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My Name Is Safe In Your Mouth

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Top floor like a crow’s nest, far above the traffic and the smells. The house wasn’t old, just filled with old things; mismatched chairs and only three beds for five bedrooms. Kouda’s room, cosy with blankets and rugs, high enough up to stay cool through the summer but ready for the coming autumn chill. He lived up beyond the noise of the street, where birds escaped the city, and above the kitchen clamour and the TV, where sounds were small and private.

 

Across the landing, Tokoyami’s empty room. His patrols ran late into the night - he went to bed just before Kouda woke each morning. Sometimes they passed each other on the stairs, tired from opposite directions, Kouda headed to breakfast still half-asleep, and Tokoyami ready to collapse into bed.

 

Kouda worked support for a hero team in sketchy down-town streets, meeting kids almost his age drawn to gangs and quirk manipulators who promised cash for jobs. He saw chance-it robbers and pickpockets, calling on rats and cockroaches and city strays to round them up and take them down, and it was tiring and tough, but he was doing good things for people who had it rough. Early mornings were his, stolen moments of calm and breakfast alone before he set out to clean up the remains of the night’s dirty work.

 

Late at night, Tokoyami was sidekick to an up-and-coming new hero, using Dark Shadow to intervene in fights between the newly emerging quirk gangs trying to divide the streets in ongoing turf battles.

 

One floor down and Shouji, Sato and Ojiro had the smaller rooms. They worked the same shifts, recruited by the same agency, and Kouda saw them mostly at dinner, the four of them cooking and eating together, plating up left-overs for when Tokoyami would come home. Evenings were cheerful and mellow, filling meals and the easy conversation of old friends and the background noise of the new neighbourhood, and if anyone worried about the empty seat at dinner as much as Kouda did, they gave nothing away.

 

“Midoriya’s organising a get-together.” Ojiro showed the message on his phone, prompting everyone else to check theirs. “Saturday night. We should all go.” Schedules were checked, and Kouda and Sato were immediately added to the ‘yes’ list. Nightlife wasn’t Shouji’s scene, but it took little cajoling to get an agreement, promises of good food and gossip and a chance to catch up with everyone. Kouda was the one to leave a note for Tokoyami, his red ink on the kitchen dry-erase board with space for a reply in Tokoyami’s black pen.

 

An answer the next morning, as Kouda joined Shouji for an early breakfast. Sadly no, I have a late patrol. Have a good time. Kouda wanted to reply but there was no room for anything except a frowning face with a tear. During his own work-day he pondered the problem of their mismatched schedules, wondering how they would find time to spend together. It was too soon to ask for leave at work, and a whole week to Tokoyami’s next day off suddenly felt like a lifetime or more. He went home that night to find a black-ink doodle of a bird next to his teary-eyed face, cheer up in a speech bubble. He changed the frown to a smile.

 

Saturday night rolled around fast, and they met after their patrols, costumes stowed in backpacks that they carried on the train to Midoriya’s chosen venue. Snug in the restaurant between Asui and Jirou, Kouda filled up on good food and friendship. Midoriya grilled him about his hero agency, careful yes/no questions so he could nod his replies, until Uraraka insisted on no more work talk at the table. He watched Ojiro and Hagakure make plans for a date, hushed and stealthy as though they had to hide it, as though anyone would have minded. From across the table, he saw Todoroki’s face flush sweetly any time Midoriya offered him kind words, and beside him Uraraka sagged a little more each time it happened, leaning a little more against Iida’s shoulder as the night went on. He listened to Jirou and Momo talk about their shared apartment, and thought about Tokoyami out on patrol. Thought about how Tokoyami would come home to a dark empty kitchen at two in the morning, heat up the leftovers from the fridge and sit alone at the table. He hoped no one noticed his face fall each time he thought of the empty seat in their kitchen during evening meals.

 

Stumbling out into the street just before midnight, the party breaking into smaller groups and pairs, Ojiro offering to see Hagakure to her station, waving off the cheers and catcalls from the other girls. Kouda followed Shouji and Sato towards their train and wondered what it would feel like to walk someone home after a night out. The warmth of his palm on someone’s shoulder as he guided them through the busy streets. The weight of someone leaning against his side as they rode a late train home.

 

On impulse, he pulled the other two into a 24-hour konbini, bought a discounted bento, a wrapped adzuki-bean bun and a strawberry milk, ignoring Sato’s jokes about his sudden appetite. Back at the house, the other two straight to bed, and Kouda alone in the kitchen, inexplicably nervous as he wrote a note for Tokoyami.

 

Sorry you could not come with us. Everyone missed you. This is not as good as the restaurant food, but probably nicer than leftovers.

