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Stray

Chapter Text

"Okay, one bag of Hershey kisses, two Snickers, a pack of small candy canes, and a large bag of chips…"

His eyes scanned over each variety of chips indecisively, reading over every name, comparing sizes, prices, weighing his options.

Yuu hadn't exactly been specific when he told him which flavor he was craving. Looking over all the dozens of different options made his head ache and his palms feel sweaty.

If only he'd brought his glasses.

He decided on a bag of family sized original Lays. He'd seen Yuu snack on those plenty of times during school hours and after some of his baseball practices. But he was pretty out of it before he left, he and his friends, and normally during those downer sessions he craved something with more of an added kick to it. Something hot.

His hand shot out to the red and orange bag that had been calling out to him during his five minutes of mentally mulling and stressing over what most would consider nothing, and was off to the paying counter at last. On his way up, he caught the eye of the young woman working the register and hesitated. It would have been nice if someone had gone with him on his journey to the liquor store, however, being seventeen and walking around at night stoned off medication was very much illegal in the grungy city of Sanguinem, so he was on his own.

"Are you ready, Mikaela?"

It was too late to run and hide now. He nodded his head apprehensively, shuffling towards the counter with basket in hand. He kept his head bowed low as if he were the one who should have been hiding from adult vision, and fished through his pocket for a ten dollar bill. For a second he thought he'd left the money behind, and his heart leaped into his throat, though barely letting up even after his fingers grazed against the neatly folded piece of parchment resting just fine and dandy in his sweater pocket.

The young woman eyed the fidgeting child across from her and then scoffed through heavy red lipstick. "Yuichiro, right?"

"Yeah," he breathed back through a forced smile. Handing his money over, he chanced a peek over at the transparent double doors. Thankfully, the snow had lightened up a bit over the past twenty minutes.

The lady snorted once again. "Honestly, kid, I wish I had the tolerance you have. It would really help me out with some of the crazy nut jobs that come around here in the dead of night searching for trouble."

Mika hummed, checking behind his shoulder for any of those accused trouble makers. Besides him and the cashier, the liquor store was a complete ghost town.

Truly, he longed for the safety of his bed. If only he'd stayed sitting at his window emersed in his all time favorite book, he wouldn't have had to travel three blocks out into the freezing cold to sate his brother and his friends' extreme case of the munchies. Unfortunately, all thanks to his unbearable peeve of needing to investigate everything, he couldn't help but nose around the sound of glass shattering in the kitchen one story below. Hopefully, Yuu would take pity and not have him take the fall for another one of his clumsy drug induced crimes.

The lady handed him his bag and change, and he made haste out of the old rundown building before she could strike up anymore pointless small talk. The chill hit his face like a brick of ice, and he tugged on the strings connected to his hood to shield an extra eighty percent of his already frozen features.

The city was dead silent; no cars, no pedestrians. It was just him, alone with his cluttered thoughts and the monsters that lurked deep within the dark, musty depths of the alleyways.

Before he and Yuu left for school that morning, he'd overheard a news reporter on television informing the city of the new gruesome crimes that have been plaguing the night streets as of late. People have been disappearing from their homes, an entire family was murdered two months ago—mother, father, and child; and after several men were found grossly mutilated beyond facial recognition in the alleys, people have been stearing clear of the outdoors. But even then, not a soul was safe. And there he was, an innocent sixteen year old boy trudging through it all, hauling a bag of junk food in his arms for people he didn't even like all because he was too afraid of saying the simple word no. But in his eyes, maybe dying was a lot more preferable than what he was forced to deal with in every waking hour of his miserable life ever since being introduced to that ominous cop and his spoiled son who was nearly just as bad.

He missed the orphanage; his old friends. His only friends for that matter. He missed the sarcasm and aggressive attitude wrapped tightly in a blanket of happiness and affection. He missed the the days of staying up all night chatting with them, then sleeping through the rest of the day like owls. He missed sneaking out in the dead of night and helping those friends wreak mischief upon the city dwellers. He missed being treated like he was worth more than just a nuisance and errand boy. For the past six years he had been trained and brought up to believe that he was nothing. And for the past four years, he believed it. And he deserved it.

Just two more blocks and he could finally get some rest for school tomorrow.

"Come on, buddy, just tell us what we need to know already and I'll at least put forth the effort of making this just a teensy bit less painful. We all have a home to get to tonight."

He froze. That condescending voice was coming from one of the alleys. There was a hushed petrified response from who he assumed to be the victim, and then a muffled scream followed by the sound of something being slammed against a solid brick wall.

‘Was this one of the crimes the news reporter was talking about?’

There was only one way to find out. Witnessing a murder was one thing. But catching the murderer in the act, and possibly getting their face on camera….

He would be doing something not even Guren and his crew of lousy cops could ever dream of.

He clutched his bag of groceries tightly in one hand, and began manuevering stealthily towards the corner of the mouth of the alley. Each step he took, the guy met face first with his attacker's fist. He peeked his head into the alley just in time to see the murderer pull out a strange looking knife that appeared to glisten in the dying light illuminating exactly where he'd artfully decided to hide and observe from afar. He could only make out the dark outline of the weapon, but even then, the decor looked like something only an assassin in a ninja movie could weild. He was intrigued yet terrified all the same.

He was about to witness a murder.

"Fine then. Seeing as you clearly get a kick out of swallowing your own teeth…" the first hooded figure looked to the second and nodded. Now was the perfect time to pull out his phone. The bruised and bloodied silhouette on the ground tried scrambling away from the second mystery man who had yet to say a single word, but the older man didn't stand a chance and was easily lifted off his butt with the use of just one powerful hand.

The shorter male—the leader, he presumed—took the man by the wrist as he quaked and stammered relentlessly, and in one swift motion far too quick for the average human brain to preceive, sliced his finger clean off. The scream that came after sent a jolt of electricity up his spine, and he immediately turned away. Suddenly, he didn't want to catch the crooks or save the city anymore. He clamped a clammy hand over his trembling lips, resisting the urge to vomit.

"A treat for my cat," piped the leader.

"Please, God! Please! I swear on my life, I don't know anything! The guy never told me his name! I-I was just a messenger! I swear! I didn't know what he put in the box! He just told me to send it to a specific address, and I did! But that's it! I swear—"

"If that's the case, then you're just as useless as I thought. Now, any last words before I shove my dagger down your lying throat?"

"N-no don—"

"No? Nothing? Well, if you say so…"

"No! please!"

The second hooded figure grabbed the victim's arms from behind, locking him in place as he kicked and screamed for mercy. The leader pried his jaws apart with his dagger, and the rest, he couldn't bear to watch. Only hear:

Gurgling.

Gagging.

Squelching flesh.

A crunch.

And then silence.

His heart pounded against his eardrums. His vision blurred and it was as if the world had been thrown into a blender set on high. The body fell to the floor, and so did his groceries as he bolted far away from the alleyway and towards his house at top speed. He passed through street lamps, turned tight corners, slipped on ice, pushed passed an oblivious couple, and was nearing the large Sanguinem park when the sense of somebody close on his heels struck his gut like that murderer's fist to that helpless guy's face. He threw a quick glance over both shoulders, seeing nothing but the midnight, snow covered Earth. Not a second before turning back around, a shoe found itself imbedded in the center of his stomach, and he was dropping to his knees like a sack of sand, a wheezing mess. He was given no time to catch his breath as he was then shoved to the ground and pinned down from behind. The dirty snow burned his eyes.

"I bet you thought you were being sneaky there, didn't you, little boy?" joked the man who had just finished murdering a human being like it was child's play. His words puffed against his hood, and he could see his warm breath mingling in with the chilly air. It reeked of jolly ranchers. "Did you enjoy the show? I enjoyed performing it."

All he could do was gasp in response, the air he had lost refusing to come back. Tears sweld at the corners of his eyes and poured down his cheeks like fountains. "I'm… I'm sorry! I didn't mean to—"

"You know, I should kill you right now," spoke the voice on top of him softly, as if deeply considering those words. "I want to. But you sound too young, and I'd be in real shit if I ended up slaughtering another brat. How old are? Do you go to school?"

"I-I'm sixteen," he choked, hoping for dear life he was of age to avoid having his throat slit open like cattle. The weight on top of him shifted ever so slightly and his breath hitched upon witnessing a menacing dagger plant itself mere inches from his nose.

"Oh wow, only a year younger than me. That's interesting. What school do you go to?"

"Seraph high."

"That backwards shit show? You know, one of their little guard dogs bit my brother's leg. Don't you think it's only fair I get even by carving up one of the students that go there? Kinda like an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth type of thing. I was gonna kill the guy who let the dog loose in the first place, but we were kind of on a tight schedule that day, and I never really got around to it. But seeing as you're a student, and I just so happen to have time to spare…"

"You were the one who broke into the school last week!"

"Guilty," the murderous teenager admitted gleefully. "But cut me some slack, I just wanted to know what the inside looked like. I've never really been to a high school before. Or spoken to another kid my age. Well… around my age. Anyhow, It's a real shame I have to cut our little chat short. It was… interesting."

The genuine somber in the boy's voice when he spoke those last words helped the anxiety bubbling in his chest lessen, if just by a fraction. He sounded just as lonely as him. But that didn't change the fact that he had just witnessed two teenagers interrogate and brutally murder a full fledged man twice their age. He could still hear those gargled screams like they were right inside of his head. A sound he would never forget.

"Are you going to kill me?" He uttered helplessly.

The boy on top of him hummed in the negative and took hold of one of his wrists, pressing it down firmly into the snow, and used his free hand to unstick his large blade from the ground; it had been wiped clean of the first victim's blood. "Just hurt you a bit."

His sleeve was tugged up to reveal his frail arm, and he winced as the teen's cold fingers unknowingly squeezed the scars marring the front half of his wrist. Only then was there a slight pause and a sound of curiosity.

"What's this?" The older boy murmured under his breath, the pads of his fingers running up and down the jagged lines quizzically. He didn't need to see them to know what they were and why they were there. "Did you do this to yourself?" There was no answer. "You did, didn't you?"

Having taken a merciless murderer by surprise with the sight of his own self inflicted scars, his face flushed in utter humiliation regardless of the snow it had been buried in not two seconds before, and he tried tugging his wrist free. He wished the guy would just do what he said he was going to do and get it over with.

To his surprise, the knife was set back down and the weight on the back of his thighs slouched. He then cried out as his entire body was flipped, and the boy on top of him was now straddling his lap. The strings on his hood were yanked and tied together tightly, rendering him completely blind. His breathing came out quick and ragged, but every muscle in his body was frozen stiff. His arms were anchored to either side of his head and the winter breeze ghosted past the scars he had created just the night before when his corrupt thoughts got the better of him. The shame upon hearing a light gasp from above made him want to hide away under his blanket like the coward he was. he wanted to explain himself, but what could he possibly say to justify his sinful deeds.

"I—"

"Don't," snapped the boy. His voice held either mockery nor malice. It was gentle. Guilty, almost, making him feel even more shameful. "I guess I won't be hurting you after all, seeing as somebody else is already doing a fine job at that." His thumb brushed against each fresh line, as well as the older ones, as if counting them. "These date back years, I can tell. And I bet there's more hidden all over your body, aren't there? Don't answer that."

He swallowed hard before asking in a quivering voice," Why do you care so much?"

"Because I of most people can understand that life can be a major bitch sometimes. That's why you have to be a bitch back."

"Is that why you kill people?" he bit defensively. The moment those words left his mouth, the sharp edge of the dagger was pressed firmly against his gullet.

"Hey now, no need to get all defensive. After all, I am the one holding the knife. And I didn't insult your little hobby—" the cool blade tapped his wrist "—so don't insult mine, hmm? The only reason I'm not cutting off your pretty little lips is because it goes against my personal morals."

That did the trick of shutting him up, and the boy laughed in amusement.

Barely realizing one of his hands were free, he moved it upward in an attempt to push his assailant away. Expectantly, that last ditch attempt was all for not when a much stronger hand merely slapped it back to the cold hard ground.

"If you're not gonna kill me, then what do you want?" He asked, fear and agitation frying his nerves. The guy just shoved a dagger down a man's throat, and now he was speaking casually like they were friends. Who wouldn't be sacred and irritable? The kid was completely insane.

"I want your number," he shrugged with an invisible smile. Mika blinked, unsure if he'd heard correctly, and the boy laughed for a second time. "I know it sounds crazy, but you're the first real teenager I've ever spoken to besides my brother in a long time, and I'm really curious about you, and I want to know your story. I was thinking maybe we could be friends?"

"You killed someone!" he blurted incredulously, squirming and jerking at his binds fruitlessly.

"And I enjoyed every second of it too. But that's besides the point."

"You're crazy!"

"On the contrary," the boy stated as a matter-of-fact. "I mean, you are the one who was wandering the streets alone at night and taking videos of me feeding a guy my dagger, so who's the real crazy guy in this situation?"

The boy's phone rang just as he was going to make more of his thoughts known, and one of the hands pinning Mika to the snow was now clamped over his lips while the other busied itself with answering whoever called. Strangely enough, he was too perplexed with the kid's enthusiasm to fight back.

"Yeah, I'm on my way now, just had to take care of a few things. Yeah. Everything's dealt with? Good. Okay, I should be there in ten minutes. And tell that creep to save me some food this time or I'll cut his tongue out and shove it up his ass. I'm dead fucking serious this time."

There were a few clicks, some shuffling, and for a second he thought he could get away with daring a peek at the unusual boy sitting idly on top of him.

"Nice try, kid," He heard as his hand was gently guided back to the ground. "I wanna know your face just as much as you want to know mine, but sadly that can't happen. Try not to take it personally, though, as I'm almost a hundred percent sure the rest of your face is just as cute as your chin and lips. Now do me a solid and stay down while I make my escape. My mom just finished making dessert and I'm dying of hunger right now. Who knows, maybe I'll even save you a piece and give it to you next time we just so happen to run into each other."

The weight on his lap disappeared, and his entire body shuddered as the surrounding air flooded the dampness left behind by the snow.

"I exchanged our numbers, by the way," the voice spoke, sounding a few feet to his left. "And about your wrists, I won't tell you to stop. I mean, what right do I have? But what I will say is: don't give up yet. You're a lot stronger than you think, otherwise I would've killed you the second you pulled your phone out. That was real ballsy of you and if it had been my brother who caught you instead, you would probably have a hole where your brain should be. Personally, I'm glad to have been the one to chase you down."

And after that, there was nothing but the distant sound of a passing train… and his pulse threatening to burst out of his neck. He untied the knot and loosened his hood with unsteady fingers, whipping his head left, and then right, and then left again. Nothing. The stranger had completely vanished into thin air, like a ghost.

He leaped to his feet, twirling a full 360 degrees in search of the boy who joyfully stole the life of another human being, yet, let him, a measly teen, go free with only an aching stomach to prove that what he went through hadn't been just a figment of his imagination.

While he occupied himself with trying to figure out just how to deal with the experience which would have traumatize most, many feet away, sprinting across an old abandoned building with his hood drawn over his head, dagger safely tucked away on his thigh, his new companion with a determined smile playing over his lips.

~~~

It was just his luck Yuichiro and his band of associates were out cold from the drugs they'd swallowed before he left. He didn't think he would be able to construct a lie good enough to explain why he hadn't come back with their snacks. Or why he was soaking wet and covered in sand.

Thankfully, Guren's door was closed and the lights were off, signifying that he was still held up at the police station working overtime on the multiple cases that the mysterious boy and his freakishly strong brother dropped on him two months prior. Should he tell him about tonight?

Not in a million years.

He'd do anything to avoid conversing with that maniacal bastard. If anything, he should tell his cop father that his son blackmailed him into coughing up his medication and then handed them out like candy to his obnoxious mean friends.

But Yuichiro Ichinose was a good boy; a model child. He would never do something as criminal as abusing drugs and binge drinking while there was no parent around to stop him.

He scoffed, peeling his wet clothes off after he was securely tucked away in his safe haven. He changed into his cozy pajamas and collapsed face first onto his pillow with a tired groan. His phone lie motionless in his right palm, the number he knew was in there silently calling out to him in that creep's voice.

The number owned by one of the two murderers who have been wreaking havok upon the city at night like violent, merciless, bloodthirsty monsters. Of all ways to kill a person, why stick a knife down their throat?

“… I enjoyed every second of it…”

He repeated those words over in his head until they began sounding more and more like unintelligible jargon.

"He's only a year older than me."

Only a year older and enjoying his life as a wanted felon. If he or his brother were ever caught, there was no way they wouldn't be facing an immediate death sentence. The way they went about slaughtering seemingly innocent civilians was simply too big a pill to swallow. Even for a city as lawless as Sanguinem. And while his father worked overtime trying to put a face to said crimes, the criminal sat happily in his home eating the dessert his loving mother prepared for him and his brother.

He jumped as his phone vibrated with a new message, pulling him from his thoughts. He knew it wasn't from Yuu. And he was expected to be asleep at such an early hour so it couldn't have been Guren either. That only left the one other person in his contact list.

He opened the new message, speechless at the picture staring back at him.

It was a picture from the mystery killer, or, as he read before opening the message, FRIEND. It was an innocent picture of a large slice of cake. His favorite dessert. And licking the cake, was the darkest cat he had ever seen in his life. Truly, he didn't know a living creature could possess such a depthless color. It made the picture appear broken or incomplete; like a glitch of some sort. His phone vibrated again.

FRIEND: Don't pay attention to Ayame. She's a fatass. But do you like strawberry shortcake? I was serious about saving you a piece. You seem like you could really use some sweetness in your life. And sorry about kicking you in the stomach. It was a good thing I held back though. I could've really popped something in there ;P

He sat stunned. He couldn't begin to comprehend what his life had come to in the short time span of just an hour and a half. He'd witnessed a guy, begging for his life, have a fancy looking dagger slid right down his throat. He was chased down by the man who he later found out was a mere teenage boy just like him. Said teenager kicked him in the gut, planted his face in the freezing snow, showed feelings of sympathy after seeing his self-harm, spoke words of encouragement, apparently befriended him, and now he was texting him about food and cats like normal teenagers do.

He ran a hand through his unruly mess of blond tresses, blowing air out through his cheeks. His phone was tossed to the side and he fell back on his bed and pulled his sleeve up to reveal his sins. There was an added hand print where the boy had roughly manhandled him, and as he thought back to the gentle way each hateful cut was caressed with soft fingers, there was only one thought running through his mind:

"What the hell?"

Chapter Text

Police were still searching for the body. As it turned out, the guy his insubstantial friend murdered had a wife and a one month old boy. He wondered if maybe the victim had mentioned that to his killers, would they have taken pity and let him off the hook? Thinking back to the way Mystery Boy decapitated his finger as a gift for his pet cat, the thought was highly unlikely.

The murder was all everyone at school was talking about. But in all honesty, without having witnessed a thing there wasn't much to say besides:

"It's a shame."

"I feel sorry for the wife."

"I can't believe that monster would do such a thing."

"I wonder who he'll target next."

"I hope it's not me."

He was glad the focus was directed at something else other than the weird adopted brother of the great Yuichiro Ichinose. Considering the center of attention was a missing dead guy, he didn't know whether to be more thankful or more disgusted with himself for feeling thankful in the first place.

Surprisingly, he dealt with the incident quite well. He thought he would have at least had a violent panic attack the moment he was kicked to the ground with an oversized knife mere inches from his face, but even after he'd made it back to his room, there was absolutely nothing. Not a single thing. And even now, listening to the other kids and teachers talk about it as if they were there to see it, his anxiety remained at an all time low. And yet again, he didn't know how to feel about the unusual lack of emotions.

He made it through half the school day without a single shove or insult, but he wasn't about to thank his out of the blue luck just yet. He was still a flimsy mouse trudging through a thick dangerous jungle full of distracted predators. No celebrations were permitted until tonight, when he was safely back in his room where not even his brother was allowed—according to Guren, at least. Yuu still managed to barge in, however. Even during his moments of partial or full vulnerability.

Embarrassment flooded his cheeks at the strange expression his brother would always gawk at him with. He wished Guren would allow him to have a lock on his door. Yuu got to have one and he was more irresponsible than a toddler told to sit still, so why couldn't he have one too? He was obedient, and his grades never treaded far from a B minus.

‘Probably because he doesn't like you.’

‘You're not supposed to be living in his house anyway.’

‘You're just a toy, remember?’

He frowned and pushed the door to the cafeteria open. As if being forced to live with that abusive pig was his fault. That was all Yuichiro's doing. A lot of things were Yuichiro's doing. And speaking of which, there he was now, walking straight towards him with his rich cheerleader girlfriend on his hip.

"Mika!" He greeted jubilantly, throwing his arms around his body in a tight bear hug. He could feel lean muscles flex against his back and arms.

"Hi… Yuu."

He tried not to appear too uncomfortable with the unwanted physical contact, and returned the embrace half-heartedly. Yuu pulled back about five seconds later, one arm still draped over his nape like a scarf, and began making his way to the center of the cafeteria.

"Uh, Yuu, where are we going?" He asked anyway, already knowing the answer as he locked gazes with Kimizuki's distasteful glare. He quickly redirected his attention back to Yuu.

"Well, you're always hiding away in the library reading boring depressing books and stuff, so being your older brother, I thought maybe you could hang out with me and my friends from now on since you don't have any. Plus, I kinda feel bad about yesterday, so… yeah. Take a seat."

As much as he would've gladly refused the offensive offer, fingers dug into his shoulders nonetheless and forced his bottom to the bench. He sat across from the blonde pigtailed girl named Mitsuba, who eyed him with little to no expression on her dolled face. And to her left was the small shy boy, Yoichi—the only person out of five who skipped out on engulfing his prescripton drugs. If he wasn't friends with such a wild pack of trend followers, he would thank him for being so kind. But due to particular circumstances, well…

"Hi, Mikaela," he greeted hesitantly, his swamp green irises jumping from him to his tray of fries timidly.

He waved back half as boldly, avoiding all forms of eye contact. He could practically feel Kimizuki's hateful stare piercing the center of his forehead, burning into his skull like a laser intended to scorch skin and bone. "Hi."

"What the hell is he doing here?" The boy with glasses pressed at last, causing both him and Yoichi to visibly flinch in alarm. He tried standing to leave, but with two hands glued firmly to his shoulders, all he was able to do was scooch forward awkwardly.

"Yuu, I should really—"

"Ignore Kimizuki, Mika. I think we all know why he's being such a jerk."

That suggestive statement resulted in an immediate burst of high pitched giggles from the two females of the table, and he could already feel his face heating up to those old freshman memories. He unintentionally glanced up at Kimizuki and found that his face was just as red, and the panic that had been lying dormant in his gut since the night before bloomed rapidly like a flower full of poisonous gas.

He tried leaving for a second time, but Yuu's hands on his shoulders were like a harness strapping him to a spine-chilling rollercoaster.

"Yuu, I wanna go," he pleaded just below a whisper, staring up into confident, lively green eyes with his more dull, bottomless blues. It was times like these he wished he'd taken his pills. Or at least had any pills to take in the first place. Just the thought of his empty bottle lying open in the kitchen's trash bin made his palms begin to perspire and his heart race.

"Oh, calm down, Mika," Yuu reassured, ruffling his hair in an attempt to ease his riled nerves. "We're all friends here. Kimizuki will just have to get over it. And besides, Shinoa wanted to invite you to a movie night she's having tonight at her place. Don't you wanna come? You rarely ever leave the house."

"I—I have homework."

"And so do we. Come on, Mika. Your grades aren't going to change from just one stupid assignment."

"But Guren…"

"Will be too busy checking out that new guy at his job. He'll be out all night."

"Yuu, I don't—"

"Mika…"

"Okay," he agreed at last, voice sounding out of breath. "Okay. Now can I go? Please." Anything to escape from this humiliating predicament. He needed some air. And fast. He could hardly think straight, the room was so loud. Not to mention suffocating with all the different sized bodies reeking of heavy cologne, perfume, food and sweat.

Yuu slapped his back triumphantly, unaware that he'd slapped out the last bit of oxygen he possessed in the process. "See, that wasn't so hard. It'll be fu—hey, wait! Where are you going?"

The whole table, plus a few surrounding tables, watched puzzled as the quirky blond pushed through a crowd of unsuspecting students and stumbled out of the cafeteria, panting like a madman.

"I think you pushed him a bit too far, Yuu," scolded Shinoa, shooting her boyfriend a pointed glare.

Yuu shrugged with a dismissive wave of his hand. "He's just overreacting again. He'll be fine in about five minutes, trust me. He's been like that since we were kids."

"I know, but shouldn't you at least chase after him and see if he's alright? He looked like he was about to faint."

"God," Kimizuki sneered, glaring at the door the blond had bursted through just seconds before. "He's such a joke. We don't need him for movie night. All he's gonna do is make things weird like he always does."

"It'll only be weird if you, Kimizuki, make it weird," Shinoa replied smoothly, sending Kimizuki a long hard look before turning on her heels to leave.

Mitsuba choked on her chocolate milk, and Yuu laughed out loud while following after his girlfriend to wrap a strong arm around her waist. Kimizuki's face turned beet red and he stomped off in the opposite direction, grumbling harsh swears under his breath as he went.

And then there were two.

Mitsuba gulped down the rest of her milk and burped shamelessly, wiping the corner of her lip with her arm. "So, I can't be the only one who thinks Kimizuki still wants to get inside Mikaela's pants, right? He's being way too obvious."

"I don't know," Yoichi squeaked with a light blush dusting over his cheeks, scooting away from the smell of cold chocolatey milk and school tacos. "I just hope he won't be mean to him during our movie night."

"Aye aye to that. The last thing we need is drama between some jealous baseball playing hothead, and a kid who can barely speak to someone other than himself without almost having a heart attack."

"I-I think it's panic attack…"

"I know what I said."

"Oh…"

~~~

Mika downed his entire water bottle in one go, unknowingly disturbing the librarian with his obnoxious gulping. After catching the woman's venomous gaze from a yard away, he blushed a deep crimson, apologized, and ducked into the nearest towering shelves of literature. He dropped to the ground with an audible huff and took long slow breaths.

In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Repeat. Just like he was taught at the orphanage.

He did that for about five minutes before he was able to think straight again and feel embarrassed for creating a scene in the middle of more than half the school. He dropped his head into his knees, the sleeves to his shirt stretching to reveal his stinging cuts.

‘Great, just another thing for people to be jerks about. I'm so stupid.’

He hated it. He hated all of it. He hated his stupid anxiety. He hated the stupid emptiness in his chest. He hated feeling like complete and utter shit all the time, day in and day out. He hated Yuu for the way he treated him. He hated Kimizuki and his other friends. He hated himself for being such a weak, attention seeking coward. And for what Guren did to him right after making that stupid adoption that neither of them wanted.

A noose tightened itself around his throat, restricting his airway, and a choked sob escaped from his trembling lips. He squeezed his arms around his legs and buried his head deeper in his knees in an attempt to muffle his pain stricken snivelles, but that did little to extinguish the anguish ravaging his heart and tainting his mind with dark thoughts.

Why him? Why did everything always have to fall on him? What had he done in his past life to deserve such constant misery? Why did everyone have to leave him, use him and treat him like dirt? Why was he so weak and hopeless? Why? Why? Why? What has he done?

‘I deserve this.’

That damned stupid phrase. And yet, they were comforting, in a sick and twisted sense. That simple phrase never failed to answer any, if not all, of his questions. He did deserve it. All of it. He never could understand why, but in a way, he just knew that everything that's happened to him in the past and present, and everything that will happen to him in the future will happen for the simple explanation that he deserved it. Everything happens for a reason, he tells himself. Maybe the cruel things thrown at him in life were leading up to something big. Or maybe it was just payback for all the horrible things he saw and did when he was younger.

He wiped his tears away on his sleeves and glared down at his scars, his heart aching with self-loathe and wistfulness.

‘Does the world really not want me here?’

He thought about the small razor in his backpack extracted from a pencil sharpener he found on the curb a few months back; the pills Guren will have him pick up at the pharmacy some time that week.

He could do it. He could really do it, and nobody would blink an eye. His real parents were dead, so not like they would miss him. And his only two friends in Sanguinem were gone from his life forever. Yuu and Guren only used him for their own sick purposes, so he doubted he would be considered “selfish” if he actually did it. All he really had was himself, and he was hardly fond of that. Why would he be?

"He should've just killed me."

If only…

As if on cue, his phone buzzed noisily—a feeling he had yet to get used to—and he reluctantly pulled the cracked device from out of his pocket. He sniffed and wiped the remaining tears from his eyes to clear his vision. As much as he'd hate to read whatever it was Yuu must have texted him, he'd be in real trouble if he dared to not message back.

He learned that lesson the hard way.

He clicked the power button on the side of the phone, the screen lighting up not a second later, and the text that stared back at him surrounded by a dull grey message box left him at a loss for words.

"Wh-what…?"

He read the name of the sender a total of six time before finally believing what his eyes were trying to tell him.

FRIEND: leaving your friend on read. I'm hurt.

FRIEND: but hey, come up to the roof. I left you a surprise :)

FRIEND: and hurry up. I literally had to fight off a group of pissed seagulls for you.

‘It's the killer…’

Should he text back? Should he do as he was told and go up to the roof for the “surprise”? What even was the surprise? What if he was up there waiting for him? What if he'd reconsidered sparing his life, and merely came back to finish the job? What if he stuck that huge dagger down his throat like he blissfully did to that other guy?

He didn't want to go out like that, being force-fed a fancy dagger. He'd be all over the news. People would talk about him.

“Remember that one weird kid who was murdered on the roof?”

“Haha, yeah. He probably only went up there just to jump off and the guy saw him and killed him instead.”

“Good riddance. That kid was a freak.”

He shook the ache from his head and tried to focus.

FRIEND: If you're scared that I'll be there, I won't. We're not allowed to know each others faces remember? Then I'd have to kill you.

‘So he's a mind reader and a psychopath. Great.’

FRIEND: come on, kid, I know you're getting my texts. Can't you at least respond to me? I'm really trying here.

Mika checked behind his shoulders for any onlookers—thankfully there were none—and then turned his attention back to his screen. He couldn't believe what he was about to do. But if he texted back, wouldn't the murderer know his name? Didn't he already know his name since he had to go through his phone in order to add his number? Is that how it worked? Maybe he had so much self control he'd kept his eyes trained on everything else but his name. That would have been a difficult temptation to beat.

Maybe his name was presented as UNKNOWN, or maybe it was something else besides his real name.

A bloodthirsty seventeen year old psychotic killer with zero mercy, but an abundance of self control who likes cats and cake.

What even was this guy?

He chewed his lip anxiously, waiting for the lunch bell to ring so that he at least had an excuse not to go up to the roof to meet his brutal end. His thumbs hovered above the keyboard, and he mentally prepared himself before typing out a brief response at last.

HIM: what did you leave on the roof?

The answer was immediate.

FRIEND: an apology for scaring the shit out of you last night? Did you have trouble sleeping? I hope I didn't traumatize you too much.

His eyebrows drew together skeptically.

HIM: why are you doing this?

FRIEND: because I'm a nice guy ;)

FRIEND: and because I was serious about everything I said last night. I wanna be your friend. Or your texting buddy at least.

HIM: but why me? You're wasting your time.

FRIEND: what makes you say that?

HIM: because you are. I shouldn't even be texting you

FRIEND: and why is that? Was it something I said??

Mika scowled. He could practically hear the smile behind that text. Maybe he should just nip it in the bud and end it with the creep once and for all, and get on with his pitiful life. Nothing good would come from befriending a wanted criminal.

HIM: my dad's a cop.

FRIEND: and my dad's a pile of ash. Looks like we both have daddy issues. Now hurry up and go to the roof before your present is stolen by those seagulls. Do you know how hard it is to climb up a four story building with a paper bag in your mouth?

FRIEND: pretty fucking hard, kid.

He had to do a double-take on that first message.

The guy was an absolute nutjob.

HIM: Can you please leave me alone. I don't want to be your friend

FRIEND: you don't mean that

The bell blared throughout the building at long last, signaling for ever child to scramble to their fifth class of the day immediately. He sent the mystery kid one last message that he felt should do the trick of sealing the deal, packed up his belongings, and slung his large backpack over his shoulder, following in the rest of the students' footsteps and heading out into the crowded hallways.

Becoming friends with a wanted convict, he thought bitterly. As if he were that desperate.

~~~

His last two classes dragged on at a turtles pace. There was a substitute teacher for art, his sixth period, meaning the students basically did whatever their frisky little hearts desired, and behaved as untamed as a pack of wild street dogs, without fear of consequence. Not like consequences were necessary for him anyway, considering he'd had his head buried six feet deep within a thick book of horrors.

That was, until he glanced up for half a second in response to the commotion happening in the front of the class between two particularly rowdy boys shouting and roughhousing with one another, careless of their surroundings, and one just so happened to hurl a football straight in his direction.

Needles to say, his reading glasses were cracked. And so was his last shred of fortitude…

~~~

In the front of the school, as children swarmed out of the two glass doors like hysteric ants, he himself checked his phone for what felt like the hundredth time in under ten minutes. He tapped his foot impatiently and gnawed his bottom lip raw, squinting through the heavy snowfall and its unfair winds.

Of all days, why did Yuu have to take his sweet time leaving the building now? It was as if his brain enjoyed mocking him with that less than comfortable encounter with his brother and his group of friends, added with the painful football to the face that resulted in an uproar of laughter from the whole class. The offenders had laughed along with everybody else and apologized profusely, and all he wanted to do in that moment was run away and hide in the bathroom, but he was paralyzed with a mixture of negative conflicting emotions and could only babble in a voice laced with tears, "it's okay, it's okay. I'm fine. It didn't hurt, really. I'm fine," then proceed to stare down at his book with watery eyes until class ended.

He just wanted the day to be over with already. Everywhere he turned, it was like people were pointing, and laughing, and giggling, and talking about what happened. Even the people who weren't there. But if he left Yuu behind, Guren would have his head.

He checked the time again and sighed deeply. "Come on, Yuu."

Ten minutes turned to twenty minutes, twenty minutes turned to thirty, and thirty turned to an hour. He shifted from one foot to the other in apprehension. Did Yuu leave without him? He knew there wasn't practice today, or any after school tutoring. And Yuu absolutely hated school so it wasn't like he would waste his time fooling around on academic grounds.

He pressed a few buttons on his phone and held it up to his ear, teeth chattering as he waited for the familiar sound of his brother's voice to mock him for being dense enough to wait out in the snow like an idiot.

The phone rang five times, and then,

"Mika?"

"Yuu, where are you?" The staticky sound of Yuu's laughter on the other line made a deep crease run along his forehead. "I'm at home. Why? are you still at the school?"

"N-no! I… was at the store. I was just… buying… stuff…"

There was an awkward pause. "Oh. Well if I were you, I'd hurry up. Guren's taking a lunch break, and he said he'll be home in about ten minutes."

His skin blanched. "What?"

"And another heads up: Kimizuki's gonna be the one driving us to Shinoa's house tonight, so I told him he could hang out here until we leave. Try not to make things weird."

"What!"

"I have to start getting ready now, so see you later."

The line went dead and Mika's heart began racing over a mile a minute, clusters of thoughts colliding with other clusters to form one big clustered migraine that wrapped around his head like a crown made of cement.

Guren rarely came home for lunch breaks. What made now so special?

With quivering fingers, he hastily shoved his phone back in his pocket, and before his brain could give out the command, his feet were already sprinting across the slippery street and away from the school.

He had to make it back home before Guren. Or else.

Chapter Text

Perhaps all of his remaining luck had been sucked dry the moment he noticed people weren't picking on him at school earlier. Or maybe it was something more significant…

That murderer taking pity on him and sheathing his elegant blade the night before.

Regardless of what it was, it was gone; dried up like a naked orange slice left out in the sun to bake, leaving behind nothing but its hard, shriveled skin. And now, because of his new black tainted luck, he was standing frozen in the center of the living room with sweat trickling down his forehead despite the frost clinging to his skin, gazing up into the fiery eyes of the man he called father.

"And just where have you been?" Came the first stern query.

There were dark bags under each narrowed eye, ebony hair was a greasy mess as if fingers had been frustratingly run through it all day, and the stench pouring from the midnight black uniform burned his nostrils.

He took a small step back, answering in a voice even more pathetic. "I… I had to get something from the store. I was running low on paper, and I…" his words trailed off, the knot in his throat keeping his sorry lies sealed. His palms stung something awful. If only he hadn't slipped on that sheet of ice, he probably would have made it in time.

He could see Yuichiro and Kimizuki from his peripheral, observing the confrontation from behind the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. Why Yuu, the boy who wanted so desperately to become his big brother in the first place, wasn't standing up for him, he didn't know. And that lack of knowledge was what caused the fresh tears trickling down his cheeks as he kept himself from jumping away from a callused palm reaching for his face. The look in those stoney eyes, however, remained unforgiving.

His lie had been caught.

"I want you in my room in ten minutes, understand?"

He shut his eyes tightly in an attempt to staunch his tears, and lowered his chin down to his chest, speaking just above a whisper. "Yes, dad."

And after that, the hand on his cheek was gone, and the smell was but a bad memory.

"Guren, we're all gonna spend the night at Shinoa's," called Yuu from the kitchen, words muffled by the sandwich in his mouth. Guren grunted in acknowledgement, and that was that. Mika stood in the center of the living room, fists clenched at his sides until the sound of a door slamming shut one story above his head pulled him back to reality, and with tears streaming down his face with the thought of what was sure to come, he ran to the bathroom with his backpack still dangling from his shoulders.

He locked the door behind him, needing a secure place to sit and both mentally and physically tear himself limb from limb. Catching a glimpse his wrecked face in the mirror, all he wanted to do was scream and tear every last strand of hair from his head.

‘So pathetic.’

‘Did you really think he was going to buy into that lame excuse?’

‘You're an embarrassment to yourself.’

‘Kimizuki saw what happened.’

‘He's talking about you to Yuu.’

‘He'll never let this go.’

‘Maybe he even recordered it.’

‘He'll show a video of you crying like a pathetic child to everybody at school.’

‘That's what you get for being weak.’

He cut too deep, and the razor slipped from his trembling fingers, clattering loudly to the floor in the otherwise soundless bathroom. He stared down at his bleeding wrists, his eyes wide in abject horror. Guilt.

"What have I done?"

Time was running short, and he was expected to be present in Guren's room in less than ten minutes now. What has he done, indeed? How could he be so stupid?

In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Repeat. Everything was going to be okay. It wasn't like it was his first time facing punishment for Yuu's betrayal. He does it all the time. He has the scars to prove it. He was used to the prejudice treatment directed at him, and him alone. He just needed to face the consequences and get over it like he'd been doing for the past six years: alone, in his room. And hey, maybe then he'll have an honest excuse for not going to Yuu's girlfriend's house.

I'm so pathetic,’ he thought distastefully as he doused a handful of tissues in alcohol and pressed them down hard against his ugly skin. He didn't even flinch as the burning liquid did its job of cleansing the flesh he had exposed to the infectious air. He deserved the pain. He deserved the punishment he'd given himself. He deserved everything Guren was going to do to him in the next couple of minutes.

His chest emptied itself of every last drop of fear and misgiving, and began replenishing with a self-made sedative. His blood was quiet, and his heart was slow. He cleaned up the remaining blood on his wrists with a numb expression, flushed the soiled tissues down the toilet, hid his razor back in his backpack, stared down at his sloppy anxiety achieved work for the last sixty seconds he had left, and then finally pulled his sleeves down to leave the bathroom as if nothing had ever happened.

Unexpectedly, fist held up as if ready to knock, Kimizuki stood a foot outside the door. The unease reflected clearly through his spectacles contradicted the scarring behavior he displayed so proudly back at the school, but Mika was too busy hiding his face to realize that factor. He unconsciously sidestepped him, and continued making his way deeper down the hall where his adoptive father awaited his arrival.

He knocked twice before being told to enter. The lights were turned on and the atmosphere was humid with the tell tail signs of a hot shower. Guren stepped out of his bathroom a second later with a damp towel slung over his shoulder, and he held Mika's faltering blue eyes like an officer getting ready to question a guiltless criminal.

He was suffocating in discomfort the closer the resentful male came to him, but did well to hide it behind a specially trained face. Guren circled him like a lion, muscles flexing beneath finely tanned skin.

"Now," he spoke clearly. "Are you ready to tell me why it took you an hour to get home?"

"I… I thought Yuu was still at the school. He left without me, and—"

"So you're blaming him for your incompetence again."

"No! I—" Mika's blurted words were cut short by a harsh slap to the face. His head snapped to the left, and his eyes teared up on impulse.

"Goddamn brat."

Guren stepped away and smoothed his hair back with both hands, as if needing to recollect his anger. The hatred Mika knew was felt towards him was more terrifying than it was heartbreaking. What child wouldn't be scared of living in the same house as a bulky, aggressive alpha male capable of doing whatever their urges told them to, knowing the lesser wouldn't speak a word of it to a single soul?

"Take off your shirt," he ordered from behind. Mika could hear the sound of him searching through his top drawer for the infamous nine-tailed whip he had acquainted himself with when he was only ten years of age. The drawer closed, hinting that it was out and ready for use, and a spine tingling chill ran up his back. "Now, Mikaela."

"Yes, dad," he responded, his backpack sliding down slender shoulders. He reached for the hem of his shirt, breath shaking ever so slightly as more and more of his skin was exposed for shameless eyes to behold, and it took everything in his scrawny body to keep certain memories at bay, all locked securely behind a large metal cage.

He took a deep breath, and released it without a sound, clutching his shirt up to his chest for as long as he was able to before it was roughly snatched away and tossed to the mattress.

"Hands on the wall. And don't make me repeat myself."

Eyes glued ahead, he wordlessly stepped up to the wall farthest from the door where listening ears failed to reach, and placed his hands flat against its smooth surface, just as instructed. It was the same wall he had been trained to use when he was a kid.

He squeezed his eyelids shut and breathed slowly through his mouth. Even without the use of his eyes, he could still see as the short whip was wound back and snapped forward with enough force to pull an immediate gasp from his lips. His skin felt as if it had been singed, but before it had the chance to adjust to the abrupt pain, there was a second lash. He bit down on the inside of his cheek. And then there was a third lash, the hardest that nearly brought him to his knees.

"You deserve this, say it," Guren commanded, not sounding the least bit merciful to his son's whimpers.

"I—"

"Louder."

He blinked back tears. "I-I deserve this."

There was a fourth crack. "I deserve this."

A fifth. "I deserve this."

A sixth, seventh, and eighth all the way up to a total of fifteen lashes when his body could take it no longer and succumbed to the raging agony, and he was left panting on his knees with his perspired forehead pressed to the wall. And throughout the entire ordeal, he was forced to repeat that damned phrase, over and over like it was some kind of twisted prayer. He hated it.

His back arched out of reflex as prodding fingers roamed over each line of inflamed flesh. He had to bite down on his lip to keep from crying out.

The warmth of the larger man's body being near disappeared, and he turned around just in time to catch his shirt before it could smack him in the face. He knew the routine by now. Regardless, knowing that there were predatory eyes observing him too close for comfort, he kept his own gaze averted to the floor, bracing himself, and pulled the dark fabric over his head and down his pulsating back, a little ways below his belt.

"Now get out of my room. I don't want to see your face for the rest of the week, is that understood?"

"Yes, dad," he murmured, barbed wire squeezing around his feeble heart to those hate filled words spat out in such a crude manner. He gathered his backpack in his arms, but before his palm could reach the doorknob a hand latched itself onto his shoulder, spinning him like a top. He looked up at his father with eyes overwhelmed with fear.

Guren didn't say one word, only proceed to gaze down into those large doe eyes that shimmered like a lake in the artificial glow of the room. There was tension in the air, and something else that made his insides scream in alarm, but he couldn't move. He could only watch and mentally panic as stray tears he had no knowledge of producing were brushed away from either cheek.

"Get changed and go to bed. If you're hungry then use this to buy pizza." A crisp twenty dollar bill was placed in the side pocket of his backpack, and without a clue as to what just happened, or what was going to happen next, the door was opened and he was shoved out into the hallway. He quickly spun back around, confused and lost, but it was too late. He was staring at a blank plank of wood.

~~~

In his safe haven at last, he sat down on the edge of his bed and worked on processing what had been said and gifted to him; the look that hid itself behind long lived animosity.

He turned the twenty dollar bill around in his fingers distractedly. Guren's never displayed such tenderness before, especially after a nasty beating. Why would he do such a thing now? What changed? It was too weird and unsettling for him, and all it would succeed in doing was latching onto his brain like a parasite and giving him an unbearable migraine. All he should care about for the rest of the day was that he was going to have his first meal since Wednesday, his father was going to be spending another night out on a wild goose chase, and he was going to be left home alone without Yuichiro to get him in even more unnecessary trouble.

It felt like eons ago when he'd last had some alone time to be himself and unwind. He was going to get to watch TV in the living room, eat on the couch—or in his room—read free of any disturbances, sleep peacefully without worry of the clamorous sound of a loud shooting game, or worse, Yuichiro moaning shamelessly in the other room to things he'd rather not think about.

For the first time in a long time, a small smile found its way across his lips.

He pulled a wet wipe from out of his nightstand, wiping away the last remaining evidence of his previous sobs, and then did as Guren told him and changed into his pajamas: a pair of black soffe shorts, fluffy knee high socks for the cold, and a loose fitting long sleeve to cover his fresh cuts. The shorts were a bit girly for his taste; not to mention they were meant for fitness purposes—which he rarely associated himself with—but after two years of roaming the house in them during the night hours, the fact that they barely covered the space below his thighs didn't bother him as much as it used to.

That, and they were all he had, courtesy of Yuu.

His five minutes of basking in giddiness came to a quick and instant halt as he lied down flat on his bed and the forgotten pain resounding on the surface of his back jolted him back to a sitting position at a speed that left his vision whirring. He hissed out a swear through clenched teeth, and only then did he remember that he had been whipped not ten minutes before, fifteen times in a row whilst repeating that damn phrase like a broken record.

Looks like his fun alone time wasn't going to be as fun as he'd hoped after all.

With his mood now subdued like life intended for it to be, he settled himself back down on his mattress more considerately, lying on his side this time, and gazed outside his window into the beautiful frosty scenery of Sanguinem. He always loved the snow. It reminded him of better times back when he still lived at the orphanage with his two best friends. They would always sneak out in the middle of the night and wander off far where not even the police could have tracked them down, and they would build snowmen, talk about anything and everything their small minds could come up with, tell stories about life before they met, and more.

If only he could go back to those times. If only he could change the events that led up to him losing them forever. It would be a dream come true. But unfortunately, those weren't the cards he was dealt, and now he was stuck in a house with a man who would rather him get hit by a swirving truck as soon as possible, and a brother who used him for drugs, repulsive desires, and extra brownie points at school for having the courage to adopt a mentally troubled kid who had been born into a home full of rabid rats and child neglect.

His eyes fluttered shut, and he released a long deep sigh. Thinking negatively was the last thing he should waste his energy on. It was rare for him to be left home alone, and he wanted to savor every last second of it lest it slip away. All he had to do was wait for Yuu and Kimizuki to leave. They were being awfully quiet, however. He had to admit he was rather curious as to what the two jocks could possibly be up to. Curious, but not brave enough to go investigating. Crashing into them would only cause needles trouble on his part.

He nuzzled his face into his favorite pillow, and allowed his mind to drift aimlessly, consciousness tracing close after it like a cat to yarn, and before he knew it, he was dozing off into a light snooze.

~~~

The sun was setting at last. It was the end of December and the wintery atmosphere was as perfect as ever. The smell was refreshing, just as the sound of the murder of crows cackling overhead in search of shelter. In contrast to the city above, the city below was deathly quiet. No cars. No pedestrians. Just him, his beloved blade, and the blood tick hiding in the shadows. Yellow street lamps clouded with condensation flickered on the edge of life and death. His breaths came out as trails of thick mist, floating before his face and then disappearing into the night.

He moved silently, like a feline stalking its prey. His light footwear made zero noise in the deep snow, each step trained and precise. His identity was concealed behind a pitch black bandana, and his clothes clung to his lean form snuggly, acting as a second layer of skin.

His target was in sight: Caucasian male, overweight, brown hair, brown eyes, scar on left half of his face. A deviant who'd been stalking the child of a wealthy, recently divorced individual. His bounty: twenty-five thousand if brought in alive. Twenty if left dead. But money didn't matter to him. Not now, at least. That last kill was intended to keep him comfy for another month or two.

The man got into his car, engine wheezing desperately like a patient awaiting death, and then drove off into the night. He pounced from building to building, rooftop to rooftop, just a shadow in the corner of one's eye; one second there, the other, not. His blood colored irises remained transfixed on the back of the van, following its every turn and pause, but the rest of his body was emmersed on the path ahead, ensuring no flukes as he leaped and dodged over countless obstacles.

Fifteen minutes of exertion, and the large van pulled up into the driveway of an old, poorly groomed house. The front yard was nothing short of expired weeds and uneven dirt piles. The gutters were cluttered with mud and sludge, and the house itself was littered with graffiti from mediocre gangs and signs from troubled teenagers. Just by the looks of it, he could tell the place was on the verge of collapse.

But, oh, what a sight it was. The dirty windows. The stench. The canines barking pointlessly in the distance. It brought back so many memories.

He easily snuck in from the back door. The toxic fumes were of mold and cluttered dishes, but he sauntered through it like it was merely the fresh air from outside, his nose accustomed to all sorts of repugnant odors that would have the average human barfing in a matter of seconds. He could hear the man grunt loudly in the other room as he flopped down on a dusty couch and cracked open a can of inexpensive beer. His comb-over became more prominent the closer he got, and from over his thick shoulder he could make out the pictures of the little girl who'd been unfortunate enough to catch the perv's beastly eye. It made him wonder how many other victims there were; how many were taken from their parents, dragged to his shack, and then returned broken beyond repair.

Was he himself broken? He didn't think so. He didn't feel broken. Nobody had ever called him broken before. Well… except for one. But she was long gone. A pencil to the eye was all it took to send her frail little heart into a frenzy. Served her right.

The brute eagerly unbuckled his belt and unzipped his large stained kachis, sighing in bliss as his fully erect manhood was finally released from its constraints.

It was nothing he hadn't seen before.

But…

"A bit small for my taste."

The man leaped forward with a gasp that hurt even his throat. His gullet jiggled along with the rest of his oversized body, and his beedy brown eyes locked onto the dark figure standing behind his couch.

"Wh-wh-what the hell are you doing in my house? Who are you?"

"No hi? How are you?" He pouted childishly.

The man stumbled into his outdated television set, and dropped to his knees in pursuit of his precious photographs that had fluttered to the floor during his frightful scare.

He scoffed at the pitiful sight and crossed his arms over his chest. "Anyway, I've heard some pretty sick shit about some big guy stalking the city's little kids. Heard anything of it?"

The man shoved his pictures into his pocket and pulled his pants up, face turning bright red at the look of unrefined amusement being directed at his stubby member. "Th-this is trespassing, you sick son of a bitch! Leave now or—"

"Or what? You'll call the cops on me? Come on, buddy, let's think this through a bit. What about you sit down and we talk like civilized human beings, or—" he unsheathed his blade and pointed it at the man's pudgy nose "—I castrate you where you stand. It's your choice really."

The man swallowed hard, eyeing the sharp tip of the seven inch knife. He followed it unblinkingly as its wielder casually rounded the couch and guided him back to his seat.

"Good choice," he chirped, lowering his weapon. He shoved the clutter of half finished cans and garbage decorating the coffee table to the carpet, and made himself at home, sitting crisscrossed atop its splintery surface. He sighed in mock exhaustion and pulled both his hood and bandana down, running a hand through his short lavender locks. "God, it's hot in here."

"What the hell?" The man exclaimed, pointing a chubby finger at his forehead. "Y-you're just a kid!"

"A kid who won't hesitate to dice your finger like a carrot if you don't get it out of my face within the next five seconds. Now sit the fuck down and shut your gob."

"Ha! Ha Ha! As if I'll take orders from a twelve year old little shit—"

His words caught in his throat. He was now standing face to face with the barrel of a fully loaded pistol. Crimson eyes bore into his daringly, and he dropped back into his seat without another peep.

"It's all fun and games until you have a gun shoved up your ass," he grumbled under his breath in exasperation. His gaze flickered from the small gun in his hand to the man sizing him up. "Give me those pictures. And make it quick, or I actually will shove this gun up your ass."

The man did as he was told with no further argument, wary of the two weapons at the psychotic kid's disposal.

He hummed, skimming through each photograph with piqued interest. "Cute kid. I bet there are tons of photo books filled with pictures just like these, aren't there?" The man didn't give an answer, and the pictures in his grasp were now being torn to tiny little shreds that would take a man hours to reconstruct.

The sight of his hard work being so carelessly destroyed brought a satisfied smile to the teen's face, and he said, "You know, I never quite understood adults—men and women. They're really just overgrown children if you ask me. They get their kinky shit taken away and then ball like babies as if any of it was worth anything more than a penny." He chuckled lightly and began playing with the handle of his gun. "My mom had that same exact look on her face you have on yours now when her pervy little pictures were burned to ashes. She looked about ready to strangle me. Oh, wait…"

"What the hell do you want from me? Money? Drugs? I have both. Just take whatever you want and get out!"

"I don't want your disgusting couch money. And I especially don't want your dolllar store drugs. In fact, I don't even remember what I wanted to talk to you about anymore now that you've officially pissed me off. I came here specifically to dispose of you, so that's just what I'm going to do. And after that, I'm gonna go home, and I'm gonna go to bed. Now, if you could just hold still for a second."

The man scrambled to his feet and made a break for the back door, the floor boards groaning in gripe as his large weight barreled over them as he went.

He took his sweet time chasing after the pervert, stepping past the couch, and through the kitchen. There was a sickening crunch, like the sound of a branch snapping from outside, and he brushed past the blinds covering the back door to reveal his target now screaming on the ground in agony. His foot was facing the wrong direction, and he couldn't help but snort at the sight of it twitching like a deceased insect. He stepped up to him, and got down on one knee, trying but failing to stifle his last few giggles.

"Holy shit, your leg!"

"Oh, God, no! No! Don't do this! I beg of you! I'll do anything, I swear! I'll never take pictures of kids again! Please, God!"

"God? Why beg to God when the real person you should be begging to is sitting right here in front of you? Really, you have no idea how offensive it is to me when people do that."

He stood up with an annoyed huff, dusted his pants off, and brought his foot high up from the ground before bringing back down upon the man's skull, putting a stop to his screams in an instant. He's sure the neighbors had stirred all thanks to the ruckus, so he had to hurry things along. There was still evidence to clean up back in the house.

He eyed the unconscious body with both eyebrows drawn together, studying it. "Alright, I think I know what I'm gonna do with a perverted pig like you."

With that being said, and his mind made up, he unsheathed his dagger and plunged it deep into the man's chest. Things would've been a lot more fun if his brother were there to watch. But, oh well. More fun for him.

Chapter Text

Mika woke up with a groan. His head was pounding, and his entire body felt like it had been submerged underneath a bucket of icy water. From the tips of his toes to the top of his head he was frozen stiff. The time on his alarm clock read that it was just half past eleven, meaning all three of the other males in the house must have been gone and he was by himself.

He sat up at the edge of his bed, shivering slightly, and reached his arms high above his head for a long satisfying stretch that eventually shook throughout his whole body. His back was still incredibly sore, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. As long as it wasn't bleeding.

It's a good thing the whip had softened with age.

He adjusted his socks a little ways above his knees, and then left the room.

The house was more frigid than a meat freezer—the perfect temperature for a large cozy mug of his favorite tea. Just the thought of its pleasant, warm blueberry aroma made his cheeks rise up gently on his face.

On his way down the stairs, he pulled his messy bed head up into an even messier ponytail, locks of platinum blond that were too short to make the cut sticking out this way and that to form his serene features.

He filled a plain metal tea pot with water and brought it over to one of the four eyes on the stove. Next was the tea bag, which proved to be far less of a challenge to aquire than the mug he intended on drinking from.

"Dammit."

He bet Yuu placed it in the highest cabinet just to get a rise out of him. He knew it was his favorite cup, mainly because it was the largest out of the others, and it was the most expensive thing he'd ever purchased all by himself. He frowned in rising vexation.

Why was Yuu like this to him?

He leaned all his weight against the edge of the marble counter and strained on his tippy-toes, but the only thing he achieved in doing that was pushing his mug farther back in the cabinet with the tips of his fingers, rendering it completely and utterly out of reach. He gave in with a small frustrated whine.

Gazing up at his mug helplessly, he didn't want to take the risk of climbing up on the counter top, or using one of the island's stools. With balance like his, he'd only end up staring at the blinding ceiling of a hospital room. But maybe if he tried a different method that didn't involve risking his life for a cup of tea. But what? His thoughts were so stale, he couldn't come up with a plan to save his life. Even if it was something as simple as getting a cup down from a cabinet.

He needed help.

Or luck.

Or something!

He took in a sharp breath, and cleared his throat. "Okay." It wouldn't hurt to try one more time. All he needed was about another two inches or so and the cup was his for the taking. Easy.

The tippy-toe method. Only this time, he try harder. Or… he would've tried harder at least, if it weren't for the mysterious second hand reaching over his head and easily wrapping its fingers around his cup. He yelped in surprise and spun on his heel, standing struck as his face was only inches from Shiho Kimizuki's.

"Wha—"

"Here," the taller boy interjected, offering the desired object with a look of disinterest. His eyebrows rose when Mika only stared at him like a deer caught in head lights. "What? Isn't this what you wanted?"

His face burned brighter than the color of the mug, and his tongue suddenly felt too heavy in his mouth. And the close proximity wasn't helping his case either. He nodded his head shyly, and reached his hand forward with an obvious hint of hesitation. But even then he couldn't say a single word. They were standing too close, and his heart was beating too fast, and the tea kettle was screaming too loud, and his sweatshirt was becoming too cramped, and he couldn't breath, and—

"Are you gonna get that?"

"Huh?"

"Your water."

"Water…?"

Kimizuki rolled his eyes, and stepped away from the overheating teen to turn off the stove burner, thus, putting an end to the clamorous screech of the tea kettle. He turned back around to face Mika, but his eyes couldn't help but travel from his large dazed eyes back down to his peculiar choice of clothing. It was only when their gazes locked once more did his own face burn just as bright, if not more. Now they were both at a loss for words.

Just then remembering his laughable get-up, Mika gasped and backed away until his legs were safely hidden away behind the island. But even after that, his feet couldn't seem to stop moving of their own accord. His body wanted to escape, and his mind was working on overdrive.

‘Look at you.’

‘You look ridiculous.’

‘He'll tell everyone at school.’

‘He'll make fun of you and call you names and spread rumors and—’

"Hey, so uhh…" Kimizuki stammered, averting his eyes to anything that wasn't blue or gold. He tried keeping his mind focused on the subject at hand, not the thought of the much smaller boy in short shorts and long socks straining for a mug that he clearly had no chance of reaching. He took the tea kettle and pushed it towards the center of the island separating them, but each move he made was like stepping through a crowded minefield. "Here."

And just as he'd expected, the blond up and bolted out of the kitchen with mug in hand. He groaned and ran a hand down his face. "Typical."

"That was painful to watch," jested Yuu, stepping out from the shadows and into the kitchen with his signature cocky grin in place. Kimizuki rolled his eyes. "I can't believe he didn't notice me. Are you gonna go after him?"

"Of course not. Why the hell would I do that?"

"Well, you did kinda scare him away. And you do have a crush on him, after all. It'd only make sense, don't you think?"

Kimizuki sighed again, shaking his head at a loss. "I don't know. If I went up there, he'd only end up freaking out like he always does."

"He is a strange one," Yuu agreed, pulling out a stool and getting comfortable. He cracked open the beer he'd brought in with him and took two large gulps before adding, "But you can't really blame him for being extra weird around you. Have you forgotten the way things are at school? You literally act like you hate his guts."

"Well, it's not my fault he's frustrating to talk to," Kimizuki defended. "And besides, he's like that to everyone. Even you, and you've known him the longest. Trying to get along with him is like trying to get along with a traumatized rabbit—all he does is panic and run away. He'd do the same with Yoichi if they were in the same room."

Yuu took another swig of his beverage. "I find it pretty hot, actually, watching him get all flustered over nothing."

Kimizuki paused, eyeing him as if he'd grown a second head. "Yuu, he's your brother. You can't just go around saying stuff like that."

"Technically speaking, he's not my brother. He's more of a… weird… friend… guy who lives with me. Now anyway, if you need help with him all you have to do is ask. Remember, I skipped out on our movie night just so you could have an excuse to stay over here and get closer to him without Shinoa or Mitsuba laughing at you. He's not that complicated to talk to. You just can't be a dick about it, that's all. He's sensitive. In more ways than one."

"Clearly." Kimizuki held out his hand expectantly, and Yuu slid his beer across the island.

Drawing tiny anonymous shapes in the droplets that had accumulated on the surface of the can, he thought deeply of his friend's words. Obviously the way he viewed his own brother was a bit harsh, even for him, and downright creepy, but that was none of his business. His main goal in life was to at least get close enough to Mikaela without triggering his delicate fight or flight response.

"I can tell you some little fun facts about him, if you want. You'd be surprised. But you'd also have a better chance at reaching the pot of gold, if you know what I mean." Yuu wriggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Kimizuki raised one of his high up on his forehead.

"I don't."

"Then I'll show you. Just make sure to follow my lead."

"What are you gonna do?"

"Just give you a live demonstration of how easy Mika really is. Hand me one of the Fours in the fridge."

Kimizuki seemed unsure of himself, but did as he was told and dug through the fridge for a tall blue and black splashed can with the large word FOUR tattooed boldly on its side. "Are you planning on giving this to him?"

"Precisely," Yuu said, unaware of his friend's look of discomfort as he opened the can and began drinking greedily. "Not like he hasn't tried one before. You should see what it does to him. It's like he's a totally different person."

Kimizuki was taken aback. Never would he ever have guessed Mikaela had touched an alcoholic beverage before in his entire life. He knew that what Yuu was going to do was wrong, in a sense. But he couldn't help but let curiosity get the better of him.

Mika? piss drunk? Now he just had to see that.

"Fine. I'm in."

"Great! And Guren won't be back until tomorrow, so we have all night with him to ourselves. Just do what I say, and things should work out perfectly. He'll be all over you."

"But what if he doesn't drink it?" He asked.

Yuu gave him an all knowing smirk, and replied confidently, "Trust me, he'll drink it. With a little sweet talk, Mika will do whatever I tell him to."

The way he said those words, Kimizuki didn't know whether to be put off or reassured.

~~~

Mika paced back and forth in his room anxiously, face flushed bright pink with an overwhelming weight of humiliation. Why was Kimizuki in the kitchen? Why was he in the house at all? How did he get in? How long had he been standing behind him? Was Yuu in the house too? He had to be. It wouldn't make sense if he wasn't. But why? They were both supposed to be gone. He was supposed to be alone. What happened? What went wrong?

He stopped and glared down at his socks, cursing feebly.

Nobody had ever seen him in his pajamas before, except for Guren and Yuu. But even those were on rare occasions considering how much time he spent locked away inside his room. Kimizuki absolutely hated him. He would tease him and call him names at school, and become even more of a jerk than he already was.

He ripped the small ponytail from out of his hair and threw it to the ground with a grunt of frustration. There was nothing he could do about the situation now. It was too late. Kimizuki and Yuu were still in the house, Kimizuki had seen him in his stupid night clothes, he wasn't going to be drinking his favorite tea after all and the night was no longer just his anymore.

Of course.

Because why should he, the unfortunate Mikaela Shindo, have a night's worth of peace and quiet?

He fell to his bed and threw his blanket over his head with a sniffle. Maybe next time, when his lucky meter was at an all time high. But until that day came, it was better to just sleep.

And sleep was just what he was going to do.

~FIVE MINUTES LATER~

He couldn't do it. The bed was uncomfortable and his pillows weren't doing their job. It was like the inanimate objects weren't even trying anymore. He tried again, curling into a tight ball and squeezing his eyelids shut.

No, that didn't feel right either.

He grew restless and kicked his flat old blanket away in a huff. Out of habit, he reached for his phone and inspected the blinding screen, not knowing what to do with it. He didn't exactly have any friends, so to speak. There was that crazy seventeen year old dagger kid, but he wanted nothing more to do with him than he did the rest of the people that lived in Sanguinem. He set his phone back down on the bed, defeated.

He was bored.

And lonely.

And so painfully hungry and tired.

He wanted to do something, but couldn't find the motivation hidden within him to do it. He wanted to talk to someone, but then he didn't. He was tired, but itching with energy that he didn't know how to use. And his only source of food was now blocked off by his school bully, and possibly, his brother.

He reached for his phone for a second time, eyeing a particular name in his contact list.

Should he? The killer was the only person he'd ever spoken to who was more or less kind to him. He did offer him his favorite flavored cake, after all. He even took time out of his day to text him during school hours, and even climb the four story building just to deliver a gift. It almost made him feel guilty for threatening him with the mention of his father and basically telling him to fuck off. He wondered what he was up to now. Maybe it wasn't too late to say sorry.

"He wouldn't forgive me."

But it was still worth a shot. He took a deep breath and sat cross-legged on the bed, readying his thumbs.

HIM: hi

The response time was startling.

FRIEND: well well well. Look who finally decided to come crawling back.

He blushed furiously and quickly typed out:

HIM: sorry for everything I said earlier.

FRIEND: I was just kidding kid. And there's no need to apologise. Think of it more as getting even with me for kicking you in the stomach. Anyway, what are you doing awake so late? Having trouble sleeping ;)

Why was it he could hear the stranger's voice as if he were sitting right beside him. It was like every word he was typing, there was a soft laugh or teasing tone laced behind it. It was a completely different feeling he got compared to reading either Yuu or Guren's texts.

HIM: I'm not tired. What are you doing awake?

FRIEND: well I just took a shower and was about to get some sleep since my brother's not awake anymore and I have nothing better to do. But I'm glad you texted me. My social skills are shit and you were all pissy earlier so it probably would've taken me a while to reach out to you again. You've officially saved my confidence kiddie.

Mika frowned.

HIM: kiddie?

FRIEND: Your new and improved nickname. Unless you prefer being called kid. I just thought kiddie was more cute and fitting, you know. It kinda sounds like Kitty and I like cats and I like you so… yeah. Kiddie. You don't like it?

His heart leaped into his throat, and his phone nearly slipped from his clammy palms.

HIM: no it's fine. I like it

FRIEND: great! :D

FRIEND: so kiddie how was your day?

His back pulsed in remembrance.

HIM: fine. Nothing interesting. How was yours?

FRIEND: very productive actually. I climbed a building. Fought some birds. Almost fell off said building because of birds. Ran some errands and made a shit ton of money. And now I'm here with you. So yeah I'd say my day was pretty amazing.

Why did those last two sentences make his stomach feel so… off?

Just as he was going to type out his next message, there was a knock at the door, and he practically leaped from out of his bed like a crippled frog, phone flying off in the opposite direction.

He cursed in startlement, dropping to the ground in haste search of his cell that had fallen through the narrow space between his bed and the wall. The door slammed open, scaring him for a second time, and he grunted as his head collided with the sharp metal edge of his bedframe.

"Mika!" Yuu greeted boisterously, then pausing when he got a load of the view. "Oh, nice."

Mika's face burned hot, and he quickly snatched his phone from underneath the bed and crawled back out. Getting a good look at his brother now, he could tell he was intoxicated. His gut twisted in sickness.

"Y-Yuu, what is it?" He tried asking nice and politely, hoping his voice wasn't shaking as badly as his knees. He pressed the power button on his phone, ending his conversation with Mystery Boy once and for all, and slipped it into its rightful place underneath his pillow. His back was turned for only a moment when tan muscular arms then slithered their way around his waist, squeezing him tightly. He tried not to wince.

"You smell nice, Mika. Like a girl. Vanilla and—"

"Yuu, that hurts."

Yuu buried his face in the crook of his neck and inhaled deeply, earning a small gasp in return, and the grip around his body constricted dangerously.

"Yuu…"

"I love it when you say my name like that, Mika."

"Yuu, stop it! You're drunk!" Mika half shouted, squirming from out of Yuu's vice-like hold only to fall face first to his bed with a muffled oof. He quickly flipped himself on his butt and tried scrambling back as far as he could, but Yuu was a lot stronger and faster than he was and had his hand shackled around his small forearm in a second, yanking him back to his feet. He cried out that he was hurting him, and in response to his fearful whimper, the roughhousing came to a standstill and he was being held close in a less threatening manner.

His eyes were blown wide like an owl's. His breathing came out shallow and uneven, and he pressed his palms flat against Yuu's chest, wanting to shove him far away for some much needed air, but refraining out of fear of consequence. Yuu's heartbeat was slow and controlled in contrast to his own, and heavy fingers combed themselves through his hair tenderly.

He was struck with fear and confusion.

Yuu's chest vibrated as he spoke. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, Mika. I was just playing around and got carried away. You know how I get."

Mika remained mute and proceeded to wait fretfully for the moment he was released so that he could finally breath properly again. Without the help of his medication he needed to collect his raging emotions all by himself.

In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Repeat. ‘Everything is going to be okay, you're used to this. Don't panic.’

He absolutely dreaded being around Yuu. Especially during the times where he was too inebriated to filter his unsettling comments, or control his actions in general.

"Are you okay?" Yuu asked almost normally, but Mika was no simpleton.

"Fine," he said, forcing his body to relax against his. Ten more second and Yuu pulled away at last. However, his hands were still locked flimsily around his waist, preventing him from going anywhere.

His soft green eyes held his damp blues, and a hand reached forward to tuck a stay lock of blond behind his ear, fingers lingering on his cheek for far longer than what was necessary. "Are you really okay, Mika? I was being a dick."

He nodded his head insistently. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's okay. I was just… startled, that's all. I was just about to go to bed."

"Actually," Yuu chuckled uncharacteristically bashful. "I was gonna ask if you wanted to see a movie with me. I understand that you don't really like hanging around my friends, or… anyone at school, so I cancelled the movie night thing we were gonna have at Shinoa's place and decided to go to the movies with just you. Well, you and Kimizuki since he's our ride. The Nun is playing tonight. You looked really interested when you saw the trailers that one day, so I thought maybe you'd actually want to see it on the big screen before it hits Netflix. I know how much you love horror movies. So, what do you say?"

Mika's eyelids fluttered. Had he heard correctly? Had Yuu really cancelled his plans with his best friends just to hang out with him for the night? Even gone as far as to have payed attention when he showed the slightest bit of interest in a thirty second commercial on TV that took place a full two weeks ago?

"I don't understand," he admitted, a pinkish hue creeping up his ears. "Why would you want to go with me? Wouldn't it be more fun to go with Shinoa instead?"

"Shinoa doesn't like horror. And besides, I wanna hang out with you. I was serious about getting you out of the house, and Guren's not here tonight so we can go wherever and do whatever we want without getting in trouble."

"Yuu, I don't know…"

"Come on, Mika," he insisted, clasping his much smaller hands in his. "Please say yes. I kind of decided this last minute and the movie starts in exactly half an hour. I swear you won't regret it. Me and Kimizuki were gonna sneak in a bunch of junk food, and I even saved a few of your favorite snacks like gummy bears and a whole bunch of other stuff."

Mika appeared utterly shocked by Yuu's unexpected change of heart. But as tempting as it all sounded, what with delicious snacks and a good movie, there was still one minor problem.

"Yuu, that's nice of you to do for me, and I would go, but Kimizuki doesn't exactly like me so much. You two should go alone. I'm no fun to hang around with anyway. I would only end up getting you in trouble."

Yuu chuckled lightly and ruffled his hair, saying in an easy-going voice, "Kimizuki doesn't hate you, Mika. He's actually been trying to talk to you for the past month, but you keep running away. I know he comes off like a total jerk sometimes, but that's just his way of saying he's nervous. And you're not gonna get us in trouble so don't worry about that. We'll take care of everything. Now get ready, I'm not taking no for an answer. Me and Kimizuki will be waiting downstairs when you're done."

"But, Yuu…"

"Nope!" Yuu blurted, covering his ears with his hands as he began backing out of the room. "No buts! Hurry up and get dressed before we're late and miss the previews."

Mika made several attempts at voicing his protests, but Yuu wasn't having any of it. The door clicked shut, and he was left standing alone in the middle of his room, hundreds of different thoughts driving to and from out of his brain like cars on a freeway during a rush hour. He didn't have time to dwell on them however. He had to hurry up and take a shower. There was no possible way of getting out of this one, and as it turned out, his lucky meter wasn't as sapped of good fortune as he previously thought it was. Thanks to that possible last droplet he was able to avoid Yuu's friends, and was even going to see a movie he thought he'd have to wait months to finally watch.

He hasn't been this excited in years. The feeling felt foreign to his colorless, dreary body, and made his insides feel jittery and nervous all at the same time.

He rummaged through his closet and picked out something casual and warm for the occasion, and then left his room to the bathroom for a quick five minute shower.

Chapter Text

The plaza was a lot more packed than he thought it would be, given the nippy weather conditions. There were only three windows open for tickets, and each window occupied a round up of at least twenty people. That was a total of sixty bodies, plus the other forty or so hanging out around the front of the building, waiting for their parents, spouse, or date to come back carrying their tickets.

He pulled his hood up over his head and stayed close by Yuu's side, all but latching himself onto his arm as if he were an insecure koala. Be that as it may, Yuu was merely a crutch for the consternation coursing through his blood stream, his cellphone playing the same roll in his other hand. It was degrading to constantly use his brother as his own personal walking stick out in public, particularly since their relationship was nothing more than simple roommates, but he couldn't help himself. They have known each other for years, and in a way that he was ashamed to admit, Yuu was the only person he felt adequately comfortable being around, no matter how aggressive, pushy, or demanding he was.

After buying their tickets and entering the building at last, Yuu came to the dreadful decision that they should part ways—Mika and Kimizuki find seats in the theatre, while he buys them some drinks to go with the snacks they successfully managed to sneak in through an employee they knew well. Mika was against the idea of being left alone with somebody who insulted him on a daily basis, but Yuu was persistent and practically shoved him into the jerk's arms.

"Make friends," he'd told him as Kimizuki already began walking off in the opposite direction. He felt exposed in the crowd of other movie goers, and quickly caught up to Kimizuki before he was swallowed completely. He glanced over at him through the corner of his eye, thinking back to what he was informed of before they left. He couldn't be sure whether Yuu told him that stuff just to get him to say yes to going out, or if there was some form of authenticity behind his explanation.

Why on Earth would Shiho Kimizuki want to talk to him? And had he really been trying for the past month?

It was too weird. Kimizuki hated him, and quiet frankly, he hated Kimizuki. And nothing could ever come between that fact. Especially after that incident during the beginning of his freshman year when Kimizuki was still a sophomore.

They navigated their way through the darkness of the crowded theater and found a spot in the way back where it was oddly vacant of any other human. He didn't mind the seclusion. If anything, he embraced it. He hated sitting around obnoxious chewers and inconsiderate talkers. Kimizuki sat at the far end of their selected row, meaning he would be squished between him and Yuu when Yuu came back.

Good things always came with a price.

His phone vibrated suddenly, and he just then remembered his conversation with Mystery Boy that had been rudely interrupted by Yuu when he bursted through his door drunk and needy. Now that he thought of it, Yuu was still drunk…

He carried himself well.

He pulled out his phone and read the message. Or messages…

FRIEND: did you fall asleep?

FRIEND: kid

FRIEND: kiddie!

FRIEND: kiddie kiddie kiddie!!!

FRIEND: aww you did fall asleep :(

FRIEND: well goodnight then. Talk to you tomorrow

His cheeks ached, and he hadn't even realized he'd begun smiling. It was quickly abolished.

HIM: sorry something came up

FRIEND: are you okay??? I can kick someone's ass for you. Just say the word

Again, his cheeks ached. But this time there was something else—his throat. It felt like the inside of his throat was being tickled with a tiny feather.

HIM: I'm fine. My brother just invited me to the movies with his friend.

FRIEND: you have a brother? And you didn't tell me!?

FRIEND: oh the betrayal D:

HIM: well not exactly my brother. I'm adopted

FRIEND: oh wow what a coincidence. My brother and I were adopted too. Do you not see your brother as a brother? How old is he? What's he like? Is he a dick?

‘This guy sure does ask a lot of questions.’

He heard some shuffling to his right and turned to see that Yuichiro was worming his way through some movie goers' legs. Only then did he notice that the movie had already started playing on the big screen. How could he have missed it?

He quickly typed out that he had to go, and stuffed his phone back in his back pocket. It vibrated again, but Yuu had already taken his place in the seat beside him. Knowing him, the second he pulled his phone back out, it would be rudely snatched from his fingers and rummaged through noisily. A quality picked up from Guren.

"Here," Yuu whispered, handing him two large drinks. He kept one for himself and handed the other to Kimizuki, far too enraptured by the smell of hot food to notice how his fingers unintentionally brushed against the other's, transferring a one-sided electrical current through his finger tips.

His stomach growled angrily, and he shushed it with his arms tied tightly around its mouth. As much as he'd love to put something warm and fulfilling inside of him, he didn't want to ask Yuu for food; it would be too awkward. He would just have to wait until he was offered something. But still, the intoxicating aroma of buttery popcorn and nachos was maddening beyond comprehension. He opted for merely drowning his stomach's roars in whatever drink he was handed.

Bitter. Strong. Strange after taste. Whatever it was, it was definitely not something one could buy at a movie theatre. The taste was somewhat familiar, however, but he was too parched and desperate to care. As long as it wasn't poison.

"Hey, slow down there, Mika," Yuu chuckled, gradually easing the straw from his brother's lips, and lowering the cup down to one of the cup holders. Mika blushed at his atrocious behavior and was quick to apologize. "It's okay. Here, eat these."

A box of large fries smothered in chilly and cheese.

Today was indeed his lucky day.

