels scratchy, his skin flushed. “Terrible,” he admits, after a moment.

Kuro’s lips quirk into a half-smile, his eyes still concerned. “Yeah, using that much magic at once will do that to a person.”

“Magic?” Kenma mutters, drawing his knees up to his chest. He puts his hands against his temples, again, trying to massage away the pain.

“Mmm,” Kuro says, sitting down at the foot of the bed. “Turns out you’re something of a talent. You were drawing on my magic before I really realized it.”

Maybe that explains why his nerves feel so raw. Kenma lets his mind drift, coming in and out of focus on the bright burst of light he can sense in the back of his mind.

“But we didn’t match,” Kenma says, after a moment. “The pearls were almost all dark, for you.”

“No,” Kuro agrees easily. “We didn’t match. But we were balanced. And that’s what’s important. It’s a one in a million chance, really.”

“You could’ve explained that before.” Kenma pulls up the blanket, speaking into it instead of directly to Kuro.

“Hey, I warned you. I told you I’m shit at explaining this stuff. We’re all kind of flying in the dark about these things. Shimizu knows more than the rest of us, but that’s because her family’s been involved with guardians for ages.”

“Irresponsible,” Kenma murmurs into the blanket.

“What’s that?” Kuro asks, leaning closer. Kenma is acutely aware of their proximity, the way they’d be laying against each other if Kuro leaned down just a bit more.

“You’re irresponsible,” he sputters, shoving Kuro away. “Bringing me into all this, not knowing what you’re doing.”

“Sorry?” Kuro laughs, his apologies no longer as shadowed with sadness as they were before.

“Go make me tea,” Kenma orders. “As an apology.”

“Anything, for you,” Kuro says with a sly wink, jumping up from the bed. “You rest a little more, okay?” Before he leaves the room, he reaches down to ruffle Kenma’s two-toned hair. When he’s gone, Kenma can still feel the warmth of his fingers where they touched.

When Kuro’s gone, Kenma gets up from the bed. He glances around the room, realizing belatedly that in must be Kuro’s. His feelings jumble at the thought—of course, by now he’s more than used to the idea that Kuro is human. Seeing him interact with Sawamura and the others has only affirmed that. Of course, he had a life before Kenma. But looking around his room, at his things, somehow drives that point home. It’s a normal room, unburdened by magic or other people. It’s wholly Kuro’s.

He glances through the bookshelves first—there are textbooks, carefully arranged, but a much bigger collection of novels. He has several shelves of comics and manga, and another full of titles written in scripts Kenma doesn’t understand. His desk is kept need and tidy, a laptop computer tucked away in one corner. There’s a gym bag and shoes tucked under the desk, and a stack of discarded, crumpled papers.

Kenma sits back down on the bed, looks over at the bedside table and sees a few framed photographs. He recognizes Kuro immediately in one of them, though he looks a few years younger than he does now. He’s smirking at the camera, one arm thrown around a younger Sawamura’s shoulders. Sawamura is laughing, bent over where Kuro’s pushing him down. There’s another kid on Kuro’s other side, his hair a wild miss-match of gray and black. His grin comprises the majority of his face, both of his arms wrapped around Kuro’s stomach. And then, on the far end, a fourth person—he’s throwing up a victory sign at the camera and winking, his chestnut-colored hair artfully arranged.

Kenma knows with absolute certainty that Kuro loves these people, even having seen him squabble with Sawamura. It’s obvious from the picture, from the way he speaks of them, from how hurt and lonely he’d been when he thought they were moving on without him.

Where could Kenma possibly fit in, here?

He waits for ten minutes, then fifteen. Kuro doesn’t come back. A little miffed, Kenma looks out into the hallway. No one’s there. He makes his way to the staircase, descending it quickly and trying to convince himself he’s just being paranoid. This is Kuro’s house, after all. He probably just got caught up in conversation with the others. It’s no big deal.

He steps into the kitchen, sees Shimizu sitting at the table. Sugawara is standing by the doorway, fastening a short black cape over his shoulders. He has black gauntlets on both of his arms, a more serious expression on his face than Kenma’s seen before. Sawamura is no where to be seen, but the crow is back, settled on Suga’s shoulder.

“Oh, you’re up!” Suga says, sounding pleased. “I’m sorry I can’t stay and talk, right now, but there’s something going on in the north that we have to deal with. Where’s Kuroo?”

“Isn’t he here?” Don’t panic, Kenma tells himself. It’s only been a few minutes. “He said he was going to make some tea.”

“He hasn’t been back since he went to check on you upstairs,” Suga says, frowning. “Shimizu, could you—”

“Go,” she responds. “You two don’t have time to waste.”

Suga nods, smiling apologetically at Kenma before he takes his leave. He’s out the door in an instant, the crow looking over his shoulder like a gargoyle. Or a guardian.

“You’re sure Kuroo wasn’t upstairs?” Shimizu asks, turning back to Kenma.

“I didn’t check every room,” Kenma mutters. “He said he’d be down here.”

“Let’s go see,” Shimizu suggests. Kenma admires her calm efficiency. She probably has had lots of time to cultivate it, dealing with Kuro and the others.

He follows her back up the stairs, but Kenma’s heart is sinking in his chest. Where would Kuro go, without telling him? He wouldn’t abandon Kenma so easily, would he? Not after they’d finally found each other.

He tries very hard to convince himself of this.

Chapter Text

Kuro isn’t upstairs. Shimizu ducks into each of the guardians’ bedrooms, the expansive library, and the room at the end of the hallway. Each time, she reemerges and shakes her head.

It shouldn’t seem so strange. Maybe Kuro just went for a walk, to clear his head for half an hour. Maybe he’s feeling just as overwhelmed as Kenma is. But if that was the case, why wouldn’t he have told Kenma?

Kenma knows that Kuro would never leave him hanging like this. Not on purpose.

“Does he do this a lot?” Kenma asks, as he and Shimizu head back downstairs. “Just disappear?”

She purses her lips and shakes her head. “He doesn’t seem like it, but Kuroo is reliable. Almost to a fault. That’s why, when he went missing the first time…”

Kenma knows, now. The owl had circled his neighborhood countless times, searching for Kuro. Sawamura, Sugawara, and Akaashi had all done their best to find him, and bring him home. Kuro comes off as so confident and self-sufficient, Kenma can’t imagine his friends would be so concerned unless his disappearances were distinctly out of character.

In the back of his mind, he can still feel the steady pulse of power that the pearls had shown him— his own affinity for magic. Kuro had said that Kenma had drawn on his magic, so does that mean they’re connected, now?

Shimizu is saying something to him, but Kenma listens with only half his attention as he turns his thoughts inwards, towards the bright glow of his power. Like before, there’s a delicate veil of shadow surrounding the light. Kuro is more shadow than light, so Kenma focuses on that first. It isn’t an easy process— like trying to look directly at something you’ve seen only out of the corner of your eye, or trying to remember a dream. There’s definitely something there, but every time Kenma reaches for it it recedes.

Holding onto the shadows with his mind is like trying to thread a needle— every time he thinks he has it, his concentration slips and he misses the goal entirely. But he needs to find Kuro, so he keeps trying. He takes a deep breath, hands clenched at his sides, eyes fluttering shut.

This time, when he focuses on the shadows, they seem to flicker behind his eyes. He sees two pinpricks of light— golden and shining amidst the shadows, like Kuro’s eyes on the first night Kenma ever saw him. He focuses on those spots of light and this time when he reaches for the shadows they come easily. Immediately, he’s bombarded by a stream of thoughts and emotions.

Don’t need anyone else — not good enough for anyone — no one needs you — you don’t want anyone — you can do it on your own — needing others is a weakness — being alone is a strength — no one to disappoint when you’re alone — no one can reject you if you reject them first — when you’re alone, no one can hurt you —

Kenma gasps for air like he’s breaking through the surface after being submerged underwater. Those ideas are familiar, cut too close to home. But they hadn’t come from him, this time. Those weren’t his thoughts.

He doesn’t hesitate this time. Taking a deep breath, he focuses on the shadows and plunges back in.

It’s hard to ignore the barrage of impressions and feelings, but Kenma centers his mind on the thought of finding Kuro. It’s like trying to swim to the bottom of a pool, fighting against the water forcing him upwards and his body’s own instinct to seek air. Kenma has never been a particularly good swimmer, had sat on the sidelines most every opportunity he’d ever had to practice. But he keeps pushing regardless.

He follows the golden eyes, mind reaching out for Kuro’s presence. When he finally finds it, pain rips through his mind with such intensity that Kenma’s mouth opens in a soundless scream, sweat breaking out over his forehead as he opens his eyes and finds himself kneeling on the floor of the kitchen.

Shimizu is beside him, her eyes wide behind her glasses. “Are you alright?” she asks, reaching out a hand. She thinks better of it at the last moment, instead just shifting a bit closer. “You spaced out for a minute, and then you were on the floor.”

“He’s screaming,” Kenma says, voice hoarse. He’s still chasing his train of thought, trying to figure out what just happened.

“What?” Shimizu blinks at him.

Kuro. He’s screaming, someone’s hurting him, can’t you hear him?” Kenma’s looking around the room now, as though Kuro will suddenly materialize there. His voice had been so clear in Kenma’s mind, impossible to ignore. It had to have been real.

“Kozume,” Shimizu says, “no one else is here.”

Kenma brushes her off, closes his eyes again in attempt to gain more clarity. This time, it’s easier— Kuro’s presence is hovering at the edge of his mind, the shadows dancing erratically as Kenma reaches for them. This time, he’s expecting the pain, and he grits his teeth against it. When he opens his eyes again, his head is still buzzing. But he knows where Kuro is.

“I’ve got to— I’ve got to go to him,” Kenma says, pushing himself up to his feet. “He needs me.”

Shimizu is regarding him quietly, but there are shadows of depth in her eyes that Kenma can’t read. “You know where to go?” she confirms.