 

_______



Streetlamp to streetlamp and the shadows in between, the two a.m. walk home never truly dark, but lonely still as he passed closed shop fronts and curtain-covered windows. An uneventful patrol, and he was fizzing with unspent energy. He wouldn’t sleep any time soon. Most likely he’d sit in the living room, watch TV until the sun came up and he dozed off on the couch.

 

A fight would have helped. A chase. Even just a de-escalation; something to take his mind off the thought of his friends gathering without him. There was no chill in the air, early autumn dragging its feet; still, he thought of a crowded table in a warm restaurant, and felt the ghost of a shiver.

 

Key in the lock, quiet into the kitchen while four housemates slept up above him. His stomach complained. Street food eaten on patrol never felt like a real meal. There would usually be leftovers saved for him, except no one had been home to cook. He resigned himself to the prospect of a cold meat sandwich, or maybe instant miso.

 

The bag on the counter was unexpected. The note, in Kouda’s careful handwriting, made something bubble pleasantly in his chest. He carried the bag up the stairs to his top-floor eyrie, ate pumpkin korokke and onigiri sitting up in bed while scrolling through everyone’s messages from after the restaurant. He picked the adzuki bun to pieces, thought about Kouda remembering him on his night out, and fell asleep full.

 

His mornings were early afternoons, up by noon if he was lucky. Most days, an empty house, unless one of the others had a midweek break. On Sundays he joined them with housework and grocery shopping, making their midday meal his breakfast. He tagged along with Sato to the market, ticking items off the list and listening to gossip from the night before. Ojiro and Hagakure, to no one’s surprise. Jirou and Momo, everyone’s will-they-won’t-they, and the ongoing debate about who would ask out Uraraka first. Todoroki was thinking about switching agencies to one that favoured heroes with elemental powers instead of one that just did PR for big names. Sato had photos of everyone, posed and candid; Tokoyami requested copies and imagined himself there with them, sharing food and stories, and promised himself next time for certain .

 

Near the registers, a neon-orange star advertised discounts on desserts. On a whim, Tokoyami grabbed two coconut pudding cups, paid for them separately and carried them in their own little bag. Shoved them in the back of the fridge behind the mushrooms. Over dinner (lunch), he thought about how to give one to Kouda without making it a thing. Came back to the kitchen late at night to find Sato finishing them both, “Didn’t know we bought these, we should get them again.” Tokoyami nodded and made his supper in silence. When Sato had gone to bed, he slipped out to find the nearest konbini, paid full price for one more coconut pudding and labelled the lid with Kouda’s name in black marker.

 

Monday saw him sent home early with a twisted ankle, his boss’s car dropping him outside the house and waiting until he made it inside. Smells from the kitchen told him the others were making dinner, something rich and meaty, and he wondered if he’d eaten anything before his unexpectedly early finish.

 

He stuck his head in the kitchen doorway, waved to Shouji who was setting the table. Wanted to announce his presence, but Ojiro cut him off.


“Kouda-kun, you don’t have to label your food, you know.” Ojiro had turned out to be the responsible housemate, drawing up chore-rotas and kitchen rotas and dividing up bills. “If you bought something for yourself, everyone knows not to eat it.”

 

None of them had argued yet since moving in together, but there had been close-calls, five boys adjusting to shared space and different habits. Ojiro proved a strict organiser, trying to keep everyone in line, and Tokoyami would have left him to it only his organisation sometimes edged over into scolding. Kouda stood silent under the weight of his glare, hands raised, he knew nothing about it (and why should he, Tokoyami hadn’t figured out how to tell him about the gift and he couldn’t have left them out on the counter with a note for fear they’d spoil).

 

Sato moved to grab something from the fridge, saw Ojiro holding the offending pudding cup and grimaced. “Aw man, Kouda, were they yours? Sorry, my fault, I ate the others. I’ll replace ‘em!”

 

Ojiro shrugged. “Okay, maybe we do need to start labelling our food. Sorry, Kouda, I didn’t realise.” They all went back to their dinner chores, leaving Kouda holding the cup, confused. Shouji took that moment to announce to everyone that Tokoyami was back early. He waved, sheepish, and limped over to the table. Deflected concerned questions about his ankle, insisted he’d be fine the next day if he rested. He was served steaming hot stew, comforting to hold the bowl and savour the rich smell, to be surrounded by table talk and friends. Across the table, Kouda’s shy glances his way as Sato and Ojiro talked about their plans for the week, Tokoyami wanted to explain about the dessert but it had already become a thing, a weird too-large thing in his mind that couldn’t be explained away as a simple favour returned. It was only pudding, it wasn’t supposed to be significant, it shouldn’t have felt so much. So Tokoyami left it alone to fester, and wondered why it should matter so.