~~~

For about thirty minutes of the movie, he spent his time practically inhaling his unappetizing drink, and gorging down on his sloppy food like the starved child he was. He had to check his demeanor a few times during that short half hour and remind himself that he was amongst the living and not in the lonesome of his bedroom. But after a long while of consistency he was beginning to feel increasingly languid and brash.

So brash in fact, that he actually asked Yuu if he was going to finish his drink, and even asked if he could have it after the answer was clearly yes.

Regardless of the response he gave, Yuu was all too willing to watch as his drink was greedily consumed by his normally reserved roommate.

Mika shifted in his seat to regard Kimizuki who had been observing him dumbfounded for the past fifteen minutes, and kindly offered the stolen drink. "Do you want some?"

"Uhh, no thanks."

He took the answer with a nonchalant shrug, and drank the rest himself. It didn't taste as bad as he previously thought. Truthfully, the piquancy was borderline addicting. He wanted more.

Kimizuki had more.

He tugged the sleeve of the sportsman's thick jacket. "Do you want that?" He asked, referring to the drink sitting in the cup holder farthest from his reach. Kimizuki hesitated and looked past the blond to his friend for answers. Yuu was no help, visibly holding back his amused cackles. He sighed in defeat and reluctantly surrendered his drink, bearing witness to its quick and brutal demise.

Mika handed him back his empty cup ten minutes later, and then tugged on Yuu's sleeve.

"Do you have anymore food?"

"You were drinking a little fast, don't you think?" Yuu reminded him, not sounding the least bit concerned with a wide grin still plastered over his lips. "You might throw up if you start eating again."

"But you brought gummy bears, Yuu. You said I could have some."

"Kimizuki has them. You should ask him."

Mika's head immediately snapped back over to Kimizuki, the jerked action causing the theater to swirl around like a bucket of mixed paint, and he had to grab hold of the other's arm to keep from tumbling forward out of his seat. A strong hand shot forth to lend aid and gently caught him when he began leaning dangerously close to the ground. A sudden wave of drowsiness washed over his senses then, and he released a low moan.

"Yuu, how much of that stuff did you mix in with our drinks?" Kimizuki questioned while carefully guiding the inebriated teen back to his seat.

Yuu shrugged. "I only used the one can from home. I split it up equally between us, but… Mika doesn't exactly know when to stop once he's started. Pretty sure he got it from his dad—Fun fact." He added that last part with a nervous chuckle.

"Yuu!" Kimizuki chided. "Fourteen percent of that can was alcohol, and he just drank the whole thing in less than an hour! He can barely keep his head up, for crying out loud."

"Calm down. Like I told you before: this isn't the first time Mika's been drunk. And besides, at least he's letting you touch him."

Kimizuki cursed underneath his breath and said, "Whatever, let's just get him back to the house before he ends up puking everywhere."

Yuu appreared perplexed by this and cocked his head to the side. "We're not gonna finish the movie? I was hoping you would use this as your chance to make a move on him while he's not all edgy and depressed."

"Yuu, he's technically not even awake right now!"

"Well, yeah, but he actually really likes physical contact. See." Yuu stretched his arm out and draped it over Mika's shoulder, pulling him close until his head lulled lazily against his chest. There was a soft groan. "See. He likes it. He doesn't have to be awake."

Kimizuki's face was unchanging. "Yuu, again, he just drank an entire can of Four in less than an hour. I don't even think he knows where he is anymore. I say we should just go."

Yuu gazed down at Mika's gentle face for a long moment, not hiding his irked expression, and then sighed. "If you say so. But this time I'm driving."

"Are you sober enough to be behind the wheel?"

"Of course I am," he grunted, lifting Mika up into his arms bridal style. Kimizuki led the way in traveling down the long steps where they wouldn't have to struggle past a dozen other individuals trying to enjoy the movie, and held the door open wide so that the blond wasn't at risk of bumping his head against any sharp corners.

Mika willed his eyes open just a peek, and peered into the bright orbs belonging to the person carrying him. His body felt strange, like it was floating through fresh, clear water, but the world was still whirling and spinning around him like a Merry-Go-Round.

"Yuu?"

Yuu glanced down at his glistening blue eyes and smiled.

"You're awake."

"You lied to me."

"Go back to sleep, Mika. I'll buy you Chinese food to make up for it when we get home."

A blast of freezing air pinched at his skin like an army of tiny common house ants, and a violent shiver prickled through his every nerve, making his words slurred and unsteady. "I thought you wanted to hang out with me."

Yuu didn't respond to that, and the blond's body fell victim to the alcoholic toxins once more.

~~~

Since Yuu was in charge of driving this time around it was up to Kimizuki to sit in the back with the drunken Mikaela to ensure he didn't slip, slide or topple and injure himself during their trip home.

After getting into the car and shutting the door, arms weakly wriggled their way around his abdomen, a soft sigh filling his ears, and he's sure his heart froze dead behind his ribcage. He chanced a glimpse down at what was going on, and yet again, his heart did something dangerous in his chest. Mika rest snuggly pressed up against him with his arms tied around his waist and his head resting heavily on his chest. He could feel his body quivering against his, giving him no other choice but to get comfortable in the foreign position and return the light embrace.

His body was so much smaller than his own. So fragile; delicate. He was like a porcelain doll. Looking at him now: drunk, powerless, and upset, it made him realize just how much of a jerk he'd been for the past two years. He'd called him names, pushed him into lockers, smacked books out of his arms, teased him, mocked his medical conditions, hid his stuff. He had done so much wrong, yet, his feelings contradicted his outward behavior. If he were being honest with himself, he thought Mikaela was amongst one of the most beautiful human beings he had ever layed eyes upon. His shy attitude, the way he carried himself, his intelligence, the sweet smell that followed him around wherever he went, it was breathtaking.

Mika was breathtaking.

He pulled him closer and rested his head on his, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips when the younger boy nuzzled his face against his chest. His hair smelled of vanilla ice cream.

He wanted to make tonight up to him somehow.

~~~

By the time Yuu pulled up to the curb fifteen minutes later, he was surprised to see how content Kimizuki was with assisting Mika out of the truck. Mika, however, wasn't too thrilled by the bothersome loss of warmth, and struggled aimlessly to remain huddled deep within the vehicles protection. He was even less thrilled by the person trying so cruelly to rip him out.

"No, leave me alone," he whined groggily.

"Come on, dammit. Stop being difficult," Kimizuki grunted, trying his hardest not to somehow hurt the other. But doing so was proving to be a difficult task all on its own. Trying to get Mika out of the car was like trying to unstick a stubborn cat's claws from a couch without hurting it. He gave up with an exasperated swear and looked to Yuu for assistance.

Yuu was more than happy to lend a helping hand, and traveled over to the other side of the truck where he could get a better view of Mika's face. When he opened the door, he was instantly greeted by a pair of boiling blue eyes.

"I know you're pissed, Mika, but you can't sleep in the truck. Let me help you out."

"You're an ass," Mika bit, backing away from his advances.

Yuu sighed. "Do you really want to do this in front of Kimizuki?"

In response to that simple yes or no query, the younger sibling merely presented his tongue in defiance.

"Fine, but you can't say I didn't warn you."

Kimizuki watched perplexed as he barged into the backseat, forcing Mika to make way and then shut the door behind him.

"Yuu, what are you doing?"

"In short, I'm putting him to sleep," he replied cooly before engaging in the unexpected.

Mika tried shoving him away, cursing shamelessly and squirming like a child throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of a mall, but putting up a fuss was useless. Yuu might as well have been a buffalo compared to him in regards to strength, and pulled him flush against his chest, rendering him helplessly immobile, and then proceeded to place a firm hand on his cheek to keep him from turning away. What came next had Kimizuki's jaw dropping to the ground in an instant.

"Yuu, you asshole! Let go of me!" Mika all but shouted into the wild mess of inky black hair as Yuu's head dipped down to his neck, grunting and gasping tirelessly as he tried to get loose. But all of that came to a gradual standstill when the feeling of something warm and slick traveled up his collar bone at a slow, diliberate pace. The tingling sensation was followed by a trail of chaste kisses that reached his jawline, and every muscle in his face went slack, filling the car with a startling loose moan.

Kimizuki stood baffled. Yuu could see a hint of something else smoldering behind those thick glasses, but quickly held up a finger to stop what could've been the beginning of a full out argument. He kept his lips locked on Mika's flesh as he did so, using the strength of his other arm to carefully guide the blond down to the seat as pleasure and drowsiness overtook his senses and he lost the ability to sit up on his own.

Mika was engulfed by his heavy warmth like he was lying beneath his very own blanket in his room, smushed between the wall and his largest pillows. Another more shameless whine blew past his lips, his body squirming for more of the intoxicating feeling, and in just a matter of thirty seconds, he was completely subdued.

Yuu pulled away with an accomplished smirk on his face. "Told you he was sensitive."

Kimizuki stammered, not knowing where to begin, and Yuu effortlessly slipped Mika from out of the vehicle and hauled him over his shoulder like a heavy sack of potatoes.

"What the fuck was that?" He finally uttered, mentally stuck on the way Mika so easily fell victim to a simple kiss on the neck.

Yuu unlocked the door to the house and kicked his shoes off before dropping his associate's body on the couch with a tired sigh. He went into the kitchen afterwards, motioning for Kimizuki to close the door and follow after him, and they both took a seat at the island.

Kimizuki repeated his question, stunned.

"The more fun way of putting Mika to sleep when he's drunk off his ass," came the amused response. "Haven't you ever tried it on anyone before?"

Kimizuki couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Of course not! Why the hell would I? And why the hell would you do it to your brother? He's your brother!"

"He's not my brother," Yuu corrected for the second time that night, his expression turning sour. "He's just some hot kid who just so happens to live in the same house as me. Nothing more, nothing less."

As if his words weren't unsettling enough.

With the way he viewed Mika in mind, Kimizuki couldn't help but direct the spotlight on a few raised flags.

"Yuu," he addressed in a serious manner, checking behind his shoulder at the pale hand that dangled limply from off the edge of the couch in the other room. "Have you ever—" How could he say it without sounding too straight forward? "Have you and Mika ever—"

"No," Yuu said before the question could reach open air. He left his stool to grab a beer from the fridge and came back. "No doubt he would feel it the next morning."

Kimizuki eyed him with an indecipherable expression on his face. The more Yuichiro spoke, the more it felt as though he didn't know a single thing about his friend.

Yuu stared off into the distance for a second as if he were recalling fond old memories, and then snorted before downing a third of his drink. "Mika… he can be really tempting when he wants to be. Even when he's sober he's such a tease. You've seen the way he dresses, It's like he's asking for it. But I would never have sex with him. I may not particularly like him the way I should, but there are just some things you shouldn't do, and sex is definitely one of them. Besides, I'd prefer for him to stay a virgin anyway. That way it's more fun to mess around with him. A touch in the right spot would probably send him into a full body orgasm."

Kimizuki chocked. This was far too much information for one night.

"Would you ever have sex with him?" Yuu asked after a short pause. His eyes sparkled in open-minded curiosity.

Kimizuki's face burned brighter than a Christmas light, and he tried to look anywhere that wasn't Yuu's face. "N-no, I wouldn't."

"If you say so… but if you were to have sex with him, I wouldn't tell anyone."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, I'm just saying, Mika's right there. And if you haven't noticed by now he's already all hot and bothered, so now's your perfect chance. All you have to do is wake him up and take it slow. He wouldn't say no. With how drunk he is I doubt he even knows how to say no."

"Are you seriously suggesting what I think you are?" Kimizuki accused in rising vexation. He'd heard enough. The way Yuu looked back at him, as if he hadn't a clue as to why he was reacting the way he was, was all it took for him to stand up and grab his keys. "Yuu, I think you've had one too many. I'm gonna pretend this conversation never happened and go home."

"So soon?" Yuu stood and followed after him to the door. "I thought you wanted to get closer to Mika."

His hand suddenly paused on the doorknob, eyes flickering over to the unconscious blond lying sprawled out on the couch, vulnerable and unprotected. After tonight, could he really trust Yuu not to try anything while Mikaela was passed out? He used to think two years was long enough to establish some form of trust between a friend, but now, he wasn't so sure. Yuu was buzzed off strong alcohol and had told him things that sounded more like deep dark secrets rather than ordinary confessions exchanged between two close friends. And then there was that deviant, unsettling look in his eyes everytime he spoke so boorishly of the brother he claimed wasn't his brother to begin with. Would it be best for him to stay and watch over Mika? Or would it be best to just go home and forget the day ever happened and trust Yuu's words when he said he would never go that far with the younger house inhabitant?

He went with the obvious answer.

With an exasperated sigh, he stuffed his keys back in his pocket and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Might as well take advantage of this opportunity. Who knows when it'll happen again, right? I'll take him up to his room."

"Great!" Yuu piped with a refreshed smile. "Well, while your busy with Mika, I'm gonna be in my room. If you need help with him just ask."

"Yeah, sure, I'll do that." Kimizuki gathered Mika in his arms and began making his way up the staircase, calling over his shoulder. "Get some rest, Yuu."

~~~

Safely in Mika's room, he lied the blond down in his bed and considerately removed his shoes, setting them down on the floor, and then adjusted his body to a less uncomfortable looking position. His hands stopped short at the sound of several coughs, and his eyes shot up to the other's face in a panic. Fortunately, blue was still well hidden behind pale lids. Though, his expression did seem noticably distraught.

After getting him nice and tucked in, he settled for sitting propped up against one of the wooden posts connected to the bed and waiting for the appropriate time to leave.

The fact that he had to protect Mika from his own brother was just outrageous. It raised about a dozen red flags and made his brain linger on the fact that Yuichiro has, in fact, done something to Mika in the past. How else would he have know where his sensitive spots were?

Maybe that was part of the reason why Mika was so reluctant to be within arms reach of other people. But if that was the case, then why was he always so quick to cling to Yuu whenever he was around? Maybe if he were closer to Mika, he would have all the answers to his questions. But until then, he was just going to have to wait patiently until Mika saw him as less of a threat, and more of a potential acquaintance with whom he could speak comfortably with and ask for help if the time ever called for it.

He would bluntly ask Yuu, knowing he would receive an immediate answer, but he's almost sure he wouldn't get the truthful answer. Or, at least not the full truth. Either way, it was too much of a risk.

There was a low grumble behind him, and he turned to see that Mika was nuzzling his head further beneath his blanket while murmuring softly to himself. His eyebrows were drawn together tightly, and his body shook as if he were lying beneath a blanket of snow rather than a blanket made of cotton and fabric.

He had to admit it was rather cold in the room. Come to think of it, Mika's room felt like it was the coldest in the entire house.

He grumbled out a swear and began unbuttoning his large jacket, which was made out of a much more fitting material than the old ragged sweatshirt Mika wore everyday, and grudgingly dropped it over the shivering teen's body.

The time was nearing two in the morning. He figured it would be wise to vanish before Mika awakened. If he was seen sitting in his room after a night of being tricked into drinking an entire can of Four Loco, then being carried out of a movie theater half conscious, then being fondled, groped and kissed by his brother against his will, he doubted his reaction would be anything worth sticking around for.

Six was a good enough time to leave.

Chapter Text

His stomach constricted for what felt like the hundredth time in the past thirty minutes. It churned and gurgled, and he gripped the sides of the toilet bowl with trembling fingers as another mouthful of stomach acid mixed with whatever he'd consumed the night before came pouring out in colorful chunks. His eyes burned with guilt and betrayal, and large tears tumbled down his flushed cheeks like boulders.

He was so tired, barely able to support his own weight, and so had to use the toilet bowl as a substitute pillow lest his head fall inside or hit the seat. He reached forward with the arm that wasn't propped under his head, and flushed last night's dinner away. There was a knock at the door. Yuu.

"Mika, are you almost done in there? It's been like, an hour, and I have to meet up with the guys. Mika? Hello?"

He swallowed hard, resisting the urge to be sick all over again as he called back that he would be right out. He couldn't remember a thing from last night, but if experience had taught him anything, Yuu was responsible for why he was so disgracefully hungover and hunched over a toilet seat; why he felt utterly repulsed with his body both inside and out. The last thing he remembered was texting his new friend after finding a seat at the movie theater. He forgot what the subject matter was about, but after that everything was murky and unclear. He remembered feeling scared the entire time, angry, immense pleasure, and then queasiness. He didn't want to know why. He just wanted to go back to bed.

If only his body would work with him.

He released a low pained groan, forgetting about the person waiting for him just outside the door, and the last thing he heard before everything began melting away into pitch blackness was the fading sound of metal jostling against wood.

~~~

He woke up a few hours later in bed, drenched in his own sweat. There was a pungent, sour taste in his mouth, and his arm ached from sleeping on it the wrong way. He was in need of a shower. Desperately. But he didn't want to get out of bed. He didn't want to brush his teeth, or clean his body, or drink his favorite tea, or read a book, or take care of himself. It wasn't one of those days.

He just wanted to lie down and sleep it all away.

He had been manipulated and lied to, and like a fool, he played right into Yuu's hands. He couldn't believe how much of an idiot he'd been for agreeing to go out with somebody he never held an inch of trust for ever since the first day they met. But of course. What was he expecting? For Yuu to have changed so unexpectedly? The only difference this time was the fact that he hadn't woken up with the overwhelming sensation of defilement and abhorrence. It was still there, somewhere deep. But it didn't hurt as bad as it had last time.

But alas, it was still there.

He was a fool, and he fell for Yuu's trick hard enough to poison himself and allow for whatever happened to him to have happened. He could feel it on his neck. His arms. Cloaking the throb on his back like drywall. He could feel it everywhere.

‘You let him.’

‘It's your fault.’

‘You know how you are.’

‘Idiot.’

‘It's nobodys fault but your own.’

‘You deserved it.’

A tear trickled down his cheek as old memories flooded his mind and tainted his conscience with a life threatening disease that only his medication could cure. But those were put up in Guren's room, making them ultimately unattainable, and if he risked scavenging for his drugs there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that his presence would be found out hours after he'd already left. There was nothing he could do. He would just have to wait until either Guren came back, or until the feeling dulled down to something more sufferable. But who knew how long that would take?

He pulled his knees up to his chest and tugged the blanket over his head. He wasn't going to eat today. Or change out of yesterday's clothes. Or function. For the rest of the day, he might as well be considered dead. Because that's all he wanted to be at that very moment.

His phone vibrated beneath his pillow, but he ignored his new and only companion and let his eyes fall shut, sentencing himself to a world of inescapable nightmares.

None of this would have happened if he had just been murdered the day he was supposed to be murdered.

~Sunday, The Next Day~

"…aela."

Mika moaned and turned the opposite direction with a small frown wrinkling his face.

"Mikaela, Get up right now!"

That voice. That was his father's voice. Guren's voice. And he sounded pissed.

The blankets were snatched from his body, and he shot up faster than a target dummy that pops up from the wood works. He peered around his room blindly, eyes bloodshot, lost and discombobulated, until they locked onto a familiar pair of finely cut amethysts.

"Dad, I—"

"I don't want to hear it!" Guren barked, crossing his arms over his broad chest. His uniform was still on, however, the way he usually wore his hair appeared to had been abandoned. Instead of being gelled back tightly to make him seem more sophisticated and unapproachable, it was more casual looking and fell short over his forehead. For once, his scowl didn't strike as much fear in his heart as it usually did. "Are you aware that you slept all day yesterday?"

It took a while for Mika to find his voice again, but when he did, the sound made him cringe inwardly. It sounded just as he anticipated it would: scratchy, quiet and hoarse. "I'm sorry. I didn't feel good."

"Why the hell are you dressed like that?" Guren pressed, as if having disregarded that last statement.

Mika looked down at his current apparel, heart dropping down to his empty stomach. His skin turned a sickly pale, and his eyes shot back up to his father's. "I-I… well…"

"Nevermind, I don't have time for this."

A piece of ripped parchment was dropped onto his lap, and Guren turned his back to leave.

"Go pick up your medicine. And take a shower, for God's sake. It smells like a corpse in here."

"Yes, dad. Sorry."

Mika stumbled out of the bed and stood up on weak, flaccid legs, the vertigo of having been starved for days on end and lying dormant for a little over twenty-four hours causing his entire vision to darken around the edges and become obscure, and the next thing he knew, he was bowed over on the floor, breathless. His stomach roared to life in a desperate cry for nourishment, but his overall body felt as though it would give the moment he tried putting forth the effort of walking down the long staircase to feed it.

Guren glanced back at him over his shoulder, his glare fixed as his son laboriously pulled himself back to his feet.

Mika kept his head down-casted, and mumbled a short apology before shuffling out of his room towards the bathroom to get started on his orders.

As soon as the door was closed, he collapsed on the toilet seat, sucking in deep breaths through his mouth.

Take a shower, wash his hair, brush his teeth, get dressed, visit the pharmacy, get ready for school tomorrow, finish his homework. It all sounded like a lot to take on in his current anemic state. He would have to skip over a large portion of the list and just stick with finishing the important things: take a shower, brush his teeth, get dressed, visit the pharmacy, and then eat. Better.

There was banging at the door, scaring him to his feet.

"Y-yes?"

"I don't hear water running!"

He promptly twisted the shower knob to the left and apologized over the steady spray. Expectantly, large boots faded down the hallway, and the breath he hadn't been aware of holding blew through his lips heavily. He slouched back on the toilet seat and buried his face in his hands. Guren's been paying extra attention to him lately, he noticed. But contrary to the few neglected children who would be crying tears of joy at their parents' sudden change of heart, he was part of the majority who only felt uneasiness from the added interest, along with a sinking feeling of neverending apprehension.

He didn't know what this new behavior meant in regards to their permanently tarnished father-son relationship.

He shook his head to clear the muck from his mind, and began peeling away each article of clothing from his sticky, sweaty skin, dropping them to the floor in a heap. Stepping into the warm spray of water, a sigh of satisfaction filled the misty air. It felt nice to be baragged by something other than the bone-chilliness that was his bedroom. He ducked his head under the water, his small body trembling as trails of warmth soaked through each stand of blond hair and trickled down his back into the drain.

The sensation was enough to make his eyes flutter in fatigue, but he knew now was not the time to bask in the pleasure of being thawed out. He had to hurry before Guren came back, and quite possibly, barged in unannounced. Unfortunately, like Yuu, privacy was never a given with that man, and either couldn't care less whether or not the most soft-spoken, withdrawn child in the house was taking a shower or using the restroom.

A crimson glow began forming over his cheeks, and with great haste, he reached for his red loofah and got to work on ridding his body of two day old filth before the exertion of standing too long—or his impatient father—got to him first.

~~~

After having finished getting dressed at a sloth's pace and clearing away the horrid taste in his mouth, next it was time to visit the Sanguinem Pharmacy for his meds. With all things considered, what with his body's sickly state and the bad weather added with it, taking the twenty minute walk through all the snow and dangerous alleyways were going to bring forth major consequences, he knew. Nonetheless, anything was better than facing another beating.

He pulled his hood over his head, tied his tattered Converse, made sure his phone was safely tucked away in his pocket, and set out into the night at last.

Luckily for him, there were no harsh winds, just small, little crystals of puffy white fluttering to his shoes.

Ten minutes into the walk and his stomach began rumbling again, pulling a small whimper from his lips. He figured it wouldn't hurt to get a bite to eat at the local cafe after he'd completed his errands. Guren did give him money to spend for himself after all. Sure, he wasn't able to use it on pizza, but not like he was ever good at ordering food over the phone anyway. And because his father was a man who bore little patience towards him, he wouldn't waste his time on ordering a big meal that would require him to wait for more than five minutes. He would have to settle for a simple premade sandwhich and eat it at home then fuel up on breakfast the next day to fill in the rest of the void in his stomach.

The only problem in his little plan: he had no skill in the art of ordering food face-to-face either; that was normally his brother's job. But Yuu wasn't around at the moment, and he didn't exactly want to confront him either after the events that took place right before he woke up with that nasty hangover.

Thinking of it now, he can vaguely recall nestling himself close to Yuu's body and feeling… nice. Comforted. Warm. The three main feelings that came with physical human contact. Feelings that he loved and hated all the same.

He didn't want to think about it.

He shook his head and averted his full attention in the direction of the little building standing like a beacon a few yards ahead—the pharmacy.

Like all the buildings in Sanguinem, this one was cracked with age, and was shrouded in a thick eerie aurora. However, all thanks to its most unfavorable title “Pharmacy,” it was also a refuge for what the city called, Human Rats—or Junkies—one of Sanguinem's most dangerous night crawlers, next to the countless rabid gangs, and the two new terrors which were three times as vicious than both of them put together.

These junkies only showed themselves in the dead of night when there were hardly any citizens to speak of, emerging from their homeless shelters and abandoned houses to engage in expensive trade deals and put their favorite narcotics to use.

Stepping up to the glass double doors, he's sure he saw one slither towards the back of the building. He did well to keep his hood pulled over his face and his head low. Making eye contact with anyone at night was like signing a death wish. He clutched the paper Guren had given him tightly in his pocket.

The bright lights inside blinded him for a good few seconds, and he squinted hard while proceeding down an aisle full of salty snacks, towards the far back where an old man in his late sixties sat behind the paying counter with a small book held up to his pointed nose. The place was a hair below freezing, and reeked of pills and cough syrup.

He took in a long deep breath before clearing his throat and addressing the pharmacist in a soft voice that almost failed to reach the other's hearing aid. The man grunted in acknowledgement and casted him a meager glance, requesting in a firm yet blase tone of voice, "Note."

"Y-yes, sir." Mika pulled the small piece of paper from out of his pocket and held it out over the counter, a strange prickling sensation in the back of his neck urging him to peak over his shoulder.

"Ahh, yes," the man hummed, finally recognizing his most youthful customer as he carefully read over the contents of the note. The scowl on his face lessened considerably, in its place, a friendly smile that made him appear less like a stereotypical old neighbor with an even more ancient canine companion, and more like the jolly old man working the candy shop. "Just a minute, Mikaela. Yours is in the back."

"Yes, sir. Thank you," Mika said with a nod, turning away from the counter as he waited for his prescription. He adjusted his hood so that he could see more of his surroundings without having to dramatically shift his head around like a blind person, and stared outside the widow of the doors warily. His eyes landed on a small group of five crossing the street in his direction. Judging by the way they shoved each others' shoulders and leaped around like jackals, he could tell they were friends; harmless citizens cruising the dangerous streets, but before he had a chance to get a good view of their faces, his phone vibrated.

His heart jumped in his chest.

He'd completely forgotten about his friend.

He dug through his sweatshirt pocket for the noisy device, holding it up to his face with bulging eyes.

‘He's calling?’

Why was he calling? What was wrong with just texting? Was it an emergency? What did he want to talk about? Was he mad that he hadn't responded to his text yesterday? What did the text say anyway? Should he answer?

It was too late. His fingers were shaking too much from the cold and alarm, and had taken it upon themselves to answer his queries for him. His breath hitched in his throat.

"Shit." He could hear the voice of the guy who pinned him to the ground that one day. "Shit. Shit." What should he do?

"Hey, kiddie, you there?" The voice asked. "Did a ghost answer?"

He slowly held the phone up to his ear, his breath still stuck in his lungs. "He-hello?"

"Ah, you're alive! For a second I thought you'd tripped off a bridge or something. Anyway, how's it going? What are you up to on this lovely snowy night?"

The old man came back from where he held the more costly drugs, a tiny bag dangling from his fingers.

"Excuse me," Mika murmured into the phone, accepting the bag from the pharmacist with a small thank you. The man nodded warmly, and took a seat back on his old rickety chair, getting nice and settled in before continuing to read his little green book.

"What was that?" Mystery Boy questioned nosily. "Are you at the store? Don't you know how dangerous it is for kids to be wandering the streets alone at night?"

Mika blushed at the boy's concern for his well being, though, he found it rather ironic considering who exactly said concern was coming from. "No. Well, yes! but I-I mean, I was just picking something important up. I'm going home now."

"Oh, Yeah? What were you picking up?"

"Just some medicine." He tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder, folding the bag over the petite form of the pill bottle and slipping it into his pocket. He fixed his hood afterwards and exited the building.

"Medicine? Are you sick?"

Honestly, this Mystery Boy asked far too many questions. It was… strange. A change of subject was in favor.

"Sort of. But why did you call me?"

The voice on the other line chuckled lightly. "What, is it a crime to want to talk on the phone with my texting buddy?"

Mika almost tripped over a piece of concrete jutting dangerously from out of the ground—the result of a particular bad earthquake a few years back—and caught his phone before it could crack against the ground. He pressed it back to his ear, stammering over his words whilst his heart struggled to recover. "No! No, it's not! I was just… I didn't mean it like that! I was just wondering. Nobody's ever really called me before."

"Well then, aren't I the lucky one," Mystery Boy teased. "It's reassuring to know that I have you all to myself. I was never particularly fond of sharing. Anywho, the reason I called is because… I don't know, actually. I guess I was just bored. Walking around at night is fun and all, but everybody's inside so there's nothing really productive to do."

Mika paused. "You're outside?"

"It's the only time my brother and I are allowed out. Might as well take advantage of it, you know."

There was a loud crash behind him, followed by whooping excitement. It was the five friends from before. They were about two yards behind him, on the other side of the street, fooling around with a beaten trash can. He sighed in relief and turned back around.

"The hell was that?"

"Nothing, it was just some guys kicking a trash can. How come you're not allowed out during the day?"

"Let's just say it has to do with the depressing fact that I don't exist in this world. Well, not world exactly—that's too dramatic. City is more accurate. Can't exactly show my face to the locals."

"I don't understand. Are you a foreigner?"

"Somewhat. Here, I'm just a lonely spirit, cursed to wander this retched plane of existence," Mystery Boy droned deeply. "But don't pity me too much. I have my family for comfort. And besides, being a ghost has its perks."

"What are they?" Mika asked carefully, not sure whether he wanted to know the answer to that question.

"Well, for one, I get to do whatever I want—just as long as I don't get caught, obviously—whenever I want. And second, I get to feel really badass while hunting you little city munchkins down. Makes me feel like an apex predator on animal planet."

Mika paused for a second time, unsure if he'd heard correctly. "Y-you hunt people?"

"Only the ones I'm ordered to. My brother and I can't really afford to be reckless and take out the innocent just for the hell of it. Can't have daddy and his men catching onto our identity, now can we? Associating myself with you is already overstepping boundaries. But I really like you. You remind me of someone I used to know, so it's okay. I just have to be a bit more careful."

Mika's forehead creased, too engrossed in their conversation to realize his stomach growling, or the ten patters of shoes gaining on him. "Daddy? Are you talking about my dad?"

"Yes, that daddy." His voice was tinged with annoyance as he said that, but then switched to something more innocent and quizzical, like an insecure boy unsure of his next words. "I can trust you, right? To, you know, not rat us out or anything? I kinda love my family and would hate it if we had to pack our shit and leave due to the pigs catching onto us. It's a lot of baggage, and not at all fun to carry. My mom owns a lot shoes."

Mika pulled over at the park he and Mystery boy first met at and took a seat on one of the swings. His head was spinning from the long walk and he needed a second to catch his breath.

He pulled his hood down heavily, removing it, and switched the phone to his left ear. "Sorry, can you say that again?" There was no response on the other line, and he switched the phone back to its original place on his other ear. "Hello?" Shuffling on the other line, and then a muffled sharp intake of breath. "Hello? A-are you okay?"

Some more shuffling, and then an abrupt, "huh? Oh, yeah, right. Haha, I'm fine. Just…" Mystery Boy released a strange sort of chortle that put him on edge, his next words hoarse and oddly uncertain. "Just uhh… I'm pretty sure I'm hallucinating right now? I-I really don't fucking know. Just give me a second."

"Oh. Umm, okay," Mika murmured, his own words just as conflicted. He didn't know what to say or do in this particular situation, and so remained silent with the phone held close to his ear. There was some more shuffling, and then the sound of shoes dropping to the ground followed by a low grunt and a swear. And as if the sudden lack of words weren't enough to make him feel uneasy, he swore he could hear hysteric laughter on the other line.

"What the fuck?" Mystery Boy finally uttered after ten seconds of nothing. He still sounded fluctuant and distraught, flustered even, as if he were bearing witness to a miracle of nature and couldn't believe his eyes.

"Wh-what's wrong?" Mika asked, looking around on impulse to his rising discomfort.

"Your hair…"

"My hair?" He repeated, placing a hand on his head, oblivious in regard to what he was supposed to be searching for.

The boy's next words made his blood run cold. They sounded like just a whisper carried on by the gentle breeze, but he heard them nonetheless.

"It's blond."

He shot up from the swing, twirling every which way with eyes blown wide open and a gaping mouth. There was nothing around but the sleeping buildings and the five friends crossing the street. One of them nodded in his direction and the other four laughed. However, none of them were carrying a phone, and they all appeared to be headed straight for him.

"Uhh…"

"I know, kid. Hold on."

And then the line went dead.

His last shred of consolation now gone, he took a hesitant step back, away from the group of men quickly closing the large gap separating them. He clutched his phone close to his chest and held his breath, taking yet another step back.

"Hey, you!" One man called out, pointing in his direction.

His stomach dropped, and his nerves began to jitter beneath his skin. As the men stepped out from the darkness of the streets and into the light provided by the park, their faces became more clear, and Mika could finally see that they weren't just five friends.

Their clothes were old and torn in anonymous places, and they looked as if they had just gotten out from rolling around in the sewers. Their skin was a mixture between a sickly pale-green and yellow, and the teeth that poked out from one of the bigger men's deteriorating gums as he grinned grossly at him were stained a charcoal black.

His blood began rushing through his veins at a nauseating speed, and as he attempted to take a third step back, panic stunted his balance and he ended up tripping over the brightly painted curb that stood between the sand and the sidewalk.

"Hey, girly," the leader of the grimy crew greeted with a smile that made his stubble stricken face wrinkle like a not so hairless mole rat. He and his crew circled him like a pack of hyenas, their chortles and suggestive words clouding his brain, and suddenly, he couldn't think. He could only sit and watch as the leader got down on one knee and reached his dirty hand out towards his face. "You're a pretty one, aren't you? Why don't you come with us and we can share whatever it is you got from the old man, eh? We'll have fun, us six. We can make you feel good."

The flesh on Mika's cheek sizzled like a burn made by sulfuric acid as long boney fingers made contact with his skin. He gaped into drooping, watery brown eyes, a scream lodged in his throat, preventing anything besides his quick unsteady breaths to pass through. A tear slipped down to his chin, and the surrounding men began laughing and cooing like deranged infants, mocking him.

"Look at her cry!"

"Poor girl."

"Let's just take her with us."

"Yeah, it's been a while since we've had a little fun."

Just then, when the leader's dry hand shifted from his cheek over to his lips like duct tape, the sickening scent of rotten milk vanished, and the man went barreling through the snow, stopping only when his face made contact with a thick metal pole supporting the frozen slide. He was out in an instant.

The other four men, along with himself, gasped in shock and scrambled away from the tall figure cloaked in ebony that stood in between them. Mika couldn't see his face, but he didn't need to. The shiny dagger being unsheather from the holster on the stranger's thigh was identification enough.

"Alright, assholes, we can do this the easy way or the hard way," he announced, pointing his dagger at the four stunned assailants. "Either you crawl back to whatever dumpsters you came from, or I carve all your ugly faces up like pumpkins."

"The hell is this guy?"

"I don't know."

"Shit, he has a gun!"

"Shit, let's get out of here!"

A collective yeah, and Mika watched wide eyed as all four of his attackers scattered out of the park and across the street swearing in a frenzy. Their friend was left bloodied and groaning a few feet away, his ruined face still connected to the pole. His savior glanced over his shoulder, his own face shrouded behind a pitch black bandana and a large hood that cloaked his eyes. He got a more solid grip on his blade's leather handle, and turned to face watery blue orbs fully.

His breath hitched in his throat, his trembling fingers a pale white from the deathly grip he had on his phone. He couldn't take his eyes away from the boy he had been conversing with not five minutes before. He looked as if he belonged in a fantasy video game. Everything he wore, from his hood down to his shoes, were darker than the night sky. His outfit hugged every inch of his body firmly, showing off his lean muscles and the slender curve of his back. Tied around one leg like a belt was the holster to his infamous blade, and on his other, an average sized handgun resting menacingly in its own. It was too dark to make out the other small gadgets tucked away on his chest, but he's sure he saw several much more miniature handles belonging to deadly weapons.

The boy tugged the scarf down to hang around his neck, his voice slightly hoarse. "Are you okay?"

Blue never left the shimmering silver of the blade, and Mika nodded his head in a daze. Was this guy really the guy he'd been talking to on the phone?

The figure took a step closer and he gasped in alarm, stopping the other's advances in his tracks. He observed cautiously as the weapon then slipped from his fingers to the snow and he began his approach more carefully with both hands raised to show he meant no harm. When he was finally within arms reach, he did the unexpected and fell heavily to his knees. Mika flinched again, wanting to back away farther, but far too rattled to move a single muscle.

"No way…" the other breathed in awe. He reached a tentative hand out, faltering more when Mika pulled his own hand away in fear of his intentions. He lowered his back to his lap in understanding, clearing his throat before asking again, "are you sure none of them hurt you? You're crying."

Mika quickly wiped away all evidence of fear on his sleeve. "Th-they didn't, I'm fine." His gaze then flickered over to the man who had been kicked into the large pole. "Is he… you know?"

"Dead? No. Do you want me to?"

"No!" His hand shot forward to grab his savior's arm as he reached for his gun. "No, don't! I'm okay. You don't have to kill him."

Mystery Boy's hidden eyes snapped down to the small pale hand holding onto him. He could feel it trembling ever so slightly. "Are you scared of me?" He asked quietly.

Mika snatched his hand back, realizing his mistake, and shook his head. "No. I'm just… cold. I-I should actually head home now. My dad is probably worried. Thank you for, uhh, for helping me." He stood up after that and dusted the snow from the back of his jeans, Mystery Boy following suit and leaving his side to retrieve his dagger from off the ground.

"You know," he said, regaining a fraction of his composer. "Even for medicine, kids like you shouldn't wander around at night. This city is full of thirsty lurkers waiting to snatch up easy prey. Just think about what could've happened here if I wasn't around."

Mika looked over at the unconscious man on the ground, every ounce of blood in his body rushing to his face, and he quickly averted his gaze to a small patch of sand that peeked out from beneath the snow. "Sorry."

Guilt and regret began pouring through his chest as he thought of everything those five men said to him; what they wanted to do to him; what they almost did to him. He thought about them walking away from his bruised and broken body with satisfied smirks on their faces. He thought about dragging himself home and making up a lie about why he was late again, and then hiding in his room to cry alone until he passed out. He thought about how he was ever going to survive knowing he was dense enough to dismiss five men as they secretly trailed after him before actually getting ahold of him and engaging in the unspeakable.

"Hey." A heavy hand fell on his head, interrupting his morbid train of thought. He tilted his head up to regard Mystery Boy, but all he was able to make out through the oversized dark hood was a smiling pair of lips and two shiny pieces of metal looped through the bottom left of his lower lip—piercings. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that. Don't think about what could've happened, just be glad that you're safe now and get to go home, okay?"

Mika was at a loss for words. "How did you—"

"I'm a mind reader," he joked, wriggling his fingers dramatically like a wizard. His smile never wavered, and he twirled Mika on his heel and took hold of his hand, leading him away from the park and in the direction of the first block of houses. He would be sure to deal with his friend's attackers later. "So tell me, where does kiddie live in this dark and enchanting city?"

"My… my house? You want to know my address?"

"Well, unless you live in one of the alleys, yeah. And don't worry, not like I'm gonna stalk your family or anything like that. When it comes to me, you're completely safe."

Mika felt as though he could erupt any second now. His face was on fire, and the cold weather was no longer enough to put a stop to his horrible sweating issue. The hand that was being held tingled in a way he had never felt before. He tried pulling away from the uncomfortable itchiness, but Mystery Boy's grip was unyielding.

"You're not escaping me that easily," he declared, practically dragging the blond along behind him. "Like it or not, I'm your escort-slash-bodyguard for the night. So either you tell me your address, or I'll just pull a random number out of my ass and throw you into a potential crack house and hope for the best." He paused then, glancing back at him with a toothy grin that showed off his straight pearly whites. "Or, I can take you back to my house. I'm sure my bed is big enough to squeeze one more. What do you say?"

With anxiety, starvation, discomfort, and the terrifying ordeal he was faced with not ten minutes ago finally chilling him to the bone, Mika lost his ability to speak another word, and merely shifted his head from left to right like a frightened child. His large eyes traveled from Mystery Boy's chin up to the two barbell piercings circled around his pale pink lips, transfixed. Those same lips began speaking, and he blinked back into reality.

"Huh?"

"Your house, kid. Come on, I'm freezing my ass off out here."

"Oh, umm…" he hesitated before pointing a finger down the street, then looked back over at the only two details showcased on his friend's face. "It's… over there."

"Well, then," Mystery Boy continued, urging him forward. "Lead the way, kid. We should hurry before Daddy sends out a search party, don't you think? Remember, there's a deranged serial killer on the loose."

With both hands now free, Mika rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans and pulled his sleeves down to prevent any further attempts at hand holding. The tingling sensation was still very much present, and he kept his head low as he brushed past his friend and made his way further down the sidewalk.

Five minutes later and he'd official reached his limit. It was decided that they should stop two houses down for safety purposes, which was not working in his favor since he felt like he was already on the verge of collapsing, but he still nodded in agreement and forced his body to remain upright while they said their farewells. At one point his stomach rumbled aggressively, and he was asked if he was alright. His immediate response was to smile and nod reassuringly and pray his appearance wasn't as bad as he thought it was.

"I'm hoping this is the first and last time we meet up like this, kid. The people out here are dangerous and won't hesitate to drag you through hell then spit you back out traumatized. And if they ever find out that you're the son of a cop, well… I think you already know. And since I get the feeling that I'll still end up seeing you in spite of my boring lecture, take this." He reached for one of the tiny leather handles poking out from the fabric of his chest and held out what looked to be a small arrow-shaped knife.

He placed it on Mika's palm delicately, as if it were made of glass. Its one and a half inch black blade glimmered up at him as he gazed back down at its jagged edges. The way each little tooth curved gracefully forward reminded him of a deadly serpant's fangs.

"Only you're allowed to touch it, okay? Nobody else."

He nodded at the serious tone of voice, grasping the handle between his fingers more intently. "What is it?"

"It's push dagger. A miniature version of another one I own. Do you know how to use it?"

He shook his head no, jumping slightly afterwards when a hand settled itself on his hip from behind and another took hold of the hand holding the weapon. Like the first time they met, Mystery Boy's breath as he spoke close to his ear smelled of hard candy. His fingers were adjusted slightly to wield the weapon more appropriately, its shark like tooth protruding from in between his middle and ring finger. "You hold it like this, push forward, and in some cases—like if you stab a big guy in the stomach—twist like this, k? Like a key. Easy peasy."

Mika nodded, an angry blush creeping up to his ears and down his neck at the warmth flooding his body. The tiny blade glided through the air like a wisp of cold hard steel, left, right, up and down, diagonally, and side to side; a beginner's guide on how to cut through the human flesh.

"It's lightweight, easy to hide, and perfect for the inexperienced. Feels like you're not even holding anything, right?"

"Have you ever had to use it before?" He asked, for the first time that day, forgetting about the tension that normally flowed through his veins like venom.

Mystery Boy smiled at his sudden interest. "Not in a while. This is a close range weapon. Like, really close. I usually work with, well… not so close range weapons. Depending on the circumstances, that is. I mean, there's my dagger, but that's my only exception; It's fun to use. Other than that, I'm not really an up close and personal kind of guy. Last time I tried that I ended up swallowing a mouthful of somebody else's blood. I threw up for about five minutes straight."

"Wh-when was that?" Mika asked, finding it hard to imagine a killer becoming queasy over the taste of blood. But, then again, the stuff did go down his throat. Of course the body's natural reflex would be to reject it one way or another.

"A few years ago. This ballsy bastard attacked my brother and I. He ended up getting on top of me, so I jammed your little push dagger into his neck and it all just came pouring out. I was bedridden for three days after that. Worst three days of my life."

"Oh…" so he's been killing people for years.

"Alright," he continued, backing away. Mika shivered at the sudden loss of body heat. "Keep it safe for me, and hide it well. Bring it with you wherever you go. Even in stores. Sleep with it. Hide it in your backpack at school. Do everything with it. It's really special to me, and I don't want it more than a foot away from you, got it?"

Mika nodded for what felt like the hundredth time that night and slipped the small weapon into the safety of his sweatshirt pocket, keeping a mental note to hide it under his pillow when he got home.

"Welp, that about wraps up our lesson for tonight. I bid you a swell goodnight, kiddie." Mystery kid proclaimed, bowing low like a dark mystical jester.

Mika struggled to hide his apparent amusement, and waved a bashful goodbye before turning his back and skittering to his house. He pulled open the front door with more force than intended and slammed it shut behind him, leaning against the cool wood for a prolonged moment with the smile he had been fighting against now free and stretched wide across his cheeks. That ticklish feeling in his throat from a few days before returned with a vengeance, and he couldn't help but let the funny feeling out verbally.

Why was that murderous kid making his insides feel so… feathery?

‘He's weird,’ he concluded, kicking his shoes off to the side and making his way up to his room. Passing by his father's bedroom, he could vaguely make out an argument between him and somebody else on the phone. The sound of a frustrated groan made the smile on his face drop in a heartbeat.

"What the hell do you mean you can't find it? The sick bastard must have left it somewhere in the house! Well, look harder! I don't care how long it takes, dammit! Who's all helping you? Alright, fine. I'm heading over there right now! Nobody is allowed to leave that house until every last piece of him is found, understood? That's an order."

After that, the door swung open, causing him to leap away in fright, and out stepped his uniformed father with his ebony hair gelled back tightly on his head. He swallowed hard and presented the petite bag carrying his medication, trying hard to look anywhere but the man's agitated face.

"Dad, I—"

"And what the hell took you so long?" Guren growled, snatching the bag from his hand and throwing it into his room angrily. It bounced off the corner of his bed and rolled across the floor. "You had one job, Mikaela!"

"Sorry, I… I ran into trouble, and—"

"Maybe if you'd spent the day doing something productive instead of sleeping your life away in your room like you always do, you could've gotten your medicine earlier. You have nobody else to blame but yourself."

"I know," Mika agreed just below a whisper, picking at the hem of his sweatshirt. "It won't happen again, Dad. I'm sorry." Guren scoffed and stepped past him to the stairs. "Um, Dad?"

"What is it now, Mikaela?" He sighed in exasperation, not turning to regard his fidgeting son.

"Is it okay if I eat in my room tonight? I-I have a lot of homework to fini—"

"I don't care. And close my door while you're at it."

"Yes, Dad. Thank you."

Mika obediently did as he was told and scampered off into the comforts of his room to change into his pajamas. It felt nice to finally get out of that hot sweatshirt and those tight jeans. After everything he'd been through, he just wanted to eat and go to sleep. Even now, knowing that both Guren and Yuu were gone from the house, leaving just him, he was still too drained to fully take advantage of such a golden opportunity.

He dropped down onto his bed with a huff, gazing up at his dangerous gift sparkling in the dim lighting of the room. It was all so strange to him: both times he coincidentally ran into that crazy seventeen year old, the encounters were so surreal the only way he could stick to believing that what happened happened is through the gifts he brought back home with him: a dark bruise on his abdomen, and a combat weapon he'd only ever seen on TV. Then, of course, there were the mental scars of having watched a man being brutally mutilated in an alley, then being harassed by a group of druggies looking for fraudulent pleasure.

What has his life come to?

He sighed tiredly and slipped his new weapon inside of his pillow case, figuring it was much safer than just beneath his pillow where he normally left his phone, and exited the bed to finally prepare a little meal that would sustain him for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

"Oh, that's terrible."

"This is getting a little scary."

"Who cares, the creep was a pedophile anyway."

"If you ask me, I'd say he's doing us a favor."

"I guess…"

Yet again, he was free from the attention given by the majority. There had been another murder. A forty-three year old pedophile who'd been living in an abandoned house on the ourskirts of Sanguinem. He was discovered by his next door neighbors, lying frozen in his backyard with a badly broken ankle, a cracked skull, and his heart gruesomely ripped from his chest. They say the job was done with the help of a large, drill-like blade, six inches or more. A vague description of an all too familiar weapon that only a select few in Sanguinem knew about. Police found torn shreds of photographs in the pedophile's living room, along with more than seventy other pictures of children pinned to his bedroom walls. Some pictures were taken of children playing at parks or leaving their mothers' car for school, while others were taken inside of his home. The police refused to give out further details other than the fact that the heart was later found in a blender that just so happened to had been filled with drugs.

A pedophile. A broken ankle. A cracked skull. A blended heart. Nobody else but his friend would commit such a grizzly act.

He fiddled with the tiny push dagger in his backpack distractedly, gazing outside at the cold and lonely view of the school's parking lot three stories below from where he sat perched up on his favorite area in the school—one of the many miniature bay windows inside the library. The drugs running through his system helped to keep the jitters in his chest at a manageable level, but it still came as a shock how he wasn't freaking out over the idea of somebody as jubilant as his new friend torturing and slaughtering a man for kicks.

Honestly, his voice sounded too innocent for the horrific things he did. But maybe that false purity was what made him exceedingly more dangerous than the rest of the criminals in Sanguinem.

A reclusive seventeen year old boy with a brutal heart who wanted nothing more than to hurt others and remain friends with an antisocial sixteen year old boy who wanted nothing more than to stay in his room and be left alone.

A lively seventeen year old boy with an unforgiving mentality who spared his life, showered him with unnatural kindness, saved him, spoke to him, and worried for his safety.

Why did it have to be a murderer? Why couldn't it have been Yuu? or Guren? or anyone else for that matter who wasn't at risk of being shot on sight like a feral wolf? Why did it have to be somebody he was supposed to turn in? Why did it have to be somebody who gave the city bloodcurdling nightmares?

His new and only friend, who showed him the affection he'd been craving from his “family” for the past six years, has killed men, women and children alike. And he did it for sport. But then, why was he so nice to him? What made him, insignificant Mikaela Shindo, so special? Was it because of his depre—

His phone vibrated in his pocket, startling him from his thoughts.

It was his friend.

FRIEND: hi kiddie~ What are you up to? It's lunchtime for High Schoolers right? I'm not like interrupting a test or something?

His face remained impassive, and he hid the push dagger back away in its little pocket he'd reserved for it in his backpack. He may have been more enthusiastic and responsive last night. But now, he didn't know what to feel. His friend was a wanted fiend.

‘He tore a man's heart out of his chest.’

HIM: hi. And yes it's lunchtime. I'm sitting in the library. Can I ask you something?

FRIEND: of course. Only if I get to ask you a question in return though.

HIM: okay.

FRIEND: alright.

FRIEND: shoot.

HIM: did you kill that guy everyone's talking about?

No hesitation.

FRIEND: I'm assuming you mean that pigish perv. Why Yes. Yes I did.

HIM: why?

FRIEND: itchy fingers I guess.

FRIEND: and orders of course.

HIM: oh.

He was more intrigued than he was aghast, oddly enough. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that his mind had been mellowed to mush upon arrival to school. He could still taste the drugs on his tongue.

HIM: what's your question?

FRIEND: are you gonna tell anyone?

He didn't need to think of a response.

HIM: no.

FRIEND: why not?

HIM: I'm your friend.

FRIEND: you never fail to set my heart at ease. Thanks kiddie :)

HIM: you're welcome.

There was another question that had been poking at him since late last night. A question he should have asked the minute he was rescued from those junkies.

HIM: can I ask you another question?

FRIEND: anything.

HIM: why didn't you kill me yesterday? You saw my face.

FRIEND: but you didn't see mine.

HIM: I saw the piercings on your lips.

FRIEND: they're pretty sexy aren't they ;) my brother did them himself. He's all about tattoos and piercings and shit

Mika had to lower his phone for a second as his face began warming up. He didn't need to be reminded of those damnable piercings on those even more damnable lips; the way they twinkled in the yellow street lamps every time he smiled or spoke. Thinking about that only reminded him of the way their skin touched when he was taught the basics of self-defense. He couldn't get the feeling of that gentle hand caressing his hip out of his head. Sure, Yuu did that to him on a daily basis, but he was his brother, and Yuu was always so rough and forceful. And anyhow, it was just plain weird. They were supposed to be family. This was different. This was… was…

And then it dawned on him.

‘I don't know his name.’

FRIEND: no but in all seriousness kid I don't think I would be able to kill you even if I wanted to. You mean more to me than you think

His insides tingled almost painfully, and he turned away to face the white scenery outside once more. He couldn't begin to express how thankful he was for taking his pills that morning after he'd almost forgotten to. Without them, he would have been a complete mess. His friend was just too much for him to handle. He'd never encountered somebody as quirky and unusual as him before in his entire life.

But wait. He has. Many years ago when he lived at the orphanage, there were those two boys he hung around with twenty-four seven up until the day they disappeared four years later, two days before his tenth birthday. While one of the boys were more placid and level-headed, the other boy might as well have been the living embodiment of the expression wild child. He was more untamed than all the feral animals he had ever seen on any Netflix documentary. He was dangerous, yes, but along with that danger he was also very kind and sympathetic. He held so much affection for him and their other friend. So much it was overwhelming. That particular friend and Mystery Boy were very similar in that sense. It made him think—no, believe that they were almost the same pers—

"Mikaela."

"Huh?" He started, his phone flinging from his grasp and clattering to the floor, sounding far too clamorous in the quiet library. Short pink hair bent over to grab it before he could, and he observed in full alarm as Shiho Kimizuki righted himself with the large device trapped within his palm. "Kimizuki…"

But if he was here, that meant—

"Don't worry, I came alone," he reassured through a sigh, offering Mika his phone back.

Mika accepted it cautiously, his feathery fingers grazing against Kimizuki's for a full two seconds before the eletrical buzz disappeared and the blond was now holding the phone close to his heart. His voice was soft as he said, "Thank you."

"Yeah," Kimizuki grunted, scratching the back of his head. An awkward silence filled the room then, Kimizuki sweating under the intense blue eyes of Mika, and Mika wondering why, of all people, Shiho Kimizuki was speaking to him without his trademark sneer in place. A memory sparked in his brain. A memory of axe body wash enveloping him in his dreams.

"Why are you here?" He asked courageously, catching both himself and his bully off guard.

Kimizuki cleared his throat and looked the blond in the eyes, regaining his demeanor somewhat and said, "I wanted to talk to you about what happened on Friday. Yuu and I were—"

"I know," Mika interrupted, surprising himself and Shiho yet again. However, it was true. He knew everything. The whole disasterous, mortifying truth all thanks to his big brother walking in on him last night while he was in the middle of scarfing down his sandwhich. He knew about the whole over-the-top drinking, and the begging for food, and the loud chatting in the movie theater, and the clinginess, and sloppiness, and… wanton behavior. "S-sorry if I did anything to make you uncomfortable. I told Yuu it was a bad idea to invite me."

He grabbed his backpack and quickly shimmied his way from off his little secluded area by the window with intentions to escape, not wanting to embarrass himself even more than he already had. Drugs can only inhance his tolerance for so long.

"Hey, hold on." Kimizuki grabbed hold of his small wrist, stopping him in his tracks. He couldn't quite make out his expression past the glare reflected through his spectacles. "What exactly did Yuu tell you?"

His lips faltered. Was speaking about such discourteous behavior out loud really necessary? To his bully, no less. "Just that I drank too much, and I was being rude to him, and I said hurtful things, and, I… well… I was being inappropriate towards you. Excuse me…" he tried leaving once more, but the grip on his stinging wrist only tightened. The vexation showing through Kimizuki's furrowed brows kept him from crying out.

"That's not true," he stated flatly. "You only drank too much because Yuu tricked you. He told me about your drinking habits." Mika's body visibly tensed in his grasp, and his words lost about a third of its edge. "You called him an asshole because you found out that you were tricked. You weren't being mean. And you weren't being inappropriate either. You were too drunk to walk anywhere so me and Yuu had to carry you around until we made it back to your house. You passed out on the couch, so I carried you to your room, and that's it. You weren't being hurtful, or mean, or whatever the hell else Yuu told you you were being. You were just drunk and pissed."

Mika was stunned. Why was somebody as hateful towards him as Kimizuki telling him all of this? What was his endgame? Was it a test of some sort? Was he trying to catch him in a lie and tell his brother about it later so that they could share a good laugh? And why was he touching him? Kimizuki never touched him. It was weird.

‘Stop overthinking,’ he mentally kicked himself.

‘Calm down.’

‘There's probably a reasonable explanation. Just ask him.’

‘Get out of there.’

‘Make an excuse to leave.’

‘An excuse?’

An excuse.

And an excuse was just what he got. A phonecall from his friend.

"Sorry, um—" he scrambled for his cellphone with an inaudible sigh, thanking his luck when the hand squeezing his wrist released him at long last. He checked the caller ID out of habit and sent Kimizuki a false apologetic glimpse. "I have to take this. Thank you for um… telling me the truth about, you know, Friday. It was nice of you."

And that was it. Kimizuki stammered over his words like an idiot, but Mika had already answered his phone and was already halfway across the library in rushed pursuit of the exit. He stood there, stupefied at what had just transpired. After everything he'd done in the past Mikaela was still willing to show him gratitude, and even say that it was nice of him to tell him what Yuu failed to. He was making progress.

Now all he had to do was take things a step further. He still needed to make up for Friday.

~~~

"Kiddie!"

"Uhh, hi," Mika replied less than fervently, awkwardly making his way down the crowded hallways while at the same time avoiding the gawking eyeballs that followed his every step like dozens of monitors in a CCTV room. But who wouldn't stare? Mikaela Shindo was actually speaking to somebody on the phone during school hours. Who would've thought?

He could practically hear the pout behind Mystery Boy's voice when he asked, "aww, what's wrong? You don't sound too happy to talk to me. Are you mad about what I did to that guy? I can tell you the full story of why I did it, if you want."

"What? No. I just… well, I mean it's bad to kill people. But I just can't find anywhere quiet to go."

"I thought you were in the library."

He pushed the door to his next class open, hoping to find some much needed silence. Five students. No luck. "I was, but something came up."

"The roof."

Anything to get away from the watchful eyes of his brother's god-awful fans. He made a beeline straight to the fourth floor and pushed the door to the roof open, a jolt of shivers racking his body the moment a gust of icy air blew against his face. He pulled his hood up over his head and found a nice little spot cleared of snow to take refuge at. He dropped his backpack on the ground with a heavy sigh.

"Sounds pretty cold up there."

"It's winter…"

"Smart ass."

His face turned more crimson than a ripe tomatoe, and he began sputtering out a long apology before the sound of boisterous laughter cut his words short.

"Oh, you are just the cutest little thing! It's satisfying!"

"S-satisfying?"

"Like a jolly rancher that doesn't get stuck to the wrapper when you open it."

"Thank you?"

"My pleasure. Hey, how long until you have to go back to class?"

"Umm…" he checked the time on his phone. "Ten minutes, why?"

"Just curious. I'm still a noob to the whole school thing. I only know the basics from watching angsty teenage dramas on TV."

"Have you really never been to a school before?" He asked, curiosity dripping through every syllable. There was the sound of deep, heavy purring on the other line—his friend's cat, Ayame, he presumed. He could just imagine her large melanoid body lying atop his chest, her whiskers twitching as she prodded at his cellphone in natural feline wonder.

"Ow, Ayame! Move your ass, you just poked my eye!"

He couldn't help but smile at the thought.

"Remember when I told you that I'm technically a ghost in Sanguinem?" He quizzed over the clamorous love of his cat.

With a small smile still on his face, Mika nodded twice. "Yeah."

"What I meant by that is if you were to ever look me up online or dig up old files in any of the city's archives, you would most likely come up dry and disappointed."

"Did you get rid of all of your information?"

"Didn't have to. All thanks to my oh-so-loving parents, I was never really given the opportunity to join in on society like the rest of you. My mother and Aunt secretly migrated hear from Europe before I was born and wanted to live out a more… quiet life, per se. As the story goes, my Aunt met some construction worker prick who promised to keep them a secret and, skip ahead a few months, my mother became pregnant. Skip ahead some more months, and I was born." He scoffed. "I didn't even know what a school was until I ran away from home for the last time at the age of seven. But even after that, it was already too late for me."

"What do you mean?" Mika asked, hoping his question wasn't crossing any boundaries. His friend's history was more depressing than he thought, and going off the way it was told to him, Mystery Boy didn't enjoy relaying it either. The heavy sigh in his ear only stressed his point. "S-sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"Oh, no, it's okay," Mystery Boy was quick to reassure. "Finding sleep has just been a real bitch lately; I don't know what's gotten into me. And anyway, as much as I'd like to talk to you more about my boring past, I'm gonna have to cut our little story time short. Anything else would be considered confidential."

"Oh, okay. I understand." Mika's words were nothing if not sincere. He of all people could sympathise with his friend's rightful desire for privacy. Particularly in regards to personal subjects such as background history. He wouldn't press the subject further. "You should get some rest."

"I will… Eventually. But for now, I still have five more minutes left with you. Sleep can wait."

"M-my life isn't that interesting, really."

"Kid, your life is very interesting. I hope you don't honestly believe it isn't."

Flattered, and feeling far too warm in his sweatshirt, he came to the nagging decision that now was the perfect time to redirect the conversation and finally ask the question that had been bothering him for over the past five days. "How come you're so nice to me?"

It was a serious question, one that required a serious answer, so when his friend only began laughing on the other line, as if it was the funniest joke he had heard in years, he couldn't help but feel the slightest bit disheartened. "Why are you laughing?"

"Sorry, it's just… nothing. Nevermind." Mystery Boy took a deep breath and continued in a more befitting manner. "Why am I so nice to you, huh? Do I have a reason to be mean?"

"Well, no. I don't know. But you…" he couldn't bring himself to say the word.

"I kill people," his friend stated bluntly. "Come on, kid, just because I have a hobby that most people frown upon, doesn't mean I'm any less of a human than the rest of you. And like most humans, I can be pretty decent too: If I see a cat stuck in a tree, I help it down. Just like when I notice my friend is sad, I try to make him smile. What, did you think I was just some crazy, cold-hearted psychopath with nothing but murder and corpses on the brain?"

"Of course not!" Mika blurted. "I just don't understand. I mean, I could get you in trouble for what you've done to those people. My father would kill you! Doesn't that bother you?"

"Should it? I'm very confident in my skill of getting away with murder—I don't mean that threateningly, by the way. I'd never do anything to hurt you. Not intentionally, at least. And anyhow, I trust you. You're my friend."

"But why me?" He strained, the weight of his friend's words having crashed down on his emotions. "What do you want from me?"

"You know, kid, not everyone is out to get you," said the unfazed caller. "I understand that the people who must've been close to you have used you or taken you for granted, but trust me when I say I'm not like that. I know how it feels to be used by the people you were made to trust. I know how it feels to be scared and skeptical of every person you meet, not sure what their intentions are when they show you the slightest bit of kindness. That's why it's up to you to decide who you want to trust. Not them. And I get it, I hurt people. A lot of people. And I enjoy doing it. Why would any sane human want to be friends with somebody like that? But, kid, I'm not a monster. I have the same emotions as you. And I swear to you that I would never ever dream of taking advantage of you, and I'll do everything I can to make you trust me just as much as I trust you. Hell, I'll make it my long-term goal in life if I have to. Now, wipe your tears away for me. Mikaela Shindo is stronger than that."

Mika sniffed. "You… you know my name?”

"Of course I know your name," he confirmed warmly, adding shortly after, "now hurry up and make yourself pretty. You're already late for class."

For the first time in a long time, Mika didn't care about his classes, or his grades, or of the fact that Guren was going to be livid by the time he made it back home. He'd just finished crying like a child over the phone, and all thanks to the Xanax he'd taken that morning, added with those useless antidepressants, he could hardly find the energy needed to get up and drag his feet down three flights of stairs to a classroom full of students who would only gawk at him like he was some new exotic species of lizard.

"Is it okay if I…"

"If you…?"

He brushed his tears away and switched the phone to his other ear, biting his lower lip in apprehension. "Can I stay here? With you, I mean. Just until my class ends."

With a soft chuckle, Mystery Boy simply replied, "well, aren't you the little rebel? That'd be great. Now you get to tell me more about yourself, and we can talk shit about your fellow school mates."

Mika's lip twitched. "Can I ask you something important? I would understand if the answer is no."

"Sure, only if I get to ask you one in return."

"Okay."

"Alright, ask away."

Already knowing the answer wasn't going to be what he wanted it to be, he kept his hopes low and finally asked, "can I know your name?"

Without missing a beat, Mystery Boy said as casual as ever, "of course you can know my name."

"What!"

"What?"

"I thought I wasn't allowed to ask that," Mika blanched, his phone beginning to slip from his grip.

"I guess I had a sudden change of heart. I'd love to tell you my name. In fact, my brother and I have actually been wanting to meet up with you for some time now. There's so much we've been meaning to tell you."

His skin turned an even more pale. Almost as pale as the snow beneath him. "Y-your brother?"

‘The quiet guy who lifted that adult off his feet by his neck like it was nothing?’

"Yeah! I have to admit I'm actually pretty nervous, you know, given the circumstances, but it'll go away in, like, five or so minutes. Can I ask you my question now?"

"Y-yeah, sure. What is it?"

Undoubtedly the most staggering question he had ever been asked in all of his years of living. The answer he gave came spilling out of his mouth far quicker than he could've stopped it, and he regretted his decision the moment his friend began celebrating the “good news” on the other end of the phone.

What has he done?

Chapter Text

Grey, black, white, grey, grey and more grey. The cold metal table. The enclosed space. Multiple displayed files with redundant, useless information. That damn rattling. The blinding light. The enclosed walls.

God, that rattling.

"Will you knock that off!" He shouted across the table, the slamming of his fist bringing the retched sound to an immediate pause. Placid brown eyes flickered up at the man practically shaking with rage in front of him, and a snort of mockery deepened the tension boiling dangerously high in the room.

"What the hell do you want me to say, old man?" He bantered with a sideways smirk, the chains shackled to his wrists dropping to the table heavily to create a sound that shattered damn near every ounce of patience being held hostage within his interrogator's body. "I told you I didn't do it. You can't force me to admit to a crime I didn't commit. It's criminal."

"Robbing a liquor store and stabbing a woman over fifteen dollars is criminal, you senseless ingrate," Guren shot back through clenched teeth, using everything in his power to keep his fist from connecting with the little bastard's priggish face.

He didn't know how much longer he could last trapped in the same room with this kid. The dozen eyes boring into his back as he tried to do his job was one of the few things keeping him from leaping across the table like a bear and simply putting the brat in his place once and for all.

He settled back in his stiff uncomfortable chair, and smoothed his hair back with all ten fingers laced together, sucking in a deep breath through his nose and releasing. "Listen, kid, there are murders happening all over the city. Murders that a dimwitted lowlife like youself wouldn't be able to comprehend even if you had the brain cells to do it. I'm supposed to be out there hunting down the cancer of this city, but instead I'm stuck here babysitting an attention seeking amature who couldn't even get away with a ten dollar bill. Not only that, but you continue to insist that you had nothing to do with the crime even after being filmed leaving the scene."

"It was more than a ten dollar bill," the kid quipped, a notable dark tone tinting his voice. "And for the hundredth time, geezer: I. Did not. Stab Anyone. You've got the wrong guy. I would never hurt anyone like that. It was probably the psycho who murdered that creepy pervert."

"So, you're telling me there was somebody else in the store with you who stabbed the cashier? But you didn't see his face? Or even know there was somebody else in the building with you?"

