"Um… Kazuma-san, not that I mind, but…" Taiyou shakes his head, ducking close to Shindou even as he twitches a shoulder in Kazumi's general direction. "Why is…"
Kazuma pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs; they feel like the appropriate actions. "There's no point arguing with that guy."
"I… see," says Taiyou, who doesn't.
"Well, that answers that," Shindou says, and leans forward with his thumbs through his belt loops and one of his teasing smiles, an infuriating look which is exponentially more awful now that Kazuma has accepted the unfortunate reality of his crush on the guy. "He's creeping five feet behind us because you lost again?"
Kazuma can't glare at Shindou anymore. His best is a grimace, like he's made it to the door of GlareWares and is turned away because he no longer has a permit, but there's some defuncts he can check out in the outlet next door, if it's an emergency.
"He," Kazuma tries, then clears his throat. "I dunno, thinks we'll be ambushed or something. Maybe." A pause, and then for unrequisite clarity: "By the Diffriders."
If Taiyou tilts his head any farther, it'll get stuck that way. He says, humming thoughtfully, "But Gurguit isn't a bad guy… and Luard is just some edgy hikikomori, right?"
What. Kazuma wheels on him, less insulted and more bewildered. "What?"
Sometimes, Taiyou reminds him of a squirrel, all jumpiness and wide eyes, caught with a stolen tree nut in the middle of the road. "Um!" He turns to Shindou in a frantic plea, and Kazuma is forced to remember that of all things, good ol' Dad had to bless him with a grumpy mug. "Th-that's what you said, right, Chrono-san!"
Eyes to Shindou, who could never look like a squirrel but is caught in an act, too, hands up in defense and teeth locking a grin in its hiding place. "H-Hey, that's—" Except then he meets Kazuma's gaze, and his laugh emerges. "I mean, I'm not wrong."
"Luard isn't just—he's a wizard that can turn into a dragon—"
"Luard wouldn't necessarily be the Diffrider," Kazumi cuts in then, and Taiyou yelps; Kazumi, having inherited secret ninja dragon jutsu or something, is now eerily capable of creeping close undetected. It's weird because it only really works once or twice a day, as though he needs to counterblast to use it, and also because in literally every other department Kazuma's brother has always had the subtlety of a firecracker.
"Onimaru," Shindou says in way of greeting, "why are you stalking us?"
"Stalking?" Kazumi brings a hand to his chest in not-even-mock hurt. Kazuma groans. "Oh no no, you have it all wrong. It's just I heard you were heading to the Dark Zone Branch, and"—he spares a mirthful glance at Kazuma, before turning meaningfully to Shindou and Taiyou, too—"what with everything that's happening… I can't leave Ma-kun alone."
Taiyou points out, "You're wearing a disguise, Onimaru-san."
And he is: Sunglasses and an ugly beanie to match-not-match the goofy smile that never played nice with the horse-neck Kazumi inherited from his mother. At least Kazuma's face generally matches his personal brand.
How they got here is this: Anjou Tokoha went back to Paris and took for a time both Okazaki and Jaime Alcarez with her. The fourth member of her group, having just accepted a new-old position with the Association, could not in good conscience spare the relevant days, and so is left in his reportedly lonely apartment with no expected company for the first time all summer.
Anjou is concerned. She called Shindou: "Could you check up on Enishi-san sometime? I don't think he has many friends… or knows how to cook for himself…"
Shindou texted Taiyou and Kazuma, among other things: can u guys get ketchup on ur way here
Kazuma's mom was on the phone when Kazuma left the house: "Come back safe! Oh, he's gone with his friends, they're taking the train to Shinjuku…"
Apparently, Kazumi and Kazuma's mom talk on the phone: Look behind you! :D
Then Kazuma looked over his shoulder and saw his brother waving like a moron and replied oh my god what are you DOING HERE, which was acknowledged only with Don't mind! I'm not even here, but of course Kazumi couldn't pay the cost, and it took Shindou and Taiyou maybe two minutes to notice their shadow, mostly because Kazuma is a shit liar and literally everyone he texts is now in present company.
"I didn't want to be an inconvenience," Kazumi says, and picks a speck of lint off Kazuma's shirt. "That's why I chose to tail you."
"We'd, uh," Shindou throws a glance at Taiyou, who giggles, and Kazuma flicks his tongue at them, "prefer if you just joined us, actually."