 

_____

 

Dinner over, and Kouda washed dishes with Sato, enjoying the methodical quiet of wash, wipe, wash. “Sorry about your puddings.” Sato took a bowl from him, wiped it with a towel. Kouda shook his head. Mustered up his voice.

 

“Not mine,” he squeaked. He had his suspicions, but couldn’t hope to make them concrete. Sato paused, face creased.


“Who’s putting your name on food, then?” He took another bowl, turned it carefully in wet hands. “Could be Tokoyami. He saw me eating the others. I thought he’d bought them when we did groceries yesterday.”

 

Kouda shrugged, maybe . Kept the possibility to himself to shelter it and keep it safe.

 

They watched TV together until late in the evening, Tokoyami granted the whole couch to elevate his ankle as the others sat on cushions. Before bed, Kouda went back to the kitchen, his habit to prep a bento for the following day. The other three had a work canteen, a perk typical of the bigger agencies, but Kouda ate lunch on patrol with the other heroes he supported. He measured out rice, then thought of Tokoyami still sitting in the living room. Added a second serving. Found himself making double portions of spiced tofu and egg rolls, extra sliced vegetables. A second, unclaimed bento box pulled from the cupboard under the sink; he took the time to arrange everything much neater than he might for himself. Remembered the cute charaben his mother packed for him in elementary school and held back, only just, from making a smiley face with edamame on top of Tokoaymi’s rice.

 

As an afterthought, he grabbed paper and wrote out a note to slip under the elastic holding the box closed.

 

Thank you for the pudding. I shall take it to have with lunch at work. You said once you don’t always get to eat proper meals on patrol, so I hope this one is suitable. Also, I hope you are able to take some time off soon - you are working hard, and we haven’t seen you at home lately.

 

He switched off the kitchen light, headed for the stairs. The living room light still shone, and he hesitated in the doorway. Tokoyami alone on the couch, book in hand, TV on low for background noise. Kouda hovered, it should be easy to say ‘I made you a lunch’, it was no big thing but the words were leaden on his tongue. Instead he settled for a rushed “Goodnight” and left before Tokoyami could reply.

 

In his room on the top floor, he pictured Tokoyami, still sitting on the living room couch. Thought about the pudding with his name on the lid. Wondered whether he should head back down the stairs, take the dessert from the fridge, run to the living room and ask what does this mean? It couldn’t be anything more than a favour returned, but then surely Tokoyami could have said something. Just as Kouda could have said I made you a bento . But he couldn’t say it, because it meant something.

 

He hoped Tokoyami would think good things while he ate.

 

_____

 

The folded note with his name on was curled at the edges, like it had been disturbed by early morning fridge raiders. Tokoyami read it in the quiet kitchen at ten after midday, then read it again. Brushed his finger over his name in Kouda’s neat pen. He’d heard Kouda’s busy bustling in the kitchen the night before; had considered joining him, explaining about the puddings, making plain conversation even. Kouda was comfortable company, content to share space without expectations. Except -

 

Except  when there was something solid to say, a directness required that suddenly made Kouda’s quiet a chasm to fill. Gifts were easier, notes on the dry-erase board making the chasm a mere crack in the pavement.

 

Maybe that explained Kouda’s notes. Maybe Kouda had more to say, more than his voice could handle. Tokoyami was brave, but not brave enough to assume that it meant anything beyond Kouda’s usual kindness. He’d probably do the same for the others if they didn’t get meals at work.

 

Back at his agency, a day in the office to catch up on paperwork while his ankle healed fully. He ate his bento at a desk, a rare treat to eat uninterrupted and sitting down. Kouda’s cooking was basic but adept; simple foods that were filling and hearty. As he ate, he thought of Kouda, already home and probably eating with the other housemates. He wiped his hands on a paper napkin and pulled out his phone. Typed out a message.

 

Thank you for the bento. I am eating at the office today so would have been unable to buy food as I usually do on patrol.

 

A few more mouthfuls and a reply appeared. He tapped at his phone with his free hand, read while eating.

 

You’re very welcome! We are eating too - Shouji made miso-zuke salmon. We have set aside a portion for you for when you get home. It will cook quickly. I shall make sure there is rice too before I go to bed.

 

The message was followed by a photo of Kouda’s mostly-full plate, with Shouji’s hands just visible in the background reaching for a dish of vegetables. It would have been nice to be there with them, sharing food they’d made together. But Tokoyami decided he preferred the bento that had been made just for him. He took out the note that had been left with it, re-read it, then tucked the note into an inner pocket in the cloak of his costume.