"That's what I've been trying to explain to you from the beginning, but you cops are all the same: you repeat the same questions over and over until you hear the answer you want to hear. But guess what, I'm not falling for your little bullshit manipulations. I say I didn't stab anyone, so I didn't stab anyone. If you want to go home to your trailer so bad and drink your cheap beer, then just take my word and be done with it already. I'm not cut out for murder. I have a little sister to take care of, why would I risk…"

Guren's eyes narrowed down to slits, ignoring the boy as he ranted on about life at home. The cameras at the liquor store have been down for months according to the manager who ran the place, and the video they received from the witness only showed the perpetrator running out through the front door. However, when reviewing the video, he noticed something odd; peculiar.

The kid sitting before him claims he merely robbed the place and ran for it. If he had, in fact, assaulted the woman in any way, shape or form, there would have been a scream. But, strangely enough, there was nothing. Not a sound. And not like he could drive to the hospital and ask the woman herself. All thanks to the area the knife penetrated, she wouldn't be awake from surgery for hours. Maybe days.

Could this possibly be another case orchestrated by that deranged serial killer? No. It couldn't be. The way the crime panned out was too sloppy. The woman may have been stabbed point blank in the chest, but if this was the same guy they were dealing with all those other times, why wasn't she murdered?

God, he needed a drink.

There was a light tap at the door, gaining both his and the teenager's attention, and a small, petite woman carrying an authoritative aura about her person stepped in not too long after, informing him that his time was up.

His jaw visibly clenched in agitation, but he held his tongue when two police officers marched in a few seconds later to retrieve the young culprit.

"Do I get to go home now?" Was the final thing he heard before the door clicked shut and he was left by himself with nothing but his murderous migraine.

He didn't have time to dwell on lousy delinquents. Not when he could be releasing his stress either at home through the television screen, or at the bar at the bottom of a tall glass of his favorite liquor.

He straightened his files on the table and left the room.

The air in his office was a lot warmer than in the interrogation room, but still not warm enough to cool the heat pecking at his nerves like a blood thirsty vulture. He dropped his files wherever, concluding that he would get back to them eventually, and proceeded to leave the police station without so much as a goodbye to his colleagues.

Most of them were idiots anyway and always went on and on about such nugatory crap that was just a waste of his time.

He disregarded the bitterness of the outside world and stuck his key in his car door. There was still coffee in the cup sitting in the cup holder beside him, and he downed the last remaining drops in one go, wiped his upper lip on his sleeve, and discarded the trash out the window. The engine was jogged to life, and was taking off down the road in a matter of seconds.

Instead of taking a right, which would have led him straight to his stress inducing household, his car swerved smoothly to the left in the direction of the local pub.

He couldn't deal with anymore kids tonight.

~~~

Fractions. Decimals. Dividing. Graphing. Exponentials. Reducing.

He removed the damaged glasses from his face and buried his head in his hands.

He made a mistake. A terrible, horrible mistake. A horrendous mistake that he was too much of a push-over to fix.

And then there was Guren. He should have been home hours ago. There was no possible way he hadn't already gotten word of his ditching class. Why wasn't he here to confront him? Why hadn't he called for an explanation? Did he not care for once? Or… did he get into an accident on the way home?

He didn't know whether to take that as a good thing or a bad thing, but his heart rate began to escalate nonetheless. He abandoned his math homework and shuffled over to his bed with his phone held close to his side. With his back to the wall, knees to his chest, and spikes in his stomach, his thumbs hovered over his friend's contact name.

‘What am I doing?’

He didn't want to talk to him. How could he? After what he agreed to do, he could hardly think about him without feeling like he was going to go into a full blown panic attack.

But, on the other hand, he wanted to hear his voice. He wanted to hear the things he had to say; hear more about how his day went. It was one of the few things in his crumbling world that made his insides feel… light.

He wondered if he was the only one feeling the severe anxiety regarding the night's plans. His friend said he was nervous, but then he also said that he would get over it after five minutes. Is it possible that maybe he had miscalculated and was still feeling the heat to that very second just like he himself was. Do trained murderers get nervous over pointless things like he does?

“…kid, I'm not a monster. I have the same emotions as you.”

But how? How could he have the same emotions as him? How could he have emotions at all?

Just two of a million questions that made him so exceedingly intrigued, yet, terrified all the same.

He tossed his phone to the side and dropped his head in his knees, wrapping his arms around his legs tightly as he tried to keep himself from giving into his emotions.

He didn't know what to do. He didn't want to know the name of his savior anymore. He didn't want to leave the house in the middle of the night and meet up. He didn't want any of this. He wished he could have just kept his stupid mouth shut and went to class.

There were footsteps fast approaching from outside his door, promptly putting an end to his depressing pity party, and causing his head to snap up like a Jack-in-the-Box toy. The door knob creaked to the left, and his breath hitched in his throat.

It was Yuu. He knew it. And he was about to come into his room. Why was he coming into his room?

He hastily wiped his tears away and shoved his phone underneath his pillow, leaping to his feet like a cricket just as the door cracked open some more to confirm his intuition.

"Mika," Yuu dragged out with a mischievous grin that screamed for him to put his guard up. He noticed how one arm was well hidden behind his back, and his eyes shifted from the invisible object to his brother's vibrant eyes cautiously. He gasped aloud as the space between them then tightened faster than he could've processed, and Yuu was wrapping his arms around his body in a suffocating embrace that had every last drop of oxygen escaping out into the air.

He froze.

"Yuu…"

"I got a present for you," he murmured against his neck, sending physical chills throughout his entire body. He could feel himself gradually being backed into the bed and set down, and his guarded scrutinizing zeroed in on whatever it was hiding behind Yuu's back. The older teen took a seat next to him, seemingly oblivious to the red puffiness surrounding his eyes, and slowly revealed a tiny, white palm sized teddy bear with a red ribbon tied around its neck and a heart the size of a golf ball stitched to its left paw.

Mika was taken aback, his jaw working open and closed like a robot but not emitting a sound. Yuu laughed at his ridiculous expression, and sat the bear down on his lap for him.

"It's not exactly a gift from me. It's from Kimizuki. An apology, for all of the times he was a jerk to you at school. He was too embarrassed to give it to you after school, so I thought I would, seeing as we live together and all. Do you like it?"

The bear was soft to the touch, every black and crimson stitch forming its little elfin body perfectly. He ran his thumb across its stuffed belly, the ticklish feeling in his throat he was still working on getting well acquainted with making his cheeks flush beautifully like rose petals.

"I suggested he buy something small since I know you like cute things."

"Did he really get this for me?" He questioned in awe, his sparkling sapphire eyes gazing up into Yuu's in pure, child-like curiosity. He couldn't tell whether this was another trick or not. He didn't smell any alcohol, and there were no signs of being high either. Was this really real?

"Yep," Yuu piped. "I wasn't lying when I told you he wanted to make up with you."

"I don't know what to say, Yuu. Thank you. I really like it."

"Yeah? You should tell that to him the next time you two meet. Now, does big brother get a hug?"

"Oh, umm…" Mika set the bear down behind him and shifted over to give his adoptive brother an awkward sideways hug, something he willingly did only once in a blue moon. Rarely, even then.

He hated what his insides did to him anytime he was swaddled in somebody's secure embrace. The warmth that came with it. The security. The feeling of never wanting it to end. But it had to end. This was Yuu he was hugging, and Yuu always had something dangerous up his sleeve that always ended with him sliding down his father's cold wall with tears streaming down his cheeks and his back marred with dozens of fire hot lashes.

He could feel them as Yuu ran his hand up and down his spine, pulsing and tingling as if to remind him of what would happen if Guren happened to walk in on them in that very moment. It was as if he had just put his shirt back on from recieving them five minutes ago. His back instinctively arched at the discomforting sensation, and he began squirming ever so slightly in the other's arms, silently requesting that he be released.

Yuu groaned against his skin, his grip only strengthening. "Come on, Mika. Try to calm down. You have to get used to humans one way or another, and what better way to do it than to practice on me, right?"

Mika took in a deep breath, trying with everything he had to relax in Yuu's arms before the feeling surging through his back and to all of his internal organs as a whole threw him into despair.

He took another deep breath. And then another, one that got shorter. And then another, and another, all of which cut themselves shorter and shorter until he was panting and gripping onto the front of Yuu's shirt. The hold on him constricted like a zip tie, and with fresh tears beginning to prick the corners of his eyes, he gasped Yuu's name desperately.

"Relax," was the simple request whispered into his hair. A simple request that only succeeded in reminding him that he wasn't going to be set free anytime soon.

"Yuu, I can't… I can't breath!"

"Yes, you can, Mika. You're being overdramatic. What you're feeling is all in your head."

Something fuzzy and soft was squeezed between their chests, into his violently trembling hands, and through all of his fearful whines he could vaguely make out the sound of Yuu shushing him as he ran his fingers through his hair in slow, soothing motions.

He tried holding his breath and squeezing his eyelids shut, repeating over and over in his head, like a mantra, that if he could just calm down and breath for five seconds, he would be released, Yuu would be gone either downstairs or back into his own room, and he'd be all alone to stress about everything else that took place, or that will be taking place that night, by himself.

‘The pain isn't real.’

‘In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out.’

’It will all be over in a few seconds.’

‘Just breath.’

"There you go. See, you're fine. You were panicking over nothing."

Mika sniffed and shook his head from side to side in disagreement, his burning face still hidden against Yuu's chest and the bears short fur, uttering just below a whisper, "You don't understand."

"Uh-huh, sure. Now, c'mere" Yuu shuffled lower down on the mattress, pulling Mika down with him as he did so, and draped his arm over his small waist. As predicted, the blond squirmed like a worm in an attempt to get away, but it was an easy fix. It took a bit of force, as most things did with his twitchy housemate, but in the end he managed to get him nice and tucked in close with his wavy blond hair tickling his lips and the stuffed toy squished between their bodies.

"Yuu, please—"

"If you're worried about Guren, he texted me earlier saying that he's staying overtime. Don't start hyperventilating on me again. Try to relax and enjoy it. I know you like it when I do this. And like I said: you should practice getting used to this kind of stuff. One day it won't be me caring for you like this."

Caring for him? That was a lie. He wasn't caring for him at all. He was just using him. Using him to get what he wanted like he always did, because he was nothing more to Yuu but entertainment to pass the time; a guinea pig that had no other choice but to do what it was told or else it would face the consequences.

If anything, the only reason Yuu came barging into his room unannounced in the first place was to take advantage of the fact the Guren wasn't around to put a stop to what he was doing, and his girlfriend wasn't around to throw out paranoid accusations. He was nothing more than a substitute. A doll. A free drug dispenser. An errand boy. A weak, silent victim.

His body shuddered as rough fingers slipped beneath the hem of his shirt and began stroking the area just above the waistband of his jeans. His breath hitched, but he made no attempt to stop the fear coursing through his veins; the feeling of utter helplessness.

Yuichiro tilted his chin up and brushed away his tears.

"Look at me."

"I don't feel good."

It was more than just not feeling good. He felt borderline repulsed, like he was on the verge of vomiting right then and there. Warm breath lowered down to his neck, and Yuu snorted in amusement at his avoidance to maintain eye contact.

"How do you always smell so good?

A stray lock was tucked behind his ear, and he forced down the bile rising in his throat.

"Yuu, please stop."

"Hmm. Shinoa never smells this good, and she's a girl. I guess that says a lot about her," he continued, unbothered. "Do you think I could do better? I mean, I like her: she's hot and has a good sense of humor. And sure, we've had sex a few times, but… I don't know. I feel like she's just not enough anymore. Women just haven't been hitting the spot for me lately. I want to try something new." There was no response, Mika's body having gone completely rigid against his, and he glanced down at the exposed flesh his thumb had been caressing for a little over the past minute. The spot was now a bright satisfying roseate.

Sapphire eyes were wide like flying saucers, staring straight ahead at the toy stuffed between relentless clutches that had his knuckles turning a pale white.

"I was planning on dumping Shinoa tomorrow," Yuu admitted through a heavy sigh, his breath fanning blond bangs. "I like her better as a friend. And after I'm done with her I'll be free to do whatever I want, meaning I can go back to my old ways without feeling tied down and we could spend more time together like we used to." He inhaled Mika's sweet pheromones, reaching his fingers higher up his shirt to get a better feel of the body he'd been craving ever since he got a taste of it a few nights before.

"I-I have to use the restroom, Yuu. Please."

"Do you think Kimizuki is attractive?"

"Yuu, please, I really have to go," Mika begged once more, ducking away from the fingers laced through his hair and leaving the bed all together. Yuu sat up after him just as his feet touched the carpet, and a loose yet firm grip around his wrist had him stumbling backwards onto the other's awaiting lap, pulling a sharp gasp from his lips. He struggled and fought as he was then manuevered into an inprudent position—facing Yuu with both legs on either side of his thighs, straddling him.

"Aww, don't look at me like that, Mika," he cooed teasingly, referring to the trembling chin and tightly pinched together eyebrows. He brushed his knuckles along his smooth flushed cheek. "I hate it when you look all grumpy like that. Come on, just answer my question and I'll let you go: do you find Kimizuki attractive?"

Readjusting his face and quickly clearing hot tears away in fear of things escalating, Mika shook his head no to the question.

"Good. So you know what to say to him if he asks you out, right? Which he will, by the way. I mean, really, a teddy bear with a heart?"

His head lowered, and he gave a nod of confirmation.

"Good boy, Mika. You know you can do better than him. Now, go. And hurry back."

Yuu shooed him from off of his lap as if he were a lingering pigeon perched on a water fountain, giving him an extra boost in his step with an encouraging slap to the rear. When all was clear, and the bathroom door had closed just one room to the left of the one he was occupying, he then released a breathy laugh at his orphan-brother's high pitched squeal before he scampered off cutely.

"Fuck, Mika."

His jeans had gone cramped and confined from all of that wiggling around. Mika must have known what he was doing, regardless of his innocent, angelic theatrics. He was such a tease.

He kicked back on the bed and pulled out his phone. The small blond always took his sweet time in the bathroom, so he figured he would be left to himself long enough to relieve some of the tension straining behind his boxers. He opened a social media app and began scrolling through his endless supply of contacts, searching for the one his urges were feeling the most frisky for at that moment.

Shinoa.

Rika.

Yayoi.

Mahiru.

Akane.

Mirai.

Etc.

What a drag, he thought to himself. Mahiru will have to do.

He began unbuckling the leather belt to his jeans and cascaded it off to the side where it whacked Mika's new bear across the face. His zipper was about halfway down when a startling thump from behind then caused him to redirect his attention to the window.

As he was inching towards it to investigate the random clamour, he quickly ducked down as yet a second larger object came hurtling through the window and right over his head like a bird, barely grazing his hair.

"What the hell?"

He readjusted his fly, and swung his feet over the edge of the bed, reaching down to retrieve whatever had nearly taken his eye out. Its familiar grey coloring and smooth surface reminded him of the exact same rocks that decorated the small area beside their front door where a garden was meant to have been built years ago, but was instead filled with pounds and pounds of small stones from Home Depot because Guren was too lazy to do anything else with the extra space.

As he was too invested in examining the rock, at a complete loss to the situation, he was left blind and unaware of the resentful culprit who'd thrown the object creeping through the window like a weightless, dark specter. The firearm on his thigh was soundlessly removed from its holster. His hood was pulled back to reveal smoldering blood colored irises. He aimed his barrel, and said in a low restrained whisper:

"Don't fucking move."

Chapter Text

Guren knocked on the bar table once to get the bartender's attention.

"The usual," he grumbled. The bartender nodded, and he watched tiredly as he turned his back and got to work on fixing up his order—a cool Old Fashioned.

He hated winter; all the slush and snow, shoveling the driveway, waiting in traffic. Christmas—thank God it was over—the electric bill. He hated it with a burning passion. But even he had to appreciate what it did to the Sanguinem Pub.

A place normally brimming with friends and families looking to spend time together and have fun for the night was now reduced to all of the hardworking men like himself fixing to drink all their stress and worries away before they were off to continue their everyday duty in contributing to an already shattered society.

His point: there was a man in his late forties sitting four seats to his left who labored away as a construction worker. From the way his shaggy grey hair fell in front of his wrinkle plagued face, he must have overdone it again. Like him, the man came to the bar nearly everyday—though, to get away from his pregnant wife—and was well known for his drinking problems. But unlike the man, Guren wasn't married.

A man in his late thirties, and it's been years since he'd last felt the intimate warmth of another human's presence.

The bartender slid his glass across the smooth wooden counter, and he wasted no time in throwing out the straw that came with it and downing the first half. The ice cube floating inside made a satisfying clanking sound as he set it back on the table and sighed.

"Give me a shot."

"Your son, again?" The bartender guessed, grabbing a large bottle of vodka off the crowded shelf behind him and pouring its contents into a short stubby glass.

Guren's head pulsed. He'd gotten a call from Seraph high regarding Mikaela's delinquency about three hours before the interrogation. Why the brat was feeling so bold all of a sudden was a mystery he wouldn't be in the mood to delve into until after he was done getting rid of his headache.

No meals tomorrow.

Scrub the house from top to bottom.

Ten lashes.

A night in the basement.

A joyride induced panic attack.

The taser.

The list was endless. Choosing any one would do the trick of putting him back in line. But it was the last three that would keep him in line for the years to come.

Years…

"Christ." He took hold of his shot and threw his head back, clenching his teeth as the powerful drink raced down his esophagus.

The bartender didn't make an effort to conceal his obvious amusement. "Must be rough raising an adopted boy. They think the whole world's out to get'em, so they rebel and act like little hudlums. Make their hardworking parents feel like failures. What's his name again, that little blond boy?"

"Mikaela," Guren grunted, sliding his glass back for another shot. He glanced up at the football game playing out on the screen a few yards away by one of the booths in disinterest. The bartender was waiting for details of his reason for coming, but like the dozens of other times he'd tried to pry into his life, he wasn't going to get anything.

His job was to serve drinks, not intrude in peoples' personal affairs.

The bartender took the hint and slid him his second shot without another word, making himself useful with a few other glasses that needed tending to.

"Well, well, I wasn't expecting to see you here, Mr. Ichinose."

Guren groaned at the familiar voice and gulped down his shot, his reaction the same as last time as it burned his throat. The owner of the velvety, smooth teasing voice belonged to none other than the police station's newest recruit.

"Aren't you too young to be drinking?"

"You wound me, Mr. Ichinose."

Guren scoffed as the scent of cold, crisp pine needles and fresh lavender wafted past his nostrils and took up the space in front of the game, his vision then becoming flooded with the color of shimmering lakes frozen over with a foot of soft white snow.

He turned away and reached for his unfinished drink.

"I'm almost twenty-five years old," the man continued with an easy-going smile, stealing the other officer's drink straight from his grasp and finishing the rest all the while keeping his gaze locked with his. Guren appeared almost impressed by his bravery. "I'd say I'm more than qualified for a little drink."

"You have some nerve, Hiragi."

"Oh, please, Shinya is just fine." He slid his glass back under his chin and placed an order for a drink of his own, adding shortly after, "Hiragi carries such a ornery weight, wouldn't you agree?"

"You're paying for that."

"Why, of course, Mr. Ichinose. I wouldn't dream of pirating your drink without paying. I have more class than that."

Guren frowned distastefully. "Yeah, right. What the hell are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be at your overpriced mansion with your family. Or are all the Hiragis still fighting with each other over power?"

"I actually have quite the bond with my youngest sister. The fighting for power you speak of is strictly between my father and two older brothers." He took a sip of his auburn drink and then stated in a less enthusiastic manner, "power, it's such a frightening thing. It truly changes a person's character, and never for the better. I guess that's why I prefer to follow, never lead."

An awkward silence began filling the gap between them at a startling rate after that, and with both eyes glued to the doleful looking young man sitting in the stool beside him, he lifted his glass to his lips.

He messed up with the mention of the infamous, politically corrupt Hiragis, he knew. But it wasn't like he had the social skills—the heart, no less—to apologize for his cold behavior. Moreover, what he said was nothing if not the blunt truth. The Hiragis hungered for nothing but wealth and control.

Fifteen minutes stretched to thirty, which then stretched to a whole hour without a single ice breaker cracking the tension between the two, and Guren was currently on his third drink. During that seemingly short time span, he observed with piqued interest as the younger police officer beside him finished up his fifth Long Island Iced Tea and was placing an order for his sixth.

To think someone so young had a drinking problem…

"Don't you think you've had enough?" He asked when Shinya's habit of removing the ashen bangs from in front of his eye faltered.

"When you've seen a family of three gutted and hung by bed sheets in their own home and a human heart blended in a blender with meth, one tends to drink past their limit," was Shinya's response with a lopsided grin. "Isn't that why you're here, Mr. Ichinose? To relieve the stress of today to make room for the stress of tomorrow?"

Guren didn't respond to that, and proceeded to remove the man's wandering hand from off of his knee with a frown. It was a lot smaller than his own; softer than he anticipated, considering their occupation. It was surprisingly warm too, now that he thought of it. They were a complete contrast of his own, which were a lot more course from chasing and roughing up ill tempered criminals.

He hadn't realized he was staring at their joined hands until he heard a soft chuckle from in front of him, and released his hold immediately.

"You know, Mr. Ichinose," Shinya continued with glistening eyes and a suggestive tone intertwining his words that made the older male shift in his seat. "There are so many other ways one can relieve such… traumatic stress from their body. Ways that I haven't tried in a while."

The hand returned to his knee, but this time Guren was far too enraptured by the emotions darkening the other's gaze and making them seem as deep as the ocean. Maybe he himself was the one who had had one too many.

"I saw you interrogating that boy today," Shinya purred, leaning in close until the essence of their alcoholic beverages mingled and mixed in the little space between their lips. His hand inched forward up his leg. "I was impressed with how assertive you were. And that little thing you did with your hair…" he bit his lower lip, his gaze unconsciously flickering down to a soft pair of more tantalizing lips.

"Come on, man! I'm a valuable customer! Can't you give me this one on the house?"

Both Guren and Shinya jerked away from one another and turned their startled attention in the direction of the commotion happening at the last stool with the construction worker and bartender.

"I'm sorry, Nagai," the bartender said for the third time. "I'm afraid you'll end up dropping if you have another, and you know I can't have people dying in my bar of alcohol poisoning. Maybe it's time you go home to your wife and kid."

Nagai shot out of his stool, knocking it over as he did so, and jabbed his finger in the bartender's chest, cursing and arguing about his rights as a citizen and accusing the poor man of sleeping with his wife and stealing his German Shepherd.

Guren shook his head at the pitiful sight and turned back to see Shinya holding a guilt ridden expression on his face.

"What's wrong?" he asked, oblivious to what caused the other to appear so afflicted.

Shinya turned away with bashful chuckle. "My apologies, Mr. Ichinose. I have a, well… a bad habit of getting carried away when I'm in such a muddled state. Perhaps I should head home before I lose the ability to think coherently as well."

He abandoned his unfinished drink and took a minute to steady his vision before it toppled completely, turning back around briefly when his name was called out. "Oh, my, how clumsy of me," he joked as he stumbled his way back to the bar and scavenged through his pockets for a familiar flap of leather."

"Wait." Guren took hold of his hand before he could pay up the fifty dollar bill, and reached into his pocket for his own wallet. "This one's on me."

"Oh, no need, Mr. Ichinose. I'm perfectly okay with—"

"It's fine. You can pay next time."

"Next time?"

"Yes, next time. Now, do you have a ride back to your place?"

"I'm afraid I don't," Shinya admitted timidly, fixing his hair only to have it fall back in place in front of his eye.

Guren set two twenties on the table, and offered to help him out the door, which he generously refused at first, but alas, the experienced cop was presistant and he found himself wrapped up in a pair of warm masculine arms and guided out to the partially frozen parking lot where a silver car was parked in front of the door.

"Are you sure you can drive?" He asked as the passenger door was held open for him.

Guren mentally rolled his eyes and ushered him inside, shutting the door afterwards before getting in on the other side and starting up the engine.

"I've been doing this for years," he said to him, peeved to admit such a depressing fact out loud. "Anyway, I'm assuming you don't live with the rest of your family, so mind telling me your address?"

"Actually," Shinya placed his hand on Guren's before the car could be put into drive, causing Violet eyes, lit up by the bars luminescent lights, to lock with his.

"What?"

"I was hoping we could get to know each other better back at your place. Unfortunately, I won't be able to leave my father's estate for another week. Just a few more boxes to pack. But I completely understand if you don't want to, I'm just…" his voice slowly trailed off until the car was filled with nothing but their soft breathing, the wind outside and the rumbling engine.

He reached his hand out and ran his fingers through Guren's greasy hair, smoothing it back while coaxing his head forward towards his. They were only inches apart then when Guren finally decided to give into the snowy haired man's endless advances, and eagerly smashed their lips together in a sloppy, intoxicated kiss. Teeth clashed with teeth, desperate moans heated up the atmosphere, fingers tugged hair, flames were ignited.

They broke away from each other, both a panting mess.

Guren ran his thumb over the saliva coating Shinya's swollen pink lips, melting him like glue. The sight of those striking orbs staring at the tightness of his pants had his insides burning like a furnace that hadn't been in use for years.

"Your place?"

"Yeah."

~~~

Yuichiro's body slumped to the floor with a painful sounding thud that he's sure the resident in the bathroom was able to pick up as clear as day. If only he had gotten to the house sooner, his long lost friend wouldn't have had to go through what that pervert just did to him. Thankfully, said friend managed to escape to the restroom, most likely to cry, or, from what he was informed of just a few hours ago, harm himself.

His mission: infiltrate the building, take out the older brother, Yuichiro; safely retrieve Mikaela, bring him back to the house unseen.

Step one and two were well taken care of. Now, to rescue his friend from this hell and, unfortunately, himself.

He grabbed a fistful of Yuichiro's hair and dragged him through the hallway to his appropriate room. Whoever the imposter was, he didn't deserve what little mercy he possessed in his heart, and was carelessly thrown to his bed. There was a sickening crack from the position he'd landed in, but he more than deserved it.

The hallway was pitch black. All he could make out was that of the faded light illuminating the top of the stairs from the living room below, and the bright hue surrounding the bathroom door.

It's been years since they've last seen each other. When he was informed of him still being alive and well, he didn't believe it. He couldn't believe it. Mika supposedly died in a fire six years ago. Or, that's what they were told, at least. Ever since they were taken in at around eleven, they've been damned to move from country to country, state to state, city to city, until the day they died. They've been so busy with training and doing their jobs and migrating and learning and hiding that the need to research their friend's true whereabouts were forced to the farthest recesses of their mind. But, now that they were finally back home…

He tried the door knob, but to no avail. He could vaguely make out sniffles and quite sobs coming from the other side, along with the same four worded whimper:

"I can't do this."

Assuming the meaning of those words, he wouldn't bother wasting his time on trying to be gentle in his approach. Obviously, he wouldn't infiltrate the door in any violent way. That would only spawn trouble for him. But a simple lock pick should do.

He pulled a bobby pin from his hair, knelt down on one knee, and got to work. With a simple bathroom door lock like this, all it took was a light push and hardly any pressure at all, and the door was free to enter.

What he saw on the other side nearly made his feet freeze to the floor.

There, sitting across from him with his head in his knees and his back to the bathtub, his friend who he hadn't seen since childhood broken to shambles before his very eyes. A boy who once never knew how to frown, who never showed any signs of weakness, never cried or caused harm to any living creature in his life, cowering behind a locked door as if sheltering himself from a barbarous monster.

His appalled gaze drifted from trembling blond hair to the streams of red trickling from within his fist, past his marred wrist and soaking into the sleeve of his loose fitting top.

Mika continued whispering to himself as if the presence standing in front of him was just as invisible as the air enveloping him. The words were muffled and incoherent due to his erratic panting, and before the visitor could stop himself, he dropped to his friends side and placed a comforting palm on the top of his head.

Mika gasped at his touch but didn't turn away or look up to see his cloaked face.

"I can't do this, Yuu," he pleaded through a choked sob, trying to conceal the blood pouring down his arm. "Please, don't do this. I don't… I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. Please. Please, Yuu. We-we're brothers. Please, I just want to go to bed. I'll… I'll pretend nothing happened. I—"

"Mikaela."

Mika's body went stiff at the deep call of his name, everything stopping completely but his ragged breaths. It was then, during that abrupt pause, when he felt the heavy hand weighing down on his head, and he dared to remove his head from his knees.

The first image he was able to perceive through the fog of his vision was pitch, midnight black surrounding a sickly pale chin, and lips pressed into a thin line. But no twin piercings.

For the other, a less pleasant sight of swollen blue eyes, damp hair specked with both dry and fresh blood clinging to a sweaty forehead, and a face contorted in years of pure exhaustion and torture.

"Who…?"

"You're alive, Mika," he uttered just below a whisper, his hand sliding from the top of his head down to wipe away the spot of blood smeared over his cheek.

"René? René, you there? Do you have him?"

He turned away from the emotionally wrecked boy in front of him and held his fingertips to his ear. "Yeah, I'm bringing him out now. Get the car ready to go."

"It is. And you guys need to hurry, I just got word Daddy's on his way home. Is Mika alright? That bastard didn't hurt him, did he?"

"We'll deal with him later. For now, just be ready."

"Yeah."

"And, Lacus." He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the look of realization beginning to dawn on the blond's tear stained face. "Get the medical kit from the trunk. You're sitting in the back."

"O-oh, right."

He directed his attention back to Mika, the shock of seeing his living, breathing friend quickly diminishing as the task at hand became his conscience's top priority.

He grabbed Mika's wrist in a vice like hold, squeezing it tightly to the point of snapping him from out of whatever trance he was in, and ordered in a stern dark tone for him to drop whatever it was slicing so viciously into his palm. It was a demand that only assisted in rendering the blond so petrified he wouldn't have been able to drop the object even if he wanted to, and so he tightened his hold on him until the circulation trapping the weapon between his fingers was cut off and he was able to pry it from his grip without inflicting any further damage.

A razor.

"God dammit, Mikaela." He wrapped the bloody tool in toilet paper and stuffed it into his back pocket. Mika flinched when he was then hauled to his feet and shoved in front of the sink. He pulled his hood down out of agitation, and their eyes met briefly through the reflection in the mirror. "Clean up this mess. Now."

He left the room before he could confirm whether his order was followed through or not, and went straight back into the bedroom he snuck in through to retrieve a heavy black backpack and the cellular device hidden beneath the largest of the three pillows on the bed. It was a quick five second run, and on his way to the master bedroom, passing the bathroom, he swore under his breath at the sight of his friend still standing like an idiot with blood staining his hands and arms.

"Focus, Mika," he snapped harshly, pulling his sleeve over his hand and flipping the faucet on himself. Mika remained as still as a doll as the blood and tears covering portions his body were scrubbed clean with painful rubbing and simple hand soap, his eyes stuck on the familiar face frowning down at his sins.

"René."

"I know, Lacus. Two minutes."

"Lacus…"

René turned the faucet off and hurriedly dragged Mika along behind him to the cop's bedroom, pausing when there was a tug of resistance upon reaching the door frame.

He didn't have time for lags and simply dropped the dripping hand. Time was of the essence, and they couldn't afford to leave anything of importance behind. He understood that Mika was in shock, what with seeing supposedly dead friends from his childhood, but he still needed to work with him. He needed to open his eyes to reality. He needed to snap out of it.

He searched the sink, the cabinet below the sink, the medicine cabinet. All, empty.

"Dammit, where the hell are they?"

He checked the nightstand and a chair overflown with dirty clothes, and then beneath the bed where he finally found what he was looking for. He released an inward sigh of relief and took hold of Mika for the third time, pulling him away from the room that caused him so much pain in the past, and towards the stairs.

"W-wait!"

"Mika, not now."

Mika struggled to keep up with the strange apparition dragging him around his house. He called out to him again, but the only reaction he recieved was that of being yanked forward with enough force to cause him to collide with the front door leading to the outside.

"Mika, pull you head out of your ass and open the door. We don't have time for this."

"Am I dead?"

"René, he's around the corner."

René released a frustrated groan, and forced Mika's fingers around the doorknob, pulled it open, and shoved him out. Working him like a puppet, he then had him close the door behind them, and then, without warning, lifted the smaller boy up and over his shoulder like a weightless sack of flour.

Mika gasped in surprise, and grabbed hold of the back of his strange vest-like shirt as he watched his home disappear farther and farther away from his reach. Everything was happening in a blur of black and white. He couldn't tell left from right, up from down. It was like he was living in a dream. Or a nightmare. He couldn't say. But as painful as it was to be a part of and witness first hand as his dear friend walked around in front of him like he was truly there, he didn't want it to end.

This person knew his name, and the name of one of his best and only friends. He had the same face as his other best friend and the same sharp attitude too.

The tattoo crawling down from the side of his neck, the metal stabbed through his earlobes, the strange haircut, the more ghostly complexion. He could see through it all. It was him. It was really René.

He was thrown into the backseat of a dark vehicle, pulling his foot up in time to avoid having it caught in the slamming door, and stared ahead with owl-like eyes, dumbfounded.

"Mika."

His head snapped to the right where a second figure, shrouded in complete darkness sat facing him. He couldn't see his face, but he knew that voice. It was the voice of the mystery boy who had tackled him into the snow after killing a human being in front of him for fun. The boy who saved him from a gang of drug addicts, and spoke to him in a manner he didn't deserve to be spoken to in. It was his savior.

"Wh-what's going on?"

"In short," the boy chuckled nervously out of character, "we're kidnapping you."

He scooted closer, into a ray of dirty yellow light that shone through the front window, and began reaching a tentative hand out to rest against his little friend's cheek, smiling when his touch wasn't rejected in fear like they had been several times in the past.

"Kidnapping me?" Mika repeated softly, not understanding the self-explaining term. René, the ghost who led him from his home and into the strange vehicle, got settled in the driver's seat, and slammed his foot on the gas pedal. "Is this real? That… that guy, he looks like somebody I know. A-am I dead?"

"No, kid. You're not dead. You're alive, and you're safe now."

Mika shook his head in a daze, his forehead creasing as he took in the sight of the driver's side profile. "No. My friends are… they disappeared years ago. How can…? I don't understand…" he looked out at the passing trees for a long period of deep consideration in complete and uninterrupted silence, and then back to his hooded savior with the same look of perpetual loss on his face.

In the past, when they were all children, they were practically glued at the hip. They were partners in crime. They were what the elderly called ‘little devils’ as they watched them take off with their stolen goods. They were inseparable. He lived at an orphange, and they lived Wherever, as they used to tell him. They were a trio of stray orphans. Friends. Brothers. Family. Where René was, Lacus was too, and where Lacus was, René was right there behind him.

He gazed into the blackness of his friend's hood, mind spinning in nauseating circles at what he knew lie beneath it.

"This isn't real," he uttered aloud, a sense of numbness keeping his heart at bay as he bore witness to his own trembling hand reaching out to the heavy hood. "This isn't real."

The boy who was responsible for the death of a small family and half a dozen more citizens lowered his head as the heavy fabric was lowered down to hang over his back. Short lilac locks fell just above his shoulders, and his head bowed even further in shame as he heard Mika say to himself that everything that happened, and was happening, wasn't real. He didn't know which was more painful: hearing him say that he wasn't alive, or hearing him say that both of his friends couldn't have been alive.

"Lacus…"

His most gripping fear: hearing his name spoken in the voice of the one person he thought he would never see again.

He couldn't look up, not when his name was repeated yet again in that same disbelieving manner, or when he felt feather-like touches brush against his cheek and tuck a lock of hair behind his ear to reveal more of his face.

"Are you… Lacus?"

"I'm sorry, ki—Mika. I wanted to tell you sooner."

"This can't be real." No matter how warm the flesh beneath his fingers felt, or how vivid the scent of sweets, copper and coffee smelled to him. Lacus was dead. René was dead. He was…

He raised his wrists to his face, taking in the dozens of regrets lining each arm. Dried blood crusted one of his palms from when he squeezed the razor too hard during his episode in the restroom, and he could hardly feel the biting cold infecting his feet from being exposed to the outside elements.

Was he dead?

He took a deep breath, and released it slowly through his nose.

Dead, and surrounded by loved ones? No more Yuu? No more Guren? No more bullies? No more punishments or abuse? No more being drugged or blamed for things he had nothing to do with? No more unwelcomed advances or touching or being forced to do things he didn't want to do? He was free?

"Where are we going?" He asked as the world outside became less and less recognisable. There were no more skinny, snow covered trees, or old and grungy buildings he grew up knowing by heart. All he could see were the stars glistening in the sky and the depthless dark ocean they were passing over.

"Somewhere safe," the driver responded over his shoulder.

Mika gazed at him intently for a moment before asking, "are you René?"

"Yes, Mika," René sighed, regarding him through the rearview mirror. "And you're not dead, for fucks sake."

Lacus removed his jacket and held it open for his shivering friend. When Mika only eyed him and the piece of fabric like it was an extravagant invisible cloak, he moved in closer and swung it over his shoulders.

Mika was in such a state that he must not have known that his lips had taken on a light blue tinge.

He cupped the blond's head in his hands, allowing him to get a clear and up close view of the detail on his face. Tears slipped down a flushed cheek, and soaked into his finger. "Nobody is dead, Mika, okay? You're awake, and this is real. We're taking you home, where you'll be safe. You can rest, and heal."

"But, my family—"

"They're not your family," he interjected sharply, startling the younger boy. He mentally kicked himself and murmured out a small apology, guiding Mika's head down to rest against his chest before repeating in a more sympathetic manner. "They're not your family, Mika. They never were, and never will be. We're your real family. You don't need anybody else but us from now on."

"I thought you were dead."

"I know," he said, wiping Mika's tears away gently before they could leave his eyes. "René and I thought you were dead too."

"Where have you been? The blond pressed, swallowing the lump in his throat as reality finally began to set in within each thump or his friend's steady heartbeat.

"Around."

"We're out of the city," René informed dryly.

"Good, this assignment lasted a lot longer than it should've." Lacus rested his chin on Mika's head and closed his eyes, a content smile forming across his lips for a second time that night when his affection wasn't rejected in uncertainty. "Go to sleep, Mika. We can talk about everything that's happened later, okay?"

Mika didn't think it would ever be possible to rest again after what he had just been through. For the first time in over five years, he was finally with his friends again; seeing them, touching them, conversing with them. They were real. And he wasn't dreaming.

But, because he wasn't dreaming, he had to come to terms with the fact that they had, in fact, murdered countless citizens in cold blood. They were dangerous criminals wanted by not only the police, but the city itself. If anyone saw their face, they would be burned at the stake without a moments hesitation. They were already putting so much on the line just from taking him from his home.

They were only seventeen, not even entering adulthood yet, and the world already wished death upon them. And there he was, stuck in the middle of it all.

But why didn't he mind that?

Chapter Text

 

"You know, René, he's not a dead body."

"Yeah?"

Lacus sent him a pointed glare as he stepped to the side to allow him access into the spare bedroom, that glare only hardening when he took in his little friend's head bobbing loosely against René's back. "So, why the hell do you keep carrying him around like that? You have to be gentle with him."

"Lacus," René began stone-faced, though being exceptionally more considerate with getting the blond settled in bed. "We just kidnapped a kid from his home. I think you should be more concerned about what's going to happen to us when Krul finds out, not the way I carry him to bed."

"Krul lied to us," Lacus reminded him coldly. "She said Mika was dead. I don't know about you, but I don't care if she gets pissed off about him being here. He was being abused. I mean, you saw what that sick fuck was doing to him, right? He's lucky you have a terrible aim at night."

"Yes, Lacus, I did see. That's why I went in to get him and not you."

"That's my point. And that place was not his home. If anything it was more like a fucking torture chamber." He grabbed Mika's limp wrist and presented his hand which was securely wrapped up in a thick layer of bandages. "Look what they did to him. The old Mika never would have turned to self harm. If we had known that he was alive sooner, it wouldn't have had to get this far. He would've been safe here with us."

René scoffed. "‘Safe here with us.’ I think you're forgetting just how dangerous our line of work is. Be real, Lacus. Even if Mika had come with us the day we were taken in, he wouldn't have survived a week. The training. The traveling. The punishments. The missions. Initiations. Hiding. Everything. Mika wasn't built for that kind of stuff like we were. He would never have adapted, and you know it. Ferid would've killed him the second he was given the opportunity. You're right that that hellhole wasn't his home, but I would rather him be out there than trapped here like us."

Lacus's head lowered at those wisely spoken words.

René was right. Mika was so harmless, even in their childhood years. He wouldn't kill a caterpillar if there was a gun pointed to his head. What made him think he would've actually stood a chance in hell living with them in the shadows?

He dropped down on the bed beside Mika's legs, solemnly taking in his peaceful resting face. Looking at him, even now after nearly half a decade, he still appeared so vulnerable to his eyes. And after everything that's happened over the past few days, what with the drug addict incident, and being fondled by the one he was cursed to live in the same house with, he knew Mika could never be like them. He freezes up at the sight of danger, and does what he's told against his will, he doesn't defend himself. He cries and cuts himself.

"Dammit." He pushed off the bed and paced over to the opposite end of the room, his nerves beginning to catch up with him.

René followed after his heated sibling and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know, Lacus."

"Damn this city," he swore through clenched teeth. "Damn that son of a bitch, Ichinose. Damn him and that drunkard who plays the role as Mika's so-called daddy. If he wasn't a cop, I'd stick his baton right up his ass and turn it sideways." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of candy wrapped tightly in a transparent wrapper, popping the delicacy into his mouth all the while tapping his foot against the floor in a simmering mixture of anger and irritation. He remained like that for a full sixty seconds, sucking on his jolly rancher distractedly, before daring to ask, "he can't stay here, can he?"

René reached into Lacus's pocket and pulled out a little candy as well, choosing blue instead of red, and pushed it to one side of his cheek. They both gazed at Mika sleeping across from them intently. The blond groaned and mumbled something too low to comprehend from where they stood, as if sensing their distressed presence, and curled up under the blanket.

"Unfortunately, he can't," he finely responded. "Unless we can get it past Krul, of course. But I doubt it. And like I told you before: Mika has a life out there. We have no right to take that away from him, no matter how bad it is."

"Well, then, what if he decides to stay with us?"

"Then he would have to work for Krul. And he would have to be trained by Ferid. And he would have to prove his worth and loyalty. And he would never see daylight again. Not the way he does now, at least."

"You know, a simple he-wouldn't-be-able-to would've been less tear-jerky," Lacus droned sarcastically. "But hey, what if we tried something different?"

"Such as?"

"Mika's weak, right?"

"Agreed."

"And we can't keep him because he's like, living or whatever, yeah?"

"Uhuh…"

"Krul owes us for lying about his death. And she's partly to blame for the way he turned out."

"Where are you going with this, Lacus?"

"Where I'm going," Lacus continued with a newfound enthusiasm, "is straight to our leader to request he stay with us until he's finally grown a spine."

René deadpanned.

"Mika's weak, René. And as much as it pisses me off to admit it, I bet he wouldn't say a thing if someone happened to take advantage of that fact and tell him to get down on his knees for a quicky. Just yesterday he was almost attacked by five grown men at the park, and all he did was freeze up and cry. And the day I chased after him, he was running slower than my grandmother."

"But you've never met your grandmother."

"My point is, René, what if we trained him? You know, like, easy stuff that his little body and fragile mind could handle. We keep him for a few months, teach him how to say fuck off with his hands, then send him back to the world. It'll be fun. He'll be, like, like… he'd be like our own little apprentice! And we get to hang out with him more without worrying about police or being spotted by citizens. I'll even make it so that Ferid won't be able to lay a finger on him. It would be fun."

"And if she says no?" René pointed out.

"She'll say yes, trust me. We're her favorite children."

"We're her only children."

"There you go! That's the spirit!"

"Wait, Lacus, that's not what I—"

"Come on!" Lacus took hold of his brother's arm and practically threw the bedroom open. "The sooner we run this through Krul the better."

On their way out, slamming the door hard as they went, they were left oblivious to the child they unintentionally startled awake.

~~~

Bad timing, they presumed…

Lacus's head snapped to the right, and René's to the left, both boys taken by complete and utter surprise.

"Idiots! What the hell were you two thinking? Who ordered you to kidnap the son of a cop? Do you have any idea what you could've started?"

"Hey, hold on just a second!" Lacus exclaimed after quickly recovering from the shock of being slapped across the face by his mother at one in the morning. "You didn't even give us a chance to explain ourselves! It's Mika!" 

"You don't think I know who it is?" Krul snapped, daring her eldest to speak out again. She rounded her two children and went back to sitting at the dining room table where she'd left her empty glass. Snapping her fingers, the young maid that had been on standby throughout the entire scene shuffled to her side carrying a half empty bottle of classic red wine.

With her glass full once more, she shooed the lady away and wordlessly scrutinized her sons, their serious faces and poised demeanors. She took a sip and sighed tiredly. "This is why I wanted to skip over Sanguinem."

"I thought I killed him," Lacus said lowly with his head bowed. "You said I killed him."

"I said he died in a fire."

"That I started," he stressed more forcefully. "Why didn't you tell us he was alive all this time?"

"I have my reasons. Now, what I want to know is why he's here, in my house, at one in the morning, sleeping."

"He was being abused," René stated, redirecting his mother's rage. "He's mistreated at home, and the city was too dangerous for him, so Lacus and I took it upon our selves to—"

"To what?" She interrupted with a mocking snort. "To save him? You thought bringing Mikaela here was any better than leaving him out there?"

"Yes," Lacus declared, stealing his mother's gaze once more and holding it in determination. "Mika's treated like shit out there. He doesn't know how to take up for himself anymore, and because of that he could've been killed on multiple occasions if I hadn't found him the day I had. He could learn from us. We could teach him to be strong again and live better. Krul, you owe us this."

"You put our entire organization at risk, Lacus. Again. I think I've paid my debts, don't you? Not only that, but you've even managed to get my right-hand in on your little secret rescue mission. I'm genuinely surprised your friend hadn't told his father about us yet."

"It's because he's our friend," René said with the same energy as his brother. "And we're his friend."

"Yeah, he's technically already one of us. Couldn't that be reason enough for why you didn't kill him when he survived the fire?"

"He didn't survive the fire, because he was never in it, you dimwit."

"What?"

Krul could laugh at the look of flat out, sheer confoundment plastered over their faces. Almost. If she wasn't so upset. She took another sip of her wine before going into a brief explanation. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe he was adopted before you set the orphanage on fire? That maybe, just maybe, he was already safe before you decided to throw a tantrum and put him in danger?"

Lacus remained silent, dumbstruck, and Krul squeezed the space between her eyes. "It's true, I knew Mikaela was alive after all these years. And yes, I knew the man who adopted him was nothing short of a self-centered, idiotic, ignoramus with nothing but promotions and keeping his real brat satisfied on his mind. And yes, I even considered taking him into my care the second you boys asked for him many years ago."

"Then why didn't you?"

"I have half a mind to trap you in a room with Ferid."

Lacus took a small step back and closed his mouth.

"Anyway," she proceeded calmly, "I think we all know why he can't be one of us: he's a spineless coward who would crack far too easily under the weight of this organization. He would be nothing but a liability; a nuisance that would never leave my mind until the day he was taken out either by us, or by the police. Try to keep in mind that he wasn't born like you two. He was a happy baby who lived a happy life even after his parents death. He never hung his father, he never killed the other orphans, and he certainly never killed his friend's mother. In fact, from what you two have told me, the only thing he seems to be good at is being an easily influenced, manipulative kleptomaniac with a sweet face."

"But he's loyal," René stated confidently. "Mika knows about some of the stuff we did as children, and he knows about us breaking into the school, killing the man who delivered that package, and the man Lacus killed two days ago. He knows about all of it, and even saw some of it, but never told anyone. He may not have physical strength or enough mental strength to take care of himself, but if we took him into our care and did something as simple as treating him like a human being I guarantee he could become a valuable asset to the organization. We could work on his strengths first: stealing and manipulation, and build up from there. And if you're still not satisfied with him, we'll take him back home and Lacus and I will take full responsibility for our mistake."

"Hmm…" Krul tapped her nail on the finely polished table in what appeared to be deep consideration. It was a good idea, she had to admit. But regardless, there were still a few concerns, such as: "What makes you believe Mikaela won't back out as soon as things get too tough for him? Can you confidently, one hundred percent ensure to me that he won't threaten to give us away if he just so happens to get angry and snap? And most importantly, what will you boys do if you're out there one day and he ends up leaving evidence and DNA everywhere, or getting all three of you caught either by the police or by cameras and cellphones?"

"We would kill him before that happens."

Lacus winced as his jolly rancher shot down his throat.

"Oh?" Krul raised an inquisitive brow, intrigued by her youngest son's immediate response. "And my other worries?"

"If he backs out, we'll take him back home. I'm confident he won't give us away. And it's the same for if he can't take the pressure of training anymore. But if he says anything, we'll take him out. We wouldn't endanger the organization."

"And if it's too late for him to turn back?"

"We weren't planning on keeping him," Lacus spoke out at last. "We just wanted to help him get better. He takes medication like Xanax and—" his voice lowered as he glanced over at René for the name written on the other bottle he stole from the cop's room, swearing underneath his breath when all he recieved was a subtle half shrug. "—the other thing he takes is an antidepressant."

"Interesting." Krul crossed one leg over the other, leaning back in her seat in a second round of deep mulling. Meanwhile, Lacus and René sent each other brief apprehensive glances as if they were having a mental debate with one another, and waited silently for their boss's final verdict.

Nearly five minutes in and both boys were equally shaken by the fact that she had yet to say a single word. On a normal day, her responses never took longer than a minute tops. She was so invested in the organization her great grandparents built more than sixty years ago that if there was even the slightest bit of chance that a fresh idea put all their sacrifices at risk, she would turn it down in a heartbeat.

Lacus had to admit her silence was putting him on edge. But her questions were even more off-putting. Was she actually considering the idea of keeping Mika and making him a full fledged member like he and René? If so, what did she hope to gain from it? Every individual working beneath her knew that she didn't just waltz into a deal without gaining something exceptionally valuable in return. And if he were being completely honest with himself, what could Mika possibly possess that she wanted enough to think so hard on?

"Alright," she announced with a sly yet easy grin, gaining the immediate attention of her youngest prodigies. "I'll let you boys keep him. For now."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously," she confirmed with a nod. "I'm curious as to how you boys fair with such a big responsibility. I mean, you did just kidnap a sixteen year old child from their police officer father, after all. The worst that can happen is he accidentally shoots himself before making it back home. However, there's a catch."

"What is it?" Lacus dared to ask.

Krul finished off her wine, her piercing blood colored gaze boring into his own which were far less menacing considering who they were locked onto. "He is to bring a city dweller back here using those oh-so-great manipulative skills he had so much of as a child, and kill him at my feet."

Lacus's eyes went wide. "But I said we weren't—"

"Fair enough," René agreed over his brother's protests, ignoring the incredulous reaction gawking at the side of his head.

"I trust that he can be of some use like you said. And I'm also deciding to put my trust in his ability to keep his mouth shut about who we are. And don't worry, Lacus, I'll take pity on him. I know how much of a gentle soul he is, just like I know how much you two boys worry and care for him as if he were your own little brother. That is why I will not force him into joining our little family unless he himself comes to me and asks. So please, keep your heart at ease."

"And Ferid?" He pressed.

"I'll be sure to tell him that Mikaela is yours, not his. And if he tries anything… Ferid related, then I will deal with him personally. As of today, I will grant Mikaela a fraction of the protection you two boys are blessed with. But just know that he is your student. Therefore, you're in charge of him and the trouble he'll cause throughout the organization. Fresh blood always attracts attention."

As if to prove her point, a shriek that sounded far too familiar resounded from above their heads on the second floor, putting both Lacus and René on instant alert like trained canines.

"Go get him," Lacus, the leader of their small duo, instructed sternly to his brother. René nodded obediently and was racing out of the dining room to the second story where they had made the mistake of leaving Mika unattended.

Lacus stayed behind for a moment longer to properly give thanks to their mother on both their behalf, taking a knee and bowing his head respectfully.

"Thank you, Krul. We won't let you down." A small hand found its way on the reddened cheek it had slapped just minutes before. He lifted his head and was greeted by a pair of more gentle eyes. No longer the hard gaze of his boss, but the sympathetic and kind gaze of the woman who took him in when he was just an eleven year old delinquent.

"I know you won't. That is why I'm giving you boys this opportunity. If it was anyone else, my answer would've immediately been no. But you're my children. My sweet boys. Just… next time you decide to kidnap a minor, you run it through me, okay? And no more stealing my right-hand either. I can't have him getting mixed in with stuff that could blow his cover."

"Yes, Krul. It won't happen again."

"Good. Now go save your friend, then go to bed. No going out for the rest of the week."

Lacus nodded in understanding and got to his feet. He was about ready to leave the room in pursuit of the commotion happening above them, but then the same question from earlier arose in his head, and he knew he wouldn't be able to find a peaceful morning's rest unless it was answered.

"Krul."

"Yeah?"

"Why did you keep Mika being alive from us?"

Her answer came simply this time: "Because I knew you would go after him. And back then, even you were a liability, Lacus. Now, off. I haven't slept in two days."

"Yes, I understand." Lacus gave another modest bow, and was off just like his brother. 

The second he was out of view, the light on his face was absorbed by the anger in his gut and his eyes turned a deathly cold. Whoever had caused his friend to scream like that was going to pay.

Chapter Text

~The Next Morning~

Mika remained in the same position he had set himself up in since the day before: knees to his chest, blanket to his chin; unmoving, like a statue made of flesh and bone.

He couldn't believe what he saw. It was nightmare. It had to be a nightmare. There was no way a human being with a beating heart could partake in such a grotesque act. There was just no way.

That woman, she was…

‘Take a deep breath.’

His eyes filled up with their fifth gallon of warm tears. His stomach growled at him in hunger but then lurched in sickness, and he dropped his head to his knees with a choked sob.

"I'm scared," came his strained pathetic whisper that was soon followed by an even more pitiful sound that reached its way beneath the door on the way other side of the room.

"Mika?"

He peeked his head up at the piece of wood his friends had been held up at since the incident the day before that resulted in his current state of mental and emotional calamity.

"Kiddie, please let me in," Lacus begged for the fifth time, once for every time he was heard breaking down at the seams.

"Kiddie?" He heard René's muffled voice repeat.

"What? It's cute."

"Sounds pedophilic."

"… Fuck off. Go make him some breakfast."

A heavy sigh, and one of the shadows beneath the door disappeared.

Mika hugged his knees closer and took a shuttering breath of air. It was so hot underneath the thick heavy blanket that he had begun to sweat non-stop hours ago, but after what he walked in on yesterday following the loud bang that woke him up, he'd been too petrified to move. Too petrified that not even the voices he'd been longing to hear for years now was enough to pull him from his horror and have him leave the bed to remove the chair barricading the door.

He was hot and sweaty and hungry and scared and gross and sticky and he just wanted to take a long shower and be left alone.

"Mika, come on. Please. It's been a whole day and you haven't eaten anything. I'm literally on my knees right now, and I rarely beg people for anything. Come on, open up. Or come over by the door at least; let me know you're still alive in there. You wouldn't even have to open it, just sit by it with me and we can talk. We can talk about random shit like we did on the phone, remember? The person you saw yesterday isn't even here right now. He left to Shinjuku for a boring adult meeting. You're safe."

"H-he was… killing that woman," he uttered, barely loud enough for the boy on the other side of the door to hear.

Nonetheless, however, he heard it.

"Mika," he sighed. "I've killed. René's killed. You've killed… germs and… ants? My point: we've all taken a soul or two in our life at some point or another. Ferid's way is just more fucked up than most. Please, come over to the door. I wanna hear your voice better. We need to talk. Please, kiddie. For me. Can't you do your old pal Lacus this one teeny favor before he has no other choice but to break in through the window?"

Mika's stomach rumbled as the scent of food rolled its way in through the cracks of the door. He just remembered that it's been a while since he had anything to eat. To anyone else in the world, the smell was simply that of well seasoned eggs and blueberry pancakes, but to a starved child like himself it might as well have been the very fragrance that graced the heavens above.

"Mika, please. I don't want you to be scared of anyone that lives here. The whole reason we kidnapped you was to help you get away from the real scary people. I promise nobody here intends to hurt you. Not even Ferid. He's just challenged, that's all."

Mika hesitated. Of course he knew Lacus was telling the truth. Somebody as strong as him would have no reason to lie to somebody so insignificant and inferior. Lacus and René could've easily broken down the door if they truly wanted to, but they didn't. Why? He didn't know.

How could he be such an insensitive jerk? They were worried about him and pleading for him to come out, and throughout that entire time all he'd been doing was cowering and sweating under a blanket that didn't even belong to him. That was Lacus behind the door. Lacus Welt. His best friend. And he would never do anything to hurt him.

He sniffed and cleared his tears away, the salty liquid soaking into his bandages, and reluctantly peeled the blanket from off of his body. His skin broke out into a flare of goosebumps the minute it came into contact with the fresh, crisp oxygen. He flinched lightly when there was a soft thud against the door and a tired, feeble groan call out his name. His legs felt like jelly as he struggled to stand upright, using the bed as a crutch, but his body was weak and he only ended up stalling the inevitable.

He crumbled to the floor, and the call of his name grew more urgent.

"I'm… I'm okay," he called back. His body shivered and he forced himself back to his feet, tucking his hair behind either ear as he stumbled the rest of the way to the door. The chair was wedged between the carpet and doorknob pretty good, proving to be a rather taxing obstacle, and by the time he'd gotten it unstuck he was sitting back on the floor to catch his breath.

Not a second later and he was squinting up at the bright light surrounding a tall silhouette.

"Mika!" Lacus dropped to his side, checking every angle of both arms and turning his head from side to side like the nurse did at his school sometime. He pressed his palm to his forehead and frowned. "You're all sweaty and pale."

"Sorry," he whispered shamefully.

"No, I didn't mean it like that!" Lacus was quick to correct, throwing one of his friend's flimsy arms over his neck to help him to his feet. "Are you okay? You're not hurt anywhere?"

"I'm okay."

"Bullshit," he grunted as he began helping him down the hallway and into another room a few doors down. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up. René's making you some food right now so we should be done by the time he's done. Really, kid, you sure know how to scare the everliving shit out of people."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to…"

Lacus guided him over to a tall bed, which was similar in appearance to the one he had just been sitting on, and cupped his face in his palms, their noses just inches apart. He hadn't been able to notice them before due to the terrible lighting of the car, but getting a bright close up now, he could vaguely make out a little over two dozens tiny white scratches and scars sliced into his friend's olive complexion. He'd never seen anything like it.

With everything that's been going on, what with him disappearing from the face of the Earth for years and then suddenly reappearing from out of nowhere, it made him appear almost… undead.

"Mika," lacus addressed firmly, bobbing his friend's head in synch with his words. "You gotta stop saying sorry for shit, okay? Don't apologize for things you have no control over. You're better than that. Stronger. Understand? Nod your head yes."

Mika did as he was told, nodding his head awkwardly in his friend's grasp while sporting an expression just as unsettling at the same time.

"Good. And from now on, for every unnecessary sorry you say I'm going to shoot you in the head with a BB gun, got it? I'm dead fucking serious."

He nodded his head a second time, looking even more unsettled at the sight of the piercing red eyes just inches away from his. Even when they were children Lacus's serious face was always immensely unnerving to him. Especially after what he did to the Orphange's pet dog a few days after meeting him.

Lacus's lips twitched upward, and just like that, a portion of Mika's fear dissipated into a puff of black smoke. Like magic.

Lacus always had that affect on him.

"Good. You're tough, Mika. Sweet, but tough. Now, do you prefer bubbles or no bubbles?"

"I, uhh… I normally take showers."

"Well, lucky you, you can barely walk. Let alone stand. And because of that, you win a free spa day in my bathtub. So, bubbles or…?"

"I-I don't know. I guess I'm okay with either?"

"Bubbles it is then!" Lacus released his hold on his cheeks and disappeared off to the bathroom with a spring in his step. During the wait, Mika took the alone time to get a good long look around the room his friend slept in every day since the day he disappeared. One thing Lacus never told him when they were children was what the inside of his old home looked like before he ran away. The only description he was ever willing to give out was the fact that it was shaped like a cube and always smelled of ‘dead mice and expired mustard.’ Even getting that much out of him was like pulling tooth and nail.

Lacus's bedroom was large, obviously. And oddly enough, there wasn't a single weapon in sight. No knives, guns, or push daggers dangling from the walls. No blood or chains or large human sized cages. His room was surprisingly typical-teenage fashioned. Not to mention it was startlingly beautiful, in a dark modern type of way, and smelled just as pleasant as he did. The air wasn't thick and didn't reek of sweat, cologne or ‘bedroom activities’ like Yuu's, and there was a lot of space to move around without accidently bumping into anything, unlike his own little bedroom which he considered problematically panic inducing.

But it felt odd of him to be sitting on his bed so carelessly. It was so clean, and large, and bouncy, and neat, and he was filthy and dirty with sweat, tears and negativity. What's more uncanny is the size of the bed. Lacus was only seventeen, but his bed looked and felt as if it costed three times as much as Guren's own bed. His feet swung above the carpet, and the black duvet was as pristine and perfect as the starless night sky.

He even had a matching pillow set: one fluffed body pillow; two large, feather-stuffed King sized pillows; two slightly smaller of the same kind, and then the smallest noodle-shaped pillow propped up in the way front.

His personal favorite.

"Hey, Mika, do you still like the color red?" Asked Lacus aloud from within the restroom, startling him from his idle browsing.

"Y-yeah!"

"Perfect."

He scooted from off the mattress and began making his way over to the tall, slender nightstand set up on the left-hand side of the bed. It had a simple design, nothing too eccentric or loud to throw off the overall simplicity of the room.

The petite chair went well with it, and even the small articles that sat in front of the oval mirror where modest yet stylish. The entire room looked like something from out of a furniture magazine.

He ran his fingers along the smooth black wood of the chair before taking a seat. The mirror was spotless—no water stains or little dust particles. And the matching dresser it hung above was just as dainty. There was a beautifully decorated hairbrush to his left, and to his right, several leather bracelets with soft designs burned into their material with tan rope tied around them to complete the fashionable, genteel look.

If Lacus wasn't working in the restroom a few yards away from him, he never would've guessed such a model bedroom belonged to him. The Lacus he knew was more wild and quirky. He was unpredictable and full of the entire color spectrum. Modest and quiet were more René Simm traits.

Everything was so carefully placed he didn't dare spoil it with his dewy hands, and so he simply just sat there and admired the view with an impressed smile spread across his cheeks.

Never in his wildest dreams would he have thought that he would actually be sitting in the bedroom belonging to one of his two long lost best friends. It was all too hypnagogic to him. Just a few hours ago he was suffering in his small prison cell of a bedroom with his overbearing adoptive brother practically forcing himself on him, and now he was sitting in a large spacious room that he knew for a fact costed about half the price of his entire house. He was flabbergasted.

"Alrighty," Lacus chirped from behind him, "the bathroom's all yours. I poured a shit ton of bubbles by accident so try not to drown. But hey, on the bright side at least you'll smell like the strawberries from France."

"You've been to France?" Mika asked, notably surprised as he stood up to regard his friend properly.

"Yeah. Took a trip there last year for some quick assignments. They have some of the best food I've ever tasted—natural and fresh, you know? Everything is so like, aesthetic to the eye. It's like living in the middle ages where everything was made out of brick and stone. I wouldn't mind going back there for a little vacation."

"You travel a lot?"

"Every six months to a year. Sometimes longer. Just a little benefit to living in my tainted world of isolation. I can go wherever whenever, undetected. Now come, before the water gets cold."

Lacus looped his finger with Mika's and led him into his deep exquisite lavatory.

"I've always wanted to go traveling," he heard his little friend murmur to himself glummly, making him feel a tinge of guilt for mentioning his journeys in the first place. "Lacus."

"Yeah?"

Mika fought away his horrid blush, trying not to seem too astonished by the thick crimson bubbles that nearly rose up past his waist, or by the bathroom's elegant decor overall.

"Your room is, uhh… I think it's really p-pretty."

"Pretty, huh?" Lacus chuckled lightly, unknowingly deepening Mika's embarrassment. He ruffled his blond mess of hair with an appreciative smile. "I've never heard that one before. Thanks, kiddie. Took a lot of time to make it look as normal as possible. A lot of money too. And magazines."

"Oh, cool."

Mika kicked himself. Is that the best he could do? Oh, cool?

‘I'm such an idiot!’

This time Lacus released a more livelier, high-spirited chortle that had his cheeks burning a soft pink, and Mika's a dark red at the sight of the silver ball resting on the center of his tongue.

Another piercing!

He spun the other way to conceal his shock, opting for gawking into the alluring froth of bubbles instead.

"You're an adorable little human, aren't you?" Lacus teased. "You've even managed to get me all flustered."

"Hey, what the fuck?"

Both Lacus and Mika whipped around in the direction of the door where René stood with a Halloween themed apron tied over his house clothes and a deep scowl on his face.

"Well, hey there," Lacus greeted with a grin. "What brings you here to my lovely abode?"

"This is a bathroom, idiot. And I came here to tell you that breakfast was ready ten minutes ago. What the hell is taking you guys so long?"

"Mika's taking a bubble bath." He pointed a thumb at the party of overflowing bubbles. "See, bubbles."

René's eyes suddenly narrowed as he got a load of his brother's crimson dyed expression. "Are you blushing?"

"No. Well, yes. Somewhat. Not really. Anyway, you mentioned breakfast?"

"Yeah, so hurry up before you know who comes back and eats everything like last time."

Lacus's smile faltered, and he turned his attention back to Mika. "Well, I guess this is where we go our separate ways, kid. I'll have some comfy clothes ready for you on the bed. You're a bit shorter than me, but I'm pretty sure they'll fit you okay."

"Oh, thank you."

Lacus gave him a small nod, saying one last farewell, before exiting the bathroom at last to fill his empty stomach with some nice crispy bacon and delicious flapjacks, leaving behind just Mika and René.

They stared at each other awkwardly for a moment, but ultimately, it was Mika who decided to break the tense silence with a shy wave of his bandaged fingers. "I'll, uhh… try to be quick."

René's shoulders slackened, and the crease in his forehead went smooth. He stepped into the bathroom, towering over Mika by a full several inches, and dropped a gentle hand on his head, startling the blond.

"Don't rush. I already have a plate saved for you. And about the guy you saw yesterday, Ferid, stay away from him, understand? I don't want him anywhere near you."

Mika nodded, squeaking out a tiny yes while he was at it. He didn't need to be told twice. He wouldn't dare go near that man ever again if he could help it. He hadn't felt that much terror since he was twelve.

"Good," René said, adding shortly after: "And it's good to have you back, Mika."

Mika couldn't help but smile up at his best friend's sincere words. Hearing them made him feel as if he was truly worth something to someone. And maybe he was. Lacus and René were being so kind and patient with him, and even put themselves on the line countlessly just so he could be comfortable.

Seeing René, and knowing that he wasn't just a figment of his imagination, he felt a surge of affection bloom inside of his chest like a water lily and swell all the way up to his esophagus. He bit back his tears, saying in just a whisper, "I missed you, René."

His efforts to remain strong dispelled all at once when two arms found their way around his body, and his face was being pressed against the warm scent of freshly made blueberry pancakes. René's heartbeat was slow and composed, just like it had always been since they were young.

René didn't say one word, merely stood in the center of his brother's restroom holding onto the friend he thought he would never see again as he sobbed into his apron.

Chapter Text

 

Weird. Very weird. But not too weird. Just weird enough to the point he was having trouble fully comprehending the whole thing.

He, Mikaela Shindo, was actually taking a bubble bath inside of a large luxurious bathroom that he'd only ever seen on a television screen. And he was enjoying every second of it: the tiny, little ticklish bubbles popping against his skin like miniature smooches, the warm and rosy water cupped within his open palms, the fresh wide-open atmosphere that he could breath freely in.

It was like his own personal Arcadia.

His chest fluttered in giddiness even more than when Yuu had invited him to see that movie. He scooped up a handful of bubbles and gazed at its sparkly, alluring transparency in awe, disregarding the way his bandages became soaked and ruined with all of his fooling around. A pleasant smile broadened over his pale-pink lips, one that illuminated the entirety of the bathroom with his free child-like giggles. And he embraced it.

He'd never been so happy before in his life.

His friends weren't dead. He wasn't dreaming. They were just as loving and carefree as they used to be. Yuu was gone. Guren was gone. School was gone. A sense of everything going to be okay lightened his heart and relaxed his normally jittery nerves, and his whole being felt… alive.

He played in the water, sculptured terrible artwork with the bubbles, made up ridiculous stories for said artwork with an imagination he'd been oblivious of for years, giggled shamelessly, and simply let loose for an entire hour all by himself with nothing but peaceful feelings keeping him from regarding his scars for too long at a time.

It was fun, blissful, while the water was still hot and the suds plenty, but like all pleasant things in life, it was about time his mini spa party came to an end.

With a disgruntled pout, he reluctantly grabbed the towel that had been left for him beside the large circular bathtub, and carefully pulled himself up and out, being sure to clean up the puddle that followed him on his way, then tied the thick piece of fabric tightly around his waste.

He wished there could have been a second towel for his hair, considering he had recklessly submerged his head beneath the water on at least five occasions, but he presumed he would just have to settle with one and not get too greedy with his luck. If there's one thing he could and would never associate himself with in life, it's greed.

He hurriedly dried himself off, albeit a bit clumsy and self-consciously in fear of somebody barging in on him, and began getting dressed in the comfy looking outfit picked out for him just as promised: a white loose-fitting long sleeve with strange little holes for his thumbs, and a pair of casual blue jeans with cuts on both knees.

The scent that filled his nostrils as he looped his arms through each sleeve caused a warm blush to flood his cheeks. The smell was of simple clothing fresh out of the laundry basket, but the other smell, the one that made his insides tingle with something heartwarming, was that of pure Lacus himself—the fresh outdoors with a hint of frozen strawberries, minus the metallic scent.

He dried his unruly mess of hair as best as he could, and after that,

He sat there…

‘Now what?’

He couldn't just walk out of the room foolishly like last time. And even if he did, where would he go? He didn't know the first thing about the house he'd been brought to, not a single twist or turn. If he chanced opening foreign doors again, he might risk running into…

He shivered. No need to bring up such grotesque images.

Too much blood.

And besides, he couldn't just up and leave. Not with the mess he left behind. What was he supposed to do with his old clothes? Put them in the dirty clothes hamper? What if he was meant to do something else entirely with them? And his used towel, what should he do with that?

He glimpsed down at the flawless bed he was sitting on that he remembered wasn't his own, and proceeded to sink to the floor with a dirty towel in one hand and a pile of clothes in the other, completely and utterly lost.

And as the minutes ticked by, so did his small gauge of serotonin.

~~~

"Is this really what kids are learning in highschool?" Lacus questioned with his lips curled in disappointment as he flipped from one sheet of homework to the next.

"Well, at least he gets good grades on his tests…" commented René beside him, his expression dittoed while he eyed over a few tests left behind in the overcrowded binder. He stacked his pile of papers neatly together and slapped them down on the coffee table. "We're burning these."

"Definitely."

Lacus tossed his stack beside his and slouched back on the couch with a groan, his eyes locked on the soft bundle of black fluff migrating in his direction. "Hey, do you ever wonder what Mika could've been doing at the same time we were doing something? Like, the minute before he saw us killing that guy in the alley, what do you think he was doing?"

"Well, according to the bag of food he left behind—the one you scavenged through—he was most likely on his way home from the store," René responded, mimicking his brother in lying back on the couch, though, with his feet kicked up on the table.

"Yeah, but what about before that?"

"Why don't you ask him?"

"Because, he's enjoying his spa bath."

"Spa bath?" He repeated with a raised brow.

"Yes, René, a spa bath. Didn't you see the colorful bubbles?" Lacus leaned forward and reached down to the ground, grunting as he lifted his feline companion up to cradle in his arms. "Mika's a fragile creature, therefore he requires fragile treatment. Isn't that right, my little Ayame angel? Fragile creatures require fragile treatment?"

René frowned in distaste as he watched his brother worship the pampered cat with high-pitched coos and kisses as if she were a newborn infant, frown only deepening when the spoiled mammal glared right back at him with her depthless orange eyes in equal dissatisfaction. He turned away with a click of his tongue. "How long is he planning on staying in there anyway? It's been over an hour."

"Who knows? Maybe he's still playing around. I heard him giggling thirty minutes ago when I went to go check on him, so he hasn't fallen asleep or drowned. Yet. You should have heard him, it was so adorable. Kinda makes me feel bad that we have to convince him to kill someone in the next few months. And speaking of which, who do you think it should be? I already have a list and a few ideas that would fit perfectly with his skills."

René didn't need to think of a response, for little did Lacus know he, too, had a list of varies ideas floating around in his mind. "Those people he lived with. Both of them."

"I was thinking the same thing, but wouldn't it create too much of a problem in the short run? I mean, a cop and his son found dead, and the second child nowhere to be found? Mika would have to go into hiding and he would need to…" his voice trailed off, and his head snapped up from his cat as realization dawned on him. "Wait, you're not seriously planning on keeping him with us, are you? You know what he would have to go through."

