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Another Year

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"It stinks in here." Todomatsu crossed his arms with a pout, nose wrinkling up in distaste.

"Smells better than you," Osomatsu snickered in reply, not even looking up at his youngest brother as he delivered the savage line, too preoccupied with petting a small mongrel puppy through the bars of its cage.

"It's a pet store. Seriously, Todomatsu, stop whining," Choromatsu sighed, looking over at him as the youngest gave a loud harrumph and turned his back to both of them. "We don't have to hang out here all day. Please be a little perkier when Ichimatsu comes back, okay?"

"I just don't see why this is such a big deal in the first place," Todomatsu argued, closing his eyes as he spoke. "He lets enough cats into the house as it is."

"That's exactly it," Osomatsu piped up, grinning broadly as the small dog let out a playful yip. "It's better this than another outbreak of fleas from some random alley cat."

"Besides," Choromatsu interjected, tapping his foot impatiently, "don't act like you don't know why we're doing this. I know for a fact you're not that dense."

Todomatsu was unrelenting, drumming his fingers against the sleeve of his high school uniform.

"I'm not being dense. I just think it's funny how he always gets his way."

"That's not fair, Todomatsu." It was Osomatsu that spoke before Choromatsu had a chance to scold the youngest, and the sudden tension to his voice made the other two stop and turn towards him. The eldest brother was still crouched down next to the puppy, letting it nibble at his fingers, although his expression was significantly less jovial.

Todomatsu grimaced slightly, giving a sheepish glance off to the side, but his tone was as indignant as it had been. "I never wanted a pet. They're gross. And dirty."

"It's not about you, Todomatsu." Choromatsu finally snapped. "Please don't do this today. This is the last thing he needs."

Todomatsu didn't respond, refusing to look at either of them. Osomatsu sighed after a while, standing back up and looking over at the other side of the pet store. He saw Jyushimatsu and Karamatsu on either side of Ichimatsu, who was faintly smiling at a small, white kitten he had pulled out of its glass enclosure. A corner of Osomatsu's mouth turned upwards.

"Honestly, though," he began, shoving his hands in his pockets, "I still think a dog would be better. It's too bad he hates 'em. I mean, who ever heard of a therapy cat?"

-_-_-_-

"She's really small!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed loudly from his spot on the floor, laying on his stomach with his feet kicking in the air. Ichimatsu was in front of him, sitting cross-legged, with the kitten resting contentedly in his lap. Jyushimatsu gently poked her forehead with a single finger, and she let out a mew in reply.

"Yeah," Ichimatsu replied, petting her back absently.

"I didn't know they came that small!" Jyushimatsu stated in wonderment. He suddenly perched himself up on his elbows, giving his older brother a wide smile. "Do you think she likes baseball?"

Choromatsu peeked over at them, finally lifting his head up from his textbook with a raised eyebrow. "What kind of question is that?"

"She doesn't like baseball?!"

"Don't yell! Karamatsu's sleeping upstairs, you know!"

Osomatsu grinned from his place beside Choromatsu, reaching into a bag of potato chips and haphazardly shoving a handful into his mouth.

"Hey, Ichimatsu, what are you gonna name her?" He asked, spitting out chip crumbs in the process.

"Don't talk with your mouth full! Are you a child?!"

"Mm." Ichimatsu hummed thoughtfully as the group ignored the third oldest. He shyly glanced at the floor. "Nala."

"Nala? Huh. That's pretty cute!" Osomatsu said, grinning at his younger brother.

Ichimatsu tucked his chin into his collar, and Jyushimatsu beamed up at him, kicking his legs absent-mindedly.

"You like her, right, Ichimatsu?" He asked.

Ichimatsu looked back at Nala, who had curled up between his legs, already half-asleep. He smiled faintly.

"Yeah."

Jyushimatsu's usual giddy expression didn't falter, but his eyes lingered on his brother strangely. He turned his attention back to the cat, giving her head another gentle poke.

"Good." He hummed, his volume a little lower than usual.

Choromatsu and Osomatsu glanced at each other, but Osomatsu soon laughed off the signifigance nervously while stretching his arms out over his head.

"Man, Todomatsu's been gone for a while," he commented with a sigh. "Where did he wander off to, anyway?"

"Who knows?" Choromatsu replied, rolling his eyes. "Does he even know anyone other than us?"

"Maybe he's playing baseball!"

"Or maybe he's gone forever."

"Jyushimatsu. No. Just no. And Ichimatsu... I'd tell you to try to be nicer, but," Choromatsu grimaced, looking back to his textbook dismissively, "honestly, he hasn't been trying that hard either."

"Aw, give him a break," Osomatsu laughed, rubbing his nose. "You know how he is. At least he's not stomping around here like he usually does."

Ichimatsu glanced up at the eldest brother, who gave him a relaxed grin in return. He pursed his lips and looked back to the sleepy, purring kitten in his lap.

He smiled again.