“He’s close,” Kenma says. The thoughts are a jumble in his mind, but he knows where to go. He’s already heading for the door, an urgency he can’t explain fueling his movements.

Shimizu only nods at him, doesn’t move to follow. “Good luck,” she says softly.

Kenma barely hears her. He’s already pushing himself towards the front door.

The sun is beginning to set outside, the shadows at their longest point as the last of the day’s light fades from golden to amber to rose. The street is quiet and still, jarringly at odds with the adrenaline pushing through Kenma’s system. He doesn’t think he’s ever run so fast in his life, across the yard of the old white house and out to the sidewalk. It’s a straight path to the yellow house on the corner—Kenma’s old house.

The yard is overgrown in a way that would have made his mother flinch, the paint on the front door chipped and faded. Kenma doesn’t have keys to get in, but when he turns the knob and pushes against the door it gives way. As Kenma steps into the house, a cloud of dust rises into the air, making him cough.

The hallway isn’t lit, and Kenma can’t hear anyone. “Kuro?” he calls out. He’d been so positive that this was where he’d be. “Kuro?”

He can’t see everything clearly, but Kenma knows this house. There’s the broom closet on the right side of the hallway, the dark stain on the wood flooring where Kenma had spilled ink when he was six years old. The house isn’t very big, and it’s quickly apparent that there’s no one on the ground floor. Judging by the dust and cobwebs, no one has set foot in this house since Kenma’s family had moved five years ago.

Kenma isn’t about to give up. He turns towards the staircase, rewarded when he reaches the top by the muffled sounds coming from the far end of the hallway. From Kenma’s old bedroom. He takes a tentative step in that direction, before an ear-splitting scream rolls through the house.

Now, he doesn’t hesitate. He runs.

Kenma’s old bedroom is dark, small slivers of fading light filtering in through the boarded window, but Kenma can see the shadows in the dust where the furniture used to be— discolored rectangles that mark out his bed, desk and dresser. He doesn’t really remember much of the moving process, other than the fact that he’d been desperate to pack his video games himself so that none would be lost. But now, looking at the abandoned room, he’s left feeling hollowed out.

He used to live here. Was he ever happy here? He can’t remember.

A muffled whimper calls him back to reality, focuses his attention on the crumpled figure across the room. It’s Kuro. He’s sitting against the far wall, long legs splayed in front of him. His head is tilted back, eyes squinted shut. One arm is crossed over his chest as his fingers dig into his t-shirt, clutching at the spot just over his heart— the spot where he’s injured. He’s biting down into his lower lip hard enough that he’s drawn blood.

Kenma takes one look at him and knows he’s trying not to scream again.

“Kuro—”

Just as Kenma steps forward, the shadows in the room swirl menacingly in front of him, blocking his path. They slither across the floor like snakes, coiling over one another and covering every surface. There’s no way to move around them— they’ve deliberately created a barrier between Kuro and Kenma.

“Kuro—!” Kenma tries again, shifting on his feet, trying to find away through the shadows.

“So sorry,” a silky voice responds, s’s drawn out in hisses. “I don’t think he can hear you.”

Kenma snaps his head around, trying to find the source of the noise. There’s no one else in the room.

“He came alone, to protect you. Thought he could deal with me himself, this time.”

Kenma shivers, unable to find the source of the voice. He doesn’t think he’s ever heard it before, but there’s something about the sensation it elicits that’s familiar.

“It must hurt, hmm? Him leaving you all alone?” the voice says. It’s honey sweet, sickeningly so. “It’s alright, I understand. You’re scared.”

He can’t do this alone. Kuro’s the one with magic, Kenma’s just— Kenma’s not sure exactly what he is, yet, but he knows he has no power without Kuro. Kuro, who’s clutching at his chest and breathing shallowly from between his teeth, face contorted with pain. Kenma can’t do this without him, but—

“I’m not scared,” he tells the voice defiantly, keeping all emotion from his words. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“Hmm,” the voice returns, as though considering it. “Now, I don’t think that’s true. And I don’t think you believe it, either.”

“Shut up,” Kenma mutters. It’s hard enough when he doubts himself, in his own mind. He doesn’t need this whisper, borne of creeping shadows, second-guessing him too.

“Everyone’s scared of something,” the voice continues, tone going idle. “I’m sure we can find something you’re scared of, if we try hard enough. Should we try?”

Shut up,” Kenma repeats. He turns frantically towards Kuro, shuffles his way between the snakes and hopes the the burning he feels along his ankles when he crosses them isn’t actually physical. “Kuro, get up. What are you doing?”

“Are you scared of being alone?” the voice asks, words dripping with concern. “It’s alright, you know. Lots of people fear that. Lots of foolish people, but then when weren’t people foolish?”

He’s halfway across the room, ignoring the way the snakes are clutching at his ankles. It hurts, but he forces himself to take each deliberate step forward instead of pausing over the pain.

“That is what you fear, isn’t it? That if you let people close, you’ll be alone not by your own choice, but by theirs’. They won’t want you if they really know you, will they? They won’t have the patience for you.”

There’s something persuasive about the voice, a quality that makes Kenma shiver but sticks in his brain nonetheless. The voice would almost be kind, if it wasn’t for the actual words it’s saying.

Is what it’s saying true?

“I’m only looking out for you,” the voice says, supportive. “Walk away, now. Go back to being alone. At least then you can tell yourself that it’s what you chose. Won’t that be simple? Nice, even?”

The shadows are creeping around Kuro’s body, circling his wrists and ankles. He doesn’t make any move against them, shivers but doesn’t resist. Can he hear the voice, too?

—what if he can? What would he think of Kenma, knowing he’s had these thoughts? He has chosen to be alone, most of his life. Every time someone laughed, the noise rang too loudly in his ears until he shrank away from it, thinking they were laughing at him. Every time someone talked to him, he looked for the quickest way to end the conversation, uncomfortable when they looked at him too closely. His mother was so lonely in America, when his father was away at work. Kenma made no moves to comfort her, to be closer to her. He didn’t talk in class, absorbed without really interacting. He promised he’d be more comfortable in Japan, would make more of an effort. But he hadn’t. Almost a year since he’s been back, and he hasn’t made any effort at all.

If Kuro knew all that, would he like Kenma at all?

“Probably not,” the voice says casually. “Who would ever like someone like that?”

Kenma’s on his knees, unable to move. The snakes are all coiling together, coalescing into one larger shadow.

“I’m not,” Kenma begins to say, teeth chattering, “He wouldn’t—”

“He wouldn’t what, hmm?” the voice sounds almost bored. “Wouldn’t leave you? Hasn’t he done that once already?”

When he was nine years old, Kenma had made his first friend. He lived in the white house next door, and came to see Kenma every day. Every day, until he suddenly stopped showing up entirely.

“You’re wrong,” Kenma tells the voice. He brings his hands up over his ears, trying to block it out.

The voice laughs, cool and sympathetic and patronizing. “Oh, dear. You don’t even believe that, do you?”

The shadows all come together, and for a split-second Kenma sees the large, writhing snake from last time. Its eyes flash a menacing red, then green. And then, the shadows shift, a figure rising up out of them.

“Poor thing,” the man says, his narrow eyes regarding Kenma pityingly. He’s dressed all in dark colors, his smile too wide and his hair pushed back from his face. His tongue peeks out from behind his teeth, licking over his lips. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you? People are just terrible. They’ll only disappoint you.”

Then he lunges towards Kenma with a laugh.

Kenma barely registers the impact when the man slams into him, grabbing him around the throat with two strong hands. Kenma gasps, his breath immediately cut off, but the snake-turned-person seems to have no interest in strangling him. He picks Kenma up, Kenma’s legs kicking uselessly in the air as he tries to fight back. Instead, the man smashes him into the opposite wall, the noise of the impact rattling in Kenma’s ears.

“Now be a good pet and stay there, alright?” the man says, his voice just as sweet and put-on as it has been when disembodied. The man snaps his fingers and shadows grow up out of the floor, curling around Kenma’s arms and legs and pressing him back into the wall. “I just need to have a little chat with our Kuroo, here. When I’m through with him, there won’t be any use left for you.”

The man waltzes over to Kuro with predatory intent, his green eyes glittering in the dim light. He kneels beside Kuro’s prone form, then reaches out digs his fingers into Kuro’s hair, forcing his head back.

Kuro hisses in pain, but when his eyes blink open rapidly they’re blank, unseeing.

“How’re we doing, Kuroo?” the snake-man croons, all faux sincerity. “You haven’t been talking much today.”

Kuro wheezes, still clutching at his chest. The man sighs, rolling his eyes and mutters, “What can you do?” before grabbing Kuro’s wrist and pulling his arm away from his chest.

He’s still wearing Lev’s lilac-colored t-shirt, the material soaked through with sweat and crumpled where Kuro’s been clutching at it. The snake shifts the collar aside, looking down at the white tissue over the wound there.

“Hmm,” he says, considering. “It should be much worse, by now. Did you have the crow’s pet heal you?”

He tuts like a disappointed parent, running two fingers over the bite. When he touches the wound, Kuro’s entire body seizes and he lets out a hoarse scream. The sound of it runs through Kenma’s veins like fire, igniting every instinct within him. He struggles against the shadows, trying to force his way through them so he can get to Kuro, hold Kuro, keep Kuro from ever being in pain again—

“I suppose your pet must’ve helped too, hm?” the snake continues, ignoring Kuro’s scream. “How annoying.”

Kenma’s still struggling, but there’s no way he can break through. He can only watch in muted horror as the man leans down over Kuro, his teeth glinting— sharp, fanged, just like a snake’s. He hums thoughtfully, before turning and sinking his teeth into Kuro’s chest, just where the wound had been before.