René crossed his arms over his chest, his attitude as laid-back as ever as he reminded Lacus that it had been his idea in the first place. "Don't tell me you didn't see this coming. As soon as we brought him here, there was no way Krul was just going to let him leave alive, no matter what she told us. He would've been considered rogue; a risk factor."

"René, that's bullshit and you know it." Lacus sat up straight with a quickly developing glare, still considerate of the little animal sitting on his lap. "Mika could never be a risk factor. You said it yourself: he's loyal, and he's our friend. And if we end up keeping him, he can never go back into society again. I thought we agreed we didn't want that for him."

"Look, Lacus," René said through a heavy sigh. "I don't want to keep him either, but he's going to kill someone. Knowing him, he'd probably never get over it. Not without help at least. We would end up having to protect him from himself, but we can't do that if he's not within arms reach. Just think about it: we move from city to city. We move to entirely different continents, and Mika's stuck here in this shit show of a city all by himself. And let's say he does kill the people who adopted him—then what? Where would he go? He has no friends, no family. He'd just be thrown in an orphange until he's old enough to live the rest of his life out on the streets. Or worse. I don't want him to be stuck with our kind of life, but if you really think about it, is it really that much worse than living the life he would live after he's carried out his duty of gaining Krul's trust? We don't really have much of a choice here. It's either keep him, or get rid of him completely after just finding him."

Lacus turned away, straining to come up with an alternative. Anything that wouldn't involve his already tortured friend to end up struggling and fighting through the same anguish René and him were faced with just to get to where they were now. He rubbed the back of his neck out of habit, recalling all the blood, sweat and tears he'd shed, and is still shedding to that very day. Picturing Mika going through that hell, there was no way he would make it. He just wasn't cut out for it.

But he wasn't always like that.

The image of Mika's hurt and dejected face as he mentioned his long-lived desire to go traveling developed in his head like film from camera, and his jaw visibly clenched.

"Shit."

"Lacus—"

"No, you're right. Mika shouldn't have to suffer living in that city longer than he already has. At least with us he'll be safer, and protected by most of the others in the organization. With any luck, he'll be pitied for his age and personality and things might run more smoothly than it had for us."

René placed a hand on the back of his neck, same as Lacus, thinking back to the searing agony he felt the moment he was accepted into the organization. "We were fourteen…"

"I know," Lacus responded gravely before setting Ayame on the ground and standing to leave. "I'm gonna go check on him. We'll burn all of this shit later. Can you heat up his food? He still hasn't eaten anything."

"Yeah." René said, already on it. But before he left, he gave Lacus's shoulder a reassuring nudge. "Looks are deceiving, Lacus, especially when it comes to Mika. He's never been as innocent as he lets on. He's just been repressed."

"Yeah," Lacus scoffed. "And a shit ton of other things in between."

And after that, both boys went off there separate ways to fulfill their assigned duties.

~~~

Mika jerked himself awake for what felt like the hundredth time in the short span of twenty minutes. He blinked hard and shook his head vigorously like a dog. Groggily, his eyes then traveled over from the panic induced ruin on his palm to the unmoving door in front of him.

‘Maybe I should…’

He figured it wouldn't hurt to get a little peek at what lie beyond the faceless piece of wood. It's been fairly silent for quite some time now, as far as he knew. And Lacus even said that the crazy guy he saw the other day wasn't present at the moment, which meant it had to be safe for him to sate his piqued curiosity.

He might even get lucky and bump into him or René during his exploration.

With that thought outweighing all the others and bringing a new and improved smile to his lips, he pulled himself to his feet, dropped his stuff into a small pile in front of the bed, and began shuffling his way towards the door. Unexpectedly, just as he reached his hand out with intentions of freeing himself, the metal knob was already in the process of being twisted open. He pulled his hand back to his chest and took a stiff step back, breathing having come to an all but abrupt standstill.

However, upon seeing a certain tuft of lilac bangs and two barbell piercings glistening in the artificial light, his lungs deflated in relief.

"Lacus…"

Lacus's smile upon entrance was just as bright as ever as he tackled the shorter male in a suffocating bear hug that took him by complete surprise.

"Oh, you look so adorable!"

Mika stood awkwardly, not knowing what to do other than stare at the half bun in the back of his friend's head and the hallway ahead. He'd had his fair share of literal breathtaking embraces, but those were all from Yuu. This one was from his trustworthy best friend. It was a safe hug that held no alternate meaning behind it.

Oh, how strange it was too be surrounded by so much positivity in such a short amount of time.

"Umm, Lacus, what should I do with my clothes?"

Lacus broke away from the hug to regard the little pile by his bed then simply replied, "we'll burn'em."

Mika blinked. "What?"

"You know, as in, set-fire-to." Lacus draped an arm over his shoulder and began leading him out of the room. "But for now, let's focus on getting some fattening food in your belly. René's pancakes are to die for."

"O-oh," Mika stuttered, still processing the idea of lighting his own clothes up in flames. He figured it was just a little ruse of Lacus's, a joke for laughs, but then he thought of the time he watched him decapitate that helpless man's pinky for his cat and reconsidered. 

"Lacus," He addressed hesitantly, about midway down the carpeted steps leading to the first story.

"Yeah?"

"You didn't really… feed that guy's finger to your cat, did you?"

Lacus nearly choked on his saliva at the mention of something so out of the blue. "Fuck, Mika, no! That guy was probably riddled with diseases. I'm not gonna risk feeding Ayame STD infected fingers. Besides, she only eats Orijen cat food. Fancy Feast when she's not being a total bitch to René."

"Oh." That was a relief.

"She's my little high maintenance girl."

Mika remained silent as he was guided the rest of the way down the stairs, eyeing the glossy dark wood beneath them, the heavily decorated front door leading to the outside, and the priceless portraits of people he'd never read about in history class nailed to the walls. Everything around him made him feel as if he were walking through a Victorian era artifact—a house that would make a lot more sense as a museum in another country. The colors surrounding them were warm and set the tone of the house as a whole, added with the fancy furniture, elegantly decorated wallpaper, and glowing chandeliers dangling from every ceiling in every room, that being the living room to his right, the two above the staircase, and finally, the dining room where René sat drinking an average can of Coca-Cola.

His amazement must have been apparent, because the second he and Lacus stepped up to the dense oval table, the darker haired teen laughed quietly to himself. It was a short huff of air through his nose, nothing too significant, but it was the most he'd heard from him in regards to amusement since they were kids.

Lacus kindly pulled a chair out for him, and he murmured a small thank you as he took a seat, repeating his appreciation again when he was pushed in. He gazed down at the plate of large pancakes, diced fruits, eggs and bacon with the same look of amazement.

‘Even the food is pretty.’

His stomach rumbled aggressively as he tried but failed at concealing the fact that he hadn't eaten in almost two days, earning a breathy chuckle from Lacus.

Glancing at his big plate of food, then at René across from him, and then at Lacus who was rounding the table to sit beside René, he asked shyly, "Aren't you guys going to eat something too?"

René shook his half empty beverage as a self-explanatory response, and Lacus informed him of how he had already had his fill while he was “living it up” in the bathtub.

"Oh…"

He shifted uncomfortably, peering down at his lap while picking at the sleeves of his shirt. Apprehension made itself known through his unsteady fingers, and he threw a quick glance up at his best friends quietly conversing with one another about something anonymous, not paying him the slightest bit of attention, then, just as quickly, he looked away.

He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then released it silently. He couldn't allow those feelings to get to him. Not now.

"René," he addressed just loud enough to call attention to himself. Both boys turned to regard him, but only one raised an inquisitive brow. He balled his hands into fists, reminding himself that he wasn't at the table with Guren and Yuu, but with Lacus and René; that he wasn't being watched while eating, but respectfully disregarded; that he wasn't at risk of annoying them as he ate at a less than leisurely pace. "I-I usually take my medicine before breakfast. Is it okay if I go take them now? It'll be quick."

"One or both?" René asked, leaving his seat.

"Both, please."

René glanced at Lacus, and Lacus nodded. "Alright. I'll be right back."

"Can I come?" He asked, halfway out of his seat, but René turned around and pushed his shoulders back down.

"No. Eat. I'll go get them."

Mika twisted around in his seat, watching as he disappeared around the corner to wherever his medication was put up at, so focused on his plan of getting some air that he had completely forgotten about the other boy sitting across from him observing his strange behavior in genuine curiosity.

"Kiddie?"

"Yes?" His head sprung back around like a top.

"Eat," he said gently, patting the area in front of his plate for emphasis. "You're starting to turn pale."

"Oh, r-right." Mika put on his most practical looking smile and took the fork between his fingers. The eggs were much simpler to take on compared to cutting bite sized bits from out of whole pancakes and creating a barrage of noise, so he decided he would take that route until René came back with his needs.

‘Calm down. It's just Lacus. It's just Lacus. It's just…’

"René's really good at cooking."

Spoken like somebody who'd never breathed a day in their life—he cringed inwardly, praying his anxiety of eating around people wasn't obvious.

Lacus looked up from his phone with a smile, thankfully seeing nothing out of the ordinary. "Only his pancakes," he said in a manner that suggested he could do better—typical Lacus attitude. "His eggs are fucking disgusting though."

"But you never liked eggs." If memory served him right.

"True. But you never liked bacon, so…" Lacus raised a suggestive brow with an even more suggestive grin, and Mika took the hint and slid his plate across the table just enough for the other to reach over and swipe his two greasy slabs of pork. "Thanks, kiddie."

Mika smiled and pulled his breakfast back under his chin. With two-fourths of his plate now missing, the fruit and pancakes shouldn't take too much time to finish. If he could just keep his head on straight until then.

He picked up his fork once more.

Back at home, if his fork remained on his plate for longer than a minute, Guren would usually scold him and threaten to send him back to his room until he decided to stop acting up. But further back, up until he was around the age of twelve, when he was still considered an “insufferable delinquent” and rebelled and refused to eat or follow any of the house rules in general, that's when Guren would get fed up, pound his fist against the table before physically prying his jaws apart to shovel forkful after forkful in his mouth until he got his act together. Meanwhile, Yuu texted away on his phone in the safety of his bedroom, ignoring his violent curses and cries.

That was back when he was still free. An orphan at heart.

He could hear himself now: screaming about how much he hated him, threatening to run away, yelling at him that he would never be his real father; kicking, biting, scratching. Everything he could do to make life harder on the man who selfishly stole him away from who he considered to be his real family.

"Mika?"

"Yes," he blurted a bit too quickly, not having realized he'd been spaced out until, from the corner of his eye, he noticed a small glass of apple juice and two tablets by his plate, one a lot longer than the other, and René taking his place back beside a worry stricken Lacus.

"Are you alright? You look like you've seen a ghost."

He shook his head, plastering on yet another one of his practiced smiles. "I'm fine. Just lost in thought. Thank you, René."

René hummed over his carbonated drink.

"Oh?" Lacus pressed with piqued interest. "What are you thinking about?"

"Just… random stuff. Nothing important," He replied, taking another deep breath as he grabbed his pills and glass of juice and pushed out of his seat in haste pursuit of the exit.

"Wait, where are you going?" Lacus called after him, both him and René pushing out of their chairs as well as he rounded the corner. He called back that he wouldn't be long and continued powerwalking as far away from the table as he could get, not being able to sit there for another second.

He sped up both flights of stairs, lungs heaving by this point, and dropped to the ground heavily. Scooting to the nearest wall, he threw his head back and shoved both pills past his lips with trembling fingers, eyebrows knitting together tightly as he gulped down every last drop of juice.

He exhaled sharply and used the back of his hand as a napkin for the little dribbles that trickled down his chin.

The air around him was suffocating, the warm lighting of the house too dim, walls too close, pictures too big and too many.

He pulled his thumbs from out of the holes of his shirt and yanked both sleeves up to his elbows, lacing his fingers through his hair in a vice like grip.

‘Twenty minutes,’ he thought to himself as each breath he took became more shallow with the erratic pulsing of his heart against his ribcage. ‘Twenty minutes.’

He hated those pills; he hated depending on them every time his anxiety flared up or his mood took a turn for the worst; he hated how easily it all happened.

How weak he's become.

‘Triggered over a table,’ his conscience sneered. ‘This is how low you've sunk.’

‘Pathetic.’

‘You're nothing compared to Lacus and René.’

‘Just stop. Give up already.’

‘And now you're going to cry. Again.’

‘Your deserve this.’

‘I deserve this.’

"I deserve this."

His breath hitched, and he allowed for the spiteful words constructed by his very own mind to swallow him whole as he buried his head in his knees and wept silently. It wasn't until seconds later when he heard faint growling a few feet to his left did he dare peek his head up.

The darkest patch of fur he had ever seen, accompanied by two eyes deeper than the color of monarch butterfly wings. A tiny flash of pink flicked out from the center of the abyss, and behind it, a more elongated tuft that swished back and forth sharply in the air like a whip. It opened its mouth wide, exposing its four sharp incisors, and a low hiss sound shot out from its small windpipes.

Ayame—Lacus's pet cat. She seemed so much more mellow in the picture he sent of her licking frosting off of that slice of cake. But seeing her in person…

He released a startled gasp as the large feline took several quick steps after him, her ears flattened back against her head, making them appear non-existent. She spat and slashed her four talons in warning.

He jumped away with a surprised yelp, knocking his empty glass over as he did so, but Ayame held him steadfast, keeping him from correcting his mistake. The dark slits in her eyes dilating to full eclipsed moons, she took several more cautious steps in his direction, near closing the spacious gap keeping them both from harm's way.

"Mika!" He heard Lacus and René call from downstairs. From the sounds of it, they were searching for him in the living room.

"Where the hell did he go?"

"Under the couch, René—How the fuck should I know? Come here, kiddie kiddie kiddie. We're not gonna hurt you."

"Will you stop calling him that already. It's weird."

"No. Now go check upstairs. I'll check in the bathrooms down here. And make it quick, I don't want anyone else getting ahold of him before we do. I doubt those creeps give two shits if Krul told them he's off limits or not."

An agitated “fine,” and Mika could hear fast approaching footsteps trailing up the stairs. 

He turned away from the conversation, the split second action startling the aggressive carnivore, and before he could duck away from the hissing flurry of onyx fur, Ayame launched forward with both paws ready, aiming for the spot just below his eye.

The commotion did not go unheard by the others in the proximity, and the sound of footsteps grew more urgent. Meanwhile, Ayame took off in the opposite direction at full speed, retreating beneath a heavily decorated dresser pushed up against the wall with two chairs acting as its guardians.

René made it just in time to see him removing his hand from his cheek, and the expression exchanged between either boys' face as they locked eyes was like staring into a mirror.

René swore and got down on his knee, his grip on Mika's chin light as he turned his head from left to right in inspection.

"Are you okay?"

"Fine," Mika said just below a whisper, turning away when fingers grazed against his open wound.

"Damn cat," he growled, looking around in search for the eight pound fluff of hate.

Lacus materialized on his other side, doing the same in inspecting the three bloody slashes across his cheek bone, and Mika repeated his action of avoiding his touch and murmuring out an explanation of how he frightened the cat by accident.

"Ayame doesn't get scared," was Lacus's bitter response as he and René helped him to his feet and began walking him back to the room he had had that enjoyable hour long bath in. "What the hell were you doing up here anyway? And why'd you just run off like that?"

"Guren said it's rude to take drugs in front of people." A partial truth.

"Of course he did," he said through a deep exhale that had Mika lowering his head in shame.

"Well, Guren's full of shit," René snapped sharply, pushing the bedroom door open and disappearing into the bathroom, most likely to retrieve an emergency kit for his injuries.

He and Lacus went over to the bed, Lacus rolling his eyes as he went to the center of the mattress whilst Mika himself paused at the edge.

"Mika, get up here."

Sensing his friend's rising vexation, Mika dolefully did as he was told and crawled to the center of the expensive bed, stopping when they were then face to face, and kept his head hung low.

"Are you mad at me?" His throat tightened as he uttered those soft-spoken words, and he couldn't bare to look up. The last thing he intended to do was upset his friends after just finding out that they were alive after all the years he'd spent alone, believing they were swept clean from the face of the Earth like dirt.

A hand found its way on the cheek opposite the one that had been attacked, and a fresh tear soaked past his barriers.

"I'm mad that you fed into that bastard's lies," Lacus said softly. A second weight was suddenly added to the bed, and Mika was handed over to the care of his other friend who looked just as upset as he expected.

He kept his mouth shut as his wounds were cleaned with an alcohol pad and patched up with a large square-shaped bandage, doing his best to avoid eye contact, wondering how he could've screwed things up so quickly. He was aching to ease some of the tension clotting his blood vessels, but he knew he couldn't commit such a disgraceful act in somebody else's home. It would only make him feel more disgusted about himself than he already was.

More tears fell from his eyes, but this time it was René who wiped them away, and forced him to look him dead in the eye. He always found René's particular set of eyes to be especially fascinating. Even when they were kids, he always commented on how amazing they were. They were the color of blood, just like Lacus's, but his right iris was decorated with dozens of tiny black specks on one half that made it appear an almost pure pitch black.

"Why are you crying?" He asked in a manner that didn't sound neither concerned or conflicted. If anything, he sounded like he simply wanted to hear an answer and get on with his day.

But what should he say? He's sorry for having given up on the lifestyle he swore to honor even after having had everything snatched from under him in the blink of an eye? He's sorry for changing his entire personality after two years of suffering through cruel, heartless abuse from the law itself? Sorry for being diagnosed with things he never thought somebody like him could contract?

He tried turning away again, but the hands cupping his face didn't budge an inch, and he was forced to continue looking the other in the eyes.

"I-I'm sor—"

"I didn't ask for an apology," René interjected blankly, but the grip he was using noticably became stronger. "I asked you why you were crying."

"I…" he couldn't let them know. Everything about him was too much of a disappointment. "I don't know."

René's eyes darkened. "Are you sure that's what you want us to go with?"

He shifted his gaze to Lacus, and then to his lap, since that was all that he could do in his current position, and stayed quiet out of contempt. Lacus's shoulders slouched, and René's gaze switched from indifference to a full on glare.

"Fine."

Mika released a shocked cry as he was taken by the upper arm and practically yanked from out of the bed to the carpet, stumbling aimlessly and staring wide-eyed at the back of his friend's head as he was dragged from out of the room all together like a child being hauled off by a teacher, down the hall and towards the room he had barracked himself in the day before. He heard Lacus say something close behind them, questioning what René was doing to him, but his stern demand went ignored, and like a suitcase full of insignificant luggage, Mika was flung into the room and locked inside without so much as a guilty pause of consideration.

"René, what the fuck!"

René grabbed Lacus's arm as he tried rushing forward to their friend's aid, and pulled him back roughly. For once his voice didn't sound placid or serene.

"He can come out when he decides to stop lying to us and remember that we're supposed to be his friends."

"He's a kid," Lacus hissed angrily.

"He's a few months younger than us, idiot. Stop acting like he's some hopeless wounded animal."

"But he is. Do you not remember anything I told you in the past week? Did you not see what was happening to him before we brought him here? He's a victim of abuse. He takes meds for it, for fucks sake! He can't help the way he is."

"And we can't help him either if he's not willing to let us. We have shit to do for the next few months involving him. We had a whole discussion about it with Krul and are even lucky we made it this far. If we can't prep him in the time we're expected to, then he'll be handed over to Ferid. Do you want to see that happen, Lacus? Because at this rate, that's exactly where this is gonna go, and there would be nothing we could do about it but sit back and watch while he gets pushed around and beaten like we were."

"René, we can't just dive into this. He needs time. You have to be patient with him. Now let him out right now. That's an order."

"We're talking about his life here, Lacus," René pressed, exasperated. "Can't you see? we don't have time for patients right now. We of all people would know what it's like to deal with the stuff he's dealing with. We both went through the same thing at one point. The only difference is we couldn't take pills to make it go away. We had to suck it up and move on or else we would've been left behind. Mika's fortunate enough to be an exception to the rules. We can start being patient with him again when he decides to stop throwing pity parties and actually comes to us about what the hell is going on."

"René," Lacus warned lowly, his gaze unforgiving. "Open the door. Now."

René's resolve was just as unyielding, and he stood tall between his brother and the door, crossing his arms over his chest.

On the other side, Mika sat dumbfounded, having been taken by complete surprise after being manhandled by one of his closest friends for a second time following the moment of crying into his chest.

He heard Lacus scoff.

"Are you fucking serious?"

No response.

"Fine. Well, then can I at least see if he's alright? You just threw him in there…"

Still no response.

"What, I can't even do that? You know what, fine. Let's do it your way, since you're so concerned for his well being. But just so you know, you're being an asshole right now, and this will not be forgotten." Heavy footsteps faded down the hallway, and Lacus added, "the least you can do is bring him his food and stop standing there like a fucking statue. You made your point."

A click of annoyance, and René's shadow soon faded after him, his footsteps not as rage driven as his leader's.

And after that, everything fell silent.

He did it. He'd officially pissed his friends off to the point of being abandoned and bound to a room until further notice. And it only took around forty-eight hours.

Was he really that unbearable to deal with?

With fresh tears stinging his eyes, and crushing emotions pressing down on his conscience and heart, Mika pulled himself to his feet and dropped down on the edge of the bed, glowering at the hand he'd viciously marred in the presence of René.

He wasn't upset with his friend, no. He knew he meant well. René was just upset about realizing what he's become, and Mika could understand that. He treated himself roughly because of it too.

He deserved everything he was getting.

Chapter Text

 

A buzzing in his ear. The faint call of his name from a familiar voice coaxing him back into consciousness. His fingers and palm burned, and it was hard to take in a full breath. His heart ached, and his head pulsated with a blinding pain.

The whisper of his name became more persistent as he struggled to open his eyes and comprehend what was going on around him. He was leaning all his weight against something warm and hard, and as he opened his stinging palm and lifted it to his head to ease the migraine he was suffering from, the sound of something metallic clattered to the cold tiles beneath him. The noise was similar to that of a pin dropping.

He released a pained groan and peered down at whatever it was he had been holding onto to inflict such sharp pain in his hand, and his eyes slowly grew wide as they trailed the delayed drip of blood down to a developing puddle beside him. Noticing the rectangular shape of a rusty stainless steel razor blade, it was as if he had suddenly been slapped into awareness.

"What the—" his horrified gaze snapped from the bloody weapon up to the tan arms wrapped around his midsection, and then, at last, to the boy in question. "Yuu?"

A satisfied grin broadened across his brother's face, and he found the grip around his stomach constricting ever so slightly. "Good, you're awake," he said in his usual carefree attitude. "I was beginning to think you'd really went through with it this time."

"Yuu, what's going on? I… I don't understand."

Where were Lacus and René? Why was he still in his old clothes? Why was he sitting in his old bathroom covered in blood?

Yuu unravelled one of his arms from around his waist and reached forward to retrieve the forgotten blade, ignoring the fresh crimson that coated his fingers as he held it up to the light in inspection of its jagged sharp edge.

His words were weightless in the stifling atmosphere: "I was waiting for you in the room for a while, but you never came back. I was really hoping we could've taken up where we left off, but here you are, trying to kill yourself again."

"I wasn't!" Mika defended, aghast as he began squirming in his hold. But alas, it was to no avail. "I would never…"

He couldn't bring himself to say the words, and Yuu chuckled in amusement. "Ahh, so you were doing it for attention like those kids on the internet."

"No! You don't understand! I—"

"No, I don't understand," he agreed in a gentle teasing manner, taking Mika's bloody hand and slipping the blade between his fingertips once more. "I don't understand why a pretty face like you would ruin your perfect skin when you have it all: a roof over your head, a real family, people who like you regardless of, well… you know. But maybe you could teach me. You know, give me a little live demonstration. Not like I'll tell Guren, eventhough we both know he already knows."

Mika tried jerking his wrist away, but the grip on his hand was relentless and he could only watch in blatant terror as his other arm was taken and held in place, and the razor was guided down to an old wound.

"Yuu, stop it! Please! You're hurting me!"

"Come on, Mika, don't be like that. You know I hate it when you get all panicky like this. What I'm doing is no different from what you do. Let's just do one and we'll call it a day, huh? I'll even invite you into my room and we can get a closer look at the ones you have on your thighs. I know you'd like that."

Tears began racing down his flushed cheeks as the edge of the blade pressed against one of the oldest wounds he had, and his fruitless struggles picked up once more. However, it was as if he were strapped to a chair with Yuu's hands acting as the metal restraints bolting him to each arm—he couldn't break free.

The blade sliced into his damaged flesh, cutting far deeper than he had ever gone before, and he released a bone shuddering cry that threatened to tear his vocals to shreds. He wept and begged and pleaded desperately, every word slurred with uncontrollable sobs, but Yuu continued as though his pain was music to his ears.

A second slice a few centimeters above the first and he released yet another blood-curdling scream. His legs kicked against the ground and his body arched and twisted from side to side, adrenaline fueling on his losing battle.

Another slice, and just as he was beginning to lose all hope of getting free, heavy boots pounded down the hallway outside the door, and without warning, kicked the heavy piece of wood with enough force to chip it from its hinges.

Guren stood before them in full uniform, the smell of a hard day's work burning into his nostrils. His hair was slicked back as always, and, like always, his angry scowl immediately fell on the younger adopted son.

"Dad!" Mika cried out in relief, his struggles weakening but not stopping. "Dad, please, help me! Yuu is—"

"What the hell have you done to yourself?" Guren demanded in disbelief as he took in the sight before him.

"Wh-what?" Mika paused, his earlier relief becoming overrun with fear and befuddlement. He blurted out an explanation—tried to—but his words were left deranged with hyperventilation when he turned to point at Yuu only to find the spot behind him to be completely vacant. Not even the warmth from his brother's body against his was present. Just the cold, hard porcelain tub.

Realizing the razor was still in his possession, his eyes shot back up to his father's and he discarded it as far away from him as possible.

"Dad, I swear I didn't do this! I-it was Yuu!

"You sick, ungrateful little brat!"

Mika scrambled back until he was pressed firmly against the tub's surface, crying out and trying to explain what happened as Guren stepped into the bathroom and grabbed a fistful of his hair.

"No, dad, please! I swear! It wasn't me, it was Yuu! Please! Please, you have to believe me!"

He shouted as he was dragged into his father's bedroom and thrown to the ground. He immediately pulled his knees to his chest, his eyes squeezed shut and both bloodied hands covering his head. The dresser could be heard opening a few feet behind him, and a small whimper escaped his lips when thick strips of leather whipped the air in two.

"Take your shirt off."

Guren's voice was sharp and commanding, its heavy weight scaring him stiff.

"Please, dad," he whimpered. "Please. It was Yuu. I swear. He wouldn't stop. I-I tried."

"Take your shirt off and put your hands on the wall, now, Mikaela. I'm not going to tell you again."

His entire body breaking out in a cold sweat, fear and anxiety leaving his labored movements quaking and staggered, Mika had no other choice but to force himself from out of his protective position, and struggled to get to his feet. He pleaded with his father one last time, but the officer only grabbed him by the arm and shoved him up against the wall.

"Don't blame Yuu for your disgusting habits. Nobody is responsible for this but you."

"I'm not lying!"

"That is enough, Mikaela! Do as you're told or you're going to the basement!"

Mika fell silent after that, having no other choice but to give in. He knew that for no matter what, Yuu was always going to be the innocent victim; and he, the scapegoat. That's how it always was and always will be.

With his chest stuttering, and snot and tears trickling down his face, he took hold of the hems of his shirt, hesitating with two shuddering breaths, before lifting it up over his head and dropping it to his feet.

He flinched as a calloused hand flattened itself against his exposed back and pushed him closer to the wall, his own hands instinctively shooting up to prevent his face from connecting with its hard surface.

A tingling sensation on his skin had him curling in on himself gradually right before the first strike made him yelp.

"Say it," Guren ordered, bringing his weapon back for a second attack.

Mika released a choked sob, pressing his forehead to the wall as he quietly did as he was told.

Another whip. "Louder."

"I deserve this."

A third whip. "I can't hear you."

The blood pouring down his palm and fatally damaged wrist dripped from his elbow, the sheer amount making him dizzy and lightheaded, and he pressed his body even closer to the wall, bringing his arms down between the solid coldness and his chest to keep from collapsing in a heap.

"I… I deserve this!"

A fourth whip. And a fifth. And sixth. And a seventh. Lash after lash until even after he'd sunken to the ground trying to catch his breath from blood loss and exertion, he lost count.

He wished it would all just end.

~~~

Those beautiful blue eyes. Wavy blond hair that mimicked a halo. That etheral face.

How could this have happened?

It was a dull and frigid Monday evening, exactly two weeks since Mika's mysterious disappearance.

People say he'd run away. They whisper that he'd gone off to kill himself. They joke that he was taken by the crazed murderer just like the others who had miraculously disappeared and was never going to be seen again.

“He'll be back in a few days,” Yuu told him as he fought through his fifth horde of zombies. "Not like it's the first time he's run off somewhere. He used to do it all the time when we were kids and always came back perfectly fine. He's probably just going through a phase. I wouldn't worry too much if I were you.”

He'd been astounded; at an utter loss for words. How could Yuu have just sat there playing video games while his brother was out trudging through horrible, life-threatening weather without anything but the clothes on his back and a useless bag full of school work? Did he even care? Did anyone care? He could be hurt at that very moment. Or worse.

And the police were just as lousy as ever. Not even his own father put forth the effort of attempting to track him down. The most they were able to gather during their pitiful week long search was that Mikaela had taken nothing with him but his two bottles of prescribed medication and his backpack. And Yuu was just as unhelpful, if not more, negligent of the fact that he had coincidentally broken two fingers that same night and had to go to the hospital.

But he was one to talk. After all, he was Mikaela's most presistant bully for the past two years. If anything, he's possibly one of the main reasons for his running away. He should never have been such a jerk to somebody so vulnerable. He shouldn't have come on so strong with that stupid teddy bear. What was he thinking? Mika was like a wild hare, he would never fall for random acts of kindness from a predator. He probably saw the stuffed toy as a threat and got scared. He could already invision the small blond crying in Yuu's arms, Yuu petting his head and murmuring petty lies into his ear with that sickening smirk he always had on when it came to his adopted brother.

Just thinking about it made him want to throw his fist against a brick wall.

But, regardless of why he ran away, the real question was where did he run away to?

~~~

Mika pulled the curtains open and took a seat on the window sill with a longing sigh. Getting a look at the view from the second story of the house was like peering into a true winter wonderland. The snow was thick and plentiful everywhere his eyes met, stretching all the way up into the dense wooded area he had recently found out about last week when he'd managed to pull himself out of bed for some fresh air. Neither Lacus or René ever mentioned that they lived in front of Sanguinem's most vast expansion of pure nature.

It would have been nice.

He wagered the inside looked twice as bewitching than what he was able to perceive from the outside. There must have been at least a hundred different species prancing around and living out their free lives in the snow: wolves, foxes, hibernating bears and chipmunks, raccoons, eccentric birds he'd only seen on TV, deer. And it was all just two football fields away.

He released yet another wistful sigh.

There was a light knock from behind him and he craned his head around just as his oldest companion let himself in with a piping cup of hot chocolate and a smile. He smiled back out of respect and joy of seeing the lilac haired teen, but the look failed to reach his dully colored eyes.

"Is René still mad at me?" He asked, a hoarse tint clouding his voice from lack of use.

"He is," Lacus answered plainly as he set the cup down on the desk and made his way over to the younger male. "And so am I."

"Oh." Mika didn't need to ask why. After two weeks of being locked up and three days straight of nothing but sleep, tears and recurring nightmares, he took time to fully reflect and understand where René was coming from when he made that split second decision to throw him in where he was now. It must not have been easy for him considering their friendship. And it was the same for Lacus who had argued with René repeatedly over the course of the fourteen day period about the treatment he was receiving.

He lowered his head. "I hope you and him aren't still mad at each other. I don't want you guys to fight."

"I got over it a week ago. Fighting friends that you'll stick around with until the day you kick the bucket is a waste of time and energy. And besides, you've been in here for a whole two weeks now. Really gave me time to think about everything he's told me, and to be completely honest, your stubborness is just proving his point: do you still even consider us your friends?"

That caught Mika off guard. His head shot up and he looked Lacus dead the eyes in startled disbelief. "Of course I still considered you guys my friends. I never stopped thinking about you once. I… I thought I'd lost you forever."

"And yet, as soon as you see us after all these years, it's like you'd completely forgotten about all the shit we went through together as kids. All of our struggles and pinky promises that, might I remind you, you forced us to make." Lacus casually dropped his weight against the wall beside him, the shimmering moonlight reflecting through his eyes turning them to bright red rubies. "You used to talk so much back then," he continued through a small chuckle. "So much we actually considered ditching you after the first few days of meeting you. You talked so much that when I tackled you that one day at the park, I didn't even recognize your voice. Your speech pattern was so… different. And when I saw your face for the first time, the look in your eyes were so weak and submissive. Granted, they'd always been like that to some extent. But this was a different type of weak and submissive." 

He began reaching for Mika's wrist, but the second their skin touched, the blond pulled his arm away, avoiding the look of amusement plastered over his face. Lacus backed away and raised both hands in surrender. "Apologies."

"Why are you telling me all of this?" He questioned, glaring down at his hideous scars. If Lacus was trying to make him feel horrible about himself, he sure was doing a super job at it. Weren't his daily night terrors and restriction of freedom enough?

Lacus half-shrugged. "Because I love you. You're my friend. My best friend. My baby brother. My everything. Just like René. ‘You're ours and we're yours’, that's what we promised, isn't it?" He tilted Mika's chin up as he tried avoiding the question, pupils dilating with the moon's gentle luminescence. "Isn't it?"

"Y… yes."

"Yes," he repeatedly lightly. "So you can't blame us for being a little pissed that other people put their dirty little hands all over you and hurt you the way they did." His hand shifted from his chin to caress the several healed scratches on his cheek, their eyes locked on one anothers. "I know you, Mika. That's why I'm mad. Because I know it must've taken a lot for somebody to tear you down this low and make you feel the way you've been feeling for the past few years. And really, the worst part about it is René and I weren't there for you when you needed us most. And I hate that fact so much I want everyone who's ever laid hands on you to pay for it in some of the worst ways."

He pulled away abruptly and reached into his pocket for a red piece of candy, popping it into his mouth before holding one out to his little disturbed friend. Mika accepted the sugary treat and held it on his lap. Peering at Lacus's stiff posture as he tapped his foot restlessly and stared off into space with both lips drawn together tightly, he couldn't help but feel fully responsible for his unexpected change of mood. He had to do something.

He abandoned the window sill and went to stand in front of his silently fuming friend, stealing his attention away from the wall when his clammy palm slipped its way into his much more smooth one. He hated being the cause of loved ones distress. Lacus and René didn't deserve to hurt because of his bad choices.

He took a deep breath and gazed up into simmering embers with the strongest, most determined expression he could muster. "It's not your fault, Lacus. Or René's. It's mine for giving up on you guys and letting things get out of hand. I thought we would meet again, but we never did and I didn't know what to do other than keep fighting. But I… I took things too far one day and I just… I couldn't—" he took in another deep breath, doing his best to ignore the images burned into his memory that he wouldn't dare speak of out loud.

Instead of completing his sentence, he hesitantly began wrapping his arms around Lacus's torso, and settled his head against his chest. His heart leaped into his throat by his outlandish behavior, but when he felt arms gradually mimick his actions around his nape, followed soon after by Lacus's slow exhale with his body pressed so closely to his, he strengthened his hold.

"It's not your fault either, Mika," he murmured into his messy blond locks. "You're human, you're not invincible. We all ended up surrendering at one point in our lives, but remember what I told you when we met again at the park? I said that if the world is being a bitch to you then you have to be a bitch back."

Mika nodded, recalling the surreal reunion.

"Good. Then from now on, I want you to really think about that anytime somebody tries to put you down again, got it?" He backed away a few inches, their breaths mingling with the enclosed space, and began skillfully working with Mika's fingers. "You put up… this finger here, and tell them to go fuck themselves, okay?"

Mika couldn't help but smile at his friend's replenished mirth, and hastily snatched his hand away before anyone happened to pass by and see his rude gesture.

"What?" Lacus laughed, dragging Mika back to him as he tried making an escape. Mika yelped in surprise, and both boys began giggling and cackling amongst one another as the older began mercilessly tickling the younger.

It went on like that for thirty rejuvenating seconds, Lacus and Mika chortling in pure bliss. That was, until Mika tripped over a pillow that had fallen from the bed the day before, and went tumbling to the unkempt duvet, bringing Lacus down with him.

Heads bumped and limbs tangled with limbs. Having been winded from the collapse, Lacus rolled from off of his little friend before he could crush his frail frame, and together, both boys grinned up at the ceiling while sucking in deep breaths of oxygen.

Mika hid an extra chuckle behind his hand, head lulling to the side where the moon lit up the wall like a radiant blue lantern. The enchanting hue reminded him of his punishment and eclipsed what was left of his short burst of happiness, and by the time Lacus turned to look at him, it was as if the giggles that filled the room moments before had been nothing but an illusion.

"What's wrong?" He asked, concerned. 

Mika sat up, running his thumb over his hand with a guilt ridden expression. "I need to apologize to René."

Lacus hummed in understanding and rolled from out of the bed to take a sip of the drink originally meant for his downcasted friend. He cringed at the flavor of warm chocolate mixed with cherry. "He's really pissed off about that. And your lies."

"I know." Mika blushed at his blunt wording. He hadn't meant to lie when he was asked why he was crying, he just didn't want René or Lacus to look down on him like he was some ugly broken toy. And his hand… there was no excuse. His mind had been in a frenzy and simply wouldn't allow him to release his grip. "Do you think he'll want to talk to me?"

"Of course he wants to talk to you," Lacus said with a sympathetic smile. He left his spot on the desk and went over to give Mika an encouraging pat on the head. "He's been waiting for you for two weeks. He just wanted you to sort some of your shit out on your own, that's all. I mean, sure, it took you almost a month, but do you think you're finally ready to let us in now? It's no fun grounding a friend and holding him prisoner."

The blush on Mika's face darkened, and he nodded his head.

‘René had been waiting for me this whole time? He never visited…’

He cleared his voice shyly before asking, "C-can I talk to him right now?"

"You don't need to ask," Lacus teased, grabbing Mika's hand and urging him out the room. On their way down the hallway and past several closed doors, Lacus couldn't resist the smile that played over lips as he observed Mika taking in their surroundings from the corner of his eye. "Like what you see?"

Mika started, peeling his eyes away from a gorgeously painted portrait of Ayame to regard his friend. He motioned to said portrait, wondering who in the house was blessed with such talent. "How old is your cat?"

"Asking about a woman's age? That's ballsy of you. Anyhow, if you must know, Ayame is turning four next month, meaning she's somewhere between her late twenties and early thirties. I'm planning on getting her a nice juicy rat to play with around the house. You know, something to help her with her little attitude."

"Oh, that's… nice of you."

"You think so?" Lacus held a door open leading to what Mika already sensed was the mansion's kitchen, going off the way the sweet aroma of something delicious baking had been growing stronger throughout their short journey, and his sparkling blue eyes doubled in size at the sight before him.

Similar to Lacus's room, the kitchen had an appearance that made him feel as if he'd just stepped foot in a modern house decor catalog. Its size was easily four times more immense than the kitchen back home, and a lot more superior and welcoming too. The cabinets and drawers, along with the large piece of wood holding up a hefty granite island, was smooth oak stained, complimenting the stainless steel that was the sink, stove area and dishwasher.

‘Where do they get the money to afford all this stuff?’

A question he would soon regret asking. Though, he did recall Lacus mentioning something about how he made a lot of money from running errands a few weeks back.

"Did you two lose your way?" René questioned dryly as he removed his Fall decorated oven mitts and tossed them to the island. His query flickered from the smirking purple haired teen down to the less enthusiastic blond fidgeting a step behind him. Lingering on the fidgeting blond, his eyebrow rose in expectation.

"Go on." Lacus nudged Mika forward like the good supportive friend he was, and ditched his side to hover over the steaming fresh batch of his all time favorite dessert—chocolate chip cookie-brownies. He inhaled its thick intoxicating fragrance, the scent melting him like the chocolate chips that decorated its surface, and Mika hesitantly dragged his feet forward to his other awaiting friend.

"Uhh…" he linked his fingers together behind his back, feeling far less courageous than he had when he was talking about apologizing in the room. He had to mentally thank René for his patience. "I, uh… I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry for, well, for everything."

"Everything?" René repeated, his dark eyebrow rising even higher up on his forehead.

Mika stopped himself from shrinking away in discouragement, and pulled together everything he had in him to keep his train of thought on track. It was clear that René wanted something more eloquent.

And that's just what he delivered.

He unlinked his fingers and opened his palm to reveal the peeling scabs marring his flesh. Tucking a lock of hair behind his ear using the other hand, he continued self-consciously. "This. A-and I'm sorry for lying to you about why… why I was crying. I know we promised not to lie to each other when we were kids. I'll never do it again. I didn't mean to make you and Lacus feel like I'd forgotten about everything we built together. I was being… inconsiderate."

He took a shuddering breath after that taxing apology and fell silent. The amount of bravery it took to say those six short sentences out loud while staring his friend in the face was enough to blow away every last ounce of confidence he had left, leaving him a nervous wreck. He casted a small glimpse over René's shoulder, and Lacus wiped a smear of chocolate from his lip before giving him two approving thumbs up.

A fraction of his confidence returned.

He shifted his attention back to René, using Lacus's boost to ask, "Do you forgive me?"

"I will," René stated with the same hardness in his crimson eyes from when he and Lacus first stepped into the kitchen, "if you tell me why you were crying. I know it wasn't because of the cat."

His confidence was sapped yet again, and he couldn't find himself capable of maintaining eye contact for longer than a split second at a time. He looked to Lacus for more help, but he seemed just as interested to hear the answer as René.

He was on his own this time.

Out of habit, he wiped his palms on his loose fitting pajama pants, and proceeded to pull both sleeves down to hide them, his gaze having dropped to the floor as he did so.

As if having proven his own point, René brushed past his shoulder and went back to tending to his brownies before Lacus could go on a sugar induced rampage, scavenge all the spots of chocolate and contaminate the batch with his germs.

"Fucking raccoon," he hissed sharply, swatting his brother upside the head with a heavily cushioned mitt. He safely relocated his treats to a farther away counter and pulled out a stool, both him and Lacus bearing witness from the sidelines as Mika fought his own internal battles.

"I—" Mika's breath hitched, and his tears were quickly wiped away on his sleeves. "I thought I disappointed you. You guys were able to grow up so strong, and you're happier with your lives, and me, I…" his voice trailed off as he brought his wrists up to cradle the dozens of insecurities, sins and punishments against his chest. He couldn't speak another word. But then, he didn't need to. Lacus and René understood perfectly.

For they have been plagued with the same brand of pain once, after all.

The chill in René's face turned warm, and he instructed for his miserable, down-hearted friend to come his way. Not wanting to seem rude or frightened, Mika sniffed as he willingly did as he was told to and stood before him.

He'd messed up again. Lacus and René were going to see him as a pitiful cracked shell of his old self. He was told that he was tough. That he was strong. But he knew those words were a lie. He was weak. He wasn't what he used to be. He was just a hopeless wounded animal.

‘Don't cry. Don't cr—’

He started as a gentle hand settled itself on the top of his head. Peeking up with shimmering blue pools of eyes, he was left perplexed, flustered even, by the serene expression gazing back down at him.

"You're not a disappointment, Mika," René spoke benevolently. "I never once thought you were, and I doubt I'll ever think it in the future. I just wanted you to understand that it's okay to talk to us and ask us for help. We've been through what you're going through before, and we know it's not easy. That's why we need you to work with us."

"Yeah," Lacus chimed in, stealing Mika away and pinching his burning cheeks playfully. "Crying and feeling like shit all the time is tiring, isn't it? Let us help you get your adorable little Mika smile back."

"Anyway." René snatched the small blond back with sharp daggers pointed in his brother's direction. "You don't have to worry about those people you lived with anymore. For now, consider them history. We're your rightful family."

Mika's eyes went round. "Does that mean I get to stay here with you guys?"

"Is that what you want?"

Bashful blue shifted to the floor. "I-If you want me to…"

"Of course we want you to," Lacus cooed aggressively, stealing him away from René once again to squish tightly in his arms like a stuffed animal.

"You can stay with us," René said in a serious manner. "But just know you can't go back into the city without either me or Lacus escorting you. And you can only go out when it's dark."

"Not like he'd be able to go to the city anyway. He'd freeze to death before he made it. And besides, the weather is supposed to be getting worse in the next few days."

"And," he continued, "for every time we go out, you, Mika, have to come back with something new."

"Something that doesn't belong to you," Lacus simplified with a wave of his eyebrows, smile broadening as he watched the meaning of their terms and conditions click inside his little friend's head.

"Y-you mean steal? But I… I don't do that kind of stuff anymore."

"Why? Because Daddy said it's bad?" Lacus jested. "You're with us again, kiddie. The outside rules don't apply to us. We make our own, remember?"

Mika mentally kicked himself. Sometimes he couldn't believe some of the things he said as a child. It was hard to believe that even he had been that untamed once.

Thieving people's most prized possessions used to be his greatest talent, if not his only. It was like an addiction he never felt the desire to kick. He took whatever he pleased whenever, without so much as a shred of remorse for his victims: big, expensive items like an unsuspecting mother's wedding ring, or something as insignificant as one of the other orphan's tattered old dolls. But that was all behind him in the past now. After getting caught for the last time almost five years ago, he'd been forced into sobriety without a second thought of ever relapsing. He couldn't just leap back into old habits. He'd be rusty and laughable. He'd get caught again and risk spending the night in a jail cell. He'd make a complete fool of himself.

"Regardless of if you stopped or not, that's our final deal: agree to steal something, or you don't get to go out."

That didn't sound like too bad of a loss. Not like the city had anything to offer him anyw—

"And you don't get to explore in our woods."

He'd spoken too soon.

"Okay."

He cringed almost immediately, regretting his decision as he thought of all the possible ways he would surely humiliate himself.

Lacus snickered devilishly. "I knew you'd come around."

"But what if I get caught?" He asked, watching as René grabbed a long serrated kitchen knife from off a rack mounted to the wall to cut his flawless creation into medium sized squares.

"You won't?" He stated confidently.

"B-but I haven't stolen anything since I was a kid."

"So…" Lacus unravelled his arms from around his stomach and twirled him around like a pro so that they were standing just inches from each other. He maneuvered himself like a snake, forcing Mika to take a step back, and trapped the helpless blond between him and the island effortlessly. Red rubies turned to something else entirely that had his whole being breaking out into a horrendous stupefied mess that was ensnared by a low seductive tone and a pair of glinting twin piercings. "Instead of using your eight year old cutesy charm, why don't you try using something more… age effective? I guarantee it'll get you more than a chocolate bar."

"Leave him alone, Lacus, you're making him uncomfortable," René scolded from the side, tearing his brother away from Mika before he combusted like a red piñata stuffed with too much candy. Lacus opened his mouth to voice his rudely interrupted teasing, but his protests were quickly stuffed with a thick, chewy cookie brownie.

Mika stood frozen against the counter, mind a whirring haze by how close those two cursed pieces of metal came to brushing against his lower lip. He could practically feel the chill of them on his skin. And then there were those penetrating red eyes, and their body heat, that mischievous grin. That voice.

Meanwhile, as he struggled to recollect his composure, the culprit nibbled on his treat guiltlessly as if he hadn't just sucked every last drop of breath from his body.

René offered him a napkin containing the same dessert, and he accepted it before the jittering in his nerves Lacus was responsible for reached his fingertips. He thanked him in a small whisper.

René hummed and leaned against the counter beside him, eyes narrowing in on his brother greedily swiping seconds from the pan whilst his first remained trapped between his jaws, and then switched his scrutiny over to the deep rosette tinting his friend's cheeks as he took much more mouse-like bites of his first brownie. That was when a light bulb lit up, and he leaned in close to the flustered blond. He made a gesture for him to keep quiet, tilted his head to the side, and began whispering to him his first official assignment.

A little payback for both of them for the shameless idiot's treachery.

Chapter Text

 

~The Next Day~

There goes that feeling again. That cold and empty feeling that froze over his emotions like a thick layer of ice, making him feel numb and dreadful all over from the inside out.

He didn't know what to do. Lacus was still asleep in his room, and shortly after having made him a simple breakfast hours ago, René was off to continue doing the same, leaving him at the mercy of his own loneliness. He knew it was selfish of him to wish for such things considering they were nocturnal and stayed up extra hours strictly for his sake, but he wished the other two would wake up already and just… do stuff. It didn't matter to him what it was they did, he just wanted to hear them awake and active. The house was so quiet. And big. And empty.

Was that the reason for such a high percentage of depressed celebrities? Big empty houses?

He didn't know. All he knew was that he was breaking his biggest rule regarding the deadly sin, greed: he wanted Lacus and René.

Or maybe something more? Attention?

He hated it, feeling that way. But he also wasn't very fond of hiding away in his borrowed bedroom until six in the evening drawing imaginary shapes on the ceiling. He counted on his natural ability to sleep it all away like usual, but with this special feeling gripping his heart around the people who ultimately brought him bursts of joy, there was no such things as sleeping in. He was restless. And he was lonely. And needy. And curious.

He wanted out. He wanted to explore the rest of the house, but the man, Ferid, was somewhere in the building with him, and Lacus and René stressed that he stay put lest they reunite and what he was doing to that very much alive woman he did to him too.

It was the only thing gluing him to the bed he currently lie in.

As spiteful as it all was, it was just as strange. The urge to leave his safe place never hit him when he was still living with Guren and Yuu. In fact, he stayed held up in his secluded cave willingly for a little over twelve hours a day, only coming out when called upon or on school days. He did everything and anything to keep his presence as vague and as little as possible. But, of course, there was Yuu…

In any case, he was hungry, and he just so happened to know his way around to the kitchen where the apple he'd been fantasizing about for the past four hours straight sat in an invitingly woven basket surrounded by several other apples that didn't shine nearly as bright. He figured if Lacus and René were nocturnal that meant the whole house normally operated during the night hours too.

It would only take a minute. A simple in and out operation. Truly, the worst that could happen is he run into Ayame by the stairs again.

There was a little voice in his head, scolding him and demanding that he obey his friends' simple order of staying put until they awakened; that he could wait another three hours. That was the good voice. But the voice he use to listen to, the one that told him to do all sorts of things that he wasn't supposed to, the bad one that he hated, was what was pulling him out of the bed with the slobber inducing description of that golden apple, and working him like an action figure to crack the door open just enough for his slender build to slip through soundlessly.

A few doors down was Lacus's bedroom, which had been left ajar in regards to safety purposes, and across from that, René's. He wondered what the inside of his looked like. He'd have to find that out later. For now, he had to focus on retrieving that apple. His sense of right and wrong had been numbed by drugs and he was feeling careless.

Double checking over his shoulder, as if Lacus or René would magically appear from the woodworks, he silently closed the door behind him and began creeping down the hallway on his tippy-toes, creating the least amount of noise humanly possible.

He made it down both sets of stairs, past all the glaring paintings, turned a few corners, got lost for a moment, avoided the snoring feline on the floor, and finally, he was staring at the last obstacle blocking him from a satisfied stomach.

He scoped his surroundings for a second time, just in case, and disappeared behind the door.

Good. Everything was just as it was during his last visit, minus Lacus, René and the brownies. The basket of fruit was sitting undisturbed at the center of the island, and in the heart of the half dozen apples, the largest, sweetest, yellowest delicacy. His favorite flavor.

Guren always had him buy the worst flavor of them all: the infamous green apple.

The bastard didn't even like green apples. Or any apple for that matter.

He wondered if Guren was searching for him right now…

He wondered if anyone was.

"Ugh." Enough with those thoughts, he told himself, the people of Sanguinem never meant a thing to him.

As an orphaned child forced to live on the filthy outskirts of the city, away from the public eye, all it did was remind him of the fact that it was better to legally hide a burden rather than shoot it dead illegally.

That's why he proposed the Trio Promises in the first place—a series of vows centered around the declaration that it was them versus the world.

But, he guessed, in a way they had all broken at least one of those promises.

Snagging the golden apple off its pedestal of lesser apples, clouded jewel like orbs shifted from its tempting appearance to the large window that irradiated the outside light into the kitchen like a stage spotlight.

It was snowing, but the view of the woods was blocked off by the residents' shiny expensive cars. But alas, it was snowing.

The front yard looked gorgeous from where he stood in front of the island. Now that he thought of it, it's been a while since he's had fun in the snow. Guren made it a policy of keeping him indoors ninety percent of every year in fear of him giving back into his old lawless behaviors.

But Guren wasn't around to stop him from at least sitting out on the front porch to get a better look-see. And Lacus and René wouldn't get upset with him either. He hoped. He'd only be a few feet from the door, nowhere near the bustling wildlife hiding away in the woods.

Harmless fun.

Convinced by his own self reasoning, he crept out of the kitchen with his juicy snack and made way past the dining room towards the heavily decorated front door. He shivered from the draft sweeping under his toes, his hand pausing several times on its journey to the doorknob, and with one final glimpse over his shoulder, he unlocked it and pulled it open.

"Oh…"

Why hadn't he been expecting it to be so cold?

He made it so that the door barely touched the frame, and stepped out onto the freezing stoney platform. He wished René would've grabbed his shoes before carrying him out of his house. His toes were already beginning to feel like ice cubes.

He considered going back inside for a second, but he didn't want to risk spoiling his first chance at eating somewhere that had such a beautiful view on display. Who knew when he'd have another opportunity like the one he was gifted with now.

He found a nice snug area in front of the snow covered steps and sat with his legs crossed over one another, smiling serenely at the snowfall as he took a refreshing bite from his apple. His eyelids fluttered in bliss at its sweetened savory taste, his chest feeling just a bit lighter than it had when he was stuck in that stuffy old room that reeked of furniture polish.

He reached his fingers out to the falling snow, his expression childlike when they were then graced with the presence of tiny individual snowflakes. It was as if he was seeing snow for the first time since he was a baby.

The scenery was picture worthy. If only he knew where his phone was…

An idea came to mind, something to bring a bit more contentment to his heart, and after finishing up about half of his succulent apple, he placed it onto a thick patch of clean snow and began gathering up the snow on the first step in front of him which had just the right amount he needed to begin construction.

Numb fingers and ten minutes later, and he'd built the perfect foot tall snowman. No twig arms, or carrot noses, but perfect nonetheless with apple seeds as eyes to watch the view beside him.

As they sat there, no words exchanged, gazing out into the depthless woods ahead, his mind gradually began drifting back to the simple, not-so-difficult assignment he was assigned to do just the other night against one friend in courtesy of the other. A mission of sorts that should take no more than ten seconds at best; five if he still had the skills from his childhood.

But how should he go about doing it? Which gift should he award himself with and present to his overseer? How would he possibility be able to pull it off without somebody with trained, enhanced perception noticing the second he made his first move? How could he not make himself look like a complete and utter dunce?

Thinking deeply on it now, it was going to be undoubtedly impossible for him to steal an object straight from Lacus's body.

But he couldn't just show up empty handed. The last thing he wanted was to be seen as a disappointment in the eyes of somebody who was putting so much faith in him and his stale abilities.

When he was younger and had a more reliable self-esteem, normally he would charm his victims with innocent pitiful stories of his deceased parents that would have any man or woman eager to give him their food or money. Other times, he'd use that charm as a mere distraction. His goal: a loving hug from understanding parents. His Target: the jewels around their necks, the loose rings on their fingers, the wallets in their bags, the twenty dollars poking out of their pockets. Anything.

But none of that would work with somebody who had keen enough skills to get away with multiple counts of first degree murder for the past, almost, decade. And besides, he didn't have a single ounce of charm left in him. He wasn't cute, or mischievous, or clever. Hell, he could hardly convince the nurse at school that he was sick whilst in the middle of coughing up something inhuman. And even if he wanted to, it would be too awkward of him to switch his personality on a whim. Lacus would suspect him in a heartbeat.

"It's impossible," He sighed heavily, his breath coming out as a warm puff of smoke made more prominent by the setting sun. He grabbed his apple core and got to his feet, dragging himself back to the house with heavy shoulders.

As he was reaching his hand out to secure all three locks lining the door, a prickling sensation on the back of his neck had every hair on his body standing on end like a spooked cat, and his conscience ripped away from the worries regarding thievery to the threatening aura lingering just inches from where he stood. His apple slipped from his stiff fingers, and his breath froze dead in his throat with the rest of his body.

The voice chuckled in amusement. "And so we meet again, my dear Mikaela."

~~~

‘Boring.’

‘Boring.’

‘Boring.’

‘Risky.’

‘Boring.’

‘Risky.’

"What the fuck? Where are all the good assignments?"

Lacus released an agitated huff and clicked his laptop shut. It's like the crooked snakes of Sanguinem weren't even trying anymore. How was he supposed to do his job and cure his twitchy fingers if the people of the city weren't giving him worthwhile assignments. It was almost eight at night and he wanted to go hunting.

He frowned at the room across from his, watching as his younger brother adjusted the lightweight firearm attached to his thigh.

It appeared he'd found something worth his time at least. Maybe he'd be nice enough to let his adoring big brother tag along.

"René!" He dragged out in boredom. René merely casted him a split second glance before resuming his task of inspecting the fine edge of his recently sharpened bowie knife.

"What?"

"Can I come with you?"

"Why? So you can just steal my kill like all the other times I let you tag along? Not a chance." He tucked his knife away and left his bedroom with an all-knowing glare in his eyes. "Try not being stubborn for once and just pick an assignment that's laid out for you."

"I do not always steal your kills," Lacus proclaimed, offended that his partner in crime would accuse him of such a thing.

"Sure you don't. And put some clothes on for fucks sake. That's disgusting."

"Says you. You love this body—"

René shut his shameless brother's door with a roll of his eyes and began making his way further down the hall for a quick check up on his other brother before he left for the night. He ignored the insult thrown at the back of his head, knocked on Mika's door, and let himself in.

A bundle of blankets from afar, pillows thrown here and there, half on the floor while the other half was lucky enough to dangle off the edge haphazardly like fresh corpses. He wasn't surprised by the disarray. Mika was always a sloppy sleeper. His only question was:

Where was Mika?

"God dammit, Mikaela."

With added purpose in his step, he searched inside the closet, underneath the bed, and outside the window. He swore underneath his breath and left the room to check the downstairs area: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the restrooms. All empty.

It wasn't until he passed the hall separating the living room from the dining room for a third time did he catch a glimpse of something brown in the corner of his eye and double-take.

He stopped at the front door and took a knee, both eyes squinted skeptically as he held the sticky object between his fingers. "What the hell…?"

"Yeah, as in, what the hell are you doing on the floor?"

René got to his feet and showed Lacus his discovery.

"It's an apple."

"Well, yeah…" Lacus said as he took a large bite out of his apple. "Did you want one?"

"Not that one, you idiot. This one. It was in front of the door."

"Oh…"

"Yeah."

"Shit." Lacus's attitude took a full 180 turn, but before he could make it to the stairs with intentions set on checking on his little friend, René grabbed his arm.

"I already looked everywhere. He's not here."

"You're joking." Lacus brushed past him and swung the front door wide open, his eyes instinctively narrowing down to slits in accommodation to the freezing breeze blowing his way. Sweeping over the left side, and then the right side, the bubbling frustration in his chest only escaladed when all he saw was the falling snow and dark sky.

His teeth clenched behind cold lips, and his fists shook at his sides. René reached a hand forward to take his half-eaten apple before it exploded and made a mess, but was quick to reconsider his actions when a large dagger sliced through the air.

"That bastard. I'll kill him!"

Lacus left the door to René, and with his blade ready to taste fresh blood, stalked down the hall in burning pursuit of the only room Ferid Bathory would be hiding away in when the sun died.

~Meanwhile~

It wasn't as deep as he'd hoped for, but something was better than nothing. It was relatively dark out, anyway. And eerily silent. And cold. But still, even if it was too gather… whatever it was Mr. Ferid Bathory was gathering in that strange bag of his, he was grateful to finally touch the woods he'd been longing to feel against his fingertips for nearly the past three weeks.

The snow where he was now was a lot more bountiful than the snow closer to the manor, free of tire tracks and foot prints. As it turned out, the place was built nearly a century ago—which came as a big shock when he was filled in—and belonged to a long line of nobles who passed it down from person to person, all the way until it reached its most recent heiress, a woman by the name of Krul Tepes.

An even bigger shock—she was Lacus and René's mother. The same mother who prepared that strawberry shortcake the night her sons were out slaughtering civilians.

He scraped some more snow from the ground with gloved fingers and patted its sides firmly, molding it into a lumpy basketball sized snowball. He looked up at the silver haired man who was currently humming a soft melody he'd never heard before while scavenging a lush bush for a specific type of berry.

"If Krul is their mom, does that mean you're their dad?"

With all things considered, what with Lacus and René's obvious aggression to the mere mention of Ferid's name, it made him wonder if he was abusive to his children too.

Ferid chuckled to himself, a light, airy sound. "Heavens, far from it. I'm simply their… personal mentor, if you would."

"A mentor?" He repeated with piqued interest, forgetting about his third snowman for a moment to give his undivided attention to the man who appeared a lot more humble when he wasn't covered in a woman's blood. "Like a teacher?"

"Yes, like a teacher. I taught them everything they know now from the day I was introduced to them many years ago. I must admit it took quite some time to earn their full obedience, but in the end they developed into fine young boys, wouldn't you agree? Seeing as you are their most beloved associate."

Recalling the blended heart, Mika's only response was to nod his head steadily. "Yeah…"

Silence fell over the atmosphere after that. It was a peaceful silence filled with only the natural tunes of shuffling snow and rustling leaves. During that peaceful, uninterrupted moment of quietness, Mika pondered over the type of training Ferid had his friends take on that had them so guarded and on edge around him. He seemed like a kind enough man. Far more kind than any man living in his home city. Everything about him was a complete contrast to what he saw in that room reeking of blood the day he arrived to the house. He didn't look anything like that monster. The features on face were soft and full of that middle aged wisdom some men and women possessed on TV. If he wouldn't have walked in on that gruesome sight, he never would've guessed the man was anything but tranquil.

He seemed just as harmless as Lacus and René. Yet, not nearly as innocent. It was probably due to their obvious youth. They were children, after all.

"This should be enough for now," he heard Ferid announce as he got to his feet and dusted the snow from his trousers. Noticing the incomplete trio of snowmen, he said with a gentle smile, "I see you enjoy playing in the snow."

Warmth began flooding Mika's cheeks, and he reached for the young man's outstretched hand, mindful of his crippled snowman. "M-my dad never let me play in the snow."

"How boorish of him, stealing the basic joys away from such a bright young boy such as yourself. Well, no matter. You're with us now, and here, you can play around in the snow for as long as your heart desires."

The blush on his cheeks darkened exponentially, and he pulled the hood of the large jacket Ferid loaned him over his head in a failed attempt at keeping it to himself, stuttering out a word of appreciation.

The journey back to the open field separating the manor from the wood's edge was short and soundless, to Mika's luck. He felt like such a child, expressing his love for fooling around in something as paltry as snow. He wished he was in the cover of his little box of a room.

Ferid smirked at the child's bashful mannerism, lowering his hood back down to run his fingers through his soft blond tresses. "Don't feel shame for the things you do, the activities you enjoy. For that constant shame is what holds one back from the potentiality they have of fully enjoying the fruits of life. Living guiltless is living free."

‘Living guiltless is living free?’

He didn't think that was possible for him. Not these days.

"From what I heard, you used to be quite the shameless little achiever when you were younger."

"Huh?"

"Oh! Just when I was beginning to wonder when they would show."

Not a second after he spoke those words, Mika's confusion was yanked in the direction of the harsh shout of his name up ahead. He stumbled over his feet at the sight of his two friends sprinting straight at him, one wielding a menacing dagger, and the other, something black and seven times lesser in size. If he didn't know better he'd say they were oversized sewing needles.

He twirled around to confirm that he wasn't the only one bearing witness to exactly who was bolting towards them with weapons drawn, jaw dropping, at a loss when all that was there on Ferid's pale lips was a sly grin.

All three of them were wearing their masks.

And he was right in the center of it all.

"Ferid, You bastard!"

"Get away from him!"

Halting at a distance far too close for comfort, Lacus himself charged on ahead while René took the half second he required to fling two of his three needles through the undisturbed snowfall with Ferid's exposed neck as their target. Mika yelped in surprise when he was shoved to the ground by the very man who had been walking with him just seconds before, and his senses filled with the sound of grunts and hissed swears; snow being kicked through the air and strikes being blocked or avoided.

"Foolish boys. You know better than to attack your mentor when he's unarmed. And here I was, boasting about how obedient you were."

With such a heavy coat on added with the loaned hefty boots, pulling himself out of the snow was like he was fighting a whole nother battle on his own. It was like trudging through a swamp overflown with muddy water and moss. He pushed his hair out of his face and nearly blanched at the sight playing out in front of him.

It was like something out of an action movie.

His two friends were like syncing black shadows as they worked their bodies swiftly through the snow, putting forth immense skill and effort to land a single blow on their mentor who held that snake like grin on his face while proceeding to dodge attack after attack as if he were perceiving them in slow motion.

All three of their movements were graceful, captivating him; like watching a play worth thousands of dollars in cash. He was scared and enraptured at the same time. He would go as far as to say it was beautiful—not at all like the petty fights that broke out at school with boys jumping boys and aiming for cheap shots or girls pulling hair and scratching each others' faces.

What he was witnessing now was a deathly enchanting battle. A battle that he needed to end before one of his childhood friends got hurt.

Shaking himself from his awe, he rushed through the dense snow to stand between the man and his pursuers right in the nick of time when Lacus's blade slipped to the snow with him lying beside it, and René struggling to stop his own weapon from being used against him.

Thankfully, he didn't need to come up with an excuse as to why his friends were lashing out with such murderous intent all of sudden. All it took was a look of overwhelming fear and the mercy of the one who had the upper hand.

Ferid smiled with an amused shake of his head. The black needle straining to pierce René's heart was tucked away out of sight, and his stoic companion was left lying on the ground a panting mess, his eyes fluttering up at the night sky.

How easily the expert killers were taken down by a single man was enough to warn him of Ferid's physical capabilities.

And he did it all with a smile.

"René," Mika said breathlessly as he dropped to his friend's side. "René, are you okay?"

"I thought I told you to stay away from him."

The anger hidden behind those words rattled him to the bone, like when he used to get in trouble back at home, enabling him to voice a response. Not that he would've been able to since Lacus's more seething rage had him wincing when his arm was grabbed and he was harshly jerked back to his feet.

Smoldering red rubies bore holes through hallow sapphires.

"L-Lacus, I—"

"What the fuck were you thinking?"

Voice low and menacing, it was a question far more intimidating than René's restrained anger. Mika's face only revealed that of the unease in his gut and the pain shooting up his shoulder as he was held just inches from Lacus's face.

"Oh, Lacus, please. Can't you see you're frightening the boy?" Ferid commented offhandedly after fixing the buttons of his coat that had come undone from dodging countless kicks aimed at his chest. "Just look at that face. You might as well yell at a defenseless little puppy."

A cold hand stopped the young apprentice from reaching for his gun, and René took it upon himself to confront the dangerous swindler taunting them.

As that was being dealt with in the background, Mika's gaze remained locked with Lacus's.

"Answer me, Mikaela," he continued lowly. "What the fuck were you doing out here with him? Were you not there when we told you to stay away? Was your brain on vacation? Did you forget about barricading yourself in a room for an entire day because of him? Crying and scaring us shitless for the umpteenth time?"

Mika swallowed the lump in his throat, hoping his voice was heard over the breeze when he uttered out a sincere apology. He didn't know what else to say. The look prying into his eyes was stopping his brain from functioning, and muddling all the memories he had following the moments of watching the sun set over the woods.

Lacus scoffed, turning away for a second to see René still occupied with telling Ferid off. Turning back to those big, teary blue eyes, he scoffed yet again and released his hold on Mika's arm to rub at a particular spot on his nape barely covered by his short lilac haircut.

"You know," he said, "if I had known I'd be out here demanding explanations from you for shit you knew you weren't supposed to do, I would've had a BB gun on me. Lucky you, all I have is the thing I use to shut people up when they scream too loud. I'll make sure to pack both next time." He ruffled a few snowflakes from his little friend's hair and exhaled a short breath through his nose. "Suck up your tears, Mika, I'm not mad at you. You just give me really bad anxiety that's all. But please be thankful it's me talking to you and not René. Sorry won't be there to save you next time. And neither will your tears, got it?"

Mika nodded stiffly, sniffing and brushing away his tears as Lacus caressed the soft waves that fell over his ear.

"Good. Now let's get you inside. You can hang out in my room while René and I get ready to go."

Mika nodded again and stuck close by Lacus's side as an arm fell over his shoulder and he was led back to the manor. René was called back, and the darker haired teenager snatched his stolen needle away with a vulgar slur before stalking away from his mentor in a huff, keeping about four paces behind his comrades.

Ferid bid his farewells to the boys, but only one turned around to return the gesture, only for another to casually grab his jaw and shift his head back in the right direction.