 

Later, he helped check in equipment as other pro-heroes came back from patrol. Spent time learning how to run the comms desk. Filed some reports. Longed to clock out early, but there was work to do even behind the scenes. The downtime left him to dwell on Kouda’s thoughtfulness. Had he said anything about not getting to eat on patrol? Maybe once, maybe twice, vague complaints about street food and having meals interrupted by criminals. However many times, Kouda had remembered. Tokoyami wanted it to count for something.

 

Midnight inched its way nearer, they finally let him clock out and he took a train home to spare his ankle, mostly better but he couldn’t risk anything. The house was dark, empty save for four sleeping heroes on the floors above, and too late he wished he’d picked up something for Kouda on the way home.

 

He found the kitchen notepad. Tore off a sheet. Searched for a pen.

 

Thank you again for my lunch. I will endeavour to repay the favour. A home-made meal at work brightened up the day, and as they say, all sorrows are less with bread.

 

He planned to slip it into Kouda’s own bento, no doubt already in the fridge for the next day. Only there were two boxes. Kouda’s usual white box with the rabbit face, and a clear plastic tupperware container. That one had a sticky label stuck to the lid. His name in red marker.

 

Sandwiches, triangle-cut. Individually wrapped in cling-film. If he needed to, he could slip them into the pockets of his uniform instead of carrying the whole box around.

 

He slipped his note under Kouda’s box, the paper carefully sticking out from one edge.

 

He drifted up the stairs, careful not to wake the others.

 

The week rolled on, and each day a bento with a note. He made the effort to pay it back, buying Kouda a cupcake, then a custard bun. One day he couldn’t get to a food place, but his patrol took him past a cute-looking shop and he found a keychain with a bunny made from a white pom-pom. He left a note with each one, mentioning things that happened during his shifts, successful arrest-assists or dumb criminal failures. Kouda replied in kind, with jokes his co-workers had told, or thoughts about food he might make another day, and by the weekend he felt like he knew Kouda’s week even though they hadn’t seen each other.

 

Friday night, or Saturday morning, a gang-fight just after midnight, and at four in the morning he was finally able to get away, driven most of the way home by another pro who lived nearby. He was aching and exhausted but still wired, ate the leftovers from the house-dinner while standing at the kitchen counter, and half a bag of salt-and-pepper chips besides before bothering to take off his cape. He made tea, took the rest of the chips to the living room and flopped on to the couch. It was practically morning, the sun would be up soon, the rest of the house ready to start their day.

 

He ought to sleep. But he hadn’t spoken to anyone outside work for days. Soon the others would stir, would dress and head down the stairs for their weekend. Sato had a half-day at work, he knew from the schedule posted in the kitchen, but the others would be around. He could wait up, could sit with them at breakfast, could actually thank Kouda in person for taking the time to make his lunches all week.

 

Tokoyami picked up a magazine from the pile beside the couch; one of Ojiro’s martial arts monthlies, which provided a little stimulation to keep him awake, probably more than one of Sato’s cookery magazines would have done.

 

It had slipped from his lax fingers within minutes as exhaustion finally got the better of him. He registered vaguely that he had been roused from sleep, just barely aware that he was being carried. He was held steady and firm, feared no fall as someone moved him, laid him down on his own bed. He didn’t protest the blanket draped over him, even though he was still in half of his costume. He was just comfortable, and nothing else seemed to matter.

 

His curtains were closed, as always, since he mostly used his room during the daytime and needed to block out the sun to sleep. He felt grimy, waking up in his work clothes, and stripped them off as soon as he was out of bed. Grabbed a towel and a fresh shirt and jeans, headed down to the bathroom. Working nights meant never having to wait for the shower, and he took his time, scrubbing himself until his skin pinked, sloughing off the grime of a too-long shift. Under near-scalding water, he remembered falling asleep on the couch, remembered like a dream the sensation of being carried to bed, someone’s strong arms and firm chest, and really it could have been any of the others, he was still the smallest by miles, but he wanted to hope. Was it Kouda’s T-shirt he’d pressed his face to, all soft and clean-smelling? He wanted it to be Kouda, like he wanted Kouda’s notes and Kouda’s food to mean more than just casual kindness.

 

Dressed, refreshed, and downstairs to find the rest clearing the kitchen. He’d slept until nearly two, felt misplaced at the thought of a day without working. There was a coffee filter set out, waiting for water, someone must have heard him in the bathroom, so he thanked the house in general before pouring out hot water. Shouji apologised that they hadn’t saved him lunch, they hadn’t known when he’d wake up, but he waved away the concern. Settled for a sandwich, sat at the table to eat.