Kenma screams at the same time Kuro does, one of them in pain and the other simply horrified. The shadows are gathering around the snake, swirling up over his body and then down, down, focusing on where his teeth are dug into Kuro’s skin. Kuro’s body seizes, his back arching painfully as the darkness pours into him.

It’s shadow magic, dark and potent. And the snake is giving Kuro more of it than he can possibly take.

Kenma’s only aware of the length of Kuro’s scream when it ends, the entire room echoing with the last of it. Kuro crumples as the snake pulls away from him, letting his body fall into a heap on the floor.

“Well,” he says, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “He put up less of a fight than I expected.” He turns to Kenma, smiling with squinting eyes. “Are you going to be more fun?”

Avoidance has always served Kenma well. Whenever he’s been scared, uncomfortable, or just indifferent, he’s simply side-stepped the situation in question. This hasn’t led him to much excitement, but it has kept him from being overwhelmed.

Now, there’s no time to side-step, no opportunity to get away. The snake stands on the opposite end of the room, regarding Kenma with that falsely-kind smile. Kuro is crumpled at his feet, and the room is too dark for Kenma to even see if he’s breathing.

He can’t be dead, can he? Kenma doesn’t know how he’d possibly manage without Kuro, now. How he’d ever live without him.

Help him, something from the corner of his mind says. You’re supposed to be linked, now. Help him, help him.

Kenma has no idea what he’s supposed to do. The snake is stalking towards him, and he might be speaking, but Kenma doesn’t hear him. Instead, he focuses all of his attention on Kuro, searching in the recesses of his mind for the tendril of shadow that had led him to Kuro in the first place.

It’s a familiar feeling, now, and instead of fighting the tide Kenma holds his breath and dives straight in. His awareness is flooded with light, and Kenma now recognizes the golden glow as himself, gently surrounded by the barest amount of shadow. It’s there that he focuses, trying to reach for the place where he and Kuro connect.

It takes a moment, and Kenma falters for the briefest second— he has no idea what’s going on in the bedroom around him, if the snake has reached him yet, if he’s about to die. The hesitation fades quickly, however. He can risk death if it means reaching Kuro, helping Kuro, saving Kuro.

The thought seems to ignite something within him. The shadows grow, but they aren’t dark and menacing like the snake’s. Instead, they feel as soft as a cloud as they rush up around him, covering him completely. It doesn’t feel like he’s drowning. It’s more of an embrace.

He sees a mass of shadows, surrounded on the edges by a warm glow. The shadows flicker, spiraling downwards. It’s a fast current, and one he’ll get pulled into if he’s not careful. But Kenma doesn’t care. He heads towards the shadows and plunges in.

His feet are wet as they smack against the wooden floor, his steps making soft pat-pat-pat noises as he heads down the hallway. He’s a lanky child, but his cheeks are still rounded with baby fat and his t-shirt hangs too long on him, down to his knees over his shorts. He turns a corner abruptly, heading into the room at the end of the hallway.

A woman is lying in the bed, her thick dark hair spread out over the pillows. There’s something fiery in her demeanor, a slyness to her smile as she sees the boy. But that personality is belied by the paleness of her skin, the dark bags around her eyes.

“Tetsu,” she says, holding out a hand. There’s a tenderness in her voice as she addresses him, and the boy smiles crookedly—he’s missing a few teeth—as he steps forward and grabs her hand in both of his.

“How’re you feeling today, Mama?” he asks, pulling a pillow up to her bedside so he can sit beside her. She squeezes his hands and strokes his hair, keeping up the contact like he’s something infinitely precious.

She smiles at him, but it’s tinged with sadness. “I’m alright, baby,” she says, but he squints at her like he doesn’t quite believe it.

He shakes his head, then smiles wider, almost defiantly. “I’m going to tell you about my day!” he declares loudly. “We read a new story in school— do you want to hear it?”

“Of course,” she says, before her tone turns challenging. “Do you think you can tell it better than your teacher did?”

The boy scoffs. “Of course!” And then he’s off, gesticulating wildly as he recounts the story, making his mother laugh.

It’s the same room, but this time the woman is turned on her side, chest rising and falling lightly in sleep. Her body is curled around the soft black kitten that sleeps pressed against her chest, gently shielded by one of her hands. Wind flutters in from the open window, sending a shiver down the woman’s spine. Her breath goes wheezy, harsh and labored. Every so often there’s a pause, as though she isn’t breathing at all.

He’s a little bit older, wearing stark white that doesn’t suit him and staring up at the sky. His expression is carefully stoic, his hair wild and unkempt.

“Kuroo,” a young voice says from behind him, pleadingly. “Mom says you’re supposed to come home with us. She’s gonna make mackerel for dinner.”

He doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look down at the other boy as he comes in close. He has even wilder hair— gray and white and black all blending together, patterns akin to an owl’s feathers. His golden eyes are wide with concern as he reaches out and tugs on his friend’s hand.

“Don’t worry,” he says brightly. “You’re not going to be alone. You can come stay with us, and then we’ll go to the magic house with Sawamura and Oikawa, and it’ll be great! Everything’s going to be alright!”

He still doesn’t say anything in return. He’s biting down hard on his lower lip, his gaze turned skyward because that’s the only way to stop the tears from falling.

“Kuroo?” the other boys asks again, voice still loud but a little more tentative. He screws his face up in thought, before thumping the other boy on the back. “Hey, I bet I could carry you if you were a cat! Then we could fly home!”

It takes him a moment to compose himself, but when he does his voice sounds bored, almost lazy. “Like you could,” he mutters.

“Of course I could!” he says, enthused that his friend has finally responded. “Go ahead, change right now! I’ll fly you all the way there!”

“And what if you can’t, Bokuto?” he asks, brows lifting lightly. His voice is thick, and he speaks slowly like he’s trying to talk around his heart is in his throat.

“I can, I can!” the boy insists, shoving his friend.

They both laugh.

“Where’re you going?” Bokuto whines, laying out on his stomach in the living room. He’s been squinting at the large, leather-bound tomb in front of him, but now he looks up.

“Nowhere,” Kuroo mutters, hands shoved into his pockets. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Sensei’s gonna get mad,” Bokuto chides, rolling over onto his back. “And you’re being weird.”

“Whatever,” Kuroo says dismissively. It takes him only a few minutes to dash across the yard, to the house at the corner. There’s a little kid sitting in the yard, regarding the world through too-perceptive amber eyes. His hair seems too dark for him, long and shadowing his face.

Kuroo hasn’t been watching him, exactly, but he has noticed him. The kid never seems to move from his spot in the front yard, unwilling or unable to engage with the other neighborhood kids. Kuroo doesn’t really blame him, for that; he’s kept his distance, too. He doesn’t mind being alone, really. But lately he feels like there’s no one he can talk to, on those few occasions when he really wants to say something meaningful.

Looking at the kid now, he gets the feeling that he wouldn’t be as boring as those other kids. There’s something special about him. He looks like he’d be good at keeping secrets.

Kuroo marches right up to the little boy and smiles when he looks up, startled.

“I live next door,” Kuroo says, “and we’re going to be friends.”

“What were you thinking?” a harsh voice asks, casting a shadow over Kuroo. He looks back defiantly, raising his chin.

“I like him,” he says simply, as though that’s all there is too it.

“He already lives next door, in direct proximity to your magic. What do you think spending time with him will do?”

“I…” He pauses, confused. He hadn’t thought about that. “I don’t know. Is it bad?”

The adult sighs, looking down at Kuroo with a mix of disapproval and pity. “Do you know what a guardian does, Kuroo?”

Kuroo stares down at his feet and doesn’t respond.

“Guardians protect people,” his teacher continues. “And sometimes protecting people means keeping things secret from them. Normal people can’t handle knowing everything that goes on in the world around them. Do you want to hurt this friend of yours?”

“No!” Kuroo’s eyes go wide, “Of course not!”

“Then do as you’re told,” his teacher says gently. “Leave him out of your life.”

He tries to convey how sorry he is, but he doesn’t think the other kid really understands. Kuroo’s not at liberty to explain, either. When he comes back to the house after saying goodbye (without really saying it, all he’d managed had been a pathetic “sorry”), he throws himself down on his bed after locking the door to his room. Bokuto knocks, more than once. Sawamura tells him to come eat, to stop being dramatic. Oikawa asks if he’s heartsick, his voice lilting between mockery and empathy.

When Kuroo emerges from his room the next day, he doesn’t talk about it.

The three of them are sitting in the living room, books and cellphones spread out on the coffee table. Kuroo’s sitting on one end of the couch, Bokuto laid out across it with his head in Kuroo’s lap as Kuroo runs his fingers through his hair. Sawamura is across the room, taking slow, diligent notes in a notebook. They’re teenagers, this perhaps the first moment they’ve all been still at the same time.

Then the front door bursts open and the calm is shattered. A fourth boy struts into the room, smiling wide and showing off perfect white teeth.

“You’ve been gone a long time,” Sawamura notes, barely glancing up.

The boy laughs, plopping down into an arm chair and draping his long legs over one end of it. “I have the best news,” he chirps.

The other three wait, expectant. He dips his head back and laughs.

“So, are you going to tell us what it is, or just keep smiling at us like an idiot?” Kuroo asks. He moves to continue stroking Bokuto’s hair, but his friend is already sitting up, barely noticing. Kuroo frowns.

“What is it, Oikawa?” he asks, leaning forward excitedly.

“You,” Oikawa says, pointing at Kuroo, “are mean and your input is unwelcome.” He turns to Bokuto and winks, “But thank you for asking.”

He reaches into his shirt and pulls out a long, delicate silver chain. At the end of it is a diamond-shaped gemstone, brilliant aquamarine in color and shining as though lit from within.

Sawamura drops his pencil. “You’re joking.”

Kuroo tilts his face back. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Not at all,” Oikawa says, cradling the gemstone in both of his hands. “You three better get a move on. I mean, I’m usually better at you at everything, but you don’t want to get too far behind me, do you?”