If only Mika knew more about his friends and the mystery man, Ferid Bathory.

~~~

Back in the warmth provided by the large house, Mika kept his silence all the way up to Lacus's bedroom. He chanced a glimpse at René in the room across from him with a dour sensation pouring like rainfall over the guilt he already had. Their eyes met for a brief second, and he quickly looked away. René was upset with him again. And from the lack of conversation happening between him and Lacus, who was typing away on a laptop at his desk, René wasn't the only one.

Why was he the way he was?

Maybe the tool hiding away in his pocket could fix what he repeatedly kept breaking.

Glancing back at Lacus cautiously, he shuffled from out of the room to the neighboring room that contained his angry friend. Said friend appeared to be in the middle of polishing the fingerprints and water stains from his needles.

He knocked lightly before entering.

"Um, René. I… I know you're mad at me—"

"What gave it away?" René interjected, his voice void of emotion.

Mika stepped deeper into the room, mentally fighting to keep his gaze fixated on the boy sitting cross legged on the bed and not the heat lamp looming over a glass box twice as large as the four standing tall on either side of it.

Four spiders and a snake. But not just any spiders.

The room was too dark to be clear, but if he wasn't mistaken he was almost sure there was a whole tarantula pointing its hairy jowls at him.

"René—"

"What were you doing out there with Ferid?"

Mika swallowed. "He asked me if I wanted to go with him to pick flowers and berries for a project he was working on."

"And you said yes."

"H-he also wanted to apologize for what happened two weeks ago."

René snorted and tucked his needle away in the invisible pocket on his chest, moving on to the next one. "As if that bastard knows what an apology is." 

"But he—

"Mika." Placing the cloth and dainty weapon off to the side, he began stepping towards his shorter friend, leaning over to be at eye level with him. "Ferid does not apologize. He's incapable. You just went into the woods with a psychopath who would've stapled you to a tree if his brain told him it was the right thing to do. What. Were. You. Thinking?"

Mika's face lowered, and reluctantly, the truth was revealed.

"…"

"What?"

He ducked away and repeated his response louder. "I wanted to go outside."

"Desperate enough to go out with somebody who would kill you without a single thought in his mind? Do you really expect me to believe that?"

"Guren never let me play in the snow, and… I… I wanted to see if there were any animals."

An awkward pause gripped the room after that embarrassing, immature revelation. The sheer heat rushing through his arteries was enough to make him want to turn tail and run to his bed. René remained silent, but he could still feel his judgemental gaze weighing down on his head like an anchor to a ship.

"I know it sounds stupid," he said to the floor. "You and Lacus have probably seen every animal there is in the world, and you never pay attention to the snow or the woods and everything in it because it's something you get to do every day whenever you want. But me, I haven't been able to do anything since I was adopted. I wasn't allowed to."

Another pause.

A hushed curse, and Mika was being pulled into a partial embrace with a warm hand holding the back of his head. His breath hitched. Pressed to René's body, he could hear his heart beat steadily and feel the several six inch impressions of the needles Ferid tried to stab through his chest.

"Dammit, Mika."

That would explain the lopsided snowman by the front door.

René shook his head at nothing in particular, holding his fragile friend while thoughts of his living situation with that Guren Ichinose flipped through his mind like a motion picture. A police officer who raised an innocent boy up to hate himself, treated him like a disobedient dog, allowed his biological son to harass him whenever he pleased, sent him out at night in hopes of never seeing him return. For six years.

"I did what you asked me," came his muffled soft voice.

"What?"

The hand on the back of his head disappeared, and Mika searched through his back pocket and pulled out a long flat rectangular piece of plastic. Flipping it on its back, the spotless black screen reflected the light shining in from the hallway.

René's eyes widened if just slightly.

"Is this good? It was the only thing that was loose enough to take without him noticing, but I-I can get something better next time."

Crimson eyes shrunk back down to normal size, and René pocketed the stolen cell phone. "It's fine, Mika. You did a good job. I'm proud of you."

Watching the way life flooded into those otherwise spiritless blue eyes, René couldn't help but crack a half smile. He might have just found a new way to train his friend efficiently without exposing him to the horrors he and their other friend were forced to suffer through.

And speaking of other friend…

"René!" Lacus shouted from across hall. "Hurry up and get your shit together or I'm leaving without you! I know how to drive!"

René clicked his tongue with a scowl, and Mika's bright enthusiastic grin wavered. "Where are you guys going? Can I come? I can stay in the car."

"We're going into the city for a job, and no you cannot come. You're missing, remember? We can't risk anybody seeing you. Not for a while."

"But yesterday you said—"

"I know what I said," he interrupted. "Just… not now. Be patient."

"Oh." Mika's face was filled with glum once more. "Well, how long will you be gone?"

"You'll be asleep by the time we get back." René gave his slouched shoulder a squeeze. "You're free to do whatever you want until then. If you want to play in the snow then do so in front of the house. No more woods at night. And no. More. Ferid. Understand?"

Mika nodded his head, but René grabbed his chin in a firm hold with nothing short of malice reflected through his unique crimson eyes.

"If he takes you away from us, Mika, it won't be easy getting you back—and that's just to say if we get you back at all—so the next time he wants to apologize to you for something, tell him to come to us, walk away from him, and be done with it. Ferid is dangerous. I can't stress that enough, and we can't protect you if you don't listen to us. We're your only friends in this house. Nobody else."

Mika nodded again, eyebrows furrowing at the tight grip on his chin. "I won't talk to him anymore. I promise."

René eyed him for a moment longer, skeptical, but decided to take his word for it and manuevered past him to gather his antsy leader. Mika walked with them to the front door where Lacus playfully pinched his cheek goodbye, and watched solemnly as they got into the car, started it up, and drove off down the lifeless grey road.

Like the time they were asleep, he was left with only his loneliness to comfort him.

He didn't know what to do.

Chapter Text

"So, what's the mission anyway? And how much does it pay?"

René took a smooth left past the school he and his brother infiltrated a few weeks back, answering plainly, "Somebody wants somebody else dead. Nothing significant. The pay is fifteen thousand. Again, nothing significant. The kids are to be left unharmed, and the body disposed of discretely."

Lacus hummed beside him. "A man with kids, huh? This guy must've really fucked up if whoever wants him taken out is willing to tear apart a family. What's the story?"

"A journalist who was asking too many questions. He was caught snooping around the Hiragi estate, trailing after Tenri and digging up secrets of his countless frauds and embezzlements."

"Oh, so a pissed Hiragi sent you the hit."

"That's the strange part about it," René continued with a frown. "None of the Hiragis sent the hit. It was by some other client; an average citizen. I'm thinking this is some kind of set up, and the man who set it up did a shitty job at it."

"Ah…" Lacus nodded in a mixture of amusement and understanding. "So we're going to investigate."

"To kill," René corrected. "This guy obviously plans on meeting us in hopes of gaining something in return, alive. He thinks he has something against us or Krul. I doubt it has anything to do with police though, so I won't bother being careful with him and whatever it is he wants."

"Hmm, so maybe it's a good thing I tagged along. You know, backup. Just in case shit hits the fan and you end up getting kidnapped by a mobster."

René didn't respond to that.

Five minutes later and they were both taking in the decently sized home across the street from them. It appeared normal enough, the complete opposite of what the average mobster would own. It was a simple two story with a healthy lawn that had been freshly cut during the weekend. They'd past the house at least a dozen times since coming back to their home, Sanguinem. Never would they have guessed they'd be paying the residents a visit.

A young girl who looked to be about their smallest brother's age appeared out of the front door, her voice muffled by the stretched distance as she said her farewells to who they assumed to be the father. She flipped her long brunette hair over her shoulder and began walking off down the sidewalk, oblivious of the eyes that followed closely from across the street.

"So, I was doing some research about anxiety and depression," Lacus stated casually as he prepped his gun for a third time that night. "You know, because Mika, and I saw this post about how to cope and deal and shit like that."

"Don't you think we should be focused on the house?" René questioned, glaring over at his blithe, careless brother in annoyance.

Lacus only chuckled at his obvious agitation and gave him a hard pat on the shoulder. "Oh, René, when will you learn that patience is key? I say when we go in. Now, back to my discover before you rudely interrupted." René slapped his hand away with a harsh scowl, but the more experienced killer pressed on as coolly as ever. "You know how we were never able to deal with our shit the proper way?"

"Sure, Lacus," René responded, exasperated.

"Well, yeah. I think we should get Mika a pet."

"A pet?"

"Yeah," he confirmed with a smile. "Apparently it's therapeutic. It'll take his mind off some of the negative thoughts in his head and give him a reason to get out of bed in the morning feeling less, well… shitty. You know, like Ayame and me."

Now he got René's attention.

"There are loopholes, you see. Maybe for now he doesn't have to force himself to do normal everyday stuff and panic over things he never used to panic over. He can do it for the sake of his pet, because without a caring owner the pet would die, obviously, and he's always liked animals when we were younger—like the time he dislocated his shoulder from saving that bird's egg. From experience and research, Mika should be able to do most things, if not for himself, then for others, and in the long run he'll be helping himself better than those antidepressants and he won't need them anymore."

René thought for a moment, nodding his head considerately as he did so. Mika did say he wanted to see forest animals, and since he couldn't go outside without an escort in the meantime, a pet of his own didn't sound like too bad of an idea. It would keep his dangerous mind occupied while he and Lacus were out three hours away from him where their own mind had to be strictly centralized on their missions. With a cat or dog keeping him safe, it would take a huge weight off their shoulders.

"Alright," he said, zipping up the pocket on his leg containing his car keys. "What did you have in mind?"

"That, I don't know yet. But it has to be something Ayame won't try to kill."

"Why don't you just get rid of that stupid cat already. All it ever does it attack things."

"Don't talk about Ayame like that. She's my princess therapy cat."

"She's a bitch."

"Everyone has their bitchy days," he defended snidely. "Her's just happens to be everyday."

René rolled his eyes and unlocked the car door. "Whatever. Wait in here if you want. I'm going in and finishing this quickly."

"You can't blame a cat for being done with everyone's shit," Lacus commented underneath his breath as he too left the vehicle to follow after his bitter partner.

Laying low in the night, both boys manuevered their way across the street and over to the side of the house where a gate stood sturdy between them and the back yard. They threw they're heavy hoods over their heads and slipped their gloves on and while René quickly and carefully picked the padlock keeping them out, Lacus stood watch for any possible passerbys.

A tap on his forearm, and he was following the other through the backyard where another door kept them from their target. A deep growl redirected their attention to a thick link of chains that traveled all the way into a dark old dog house that was chipped and cracked with age and cheap paint.

"Deal with the dog," Lacus ordered lowly. "I'll take this one."

René nodded, and as the growling escalated to snarls that then snapped quickly to aggressive, full-on barking, Lacus got to work on the two locks in front of him. Behind him, the chains constraining the big animal rattled noisily, creating enough commotion to alert the neighbors and homeowner of their intrusion.

Two seconds more of the clamorous distraction, a hushed grunt from his brother, followed by a high pitched squeak from the mutt, and the night fell peaceful once more.

Like the majority of houses they've invaded, the backdoor was the entrance to the kitchen. Every light in the downstairs area was turned off, as anticipated, but the young assassins rarely ever needed the aid of light to get around without leaving behind reckless traces more befitting for amateurs.

They slipped into the second story, Lacus allowing René to take the lead, and began checking each room—four in total—for any persons not yet noted of. The second child mentioned in the description must have been gone before the girl left. The forth door, as well as the last, was where they knew their target slept soundlessly and unknowing of their presence.

René pulled out his bowie knife, and Lacus, his own beloved dagger which had a more exceedingly deadly twist to it. Several, to be exact.

The door cracked open, but little did they know, there was a gun already pointed at their foreheads from the other side, wielded be the very man who called them over.

In the blink of an eye, René shoved Lacus to the back of him and shot one of his needles forward at the man's wrist. The gun went off before it went clattering to the floor, and after it, its handler.

René moved in first and kicked the man square across the face, knocking him to the ground. Lacus went in after him and dragged him off the carpet by his hair. The man shouted something along the lines of an apology, but Lacus had almost been nicked in the shoulder a mere five seconds before and didn't hear a word.

The man was held on his knees with a dagger ready to maul his throat, and a harsh snarl puffed against his ear.

"I'll make you regret that."

"No no no, I-I didn't mean to shoot you!" The man stressed through the blood pooling from his nose and the agony spreading throughout the area where the needle penetrated the base of his outer thumb.

"Don't kill him," René voiced just as his brother's knife bit into the man's throat. "We still need answers."

"Yeah?" Lacus breathed out harshly as he backed away and pulled out a gun of his own, pressing its steel barrel to the back of the man's head. "Have at it. One more smart move and I'll paint the wall with his blood."

"Please, sir!" The man begged. "It was never my intention to harm you. I-I-It was just a precaution. I-I just wanted to finally meet you in person. My name is Tatsuya Kimizuki. I'm the one who put the hit out on myself."

René pulled his hood down and squatted to be at eye level with the man. Tatsuya gasped, and he craned his head up just in time to see his other attacker pull his hood down as well, instantly becoming appalled by their clear lack of maturity.

He was speechless.

"I was right. You're… you boys are just children. But how—"

"I'm asking the questions," René nipped, ignoring the hiss of pain after he pulled his needle from Tatsuya's hand. "Now, why did you call us over? What is the meaning of all this?"

"Come on, don't be shy," Lacus jeered, applying pressure to the back of the man's skull as he struggled with the burning sensation creeping down his wrist. "Speak, or I'm turning you into a piece of abstract art."

"I'm… I'm a journalist." Tatsuya swallowed hard. "I've been researching you two and trying to track you down since you were boys. E-even after you fled the country. I know about the incidents that took place at the Shinto church and the Sanguinem orphanage."

René's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Tell us then, what is it you think you know?"

"I know that what happened to those three boys were not accidents. I… I took the liberty to interview some of the nuns who worked there a few months after the police buried all three cases. Th-they told me they lied in order to protect you."

"Is that what they told you?" René could almost laugh at the confidence spilling from the man's dry misinformed lips.

"They saw good in you, René Simm. They prayed and—" Tatsuya's words died in his throat as a gun was pressed just beneath his jaw.

"If you did your research then you would've figured out on your own that those nuns were full of shit. All they cared about were donations and when they'd be able to smoke their next cigarette."

"Hey," Lacus called, waving his gun at all of the old and fresh photographs and newspaper articles pinned to the board just above a cluttered desk lit up by a simple desk lamp. "What is all of this?"

"That's my research. Please, don't touch—"

René grabbed the man's shoulder and pushed him back down to his knees.

"Don't even think about it."

Lacus smirked and began skimming through photographs of the burned down orphanage and the news article piece addressing the many who perished in its flames that fateful night, except for one boy in particular who coincidentally made it out a few days before the tragedy.

"My wife worked there," Tatsuya uttered from behind him, his damp gaze down-casted. "She was stabbed twenty seven times in the chest before the fire started, police said. Another child was found dead behind the building on the playground. There were fingerprints all over the murder weapon. From the size, they knew it was from another child, but the child wasn't in any of the city's records, so they had no other choice but to drop the case. Same for my wife's. I know it was you who murdered them, Lacus Welt."

"Bad day," was all the teenager responded with with a half-shrug as his eyes remained transfixed on all of the interesting information regarding the violent crimes he and his brother were responsible for for over the past six years. The documents were accurate and highlighted the unorthodox killings from Paris, to Russia, all the way to America and back to the small City of Sanguinem. He reached for a particular picture pinned to the far bottom right of the crowded bored and held it up to his face.

René cocked his gun. "I'm giving you sixty seconds to explain to us why you called us all the way over here from our home, and how you even managed to slip your way into our website."

The man gasped at the loaded gun touching his skin. "Merciful God."

"No God, just me. Now speak or I'll compensate this waste of time with the life of your daughter."

Tatsuya swallowed audibly, sweat trickling down the grey stubble plaguing his face. "I-I wanted to get to know you two better—get a better sense of why you do the things you do. A-and the website, I had to sneak into another man's home to fill out all of the information. I knew he had access to you and it was the only safe option that wouldn't attract the eye of the police. I swear, I mean no harm to you boys. It's just… I want a better understanding of your world."

"And then what will you do, journalist?" René spat.

"I'll be able to live on in peace," he replied contently. "And for the sake of my children, I won't speak a word of this night or of any of the events in the city that the police weren't able to solve regarding the recent murders. I'm not planning on writing any books like you think. You have my word."

"Now that you're done spouting out lies," Lacus announced, kicking the man to the ground and crawling on top of him with a personal photograph trapped between his thumb and forefinger. "Where the fuck did you get this? And don't waste anymore of my time or I'll reintroduce you to your pretty wife with your intestines wrapped around your neck. You've officially pissed me off for the last time."

"It was buried in a photography book I found at one of the victim's houses. It belonged to the pervert you killed not too long ago."

"Were there anymore?" Lacus pressed sharply, digging his nails into the burning wound René had inflicted earlier.

"God, no!" Tatsuya shouted, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. "No. No. There was just the one. I swear on my life."

"Really?" Lacus quizzed, unbothered by his cries. "Well, I'm having a hard time believing you. Any way you can convince me you don't have an entire pop-up book of my past hidden away somewhere in here?"

"Lacus," René warned as the next door neighbors' bedroom lights shined through the window.

"That's it, this asshole's coming with us. You want a front row seat into our lives, so now you're getting one, from the graciousness of my heart." Lacus got up from off of the man cradling his hand against his chest and aimed his pistol with fire burning in his eyes. "Up."

"Lacus, what the hell do you think you're doing?" René demanded, gaze shooting from his brother's serious face to the mysterious picture crinkling in his balled fist.

"I'm taking this liar home with us for a little sneak peek into our lives, just like he wanted. I've been pissed off two too many times tonight."

"Please, I'm not lying!" Tatsuya pleaded through clenched teeth as he forced himself to his feet.

"Oh, yeah?" Lacus reached into the helpless father's pants pocket and pulled out a little grey rectangular device, tossing it over to René with both eyes never leaving his target for a second.

A recorder.

"Get the car ready. That's an order. And you, journalist, you're coming with us."

Chapter Text

 

‘A huntsman spider, also known as the crab spider for its size and appearance, is part of the sparassidae family. The huntsman spider is also known as the banana spider and is most commonly found in Australia and Asia. Some males are so large that they achieve a leg span of eight to ten inches. They have brown or grey bodies and banded legs. Their body is flat for living in small cre-crevices…? And under loose bark, and logs.’

Unique crimson eyes shifted from the picture of the large arachnid to the harsh sun beaming its rays onto his sensitive skin, having burned it a faint shade of pink over the past thirty minutes of negligent exposure.

Looking over out the window, all of the other kids were still giggling and chasing each other back in forth in a blissful game of freeze tag—girls versus boys with the girls being it this time.

He wished there was somebody in his dark little world who would want to play freeze tag with him some day.

He hid his spider book back beneath his mattress and pulled on his black gloves, along with his thick coat, boots and the cloche hat he'd asked one of the more kinder nuns for a few months back when she was going to throw it out anyway, and crept out of the bedroom he shared with six other boys.

Each tired step he took down the stairs creaked nosily regardless of the meager forty pounds that passed over them. The entire building was empty, save for the several nuns lurking about, but even with that knowledge, René Simm moving around anywhere but his bed was an instant invitation to what the other boys considered harmless house play.

At least the girls were too frightened to pick on him.

He made his way through the main hall vacant of life, and slipped out of the church safely.

He squinted at the bright summer sun beaming into his eyes and adjusted his sleeve back over the itchy rash that had developed two days before when he'd been too distracted with the new species of spider he discovered to notice.

Thankfully, the other kids hadn't spotted him yet as the pale figure engulfed from head to toe in black ghosted past them a few yards away and towards a large patch of shade provided by his favorite Camphor tree. There were a lot of ants marching up and down its dry bark, but with plentiful food came plentiful prey: beetles, birds, lizards, and most importantly, arachnids of every shape and size.

He took a seat near the base of the tree, paying no mind to the ants and dirt, and began working his way outward while scavenging the dozens of roots that dove out of the ground like eels, leaving no leaf unturned. He was hoping to find a big healthy huntsman like the one in his book, but each and every root he came across was either empty of significant life, or didn't fit the description of loose, flaky bark.

It was useless. Spiders like huntsmen were too significant. They wouldn't bother wasting their time with a home infested by ants and rowdy children who would only pull their legs off if ever found.

But he wasn't like the other children. He was one of the good ones who respected God and and all the life he created, great and small. Couldn't he take pity on him just the one time. He'd prayed everyday before bed like he was supposed to and never fooled around once during supper, he did his chores the best out of everyone else and hadn't been beaten with the paddle for over a week. He had the best marks in school and never annoyed the teachers. He was perfect in almost every way. But then, why was he never graced with gifts from God like everyone else was. They were always so nasty and rotten to the nature he birthed, and hardly brushed their teeth after meals. They pushed him around and called him mean names, yet, the nuns always rewarded their jokes with laughter and comments of how cute they were and gave them extra presents on their birthdays. All he ever got was an isolating disease that made everyone revolted by him, urges from the devil himself, and an appearance that only the mother he never had could love.

Maybe he was doing something wrong. Or maybe God didn't love him as much as he loved all of the other kids. Or maybe God didn't love him at all.

But at least he still had Hana. She loved him.

His thirty minutes out in the sun were over. A second more and he'd wake up feeling like a tarantula flicked its hairs all over his face.

With a crestfallen exhale, he adjusted the hat on his head and left the underside of his tree back out into the sun towards the old church he called home. On his way there, he could make out a total of ten eyes following after him, lips whispering, and fingers pointing. He picked up his pace and slammed the door shut. But his panic was just beginning when he heard yells from outside getting closer and shoes sprinting across the grass at full speed.

He bolted through the dining hall, past the large cross hanging at the center of the wall, up the rickety stairs and to his room. He swung the door shut just as the door downstairs swung open with a pack of wild boys hot in their pursuit, and scrambled underneath his bed for safety.

With his hands clasped together, and his forehead pressed to the rotting wooded floor, he prayed. 

But God loved the other boys more than he loved him, and the moment he was into his fifth plead, they had already surrounded him and taken both arms and two small handfuls of his long inky black hair.

They were a full six years older than he was, twelve year olds; stronger and enjoyed flexing their dominance over the runt whenever they got the chance.

"No! No! Let me go!"

"Hold him, hold him, hold him!" The eldest commanded over his desperate shouts.

Two of the boys easily pinned his legs to the ground while the other two caught his swinging arms in midair. With a devilish smirk on his face, the fifth rounded the scuffle on the floor and went to his bedside where his pillow lie propped up in an awkward position.

René's heart sunk.

"No, no! Please!" He begged, tugging hopelessly at his binds. "Please! Don't hurt her!"

The boys holding him down made obnoxious sounds at the mention of the subtle gender revelation.

"How do you know it's a her? Huh, creep?" The leader jived, tossing the tattered pillow to the side and holding the large pickle jar up to his face in hunt for the revolting little creature hiding inside.

"Hana, no!"

"Ew, you gave it a name?" The boy restraining his kicking leg jabbed distastefully.

"They're married!" Teased the other squeezing his arm. "You should make them kiss, kouta!"

Kouta's face scrunched up in disgust as he got a load of the vomit inducing crawler sitting motionless at the bottom of the dirty jar.

"Ew, what are all of those things on its butt?"

"Ewww!"

"Ew, that's gross."

"Please!" The six year old cried through the overflowing tears in his eyes. "Those are her babies! You can't kill her! You can't! God said so!"

"This is disgusting," kouta spat as he jostled the jar from side to side, utterly sickened by the way the hundreds of micro legs scrambled to stay put on the monstrosity's back. Casting his gaze back to the fussing brat, then to the jar, then back again, that devilish smile returned full force. "Shishido, get the tape. I have an idea. Sister Aika said no more pets, and this thing looks too big to flush down the toilet."

Shishido handed René's arm over to his friend with a snorkeling chortle. "Are we gonna do the goldfish thing again?"

"Yeah," kouta replied, reminiscing the gut tickling sound of his pet goldfish going down the hatch. "Except this'll be a lot cooler. Hurry back before somebody hears him."

René's struggles tripled as he watched the lid of Hana's pickle jar twist open, her two black pointed fangs twitching at the abrupt disturbance in the air.

"No! Sister! Sister, help m-mph!"

"Hold him still, hold him still!"

"I… am."

"Did you bring the phone from school like I told you?"

"Yeah," the kid restraining both René's arms and his screaming lips grunted. "It's in my pocket."

"Good." Kouta kneeled over René's heaving chest with the jar open and ready near the hand clamped over his mouth. "Let's see how many likes this video'll get."

"More than the goldfish one, I bet," one of the twins holding his legs cackled.

Shishido burst back through the door, breathless, carrying a pair of Crayola scissors in one hand and a thick roll of clear Scotch tape in the other.

René's vision flickered, and the room spun as his screams were reduced to half conscious moans. The grip over his mouth disappeared, but the ones around his legs tightened in anticipation.

The twelve year old appeared on his side—Scotch tape to his left, Hana in front of him, and a recording phone above him.

A lighter flicked. A tall flame teased the glass beneath Hana's rear and the hundreds of newborn spiderlings taking refuge on it. Her long eight legs twitched in discomfort, and René's drowsy eyes snapped back to life, suddenly wide and aware.

"No!" Was all his brain was able to tell his lips to scream as she shot forward away from the heat in the only direction given to her.

Her leg touched his lower lip, and everything went black.

~~~

"Fuck! René, watch out!"

René blinked, jerking the wheel to the left a second before it could veer off and crash into the side of the bridge carrying them 150 feet above the depthless cold ocean.

The body in the back went flying to the floor.

Lacus released a harsh curse, and the car came to a screeching halt in the otherwise peaceful early morning atmosphere. Everything was silent, save for both boys heavy breathing and the waves crashing along the bridge's steel legs.

One second past.

Two seconds.

"René, what the fuck! Do you have fucking death wish? You could've killed us!"

"Shit…" René swallowed hard, pushing his hair back as he sucked in a sharp wavering breath. "Shit."

"What the fuck's gotten into you! Falling asleep at the wheel—what are you, fucking eighty!"

"Christ, Lacus, will you shut up for a second," he snapped.

Lacus fell silent at his rugged tone. He watched him for a second, his deeply heaving chest and blanched skin complexion, then unlocked the door with a tsk before letting himself out and slamming the hunk of metal shut behind him.

"Fucking idiot." He dropped his weight against the front of the vehicle and pulled out a cherry flavored hard candy.

It wasn't long before a second door opened and light footfalls halted at his side.

"I know what you're thinking that was, Lacus, but it wasn't," René said, his voice slightly hoarse. "It was an accident. I was lost in thought."

"Lost in thought," Lacus scoffed. "The last time you were lost in thought you pushed a kid down a flight of stairs and broke another one's neck. The last time you were lost in thought you stabbed me in the hand with a fork and even tried pushing me down a flight of stairs. The last time you were lost in thought I had to stop you from shoving Mika in front of a moving truck. He was lucky enough to have hit his head on that fucking pole!"

"Those were different, and you know it."

"You almost just drove us off a bridge, lost in thought. Is there really that much of a comparison gap?"

"If you would just let me explain, I—"

Lacus took long strides after him and grabbed a fistful of his collar, jerking him forward. Their faces were close, just inches apart, and his eyes were colder than they've been in months.

"You know, I understand that we're both a little fucked in the head, alright? I get that. I accepted it the same day I realized it. But at least I have just a little bit more self-control over all the shit that runs through my mind. The least you can FUCKING do is take yours out on the selfish pigs that live out here. NOT the ones who live in the same house as you! The ones who would take a bullet to the head for you!"

Lacus didn't give René the chance to respond, and spat his unfinished candy out over the bridge. He shoved past the only other boy he considered his friend, muttering over his shoulder, "Get back in the car. I'm driving."

René obeyed his leader without another word, eyes catching the skid marks his car left in its wake for only a split second before turning away.

The rest of the ride home was silent.

Chapter Text

 

Such beautiful eyes. But why, oh why did they have to belong to this angry, demonic bundle of fluff?

She was like the entire Halloween holiday packed into one body. All she needed was a little witches hat and a black and orange bow shaped collar and the look would be spot-on.

Her fur was so long and silky, and her tail bushy and graceful in the way it swished back and forth behind her.

He wanted to pet her, but the look in those dilated pumpkin colored irises reminded him of what would happen if his fingers so much as twitched in her direction.

Orange and blue were caught in a fruitless battle that could yield only one victor. On one end, claws that wouldn't hesitate to slice through human flesh like butter; and on the other, a delicious slice of honey ham, fresh out of the fridge.

"Please," Mika droned for the hundredth time, hand outstretched as he gazed into those jaded unblinking eyes underneath the couch. He'd been lying on the ground for a little over an hour now, and his face was beginning to feel it. "I just want to be your friend."

And pet her.

And hold her.

And the million other things that came with loving cats, but Ayame's will was unbreakable, and Mika was beginning to develope blueberry tea cravings.

Why did Ayame have to be like this, he thought. There were a million homeless cats in the world who would've loved to eat from his hand. If he were a cat, he would have been absolutely overjoyed to sit on everyone's lap and recieve relentless praise and pats on the head for doing nothing. Didn't Ayame realize how lucky she was? She ate overpriced kibble and was adored relentlessly by her owner while other cats were lucky enough to not have rocks thrown at them in the middle of a five hour nap on a trashcan.

Lacus was right, she was high maintenance. He wouldn't be surprised if her water bowl was encrusted with stolen diamonds and emeralds.

Ayame hissed and swiped a fluff stricken paw as he eased the thin slab of meat as close to her as he could get before surrendering with a heavy sigh.

‘At least she didn't attack me this time.’

He figured it had something do with the fact that his natural scent was mingled in pretty well with Lacus's, seeing as he'd been bathing in his restroom and wearing his clothes ever since his arrival almost a month ago.

He pulled himself off the carpet with a grunt and stretched out his aching back. He'd try again with the cat later, but for now, he thinks he's earned his right to have a steaming cup of blueberry tea. If they had any...

Heading back into the kitchen with his second objective in mind, his mind suddenly froze, clueless.

There were at least twenty cabinets on the wall and nearly twice as many drawers, he didn't know where to start. He was beginning to think that maybe tea was a bad idea. But at least there were still brownies in the fridge and a carton of orange juice.

Earlier that morning, the miniature grandfather clock dangling on the wall reading about five forty-five, he had been jogged awake by the crash of the front door hitting the wall with enough force to shake every window in the downstairs area. He'd been napping on the couch then, but hearing two sets of footsteps stalk past the living room and towards the stairs stopped him from rushing excitedly to their side for a welcome home greeting. Lacus didn't sound too happy, and going off the way he threatened to break René's arm if he touched him again the latter must have done something horribly wrong while they were out in the city.

The tension was still thick in the air, like pollution. 

He wished his friends would stop fighting and arguing all the time. They promised that they would stick together forever, just the three of them—them versus the world, not them versus each other—but how could they keep that promise if it had become so strained and fragile?

They were like that when they were younger too, for all the four years they've known each other, fighting like wolf pups: name calling, and “why does he get this?” or, “why can't I have some?” And throughout those four adventurous years, it was his job as the peacekeeper to maintain peace between the two. And nothing brought more peace between two lifelong friends than a kind friendly reminder accompanied by juice and warm brownies.

It was ten something currently, meaning both boys should still be asleep in their bedrooms, so hopefully they wouldn't get too upset when he barges in unannounced and pokes them awake. All they had to do was make up and then they could go right back to their morning time slumbers, and he could get back to staring at Lacus's cat in hopes that she'll accept him.

It took a while to find two plates and some glasses for the small banquet, but after about five minutes of searching, reaching, and waiting for the microwave to ding, he was balancing two plates of cookie brownies in one hand while doing the same with the juices in the other, one having to be tucked in close to his chest or else his feet and the floor would suffer the consequences.

He decided to start with Lacus first since he didn't have to tussle with getting the door open. He walked in and carefully set the food and drinks down on the nightstand beside his bed. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, his nose wrinkled at the shabby mess on his head. If only he had a hair tie…

He crawled on top of the bed soundlessly, attentive of where he placed each hand as he neared the older boy's sleeping form.

"Lacus," he whispered, peeking over at the spot that should've been his friend's head. He was quite puzzled to see that all that was there was more blanket. The thick black curtains did well in blocking out the sunlight, and the room itself was fairly warm, so he didn't see a reason for covering his entire head in a suffocating duvet.

He poked his back lightly, trying his name again, but there was no response.

The blanket rose and fell evenly, so he knew he hadn't, in fact, suffocated in his sleep. He himself sometimes made the fatal mistake of bundling up too tightly just before a nightmare, and always shot awake only to see that he was wrestling against his own murderous sheet.

A nudge to the arm, and Lacus groaned in displeasure.

"Lacus? Are you awake? I have food."

"Just give her the frosting already. She knows what she wants."

Mika blinked.

He pulled the blanket down just enough to get a peek at his friend's face, and was taken for a complete loop when he saw that he was still fast asleep.

"Lacus?" He questioned, hesitantly.

"Hmm?"

"A-are you awake?"

"Mmm."

"O-oh." The strings of purple clinging to his sealed lids weren't convincing. "Well, I brought you some juice and one of the brownies René made."

Lacus's forehead creased, and his eyes flickered for just a moment. "René?"

"Yeah, I was hoping we could all—"

"I love you to death, but you could be a real fucking idiot sometimes."

Mika's words stumbled in his throat, deep crimson flooding his face like a thermometer dipped in lava. Was Lacus really asleep…?

He watched with slightly parted lips as Lacus tucked the hair sticking to his face away with another slur of words before burying his face back deep within his blanket.

"L-Lacus?"

No response.

He sat there, perplexed for a full ten seconds more, staring at the spot his friend's head was hidden beneath as he snored softly.

His day just took a weird turn, and it wasn't even the afternoon yet.

He left behind Lacus's petite breakfast, and slowly backed out of the bed. Intrigued by such vivid sleep talking, he wondered what other new traits his friends had picked up while they were parted for all of those years.

He cracked the door to Lacus's room on his way out and turned to René's, knocking lightly before entering. Unexpectedly, the bundle in the bed appeared to have been missing. Another unexpected twist: the shower was running behind the door a few feet to his left.

'Maybe he normally takes showers before going back to bed?’

That seemed unlikely. That morning, René had skipped out on making him the usual pancakes and eggs while sporting his everyday night clothes, bed head and morning face, leaving him to fend for himself. But he wasn't at all disheartened. Both Lacus and René had a bad night and wanted time to themselves, nothing to be offended over. But it's got him curious as to what went wrong while they were out.

He stepped deeper into the room and set his breakfast down on the nightstand. It smelled of earth mixed with the lavender soap René was using to bathe himself, but the chill that blew in through the open window added a hint of natural winter—pine and snow.

He shivered and turned away from the outside world. His eyes wandered around his dark surroundings in acute interest, but it wasn't until they met with the five glass casings taking up the entirety of a plainly decorated dresser did they stop and zero in.

René's pets.

He'd been wanting to get a closer look at them since yesterday, but didn't want to intrude inside somebody else's room without them knowing and then accidently break something.

Just the thought of it made him cringe.

He glanced over at the door before flicking the light switch on. He ventured over to the first enclosed habitat, the sudden rise of two large sapphire orbs causing the creature inside to spin around and bare its tiny fangs. Mika's lips formed an O, before the sudden shock turned to an amused smile. It was a tarantula, he knew that much. It was nearly as hairy as Guren's legs, and its back side was too big to support your average arachnid. Not to mention its size was roughly that of a baby's hand. The aggressive little animal bolted around its enclosure in excitement, giving him no time to get a better look at its beautiful black and brown markings.

Next, was an even bigger tarantula; one as big as his palm. It sat undisturbed by his presence, unlike its erratic little neighbor, and looked more like a life sized toy rather than a living and breathing predator. All eight legs were a fiery reddish orange, up to a point, like it was wearing high knee socks, and its body was of the same color. His smile widened.

The third glass case belonged to the most charming so far. Wrapped in a thick ball with its tongue jutting out every few seconds to taste the air, a juvenile serpent with dark marble like decor covering its entire body. It was a boa of some sort, but he hadn't watched enough Nat Geo Wild or animal planet to tell which breed specifically. It was alluring enough to know that it was just a tiny baby a few months ago. It would've been nice to observe it grow to its full potential from day one.

Fourth. He was only able to catch a glimpse of its thick black leg tap the glass before he gasped in fright and leaped away with a startling swear. His face met with something puffy and hard, and craning his head up, he was then gaping into a familiar set of unique cherry eyes.

"René!" He blurted, jumping away yet again like a frog, and right into the dresser containing the five enclosures. Each creature flinched in alarm, and he sputtered out a flurry of apologies that took even René by surprise, but his panic was smoothly extinguished when a hand found its place on the top of his head, flattening his permanently unkempt tresses.

"Calm down, Mika," he said in his deep monotonous voice, its lack of anger upon his prodding around doing just the trick of lowering his cracked anxiety meter.

He took a deep breath, held it, and huffed out a small apology.

René shifted his hand down from his head to wrap around his small torso, pulling him in close as he murmured with feathery lips, "don't apologize. I should be the one saying sorry."

Mika looked up at him, eyes swimming in pools of worry and confusion. "What for? Are you okay?"

"Yeah," René's grip tightened, and he dropped his chin on his head. "I just need you to know that I love you."

"I, well, I mean yes, but why this all of a sudden…?"

The question wasn't meant to sound rude or inconsiderate, but he didn't know how else to word his utter loss to the situation. René sounded like he was about ready to do something he would regret. Or leave for the winter. Or disappear all together like last time. Or—

"I'm sorry for all of the times I hurt you when we were younger," he continued quietly. "I never meant it. My mind wasn't in a good place."

"Oh, René…"

So that's what it was. René had accidently hurt Lacus again. That would explain the strange sleep talking and early morning aggression.

Grasping the problem at last, his shoulders lost their tension, and he settled into his friend's embrace with a forgiving smile, looping his arms around his waist. "It's okay. I always knew you never meant it. You're my friend."

"Either way, I was never able to say any of this to you back then, and I want you and Lacus to know that I would never intentionally hurt you."

"Lacus isn't upset at you about what happened. Just now he said that he loved you in his sleep. And besides, we promised never to stay mad at each other, remember? And I… I love you too."

René gave his flustered friend a peck on the head, holding him for a minute longer in appreciation. Mika said something then, but his words were muffled against his bath robe.

"What?"

He pulled back enough to look him in the eye, traces of light reflecting through those deep azure irises. "I brought you and Lacus a brownie and some orange juice. I was hoping you two could make up and maybe we could do something together?"

René rose an eyebrow. "Something? As in…"

"W-well, if you're not tired, maybe we could go into the woods and… hangout? Or we could do whatever you want! It doesn't matter!"

He looked away as soon as the words tumbled from his lips, hiding his embarrassment in the thickness of René's dark robe. It's been so long since he'd asked anyone to hang out with him. Usually he was the one who was asked, by Yuu, and normally the answer would be a lame excuse as to why he couldn't—albeit, they never worked—saying that they could get in trouble, or he had homework, or he wasn't feeling well. Anything and everything his brain could construct.

René frowned at his friend's little-to-no confidence in asking for something so simple, but gave his head a reassuring pat nonetheless. "Yeah, we have unfinished business in the woods anyway."

"Unfinished business?"

"A man jumped out of my car yesterday and ran off. Lacus was too pissed to chase after him since he couldn't kill him, so now I have to retrieve him before he freezes. But things would move a lot quicker if I had four extra eyes."

"Oh…" Mika didn't know how to respond to that. "Well… what did he do? You know, to…"

This time René couldn't help but cock a half smile. "A lying, stalking journalist who wanted to expose us in his latest novel. He had research and pictures of all of us."

Mika's eyes went round. "Me?"

"Yes, you. We can't have him lurking around and slipping out information regarding our past and whereabouts, so he needs to be taken care of."

"But what if he has a family?"

"He does, and he has no one else but himself to blame for putting a target on his head and then lying to us about his motives and expecting nothing to happen. He has the power to destroy everything Krul built, and its our job as her sons to protect her and the organization."

"Organization?" Mika was beginning to feel uneasy.

"Our family," René stated firmly, placing a hand on his cheek. "Your family, Mika. We have people to protect too. If that journalist really cared about his family then he wouldn't have recklessly put them in harm's way. He had a picture of Lacus from when he was six. One that his mother took. Lacus isn't just gonna let that go, and neither am I."

"Okay…" Lacus never particularly released any info to him regarding his original mother, just the little history he'd told him over the phone, and some snippets that slipped out when they were younger—simply that she was a drug addict and that if it weren't for René coming over to his house and asking him for food all the time, he would've been killed.

"Lacus's mom was a pedophile, Mika," René clarified, his voice then darkening over his friend's now blanched expression. "Some people just need to mind their own business." He left the blond's side after that, leaving him to stand in the center of the room with blown open eyes. He dropped his robe and began getting dressed into his night attire, ignoring the few splatters of blood left behind on them from the other night.

'Lacus's mom was a…’

After all those times he'd selfishly used the bruises on his friend's body to get food and merchandise from his own victims. How could he have done something so disgusting? Why hadn't anyone told him? He never imagined somebody as bright as Lacus being violated the moments following their farewells each and every night. Lacus had always asked if he could spend the night over at the orphange with him, but he always said that if the lady working there ever caught him, she would call the police on him for hurting the other children, stealing the food and killing the Orphange's dog. He was only trying to protect him. If he had known that his own mother was hurting him, he would've found another way. How could he have been such a monster?

Fresh tears dampened his lower lashes, and the scent of lavender tainted with metallic blood filled his nostrils.

"I know what you're thinking, Mika, but you didn't know. Lacus made sure never to tell you because he thought you would judge him, and he told me not to tell you either. But we're older now, and you have the right."

"I was so horrible to him," he murmured in a broken tone of voice, recalling all of the times Lacus became upset with him when he used his pitiful body as a demonstration to get simple candy bars from store owners who caught them shoplifting, or how he always played rough and unintentionally grabbed a bruise on his arm too hard.

"No more crying," René snapped, pulling him from his morbid past behavior.

"But I—" he tried to argue, but fingers wrapped around his chin and held him roughly.

"No. More. Crying." Crimson bore holes through azure. "Lacus forgave you a long time ago. If you still feel guilty about it, then confront him and hear it for yourself. Crying about it won't get you anywhere, understand?"

Mika's throat constricted painfully around the choked sobs fighting to come out, but he nodded his head anyway in fear of further upsetting his friend. René was right. Crying wouldn't fix the damage he'd blindly inflicted on Lacus. The only thing it would do is make things worse and make Lacus feel guilty for something he had no control over. Crying would be selfish of him.

René brushed his tears away gently, waiting for him to collect himself enough before speaking once more. "Eat breakfast and put something warm on. Lacus and I will meet you downstairs."

Mika nodded again with his head held low, and allowed himself to be guided out of the room. While he dragged his feet down the hall with guilt riding heavy on his shoulders, René himself made his way into his other sibling's room, ready to express his second apology.

Lacus was still sound asleep from the looks of it, and covered from head to toe in his oversized blanket. He released a drawn out sigh and climbed into the bed beside him, removing the blanket to better hold his limp form in his arms. It used to surprise him how much of a heavy sleeper Lacus was. Considering everything they've been through, it would have made more sense if a feather blowing past his door had him jumping to his feet with his gun ready. But he didn't mind. Lacus wasn't as irritating when he was unconscious.

With Lacus's head lying limp against his chest, he brushed his messy lilac locks back in place and slapped his cheek just hard enough to get a normal human's attention. But he should've known better. Being gentle with Lacus only ever worked when he was awake, but he still felt bad about what he did to him yesterday and now wasn't the time to make him even more pissed than he already was.

He squeezed him tight and planted apologetic kisses on the top of his head, whispering his name softly.

It took a bit of time, but Lacus finally made a noise of minor awareness.

"Lacus, are you listening?"

"Mmm…"

He slapped his cheek lightly several times, this time successful in gaining more of his irked attention.

"You need to wake up. The journalist is still somewhere in the woods. We have to get him before he finds the road again."

"Just… just… the rats… in the walls. Use the fucking rats, that works."

René pulled his lips to the side, adjusting their position so that they were both sitting up on the bed with both his hands on Lacus's shoulders, holding him out at arm's length.

Lacus's eyes fluttered open in response to all the jostling around, gazing at him, but not seeing him.

"Lacus." He shook his shoulders, disbelieving of how animated his brother was being while completely unaware of it. "How are you not awake?"

Lacus frowned. "I'm not?"

"No, Lacus, you're not. I can see that you're not."

"Oh, I didn't notice…" and Lacus's eyes rolled into the back of his skull.

His head fell limp against his chest, and René swore in blatant astonishment. He was starting to think that he should just complete their new task on his own and speak to his lethargic brethren when he was more enliven.

However, fortunately enough for him, there was no need, for Lacus's hand shot up from his lap like a spring and took hold of his wrist in a bone crushing hold.

He didn't even wince.

"Lacus?"

The grip loosened before slipping away all at once to hang at his side, and he sniffed groggily. Squinting up at René, he then asked, "why am I sitting? I didn't drag you in here in my sleep again, did I?" Taking notice of René's choice of clothing, his eyes widened in recollection. "Shit." He scrambled out of the bed and was already in the midst of pulling his shirt off and struggling with his pajama bottoms when the other called out his name in an attempt to get his attention. "What time is it?"

"It's still early in the morning, but Lacus—"

"How early? That asshole could've gone anywhere while we were asleep."

"I don't know, but if we had grabbed him when he jumped out of the car…"

"I know." Lacus zipped the zipper to his black top up to his neck, and rounded the bed to get to his nightstand where he'd stored his gun for the night, then reached under his pillow for his dagger, tucking them both in the holsters on his thighs. "But if you hadn't noticed, yesterday was the annual Piss–Lacus-Off holiday, and If I stayed awake another second, I probably would've ended up killing someone—dammit, where the hell did I put my phone? I thought I had it in my pocket yesterday. Hey, can you text me? Or call? Or somethi—"

"Lacus." René caught his brother as he passed by the bed for the hundredth time in search of all his gear. Lacus looked more quizzical than he did agitated.

René's shoulders dropped with a heavy breath and he wrapped his arms around the older assassin's body and held him tightly.

"If this is about yesterday," came Lacus's muffled voice as he hugged him back without hesitation, "then I'm sorry. Really sorry. I know all of those other times were different like you said, I was just freaked out for a second. I'm shit at swimming, and cold water kills fast."

"I wasn't lying when I told you my mind was somewhere else," came René's own low voice, his eyes narrowing. "That journalist just reminds me of things I thought I'd forgotten."

"I know. Me too. That's just another reason why he needs die by our hands. That and because the creepy bastard was following Kiddie around."

"Why do you keep calling him that? He's not a baby."

"Because he's squishy, cute and soft like a cat, and he likes it. Don't be jealous."

"Why the hell would I be jealous?"

Lacus's hold loosened around his nape as he pulled away enough to look the taller male in the eyes with a flirtatious purr lacing his next words: "I don't know, René, you tell me. Would you like to have a cute nickname of your own too?"

René deadpanned. "No. Now Anyway, I came in here to tell you that I'm sorry about earlier, and that we need to catch the target and bring him in before he escapes or freezes to death outside."

Lacus pouted and let his arms slip back to his side. "Fine. Just give me a minute, I still need to do a few things and find my phone. I swear I had the thing just yesterday."

René held the flat silver device out between them, catching Lacus off guard.

"Where did you…?"

"I had Mika steal it off of you before we left yesterday," he answered with a smirk as Lacus plucked his phone from his fingers with a stunned expression replacing his usual everyday grin. "You let your guard down right in front of Ferid, and none of us saw him take it."

"Oh, wow," Lacus breathed, impressed. "I guess he is still as good as we thought."

"Yeah. Now hurry up and finish getting ready. I want that journalist alive."

"Right, but before you go…" Lacus leaned forward on his tippy-toes and planted a quick peck on René's cheek, backing away with a new and improved grin. "For all of the fucked up things I said yesterday. That was too far, even for me."

René stepped closer to him, tucking a stray lock of lilac behind his ear. His gaze flickered from sincere eyes to the twin piercings he'd given him several months back, then back up again.

"It's fine, we've been together almost all our lives. I know how you get when you're pissed."

And with those final words, he turned away and left the room to meet up with Mika downstairs. Meanwhile, Lacus eyed his returned cellphone with a look of admiration, chuckling softly to himself.

He tossed it to the bed and made his way to the restroom to finish getting prepared for his early morning hunt.

Chapter Text

 

"Muah muah muah muah muah! I'm so proud of you! Muah muah muah! And this color on you is so cute! Muah muah muah! I could just eat you up!"

Mika's body was beginning to sweat. He didn't know whether it was due to the sheer amount of layers he decided to wear, or because of the hefty body clinging to his back like a squirrel monkey added with the lips that have been smushing against his cheek for over the past five minutes straight. All he was for sure of was that,

"Lacus, umm, I can't really… breath."

Lacus was able to squeeze in about another kiss and a half before he was rudely torn away from the helpless suffocating blond.

"Will you leave him alone already," René scolded in exasperation, restraining his swooned brother by his hood. "You're smothering him and we still have a job to do."

"I'm expressing my love and gratification," Lacus defended with a disgruntled pout. "Besides, the journalist couldn't have made it that far. His toes would've gotten frostbite by now."

"And he could've snuck up on you and knocked you unconscious by now too. Stop letting your guard down and help me look around. And Mika, get over here. There are bear traps hidden in the snow."

"B-bear traps?" Mika squeaked, eyes snapping down to the innocent blanket of snow surrounding him. "But why would there be bear traps?"

René inspected the bark of a thin tree as Lacus responded nonchalantly in his place. "For hunting, of course. We don't take kindly to trespassers trying to shoot, kill, eat or take any of our wildlife home as prizes for their wall, so when a poacher comes in too deep—" he snapped his fingers "—and the next day, they'll be answering to one of us. It's a bloody mess to clean up, but, I mean, trespassing on private property plus killing animals illegally…? They were kinda asking for it. That, and the sight of their boot prints all over the woods piss me off."

"But what about the animals? Don't they, you know…?"

"If an animal gets trapped, it's either killed by another animal before we could get to it, or we take it in, nurse it back to health, and release it." René abandoned the tree, eyes squinting down in scrutiny at the blood smudged between his thumb and fingers.

Meanwhile, behind him, a small smile tugged at the corners of Mika's lips with the innocent thought of his friends being merciful towards wildlife. When they were still but small children, things had been a lot different. Disturbingly different.

"Looks like he's close," Lacus commented, repeating what his brother was already thinking. "Who would've thought he'd make it this far? Especially after taking that needle to the hand."

"The poison on it was weak. I wouldn't be surprised."

Lacus pulled out his beloved dagger, and René, his gun, the latter taking Mika's hand and holding him close behind his back so that their footsteps fell in the same place.

Mika hadn't taken his medicine that morning, so he was exceptionally on edge about having to bear witness to yet another one of his closest friends' murders. Up close, no less. He wondered who it would be. Sanguinem wasn't the largest city in the world, so unfortunately everybody was connected in at least one way or another. What if it was his English teacher's husband's best friend? Or the news reporter's distant cousin's son? Or the librarian? He didn't think he would be able to stand the death of the old man who rarely charged him late fees on his books.

And Lacus and René were so violent in regards to humans, what with holding them up by their necks, shoving knives down their throats, blending their organs, or hanging them by bed sheets, what if they ended up sending him into a full blown panic attack?

His heart rate spiked, and his grip on René's hand turned almost painful. René glanced back at him for a second, but kept his eyes fully alert on the silent trail ahead.

"Are you guys going to make it quick?" He whispered in apprehension.

"No," came the blunt response.

Five minutes later, and Mika was led deeper into the woods, the sounds of pure wildlife filling his every sense. No more sewer smells emanating from pothole contaminated streets. No more gum or garbage on sidewalks. No more guns going off three blocks from his room. No more rude civilians. Just the birds singing in the trees and the scent of fruit filled bushes and a trickling stream nearby. The serene atmosphere was doing almost twice the work of his friend's careful but firm hand.

But that prompt answer and the idea of an actual injured human limping around in their proximity kept one of his eye in front of him and the other trained in back of him.

Lacus, who'd been leading the way so far, came to a steady halt in front of them, stabbing his blade in the snow before getting down on one knee to inspect something near a shabby bush. René paused shortly after, and Mika whispered an apology when he accidently stepped on his heel.

"Looks like he was here a few minutes ago," he said over his shoulder. "He missed this bear trap by a full foot. Lucky bastard."

"Well, he's not very lucky if he managed to get lost in here three hours away from home with nowhere else to go but our house," René reminded him.

"Good point. I guess he might as well consider himself dead already."

"How do you guys know where the traps are?" Mika asked through the jitters racking his nerves—a question to take his mind off the blood he was sure to see in the next ten to fifteen minutes, maybe five. 

"Because they've been set up in the same places for the past three months." Lacus replied. "If we don't memorize them, they'll bite our ankles. It's a professional thing. Or a common sense thing. Either one. But if you want to continue coming this deep in the woods on your own, you'll have to get yourself familiar with where they are too so you don't hurt your little legs. I'd hate to see you get caught in one of them."

"Oh…"

Maybe he should just stick to the edges of the woods from them on. He didn't want to imagine his own agonized screams as pure steal clamped down on his ankle like the jaws of an aggressive hippo.

His thick heavy coat was beginning to get more and more warmer by the second, regardless of the biting cold seeping through via the gaps in his sleeves and neck.

Lacus and René are his friends, he told himself, brothers in fact. He cared about Sanguinem civilians just as much as they did. There was no reason to panic. Nobody he loved or cared about was going to get hurt. He'd seen plenty of dead bodies belonging to both human and beast alike: the golden retriever, a few stray cats, that business man, pigeons and seagulls, a homeless man when he was eight, rats, insects. What's one more?

He swallowed hard and kept close to René.

Two minutes later, the birds went quiet, and his heart stopped.

Both boys dropped their guard. Without releasing his hold on Mika, René pointed his gun, but it was Lacus who spoke up.

"Gotcha!"

The man cleaning a nasty gash on his leg spun in response to the excited call just in time to meet face first with the bottom of a hard, bitingly cold shoe. Mika gasped in shock, hands flying up to his lips, and the man went down with a grunt.

"Dirtying up our water with your blood, huh? That's not very civil of you."

The man cried out as he was taken by the back of the collar and flung through the snow, rolling to a stop at René's feet. René kicked him over and planted his shoe firmly on his chest, pulling the slide back on his gun and taking aim at the space between his victim's shattered glasses.

"Oh, God, no!" The man whimpered, his plum colored eyes gawking up pleading as he raised both hands in show of surrender. Everything he wore was in shambles after having thrown himself from a moving vehicle, and it was obvious to determine right away that he had been barreling through the woods that entire morning, stopping only when he became roughly snagged by dense bushes or low hanging tree branches. "P-p-please. Y-you don't have to do this. I know you're a good person."

"If you really believed that you wouldn't have jumped out of my car, now would you, journalist?"

René applied pressure to Tatsuya's chest, making the man wheeze desperately.

"Well," Lacus began, prodding his injured leg with the tip of his shoe. "You're the leader of this little escapade. What do you wanna do with him?"

"Check his pockets, just in case we missed anything back at the house," René ordered, waving his gun at the torn auburn coat Tatsuya was wearing.

Lacus nodded. "Captain."

Mika had begun shivering by the point, clinging to René's arm like he did Yuichiro countless of times when he had nowhere else to run. He gazed down at Tatsuya with a horrified expression, taking in the gashes and bruises littering his wise, wrinkled features, his tawny hair frozen stiff in some places and covered in dirt and twigs in the other. Their eyes met, and he jerked his gaze away to the ground.

"You're Mikaela, right? Mikaela Shindo? You know my so—ahh!"

"Hey!" Lacus barked, squeezing the man's throat to the point no sound could be heard from his aching, dehydrated windpipe. He leaned in close, ruby red eyes burning like fire. "Say his name again and that needle that was in your hand yesterday will be up your ass."

The hand pulled away, and Tatsuya's violent coughs made his entire body convulse in the frigid snow.

Looking to his side for a glimpse of his friend's worsening condition, René reluctantly tucked his gun away in its holster—seeing as his other hand was out of working condition—and pulled Mika to stand even farther behind him.

"René, can we hurry? Please."

René's eyebrows pinched together, not paying any mind to the whispered plead and he redirected his attention back to his other brother still on the ground.

Lacus just about finished up with his task, and was now reading over his findings with the same calculating stare. A moment of silence, and he shook his head with an amused smirk on his face. "Is there anything a journalist won't do?"

"What did you find?"

Lacus handed over the small book he'd pulled out of Tatsuya's pocket, and then tapped the black shoe still pinning him to the ground.

René removed his foot and began skimming through the five pages of almost unlegible information scribbled down in the thin, flimsy journal.

He could almost laugh.

Lacus flipped the man on his stomach and pulled out a long thin strip of plastic with dozens of rigid teeth lining one side. He crawled on top of him and put his hands behind his back, announcing in an authoritative tone of voice, "looks like you're under arrest for eavesdropping on minors, stalking minors, breaking and entering, false advertising, and owning pictures of child pornography. You are quite the journalist, aren't you? I hope you had as much fun with my picture as the others. They're collectables."

Having read enough of the private conversation he and his brother had less than ten hours before on the bridge, the notebook was pocketed, and with agitation swirling in his chest like a developing whirlpool René gently eased Mika off his arm. Lacus got the man nice and prepared on his knees as he grinned from cheek to cheek at his pitiful begs for mercy, holding him steady by his hair. René took a small step backwards and brought his knee up high, and his foot went shooting forward with enough force to knock Tatsuya's teeth clean from his gums and completely shatter the cartilage in his nose. Mika's face contorted in horror.

The journalist and father of two was out without another sound.

"He can kiss his family goodbye."

"He did that already when he decided to message us."

Lacus and René switched places, René going over to the unconscious body to carry since he was stronger, and Lacus over to the speechless mortified blond since he wasn't as provoked to having his business at risk of exploitation.

Mika huffed out a harsh swear, breathless as he took in the unmoving body slung over his friend's shoulder; the blood splashed across the pristine snow, the two teeth lying on top of it. His body felt heavy, and he reached for the zipper attached to his constricting oversized coat with trembling fingers. He needed air, and somewhere to sit, but there was nothing around him but the snow, fallen twigs and trees.

"Kiddie, you okay?"

He paced four steps away with his back to the brutality and tugged the zipper down, struggling to remove the heavy fabric as a whole.

‘In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Calm down. Calm down. You use to see dead people all the time. You're used to it. These are your childhood friends. Your harmless brothers. You are them. In. Hold. Out. You're fine. Don't cause a scene in front of them.’

"Mika?"

"Y-yes!" Mika quickly ridded his face of his tears and spun around to meet Lacus's concerned expression.

Lacus moved in so that their faces were just inches apart and placed a bloodied hand against his cheek.

His smile was soft, just as his next words: "You're okay. Tough and sweet, remember?"

Closing his eyes and leaning into his encouraging warm touch, Mika took a few more deep breaths before pulling himself together enough to feel only deep rooted pity for the man on his brother's back.

"Yeah. Yeah, I remember. Sorry."

"Don't be." Lacus gave him a light pinch on the cheek and led him back over to where René was. He carried his jacket for him, all the while Mika tried focusing on anything that wasn't the unconscious, broken man dangling over the other teen's shoulder, being hauled off to his unavoidable death.

"Thanks for the delicious breakfast, by the way. It brightened my morning."

Heat rose to his cheeks, and he had to put forth added effort in avoiding now two people. "You're welcome."

His heart was still hammering inside of his chest from the violence he'd just witnessed, but if experience taught him anything then he should be as good as new by the next fifteen minutes or so.

Now, back to the house.

Chapter Text

 

~One Hour Later~

Mika chewed on the sleeve to his loaned sweatshirt, bouncing his leg whilst his eyes remained transfixed on the window that showcased the gradually progressing weather outside.

He wanted to know what René was going to do with that man. But then he didn't. After arriving back at the manor, the second eldest of the three carried the unconscious journalist all the way to a door he'd never seen before near the rear end of the estate leading to the backyard. When the door was held open for him and Lacus, he himself politely refused the offer, not mentally prepared to watch another's life drained before his very eyes again. What he wasn't expecting was for Lacus to decline the offer after him, and join him in sitting in the living room with nothing better to do than to think and stare.

Luckly for Lacus, however, he had a phone.

Mika wondered if the other two had burned his phone along with his backpack and clothing. It would make sense, seeing as a phone could be tracked to his exact location, putting them all at risk of confrontation with the law. With Guren.

But still, it would've been nice if he had something to do to occupy his trouble plagued mind.

There was a light tap against his thigh, pulling him from his distracting thoughts, and blue wandered up to regard the red smiling back down at them.

"Scoot your booch."

Lacus. How had he crossed the room in such a short amount of time without making a single sound?

Mika put a pause to his mindless gnawing and scooted over some to make room on the large comfortable chair for his friend. It was still quite a squeeze for two people, but to his unfortunate dismay Lacus had no problem in physically lifting him up and propping him on his lap like a life-sized doll.

He squirmed faintly at the uncomfortable new position but didn't complain, mentally reminding himself that it was Lacus holding him and not Yuichiro. But even with that knowledge, it didn't feel right leaning his body against more than at least a dozen little deadly weapons laced with either poison or razor sharpness, or both. Thank goodness they were all tucked away.

A hand found its way on his cheek, adjusting his head slightly so that a gentle kiss could be applied to it, making his face light up like a red Christmas tree light.

"Wh-what are you doing?"

"Trying to make you relaxed," Lacus said from behind him. "You're stiffer than Ayame after a bath."

"Oh, Sor—"

"I brought my BB gun with me."

Mika's lips snapped closed.

"Anyhow," he continued in obvious entertainment, casually shifting the blond's head again with his finger so that they were eye to eye. "I wanted to ask you something important."

"Yeah?"

"Are you happy? Being here with us, I mean."

Mika cocked his head at the peculiar question, but Lacus's eyes showed nothing if not genuine curiosity. No jests or foolery. "Well, yeah, I think so. I feel happy."

"Even after seeing all of the things we've done, you know, with all the killing and shit like that?"

Mika nodded, more sure of himself. "You guys have always been like that."

"In a way," Lacus agreed with a half shrug. "But what about this: have you ever been scared of us? If memory serves me right, besides the crying, I don't think I've ever seen you shit yourself from witnessing any of the things we've done in the past, or even now. I mean, René's outside as we speak, probably pulling that journalist's teeth out one by one with a pair of rusty pliers, and here you are, sitting in a chair with little old me, as Mikaela as ever. What's your secret?"

Mika turned away as he tried constructing an honest enough response, biting down on his inner cheek. Lacus was only partially correct in his observation. "I was scared of you at first. B-but only a little! You and René were really…" how could he put it without sounding rude? "As kids, you were really, um… aggressive? And uh…"

Lacus laughed at the strain his little friend was putting his brain through for such a simple term. "You can say it, Kiddie, I'm a big boy. Besides, not like you haven't called me it before."

Mika ducked away at the memory of their unpredicted reunion. An apology was at the tip of his tongue, but catching a glimpse of the loaded pistols attached to either side of Lacus's thighs kept the word from slipping out. He couldn't tell which one was real and which one was just a plastic lifelike toy.

But even so, he would do anything to take the words he'd said back. If he had known that it was his best friend burying his face in the snow, he never would have called him all of those names.

"Y-you guys were just… different."

"That translates to batshit crazy, right?" Lacus said flippantly. When Mika's head only lowered farther with an afflicted wrinkle in his features, the arms around his waist tightened, and Lacus nuzzled him closely with a hearty grin. "Really, you're too kind for this world, Mika. If it reassures you, you have nothing to feel guilty about, k? There's only one way you could really ever hurt me, but I know you would never do that. We're friends. Brothers. I'm your everything, just like you're my everything, right? Forever."

Mika nodded slowly, but the wrinkles in his face only worsened as more and more of his noxious words, thoughts and behavior towards his sensitive companion added onto the already overflowing pile.

"It only makes sense that you were scared of us in the beginning," he reminded him. "We did kick your ass like, six times after all—which I should probably apologize for actually."

"It's okay, you don't need to apologize," Mika murmured just above a whisper, his dull blue eyes tracing the faint scars peeking out from beneath his sleeve. "I deserved it." And not only that. If anything, he felt as if he deserved a lot more than a few black eyes and bloody gashes. How could Lacus still stand to be around him?

‘He should've hit me harder. I'm such a jerk.’

Why wouldn't Lacus confront him like he was supposed to? Why wouldn't he yell at him or curse him for contributing to his childhood pain? Why wouldn't he call him names, or ignore him, or—

"Oh, no you don't."

Mika winced as a pair of fingers snapped against his forehead.

"Ow, Lacus!"

"Get-those-thoughts-out of-your-head-this-instant."

He was flipped over to face Lacus's scowl fully, his surprised gasp and squirms futile as he was forced to straddle his lap. Out of reflex, he immediately tried worming himself free more strenuously, fear and a sense of overwhelming dread trickling into his blood stream, but Lacus grabbed both his arms in a vice like grip and held him roughly.

"Hey!" He snapped, staring him down with an unwavering flame in his eyes that had the blond wanting nothing more than to disappear into thin air. His heart slammed against his ribcage, and he shifted self consciously on the other's lap. He took a deep breath, and held it there.

"Do you think I'm going to hurt you?" Lacus asked in sharp quizzical manner. With watering eyes and a trembling chin, Mika shook his head no to the question, and the hands shackling his wrists slipped away. "Then fucking act like it. I told you tears aren't going to save you from me next time, so suck'em up and stop staring at me like I have a gun to your head."

Mika lowered his teary face down to his—or rather, Lacus's—lap in shame and silently did as he was told. The older teen ducked down some to catch his eye then, brushing his bangs to the side, and then continued in a more lenient manner, "we've all done some shit to each other that we're not proud of. We said stuff and both purposely and accidently hurt each others' feelings; we fought and threatened each other, we added salt to wounds. We did everything, right? Right?" Mika nodded bleakly. "And when all was said and done, everything turned to shit and we were separated for almost seven years, never able to apologize, forgive and forget, agreed?" Another nod. "We tortured ourselves, blamed ourselves day in and day out non-stop. We dragged ourselves through hell because we each thought we'd destroyed something that could never be fixed again." Another nod, and Mika finally peered up into the pair of more warm, genial eyes gracing his. "Now that we're all together again, what say we make up once and for all and put everything negative behind us? Stressing gives you wrinkles."

It took a prolonged moment of self encouragement and a fretful battle against his own inner thoughts screaming that he didn't deserve forgiveness and peace of mind from his seemingly never ending supply of self and past inflicted remorse, but his lips soon twitched upward at the sight of his living, breathing, smiling best friend. Lacus was right, they have all done and said things in the past that they weren't proud of, but now they were all where they should be again—together, and this time it was forever. It was pointless to continue crying over the past, just like René had said. And like he himself said, it would be selfish of him to look at Lacus and see only the bruises he'd brought to light on countless occasions as children. When he looked at his friends, he didn't want to feel pain and grief. He wanted to feel joy and happiness. If he was going to be living with them from then on, he wanted to do it the right way. Comfortably.

"So, what do you say?" Lacus cut in with his arms spread wide like a bird. "No more living in the past?"

Mika's cheeks ached with his newfound contentment, and disregarding the position he was in, which would have usually achieved the job of sending him into a horrendous frenzy, he tucked his head beneath Lacus's chin and slowly but surely coaxed his body into settling in his loving embrace.

Moments like those, all he ever wanted to do was express how deeply he'd longed for his family.

~~~

After fifteen minutes of cozy undisturbed huddling and having gentle fingers run through his hair at a slow, absent-minded pace, it wasn't long before the youngest began drifting off into a deep slumber.

He loved Mika. He did. And for the time being, ever since he saw that unchanged face of his after six years, he loved being wrapped up in his presence more than anything else in the world. However, with that being said, not even the kid's body slouched against his could stop his fingers from pausing every now and again on the top of his head as the seconds ticked by at an agonizingly slow pace.

He was still in his night uniform and the faint, nearly invisible stench of blood filled his nostrils with every easy breath he took. His legs ached with the way Mika's added weight pressed his guns fixedly against his muscles, one more heavy and painful than the other, but he didn't mind that—the pain part, at least—no, it was the thought of what he could be doing with the heavy tool that was bothering him. From his chest down to the very knife hidden away in his shoe, he was littered in weapons. Weapons that have tasted blood and flesh. Weapons that were filled to the brim with dozens of lives from around the world that he had been more than happy to steal.

There was an outsider in their midst, and his body was becoming restless.

But it wasn't like the kill was his. The journalist, Tatsuwhoever, belonged to René. And anyway, he didn't want to disturb his adorable little brother's cat nap.

Oh, but just the thought of that prying bastard searching through his crime sites and pulling out clues of his existence that he himself had recklessly missed made his blood boil in ways he felt rarely. If it had been the police to get ahold of that picture instead of a mere insignificant fool who stayed locked away in his study digging up old bones, Krul would have had his head on a stick. The punishment would have been traumatizing.

There was no chance in hell he was going to let some lowly commoner get away with almost having him handed over to that psychotic teacher of his.

He dropped his head back with a contained heavy sigh.

‘That asshole better be lucky he's René's.’

The sound of plastic unraveling stirred the boy on his lap, and he tucked the cherry flavored jolly rancher away in his cheek before reverting back to petting his soft hair soothingly.

"Go back to sleep," he murmured, staring ahead at the couch across from them with a face void of emotion.

He hated the way that man said Mikaela's name. He hated the way he looked up at him, begging him, as if Mika would somehow switch from his family's side over to his without a moments hesitation. Mika was above that city dweller, and sooner or later the youngster would come to realize that. Begging Mika now, with his current state of mind, would have left him with nightmares. And considering the fact that that nosy journalist had been stalking him for years on end now, he would have known the kid was mentally incapable of taking on the stress and guilt of not being able to save a person in need.

He took advantage of Mika's weakness all so that he could later write it down in his next hit novel.

The nerve. If he couldn't kill the bastard himself, the least he could do was watch his brother do it and sit back and enjoy the show.

Or ask if he could join in on the fun… René was generous, sometimes.

With that resolve in mind, he considerately lifted Mika up in his arms and carried him over to the more comfortable looking couch where he wouldn't have to lie awkwardly bunched up. Mika frowned and curled back up regardless of his assumptions and turned to bury his face in the crack of one of the cushions. The darling sight stopped him from biting down too hard on his candy.

He pulled the blond's hood up over his head and rounded the couch, setting his course to where the real action was taking place. The backyard.

Chapter Text

 

~Two Days Later~

Five more minutes. Just five more minutes, he groaned to himself, then he'll get up and face the day head on. He'll drag himself to Lacus's restroom, he'll take a nice hot shower, he'll get dressed and brush his teeth and eat breakfast and do whatever it was René wanted him to do. All he was asking for was five more minutes. Couldn't Lady luck work with him for just five more measly minutes?

The familiar light footsteps steadily approaching from down the hall was her final answer, and he hugged his pillow closer and clamped his eyes shut.

An exasperated sigh, and a strong presence by his bedside made him feel as if he could cry.

"Mika, what the fuck?"

He curled in on himself even more as the blanket covering his face was taken hold of and ripped from his body, exposing him to the frigid, cold air. René stood before him, a furrow in his brow and his arms crossed over his chest.

"This is my third time coming in here in the past hour," he voiced in agitation. "Get up and get dressed, we're on a schedule. I told you that yesterday."

Couldn't they do the schedule thing tomorrow? Why was René up anyway? He thought mornings were supposed to be his nighttimes. And moreover, he should be just as sleepy as him, or more so, seeing as he and Lacus didn't make it back home until around five-thirty in the morning.

But maybe he should consider himself more fortunate. If it had been Guren standing before him in that moment instead, he would've been moping around the house with a new bruise.

He felt rude and ungrateful, ignoring René the way that he was, but sometimes it was just so hard. Couldn't he stay in bed for five more minutes without being stressed out to the point of having shortened dreams of actually doing what he was supposed to do only to wake up still in his pajamas?

"Three seconds, Mikaela, or I'll really be pissed off," René warned behind him. "And with the things we're doing today, I doubt you'd want to be around me for that."

Two and half seconds later and Mika was mentally bidding his final farewells to his pillows and warm sheets. Pulling himself up at last, everything was still a bit of a blur, but turning around to show that he was, in fact, getting up this time, René's annoyance was still as clear as day.

"This is the last time we're doing this. Now pull your shit together and get ready. I'm giving you fifteen minutes."

And with that, René stalked out of the room without another word.

Mika stared after him apologetically up until he had fully disappeared, and then proceeded in gazing at his blanket that had been casted to the floor with a more yearning expression. Now he was groggy and regretful—the perfect brew for the start of a bad day.

He closed his eyes with a groan and dropped his face back into his pillow.

~Twenty-Five Minutes Later~

Strange. Where were the usual pancakes and eggs? The little side dish of fresh fruit and cup of juice?

Not that the food under his chin didn't look appetizing. In truth, it looked delectable: a bowel of thick sweet porridge with blueberries and diced strawberries on the side, and what appeared to be a short glass of a strawberry smoothie.

What was the occasion?

René bonked his head with a ladle, startling him from his view of the alluring drink.

He didn't seem as angry as he was earlier, but the way he was eyeing his outfit made his insides feel uneasy.

"Why are you still wearing that thing?"

"This?" Mika asked, referring to the grey sweatshirt he'd been wearing since Lacus loaned it to him a few days back.

"Yes, that. Take it off."

"But it's cold. A-and I—"

"Don't bullshit me. It's seventy-five degrees in here."

"But that's cold…"

René's eyes narrowed down dangerously, and Mika visibly flinched as he stepped up to his chair and took his wrist in his hand, rolling his left sleeve up to his elbow, then doing the same to his right. Seeing all of the healed scabs and white lines tainting his skin, he jerked his arms to his chest with a face burning bright in mortification. It took a fraction of René's strength to pry his arms back down, and dull azure refused to meet with unique crimson.

"Look at them, think about them, get use to them and accept them," he told him frankly, kneeling down as he rubbed over either wrist with his thumbs, feeling over each and every prominent scar. "They're never gonna go away, Mika, they're too deep. And you can't spend the rest of your life hiding behind sweatshirts and long sleeves. Learn to accept everything about yourself, both good and bad, and things will become easier for you in the long run. You can't let these determine the way you live. If you keep treating them like handcuffs then that's all they'll ever be."

With his face still down-casted, there was no response from the younger boy, and when René felt light tugging in his grip, he allowed for Mika to hide his scars back against his chest self-consciously. He got back to his feet with a sigh.

"Meet me in the backyard in one and a half hours. And no more hiding your arms or I'll cut your sleeves off myself."

"But this is Lacus's."

The answer came out as just a whisper carried on by the non-existent breeze, barely making it to René's ears, but he heard it nonetheless and placed his hand on Mika's head, twisting it like one would the lid of a pickle jar so that they were eye to eye, his face as blank as ever.

"Then I guess you'll be owing him some money then, won't you?"

Again, there was no response, just the surprised large blue eyes shimmering back at him, but the question was rhetorical and René's hand removed itself from Mika's head before he turned away and began walking out of the dining room.

"Hurry up and do as you're told."

And then he was gone, leaving in his wake nothing but his heavy authoritive aura, a ladle, and a conflicted Mikaela.

Mika turned his attention back to his food, resisting the urge to disobey and pull his sleeves back over his ugly arms, and took a moment to steal his emotions before they could overwhelm him.

He'd upset René again. Why couldn't he have gotten out of the bed sooner? Why did he always have to keep stalling the simple, everyday tasks he was given, such as something as effortless as waking up in the morning? Why couldn't he be more like his friends: strong, determined, fearless; full of life? Why did he have to be so… himself: such a weak, blubbering, lazy nuisance with nothing better to do all day but sit around and wait for them to return home like he was some type of lonesome dog?

‘I'm so stupid,’ he bit. ‘I dont deserve their kindness.’

He trailed his fingertips up and down his wrist thoughtfully, his expression revealing nothing as he counted them, lingered on some more than others, traced them. How could he accept mutilating himself? How could anyone? Was he to be expected to walk around every single day for the rest of his life, showing them off as if he were proud of them? Is that what Lacus and René did with their insecurities? But what could they possibly have to be insecure about that any standard judgemental jerk would point out every chance they got? They were attractive, they had powerful personalities that flooded whatever room they walked into, their bodies were technically perfect, besides a few flukes that could easily be overlooked, such as René's eye which was hardly noticeable unless in sunlight, and the thirty or more cuts decorating Lacus's face which were just as invisible unless somebody was searching for them. But he doubted anyone who got close enough to see them lived to tell the tale. Aside from him, of course.

He wished his personality was as strong as theirs again, but it's been too long since he was last able to be himself. The pill lying beside his drink only proved to remind him of that.

Tough and sweet?

More like weak and pathetic.

He dropped his wrist onto his lap heavily and got to eating his new breakfast before René showed up again only to see that he hadn't laid a finger on it for the past five minutes.

And as expected from his impeccable best friend, the food was devine.