 

“Are you working tonight?” Shouji was drying dishes. He seemed pleased  when Tokoyami told him no. “We’ve been invited to Midoriya’s for dinner. Very casual. Take-out and TV, he said. He was hoping you’d come, since you had to work last time. Shall I tell him you’re coming?”

 

Tokoyami nodded, excited more than he should be at the prospect of spending an evening with the others. For a while, he busied himself with laundry and chores. Went out in the late afternoon to shop and take in some fresh air, before they all headed to the station. Midoriya still stayed at his mother’s on weekends, spending the week in the accommodation his agency provided. Everyone knew he could afford a place on his own but refused to leave his mother entirely alone. She wasn’t there when they arrived; Todoroki told them in whispers that she’d gone out for the night with All Might of all people, apparently on the promise of a classier night than boys with pizza money could provide. Iida joined them not long after, and they crowded in the living room, ordering food online on Todoroki’s phone. Argued lightly over toppings and sides, over whether to watch the news (“no work stuff, Iida, we’re off-duty!”) and talked across each other with game shows on for background noise. Food arrived, and they jostled for space in the kitchen, filling plates and refreshing drinks and it was almost like being back in the dorms.

 

They switched around seats in the living room, and no one commented on the way Midoriya and Todoroki gravitated towards each other; if one took an armchair, the other would take the floor space beside, close enough to brush shoulder to knee. Tokoyami watched them while everyone else talked, imagined the feel of fingers brushing his own neck, or how it might feel to lean his head against someone else’s strong thigh. He wondered which of the two of them had been brave first, or whether it had somehow worked itself out, some series of soft private moments that let them slip closer together. He hoped it could happen like that, without words to get in the way.

 

_____

 

It was more effort than he realised to enjoy himself. His best friends, and good food and easy conversation, and Kouda could only focus on Todoroki’s hand in Midoriya’s hair, fingers absently curling as he spoke. One one side of the room, Ojiro ignored mild teasing to text Hagakure. Iida refused to say who his incoming text messages were from, although he gave his phone as much attention as he did to the people in Midoriya’s house, apologising occasionally for his bad manners but texting all the same.

 

Kouda kept his eyes on his food and thought about how he hadn’t seen Tokoyami for days, until he’d found him on the couch that morning, snoring into an empty chip-bag. Still in half his hero costume, how late had he come home? Kouda had thought about leaving him to sleep, but the others would be up soon, would wake him with their heavier treads on the stairs or their breakfast busy-work. Good thing Tokoyami was so exhausted; he’d carried him up to their shared top-floor without rousing him beyond the odd shift in his arms. On the first landing, Tokoyami had turned his face into Kouda’s chest, making a sound that left Kouda short of breath, a soft hum that might have been sleep sounds but might have been pleasure.

 

In Midoriya’s living room, Tokoyami sat on one arm of the couch, empty plate balanced on his lap. Kouda was across the room, on a cushion on the floor, the onset of pins-and-needles in his leg. He shifted, flexed, but the pain persisted; he needed to move. Conversations continued as he stood, taking his empty plate and a couple of others into the kitchen. He resolved to make himself busy, to distract himself from the blossoming relationships in the living room.

 

He was two plates in when he heard footsteps behind him, and Tokoyami joined him at the sink with more empty plates. Something warm flickered inside Kouda’s chest at the thought that Tokoyami would choose his company over everyone else’s, especially if chores were involved; he was usually the one most likely to ignore dirty dishes at home, but he’d brought two more empty plates besides his own, and he handed them to Kouda before grabbing a towel to dry the ones already cleaned.

 

A dozen different sentiments lined themselves up in Kouda’s mouth, blocked by a dozen different worries. A thank-you for the bunny could be brushed off as simple repayment of favours. I hope you liked the meals sounded like fishing for compliments. How’s your ankle? was trivial, and Tokoyami was clearly walking around just fine. The pudding thing was a week ago, that couldn’t be a thing anymore since he’d left it far too long to ask. In someone else’s home, private things felt too exposed, like he was being rude to Midoriya somehow. He’d said hello to the others when they’d arrived, and had been calling out quiz answers with the rest of them as they watched TV, but in the quiet of the kitchen, with the dark window and the buzz of the overhead light, his voice had shrunk back inside his mouth, just a squeak in his mind once more.

 

Beside him, Tokoyami dried the plates and stacked them on the counter. If he’d wanted to (he wanted to), Kouda could have leaned to the side and bumped his shoulder. He could have put a hand on Tokoyami’s shoulder. He could have moved to stand behind him, wrapped his arms around Tokoyami’s chest and found out if Tokoyami’s head would fit snug under his chin the way he thought it might. He could have done any of those things if he’d dared, but like his voice, the process of motion had seized up, rusted over like he’d forgotten how to touch another person, because when was the last time he had?