“Shut up,” Kuroo groans, throwing a pillow at Oikawa’s head.

Oikawa shrieks, indignant, but his voice is drowned out as Bokuto jumps to his feet.

“You found a partner?” he yells. “That’s amazing! Who is it? When do we get to meet them?”

“Hmm,” Oikawa says, stroking his chin. “I’m not sure if I want you to meet him. You might scare him off, you know?”

“We won’t,” Bokuto insists.

“Especially not if you haven’t already,” Kuroo mutters, lips curling.

Sawamura sighs. “We should really take this more seriously…”

Bokuto is knocking on Kuroo’s door in the middle of the night, crawling into bed with him.

“What is it?” Kuroo asks, voice rough with sleep.

“Dunno,” Bokuto sighs, turning over restlessly until Kuroo drapes one arm around him. “I just keep— I just keeping thinking about things, and it’s stupid—”

“Probably,” Kuroo admits lightly. But he runs his fingers up and down Bokuto’s spine, comforting. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“You’ll think I’m stupid,” Bokuto says.

“I won’t.”

“I don’t think I’m a very good guardian,” Bokuto says, eyes shut. “I don’t think I’m very good at this at all. Oikawa’s already got a partner and I want, I want to be that good, too, and—”

“That’s ridiculous,” Kuroo says. “You’ve got the most magic out of all of us, and more light than the rest of us combined. Why wouldn’t you be good enough?”

“I don’t know,” Bokuto says in a small voice. “I just can’t stop thinking about it.”

So Kuroo lays there and listens to Bokuto’s worries, and his fears. But when he wakes up in the morning and sees the dark shadows under his friend’s eyes, he can’t help but think that he hasn’t helped at all.

“This is Suga— Sugawara Koushi,” Sawamura is saying. He tries to sound all business, but he’s blushing and fumbling his words, holding on tightly to Sugawara’s hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Sugawara says, with a smile that’s kind and steady, no hint of hesitation. Kuroo can sense the magical connection between him and Sawamura, the harmonic thrum of power. It makes his heart clench with longing, but he tells himself he doesn’t care.

That night, Kuroo and Bokuto lay on in the back yard. Oikawa and Sawamura are on patrol with their partners, and Kuroo and Bokuto are meant to be training. They aren’t.

“It’s just you and me now, isn’t it?” Kuroo asks.

“Dream team,” Bokuto says confidently, shooting Kuroo a thumbs up.

Sometimes, Kuroo comes back to the apartment and finds Bokuto in bed, covers drawn up over his head. He won’t listen to anyone, and looks like he’s been crying.

“How can I help?” Kuroo asks, desperate.

“I don’t know,” Bokuto says, head against his knees. “I’m sorry.”

Kuroo looks down at his hands, imagines the shadows rising out of them and slowly infecting the world around him. He doesn’t voice the thought aloud, just drags Bokuto over to the couch so they can watch a movie, eat some leftovers.

Bokuto isn’t the one who needs to be sorry.

They’re walking back from class, Bokuto chattering about something when he stops abruptly and bumps into Kuroo from behind.

“Ow,” Kuroo grumbles, turning around. “What was that for?”

Bokuto doesn’t answer, and Kuroo follows his gaze to the cafe across the street. There’s a young man sitting at one of the outdoor tables, delicately sipping at his coffee. He has dark, curling hair and an unflappable expression.

“Do you see that guy?” Bokuto asks, voice a hushed whisper even though they’re in the middle of a crowded street, and there’s no way they’ll be overheard.

“Um, yeah?” Kuroo says, quirking a brow. “What about him?”

“That’s him! The one I keep seeing around campus.” He’s waving his hands, gesticulating wildly.

“Okay,” Kuroo says. “You see tons of people around campus. What’s so special about this guy?”

“I don’t know,” Bokuto says with easy honesty. “I just want to— I could talk to him? Should I talk to him?”

Kuroo laughs, shakes his head. He gives Bokuto a hard push between his shoulders. “Go on,” he says.

The next time Bokuto falls into a funk, Kuroo tries not to be too jealous when it’s Akaashi who follows him into his bedroom, and actually manages to cheer him up. Bokuto smiles easily at him, his entire face lit up from within in a way that has nothing to do with magic.

The longing cuts deep into Kuroo’s heart, like a cat digging in with its claws, claiming purchase.

“All alone again, Kuroo?” a silky voice asks.

“Fuck off, Daishou,” Kuroo spits, barely looking up.

“Hey, don’t be like that,” Daishou says, sounding oh so reasonable. “I just want to ask you a question.”

“It’s never ‘just’ anything, with you.” Kuroo keeps walking, eyes narrowed.

“You guardians really are stingy,” Daishou says with a sigh. “You know things are changing, right? Even your crew must have noticed.”

“So?” Kuroo asks bluntly. He isn’t going to tell Daishou of all people that the changes have come for everyone but him, that the others are moving beyond him, that he’s going to be left alone with no hope of catching up.

“So,” Daishou says. “I thought you all were obsessed with balance. Does that mean you’ve started looking for him, yet?”

Now Kuroo pauses in his steps, turns to look at Daishou with suspicious eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“The Shadow King,” Daishou breathes, voice almost reverent. “You can find him, can’t you? Tell me where he is.”

“You don’t make any sense. And I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“You know,” Daishou insists. “You have to know—”

“Back off.”

Things are easier, when he’s a cat. He’s not the type of animal who endears himself to people, lives off of scraps and hisses when others get too close. He’s content with that, and with ducking around corners when he hears the flap of birds’ wings. He doesn’t want to encounter the birds, even though he can’t remember why. He likes this life of his, can’t remember a time before it.

But he doesn’t sense the snake coming up behind him, doesn’t have time to defend himself before it’s biting into his flesh. He’s wounded and bleeding. He’s not sure where to go, only that his survival instinct is screaming at him to get somewhere safe.

The crow is cawing at him, scolding him. Why won’t he just leave? Why can’t everyone see that he just wants to be left alone? Just alone, someplace safe.

What—who is safe, now? Not the two birds that have been circling overhead, not the fox that was following him yesterday.

It’s some instinct that guides him back to the apartment building. He’s nearly out of energy as he collapses in front of the door, reaching out with one paw. He scratches forlornly against the door, hoping that someone hears him.

No, not just someone. A friend.

“How foolish it is to be kind,” a silky voice murmurs, tutting with pity. “It’s such a good way to be left behind.”

The shadows thicken as the voice speaks, spiraling down, deeper and darker.

“Always fading to the background, aren’t you, Kuroo? Not as flashy or exceptional as the others, or even as dependable.”

The gentle glow around the shadows is flickering, snuffed out of existence entirely for moments at a time.

“You need them so badly, don’t you? But they don’t need you.”

The light is gone, now, the shadows bleeding out of the spiral and loosing all shape, just spreading like ink through water.

“Don’t you want to just give up? Don’t you want to just be alone, and forget the rest?”

There’s a pause, the shadows thinning out before shifting, darkening again.

“Or maybe, you shouldn’t think about yourself. It would be better for them if you weren’t around them, wouldn’t it? You’re not of any use. You make things worse.”

“They’d be better off without you.”

No.” Kenma doesn’t realize he’s spoken aloud until his eyes snap open, and he’s back in his old bedroom, still bound by the shadows against the wall.

The snake is still across the room, his expression shocked. “How did you… what did you do?”

“You’re wrong,” Kenma says, and this time he manages to pull on the magic without being submersed in it entirely. He focuses on the golden glow, willing it to expand, wanting it to help Kuro. “You’re wrong, how dare you?”

It’s like blowing on the embers of a dying fire, watching them catch and ignite once more. His chest fills with warmth, the shadows burning away from his wrists and ankles with airy hisses that sound like screams.

“Stop that,” the snake—Daishou—says, taking a step back.

“You’re so stupid,” Kenma hisses, managing to land on his feet. He sways a bit, but quickly finds his footing. Light is spreading across the floor, leaving no space for shadows.

“I think I resent that,” Daishou murmurs, still looking shocked as Kenma crosses the room with quick, deliberate strides.

Kenma spares him one quick, venomous glance. “I wasn’t talking to you,” he says. Daishou takes a step back, alarmed by what he sees in Kenma’s eyes.

Kenma is no longer paying him any attention. Instead, he’s kneeling down beside Kuro, pressing his hands against Kuro’s cheeks. “How dare you,” he says quietly, shaking his head.

When he touches Kuro’s skin, something sparks between them. Kenma is aware of the glow of his magic, expanding and latching onto Kuro’s, the two spiraling together into a double-helix. He can no longer discern shadow from light—instead, there magic thrums powerful and red. It surrounds the two of them, keeping the snake at bay.

“No,” Daishou’s saying, somewhere in the background, “Stop that, what are you doing—”

Kenma pays him no intention. Instead, he can feel his world tilt slightly as his magic and Kuro’s even out, one filling in the spaces the other lacks and vice versa. As this happens, Kuro’s body grows warmer, his heartbeat less erratic. It’s helping, somehow. Kenma breathes a quiet sigh of relief.

Kuro shifts, groaning, but when he moves he leans into the touch of Kenma’s hands. “Ke… Kenma…?” His head falls back a bit, but his voice gets stronger. “Am I dead? Fuck.”

“You’re not dead. And don’t say my name like that,” Kenma says. “I’m mad at you.”

Kuro’s face scrunches as he struggles to open his eyes. “Why…?”

“Because if you’ve been listening to that voice all this time, then you’re an idiot.” Kenma isn’t used to speaking this much at once, of saying things that mean so much. But this is something he absolutely has to say. “There are people who care about you—all around you. How can you think so lowly of yourself when they clearly love you?”

Kuro is pushing himself up from his elbows, the tiredness retreating from his eyes. “I don’t think lowly of myself,” he says.

