Actions

Work Header

Monody

Chapter Text

         They start out with nothing at all. Not even a good evening or hello. Deafening silence is their sole support as they walk past each other in the hallway. Blue and white, attracting each other gaze without meaning to. One is so devoid of color, and the second radiating with them, it's unsettling. Yamanbagiri has to divert his eyes towards the ground, hood falling to hide him from sight. The university is pretty quiet, so late in the evening, when only optional classes are still held. That's why he knows their meeting might happen again, if he's not careful. It's bothersome, if he has to be honest with himself.

 

Not the encounter in itself, as it lasts only a couple of footsteps, but the sudden urge to turn around and face his brand new nemesis. A quiet chuckle resonates, making his blood run cold. Is this a challenge? A declaration of war?

 

“You dropped your notes,” a cheerful voice explains while blue is once more everywhere in front of his eyes. It's too bright, but in a soft way. More fitting of the moon than the sun, if the crest tattooed on the man's wrist indicates anything.

 

His own face, however, is certainly a canvas for red and pink right now. It feels on fire while he grabs the sheets of paper hastily.

 

“Hm, thank you.”

 

He runs without meaning to, feeling like he is going to suffocate.

Too focused on avoiding a conversation, he has certainly authorized a mistake to occur. Allowing his notes to slip off his binder is unforgivable. What if it settles something in motion? Such as them being forced to communicate later on? That's the opposite of what he desires.

 

After all, hasn't he worked hard to stay by himself until that point? Taking classes as late as possible, in a major not many are interested in. Isn't it supposed to be enough to ensure he can move on by himself? Ah, perhaps, if he knew what he's running from, things would be easier. Instead, he has to deal with a persistent feeling of loneliness he couldn't function without. Difficult to tell when he felt distanced by his peers, forgotten in a corner. Perhaps it started out in elementary school, when they commented on his hair (too pale) and his eyes (in which people would drown). A ghost who withdrew himself from the world. His hood gets itchy sometimes, when he loses himself into his thoughts for too long.

 

He adjusts it as well as possible, tugging hard enough to grab some of his hair along with the fabric. Sometimes, he'd like to be truly invisible. This way, the world would treat him with more kindness perhaps. Rather than allowing mistakes to occur over and over.

 

It's fine, he promises himself. He'll only have to be careful to never meet that guy again.

 

 

         Only a fool would believe in such words, Yamanbagiri realizes one week later, when he enters the classroom only to find someone sitting in his seat, a warm mug in hand. His whole body freezes, unable to deal with the gentle way the man blows on his drink.

 

“Ah, it's you. Please take a seat.”

 

He knows the five other students. Not by their names, although he can tell who is who from their mannerisms, the way one is always five minutes late, or how another plays with his phone under the table. This one is a stranger. One whose blue hair reminds him of spilled ink. And he feels like the sheet of paper it spilled onto, unable to clean himself or protest the intrusion.

 

He hears the teacher without wishing to listen. She doesn't understand why it's wrong, to allow someone who walked into the wrong classroom to remain with them. How 'being fascinated' by the class is not an excuse to be a parasite who feeds on his misery. Still, Yamanbagiri doesn't have the strength to start a fight, or to believe this mess to be a coincidence. He sits down next to the other, the blue moon without a name.

 

“I lack a second mug, I am afraid. Next time, you could bring one,” his nemesis suggests, long fingers still wrapped around his drink. Probably tea, judging from the smell.

 

“It's fine.” It is far from it, yet Yamanbagiri isn't sure he is allowed to be so blunt. There is something peaceful coming from the other, akin to a lullaby trying to lure him to sleep. Focusing on the class becomes more difficult than usual. A shame, as he loves being there, learning about art and how it changed history. It's a topic he can understand. There is solace to be found in details, stories that many believe are forgotten, people who believed themselves to be nothing when they created miracles. In spite of the presence by his side, he manages to lose himself into this world after a moment.

 

It's only when dusk has settled in and everyone starts to leave that he dares to look up towards the stranger. He doesn't truly feels like one any longer, when he gives him a warm smile. It's uncalled for. Kindness often means there is a demand hidden underneath it. That's why he cannot give in, or accept to return the gesture. Instead, Yamanbagiri rises from his chair, notes carefully folded into his bag. This way, he won't make a fool of himself a second time.

 

“Thank you, for letting me sit next to you.”

 

Difficult to answer, to remember how his voice is meant to work. No one should be able to do that, invade his space without a warning. Now, the air smells like tea, and all he can see is dyed blue hair, and the way the other seems tired.

 

It's overbearing.

All at once, coupled with a hand extended towards him, palm upwards. The tattoo is even more visible, the moon, surrounded by colors, black wrapped in yellow and blue. Breathless, Yamanbagiri hesitates, before shaking the hand. Firmly, because he puts all his might into the gesture, to ensure he won't lose the fight.

 

“Munechika Mikazuki. I forgot to introduce myself earlier.”

 

Oh. Crescent Moon. Comprehension flashes into Yamanbagiri's eyes while he removes his hand. That's the part where he return the favor, isn't it?

 

“Kunihiro Yamanbagiri. I did not ask for yours,” it's too much at once. Enough for him to shake his head. An apology should follow, at least it would had the other seemed offended in the slightest.

 

Mikazuki lets out a pleased sound, not minding. As if rudeness couldn't reach him.

 

“That's a nice name. I'm glad to have gotten some time with you. Nonetheless, my bones are begging for some rest, I shall head home.”

 

There is no fight, no confrontation. Only the sound of the chair being pushed back as his new acquaintance gets back onto his feet. While slow would be an appropriate way to describe how the other is moving, Yamanbagiri prefers to label it as careful.

 

Graceful even, when the man turns around to wave goodbye at him.

 

 

         Comforting is certainly not the right term to describe a busy college town. Yet, at such hour, before people go out to celebrate life, and after the end of classes, there is an in-between that Yamanbagiri enjoys. No one bothers him while he walks around campus. No whisper about the hood hiding his face from prying eyes, or people staring with ill-intend. His flat is not close enough usually, and he cannot wait to hide behind the locked door. Except in the evening.

 

As the sun gently goes to rest, the young man strolls through empty streets, wondering what he should make for dinner. As long it's easy and doesn't burn, it's fine with him.

 

“What a pleasant surprise.”

Of course, harmony is not allowed to last. His world has to be shaken up. This time, used to such encounters, his mind doesn't throw itself away in an impulsive way.

 

After all, they see each other in class every week. A habit, part of his routine by that point. He acknowledges Mikazuki because there isn't another option. The parasite is slowly turning into a corner of the painting, and he can't paint over such vivid colors.

 

“Were you following me?” His voice is perhaps too defensive, enough for the shorter male to sense an error on his part. He tugs on his hood under half of his face has vanished. Easier to fight with a mask on, or perhaps to disappear.

 

“Ha ha ha. Of course not. I live close by.” A short pause. “If you have time, please come over for tea. You never brought your mug after all.”

 

Ah yes, Yamanbagiri keeps on forgetting the offer Mikazuki made on their first day of class together. Not on purpose, to be honest. He is focused on countless details when the other is close. Obviously, going to his place is an awful idea. The concept of invading someone' space sounds difficult, foreign even. Although he has never been invited anywhere before.

 

“Not for long, if it's not a bother,” he mumbles eventually. A couple of blond strands are tangled in his fingers. He must have tugged on his hood with all his strength again. How embarrassing. Not that it matters, when Mikazuki laughs, absolutely delighted by the answer.

 

The flat is unlike what he expected, he notes after taking off his shoes. Although it's meant for a student, there is something rich and delicate about it. From the old tea table to the scrolls hanging on the wall. It feels ancient, relics recovered to finally have a place together. There is no laptop, only an old television hidden in a corner, little plants and paper cranes piling up on it.

 

Somehow, Yamanbagiri knows a flat is meant to represent its owner, yet that's a whole different level than his own home. Everything is clean, organized, yet there aren't so many details, no individuality as his brothers comment sometimes, without meaning harm. It's still painful, to feel so devoid of life when Mikazuki's world is filled with colors and memories.

 

“At my age, cleaning is a little difficult. Please do not mind the mess.”

 

There is nothing to complain about, no dirt anywhere. Before Yamanbagiri can comment on that, a detail catches his attention.

 

“Isn't it early to say such things? At twenty, you should be in better shape.”

 

“I'm twenty-six, my dear Manba-chan.” The nickname is as much of a shock as the truth about Mikazuki's age. He has always thought of him as being a second or third year student like him. Apparently it was wrong. “I'm writing a thesis for my master degree, that's why I have some free time to discover other classes.”

 

Somehow, he finds himself doubting the story. A thesis is a long and complex work, not one which allows its creator to bask in sunlight and wander around without aim. Still, nothing about Mikazuki feels conventional. That's why he sits at the small table, knees under his body, with only a nod as his answer. The world has always been an odd place, with people he can't understand and dreams out of reach.

 

For the first time, he wonders if he isn't stepping straight into one. Something a little old, from an ancient and forgotten era. Even the tea cups have seen better days, their skin marked by signs of old age. He knows better than to comment on it though.

 

“This hoodie of yours, you never take it off,” the oldest remarks while pouring their drinks.

 

“I'd rather not.” Yamanbagiri does not have much to add. It's his armor, sole protection against this cruel world and everything trying to rise against his existence. The quiet skin of a ghost. He expects the usual answer, either to be judged, or mocked. The worst are the ones who aren't meant to strike him down, such as being told his eyes are more beautiful when visible.

 

He has to hide, why can't anyone understand?

Probably for the same reason they ignore his crushing feeling of being a failure.

 

“White suits you,” is what the warm voice tells him instead.

 

Another lie, or a foolish truth. Yamanbagiri clenches his hands around the teacup in a deadly grip. He should have refused the invitation. Now, he's stuck in the middle of this mess, and he ignores how he is meant to escape. Is it already too late?

 

His drink, once the warm liquid has invaded his mouth, tastes stronger than anticipated. Akin to a statement, a way to challenge him again. Ah, why does he always take everything in such terrible way? Difficult to enjoy the world when Yamanbagiri is so wary of it in the first place.

 

“Thank you,” he starts, refusing to lift his head. “For the tea.” What else is there to say anyway? They will keep on meeting over and over, against his will. Fate has already picked the path they are meant to follow. It feels like betrayal and tastes as bitter as his drink.

 

“You are always welcome here.” Kindness is not so apparent at this instant, when it sounds more like laughter. As if the other knew exactly how cruel he is. Yamanbagiri has to refrain from shouting, or throwing the cup away. What good would come from antagonizing the only soul who has ever tried to interact with him since the beginning of the school year?

 

“I'll remember it.”

 

A shame he probably will.

 

 

          White has always been comforting. A badge of courage, akin to the crescent moon tattooed on Mikazuki's wrist. Although he ignores the history behind the mark, he can tell it's similar to his own fight. White is this way to prove himself he can go forward, even if he has to be hidden to do so. While being a 'ghost' is surely far from convenient, Yamanbagiri is able to remain alive this way. Isn't it already extraordinary? Sometimes, while they sit next to each other in class, he watches as Mikazuki's fingers trace the pattern on his own skin over and over, as to remind himself he is still there.

 

Empathy, isn't it? The ability to create a connection with others. As the moon, surrounded by colors, glows faintly, he imagines himself as a dying sun, forgotten in the midst of the crowd. Sun and Moon, one painted by his mistakes, the second by countless successes. Sometimes, Yamanbagiri is a cruel judge, refusing to accept he can't be the only one suffering to such extend. Since everything about his friend (such a foreign word, almost a threat) is close to perfection, how could he understand his crushing emotions?

 

“Is it ancient?” The words go past his lips one day, when the teacher is late. Witnessing the gesture has turned into a habit. And now the question has betrayed him, making Yamanbagiri akin to a fool in front of his classmate.

 

“Hm? The tattoo? I suppose it is, for you.”

 

You are not that old, he finds himself mumbling in a corner of his head, aggravated by such behavior. The other is so quick to blame everything on his age, when he is barely his elder. Jaw pressed against his palm, Yamanbagiri is fairly sure he is frowning while Mikazuki hides his wrist from sight, by tugging on his sleeve.

 

“Is there a history behind it?”

 

The conversation is starting to be dangerous. Why does he care so much about a mark on someone' skin? Embarrassed with himself, the younger male shakes his head abruptly, as to express his error. The familiar sensation of his hood falling on his back is enough to send a wave of panic through his body. Some teachers tolerate his behavior, the way he has decided to hide, therefore he has gotten used to the habit of being away from people's gazes. Letting out a strangled sound, he tries to grab the fabric to fix everything, only to be stopped by fingers brushing against the back of his neck.

 

The weight of the hood is back against his hair before he is even able to blink.

 

“There is one, Manba-chan.”

 

While no smile is here to grace Mikazuki's lips, his eyes remain filled with kindness as he removes his hand.

 

Perhaps, one day, Yamanbagiri will learn the whole story.

 

“Don't call me like that, you damn old man.”

 

It's still too early though.

 

 

         Summer is a season he cannot help but loathe. The heat is mostly to blame, as it becomes difficult to hide behind heavy hoodies. That's why he has to switch to sleeveless ones, or a white cap instead. It's always odd, as the weight against his hair is different. The world becomes out of balance to Yamanbagiri. Even summer break doesn't manage to fix the situation. The trusted fan blowing gently against his face can't completely push the heat away. That's how he finds himself going out to buy ice-cream more often than he should.

 

The sun shines so brightly. The pavement looks like it's melting away, making the young man unsure of why he even goes outside. Rather than going to the supermarket, he finds himself giving up mid-way. The small store tucked at the corner of the street is where he decides to stop. Surely, they have ice-cream too. It doesn't matter if it's slightly more expensive, especially as a gentle breeze blows in his face as he enters. Oh yes, places where it's cool are his favorites for sure.

 

On his way back, bag loosely hanging in his hand, Yamanbagiri wonders if he should make a detour. Throwing himself into the wolf's den is out of character, for sure. Yet, they haven't communicated at all since the beginning of the break. And he clearly recalls Mikazuki claiming he wouldn't visit his family.

 

Oh. Perhaps it was an invitation, a subtle way to suggest they could meet.

A shame he hasn't realized it back then.

 

His whole body hesitates once in front of the door. Should he knock or leave before setting something new in motion? Clearly, he has betrayed his own ideals countless times since Mikazuki has invaded every corner of his mind. Tugging himself in corners without his permission, what a terrible person. He knocks twice, hoping for silence and an excuse to flee.

 

“Yamanbagiri.” Greeted by surprised eyes, he makes his way in without asking, shoes quickly put away. Criminal, he reprimands himself, for daring to overstep his own boundaries like that.

 

“I brought ice-cream, let's eat it together.”

 

They do, sitting next to each other on the balcony. The wind is meager, but it's better than nothing at all. The fabric against the top of his head gets to be a little too much, allowing sweat to form against his scalp. After ensuring Mikazuki is focused on his summer treat ('Ah, it froze my poor brain!'), he lowers the hood of his sleeveless top. Fingers run tentatively against the mess. A shower is going to be in order later, once he'll be home.

 

The youngest cannot tell if his friend is able to sense how silence matters right now, or if the ice-cream is more interesting than his appearance. Nonetheless, the lack of comment if appreciated. It allows Yamanbagiri to focus on the fruity taste against his tongue. Perhaps he should buy sunglasses, to shield his gaze from the sun. Right now, as it's slowly setting down, the horizon is turning red and pink, and colors which might only exist in his mind. It's good, to be there.

 

“We should go to the swimming pool, one day.” The sentence seems to come out of nowhere. It's enough for the blond to feel a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

 

“Don't push your luck, Mikazuki.”

 

 

         The thesis is more than an excuse for the oldest to do as he pleases, Yamanbagiri discovers two weeks later. He isn't sure of why he keeps on returning to this place. However, that's more convenient than forgetting everything in his own flat, without company. A laptop certainly as old as his friend claims to be makes its grand appearance. It takes so long to turn itself on that they have enough time to drink iced tea in the meantime.

 

“You cannot be too brutal with this old creature or it'll break.”

 

“Just like you?” Teasing is a brand new part of their odd bond. Something which always leaves Yamanbagiri unsure of his own voice. What if he went too far, destroying everything they worked so hard to build? It does not happen though, as laughter tends to follow, rather than complains.

 

“Every being has to decay and disappear at some point, that's how life is.”

 

No matter how unfair it sounds, he finds himself agreeing silently with Mikazuki's mindset. Death is not avoidable after all. Although many would find such worlds too heavy for a casual conversation. Making his empty glass spin between his fingers, Yamanbagiri observes how the remains of ice cubes cling to what's left of their existence at the bottom.

 

“If it vanishes with your thesis, you'll be in trouble.”

 

“Obviously. It would be a shame.”

 

Somehow, he isn't sure Mikazuki truly cares. Not when he hasn't bothered to save his files on an external drive or something similar. For hours, Yamanbagiri lays on the floor, close to the balcony to let the breeze brush against his skin. The sounds coming from the laptop, assorted with little 'oh, I erased too much again' are enough to lure him to a relaxed state. Not truly sleep, yet he struggles to keep his eyes open for too long. Is it magic? Or trust?

 

Hard to decide.

His white cap lays by his side. This time around, he is only wearing a tank top and shorts, rather than a heavier outfit. There is no need for an armor, around Mikazuki.

 

 

       Or so he thought, as their routine ends before Summer does. An intruder invades their lives without asking for permission, appearing in the living-room one day. Yamanbagiri ignores if it's a trick played by his own mind. He stares, without meaning to, only for the teenager to glare back. Rage seems to fill his eyes to the brim, rendering any communication impossible. With a huff, the boy ends up picking an easier target. The energy drink in his hand is the perfect victim. It presses against his lips too harshly, drops dripping down his chin. A disgusting show which bothers the blond more than he cares to admit.

 

Instead, he searches for an explanation, anything from Mikazuki, sitting on his usual cushion. Who is that kid, he wants to shout while the hood goes back over his head to ensure the boy won't get a chance to attack first.

 

“Yukimitsu-kun is my guest. Ah, I met him on the streets you see. A fateful encounter, one would say.”

 

While the tone is casual, the words are far from it. How old is that Yukimitsu is the first place? Certainly fourteen or fifteen, not older. Which brings on the second question. Why is he here, without a guardian or anyone to confirm his identity? Mikazuki is certainly not a kidnapper, merely someone prone to meaningless decisions from time to time.

 

“Why?”

 

“I told you he would ask! Who would want someone as useless as me in their home?”

 

Yamanbagiri takes a step back, shocked by the boy' sudden outburst. His initial thought is that's not his home in the first place. He is merely a guest. At least he hopes he is one, and not someone who is taking too much space. Yukimitsu talks more and more, his voice dissolving into a self-hatred so deep that it's impossible to put an end to it.

 

“I was better by myself, this way I can't ruin anyone's life again!”

 

It takes the blond a moment to realize he is struggling to breathe. The words have a certain familiarity to them. It's heavy, spreading on his face and his hands until he can't touch or feel anything. That's when a hand presses against his shoulder. Mikazuki's gaze is captivating for a second, filled with apologies and promises.

 

“It will be fine,” he swears, and it sounds so empty to the one who knows it won't be.

 

 

         The story behind their meeting, Yamanbagiri realizes, is not something he is meant to know about. Neither confide what truly happened, leaving him with bitterness and nothing left to salvage. His evening visits become a challenge, as he fails to see what used to be so important about them. The teenager has stolen his place on the floor, always holding some disgusting drink or pushing too many candy at once in his mouth. What's good about keeping a runaway there, he wonders while days go by without Yukimitsu admitting why he won't go back home?

 

There must be a reason. Perhaps there is no place where he belongs. The thought is disgusting, a reminder of his own terrible ways. Should he call his brothers to check on them? Ensure everything's fine at home? In a stubborn way, Yamanbagiri does not want to. He is going to be a bother once more, if he allows his emotions to control his actions.

 

People are impossible to comprehend in their first place, when they act selfishly, without caring for consequences. Isn't he similar though, when his foot pushes Yukimitsu away from his space so he can sit down? Yamanbagiri doesn't feel quite like a fighter, when the boy shows absolutely no respect for him, sticking his tongue out while lifting his can in a menacing way. How can Mikazuki, who loves peace and order, tolerate such behavior?

 

A quiet chuckle interrupts his thoughts abruptly. The older man is staring, cheek pressed against his palm. The laptop on the small table emits a protesting sound, a sign it can't go on for today. The thesis is going to wait a little. Having a whole year to write it is surely relaxing to Mikazuki, who seems to enjoy each day in the same way, taking his time to accomplish little things.

 

“Would you like tea?”

 

Next to them, Yukimitsu lets out a disgusted noise, a sign he doesn't want any. Good, more for Yamanbagiri then. A tingling feeling keeps on invading his chest lately. Something burning, which leaves him wishing for more time alone with their mutual friend.

 

“Yes, please. I know how to appreciate it.”

 

“Are ya' saying I can't?!”

 

“Obviously not.”

 

Ignoring the long protest which follows, Yamanbagiri crosses his arms on the coffee table, missing their old and comfortable silence. Still, now that the boy is here, it would be difficult to throw him out. Especially if he has nowhere to return to. With a small sigh, he awaits for Mikazuki's return with their drinks. August is almost over, and they switched back to their usual tea, rather than iced one. It's not too bad, a little more familiar. Summer memories are already vanishing though.

 

Fingers grab his baseball cap before he is able to protest, removing it swiftly. Yukimitsu's face is way too close in the blink of an eye.

 

“You're blond with blue eyes, and Mikazuki has blue hair with grey eyes who looks as light as your hair,” he comments without even pausing to breathe. It's the first time it happens, someone drawing parallels between them. It feels so useless to do so, especially as his cheeks heat up under the words. Yukimitsu is probably rambling, Yamanbagiri tries to remind himself. The kid is always a little off, closed in his own world until he bounces back to reality with enough violence to wreck everything in his way.

 

“Ha ha ha. Doesn't it sound like a fated meeting?”

 

If the oldest could refrain from adding such words all the time, it would be great. Embarrassed, Yamanbagiri only mumbles they are idiots while stopping Yukimitsu from completely climbing on the coffee table to get a better look at his face.

 

Which turns out to be meaningless as the sound of a cup falling on its side resonates through the flat, followed quickly by warm tea dripping on the rug.

 

“Yukimitsu!”

 

“Sorry sorry!”

 

 

         The kid has been living with Mikazuki for two weeks, which is a long time. Why hasn't the police, or anyone really, gotten involved? It's not his place to ponder out loud about it, yet it's starting to be aggravating. There is always the possibility the two talked about it already, leaving the college student out of the equation. Yamanbagiri refuses to accept such theory. It would be more painful than the rest, to be cast away once more. Although it makes no sense, as his whole life has been this way.

 

Finding himself at the supermarket with the two one evening is a surreal experience. It's as if they were a family, arguing about what Yukimitsu is allowed to put in the cart or not. Mikazuki does not cook a lot, more interested in getting new tea and biscuits for the evening. Which forces Yamanbagiri to decide for everyone, looking for cheap deals and trying to ensure his friend has enough to eat. He feels like a hypocrite though, considering himself lives mostly on microwave food. Not tonight though, as they will cook something delicious together. If they manage to find the right ingredients first. Curry sounds easy, especially as Yamanbagiri is not afraid of doing something wrong. Still, picking out the right vegetables would be less challenging without Yukimitsu getting in his way.