The invitation lights sparkles in Kazumi's eyes, his grin a begrudging thing before he allows it to erupt all at once. Kazumi takes Shindou's hand and holds it just so, ebbing with a kind of joy normally worn after the unexpected bequeathal of a scholarship, or else a family's blessing on an engagement. "Shindou Chrono," he says, blinking rapidly, "I would be honored."
"Great," says Shindou.
"Oniisama," says Kazuma, because his brother has held Shindou's hand a few seconds past awkward.
"Right," Kazumi says, and relaxes, falling at last in proper step beside Kazuma. "Shall we?"
They shall; Shindou leads the way. They progress in a silence that almost manages to be comfortable, except that Kazumi keeps trying to catch Kazuma's eye or steal a glance at Shindou and then keeps having to muffle his laughter or vague noises of approval—both of which, for the other two in their party, have no obvious stimuli, so it keeps making Taiyou jump.
But Kazuma's caught on.
Imagine not telling your mom about your crush. Imagine your mom not confirming it for your until-extremely-recently estranged half-brother.
Taiyou, finally, is the one to cut through the mood, once Shindou's GPS announces that their destination is just around the corner. He shifts to better be seen and prods, "Onimaru-san? Would you mind if I asked you something? About what you said earlier?"
Being pressed for information from a sunny middle schooler and a member of Team Striders pleases Kazumi so much that Kazuma finds his own shoulders absolved of tension, too.
Man, he loves Taiyou.
Kazumi says, "No, of course."
"Thank you! It's just you said something earlier about Diffriding not only being a threat from our own Vanguards. So… you mean other units could—?"
"Ah," Kazumi withdraws a bit into himself, fronting more Onimaru, more business, more penitence. Kazuma watches him carefully, renewedly relieved that he has his brother back. Then Kazumi explains: "It's true that the units Riding our team were all ones that we had connections with, and I think until recently a strong bond was a prerequisite. Perhaps best described like a better cellular signal. But when Shiranui shared his memories with me, it seemed that there were plans for something more… forceful." He glances once more at Kazuma, but seems to be looking farther away, somewhere in his own mind, before adding, "Luard was never on Shiranui's side."
Kazuma doesn't even pretend to not care. "Shiranui knew him?"
"Oh, yes." Suddenly Kazumi is radiating embarrassing Oniichan glee again, the kind that clamors for an aloof younger sibling's attention, all bright eyes and shown teeth. "Shiranui met him, before—Ah." His expression melts again into a frown, the disappointment that weighed him when he confessed his childhood fear of doing too good, inching too far ahead of Kazuma.
But then Shindou prods, "Before what?", and as quickly as the mood came it is shaken off, and Kazumi says, "Well, he was quite absorbed in his studies." A pause, as he looks to the ground, stroking his chin. "In fact, hikikomori might be accurate." This said with pride, as though Dragheart Luard is Kazumi's younger brother, too, and has locked himself away practicing diligently for his entrance exams to Tokyo University, instead of his complete transformation into a fucking dragon.
Shindou nudges him. Before Kazuma can scowl and nudge him back and say he's nothing like that, Shindou points and says, "We're here."
Kazuma looks up. "Holy shit."
The Dark Zone Branch HQ is literally a goth vampire palace in the middle of Shinjuku.
"Yep," says Shindou. "He doesn't look it anymore but Enishi really had this edgy there-is-no-forgiveness-and-I-have-sinned phase."
At the same Kazumi says, "Did he really?", Kazuma rolls his eyes with, "I would've never guessed."
"But," Shindou says, ever eager to familiarize Kazuma with their lives both past and present, "did you know that Taiyou had this edgy fun-is-fake-and-weakness-is-a-sin phase?"
With small fists and a pout comes, "Chrono-san!", and with a furrowed brow and steepled fingers, "Did he really?"
Shindou just laughs and fusses with Taiyou's hair to half-hearted protests; Kazumi looks to Kazuma for confirmations about edgy phases, but Kazuma shakes his head because he doesn't have them, and then Kazumi narrows his eyes and mouths cheerily, you're blushing, to which Kazuma shakes his head so quickly and turns away so fast he gets vertigo. Shindou waves his bag then and announces, "Alright! Let's go, Tokoha said he practically lives here 'cause there's a kitchen," and they march inside, Kazuma determinedly admiring the decor with a as-dry-as-possible "How much did this even cost?" and a new, electric need for a fight.
Really, there's nothing embarrassing about liking Shindou, and any feelings akin to shame are all his brother's fault.
Enishi Satoru is out.