 

“You guys didn’t have to clean up for us!” Midoriya, laughing as he stumbled into the kitchen with Todoroki’s hand on his shoulder. Kouda felt his throat tighten, hated how easily Todoroki could touch Midoriya like that. Why was it so easy for everyone else? He waved away Midoriya’s concern, moving to where the pizza boxes were spread on the counter, picking through them for something to shove in his mouth so he could not think about speaking. He thought about cheese and the grease on his fingers, and not about how simple it must be for someone who looked like Todoroki to touch someone without worrying that they would shrug his hand off like they’d been contaminated. His own hand looked huge as he wiped his fingers with a paper towel, and he thought about how dumb he’d look trying to hold Tokoyami’s regular-sized hand in his.

 

Pretty soon, the rest of the group drifted back to the kitchen, and they picked at leftovers and drank cola straight from the bottles until Iida got caught off-guard by a belch and everyone laughed. Kouda told himself he was being irrational; his worries couldn’t get in the way of everyone else’s good time. He listened to their chatter and smiled and ate some more, and if anyone noticed his unhappiness, they didn’t say anything.

 

Iida was the first to start yawning. Sato followed, and so everyone began making plans to head home. Out of politeness, Iida offered to drive people home, but he was headed in a different direction, and the five of them wouldn’t fit into his car, although they thanked him anyway and gave the usual reminder to keep in touch. No one seemed surprised when Todoroki said he was staying, and as Kouda’s housemates left, Kouda did his best not to think about him and Midoriya alone in the kitchen, hands brushing as they cleaned up, Midoriya’s tired head on Todoroki’s shoulder, or whatever else might happen after the door had closed.

 

They just barely made the last train home. Sato and Ojiro dozed next to each other, and Shouji of course had to take photos of them. Kouda wanted to let the train’s soft rocking lull him into a nap as well, but Tokoyami was sitting right by him, and each time the train jolted, his head would bump Kouda’s shoulder. He savoured the sensation, as he savoured the warm press of their thighs on adjoining seats, and he should enjoy it, only he happened to catch a glimpse of their reflection in the window opposite, and realised just how ungainly he looked next to Tokoyami, towering above him even seated. He kept his hands in his lap, and thought about home, and his room on the top floor, and how it would feel when he got home and wrapped himself up in all of his blankets and pretended he was all alone in his crow’s nest.

 

He lagged behind the others, walking from the station to their house. They were all tired, bar Tokoyami, usually still at work at such a late hour, and they didn’t talk much; his silence went unnoticed even after they were indoors and Sato, Ojiro and Shouji headed straight for the stairs. He lingered in the kitchen, let the others go first to avoid the ‘goodnight’s and the ‘see you in the morning’s. Straightened up everyone’s shoes, hung up his coat and double-checked the pockets for anything left in them. Went to the kitchen, planning to take a glass of water to his room, and there was Tokoyami, making tea, Dark Shadow watching over his shoulder. The two of them turned to look when he walked in.

 

“I’ll be up for a while yet.” He measured out tea while Dark Shadow rattled around in the cupboards, searching for a favourite mug. “I’ll try not to make too much noise.”

 

On a whim, Kouda crossed the kitchen. Reached into the cupboard Dark Shadow was investigating, only the shadow beat him to it, handing him the white mug with a nose and whiskers painted on one side. Kouda bobbed his head in thanks, as Tokoyami added more tea to the pot before filling it with water. Silence prickled in the space between them as they waited for the tea to brew, Kouda putting away the few dishes that sat beside the sink from lunchtime. When he was done, he turned to see Dark Shadow watching him, Tokoyami still watching the pot. Kouda was caught in the shadow’s stare, its expression unreadable as it studied him. Eventually, it reached out a soft-edged hand towards Kouda’s face. Fingers curled, then snapped, flicking Kouda on the forehead. He yelped, more surprise than pain, but Tokoyami turned at the sound, reaching out to yank Dark Shadow back, urging it to “behave, if you want to be allowed out”. Dark Shadow looked between the two of them, then swooped in to flick Tokoyami on the forehead too, before Tokoyami tugged sharply at the grey fuzz that connected the two of them.

 

Tokoyami apologised as the two of them headed to the living room, insisting that Dark Shadow had been generally well-behaved lately. “I don’t know what’s got into him today.” Kouda waved away his concern, before grabbing a book he’d abandoned on the coffee table earlier that day. They sat at opposite ends of the couch, Tokoyami with his laptop balanced on his knees and Dark Shadow hovering behind him, holding his cup.