-_-_-_-

"Huh. She actually likes you." Ichimatsu commented flatly, though there was a hint of genuine awe hidden in his words. He watched Nala contentedly rolling around in Karamatsu's arms as they walked through the park on their way home from school, a loud purr emanating from her chest. Karamatsu was looking down at her in wonderment, almost emotional, mouth slightly agape. He seemed to snap out of it at the sound of Ichimatsu's voice, looking up at him and blinking.

"I... I guess," Karamatsu replied dumbly, looking back down at cat. "I... I think this is the longest I've ever held a cat for. And she's not even getting mad yet."

Ichimatsu snickered. It was no news to him that, for whatever reason, the feline community was not very fond of his elder brother. It was kind of odd, considering what an otherwise kind and gentle soul he was, but regardless of the reason, Karamatsu couldn't often encounter a cat without the situation ending in a flurry of teeth and claws. It only proved to be troublesome with Ichimatsu's opposite, attractive effect on cats, especially considering how often he and Karamatsu were together. Still, Ichimatsu really only thought the situation was funny. After all, the second oldest never seemed to take it too seriously either.

But there was something a bit astonishing about the scene before him, watching Ichimatsu's new friend snuggle up against his brother's chest as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Ichimatsu hadn't expected anything more than basic tolerance from any cat towards the other boy, and he was pretty sure Karamatsu hadn't either. It was better than he had expected. It was oddly comforting. He felt a little stupid for thinking so, considering it was such a small and seemingly insignificant detail, but it was still nice.

It made Ichimatsu feel like that things were finally going to be okay.

Ichimatsu hadn't realized his mind drifting elsewhere until Karamatsu spoke up again.

"She's being nice to you too, right?" He asked quietly, giving his younger brother a small smile.

"Me? Of course she is." Ichimatsu snorted in amusement. "Why wouldn't she be?"

"No, I mean..." Karamatsu trailed off for a moment. "You really like her, right? Does she help?"

Ichimatsu grew tense. It was a fair question, given the situation, but he couldn't help the way his chest locked up and how his stomach jumped slightly at the implications of it. He didn't answer at first, and he unconciously started to scratch at his thumb's cuticle.

Nala meowed from her perch in Karamatsu's arms, and Ichimatsu looked over to see her reaching a paw out, trying to bat at a string hanging loose from his jacket. He smiled warmly, holding out his hands in invitation. With another mew, she clamored into his arms and placed her attention back on the string, patting it playfully. Ichimatsu petted her gently. His chest began to slowly unwind itself, and his shoulders slumped to a point of relaxation that he hadn't felt in months.

Karamatsu noted the shift in his body language and smiled at him, albeit a somewhat tired expression.

"Yeah." Ichimatsu finally answered, not taking his eyes off her.

-_-_-_-

"Ichimatsu, did you bring her to school again?!"

Choromatsu pointed accusingly at the fluffy white head that was now sticking out of Ichimatsu's book bag, regarding the third eldest brother with a sleepy meow.

"Yeah, obviously."

"Don't say that like I'm stupid! You can't bring cats to school, Ichimatsu," Choromatsu chided, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. "You're gonna get into trouble."

Osomatsu guffawed from beside them, putting an arm around Choromatsu's shoulder and shaking him gently.

"C'mon, Choromatsu, who's gonna tell on him? I think she's already more popular than all of us combined!" Osomatsu exclaimed. He looked over at Ichimatsu, grinning and sticking out his pinky finger teasingly. "Especially with the girls, right, Ichimatsu?"

Ichimatsu gave him a bored expression as he pulled Nala out of his bag and set her to perch on his shoulder. "I don't care."

"Besides that," Osomatsu continued, brushing off Ichimatsu's comment, "even if the teachers found out, I don't think it'd matter. Between the six of us, bringing a cat to school that doesn't do anything bad is probably the least of their worries."

"Just because we're all worse, it doesn't mean he gets an automatic out...."

"Ah, that reminds me!" Osomatsu said, also ignoring Choromatsu's comment. He released his younger brother to bring a hand up to his nose thoughtfully. "As soon as Jyushimatsu gets out of practice, we're heading home. Karamatsu and Todomatsu are being kept after school."

"Huh? You only remembered this just now? Why couldn't you tell us earlier?!"

Ichimatsu perked his head up at the news, furrowing his brow. "Why?"

"Oh, you didn't hear? Karamatsu fell asleep again in our math class this morning!" Osomatsu barked with a laugh. "What a bum!"

"You fall asleep in class almost every day...." Choromatsu grumbled.

"Yeah, but I'm good at it! Karamatsu's a total amateur!"

"Huh, it has been happening a lot lately," Choromatsu hummed, thoughtful. "It's kind of out of character for him. Well, what about Todomatsu?"

"Oh, I don't know. I heard he made a girl cry or something. He didn't tell me, I just heard about it."

"Well, that's not as surprising...."

Osomatsu and Choromatsu continued to chatter absently, and Ichimatsu found himself drifting away from the conversation. A vague anxiety started to wash over him, something he couldn't really place. His arms resting at his sides, he dug his nails into the palms of his hands apprehensively. He didn't like walking home without Karamatsu.