 

“Put them back,” he finds himself mumbling without even lifting his gaze from the carrots in front of him. If he lets the kid have it his way, they will only get energy drinks and candy. It's not an acceptable way to live dammit.

 

Mikazuki is surely not far, albeit he hasn't seen him in the past five minutes. Why is it such a chore to go out with such people? Perhaps he has been out of touch with others for too long. Shaking his head, the blond goes back to his shopping, not minding Yukimitsu's constant chatting by his side. They should get the kid new clothes, rather than having him walk around in the same sport outfit all the time.

 

It's not like the boy is going to stay with Mikazuki though.

Oh no, he is getting attached.

 

“You!”

 

Everything goes crashing down when a stern man walks straight towards them, holding a basket like a weapon in one hand. For a moment, Yamanbagiri wonders what he has done wrong, feeling like vanishing behind his hood and pretending to be invisible. Until he realizes Yukimitsu has taken refuge behind him, glaring at the man.

 

“The devil is back!”

 

“Don't call me like that. You… I've been looking everywhere. Where were you this time around?”

 

“Well, you didn't look that well apparently, duh!”

 

The man deflates, his anger being replaced by exhaustion after a couple of seconds. There is something in the way he pinches the bridge of his nose which indicates it's not an unusual situation. Is the kid used to disappearing into the night without even a warning? Before he can scold him, or ask any question, a familiar voice interrupts them.

 

“Oh, is this a touching family reunion?” Mikazuki stands between Yukimitsu and the stranger with ease, bowing slightly. At least, the gesture is seen as a peace offer.

 

“Hello. I'm that brat's cousin. Would you mind telling me why he is with you?”

 

Apparently, the reunion is far from being a good one. After a short discussion, Yamanbagiri finally learns that Yukimitsu is indeed a runaway who is used to pulling such stunts and vanishing for a couple of days in spite of his age. Hasebe, his guardian, while appearing fed up with the situation, is quick to thank them for caring for the boy. He is apparently also a college student, a terrible one who is only focused on being mister perfect, if Yukimitsu's loud protests are anything to go by.

 

“And now? Are you going to make me go home with you? As if I'd want that,” the sudden change in the teenager's voice takes Yamanbagiri by surprise. Yukimitsu is annoying, always protesting everything without letting people argue. However, at this instant, his gaze is so harsh, hands bailed into fists by his sides, that he doesn't know what to think of it.

 

“Do you prefer bothering strangers?”

 

“They care about me more than you do!”

 

It's painful, to watch such scene. Hands gripping the cart, the blond can tell how Hasebe is affected by the reply, although he attacks back right away.

 

“I wonder how you can be so sure, since you never bother to stay home.”

 

Why do you always stay in your room, brother? Don't you like spending time with us?

 

By the time Yamanbagiri is once more able to register what is happening around him, he is standing outside. Everything's too much, and blond strands are tangled into his fingers until it becomes painful. He doesn't know how much time has passed between the flashback and his escape. Probably a couple of minutes. If he turns around to enter the store, no one will notice, right?

 

“Hm~” Pressure happens against his hand. Gentle fingers brushing against his until he releases his hair from being tortured. He doesn't register what is happening until his hand falls back by his side. Lifting his head in surprise, he meets Mikazuki's gaze. “It was a little crowded inside, wasn't it?” He says, while handing a plastic bag between them. Has he gotten enough time to pay while he Yamanbagiri calmed down? It's embarrassing.

 

“Sorry, 'shouln't have shouted like that,” someone adds behind their tall friend. He blinks, surprised to find Yukimitsu here. His eyes are surrounded by red, as if he had to fight back tears for too long. “So, are we still making curry or not?”

 

“Obviously. If our dear Manba-chan is still fine with helping, of course.”

 

Words die in his throat for a moment, unable to get out. Aren't they going to ask what happened? Apparently not.

 

With a shrug, he starts walking, as to show he's okay. Or rather, he'll be soon enough.

 

 

         Cutting vegetables is an art Yamanbagiri manages with ease. He allows Mikazuki to fix the roux while Yukimitsu keeps an eye on the rice cooker. Silence fills the little kitchen without turning oppressive. After a rough day, there is no need to start another argument probably. As the knife slices vegetables into small parts, the blond wonders if it's the first and last time they get to do something like this. While he doesn't know how the discussion between the cousins ended, it can't be positive. Rather than asking out loud for an answer, he opts for another topic.

 

“Why do I have to wear the silly apron?” Glaring at the blue rabbits and the little hearts, Yamanbagiri wonders why such things always happen to him.

 

“It's all I have,” Mikazuki's cheerful tone sounds like a lie again. It's hard to do more than mumbling over it though.

 

Later, as they sit together around the table, Yamanbagiri awaits for his judgment. What if the meal doesn't taste as good as it should? As if mind wanders towards self-depreciation, loud and pleased sounds resonate by his side.

 

“Delicious, isn't it Yukimitsu-kun?”

 

“Yes yes, so good!”

 

While it was a group effort obviously, it makes the blond more at ease to hear such compliments. It means he did his part well and nothing was ruined by his fault. Hiding a small smile, he nods to himself before digging in. For a recipe they found online, it's not bad at all. Cooking with friends is more pleasant than anticipated too. A shame his mind keeps getting distracted by the memory of fingers against his earlier.

 

“I'm going back tomorrow,” Yukimitsu lets out abruptly, spoon still in mouth, “Hasebe's right about some stuff. I can't spend my whole life here so… Thanks for everything.”

 

Oh. That was to be expected. Still, Yamanbagiri can't help but feel a little disgruntled at the news. He has gotten used to the kid being around after all. It's more convenient to reply with a nod than to suggest a solution which wouldn't work anyway. After all, he has never been talented with farewells. They take too much time and they don't accomplish anything except making him feel useless for not fixing the situation with his own hands.

Chapter Text

         Once you've left a place for good, pretending to wipe it from your memory, it's difficult to go back there. Yukimitsu has been aware of this fact for a long time, as there isn't a day where he wouldn't want to turn around and cover his tracks completely. Too late for that. And now, no matter what he threw at his brand new friends, claiming to go back home without a second thought, his heart is heavy. Dragging him down as usual as he makes his way towards the place he has come to call home. Oddly, in the small flat where everything smells like a grandfather's house, he was more at ease.

 

Yamanbagiri, while he complained about his behavior, never turned cruel. He wonders if it's because of Mikazuki's presence or if there was truly no ill-intend against his person. Cooking together, sharing a warm meal, isn't it what family is meant to be like? Ah, he should tell that to Hasebe, if only to see the frown back on his face. His cousin is going to look even older than Mikazuki if he doesn't stop acting so angry all the time. At least, the blond is a little different. More prone to hide himself behind white clothes and mumbled words. Somehow, it's only when the two are close, blue and gold, that his face softens a little. Life comes back into his eyes, making them truly beautiful.

 

A shame Yamanbagiri does not realize any of it yet. Yukimitsu does, wondering when he has gotten so observant. Maybe it's what happens when he doesn't spend his life at the arcade, playing countless of games until his eyes hurt too badly for him to distinguish anything. Bag over his shoulder, he stops in front of the terrible house. The one he is supposed to go in. It doesn't mean he should face the devil with a smile or any motivation.

 

Is Hasebe even going to be there? Perhaps he does not care. After all, Yukimitsu has texted him while he was 'missing', never getting a reply. Sometimes, claiming he is alive is enough to be left alone. It's not as if the teenager truly intended on vanishing for good in the first place.

 

Once inside, he hesitates, all his weight leaning against the door. If Hasebe doesn't truly want him to return? The thought is overwhelming, giving him the urge to step back. Although it becomes impossible when a familiar face appears in the hallway, glasses half falling off his nose. Here he is dear cousin.

 

Silence is always heavy between them, lingering in the shadows and waiting to engulf them alive. Yukimitsu closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. It's going to be okay, Hasebe probably doesn't care that much in the first place. Only the bare minimum matters.

 

They have rules, after all. He never calls him Heshikiri, no matter what. The name is akin to dishonor and distress for his cousin, and Yukimitsu respects that. Just as the other is not allowed to mention his parents and their terrible deeds. It works out, that's the only important thing.

 

“Welcome home.”

 

Lack of shouting? Nothing? Slowly, Yukimitsu dares to open an eye to observe his cousin, unable to comprehend what he is trying to do. It's not the time to mess this up.

 

“Not my home,” he mumbles, failing step one in less than ten seconds. Why are his words always so aggressive? Yukimitsu tries to add something, opting to keep his mouth shut instead. He's gonna ruin it again anyway, so what's the point.

 

It's easier to close the door and rush to his bedroom, locking the door behind him. How many days will he stay here before running once more? Oh, how he misses the warmth of Mikazuki's home already. The old man is not bad at all, even when he takes forever to cook, or asks for his help with his laptop. It's less complicated than facing Hasebe. Responsibilities have crushed his cousin for years, mostly because of him if Yukimitsu is honest with himself.

 

He doesn't think he could repay him even if he tried with all his might. Rather than even taking a shot at fixing the situation, he opts to lay on his bed, hoping time will go by faster than usual. His mind is not as buzzing with energy, when Yukimitsu doesn't consume energy drinks during the day. Everything is quieter, in a terrifying way.

 

Hearing himself think always turns into self hatred so deep he feels sick and exhausted. At least, when the boy is rude and loud, his mind is the opposite. Grumbling, he closes his eyes, as if it was enough to make the world vanish.

 

 

         By going down in the middle of the night, mindful of treacherous steps, Yukimitsu is already aware of what he is going to find downstairs. The dim light in the living room is still on, as usual. When will his cousin learn to rest a little, rather than exhausting himself all the time? Sighing, he makes his way towards the kitchen, not in the mood for another argument. Of course, there is nothing unhealthy to eat, which is a pain. Yukimitsu would rather than be stubborn than accept to touch leftovers, especially vegetables and rice. It doesn't taste as good as sweets and energy drinks.

 

Still, on his way back to his room with a glass of water, he glances into the living room. It's always the same thing, Hasebe overworking and looking barely alive.

 

You shouldn't have adopted me, all those years ago. The words are too violent to be let out loud, although it doesn't stop Yukimitsu from thinking about them often. By accepting the custody of a child, Hasebe put a damper on his own life for sure.

 

“Do you want something?”

 

Caught red-handed. Letting out a strangled sound, the teenager shakes his head, as to claim it's fine. It's not, to be honest.

 

“Still working on college stuff?”

 

“Not stuff per se, although I suppose you wouldn't understand.”

 

“Calling me idiot and useless again, I see!”

 

Hasebe probably adds something about him using the words without help, not that he cares. Sitting on the couch, the boy glares at the papers scattered on the coffee table, wondering what they are even about. Nothing which matters to him.

 

There are countless ways he could explain what he is feeling right now. How he has grown to care for his new friends. The lively old man and his blond crush. Hm, crush might not be the right word, Yukimitsu isn't sure. Cleverness is not something he has been blessed with after all. No word comes out anyway, leaving him in silence, staring at his cousin's back.

 

Sometimes, he wonders why Hasebe still care about him at all, considering how hard he tries to push him away since he's a child.

 

There is no point in admitting he'll leave again one day. That's a given, by now. So, Yukimitsu leans against the couch, drowning in silence again.

 

 

         The phone call lasts twelve minutes. Which meant it's bad, without a doubt. Yukimitsu could almost recite the speech by heart by now, used to being dissed when he skips too often. But then, it's not as if he cared about his education at all. Hearing Hasebe forcing himself to apologize is still disgusting. As if the other was to blame for that too. Sitting at the top of the stairs, the teenager awaits his demise, aware it won't be quick nor painless. There is something way too authoritarian about his cousin, when he loses his cool.

 

Not that he has any in the first place.

 

More than screams and rage, what Yukimitsu loathes the most is disappointment. It's ugly, especially when Hasebe stares for too long, awaiting a confession. Who does he think he is!

 

“It wasn't me!” Yukimitsu is sick of being always used as a scapegoat. Especially this time around. While school started again two days ago, he has not been back yet. Therefore, if something happened, how could he be guilty? His cousin will never believe in anything he says in the first place, so why is he trying? Aggravated, Yukimitsu hits the steps with his feet, complaining in a childish way of his.

 

“You ignore what you're accused of in the first place.”

 

“It doesn't matter, it's always the same thing!”

 

Hands over his ears, Yukimitsu makes an attempt at blocking his cousin's voice, without much success. Apparently, the pyromaniac struck again. It has become a common story at his school. Some kid setting stuff on fire when no one is looking. Little things, such as trashcans or textbooks. Yet, Yukimitsu has no affinity with such methods. He fought before, with classmates, but more with his words than anything else.

 

Everyone will keep on blaming him anyway.

After all, isn't he a troubled child who doesn't know better?

 

Frustration allows tears to pill up in his eyes until everything's a blur. Leave me alone, he wants to shout at Hasebe. That damn coward who can't mind his own business.

 

“Fine.”

 

“W-what?”

 

“I believe you. Find the culprit, clear your name, and the school board will leave you alone. If, obviously, you go back to class.”

 

Which kind of deal is that? It sounds impossible, to figure out who's behind this mess. It has been going on for months already, before summer break even started. Yukimitsu is never going to find the person responsible. Before he can add anything, Hasebe is already gone from sight, retreating in the kitchen. Always telling him what to do without giving any advice. Great, amazing. What an asshole.

 

“I hate you,” he says to no one at all, pressing his head against the railing.

 

 

         School is a place he'd rather avoid, if he could. Other students are fine, mostly, but classes are a chore. Yukimitsu is unable to sit still and focus for hours. His mind keeps wandering as far away as possible, until the classroom disappears. The boy shouldn't complain too much, since he has a mystery to solve. One which is out of his grasp right now. Lunch break is boring though, and he supposes walking around can't be a bad idea. Chewing on a candy bar, the teenager asks a couple of questions, avoiding classmates who certainly believe he is guilty. His attitude is not always that good, he is willing to admit it.

 

Still, the answers he gets are meager, rumors which won't lead anywhere. Most are about him in the first place, and his supposed love for fire. Yukimitsu feels like laughing at the thought. If they knew he isn't even allowed to cook anything involving pots and pans because of his clumsiness, they wouldn't sound so sure of themselves.

 

After a while, once the candy bar is gone, the boy stops to check inside his bag. His beloved 3DS is waiting for him to waste the rest of his lunch break on some random game he barely cares about. The little dot in the corner indicates he has crossed paths with someone though. Ah, it's the same kid as usual. A small blond mii with glasses he meets on a weekly basis. It has been a while, and he has never gotten the opportunity to figure out who the stranger is.

 

There is no student called Hakata, which suggests it's a nickname. Another mystery for junior detective Hasebe Yukimitsu. At least he obtained a new puzzle piece for his collection. Pleased with himself, he spends the break sitting in the hallway with his game, telling himself the world isn't going to burn down because he has fun.

 

Nonetheless, it's difficult to enjoy himself when people are chattering loudly by his side. Yukimitsu does not have to lift his head to figure out who is making so much noise. The Toushirou family is well-known around. Three out of the six siblings are studying there after all. Since none is in Yukimitsu's class he doesn't get to interact with them which is probably better this way. Their popularity is more based on their number than on personal accomplishments in the end. Except for one who is in the same grade as the teenager.

 

A clever boy, with a charming smile and excellent grades which could make Yukimitsu jealous if he cared about his school life in the first place. Still, he isn't fond of how they stroll across the hallway, acting as if they own the place, laughing together. Hence the way he extends his leg just a little when they pass in front of him, aiming for one target in particular. His calculated move is ignored by his rival, who avoids danger without even lowering his gaze.

 

“You should be more careful,” he hears without bothering to listen, fingers smashing the buttons of his 3DS with too much strength.

 

“Whatever.”

 

 

         Going home wouldn't bring anything akin to peace to his mind, when he is still aggravated by a long day. That's why he decides to forget about his rules instead, running straight into a more comfortable place. Sure, it's a little weird, to think he lived with a college student for a while, especially since he's still a kid. Hasebe has warned him countless times not to be so eager to throw himself into such situations. But it's not his fault if he's a little naive, prone to such mistakes. Most fourteen years old certainly don't run away for twelve days, but then they don't have to handle such difficult family situation either.

 

“Oh, welcome back.” At some point, he feared to bring only displeasure in Mikazuki's eyes, by coming back unannounced. However, the other seems keen on allowing him back inside his little place. After throwing his shoes by the door, Yukimitsu remembers how to breathe. Everything is exactly where it should be, from the old rug to the coffee table. Oh, and Yamanbagiri too.

 

“Yo, Manba-chan!”

 

“Do not.”

 

“Manba-chan is a precious nickname, isn't it?”

 

“You bastard, don't encourage him!”

 

In less than two minutes, Yukimitsu finds himself laughing already. The feeling is warm, as he lays on the floor, holding his sides from being unable to stop. This is closer to home than the cold house he has to share with Hasebe. He can't recall a single time they laughed together. The thought brings him back towards reality harshly as he sobers up. It sounds more pathetic than anything else, if he has to be honest with himself.

 

“How is your life, Yukimitsu?” The question makes him shrug while he stares at the ceiling.

 

“The usual. Kinda boring. Oh, I have to catch a pyromaniac at my school to clear my name.”

 

Sitting up abruptly, the teenager starts to narrate his terrible story. It's not something he could tell to anyone else after all. While he doesn't expect advice from the men, it's still a relief to be able to get it out, rather than having to shoulder everything on his own. Mikazuki hums from time to time, while serving lemonade and tea to his guests, to show he is listening. An old man filled with wisdom can surely understand his feelings, right?

 

Much to his surprise, it's the blond who intervenes first. He suggests to make a list of potential suspects before following them around to check on their behavior. Not bad, Yukimitsu has to agree. As long as he doesn't get caught of course, or else he'll be even more suspicious. Why is his life so difficult? Once they are done with their brand new plan to catch the Terrible Criminal, the teenager finds himself glancing at the old clock on the wall. He can't stay around for too long this time.

 

It's less about intruding and more to ensure Hasebe won't get mad again.

 

“Are you two living together now?” Yukimitsu asks while tying his shoelaces. With his head down, he misses the way Yamanbagiri is acting like a fish, opening and closing his mouth at a fast pace.

 

“It would be too cramped I fear.”

 

Is it the only reason? Difficult to know when only Mikazuki accepted to answer his question. With a small nod, the boy gets back onto his feet, school bag loosely hanging on his shoulder. Perhaps he is imagining things between them. They surely need more time, or a little push maybe, hard to tell. If it's the second it's a shame, since he has to solve his school mystery first.

 

Hang in there, Mikazuki, you can do it, he thinks for himself while leaving the flat.

 

 

        Hakata passed him by again, akin to a shadow. Who is this mysterious player who completed every single puzzle available? Too many mysteries happening all at once lately. School's already over, leaving him bored out of his mind while he plays in front of the building. To go to the arcade, it's more convenient to wait for a bus, but it means twenty minutes during which he has nothing to do with himself. Join a club, Hasebe has suggested once, it's good for your future. It's not like Yukimitsu does not want to get into one, but none truly appeals to him for now. Music or photography are definitely not his hobbies.

 

The alarm catches him out of guard, blaring behind him suddenly. It's the fire one, a little more shrieking than the usual sound. Confused, he presses the wrong button, wasting a turn in the game. After sliding the console in his bag, the boy hesitates. If he goes inside and someone sees him, he'll never heard the end of it. Yet, standing there without doing anything won't get him anywhere either. Before Yukimitsu is able to pick either choice, students from club get out of the building with confused looks on their faces. A few seem bored too. The situation has become too familiar, without a doubt. The boy turns around, trying to avoid being seen while he waits for his bus. It should be there soon by now.

 

But if there was another fire at such hour, does it mean the culprit is a club member? As he ponders over it, some kids walk past him, mumbling about a stool which burned down in the science lab. Which kind of moron would pick such place to play with matches or a lighter? It's where everything dangerous is stocked after all. Yukimitsu can't be a hero, saving the day and being loved by everyone. It's way too out of character, he laments while reminding himself he has to write down what he learned once he's home.

 

For now though, the bus is coming towards him, which means it's time to play for hours.

 

 

        The arcade is tucked in the main street, hidden between two buildings. It's a place filled with neon and colors, and endless possibilities to waste his money. Yukimitsu supposes he is a regular, not good at any game but playing every single one when he has the time. Coins bounce in his purse, begging to be sacrificed for useless junk he doesn't even need. Oh yes, this is an amazing feeling. Energy drink in hand, Yukimitsu decides to start out with a crane game. It's not like he is allowed to do anything else if he's drinking or eating, with the arcade's rules.

 

Stuffed animals are not exactly something he cares about, but the blue and yellow birds remind him of Mikazuki. It's enough to take his mind of school and everything bothersome. The machine is relentless though, refusing to allow him to get his prize no matter how many times he tries. It's not a surprise, as those games require focus, something he lacks most of the time.

 

“You're still terrible,” a deep voice comments, making him push the controls too harshly. Here goes his money again.

 

“Look who's talking.” The high school student leaning a little too much against the glass doesn't seem too fazed by his words. Not that he ever is.

 

“I don't pretend to be better than I am, at least.” Gloved fingers point towards the glass, awaiting to know which stuffed animal Yukimitsu aims to win this time around. Understanding the message, the younger boy step aside, allowing the other to try it out.

 

Obviously, when Ookurikara is the one playing, everything goes smoothly. It's a little disheartening, Yukimitsu decides while holding the soft bird in his hand a couple of rounds later. But then, the other has a lot of experience. Each time they meet, his arms are filled with stuffed animals. He pretends it's for his younger sibling, which leaves Yukimitsu a little doubtful. Honestly, he does not care.

 

“Thanks. You're still the expert, I'm willing to admit that.”

 

“Good.”

 

Holding the stuffed toy in one hand, and his empty can in the other, Yukimitsu stays around to watch him play for a while. It's fascinating to see someone putting so much energy into the game without shouting at the claw every two minutes. Or maybe Yukimitsu is simply terrible and bitter when he loses.

 

“Hey, Kara-chan, you've heard about what's happening at my school?”

 

“Hm. Fires? Yes, everyone has.”

 

Beyond the fact their schools are close, Ookurikara is well-known for hanging with people who are aware of everything about rumors and such. Yukimitsu isn't sure the oldest cares much about them himself, but he surely listens to what people say. That's why asking him doesn't feel like a waste of time.

 

“Is there something you want from me?” A sharp move of his wrist allows the teenager to grab his prize, a stuffed whale which falls out of the claw's grasp at the last second. Try again.

 

“Could you like… Investigate for me? Just a little.”

 

For a while, he obtains no reply, until the machine emits its victory sound. Holding the whale in his hand, Ookurikara observes it for a moment before giving an appreciative nod. Yes, it'll be perfect for his collection.

 

“Fine. I'll tell you if I hear something.”

 

“You're the best, I'm so grateful. I can buy ya' a drink or candy if you want?”

 

“No need.” He's gone towards another game before Yukimitsu has the time to reply. It's fine though, Kara-chan does not enjoy to communicate too much. It's how the other is, and if he truly manages to help, surely the mystery will solve itself without much effort. As if gives the bird a small squeeze, Yukimitsu gets a vivid picture of Yamanbagiri squeezing Mikazuki's cheeks in such manner. Oh, he'll definitely have to suggest that, or the opposite, next time they meet. For now though, it has gotten late and he should head home before the devil realizes he hasn't done his homework.