Kenma glares down at him, even as he shifts his hands to help Kuro sit up. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I don’t,” Kuro insists. “I know I’m important to people. I just—I just wanted to be the most important to someone, I guess.”

Kenma lets out an exasperated huff and rolls his eyes towards the ceiling.

“What?” Kuro asks, looking affronted.

“Stupid,” Kenma mutters again. He reaches out and takes Kuro’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “What do you think I’m here for?”

Kuro looks up with wide eyes, his expression frozen for a moment before his mouth curves into a brilliant smile. Kenma wants to burn the image into his brain, wants to see it as often as he can. He clutches Kuro’s hand tighter.

It’s as though everything he’s been feeling—the good and the bad—rushes towards the spot where they connect all at once. It leaves Kenma feeling dizzy, even as he watches the shadows and light intertwine, watches them take on the same warm red glow as before.

There’s a brilliant flash, quick and intense as lighting. Kuro gently pulls his hand away from Kenma’s, and sitting in their palms are two red jewels, about the length of Kenma’s index finger and shaped like elongated diamonds. It’s a pair of earrings, the gems pulsing with energy in the rhythm of a heartbeat.

Then the world seems to shake, and Kenma’s pulled forward into the stream of his magic without even trying to reach out for it. It feels as though he’s seeing a million images at once, flashes of indistinct color he can’t make out—there’s a black cat, a horned owl, a crow and a fox. Red, gold, orange and pale blue dance across his vision. And then he’s looking up at the stars, except that they’re all different colors, different spots of light flashing into existence with all of the hope of something being born.

“Oh,” Kenma says softly.

The red glow around their bodies recedes quickly, pooling into the earrings. Kuro looks a little dazed, clutching both of the earrings like he can’t believe they’re real. He runs his fingers over them, again and again, like he’s trying to reaffirm something.

“Oh, damn it,” Daishou drawls, drawing out the syllables. Kenma startles—he’d forgotten that he and Kuro weren’t the only people in the room. “This makes things really very inconvenient.”

Kuro snarls, pulling himself up to his feet as he steps between Kenma and Daishou. “I’ll show you inconvenient,” he mutters darkly.

“If you keep going on like that, you really are going to hurt yourself,” Daishou sighs. “This doesn’t have to be so difficult—I just want to know how to find the Shadow King.”

“I’ve already told you, I know nothing about that,” Kuro growls. He’s standing protectively in front of Kenma, but Kenma can see the way his legs are shaking. He’s weak, and Kenma needs to get him back to Sugawara and the others to make sure they heal him properly this time.

“That’s not possible,” Daishou hisses. “I need to find him.”

Something about the hitch in his voice unnerves Kenma. Experimentally, he reaches out and tries to get a feel for Daishou’s magic—the same way he sees his own, and Kuro’s. It isn’t difficult to find, but he can’t quite understand it. It’s a swirling mass of shadows and light, and looks like too much for one person. It isn’t at the same level as Kuro’s, at all. It doesn’t seem healthy.

“What are you scared of,” Kenma murmurs.

“Kenma?” Kuro asks, as both he and Daishou turn towards him.

“You’re scared of something,” Kenma says again, brow furrowing. “Of… not being free?”

Daishou flinches as though he’s been struck. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he hisses.

“You think that if you find this king, he’ll free you from something,” Kenma continues. It’s easy now, to reach out with his magical awareness and glean Daishou’s thoughts. They’re erratic, tinged with emotion, but Kenma’s sure he’s discovered something of the truth. “What are you so scared of becoming attached to?”

Kuro’s eyes have narrowed keenly, his gaze darting back and forth between Daishou and Kenma.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Daishou says after a moment, with a hollow laugh. “Look at yourselves, bonding together so easily. It’s a lie.”

Defensively, Kuro reaches out and grabs for Kenma’s hand. “No, it isn’t.”

“It is,” Daishou insists. He sounds almost hysterical. “You can always convince people to think of you a certain way—it’s laughably easy. But it isn’t real. The moment you actually let someone see your true self, you lose any freedom you’d ever had.”

Kenma’s so focused on reading Daishou that he doesn’t see the shadows gathering around him until they’ve surged forward, reforming the shadowy snake. Daishou stands just behind, his bloated magic feeding the snake as it regards Kuro and Kenma with flashing eyes.

“He shouldn’t be able to do all this on his own,” Kuro mutters, biting down on his lower lip. But then he turns to Kenma, looking sly and hopeful. “You gonna help me out with this?”

This magic stuff is turning out to be much more effort than it’s worth. Kenma heaves a heavy sigh, but squeezes Kuro’s hand. “I guess,” he says. “What can we do?”

“Just follow my lead,” Kuro says, flashing a smirk.

The snake lunges, but Kuro extends his hand and the shadows seize in midair, blocked by the force of Kuro’s magic. Now that Kenma knows what to look for, it’s easy to see what’s happening—Kuro’s drawing on his own strength to set up a barrier that rebounds anything coming towards them. It’s more than a shield—it’s a reflective block.

“You can’t keep that up forever,” Daishou says. His fists are clenched at his sides, his eyes narrowed in determination as he struggles to keep the snake together, fuelling it with magic. “If you can’t tell me what I need to know, I can just kill you. How do you think that’ll effect the balance, Kuroo?”

Kenma’s pretty sure that if one side of a square gets cut off, the rest won’t stand. He’s not entirely sure how magic works, yet, but he has a vested interest in keeping Kuro alive. Which is why he has to find a way to stop Daishou. Kuro’s holding firm, his barrier strong, but he won’t last long. He doesn’t have much strength, and the wound will be draining what little he has left.

Still holding onto Kuro’s hand, Kenma reaches out again for Daishou’s magic. This time, he’s sure of what he’s seeing—it’s not just one person’s, but a mass of four or five pieces, all smashed together and indistinguishable. It feels a lot like cheating, drawing on more magic that Kuro and Kenma have together. This snake is really starting to piss him off.

“How do you cut off someone’s connection to other people’s magic?” Kenma asks.

Kuro turns to him briefly, brow furrowed. When he speaks, it’s to repeat a refrain that Kenma’s heard more than once, now. “Light magic is connection—shadow is isolation.”

“That’s what he was trying to do to you,” Kenma says. “Drown you in shadow.”

Kuro nods. His magic has a little light in it, enough to connect to Kenma’s and keep him from being purely isolated. Maybe that’s how Kenma was able to save him.

“Can we do the same thing to him?” Kenma asks.

Kuro frowns, his concentration drawn in two directions as he keeps up the shield in front of them. “We can try,” he says.

The snake curls round and round on the ground before them, trying to find an angle around Kuro’s block. Daishou’s entire body is shaking with the strain of using so much magic, but he doesn’t look like he has any intentions of backing down.

When Kenma reaches out for his magic, he can feel Kuro tugging on it from the other side. It’s like there’s a circuit between them, live with energy. He follows Kuro’s lead, manipulating the magic as Kuro pours it into the connection between them. It’s like playing an instrument, striking different notes at precisely the right moment until they all converge, harmonic.

When Kenma looks up, there’s another creature rising out of the shadows, in front of the snake. But this time, Kenma knows it’s an ally, because it’s a cat.

The cat leaps over the snake, bypassing it entirely and smacking into Daishou, sending him tumbling to the ground. Though it’s made of shadow, the cat seems to have physical form, pinning Daishou down. As soon as Daishou hits the ground, the shadow snake freezes in place. The shadows begin to flicker in and out of form, unable to maintain shape with Daishou’s concentration broken.

“No,” Daishou wheezes, struggling against the cat’s hold. “No, come back.”

But it’s no use—the cat is held together by light magic, but made up mostly of shadow. As it surrounds Daishou the shadow magic washes over him, pulling him away to the connections he’d formed. Kenma isn’t sure where those other stores of magic had come from, but he breathes a sigh of relief as each one flickers out, Daishou cut off from them entirely.

“I thought he didn’t want connections,” Kenma mutters.

Kuro glances towards him and shrugs, but he’s gritting his teeth, the hand that isn’t holding Kenma’s clenched at his side. He’s fighting off pain, fatigue—Kenma leans in close, offering Kuro silent support.

As each source of power gets cut off, the shadow snake shrinks. Kenma sees the exact moment when the final thread is cut, when Daishou is left with nothing but his own magic. The snake dissipates into a pool of shadow, no longer able to hold any form at all.

“No,” Daishou says again, and now he doesn’t sound angry—he’s scared. “I can’t fail, I’ll—”

Kenma doesn’t know what he would have said next. As the shadows flicker, Daishou shudders and fades into them. The cat jumps back just as Daishou goes from his human form to that of a snake—the first time Kenma’s actually seen his other form, and not just the shadows he casts in its shape. He’s about the width of one of Kuro’s arms, and twice as long, scales a vibrant green. He doesn’t seem so scary, now.

What are they going to do with him? Kenma takes a tentative step forward, reaching out. Before he can get to the snake, however, the remaining shadows on the floor swirl into something like a whirlpool. Quicker than Kenma can think, they draw the snake in, and with a hiss that sounds like a scream the snake is pulled into the shadows, disappearing entirely.

“What the fuck,” Kuro says from behind him. Kenma turns around just in time to see Kuro crash forward on his knees. “I really hate that guy,” he breathes out.

The shadow cat dissipates into the air, and although the room is dark now, the sun having set outside, for the first time the house seems normal and quiet.

Kuro’s on his knees, hands braced against the floor as he breathes heavily. Kenma’s back at his side quickly, hovering uselessly for a moment as he tries to figure out what he can do to help.

“Come on,” he says, reaching out. “We need to get you back to the others.”

Kuro shuts his eyes, shakes his head. “No, hold on. I need to tell you something first.”

Kenma sits down on the floor beside him and waits. It takes a few moments, but eventually Kuro looks up, eyes shadowed and tired. “We need to tell Sawamura and the others about Daishou. That wasn’t normal.”