Nala let out a small mew from Ichimatsu's shoulder, rubbing her head against his cheek. He glanced over at her, and brought up a hand to scratch behind her ear.

Maybe he was just being too needy.

It wasn't the end of the world.

-_-_-_-

"God, what if they call Mom? She's got enough to worry about! Ugh, I'm so stupid, so stupid...."

"Karamatsu, be quiet, you're embarrassing me. What happened to Mr. Cool Guy, anyway?"

"Ah, but what if they call Mom and Dad?!" Karamatsu swung his head around to look at Todomatsu, gritting his teeth in panic. "I'm so stupid! And what about you? What the hell was that all about?!"

"She started it," Todomatsu shot back tersely, crossing his arms with an indignant look on his face.

"You called her a witch! A pig! 'In a thousands years, you'll never find a man courageous enough to traverse through the treacherous canyons of your belly rolls,' you said! Who can look at another human being and say these things?!"

"Well," Todomatsu scoffed loudly, shrugging. "She said I threw like a girl in gym class."

"You do!"

"Hey-!" Todomatsu looked about ready to punch his brother in the jaw before the door to the vice principal's office opened, cutting him off and immediately making the boys sit up straight and proper.

The vice principle stuck his head out of the door, staring down the two boys accusingly.

"We're ready for you two." He said, tone flat, retreating back into his office.

"Y-yes, Mr. Sasagawa!" Karamatsu replied quickly, standing up stiff as a board. He turned towards Todomatsu, who was still looking at the space that Sasagawa's head once occupied, and pointed an accusing finger at him. "Look, Todomatsu, you have to be nice! They can't call Mom and Dad! I'll just tell them that it was all a terrible misunderstanding, and how sorry we are, but that we are ready to shoulder the burden of our errors; like true men! We, who are strong of mind and body, will take extreme measures of self-introspection to ensure that-"

"Why did he say 'we'?" Todomatsu interrupted suddenly, still not taking his eyes off of the small crack in the door that lead into the office.

This made Karamatsu stop, and he blinked at Todomatsu dumbly as his hand dropped. "What?"

"He said 'we're ready for you.' Earlier today he said he just wanted to have a meeting with us. He didn't mention anyone else. So who's 'we'?" Todomatsu glared at the doorway, brow furrowed, and Karamatsu got the feeling that the youngest was already putting pieces together that he himself hadn't even known were there.

Todomatsu stood up in a huff, trudging inside as Karamatsu could do nothing but cluelessly follow him. Once inside, Karamatsu almost didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the office. Mr. Sasagawa sat at his desk, tapping at the clean wooden finish impatiently, and two chairs sat opposite of him, waiting for the second eldest and youngest brothers. The only thing out of the ordinary was the professionally-dressed woman sitting in a rolling chair off to the side of the desk, hands crossed in her lap. She was so unfamiliar to Karamatsu, he couldn't place who she was.

He wondered if Todomatsu already had though, because he seemed to purposefully choose the chair furthest away from her, and he sat down with a heavy sigh, crossing his arms legs as he did so. Karamatsu could only linger in the doorway for a moment, a bit taken aback, before he politely scuffled into the room and sat up straight in the last remaining chair.

As soon at they were settled in, the vice principle cleared his throat. "I'm sure you two know why you were brought in today," he said gruffly. "But first; I'm not sure if you remember her from orientation.... But this is Mrs. Watanabe. She's our school's counselor."

As soon as it was said, the entire speech that Karamatsu had planned in his head left him in an instant. Now that Mr. Sasagawa had explained it, he did recognize her. He had just never been in to see her before. He caught himself staring at her blankly, and looked away in embarrassment. He glanced over at Todomatsu, who was still pointedly avoiding everyone's gaze. Did he know something that Karamatsu didn't? She was the school's counselor, sure, but what was she doing here?

"It's nice to meet you both," Mrs. Watanabe said softly, nodding her head.

Karamatsu bowed back to her, muttering a polite greeting in reply. He looked back to Todomatsu, and then to the vice principle, not getting much of a response from either one. He shifted around in his seat awkwardly, not sure of what to make of the situation.

"Um, sir," he began humbly, looking towards Mr. Sasagawa. "We're really sorry about everything today. I know that we-"

Sasagawa cut him off with a wave of his hand, and Karamatsu clammed up. The vice principle then shot a look over to Watanabe, giving her a vague nod, and she turned to the two boys.

"Now, boys, we just wanted to have a meeting with you, considering the things that have been happening the past couple of weeks," she started calmly, giving Karamatsu a meaningful look. She tried to make the same contact with Todomatsu, but after receiving no response, she turned back to the second brother. "Mr. Sasagawa tells me you two in particular have been having some trouble in school, and we'd like to consider it carefully."

Karamatsu simply blinked at her dumbly, trying to decipher the meaning of her words. "I...I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't understand what you mean."

Watanabe pursed her lips a bit. "That's okay. First thing's first...." She trailed off before glancing at some papers on her desk, and giving an almost sheepish glance back to the second eldest brother. "You're Karamatsu, right?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Okay," she nodded to herself, and regarded him seriously, but with a soft expression. "Now, Mr. Sasagawa asked me into this meeting today because it's come to our attention that your home life has possibly been... contributing to this change in behavior."