 

 

         At least, on Saturdays he only has class in the morning. It's still awful to be forced out of bed too early. His body feels sluggish while Yukimitsu awaits for the bell to free him from this endless hell. Two weeks without a lead on the culprit. Well, at least he managed to eliminate some students out of the equation, but one by one it's such a slow process. Arms crossed on his desk, Yukimitsu has to resist the temptation to press his head against them for a short nap. He's supposed to focus, not to escape his responsibilities.

 

Outside, unfortunate kids are running around, following a tyrant's orders. Having P.E. on Saturday morning is a fate Yukimitsu is glad to have avoided. His gaze, tired from going to bed too late the night before, struggles to tell who is who from the second floor. Ah, there is one guy with gloves. That's definitely the Toushirou guy. No one else would cover their hands to run around. Why does he even do that anyway?

 

No, not another enigma. He can't handle this. With a sigh, the teenager finds himself staring for a while as the other class runs around in circles for no reason. At least they could do something fun like soccer, but it's not allowed. You must be miserable on school grounds. On the bright side, soon he'll get to visit his college friends. It's always easier to be with them than alone at home. Not that Yukimitsu can truly blame Hasebe considering he has a job on top of being a student. It's still a little aggravating nonetheless.

 

As soon as the bell rings, the boy is back on his feet, holding his bag and almost running straight for the exit. He only needs to switch shoes and then he'll be free to escape until the following week. On his way out, Yukimitsu ponders his latest idea. To get Hakata's attention, he could shout his name in the hallway. Surely, someone is bound to react, right? But then, maybe the person doesn't want others to know their nickname. Which is a little weird.

 

In the end, focused on this new story, rather than leaving straight away, he ends up sitting on the steps in front of the main door, ignoring how his classmates are fleeing. The Hakata mystery has almost been forgotten, but now he's thinking about it, he hasn't gotten to 'meet' the other today. Just as there was no fire over the past weeks. Only six since the beginning of the school year, and two for the term. That's a lot, for a school, yet Yukimitsu cannot help but think it's not that dramatic, if the police hasn't been called yet. Or maybe it's more important to protect their good reputation or something. Not that he knows about that stuff himself.

 

Fine, new plan. Yukimitsu takes out his 3DS, awaiting for an encounter to happen. If he's lucky, Hakata will walk by. It's also the perfect opportunity to level up some characters in the game. To be fair, most of them are already maxed, since he doesn't own many. Those are expensive, and he has to make a choice between them and using his money at the arcade. It's fine though, having a handled console is already good enough. After all, Hasebe is the one who paid for it.

 

Ah! The dot is flickering. Which meant the person is close! However, a bunch of students walk past him at that moment, rendering identification impossible. It's time to pull his grand stunt! It requires courage though, and Yukimitsu struggles to let any sound out. What if they turn around and stare? He hates when people do that, treating him as some kind of juvenile delinquent unable to behave properly.

 

“Hakata!”

 

It should not matter, if he's too loud or a little blunt at times.

 

After all, it's how he has always been. A bother, and useless. So, he should shout with confidence, without caring about comments. That's exactly what he does, hoping for one of the student to turn around. Shockingly three of them do, exactly at the same time.

 

“Hakata?”

 

Atsushi, that's his name, right? One of the siblings. In fact, the three who turned around are the popular Toushirou kids. Why is he always so unlucky?

 

“That's one of you, right?” Yukimitsu shows his screen to emphasize his words. He feels so foolish now they are all focused on him. Suddenly, the mood shifts from wariness to something lighter and the one standing in the middle lets out a chuckle.

 

It's mister perfect himself, with his gloves and a 3DS in a hand. Wait what, it's him? Blinking, Yukimitsu finds himself at a loss for words, which probably shows on his face. He stares as the boy sends his siblings away before turning towards him with an amused expression.

 

“Hakata is our younger brother. His school doesn't allow such device, yet he enjoys to use it during his morning bus ride. Then, I become its keeper for the day.”

 

It makes sense, honestly. Yukimitsu is stunned at how simple the story is. There is no mysterious guy with a secret identity. Only a kid who doesn't turn his console, or street pass, off ever apparently. How is he even meant to justify his outburst about it? Curiosity? It sounds terrible.

 

“I was wondering since we see each other all the time… I mean in game.”

 

He should have sent him a personalized greeting or something similar. Too late to think about it now. Hey, it's the first mystery of a long list which got solved. It means it's positive.

 

“Hasebe Yukimitsu, right?”

 

The boy can almost hear the subtle 'it's you who tried to make me fall not long ago' behind the greeting. It can't be helped, probably.

 

“Yeah, and you're Toushirou Yagen. Everyone knows you so it's easier.”

 

“Do they?”

 

The sharp tone is far from being appreciated, although Yukimitsu guesses it must be annoying to be popular. In some twisted way he cannot fathom since his life is the opposite way.

 

“I saw you from the window earlier. P.E. and all.” What was meant to sound like compassion is a lot more similar to stalking than intended. Yukimitsu is fairly certain he is digging his own grave by being such an idiot. While he is considering the fleeing option, muffled laughter interrupts him. Using the back of his gloved hand to cover his mouth, Yagen doesn't seem to mind his clumsiness.

 

“It's far from enjoyable indeed. I'll tell Hakata you said hello. He was wondering about you too.”

 

That's not something he expected. At the same time, the kid has given him so many puzzle pieces that Yukimitsu went from being poor to being almost a king thanks to him.

 

“Thanks. See you around.”

 

It's nice and all, to talk with fellow students. However, Yukimitsu is not truly interested in deep friendship around there. He doesn't feel at ease enough around people. It's different with Yamanbagiri and Mikazuki, because there will always be a certain distance between them, due to his age. This way, even if they are friends, he doesn't risk much.

 

It's only once he's in front of the bus stop that Yukimitsu notices he forgot to ask about the gloves. Not that it was a grand idea in the first place. Personal space or something similar. The 3DS is still in his hand and he diverts his attention towards it with ease. This way, life is more comforting than when he has to interact with others. Right now, he doesn't feel like meeting with the old man and his not-lover. He can probably hang around at home for a while before visiting them.

 

 

         While he has a cellphone, it's almost devoid of contacts. He only has three numbers, including his cousin's. It's a little ridiculous, but he has never minded to be isolated until that point. He has also Mikazuki's, so he can tell the other when he's going to crash at his place. It's a recent change, yet it feels tremendously important. The last one is probably out of service by now. He hasn't tried to call it for years.

 

He could.

 

Yukimitsu ponders over the idea for a while, laying on his bed. It would be one more disaster, adding to the never ending collection he seems to carry around since he's kid. Eyes closed shut, he ends up throwing the device on the other side of the mattress. It's not his fault if he still cares, even after being betrayed by his own family.

 

Which kind of parent doesn't want to see their kid anymore?

 

Silence engulfs everything until Yukimitsu wonders if the world is gone. Perhaps it would be easier this way, if he didn't exist. What an idiot he is, crying over his pitiful mentality rather than attempting to change. Eventually, after almost one hour, the teenager sits up, dizzy from the nap which wasn't one. The sun is still up, but barely, disappearing between buildings. At least one of them is going to rest. Memories from the past days come to him one after another, ending with the way he talked to Yagen one week ago.

 

Since then, he made little progress on his main case. Too busy hanging at the arcade or with his college buddies. Yamanbagiri stopped to wear his hood in front of him, which made him feel oddly pleased. It means they are closer to being some kind of family. Or maybe he is pushing himself into their bond a little too much. Which would be awful.

 

Sometimes, he still wonders if they intend on confessing to each other soon.

Then, Yukimitsu recalls how emotionally stunned the three of them are.

 

Downstairs, everything is silent. To the point he feels uneasy while walking to the fridge. It's unusual for Hasebe to be late in the evening, no matter how busy the oldest is. Perhaps he wanted to have fun for once. Refusing to dwell on it, Yukimitsu grabs leftovers inside, alongside two energy drinks. He bought them with his own money, since the bastard refuses to get him his daily dose of sugar and caffeine.

 

Way too much caffeine. His head is spinning when he empties the cans too quickly, one after another. It's the feeling of his heartbeat resonating against his ears which makes it good though. Here comes the Yukimitsu who can stay up all night and be productive.

 

That's how he makes himself useful, by cleaning everything once Hasebe is asleep! Well, right now he isn't here so it's the same thing. Wiping the dust, cleaning dishes, ensuring the floor is shining. His mind is so focused on those tasks the rest becomes secondary. It's relaxing, in a weird way. Yukimitsu supposes he has no other way to truly do anything significant inside the house. It's not an impressive place. On the contrary, it's modest, inherited from Hasebe's parents as a way to pay for the trial they lost against their own son. A shame their family is twisted at every corner.

 

By the time Yukimitsu is done, a shower is compulsory. He slips under it without a second thought, allowing the burning liquid to relax his muscles. A haircut has been in order for years, although he is vehemently opposed to it. He loves his long hair and the ridiculous purple dye he uses on it. It's a miracle the school hasn't expelled him over it yet. Oh well, it doesn't show that much, on his natural black hair. It's not weirder than some classmates having blue or green strands in theirs.

 

Loose pajamas are comfortable, although having a giant mass dripping water everywhere on the floor is not. The hairdryer always takes forever to do its job with Yukimitsu, much to his dismay. It's without much patience he tries to use it for a while, before giving up. It's only damp by that point, so it's acceptable.

 

The lights are on downstairs, which certainly means Hasebe is back. Or there is an intruder, but Yukimitsu isn't even sure they have anything valuable to steal, so why bother with such possibility. Jumping over the last steps, he peeks inside the hallway to spot the other. Immediately, the boy can tell something is wrong. While exhaustion often paints his cousin's face in the evening, it's never that bad. The way he collapses on the couch is worrisome.

 

“Hasebe?” Tentatively, Yukimitsu takes a step forward, followed by another. Fingers pause a couple of centimeters away from the flushed face, unsure of being allowed to go on. “Rough day?”

 

“Hm.” The smell of cleaning products around is a little too strong, it doesn't help.

 

Worry reflects on Yukimitsu's face, his frown deeper than it should be. Eventually, his palm presses against his cousin's forehead, only to find the skin burning. Come to think of it, last night, Hasebe went to bed earlier than usual. Was he already sick? “Don't bother,” he hears without understanding the sharp tone.

 

How is he meant to walk away in such situation? What an idiot. Without a word, he opens drawers trying to find their medical supplies. They do have some, Yukimitsu is sure of it. Where is another question. Usually, Hasebe is in charge of such things. He truly does not trust him at all, that asshole. While he wrecks the kitchen, a loud crash echoes through the house, making his blood run cold.

 

The rug is far from an ideal place for a nap, and considering Hasebe's expression, he certainly tried to get up and fainted. Panic is overwhelming. Yukimitsu struggles to remember what to do. It's the first time he has to face such situation, if he doesn't count the times when he was sick and had to manage on his own as a kid.

 

Back then, he couldn't realize how dangerous it can be. Right now, it's different. He manages to roll Hasebe on his side, because it sounds like something important to do, although he cannot recall why. What if he dies? He isn't allowed. He's the only person Yukimitsu has. Now is definitely not the time to feel guilty about not saying it enough.

 

Walking back into the kitchen, the boy splashes cold water against his face until the world makes sense once more. Calling the paramedics is off-limits unless there is an imminent danger of death. That's part of Hasebe's rules. Yukimitsu understands his reasons and why he loathes doctors, but still. Exhaustion can cause one to faint, but what if it was something more serious? Pressing his fingers against his cold cheeks, he sits on his knees next to the older man, trying to regain composure of himself.

 

After a long pause, Yukimitsu suddenly gets up, running upstairs to get his phone. No paramedics, fine, he can respect that. Nonetheless, there's no way he isn't going to call someone!

 

 

        The wait is mostly a blur, something filled with anguish and doubt. Yukimitsu doesn't know how long he stays on the floor, awaiting for help to come. If he was more competent, things would be easier. Tears have exhausted the teenager already, leaving him in a state of exhaustion by the time someone knocks on the door. He doesn't bother getting up. It's still unlocked anyway. Hasebe is going to be so mad, later, upon learning he let a stranger inside. But what else was he meant to do? He feels the shadow on his back, followed by the ghostly touch of fingers brushing against his hair. Blinking, the boy finds himself clinging to Mikazuki's pants with one hand, to ensure he isn't another illusion.

 

Without a word, the man walks past him, freeing his pants without any violence. Everything in his calm attitude suggests the worst will pass, although Yukimitsu refuses to believe it. Life has never been kind. He wants to cling and shout, shaking Hasebe until he opens his eyes. Instead, someone helps him on his feet without his brain registering the action. Blond hair and crystal eyes are a comfort, in spite of his inability to comprehend what Yamanbagiri is doing here at such hour. Was he hanging with Mikazuki? Has he ruined everything for them too?

 

Tears don't return, having dried out already.

 

Distance grows between reality and what's happening in his mind. He understands he is sitting on the couch at some point, but then there is nothing at all for a while. Dissociating, Hasebe has called it before, although he doesn't remember the context. Was it at the trial? (Which one, his mind asks with a mocking tone).

 

Eventually, as something warm presses against his cheek, the world comes crashing down once more. He blinks, twice, before lifting his blurry gaze towards Mikazuki. The mug is lowered against his hands, although the other doesn't let go until he is certain Yukimitsu isn't going to drop it right away.

 

“Your cousin woke up. He has a loud voice.”

 

Oh. Of course Hasebe complained right away. Is it hot chocolate? Yukimitsu is not that fond of the beverage, although it tastes sweet so it works. Pressing the edge of the mug against his lips, the boy listens to his friend. Apparently, it's only exhaustion, so he should be fine after a day off, or two. A relief, to Yukimitsu. He nods without truly paying attention to what comes next, taking slow sips of the drink. It burns his tongue, but it's fine. He feels less disconnected from everything like that.

 

“I made food for tomorrow,” Yamanbagiri interrupts while sitting on the opposite side of the couch. If anything, he seems tired too, judging by the way he leans with all his weight against the back of the couch. “Nothing fancy.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Yukimitsu can at least use the microwave to warm up a meal, he guesses. While he wants to ask the blond why he came too, it would be a mistake. Something a little rude, which doesn't even matter. After all, the mere fact they bothered to visit him in the middle of the night is akin to a miracle. Usually, no one even care that much with people like them.

 

“I'm gonna talk to him,” he mumbles, getting back on his feet too fast. The room spins around him until hands help him to stay on his feet. The mug leaves his hands, and he doesn't try to take it back. Mikazuki leaves it on the coffee table before gently assisting him towards the stairs. Apparently, they carried Hasebe to his room. No wonder he was so mad, considering he loathes contacts with others. But then, Yukimitsu wouldn't have been able to take his weight.

 

“Are you sure you can handle the walk?”

 

“Yeah, don't look down on me because I'm useless.” Why can't his mind just shut up, rather than throwing careless sentences like this? With a groan, Yukimitsu starts to climb the stairs, one step after another. He does not bother to say goodbye, because turning around would throw him out of balance. Tomorrow though, he swears to call or write them a long message. Right now, it's impossible. He would love to be able to put his feelings into words, to hold their hands and show how grateful he truly is. Yet, he doesn't doubt his phrasing would be a tragedy, filled with self-pity and nothing positive.

 

The way they care is terrifying, if he is honest with himself. No one ever bothered to show kindness to him (to them) in such way before. Maybe he is too used to cruelty and rumors. Bracing himself for the worst, his shoulder presses against the door to the devil's den.

 

No, it's wrong to call it like that. It's only Hasebe's room.

 

Sitting on his bed, rather than laying down, his cousin offers him a tired glance. Yukimitsu knows he should have expected him to be stubborn from the start. It's still aggravating nonetheless.

 

“Hasebe, you need to rest!”

 

Sitting on the bed is a little too much for sure. At the same time, Yukimitsu lacks another solution to emphasize his point. Hands push against Hasebe' shoulders until he accepts to lay down once more. Great, that way he might be feel better then next day, rather than turning into a zombie.

 

“You scared me. Like a lot. I know I shouldn't have called for help, but you were laying on the floor and I panicked...”

 

“Yukimitsu.”

 

“I thought 'hey what if he dies', which is awful because obviously you were not going to just vanish on me but...”

 

“Yukimitsu.”

 

“And then my mind started to play not-so-happy flashbacks and I-”

 

“Yukimitsu!”

 

Blinking back tears, the boy lifts his head in confusion. Hasebe's expression soften a little and he ruffles his cousin's hair.

 

“You did well. Although we need to work on our rules again, because waking up with a stranger asking me how I'm feeling is disturbing.”

 

“Oh yeah… Sure! We can definitely do that.”

 

It's so rare, to be told he hasn't messed up for once. Yukimitsu cannot explain how it affects him, to hear praise. He does not even need to, considering his face is similar to an open book. The ache in his chest has stopped crushing his lungs and ribcage. They are doing fine. As much as they can considering their circumstances at least. To be honest, the teenager never expected to still be alive at fourteen so it's a big win for him.

 

At some point, Yukimitsu is going to have to increase his standards a little.

 

 

           Stay in bed, do not try to read your e-mails, no you can't go out to buy more fruit juice. So many complaints fill the house the next day. The boy feels like he's bouncing from one room to another without a real goal. Standing in front of the microwave, Yukimitsu watches as it spins endlessly, awaiting for his lunch to be ready. He skipped school, just this time. Going wouldn't have been productive anyway.

 

What happened with Hasebe is akin to a breakthrough between them. An evolution hard to define for now, although he wishes to call it like that. On the long run, maybe it'll be beneficial. Yukimitsu refuses to lose his mind over the future. The past is awful. The present hard enough. When the microwaves emits its shrieking sound of death, he removes the bowl with both hands. Sometimes it's hot outside and cold in the middle. But it's not like he can just poke it with his finger to check.

 

Putting it alongside the second bowl on the tray, the teenager admires his excellent re-heating skills for a moment. Climbing the stairs is a little more challenging, but no casualty occurs.

 

It's not truly an excuse for forgetting to knock though. The sight in front of his eyes is enough to make Yukimitsu lose his balance. The tray almost escapes his grip, saved only by pure luck and the way he is leaning against the door. As noisy as he has been, it's no wonder Hasebe is glaring. Albeit it's not his sole reason for doing so.

 

The furious lines on his body are a topic it's best to avoid. Yukimitsu knows better than to comment on them by that point. Himself has been shaped by neglect and a lack of warmth and loving embraces, whereas Hasebe is the product of uncontrolled rage and inability to care. He watches as his cousin puts on a clean shirt, forgetting he should close his eyes instead.

 

“I made lunch,” he eventually whispers, lifting the tray a little to emphasize his point.

 

“Thank you.”

 

They sit together on the bed, forgetting about their routine. It's not usual for them to eat at the same time, even less in the same room, too busy living their lives away from each other. Somehow, Yukimitsu supposes it cannot be helped. They try to settle into society as best as they can, without truly achieving a comprehension of what a family is meant to be. Mikazuki and Yamanbagiri would make acceptable parents though, if they come running into the night right as he calls them.

 

Chopsticks stir the meal for too long as Yukimitsu ponders about the night before. It's complicated to let his emotions out without lashing at his cousin, hurting and gnawing at their old wounds over and over. Kindness is a foreign concept Yukimitsu is too tired to learn.

 

He settles with pouring random thoughts out instead.

 

“Am I not doing enough? Or are you working too much?” Having a job on top of being a college student is not something Hasebe is able to avoid, considering their situation. Still, Yukimitsu is starting to realize how exhausting it must be. In a selfish way, it was easier to ignore that fact until now.

 

“Is it important, in the end?”

 

“Of course it is!”

 

“Your point of view is childish,” there is no animosity behind the words, although they are enough for Yukimitsu to frown, pout forming on his lips. “The consequences matter most than the reasons. I asked Souza to cover some of my shifts this week. In the future, if I manage my time better it won't happen again.”

 

Souza is a colleague, Yukimitsu has learned that much since his cousin started to work at the supermarket. It's the only person he has ever mentioned though. Still, if Hasebe is able to make friends, then it shouldn't matter.

 

“Are you sure? I could get a job too...”

 

“I'd rather have you focus on your studies. It's already difficult enough for you, isn't it?”

 

Touché. Yukimitsu shifts uncomfortably on the bed, chopsticks pushing too much food at once in his mouth. At least, it forces him to think before replying.

 

“The whole thing with the pyromaniac is like not helping, yeah.” Even before, his school life was anything but smooth. Anguish paints his face until he feels tears and the urge to scream return. It's unfair, to be so on edge all the time, his mind refusing the prospect of happiness.

 

“I certainly put too much pressure on you on that day by asking you to catch them yourself.”

 

Aren't they taking too many steps forwards at once? Yukimitsu cannot form a coherent reply to the words, thus he shakes his head a couple of times.

 

His smile is shaky as he traces an X in the air with his chopsticks, not caring about being impolite.

 

“That's fine, I'm sure I can do it! I'll try my best. Which isn't grand, yet better than nothing at all.”

 

“Indeed.”

 

Is it a compliment or an insult? Yukimitsu decides the answer is meaningless, as long as he can finish his lunch with Hasebe. No departure towards the streets until everything's fixed he swears to himself. Outside of the moment they are sharing, the terror in his heart from finding his cousin laying on the floor is still a raw wound Yukimitsu has no intention to reopen for a while. He'd rather stay a little longer to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Chapter Text

      People are getting quite lively lately. With autumn around, Mikazuki is starting to enjoy his walks outside a little more, aware they will not last for long. Once the weather gets too cold, it's difficult to find anything enjoyable in the wind blowing in his face and infiltrating his old bones. A shame, as there is not much to do now that his thesis is almost completed. He has been faster than anticipated, although his teachers are certainly going to ask for too many changes before he can be done with it.

 

His old laptop has been such a supportive ally, clinging to life so well. Although Mikazuki doubts it'll last forever. Life is fleeting after all, for mortals and machines alike. That's why he finds so much beauty in flowers. Ephemeral beings filled with colors and yet so unnoticed by most. The vase, filled with dozen of them, is perfect next to the small television. It brings some joy into the place. Little suns shining as well as the one fumbling on the floor with his kotatsu. He finds himself chuckling while sitting on his knees next to his friend.

 

“As I told you, I am not sure it still works. It's an old model.”

 

“Do you ever buy new things?”

 

“It wouldn't be as amusing.”

 

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, albeit not always in a positive way. Still, Mikazuki finds the moment relaxing, especially as Yamanbagiri struggles with making the poor relic respond to his demands. Having to buy a new one wouldn't be a problem money-wise. The oldest isn't sure he wishes to get rid of the memories associated with the actual kotatsu though. How many winter nights has he spend studying or reading with his legs safely tucked under it. A warm hideout for games and moments shared with his family.

 

“Is there something wrong?”

 

Has he been out of touch for too long? Blinking, he tilts his head to the side, awaiting for an explication. Following Yamanbagiri's gaze towards his wrist is not difficult. Ah, so his fingers betrayed him, gently running over the tattoo.

 

“Oh, I think I can feel some heat, don't you?”

 

Diverting the attention towards the kotatsu is a low blow, yet it seems to work out perfectly. Mikazuki is not so keen on keeping secrets from the other, it's not his goal to do so. Some truths are too personal to be shared, especially as they would not bring anything but sadness over both of them. Hence how he pretends to be surprised when Yamanbagiri complains he isn't feeling anything. Utterly broken then, it's going to be a nuisance. If the heating system is down, he needs to replace the table too.

 

“Do you know someone who could fix it?