“Then let’s go,” Kenma says, confused.

Kuro shakes his head. “When he first approached me, I thought I could take care of it myself. I thought I didn’t need the others’ help.”

“That was stupid,” Kenma says, voice carefully blank.

“I know.” Kuro grimaces. “And then today, I did the same thing again. I could feel that he was close by, and the thought that he’d come near you again—I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“And it nearly got you killed.” His tone isn’t particularly admonishing, but he thinks the message is clear.

“I know,” Kuro says again. “I’m not proud of myself. But I wanted to—”

“Don’t apologize,” Kenma cuts him off immediately.

But Kuro doesn’t look at him with sad eyes, this time. Instead, he smirks. “I wasn’t going to. I wanted to say thank you, Kenma. You came after me, and you didn’t have to. And with all that darkness around me, I couldn’t think past the voices. I would’ve been trapped in them forever, if you hadn’t come.”

The warm feeling is building in Kenma’s chest. He’s still not sure what to call it. “So don’t leave me behind, next time.”

He reaches down and cups Kuro’s cheeks in his hands, lifting his face upwards. With Kuro still on his knees, Kenma can reach up and press his lips lightly against Kuro’s forehead.

“I never want you to feel like that again,” Kenma says softly. “I always want you to know that you’re important.”

Kuro’s tanned skin is tinted red, and he’s got that same stupid smile on his face again. “Okay,” he says after a long moment. “Then all you’ve got to do is stick around forever.”

If he was thinking straight, Kenma might have felt more embarrassed. But instead he just pulls him close, hugging Kuro’s head tightly against his chest. “That’s a promise, then,” he says, his words suddenly feeling too thick for his mouth. “You’ll never leave me behind, and I’ll stay with you.”

He can feel Kuro nod, and then his strong arms are around Kenma, the two of them clutching each other so tightly that they feel as entwined as their magic now is.

“It’s a promise,” Kuro agrees. “But right now I’m tired, let’s go home.”

Kenma opens his mouth to agree, but Kuro’s already dipping forward, the now-familiar red glow surrounding him as he shifts forms. Lev’s clothes fall around Kenma, empty as the black cat snuggles into his lap, clearly expecting to be carried.

“Lazy,” Kenma mutters, shaking his head. But he cradles the cat close to his chest, so that he can feel their hearts beating in time.

It’s a quiet, short walk in the cool evening air as Kenma crosses the distance between the old yellow house and the white one next door. He holds Kuro close, and Kuro lifts his head to nuzzle against the underside of Kenma’s chin as he walks. It tickles a bit, but it’s a comforting feeling. Kenma’s holding onto the two red earrings in his other hand, the feeling of them warm against his skin. It’s all very complete, somehow, despite the fatigue settling across Kenma’s shoulders and the questions tumbling around in his head.

He has just a moment to pause at the door and wonder how he’s going to get past the magical lock when the door bursts open. There’s a flurry of activity, and suddenly Kenma’s being lifted up into the air, strong arms around his waist as he squawks and tries to maintain his grip on Kuro.

“You’re home! And you’re okay!” Someone is speaking way too loudly as they spin Kenma around, laughing all the while. “Kuroo, I missed you, you asshole. Where did you go?”

“You should probably put him down, Bokuto-san,” a soft voice says from the doorway. “I think you’re alarming Kuroo-san’s wielder.”

“What? Oh, sorry.”

And just like that, Kenma’s back on his feet, feeling dizzy. Bokuto stands before him, hands braced on his hips and a ring with a golden stone gleaming on his ring finger. He leans forward, and when he speaks Kenma realizes he’s talking to the cat.

“Well?” Bokuto asks. “When were you going to tell me about all of this?”

Still curled up in Kenma’s arms, Kuro bats at his whiskers and blinks once, a clear dismissal.

“Jerk,” Bokuto mutters, before turning to Kenma. “Hey, hey, I like your hair! More colors are definitely better, don’t you think? You’re just like me.”

Kenma isn’t so sure about that, but all he can do is nod weakly.

Bokuto-san,” Akaashi calls again from the doorway, looking fondly exasperated. “At least let them get inside.”

Now when Kenma looks up, he sees them all standing there—Sugawara and Sawamura behind Akaashi, and Shimizu behind them.

“Sorry, Kozume-kun,” Sugawara calls out to him with a teasing smile. “This is the sort of thing you sign up for, in this family.”

Family. It’s a warm word, a good word. Kenma’s not quite sure if it fits, yet, but he’s willing to explore the possibility. Holding onto Kuro, he heads into the house without looking back.

Chapter Text

Kenma’s sitting in the corner of the booth, his knees drawn up to his chest and his PSP balanced in his hands. His hair falls forward over his face like a curtain, but he’s still vaguely aware of what’s happening around him. There’s a family with two children in the booth next to his, the father passing out soft drinks. And across the aisle is a group of high school students, maybe from some sports team, all crowded around two tables and scarfing down their food. If he paused, really concentrated, he would be able to glean more about them— their names, what they’re talking about. The connections between them are almost palpable, threads of shadow and light that Kenma could reach out and pluck on if he felt so inclined. But he doesn’t do that, instead keeps his focus on the characters on his screen and the button combos he presses through mechanically.

“Sorry, the line was so long!” His concentration is broken entirely as Lev walks up to the table and sets down a tray laden with food. He slides into the seat opposite Kenma’s and regards him with a wide smile. “You found us a good spot!”

Kenma finishes his battle and saves his game before he sets the PSP aside and finally looks up at Lev. “You got too much food,” he says.

“I’m not going to make you eat it,” Lev says, frowning. Nevertheless, he hands Kenma two small packaged apple pies and a vanilla shake before reaching for his own food— burgers, fries, soft drink. “I’ve just been really hungry lately, I don’t know why.”

“Don’t keep growing,” Kenma says, holding onto the first apple pie with both hands as he bites into it. “You’re already too tall.”

“There’s no such thing,” Lev exclaims, looking aghast. “Maybe you’re just sensitive because you’re so small, Kenma-san.”

Mouth full of food, Kenma only looks up at Lev with his most unimpressed expression.

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” Lev insists, waving a hand. “I like you being small, I think it suits you.”

He’s still not really sure what to make of Lev’s too-honest way of speaking, the way he’s able to rattle off words that are insults and compliments, all in quick succession. Kenma sighs and takes a sip of his milkshake, deciding to simply file it away as another thing about Lev he’ll never quite grasp.

They sit in comfortable silence for a few moments, Lev muttering his way through the jokes printed on their placemats and laughing to himself as he does. He eats quickly, afterwards, biting into his burgers with gusto. Have his teeth always been that sharp? From the right angle, they look almost fanged.

“Anyway, my sister was really mad that I had to stay behind in school, yesterday. I didn’t mean to fall asleep in history class, but I’ve been having really weird dreams lately and I just can’t stay awake. Do you ever have that problem?” Lev pauses his stream of chatter to reach for his fries.

“I don’t sleep,” Kenma says flatly, once his brain has caught up with everything Lev’s been saying, “So, no.”

Lev tilts his head, regarding Kenma skeptically. “Was that a joke?” Then, deciding for himself, he tilts back his head and laughs.

Kenma shakes his head, brushing a stray lock of hair behind his ear and allowing himself a small smile. Lev is… a lot. But that isn’t such a bad thing. When he looks up again, Lev is staring at him.

“What?”

“You have an earring!” Lev exclaims, pointing at it.

“Oh,” Kenma says, as though just remembering. “You just noticed?”

To be honest, he’s still getting used to it, himself. Piercing his left ear had been a bit of a pain, and the earring hangs just a bit shorter than his hair. When he hunches forward and his hair covers the sides of his face, it’s barely visible.

Lev leans back in his chair, still looking at Kenma admiringly. “Kenma-san, you’re so cool. Doing things like that like it’s no big deal. Maybe when I’m a university student, I’ll get an earring too.”

Kenma flicks a fry at him. “You have to get into university first,” he tells Lev blandly. “And that means not sleeping through your classes.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” Lev huffs, crossing his arms over his chest. “And anyway, it’s not my fault. I didn’t ask for weird dreams…”

Kenma rolls his eyes, slurping up the last of his milkshake from the bottom of the cup. This is the third time he and Lev have been out for lunch, and he finds it’s becoming easier every time. Lev doesn’t mind ordering food for them when Kenma passes him his money and goes to find them a table. Despite his childish exuberance, Lev is such an imposing presence with his height that most people leave him and Kenma alone, even if just to give his long limbs wide berth. And he doesn’t mind talking when Kenma doesn’t try to fill every silence between them. They’re adapting to each other, Kenma thinks, and that’s not such a bad thing.

“Yo, Kenma,” a new voice interrupts, someone casting a shadow over their table.

When he glances up he sees Kuro smirking at him. It’s still strange seeing him in his own clothes— well-fit dark jeans and a graphic tee, a worn leather jacket and beat-up sneakers. His sleeves are pushed up, revealing the length of red leather he wears around his wrist like a bracelet. From his right ear, a red earring identical to Kenma’s glints under the fluorescent lights.

“What are you doing here?” Kenma asks, at the same time Lev says, “Who’re you?”

Kuro turns to grin cheekily at Lev, but he answers Kenma’s question first. “I went by the apartment, and you weren’t there. Did you forget we had a date, today?”

Kenma groans and hides his face in his hands, exactly as Lev shoots up in his feet and exclaims, “Are you Kenma’s boyfriend?”

“Kuro,” Kenma says warningly.

But Kuro’s already nodding towards Lev, sharp teeth glinting as he smiles. “I’m Kuroo Tetsurou. Nice to meet you, officially, and all. Thanks for looking after Kenma.”

“I don’t need looking after,” Kenma mutters.

Lev is looking from Kenma to Kuro and back again, eyes narrowing as he assesses. Finally, he sits back and nods, as though he’s figured something out. “Kuroo-san,” he says, “Did you know that Kenma-san named his cat after you?”