Karamatsu's breath hitched, and his hands gripped at the fabric of his pants. Watanabe was still looking at him in that painfully amiable way, and he had to look down at the ground to avoid it. After waiting for an answer that couldn't make its way out, Watanabe continued.

"How has your brother been doing since his suicide attempt?" The way she said it, how she could be so frank and yet still so soft in her tone, took Karamatsu by surprise, and he nearly flinched as soon as the words came out.

"He's fine." Todomatsu finally spoke up, barking out his answer before Karamatsu could even think of what to say. The second eldest glanced over at him again, only to find him still looking away from the rest of the group, his body as closed off as it possibly could have been.

"Karamatsu?" Watanabe prompted gently after a while, observing Todomatsu's answer but sounding like she still wanted to hear Karamatsu's.

"O-oh," Karamatsu stammered, shaking himself out of his initial state of shock. He forced a small smile as he looked back up, making sure he made sure eye contact with Watanabe and Sasagawa equally. As he spoke though, listing off Ichimatsu's accomplishments over the last few weeks were almost enough to make the expression genuine. "He's been doing great! He's been seeing his own doctor, and he's on some new medication that I think's been working really well for him! We all make sure he's doing what he needs to, and I think he's feeling a lot better! We got him a cat, too. He really likes cats, and we thought actually having one would make him feel more at ease. It's really helping. I think he feels a lot better!"

Sasagawa's expression was intimidatingly unfazed by Karamatsu's words, but Watanabe was smiling and nodding as he went on.

"That's good to hear," she commented genuinely. "He doesn't see me as often as I'd like, so it's nice to hear he's been improving." Just then, her brows furrowed slightly, and her smile fell a bit. "But I want to hear from you two, as well."

Karamatsu tried to connect the meaning of her words, but failed. "I'm sorry, what do you mean?"

"I mean...." She trailed off slightly, and Karamatsu thought she might be losing her patience with him. But if she was, she was doing a good job at not showing it. She gave him a sad smile, almost solely directing her next words at him, considering that Todomatsu had been completely check out of the conversation since the beginning. "How are you feeling, after all this?"

Karamatsu froze. As the question hit him, his mouth fell open slightly, and he could only blink at her a few times before his eyes focused on the floor again.

"We're fine." Todomatsu answered for him again, still as indignant and uninterested as ever. He did, however, finally glance at the vice principle scathingly. "Is this it?"

Sasagawa glared right back at him, finally clearing his throat to speak. "Considering the circumstances, we've decided to not contact your parents at this time. They have enough to worry about already. However, this meeting was necessary in order to reintroduce you to Mrs. Watanabe. I suggest you visit her during her office hours in order to avoid anymore of these types of incidents in the future."

"My door is always open if either of you need to talk," Watanabe added, her quietness a stark contrast to Sasagawa's brusque nature.

Todomatsu simply kept his glare trained on Sasagawa. "So, can we go now?"

"Might I warn you, Todomatsu," Sasagawa answered back shortly, "that if this behavior is to continue, not only will your parents be contacted, but in your case, a suspension may be warranted."

Todomatsu faltered, but only for a moment, giving the vice principle a challenging stare.

"Can we go now?" He repeated deliberately.

Sasagawa narrowed his eyes with him before waving him off. "You're dismissed."

Todomatsu scoffed loudly, immediately standing up and picking his bag up from the ground.

"Come on, Karamatsu," he muttered, looking back at his older brother in annoyance. Karamatsu, however, was still frozen. His kept his gaze focused meekly at the ground, his fingers interlocked in a tight pattern. He was still working on processing the question that Watanabe has asked them earlier, and he could feel his stomach turning as his heart pounded against his chest. Todomatsu waited for an answer, but when Karamatsu couldn't respond, he stopped and gaped at him in disbelief.

"Karamatsu." He tried again, voice raising slightly. Karamatsu didn't move, and Todomatsu gritted his teeth. "Karamatsu!"

As he rose his voice yet another octave, Karamatsu actually flinched at the sound, still unable to look up from the ground, only growing more tense. Todomatsu waited another beat before scoffing loudly and slinging his bag over his shoulder. He stormed out of the room without another word, slamming the office door behind him.

Mr. Sasagawa muttered something about the youngest brother under his breath, but Karamatsu couldn't really hear it. He could only look down at his own feet, shock silent with mouth still slightly agape. A hand suddenly touched his shoulder after a while, and he almost jumped, jerking his head up quickly to see Watanabe reaching out to him.

"Karamatsu?" She prompted, taking her hand off of his shoulder, but keeping her eye contact strong. "Is there anything you need to say?"

"Huh?" Karamatsu floundered a bit, mouth opening and closing randomly as he struggled to find his voice again. The initial numbness of his shock was beginning to wear off, and he could feel something behind his eyes burning. They watered as he tried to remember how to speak, the process more difficult than it should have been. His throat hurt. It felt like something was trying to squeeze it shut.