 

“Buy a new one, instead of being so stubborn, old man.”

 

“How cruel~”

 

If there is no other solution, then they'll have to go shopping together. At worst, Mikazuki can always keep this one away for a while, until he finds a place to get it repaired. Getting a brand new model means he should get in touch with what's popular lately. Having a youthful opinion is compulsory, obviously. It's why he needs his kind friend to go with him.

 

“Should we bring Yuki-kun with us for some shopping then?”

 

“Why do I have to come in the first place?”

 

“You wouldn't want me to get lost.”

 

So much teasing between them. He is certain Yamanbagiri realizes he doesn't truly need assistance, but company is always welcome. Especially if they can bring their adopted child with them. The term is certainly too much, but there is a certain fondness to it. From what he gathered, Hasebe has been doing better, being more careful with his health. It's not as if he got the opportunity to see Yukimitsu often lately though. The boy has been busy chasing after mysteries and other things. Inviting him is surely a grand idea.

 

“On Saturday then?”

 

“Fine, if you insist.”

 

 

His budget is far from being limited, yet his poor wallet cannot handle so much stress at once. Mikazuki vows to be gentle towards his bank account. Although he is willing to spend more for a great product. His limit is at 45,000 yen, he decides while on the bus. It's acceptable for quality. Getting one family-sized is important if he wants Yamanbagiri and Yukimitsu to visit him often during winter. Ah, he is getting too sentimental for sure.

 

After all, it's not like they need such excuse to come over. His place hasn't been silent in a while. At first, Mikazuki found it to be a bother, when it started to be a common occurrence. But, by that point, it's a gift. The main street is filled with families and teenagers still in their uniforms. They have classes in the morning, so it's not a surprise. Nonetheless, Yukimitsu is wearing his usual combo of shorts and sweatshirt, hands deep in his pockets as he is leaning against a wall.

 

There is something sweet about the way his face lights up when he spots them, immediately walking over. At least, someone is motivated. Unlike Yamanbagiri, mumbling under his hood about being forced to go on a crowded day. He's the one who has classes in the evening though, stopping them to go on such trip at another moment.

 

“We do not need a futon, mine's still in good shape.”

 

“Mikazuki, everything about your kotatsu is a ruin.”

 

“But I'm attached to it.”

 

The loud sigh is so familiar he prefers to exchange an amused look with the youngest than mention it. The blond can be a little forceful sometimes, trying to do the best for everyone. Afraid of messing up too. Less than when they met, when he dropped the contents of his precious folder on Mikazuki's feet. It's comforting, to watch him slowly grow out his shell. The insults are sometimes a little mean, but then the oldest is not always gentle either.

 

“Hasebe and I never had one, is it that cool?”

 

“Oh! Yuki-kun, you definitely need to discover the joys of a kotatsu. It does wonder for my old bones and rheumatism.”

 

“For the last time, you damn old man, you're twenty-six!”

 

“But Yamanbagiri, you just called me 'old', didn't you?”

 

“You're insufferable.”

 

The fact they manage to get inside the right shop without a murder occurring is a miracle in itself. Yukimitsu is a little too loud in his excitement towards the prospect of getting something new and warm, and Mikazuki doesn't have the will to tell him to tone it down. It's a pleasant moment. Perhaps Hasebe and the boy would enjoy to get one as a present one day. Their house has this bare feeling, as if they had never truly settled in, ready to depart as soon as trouble would arise. It's not his place to make such offer though. People have to move on with their own strength sometimes. He could always suggest the idea out loud in front of Hasebe, if he doesn't find another solution.

 

His second companion is more focused in his search, walking around while avoiding sale assistants without even lifting his head. He is certainly used to the exercise, considering how easily he makes his way forward, keeping his stance and refusing to be bothered. His expression must be a mix between annoyance and embarrassment if Mikazuki has to guess. It's a little too much for the oldest. Laughter grows inside his throat until he has to let out a chuckle.

 

“Are there any good deals?”

 

“Hm.” Suddenly, he is flooded with suggestions from the blond, who mutters about the different products he saw.

 

“I'm surprised, you seem quite knowledgeable.”

 

“My brothers tend to buy foolish things on a whim. I have to be more careful.”

 

Brothers, then. Another discovery about Yamanbagiri. It has been months since they met, still his private life remains a mystery. Mikazuki is not allowed to complain, considering he acts in a similar fashion. With a nod, he listens to what is apparently the best for his living-room. Flagging a sale assistant down is the easiest part of the process.

 

Unlike signing papers, ensuring he will be home for the delivery, and paying obviously. His credit card feels much lighter once he's done, although he'll have to wait for one week before getting his product. They could have carried it home by themselves quicker, although the prospect of taking the bus with everything sounds bothersome.

 

On an impulse, Mikazuki ends up getting a new futon too, dark blue covered in moon crescents. There is a certain fondness for those in his heart, although he would have been fine with sunflowers too. Not the dinosaur one Yukimitsu wanted though. That's a little too much, even for the eccentric man. While spending more money is out of order for him, he allows the others to drag him into various shops.

 

Hanging out without buying anything is good too. Usually Mikazuki avoids such places, if only for the fact people turn exhausting quickly. But, for once, he is willing to indulge his friends. Especially as he sees Yamanbagiri randomly praising little objects which are definitely useless before looking at the price tag and turning away. Being a college student is certainly rough. Himself does not have as much trouble, thanks to his familial situation.

 

After their third walk in front of a particular crepe shop, Mikazuki catches Yukimitsu glaring at his cat-shaped wallet with a frown on his face. Unfair, his expression says, while he counts coins over and over.

 

“Do you want one?” He inquires while pressing his fingers against the boy' shoulder. The way he shakes his head is adorable.

 

“No need to get me stuff!”

 

“Oh, even if I buy one for Yamanbagiri?”

 

“Did I ask?”

 

Ignoring the sudden question, Mikazuki drags them in front of the shop, observing the different combo they can take. Here goes his promise not to spend any more money. He settles with something simple, a mix of fruits with chocolate. Yukimitsu has to contain himself from pressing his hands on the glass as he picks one filled with marshmallows and chocolate. At least, the student has not been drinking any energy drink during the little shopping trip. Mikazuki doesn't want Hasebe to complain later about his cousin getting too much sugar.

 

He watches as Yamanbagiri has to repeat his order twice, stuttering with embarrassment. Apparently, it's still a little difficult for him. In the end, they all get the delicious treat nonetheless, sitting together on a bench to eat.

 

“You know,” the kid starts out, chocolate around his mouth from digging in too fast. “It's cool we got to hang out and all. I appreciate that you invited me. Since we're friends, which is great. And now I'm going to shut up and eat before I make a fool out of myself further.”

 

A delightful idea, the oldest can agree. He does not mind Yukimitsu's clumsiness with his words, if he has to be honest. It's pleasant, to be with people so different from himself. The crepe is a good bonus too. Chewing on a piece of orange, he glances at the one who has been silent for a while. While the eyes are hidden by the hood, it's not the case for the lower part of his face.

 

“Manba, do not move,” he instructs, using his fingers to wipe some powder off the corner of the man's lips. “There, it's much better.”

 

While he should have asked for permission, his gesture was slow, giving the other enough time to push him away. The faint blush on his cheeks is quite a show too. A beautiful one, almost as captivating as the sun going down and hiding behind mountains in the evening. He gets his foot kicked a little by the blond in return, without feeling any pain. Their bond wouldn't be as pleasant without being able to annoy each other.

 

Next to them, he is certain Yukimitsu has his mouth wide open, ready to throw careless words at them. To Mikazuki's relief he keeps his reflexions to himself. It's not as if the situation is odd, as they are merely friends enjoying each other company. Still, perhaps he goes a little too far sometimes.

 

“Hasebe Yukimitsu~” The playful tone catches the three of them out of guard. A good thing for Yamanbagiri and his flushed face. Leaning against the bench is a boy Mikazuki has not gotten the opportunity to meet before. Behind glasses, calculating eyes roam over his youngest friend.

 

“Toushirou Yagen. What do ya' want?”

 

Oh, the tone is almost hostile. Surely, these two are not close. Although the other boy doesn't appear to mind the words in the slightest. Grabbing a small blond boy who was standing by his side, he drags him on the other side of the bench to face his nemesis.

 

“Let me introduce you to Hakata.”

 

Realization flashes in Yukimitsu's eyes as he lets out a loud 'ah!' while pointing towards the child. Not older than ten, Mikazuki guesses. He doesn't appear as impressed as the one in front of him, bowing his head in a minimal fashion.

 

With both hands, he offers a business card to a confused Yukimitsu. There is a mysterious code on it that Mikazuki cannot decipher. Is it how youngsters communicate those days?

 

“A 3DS friend code? Oh, nice. Let me give you mine.”

 

An invitation to form a friendship then? It sounds fascinating, and he observes curiously as Yukimitsu takes his console out to show his screen to the kid. Pushing his glasses up, the boy nods while asking for his brother to take a picture of the code.

 

Standing behind the kid, Yagen doesn't bother with conversation, allowing Hakata and Yukimitsu to chat about their little games without looking truly interested. Mikazuki uses it as an opportunity to detail the teenager a little. So it's the one who always wears gloves, if he remembers correctly what Yukimitsu has told them. A fascinating boy indeed, especially as their gazes meet. The man is taken aback by the dark gleam in his eyes, although he doesn't get much time to observe it as Yagen is quick to focus his attention back on his little brother.

 

There is certainly an aura of mystery surrounding the teenager. It's not his place to seek answers though. That's Yukimitsu's role, even if he is far from being focused on it right now. Too fixated on his animated chat over video games. With all this agitation, Mikazuki forgot to check on his remaining friend.

 

Who is doing well apparently. A little uneasy because of the way they are surrounded by strangers, yet he shrugs when he feels Mikazuki's gaze on him, as to pretend everything's alright. That's good, since it's an enjoyable day, and it would be a shame if things were suddenly ruined. So he refrains from brushing their hands against each other as he would love to do. It's a little too early for such display of affection. Selfish too, as he isn't sure Yamanbagiri would enjoy any of it.

 

“Hakata's cool. Much better than his siblings,” Yukimitsu comments out loud after the pair is gone towards new adventures.

 

Mikazuki doesn't have the heart to tell him he still has chocolate all over his mouth. It's an embarrassing moment which can wait until he's back home. Getting up is a little challenging for his old bones, although he manages.

 

“If you make one comment on your age, I'm leaving you right here.” Yamanbagiri's voice is ruthless as he glares under his hood.

 

“Ha ha ha, you're starting to know me quite well.”

 

What a marvelous day.

 

 

      Installing his brand new piece of technology takes less time than anticipated. But then, his loyal assistant has done most of the work by himself, ensuring the heater was well fixed to the table before plugging it in. The hardest part was taking the table out of the box in the end. With careful gestures, Mikazuki adjusts the futon over the table, eager to get his legs warmed up. Once he is done, he leans against the table. He ought to buy tangerines and biscuits to enforce the winter effect. Traditions are important after all.

 

“We should eat sukiyaki soon, Yamanbagiri.”

 

“Sure. Let's go shopping for the ingredients next week then.”

 

Sitting in front of him, the blond has folded his hands over the table, unlike the oldest who has hidden his under the futon. The flat is far from cold yet, but there is such a comforting feeling in being surrounded by warmth.

 

“You are quite a traditional man.”

 

“That's because my family was this way.” Oh, past tense. He has been careless. Obviously, the frown on Yamanbagiri's face is hard to miss. Mikazuki has no intention to indulge his curiosity though. Some topics are merely banned. It's not as if he is still bothered by the past, as nothing wrong happened. The cycle of life simply caught him out of guard years prior. His private life shouldn't be shared so casually though. Even with a beloved friend.

 

“Crab,” the youngest eventually mumbles, glancing at his hands. “I like to eat crab in winter. It's still too early, but in December or January...”

 

“We should definitely get some too.”

 

They understand each other, in the end. Rather than blurting out foolish sentences, they take the time to fix the conversation. Mikazuki cannot help the smile gracing his lips. He is truly lucky, isn't he? To have someone like Yamanbagiri in his life.

 

He notices the way the other keeps rubbing his arms though. The difference of temperature between their legs and the top part of their body can be a little difficult at first. The heat needs time to spread through them after all. With a chuckle, the oldest removes his kimono jacket, handing it over the table.

 

“Here.” For once, with his sweater, he is not the one who is feeling cold. Unlike Yamanbagiri and his light hoodie. At first, he isn't sure the present is going to be accepted, especially as the blond glares at the piece of fabric as if he had been personally victimized by it.

 

Which is a shame, since Mikazuki is fond of this jacket. He has gotten it years ago, as a present. To be fair, most of what he owns, outside of the kotatsu, is not recent. His old pans and pots belonged to his parents, among other things. Decorating has never been his forte honestly. He merely keeps everything for as long as he can, clinging to memories.

 

“Aren't you cold?”

 

“Not that much.” He can almost hear the 'damn old man' his friend had to repress.

 

Hands folded on his lap once more, Mikazuki waits. He is hardly trying to force the second man to obey to his whims. It's mostly worry of causing him to be sick because of his flat. Still, if the offer is refused, he will not be mad at all. For a moment, nothing happens, until the jacket is dragged closer by the blond. Deep blue goes well with his hair, making it more radiant than usual. The sun shining above dark clouds. It's such a sight, he has to blink to reconnect with reality. The faint pink on Yamanbagiri's nose and ears is a nice addition too.

 

“Would you mind not staring?”

 

“I'm too much sometimes, my apologies.”

 

Pushing on his knees, Mikazuki decides to flee rather to prepare tea. This way, his mind will be able to focus on his surroundings once more. It's odd, how easily the blond manages to drag him in another world without needing to speak. What if it's magic? Captured under the spell of a powerful wizard, the poor old man found himself unable to escape, cursed for eternity. Would anyone hear his screams for help? Probably not, since he isn't sure he would say anything at all.

 

Somehow, it does not sound that tragic.

 

 

The one taking the next step is not the oldest, too busy wondering if any of this is allowed. It happens out of nowhere, during a silent afternoon. The touch comes out of nowhere, tips of fingers brushing against the inside of his wrist as he pauses, mouth slightly open in wonder. What's the meaning of such gesture? The tattoo has been an old friend, a mark he carries around since he started college. It's not a secret, per se, although he isn't sure he has much to share about it.

 

Nonetheless, he lets Yamanbagiri act as he please, turning his wrist to allow him to distinguish each little detail. Surrounded by blue and yellow, the moon crescent is a gentle reminder of his name and existence. He used to wonder if it would be painful, before entering the salon, questions piling up on the tip of his tongue without being able to go past his lips.

 

Perhaps it was not pleasant, although the result is something he has cherished since that day.

 

“It's beautiful,” the blond eventually says, letting go of his arm.

 

Is there a deeper meaning behind the compliment? Something akin to a praise to Mikazuki's own beauty? Asking would surely be foolish. Instead, he nods, gratitude showing in his eyes.

 

“I told you about it before. How ancient it is for you.”

 

“What about it?”

 

“I got it during my first year.”

 

The one he has failed, for personal reasons, struggling to keep his will to go further for a while. It feels so faint by that point. Almost like a dream rather a memory. But aren't dreams unconscious memories somehow? Perhaps they are meant to show you another life, or an alternate universe where everything has gone wrong. They might be testimonials of another version of your heart. Ah, sometimes his old mind rambles too much.

 

“What for?”

 

There is a stigma associated to tattoos, Mikazuki is well-aware of it. Finding the right shop wasn't difficult, yet he remembers being asked twice about the patch of his skin he picked. Why want to lower his chance to find employment later by getting a tattoo where anyone can see it? The man is not sure of his answer any longer. Back then, there was pain he wanted to evacuate by reminding himself of the beauty of this world. Perhaps he laughed a little, saying he wished to challenge the world.

 

Or tears talked for him, dripping down again and again until there was nothing left in his eyes.

 

“To remember something important.”

 

The answer is enough to catch his dear Yamanbagiri out of guard. He can't help but find him precious like this, leaning against the counter with a confused expression on his face. The other has always been talented at pretending he doesn't want to interact with others, fine in his own world where he can't mess up. In spite of that, he is the one rushing forward to ask questions, caring deeply for each answer.

 

“One day, I'll tell you about it, I promise.”

 

“Do not forget then.”

 

It would be hard to open up right away. Once again, Yamanbagiri does not push the issue, although he will certainly remind him in a couple of weeks or months. It's fine with the oldest. That way, he has enough time to sort his thoughts and figure how to let it out. His emotions towards his friend are the same way.

 

They ought to mature, to be understood. And then, he'll be able to acknowledge them fully.

 

 

     While guests are not unusual, Mikazuki only has the same ones most of the time. Returning from university for a meeting about his thesis means not touching the document for one week to relax rather than focusing on all the changes he has to make. Except there is Yukimitsu sitting in front of the door alongside another boy. A little older, with a rough expression on his face. They both get up as soon as he approaches.

 

“Yuki-kun, you brought a friend?”

 

“The arcade's closed for a while, and it's cold outside...”

 

Acceptable explanation. The children had to find a new hideout, hence their presence on his doorstep. It would have been kind to ask first, but then Yukimitsu seems to struggle with basic courtesy. Mikazuki has long learned to ignore it, since it doesn't cause harm.

 

“Ookurikara is my secret informant.”

 

Obviously, secret is not the appropriate word, if he throws it around without care. Still, he has a feeling the older teenager won't bring trouble. That's why he allows them to get inside, going straight for the kitchen after removing his coat and shoes.

 

“Would you two enjoy tea?”

 

“Yes, please,” the tall one replies, while Yukimitsu is quick to get a can of something bad for his body out of his bag. Some things simply do not change. “I don't plan on getting along though.”

 

Another person struggling to communicate? It's fair, Mikazuki tells himself while keeping an eye on the kettle. It's a one time meeting technically, except if Yukimitsu suddenly decide to bring his friends over randomly. Which would be slightly problematic. He'll make sure to warn the boy gently later.

 

By the time tea is served, his eyes catch the dragon slithering around his guest's arm. An interesting character for sure. Yukimitsu seems to attract odd people. Oh, does it mean he is also one? Mikazuki does not mind. Sitting down, the oldest lends an ear into the conversation, without wishing to interrupt them.

 

“So, so, you found a clue about the pyromaniac?”

 

“Yes and no.” Gloved hands wrap themselves around the cup of tea while the teenager tries to organize his words. “You wanted a name, I have none to offer. However, there are several students who could fit the profile.”

 

“Oh, Ookurikara-kun talks like a true detective,” Mikazuki encourages, although he is glad he doesn't have an identity to give them. Yukimitsu ought to dig deeper with his own hands. Assistance is good nonetheless.

 

“Please, do not say that… Back to what I was saying, there are four or five who were either arrested or had problems with the school or fire in general.”

 

With his phone, he shows a list of names with their motive to commit the crime listed underneath. It's truly an impressive job. But then, something about the other tells Mikazuki he has some experience in that department. Maybe not a mafia member, still he is a talented high school student for sure. Better keep an eye on him too.

 

Before he can ask to see the phone, as he is a little far from them, Yukimitsu lets out a shrieking sound while pointing at the screen.

 

“Him! Him! Why is he on your list?”

 

“Toushirou Yagen? He was admitted to a hospital for burn wounds a couple of years ago. I couldn't find much information, and neither could the others.” Other mysterious detectives? Informant dealers? Now Mikazuki is curious, while being aware no one is going to listen to him. He could mention what he read in Yagen's eyes during their meeting, yet it's better to keep it to himself. “He's in your grade, right? Easier to talk to him.”

 

“He's a pain, I don't like him,” Yukimitsu mutters, sounding dejected. Honestly, he doesn't seem able to believe the second teenager is the criminal he is looking for, “did you know where or how he got burned?”

 

“Do I look like a doctor? Or a hacker? I haven't read his medical file.”

 

“Fine fine, thanks though. You're a life savior!”

 

“If you say so.” The conversation slowly dies out, as they switch to lighter topics. It lasts for a while, until the sun decides rest is in order. Ookurikara is polite enough to thanks him for the tea before leaving, in spite of not showing much emotions on his face. Yukimitsu follows soon after, leaning in the door frame for a moment before daring to depart.

 

“That Toushirou, I don't think it's him. But I should spy around a little, right?”

 

“You have to figure it out yourself.”

 

Alone once more in his flat after locking the door, Mikazuki sighs loudly. Between his thesis and his guests, he does not have the strength to do anything else for the night. Instead, he turns on his small television, sitting under the kotatsu to get some warmth. That's when he notices his phone received a new text.

 

'Good evening. Can I visit you tomorrow after class?'

 

His dear Yamanbagiri.

 

 

     The music is a little too heavy for the atmosphere, filling the hallway until there is no air left for him to breathe. Mikazuki is aware it's not the most fitting choice before a meeting, but he enjoys requiems. Solemn songs most people find saddening have a weight to them. Something akin to a cape he can wear on his shoulders as protection. While the man often mocks his lack of knowledge towards modern technology, it doesn't stop him from owning headphones to listen to music from time to time. Pushing the world away before he has to defend his views of life is comforting. He is able to rehearse what he is going to tell them this time around. Honestly, it feels like they are trying to take his thesis apart for the fun of it.

 

None of his professors understood why he picked such topic in the first place. He suspects they would be more keen on making him take a fresh start although he wouldn't have enough time to rewrite everything. It's cruel, to refuse to accept his choice. After all, who cares if it's not a common topic? Or if his ideas might not be well-received? Munechika Mikazuki is a rebellious youth, intending on pursuing his own path. No matter what people say.

 

Joking on his age, putting the blame on his old man habits, that's a pretext to avoid admitting how exhausting life has become over the past years. Between the loss of his family and what followed, he would rather not be forgotten or left behind anymore. So, his thesis might be a little blunt, and aggressive. But that's how he decided to be remembered. By working on loss, exploring its consequences and how wrongly society treats the concept.

 

What else did they expect from the brilliant student who couldn't help but challenge his teachers with a laugh and a kind tone hiding how deceived he felt? The world is far from resembling what professors imaging it is. Hence how he will keep his head up, refusing to erase his precious truth in favor or what would suit them better.

 

A shame if they cannot accept it.

 

When the secretary calls out his name for the second time, he realizes the music was perhaps too loud. Lowering his headphones around his neck, Mikazuki gets up, grabbing his bag with a serene expression. Against shouts and threats, he will never bow.

 

As soon as he steps in, the silence is deafening. Oh, between his dyed hair and scandalous thesis, he is surely a mistake to them. Not the perfect student they would like to see succeed. A shame, as they will not get anyone else. Sitting on the uncomfortable chair, he crosses his legs, awaiting his demise.

 

“Munechika...” It goes on and on, akin to an endless waltz.

 

The arguments never change, stuck in the same loop since the beginning of time for sure. It's almost funny, except for the fact they are trying to tear his life apart over their meaningless morals.

 

“No, I will not,” he repeats with the sweetest tone he can manage. If he gets furious out loud, they will have an excuse to drag him down. “I refuse to submit to your conditions. I am, nonetheless, willing to change the last part a little, if it remains too honest for your tastes.”

 

It's a direct attack, aiming straight for their weak point. He accuses them of putting their own interests before his without even blinking. Nonetheless, aren't the meager changes he is suggesting enough for them to get along? Apparently not.

 

A sword fight would be easier, the comforting weight of the blade carrying him forward under the moonlight. It's a delightful imagery, albeit far from realistic. Mikazuki ignores how to wield such antic weapon, which is certainly a shame.