Kuro strokes his chin thoughtfully. “You know, he never told me that. I do like cats, though, so I guess I’ll allow it.”

Kenma decides he hates them both as he gets to his feet and pushes his tray back towards Lev. “We’re going to go, now.”

“Oh, okay,” Lev says, “I’ll see you on Friday, though?”

Kenma tucks his PSP into the pocket of his hoodie and nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Tell your sister I’m looking forward to dinner.”

“What’s the hurry?” Kuro says as Kenma leads him out of the McDonald’s. “I didn’t order a burger yet.”

“You’re the one who came to get me,” Kenma reminds him. “You don’t need to eat all the time.”

“I didn’t have human food for six months,” Kuro insists. “I’ve been deprived. I need to make up for lost time.”

“You did that to yourself,” Kenma mutters. “And I fed you my fish. That was human food.”

“Yeah,” Kuro scoffs. “After you tried to feed me cat food. I thought I was going to starve.”

“You were a cat.” Kenma shakes his head, looking back at Kuro instead of where he’s walking. It takes only a split-second of inattention for someone to come barreling into him, knocking him off his feet.

Kuro moves immediately, grabbing Kenma around the waist before he can hit the sidewalk. His feet dangle uncomfortably in the air as Kenma tries to get his bearings. Before he can, his vision is flooded with… orange.

“Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” There’s a kid in front of him, talking very quickly and very enthusiastically. “My sister was running and I went after her and I didn’t see you— are you hurt? You went flying, like gwaah! And I didn’t mean to knock you down! Your friend has really fast reflexes, though, that was amazing!”

Kuro’s set him back on his feet by this point, leaving Kenma staring at the person with violently orange hair. His eyes are wide and round, a soft brown color that reflects the sun’s rays. He’s looking at Kenma expectantly, and that’s when Kenma remembers he’s supposed to respond.

“I’m okay,” he says. “You didn’t need to apologize.”

“Of course I did!” he says. “Why wouldn’t I? That would be pretty rude, wouldn’t it? Like I didn’t notice you were there at all, or care! And that would be really horrible.”

Kenma doesn’t know why he’s been attracting people who talk so much, lately. It takes a lot of effort to keep up with everything that they’re saying, and even then Kenma’s often left at a loss.

“…thanks,” he says, after a few moments.

The orange-haired kid’s face scrunches in confusion for a moment, then breaks into a wide smile. “No problem! I’ll try not to run into you, next time. –Natsu! Wait for me!” And then he’s turning on his heel and running back down the sidewalk, chasing after another blur of bright hair.

Kenma glances at Kuro, who’s regarding him very carefully. When he catches Kenma watching, he lifts his chin and feigns a pout. “Kenma’s so popular lately,” he says mournfully. “I wonder if I should be jealous.”

“How is getting nearly run over being popular?” Kenma mutters, elbowing Kuro in the side. But Kuro’s still quiet as they walk towards the train station, so Kenma sighs and reaches out to take his hand. “We’re going to see your friends, remember?”

“They’re not my friends,” Kuro says as they stop by the ticket kiosk. “More like, people I’m obligated to care about.”

“Bokuto is your friend,” Kenma says.

Kuro busies himself buying one ticket, then another when Kenma shoots him a pointed look. “That’s true.”

He’s actually smiling by the time they get on the train, so Kenma leaves him to his own devices and pulls out his PSP, picking up the level where he’d left off earlier.

Kuro sits sideways on his seat, elbow against the railing and chin in his hand as he watches Kenma. “Anyway, Shimizu’s been reading up on all of the shit that went down last week. Sawamura and Bokuto have been looking for Daishou, but no luck so far. I doubt he’s really gone, though.”

“Mm.” Kenma’s response is noncommittal, though he is listening.

“You’ve been feeling okay, right?” Kuro says after a moment. “It’s only been a week, and it generally takes people longer than that to get used to a magical connection.”

Kenma sighs softly. Instead of responding, he reaches out with his magical awareness and finds the thread of connection between him and Kuro. He plucks on it lightly, letting strands of light reverberate through the shadow—like skipping a rock across a lake, and letting the ripples flow in and out of one another.

Kuro’s expression immediately turns soft, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiles at Kenma. “I get that you know it’s there,” he says, voice too fond to be truly scolding. “I’m just asking if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, at all.”

Kenma blinks up at Kuro like he’s just said something incredibly stupid.

“Why would it be overwhelming? It’s just a reminder that you’re there.”

The street is quiet, like it normally is, as Kenma and Kuro head towards the old white house. Kuro had explained that magic has a strong influence on environments— four guardians growing up in the white house had saturated the neighborhood, made people too aware of their connections and feelings. Even though those things aren’t always negative, it made things uncomfortable for the residents of the other houses after a time.

“I guess that’s why your parents decided to move,” Kuro had explained, rubbing the back of neck. “I kept wondering why I was never able to find you again, for all those years.”

The idea that Kuro was even looking had made Kenma’s cheeks heat up.

“It does explain why Daishou hung around there, though,” Kuro continued, mulling it over. “Memories live on as shadows and light. And if you’d felt a lot of strong emotions in that house, it only makes sense that the place would have absorbed a lot of that magic. You’re talented at this stuff without even realizing it.”

“I think that just means I feel too much,” Kenma had muttered. He rarely wanted to think back to his childhood, when he had spent most of his days lost in his own thoughts, lonely and all too aware of it.

Kuro chuckled, leaned down to ruffle Kenma’s hair. “No such thing,” he assured him. “I mean, neither of us want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but in case you haven’t figured it out by now, those feelings aren’t a weakness.”

Kenma’s having a hard time conceptualizing them as a strength, however. He still feels hyperaware, most of the time, and that’s exhausting. He doesn’t know how he’s going to channel that overstimulation into magical strength. Maybe, with Kuro by his side, it’s possible. But it still seems like a longshot.

Now, they approach the white house and Kuro presses his hand against the magical lock. It looks slightly different from before— the four animals are now all facing outwards in opposite directions, instead of at one another. Kuro doesn’t comment on that, however, and so Kenma doesn’t either.

Kuro leads him into the living room, which Kenma knows more from Kuro’s memories than his own experience. Most of the others are already there— Sawamura and Sugawara are sitting in armchairs on one side of the room, talking quietly, while Bokuto and Akaashi take up the long couch. They look up when Kuro and Kenma arrive, waving and calling out their greetings.

“You’re late,” Bokuto says pointedly, reaching out one leg to trip Kuro as he walks past. Kuro retaliates by flopping down onto Bokuto’s lap as dead weight. After a moment, they’re a tangle of long limbs and wild hair, laughing.

Akaashi edges away from the two of them and gives Kenma a sympathetic look. “They’re always like this.”

“Not true!” Bokuto looks up from wrestling Kuro into a headlock. “Anyway, this is Kuroo’s punishment for ditching me for six months.”

Kuro grabs Bokuto around the waist, flipping their positions so that Bokuto falls to the floor. “It’s only punishment if you can actually make good on your threats,” he says lazily, taking up Bokuto’s spot on the couch.

Bokuto grumbles but adjusts to sit cross-legged on the floor, his back against Kuro’s legs. “Hey, hey, Kenma! Come sit with me! We’re still waiting for Shimizu.”

Kenma looks at Kuro a bit helplessly, but eventually squeezes into the far corner of the couch, his back against the armrest.

“We’re probably going to need a bigger meeting space,” Sawamura says thoughtfully from across the room. “Now that there’re so many of us.”

“Speaking of,” Kuro says, glancing around, “where the hell has Oikawa been?” There’s a hint of emotion in his voice beyond irritation, and when Kenma reaches out to their magical connection he gets a flash of images— a black cat and a fox chasing each other through the garden, then the two of them sleeping piled together, and two boys smirking at each other as they practice magic. Kuro and Oikawa are close, but the fox hasn’t been around since Kuro’s been back. And Kuro’s hurt by that.

“Working on one of his projects,” Sugawara says, one finger tapping thoughtfully against his chin. “He said he was going to stay at you-know-who’s house so we wouldn’t distract him.”

“That was a few weeks ago, now,” Sawamura adds. “He was trying to help find you, before that.”

“Glad to see I was a real priority for him,” Kuro mutters. “And anyway, shouldn’t someone have called him about today? I thought this was important.”

“I did call him,” Shimizu says, entering the room with a large box in her hands. Akaashi gets up from the couch to take it from her, setting it down on the coffee table. “He hasn’t been responding.”

Kuro frowns, and Sawamura opens his mouth to say something before Shimizu continues, “We’ll deal with him later. This is important.”

She begins lifting things out of the box— an opalescent globe the size of a basketball, and a richly-embroidered cloth. The four guardians are looking at the globe skeptically, and Kenma gets the same impression from all of them— it’s something important, but they haven’t seen it in awhile.

“I’m going to start at the beginning,” Shimizu says. “Since some of us haven’t heard the whole story yet.”

“I always like hearing it from the beginning, anyway,” Bokuto puts in. “It makes me sound important.”

Shimizu bites down on a smile, at that, but then her entire demeanor turns serious.

“Throughout time, there have been different epicenters for magic, some massive and others relatively contained. The last shift was about two decades ago, and most magical energy is now focused here.”

She tosses the globe lightly into the air, and it hovers at eye-level, emitting a soft gray glow. “Tokyo is the center, here,” she points it out, “and it’s held in place by four guardians.”

“The crow, in the north,” she continues, and an orange spark lights on top of the globe, “and the owl, in the east.” A golden spark, now, on one side.

“The fox in the west,” an aquamarine spark opposite the gold, “and the cat, in the south.” Finally, a red spark directly below the orange. The globe spins slowly, lines of shadow and light bursting fourth from the four corners and crisscrossing across its surface.