~~~

"Alright, so from here up until I say so, you might as well consider this backyard your new official classroom. We'll be coming out here every single day for five hours, got it? You'll be learning the basics of self defense and weapon use. I'm your teacher for today, obviously, and tomorrow Lacus will be your teacher, and the day after that, me, and so forth. As time progresses, so will your lessons, skills, and perhaps even your confidence. You will take this training seriously, and for the time being we'll take it easy on you. But don't expect it to last long. Keep your guard down and you might find yourself with knife stuck in your arm, am I making myself clear?"

A hand was hesitantly raised in the air, and René nodded for the violently shivering blond to continue.

"W-w-why d-do I need to l-learn all of this stuff?"

A stupid question.

He pulled a short curved blade from out of the pocket of his sweatpants and grabbed Mika's arm in a vice like grip, his gaze unwavering even after there was an audible wince, and he held the sharpened tip to his gullet.

"Why do you need to learn all of this stuff?" He questioned back to him. From the look in his eyes, Mika could tell it wasn't a rhetorical question like the last one, but taken by surprise with the sudden hostility he could only swallow the lump in his throat with wide fearful eyes. René's grip on the claw like weapon strengthened, and he repeated his question carefully, as if there were an invisible timer hanging in the air ticking away before he commenced in choking on his own blood. "Tell me what happened the night those men followed you."

Mika's heart felt like it had just dropped into his stomach. Lacus must have told him about the incident with those drug addicts.

"What do you think would've happened if Lacus chose to stay home that night? Where would you be? Or, where wouldn't you be? Probably not here, right?"

"Y-yes," came his whispered response. He should've kept his questions to himself.

"They would have used you, beaten you, and left you out in the open for anyone to see. And you would've taken it."

"No, I—"

"Yes, you would've," René barked, scaring him into silence. "You wouldn't have done a single thing besides scream and hope a passerby was nice enough to help you against five aggressive grown men. You're weak, Mikaela, you know that. You're sixteen, and you're small, and you're the perfect target for literally every bad scenario this backwards world has to offer. If you were dragged off the streets by those men, I bet the whole city would have heard exactly what was happening, and they would've done not one thing. Why? Because that's just the way people are. They keep their heads down at the sight of danger because they wouldn't bother risking their own lives to help a stupid child who should've known better than to wander the streets at night. You would've been on your own." The knife slowly disappeared from his neck, and so did the crushing hold around his arm when René added quietly: "and you would've lost."

He let those words sink for a second, allowing the thickening tension in the air to stress just how serious the situation was. Mika stumbled away from him with a hand clasped around the area the knife nearly sliced into and his chest heaved up and down as blood rushed through his ears like a water hose.

René watched him, unfazed by the shocked expression directed his way, and pocketed his knife. He took Mika's hand in his and lowered it down from the speck of red on his neck, and the next words he spoke were in a more informative tone of voice rather than angry. "You're weak and easy to take advantage of. I don't even have to ask to know that you were bullied in school, and I already know that cop used to beat you on a daily basis, just like I already know his bratty son sexually harassed you just as much. And from what I've seen all you can ever do is say no then cry when he says yes, am I correct?"

Mika remained speechless, still dumbstruck and struggling to collect himself after his friend's previous aggression.

"By the time we're done with you, nobody is ever going to be permitted to lay a finger on you again. Not just because we won't allow it, but because you won't either. And if you perform well today, then I'll reward you with the gift I prepared. Now, take a deep breath and fix your posture. I doubt you've ever exercised a day in your life, so you'll need all the space your lungs have."

"What… what are we going to be doing?" He dared to ask.

René crossed his arms over his chest and began circling him at a deliberately unsettling pace, making no effort in hiding the way his eyes took in his slender form from his head down to his shoes. Mika shifted uncomfortably.

"First, we're going to be stretching every muscle in our body. Have you ever done that?"

"In my gym class, sometimes."

"So, no. You haven't."

"Oh…"

"Then," René proceeded, giving Mika's forearms a testing squeeze then moving higher and lower to feel his back, chest and stomach area, "We're going to actually exercise those muscles. Have you ever done that?"

"My teacher made us run and do push ups."

"Lacus says you're practically dead on your feet when it comes to running, and your arms tell me you can hardly push up your own weight. Let alone, your upper body. And now that you don't look as underweight as you used to, I'm pretty sure this is just going to be five times as hard as it needs to be. For you, that is."

Mika was right in telling himself that he was going to have a bad day. The more René spoke the more he felt like a video game avatar with no accessories—just a blank face with an even more plain, basic body. It almost made him feel hollow.

Taking Mika's crestfallen state into consideration at last, René blew out a heavy exhale and set his hand on the head of wavy hair. "It's going to hurt and burn like hell for you, but it'll all be worth it in the end. Nobody will ever treat you like shit again, and you'll be able to stand up for yourself. Use these facts as your motivation."

Mika nodded glumly, though feeling just a touch better with René's understanding and less provoked attitude. It gave him the courage needed to ask, "um, René, why will I need to learn how to use weapons? And how come we have to do it outside? We'll get dirty."

"You'll learn about weapons and how to use them because sometimes fists aren't enough for bastards with nothing better to do, and if your going against a person bigger and stronger than you—which you will—at least you'll have the advantage with stealth and a simple butter knife. And we're outside because in the next thirty, or… ten minutes, you'll be begging to role around in the snow. And just a warning: no complaining is allowed. I've had to take on weather much worst than this, and unlike you, my punishments and Lacus's for just crying left us bedridden for days, so think about that when the snow starts soaking through your clothes, got it? You're very lucky to have us as your teachers."

Mika nodded, shaken up all over again. Things were beginning to feel as if he were in a military boot camp.

René removed his hand and asked, "so, anymore questions before we begin?"

"Um, actually—"

"Good. Then, let's starts with our necks."

~~~

"Punishment!"

"Yes, Lacus, punishment." Krul crossed one leg over the other, staring her son down hard from where he sat on his knees a few feet away. "Due to your careless, reckless behavior, two people have known for years who you and René are. Possibly even more. You put this entire organization at risk."

"But, Krul, we killed them both," Lacus argued, already aware that his attempts will prove futile in the end. "René and I even burned all of the evidence. There's nothing left but ash, you could ask him. And how the hell was I supposed to know they had proof of our existence? Klara never gave me a list of people she sold those pictures to. This isn't fair."

"What isn't fair," Krul shot back, "is how many things I've allowed you to walk away free from. This isn't the first time you've gone against our regulations. My regulations. The rules I set up specifically to protect you, René, and this family."

"What have I done?" Lacus persisted, the sound of his voice losing its power visibly spreading joy throughout the man sitting beside his mother with his punishment resting idly on his lap.

"Well, let's start with the boy you've been keeping in contact with last month."

"That was Mika, I told you!"

"But you didn't know it was him in the beginning, did you? For all you knew, he was just the son of a cop."

Lacus didn't respond to that, opting for biting down on his inner cheek instead to keep from making his situation even worse. He knew he'd messed up. And he knew that he'd messed up bad.

"Lacus," Krul sighed, raising her glasses up to rest on her head. "You're good at your job, I know, okay? You and René contribute to this family more than anyone else, and we're thankful. I get letters from clients and co-leaders all the time telling me how much they appreciate what you've done for them. But after a while of constant successful assignments, you start getting cocky. And when you get cocky, it goes to your head and you start making mistakes. And I can't keep overlooking these mistakes just because you're my son. When you step out of line, it's my job as your mother and your boss to put you back. Now, please don't make this any harder on yourself and take your punishment. It's not easy for me to watch you fight like this."

Lacus glared in escalating apprehension as the amused Ferid Bathory left his seat and picked up the needle containing the clear liquid that would send him to his own personal purgatory. His eyes landed on his mother's once more, pleading for her mercy, but all he got in return was her unwavering resolve, and the sight of her sending over two of the five servants who'd been standing silently on the sidelines for her word.

With Ferid approaching him from the front, and the two other males coming in from the side, Lacus's own resolve solidified, and pulling a switch blade from out of his pocket, he got up from his knees and went into a trained fighting stance.

"No fucking way am I making this easy for you."

"Oh, come now, dear Lacus," Ferid mocked, stopping short of his hostile student's reach and removing the lid from the needles point. " Do you truly wish to do this in the dining room where we eat? You make it sound as if I'm going to kill you."

"You might as well be. You know damn well what that shit does."

"Of course I do," he stated fondly. "I am the one who created it specially for you after all. And please, struggle all you like. Fight until your little heart gives. Watching as you slowly crumble at my feet brings me pleasure."

And with that, Ferid far too easily manuevered his way past the shooting blade and buried his fist firmly in Lacus's gut.

Lacus choked, his breath lodging in his throat. The corners of his vision darkened for a split second, and his grip around the knife slackened, but he wasn't about to give in that easily. He refused.

He pushed away from his mentor, stumbling back, and when the hand of one of the lowly servants grabbed hold of his shoulder, he threw his elbow back straight into his jaw. The servant hit the ground, out cold.

Watching as her second servant plummeted after a high kick to the nose, Krul was given no other choice but to sick the other three on him and bare witness to something neither she or her son could stop.

The third servant kicked the back of Lacus's knee, sending him partial ways to the ground. Ferid took that as his opportunity and launched forward, needle ready in his right fist. Lacus ground his teeth, and he swiped his switch blade in the air, hoping to catch the bastard's neck, but Ferid was smart and had taught the boy everything he knew.

He smirked all-knowingly and caught Lacus's wrist before the blade had the chance to tear his windpipe in two. The anger on his youthful scarred face contorted to pain, and he cried out as his bone was slowly on the verge of being crushed in the other's grip.

"Silly boy, still think you can outbest me."

Two of the more bulkier servants took Lacus's shoulders, while the third smaller one sent his other knee to the ground. The knife was squeezed from his grip, and Lacus spat out a degrading curse as he was shoved to the cold hard wood and held there with his arms pinned behind his back.

Condensation formed beneath his rugged breaths and he glared up at Ferid's sly, victorious smirk with a look burning in years of hatred.

"I'm going to enjoy watching as this destroys that high and mighty little attitude of yours."

"I swear if that needle touches me you are so fucked, Ferid! You hear me! I'll fucking skin you alive—ahh!"

The needle was stabbed into his neck, and its deadly contents emptied into his body.

With a burst of adrenaline now speeding through his blood stream, Lacus bit down on the hand holding the needle in his neck, and shoved the other two servants away from him. He snatched his blade off the ground one last time and like an aggressive wild animal making its last ditch effort, leaped forward.

Blood splashed across his face. It soaked into Ferid's expensive dress shirt. With the needle still well in his neck and the poison now quick at work muddling his mind, he twisted the knife deeper, feeling its tip scrape against bone.

The servant lying between them coughed, a trail of crimson flowing from the corner of her lip. She looked down at the blade digging into her chest, and then looked back up at her master's livid child.

"You sick son of a bitch," Lacus growled lowly, pushing the knife as far deep into the woman's chest as it could go, imagining it was the snake lying safely beneath the both of them. He ripped it out, and slashed her throat ruthlessly with his teeth bared and more blood gushed from her torn arteries to paint both his hand and Ferid's priceless white outfit burgundy.

"Restrain him," Krul ordered from where she sat impassively at the table.

"Yes, ma'am." The two large servants nodded and went to either of Lacus's sides, both taking one arm and hauling him away from the dying third servant and his teacher. Lacus put up a more languid fuss, struggling weakly as he demanded that he be released immediately. The bloody knife went clattering to the ground, and the woman Ferid had used as a shield was tossed to the side close after it.

"Seems as if you owe your mother a new servant," he commented flippantly, correcting the dainty bow holding up his hair and making his way over to Lacus to reward him with a gentle nice pat on the cheek. Lacus's head lulled the other way in disgust, the pit of his stomach tingling violently as if it were being tazed. His breathing picked up exponentially, without warning, rising to an almost dangerous level. His pupils dilated and the numbness spreading throughout his fingers escalated to his arms and shoulders.

He called for his mother, but his words were slurred as the toxins spread further to the nerves working his jaws. Flashes of reds, blues, and whites disrupted his vision, and the room began to spin around him. A flicker of Ferid smirking inches from his face blinked to him turning his back, then blinked again to him on his knee inspecting the fresh dead corpse, and then finally, to a soft pair of cherry red eyes belonging to none other than the generous woman who took him in and raised him, Krul.

"It's okay, sweety." Her voice sounded distant and muffled, as if he were hearing it ten feet below the ocean. His arms were released, but he couldn't feel a thing as he collapsed straight into her comforting, protective hold, gazing up at the ceiling with eyes round in terror as more and more of his senses gradually faded away. The last thing he picked up before his hearing died was:

"Know that I'll be here with you until it ends. Don't be scared."

And with his eyes still open, wide awake; aware, the room went black and he was thrown into his every worst nightmare.

Chapter Text

 

No matter how long he sat there, Mika couldn't find himself capable of wiping the vague look of horror from behind his hands as the steaming hot water shooting from the shower head swirled around his feet and disappeared down the drain.

‘I can't believe I did that. I'm so disgusting. He's never gonna forgive me.’

How was he supposed to know that that was going to happen? He'd never exercised that intensely before. He hardly exercised at all. And René kept touching him everywhere and making him nervous and jumpy all over, and his voice was always so close to his ear, and he took off his shirt at one point and outside was unusually hot for some reason, and they were both sweating so much and his body kept coming too close to his, and he was making it hard to breath, and he'd never seen abs that close before, and he just couldn't help it.

It was a thousand times worse than when Lacus taught him the basics of using a push dagger.

And the fact that he was going to have to go through those torturous exercises all over again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, with Lacus!

"Oh, God." He clutched his head in his hands, pulling at his hair in an attempt to distract himself from the vivid images of René's stunned bafflement.

There was a knock at the door, and a sharp gasp leaped from his throat.

"Mika, what the hell are you doing in there? It's been thirty minutes."

Mika felt himself growing hot, and it wasn't from the shower. And that heat only intensified when he heard the jostling of the doorknob.

"No, wait! Don't come in! I'm coming out now!"

He stumbled to his feet, nearly slipping on the suds trailing down his body as he reached for the shower handle to end the onslaught of scalding water, and tripped even more like a drunkard with the simple task of snatching his towel off the sink and getting the heavy fabric tied around his waist.

"The hell is going on in there?" Came René's deep voice from the other side of the door.

"Nothing!" Mika called back in a more panicked tone. "J-just give me a second!"

He gathered his dirty clothes in his arms and made haste to the door just in time for René to grow concerned enough with the chaos happening on the inside to pull it open without another moment's hesitation.

He could hardly look the boy in the face.

There was a long momentary pause. It was the type of pause that made him wish the floor would crack like an egg and crumble beneath his feet, dropping him into an endless dark pit. 

It was a good thing he was the awkward one and not René.

"Are you okay?" he asked, eyebrows coming together. Mika shrunk away and nodded in response.

"Sorry I, uhh… I'm sorry I threw up on you," he murmured, as if the whole world were straining its ears to hear his shame. "I didn't mean for that to happen. I-I was nervous, a-and… and… those exercises were really hard, and—"

René rolled his eyes. "It's fine, Mika. If anything, I would've been surprised if you hadn't thrown up the first time. It happens."

"I know, It's just… I didn't mean to, you know…" Mika couldn't bear to say it out loud, choosing instead to hide his embarrassment behind his hands with a groan. If he spoke another word he was sure he'd combust on the spot.

René placed a comforting hand on his head. "If it makes you feel any better Lacus did the same thing to Ferid when we were younger. Three times. On purpose."

"Why would he do that?" He asked, peeking out from behind his fingers.

"Because Ferid's training was difficult and painful, and Lacus never liked being told what to do by anyone anyway so he figured why not."

The monotoned explanation was enough to ease the blond's frizzled nerves. Successful, even, in pulling a barely visible smile across his lips at the unquestionable, well defined video flickering in his mind.

It did sound like something Lacus would do.

René eased his hands down from his face and instructed for him to hurry up and get dressed to go back out.

Mika's heart sunk. "But I thought we were finished."

"I still need to teach you about weapons, and since you did well enough with everything we've done so far I can take you to your reward."

"Can I know what it is?"

"No, but I suggest dressing warm for it. Meet me downstairs when you're done."

"O-oh, okay."

And with a final nod, René left Mika to his business and closed the door to the bedroom behind him.

Once alone, Mika released an audible sigh and made his way over to Lacus's bed, dropping his sweaty clothes to his feet. He was thankful for René's patience in behalf of his terrible nervous tick of stuttering like an imbecile and making things ten times more discomforting than they needed to be. If it had been Yuu he puked on instead he never would've heard the end of it. He would've been stuck beneath his blanket for weeks just to get away from him. He would've been sentenced to hear about it in the halls of school by students he'd never even seen before. He'd never be able to live it down.

Sometimes he wished he was as fearless as Lacus—puking on a man's shoes three times, on purpose, bold and without a hint of shame or regret.

In all truthfulness, he looked up to his two best friends. He looked up to the old him.

Granted he would never intentionally vomit on someone.

~~~

After he'd finished getting dressed, as told to, he began making his way down the stretched hallway. Seeing Ayame a few yards ahead with her course set on passing him to get to her owner's room, he did well in clinging to the wall. From the looks of it she appeared to have been in a rush, hardly sparing him one of her hateful hisses, and he walked out of the confrontation unscathed. Turned out those lying-on-the-ground-staring practices have paid off.

Unexpectedly, during his journey down the stairs he heard something even more strange: meowing.

Loud meowing. It was like the type of meow cats on the internet did when they were hungry for more food, or when they'd been separated from a loved one for too long. Or a meow made by a deaf cat that didn't know how to control its own pitch.

He hesitated on the steps, and the high-pitched cries persisted.

‘Maybe she's hungry?’

He wondered if they had reached that part of the relationship where she allowed him to pick her up and carry her around—touch her head, at least.

He peeked over his shoulder, unsure if he should follow through with René's instructions, or answer the concerning yowls of Lacus's normally pretentious cat.

He went with the obvious choice and headed back up the stairs. Hopefully René wouldn't be too upset with him for being late again.

Back in Lacus's room, Ayame was in the process of sniffing and pawing at the pillows her master's head rested on earlier that morning, stepping around the large bed as if in search of a dormant lump. The glare that seemed to be glued to her small face turned in the direction of the empty bathroom, and then to the closet which proved to be just as vacant, and then they landed on the pathetic boy her master had been swooning over for a little over the past month.

Mika paused at the foot of the bed. Ayame took a seat on one of the pillows and gracefully wrapped her tail around her paws, and the human spoke in his soft, pathetic voice.

"A-are you hungry?"

Her pupils dilated.

"Are you… looking for Lacus?"

Her ears twitched and she unraveled her tail and leaped down from the bed, trotting past the blond and out the room back down the hall.

Mika blinked, lost by the whole one-sided exchange. He heard the feline's distressed cries start up again, and cocked his head in bewilderment.

‘Maybe she is looking for Lacus.’

Come to think of it, Lacus hadn't been in his room at all that entire morning, and it was going on two o'clock. Normally he would still be out cold, grumbling jargon to himself about food he wanted to eat or cursing the pesky rats scratching and squeaking in the ceilings. Knowing him, if he wasn't asleep anymore, he would've at least dropped by the backyard during his and René's work out session to say hi, or even join in for the sake of being included.

Strange.

He left the bedroom and traveled back down the stairs to the living room where he knew René would be waiting. When he mentioned the cat's peculiar behavior to him, his insides buzzed in alarm to see René avert his gaze with a bothered grimace.

"What's wrong?"

It took a while for a response, but René had begun pulling him towards the front door when he said, "Nothing. Get your shoes on and I'll meet you in the car in five minutes."

"W-wait, but where are we going? What about Lacus?"

"We're going somewhere, and Lacus will be fine. Now stop asking so many questions and do as you're told."

René shoved Mika's shoes in his arms and pushed him out into the freezing weather. Mika whirled back around like a disgraceful ballerina, more questions tingling at the tip of his tongue, but he had always been slow on his feet and was met with a door to the face.

He tried the knob, finding that it was locked, and his shoulders fell with a disgruntled huff.

‘Great.’

~~~

The car ride was a silent one. Outside the window, the snow covered Earth zipped by at a steady pace. The forest was vast from the side, more vast than he imagined it to be since he'd only ever seen the face and interior, and it took around the first half hour of the ride just to pass it by and leave it in their wake for good. The more naked trees they drove by, the more the snow thinned out or was already melted to slush, signaling the gradual end of Winter and the beginning of a beautiful mild Spring season. A pang of hurt struck his heart at the sight.

He rest his head against the window, chewing on the sleeve to the cozy turtleneck borrowed from Lacus, and let his mind drift afar. Dull azure never left the captivating view of the deadly, cold, neverending ocean below them. He remembered as children they would always take trips to the very corner of the beach connected to those waters where it was nice and shaded by an abandoned old pier. It was littered with trash of course, but it was quiet and nobody ever disturbed them when they were there. Nobody ever noticed them.

He remembered Lacus always keeping his distance from the water's edge where sand met ocean and played around more in the warm sunny area where he risked impaling his feet on buried splinters. René on the other hand, sat in the shade, always keeping his black oversized trenchcoat on with the hood that nearly engulfed his entire head pulled over at all times. Even when the sun cooked the boulders he'd rest on like a seal to catch five minutes of warmth, he never took it off—said it was bad for him. It was the reason his skin was always so pale. He and Lacus would always poke fun at that fact, bullying him and joking that he looked like a mopy living ghost.

To that day, he possessed the scar from having a particularly sharp rock flung at his forehead, but he could still remember the stone cold satisfaction on René's face as he continued to draw in the sand with a stick, wet sobs commingling with the salty sea breeze like a musical duet.

He and Lacus never teased him about his skin again.

"We're going into the city."

"Huh?" Mika blinked back to reality. "Why?"

Glancing at him, René replied, "because that's where you'll be learning, and it's where your reward will be waiting. I had it delivered to a certain area."

Mika wanted to ask him what this special reward could be, but René's rigid personality never took well to beggars. It was either accept his answer of no, or risk being ignored for the rest of the day. But that was when they were children; a lot had changed since then.

"René," he said, eyes now fixated on his friend's side profile. Upon seeing him back at his house last month, the sight of his new exotic haircut, the large black widow creeping down the side of his neck and his pierced ears nearly threw him off completely. He'd thought his mind had somehow constructed this strange modified apparition of the René he used to know, but now, he didn't think he could picture him without them.

René glanced over at him for a second before turning back to the empty road ahead, humming in acknowledgement.

"You look… worried."

"What?" 

Unmatched crimson flickered to him for a second time, but this time he shifted his gaze to his lap timidly. "Is it because of Lacus? He wasn't in his room this morning, and Ayame was acting weird. Did… did something happen?"

"Lacus got himself in trouble, that's all," René stated bluntly over the smooth sound of his vehicle passing over the road.

"How?" Mika asked, unsure of every question that left his lips.

It took a lot longer for a response, and he was sure he may have crossed an invisible boundary considering the rising tension in the car. Or maybe that sensation was just him making something out of nothing again. Yuu always scolded him for that.

"He was an idiot and took advantage of his status in the organization, so now he's paying the price. It was only a matter of time before Krul confronted him."

"Oh." He felt a twinge of concern tighten in his chest like a knot. "Well, what's his punishment?"

"Something only a sick, demented prick like Ferid would have a child go through."

René's lips were drawn tight, and he knew that that was as good an explanation he was going to recieve. Consequently, that didn't make it any less nerve-racking.

"Will he be alright?"

"No."

"Oh."

He sat poised in his seat. René glanced at him, and the car fell silent once more.

~~~

By the time they reached the city's border two hours later, the sun was well up in the sky and shining its blinding rays through the windshield. Curiously, Mika peeked over at his friend. He could never understand why the impassive teenager never enjoyed the sunshine. The way it gleamed off of his pale skin made him appear almost ethereal, and with those extraordinary blood ruby eyes and hair darker than volcanic obsidian, he appeared sort of like a dark angel. A very captivating sight.

But alas, the mirage was ruined when the other swore in agitation and swirved left in escape of the day's assault.

Mika smiled, and his heart felt just a bit lighter all of a sudden, but the worry for his other friend kept it just heavy enough to keep him from making his content mood known.

"René?"

"Hmm?"

"How come we're out here during the day? I thought we were only allowed out at night."

"You're going to need your vision for the weapons part of your training."

"We could've stayed in the backyard, couldn't we? You didn't have to go through the trouble of driving all the way out here for me, and the sun…"

"Sunscreen. And no, we couldn't have stayed in the backyard, because the backyard doesn't have what we need."

"Oh, Well…" Mika picked at his sleeves out of habit. "What do we need?"

The vehicle slowed and he watched apprehensively as René pulled into what appeared to be an abandoned gravesite for automobiles, a place he hadn't visited in more than several years. There were piles of rusted carcasses all around them, stacks of old tires that had either ruptured on the road or had run over tough nails or spikes; worn doors thrown here and there. The sun reflecting off all the mounds of dirty shattered windows and grimy bodies tinted the remaining snow a faint brownish orange. 

Shabby black birds cawed at their arrival, warning others far and wide of the familiar face stepping out into their territory, but René payed them no mind as he rounded the vehicle to get the door for his fidgeting companion. He held out his hand expectantly and it took everything in Mika's aching, sore body not to erupt into a flustered school boy.

Nobody had ever held a door open for him before. Yuu offered him his hand at times back when they still lived together, but never like this. This time felt different.

Thankfully his weren't sweaty and clammy like usual.

He slipped his palm into René's. It was rough to the touch from years of wielding everything gun and knife related twenty-four seven, and he kept his questions to himself upon being guided to the rear end of the car, choosing to simply watch as the lid was unlocked and popped open. To his surprise, the inside was completely empty, not a thing in sight. That was, until René pressed a button on his car keys and lifted what was supposed to be just the barren surface of the inside of the trunk.

His eyes went round as he got a load of the menacing black metal briefcase sitting undisturbed in the center, and he was beginning to understand what mystery lie inside.

René flipped the four latches up, and his suspicions were confirmed: weapons.

"I'll be teaching you the names of each of these," he began, pulling out the first weapon and the small magazine that came with it. "And then I'll teach you how to use them, got it? Starting with this."

"Wait, a-a gun?" Mika stammered incredulously, backing away from the deadly tool as it was held out for him. Memories from the first time he associated himself with such a weapon resurfaced to the forefront of his mind. His heart rate tripled at the booming sound it had emitted countlessly beside his head; the holes in the wall that surrounded his silhouette. "René, I can't use that."

"And why is that?" René quizzed dispassionately, leaving the trunk open as he took hold of Mika's wrist and walked back to the front of the car.

Mika stuttered some more, not wanting to speak out about his past history with firearms. Yes, Lacus and René had used them plenty of times in his presence—more times than he was comfortable to admit—but he never dared ask to hold them. "I-I… I just can't. They're dangerous."

"Well, of course they're dangerous. They're not styrofoam toys little kids play with around the house. They're real—metal that fires more metal. Now stop whining and pay attention."

René tried pulling him closer for better viewing, but there was a firm tug of resistance and his student planted his feet in the dirt, not budging another inch.

"Mika."

"Can't we do something else? Please. I don't like guns."

"Lacus and I use them in front of you all the time, and how can you not like something if you've never tried it?"

"They're loud," Mika exclaimed.

"They're supposed to be."

"And dangerous!"

"Again, supposed to be."

"And hot!"

"What does that even have to do with anything?"

"They hurt! René, please," he begged, "please. I don't want to use them. Please."

René repressed a groan. He stopped their bickering and took a long hard look at his blubbering friend as he continued to struggle pathetically with prying his fingers from his wrist, watching the way fresh tears pricked at his eyes which were filled with fear and something else he knew all to well.

He released a heavy sigh of defeat and set the gun down on the car's hood. Mika's struggles paused midway at its heavy metallic clank, and he released a short yelp as he was pulled against René's chest and held there in his arms.

René stared towards the clouds ahead.

"Dammit, Mikaela."

Mika's body trembled, and his grip on the front of René's jacket tightened as he whispered over and over a feeble apology. 

Fingers were threaded through his hair in reassurance. "It's fine, we don't have to fire the gun today. We'll skip to the next lesson and take off from there, but first just answer this: have you ever used a gun before?"

Mika hesitated, but nodded his head in the affirmative, being sure he kept his tears securely tucked away against the other's chest.

"Why and When?"

"I… I was twelve. My da—Guren, left it out, and I just wanted to hold it, and I didn't mean for it to go off. It was an accident."

"And he found out?"

Mika nodded.

"What did he do?" There was no response, and René pulled away just enough to force his chin up, pressing more sternly, "What did he do, Mika? Did he shoot you?"

"He—" Mika swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "He shot around me."

René's eyes narrowed to slits. "What does that mean?"

"H-he and I used to fight a lot, and when I fired the gun he was coming back inside the house and it hit the wall next to his head. I didn't mean to shoot at him, I swear! I just got scared a-and I told him that but he didn't believe me, and he… dragged me to the basement, and he beat me, and… and handcuffed me to one of the pipes, and I said a lot of hateful things to him, and he got upset, and kept… firing the gun around me. Close to me. And he burned me, and one of the bullets hit my arm, and—"

"Where?"

"What?" Mika blinked up at him.

"Show me where the bullet hit you."

René ended the embrace fully and allowed Mika space to point out exactly where the bullet had struck his arm. Not being able to pull his sleeve up high enough to show the faded scar, Mika could only point at its location—a little ways below his right shoulder.

"It was just a scratch."

"Scratches still hurt," René muttered, a dark tint lacing his words. "And the burn?"

Mika turned away this time, a sinking feeling in his chest warning him to keep his mouth shut or else he would face the consequences. It was supposed to be a special secret kept strictly between father and son; a morbid skeleton in their closet that only they held the key to.

"Mika, the burn."

He could feel it buzzing, the burn. It was like the low static of a television screen, or ghost pain, vibrating beneath his skin, and he shivered as memories of that horrific day came flooding into his mind all at once, and like the beginnings of a violent tsunami at a semi-peaceful beach the emotions he'd restrained since then went unnoticed at first. His breath hitched without warning and his friend caught more of the tears racing down his cheek before he was able to notice their existence.

"Mika…"

"I'm, sorry." He backed away from René's touch and cleared the dampness from his face with his sleeve. With eyes still boring down at him from a mere two feet away, the memories of his father pressing the scorching barrel of a gun against his skin was hastily seized, bound with chains and shoved back into the lockbox he'd made specially for his adoptive family. He couldn't let his past consume him right now. Not with his older brother watching.

His shoulders rose, and then they slowly descended back in place, calm and composed.

"Sorry," he spoke again, his episode having made his apology waver.

With how much remorse was emitting from his body like steam, he was glad René disregarded it and simply said, "it's fine. If you're not ready to talk about it then I won't force you. Now, if you're ready we can continue."

Mika nodded and trailed after his friend as he took the gun from the hood of the vehicle and fastened it back in the back with the other, less deadlier weapons.

‘Pathetic.’

He was pathetic. He knew it, and he knew René knew it too, but he wished he could peer into his mind just to hear the tiny voice in his head admit it out loud since its owner never would.

"You're not a disappointment, Mika. I never once thought you were, and I doubt I'll ever think it in the future."

That was a lie. He only said that because he needed to put a fast cork over his melodramatic behavior before it became too much of a burden for him to handle, just like it had been for everyone else he came into contact with.

His eyelids fluttered.

‘Swallow it. Swallow it. Swallow it. Don't cry again. Don't cry.’

With his new weapon of choice in hand, René told him to come. The expression he wore made the younger prodigy cowar and take small baby steps after him. It showed nothing, like always, just like when they were kids, but in his disquieted mind he could see the agitation and disappointment as if he were viewing it from a telescope.

He'd done it again.

"Okay," René began, holding the talon flat in his palm so that he could take in its full curvatured shape and simple design. "This is called a karambit. This one was made from cold steel so it's a lot more durable than the ones made from hot steel. I'll explain to you what the differences are later. The large hole on the handle is called a safety ring. Its job is to prevent the weapon from sliding out of your hand or having it taken away easily and used against you." René glanced up for a second to ensure he was paying attention, and when Mika nodded, he continued. "This is a close range weapon, but because you still have a lot of physical and mental training to do you won't be able to use it efficiently for a while. You're smaller and more lightweight like Lacus, so for you using stealth over strength is preferable for now. But unlike him you won't be able to break away if somebody just so happens to grab you, so you'll have to dodge. I could've taught you back at the house but seeing as we're already here we might as well use this time to get it out of the way. I'll teach you how to stand and how to hold it properly."

With an internal battle raging on inside the deepest parts of his conscience, more than half of René's words flew through one ear and right out the other. He could feel the chill of the blade in his palm, but for some off reason the added weight failed to feel authentic. René spoke again as he demonstrated how to hold the karambit, and spoke some more when he molded his body into the correct position, but like before, each word evaporated like their breath in the frigid air. He ignored the voices whispering in his head and tried focusing only on the hands touching his body and the warmth radiating into him through the other. He concentrated on his closeness and longed presence, not the false anger the voices were convincing him was real.

As he did all of that, his body switched itself into autopilot and he was converted into an emotionless marionette that could only follow orders with no thought process to speak of and eyes as hollow as tree trunks that could see but not comprehend. It was a shame to admit he used this method frequently when living in the home of Guren Ichinose, but it was the only way he knew how to cope with the overbearing despondency strangling him like the jaws of a hyena.

He tried his best to do as he was told, but his engagement was lazy and visibly lacking in interest. He could tell René picked up on it. He didn't mention it but Mika could sense he was getting more and more fed up the longer he kept up with his exhausting attitude, and in the end, after an hour of slashing empty air and being scolded by his teacher for being increasingly slow and sloppy, the training was ultimately called off.

The weapon was taken away from him and packed up, the suitcase was hidden once more and the car ride home was enough to make him want to burst into tears right then and there. He was asked if there was something wrong. Incapable of meeting the expression he knew to be drenched in aggravation, he continued tracing the trees outside the window with a vague response of, "nothing, I'm fine."

"You're lying." René didn't need to look at him to verify his claim.

Mika's eyes fell to his lap, and the next three hours were spent with either of their thoughts kept to themselves.

~~~

He didn't know what time it was when he finally woke up. How he found the gal to fall asleep in the first place was anyone's guess, but when his eyes cracked open as a result of the gentle jostling of his body against something hard and warm he was met with the olive-brown complexion of coffee cream—the ceiling of the hallway.

He groaned tiredly and blinked a majority of his nap away. He could hear something in the background—small whimpers from a child, or something closely related to it? He couldn't tell. The voice it was coming from sounded familiar, however, but then at the same time it didn't.

He grabbed hold of René's jacket and tugged faintly to show that he was awake and didn't need carrying around anymore, but the speechless heads-up went ignored and the door to his bedroom was nudged open.

"René, I'm sorry," he apologized, voice hoarse from sleep and hours of managing a strained throat.

René lied him down on the bed and took a seat himself, brushing a few stands of blond from his cheek. "You weren't feeling well, Mika," he said. The room was too dark to make out his expression. "Don't force yourself to do things if you're not going to put in your best effort. You were distracted and hardly paid attention to anything I was saying, and you lied to me. Again."

Lied. Again. Mika could feel his heart churning in his chest.

"I'm sorry."

"I already told you I don't want apologies. I want honest answers, so if you're not going to talk then—"

"I made you upset this morning," he interrupted. He clasped his friend's hand within his just as it disappeared from his cheek and pulled himself into a sitting position. His grip was like a feather, insecure with the fear of René wanting to pull away. "And then during our exercises this morning, I… I messed up again; and then at the junkyard, I was too scared to fire the gun and I thought you were… I-I thought you—" he choked. Why did he have to be so pathetic? "I'm sorry."

Just as he'd anticipated would happen, René's hand slipped from out of his grasp, leaving behind only the warm ghost of its presence. A large tear rolled down his cheek and he closed his eyes, ready to apologize all night for his disrespectful behavior back at the junkyard, but his words died on their way past his lips as the same hand that rejected his touch slipped to the area beneath his tear, stopping it in its track. The way René's thumb stroked his cheek back and forth in slow intervals sent shivers up his spine, and he was at a loss of breath.

"René…"

"I already told you you're not a disappointment, didn't I?"

His words were soft; sympathizing in a way he'd never heard before from somebody who showed little to no compassion as a child.

"Didn't I?" He repeated.

Mika nodded his head.

"You piss me off, Mika, that I'll admit, but so does Lacus. I already knew you weren't feeling well today but we had to continue, I couldn't just let you stay in bed all day. But when it comes to training with real weapons I need to have your full attention so you don't end up hurting yourself, so if you're still not feeling up to it after we've done our work out then you have to tell me before we leave. You have to talk. Remember, you're allowed to do that now."

Mika could feel as the corners of his lips wobbled upward, forming a smile that reflected his sadness, the pain and the heart-wrenching appreciation that blossomed immediately after the hand caressing his face lowered and vanished all at once. He'd forgotten that there was no longer a risk of inhumane punishments for voicing his discomforts out loud, and that he was with his family who loved, cared for him and rescued him from his old life when they could've just pretended he was another faceless stranger in the city. He'd forgotten that he was an equal now.

But René just reminded him.

"Thank you, René." He brushed the wetness from his face with a sniff and let out a pathetic attempt at laughter that sounded more akin to a sob. Everyday, it was seeing Lacus and René's content, smiling faces that made him question what he could've possibly done to deserve a second chance with them. Feeling their warmth, really touching them, being enveloped in their aroma and undeniable presence, he felt like the most luckiest boy in world. If only he could stress to them just how grateful he was for everything they've done with something more than everyday smiles and thank yous.

René left the bed to stand in front of him. He cupped his face in his hands and then pressed his lips to his forehead in a short but tender embrace, and Mika could feel his body slowly relax. His smile rose higher up on his blushing cheeks and he unconsciously leaned into his lips with both eyelids falling shut.

But the coldness of the room quickly seeped in between them as the kiss was ended and René turned to leave.

"Get some rest, Mika. We'll go over everything again tomorrow."

"Wait!" Mika grabbed his wrist with a speed he had no knowledge of possessing, but the deed was already done and there was no turning back now.

René raised and inquisitive brow covered by the darkness of the room. "What?"

He spoke before his brain could rush in and seal his lips with duct tape. "I wanna fire the gun tomorrow!"

"What?"

The red on his face darkened exceptionally at his friend's doubt, and he repeated his declaration boldly. "The gun, I… I wanna fire it tomorrow. Please."

"Mika, you—"

"Please, René. I know I can do it. I overreacted today."

"Mika," René sighed in exasperation, allowing his friend to drag him back to where he stood a few seconds before. "You didn't overreact. That was a naturally reaction to trauma. Anyone would've—"

"Please, René."

"Why?"

The strangling grip on his wrist faltered, but Mika wasn't going to back down yet. He needed to prove to his two friends that he wasn't a complete failure.

"I want to learn how to use one too," he persisted, "the right way, and talking to you about it earlier, it helped. I've never told anyone about what happened before. It made me feel… better."

René eyed him with that same penetrative look from earlier that actively sniffed out any sign of hesitancy or indecisiveness, and on the inside Mika was writhing like a worm under his scrutiny. However, he showed nothing but determination on the outside, and held onto it with a bone crushing grip until the assassin waned and caved at last.

"Fine, Mika. If you say you're ready, you're ready. I'll teach you how to properly fire a gun."

The grin stretched across his friend's face made the full moon outside somehow shine brightly through the black-out curtains, and René rolled his eyes.

"If you need me I'll be in my room."

He turned to make yet another exit, but this time instead of an unexpectedly strong hand shooting out to stop him, a full body rushed in front of him and blocked his path to the door.

"What the hell are you doing?" He questioned flatly.

Mika put some modest space between them and cleared his throat, twiddling his fingers behind his back as he mumbled, "Sorry. I was just wondering if I could—I-I mean, if we could hang out. Together. In your room. Or anywhere else in the house, it doesn't matter! Or if you're too tired I can just stay quiet! I won't touch any of your things either! Or we can go outside! There's still a lot of snow!"

René had to squeeze the space between his eyes to stop the oncoming headache. "Mika, please stop talking like that. Yes, you can hang out in my room. You don't have to ask."

"Oh, I just thought that, well, it's your room and—"

"Stop talking."

"Okay."

René held the door open for Mika, who had begun sweating bullets under his turtleneck with how hard his heart was pounding in his chest, and began the short journey to his room. Once inside, the light was flicked on and he was told to take a seat wherever while René himself unzipped his jacket, pulled his shirt up over his head, tossed them both precariously on a chair, and disappeared into the restroom. The restless chattering in his head whispered for him to sit on the floor, adding with it some senseless demeaning reasons for why, but he knew René would only get upset if he walked out and saw him on the ground instead of the bed or a chair, and so he picked a spot on the bed and crawled aboard.

He wondered what they would talk about. Asking to hang out was one thing, but actually doing it… he never anticipated that part. Should he talk about René's exotic pets? Did he know how to play games like Twenty Questions or Would You Rather? Should he ask what his reward was back at the junkyard?

He gasped softly at the sudden knock coming from the other side of the door.

Was René expecting more visitors? What if it was Lacus? He still had yet to see him and René said he was on punishment, but then he just remembered that strange familiar crying he swore he heard earlier…

He scooted off of the bed and took hesitant steps across the room, unsure of what to expect. A low muffled moan sounded as he reached his hand out, and just as it touched the cold metal knob, another hand grabbed his wrist from seemingly nowhere and he was spun around in such a sharp manner that the image of the door morphed right back into the image of the bed.

He blinked.

"Apologies, Sir, Miss Krul was called away on business and requested I deliver him to you for further monitoring."

No response from René, and Mika craned his head over a broad shoulder to catch a glimpse of none other than his friend Lacus being handed over from a burly man in a butler's outfit twice as large as all three of them. His voice was gruff and he carried a reddish gash under his left eyebrow that had long since scarred over, but the door was swung shut in his face before he could make out any further details.

Not that it was important.

What was important was the unconscious Lacus Welt being carried over to the bed. 

The boy's chest was heaving frantically. Strings of his normally tamed hair clung to his forehead which was damp with a thin sheen of sweat, and Mika's lips fell open as he took in his most jubilant friend blindfolded and groaning heavily as if he were fighting the pains of a horrible fresh injury.

"René, what…?"

"This is only a fraction of Lacus's punishment," René told him as he propped a large pillow beneath his brother's head, ignoring the sting of nails digging into his arm. The room became disturbed by yet another loose and languid groan and the bed shuttered as Lacus kicked his legs groggily beneath the blanket as if to cowar away from something. He squirmed out of the hands trying to help him and curled in on himself defensively.

"He's in pain."

"Yes, he is, and all we can do is wait for it to pass on its own and be here for him when he wakes up." René brushed a few sweaty strands behind his ear and adjusted the blindfold on his face. He then sat down at Lacus's side and motioned for Mika to do the same. "His eyes are open," he continued, "but he can't see, hear or feel anything caused by anything outside of his own head."

Mika didn't know how to react as Lacus ground his teeth together and continued to claw at the bedsheets. He'd never seen him so broken down before. "I don't understand. Who did this to him? Why is he in so much pain?"

"Ferid constructed a drug specifically for him when we were younger. According to the sick bastard it's supposed to put Lacus back in line and keep him there until he gets too full of himself again. The reason he's in pain is because the drug tampers with his body's nerves, and while it does that it seeks out every bad memory he's ever had, everything that's ever caused him either physical, emotional, or mental distress, and it amplifies them to the point where Lacus is tricked into reliving them as if they were happening for the first time. The pain he's feeling right now isn't real. It wont leave bruises or scratch marks on him like they had in the past. What he's going through is meant to scar him on the inside, and for all we know the Lacus right now is six years old again, reliving all the shit that happened between him and his mother. Or even his disgusting excuse for a father."

"But when we were kids, Lacus always said good things about his dad." Mika's tone lessened, uncertain if he was recalling their childhood accurately. "Or, I think…"

"No, you're right," René said, readjusting his and Lacus's position yet again so that he sat fully on the bed with his brother's head resting atop his lap—an accommodation for his sightless painful clawing. "Lacus's father was all he had after his aunt couldn't take what his mother was doing to him anymore and moved back to Germany. Because he was always at work, all he knew was that she bought and sold drugs, but nothing more. Back then, when he could, Lacus would either run away to hang out with us, or he would stay home and hide behind his father until he had to leave."

"But I—"

"Quiet. A few months after his aunt left, and after Lacus's mom was taken care of and Lacus ran away from home for good, he and I were on our way to meet up with you to deliver an early birthday gift. A car followed us for the first two and a half blocks, but by the time we noticed it, it was already too late. The man inside grabbed Lacus, and he just… drove off. I chased after them and tried asking for help from some nearby adults, but nobody cared enough to listen to a homeless dirty brat. I tried running to you but was hit on my way there and woke up here the next day."

Mika had a hand held over his mouth, speechless. How could all of that have happened without his knowledge?

René's story, him being adopted thinking they had either died or abandoned him days before his tenth birthday, it was all starting to fall into place. They never left him, they were in danger and just couldn't get to him in time before he was picked up and taken away. While he was twiddling his thumbs in bed surrounded by the other orphans, safe from the city and all of the people in it, one of his friends had been ruthlessly snatched from the streets in plain sight and the other lay injured in a foreign home hundreds of miles away.

"Lacus didn't tell me he'd been molested that day until just a few months ago when we came back to Sanguinem and went out to survey the city for good hunting ground. He recognized his father drinking at some bar, waited for him to come out, followed him to his new home and he killed him, his new wife and their child."

"What?" Mika's voice was hushed by a shockwave of emotions caused by the overwhelming downpour of new information. "Th-that was the family that was hung in their home."

"Was that all the police were willing to release to the public?" René sounded unimpressed. "Whatever, as long as Lacus got what he wanted, that's all that matters. And anyway, his luck ran out a long time ago and now he's here, and everything the city has ever done to him is holding him prisoner in his own mind. For as long as we're here, Sanguinem deserves everything that's coming to i—"

René's rage-fuelled threat came to a screeching halt as arms threw themselves around his body and constricted as if the owner's life depended on it. Mika's shoulders quivered with the fresh trickles of tears tracing down his face, and they dripped from his chin to Lacus's perspired temple. The sight of his eldest brother panting and growling like a cornered dog grew bleary and distorted, and he turned his face away out of respect, knowing Lacus wouldn't want to be seen in such a vulnerable state. He nuzzled his face against René's chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

"When will he be okay?" He asked.

René relaxed somewhat and dropped his hand on his head, gazing down at Lacus through the many tiny splits of blond hair. "In a few more hours, when his eyes close. He'll be aggressive for a few days so if he says anything insensitive or hurts you—"

"It'll be okay," he assured, his voice full of sincerity and understanding. "All that matters is we're together again after everything that's happened. I'm just glad you guys are here, safe."

René hummed in agreement and let his fingers roam in Mika's hair absentmindedly. Meanwhile, his other hand remained occupied with the task of shackling Lacus's wrists together beneath the blanket and stopping him from tearing at his own skin. Whatever it was he was reliving in his mind he could physically feel as he struggled to fight it off, but thankfully his older brother was entering the final stages of his punishment, so all of his movements were becoming more labored and sluggish by the minute, rendering him less of a threat in regards to potentially lashing out and hurting one or all three of them.

"René."

"Hmm?"

"W-well, I know this isn't good timing, and umm…"

"Out with it, Mika."

"Sorry, I-I was just wondering what my reward was…"

"It was a new phone. Seeing as I'm not allowed in stores, I had a friend pick it up for me and drop it off where nobody would find it. It's in my drawer now."

A small smile developed across Mika's lips and he got more comfortable huddled close to his friend's chest, no longer minding the partial nudity. It was an unfamiliar yet serene closeness he'd never felt before. No fear or disgust like when Yuu held him, and with a new phone he would finally be able to talk to him and Lacus while they were away in the city. He wouldn't feel as lonely by himself in the house anymore. "Thank you."

René hummed again, and with a soft hue of red dusted over either cheek, Mika followed his lead in shifting deeper down in the blankets and bundling close to one another. He'd never slept in the same bed as somebody else before—two other people to be exact—so didn't quite know what to do with his arms or legs, but fortunately René was more experienced than he was and did all the work as casually as breathing, holding him securely in one arm and Lacus the same way in the other. All he had to do was lean in and relax. Lacus wasn't groaning out in pain as much and putting up a fuss like he was a little while ago, which gave him just enough confidence needed to reach his hand across René's bare chest and thoughtfully adjust the cloth concealing his swollen eyes. He wanted Lacus to know that he would always be there for him through thick in thin, even if he was too unconscious to realize it; that he would do anything for him, Whenever, no matter what. Forever. Because that's what true friends did for each other.

Chapter Text

 

"And this part is called the magazine. As I'm pretty sure you know by now, it holds the bullets so you don't have to carry them around in your hands or pockets. This one can only hold a total of ten bullets, but you'll only need that amount either if you're playing around—which you shouldn't—if you're going up against multiple enemies, or if your aim is shit—which it will be for a while—but remember, it only takes one bullet to kill someone, got it?"

Mika nodded, observing in genuine interest as René inserted a magazine and pulled the slide back. He held it in place and nodded towards the little bronze round waiting to be fired inside. It was astounding that such a small piece of metal could kill just about anything if fired in the right spot.

"This is the ejection port. When you fire the gun, the shell of the bullet will come out through here and fly even where you least expect it. They're hot so I don't recommend picking them up."

Mika nodded again, and the slide was released, ultimately preparing the gun for use.

"Come," René requested, pulling him so that he stood with his back to his chest. A flair of nausea settled itself in his gut as the cold and heavy device was manuevered into his grasp which was beginning to excrete a nervous sweat. He was glad René's hands were on his, working with them. He moved one hand, his dominant, high up on the grip, and adjusted his fingers so that they didn't overlap one another. He murmured for him to relax both his shoulders and his grip, relaying that those two mistakes could lead to pain and a sloppy aim. "When you're holding it, whether it's loaded or not, doesn't matter, make sure you keep your finger off of the trigger, okay? Your finger should only be on it if you're pointing the gun with intentions on firing it."

With a third nod, the heel of Mika's non-dominant hand was placed on the exposed part of the grip where his dominant couldn't fill in the extra space. His thumb was beneath his other thumb, shifted forward a few millimeters, and his other four fingers wrapped around the bottom of the grip beneath the trigger guard and around his dominant hand on the opposite side.

With René's hands cupping his, Mika wouldn't be able to pull away even if he wanted to. And, God, did he want to.

"Good. Now, put your finger on the trigger like this and aim. I'm holding onto you for now so you'll get used to the recoil and not drop the gun, but after five practice shots you're on your own."

Mika gulped, unconsciously taking a step back until his back was flush against René's front. He felt their fingers push down on the trigger as if it were happening in slow motion, delayed and torturous. He turned his head away and squeezed his eyes shut, not having prepared himself fast enough before the gun went off a second too early.

Like a deer hearing a twig snap in the forest, he jumped up in fright and scrambled away from the booming echoes sound. However, being wedged between René and his body which was easily ten times stronger than his own, he was easily held in place, a low voice beside his ear coaxing him to pull himself back together.

Following the command was in no way a simple task. During breakfast many hours before, he'd felt largely motivated and inspired to better himself both mentally and physically. After the incident with his hand and René and being locked in that room for weeks he promised himself that he would never self-harm again, and after the heartbreaking history he was informed of the other night while watching his friend being tortured by his own memories, he took yet another vow: to become stronger and catch up to his comrades; to make them and himself proud, and the second step in doing that, following the bold request to fire the gun, was to throw his pills to the wind for good and face life's side effects head-on.

But that was hours ago, before he set eyes back on the heavy grey killer…

He forced himself to stop struggling in the others embrace, doing so reducing him to violently quivering in its place, and he took in deep gulps of air through his mouth.

"Just nine more and we're done for the day."

He nodded, using that promise to fix his posture back to the way he was taught, and he planted his feet steadily on the ground. His stance was adjusted here and there, and anxiety made the gun tremble in his grasp, but he was ready this time.

‘Come on. You can do this.’

"Ready?"

"Yeah."

"Good. Cause if you close your eyes again you might end up shooting another bird."

His head whipped around faster than it took to snap one's fingers. "I shot a bird?!"

"No, but you could've. Now turn back around."

"René!"

A smirk found its way across René's lips and he directed his friend's attention back to the tin target standing on the hood of an old abused tow truck twenty feet away from where they parked.

"Line up the sights and relax your breathing. And stop shaking so much or you'll miss all of the shots."

"I'm trying."

Through the discomfort triggering an almost overbearing fight or flight response, it took a great deal of effort to match his breathing with René's as he lined his sight with the two others built on the gun.

‘In. Out. In. Out. In. Out, and…’

Mika flinched as the passenger door window shattered to a million shards and littered the snow with jagged smudged reflections of the beaming sunshine.

His shoulders slouched in discouragement.

Maybe if he still had his glasses, focusing on so many factors at once wouldn't be so headache inducing. Lining the sights up always made him feel as if his eyes were going crossed. And maybe they were.

He released a heavy puff of air from within in his cheeks and got back into position.

Another miss.

And another.

And another.

And when René left his side it was embarrassing to the point he wanted to just give up and call it a day.

Miss.

Miss.

Miss.

Miss.

Miss.

The large truck, spared of bullet holes, was a demonstration of his progress.

His shoulder was given a reassuring squeeze, but all Mika could feel was failure and the cold, daunting revelation of his natural lack of talent.

"I wasn't hoping you'd hit the target," René told him, taking the gun from him and exchanging the empty magazine with a fresh full one. He pointed the gun at the can and fired it after a five second pause. Mika blinked.

"How did you…?"

"Practicing. Every day."

As if he didn't feel disheartened enough. There was no way in hell he could ever catch up to Lacus and René if he could hardly land a shot on a truck, and he doubted any amount of practice would make perfect with him. It was hopeless. He was hopeless.

"Are you still scared of guns?"

Mika looked up into unique crimson eyes, the sunlight showcasing the breathtaking specks of ink that splashed the right half of the left iris. It was like tiny black holes in space leading into an even larger abyss. Its beauty stalled his response, and he quickly threw his gaze to the battered dirty snow.

"N-no."

"Then you've made progress and my bullets didn't go to waste. Good job."

A hand settled itself on his head, and a small smile on his face.

A tranquil silence stretched over the junkyard, the gun having been placed behind them on the car's hood so that René could properly hold Mika without risking a bullet to either of their toes. They watched as juvenile crows poked at the rotting corpse of a rat about a stone's throw away; admired the way one particular car was fused with the ground from decades of bipolar weather and harsh rains turning the ground to quicksand.

With strong arms wrapped around his middle and the scent of freshly washed laundry and natural Earth cancelling out the once overpowering stench of rot and rust, Mika's stomach was doing full summersaults. It was as though his body were made purely of firecrackers sealed in flash paper. Everything was shaking and breaking out into a sweat, his heart couldn't take it.

He hoped for dear life the effects of being touched by somebody who could pass as a model weren't noticable on the outside, considering how frantic and hair-raising they were on the inside. It was just like with Lacus.

Could he honestly not tolerate being touched? Or was it just his long lost friends being alive and well making him worse off than when Yuu held him so intimately? Or perhaps it was their attractive appearance? Or his med withdrawal. Or maybe he was simply starved of genuine affection and was getting too attached.

Yeah that had to be it. He was just becoming attached.

For somebody like him, somebody who was picked on on a daily basis by boys and girls his own age and up, somebody who everyone else knew had what they would pass as a mental defect, somebody damned by rumors, catching the eye of an individual he found attractive was something he could only dream of after dragging himself back home from having a carton of milk accidentally spilled over his clothes.

There were only a handful of boys he found alluring enough to ogle at at Seraph High, but those were the same boys who crucified him for meeting their gazes for longer than a split second.

Desperate. Sicko. Freak. Fag. Attention seekeing emo. Nobody wanted anything to do with something so grotesque. He wondered that if Lacus and René lived normal teenage lives and attended the same school as him, if they would have joined in on the crowd with their pitchforks and torches ready. If lying wasn't such a worldwide trend he would ask them, but seeing as that wasn't the case…

He sighed, his thumb unconsciously tracing over the prominent blue veins of hands much larger than his own while he watched two crows zip back and forth around a roaming seagull too busy searching for open trash bags below to notice their aerial assault.

Would Lacus and René still treat him like he was worth something if they had met in an alternate universe?

He didn't need to hear an answer to know what it was, and it was that fact alone that made him want to go back home and throw the blanket over his head for the rest of the day. His heart fell and he was suddenly too tired to continue on with the remainder of the day. But he supposed that's what he got for letting his mind wander unchecked for too long.

Reluctantly, he pulled René's hands down from around his waist and casted his dull, lifeless blue eyes back to where they belonged. The ground.

Catching onto the abrupt change in the air, René's interest in the birds above switched down to the dreary looking boy rounding his car to the rear passenger seat. What caused him distress all of a sudden was beyond knowledge, but he wasn't going to just let it slide and eat away at them both until he decided to speak up, which he knew he wasn't going to do regardless of the talk they shared just the night before.

Why did Mikaela have to be so stubborn?

The car door was pulled open but he closed it right back up and smoothly placed himself in between his friend and his only escape.

Dejection turned to shock in a heartbeat.

"What's wrong?"

Shock slackened to Mika moping up at him with an expression that pleaded for him to drop the subject and let him pass, but René crossed his arms over his chest and got comfortable with his weight leaned up against the door. He wasn't going to be able to worm his way out of this one.

"Talk," he ordered with a flick of his chin, as if he were all ears, intent on finding out what was infecting his mind this time.

Mika stood unmoving for a long moment, not knowing what else to say other than he was tired. The answer wasn't a lie, but then it wasn't the complete truth either, and thick dark brows drew together in a pryful manner that made him shift from one foot to the other.

"Something's bothering you, Mika. I thought we talked about this last night."

"I know," he sighed in exasperation. "It's nothing this time, really. I'm just tired. Can we please go home?"

The last thing he wanted to do was argue with his friend. It was bad enough his explanations weren't being taken seriously, and at the rate they were going each word was becoming more and more strained with unshed tears. But it wasn't like he could blurt out that he thought his best and only friends in the world, who just so happened to play the role of his big brothers, were attractive; that he wanted René to hold him like he did the other night, and Lacus to shower him with more kisses over every inch of his face. It would ruin everything they've built together. They would think he was some creep and keep their distance. After being reunited with them after years of sadness and being alone, he didn't want something as mediocre as his desperate confused emotions causing a drift in their friendship. It would kill him.

But René wasn't listening to him and he wouldn't let him get in the car, and he could feel his eyes watering in frustration the longer they stood there staring at each other in the freezing cold, and he knew he wasn't going to win because René was always so stubborn and he was being backed into a corner and he didn't know what to do and—

"Mika."

He hadn't even realized his cover was soiled until a warm gentle hand took his and urged him closer to wipe away a stray tear.

"We have to stick together, that's what you said, isn't it? and Lacus and I have been following your rules every day since the day we were separated as children. We tell each other just about everything no matter how pointless or stupid or embarrassing we think it is, and we help each other cope and it's because of you that we haven't grown up hating each other. Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you? Hey, look at me." He tilted Mika's head up and held it there in determination, not allowing him to turn away no matter how hard he resisted. "You said that you felt better after talking about your fear of guns and today you went as far as to conquer that fear. Whatever it is making you feel like this now, you can end it and rise above it. I won't let you shut us out. You can try. You can get pissed off or cry or curse or whatever, but I won't let it happen and neither will Lacus so you might as well just give in and tell me what's bothering you. We're not leaving until you do."

Mika exhaled deeply, his whole body seeming to deflate in René's palm. Hearing that he had been in his friends thoughts even after the separation was heartwarming, don't get him wrong, and them becoming closer because of the promises he forced them to agree to was beyond honorable considering his insignificance, but the fact still stood: they were friends. Just friends—and family—but nothing more. The cravings that have been developing in his heart recently were forbidden and selfish and full of accumulating greed, but the hand on his cheek was so warm.

He leaned into that hand, and the one it belonged to became puzzled when another, much colder hand reached up and held it there tightly as if it would melt away like a dream.

"You're my friend," he said quietly, needing to remind himself verbally so that he could hear it outside of the restrictions of his own mind. He could feel René's confusion in the way his hand froze, and he looked up at him with a sad sort of smile. "I'm not upset, René, really. There's nothing wrong with me. I just get tired quickly sometimes, but thank you for telling me that stuff anyway. It was really nice of you."

Nice, encouraging, kind, generous. It was all he needed to hear to know that his love and undying devotion wasn't as one-sided as he convinced himself it was. Lacus and René loved him. They expressed it to him everyday. They may not feel that kind of attraction towards him, but at least they felt something amidst their childhood friendship and the way they honored each other with the title Brother. He had them all to himself, and that was just fine; it was enough for him. There was no need to abide by greed's needs and become moody and dampen their time together out of nowhere. All it did was confuse them for something that wasn't their fault and that wasn't fair.

Besides, René must have felt fatigued from giving him motivational speeches almost everyday, along with training him and teaching him at such early hours in the morning for even more hours at a time. The dark shadows under his eyes had become more prominent from his irregular sleep patterns.

With a deep and rejuvenating breath of air, he shook his thoughts away with a more convincing grin, dropping his hand from René's while he was at it.

"So, can we go home now?" He was all set and ready to take a three hour nap in the car and play games on his phone afterwards.However, he couldn't turn away. Not because of him, but because of René's hand still attached to his face. "Um, René?"

René didn't reply. His eyes suddenly doubled in size as they left Mika's and stared past him at a blank patch of frozen mud on the ground. Mika could only make out his own silent breathing over the unwelcoming cries of crows in the distance, and watched his friend in a combination of loss and confusion as he finally let go of him and reached a hand to the back of his neck. René grunted, and both boys carried the same jarred expression on their face as they took in the tiny piece of metal resting in the center of his palm.

"René, what is that?"

"Shit." René spun on his heel, stumbling forward as he did so, and scanned across every inch of the condensed junkyard surrounding them, no stray motor going unregistered. He reached a hand out behind him expectantly, rasping, "The gun, Mika."

"What?"

"On the hood, Mika, the gun!"

Something sunk to the pit of his stomach hearing René's slurred command, and he rushed back to the front of the car and grabbed the gun they'd forgotten on the hood. René's grip around it was lacking.

"René, what's going on?"

With a sharp growl of resent, René threw the metal in his fist to the ground and replaced it with Mika's arm, roughly pulling him to stand at his back as he pointed and aimed the gun at nothing.

"René."

"Stay behind me," he hissed, throwing the direction of the barrel from left to right then left and back again in a frustrating search for who Mika could only assume was a dangerous enemy. An enemy that had already wounded the one trying to protect him.

Either boy held their breath. the breeze ruffled their hair and the crows had gone quiet, same with the seagulls, as if having sensed the danger looming in their territory. Snow crunched from a few yards up ahead, and René spun his gun and took aim once more.

And there he was.

A tall young man dressed in all black making his way towards them with a smile on his face and his hands tucked precariously away in his pockets. The clothes he wore contradicted the polar weather: a simple black suit with a tie, matching slacks and dress shoes that glistened in the sun.

The aura he carried about him as he sauntered through the bullet that nearly struck his head had René clenching his teeth and a small whimper of fear escape Mika's throat.

"René, wh-who is that man? What does he want?"

As if hearing the frightened child, the man pulled a small device from out of his pocket and raised it out in front of him, pointing it at the gutless boy's neck, but his demeanor and gentleman like approach remained unperturbed.

The strange contraption that mimicked that of a gun went off without a single sound to be heard. A sharp gasp cut through the air like a knife, but it was René who was ultimately seen sinking to the ground in Mika's arms.

"René!"

"My, how long it's been since I've last seen you," the man commented above them, his voice friendly and light as René struggled to pull himself to his knees, but Mika's terror stricken grip held him rigid in a headlock.

"What… what the hell are you… doing here?" He managed through the darkness sweeping over his vision.

The man cocked his head. He got down on one knee and tucked his gun away, replacing its cool metal with that of the soft skin belonging to the boy gaping at him in terror, but his unnatural pitch black eyes remained trained on fluttering blood red.

"So, this is the new child I've been hearing so much about lately." Mika's body shuddered under his touch. It was gentle, harmless even, and he couldn't sense a lick of ill will from his presence even as he sat there clutching his friend's body to his chest after being saved from a shot meant for him. The lack of alarm bells going off in his stomach was what made him tremble with so much fear. Who was this man?

"Please don't hurt him," he whimpered, jerking his face away from the man's palm and hiding it in René's shoulder as he gradually lost consciousness. René uttered his name. He tried telling him something that only they could hear, but his hand went limp on his lap before he could manage the first word and his features relaxed, and Mika knew from then that he was alone. "No. No, no, no, no, René, no. Please wake up. Please. What did you do to him!"

The man held out his hands, a graceful action in its simplicity and intentions towards the unconscious child lying before them, but Mika shook his head and pulled René even closer to his body, wrapping his arms around him protectively.

"It's okay, Mikaela. You have no reason to fear me. René is like a son to me, him and Lacus. I've known them since they were little boys and even watched from a distance as their mother, Krul, raised them into the fine young men they are today. I came a fairly long way to pay them a visit, as well as meet you personally."

"You shot him!" he yelled, as if that cancelled out all attempts at a disarming explanation.

"I merely put him to sleep," he corrected. "I'm aware of your relations to him and know full well he would not have allowed me to get this close without putting up a fuss; he can be so over protective. And as much as I would've loved to listen to him berate me for not visiting sooner and then attack me after, I was in a rush of sorts and needed to get you boys away from this location safely before the group of gentlemen who claimed this junkyard returned and gave you trouble. Now, if I may."

He held his arms out once more. Mika was skeptical and unconvinced, and rightfully so. The man appeared from out of nowhere, shot his friend down with not one, but two tranquilizer darts—one of which was supposed to be for him—claimed to be some distant father figure, was now trying to protect them from a force that was probably just as fabricated as his introduction, and was confident enough to try and actually peel René away.

His smile was kind, not unsettling like Ferid's or forced, and there was even an innocent dimple dipped into one of his cheeks that emphasised the obtuse docile ambiance radiating from him and closing in around them like a bubble. Could he really trust this guy?

He wasn't trying to physically force René away from him, and he sat patient and ready with open arms, not bothered by the wetness soaking into his expensive trousers.

With great reluctance that would've had Guren foaming at the mouth by now, Mika's arms weakened around his friend and he submitted with both eyes wary for misconception but his lips wordless. The man thanked him and carefully slipped his arms beneath René's knees and his back, lifting him as if he weighed no more than a conveniently sized canine.

He never knew René could pull off a look that was so boyish and chaste. To think he'd once shattered a man's face with a single kick…

He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled over to the rear passenger seat so that the stranger wouldn't have to struggle with getting the door open. René was propped up once inside and Mika got in close after him, guardedly watching the older gentleman rummage for the keys and get himself settled into the driver's seat.

His friend was out like a horse and he just got into a vehicle with a stranger.

‘Oh, God. What am I doing? What have I done?’

‘In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Don't panic. There's a gun next to you. If he takes you to a factory or says something weird, you can scare him with it.’

He cleared his throat and practically squished himself against René like a hydraulic press, side-eyeing the loaded firearm beside him and the sleek black hair of the driver as the engine was churned to life and they were driven from out of their safe hiding spot deep within the junkyard.

"Wh-where are you taking us?" His voice was just a whisper and he was sure the man might have missed it, but soon enough there was a response.

"I'm taking you boys back home. Like I said, I've been meaning to pay the family a visit and find it would be more appropriate to reconnect in a setting that wasn't surrounded by the city's wastes. I understand that you're frightened and uncomfortable but rest assure, Mikaela, I mean you no harm. My name is Rigr Stafford, though you may call me Mr. Saitō for short, and I traveled quite the distance to get here—all the way from Fiji to be specific—and I'm hoping you and I can become well acquainted with one another. Would you like me to open a window, by the way? You're—"

"I'm okay," he said over him, not having thought his blurted response through as he proceeded to wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans. He was far from okay. His skin was perspiring and his heart was racing faster and faster like a race car by the second. He wanted to stick his head out the window. He wanted the freezing air to leave his nose frostbitten, but he would never admit that out loud. Not when there was a potential promise of death in his future. And on top of that, René had told him that he wasn't allowed to be seen by the locals. He wouldn't want to run the risk of getting in trouble if he does manage to survive the strange murderer.

The phone he was gifted with yesterday vibrated in his pocket, and the man known as Rigr glanced back at him from the rearview when a startled yelp filled the car. Mika slapped his hands over his lips and apologized as if he'd just insulted the man to his face.

"What an interesting child," was all he murmured before redirecting his attention back to the road.

His phone vibrated for a second time and he fumbled through his pocket for the excited device.

A text from Lacus.

LACUS: hey what's going on out there? Why isn't René answering my texts?

LACUS: are you guys okay?

Seeing the name LACUS typed out across the screen instead of the familiar FRIEND, Mika felt a fraction of his fear dissipate.

But his tremorous fingers still crippled his response.

HIM: a man shpt rene. He said hes a friend nd hes taking us home but I yhink hes lying. I dont know what to do

He chewed on his sleeve as he waited for a response.

LACUS: where was he shot

LACUS: press down on the wound and pay attention to your surroundings

LACUS: did he tell you his name

LACUS: what does he look like

LACUS: are you hurt

‘How is he texting this all at once?’

HIM: he sai his name was mt saito

HIM: he sht rene with a dart and now hes not waking up

As soon as the text read delivered, his phone began vibrating more insistently—Lacus was calling him.

He accepted the call on the first ring and pressed the phone to his ear.

"Lacus!"

"Mikaela, Jesus Christ!" His voice was hoarse but breathless, as if he'd just woken up from a nightmare. "Fuck, you are going to be the death of me. Are you okay?"

"I-I'm fine, but—"

"Quiet, child, and listen: don't be scared, okay? Saitō's one of us. Can you hand the phone over to him."

"But—"

"Butts are for shit, kiddie. Give him the phone."

Lacus seemed upset. But why? Was it something he said?

With a twinge of pain now added with his fear, Mika did as he was told and got the driver's attention with a small, "um, Mr. Saitō, sir," and offered him the phone. Rigr accepted it without question.

"Lacus, it's been a while."

"Saitō, you shit! You shot René!"

Mika could practically feel the animosity. He hadn't heard Lacus that upset since the day he had a pinecone thrown at the back of his head by one of the orphans. The amount of talking down it took to save her from a vicious attack was immense.

"Doing well, as always. You make this organization proud."

"Bring Mikaela here right fucking now! Krul said he's ours and ours alone! You have no right to—"

"Please, Lacus," Rigr chuckled dismissively, "calm yourself. I understand that Mikaela belongs to you and your brother. I wouldn't dream of taking him from you, you have my word. I merely wished to meet the new addition to the family. You know how strict Krul is with adding new members, especially ones so young. We haven't had one in years." A noise of distrust on the other line and then, "You know, there's excitement all throughout the organization because of him. It wont be long before Wesker, Lest Karr, and the others flock through your doors wanting to lay claim with briefcases full of money. I was planning on sticking around to lend a helping hand, if you'd have me, of course. You boys should know by know I respect you no matter how little power you hold. You're like—"

"Don't you dare," Lacus warned.

"What?" Rigr joked lightheartedly. "I was only going to say that you and René are like close friends."

"Yeah, sure you were. And we don't need your help protecting Mika. We can do it just fine on our own."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, so what the hell is so funny?"

"Oh, nothing. It's just been so long since I've last heard your voice. I can tell you've matured over the years, and I can see René has too. He's very handsome."

"W-well, yeah. It would've been nice if you called sometime…"

Was that embarrassment in his voice? Mika couldn't tell, but it was definitely a new pitch from Lacus.

"Anyway, that's not why I wanted to talk to you. I simply wanted to tell you to keep your greedy paws off ki—Mika. He is OFF limits. I am so dead fucking serious. If he comes back here with even a single scratch on him, I'll kill you."

"There's not a doubt in my head you wouldn't, Lacus. Now, it was nice chatting with you again, but I'm sure Mikaela is anxious to speak with you just as much as you are him. I'll see you in a few hours."

And with that, Mika was handed his cellphone back.

"H-hello?"

"Ah, kiddie," came a rejoiced sigh.

"Are you mad at me?" he squeaked.

"No. Shit, Mika, no. I'm sorry if I made it seem like that. Very rarely do you piss me off. I'm just… I have a lot of shit going on in my head right now and my body hurts like hell all thanks to that stupid fucking drug Ferid stuck in me and—whatever, just a lot of shit. I have to go sort some things out with Krul now but please do me a favor and stay safe out there. Saitō isn't sick like Ferid, but he is the asshole's father so you can never be sure. Keep one eye on him. Always. That's an order from me to you."

"Okay."

"Your voice is so soft over the phone, Mika," he added more contently, successful in setting Mika's face ablaze. "It makes me happy even when I'm pissed, so I owe you for that. See you soon."

"O-okay."

He could hear Lacus smile on the other line, and there was a beep sound before the faint static in his ear died and he was left with only the rumble of the road. He looked up at Rigr's finely cut hair.

‘That's Ferid's father?’

The man seemed too youthful to be the father of somebody who looked only a few years younger than him. He wondered what the story behind that was. Of course, along with his affiliations with Lacus and René. René didn't react too thrilled when he emerged from the horizon—him firing a loaded gun at his head was evidence enough of that—but Lacus's behavior was notably more welcoming considering he wouldn't trust a cookie unless it was made directly under his nose. It's got him curious.

"So," Rigr began casually. Mika's body stiffened. "How is it with the boys? I imagine they must have felt pleasantly relieved to see you hadn't perished in the fire."

"Fire? I don't…"

"Oh, my apologies. It seems as if Lacus hasn't delved into the incident yet. I wouldn't want to intrude."

"What do you mean?" Mika's eyes landed on depthless black before quickly averting themselves to a lock of hair that had fallen over René's face. Then something else. Something on the back of his neck. He squinted and brushed the hair covering the strange marking to the side, his lips falling open at what was revealed.

"Unfortunately, it's not my place. You can ask Lacus when we arrive home. It's a sensitive subject that's haunted him for many years so I'm hoping you won't be too upset when he tells you."

"What is this?" He murmured to himself.

"Pardon?"

He rubbed his thumb over the engraved symbol thoughtfully. "There's a burn on his neck."

"It's a stamp," Rigr stated informatively. "Both he, Lacus; my son, Ferid, and Krul's many other loyal subjects possess one. They are simply there to remind me and the other co-leaders of the organization that they are owned property. Krul's property, to be exact."

"Owned property?" That couldn't be right. Krul was Lacus and René's mom. Wasn't she?

"Correct. Seeing as your skin is bare, you'll be quite the leading attraction for something, well… tumult. But never fear, for that is one of the sole purposes why I am here. With me standing by Krul's side, the commotion on who you belong to won't last very long. Just stick with your friends and the adults will deal with all the fuss."

Owned property. A fire that should've killed him. People from all over the world coming out to purchase him. What if he was separated from his friends again? What if Lacus or René ended up getting hurt because of him? It was all too much.

‘In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out.’

His peripherals got caught on something black outside the window that eclipsed the sun from his vision, and he had to do a double take.

A familiar house on a familiar street; everything, charred and burned to a crisp. Caution tape everywhere. The roof caved in with burnt pillars of wood now littering the carpets that were once a healthy beige. Windows black with soot and shattered to pieces in and out of the house. Damaged belongings never to be repaired or used again. The house was in ruins.

"Oh, my God." He couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Kimizuki…"

Chapter Text

 

Kimizuki's home had burned down to ashes. But how? Why? What happened? Was he okay? Was his sister okay? His parents?

He thought it had been a trick of the mind, but no. The house was there, standing broken and abandoned between two other homes untouched by the flames that destroyed it.

‘I hope he's okay.’

He hated Kimizuki. Loathed him to a high enough degree to not want to have anything to do with him. He was one of the many, alongside Yuu and his adoptive father, who played a key role in tearing him down to the ground like a house made of toothpicks, reducing him to his new pitiful self. He pushed him around, humiliated him countlessly in front of hundreds of students, mocked him and took part in calling him derogative slurs, but be that as it may, he would never wish death upon him. He would never wish death upon anyone. Especially a death as horrible as lying victim to violent flames.

What should he do? Who should he tell? He was cut off from the world. He himself had probably already been pronounced dead.

‘Calm down. Stop caring. Kimizuki was a jerk, but he's not dead. Leave it at that. Don't linger. He has nothing to do with you. He's not dead. Focus on René, he's still unconscious.’

He took a deep breath, his shoulders going up, and then dropping heavily as he released it.

‘I don't care about Kimizuki,’ he convinced himself as he followed Rigr Stafford up two flights of stairs and down an unfamiliar hallway. Both walls were lined with sophisticatedly painted portraits of past heires and heiresses, the dates gracing the bottom of each golden plate becoming less and less disfigured the closer they came to the door he presumed to be the manor's most recent successor. It was a double door, thicker than the others in the house, and had elegantly carved shapes decorating its wood.

It took a moment for him to realize black eyes gazing down at him expectantly but when he did, he nearly yipped out an apology before scampering forward to knock in Rigr's place. A busy female voice gave them permission to enter, but he looked to the older male beside him for a second voice of confirmation. René rest motionless in his arms, his face hidden against his suit, and Mika pulled the large door open without another second of his foolish hesitance.

Pink.

The first thing his eyes landed on. A woman with long powder pink hair and eyes the color of sweet cherries. They gravitated from him, to Rigr, to René, to him again, and then back to Rigr and stayed there. And sitting atop her large mohogany desk with one leg gracefully crossed over the other and both arms propped behind him, Lacus, who upon seeing his brother unconscious, leaped from his spot and rushed to the door.

He pulled Mika away from the adult and pressed his fingers to René's neck. His expression turned sour.

"What the fuck did you shoot him with, bull tranquilizers?"

"I see you've cut your hair," Rigr noted kindly, making his way over to a velvety longchair pushed against the wall diagonal of where Krul sat silently observing. He laid René's body down gently and Lacus squeezed himself between the two, dragging a silently fidgeting Mika along with him. Rigr's brow rose at the patch of shock white painting the top of the eldest's hair. "I see you've dyed it as well."

"I did not dye my hair," Lacus nipped bitterly, not sparing him a glance as he poked and prodded at Mika's body for any scars or bruising. Mika kept insisting that he was alright, voice feeble and hushed, but Lacus was persistent and notably high-strung with his doctoring. The longer it lasted the more he shrunk in on himself with all the eyes in the room zeroed in on their one-sided exchange.

"So, Rigr Stafford," Krul addressed formally, "I'm assuming you're here on account of the chaos this boy has erected in my organization, am I correct?"

"As always, Ms. Krul Tepes." Rigr gave Lacus's head a small pat, which caused the the latter to pause in his inspection of Mika's face, and crossed the room to sit across from Krul. At the mention of the impact of his presence, Mika ducked even lower in front of Lacus in hopes that he would become invisible to the adults and did his best to keep his eyes from making contact with the ones belonging to that of his friends' mother.

"Idiots, all of them. He's not for sale, so they might as well stay in their slave infested caves and find something else to waste their money on. The boy's mine."

"Oh, Krul, first René then Lacus and now this Mikaela child? I'm glad you've maintained your charming motherly nature. Really, it's a beautiful thing." Krul's eyes narrowed to slits, and Rigr pressed on in a more serious manner. "Anyhow, you know how desperate the wealthy become when a new prodigy presents itself to the organization. They'll make attempts at taking him from you by force just as was done to the boys, and I find it my duty to assist in protecting them until all of this chaos blows over."

"Are you doubting my ability to protect my children?" 

"Never, Ms. Krul. I—"

"Then there shouldn't be a need for extra hands," the woman stated with her chin held high in authority. "There should be no worries in regards to Mikaela's safety. His, or Lacus and René's. I have guards and cameras all around the house, traps in the woods, and Ferid has been more compliant with his rank in the organization and will dutifully protect on command."

"Ferid—" both Lacus and Mika's heads whipped around at the sharpness of the mentioned name "—is incapable of laying down his life for this organization, let alone those three boys. Excuse me if this is out of place, but I do not understand why you accept that man walking around carelessly amongst these children. Specifically the unmarked one."

"Ferid has been loyal to me thus far. He sits and barks when told to and minds his own business with his little toys and experiments."

"Experiments?" Rigr repeated to himself prudently. He folded his legs and laced his fingers together on his lap, his next words taking on an challenging tone. "Are you referring to the experiments that turned Lacus's hair white? Or the ones that left René's skin covered in rashes?"

The room fell silent. Mika's eyes automatically flickered to the patch of white mentioned in his friend's hair, but he looked away just as he caught a glimpse and cleared his throat nervously. The sudden appearance of the phenomenon was unknown. After exercising, taking a shower and cleaning the mud and sweat from his body he thought it would have been nice to pay Lacus a short visit before he and René departed to the junkyard. He assumed he would still be asleep from the exhausting catatonia he was forced into the day before, but upon making it to René's door, hand ready to push it open, he stopped at the sound of a man's shrill cry coming from below on the first floor. It was a sound unlike any he'd ever heard.

It was loud and horrid, and the way it reverberated off the walls of the house shook him to the core. He'd been petrified on the spot. René told him that a servant spoke out of turn and made a comment regarding Lacus's deformity and that Lacus had reacted accordingly. After that, René unstuck him from his spot and helped him down the stairs, since his feet were still stunned by the shock. They avoided Lacus and the horrendous pleads coming from the kitchen all together, and left out the door without so much as a word goodbye. He'd just remembered the incident the moment Rigr brought up the reason for it and was seeing the patch of white for the first time. But remembering the consequences for curious nosing, he didn't dare regard it for longer than what was necessary. But he saw just enough to know that a three-inch wide circle on the top of his head was pure white starting from the root. Very noticable.

"I'm leaving," Lacus stated abruptly. When had he stood up?

Krul called out to him in that sympathetic way mothers call out to their children when they know they've made a mistake, and for the first time in a long time, Lacus didn't respond. He pulled Mika to his feet, muttering over his shoulder for Rigr to call him before he left, and began stalking out of the room.

Krul watched her son go with a rare look of remorse etched on her face. When the door slammed shut behind them, she slumped into her seat and squeezed the space between her eyes.