 

By the time the meeting is over, his thesis remains protected in his bag. He has abused the college's printer each time they asked, but next time, the man intends on using a memory device instead. His poor thesis deserves better. Tension is everywhere in his body, starting in his hands and running towards his shoulders and chest. A massage would be grand right now. Oh, is Yamanbagiri talented at those? Firstly, he should head home, rather than think about such things. Headphones over his ears once more, Mikazuki adjusts his scarf, ready to face the cold wind once more.

 

 

His flat is the ideal refuge, he decides while unlocking the door. The vision of blond hair in his living room comes as a surprise. He has given the other man his keys not long ago. An invitation which resulted from Yamanbagiri being locked outside after he went out to buy food and got stuck at the supermarket for a while because of the rain. Still, the other had never used the present until then. On such day, it would have been easier to be by himself.

 

Turning his music off, Mikazuki takes his time to put away everything in his room. Getting changed in comfortable clothes, it takes him a while to return and slither his legs under the kotatsu, next to the other. Oh, it's on. Yamanbagiri had an excellent idea. At the same time, it means he has been around for a while. Was he bored? Mikazuki hopes it isn't the case.

 

“Hello.” Does his terrible mood show on his face? Perhaps. He should have saluted him right away, rather than vanishing into the bedroom.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Not really,” such honestly is out of character. But he is exhausted. Enough to lean against Yamanbagiri, cheek pressing against his friend' shoulder. It's warm, he notices without daring to let out a sound. The way he can feel his body rise when he breathes is soothing, akin to a lullaby.

 

“You can rest now, Mikazuki.”

 

No question? Oh, he certainly knows it's about his thesis, since he has certainly mentioned his troubles before. Still, the affirmation is not what he expected. Closing his eyes, he lets out a chuckle, although there is nothing humorous in the situation.

 

“It was indeed a rough day. Fighting is too much for my old bones.”

 

“If it were truly the case, you wouldn't still stand against them.” There is a pause and he feels fingers tentatively running against his hair. “You don't have to fight alone, that's what I mean. I can be your shield and you'll be the blade.”

 

He presses his face against the warm fabric covering Yamanbagiri' shoulder, trying to repress a laugh.

 

“Would you rather be my sword? A shield is only meant to take damage. I'd rather have an ally who can stand his ground.”

 

“I'm trying to comfort you, and your metaphors are even worse than mine, damn you!” The hand gets more adventurous, ruffling his hair in a childish way Mikazuki didn't know he had missed until that point.

 

“Will you though?” He wonders, lifting his head to stare at the flushed face. Ah, it's a usual sight he can't get enough of.

 

“Of course, who else could stand you for so long?”

 

No one, for sure. His fingers trace against Yamanbagiri's jaw, trying to memorize it. That's a step towards something. A battlefield or paradise? Mikazuki ignore if he should go for something else, allow his fingers to find their way towards soft lips or retreat for now. Making a choice is impossible when the blond lowers his head to press his head on top of his.

 

Oh, that's fine too.

 

“What are you doing, idiot?”

 

“If only I knew.”

 

He lowers his hand, finding more enjoyable to stay like this, against his each other. If only this moment could last forever. Perhaps it's the accumulated fatigue, but he finds it easy to close his eyes and allow his weight to fall a little more against the other.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“It'll be fine, Mikazuki.”

Chapter Text

      Mind akin to a flame, unable to stop burning until there is nothing left, the boy cannot find any enjoyment in the bus ride. Mornings are always the same, akin to an endless cycle. Boring too, as he has nothing to do beyond playing on his phone. The games are a waste of his time, yet there is a strange addiction forming day after day, encouraging him to rank against powerful rivals for mere virtual cards.

 

Idol boys are surely more pleased with their existences than he is right now. His sibling chatter together as lowly as they are able to. Which means the sound is still buzzing against his ears while he refuses to entertain them. Sometimes, he feels like it, eagerly dispensing advice or reminding them of the rules. Other days, staring down without attempting contact is more convenient.

 

No matter what he does, his role is to be their older brother first. To ensure they will always come running to him in case of trouble. Still, he is fairly certain he is important to his younger siblings. After all, they always follow what he says.

 

“Yagen! Are you listening?”

 

No. Nevertheless, they can repeat their last sentence, right? He nods in an encouraging manner while hearing the concerns coming from the two still in elementary school. They are worried for the oldest, fighting demons and monsters using fire to make them bow.

 

“No need to be scared, I'll fight off any enemy.”

 

Confidence makes his voice a little deeper as he pushes his glasses up. There will no defeat, they shouldn't concern themselves with such meaningless matters.

 

Ah, if they knew who is truly the creature breathing fire, would they be disappointed? Not allowed, obviously. Yagen sends the negative thought on its way, away from his mind. It's their stop anyway, so he ushers everyone outside. They are an odd family for sure. To think he is only related by blood to his fraternal twin Atsushi and their brother Ichigo always surprise people. It's still easier than flat out saying their father couldn't help ruining his love stories. At least, he has gained three siblings out of it, and he cherishes them.

 

The walk is silent once they go on their separate way. It's not as if Midare and Atsushi have no intention to communicate, but they are busy reading their notes for an upcoming test. His notes, obviously. As if no one else could bother with studying. He guesses they are lucky to have him around to share. Being among the top ten of their grade is also a bonus Yagen enjoys greatly.

 

It means he matters.

 

They admire him from afar, unable to get on his level, although they could merely ask for assistance. He wouldn't mind spending some time with less hard working students, showing them the secrets of his success. To be fair, it would also allow the boy to communicate with people outside of his siblings. He loves them dearly, although they tend to stay on their own, away from their classmates.

 

A mistake, for sure.

 

The building has a heavy atmosphere lately, as if fear was running rampant, trying to feed on innocent kids. His hands itch under the gloves as his mind dawdles on it for too long. Taking them off is never a solution, as he isn't allowed to remove his sole protection towards his secrets. Yagen loathes the pressure of the fabric against his skin, or rather the fact he is unable to feel it. The skin has lost any ability to enjoy the sensation of touching objects to discover more about their nature. Instead, the teenager is stuck with the impression everything's numbed.

 

Taking notes was a challenge, a couple of years ago. Nowadays, the boy does not struggle any longer, as long as he uses a system to shorten some words. Writing too much puts a strain on his hands, no matter how careful he is. It's not a topic he has ever brought up in class. Pity from teachers who praise him so much would be hard to digest. Perhaps his pride is getting in the way a little. Is he arrogant? Ah, certainly it's not his intention. Calculating his next move is simply a part of his personality. The world works better when he isn't forced to rely on others.

 

They arrive right on time, without spare time to engage in conversation with others. Which stimulates his siblings' anxiety, considering how they flicker through the notes at an impressive speed. They should have studied the evening before, rather than playing with their youngest brother's kittens. Now, panic is going to overwhelm them.

 

“Focus on the three main points,” he offers while removing useless pages from their hands. He sits in the front row, to emphasize his overachiever image. It's important, although he has to turn around to soothes the others. By the time the teacher arrives, Yagen can feel doubt spreading among his classmates. If they stop believing in themselves at the first test of the week, their future won't be bright.

 

Not everyone can become a renowned doctor after all.

 

The test is a breeze, answers coming one after another without much challenge. He offers a gracious smile to the teacher at the end, when he hands them the proof of his intelligence. Midare's face clearly indicates it went wrong though. Yagen will have to explain the lesson again in the evening. A bad test is not a death sentence, although failing a subject can easily lead to the loss of a whole semester.

 

 

      Being part of a club is compulsory to have a future. Although it's mostly true for high school. The upcoming year will be filled with interesting discoveries. Obviously, science should be his main goal. For now, Yagen is fine with being part of the health council, assisting at the nurse's office. They have to draw fliers to warn students of the common cold. Washing hands and wearing masks to ensure no contamination will occur. It could be a boring task, if Yagen wasn't putting so much energy in coloring each part of his flier. It's a reminder of the coloring books his little brothers showed him when they returned from kindergarten, a long time ago. There is fondness in his eyes as he hums gently, not minding being the only student who came to do the work.

 

Their council is tiny, as it has only three members. And the remaining two are also part of a sport team. Thus, it's his role to work hard for everyone. A usual role for him. Honestly, the teenager is far from being bothered by the way he is alone in the room right now. The nurse is already gone, trusting him not to cause a ruckus. Sometimes, he imagines taking her place, wrapping twisted ankles and giving pills to keep everyone in good shape.

 

Once he is done, pencils and markers organized by color on the table, Yagen stretches a little, taking the time to admire his new masterpiece. He could do better by trying one more time, although he knows himself to seek perfection way too much. It's fine, and he sticks the paper on the wall for every visitor to witness his work. Safety first, the nurse would remind him. It's more useful to warn people of what ought to be done to prevent sickness than to cure patients once they are infected.

 

What else is there to do? Nothing, apparently. He could remain there to study for a while, if he didn't have to return home to his siblings. Being alone means he has the privilege to slowly remove his worst ally out of his jacket's inside pocket. Good old lighter, whose light captivates his eyes as he forgets everything else. It would be a shame if the nurse office was to burn down. Especially as he is fond of hanging there. Picking a trashcan or something similar is always the smartest choice. Not that Yagen intends on doing anything of such nature for a while. It's important to cover his tracks for now. Still, once his treasure is back inside his pocket, boredom fills the room and his lungs once more.

 

Usually, it's a great indication he should head back.

 

Grabbing his bag, the teenager walks out, locking the door behind him. He is the lone student who has the key, although he has to hand it back the following morning. It's still something Yagen is proud of. As long as adults trust him so blindly, they won't catch him. It's the perfect disguise, being the shining star of his grade.

 

He is certainly pushing his luck too far.

 

 

      Carrying a first aid kit in his bag makes sense for the boy whose siblings keep on getting injured. From bruised knees to kittens testing their strength, he is often busy. It's rare he gets the opportunity to play the doctor on classmates though. While he works at the nurse's office often, he is not allowed to perform any medical procedure, not even putting a band-aid on a fellow student. Honestly, it's a little insulting. He understands the rules, no matter how they get on his nerves.

 

Someone came after getting a ball thrown at their face in the afternoon though. Two missing teeth, and the stern look of the nurse turned the whole accident into a fascinating experience. The others are certainly missing what's truly interesting by being so focused on an upcoming sport event. Yagen is aware it can be beneficial for their future, but still. The kid kept on bawling, which made him uneasy after a while. Their dentist will certainly fix their teeth later, so there is no need to treat the accident as a tragedy. He did his best to be the most efficient caretaker as he could, as crying interfered with the creation of new fliers.

 

Free from his duties, Yagen can now await his bus. Twenty-two minutes, as usual. It's a little long, for sure, but his family lives on the outskirts of town, so he has no choice but to deal with the wait. Phone out, the teenager opts to rank for a while, ensuring he doesn't lose his place in the tier. It would be a shame, especially as he needs a new five stars card to crush his rivals in pvp. As strong as his team is, it's not a huge effort to earn enough points. Although the boy is unable to rank often, refusing to put money in the game. Also, sleep becomes secondary during his favorite unit's events, which is always complicated.

 

He doubts beloved brother Ichigo would approve of his money being wasted on such foolish pastime.

But then, Ichigo is not the one who sets random objects on fire to calm his nerves either.

 

What does he know anyway, Yagen thinks bitterly, fingers pressing against the screen with all his strength. Focused, the boy misses the presence of someone by his side on the bench. If he doesn't get a live soon to ease his nerves, it's going to be a disaster. Who wants to waste their points to get nothing at all in return?

 

A muffled insult almost makes him drop the device out of nowhere. The first thing Yagen spots upon lifting his head is red. Or rather blood coating someone's fingers. It's an ugly gash, right in the middle of the palm. His gaze drifts from the can to the pocket knife on the ground. There is surely an interesting story behind this. Yagen is fairly certain it's also ridiculous.

 

“Let me guess,” he starts, putting his phone in his pocket. “You broke the tab, and suddenly decided using a knife was a clever alternative?” Who is foolish enough to carry a pocket knife at school in the first place outside of juvenile delinquents? Oh, but the purple hair is familiar out of all a sudden. It explains everything. At least the amount of absurdity Yagen has to deal with in that instant.

 

“Fuck off, it sounded better in my head.” Hasebe Yukimitsu retrieves his pocket knife, throwing it in his bag while glaring at him in a murderous way. Does he think of himself as impressive when he pouts like a child?

 

It's amusing.

 

“At least I managed to open it...” Before Yagen has enough time to warm him about the danger of slicing his lip open, he is already pressing the can against his mouth. Energy drinks shouldn't be abused like this, especially with someone who always seems to be so angry at the whole world.

 

Not that Yagen can relate, right? With his perfect life.

 

“Your hand is bleeding.”

 

“I'm aware of that, gimme a minute.”

 

if it gets infected, Yagen will not be responsible. Still he allows the other to empty the can without interfering. His patience starts to run short within a couple of seconds though. As soon as his rival has thrown it in a can, he grabs his hand to inspect the gash. It's indeed deplorable. With one hand, he fetches his first aid-kit and a water bottle out.

 

“First, washing the blood,” Yagen states while pouring water on the wound before wiping it with his sleeve. It's fine, his uniform has seen worse. He is a professional, or rather he'd love to be one. Respected by his peers and equal to the adults who think they can look down on his achievements because of his age.

 

“Then, disinfectant.” He doesn't bother to warn the annoying boy it's going to sting. At his face, he is already aware of it. To Yukimitsu's credit, he barely hisses under the spray. If Yagen was carrying lollipops, he would certainly offer him one at the end, as a reward.

 

Perhaps he shouldn't antagonize the other, considering himself loathes to be treated like a child.

 

Wrapping the hand with bandages is a piece of cake. Between playing on his phone so much and acting like a nurse, he doubts he'll be able to do much in the evening though. Pushing his hands too far is compulsory to make himself believe he's doing well, so it's an acceptable sacrifice. “I'm done. Be more careful next time, Hasebe Yukimitsu.”

 

He shouldn't have to lecture anyone on the dangers of using a knife to open a can, Yagen realizes with an internal sigh.

 

“Thanks, Toushirou.”

 

Oh, it's unexpected. Putting his supplies away with care, Yagen is pleased with the words. He should have used a tissue rather than his sleeve to wipe off the blood though, now his siblings are going to worry in a useless way.

 

“You always carry that stuff with ya'?”

 

“Yes, in case of an emergency. I have four younger siblings, it's common place for me.” Atsushi is only younger by a couple of minutes, but he is certainly more hot-headed than himself, so it counts.

 

“It's neat. I mean, not having to care for everyone, but being able to do it in the first place.”

 

“Why do you carry a pocket knife?” Both of them can play the question game.

 

“In case of a zombie apocalypse,” the answer is offered with a such a serious tone Yagen blinks, unsure of what to make out of it. Until Yukimitsu bursts out laughing. “I'm kidding! I kinda forgot it in my bag the other day, that's all.”

 

While it's out of the ordinary, he has no reason to push the topic further. Especially as his bus is going to be around the corner soon. “You're interesting,” he adds against his better judgment. What's the risk anyway? They barely know each other, and he doubts being friendly with a fellow student is against the rules. Although Hasebe sure has a reputation around there.

 

Oh, it's not as if they were going to become more than acquaintances.

 

 

     The house is never quiet. Background noise is part of the way they live, and it's not enough to stop Yagen from assisting his family as best as he can. Teaching what school failed to explain, running around for chores, he is surely a jack of all trades. Perhaps the teenager gives a little too much of his time to his family. It can't be helped when you are the second oldest. Still, having a kitten on his head is not what he signed for.

 

“Gokotai, please.”

 

No answer. The youngest is obviously busy with another matter. Ow, the kitten's claws are still soft, but it's not enjoyable to have them tugging on his hair. How is he meant to make revision sheet for his siblings with such disturbance? Gloves hands manage to catch the intruder eventually, gently lowering it on his lap. He isn't sure what went through Ichigo's mind when he accepted to rescue the five little monsters, but Yagen is not convinced it was wise.

 

Still, the cats are cute, in a way. Especially when they purr while rubbing themselves against his leg.

 

“Starved for attention, obviously.” He comments mockingly to the feline, running his fingers against the soft fur. It's not always appreciated. Sometimes, the cats reject the fabric rubbing against them. Yagen cannot simply remove his gloves to pet them though. It's out of his grasp, especially when he is surrounded by the others.

 

Their eyes tell a different story than their voice. His beloved siblings are liars, when they claim it doesn't bother them, while they keep on staring at the floor. Yagen isn't sure of why they act in such manner. Is it his own hatred towards what happened motivating their disgust? Who cares about it.

 

Since the living-room is free for now, the others playing loudly in their room, or not even home at all, Yagen supposes he could indulge in removing them. Only for one minute. If he counts the seconds in his head, surely it'll be fine. Before he is able to push the glove off his hand, footsteps hurry towards the room. Isn't it odd, how they always manage to interrupt?

 

“Yagen! Have you seen my… Oh!”

 

Sweet Gokotai missing his furry friend already. He hands the cat with a smile, watching as his brother goes to reunite the family. Now, he will be able to focus once more. At least until dinner. The house becomes so lively once their older brother returns from work. A shame Yagen is not allowed to assist in the kitchen any longer. Apparently, not being able to feel heat or cold with his hands means he could injure himself.

 

As a future doctor, he finds the theory acceptable. But in practice, they are treating him like a child. He is far from clumsy.

 

 

Once more, Hasebe Yukimitsu gets in his way after class. Although there is something more obvious about his attitude this time around. The second boy is keeping an eye on him. It's fascinating, as he has no reason to do so. Or perhaps he wishes to offer him a love letter before running away? It would be difficult to deal with. Yagen isn't acquainted with the rules of rejection and love yet. He simply lacks the time to ponder over trivial matters. Admirers are easy to obtain, love however, is a complex chemical process.

 

Still, why is Hasebe-kun following him with the elegance of an injured duck?

 

Time to figure it out then. He has no club duty for once, so it's easy to walk around the school aimlessly for a while. Few students hang in the hallways at such hour, which plays in his favor. Less chance of being spotted playing such game. Hasebe is certainly awful at stealth, considering he can hear his footsteps. It's entertaining, to be so carefree.

 

Until Yagen puts the puzzle together. Answers get eliminated one after another, leaving him with meager choices. Love, at worst, would be quick and painless to deal with. If Yukimitsu is failing his classes, which is highly probable, seeking for help in that regard is fine. The last solution is more problematic. Does he know about his bad habits?

 

Stopping on his tracks, Yagen pushes his hands as far as he can inside his pockets. Should he turn around and face the other right away? Yukimitsu has been following him for five minutes at least. He won't give up so easily on the chase. No matter how he has little places to hide. What a bother.

 

By the time Yagen spins on his heels to confront him, the hallway is empty. Oh, he certainly realized he was going to get caught. Running away is easy, when you are a coward. His blood is starting to boil out of anger, and he finds himself climbing the stairs towards the roof. It's fine, the door is never locked.

 

The wind is howling, echoing with his emotions.

 

If Hasebe Yukimitsu wants to start a war, Yagen will offer him one. Such challenger is not impressive, when he prefers to flee. While affection might be what the other is seeking for, it's so unlikely he cannot believe it. It's more convenient to imagine the worst and go with that.

 

 

     Urges are difficult to keep contained at times. His mind is a constant battlefield, where warriors face each other to represent conflicting concepts. Yagen is aware of how dangerous his interest towards flames is. In a similar fashion, he can tell it comes from his childhood trauma of burning himself severely while trying to cook. A psychiatrist would have so much to say about him, the genius child fallen from grace in his own mind. The thing is that the boy has no intention to put an end to his behavior, as long as he does not get caught.

 

It's almost insulting how people trust him without taking into account he could be the perfect perpetrator. His classmates don't know about his past, obviously. Yagen has no reason to use such story to gain sympathy. It wouldn't work anyway, he is aware of it. That's why he is not allowed to share any of this, trapped into a web of lies growing each day. At some point, he'll be too tangled to free himself. Perhaps flames would use the opportunity to finish their work.

 

A sickening twist of fate. It's unlikely though. Yagen is careful to escape right away, once he can smell burn paper or fabric. The science lab was a mistake, where he allowed his annoyance guide his hands. A shame, as he is usually composed and able to refrain from making such error. The student isn't sure of how he should call his new project. Mistake number two? It's quite fitting, considering he is going to set fire to a chair in an abandoned room. Only broken things are stored there, and he isn't convinced there is a fire alarm, but at worst he can pull the general one.

 

What about his promise of hiding for a while? Hm, Yukimitsu definitely got on his nerves a little day. He is challenging the boy, in his own way. Who knows, if he isn't as foolish as he looks, perhaps he'll be able to put an end to this. Holding a piece of fabric coated in cleaning product, Yagen takes a moment to rub it on the chair before finding his lighter.

 

The first time he ever stole something.

Not the last, although he isn't sure why he can't stop by that point.

 

Is it rebellion or something deeper gnawing on his heart? Too late to get philosophical! It's time for his grand show. He would love for the building to turn into a blazing hell, although that's not his goal. The fire must get contained inside the room and stopped quickly by an adult. No casualty, and no more stress for the teenager. Isn't it marvelous?

 

It grows bit by bit, licking the chair and then embracing it into a warm hug. By that point, Yagen is already long gone. The fire alarm doesn't drill into his ears, indicating the old room is off-limits. A shame, as it means he has to pull the main one himself. The hallway is empty, as most students have been gone for a while. Once he's done with alerting the ones left, he slides by an exit door he unlocked earlier during the day. Ah, fresh air is great. His chest is lifted from the weight crushing it moments earlier, as if the world was finally back to its proper nature.

 

Shouts from inside indicate everything's under control. Oh, but he is not out of his mind at all, no one shall get hurt on his watch. Yagen's merely a bored kid, who has some difficulties dealing his with his life. It's more convenient to see it in such light.

 

Rather than admitting his flames could get out of control one day.

 

 

      The police still don't come, proof the school refuses to call them. A shame, as it's certainly not the school board who could put an end to this. Yagen still listens to the school assembly on Saturday morning, nodding gravely at every sentence. Of course, they need to catch the perpetrator quickly, but then it's the middle of November and nothing bad had happened over the past months. An isolated act, the principal suggests without believing into his own words.

 

Adults are so inapt at seeing the truth when it's right in front of their eyes.

 

P.E. is canceled for the assembly at least. A tragedy, no one says. Yagen is pleased to be free until the end of the period. It allows him to innocently walks towards the crime scene. There isn't much to see, as the door has been locked. Here goes half of his fun. So many curious kids complain about it while he escapes to sit on the stairs outside. The weather is chiller than before, starting to be too much even with his school uniform. He definitely needs to find his scarf during the week-end.

 

“You!” Purple hair fall in front of his face, akin to a sea monster. Confused, Yagen lifts his face to find a familiar problem leaning over him.

 

“Me?”

 

No reply arise, which is a disappointment. Nonetheless, the boy sits cross-legged on a lower step, a deep frown on his face. It's more entertaining that it should be, the teenager realizes while pressing his cheek against his palm.

 

“Are you the brilliant detective trying to catch a criminal?” Teasing comes naturally.

 

“Yeah, I am. I'm going to expose you, since you're the culprit.”

 

“If you accuse me directly, it's fair to guess you have no proof.”

 

“The more's important is not how, or why. It's the consequences of your actions.”