Still, he tried to still think rationally about this situation, even as his mind raced. At the very least, he owed his teachers an explanation. He looked up then, although he couldn't keep his eyes focused very well.

"I-I'm sorry," he croaked, the sounds creaking out of him painfully. His eyes watered with the effort of keeping his voice steady, despite what a poor try it ended up being. "I... I just.... Nobody's asked me that since-"

Karamatsu cut himself off as his voice cracked, and he felt a hot tear roll down his cheek. He was almost too worked up to even notice it, and even if he hadn't been, he wasn't sure he would have wiped it away anyway.

"I... I haven't been sleeping well at home." He stammered. He gritted his teeth as another tear fell from his lashes. His voice warbled with emotion, and he sniffed loudly. "I-I can't sleep. I stay up and... I make sure Ichimatsu falls asleep."

Karamatsu paused for a moment, tears flowing freely from his eyes now, until a sob finally escaped his throat.

"I-I can't go to sleep," he hiccuped. "I-I have- I have to stay up. I have to- I have to make sure he's-"

Karamatsu couldn't finish as another set of sobs burst from his chest, and he finally managed to move himself, only to curl forward and cradle his head in his hands. He didn't see Watanabe grab a tissue from Sasagawa's desk, holding it out to Karamatsu. She placed her hand on the boy's shoulder once again, letting it linger there this time, giving him small reassuring pats in the process.

"Karamatsu," she cooed softly. "It's okay. You can come see me whenever you need."

Karamatsu was unable to reply. He could only continue sobbing into his hands, his shoulders heaving under the weight of the burden he had placed upon himself.

Mrs. Watanabe's offer was tempting. He supposed it would be nice to have somebody to talk to. Somebody who wouldn't judge him or think any less of him for these thoughts.

But Karamatsu knew better. He knew how selfish these tears were. Why was he the one crying, when his little brother was more broken up inside than he could even imagine? It was so stupid. He was just being sensitive. He had no reason to be sad.

As he hunched into himself as much as he possibly could, weeping as if he were a small child, all he could think about was how stupid he must have sounded.

-_-_-_-

"Hey. Karamatsu. Are you asleep?"

Karamatsu rolled over towards the source of the whisper, greeted with the intent stare of Ichimatsu from his place next to him in the brothers' shared futon. Likewise, Karamatsu could catch a pair of glowing green eyes blinking up at him from under the covers as Nala sat still against the third youngest's chest.

"No." Karamatsu whispered back, aware of the four sets of snores coming from behind him. "What's wrong? Do you need something?"

"What did the principle say to you today?" Ichimatsu asked.

Karamatsu didn't answer right away, averting his gaze from his brother's.

"Not much. He just asked me to please try harder at staying awake in class."

"Oh." Ichimatsu furrowed his brow a bit, tapping his fingers anxiously against his pillow. "Why have you been falling asleep so much anyway?"

Karamatsu didn't look back up at him. He let his eyes focus on the kitten beneath the covers. Nala simply blinked slowly at him, as if she too were awaiting an answer.

"I don't know," he muttered after a while, his own fingers also twitching. "I think I've been eating too much junk food lately. It makes you drowsy, you know.... I just need to take better care of myself."

Ichimatsu watched him carefully before his eyes finally fluttered down towards his feet. He curled into himself, hugging Nala closer to his chest. "I'm not stupid."

"Huh?" Karamatsu looked back to his face, concerned. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not stupid," Ichimatsu repeated, tucking his chin into his collarbone. "It's my fault, isn't it?"

"No! It's not!" Todomatsu stirred gently from behind him. Karamatsu tensed and remembered his volume, trying not to get too emotional from then on. "Ichimatsu, it's not-"

"Don't treat me like a baby," Ichimatsu interrupted, his words slightly muffled into his pajama shirt. He paused for a moment, then gave Karamatsu a forlorn look. "Please don't lie to me."

This made Karamatsu stop, and all he could do was stare back at that face like a deer caught in headlights. It felt like his heart was choking him in the back of his throat, like he had been caught doing something bad. When he found his words again, they cluttered out of him awkwardly.

"It's.. it's really not you, Ichimatsu," he croaked. "I just... I've been having trouble sleeping lately. I don't know why."

Ichimatsu nearly flinched at the confession, but an odd, dry smile teased the corners of his mouth as he looked down again.

"It's because you're a worrywart." He stated with a humorless laugh. "And I'm too much to worry about."

Karamatsu was unsure of how to reply to this, and he didn't want to make matters worse by saying something stupid, especially with the way Ichimatsu's eyes went glassy. He hesitated for a moment before gingerly resting his hand atop Ichimatsu's, which was still fidgeting by his head on the pillow. He absently rubbed little circles with his thumb, waiting for Ichimatsu to react.

Ichimatsu gave him another pitiful look, pausing before shifting closer to his older brother, letting his forehead rest against his collarbone. As he moved forward, Karamatsu released his hand in order to wrap his arm around his little brother, pulling him in closer. He closed his eyes with a quiet sigh, burying his face into his brother's hair as he hugged him.

