This world is muffled, Chigusa thinks, the patterns of thoughts and circuits slipping just below a milky surface; close enough that he could reach out and force it, if he had to (if Rakan wanted him to). Rakan, too, is muffled, but is brighter than the others, a soft chime against Chigusa’s heart when the other thinks of him. It’s enough to still his feet in public, let him turn slowly instead of stepping forward to capture the smaller male in his arms.
The familiar chime settles against his skin a moment before the bells above the door ring, and by the time Rakan is stepping through the threshold Chigusa has already turned to him. “Rakan,” he says, soft words curling the corners of his lips up, “welcome back.”
Rakan smiles at him, and an agitation smooths away in Chigusa’s belly, leaves him relaxed as the boy replies, “I’m back.”
Despite its relative seclusion, the cafe fills nearly every table at this time of day: office workers settling down for a break before heading home, old friends who enjoy the taste of the coffee and the quiet. The whispering starts as Rakan greets the owner, settles at the bar to accept one of the coffees that Chigusa delivers to tables again and again.
“...The child who was spirited away,” one woman whispers, her voice high and bright with curiosity.
Rakan is tangled in conversation with the owner, the words falling unheard by him, and Chigusa is glad. There is much of this land’s lore that in convenient for them, that explain away Rakan’s disappearance without raising too many questions. Still, there is something about rumors on stranger’s lips that make Rakan stiffen, make him smile awkwardly and tighten the muscles in his jaw.
Chigusa steps between, breaking the table’s line of sight of Rakan, and smiles sharply at them. The eyes of the table’s occupants snap to him, flustered, and Chigusa says, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No,” a woman (older by this world’s standards, an infant by his own) says with a teasing edge in her voice, “we were just lamenting that Sawa-kun has come to steal you away again.”
“Oi,” the owner calls from the counter, “you know Chigusa’s hours already! If you want to spend more time with him, you should come earlier.” Rakan is turning, a laugh starting in his cheeks, and Chigusa stills for a moment to smile in return.
When the woman turns to complain good-naturedly at the owner, Chigusa clears the tables of the finished dishes. He deposits the dishes behind the counter, waits a moment for the owner to wave him back before going to change out of his uniform.
It’s easy to retrieve his coat and bag, slip them on as he calls for Rakan.
A few moments later they’ve swapped the coffee-scent of the cafe for the cooler winter air. It takes him a moment more to realize that Rakan is fidgeting minutely, worrying the edges of his cuffs.
“Are you doing well at the cafe?” Rakan says before Chigusa can speak.
“I have been performing my duties well,” Chigusa responds, “and the business has increased beyond the owner’s capacity to serve alone.”
“No wonder,” Rakan teases, “you look cool, you know? No wonder people are flocking to the cafe.”
Chigusa can’t help the fluttery feeling in his chest, smiling, and he murmurs, “Am I living properly, then, Rakan?” There’s something taut in his chest, something balancing on the edge of of understanding and falling mindlessly into another role.
Rakan glances at the sky where the sun is setting, the heights of of the sky already shimmering with stars among streaks of dark blue. He turns back to Chigusa, questions, “Are you having fun, living here, Chigusa?”
Chigusa thinks of waking up next to Rakan, of visits by their comrades-turned-friends; thinks of the lush forest growing around Ra-- around their home, of watering the plants in the mornings while Rakan cooks breakfast; thinks of walking with Rakan to school and back from work. It is...fun, Chigusa thinks, fun in a different way than when Rakan agrees to bathe together, fun in a way that’s different from the battles of this softer world, over cheap food against men and women wielding discount ads. So it’s easy to say, “I’m having fun, living with Rakan.”
Rakan looks at him with something soft in his eyes, something in the lines of his face that make Chigusa want to pull him forward, tuck him into his chest and curl over him, shielding him from anything that might wound him. It’s a foolish feeling-- Rakan has been hurt and has hurt and is still raw, in many ways.
“That’s good, then.” Rakan agrees. He turns away, but there’s something there, and Chigusa reaches out to catch Rakan’s wrist, pulling him back for a moment. Rakan doesn’t turn back for a moment, says, easy, “What is it?”
“Does the sky look like flames to you again, Rakan?” Chigusa says, feeling something lonely thrum from his connection with Rakan.
Rakan meets his eyes, startled, and Chigusa relaxes.
“If not that,” Chigusa says, “then what?”
There’s a color that creeps over Rakan’s face, a charming and sly color that Chigusa has not seen in some time. “It’s silly,” Rakan sighs, but doesn’t pull his arm away. “There are times where it’s difficult, to connect with people here again, knowing how much has changed for me.”
Chigusa considers this. “They do not wish to bond with you in their baths?”
Rakan splutters. “That’s not a-- common way to bond with people , Chigusa!”
Something about this makes Chigusa pleased. “It is only for special comrades then,” he understands, recalling the shared cleansings with Touno and Narushige.
“Something like that,” Rakan agrees, “but usually you bathe together when there is more space, and more water-- like the bathhouses.”
“That’s inefficient when you have bathing facilities at your home already,” Chigusa says, mostly teasing. The thrum of loneliness is still present across their muted bond. “There is nothing else, Rakan?”
Rakan smiles, turns his wrist to lace their fingers together. “The teachers were asking about you coming to a parent-teacher conference, as my relative. We're a term late, but I need to start considering my future path soon.” He admits, soft.
“I would be happy to assist you in any way,” Chigusa says.
“I know,” Rakan says.
Chigusa watches his face for a moment, and then smiles. “Okay,” he says, tightening his fingers around the other male’s as something chimes in his chest, soft and familiar and fond, “okay, Rakan.”