 

That's an interesting way of putting it. Yagen is caught out of guard as the other points his finger threateningly in his direction.

 

“And what are they?”

 

“People think it's my fault?! It's awful you know. I keep hearing I'm apparently a pyromaniac.”

 

As if Yagen has tried to blame someone else for his actions. The words sound hollow to the second teenager, who refuses to acknowledge them. He is too busy reviewing his actions in his head, trying to find one moment where he could have made an error. Of course, there is none, but before he is able to throw the truth in Yukimitsu's face, the other gets a terrible idea. Yagen has enough experience with ill-mannered people trying to take off his gloves from middle school to miss the signs.

 

He manages to get up right as fingers attempt to grab his. The boy acts without thinking, kicking Yukimitsu in the chest to ensure he won't come closer. It's brutal, but what else is he meant to do? When the other falls back with a groan, Yagen can't think straight anymore. He has too though. Calculating his next move could turn this whole thing around, in one way or another. He grabs Yukimitsu by his collar, leaning forward without getting on his level.

 

“No one would believe you.”

 

Does it excuse the way Yukimitsu is wincing in pain? No. Absolutely not. He is quick to release the long-haired boy before crouching in front of him.

 

“Can you breathe properly?”

 

While Yukimitsu's eyes are filled with daggers and anger, he presses a hand against his chest to check his body. Apparently it's fine, since he isn't struggling with his lungs.

 

“You kicked me way too hard.”

 

“You tried to touch my hands.”

 

Yagen doesn't have much patience towards people who grab him without his permission. He won't injure anyone if he isn't forced to do so though. Hence how he sits back on the stairs, one steps above the other, giving him space. They ought to make a deal, rather than fighting mindlessly. Yagen is willing to go far to protect his secret, even if there isn't much danger for him. Teachers are far quicker to jump at Yuki's throat than even think their favorite could be a criminal.

 

“I feel better,” mumbled words come out after a while, and he nods at the boy.

 

“That's good. I shouldn't have reacted as I did, but boundaries are important.”

 

Not that a young delinquent would know about those in the first place.

Oh no, he's getting a little mean again.

 

To apologize, Yagen extends a hand, tapping against Yukimitsu' shoulder to show what's meant to be compassion. He has to lean a little too much towards the other for the gesture to work. It's not a problem until a shocked gasp echoes behind him.

 

“Yagen?”

 

The teenager doesn't have to turn around to face his demise. Under the form of his siblings, staring more than they should. From their point of view… Perhaps they thought he was going to kiss Hasebe Yukimitsu. A disturbing thought, considering they barely know each other. Pushing his glasses up, Yagen allows the cogs in his mind to work as fast as they can to fix the situation.

 

“It's unfortunate you appeared out of nowhere.”

 

Privacy is a concept his family will never get accustomed with, unfortunately.

 

“Yukimitsu and I,” using his first name makes the whole thing more intimate, right? “are kind of busy right now.”

 

“Doing what?! Kissing?” The whole school is going to know about his non-existent affair if Atsushi doesn't lower his voice.

 

“And what if we were?!”

 

Yagen can feel a headache coming, right behind his eyes. If Yukimitsu could refrain from being as loud as his twin, it would be appreciated. At the same time, it's more convenient to go on the fake lovers road than admit the truth. By observing Yukimitsu's face, he understands that's exactly the boy's plan. Should he be grateful or aggravated?

 

“Yuki-kun and I are dating,” he announces while getting on his feet. Standing between his siblings and their target will surely divert the attention back on him. His tone is playful as Yagen ignores their confused expression. “We even have a date this week-end. I knew you would pry into my private life if I told you.”

 

Will getting bombarded with questions once at home be worth it? No gain without pain, for sure. Betrayal is everywhere on Midare and Atsushi's faces, but at last they accept to leave. While promising to corner him in the bus to discuss. Being lectured is not something Yagen experiences often. However, he can surely deal with the pressure.

 

This time, as there is no threat, he offers his hand to Yukimitsu to help him get back onto his feet. It's far from being a peace treaty, yet the gesture is accepted.

 

“Let's meet at 3 pm this afternoon. In front of the arcade, ya' know where it is?”

 

“Meeting for what, exactly?”

 

“Our date.”

 

Unexpected answer. For a moment, Yagen doesn't know how to respond, words turning into a mess into his mind. Apparently, it's an invitation for Yukimitsu to walk closer, until he has forgotten about boundaries once more.

 

“I'll keep your secret. But I don't believe for one second your siblings aren't going to ask for details, so we have to pretend a little better.”

 

The explanation is plausible. Although Yagen has certainly not anticipated having to get ready for a fake date in the afternoon.

 

“Fine, fine. You're right, they are going to pester me with questions.”

 

Crushing his rival turned into taking him out to play at the arcade and eat food together, it's ridiculous. Not that they are going to do such activities, right? At least, they could watch a movie instead. Why is he pondering so much about their plans?

 

 

      Shorts were not a clever choice. They compliment his legs nicely nonetheless, it's what he has always thought. Except not in November, when he has to wear a scarf. Too late to turn around and change, now that he is almost there. The bus ride home was indeed a living nightmare. If he allows this masquerade to go on, he'll have to coach Hasebe about the lies he had to offer to appease the demons. On the bright side, no one seems to mind he is dating a boy. Well, not for real, but it's a relief to see they are far from judgmental.

 

He expects Yukimitsu to be late, out of habit. Isn't he the one labeling people too fast? To prove him wrong, his fake boyfriend is already in front of the arcade, hair nicely braided for the occasion. It's cute, if Yagen is honest with himself. He turns around, ensuring his siblings are not hidden behind a wall. Doubt is permitted with them after all.

 

“Hasebe.”

 

“If we're dating, you gotta drop my last name like you did earlier, Yagen.”

 

“As you wish, Yu~ki.”

 

The arcade fills him with such low expectations. It's going to be loud, filled with people who love to challenge each other at games they know by heart without ever getting bored. His inner competitive persona has to admit the prospect of doing the same is enticing, he simply doesn't think it'll be as enjoyable for him as it is for Yukimitsu.

 

“So, do you even know about video games, you nerd?”

 

Okay, Yagen takes it back. He is going to kick that ass to oblivion at any game of his liking. He is an excellent student, which does not mean he is unable to win at Mario kart or anything similar. Having five siblings kind of make it compulsory to be great at those. Especially when the loser has to do more chores. Racing games sound perfect, so he drags Yukimitsu by the arm towards the closest.

 

“You don't know what is going to hit you.”

 

Come to think of it, it's the first time he sees a genuine grin on Yuki's face. Apparently, he enjoys to be threatened in such manner. Perfect, it'll make their fake date more enjoyable. Sitting next to each other on the comfortable seat, they grab the wheel, ready to murder each other.

 

Out of breath, and certainly of money too, Yagen leans against the dancing machine two hours later. They played half of the games available, from fighting to Shoot'Em Up, and now dance dance revolution. Missing P.E. in the morning was surely a good thing, as he isn't sure he could run anymore. With his sleeve, he wipes sweat off his forehead, while offering a smirk to his rival.

 

Yukimitsu's braid is undone, hair everywhere while he laughs. That's oddly pleasant, to be together like this, Yagen thinks. It's been a while since he got the opportunity to blow out some steam. Well, in a way which doesn't imply to set objects on fire at least.

 

“Not bad.”

 

“I totally kicked your ass, you mean!”

 

“You're thinking too highly of yourself.”

 

That's a tie, probably. Jacket over his shoulder, Yagen follows his date towards the small cafe next to the arcade. Apparently most customers come directly from there, so they don't look out of place. Sitting down is truly a relief, and Yagen orders the first thing he thinks of, not bothering to read more than three lines of the menu.

 

“Isn't coffee too much at such hour?”

 

“Say the person who ordered fruit juice mixed with an energy drink. At least it's what it sounded like.”

 

“It has fruits, it's good for me.”

 

Removing his glasses with one hand, Yagen leans forward, elbow on the table.

 

“As your boyfriend, I am astonished by your ability to fill your body with terrible things. A balanced diet is the start of─”

 

“Shut up, Yagen.”

 

Chuckles turn into laughter for both of them, while they bicker over useless matters. How fake is their little fun outing in the end? Honestly, Yagen is having an excellent time, until that point. It reminds the teenager of how he used to believe Yuki had a crush on him. While they wait for their drinks, he tells him that amusing story, only for the other to blush.

 

“You really thought I liked you? I was trying to clear my name, that's all.”

 

“To be fair, you ended up inviting me on a date. And I'm having fun.”

 

I had to go with your storyWait, what.”

 

You are entertaining.”

 

The compliment leaves Yukimitsu nervously staring at the table. That too, is something Yagen wants to enjoy a little more. Oh no, he is perhaps failing for a local delinquent. With a sigh, the teenager takes a sip of his coffee as soon as it's here. The bitter flavor is welcome, as it takes his mind away from everything else. Still, he doubts what Yukimitsu is drinking is doing anything good to his body.

 

How much caffeine are in those cans you always drink?”

 

“Less than in your damn coffee, if you want to know.”

 

Sticking his tongue out, Yukimitsu grabs his glass in a challenging manner, emptying it in one go. Great, he has no impulse control.

 

I drink one cup of coffee from time to time. You function on at least three cans per day.”

 

Three. Sometimes four. Depends if I want to clean the house and be productive at night.”

 

Sounds like a terrible addiction. At least he isn't mixing it with alcohol, which would be a disaster. They are a little young, but Yagen has no trouble imagining an older Yukimitsu mixing awful products together for his entertainment.

 

We can't all be focused and such all the time. Anyway, it keeps me awake, so it's cool. Aren't you too young for coffee?

 

While Yagen could mention that sleeping would come easily if his fake boyfriend refrained from using energy drinks at night, he has no wish to start a fight between them. His secret is on the line, no matter how low the risk is.

 

I have adult tastes, I cannot help it. The bitter flavor is enjoyable. Also, it's the lone drink my siblings won't steal from me.”

 

S oda cannot survive in his household. The explanation appears to relax Yukimitsu slightly, since he gives an encouraging nod. The date is not ruined, and everything's fine.

 

“We should take a picture for them! So they'll know we aren't pretending. Well, we are but they don't have to know.”

 

A selfie then. Yagen isn't experienced to those honestly. He watches as Yuki drags his chair closer, to the point the other could sit on his lap if he wanted. It's definitely too much at once. Glasses back on his face, the teenager isn't sure of the pose they are meant to do. It has to be romantic enough, or else Midare will guess he has been lying from the start.

 

L ips press against his cheek without a warning. Is it how lovers are meant to behave? He leans against the gesture, feeling the tip of his ears heat up as Yukimitsu uses his phone to snap a couple of pictures with cute filters he didn't even know about. Why do they have cat ears on so many of these…

 

Okay, so now we should set them as our lock screens.”

 

I s it compulsory? Yagen takes out his phone, opening Line to get Yukimitsu 's ID. It'll be easier to send it this way. A clever plan, except his fake lover shrugs at the sight, apparently not having the app. Considering it's what almost all of the kids in their school use, it's a little odd.

 

Except if he has no friend s .

Good job Yagen .

 

Can you download it? This way, we'll be able to talk.”

 

Like you want to talk to me?”

 

The situation's getting upsetting the more he takes into consideration Yukimitsu's doubtful expression. Is he truly that lonely?

 

Give me your phone, I'm going to install it for you.”

 

The proximity is less bothersome by now, even when Yukimitsu leans against his shoulder to follow the process. Setting an account doesn't take much time and neither does exchanging IDs. Yagen receives the silly pictures they took one after another, setting the last one as his lock screen.

 

I'm never going to hear the end of it at home.”

 

“Same, but I have no intention of showing that to my cousin.”

 

Not parents? Or siblings? Only a cousin? It's not his place to ask. The mood is light again, which is sufficient for the teenager. Letting the conversation drifts towards his siblings is an excellent choice, as Yukimitsu is entertained by the little stories Yagen has to share.

 

I had a great time,” he offers to the purple-haired boy later, when they are ready to go on their separate ways.

 

“Same, let's do it again soon.”

 

I n the end, neither is used to hang out with classmates, outside of his siblings obviously. That could be an interesting friendship, as long as luck doesn't burn out for them. Yagen can't help but stare at their ridiculous selfies on the bus ride home. Fake dating or not, it was truly an amazing afternoon. His fingers press against the cheek where rough lips pressed earlier. His heartbeat is surely a little faster than it should, but who cares.

 

 

      T hat night, after dodging countless questions and stares, Yagen retreats to his room. He grabs his phone once the others are asleep and he's sure kids won't bother him . Yukimitsu 's words keep on coming back to him. No friend s , hm?

 

> Good night!

 

He types without expecting an answe r , ready to put his phone away and sleep.

 

> you too!!!!!!

 

Oh. His siblings often forget to reply to their group chat, especially when it's important. Being stuck in the vegetables aisle to know if they still have carrots for ten minutes is never an appreciable experience.

 

> Not asleep yet?

 

> the night's young! c leaning some stuff. you?

 

> I'm in bed.

 

> lame.

 

> Because I'm giving my body proper rest?

 

> exactly!

 

> Don't forget to sleep.

 

> yeah yeah, good night~ <3

 

I sn't it too early for hearts? Yagen doesn't mind. He turns off his phone without thinking even once about the lighter forgotten in his school jacket.

 

 

      Kind days are not meant to last. They fall on the ground, akin to leaves ripped apart and crushed by the wind. Yagen is aware a tragedy is created by little things piling up until the odds are too high. Still, he would be unable to explain what caused rage to grow into his heart to such extend. Fake dates, turning into friendly outings, with Yukimitsu, helped greatly over the past weeks. They have turned into a habit, something he was looking forward to. But soon it'll be winter break, and Yagen knows exactly how his life is going to be.

 

The quiet school will be gone gone. Trapped at home with his loud siblings, Yagen is bound to end up exhausted. Their beloved older brother has to work longer than usual, leaving him to keep an eye on the others during school breaks. Two of his siblings are his age, so it's fine, right? It's not. They all rely on him to such a degree that they are unable to care for themselves if he isn't behind to remind them of little things. It's getting on his nerves.

 

No accident since November means he could have easily picked a new motionless target at school, awaiting for fire to engulf everything to calm down his nerves. Except he is too far away and the building is closed on the Emperor's birthday. Younger, he wasn't so furious towards his family, what changed? There have been countless comments lately, about his bright future as a doctor, his studies. Yagen appreciates the attention, the trust they put in him. The medical field is definitely his calling, considering how passionate he is. Then, why does he feel so empty when they praise his success without asking anything else?

 

Yagen, the perfect brother who doesn't make mistakes.

 

The urges grow, different yet so similar. He wants to ruin his grades, by forgetting a test or putting the wrong answers down on purpose. To set the building on fire and run away, if only for one day or two. To be alone in the silence. He isn't as strong as Ichigo, who has given up on college to care for them. It's sickening, how he dares to think about himself rather than his family.

 

When he finally manages to get a chance to go out with Yukimitsu and escape the house, he is interrupted by one sibling asking him to do whatever they want this time around. Is it caring for the cats? Doing the laundry again because someone forgot to make it dry properly?

 

“No.” And he isn't even heard, because Hakata is still talking. “No! Leave me alone!” His voice rises, akin to a hurricane, and he shows his screen. The invitation matters most than caring for everyone and everything at once. “I'm sorry, I must go.”

 

He leaves before they dare to stop him, not used to such outburst.

 

Yagen feels like the worst person on Earth for acting that way. Is it arrogance? Or selfishness? Why would it matter anyway, the result is the same. Waiting for the bus in the cold is awful, especially since he hasn't even bothered to take his jacket. Well, as long as he is wearing his boots, it's not such a disaster.

 

Tears don't fall, as the gesture would be meaningless. He has not been a child in years, at least not in his heart. The weight on his shoulders is normal, and it won't disappear with time anyway. So he should get used to it, rather than complaining. He texts his new friend to pick him up at the bus stop without adding anything, hoping he'll be there. They text so often, even in class, since they are not in the same one. It keeps his mind busy, while also being pleasant. He loves when the other randomly sends him pictures of his dinner, or a link towards a Youtube video meant to make him laugh.

 

Perhaps Yagen is the one who was lonely, surrounded by his family but without anyone else to talk to.

 

By the time he reaches his stop, Yagen wants to go home and pretends nothing happened. It would be more convenient than having to explain to Yukimitsu why he is only wearing a shirt in the middle of December. Before he can even open his mouth to say hello, his friend is already invading his space.

 

So, he came. It's a relief, it means someone cares.

Yagen is being cruel, without a doubt. His phone keeps buzzing in his pocket, indicating his siblings are certainly worried.

But he doesn't want to apologize once more, or to claim he is okay. Can't they leave him in peace only for one hour?

 

The boy expects questions, dozen of them. It'd be fine, to craft careful lies about being late and leaving his coat behind for such reason. Instead, he gets Yukimitsu pressing their foreheads together until purple strands of hair fall in front of his eyes.

 

There is such a stern expression on his face. Yagen doesn't know if he should mock it, or feel concerned. They are lucky the bus stop is empty except for them, as their pose is out of the ordinary.

 

“You're not okay.”

 

Yukimitsu steps back abruptly, grabbing his hand. It's too much, for friends to behave in this way, Yagen wants to remind him. The other boy doesn't seem to understand the rules of this world, or perhaps he has opted to bypass them a long time ago, in an isolated act of rebellion. Where are they going? His mind is too light out of all a sudden, and he finds himself unable to care for the destination. As long as they get as far away as possible from his house, it'll be fine.

 

By the time they stop, the air has changed around them. Has he truly not paid attention during the past minutes? Yagen blinks, once then twice, as they stand in front of a modest house. Yukimitsu hasn't let go yet, holding his hand firmly while he is looking for the keys in his pocket.

 

After a while, and with a proud 'ah!' he retrieves them, and everything becomes warm as Yagen is tugged forward. Yukimitsu releases him, and the world goes out of balance. Not enough for the boy to crash down, but it takes him a moment to remove his boots. Why isn't his friend commenting on his silence? Or the way he can't focus or recall what happened between the bus stop and there?

 

“So, I don't have a kotatsu, because we lack the money for one but I'm sure we can warm you up somehow.” He doesn't listen much to Yukimitsu rambling about hot cocoa and blankets. He is sure the other is merely using his voice to fill the silence on his side. Dragged in the stairs, Yagen follows without finding the strength to complain the hand is tugging too hard on his.

 

He can feel it in his arm.

 

The bedroom is clean, neatly organized. Not what he expected at all. Nor he anticipated how Yukimitsu forces him to sit on the bed before opening his closet. A hoodie is pressed in his hands within the next minutes. It'll help, for sure. He is freezing, now that he is able to pay attention again. Putting it on without removing his glasses was certainly a mistake though.

 

“Here, let me help,” Yukimitsu's quick to save them from falling off, adjusting them once he's done with dressing himself. It's embarrassing, to need help for something like this.

 

At least, his body feels better, a little. It'll be gradual, he is aware of it. A weight on the mattress indicates the other has decided to sit by his side. They are going to have a conversation at this rate, and Yagen would rather avoid to open up for now. It's too early. He doesn't ought to share his problems, not when they are so small.

 

Yet big enough for the teenager to take his lighter out. The flame dances in front of his eyes without Yukimitsu trying to stop him. Can one find comfort in reclaiming what destroyed a part of his body? Yagen wouldn't be able to tell.

 

“I wouldn't feel anything, if I were to pass my hand against the flame,” he tells his friend without any warning.

 

Yukimitsu's cheek presses against his shoulder while the other boy glares at the lighter with all his might.

 

“You have burns.” It's not a question. But then, when the other tried to remove his gloves last month, he probably knew already.

 

“I was ten. I tried to cook. It went wrong.” Talking is difficult, while he observes the gloves. The disability coming from the burns is something he is fine with. It's his family's reaction which is still bothersome.

 

Without a warning, there is a flash of colors of his eyes as Yukimitsu passes his hand through the flame. As meager as it is, the gesture is alarming. Yagen drops his favorite companion while the other winces in pain.

 

“What are you doing?!”

 

At least, the lighter stops working once it's laying on the floor. Starting a fire at his sole friend's house would have been a complete disaster. He gets no answer though, as Yukimitsu is gone, probably to put water on his hand. Has he touched the top, burning, part of the flame, or the bottom, which won't leave a mark? How is he supposed to know? Furious with his mistake, Yagen doesn't move, forgetting he is meant to be a grand doctor one day.

 

Right now, the only emotion in his heart is a mix of fear and disgust.

 

“I was kinda careless, my bad.”

 

The voice catches him out of guard soon after as Yukimitsu's already back, sitting by his side. Immediately, he grabs his hand to inspect the injury. The skin is a little red, but there isn't anything indicating it's bad.

 

“I wanted to know how it feels, to be burned.”

 

“What for?”

 

Yagen is fairly certain he is aware of the answer.

It simply makes no sense.

 

“To understand.”

 

What a fool. They could date for real, if they intend on going that far for each other. Honestly, he hasn't done anything for Yukimitsu yet. It's always the other who steps out of his comfort zone to scold or assist him. Yagen is meant to be the reliable one, but isn't he leaning too much on his friend instead?

 

Letting go of the hand, Yagen puts the lighter on the nightstand. For now, it can remain there. Especially if Yukimitsu has another death wish. Should he call his family at some point? The teenager doesn't feel like moving for a while, if he is honest with himself.

 

“Nap time?”

 

“Aren't we too old for those?”

 

“No way! My friend Mikazuki says they are excellent for your body.”

 

Friend? Oh, is it the college guy he saw a couple of months ago? The prospect of sleeping is not enticing right now. Nonetheless, his mind is on the verge of shutting down. With a sigh, Yagen decides it's not use to go against Yuki's wishes.

 

Wait, are they meant to share the bed? Before he can open his mouth to voice his concerns, the other is back onto his feet.

 

“You sleep there, I'll just make a blanket pile on the floor.”

 

That's a kind gesture. Yagen falls silent for a moment, unsure of how he is supposed to explain it's too much. Protesting is difficult when he only wants to lay down though. He gives up the fight without trying to start it, accepting the offer.

 

 

      The room is engulfed in darkness by the time he wakes up. Rubbing his eyelids with the back of his gloved hand, Yagen needs a moment to remind himself of where he is. At Yukimitsu's. His family is the first thing on his mind. In the dark, he fumbles around until he grabs his phone on the nightstand. Forty-three unread messages in the group chat. He is dead.

 

Ichigo is going to call the police and hospitals if he doesn't contact them right away. Honestly, Yagen's not surprised when they answer within three seconds, although the number of muffled voices he hears in the background is too much at once. Especially when his mind is still laced with sleep.

 

“I'm fine...” He offers before anything else.

 

“Yagen?” Oh, Ichigo. He is truly in trouble.

 

“I'm at my boyfriend's.” The story is closer to the truth than expected. The teenager takes his time to tell his older brother he won't come back right away, sleeping over. Worry is all he can hear from his sibling, so he makes sure to say he is merely tired, and in need of a break. It's difficult to admit.

 

“Yes, it's fine. Take care, brother.”

 

Freedom. The call lasted fifteen minutes though. Yagen realizes he hasn't asked Yukimitsu if he could sleep over at the second where he lays against the pillow again. Amazing. With a groan, he turns around, trying to bury his face deep enough in the pillow to disappear. By the way, where is his fake boyfriend? With his foot, he tries to poke the blanket nest. No response. It's nine p.m. so maybe he woke up and decided to do something else.