Previously forgotten about, the kitten nestled against Ichimatsu's own breast suddenly made a small squeak of protest at the new pressure around her. Karamatsu loosened his grip and backed off a bit.

"Ah. Sorry," he apologized out of habit, unsure if he meant to direct this at Ichimatsu or the cat herself.

Ichimatsu cracked a faint smile as he looked down at Nala, rearranging her fur carefully. His hand suddenly stopped mid-pet, seeming thoughtful about something. After a moment, he put both hands around her and began repositioning her, pushing her gently against Karamatsu's chest in his place.

"You can hold her tonight," Ichimatsu mumbled, a bit of embarrassment flushing to his cheeks. "She helps."

Karamatsu blinked at him dumbly, and then at Nala, who seemed very blasé about her new spot. He gingerly placed his hand on the top of her head, and she began purring.

It was difficult not to let the corners of his mouth turn upwards as Ichimatsu's hands surrendered the hold he had on her, and the third youngest looked complacent.

Karamatsu could feel some of his concerns unwinding in his chest, although he wasn't sure if it was for the same reasons that Ichimatsu probably assumed it would have been.

"Thanks." Karamatsu whispered, yet again unsure who this statement was meant to be directed to.

-_-_-_-

Todomatsu's history textbook sat forgotten on the living room table as he opted instead to lazily page through the articles of a celebrity gossip magazine, resting his chin in his free hand. He somehow ended up being the only one home at the moment, and although he appreciated the quiet time, he was starting to get bored with it. He hadn't bothered to ask what any of his other brothers were up to today, so he wasn't sure where they were.

He sighed quietly to himself, flicking the page between his hands absent-mindedly. His studies didn't interest him. Nothing in this magazine interested him, either. It made him wonder why he even bothered at all.

He was toying with the idea of simply going back upstairs and taking a nap when his magazine was suddenly pulled out from under his own hand, shifting a bit to the left. It was enough to snap him back to reality, and he glanced down at the source of the movement.

Nala's head was peeking up from under the table, a small white paw resting on the bottom corner of his magazine playfully. She looked right back up at him, pupils dilated with the tip of her tail twitching, and let out a little trill.

Todomatsu regarded her with a stony expression, simply pulling the magazine out from under her paw.

"No." He deadpanned, turning back to the pages. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nala's paw slowly outstretch even further until it was under her touch again. She batted at the corner a bit, rustling the paper. Todomatsu pulled it back more, turning back to the cat in annoyance.

"No! Get out of here!" He brushed her away with his hand, and Nala retreated from her spot with another trill, bounding out of sight energetically. Todomatsu let out a small scoff and turned back to his publication almost indignantly, despite not really reading anything in the first place.

He was left in solitude again, just long enough for him to let his guard down and begin to feel boredom creeping up. He felt stupid, suddenly. For sitting here, not doing his homework, and barely even reading the article on the page before him. An empty feeling nagged at him, and another sigh escaped his chest.

As soon as he expelled the last of his breath, Nala had jumped back into sight, landing on the table and right on top of the magazine, excitedly scuffling the pages with her feet.

Todomatsu could only blink at the sight before him until his annoyance resurfaced, and he let out a loud groan and picked the kitten up by her armpits.

"Hey, stop it!" He spat, holding her up to his face. "No! Bad!"

Nala simply hung from his hold in an oddly complacent fashion, eyes still as wide as saucers and unmistakably playful. Another little trill came out of her, and she began purring contentedly. Todomatsu could only narrow his eyes at her, feeling as if this were some strange battle of wills.

"You're a nuisance, you know that?" He berated aloud, only earning an indifferent mew from the kitten in his hands. She reached a paw forward and placed it deliberately against his nose.

A scowl fell over Todomatsu's face, and he leaned back to lay against the floor, setting Nala on his chest. He let go of her and rested an arm over his eyes wearily, his sour expression not budging.

Todomatsu expected the weight on his chest to disappear as Nala would inevitably scuttle off to cause more trouble, but even when it didn't happen, he didn't really pay any mind to it. It wasn't until he felt the shock of a cold, wet nose on his chin, and the vague roughness of the kitten's tongue poking out of her mouth that he finally moved his arm a bit to peek up at her. She stared back at him a little blankly with a small meow.

Todomatsu hesitated a moment before uncovering his eyes the rest of the way, setting the hand on her back almost cautiously. She was soft and warm underneath his touch, and he could feel the rumble of her chest as she purred.

"You're not that great," Todomatsu mulled aloud with a sigh, even as he began absently stroking her back.

It wasn't like she was going to fix everything, anyway. If it were that simple, Todomatsu wouldn't have gotten so much flack these couple weeks for being insensitive. The others treated the small kitten like a holy prophet, something sacred that couldn't be touched, because it was somehow going to set everything right in the world. It was something Todomatsu honestly couldn't grasp.