“Traditionally, the four guardians are able to keep the forces of shadow and light enough in balance that life continues normally, for most people. Occasionally, however, something upsets the balance, and magic becomes more potent. That’s when the guardians find wielders, in order to better control that magic.”

As Shimizu speaks, the others in the room seem to be holding their breath.

“It’s been a long time since all four guardians have had wielders at the same time, in the same generation,” Shimizu says. “It’s a sign that the magic is significantly out of balance. And because it hasn’t happened in so long, there isn’t much record of what happens next. That’s why last week caught us all off guard, I think.”

Kenma thinks back to his and Kuro’s battle with Daishou, to the moment when their magic had truly connected and the earrings had formed. In that instant, he felt as though he’d seen the true extent of the world’s magic— the four guardians, but also something more.

“There’s more of you out there, isn’t there,” Kenma says. “Like the snake.”

Shimizu nods at him approvingly. “There have always been other magical beings, beyond the guardians. They’re called sentinels, and generally they help keep the balance, in case the guardians fail. But this is something more.”

She passes her hand over the globe again, and another handful of lights burst across the surface— green, maroon, yellow, and then too many to keep track of. Kenma thinks he counts a dozen, maybe more.

“All of you finding your wielders unlocked something in the world’s magic. And I think that means that people who’ve never been aware of magic, but may have always had the potential for it, are now going to have access to it.”

Kenma glances at the sparks of light again— is each of them a new guardian, or something similar?

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Kuro says, dragging one hand down his face. “It was hard enough being born like this— how are people supposed to deal with it if it just happens to them, suddenly?”

Sawamura clears his throat, getting to his feet. “That leaves only one thing for us to do, doesn’t it? We have to find these people, and help them. Train them, and help them find their wielders, if we can. It’s our responsibility.”

Bokuto frowns. “That’s a lot of lights, guys. How are we supposed to find them all?”

“Well, there are four of you,” Shimizu says softly. “And you’ve each got a partner, now. I’m sure you’ll manage.”

“Shimizu,” Sugawara says, looking at her with a strange light in his eyes, “You’re not thinking…”

“I’m not,” she says hurriedly, shaking her head. “I mean, just because there are more guardians out there, doesn’t mean that every one of them will have a wielder, too. The odds are just too long.”

Shimizu is a wielder, too, Kenma remembers. He wonders if it’s just as lonely on her end, never connecting to a guardian. And now that the possibility exists, how can she not be thinking about it?

“There’s something more,” she says. They all look towards the globe again, and two more sparks burst forth from the center of it—one a blinding white, the other a fathomless black.

“Generally, guardians have some combination of light and shadow magic,” Shimizu reiterates. She bites down on her lower lip, worried. “For us, the most extreme examples are Kuroo and Bokuto, who are mostly shadow and mostly light, but each have a little of the opposite.”

Akaashi’s been silent all the while, but now he looks at the globe through narrowed eyes. “You’re saying that those two are guardians who are all one or the other? Entirely shadow, and entirely light?”

Shimizu nods.

“What would that do to a person,” Akaashi says softly, casting Bokuto an apologetic glance. “They’d never be in balance.”

“Then they’re who we should look for first,” Sawamura declares.

Kenma bites down on the inside of his cheek, trying to turn all the pieces over in his mind until they fit together. “The one with just shadow magic. Could that be who the snake was looking for? The shadow king.”

“That’s the last thing,” Shimizu says. “My grandmother’s books are vague about a lot of things, but they do mention rulers of light and shadow. Sometimes they mention a creator and a destroyer, but I think they’re referring to the same people. Forces who can unleash even more magic, or destroy it entirely.”

“I don’t like this,” Kuro says. “Especially not if Daishou knew about it before us. And he only mentioned the shadow king, never a ruler of light.”

The room falls silent, each of them trying to process this latest information. Kenma had seen firsthand what Daishou was willing to do to find the shadow king, but he still had no idea why. That, more than anything else, worries him.

“I still think there’s only one course of action,” Sawamura says finally. “Whoever these two are, they’re like us. We can find them, before Daishou does.”

“Before Daishou and whoever he was working with,” Kenma murmurs. This has the unfortunate side effect of attracting six pairs of eyes toward him. Kenma ducks his head. “What? I thought you knew. He was drawing on magic that wasn’t his own, when we fought him.”

“Yeah, but how do you know that?” Bokuto says, tilting his head.

“Kenma can read minds now,” Kuro says smugly, reaching over to drape one arm across Kenma’s shoulders.

“Amazing,” Sugawara says softly. “And that lets you read their magic, too?”

Kenma nods, a bit dumbly. “I thought it was just… wielders…”

Akaashi shakes his head. “We each have different abilities. I can’t heal like Sugawara-san, and I definitely can’t read minds.”

“It’s not really reading,” Kenma says to the ground. “More like impressions.”

“Whatever it is,” Shimizu says, “it might be just what we need, right now. If that’s how you found Kuroo, before, it could help us find the others now.”

Before Kenma can say that that’s too much responsibility for him to handle, they’re interrupted by a fierce pounding at the door.

After a moment when they all stare at each other, wondering who could possibly have just shown up at the house, Sawamura goes to answer the door. He returns with irate-looking man with dark hair, who marches into the living room and looks around accusatorily.

“Alright,” he grumbles, “Where is he?”

“Um,” Sugawara says, putting up both hands in a placating gesture, “I’m not sure what—”

“Oikawa!” the newcomer calls out, face scrunched with rage. “I know you’re here, asshole! Stop screwing with me.”

“He really isn’t here,” Sawamura says. “We thought he was with you.”

The man’s eyes flutter shut for a moment, and Kenma can see him muttering under his breath, trying to reign in his temper. Now that he isn’t moving around so much, Kenma can see the aquamarine stone on a thin chain around his neck, pulsing softly with power.

“That’s not possible,” he says after a moment. “He told me two weeks ago that there was something he was working on, guardian business, and that he wouldn’t be around for awhile. He has to be here.”

“Oh my god,” Kuro says from his spot on the couch, laughing unattractively into his hand, “He’s treating us like his divorced parents. Telling each of us he’s with the other.”

Oikawa’s wielder grits his teeth. “I don’t see what’s so funny about that.”

Sawamura steps forward again, kicking Kuro in the ankle to get him to stop laughing. “Iwaizumi-san, we haven’t heard from him for two weeks, either. He didn’t mention what he was working on, at all?”

Iwaizumi runs a hand over his face, sighing. “No. And normally I wouldn’t take that as an answer, but…”

He trails off, and Kenma can’t help the flash of awareness he gets from that moment, the emotions too strong to ignore.

“What did you fight about?” he asks softly, before he can help himself.

Iwaizumi startles, looking at Kenma with wide eyes. “Nothing,” he says immediately. “It’s stupid.”

“It might not be that stupid,” Akaashi says, rising to his feet. “And I don’t think any of us wants to deal with another missing guardian situation.” He shoots Kuro a dark look.

Then, everyone is speaking at once. It’s too much to take in—their physical presences, the volume of their voices, the flashes of thought and emotion that Kenma is getting from each of them. He shivers, and gets to his feet. No one is focused on him, now, so it’s easy for him to slip away into the backyard.

The cool air hits him immediately, and Kenma sighs as he massages his temples with his fingers. He’s only alone for an instant, however. Almost immediately, he senses Kuro behind him.

“You should go back inside,” Kenma tells him. “Help the others figure out what’s going on.”

Kuro hums noncommittally, walks up beside Kenma. The wind blows through his hair as he glances upwards at the sky.

“They’re not going to figure anything out right now. And I’d rather not stick around to hear everyone talk about Oikawa the way they were probably talking about me, a few weeks ago.”

“They’re just concerned,” Kenma tells him. “Especially after everything we just heard.”

“I’m not too worried about that,” Kuro insists. “We’re all strong, together. I honestly feel like we can handle anything.”

Kenma feels himself pouting, brow furrowed in confusion. “Why?” he asks. “How can you be so sure?”

Kuro turns to face him, his expression so tender it makes Kenma’s heart ache. “It’s the same thing I’ve been trying to tell you all along. When I’m with you, I feel stronger—no, it’s more than that. You make me strong.”

There’s something more lingering around the edges of Kuro’s words, and Kenma reaches out and grabs his hand instinctively. Kuro’s hands are bigger than Kenma’s, his skin tanned and his grip sure. But despite the differences, they feel like they fit together perfectly.

“I guess that I think this is all worth it, in the end,” Kuro admits. “If this is what it took, to bring us together, then I’m fine paying the world back for it for awhile. I’ll find Oikawa, and the all the others, and kick Daishou’s ass along the way. As long as you’re with me.”

Kenma’s cheeks heat up, but he leans close into Kuro’s side. “You’re so embarrassing,” he says.

“What?” Kuro scoffs. “You’re honestly going to tell me you don’t feel the same way?”

Kenma wraps his arms around Kuro’s waist, buries his head against Kuro’s chest. “Whatever comes next, I won’t leave your side. We already promised that, remember?”

“I remember,” Kuro says fondly, leaning down to press his lips against Kenma’s brow. Kenma can feel the spark of magic between them, the strong glow of connection that lingers even when he doesn’t focus on it. It’s a constant presence, and now that he knows it’s there he’ll never be by himself again.

Shadows and light dapple the ground around them, but Kenma doesn’t fear either. He can feel Kuro’s heartbeat, and his own keeping gentle pace. He sighs into the contact, content in the knowledge that he isn’t alone.

“I’m just a dreamer but I’m hanging on
Though I am nothing big to offer
I watch the birds, how they dive in then gone
It’s like nothing in this world’s ever still

And I’m just a shadow of your thoughts in me
But sun is setting, shadows growing
A long cast figure will turn into night
It’s like nothing in this world ever sleeps

Oh sometimes the blues is just a passing bird
And why can't that always be
Tossing aside from your birches crown
Just enough dark to see
How you're the light over me”