 

The pajamas the other landed him are warm and comfortable. So is the bed. Does he have to get up and check what's happening downstairs? Probably. He is already being rude enough. The floor is awfully cold, and he hurries to put his socks back on. Glasses? Ah yes, on the nightstand. Much better. He refrains from turning on the light, not wanting to end up blind or even more disgruntled.

 

There is light downstairs anyway. Hand on the railing, he takes his time to climb down, yawning as he does so. Is Yukimitsu busy with his cleaning routine? Or playing video games? Peeking inside the kitchen, the teenager is met with an unfamiliar sight. The apron is cute on the other, he has to admit that much.

 

“Hello?”

 

Gasping in fear, the other almost drops the bowl he is holding. Apparently, he should have announced his arrival. He pretends not to see how Yukimitsu is glaring, coming closer.

 

“I called my siblings to let them know where I was.”

 

“Good. You're sleeping over, right?”

 

“Do I have another choice?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

Lips press against his forehead in a sweet manner which leaves Yagen confused. Is he still asleep? Apparently not. He returns the gesture on Yukimitsu's cheek, in an innocent way which is pleasant. He isn't awake enough to care about consequences anyway.

Chapter Text

     Hasebe takes pride in many things. Most of them being related to how he has organized his life without his family's assistance. They would have ruined everything, considering how terrible everyone is in that clusterfuck. The term is vulgar, yet it's the sole fitting one. Hatred for one's parents doesn't come out of nowhere, for no reason at all. Hasebe has countless excuses to be filled with rage.

 

To be honest, it's mostly the desire to sleep which is predominant when he comes home after work. College, while being an important goal, is not the priority. He'd rather ensure to have money first. He has gotten used to his job at the supermarket. Not that it's enjoyable to be pestered by customers all the time, but it's not the worst place he could have ended at.

 

The ache in his bones is always present, he guesses it's fine. It's not only fatigue, in his case. Scars tracing imperfect canvas all over his skin are the consequence of what adults can do if they get addicted to power. Ah, Hasebe regrets not punching his parents in the face before they got arrested, it would have been a relief, to break their bones. Only once, feeling the smell of blood coming from someone else, would have felt amazing. He can only suppose, since the trial took ten years of his life away without giving much in return. There isn't anything to salvage anyway.

 

The house is a meager compensation for what he had to endure. It's better than nothing, especially since he has Yukimitsu. Someone had to step in to care for him, or else he would have ended as twisted as the others. Before Hasebe can even offer a good evening, eager to meet dinner and sleep, he notices an unfamiliar sight.

 

There are two boys in his kitchen. One is definitely his cousin, no doubt about it. The other, wearing pajamas belonging to Yukimitsu, is a complete stranger.

 

“Who is the meaning?”

 

Oh no, he wanted to say 'who is this' and 'what is the meaning of this' at once. He truly needs to sleep.

 

“My boy...Friend?”

 

Hasebe stares for a while, exhaustion reflecting in his eyes. Then, he gives up. Sometimes it's easier than starting another fight. Yukimitsu has a friend. A boyfriend. Isn't it a step towards progress? He doesn't know, and decides it's fine this way.

 

“Congratulations, you heathen.”

 

By that point, such terms are endearing between them. He can't keep count of how many times Yukimitsu has insulted him after all. He removes the bowl his cousin is holding from his hands. They aren't going to simply reheat two-days old leftovers if they have a guest.

 

“I'm going to cook. You two can set the table. What's your name, kid?”

 

“Toushirou Yagen, sir.”

 

“You can call me Hasebe.” At some point, he is going to have a serious conversation with that boy and his cousin. After food, he'll feel a little more alive for important matters, but now it's difficult to focus. Cooking is going to be minimal, he tells himself while muffling a yawn with the back of his hand.

 

“He doesn't look as threatening as you told me.”

 

“Shh, he's like a dragon, I swear.”

 

“Yukimitsu, I can hear you.”

 

Once food is ready and served, Hasebe can finally come back to life. It's a slow process, which takes half of the meal. Classes then work don't mix up too well these days. The lack of sun isn't doing anything to fix the situation either. While he eats, he listens to Yukimitsu and his babbling about his lover. The complete opposite from him, with excellent grades and great manners. Except Hasebe can't help but draw similarities between them as the story goes on.

 

There is an echo of loneliness in the story. It's borderline on irony, how they only attract lost souls like themselves. He had the same impression, back when he started his job and met Souza. At first, he wished to loathe his colleague with all his might, rather than bond with him. It's easier to ignore pain when you don't see it in someone's eyes everyday. In the end, though, they became friends. At least Hasebe thinks they have reached that point. He hasn't bothered to ask formally yet.

 

How long will their guest stay? Until the next morning or longer? Technically, he has no reason to doubt Yagen will be gone quickly since the kids have class on Monday. Right before their break. Still, Yukimitsu has never bothered to invite someone over, since they live together. It has been years already, without a friend or a guest. Hasebe is surely not doing better, as he can't recall opening his door for anyone either. There must be a reason for Yagen to be sitting in front of him, wearing clothes which don't even belong to him.

 

Perhaps he ran away without planning any of that. If it's the case, it's going to be troublesome later. For now, Hasebe decides he can't bring himself to care. After dinner, he allows the kids to sit in front of the television, huddled together on the couch. He cannot even crash in bed like he intended to do, since there are bills awaiting for him.

 

With the television as background noise, the young man works on accounting, being as precise as ever. He had to learn how to manage the house without help a long time ago. Ensuring they have enough money to play the bills while giving Yukimitsu and him an acceptable life. Good would be a little too much, and sometimes it infuriates him to realize he has such low expectations for his own existence. He can't even pay attention to the movie when numbers dance in front of his eyes again and again. Only one hour and then he'll get into a deep slumber into next morning. College homework will have to wait, as he lacks the patience to pull an all-nighter to be on time.

 

A blanket presses against his back after a while, making him lift his head a little.

 

“Don't go collapsing on me again, you bastard,” Yukimitsu mumbles while standing over him, a deep frown on his face.

 

Is it kindness? Hasebe has never been able to tell. Caring for others is less complicated than thinking about his own self honestly. If he had more time and money, surely he would be able to move mountains with his bare hands, always moving forward. But in this life, he has to do with what he has.

 

“I'll manage.”

 

It's not a lie, at least. After a while, when his gaze turns blurry and his mind begs him to stop, he accepts to lower his pen. The movie is finished, the television buzzing into the room without anyone paying attention. The kids fell asleep apparently. After a nap, it sounds a little uncanny. But he isn't going to judge. He ponders on waking them up for a moment, but settles on removing Yagen's glasses and leaving them entangled together instead.

 

The blanket is placed over the teenagers before Hasebe leaves the room. Bed time, and they better not wake him up too early the next day.

 

 

     The next evening, Yagen is still in the living-room. It's a good thing he is the same age as his cousin, although Yukimitsu's relaxing clothes look a little odd on the other. Since it's his day off, Hasebe decides not to comment on anything, wishing only to have some rest. Yukimitsu and him are used to barely acknowledge each other most of the time, merely sharing space. Nonetheless, it's why it works out between them. They are aware of their boundaries, even if they tug on the edges from time to time, until screams dissolve into tears and exhaustion.

 

“Can we have a Christmas party?”

 

The words come out of nowhere, prompting Hasebe to sigh. They do not celebrate birthdays. Or anything really. The oldest can't remember if it's out of habit or because they have no positive memories associated with such event. That's why the question is unexpected. Leaning a little more against the couch, he tries to understand why they would have to do such thing. The 25th is the next day, so it's certainly too late anyway.

 

Ah, perhaps it's because Yukimitsu has a lover now.

 

“You can celebrate with Yagen if you want,” isn't it enough? He knows he has the morning shift so he could be home with them but he has no reason to.

 

“It's not what I meant,” his cousin's voice is still prone to rising, he notes.

 

Around the coffee table, the teenagers are playing some game on Yukimitsu's 3DS one after another. They have been going at it for a while, Yagen being surprisingly good from what he heard.

 

“I want a party with my friends, and maybe yours too. Like, we can get fried chicken and eat it all together.”

 

To invite Souza to celebrate with them? Hasebe blinks, unsure of what to do with the proposal. Surely, it would meant letting his siblings come to. So three people on his side. Yukimitsu would invite his college friends and, well, Yagen. Since the kid arrived without his school uniform and supplies, Hasebe supposes he'll leave soon. It would be more convenient before dinner, as he has no car to drive him back, and buses are sparse so late in the evening.

 

“It's tomorrow, Yukimitsu.”

 

“And what? At worst they'll say no.”

 

Don't you mean at best? Their house being invaded with people is not something Hasebe is eager to experience.

 

“Oh oh, let's buy a cake too! It's not Christmas without one.”

 

On television, they always eat delicious food, couples going to expensive restaurants to celebrate. It's surely where Yukimitsu decided a cake was compulsory, since Hasebe is certain they have never gotten one before.

 

“Fine.”

 

Grabbing his tablet, the responsible man starts making a list of everything they'll need to get before tomorrow. The whole affair cannot be a failure, as he wouldn't be able to endure it. Hasebe has a thing for perfection and order. It helps him to stay grounded.

 

Does he have Souza's number? Oh yes, apparently. He has to leave the room, as Yuki is a little too loud while calling his friends. A couple of months prior, Hasebe would have be certain his cousin was annoying the two men. But, by now, he has accepted they get along in a weird way. They have countless problems getting close to others, so as long as it's healthy, he isn't going to complain.

 

“Hasebe-kun?”

 

“Oh hi.”

 

Asking takes more courage than anticipated. Sitting on his bed, Hasebe hesitates, starting out with a mundane comment on the weather. It's as confusing to Souza as it is for him, at least. Going straight to the point would be a better solution, and he finds himself voicing the question eventually. There is a pause, during which Souza consults his siblings. The wait is endless, which is ridiculous as he could count to one hundred in his mind to realize his mistake.

 

“Yes, we can come. At which hour?”

 

He had anticipated a refusal.

 

Hasebe finds himself blurting out an answer before wishing everyone a pleasant day and ending the call. Oh no, he is going to have to buy so much fried chicken for everyone. Wait, what if someone is a vegetarian? He ought to ask Yukimitsu about his friends.

 

 

      Obviously, Yagen is the first to arrive, still in his uniform. Yukimitsu is too exited for his own good, without a doubt. He allows them to change while he finishes setting the decorations. It's oddly homey, to put colorful garlands everywhere. Hasebe had to buy some at the supermarket where he works though, since he had never bothered to get any.

 

The kids will have to get the food once they are ready, as the oldest has still much to do. Ensuring everything's clean, making the electric garland works (which might be a lost battle), and setting the table.

 

“It looks great, Hasebe.”

 

“Of course, I don't half-ass things.”

 

Pleased with the compliment nonetheless, he hands them a short list of what they have to do. It's mostly getting their order of fried chicken and fries alongside picking up the cake. Surely, they cannot mess up such simple job. Yukimitsu seems more motivated than usual, holding Yagen's hand everywhere they go.

 

Being close to someone must be nice.

 

He has little time to dwell on it, too busy. Once the living-room is welcoming enough, and perhaps too colorful, Hasebe is proud of himself. Before he can even get some rest, a loud knocking on the door gets his attention. Isn't it too early for the guests to arrive? Confused, Hasebe opens up, only to be faced with a teenager he doesn't know.

 

Yukimitsu has more than three friends? It's a news his not ready to deal with.

Perhaps the other simply has the wrong house though.

 

“Did my cousin invite you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

An impressive attempt at a conversation is surely happening between them. Hasebe is fairly sure they might introduce themselves if they wait until New Year's eve. With a sigh, he lets his first guest inside. It's only once the other has removed his jacket that he notices the ugly sweater he is wearing. Is it a duck with a Christmas hat?

 

“Interesting sweater.”

 

“Hm.”

 

Well, he seems to take it as a compliment. Yukimitsu truly can't get normal friends. By the time his cousin and lover are back, he learns the stranger's name is Ookurikara. Apparently Yukimitsu went to the arcade after class to invite him over. The more the merrier, or something like that.

 

The quiet house is soon filled with chatter and people who are, hopefully, feeling as awkward as Hasebe right now. Sure, organization is the key. But, no matter how everything has been well-planned since the day before, he is sure it's not perfect enough. Perhaps he is being too difficult towards himself. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary after all.

 

Souza' siblings are not very talkative, just as his first guest. It's not enough to discourage the man who speaks as if he was over fifty apparently. Munechika something. Hasebe doesn't truly have the strength to memorize names when he trying to count chicken to divide it equally between everyone. He is certainly the lone soul to care, much to his dismay.

 

One bucket per family seems to work out. Although he isn't sure the blond guy is enjoying to share with his loud friend. Hasebe is still uneasy, against his will, about the duo. The fact Yukimitsu stayed for such a long time with them rather coming home is slightly painful, if he is honest with himself. They are guests nonetheless, and he can even pretend not to notice how they blush faintly when their hands find each other inside the bucket.

 

KFC romance at its finest, or something similar.

 

Too focused on ensuring everyone's happy, Hasebe almost forgets his own existence until Souza gestures towards the food to invite him to get some. Oh, that's embarrassing. It's a challenge to focus on all the guests and remember to eat too. In the end, once he's focused on the tenders, some tension seems to leave his shoulders. It's his first party since he has moved on his own, thus no one can blame the young man for wanting it to be perfect.

 

Yagen has not removed his gloves. While it's not a surprise since he's never seen the kid without them, Hasebe wonders how he's supposed to touch his food.

 

“Say ah~”

 

Apparently, his cousin has found the perfect solution. Feeding his boyfriend in public is certainly a little too much for Hasebe's comfort. But he is willing to let it slide. After all, no one appears to mind. If anything, Ookurikara and the young Sayo appear to have a fascinating conversation about ducks. Hasebe supposes it's a discussion, considering they take a long time between each sentence, deep in thoughts. Who knew ducks could be such a serious topic.

 

“It's a great party, Hasebe.”

 

Souza's compliment catches him out of guard, forcing him to swallow his fries before replying. It's fine, he can manage a reply while sounding composed.

 

“Yukimitsu was eager to celebrate together this year.”

 

“Family is sometimes a good thing. It pushes you forward, doesn't it?”

 

“Depends.”

 

The word comes out bluntly, which is a shame as he doesn't want to sound ungrateful. After all, Souza knows his problems, and how he considers 'families' better than anyone. Not that he has many people in his life in the first place.

 

“Did I offend you?”

 

“Not at all. Family is merely smaller for us, isn't it? Limited to brothers and cousin.”

 

“Indeed.”

There is fondness in Souza's mismatched eyes sometimes. When his gaze lands on Sayo nodding gravely at Ookurikara for example. Feeding bread to ducks is a terrible deed, Hasebe learns while listening to them. Chin resting against his palm, the young man wonders how it could have been, to celebrate this way when he was a child.

 

His parents were not keen on sharing anything, outside of the boiling rage inside their veins, rendering the thought process useless. Instead, Hasebe lets out a small sigh, starting to feel exhausted by the company. And they haven't even gotten to the cake yet.

 

 

     By the time the noise finally dies down, the night has already wrapped around the world. Rubbing his eyelids, Hasebe stares at the mess on the table. For once, it can wait until the next morning, he tells himself. The guests are gone, having left with smiles on their faces and a promise they truly enjoyed themselves. Hasebe enjoys when everything followed his plans, although it's less pleasant to hear Yukimitsu plans next year's party. There won't be an extravagant pool party in their garden in Winter. They do not even have a pool in the first place, dammit.

 

“Yagen's asleep,” his cousin states dramatically while sitting on the couch.

 

At least, someone is resting already. They should join the teenager upstairs, rather than stay there and eat what's left of the cake. It's a guilty pleasure Hasebe can't help but enjoy though, fork in his mouth while he tries to recover from the long day.

 

“You should be too.”

 

“Who would help you to finish the cake?”

 

“Tch.”

 

Yukimitsu's cheekiness is amusing at times. Right now, Hasebe doesn't mind it, even if he stole the last strawberry. Leaning against the couch, he yawns.

 

“You were right, a party can be…”

 

“Fun.”

 

“Exhausting, mostly. However, I did enjoy myself.”

 

There are questions he won't ask. Such as if the college pair is together or not. Or the nature of Yukimitsu's feelings for Yagen. Too personal for sure. At least there was no alcohol at the party, thus less chance of blurting out silly truths out loud. It's a choice on Hasebe's part.

 

Yuki doesn't need drunk people in his life, and neither does he.

They have witnessed such tragedies too often.

 

“So you can have fun too, I'm shocked Hasebe.”

 

Glaring at Yukimitsu has lost any threatening effect a long time ago, to Hasebe's chagrin. He can console himself by being proud of the fact he is, indeed, able to have a great time when the circumstances are favorable.

 

“Heshikiri,” the oldest corrects while focusing on what's left of his slice. Murdering it with his fork is a cruel act. It's soothing tho, to divide each part in smaller pieces, until he can control each one. His parents would have mocked his terrible coping mechanisms, if they were around.

 

It's a good thing they are not.

 

“Heshikiri? Don't you ha─”

 

“I do loathe it.” The name is the cause of his misfortune, Hasebe is sure of it. Being named after an abusive person could only cause him to lose his way. He is certain his parents wanted to play such trick on him as a punishment for bothering them.

 

Who remembers that man though? Hasebe himself has never had the displeasure of meeting this shadow of the family's past. Therefore, why should he submit to such unfair destiny? He has been pondering over it lately, day by day, since meeting Souza and Yukimitsu's disappearance.

 

“Don't you want to throw away what our parents have done?”

 

“What are parents, exactly?”

 

“Hm? What do you mean? They're like… People who raised us?”

 

“You call that 'raising'?” Heshikiri snickers. “Parents are merely a concept. They are supposed to be shaped after mistakes and never reproduce them, that's all we ask from them. Although it's often the opposite. They are meant to allow us to grow, but if we go too high, we bother them. And they try to drag us back into the dirt, as to send us back from where we're from. Parents are egoistical creatures, who can't share anything in fear of us getting too much and leaving them behind. Look at what they have done, how they fed on our wounds.

 

You kept her number though. And I didn't sell the house.”

 

Suddenly, the cake doesn't taste good any longer, and he puts the plate away on the coffee table, wondering why he is talking so much.

 

“We could have left a long time ago, ran away. Rather than being stuck there for a damn concept which doesn't mean anything. We can only understand the theory. In practice, some people have amazing parents, and all the care they deserve.”

 

“We deserve care too,” Yukimitsu cuts him off, grabbing his shoulder to stare into his eyes. “Your name matters a lot. You can be Hasebe, or Heshikiri or pick a new one, I don't mind. We can't leave this town because we don't know where we would go. I agree we are… Shadows sometimes? Like shadows of our parents, of their broken dreams. But it doesn't mean we can't live too. Or make mistakes without feeling like them.”

 

With an exasperated sigh, Yukimitsu releases his cousin. He sits closer though, their arms brushing against each other.

 

“We won't end up like them. I won't drink alcohol until I can't recall my name. And you won't hit people because you can't control your emotions. I know, I know. You've never hit me since we've started living together, years ago.”

 

“I wasn't asking for reassurance, Yukimitsu.”

 

“My bad, it sounded like it, Heshikiri.”

 

It takes him a moment, to absorb the echo of his name. To tentatively test it. Does it sound fine? He has always feared it would be akin to summoning a demon. An admittance of his own flaws, bringing the memory of his parents back in full force. His head presses on top of Yukimitsu's while he closes his eyes. They have never been this far, he would remember it.

 

“It's only a name. What wrong can it do?”

 

“None, if you don't carry it around like a weapon. Wanna hear it again? Just to make sure it's fine with ya'?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Heshikiri.”

 

Not as awful as he has feared. He doesn't bother replying, certain his feelings are clear enough. For now, he can try it out. If the name turns into a burden once more, Yukimitsu won't judge him for taking a step back.

 

“Hey, can I finish your cake slice if you don't want it?”

 

“I guess it can't be helped.”

 

The weight against his shoulder is gone in the blink of an eye. While he groans a little, Heshikiri has to admit they have managed to build something. It's far from perfect, without photographs on the walls or many memories to cherish. They haven't ended like their parents though. Rotten to the core, his mother has called their family once. She was probably right. It won't stop them from enjoying the fact they are alive, even if they cannot fully fit it.

 

No one cares if they only manage a little.

Heshikiri surely don't, when he watches Yukimitsu devours his cake slice.

 

If anything, he is happy.

Chapter Text

     Disillusioned, the word is fitting for his college experience. While classes are not too tedious, as long as he keeps his attendance as high as possible, it doesn't bring Yamanbagiri the freedom he is yearning for. There is always an excuse, a reason to push away his studies lately. Since the beginning of the year, his mind wanders, echoing through the hallways until it gets lost. All because of that man, the one who turned his routine into something too big for him. Their age difference is minor, yet it feels like an ocean at times. Especially when Mikazuki bears the universe in his clever eyes whereas his own remain hidden as often as possible.

 

What are they exactly? They always lack time to discuss it or find words to put on this disease invading their lives. Yamanbagiri is tired, when he finds his flat in the evening. Everything is empty, from the shelves to the walls. He wants to pretend it's because he isn't allowed to dirty the white paint, but he is getting sick of everything. It grows, from years of isolation towards an uncanny ending. Does he want to confess or to run without a second thought? Can't he do both, throwing a coin in the well without waiting for it to hit the bottom?

 

One can't build a life around someone else. It's his future which matters the most, his own destiny. He can't use Mikazuki has a crutch because he has nothing else to offer. It's unfair to both of them. Either Yamanbagiri finds a way to open up or he'll have to give up on his foolish dreams. The thought is intrusive, making its nest inside his head until he wants to cover his head with a hood once more. He hasn't done it in a long time, with Mikazuki and Yukimitsu. The Christmas party was a little too much though. Strangers all around, babbling together without aim.

 

More than anything, he recalls fingers tentatively looking for his under the table. And the warmth coming from Mikazuki has he held his hand for a moment. A devious memory, encouraging him to make another mistake. There are countless differences between then. Details adding up until Yamanbagiri wants to vanish. He isn't as beautiful. Mikazuki has a presence, an aura compelling people into falling on their knees to serve him and ensure his kindness is preserved. No matter how he pretends to be far from a good person.

 

Himself is merely dancing in the shadows, suffocating since the beginning of his life.

 

They haven't celebrated a birthday since their meeting, Yamanbagiri notices. He has always been better at getting stuck on insignificant details than focusing on the world as a whole. Mikazuki's, Yuki's, or even his own. He is fairly sure they all passed by without them caring enough to share the information. It must mean something, about them and their feelings, but he isn't sure the answer would be acceptable. It's easier to finish the essays teachers have given in before winter break. He doesn't have too many of them, and they are not as difficult as expected.

 

On the other hand, he would appreciate if there was a little more challenge. This way, his mind wouldn't keep wandering on his crush. The word in itself sounds so vulgar. It's too much, drowning and crushing him all at once, akin to a tidal wave. On the last day of the year, shouldn't he pray for his life to turn around? What will his first dream be tonight? What if he witnesses himself having a good life? How is he meant to cope with fate finally accepting to bless him a little?

 

Being miserable has a sense of familiarity. It's an excuse, obviously. A lame one too, Yamanbagiri laments while pressing his forehead against his keyboard. The laptop emits a protesting sound which doesn't matter. He won't finish his last essay for a while, the motivation is simply not there any longer. Who makes childish promises such as 'I will confess if I am done before midnight' to themselves anyway? Only fools for sure. The key awaits him instead, shining on the table as an invitation to invade Mikazuki's place once more.