 

The quiet softened into something more manageable, as Kouda lost himself in his book for a while. When he finished his tea, Dark Shadow took the empty cup from him and set it on the coffee table. He flashed a thumbs-up, saw it returned, before the shadow snaked around to rest on his shoulder, looking at his book. Its presence was more a static prickle than anything solid, buzzing like fluorescent lights. He nestled back into the corner of the couch, cushions hug-soft around him, and relaxed.

 

He woke to a soft pressure over his chest; Tokoyami hadn’t moved, but Dark Shadow was tugging a blanket up over him. For a moment, he considered pulling the blanket up to his chin, snuggling back down and dozing there until morning (maybe Tokoyami would so the same, maybe they’d wake up together on the couch), but the couch did awful things to his back if he stayed there too long. He pushed the blanket off, ignoring Dark Shadow’s petulant look. Gestured to Tokoyami that he would head upstairs to bed.

 

“I should do the same.”

 

Together they climbed the stairs, soft tread for fear of disturbing the others already asleep. Kouda wobbled a little on the second staircase, not entirely awake, until Tokoyami’s hand steadied him and snapped him to alertness.

 

Their bedroom doors were opposite each other on the top landing. His hand on the door-handle, hesitating like there was something more, something he needed to say, or maybe he needed something from Tokoyami. Meeting his eye, even in the half-dark, demanded such effort, but Tokoyami caught his gaze, held him still outside his own door with a silent strength that Kouda might never know.

 

The moment stretched, a tight band around Kouda’s heart, until Tokoyami told him “goodnight,” the ‘Ko-’ of his name an aborted sound in Tokoyami’s throat. Kouda told him “goodnight” too, the first word he’d spoken in several hours cloying in his mouth, too heavy and not enough. He slipped into his bedroom before he had to watch Tokoyami turn away from him.

 

In bed, facing the door, he looked at his own right hand, palm upwards on the pillow. He brought his left towards it, touched fingers to palm, imagined how it might feel to hold another hand in his own, fingers laced together like a promise.

 

_____

 

Days rolled by as if nothing had changed, as if Tokoyami had only imagined the moment on the landing, when he’d felt sure Kouda had been about to say something more than “goodnight”. That private moment that he’d clutched in his greedy hands the second Kouda had disappeared into his own room, that he’d remembered in every spare second for days after. Kouda’s eyes locked with his, mouth parted just a fraction, and their top floor hideaway the extent of Tokoyami’s world for just that second as he waited for his name on Kouda’s tongue.

 

Another time, he kept telling himself. There would be another time, and he would hear Kouda’s voice, and in the meantime he still had Kouda’s notes tucked in with his lunches, one from each day he’d worked.

 

We stopped a drug-deal late in the day, and the only animals I could call on there were cockroaches - I had to cuff someone without letting them see how much I was trembling at the sight of all those roaches crawling out of the cracks! But I thought about the rest of you and how hard you’re all working, and it gave me the courage to keep going.

 

Did Kouda know how much that meant? Knowing that, in the dark of the night, when he was chasing down criminals, or even in the middle of the day when he was alone in the house, someone out there was thinking about him? That someone thought of him as strong, as an inspiration, the smallest and weakest of the five of them?

 

Each day, he tried to respond in kind, knowing that konbini desserts would never equal home-cooked food. So his notes became longer, describing the late-night movie he’d watched after a long patrol, or how he’d been distracted by the stars on a particularly clear night and almost missed a thief slipping out of a first-floor window until Dark Shadow had tried going after the guy itself. If his stories felt trivial, he reminded himself that the others would be sharing such stories over dinner or in front of the TV. There was more he wanted to say, things that ought to be easier to write than say out loud, but when he tried, ink and paper seemed to make them dangerous, gave them a weight that his voice couldn’t.

 

Then Kouda told him, in one letter, I’m thinking of updating my hero costume. I’ve had the same basic design since I was very young, but maybe it’s not very

 

A couple of inky splotches suggested Kouda had hesitated over the next words.

 

mature? I used to draw myself in the same hero costume all the time, when I just had a handful of crayons, and the design sort of stuck. But maybe it’s time for an update. What do you think?

 

What did he think? His first thoughts were of Kouda in form-fitting black, outlining every muscle, letting the world see just how strong he really was. But Kouda wouldn’t want to hear those treacherous thoughts. His mind made a leap to did someone say something to Kouda? Did someone insult his costume? Blue flames of anger licked at his fingers as he held the note, trying to discern from Kouda’s apparent hesitation whether he had written while holding on to some recent upset.

 

I think your costume makes you look approachable, he answered in his own letter. Someone to reach out to in times of trouble. Although if you want to try out new ideas, I’d be happy to help. With that note he left a cupcake, from a bakery he’d often passed on patrol, decorated with yellow and red frosting.