It was all so trivial. The attention that Ichimatsu was getting. The cat, the special treatment, the soft voices and kind words. He got everything he wanted lately. All stupid, little, insignificant things that didn't matter. And yet the underlying issue at hand was supposedly such a big deal. Todomatsu couldn't figure it out. What good was a dumb cat, in this situation?

With that thought, he looked back down at Nala accusingly, but her eyes were closed as she enjoyed the pets she was receiving. Todomatsu let his expression soften. He raised his other hand, poking her nose gently. Without stirring, she gave his finger a little lick, her tongue sticking out a bit afterwards.

"You're lucky you're cute." He mumbled out loud, and a faint smile tugged at his lips.

"It's fun, isn't it?"

Todomatsu immediately bristled at the new voice in the room, instinctively squeezing Nala to his chest and springing upwards. Turning to the door, he saw Osomatsu and Choromatsu now standing in the room, both giving him an odd expression.

"H-how long have you been standing there?" Todomatsu stammered, feeling his cheeks flush a hot pink.

"Man, long enough!" Osomatsu exclaimed, stepping further into the room. He settled down next to Todomatsu, his trademark grin plastered on his face despite the way his brows furrowed slightly. "You're so creepy! Why do you have to talk so intensely to a kitten? That's not how you talk to cats. This is how you talk to cats; meow!"

Nala stared blankly at the eldest brother as he got in her face and gave the loud greeting in her native tongue. After giving an uninterested mew in return, she wriggled out of Todomatsu's grasp and trotted over to Choromatsu, who had settled down next to Osomatsu.

"You're both idiots." He commented dryly, letting the kitten curl up in his lap, giving her a pat on the head. "But Osomatsu's right. You're so creepy, Todomatsu. Hiding your kind side from everyone, like it's some big secret? What's wrong with you?"

"I-it's not a big deal!" Todomatsu stuttered, looking away sheepishly.

"Aw, come on, Todomatsu, don't be such a stick in the mud," Osomatsu whined with a pout. "You're the only one not letting yourself have fun with her. Loosen up a little bit."

Todomatsu crossed his arms with an indignant frown.

"Whatever. You guys are making a big deal out of nothing, anyway," he grumbled, and he glanced over at Nala, who was now happily rolling around in Choromatsu's lap. "It's just a stupid cat."

-_-_-_-_-

"Ichimatsu! We're all gonna see that one movie at noon! Wanna come?"

Ichimatsu looked up to the doorway, seeing Jyushimatsu's head peeking out from it excitedly. He had been absent-mindly petting Nala as he watched her eat from her food bowl, and he lifted his hand to glance at the watch around his wrist.

"It's already 11:45. You guys are gonna be late." Ichimatsu observed dully. "Plus, it's a new movie. It's probably sold out."

Jyushimatsu entered the rest of the way through the threshold, bouncing slightly as he spoke.

"We're just gonna try it! Come on, it'll be fun!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed, and then paused a moment as if he just remembered something. "Ah, Choromatsu said not to let you bring Lil' Slugger! He doesn't want to get kicked out of the theater!"

"That's not her name...."

"Come on! You should come with us! Lil' Slugger can stay here and practice getting big and strong!"

At that, Nala let out a meow, and Ichimatsu looked back at her. She seemed to be content, blinking up at him with a low purr rumbling in her throat. After a moment, she trotted off somewhere to go about her own business. Ichimatsu noticed that there was still a little bit of food left in the bowl. Before he could consider this small detail any further, however, Jyushimatsu was bouncing in place again.

"Let's go! Let's go! Let's go, Buffaloes!"

"Alright, alright, shut up," Ichimatsu sighed, shaking his head in exasperation. Anyway, maybe it would be fun. He hadn't really left the house for anything but school in a while. It had probably been months since he had last seen a movie in the theater. For some reason, now that the idea was in his head, he was actually looking forward to it. He shoved his hands in his pockets nonchalantly, though, and thought for a moment before trudging towards his younger brother. "What are we gonna do if the movie's sold out, though?"

"Hmmm." Jyushimatsu hummed, placing his hand in front of his mouth thoughtfully. After a moment, he clapped a fist into his other hand in a bout of eureka. "Fight Club!"

"Again? You're starting to get predictable."

"Fight Club! All-out bout! WWE! Ring of Honor!"

"What are you even saying?"

"We take it to the Thunderdome! Six men enter, one man leaves! Six men enter, one man leaves! Six men enter, one man lea-"

"Shut up."

-_-_-_-

Karamatsu slung his school bag over his shoulder, wiping the last bit of sleep from his eyes as Osomatsu trudged past him and began sleepily putting his shoes on.

"Come on everybody, let's go...." Osomatsu rallied unenthusiastically, puncuated with a loud yawn.

"Hey, look alive, we're gonna be late for school!" Choromatsu snapped, putting his shoes on more urgently. "Hey, wait, where's Ichimatsu? Is he still upstairs?!"

Karamatsu looked around the room briefly to confirm his younger brother's absence, and he pouted a bit uneasily. He turned around and started to make his way back upstairs.

"I'll get him!" Karamatsu called out over his shoulder.