~~~

He was mad, but that was obvious. An elderly lady dressed in a maids outfit passed by them on their way to Lacus's room and the poor old woman looked about ready to have a heart attack, and his hand still hurt from the way it was practically crushed in the other's grip.

Lacus's temper was really getting out of hand. He was hurting the servants, possibly killing them; scaring the helpless maids. Scaring him.

His rage had always been a problem when they were children, but even then, witnessing as it slowly bubbled up and consumed every ounce of mirth he had left in his body like oil frying in a pot, there wasn't much of a difference. When he was upset he'd taken it out on the helpless children who were unfortunate enough to cross his path, or unsuspecting strays and birds he managed to get his hands on. As a dangerous juvenile who held power over all but a select few, there were so many people wandering the house who had no family members waiting for them beyond the front door.

They were disposable. Mere stress balls lined up on a shelf.

Lacus lie on his bed currently, tossing a cherry flavored jolly rancher around in his mouth while at the same time stroking the creature brave enough to have sat atop his chest like a guardian. Mika himself sit quietly on the floor at the foot of the bed, resting his chin on his knees as he pondered over ways to demolish the hate in his friend's heart and replace it with something less life-threatening.

There were bursts of ideas at first, tons and tons, but they were all too risky in regards of possible negative reactions and would only make him look like a fool. And besides, what if they failed?

He burrowed his face deeper into his knees with a soundless groan.

He didn't know what to do. But then, he couldn't just sit back and wait it out. Lacus didn't deserve that, and neither did the people who served under him.

‘Do it,’ he urged in his head. ‘Do it. Do it. Do it. Stop being a coward for once and do it. He would've done it for you without a thought. Do it. Help him. Don't be weak. René said they've told each other everything and became closer because of it. You can be like that. You can make your friendship better. This isn't about you. It's about him. Don't think, just do.’

‘Okay. Okay, I can do this.’

He couldn't believe the amount of risks he's been taking. His chest was still heavy with emotions from earlier and he knew he wouldn't be able to get rid of them until they themselves decided to spare him for another day, but he was still so tired. With everything that happened with Mr. Saitō shooting René into a coma and Kimizuki's house burning to a crisp and then his Friends' branded necks, he wanted to sleep it all away and wake up feeling as though it were all just a dream. But he was defying his wants, kicking his feelings to the side and putting Lacus first, because he knew Lacus would do the same for him. He just wished he had the confidence.

The scars on his wrist, both deep and shallow, sneered up at him in mockery, cackling and daring him to test the damage they've inflicted to his self-esteem, but he didn't pull his sleeves down to cover them. He couldn't—wouldn't. Not with René's voice ringing in his ears:

“…you can't spend the rest of your life hiding behind sweatshirts and long sleeves. Learn to accept everything about yourself, both good and bad, and things will become easier for you in the long run. You can't let these determine the way you live. If you keep treating them like handcuffs then that's all they'll ever be.”

He took a shuddering breath of air and did something he never would've considered doing just a week ago—he unzipped his jacket and discarded it off to the side. And after, he adjusted the sleeves to his shirt so that they were bunched at his elbows. He heard Lacus sigh, and the bed shifted against his back. He pulled himself to his feet, albeit slow and careful so that his legs didn't give with the stress prompting him to stay down on the floor and keep his mouth shut, and crept up to the side of the bed where Lacus lie with his back to him and the cat now curled up against his face like a mask. She growled at his approach.

The white in his hair shone like LED highlights before gradually fading back into its naturally deep lilac tone, making it seem more like a birth defect rather than a chemical catastrophe. It didn't look ugly, but with the way Lacus reacted that morning from just the mention of it, his lungs locked.

And then there was that marking burned into his flesh. How had he never seen it before?

‘Calm down, it's just Lacus. You're not scared of him. He's your friend.’

Mika swallowed. "Uhh, Lacus?"

He could tell Lacus was forcing himself to remain placid as he let out a breath and unwedged his face from beneath his cat's body to drag himself into a sitting position at the edge of the mattress. A pillow lie caught a little ways beneath his thigh and he yanked it out from under him and flung it to the floor. His eyes landed on Mika's exposed wrist before gradually migrating up to his ghostly pale face, and Mika tried not to seem too intimidated by the embers of enmity smoldering behind his gaze.

A slim brow rose, questioning him, and Mika willed his feet forward just enough so that his legs were barely between the other's. Ayame watched on guardedly, and he held his breath as he carefully reached his arms forward and wrapped them around his friends nape, pulling him into the most awkward yet gentle embrace he'd ever performed. His ribs felt not like they were going to crack, but as if they would shatter all at once from the organ banging against them so viciously as he stood there and waited for a reaction. Lacus had turned to stone upon contact and was showing not a single sign of complacency or anger. He was blank, just a mannequin sitting there, unmoving.

Hugging was the wrong move. A terrible move. Lacus was pissed off. Why would he ever want to be restrained in a hug? He was going to push him away. What the hell was he thinking?

His thoughts ran rampant around that question, and he had half a mind to snatch his arms back to his sides immediately and blabber out an apology. However, that idea was soon diminished to ash when Lacus did the unexpected and he felt a pair of lean arms circle themselves around his waist and pull him in until his legs halted against the bed. Lacus nuzzled his face in his stomach and took in deep appeasing breaths. His shoulders lost their tension. The air became lighter around them, and as if under some magical irenic spell, his body relaxed into his embrace.

Mika could never have felt more relieved in life than he had in that moment, and the uncertainty and doubt infecting his mind was washed down the drown, allowing him, too, to melt in the other's arms.

"Did I scare you?" Whispered Lacus, his eyes hidden beneath long dark lashes. "And don't lie."

Mika answered in a way he hoped was consoling. "Only a little."

Lacus sighed, squeezing him as he muttered bitterly, "even a little is too much."

"Lacus…"

"No. I'm sorry, Mika. The things I do when I'm upset, it's hard to control sometimes, and hurting people, being the cause of their pain, their screams; staring into their eyes… the feeling of knowing that you're the last thing they'll ever see before everything just stops, it's something you wouldn't want me to put into words. But believe me when I say I never meant to scare you. I would never hurt you. I wouldn't even dream of it."

"I know," Mika said warmly, ignoring the way his heart continued to hammer in his chest. Gazing down at the patch of white below him, he asked, "do you wanna talk about it? It helps."

"I don't think you want to know, Kiddie."

"I do."

"You really don't."

"Lacus—" Mika pulled away from the hug, his fingers traveling up his nape, and Lacus visibly tensed when his stamp was intentionally traced over with delicate cold fingers "—I wanna know."

Lacus looked up at him, surprised a bit but calculating as he searched through his shimmering blue gaze for any sign of hesitancy. But of course, there was none. His small friend was nothing if not devout. Even during his and René's most unforgiving times, Mika stuck by their side ready to help in any way he could. All without hurting a soul.

His face fell, and he released an almost breathless chuckle. "Fine, I give. You got me. You wanna know what's wrong, so I'll tell you. I'm sure René already gave you a little run down of it but I'll just take it from the top anyway." Mika yelped as he was flipped onto the mattress like a fish having been snagged by a hook, and suddenly, Lacus's face was too close. Shaken, he still put forth the effort of not paying the many cuts spread throughout his face his attention. Fingers were laced through his golden hair, and Lacus roamed over each of the sins littering his wrist as he took a moment to gather his thoughts.

"Before and after I met you and René," he began quietly, his face showing only his sadness, "I was raped. Almost every day of every week from age four to seven. I had pictures taken of me by my mother and sold on the streets, and those pictures are still out there to this day with God knows who, hence why I was punished and my hair is fucked up. A few years later, my father somehow recognized me walking with René and he kidnapped me. He was under the influence of something strong and he drove me home and he molested me in the backseat of his car. Somebody saw, and I screamed for help, and they heard, but they didn't do anything. I was left there at my old house to die, and that was the last time I ever saw him. I tried looking for René the next day, but he was nowhere to be found. I tried looking for you, but you were nowhere to be found. I thought I'd been abandoned, my life was crashing down on me, I was homeless, had nobody, hated everybody, and I burned an orphanage to the ground, killing seven innocent children and a nice woman who had a family. I was trapped inside, couldn't get out—didn't want to get out—and the next thing I know I'm in this house. This house, and René was alive—he'd been hit by a car trying to save me, but you… you were dead. And I'd killed you. It's all so vivid, like it happened just yesterday. I had to live through all of that shit again, and I can still feel everything. The hatred. The pain. Everything."

The fingers in Mika's hair balled into a fist, but he didn't let the pain of it show on his face.

"What I did to you, I thought René blamed me. I blamed myself. Ferid used it against me as some sick, twisted teaching method. He tortured both of us. Experimented on us. He took my face through a fucking blender, and he left René out to bake in the sun for days until he got every last detail of our past out. He used the information to punish us when we made petty mistakes in training. He had us fight against each other. He made us hunt down and slaughter people like cattle—children, men and women. But hurting those people, ending their pitiful lives as they crawled up my legs and begged me for mercy like I did to them years ago… I loved it, because they knew there was no way I was going to give it to them, and René loved it too. As children, there was always that risk that we would get caught, but when Krul took us in and we were taught how to use guns and knives, things changed and we were free to do whatever we wanted, and we couldn't get enough of it. René was already wanted for the death of some little assholes at the church he lived at and for the murder of my mother, so we moved away. Far away. Krul paid some people off to take care of his files, and like me, he became dead to the world. Years later, we came back, I found my father, as happy as could be reeking of scotch just like last time, and I killed him, his whore wife, and I killed what would've been my half-brother. I tore them to pieces and I left them there to hang, and afterwards, I saw you. I saw your hair, and then your eyes, and I thought I was dreaming. I wanted to hug you, and I wanted to cry like a baby, and I wanted to tell you that I was sorry for burning your orphanage down and about how horrible I felt about everything. I was so shocked that it was really you that it took me days to finally tell René, but when I did he said I was full of shit, so I showed you him. And that was the same day we rescued you. And now we're here, and I'm laying in bed with you, telling you about my sickening past and fucked up mindset, and you're… having trouble swallowing all of this, aren't you?"

With parted lips and skin as grey as a rainy day sky, Mika nodded his head mechanically. Mortified, there were collisions of questions setting fire to his mind, and his brain pulsed as each one fought over the right to pass his lips first. His eyelids twitched and his jaw worked open and closed, only to emit a small croaking sound.

Lacus wanted to laugh at this new look of utter befuddlement, but he decided to pull his friend beneath his chin instead and hide his smile in wavy strawberry scented locks. "Aww, I didn't mean to fry your poor brain, Kiddie. I'm sorry. But you asked for it, and I couldn't help but get carried away on some parts. Talking about my parents piss me off. Take your time."

"René killed your… he killed your mom."

"He saved my life," Lacus clarified. "She had a cord around my neck and he came over looking for food and saw us. His mind blanked out, as he told me, and he accidently stabbed her in the back with a kitchen knife. He cried for an hour afterwards, and I slapped him and told him to pull himself together before my father came back and called the police, and then we ran away to this factory close to where you lived, and well, we lived there. That is, until shit hit the fan, of course."

"And your neck?"

"It's T for Tepes. Krul's my mom, my boss, and my owner. But I know she only did it to keep me safe. If she hadn't, I probably would've been some sex slave locked in a cage millions of miles away. I never would've seen you again."

"Your brother?"

"Lucas—a German name like mine, but he looked nothing like me. My fuck-up of a father really thought he could replace me. We're not allowed to hurt children so I was punished for killing him."

Nausea crept up Mika's throat, and the acidic burn made his eyes swell with tears on impulse, but he was quick to swallow it back down before it reached the base of his tongue.

"Are you mad?" Lacus asked, a hint of fear in his voice as he noticed the repugnance struggling to remain hidden away on his features.

Mika took a moment to collect his bearings, and then he took an even longer moment to shove the overwhelming barrage of information to the farthest recesses of his mind for a later date to dwell on when he was left alone behind closed doors. Now wasn't about him.

He shook his head in response to Lacus's question and plastered on what he hoped to be a normal enough smile. It was painfully forced. However, upon seeing Lacus settle down and smile back at him, both eyes creasing at the corners, child-like, his smile turned more genuine, and they simply lay there, enjoying one another's company.

"I'm sorry for burning the orphanage down, Mikaela."

"It's okay, none of the other orphans liked me anyway."

It was a morbid thing to say, and only half true, but anything to keep that smile on Lacus's face from fading away.

Lacus's snort was soft, and the sound of it made Mika laugh just as airily.

"That's hard to believe," he said. "You were such an adorable, cute little thief, I'd let you steal from me any day."

"Th-thank you."

Lacus hummed.

A comfortable pause between them. Ayame scowled at the back of her master's friend's head with a look that spoke of envy and displeasure. Upon receiving a pitiful smile of apology, the antipathy of being replaced by somebody worth less than the litter on her paw deepened and she jumped from the bed and stormed out of the room.

Lacus giggled not so remorsefully. "Shit."

"What's wrong?" Mika asked, unaware of the silent exchange that took place both in front and in back of him.

"Nothing, just pissy girlfriend stuff. I'm a cheating bastard and I wanna take somebody new out on a date, that's all."

"Oh…"

Lacus rolled out of the bed and offered him his hand, asking with that same sheepish grin in place, "so what do you say, Mikaela? Do you wanna go on an ice cream binge eating date with me? I know we can't ‘go out-go out’ but I can still make it worth your while."

Mika didn't know how long he sat there staring at Lacus's outstretched hand like a child seeing a UFO for the first time, but one thing was for certain: his heart stopped beating.

Working now with a mind on the brink of cracking, his body picked up the slack of singlehandedly accepting Lacus's invitation and closing the gap between their hands.

The look on the deadly assassin's face had his insides fluttering with something he knew of but couldn't allow to influence him in the way it so desperately wanted to, but like many times before, he still lost the ability to speak. This time it wasn't out of fear.

Lacus gave his temple a peck weighing a thousand words, and both boys exited the bedroom hand in hand, fingers twined like vines.

Even after they'd descended the staircase, entered the kitchen to retrieve their bounty and sat beside one another at the island with a tub of ice cream, the inability to form words reduced him to an awkward pair of gaping blue eyes.

If it weren't for Lady Luck sympathizing with his frail heart for the first time in what felt like decades, Lacus would've looked up from the bucket of sugar and questioned his silence. Instead, she kept him fixed on filling his spoon and eagerly lapping up its contents.

But she couldn't do all the work. He couldn't just sit there and watch him eat like some weirdo. If only those piercings weren't so captivating. Particularly the one pinned to his tongue that jutted out everytime he went in for another lick. He couldn't help but stop and stare.

His hair was just as distracting. Normally Lacus kept it in a neat little bun with the bottom half of it covering his stamp and the sides framing his face. The only times he ever let it flow freely over his shoulders were during the moments of getting into or out of bed. It was strange how his hair maintained its dapper condition even after dragging himself from under the blankets. René's hair was a mess of complex black tangles, and his own hair was in a constant state of ruin, making it seem as if he'd just blown in from an unforgiving wind storm. If only he had something to hold it down.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. A few more on his forehead. Eight more on his left cheek. Half of that on his right. Approximately five around or across each eye. A couple on his chin and nose. One down the corner of his lip. What was taken through a blender supposed to mean anyway, he wondered. What exactly did Ferid do to him?

Why were his eyelashes so long? Had they always been like that? Did they tickle him when he blinked? The faint blush on his cheeks from withstanding ice cream made his overall skin complexion seem paler, and the paleness of it made his eyes stand out more than usual. Like two jewels shimmering on a sunny unpolluted beach.

Did Lacus know he had beautiful eyes?

Did he know the deformity in his hair did nothing to contaminate the view of him sitting there eating without a care in the world?

Why was he still staring at him instead of eating?

"You know, you can always take a picture of me if you want. You're cute so I'll allow it just this once."

Mika blanched.

"Sorry! I didn't mean to—"

"Don't be sorry." The spoon was stabbed in the chocolate end of the bucket, and those large entrancing eyes were now on his. "I'm covered in stories you want to hear about. I would stare too. Actually, I do stare, all the time when you're lost in that head of yours. Everytime I do I can't help but wonder what each one means, you know?"

Mika nodded, guilty. From the looks of it, they both shared the same thoughts in concerns to every individual scar littering their bodies.

"How did you learn to live with them?" He asked.

Lacus smiled softly and pushed the bucket away to give his friend his undivided attention. "To be honest, I didn't want to live with them at first. I was already trying to cope with what I thought I did to you, and what my parents did to me, and the harsh training and the requirements needed to keep me from being killed, and Ferid's constant mockery and harassment, and with pretending to be okay all the time and trying to keep René from hating me completely. So, so much shit that drove me crazy. The stress of it all nearly put a bullet in my head. If René hadn't walked in on me the second that he did, I probably wouldn't be here." He chuckled to himself, but Mika didn't find what was so funny. "After that I couldn't catch a break. He yelled at me and kicked my ass pretty bad and called me a bunch of shit I've never heard him say before. He even cried and threatened to kill me himself. He took my gun away and aimed it at my face."

"When did this happen?"

Lacus dropped his chin in his palm and pursed his lips in thought. "Hmm, let's see: Ferid did this to me a while before my fourteenth birthday, and René and I weren't allowed to have weapons in our room until we turned fifteen so, yeah, I'd say I was fifteen."

Mika gasped.

"I know," Lacus agreed. "I turned seventeen just a few months ago. Pretty tight timeline. But anyway, after my little failed attempt, René changed. I mean, sure, he was sweet and always talked to me when we were younger and we were pretty close, I guess. You know, because of those promises. But still, after that he talked to me even more, about things I never knew about. It was like I was looking behind a curtain; there were so many things about him that he hid from me." His face turned a light shade of red, and the look in his eyes softened to something uncharacteristically bashful. "That day, he told me that he loved me."

"But I thought you guys always said that to each other."

"We do. Now, we do. But back then, it was the first time I ever heard him say it out loud." He laughed fondly and tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. "There was a first time for a lot of things back then. Fifteen was a rollercoaster, and I've never even been on a rollercoaster before."

Mika frowned slightly, unsure of the meaning behind those words, and Lacus took his lower lip between his teeth before asking him something that made him choke on his saliva.

"Have you ever kissed anyone before?"

"Wh–what!"

"You know, like—" Lacus pressed his first and middle finger to his lips and transferred them over to his ashen friend's "—chu. Like that. But with lips."

"Lacus!" Mika stammered, his hand shooting up to cover half of his now steaming face. The impact brought on by unofficial contact of lips against lips was like a direct punch to the chest. He'd been winded, but his words came out surprisingly sharp as he questioned what Lacus thought he was doing, as if there were a parent just around the corner watching them.

"I'm trying to ask you a serious question," Lacus answered easily enough, though it took around a third of his strength to ease his friend's hand back down from his face, and drag the stool he was seated in closer to his. Azure bounced back and forth, down and around, from the ceiling to the walls to the floor; anywhere and everywhere that wasn't him, and he cupped Mika's face in his palms.

Smaller hands wrapped themselves around his wrists lightly, the need to remove them battling with the intense desire to cling onto something.

"Have you ever kissed anyone before?" Lacus asked again, more considerately this time. The hands around his wrists tightened, and Mika shook his head no.

"Did you and René…"

"Well, like I said: rollercoaster. Emotions and teenage hormones are one hell of a drug. But!" He exclaimed before the initial freak out could commence, "better each other than the people out there. René's everything I need; he's whatever I want, just like I am to him, we are to you, and you are to us. You're ours and we're yours, right?"

"But… but I thought that—"

"I know. We thought the same thing. It was weird. René's my best friend. He's my brother for fucks sake. After we kissed, we were confused and, well, awkward about it. But after a while of tiptoeing around him like a little school girl I just said fuck it. I loved him, and lucky me, he loved me too. Why not be whatever we want each other to be? No rules. No boundaries. Not like anyone could sue us for it. Not that they would have the chance anyway."

"Lacus—" he needed to take a step outside "—but I—we—you—" he didn't know where to begin. What Lacus was telling him made no sense. His brothers kissed. Everytime Lacus and René said they loved each other, they weren't just saying it as siblings in a family, they were saying it as two individuals with genuine feelings for each other. But how? How had he not known any of this? How had he not caught wind of anything? Exactly how much changed since the separation? What was going on?

‘Breath.’

Lacus's hands lowered from his face down to hold his hands on top of his lap. "Are you mad?"

"No!" Came Mika's automatic response. "No. I'm not, I'm just—I never thought that—you guys just seem so… so normal about it. I've never seen you and René…" just thinking of the word made him blush.

Lacus's smile returned full force. "I guess we've both been a little preoccupied with something else lately."

"What?"

"Oh, Kiddie, your innocence amazes me sometimes."

Lacus pushed off of his seat, assisting Mika off of his much to the latter's rising trepidation, and let one hand fall into place against the small of his back. Another set of fingers wove themselves through the hair covering the back of his neck and his skin broke out in goosebumps. Lacus leaned in, eyes falling shut. Mika panicked. He held his breath, preparing for the inevitable, but what he was expecting to happen didn't come to pass. Instead, a cold pair of lips charmed with two pieces of metal warmed themselves against the flush in his cheek.

His brain couldn't process the seconds they stayed there until pulling away reluctantly, only to plant themselves back in the same spot for a second time, and then a third, harder. He was pulled closer, and he had to grip the front of the other's shirt to keep from losing his balance on legs that were growing weaker after each kiss. He could feel a pulse beating against his fist. It pounded almost as fast as his own. He didn't understand. Lacus always kissed him. Why was it that now of all times he was feeling anxious?

Was it because for once they weren't for play? They weren't thoughtless teases exchanged between brothers or affectionate jests to get him to smile?

"Mika."

Mika didn't respond. His thoughts were veering back to everything that happened a few hours earlier in the junkyard; the emotions that made him beat himself into tears, the one-sided feelings that drained him to exhaustion. The forbidden attraction. If he had spoken what was on his mind, would René have told him he felt the same way? And if Lacus was admitting all of this stuff to him now, did that mean he held feelings of taboo for him too?

All those times Lacus and René gazed at him for no apparent reason, did they share the same thoughts he himself had when he snuck glances at them?

"What are you thinking?" Lacus murmured close to his ear, sending a shiver up his spine. "Whatever it is, I can take it."

Mika hesitated, but continuing to be dishonest was going to get him nowhere as he was finally coming to realize. But he couldn't look Lacus in the face.

"Do… do you think I'm…"

He flaked. How was he supposed to ask that question? How did Lacus ask René?

"I do," Lacus answered anyway. He added a kiss over the other three he left behind on Mika's cheek, the added pressure of it amplifying his sincerity.

Mika's lips were parted as he stared up at the ceiling, unable to come to terms with what he knew Lacus was telling him.

"You're pretty," he whispered after another gentle kiss under his eye. "You're beautiful." The hand on his back was now caressing his wrist, every jagged scar lining it being traced over with a purpose. "Every inch of you."

Their eyes locked. Lacus grinned with nothing short of adoration for the boy he thought he would never have the opportunity to see again, and while they stood there gazing at one another, boxed in their own little world with not a single living soul to interrupt them, he allowed his eyelids to flutter shut for the final time, and for his lips to lean forward and grace themselves with those belonging to Mikaela Shindo.

The sensation was more than he imagined; better. Warm, though unmoving.

The kiss he shared with René wasn't nearly the same. Theirs were unique. It was bursting with years of pent-up emotions. It was anger, sorrow and regret. It was a heartfelt apology as well as it was a declaration of love that had been hidden from sight. It was a feeling in his stomach he never felt before. It was a burning in his chest that craved for more, and he didn't want to pull away. It was rough and inexperienced and nicked his bottom lip with teeth. It was a kiss that made them who they were today.

Mika was a shy boy. He was easy to rattle like a rabbit and just as easy to bring into shock, and that's just what he was as he stood stiff with his fists clenching his shirt and his nails biting into his skin unknowingly—shocked. It was a predicted reaction. That or being shoved. Their kiss was gentle. It was one-sided but sure of itself. It was a test for the other but unforceful. He settled his hand against his cheek and tilted his head to the side, achieving a more comfortable position that didn't deepen his affection, but had Mika whimpering softly against his lips.

The shock of the kiss lasted no longer than ten seconds, and at the first sign of a struggle, Lacus respectively brought it to an end and backed away. However, the fists holding onto him didn't allow him to get very far.

Mika stared at him in awe, lips slightly ajar, panting, and as always when it came to his little friend, he couldn't make out a clue as to what was going on in that bustling, overactive mind of his, and that's why it was his job to defuse the bomb before it could be constructed and detonate.

He took a step closer, and with a content smile to reassure him, he brushed the hair covering his forehead to the side and aimed a chaste kiss at an old scar from their childhood.

"I love you, Mika."

Mika's breath hitched then, and his heart leaped into his throat, fearing he might have crossed a line and made the boy cry, but upon pulling away to get a better look at his face, he was surprised to see that same look of awe unchanged.

Mika's breath hitched again.

"Kiddie?"

Another strange sounding hitch, and all the blood in Mika's body came rushing to his face.

Lacus's content smile morphed into an amused grin. "Hiccups?"

The blond was like a child as he remained red-faced and unresponsive, and Lacus let out a sigh and pulled him in for a tight and cherishing bear hug. He planted a multitude of sloppy kisses over every space available on his face and rocked him to and fro.

"Oh, Mika, you are just the most adorable human I've ever met. I don't know what I ever did to deserve you."

Too much for one day. Far too much. He felt like he was going to implode if he was hit with another surprise. Kimizuki was possibly dead, Lacus and René brutally murdered Lacus's family, Lacus wanted to shoot himself not a full two years ago, his brothers weren't just brothers, and apparently, neither was he; Lacus kissed him on the lips. Lacus Welt, his childhood friend, his oldest brother, his family, was his first kiss.

While the boy in question was busy squishing the hiccups from him, he poked his tongue out to taste the flavor left behind on his lips.

Chocolate.

He didn't know how to feel about anything anymore.

Chapter Text

 

When did it start? Mika would have to say it stemmed sometime around the period of Rigr Stafford's—or, Mr. Saitō, as he preferred to be called—mysterious appearance a month before. It was subtle at first. Subtle and insignificant in its own apocryphal way. Lacus and René told him not to worry about it, anyway; that everything was under control and that all he had to do was follow their one strict instruction of staying indoors at all times, and he did that. He obeyed and kept to himself in the confines of his dark room that had only grown larger and more foreboding since those tenuous events began to kick-off.

He could hear them outside his door, all the way down to the first story where they were allowed past the threshold and into the manor. He could hear their voices, jumbled gossip and casual chatter, but nothing comprehensible. He could hear Krul's silvery distinct tone greeting them as she led them up the stairs and towards the opposite end of the house where her office kept most of their business private. Arrogant entitled men and women, dozens of them, all different in their approach but all the same in their request—him.

They wanted the sixteen year old young boy named Mikaela Shindo, the adopted son of the police officer Guren Ichinose who resided in Sanguinem and attended Seraph High prior to his unofficial recruitment during the month of January.

"I was informed of his ethnic background: Russian on his father's side and Japanese on his mother's. Quite exotic, I must say," one plump sounding woman commented one day when he was courageous enough to have peeked outside his door for better eavesdropping.

"Mikaela, what a lovely name for a boy. May I speak with him a moment?" Voiced another days after.

"I imagine he's nothing like your other two, what with keeping him so well hidden away, Ms. Tepes. He's a special boy, no? I must admit I am eager to meet him."

"Seeing him shouldn't be an issue, Ms. Tepes. What kind of a man would I be if I didn't know the physical profile of my soon to be progeny? I already know everything about him."

That one Krul laughed at.

He lost count of the days he spent imprisoned in his bedroom with nothing but the suggestive threats of business men and his own treacherous thoughts keeping him awake at night. All he knew was that the calendar on his cellphone read the tenth of March when the nightmares started up so it couldn't have been that long compared to the time he wasted lying in his room at Guren's house. They knew where he lived, what school he went to, what stores he would visit. They knew about his parents death, about how they abandoned him in their old home and never returned only to appear on the news a week later.

How did they find out that information?

The more bidder visits he had, the more he picked up on, and the more explicit their remarks regarding their intentions with him became, and while he remained mentally and emotionally revolted under his blanket, sobbing uncontrollably for hours at a time, fearing over what those aristocrats had in store for him if his guardian gave into the rewards offered to her in bulk, his two older brothers grew ever more intolerant with their stay. Lacus in particular.

"Pretentious rich pricks," he would sneer when they were clear from earshot, since he nor René were permitted to inflict harm upon any of them, physical or verbal. Often times he would drag himself to his window and watch in wistful yearning as both of his friends disappeared into the woods to blow off steam and escape from the suffocating essence the bidders left behind in the house, lest they did something Krul would surely make them regret. Everytime they kissed him goodbye he would beg them to let him join, even if just for an hour. Tears would swell in his eyes, but the answer would always be the same: he'd be safer inside where there were guards around to make sure none of the visitors got any ideas. Not like in the dense woods where spies could easily knock him unconscious once they've turned their backs and drag him into a bush.

Mika hated it. He couldn't stand the isolation, the chronic anxiety, the perpetual, neverending fear of the worst. It was driving him mad.

It did drive him mad, and when he was sulking back to his room one morning after subjecting himself to a scalding hour long shower in Lacus's restroom he had the misfortune of a bumping into one of the many men who flew in to purchase him for thousands and drag him back to their country. The man was in awe. He had spoken words of indulgence and praise to him, grinned down at him with this sickeningly sweet grin and fondled the texture of his hair between pruned fingers, admired him like a piece of art standing in a museum. Endowed with a thick German accent, he told him what Europe was like in the spring, how gorgeous the spectacles and terrain were. He tried flattering him with promises of expensive trips all around the world and tasty immaculate cuisines he couldn't find anywhere else.

The way his aged and coarse fingers trembled from arthritis as they worked their way from his cheek to his slackened jaw and then lower down to his bare shoulder made every portion of his skin prickle as though his pores were being pierced with hot pokers. But those glassy gray eyes were what sealed the deal. Though faintly clouded, they revealed his true intentions. They were malicious, full of deceit, like staring through a window into an odious scene that hadn't happened yet.

Something inside of him ripped as the man continued to run the pad of his thumb back and forth along his collar bone and feed him lies of the luxurious life he could lead if he agreed to fly away with him. His vision blurred. His knees grew weak, and it was René who walked in on the sight of him slowly sinking to the floor with a face as pale as death itself. But it was Stafford who rushed in close after and stopped the assassin just in the nick of time, pinning him roughly to the wall, thus preventing him from making a disastrous mistake.

The man was lucky enough to have escaped with his life.

The next day, he awakened to the feeling of something unorthodox. An inordinate sensation of numbness inside his chest. He couldn't pin the exact emotion twisted around the numbness, but he knew it wasn't good. He'd felt it numerous times when he still lived with Guren, back even before he began taking his prescription meds. It was something that left him feeling empty inside, like an egg vacant of life— no thought process, no pulse, no conscience. Nothing but a hollow shell.

It must have shown on his face at some point, as Lacus and René never left his side again after that until they were certain every last man and woman out to steal him from them went away and stayed away for good. They laid with him for hours, morning and night, from days to weeks. They sat with him and ate their meals with him in his room, whether it be on his bed, on the floor or at his desk. Lacus clung to him like a child to a tattered bear, and René baked him sweets and brought him his favorite fruits in hopes that he would nourish his body in some way, but he couldn't eat. Not a single bite. Forcing it was a struggle and the scent alone was enough to physically nauseate him. He couldn't sleep either and hardly used his voice, and when he did ever utter a word it was never by choice, only to answer the same questions on repeat in detached or distracted grumbles, as if their concern for him failed to fully register in his brain. After his deteriorating health took a turn for the worse, René forced him back on his medication.

~~~

During the months of March and April his training was back in full swing. They dragged him out of bed, threw him in the shower, monitored him like hawks, and stuffed him with vitamins and proteins. One day he exercised with René and the next he exercised with Lacus, as predecided. Regrettably, on account of the general paranoia of not all being said and done, there were no more junkyard visits. There was no leaving the perimeter of the manor at all. His training was still centered around hand to hand combat and basic self-defense but guns were a no-go, in respect of the busy mother making phonecalls in her office and the nervous creatures scampering in the woods, and as it turned out—or rather, as expected—Lacus was a lot more permissive in his fashion of coaching. Where René needed to take breaks in order to stop himself from flinging needles at his feet to get him to move, Lacus would simply wait patiently and relay everything to him over and over until he got the techniques spot-on, enjoying the intimacy. In saying that, the days spent with Lacus lasted about two hours longer than the days spent with René, but the days were all such a swift blur to him that he couldn't find it in him to mind. Being the target of their scolding antics, as well as their doting undivided attention were some of the few things that still brought him comfort since the old man incident.

His second set of lessons, those of which required the sole use of his hands, proved to be less of a challenge than when he had to swing around dangerous sharp weapons. They taught him tricks on how to bring a full grown man down to his knees in less than five seconds. They showed him the main focal points to target when being assaulted: the toes if he was ever grabbed from behind, the groin, knees, a thing called a solar plexus, the ribs, and just about everything located on the face, including the temples and ears. And packaged with all of that he was taught how not to be such a klutz on his feet.

It was strange watching from the inside out as his body gradually began developing with his work. René was proud to see him become more self-assured and walk around the house with his head held higher off his chest—no more skittering around or glancing over his shoulders as if he were a teen in a horror flick. Lacus was just as proud, yes, but that didn't change the fact that he spent most of his nights squeezing and poking at his stomach all the while mourning over how it was no longer ‘squishy like Ayame's.’

One particular peaceful afternoon, Mika had to pull tooth and nail with his bullheaded big brothers. Even with all his training and newfound confidence and skills, they absolutely refused to let him go out into the woods by himself. Not to pick flowers, search for animals, stroll to the river, anything! They didn't trust him. Neither him, the bear traps, the sketchy co-leaders of their organization, or Ferid Bathory who had been unnervingly docile the past few months. They hardly trusted Rigr around him and the man was one proposal away from becoming their full-time father. Lacus would fall over his lap and practically purr like a kitten as he got his back rubbed or his hair tousled for hours until he was lulled into a coma, and even if René had shot at him for not taking time out of his life to visit them for over five years, everytime the charming man was in his vicinity he had little to no reaction whatsoever, but when they spoke René didn't shy away from sharing his life and productivity outside of the stuffy manor. Mika could swear he saw him blush a few times after receiving praise for his artwork and expert tips on how to better his tattooing skills.

Turned out the bachelor from Fiji possessed a vast expansion of skills that stretched beyond mere charisma. And another shocker: Rigr had been one of René's first customers when he was first getting into inking—an atrocious tiny smile on his back where nobody could see. The tickling feeling it brought upon Mika's throat was refreshing.

Anyhow, regardless of how equable life in the manor seemed, Lacus and René were nervous. Unlike when they were younger and unmarked, there hadn't been a single incident in relation to the co-leaders sending their minions out to hide under his bed and kidnap him in his sleep or attack him in the shower where he was at his most vulnerable. There was something foul tainting the air. Lacus claimed they were being watched and wouldn't even allow him to open his bedroom window for a fresh breeze, René had mercilessly backhanded a servant for tripping over his feet and stumbling into him, and they were beginning to make him feel suffocated in the house. And it didn't help that the two hitmen hadn't been able to hunt in over several months all thanks to the suspicious lack of danger looming over him, so they were antsy sixty percent of each day and only getting increasingly more aggressive.

With his crippled mental state leaving the very aspect of his psyche inert and barren he still put forth his best efforts to bring them solace. Obviously they plastered on a smile to assure him that they were still sane, but he did the same thing, their objective dittoed—all three of them wanting nothing more than to make the other smile a real smile. It worked a number of times when Lacus would tackle him out of the blue and shower him with his impenetrable infatuation, or when he would wriggle his way in between René and whatever it was he was reading on his phone in order to do the same, though with a lot more brute force added, poking him and teasing him. Anything to be a pain in the ass.

Perhaps Lacus's most baffling tactic was when, for the first time since his rescue, he walked in on him and René sharing a more intimate moment together in the kitchen. Lacus was being a pest, as per usual, and was behaving like a more needier version of himself as he backed René into a corner and pecked at his chin tirelessly like a wood pecker, deliberately smothering his personal bubble in an attempt to steal a kiss. He was pushing his luck, driving René up the wall the way that he was, and the phlegmatic teen avoided him to the best of his ability without getting physically, leaning away until he had to use his elbow as support against the counter for both of their weights. He growled at him to cut it out or he'd spill his bowl of cereal all over his head. He even went as far as to curse him, but when the smaller male finally did give in and was about to walk away with a discouraged pout, René rolled his eyes in that embittered way he always did when his hyperactive brother became moody and pulled him back in for a begrudging two second kiss that had Lacus well behaved for the rest of that day.

Mika's jaw had hit the tiles. He slipped back into the living room without a word and pretended he hadn't seen a thing, and as he recollected the feeling of those same glacially cold lips sending chills across his face, he heard the culprit burst out with laughter in the other room.

The date for their sudden episode of contentment couldn't have been more perfect, however. As mentioned previously, the stress of having held back on dipping their daggers in the blood of unforgiving citizens for months in order to train him and act as his guard dogs, they'd turned more unpredictable than circus lions. Nobody could tell when they were going to snap or lash out, but thankfully, Krul saved the servants' skins by summoning them into her office the next night and handing them their first assignment in a thin brown folder.

Reading over the documents, Lacus's grin turned disturbingly appeased, as if his closest enemy had just whispered a dirty secret in his ear. He handed the file over to his partner, and René appeared equally as delighted. It was there, hidden expectationally will behind his everyday inscrutable mask, but everyone in the room knew him.

"Teach her that this organization is not a joke, boys." Their mother gave the order loud and clear, and a satisfied smirk swept across her lips as her two beloved prodigies took a knee before her and bowed in compliancy.

"We won't disappoint," they spoke in unison.

Such power from a woman who looked no older than a college student, Mika was bowled over. More so. They were like trained… well, they were like trained assassins. There was no other way to put it.

"Mr. Saitō, sir?" He whispered after his friends had gotten back to their feet and left to assemble their gear. He was surprised they hadn't called him along. "What did the paper say?"

Rigr's demeanor was just as amiable as the first time they met. "Oh, don't worry about it," he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, "it's just a little something to get them out of the house. You know, you can't keep a wild animal locked inside for too long. No matter how much love and care you pour into them, they're just not meant to be indoors."

Comparing his friends to untamed beasts, that was a bit harsh for somebody who saw them as children of his own. But Mika couldn't help but nod his head in agreement. Once a feral, always a feral, he supposed. Lacus and René couldn't help the way they were.

"And now that we're on the subject," Rigr continued, "why don't you ask the boys if you can tag along. It's about time you get yourself familiar with the business."

"Oh, I don't really… kill… people…." A statement that sounded just as awkward inside as it did coming out. Why, oh why did it have to seem like he was casually turning down alcohol at a party? He sighed and sunk lower into the velvety chase lounge he and Stafford sat upon, adding dryly, "They wouldn't let me go anyway. I'm not allowed out of the house."

"Well, with everything they've faced as little boys, I suppose I can understand their cautious behavior. I agree that it is unfair to keep you prisoner in order to protect you, but can you truly blame them? Perhaps you haven't realised it by now, but you, Mikaela, strike genuine fear into their hearts. Not many people can do that."

"Fear?" Mika repeated with a frown.

Rigr gave the boy's knee a gentle pat, a kind gesture for the bleak truth he was going to bring to light. "You're a sweet boy, Mikaela. Perhaps too sweet to trust in the face of danger, and that brings forth doubt. Your heart is like glass and your mind is only the more frail. What Lacus and René have gone through, it would break you worse than it did them. They try to be as careful with you as they can, given their nature, and though you may not be fond of the way they go about it, they always have your best interests in mind. Forgive me if I sound like a pessimistic old man but from what I've seen, and with how you've been coping with everything that's happened to you in the past and even in the present, perhaps the boys are correct in keeping you sheltered from the world. They fear for what you might do if something too detrimental were to happen. However, their only fault is that they must realize you cannot grow if they do not let you."

"But I'm… but I'm feeling better now," Mika tried arguing. "I'm stronger. I don't need protecting anymore."

"But for how long?" Rigr pressed benignly. "For how long will you maintain that state of mind before it crumbles back to dust and your left floating through life with little drive in you like when you were frightened in the hallway by that man? If I recall correctly, you were incapacitated for weeks after that incident. The boys feared the worst and wouldn't leave your side for a second. René was nearly punished for what he attempted to do in your defense. If I hadn't been there to stop him, he would've been the murderer of a very powerful man and owner of a prosperous company in Europe. He risked both his job and Ms. Krul's trust for you."

Mika lowered his head, a deep sense of shame rooting itself in his gut like a weed. Everything Stafford was saying was one hundred percent true. René could've lost everything in the blink of an eye, everything he worked for, his lifestyle, all because he got scared of a little old man.

"I didn't mean to."

"Of course you didn't," Stafford cooed, hoping to cheer the child up a bit. "Tell you what, why don't you try convincing them to let you go one last time, and if they say no I'll take you for a drive around the city in my car. I'll buy you fast-food. I know it's been a while since you've had that. You must miss it."

Mika's eyes grew at the offer. "But wouldn't you get in trouble? Lacus and René said never to trust—"

"Never to trust me?" He mused with a lighthearted grin. "The boys should know by now that if I wanted you I would have had you long ago."

"Watch it, Stafford," Krul warned from behind her desk, glaring up at him through the thin rectangular spectacles sitting on her nose. Mika almost forgot that they had been sitting in her office the entire conversation. She was as silent as a leopard. Just as intimidating as one too.

"Apologies, Ms. Krul. I meant nothing by it."

Krul eyed him a moment longer before her sharp, penetrating gaze caught innocuous deep blues.

"You."

Mika started in his seat. "Me?"

"If you're so keen on going out with the boys, even with all of the chaos happening in the organization, then demand they let you go. Asking and crying everytime they say no only proves their point: that you're weak, unworthy and haven't learned a thing even after all your training. Try being assertive for once in your life and perhaps they'll finally stop treating you like an incapable toddler and more like the mature sixteen year old you claim to be. You're not a little boy anymore, Mikaela. It's time you let them know that. Now, leave my office, both of you, I have another pest to ward off."

Mika blinked. That was the most Krul had spoken to him since being brought into her home. Normally she was so standoffish towards him, like René when they first met. Come to think of it, she and René shared a lot of the same mannerisms…

He could only pray she didn't get the uncontrollable urge to fling her stapler at him.

"Alright, Mikaela," Stafford sighed as he stood and adjusted one of the golden cufflinks on his sleeve. "Let us do as Ms. Krul asked."

"O-oh. Yes, sir." Mika peeled his eyes away from the woman punching digits into her large desk phone, not sparing them a farewell as they passed by, and he allowed himself to be guided out of the room. The door was shut behind him, and Rigr proceeded to walk him down the hall, across the stairway and into the dark hallway illuminated by the lights shining out through two of the five doors lining the walls—Lacus and René's.

"Ms. Krul is right, you know."

"I… I know," Mika said, clenching his fists at his sides in trepidation. Large hands squeezed his shoulders from behind.

"Stand up to them. Tell them what you told me, or I'm afraid it will be a very long time before they find out for themselves. And remember, if they refuse you, you still have a second option. But try not to give up so easily, okay? If you need me I'll be in my room. Do you know where that is?"

Mika swallowed. "Yes, sir. Thank you."

Rigr smiled and nodded, and after that, it was just him.

He took a deep breath and steeled his gaze, repeating Krul's words over in his head and using them as mettle fuel as he inched forward in the direction of Lacus's room. René would be too hard to convince all on his own, but he still had to bear in mind that Lacus was the more contentious of the two and hardly ever backed down from an argument—ironically enough, never won one either, as far as he knew. He was a touch more paranoid and Mika was sure that if he was an antique China doll he'd be locked away in a closet for all eternity until his paint chipped from his body and his clothes contracted the sour odor of mildew.

Thinking of it made him shiver.

But Lacus cherished him, that he knew. René did as well, but to an extent: No meant no. He hated verbal disputes. But Lacus, he was more malleable. Using the right words a no could turn into a maybe and a maybe could turn into a certain yes and with Lacus on his side René would have no other choice but to cave. Lacus was his leader, after all. Why that was, If he had to guess it was due to the nineteen day age gap between the two.

‘okay.’ 

Plan Sway Lacus was a go.

Pushing his eldest brother's door open, as quiet as a mouse, he could see that Lacus was eager to finally get out of the house and breath in the stale city air. He was like a black and violet blur as he zipped from the bathroom to his bed, seemingly on the hunt for something important.

"What are you looking for?" He asked in a casual but lightly upbeat tone of voice, the one he knew Lacus could never get enough of. Partially because it was heard so rarely.

Lacus paused in the drawer he was fishing through and met his smallest brother with a smile. "Nothing, Kiddie, I just lost my phone again. I don't know where the hell it ran off to this time. The thing acts like I abuse it."

Mika hummed and stepped deeper into the room. He would keep the knowledge of his friend's phone to himself for the time being.

"Do you need help?" He offered instead, a certain chasity to his demeanor that reminded one of a child who wanted nothing more than to help their mother find her carkeys, naive to the situation but happy to lend a hand nonetheless.

By the way Lacus stopped and became lost in his gaze for seconds too long before replying, his efforts were paying off.

"Of course, Mika. That would actually help a lot. Last time I left without it Krul almost had my head on a stick."

"You're not allowed to leave it behind?" He asked as he got to work on checking beneath the bed. Just a few unopened boxes and moving suitcases, a candy wrapper and several of Ayame's toys. She was too pompous to play with them though. He always wondered how a cat could be in possession of such a big egotistical personality. It was uncanny.

The sound of pillows flipping on the mattress above answered him before Lacus did.

"Not a chance. Krul gets really pissed when we lose contact with her. She said to treat them like anchors: if they don't leave the house, then neither do we. Dammit, where the hell—"

"Maybe it's not in here."

"Where else would it be? I had that piece of shit just this morning."

Had anyone ever told Lacus he had a bad habit of unconsciously moving things around the house more than the average human?

"Well"—Mika got to his feet and fidgeted with his sleeves, a timid blush dusting his cheeks—"you and René have been sleeping in my room often… maybe it's in there?"

The moment the suggestion met open air, the deadly assassin appeared as if he'd just had an epiphany, and his lips dropped into a small "O."

"I'll go get it for you." Mika didn't wait for a response and left Lacus to stand dumbfounded by his bedside.

Things weren't exactly going the way he planned they would anymore, he dreaded as he ventured into his room and reached underneath his pillow for where Lacus had last left his phone. If only he'd said something more sympathetic instead of revealing. He needed to find a way to ease into the subject of taking him along with them. But how?

Running his thumb across the spotless cellphone screen, he pondered: how? How? How? How would he get the overprotective Lacus on board? He didn't even let him sit outside on the porch.

And then, it suddenly hit him. It was as though a light bulb went off in his brain. It would be like playing a selfish game of X's and O's, and he wasn't fond of the manipulative idea constructing itself inside his mind—which would undoubtedly ensure his success—but Lacus and René left him no other choice. He had to play dirty like when he was younger in order to get his way.

As he heard footsteps nearing his room, he quickly shoved the valuable device in his pocket and pulled the oversized sweatshirt René loaned him as pajamas down to cover his rear once more.

Lacus peered through the door, a pinch of hope in his voice as he asked if he'd located his phone. Hesitating, Mika shook his head no.

"Sorry, I thought it would be in here."

Lacus deflated. "Well, shit."

"What about if I let you use my phone?" The blond proposed in that same false virtuos manner. "I-I'm sure Ms. Krul wouldn't mind."

"Seriously?!" Lacus beamed, inflating back to his full height. He leaped across the room and crushed Mika in between his arms and chest and, as a bonus, left his cheek damp with a sloppy appreciative kiss. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! You're saving my ass, Mika!"

Mika failed to return the elation and waited for his feet to touch the carpet once more before turning around and rummaging his nightstand for Lacus's substitute. He held it out in his palm and as Lacus raised his hand, mere inches from accepting the cellphone, fingertips barely grazing the screen, the device was promptly jerked away and held just out of his reach. He quirked a brow.

"Uhh…"

"I want to go with you guys," the blond suddenly demanded with a straight face, all traces of that endearing hospitality now as murky as an unmemorable dream. Lacus caught onto his little scheme in a heartbeat and went right back to deflating like dough.

"Mika, you know I can't do that. It's not—"

"Safe?" He quoted the word as if he'd heard it a thousand times—and he has—but he kept his voice even. "You guys always say that but nothing bad has happened yet and it's already been months. Don't you think you and René are just being a little… paranoid?"

"Paranoid." Lacus could almost laugh. "Trust me, if we were being paranoid you'd be locked in the basement with no windows for people to peek in through. If anything, we're dealing with the situation quite reasonably, if I do say so myself."

"But there is no situation to deal with," Mika stressed defiantly, moving the phone away from grabbing hands. "All of the people that came here are gone now. They left a long time ago and haven't shown up again since. There's no reason to protect me anymore, so please, Lacus, can I go with you guys? I promise I won't make any noise. I'll even stay in the car. It'll be like I'm not even there."

"Your are aware that we're going to kill and then kidnap someone, right?"

The determination burning in his gaze wavered like a dry leaf, but Mika looked right back up into Lacus's smug grin and declared, "I don't care."

It wasn't like they haven't done it before. René fractured a man's face right in front of him and Lacus forced his dagger down another's throat for the hell of it. He was sure he'd seen it all.

"Oh?" Lacus challenged. "Well, don't you have a heart of darkness. How cute. But I'm afraid my answer is still no. And no, René and I are not being paranoid. We've dealt with this kind of shit twice already, so please have a little faith in us."

A third attempt at apprehending the phone and Mika had to take a step back to create some distance between them.

"It's not fair," he proclaimed.

"Mika, please don't be like this. You may think that what I'm saying is bullshit but it's really not. We're just trying to keep you safe."

Lacus closed the gap between them and tried soothing him with gentle fingers weaving through his hair, but Mika refused to be subdued like a child throwing a fit and turned his face the other away. Lacus dropped his hand back to his side with a sigh.

"Look," he began, attempting to reason with the his friend before things escalated. "I know it's been months, okay? I know you wanna go out with us. Trust me, I get that. But we're doing this to protect you. The co-leaders may have stopped showing up, but they haven't completely left the country yet. They're still here and they're waiting for us. For you. If they caught wind that you left the house they will send people to follow after you. People that have been paid thousands just to get you. Please try to understand."

"You think I'm weak."

The low accusation was like a slap across the face, and as Lacus opened his mouth to reassure him that that wasn't the case at all, Mika cut in with yet another hurtful gripe.

"You and René always say I'm getting stronger, but that's a lie, isn't it? So you won't hurt my feelings. You guys think I can't protect myself."

"Mika, that's not—"

"Even during training, you guys never hit me. It's because you think I can't handle it, right?" He paused, allowing the tension from within him to seep into the air like a toxin. He dropped his weight on the edge of his bed before adding more quietly, "you never use to treat me like this when we were younger."

Lacus cursed tiredly up at the ceiling and took a seat beside him on the bed. Neither him or Mika looked at one another, blue glued to feet dangling above the floor and crimson counting the scars lining the back of pale fingers.

"Things have changed since we were younger," he admitted to the darkness surrounding them. "You're right, we don't hit you during training. We're not rough and we don't manhandle you like we use to, but that's not because we think you're weak, Mika. It's nothing like that."

"Then what is it? Why do you keep treating me like I'll break over the smallest things?" Mika urged, his voice rising in volume. "Even before I was adopted, I've been through a lot—my parents death, the orphanage, thinking you guys had died. And after I was adopted by Guren, he and Yuichiro did a lot to me and I pulled through it all fine enough. But here with you and René, I finally feel safe but it's like you guys don't even trust me with my own life anymore, and you won't give me a chance to prove to you that I'm really okay. I'm not as fragile as you think."

"I don't think you're fragile," Lacus mumbled with his face downcasted.

"Yes you do," Mika retaliated more forcefully, both knowing that statement to be a lie. Pushing off of the bed he spun to face him head-on. "I've been stuck in the house for months and you and René get to go outside and do whatever you want. You never let me go anywhere because you're scared that I can't handle anything anymore, but I'm not a baby, Lacus. I'm just as capable as you are. Isn't that why you trained me?"

"It's not about being capable or not, Mika." Lacus met his developing glare, but his expression was anything but what he expected it to be. It wasn't ready for an argument. It was pained, almost, driving a crack of guilt down Mika's confidence. "I know you're strong. I know you can take on mostly anything that's thrown your way. You are brave and I trust you with your life one hundred percent, so please stop thinking shit like that. I just, I… don't want you to get hurt. I don't want you to have to see or go through the things René and I have and become what we are. You've never killed a man before, and knowing you, you wouldn't want to either, but one day you'll have to, whether it be intentional or in self defense or even by force, and I'm just trying to stall for as long as I can before that day comes. I want you to stay as you are, something that René and I never were. And I'm not making things up when I say that there are people waiting just outside our doors for you. Like I said, I know you think we're full of shit but we're not, I promise. The co-leaders came all this way to get to you and they're not use to taking no for an answer. As soon as they realize you've left the house you're vulnerable, and you may be strong but you're nowhere near strong enough to take on even a single one of the men who wouldn't care less if they accidently snapped your neck during a struggle. The people they sent out to take you away will come for you, and they'll do whatever it takes to retrieve you. That means hurting you to the point of crippling you so that you can't fight back, Mika. Don't you understand? Training is nothing like the real thing. They won't go easy on you like we do." He shut his eyes and released a shuddering breath, as if fighting back the mirage of his little brother lying bludgeoned and broken on the ground before him, unable to twitch a finger.

"I'm scared, okay," he admitted just below a whisper, the hoarseness of his voice stopping any further argument he had in their tracks. "I don't want to lose you again, Mika. Not again. I wouldn't be able to handle it if you were taken away from me by those people. The things I heard them say about you, it was disgusting. More than once I wanted to fucking—" he took another shuddering breath and released it through his lips slowly before willing himself to continue. "I wanted them all dead. But I can't kill them for you. I can't protect you from them the way that I want to or it'll start a war that we will lose. The only way I'm allowed to keep you safe is by hiding you behind Krul and Mr. Saitō until we find every last one of the guys hiding in wait and kill them off one by one until the co-leaders decide to give up and leave us alone. Trust me, I want to take you out into the city too so that we can hang out and I can teach you all sorts of new things and you won't feel so trapped alone in the house, but I just can't do that right now. I'm sorry if you're pissed off about that, but it's for your own good, so please, be patient a little longer. I don't want to fight with you over this. I love you too much to risk putting you in danger just to make you happy."

There was silence in the room. The tension steadily drained into the carpet, but it didn't vanish to nothing, not with the window being closed and the door cracked. The rising extra space swiftly became filled with something more contrite driven, and Lacus tucked his hands between his thighs and kept his head bowed. Mika stared at the patch of white shining in his hair in both remorse and self-loathing for acting as though his friends were the real bad guys instead of the people they knew were somewhere stalking him from outside of the house.

He lost. There was nothing he could possibly say to compete with Lacus's reasoning and genuine affliction. His fears and uncertainties, they were all stemmed from true events he had to suffer through personally for years. If Lacus lost him again there would be no telling how he would react. What if he blamed and turned a gun against himself again? What if his already depraved mind rotted like an old ceiling and caved in on itself, turning him mad? 

Insensitive, as always. Sometimes Mika really hated himself.

"I'm sorry," whispered his soft and earnest voice, draining the rest of the tension that he had idiotically let manifest.

Lacus raised his head and gave him a small forgiving smile. It was barely noticable, making Mika feel even more worse than he already did.

"It's fine. Talking clears shit up anyway so don't feel bad about anything, okay? I'm okay."

"But—"

"Butts are for slapping," he cut in, jumping to his feet and shaking the sadness on his shoulders away with a newfound enthusiasm. He plucked the phone from Mika's fingers faster than the blond could react and smiled more authentically. "If you really wanna make me feel better then swear to me that you'll be good while we're gone. I wanna leave knowing I made the right decision not to zip-tie you to the bed."

"Can't I at least open a window? It gets hot in here."

"Nope. That's why we have AC: artificial coldness."

"But that's not what AC stands for."

"Well, my brain's not working right now so whatever it stands for it's there to satisfy your needs. Now stop avoiding the subject and swear to me that you won't step foot outside the house. I may not look it anymore but I'm still, very much, dead fucking serious."

He was right. With big round eyes and a gentle smile in place, Lacus didn't look it. But he sure did know how to astral project a threatening aura when called for.

Mika nodded. "I'll be good."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

"Good." Lacus kissed him on the cheek and maneuvered past him to the door.

"Wait!" Mika exclaimed, halting him by the wrist.

"Yes?"

"I-I know you said that you already belong to Ms. Krul, but what if the people out to get me attack you or René instead? Like when you were younger."

Lacus chuckled fondly at his concern and made his way back to him to cup his face in his hands. "That's inevitable, Kiddie, but we're owned goods. Perverts like them only want one thing: something fresh and new that they could break down and build back up from scratch to suit their desires. And besides, like the disgusting perverts they are, they prefer pretty little virgins only. René's too strong for them to tie down, and me… well, let's just say they did a little more digging and concluded I didn't quite fit the criteria anymore either."

Lacus didn't need to specify his reference. Mika understood.

The older teen smiled at the guilt casting over his face like a shadow and pecked him one last time on the forehead before releasing his face and heading back out the door. Turning back he said, "we'll make this assignment quick and be back home in no time, okay? But just in case you get lonely, you can call us whenever."

And then he was gone.

Digging into his back pocket and revealing the stolen cellphone, he couldn't help but feel gratified over his plan to be taken along on the assignment ending in a bust. It was for the best.

But, oh, how beautiful the world was outside his window. He needed to inform Rigr that he would not be going on that car ride after all.

However, little did he know…

Chapter Text

 

Spring, the season blossomed between a frigid winter and smoldering summer, acting as the centerpiece for a necklace belonging to the gracious Mother Nature. It was the season where the weather was at its most perfect—chilly at night as it was in the early hours of the morning, mild in the evening, but pleasant nonetheless. Plants condemned to lie dormant beneath the fertile soil sprouted like newborns from the womb. Trees bearing branches choked with snow now flourished with virgin life; elegant and fruitful. Bees and hummingbirds buzzed with the season's new melody. Flowers of all shapes and sizes dotted the ground and stretched over the vibrant green grass like stars in the Milky Way, flirting with their extravagant purples and eccentric yellows. It'd been like that since March, and yet, she never had the opportunity to watch the world change for herself.

It was her stupid, paranoid father's fault. Why was it now of all times he was deciding to step up to the plate and act as an overprotective parent? He wasn't like that last week. He hadn't been like that for most of her life and she just hit eighteen a month ago. It was stupid. Stupid, pointless and an overall waste of time. She'd been craving his attention ever since she was a little girl and all she ever got was his constant negligence. She cried and screamed and acted out but in return, harsh beatings. No five hour long sit-downs where the parent bent over backwards trying to figure out what was going on in their child's life; no father-daughter smoothy dates over at the local Cafe. Only scoldings for wearing too much makeup, groundings for hanging around with the wrong crowd, raging back and forth arguments for twirling in a skirt too short. What did he want from her? Why did he care? He never treated her brother like an unhinged delinquent.

Whatever. She didn't care. Her brother was a suck-up and her mother was a cheating coward. Some day—and a very close day at that—she was going to blab to her father about what she witnessed in their kitchen and watch as the house went up in flames. But until then, she had a party to attend and a hot boy to seduce. Ever since that whiny little brother of his went missing and rumor got out that his girlfriend dumped him a week after, he had been drowning his emotions behind raving crowds, deafening music, alcohol and explicit party drugs. But that didn't didn't put a lock on his player like tendencies of fooling around with desperate naive girls. All they wanted was a taste and a one night stand, but she was different. She wanted more, and she knew he wanted more too. She knew that she was going to be the one to change his worldview once and for all and mold him into the perfect lover. She would make the entire school jealous, and now was a perfect time than ever to prove that to all of her unsupportive friends. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that she alone would be the girl to pull his heart from the black tar it was stuck in. She had to be. She'd waited this long and there was absolutely nobody holding her back anymore.

She checked her hair one last time in the mirror nailed to her closet and gave herself a little twirl. Her long, silky black locks flowed over her shoulder with the graceful motion, and the frilly white skirt she picked out specially for the occasion showed off just enough of her milk thighs to make any boy brush their girlfriends off their laps and slobber over her heels like braindead dogs. She was irresistible and she knew it.

Satisfied and even a bit excited over what was going to transpire that night, she grabbed her glittery makeup purse and left her bedroom. Sauntering down the steps without a care to be seen, she ignored her father who'd been stuck in his chair for the past week staring at the front door camera playing on the television screen like a creepy patient in a ward and made her way over to the door to pull on her favorite heels.

"And where the hell do you think you're going?" her father questioned in that deep guttural voice of his.

She could hear him set his shotgun off to the side and leave his chair.

With a heavy roll of her eyes, she replied shortly "out," and pulled the front door open to leave.

"Like hell you are!" He boomed suddenly over the clatter of dishes her mother was washing in the kitchen. He shouted her name, sputtering drunkenly about danger and her still being grounded, but she shut it all out with the power of her earbuds and slammed the door in his face before he could reach a hairy hand out and stop her. He nearly ripped the hinges off from how hard he pried it back open, but when he stumbled out the front door on legs benumbed with vodka, she had already taken off down the sidewalk.

"Mai, get back here! Mai! Mai!"

With a refreshed rebellious grin on her face, she kept going, running and running for as long as her footwear let her. 

Free at last, she thought as the cool late evening breeze blew through her hair. She felt a rush run down her spine, like an electric shock. She felt powerful. To hell with her crazy old father! To hell with everything! Tonight was her night! She was finally going to steal the heart of the boy she'd been crushing on for the past two years! Everything was finally going to go her wa—

"Ahh!"

~~~

"Gotcha!"

Lacus spun like a ball dancer from the velocity of his lucky catch, squeezing her tight around her waist before shoving her over to his partner, who, upon contact, locked one arm around her body like a link of chains while his other hand acted as duct tape over her mouth, all but silencing her high pitched squeals as his leader leaned forward and brushed her hair out of her face to ensure they got the right girl.

He was impressed. "What are the odds? We really got our target."

"I told you it was her."

"Mmph!"

"I'm sorry, what was that?"

Lacus gave René his nod of approval, and the hand squeezing down over her mouth disappeared, giving her the opportunity to suck in a much needed breath of air.

"Who," she gasped through the splits of black that had fallen over her face, "who are you? Wh-what do you want from me! Please, I didn't do anything!"

"No?" Lacus cooed with pouty lips, mocking her terror. He tilted his head over innocently so that he could look the girl in her big teary green eyes. "You are Mai Azuma, aren't you? Miss ‘Dear diary, my dad's a drunk and my mom's a whore. Somebody help me.’ Aren't you that girl?"

"What?" Mai panted, jerking against the arm keeping both of hers glued at her sides. "What are you talking about? Let me go you creeps! Let me go or I'll scream!"