He does practically live here, according to a cosplaying assistant to be addressed as "Reijy," but he happened to choose today of all days to step out for fresh air. He should be back soon; in the meantime, Reijy said, he can't allow them in the kitchen—Shindou is apparently on a blacklist and "even allowing him inside these walls is done at grave, personal risk"?—but they are free to explore the Dark Zone and are each given a voucher for one free novelty item under one thousand yen from the newly opened gift shop.
Which, incidentally, is hiring. Wink. Pained grin. Have a Dark™ day.
"Alright," says Kazuma, examining a realass breast plate with realass scratches from what looks like a realass duel, "this place is a freak show."
"That's quite rude," Kazumi chides. He's been bouncing a discount bobblehead of Scharhrot in his open palm, nodding with its movement, for the past minute. Sir-Shars-a-Lot has a fang sticking out one side and round, red eyes, which, Kazumi has already informed Kazuma, must be the reason it's marked-down—the real Scharhrot's eyes are a glowing, owlish gold.
"Let me guess," Kazuma says, flicking the doll into more frantic bouncing. Kazumi blinks up. "Shiranui met him?"
"Are we at risk of Enishi being Diffridden, too?" Shindou appears, equipped with a plush Chronodran; Kazuma forgot that GearChron is Dark Zone, too, and has to roll back the immediate desire to steal and cuddle it by snatching the Scharhrot to occupy his hands.
"No, I don't think so," Kazumi says, addressing Shindou as if his brother did nothing strange at all—Counterblast 1? "He fought well, but he still lost. As for Scharhrot..." He gestures for Chronodran and Shindou delivers, and Chronodran is the most absurdly cute thing Kazuma has ever seen when Kazumi squishes it to his chest and admits, "Shiranui has met him, but Scharhrot is, well, a bit lazy."
Shindou, in disbelief: "Lazy?"
"Perhaps we should take this to my office?"
Define Countercharge: Onimaru Kazumi—ex-ninja dragon vessel, a vision in blood red—yelping; dropping Shindou's newly purchased Chronodran; and leaping forward into a display of Dark Irregulars merchandise, half of which fall at his feet; at the sudden appearance of the Dark Zone Branch Chief, who—with his always deeper-than-I-remembered voice and soft, lavender aesthetic—whispers a quiet, "Oh, no," and in one weirdly cool motion catches the plush with one hand and the small of Kazumi's back with the other, supporting him back to his feet.
"Holy shit," says Shindou, "Enishi."
Enishi is gentle; he proffers the plush back to Kazumi even as he waves over the store staff, and says, "My apologies. I didn't mean to surprise to you."
Kazumi shakes his head too many times. He's grinning without his own notice and blinking rapidly. "I—Thank you. Enishi-san."
Kazuma says suddenly, "Holy shit."
Everyone turns to him, confused no doubt by the delayed reaction, but again they've all misidentified the stimuli: his brother isn't just here to tease him about Shindou. He definitely isn't just here to keep an eye out for Diffriders.
Apparently, it's in the family. This—this thing.
A thing for redheads.
"Perhaps," Enishi says again, eyeing some of his younger patrons warily, "upstairs?"
And Kazumi is still flushing pink and alight, and huh, Kazuma grins something wicked, imagine that.
"You can't just eat croquettes and ramen all the time! You really are hopeless!"
Anjou is chewing out Enishi Satoru from Paris; Shindou is smiling into his phone camera, the softer look he saves for warmer moments and TRY3, one of his arms slung firmly around the Branch Chief's shoulders as the man in question flinches with guilt. They have indeed relocated to Enishi's office, having arrived there just in time for Tokoha's call, of which Kazuma, Taiyou, and Kazumi have all been whistling observers.
Except that Kazumi is plainly staring at Enishi, hand lightly caressing the small of his back, and Kazuma is watching his brother with great interest, and Taiyou is hissing in Kazuma's ear, "Why are you making that face?"
Kazuma ignores him, reaching instead to Kazumi. A cold hand on his shoulder and Kazumi barely reacts, the only sign that he even noticed something like a solidaric sigh. Kazuma, whose crush has blinked up at him several times within the past minute and amped the warmth in his expression however briefly to heat, has gained new confidence in his romantic prospects and teases, "I thought you were supposed to watch us."
In response he receives a noncommittal noise that could perhaps be taken as "Shindou's there."
"Yeah, but sixty-six point six-six-seven percent of Striders are behind you."