 

Should he go or stay? Closing his laptop off, Yamanbagiri takes the time to ponder over his choice. What if he wanted to shine, just once? To grown next to someone, rather than remaining behind. Would it be wrong, to go to the temple together? His body overthrown his mind's control, fingers grabbing the key and legs pushing him upwards.

 

What is he doing?

 

 

     Yamanbagiri doesn't even make it inside the building, Mikazuki appearing in front of him out of nowhere. His scarf isn't enough to cover the faint blush spreading on his face as he steps backward, ending out of balance. A gentle hand wraps around his wrist, sparing him from getting into a humiliating situation.

 

“You came to visit me, I appreciate it. It's not every day an old man like me has visitors.”

 

“I was at your place two days ago, you damn hag!”

 

Mikazuki's laughter is too loud, it's bothersome. Still, once the other releases him, Yamanbagiri feels annoyed at the lack of contact. Emotions are truly problematic, when they interfere in his mundane life.

 

“Temple?” He blurts out, hoping they share the same Buddhist views. He should have definitely asked earlier rather than throwing the suggestion out like that. Who wants to stand in the cold to listen to the temple bell anyway? It's true Mikazuki is old fashioned but it's certainly too much even for him. Why can't Yamanbagiri proceed his thoughts properly before letting them out?

 

“It's precisely where I'm heading. Great minds think alike, don't they?”

 

Oh. That's a relief then. His shoulders slump in return, proving he has accumulated too much tension in his body while waiting for a reply. Being together means they might be able to talk. Or, at least, eat together at some point. It's not like they will spend the evening with their family in the first place. Yamanbagiri will have to call his siblings, obviously. But he doesn't mind the distance between them. It allows him to do more on his own. His friend surely has different circumstances, although he doesn't mind them.

 

 

     People are already awaiting for the day to end, hanging out around the temple eagerly. Yamanbagiri tells himself he won't be overwhelmed if he pays attention to his surroundings and avoid to follow the crowd. At least, Mikazuki shares his mindset, pointing towards a bench outside of the temple to allow a respite. Walking took away most of their energy, without a doubt because the place was farther than anticipated. After leaving there for two years, the youngest had never bothered to go this far. What was stopping him in the end? The answer eludes him as his friend gazes at the stars above them.

 

Getting something to eat would be an option, although Yamanbagiri doesn't wish to get up for a while. Instead, he blows on his hands. Hadn't he left his flat on an impulse earlier, he could have recalled to bring his gloves with them. But then, missing Mikazuki would have been worse than freezing for a while. How oblivious he is, pretending to crave his old routine, when his heart wants the opposite. He could grab Mikazuki's hand and hold it, while the other is focused on the night sky. It's surely a stunning view, one Yamanbagiri can't compare with.

 

At times, he would appreciate to be less focused on what he is unable to change. And more on who's by his side. Hesitant, he allows his hand to approach Mikazuki's, without going further. Physical contact is a form of intimacy they have tried before, albeit on an impulse. Never in such way, while thinking about it firsthand. Would it be a crime, to throw away his mind and tug him close, wrapping his arms around the older man to keep him by his side forever?

 

Undoubtedly.

 

“Is there something heavy on your mind? You haven't talked much.”

 

Busted. Is his face changing shades again? It's frustrating, to find himself at a loss for words every time it happens. Yamanbagiri shakes his head, in a meager lie. He could certainly do better than that, or at least be honest. Perhaps later, after hearing the bell rings 108 times. A rebirth for a new year, surely it'll allow him to go in one way or another.

 

Retracting his hands on his knees, he keeps himself busy by staring at passerby, wondering if couples are truly as happy as they seem. Families with kids remind him of his brothers, probably celebrating without him. It's fine, he had his own party for Christmas after all. A true event where he was able to be around complete strangers without wishing to disappear.

 

“Manba-chan! Old man!”

 

Surprise flashes across his face as he recognizes the familiar teenager waving at them from afar. Judging by the person by his side, he dragged his cousin with him. These two have their own battle to fight, Yamanbagiri is sure of it. That's also why he doesn't reject the greeting, no matter how terrible it sounds. Nicknames make him uncomfortable after all. Waving back with Mikazuki, he glances at him, unsure of what they should do.

 

“Shouldn't we say hello properly?” His friend suggests while pushing on his knees with both hands to get up. Too late to go back now. Yamanbagiri is fine with the plan. Perhaps company will take his mind away from the rest. As long as they can be alone once more at the end of the night at least.

 

 

    Eating street food is apparently an unusual occurrence for Hasebe, who sits awkwardly with them while they wait for their udon next to the small cart. Yukimitsu is much more lively, babbling about Yagen without taking time to catch his breath. It's a good change from the angry kid Yamanbagiri remembers meeting months ago. It has been a long time, when he remembers how early they were in the school year when they all ended up together. Not a bad memory, even if he surely made a fool of himself by dropping his papers on Mikazuki's feet.

 

Once bowls are in front of them, he reminisces over his wish to eat crab. He still wants to do it, even if the year is going to end in a couple of hours. They can certainly go in January. Perhaps all four of them too. Yagen could be a guest if Yukimitsu wants him to join.

 

“Earth to Yamanbagiri! What are ya' thinking about?”

 

“Crab?” He blurts out only to find three curious gazes on him all at once. It's too much! “Crab restaurant. Together. Next month. Okay?”

 

Words have lost their meaning. His friends are going to believe he is a fool unable to formulate his thoughts properly, which is going to make them laugh and mock him. Breathing turns difficult until Mikazuki's hand presses against the small of his back.

 

“It's a delightful idea.”

 

“Yagen is invited too,” Yamanbagiri manages to add while trying to calm himself down. He is fairly certain there are sparkles in Yukimitsu's eyes while he hears that.

 

“Really? Cool!”

 

“I appreciate the gesture,” Heshikiri mumbles while keeping his gaze on his food. It's certainly a little weird for the cousins to be invited somewhere.

 

A feeling Yamanbagiri shares with them, being in a similar situation. For most of his life, he avoided social gatherings as much as possible, imagining the worst without even envisioning the best to balance his fears. Trusting one self is not as evident as tv shows make it to be.

 

“It's really delicious,” he comments with a low voice, to one in particular. On New Year's Eve, he isn't alone for the first time since he started college. It's a big step, something which warms him up inside as much as the delicious noodles.

 

 

     Later, when the night as turned even colder and his hands have taken refugee inside the pockets of his sweatshirt, they walk back to the temple. He is the lone soul who isn't wearing enough to feel warm, he notices sadly on the way. Too late to go back and change, so he'll have to endure it. By his side, he listens as Mikazuki asks their friends why they decided to come there. He doesn't catch the full answer, as they are separated by the crowd during a couple of seconds. Still, he hears enough to learn Heshikiri (the name is a little too familiar as they are only acquaintances of a similar age but he doesn't comment on it) always wanted to come there.

 

They all feel like beginners, attempting new things on a whim without allowing their doubts to stop them any longer. It's reassuring, to know it's a first for most of them. Mikazuki, he can tell, is fond of temples and such ceremonials, therefore it's easy to suppose he isn't as new as them to the exercise. Once the four are huddled together in the same spot, they wait for the year to be over.

 

“Aren't we similar to penguins? Staying close to seek warmth,” the oldest comments amiably while smiling at Yukimitsu wrapping his cousin's long scarf around his own neck. The comparison is strange, to Yamanbagiri, who shrugs while coming closer. It's true it feels better when there isn't too much distance between them.

 

The first sound is so brutal it resonates inside his whole body. He should have been expecting him, yet it's powerful in comparison to what he expected. By the fifth, he is counting silently in his head, not minding it any longer. Around them, excitation grows, people obviously doing the same thing to keep track alongside the priests.

 

“Are you cold?” The whispers against his ear takes him out of guard. When has Mikazuki gotten so close? His fingers, still inside his pockets, are indeed in dire need of assistance. But would the gesture be appropriate in such place?

 

“A little,” he dares to offer in return, fearing for the worst until Mikazuki is standing behind him. Arms gently wrap around his waist, keeping him close.

 

His heartbeat is surely as loud as the bell by now. It's the lone sound he can still hear. Hands find his inside his pockets, pressing on top of them gently.

 

“Isn't it too much? What if people─”

 

“No one is staring.”

 

Even their friends are too enraptured into the show happening in front of them to pay attention, it's true. Then, there is no reason to complain. Come to think of it, earlier Yamanbagiri wanted to run away as far as possible from that man and to never touch him again. And now, here they are, doing the opposite. Truly, he shouldn't trust his mind. Although it's different to take such resolution on his own than to impose it on someone who might genuinely care.

 

At the last hit, the year if finally gone, and the new one blessed with luck and hope. As people leave, one after another, Yamanbagiri doesn't want to do the same. Can't it wait a little more? A loud yawn by his side allows him to return to reality. Heshikiri seems embarrassed while he looks away, mouth hidden between the back of his hand.

 

“We should head back.”

 

Realizing, abruptly, that they are witnessing how Mikazuki is holding him, he steps away, pushing the hands out of his sweater. What if they comment on it? It doesn't happen, although he spots Yukimitsu nodding gravely at the oldest, in some kind of secret way of communicating he doesn't understand fully.

 

Is it approval? By the time their friends have left and they are on their own way, he realizes the walk is going to be long. Thirty minutes in the cold until they reach the campus. Joyful students are surely still celebrating right now, probably loudly. Not something he would enjoy to be a part of.

 

“I thought about it...” The words come out on their own as they make their way together. It's surely a mistake, to allow them to be told.

 

“It?”

 

“Us, if you prefer.”

 

“Oh, is there an 'us'?”

 

Of course, are you pretending to ignore it? Stopping on his tracks, Yamanbagiri forgets how to reply, and even what is voice is supposed to be for. Nothing will come out. Frustration grows into his heart until his hand grabs the collar of his friend's coat. It's a foolish gesture, which is going to be misinterpreted for sure.

 

“I am humoring you. It was a tasteless way to do it, my apologies.”

 

The other doesn't appear to mind how he is being manhandled, opting to push away his hood with a gloved hand instead. What are they meant to do now? The cold wind has a better access to his face like this. Perhaps it's more convenient this way, as he recalls how to make his body work, releasing his grip on Mikazuki.

 

The gesture shouldn't be regretted. If he starts out by thinking it'll be a mistake, then what's the point? Freezing fingers find their way against warm cheeks. It might be terrible, or break what they have built until there.

 

Nonetheless, it's a brand new year. An excuse to take a fresh start and push away logic and worries.

There is nothing to ruin between them, Yamanbagiri reminds himself over and over, akin to a mantra. Their friendship survived until then, therefore why should he fear for the worst every time he becomes close to someone? That's why he forgets the world, allowing everything to disappear under the night sky.

 

Lips press against Mikazuki's awkwardly while he tugs the other closer. He can taste the udon against them, which is odd. Comforting too, a reminder they share countless precious memories already. How is he meant to decide when to stop the kiss? Being slow or too rough would be humiliating, a proof of his sheltered past and inability to open up. That's why he moves away without being convinced of his timing.

 

Oh, the pink on Mikazuki's cheeks is lovely, Yamanbagiri notices, daring to brush his fingers against the skin. It's an image he'd like to keep forever, from the blush to the way his lips are slightly parted, as inviting him for something deeper. It would be too much for one night. Anyone could accuse the younger man to be slow, not daring enough. But Mikazuki doesn't appear to mind at all, especially when he wraps his arms around him once more.

 

“You took your time,” he mocks lightly, hiding his face against Yamanbagiri's hair.

 

“If you wanted me to kiss you that badly, you should have done it then!”

 

“Don't be too rough with me.”

 

Worries explode one by one, similar to bubbles in the air. A confession will not fix anything, it's not a way to escape his problems. Yamanbagiri can't say anything against taking such fresh start though. The hug, the kiss, it's more than he had ever asked from anyone. Somehow, when he ponders about it, he starts to think that maybe he deserves such affection.

 

An alien emotion, to want and be wanted all at once.

 

It turns out to be too much after a moment, his body becoming stiff under the contact. There isn't any complain as he is released. Boundaries are frail, in his case. It would bother anyone, except for Mikazuki. By now, Yamanbagiri is aware the oldest has his own difficulties. The point is not to erase them, merely to confide in each other for support.

 

“Will you hold my hand on the way back?”

 

The way Mikazuki bows slightly, extending his fingers towards his lover, it makes his heart flutter. There is no doubt in his body as he laces their fingers together. The hood is back on his head quickly after though, pushed up by his free hand. His face is certainly a canvas of reds right now. And it's embarrassing.

 

“How about spending the night too? I have a spare futon.”

 

The offer starts out as scandalous, almost causing Yamanbagiri to jump in the river close by. The end is more gentle though. Surely, there isn't anything wrong in sleeping over. They have much to talk about after all.

 

“Fine with me.”

 

 

      Morning is a missed friend. It's only in the afternoon that his body accepts to stir out of slumber. The ceiling is unfamiliar, causing panic to rise in his chest until he remembers. The night was eventful without a doubt, especially at the end. Should they go back to the temple to participate in festivities? Drawing fortune or buying charms would be nice. Not that he needs more than he already has.

 

In retrospect, courage for his finals wouldn't be a luxury.

 

Lifting his arms about his head to stretch, he observes his sleeves falling down. Ah yes, his lover (still a friend too) lend him pajamas the night before. It's comfortable, albeit a foreign experience. Now that he is fully awake, it's difficult to miss how the bed is empty. The old man is not one to rise with the sun, although Yamanbagiri ended up oversleeping for too long. Should he call out for him or merely get up on his own?

 

A mix of those. Rising back on his feet is not a difficult exercise. The cold has left his bones by now. If anything, he feels better than he did the year before, even if it was only a couple of hours ago.

 

Mikazuki is exactly where he shouldn't be, aka the kitchen. He doesn't doubt the man's ability to cook, especially since their delicious curry from a couple of months ago. Back then, it was a team effort though, where they followed a recipe.

 

He doubts the damaged hotcakes he first mistook for burned sponges are as lucky.

 

“So, you do have a second apron.”

 

“It wouldn't have been pleasant to miss the opportunity of let you wear something cute back then.”

 

Curse words on his tongue, Yamanbagiri steps closer, glaring at the contents of the pan. It's not truly a disaster, if he has to be honest with himself. The texture is slightly too liquid to work out properly, which can be fixed easily. As for the cooking part, well by lowering the fire it would improve.

 

“Move, I'm going to fix your mess.”

 

“That's kind of you,” in spite of the words, he can tell Mikazuki is upset over his failure.

 

“It can't be helped, I'm here for you.”

 

Cheesy, he mumbles to himself while working on the hotcake mix Mikazuki made. Leaning against the counter by his side, the man observes, kindest back in his eyes. What an annoying character, always so keen on feeling enamored with Yamanbagiri' strong reactions.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Aggravated, he pretends to hide how good the words are making him feel. Hotcakes are soon ready to be devoured. Fresh fruits would go great on them, a shame they don't have any. It's not the right day to go to the supermarket anyway.

 

It's only they are eating together than he wonders if he should mention what happened the night before. Did his message get across fully? While the youngest is certainly impulsive at times, he refuses to allow anyone to believe he wasn't sincere.

 

“I have feelings for you.” The sentence would have been perfect without Mikazuki choking on his meal while hearing it.

 

His formulation is too direct, for sure. How tiresome it feels, to always be wary around others, as if they wouldn't listen anyway. Holding his fork in one hand, his lover nods to himself, while tracing a heart in the air. A childish display of affection which says more than anything else.

 

“I understood it well, last night.”

 

“Do you return it? My confession?”

 

Many would be heartbroken by Mikazuki's frown, the way he appears to be looking for the answer inside of his heart. To Yamanbagiri, it means he is making sure of what he is going to reply. Rather than accepting without taking the risk into account, his lover has the patience to genuinely care about their future.

 

“I do.”

 

His solemn tone is too much at once, prompting Yamanbagiri to cover his face with both hands.

 

“It's not a marriage proposal, no need to use such voice!”

 

“Ha ha ha. I got carried away.”

 

In the end, they are still the same. Friends. And a something else too. It's a positive change, even when his foolish boyfriend insists to feed him some pieces of his food. What an eccentric person, Yamanbagiri tells himself while opening his mouth to accept the offering.

 

He's the man he cares about though.

 

 

     Gradually, Yamanbagiri attempts to improve his student life. Studying is a chore, as it has always been. Nonetheless, he starts saluting his classmates, memorizing names he keeps down on a sheet of paper to ensure he won't forget them again. Each day turns easier, until there is a bad one and he has to fight his own mind to keep up with his goals. Since he remembers people, they start returning the favor, including him in conversations, taking the time to inquire about his week-end. His first lunch with his classmates doesn't turn into the disaster he dreams about the night before.

 

If anything, it's pleasant. Yamanbagiri doesn't feel pressured into using his voice more necessary, and the hood remains over his head. Progress should be celebrated nonetheless, that's why he allows himself to get a cake slice at the bakery close to his place, on his way home. As long as he doesn't rush into catching up what he has missed, it'll be fine. The world won't change within a couple of days, he has time.

 

This new mindset prompts him to call his older brother for the first time since… Oh, he isn't sure any longer. They exchanged long emails over the year, but calling is on a different level. He tells himself using Skype is easier. Perhaps he won't be on, giving him a reprieve. Fate isn't going to go easy on Yamanbagiri though, not any longer. His brother is on, sending him a message before he can flee.

 

Time to have a little chat then.

 

He hopes his camera works properly, since he has never used it before. On the other side of the screen, his sibling waves eagerly. The first thing the youngest takes into account in the turquoise color covering his brother's hair. It fits him oddly well, if he has to be honest with himself. Yamabushi has always been prone to try out things without a second thought. Unlike Yamanbagiri.

 

“How have you been?”

 

School is a boring topic, so he skips it after two sentences, wishing to focus on the rest. How he made friends first. It's awkward, since he has narrated it, in shorter terms, during their exchanges. There is something in powerful in claiming it proudly with his voice. Somehow, Yamanbagiri needed to emphasize on that, to prove how much he has changed. Mikazuki, on the lover side, is more difficult to justify. Not because he is also a man (if it was the case, he wouldn't watch Yamabushi's boyfriend doing his sport routine in the background). Bonds have always been a challenge for the youngest, to the point he isn't sure to be taken seriously.

 

“I have a boyfriend,” he offers after a moment, staring at the keyboard rather than his brother.

 

The loud 'ooooh' followed by Yamabushi's laughter is enough to prove he was wrong one more time. Obviously, it's not a problem, he shouldn't have expected otherwise.

 

“Good, good! Douda and I have celebrated our two years last month.”

 

“I remember reading about it… I'm happy for you, Yamabushi.”

 

“Thanks! So, how's your special person?”

 

The winking is far from being compulsory and he groans. It would be worse if Horikawa was around, as he tends to be prone to questioning endlessly. But since their baby brother still lives with their parents, he doesn't have to fear such punishment. Yamanbagiri doesn't doubt Yamabushi will tell him soon enough anyway.

 

“He's the moon. Bright, beautiful, shining in my face when I don't ask him to. And I can't avoid him no matter what.”

 

A fitting description of the old man. Proud with himself, the man allows himself a small smile. After hearing Yamabushi compliments him on his choice, they fall back into a more casual conversation. He listens as his sibling talks about his job and how they are going to adopt a cat soon. A noble goal, although Yamabushi couldn't deal with fur getting everywhere on his clothes. It's not his life, so he doesn't have any reason to complain.

 

“You should visit us sometimes. We surely won't mind, right Douda?”

 

Lifting his thumb up in the background, the guy appears to approve of such plan. They live far, a little too much for Yamanbagiri to take a trip right now. Once he finishes the school year, perhaps he'll try it out. It's mostly an excuse to push the event away, since he could have taken the train during summer break.

 

For now, it's not the priority.

Yamanbagiri doesn't intend on running away indefinitely, so he'll fix the situation at some point.

 

“Don't forget to send a picture of your lover, we wanna see him.”

 

“Fine.”

 

Fondly, he recalls getting shirtless pictures of Doudanuki from his brother back when the two were only roommates. In retrospect, it should have been a sign someone had a crush.

 

 

      It's not a surprise when Mikazuki invades his classes again, as he did during first semester. By now, he understands how relaxing it is for his boyfriend to be able to forget his thesis if only for a short while. Apparently, he has to end it before the end of the month, adjusting details during his spare time. Yamanbagiri has little information on the contents, as his lover has not decided to allow him to read it. He has to wait until everything's perfect to have such honor. Knowing his lover, he expects something profound, with a hint of rebellion against the school board. Hearing the other complaining about his professors lately has given Yamanbagiri the impression they will never be pleased no matter what Mikazuki writes. It's a shame, as it's the representation of his life, of what he has decided to pursue. Adulthood brought many challenges on their shoulders, although none is as intense as trying not to end like people they despise.

 

He tries to distract the other once they're out of class, by suggesting they talk a walk or do something relaxing such as getting cake or tear. Little by little, the youngest steps outside of his comfort zone, to expand it. By now, places he used to avoid have become comfortable hideouts at the end of the day. They still ought to eat seafood though, it's important.

 

If it wasn't so cold outside, he would gladly suggest it. Right now, reading with his legs under the kotatsu is an appropriate past time. His body gets lazy from the warmth spreading into his bones, which feels amazing.

 

If he listened to himself, Yamanbagiri would spend his life there, acting like a tired slug. Impossible, as it's not his home. He doesn't want to invade all the time, without any regard for Mikazuki's privacy. Their relationship works out because they accept to give each other space, to wait as long as necessary to obtain a kiss or an embrace.

 

“Do not fall asleep on the kotatsu.”

 

The comment is enough for the youngest to shake his head fiercely. Something in his neck makes a lamenting sound, as to suggest it wasn't a bright idea. He truly needs to be more gentle with himself. His brother would be ashamed of his physical condition, taking him outside for a run without caring about the weather.

 

“Ha ha ha, you're getting as old as me.”

 

“Urg, I hope not.”

 

Bickering is quick to turn into drinking tea together, the book forgotten on the floor. If his hands are cold, the mug is enough to fix the problem. He notices the blanket Mikazuki wears around his shoulders without saying anything. January can be a harsh month, even for people used to the cold.

 

Their little break is interrupted by a loud knocking on the door. In fact, it sounds as if someone has decided to kick the piece of wood with all his might. A frown on his face, Mikazuki pushes away his blanket, getting back onto his feet to get to the door.

 

Shades of purple make Yamanbagiri sighs. Who else would arrive with such attitude except for Yukimitsu. It's odd nonetheless, as he hasn't been furious to such extend in months. But the dark gleam in his eyes, and the way he throws his body against the couch, mean something happened. Slamming his head against the cushions, he lets out an unnecessary groan, refusing to comply to Mikazuki's demands about his whereabouts. A lovers' quarrel perhaps? Yamanbagiri has no idea how those are meant to happen, as he has always avoided getting too close. Until Mikazuki, that's it.

 

“Will you explain yourself already?” He ends up asking with a firmer tone than anticipated.

 

Eyes filled with tears, the boy turns on his side to glare at him. For one moment, the man expects to be shout at, for no other reason that he can feel the energy running across Yukimitsu's body. It shows in the way he is shivering, fingers clenched against his clothes.

 

“Yagen got expelled!”