Lacus's icy hand shot up and grabbed either side of her jaw, squeezing until she whimpered pathetically. "You're in no possession to be making deals with the devil anymore, Miss Azuma. We came all this way to fulfill the contract you made. We're three hours away from somebody we shouldn't be three hours away from all for you, so the last thing you want to do right now is pretend you have Alzheimer's and piss us off." He snatched his hand away and gave his partner a look. "Put her in the car. Before we get rid of the family and bring her to Krul I want to have a little talk with our original client. I wanna know exactly how Caked Makeup here gained access to our website."

René nodded his agreement.

The girl was roughly spun on her toes, but before she could cry out for help, a fist implanted itself in her gut and she choked on her scream. Her body slouched forward in her captor's arm like a ragdoll, and the backdoor to her new prison cell was pulled open before she herself was carelessly flung inside. Next, the more engaging of the two assassin's pulled her wrists together behind her back and bound them with zip-ties thicker than the ones he normally used; same for her legs, but when he got to her mouth, he paused.

"Dammit."

"What is it?" Asked Lacus from where he stood scoping the area outside of the dark alleyway they chose to park in.

"I need a gag."

"Use her socks," he suggested.

"She's not wearing any."

"Then use those clear tight things that girls wear with skirts and shit."

"She's not wearing those either."

"Really? Krul wears them."

"Well she's not Krul."

"Underwear?"

"Lacus."

"Fine, bra."

"I'm not touching her chest, Lacus. Be serious."

"Who said I was joking?" He quipped. "Here, just… out of the way. Let me."

René grumbled something under his breath as he backed out of the car and stepped to the side to allow his brother the honors. The boys were on a schedule and so Lacus wasted no time in crawling into the backseat with their target, flipping her like a pancake and reaching for one of the smaller push daggers on his chest. He started by ripping a two inch wide strip of fabric from the hem of her shirt and setting it off to the side for later use. Next, he snipped away at the two pink straps holstered over her shoulders and maneuvered himself lower down on her legs to tug it down until it was wrapped around her stomach instead of her chest. With some unhooking, a few more cuts here and some tearing there, he was left with nothing but the two thick inner paddings of the lingerie.

He tilted the girl's head his way and murmured the words "open wide," before prying her jaws apart and stuffing the two pieces of padding deep within her mouth. And lastly came the fabric he ripped from her shirt that acted as binding material to keep them far behind her teeth. He removed himself from her lap, rolled her onto the car floor, left the vehicle, dusted his hands off in a job well done and closed the door.

René glared at him.

"What? Not like I touched her tits."

"You're unbelievable."

Lacus took that as a compliment and gave his younger brother a sappy, adoring kiss on the cheek. "Sometimes I forget you're just as big a virgin as Kiddie. It's cute, really."

"You're a virgin too, idiot," René muttered and proceeded to shrug his brother off of his arm before exiting the alley and exposing himself to the nightly city streets. Lacus seemed slightly taken aback by his words, but he didn't respond with any smart remark this time and simply followed after him.

The journey to their original clients home wasn't a long one—a little over five minutes at best. The boys stuck to the shadows with their hoods drawn low over their identities and their leather gloves taut over their hands. It was sheer luck that the night was panning out like most nights in Sanguinem, empty and overall barren of life, but they weren't going to risk being sloppy. Especially on a mission they knew hardly anything about. They were fools forgetting to question their mother over the details of their assignment, but that's why they were going to pay a visit to the man who should've been the only one in that house with the access codes and information needed to summon them for their services.

They could only hope the case was that he left the website open one day and his bratty daughter happened to pass it by and mistake it for a personal journal. Anything other than that and they would be in real trouble.

It made them eager but wary to find out the truth, and it made Lacus's smile fade every so gradually with the additional thought of Mika sitting home alone without their twenty-four hour protection. Speaking of which, he had yet to receive a phone call from his little blond friend…

He wondered if maybe he was upset about the falling out they had before separating.

They stopped short of the front door. There was no need to be discrete by going through a window or back gate seeing as the city was dead and the whole family would perish in a matter of seconds regardless of their entrance, but Lacus didn't pick it open just yet.

His hesitance gave rise to a question of concern, but he dismissed it.

"Nothing, it's stupid. Let's just—"

René took his hand in his and lowered it down from the pin he had holding up the lilac tuft in the back of his head, his face serious.

"A distracted mind leads to avoidable mistakes. What's wrong?"

Lacus snorted, but he sounded anything but amused. "You're so persistent. Sometimes I really hate that about you." No response from René's end and he had no other choice but to speak what was on his mind. "Fine then. I think we dove into this assignment too quickly."

René narrowed his eyes. "It was given to us by Krul. Someone got ahold of our website who shouldn't have so we take care of it without question. It's not the first time this has happened."

"I know, I know. It's just… this time feels different for some reason. I don't know how to explain it. I think it's this whole Mika and the co-leaders not sicking their dogs on him situation. I don't like him being home without one of us there with him."

"So that's it," René murmured, but he knew Lacus was right. With his older brother's hand still clasped in his, he escorted him away from the door where their discussion could alert the residence and into a dense bush several steps off the patio where they could speak privately. "Look, I'm not sure why the co-leaders haven't made any moves yet either. My guess is that after failing twice with us they realized trying for a third time would only end in needles casualties on their side. Our safest bet is that their first method to take him was their last one and they left back to their countries for good."

Lacus scoffed at the notion. "Giving up? As if politicians and greedy bureaucrats are just going to tuck their tails between their legs and let Krul get away with telling them to go fuck themselves. That's not how they work. They're plotting something, René. They have to be."

"Maybe, but whatever it is we can handle it. We've gotten stronger since our last two encounters with them, and Mika's protected in the house by cameras, Krul's servants and Mr. Saitō. Nobody can get to him. Not without taking a bullet to the head first."

Lacus nodded stiffly, wanting to believe in his brother's reasoning but the motion was hardly visible.

Upon sensing his doubt, René unzipped the pocket on his thigh where he normally kept his car keys, reached inside and pulled something out. Lacus watched on cluelessly as his palm was then opened and whatever his partner had been holding was placed in his possession. It was too dark to make out the lining of the object, but the familiar crinkle of a plastic wrapper did just the trick of setting a small smile of ease across his face.

"Mika's with Saitō and I'm here with you," René reminded him gently. "Everything is going to be okay, so stop worrying. And to make things move faster we can just kill the wife and son, and take the father with us instead of questioning him here. We can dispose of him when we get to the bridge."

Lacus closed his fingers around his candy. "Alright then, sounds like a plan. I'll take care of the wife, you take care of the husband and whoever gets the son… well, gets the son. Even though this is going to be a quick in and out, no guns are allowed. Take them out as quietly as possible with whatever else and when we're finished, we go home to kiss the Kiddie."

With their new plan laid out and Lacus's head now back in the game, the boys stood up from their hiding spot and got back into position on the patio in front of the door. Lacus pulled one of the two hairpins from his hair, took a knee and got to work. With René standing behind him, blocking his activities from the empty world around, the locksmith had his tongue poked out over the two rings on his lip and his eyes squinted in concentration.

CLICK!

"We're in."

He nudged the back of René's leg and unholstered his twisted seven inch dagger from his thigh, armed and ready. René did the same with his black coated Bowie knife, prepared to sink it into another one of the organization's traitor's flesh.

However, what the two assassins weren't prepared for was the fact that the man they had been set out to apprehend that night had been anticipating their arrival for the past five days.

When the door cracked open, they were standing faced to face with the holes belonging to that of a heavy duty, double barreled shotgun.

The boys acted in unison with the trigger. Lacus ducked to the ground and René dodged to the left. The gun singed locks of obsidian. Crouched down nearly on all fours like a frog, Lacus shot his leg out from beneath him and kicked the man hard in the groin, sending him to his knees. He used the same foot to kick the shaft of the gun and the second shell blew a hole through the ceiling above his head. Debris showered down over his hood. A woman could be heard screaming in the background from a nearby room and Lacus shouted for René to go as he followed his kick up with a full body tackle that had both him and the father rolling over on the hard wood floor. His dagger and the shotgun skidded into the dark.

"Lacus—"

"Go! I got it!"

"Lacus, you—"

"Fuck the plan and go dammit!" He yelled again, narrowly missing the man's hand with the dainty knife he'd drawn from above his ankle.

René hesitated. Lacus was on top of their target for now. He had the advantage with weapons and skill, but he was still outweighed by over a hundred pounds. With his strength, if the father happened to catch him off guard at any point…

"René, focus!"

René swore through clenched teeth and bolted past the scrimmage on the floor to the staircase where the mother had taken off shrieking.

Straddling the man, Lacus slammed his fist into his jaw once, and then a second time, discombobulating him, and he went in with his knife again. The blade sliced through coarse black tendrils of facial hair and planted itself in the wood. His wrist was grabbed in a vice grip. He grunted, and the man beneath him landed a solid punch to his nose.

Blood pooled over his lips on contact, but Lacus was fixed in place, thighs clenched like latches on the man and he wasn't letting go. Another punch and the inside of his mouth became coated with the thick metallic tang of fresh blood.

His vision blurred, but he could still make out the vivid shape of the man's fist coming for his face for a third time. He snatched his knife from the floor and got it ready between his fingers. He pulled his head back, creating a gap between his face and his target's oncoming attack, the power riding behind it hot like a bullet, and with adrenaline racing through his veins like a shot of straight heroin, he plunged his blade deep into the man's forearm.

The man bellowed like a war horn. He screamed out in agony, and his pain left himself wide open for the gun Lacus had at his disposal. He wanted to use it. He wanted to shove it down his throat and pull the trigger. He wanted his blood to splatter across his face as if he were in the splash zone at a theme park. But he wasn't embarking on just any assignment, and the front door behind them was wide open for anyone to hear. And that damned shotgun had already rung like a siren.

"Dammit!" 

He needed to end this, get René and leave before people caught wind and called the police.

He wound his arm back, and with air shooting from his lips like a dart, jabbed his knuckles into the father's esophagus, then followed it up with a swift hook to the nose that had him down and out for the count. The struggling ceased like an off switch, and the father lie sprawled out beneath him.

He unlodged his knife from his arm.

He had to use the wall for support as the adrenaline wore off and exposed him to the dizzying pain pulsing from within his skull. He stumbled to his feet. The mother couldn't be heard screaming anymore, and the same could be said about the son who he hadn't personally seen for himself yet. René must have gotten the job done.

His thoughts were sooner confirmed when he was leaning up against the wall, pulling his hood off to take a breather and saw his brother come down the steps from the corner of his eye. He didn't have a scratch on him.

"Lucky bastard," he chuckled breathlessly at the crater in the ceiling. Asbestos and another chunk of debris rained to the floor.

"You look like shit," René commented, his voice sounding amplified in the quiet household. Lacus flipped him the bird, but the younger sibling went on unscathed. "You know, you're only this winded because you and Mika wouldn't stop fooling around during training sessions."

"Mika and I did not fool around during training sessions."

"Don't lie. I've seen you two playing in the mud."

"It was a four time thing. Blame the midnight snacks."

Lacus tested the bruise swelling over his cheek tenderly, but pulled his hand away just as fast with a hiss. He couldn't remember the last time his target put up a good fight.

God, did it feel amazing.

"Are you alright?" René asked him more cordially, kicking the shotgun away from the neighboring weapon and into the living room.

"Peachy actually." Lacus was handed his dagger, and he stared between its sharp glistening blade and the unconscious man bleeding out all over the floor at his feet. "I was really hoping I'd get to use this on somebody tonight."

"He was waiting for us."

"I know." His tone darkened. "Either he heard us talking outside, or somebody else who knew we were coming gave him a heads up. Fucking co-leaders, I knew it."

"What should we do?"

Lacus's pocket began vibrating and he held up a finger signing for René to wait a moment while he tucked away his weapon and fished for the buzzing device. Holding the cellphone up to his face, the name shining back at him nearly took him for a spin.

"Who is it?" Asked René, assuming it had to be something relevant to their sketchy assignment. Lacus's grave expression did a full 180, and he suddenly grinned as if he were staring down into a cave of hidden jewels. He removed one of his gloves with his teeth to swipe right, held the phone to his ear, and his enthusiasm melted away any, if not all, of his partner's previous disquietude.

"Kiddie, you sneaky little shit. How did you get your paws on my phone again?"

René rolled his eyes tiredly and informed him that he was going to give their mother a call and bring the car around so that they could pack up their second target and escape before the police arrived. Lacus hummed, adding that he would have the guy nice and tied up before he got back, and René said a short farewell before disappearing out the door to fulfill his task.

Lacus pushed it shut behind him and turned his eyes back on the body, lips perking to the side attentively. "Can you hold on a sec, Mika? I'm gonna need both of my hands for this. I'll put you on speaker." 

Getting down on his knees, Lacus did as he said and set the device off to the side. Both gloves were back on, and several zip-ties were prepped.

"Oh, are you busy?" Spoke that soft and innocent voice that simultaneously filled his heart with both warmth and the chromatic colorful splashes of ecstacy.

"Never, kiddie," he assured as he rolled the nearly three hundred pound bag of dead weight over on its stomach and perched himself on top with the zip-ties. "I've actually been waiting for you to call me since we left. I was worried."

"Sorry about that. I was meaning to call you earlier but I fell asleep on the couch again."

Lacus sighed like a scolding mother and pulled the heavy duty piece of plastic around the father's wrists until the tan skin straining beneath it turned an angry red. "Mika, you can't keep sleeping in like that. I told you a thousand times, It fucks up your mental state. That's why you always feel like shit in the morning. And have you eaten anything at all since we left?"

There was momentary pause on the line. Mike was thinking, and if Mika had to think of a response then Lacus already knew it was a big no.

"Dammit, Mika."

"I forgot!" he squeaked in defense.

The blond was really going to be the death of him some day. He could already feel the wrinkles and age spots forming on his face.

"You didn't forget," he rebuked all knowingly, "you just chose not to. Again. Now, please go make a sandwich or something. Or eat some of Krul's leftover spaghetti. Seriously, you can't keep doing this to yourself. I thought you wanted to get better."

"I do—I am getting better."

"You're better when there's an audience around to watch you. You can't just say fuck it anytime we're not there or asleep and skip out on meals. If you keep doing this shit I swear I'll have you hooked up to a feeding tube. Is that how you want to spend the rest of your life? Being force-fed spaghetti through a straw?"

Lacus flipped his position and moved onto the father's legs. He was going to be needing two zip-ties, for safety precautions.

"I'll make a sandwich," Mika conceded. "Please stop being upset. I really do forget sometimes. My appetite isn't as big as yours and René's. It never has been."

Lacus made a noise of suspicion, but he knew Mika wasn't lying this time. Although as a kid, he ate what would've been considered a banquet of food, it was still meager compared to the amount himself and René would consume in one sitting. But that was only because they never had the luxury of eating whenever they pleased; food was a rarity to them. Mika on the other hand lived in a nurtured orphanage with a woman who fed him daily. He'd never felt what the pains of hunger were like. Not until that cop adopted him at least. And as the bad days slowly starved him to sleep, his body refused to let him satisfy its needs.

He slouched on the father's legs, feeling a twinge of guilt. "Sorry, Mika. I know it's hard sometimes, just… try to remember from now on: three meals a day. Not two and a cheerio, okay? The meal doesn't even have to be big."

There was a haggard groan from beneath him.

"Okay," Mika said quietly. "I'll remember."

"Good!" He grunted as he grabbed a fistful of the father's hair and bashed his head against the floor. "I want you chubby like a pug when we get home."

"What was that?"

"Nothing important. Now, I can hear René pulling into the driveway, and lifting this guy is a two man job so I have to hang up for a while. I'll call you back in five, yeah?"

"Oh, okay."

"K, love you!"

"W-wait! Lacus!"

"Yeah?"

"Nothing," Mika hesitated, "I was just going to ask what time you and René are coming back?"

"Three hours, I thought you knew that."

"I forgot…"

Lacus stood back to his feet, his forehead creasing. "Is everything okay there?"

"Yeah!" Mika blurted. "I-I was just double checking. Be safe! Bye!"

"Wait, Mika! Mi—" but the call had already ended. "Shit." And now he was more worried than before. Just what he needed, anxiety during a three hour trip trapped in a metal box with not one but two smelly hostages. Mika was a stressful one. The boy was lucky he loved him to death.

He sighed and pocketed his phone. Bending over and grabbing hold of the father's ankles, he wanted nothing more than to speed things along and get going. He grunted as he tugged and dragged the body further up the hallway where he and René wouldn't have to struggle so much with hauling him all the way to the car.

Men were always a bitch to carry around. It was as if they survived off an austere diet of whale fat, bones and rocks.

He was just about there when the door opened behind him.

"Took you long enough. My back is fucking killing me."

"Oh, I just bet it is."

Lacus's heart skipped a beat and he leaped away from the presence behind him with his pistol drawn and pointed.

Where his brother should have been standing, stood a much taller dark silhouette with a masculine build to it and an intimidating aura rivaling that of a bear's. Peering over its broad shoulders for any sign of René was hopeless.

"Who the fuck are you?" He demanded. His voice was steady. It projected an edge to it that dared the man to twitch a toe in his direction. However, all that aggression was good for was pulling a snort of amusement from the other, and he tightened his fists around his gun in warning. "Answer me! Who the fuck are you and where's René?"

"Oh, Lacus." The man raised a finger to wipe away a tear. "It's been so long since I've last seen your face. Look at how you've matured over the years. You're almost all grown up. And your hair, it's more beautiful than I remember. It saddens me how I missed out on so much of your developme—"

"Shut up and tell me where he is or I take your fucking eye!" Lacus shouted, his patience burning like thread.

The intruder raised his hands in submission and let out another cocky chortle. "Rest assured, Lacus Welt, I haven't laid a finger on your beloved brother. Lower your weapon and I'll prove it to you."

"Yeah, and you'll give me candy and lead me to the cute puppy in your van too, right?" Lacus barked with bitter laughter, squeezing his finger harder on the trigger. "How about I shoot you right here instead and look for him myself."

The man shrugged. "Kill me and he dies, Welt. Him and your precious little friend—oh, what was his name again? Ah, that's right, Mikaela. Precious little Mikaela Shindo."

Lacus's blood froze in his veins.

"What did you say?"

"He's a gorgeous boy, it's an unarguable fact. But I don't think anyone can compare with the captivating beauty you possess. How I've missed you."

"You Fucking pervert, I don't even know you." Lacus had heard enough. He pulled the trigger, firing off a deafening three rounds. To his disbelief, the bullets aimed at the man's head zipped past him into the wall as a heel appeared from the shadows and kicked his wrist, sending the gun whirling across the room. He cursed at the jolt of pain. A glimmer of silver caught his eye from the same direction and he jumped to the right, dodging the attack. With the sudden shift from carpet to hard kitchen tiles, he stumbled with his footing and was barely able to move his body out of the way of the next lightening speed offense. He reached for the weapon on his thigh, but he was blindsided yet again by a direct kick from behind him. He tumbled forward on his hands and knees. The leisurely paced click of heels closed in on him and he ground his teeth in agitation.

He equipped himself with his largest push dagger and waited for the figure behind him to get within arms reach before flipping himself on his rear and slashing its razor sharp edge high across their face.

A banchee like wail cut through the air. Metal clattered to the floor and Lacus took that as his opportunity to strike.

As the woman collapsed to her knees, clutching her face in her hands, screaming about her eye, he launched forward with his weapon and finished her off with its length buried deep in her chest where her heart was.

"Chess!"

He pulled it out just as quick. The woman dropped her gaze down to the gaping wound in her breast with a look of befuddlement reflected through her one glistening eye. Lacus brought his leg around and swung his foot across her face just as her partner came rushing to her aid. Her skull cracked against the corner of a cabinet, and her partner arrived too late. 

With his teeth bared, he lunged forward at the second woman, set on finishing her off as well. He was consumed by rage and anger; engulfed with fear. Not for himself, but for his two younger brothers. Those blinding emotions left him vulnerable. They left him oblivious to the large mass of condensed muscle charging in at him from his side at full speed.

It was like being slammed into a wall built of concrete. The mass knocked him clean off his feet and sent him barreling through the kitchen and into a clutter of freshly washed dishes. Plates and glass cups shattered to the floor all around him, cascading shards of every color in all directions, while others clashed against the wall before him and created a barrage of noise that blocked out the sound of the man who'd charged at him appearing behind him in his moment of stupor and grabbing him by his hair.

His neck popped in several places as his head was wrenched back. He bit back a cry of pain, and with his face and arms bloodied by shards of jagged broken dishes, and his vision blackening from the violent impact he withstood, he used all of the strength he could muster and brought his elbow back into his attacker's ribcage. The man grunted at his attempts, but that earlier attack had left the little boy on the brink of consciousness and the hold he had on his hair was unyielding.

Lacus gasped sharply as he was pulled further back, his back colliding against something hard reeking of high-class cologne. Warm breath puffed against his neck and spoke huskily into his ear, and his body shivered.

"You've gotten stronger, haven't you, boy?"

"Fuck you!" He spat. 

He grabbed the remains of a wine glass off the counter and tried using it against the bastard wrapping himself around him, but his attacker had learned quick and hard not to underestimate his foe like his subordinate had so foolishly done.

He caught the younger assassin by the wrist, stopping the glass from tearing into his lower abdomen, and twisted his arm far behind his back.

It took all of Lacus's dignity to retain his composure as his shoulder threatened to pop from out of its socket. He squeezed his eyes shut, grit his teeth and panted through the jolts and pulses shooting up his arm.

"I really hate to do this to the little one I've been yearning for for the past five years, Lacus Welt. But you've taken one of my girls from me. I can't just let you get away with that, no matter how much you take my breath away. Bad boys need to be punished."

"Kill me, asshole!" He spat through ragged breaths. "See where my death gets you! Krul will have your ass skewered in our front yard like a fucking lawn ornament!"

"I see your vulgar way with words hasn't changed a bit since you were younger," the man sighed in disappointment. "But no matter, I will teach you what your mother should've taught you long ago, along with those other… peculiar lessons of hers."

With his arm pulled dangerously high behind his back, and rough fingers ripping strands of his hair from the roots, Lacus let out a strangled groan as he was shoved forward on his toes like a death row inmate being led by an executioner, and It wasn't until his pelvis hit the edge of the counter top was his arm released and he was able to take a breath. The relief that flowed through his chest was short lived, for when he cracked his eyes open to look at where he had been cornered in to, dread was quick to fill in its place.

"You'll be joining your brother soon enough, my precious Lacus Welt."

Lacus's protests were abruptly drowned out as his head was plunged into the sink full of steaming tap water. His body jerked and thrashed about against the other's. Bubbles gurgled to the surface and bursted over his head like those of underwater geysers. His hands shot up on instinct and gripped the counter, clawing and pushing against it in a desperate attempt to escape. The powerful body of the man caging him in pressed itself flush against his backside, staunching his ability to kick his legs and rendering him helplessly immobile from the waist down. One of his wrists were taken and pinned to the surface, the strength of his opposer like adhesive.

He couldn't move. He couldn't call for backup. He couldn't reach for his weapons. He couldn't see.

He couldn't breath.

Beneath the water, his head was forced lower, deeper down until his last shred of breath was pushed from his lungs by force. It rose to the surface like a white flag and popped thickly over a patch of old cooking oil, becoming one with the abundance of oxygen blowing over his nape, giving it cool taunting kisses. It didn't take long for his chest muscles to begin spasming out of his control. They fought with the dwindling common sense keeping his mouth from gulping down scorching water and his heart pumping with his life.

His train of thought seized.

He needed to breath. He needed air. It was so hot.

Was this how it was going to end? Was this how he died? With his head submerged in a kitchen sink full of filthy dish water by some co-leader's dog from his past he couldn't even pin a name to? They were set up. He knew that now. How could he let this happen? René, his brother, his best friend, the boy he thought he was going to be spending forever with, he was out there somewhere. But wait, what did that man say about joining him soon? What was that supposed to mean?

‘René.’

His heart felt as if somebody had just ripped through his chest, broke away his ribs one by one, grabbed it with their cold, unforgiving fingers and squeezed, twisting it and wringing it dry of every drop of hope he had left like a sponge.

That bastard was bluffing. René was always on his toes. He would never allow himself to be captured and—

His breath hitched with a lamented sob that reached only the blocked drain; no more bubbles rose. A current of water was sucked down his windpipe. It invaded his starved lungs and he coughed and sputtered without sound, his own reflexeses turning against him, and his fruitless fight to reach open air was overcome by sheer primal instincts. He became erratic. His mind flooded with panic. His eyes shot open, bulging. The pressure holding him down felt heavier all of a sudden, stronger. His insides burned; his lungs, his throat, his nose. It was as if he were breathing in and swallowing searing lumps of coal. His salty tears mixed in with the water around him.

He could feel himself fading.

No. René couldn't be dead. And he couldn't die. Who was going to take care of Mikaela?

His mother would have him thrown back into the city. The people would kill him, or worse. They would tear him to pieces all over again and all of his progress would be lost. They would drive him to do something horrible. And if that didn't happen, she would hand him over to Ferid and have him turned into the very thing he'd fought so hard to prevent. His mind would break. He couldn't die now. He couldn't abandon him. He and René were supposed to be on their way home. The first of May was just around the corner and they hadn't even had a chance to pick out the perfect birthday present. It wasn't fair.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. Mika was calling him, probably wondering why he hadn't called back like he said he would. He must have been worried sick. What if he jumped to conclusions and thought the worse? What if he began to panic? He needed to answer him.

‘Mika.’

His phone continued to ring. The sensation was like his cat purring with affection against his leg. It was comforting, in a way he couldn't allow himself to accept, but slowly, bit by bit, his arms succumbed to the battle on either side of the sink. One slipped from the counter and dangled limply at his side; the other loosened its trembling fist under the grip pinning it down. His knees gave beneath his weight and his shoulders languidly lost their tension. The vibrant crimson of his irises dulled and the abundance of bubbly, enthusiastic life they once carried withered like rose petals selfishly plucked from their bud and left in the dirt.

Mikaela, his dear baby brother.

He needed to answer him.

 

Chapter Text

 

Mika didn't exactly have much of an appetite as he lie across his older brother's bed with his favorite pillow clutched between his arms, gazing blankly at his untouched plate. A neatly thrown together peanut-butter and jelly, unfulfilling to the average teenage male, and Lacus would undoubtedly scold him for it if he found out. But that was if.

Ten minutes have past since their call ended, and Lacus's phone had yet to move an inch since then. At first he stuck to his original spot huddled in the corner of the couch downstairs, patiently awaiting the promised call back, but after an unexpected rush of anxiety crept up on him from the depths of his belly he took his sandwich and migrated to someplace more welcoming and closed in. He figured what better place than René's room. He would've gone to Lacus's, seeing as he visited it more frequently than the other's, but as of late he didn't enjoyed the feeling of being in his room without the company of another human being with him. He could never shake the feeling of being watched by someone or something in the walls. Being a devote believer in the paranormal, he chopped the feeling up to being Lacus's past victims manifesting themselves in their murderer's living quarters. However, the more practical version of him told him it was due to his own paranoia that developed after being fondled by that old European man.

He sighed heavily.

Why hadn't Lacus called him back yet? It'd been fifteen minutes.

From what he was able to take away from the conversation they shared moments ago, the two of his friends were busy with somebody worth more than their money. Why else would carrying whoever they were carrying be a two man job? But then, it had already surpassed the time it would take to carry a body to a car.

Maybe something went wrong.

‘No.’

He couldn't let his mind wonder down that path. His friends were fine. Lacus was quick on his feet and René had more strength than what could pass as humanly possible. They were fine.

…But maybe he should call, just in case.

That would probably be a bad idea, though, wouldn't it? He was blind to what they were doing at the moment and didn't want to risk foiling their assignment somehow all because of the jitters in his stomach.

Just lie.

And wait.

And wait some more.

A little more.

He sighed once again and sat up on the bed with Lacus's phone ready between his fingers.

Maybe the assassin got caught up in blood lust and forgot about him. He had seen it happen plenty of times on television shows and movies: the killer would be in the midst of offing someone and then lose sight of the main objective as their focus retained strictly on their struggling victim; the desperate squirming would drive them manic within seconds.

Not that he was calling his eldest brother a maniac. It was just that from the way Lacus treated the people that weren't him, René or Krul, it was all too easy to conclude that the pain and suffering of others sparked some form of deranged pleasure in his mind that he would willingly surrender himself to and let consume him until it was sated.

It was a heat of the moment type of thing that Lacus, without guilt, had admitted to.

Figuring if that was the case, then would it hurt to give him a thirty second call? Stabbing people couldn't have been that important.

He pushed his sandwich to the side, gathered his inner courage and pressed down on the most recently reached contact—Kiddie with yellow hearts on either side.

Holding it up to his ear, the phone began ringing its grey, monotone ring.

It stopped.

He held the device out in front of his face and read over the ignored call details with his sleeve now clenched between his teeth. The dread in his stomach had just leaped to his throat.

Maybe Lacus really had gotten caught up in blood lust. It only made sense.

He exited back to the contact list, which was surprisingly on the diminutive side for somebody so outgoing, and clicked on the name René spelled out in all caps with a black heart on either of its side, similar to his.

It was the same thing.

Not even a voicemail.

‘They're just busy,’ he told himself. ‘They'll see that I called and call back to check if I'm okay. It'll only take five minutes. They're probably on their way here now.’

But if they were, why would they ignore his calls?

Texting. Texting was a thousand times quieter and more discrete. If they were stalking someone a small text should be nothing.

HIM: hi are you and René alright?

HIM: I made a sandwich like you told me to

And then, the waiting game.

TIK

TOK

TIK

TOK

TIK

TOK

TIK

Had the grandfather clock gotten louder?

It would probably be a good idea to send a text to René as well…

HIM: are you and Lacus on your way back?

He dropped the phone in the space between his crossed legs and pulled the stubby pillow close to his heart. Letting his eyes flutter shut, he squeezed it tight and breathed in its comforting fragrance of earth and lavender.

‘They're okay. Lacus and René are okay.’

‘Why aren't they texting back?’

‘You're panicking over nothing. They'll text back in five minutes, or six. Distract yourself.’

A distraction? Swallowing the lump in his throat, he looked around for anything to take his mind off his friends.

The nightstand was the only thing within arms reach. Any other time he wouldn't dare rummage through his brother's personal possessions, but his distress was making him desperate for a brief pass of time. He needed relief.

He scooted closer to the thin wooden dresser. The surface was otherwise barren of miscellaneous, besides a digital alarm clock, a few specks of dust and a tiny knife the length of his middle finger. He reached for its only available knob, but hesitated.

What was he doing? René would kill him for his intrusion.

He pulled the drawer open and like two moons rising over a lake, shimmering big round eyes cautiously peeked inside.

A breath of relief as no anticipated secrets were revealed upon first sight. He pulled the drawer open wider and gave himself a full view of the contents hidden inside:

A loaded pistol; some spare throwing needles, hopefully not laced with anything deadly; loose candy, courtesy of Lacus; and last but not least, four little black books with leather binding to keep trespassers like him out.

He eyed the book farthest from view hiding in a dark corner, and the book eyed him, tempting him with its weathered exterior and tattered blank face. From the looks of it, it was almost as old as him.

Curiosity took the fragile book from its resting place. Delicate fingers traced over its age old cracks, turning it on its face then turning it back around; a touch too forceful would destroy it. The spine in which a thick layer of glue held the pages together appeared fresh, as if it had just been refurbished. It wasn't yellow like the ancient books at the school library.

He took great consideration in unwinding the string tied around the little book, and was even more careful when gravity assisted him in opening it to an anonymous page filled with small ink-scribed lines.

His eyes went wide when he realized those dark marks packed so tightly together to fill the two pages were actually tally marks. There were over a hundred of them.

Tallies for what? Did he really want to know?

He quickly flipped to another page, not wanting to dwell on the potential facts.

The first thing his eyes landed on was a date written in elegant small cursive. He was stunned. Never in all of his years had he ever seen Lacus or René's penmanship before. As children, Lacus defensively admitted to being illiterate and René simply never wanted to write. He drew though, and quite well for his age, but apparently the calligraphy side of his life was kept private.

His amazement doubled when he mumbled the date aloud to himself. It read February 18, 2009.

Back when they were kids.

 

February 18, 2009

“Lacus and I snuck into the orphanage again. The lady slept with the kids so we couldnt play with Mika. I think she suspects were the ones getting into fights with everyone. We ate most of the brownies they baked but we still saved some for him. They were gross. I liked the cookies better.”

 

A faint smile formed over Mika's lips. A diary. He was reading René's diary. The last thing he imagined of all things paradoxical in the world was his dark and mysterious friend owning a personal journal dating back to his childhood.

He flipped to an earlier date and continued on reading, each swivel and loop of words successively dispelling the anxiety of ignored calls and unanswered texts.

 

August 21, 2006

“I made my first frend today. Her name is Lacus Welt. Shes not smart like i am but shes not as mean as the kids at my old home and she doesnt laugh at me or run away like everyone else. Shes dirty and talks funny but thats ok to. Sister Ena said to juge a person only by there heart. She stole an apple for me when I was hungry and took me somewere warm so shes nice. I think Lacus is lonly like me. I hope we can be frends and play tag some day.”

 

Mika giggled at his friends childish way with words. He could remember the day he found out Lacus wasn't, in fact, a female like he assumed. It was an exceptionally delicate moment for the both of them.

 

September 8, 2006

“Tomorrow is my birthday. Ill be 7 years old. Lacus said she doesnt have a birthday and she was realy sad so I gave her a new one and now shes 7 like me. I found a cake behind a big store that bakes sweets for people. I threw away the dirty parts. We were supposd to share it but Lacus wouldnt let me have any. She eats like an animal. I dont think I like her anymore. She said she threw up on her mom when she got home and got in realy big trouble. I think that was God puneshing her.”

 

January 27, 2007

“I killed a dog today. I dont remember doing it but Lacus said I hit it on the head with a rock. Its just like what happened with Kouta and Shishido but i didnt mean to do it this time. I dont want to hurt animals. It was barking and I got scared and then my head went fuzzy and I couldnt see anything. Lacus said she does the same thing to the mice at her house and promised never to tell anyone if I dont. God saw everything and it rained. I think there is something wrong with me. Im sorry. I promise Ill never do it again.”

 

April 6, 2010

“I saw that man in the weird coat again. He followed us to the park and I'm sure Mika saw him to but didn't say anything. He was hiding behind a tree. Lacus wouldn't shut up about a posum that chewed his hair the other night so the man got away before we could tell him. Mika told the woman he lived with but she said that he wasn't allowed to hang out with us anymore because we weren't part of the orphanage. He still sneaks food and clothes out for us though so it doesn't make a difference to me. He was to loud and bossy and wouldn't stop touching my hair.”

 

April 20, 2010

“I think there's something wrong with Lacus. I saw that man again a few days ago, and this time Lacus saw him to. He was waiting for us at the factory. Lacus grabbed me and ran. He looked scared. We ran back to the orphanage and spent the night on the roof. He couldn't sleep so I stayed up with him until he did. He screamed and started crying and speaking in a different language. I've never seen him like that before. I tried to wake him up but it wouldn't work. He peed on himself and said that he would kill me if I ever told Mika. I asked him if he knew who that man was the next day but he said he didn't know what I was talking about. I asked him about his nightmare too but he said he never had a nightmare. I think he was lying because he lies a lot but I don't know. He was acting normal like it never happened. I think my mind was making up stories again.”

 

That man, he did remember catching him lurking around every once in a blue moon when they got together to hang out. They were never able to make out his face due to the sunglasses and large coat he wore over his body, but it must have been the same man who kidnapped Lacus and molested him in his car, his father. Mika flipped to the next page where there should have been another entry based on the actual event in May, but all that was there in its place were the crumpled remains of at least ten other entries that have been violently torn out in a rage. And after that, the first entry of 2013.

Two whole years, lost. Two whole years of silence.

The pain René wrote down throughout that period must have been too much for him to bear. Or too much for whoever he thought would possibly find the book next. For something as personal as what he and Lacus went through, he must have either thrown the entries away or stored them someplace safe where only he knew the location of. It was understandable. It was like he knew someday somebody would come snooping, and so took the necessary precautions. He would have done the same thing.

He flipped to the final page of the book where the date of the entry read the eleventh of October. It was something along the lines of their first assignment beginning on the first day of the new year, but that was all he was able to take away from the book before a sudden bang shook the upstairs level and had him springing in the air like an alley cat. He banged his head against the dresser on his way down to the floor. His arm propelled the knife resting on the edge and the weapon went spiraling up before spinning down to plant itself between his legs.

From the sounds of a small whimper and broken glass tinkering together in the hallway, he wasn't the only one who was affected by the commotion.

"Get the hell out of my way!" Shouted a high and clearly furious voice.

Mika's eyes went wide. That was Krul's voice, and she was coming down the hallway. And she sounded more pissed then ever.

"Ms. Krul," spoke another recognizable voice, "we must remain calm. Losing our heads will not—"

"Not now, Stafford!" The higher voice clipped. Her footsteps came closer. "Get Asura on the phone right now! And you!"

"Ah! Yes ma'am?"

"Call the mayor's office and tell him to stop those police from entering that house immediately! Now!"

"Yes, ma'am! Right away!"

"Ms. Krul—"

"I said quiet, Stafford! Where the hell is that little…"

She and Rigr stopped at the entrance of the bedroom where they came just in time to see Mikaela's pathetic silhouette scrambling back to his feet with his arms behind his back and his body blocking the dresser that was still wide open from his evil deed.

"M-Ms. Krul!" He sputtered, grinning awkwardly as he slipped the book up one sleeve and the letter opener up the other. He prayed they didn't notice the drawer behind him.

Krul flipped on the light and came in fast after him, as if she were ready to strike him down for sneaking around her son's room like a night crook. He held his breath and turned away with his eyes shut, waiting for the slap he knew he fully deserved.

"What the hell are you doing?" The woman demanded, her tone nothing short of ticked. "We don't have time for this, Mikaela. Come with me to my office, now. And bring Lacus's phone with you."

Mika opened his eyes and fixed his unofficial guardian with a look that was borderline petrified. How did she know the phone wasn't his? Did Lacus tell her before leaving?

Krul turned away just as she gave the order and began storming back out of the room. Mika watched her go and then fixed Rigr with the same terrified expression.

"Come, now, Mikaela," he ordered more calmly but just as urgent, setting a hand against his back as he led him out of the room and into the hallway where the change of lighting made his eyes squint. On the floor to his left was the maid who had gotten scared with him and dropped her tray of tea. She was still on her knees plucking the pieces of glass from the carpet.

"Mr. Saitō, what's going on?"

"Dire things, I'm afraid. Krul has a very important assignment that only you can engage in. You must remain silent when we get to her office and do exactly as she tells you, understand?"

Mika's heart dropped like cement. "Wh-what? But I've never—I don't—I'm not supposed to—Lacus and René—"

"Come." Ignoring as the child tripped and stammered over his protests, Rigr urged him through Krul's ominous office doors, closed and locked them behind him. Mika spun around, desperate for answers, but the man was nowhere to be seen. With a knife he shouldn't have had hidden up his sweatshirt and a book he shouldn't have had concealed along with it, Mika was a flushed and trembling wreck as his friends' mother rounded her desk and began approaching him with a brown folder in her hand, confused and utterly terrified of what she could have possibly had in store for him.

Chapter Text

 

The overpowering stench of burban wafted across his nose, and lingering beneath it but not wholly masked, blood. His blood.

Crimson eyes, fogged from semiconscious, squinted into the darkness of what they could scarcely perceive to be a long narrow room closed in on all sides like a pen case. They followed the path in front of them lit by dim glows of bronze illuminating a polished wood floor and the underbelly of a couch that wrapped around the cramped space, forming a U. Further above, lining the walls decorated with gracefully painted patterns of swirling gold vines, were two stretched windows, both of which were tinted blacker than the starless sky behind them.

The enclosure was similar to what he, his mother and brother would cruise around in on occasion through cities as a gift for a spree of successful assignments. But what the hell was he doing in one now? What happened?

He winced as the questions pounding in his mind ravaged his temples. He tried pulling himself to his knees to get a better visual indication as to what was going on, but the metallic clank of shackles coming from below his abdomen as he shifted his palms to hoist his weight made him all but pause midway through. Blinking down, he could make out the sliver of metal chains gleaming back at him, and it was in that instance, staring down at those handcuffs interlocking his two wrists, that everything came flooding back like a tide of nightmares.

He had just said goodbye to Lacus after Mika called to check in and was on his way to pick up the car and call their mother to inform her of the scam they fell for. Not five minutes after the front door was shut behind him did the scent of sewage filling the streets became overpowered by a keen fragrance that could only be described as stepping foot into an active honeycomb. His thoughts had gone blank, as though they had been completely swept from his mind like a hard drive. His muscles turned to jelly, and suddenly he'd forgotten why his thumbs were hovering over his mother's name. The ground spun in circles under his feet and before he knew it, it was like a rock had been thrown at his face, and everything went dark.

Lacus.

With his eyes blown wide, his nerves working on a backup generator and the feeling in his arms and legs slowly returning to him, their failed assignment became the least of his worries and he sprung forward with his body pointed towards one of the two doors creating a gap between the couch—an exit. But his quick and thoughtless actions proved to be a mistake, and the lack of lighting had him hurdling face first into an invisible barrier thick enough to turn his violent collision into a skull rattling thud.

From the outside, one can see as the car jumped and settled back in place.

He struggled back to his hands and knees, cringing at the sharp pulses reverberating from the front of his face to the back of his brain, and glared around at all of the empty space in front of him in perpetual loss. A smudge of blood obscured the portion of the couch eight feet across from him. He placed his cuffed hands over it. The invisible wall was cool to the touch, and unmistakably there. From all six sides, he realized the daunting truth—he was boxed in. Standing just four feet from the wall behind him separating the driver's seat from the back seat, the glass extended from the left half of the vehicle to the right. He could hardly stretch his legs.

His heart palpated in his chest. He began feeling his hands around the glass and pressing everywhere his fingertips could reach, intent on finding a door or button or a secret opening anywhere. It was when he began patting around at the blank wall beside him did his hands come into contact with a heavily engraved doorknob. Not one belonging to a car, to his surprise.

He twisted it, but of course it was stuck on a lock.

"Dammit!"

He was trapped in a car, in a glass box, handcuffed, with no way of escape; and the chances of his older but much smaller brother having a physical confrontation with the man responsible was making his mind race with dozens of the worst case scenarios.

He grabbed at the spot reserved for his pistol. He patted his chest down like a cop would a criminal, his pockets, pouches, his thighs and lower legs. Nothing. Every single weapon he owned was gone. His phone, his keys, everything. Hell, not even his gloves were with him anymore.

He shouted another bitter curse, both at himself for having been imbecilic enough to lower his guard to such an inexcusable level, and to whoever it was who managed to capture him like some stray mutt off the streets and lock him in a box.

With only one way to his brother, however, no tool to assist him, he was low on options. He got down on his rear and began kicking his foot out against the corner of the door beneath the doorknob where the wood was the most likely to give. Sweat accumulated at his hairline and trickled down his brow. Each kick was more driven with frustration than the last, and his panting escalated to haggard grunts that left him struggling for breath, but he refused to give up.

He understood, now, why he and Lacus were met with a shotgun upon breaking into their old client's home. The latter's claim about their arrival having been anticipated was correct, and it had all been orchestrated by the very money-hungry pigs they served at some point or another in their career—Co-leaders.

But why? Didn't they learn their lesson after the first two attempts? Or, maybe was it a plan to keep them away from their house? Away from their true target?

Not only was Lacus currently in danger because of his incompetence, but Mikaela was too, and there wasn't a thing he could do to save them. Why the hell hadn't he been paying attention to his surroundings?

His throat rumbled low with a madman's growl, but no matter how much time he wasted banging his heel against the door, it was becoming more apparent to him that the dense piece of wood before him along with the wall of glass beside him was specifically built to absorb each and every one of its hostage's attacks. It was hopeless.

There was hardly a chip in the paint from his efforts, and just as his muscles were beginning to ache from exertion, the door just outside of his little jail cell popped open, and the lights dotted across the ceiling faded to life, cascading a diamond like pattern over the floor.

He stopped his futile antics immediately and scrambled back to the glass wall, his heavy uneven breaths fogging the surface, and as he watched and waited in suffocating trepidation, he was met with the sight of the last person he was expecting to see. A woman.

The woman was tall with porcelain pale skin. Her bodice was curved like a smooth hourglass and her wavy platinum blonde hair was pulled over her shoulder to curl atop her bosom, but he hardly noticed the revealing attire she wore over all of the blood soaked through it. Their eyes met. Immediately his thoughts sprung up images of Mikaela. They were the type of blue that could stop any man or woman in their tracks, deep and penetrating. It was like submerging your face under the surface of the ocean and starting into the dark blue abyss that seemed to go on for an eternity below. Like his own, her's naturally drooped in what could easily be mistaken as week old exhaustion. But unlike his, her's were full of a false motherly kindness. The look of a beautiful but deadly swan floating across a moonlit crystal lake. Oddly enough, staining the dangerous portrayal of this woman, the whites of her eyes were blood shot, as if she had just finished crying not too long ago.

"Where the hell is Lacus?" he demanded, pounding his cuffed fists against the glass to get her attention. The woman sent him a subtle but nasty leer as she took a seat on the far left side of the couch, but his question did not go ignored.

The woman turned her nose up at him, and just as he was going to repeat his question, the lock on the smaller door next to him made a faint metallic click sound. It was his escape. The knob turned and he took it upon himself to assist in the transaction by throwing his weight against the door into whoever was unfortunate enough to have released him. He heard a man grunt. He leaped out of his cramped glass prison, eyes hardly having time to adjust to the darkness, and prepared himself for a fight. But being cuffed and unable to see his own hands in front of him, he didn't get very far before he was taken by the neck, slammed against the side of the vehicle and smothered in that same honey-like toxin from earlier.

He clenched his teeth and held his breath. He grabbed the man's wrist, but he was already a split second too late. The drug washed over him like an internal heatwave, clouding his senses first before wisping its way deeper through his body to claim his central nervous system. He had already begun to forget what he was doing and why he was putting up such a strenuous fuss; who he was fussing so strenuously against. The hand around his neck pulled him forward and he was thrown right back into the car. A second later, as he was dazedly attempting to regain his footing on muscles rendered flaccid by drugs, a body was thrown in after him, tackling him to the ground.

He heard the heavy gruff snicker of a man before the door shut and he was right back to square one.

Confused and enraged like a wild animal coming to from sedation, René flipped the position of him and whoever was thrown on top of him and pinned them to the ground with his hand enclosed around their throat. He jerked his other fist up, but his hands were still linked together. The hand around his victim's neck squeezed tighter, but just as he realized who he was struggling so hard to raise his fist to, the aggression burning inside of him was turned to steam, and then it evaporated into thin air, leaving him to stare wide eyed and gaping at the face of his very own brother.

"Lacus…"

The sight was appalling. Lacus's head was lulled to the side, but his eyes remained shut as he lie there trapped beneath him, unmoving. René couldn't tell whether he was unconscious or…

His face, no longer its olive complexion or pale from the cold, was blotched with an unnatural red. There was a fresh gash on his cheek too, worsening the nasty purple he had swelling around it; and above his eye was another opening where the blood left a trail down his face, making it seem as if he had been crying tears of blood. In contrast to his drenched cold skin, his lips were an ashen blue, the color of asphyxia, and his lilac hair, no longer in its bun, clung around his neck and face and hung in dripping tendrils from his head. It wasn't hard to decipher what had happened.

He set to work without another moment's hesitation. As trained, he pressed his fingers to Lacus's neck. The pulse pumping beneath his skin was so faint it could've been an illusion.

The car swayed as more weight was added into it. A door shut and the engine purred to life.

As gently as he could in his riled state of mind, he tilted Lacus's head his way and leaned over him to connect their lips in a desperate kiss of life.

"Begin faze three of the extraction," ordered a voice he was too preoccupied to hear. "I want him there in two hours and not a second later. And I want him unharmed, is that understood?"

He pulled back and brushed the strings of hair from Lacus's face before leaning over him for a second time and exchanging his oxygen for the water he had clotting his lungs.

No response.

"Come on, Lacus," he pleaded with him, watching and waiting. Hoping with all hope that he would open his eyes. But he didn't. "God dammit."

He checked his pulse for a second time and froze as he waited for a reply. It wasn't as feeble as the first time he checked. That was a good sign, at least. He parted Lacus's lips once more and repeated his action of breathing air into his lungs.

With one final push, Lacus's eyes shot open and his body instinctively lurched over on its side as he began retching up mouthful after mouthful of hot dirty tap water. His vision swam with colors of dim yellows and midnight blues, dark colors that blinded him into a panic. He fumbled to his hands and knees like a wounded elk, wheezing, though, choking as dry air rushed down his esophagus which had been scalded from ingesting fluids too hot for the human body to fathem. He wrapped his hand around his throat and collapsed back to what felt like a wooden floor, curling in on himself, knees to his chest as more outside air pushed what was left of the water inside of him out. 

It burned. The air that was supposed to be helping him suffocated him instead, and he couldn't take a full breath without his throat snapping closed.

He heard a voice call out his name and a weight press itself close to him.

No. The weight wasn't pressing itself close to him. He was the one being pressed close to it. He was being lifted off the floor.

With his hair still drenched and dripping with water, locks clinging to his face like cobwebs, obscuring his vision, he did the only thing he could think to do in that moment—he fought.

He shot his head up into whoever's lower lip, pulling a nasty swear from them, but the arms wrapped around his body held him like a straight jacket.

"Lacus!" the voice hissed close to his ear, jerking him in place to get him to stop his erratic flailing that was doing neither of them any good. The combined heat of their bodies acted as a thin blanket over the stabbing pangs wracking his insides, and as the voice in his ear finally registered through his memory bank, he clung to it and coaxed himself to calm down and take in slow, easy breaths. In, and then out. Any intake of breath too sudden wouldn't hesitate to throw him back into a coughing fit; one that would draw blood. He could already taste it deep on the back of his tongue.

He took it slow, inhaling the heavy fragrance of familiarity that was gradually becoming more conciliating after each breath, and in a short span of two minutes, he was able to collect enough of his bearings to push back the remaining strands of hair clinging to his face.

His body shivered against the freezing temperatures surrounding them, and he cupped his palms over his mouth to filter out the cold and trap in the warmth. It was still too murky, wherever he was. His younger brother, alive and unharmed contrary to his belief, sat practically cradling him with his knees on either side of his body, protectively caging him in and providing him with all the warmth he had to offer. Peering upwards, he saw that the strange muted glow engulfing them was, in fact, light; and from the sound of a low hum beneath them and the occasional bump, they were in a moving vehicle.

"Wh-where—"

Big mistake.

His throat tightened, a warning to keep his questions to himself, and his eyes squeezed themselves shut as he begrudgingly did as it wanted and carefully soothed it with some more warm moist air.

"Don't talk," René whispered to him in the lowest volume he was capable of. He came off as grave, like he was giving him a warning of some kind. Why? From the way they were seated on the ground, clinging to each other like they would when they were frightened children, the heavy thumping of his brother's heart against his cheek was like a secret message to him. A message relaying loud and clear that they were no longer on a mission to kill and apprehend, and that they would no longer be driving home to the open arms of their anxious brother that night.

As he predicted, the assignment was a trap.

Understanding this message, he no longer tested their predicament with aggression. If they had even the slightest chance for an out, René would've acted long before reviving him. To his dismay, however, René sat clutching onto him as if he were at risk of being snatched away at any given moment. Was he… scared?

Scared.

The thought made him crane his head up to catch his brother's eye, but René didn't look down to address his questioning stare. He was too busy glaring the worst of sins at something off to their left. He followed his eyes up the wooden path to two separate pairs of legs dangling over a black leather couch a few feet ahead, one pale and slender, the other covered by slacks, and then further up to him.

The bastard winked at him.

"You! You dirty son of a—"

"Lacus, don't!" René barked, snatching his brother back to his chest just in the nick of time before he, too, discovered the hard way of how they were trapped in an impenetrable glass box.

"He drowned me in a fucking sink!" Lacus shouted in his scratchy hoarse voice before consequently landing himself in a full-out coughing fit that had him doubled over on his knees in pain. He clamped his hands over his mouth. The tears accumulating in his eyes stung and though he knew René meant no harm when setting a hand against his back, his touch was like something corrosive. All he could think of was that man's hot breath against his skin, his large rough hands groping and twisting his limbs. His body pressed against his until he couldn't move. The things he knew he had in store for them if they didn't find a way to escape.

He slapped René's hands away from him as images of his mother and father flashed before his eyes and scrambled to the farthest wall for some space to bring himself back to the present. His coughing staggered, but judging from the taste in his mouth and the dark splashes on the wood where he lifted his palms up, he was the only one out of the four passengers in the car making things worse for himself.

He bit back a swear and swiped the blood from the corner of his lip. René fixed him with a look of concern but all he could do was reassure him with an unconvincing, "I'm fine."

"Now that you boys are finished," chimed their kidnapper.

"Who the hell are you?" René intercepted, his expression now neutral with his brother back at his side, otherwise safe.

"My name is Crowley Eusford," The man obliged far too willingly for his liking, as if he had been waiting all night to be prodded at like a corpse on an autopsy table. "And my reason for you boys being here tonight: well, you just revived him for me, Mr. René Simm."

René shot a look over at the accused, and Lacus glanced back at him with a rare look of discomfort and humiliation on his face before quickly turning away to glare at the puddle of water he'd coughed up on the floor. It made his gut twist in disgust. "What the hell do you want with Lacus?"

"Oh, too many things to list, René Simm. But there is no rush, we will get to that part in due time. For now, however, he owes my dearly beloved Horn an apology. You see, before we left the house he decided to attack and kill our Chess in a most grizzly fashion. As you can tell, she's still quite upset about it. And as I've demonstrated, so am I. She was like a daughter to me."

"An eye for an eye." René merely told him. "Your cheap prostitute is dead and Lacus is coughing up blood. If anything, both of you deserved worse than what he gave you. Be thankful you managed to make it this far with your life."

"You heartless child!" The woman snarled in her heavy Russian accent. She pulled a gun out from beneath the dress stained in her partner's blood and pointed it at René's head, seconds from blowing an extra hole by his eye. His face remained unchanged by her tears of anguish, but from the corner of his eye he could see Lacus crack a self-satisfied smirk.

The muscles began working in Crowley's jaw. He could tell the man was debating whether he should let him get away with his morbid gibe or let his emotional helper release her anger out on him. All four of them knew what his answer would be, and it was for that reason that Lacus was growing ever more smug regardless of his status as a prisoner. After all, they were the head leader's model children.

He nor his brother could be killed. It was law amongst all in the organization. Not because the head leader, their mother, threatened the act with a slow excruciating execution if she ever caught them, but because of the value they carried in regards to their worth and the classified information they collected from years of taking up assignments given to them by governors, corrupt big shots and rivaling business owners. To the co-leaders, he and Lacus were a walking gold mine. Consequently, to obtain that gold, they would have to be broken first, and their teacher already did well in that department before reconstructing them into the ruthless, blood-lusting hunters they were to that day.

Aware of this dilemma, Crowley took in a deep breath through his nose and leaned back on the couch with one leg crossed over the other and his arms the same across his broad chest. He kindly requested the gun be lowered. Horn gawked at him, incredulous and annoyed, but did as her superior asked. The man tapped his finger on his arm a moment in deep consideration, before the motion suddenly stopped and a sinister smile began curling itself over his lips.

"You know, Simm, I was planning on selling you to a close friend of mine who'd had his eye on you for quite some time now, but I think I might hold onto you for a little while longer. Clearly the sisters' lessons regarding respect towards your elders were lacking. I will teach you properly before shipping you off."

Crowley didn't miss the way René's eyebrow twitched. It only made him that much more eager to reach their destination.

"Wh-where are you taking us?" Lacus asked him. He had to speak in a lower, quieter manner in order to lesson the strain he had already inflicted on his throat. It made him feel pathetic, as if he were getting down on all fours beneath the pig lounging on the couch across from him like some silver spoon-fed gluttonous King, but it was a small price to pay to get his question across.

"You and I are going to a very special place, my dear Lacus," Crowley replied, no longer directing his distaste at René, but rather grinning fondly at the prisoner sitting beside him, reveling in the spoils no other man or woman had come close to possessing after all the years of throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a dark web tycoon whose association with them was strictly business. "We won't be there long, only for a couple of days until your mother is through breaking out into hysterics over the children who never made it home in time for supper. But rest assured, your stay will be spent in the highest imaginable comfort. If you obey me like a good little boy, that is."

"How fucking lucky I must be," Lacus droned.

Crowley laced his fingers together over his knee and leaned forward, that smile of adoration never leaving as he began speaking to the boy as if he were talking down to a six year old child. "I understand that you're upset, but I think you'll adjust to your new life at my side quite well. Since we reunited back at your little customer's home, my intentions were never to hurt you, and even after you've murdered my Chess in cold blood that fact still remains."

"It was self defense, you pretensions asshole, and if you haven't noticed already I'm swallowing my own blood because of you."

"Wounds heal."

"If you really think you can get away with taking us, you're either suicidal or you're a fool," René cut in, putting a stop to his brother's aimless bickering.

Their captor couldn't agree more. "Of course no one in their right mind would dare take the infamous Krul Tepeses only two children away from her. Not unless their intentions were to die a most ignominious death. But did you really think I came here without a plan? you see, I have spent many years in solitude, waiting patiently for an opportunity to make myself known again, and in those dark and rather lonesome years, I've had time to really think. I went as far as to make the most unlikeliest of friends even, and save every penny from the chain of hotels I run in Tokyo. The amount of checks I signed in order to receive monthly updates on my beloved Lacus and his life under Krul was enough for me to nearly declare bankruptcy. Almost everything I owned was stolen out from under me, but alas, it was all worth it in the end. He is mine, and as an additional reward for my efforts I have both you and another small treat gift-wrapped and waiting at my safehouse. From you alone, Simm, I can make enough to retire for the rest of my days and settle down with him at my side."

"And what might this gift-wrapped treat be?" René pressed, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see, now won't we?"

"Yeah, I guess we will."

Their game of twenty questions ended there. Lacus and René searched one another's gazes, and with regards to Crowley's unsettling words and his more unsettling intentions with them, they were both on the right track when it came to what that gift-wrapped little treat could be.

Mikaela.

How? If they had to guess, there must have been traitors living amongst the same space as the boy they just got back after years of thinking him deceased. It was the only logical explanation, and going off of the way Crowley flaunted his victories, undoubtedly Mikaela had since fallen victim like they had. But then there was that question again: how? How in such a short amount of time? How undetected by Krul, Ferid and Saitō? How at all? Lacus had just gotten off the phone with him.

Or maybe they were overthinking it…

The worry in his leader's eyes escalated to a point of intolerance at the idea of Mika tied up, squirming in the palm of a powerful predator's hand, and René scooted closer until they were seated shoulder to shoulder. Crowley watched them closely in obvious loathing but the two battered assassins couldn't be bothered to care, and they knew they were only making the situation worse when they began mumbling amongst themselves quietly, but again, they had bigger problems to worry about than a grown man's jealousy over children.

They needed to find a way to protect Mikaela, and though neither of them spoke it out loud they both knew what lie in Lacus's future if he, too, went unguarded, and so René took it upon himself to shield him for as long as he was standing and able.

The look he gave his older brother said it all, but it did nothing but provoke feelings of infuriation.

"Don't look at me like that," Lacus bit, glaring his partner down, insulted. "I only look like this because it was three against one in there, but just because I lost once doesn't mean I'll let it happen again, so whatever you're thinking drop it. If this guy really has Mika then we need to focus on him and figure out how we're going to save him and contact Krul. I can take care of myself."

"Lacus—"

"Clearly he's stronger than both of us and a lot more experienced so brute force isn't going to work which means we'll have to take a different approach."

"Lacus, can I—"

"No," he interrupted for a second time. "Don't talk just listen. I have a plan to kill Crowley before you're shipped off and I'm… whatever. I have to get close to him and lower his guard. That perverted bastard took all of my weapons but I'm pretty sure he'll have a pen lying around somewhere wherever he's taking us. All I'll need is five minutes and we can all go home and maybe guilt trip Krul into letting us drink her wine for giving us a bugged assignment."

René looked more uncomfortable with the plan than the person who had to act it out. "Are you sure you can pull it off without him suspecting anything? I mean, you've already made it clear that you want him dead. He's not just going to drop his guard because you had a sudden change of heart and trust you won't try anything."

"Well, do you have any better ideas? Not like you'll be in the room to crush his skull for me. He's obviously going to lock you up somewhere or have his gaggle of goons babysit you in a basement."

René considered the possibilities, squinting at nothing on the wall, and Lacus fixed him with a point-proven quirk of his lips.

He'd won this time.

"Fine, if you think you can take him again we'll do it your way. Just… don't let him go too far."

"Ever heard of sacrifices for the greater good?"

"Lacus, I'm serious."

"And so am I," the eldest clarified, nudging his brother's shoulder in response to his obvious concern for him. "What about this: I'll try my best and whatever happens happens. We haven't really had the best of luck tonight, especially me seeing as I was beaten within an inch of my life, but it's not like I'll let him turn his little fantasies into a reality. Didn't you live in a church? Have some faith in me."

"I do, I just don't want him touching you."

"Aww, are you jealous?" Lacus cooed loud enough for the entire car to hear, reaching a hand up to pinch his brother's cheek obnoxiously. René plucked his pesky fingers from his skin and stared down at him with a face as blank as a sheet of drawing paper, unamused.

"I don't understand how you can fool around at a time like this."

"Well, for starters you just have to pull that stick out of your ass." Lacus wriggled his hand free and maneuvered to the front of René where he lifted his shackled wrists up as if he were preparing to get on a carnival ride and squeezed into the small space between his legs, getting comfy with his head resting snug against his chest like a pillow. "It'll help with all the frowning."

"Lacus, what the hell do you think you're doing?" René hissed, the only one of the two who seemed to care that every move they made, every word they spoke to each other was like jabbing at a lion with a stun rod.

Lacus threw a little glance over at the boarish man who wanted nothing more than to claim him as his own, and then went back to fluttering his eyelashes innocently and cuddling his body against one of the only two people on the Earth who'd already claimed him as theirs.

"You're warm."

"And you're an idiot. You're pissing him off on purpose."

"He drowned me," he muttered. "I thought he killed you, and I thought he was going to kill me too. I'm pretty sure I had a midlife crisis under the water so I have the right to piss him off, especially if all he's going to do is hurt me when we get out of the car anyway."

René eyed the boy nestled against him so contently, feigning complacency, soaked to the bone, shivering like a leaf, bruised, cut, exhausted. Scared.

"Dammit."

"That's the spirit."

"Shut up."

Lacus giggled at his second win of the night and both hostages simply sat there in silence, one holding onto the other, both basking in one another's presence before the inevitable happened and they were selfishly torn away. René gave in with an audible sigh and let the tension in his body fall away until nearly all of his weight was drapped over the other like a dark oversized cape. He longed to hold him, to squeeze all of his fears away, but the metal locked around his wrists were a cruel reminder that all he could do was press his lips to the white patch dyeing the top of his head and leave them there. The scent of roses he once carried had been washed away with dish soap and tap water.

"We'll be home before the night is over," he promised.

Something they were both looking forward to.

Lacus smiled and decided to distract them both with a lighter change of subject. "Oh yeah, while I was being drowned I had an idea of what we could get Kiddie for his birthday."

"Yeah?"

"I was thinking we could get him a bunny. They're hard to take care of and require a lot of attention so It'll keep him busy for the most part. Plus, they're really cute and make good companions so I think he'll like it."

"A rabbit sounds good."

"A bunny."

"That's what I said."

"We're nearly there boys," their kidnapper informed, peering up from the golden watch decorating his wrist to smile a toothy grin at them, glad to have been an inconvenience. His eyes lingered on the target of his five year endeavor, gorging himself on his slender physique and the beautiful look he had in his eyes. He was like a beast with no self-restraint, hungry and full of a raging lust that radiated throughout the car as they drove deeper into unfamiliar territory closer to his safehouse.

Lacus didn't turn away fast enough, trapped in the stare of the man who's desires were to hurt him like his mother and father had years ago, and so René did it for him, nudging his head the other way before burying his face in the space just above his collar bone. His thick obsidian hair blocked both of their faces from view. He caught only a glimpse of the fear he'd always known was there before Lacus put his mask back on and smiled appreciatively.

"Hey, René?" He said quietly.

René hummed, the monotone vibrations from his chest acting as a calming agent for his nerves.

"So there's something I've been meaning to ask you about. I was planning on asking after our assignment was over, but, you know… we've been kidnapped so I guess now is as good a time as any."

"What is it?"

Lacus began fiddling with one of the empty needle pouches on his chest. "W-well earlier tonight, when we were walking to our original client's home, you said that I was a… well, a virgin."

"And I'm assuming you think you're not because of what happened to you, right?"

"Please don't be a dick about this."

The weight pressing into his neck grew heavier. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

"Why did you call me that?" Lacus continued curiously. "You know I'm not a virgin."

"Have you ever had sex?"

"What?"

René raised his head to look him in the eyes before asking again, "have you ever had sex?"

Lacus couldn't tell whether the question was some crack at dark humor but he was in no mood to poke fun at topic that left him scarred and hesitant to explore deeper forms of affection for what felt like would be the rest of his life. Now was not the time. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Do you want me to go into explicit detail or something?"

"No. I want you to answer the question."

"You already know the answer to that."

"Yes, I do know the answer to that. But do you?"

"Can't you stop being cryptic for five seconds? This is actually important to me."

"And it's not to me?"

"Is it?"

"Yes, it is" René answered as a matter of fact. "So answer the question. Have you ever had sex before?"

How the hell was he supposed to answer that? For somebody who's whole personality was built on the foundation of integrity, honesty and being blunt to an almost stale degree, why was it now of all times he was choosing to be a complex pain in the ass?

"Fine, since you want to be a dick about it then nevermind."

Lacus grabbed René's arms and pulled, attempting to pry them up from around his waist, but to his rising vexation the stronger of the two did not budge.

"What, so now you're going to hold me against my will too?" he scoffed. "And here I thought we were supposed to be on the same team."

"Lacus, sex and rape are two different words with two different meanings and two different sets of emotions. With how much time you spend with your head buried in your laptop I thought you of all people would know that."

"I don't do research on shit I've literally lived."

"Then why won't you answer the question?"

"Because it's a stupid question, now get your hands off of me! I don't want to talk to you about this anymore! I'd rather ask Ferid!"

The arms around his midsection loosened, and for a second Lacus honestly believed he'd won the argument, but that all came crashing down on him when he realized the only reason René lifted them was to ensnare his arms along with the rest of his body, preventing him from moving all together.

Lacus was stunned. So stunned he laughed.

"You know, I'm beginning to regret the day I decided not to abandon you by that dumpster," he admitted through a painfully forced smile on his face, his patience quite literally being squeezed from his body. "And all of the other days I decided not kill you for whining like the huge baby you were and almost getting us caught by the police. I should've done it."

"You don't mean that."

"Yes, I do. You were a pain in the ass. And even now, you're an even bigger pain."

"Lacus, you're talking out of your ass because you're upset," René reasoned, not the least bit offended like his brother intended for him to be. "And the answer to the question is no, you've never had sex with anyone before. You're just as much a virgin as me and Mikaela."

"Aren't I the one whose supposed to be desperately grasping at straws here?" Lacus sneered, resisting the urge to throw his head back into his brother's nose and ruining his face worse than his own. "Whether forced or not, sex is still sex, you idiot."

"That's not true."

"Oh? And what would you know about it besides a definition you pulled out of a book?"

"Lacus, can you please calm down so I can explain?" René asked him in his calmmest and most composed demeanor, the only way he knew how in order to lessen the damage he'd already caused to Lacus's unstable defensive nature.

"What makes you think I'm not calm? You're still talking, aren't you?"

"Lacus, please," he begged again, having to use his legs as his leader began squirming around painfully in his arms. "We shouldn't be arguing right now. Like your said, we've just been kidnapped. You can slap me and give me the silent treatment when we get home, but for now you need to let me explain. I don't know how much time we have left before he separates us."

Lacus scowled at the wall in front of him, hating its tasteless gold patterns, bitter and agitated at everything—the entire night in general. All he wanted was a straight forward answer to a simple question before things got any worse for him, and now his very own brother was going to give him a lesson on sex Ed in front of beast of a man all because he wanted to be a smart, arrogant know-it-all like always.

"Let me go and I'll hear you out."

To his immediate surprise, that was all it took and René did just as he ordered and the arms trapping him in slowly lifted and set him free. He dusted invisible dust from his chest and cleared his throat. The taste of blood made his nose wrinkle. He turned around to properly direct his anger at the source, and not a moment after being released, he took René up on his offer.

Even with his wrists cuffed together, René caught his assault with ease like a baton. Lacus cocked a grin, as if he wouldn't have expected anything less from the boy he trained with for years, and with the other still holding him in a flimsy grip he could easily escape from, he allowed René to lower his hand down to his lap and place his other hand on top of it.

"Lacus, what happened to you when you were younger was in no way sex," he said, his voice light but his conviction firm and just above a whisper so that they were the only two to hear it. The way his thumb traced absent-minded patterns back and forth across the hand that nearly slapped him, it almost made Lacus feel guilty for reacting in such a hostile way to one of the only people in his life he knew genuinely loved him. "But if that's how you honestly see it, then just know that sex doesn't have to be such an ugly thing. It doesn't have to be violent or painful. It can be beautiful too. You have to at least know that much."

Lacus couldn't look him in the face right now, and so he didn't. He kept his head downcasted with that same grimace he had on as before, but then his hand suddenly became cold and the warmth that was once keeping it from slapping his partner across the face lifted to cover a numbing bruise he had swelling on his cheek.

"You do know that, don't you?" René repeated, lifting his head. Large crimson eyes shimmered back at him like ruby gemstones.

"Of course I know that," the damaged child claimed through a chuckle that sounded broken on its way out, brushing the attempt at comfort from off his face. "I just seem to have bad luck, that's all. As you can tell I'm not really fond over the concept of fucking. I just wanted to know what made you think I was a virgin when I'm clearly not."

"You're right, you're not. That was an insensitive thing to say."

"You think?"

"What I meant when I said you were a virgin was that you've never experienced sex in a way that involves love. Real love."

Lacus snorted.

"You're a virgin to love, if that makes any sense."

The older of the two took a moment to think on it, mumbling it back to himself, testing the phrase on his tongue and in his mind, comprehending what each individual word meant when they were put together. It made him frown just like the blood in his throat. In a way, he supposed, it did make sense. Sex may have been forced upon him numerously in the past, claiming his purity in the cruelest way by some of the cruelest people; he wasn't, in fact, a virgin. But love making…? He's never made love before, just like René and Mika.

He could feel it coming. He fought against it, but he was no match for the way René made him feel and his frown slowly began forming into a small smile. He was thankful his cheeks were too bruised to distinguish which discoloration of his skin was a blush.

"I guess it does make a little sense…" he muttered. "A little."

And now he was beginning to feel the full on affects of guilt weighing down on him, and his body slouched.

The younger assassin opened his arms wide and motioned with his eyes for Lacus to come back to him. Lacus hesitated, knowing he didn't deserve the affection of the boy who made his heart melt into putty, but if it was what René wanted then it was the least he could do before the car stopped. He crawled forward back into the space between René's knees and nuzzled his head underneath his chin in apology.

"I don't know how you and Mika lasted this long with me. I'm such an ungrateful jerk."

René pecked him on the forehead and rested his head on his. Of all things his older brother was to him, an ungrateful jerk was not one of them. He was an insecure boy. Nothing more, nothing less. Acting out, snapping without warning, getting defensive over certain topics, being an overall aggressive person even to the ones he cared for most, it was what protected him throughout his childhood years. It was who he was.

"I love you, Lacus."

"You're a masochist if you love me."

"Then so be it."

Lacus couldn't stop the grin on his face from pulling at his wounds. Neither did he want to, but the regret he felt for the crude way he treated his best friend was more definite, glimmering through the windows of his eyes. René could feel it through his stiff manner of lying against him and the way his heart would bang against his chest, and so he stressed the sincerity of his love through actions rather than a few easy to speak words, pecking his cheek gently until his lips were painted red with his blood. He didn't mind the taste. He kissed him over and over, no longer caring that the lion he was jabbing at was staring directly at him with menacing red eyes, threatening him with promises he didn't need to speak to hear. He peppered him with the tenderest of kisses until he was gifted with the sounds of soft cackles in his ears, until Lacus relaxed in his arms and curled his fingers against his chest with a sigh of contentment.

And even then, he kissed him until the car slowed, and pebbles crunched between the Earth and the tires.

Only then, when the engine stopped.