To this there's no response, mostly because Anjou's ended the call, and when Shindou takes to showing Enishi the contents of his bag and asking where the kitchen is, Kazumi scurrives over, yoinks the ingredients, and says, "Allow me!"
Enishi, inhaling at the sudden perversion of his personal space: "Onimaru-san...?"
Shindou, bewildered: "You can cook, Onimaru?"
Kazuma: "Not for the living," and Kazumi: "A little, yes, I would love to share, if the Branch Chief wouldn't—?"
According to Okazaki's lunchtime intelligence, Enishi is selectively spacier than his aura suggests; she has detailed more than one occasion on which Enishi was tackled by a dog or fangirl in public and, although not exactly enjoying the attention, blinked only helplessly at it until it was extracted by a third party. To which Kazuma is now a witness: Enishi stands, looking to Kazuma or Shindou or Taiyou for guidance, before saying quietly, "Yes. Follow me," and making what would probably have been a grander gesture if he were wearing a darker, longer coat.
Kazumi eagerly obliges.
"Uh, I can do it," Shindou calls, having clearly looked forward to assuredly edible food today. Once they're out of earshot he says, "Alright, is it me or is Onimaru acting kind of—"
"Yeah, he's in love," Kazuma says immediately, and pulls at Shindou's sleeve to follow them. "C'mon, I paid for it anyway so whatever, we'll get burgers later."
"You only paid for the ketchup," Taiyou whispers, loud enough that Kazumi probably hears him, but as long as Enishi doesn't it's okay, right? "Is it really that bad, Kazuma-san?"
"For you, definitely," Kazuma says. "And Shindou's food is like, 99% ketchup, so I paid for 99% of it—"
"You gonna pay my travel expenses and labor cost, too?"
"Yeah," says Kazuma, "duh, I just said. With a burger."
"Chicken nuggets," Shindou insists.
"Large fries," adds Taiyou.
"Sure, whatever, and soda for the grown-ups."
Shindou laughs and exchanges his sleeve for his hand. They'll have to jog to catch up. "I love you guys."
Kazuma's flying, actually. "Yeah."
Shindou's plan was omurice, and Kazumi's vice is not so much making food inedible as a challenge for the eyes and the spice-intolerant. They crowd Enishi's Dark™ kitchen with its unhelpfully dim lighting and aesthetically correct black countertops as Kazumi makes obscenely late breakfast, Taiyou and Shindou commandeering a small corner to fight and work up an appetite for burgers and fries, Chronodran safe in Kazuma's arms.
Enishi watches Kazumi the entire time, arms folded and brow creased in wonder. Perhaps not so spacey after all.
Then again, Kazumi is so forward as to write ENISHI♡ on top.
You know, just in case.
For his part Enishi seems to enjoy it, or else is too polite to emote otherwise. He doesn't comment on the message—Taiyou winces—but eats his full and offers them tea, even as his stomach grumbles and Kazumi leaps up to make seconds.
It's only once Enishi has patted his mouth with the bib—uh, napkin—he tucked into his shirt that he brings it up again: "Onimaru, if you don't mind my asking... Earlier in the shop, you were saying something about—about my avatar?"
Logically, Kazumi should turn crimson at the memory of his fall and the subsequent catch by Enishi, but of course he doesn't, gleeful instead at the opportunity to speak so freely with the object of his—sudden?, intense—affection. "Oh, yes," he says, "Scharhrot Vampir."
"You called him lazy," Shindou reminds them.
"Well, alright, 'lazy' may not be the most accurate… 'picky,' maybe."
Enishi says, "'Picky'?"
"Word on Cray seems to be that Scharhrot has a prickly appetite," Kazumi explains. "He's very particular about what he'll eat and it drives his vassals wild." Then: "They're afraid he'll eat them if they can't provide something sufficiently pleasing."
"Ah," says Enishi.
Kazuma hears Taiyou mutter, "My avatar is just a cool knight with good friends."
"I think," Enishi says, following an uncomfortable silence, "that this meal would have pleased him."
Kazumi inhales through his nose and exhales out his mouth and nods, blurts somehow evenly, "I hear that there are openings at this Branch, what are those?"
Enishi opens his mouth to speak and wets his lips to make it clear but then closes them and breathes, pinching his nose. "Reijy said that?"
"Well," says Enishi, and again makes a movement that is wont for a dark, flowy cloak, "Mamoru-san has been trying to persuade me to hire a Dark Vangarou for an event nex—"
"I'll take it," says Kazumi, and sharply offers his hand.