 

I’m thinking about asking for earlier patrols, he told Kouda in the same note. With autumn drawing in, sunset will come earlier and Dark Shadow and I will be more useful in late afternoons than we have been over the summer. And I admit to some selfishness in wanting my working hours to align with everyone else’s.

 

He had two consecutive nights off that weekend, and told the others as much via a note on the board in the kitchen. Immediately, everyone started writing suggestions for things to do as a group, except when Saturday evening rolled around, Tokoyami couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than an evening at home. It had rained for two days solid, and when Ojiro announced over lunch that  they would probably go out to see a movie, Tokoyami felt his heart sink just a little. Shouji noticed his reluctance, and passed some sort of silent exchange of looks with Ojiro before telling him, “if you want to stay home, that’s okay.” Ojiro and Sato paused only a second before agreeing, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

 

They knew. Oh, of course they had to know - they’d seen those notes being exchanged for nearly two weeks, they surely knew Kouda was making his lunches and being treated to gifts and sweets in return, and of course they knew and they they weren’t saying anything but they knew . And Tokoyami was sitting with them at the table, eating lunch like they didn’t all know.

 

“Kouda? You joining us or staying home?” Shouji nudged him but didn’t look at him. Kouda, eyes wide, deer in headlights like he’d been asked if he wanted to go play with spiders, shook his head and signed ‘chores’ before looking down at his food.

 

The other three left the house a little while later like the whole lunch conversation meant nothing at all.

 

Tokoyami washed dishes with Dark Shadow, while Kouda cleaned the living room, running the vacuum cleaner longer than was probably needed. He ran through possible conversation topics as he worked, but everything seemed too trivial or too monumental, liable to cause Kouda to hold back his voice. Working his way around the kitchen cleaning this and that, he wiped off the dry-erase board then, on a whim, grabbed his black marker and drew a tic-tac-toe grid, with an X in one space. He said nothing when Kouda passed through the kitchen, noticed the board and made an O with his red pen before continuing with his own chores. Tokoyami marked a second X. Went up to his room to bring the empty cups he knew were festering on the windowsill, and came back to find Kouda’s next move on the board.

 

They played through three stalemates before the shared rooms were cleaned and Kouda started writing a grocery list on the board. Tokoyami joined him, adding things to the list before snapping a picture of it on his phone. Then shoes on, wallets in pockets, and they were already at the market before Tokoyami realised they hadn’t even spoken about going shopping.

 

His hand was outstretched, reaching for a bottle of milk, when the thought solidified in his mind. He froze there, perfect clarity in the dairy section, and the feeling fizzed right down to his toes as he smiled to himself.

 

They paid for their groceries, carried a bag each back to the house and unpacked food in the kitchen. Kouda was putting the milk into the fridge when Tokoyami reached out, hand on the fridge door to keep it from closing, claiming Kouda’s attention.

 

“We don’t need to have a big conversation about it,” he told Kouda, before taking the milk from his hand and putting it away.

 

He heard Kouda’s voice then, catching on the ‘To-’ of his name, the sound sticking, resisting.

 

“Fumikage is fine, if that’s easier for you.”

 

“Fumikage?” It came out like a breath, soft from Kouda’s mouth, sweet and slow.

 

He nodded his approval, and Kouda smiled.

 

They drifted to the living room, side-by-side on the couch to watch TV. Tokoyami figured they had an hour at best before the others came back.

 

He shuffled closer to Kouda. Picked up Kouda’s arm and draped it over his own shoulders. Shuffled closer still.

 

______

 

Kouda climbed the stairs to bed at his usual time. The others were still in the kitchen, still picking apart the movie they’d seen. By the time Kouda reached his top-floor bedroom, their voices had faded to almost nothing. Tomorrow was Sunday, and he didn’t need to sleep anytime soon. He wouldn’t fall asleep anytime soon.

 

Tokoyami had climbed the stairs behind him, even though he didn’t usually sleep until after midnight. The small landing between their two doors was fast becoming Kouda’s favourite place in the whole world. There, he paused to look at Tokoyami. Thought about what he’d said earlier. Thought about everything he’d wanted to say to Tokoyami when he thought he couldn’t, and about how maybe it didn’t even need to be said.

 

“I’m leaving my door open,” he whispered.

 

Sure enough, after a minute or so, when he was sitting up in bed with a book, Tokoyami appeared in his doorway, a book of his own in one hand. Kouda beckoned him inside, and moved over to make space for him on the bed.

 

Tokoyami was right. They didn’t need to talk about it. All he needed was Tokoyami sitting by his side, Tokoyami’s hand in his. Tokoyami sharing his space, in their crow’s nest on the top floor.