"Tell him to hurry up!" Choromatsu called back in annoyance. "We only have 15 minutes to- Augh, Osomatsu, don't fall asleep in front of the door!"

Karamatsu quickly tromped upstairs and took stock in his surroundings, seeking his brother. He soon peeked his head back into their room and saw Ichimatsu kneeling down by Nala. He was already fully dressed for school, although at that point his bag lay neglected a couple feet away from him. Karamatsu looked at him for a moment, slightly puzzled at the aprehensive look on his brother's face. He noticed Nala for a moment, but he couldn't pinpoint anything out of the ordinary; she was simply sitting by her own food bowl, looking happy as Ichimatsu gently scratched behind her ears. Karamatsu pursed his lips in confusion before stepping into the room.

"Ichimatsu?" He called cautiously, approaching him. "It's time to go."

Ichimatsu jumped a bit at the sound of his voice, looking over as he was summoned. His brows furrowed anxiously, he only let out a vague grunt as he turned his attention back to his cat. Karamatsu stood over him, raising an eyebrow.

"What's wrong?" Karamatsu prodded.

"She... didn't eat all her food again."

"Huh?" Karamatsu glanced down at the kitten's bowl, seeing that it was indeed only half empty. Still not quite understanding the significance of this, he frowned. "Does she usually?"

"Yes." Ichimatsu's reply was a little short, but his tone suggested that this was due more to anxiety than impatience. Karamatsu looked down at Nala, shifting his weight on his heels uncomfortably. She seemed perfectly fine to him. Granted, she was so mellow as it was, it might have been difficult to determine whether or not she really was feeling under the weather. Karamatsu didn't know a lot about cats, so it was hard for him to understand what exactly was throwing Ichimatsu off.

"Maybe she just doesn't feel like eating as much today?" Karamatsu tried. As an afterthought, he added, "We could take her to the vet if you wanted, after school. Just leave her here and have Mom take care of her until then."

Ichimatsu didn't look comforted by his words, and Karamatsu noticed his shoulders hunch slightly.

"I don't wanna go to school."

"Why? Because of this?" Karamatsu gave a worried pout, kneeling down next to his younger brother and setting a hand between his shoulder blades. "Ichimatsu, I don't think you should miss anymore school unless you really have to."

Ichimatsu didn't reply, only curled into himself a little more, not taking his hand off Nala.

"Come on." Karamatsu urged gently, trying again. "Just tell Mom about it real quick. She'll take good care of her while we're gone. Then afterwards you can get her checked up, just in case."

Ichimatsu only kept staring at Nala helplessly, and Karamatsu was afraid his words hadn't truly been heard. But after a moment, he took his hand away from the kitten with a slow exhale.

"Okay." Ichimatsu muttered, standing up. Karamatsu did as well, breathing a small sigh of relief and picking up his brother's bag for him. He slung it over his shoulder along with his own, clapping his free hand on Ichimatsu's shoulder in order to steer him out the door.

"See? There's nothing to worry about," Karamatsu said, giving his younger brother a smile. "Everything's gonna be alright."

-_-_-_-

"Be a little nicer to Ichimatsu, Todomatsu. The kitten's sick and he's really worried about it." Choromatsu didn't look up from his food, but he raised his eyes up briefly to give the youngest brother a purposeful stare. He was sitting across from Todomatsu, while Jyushimatsu excitedly shoveled his lunch into his mouth off to the side of them. The weather was still mild enough to eat up on the roof like this, but as he spoke, a chill, nearly ominous breeze floated by the three. (Karamatsu and Ichimatsu usually went somewhere a little quieter during lunchtime, and Osomatsu was off supposedly planning an "awesome prank" on one of the teachers.)

Todomatsu turned back to him, raising an eyebrow skeptically. His mouth was still half-full of the bite of food he had just taken, and he chewed it slowly before answering. "You're telling me the thing's actually sick?"

"Yeah," Choromatsu answered, scowling up at him slightly. "They only took her to the vet last night. Maybe if you had asked about how it went instead of pretending like none of us exist, you would know that."

"Whatever," Todomatsu moped indignantly. "I don't know what you're telling me for, anyway. I'm always nice."

A loud, short laughed suddenly erupted from Jyushimatsu, and he grinned broadly.

"No you're not! You're a jerk!"

"Jyushimatsu?!"

"Ah, see? Even Jyushimatsu sees it. That's no good."

Todomatsu glared between the third and fifth brothers as he took another bite of his lunch.

"What's even wrong with it?" Todomatsu grumbled as soon as his mouth was free.

"Not much," Choromatsu answered. "The vet said she just has a little upper respiratory infection or something. He gave her antibiotics for it. She should be fine."

"What? That's it?" Todomatsu blurted out incredulously, brows knotting together.

"Yeah, yeah, Ichimatsu's just really worked up about it, though," Choromatsu explained quickly. "You know how he gets. Just don't stress him out any more than he already is."

"No, that's not what I meant." Todomatsu interjected, shaking his head. "You're telling me the thing's actually sick, and all the vet can do is give us some stupid medicine and call it a day? That's it?"

This made Choromatsu stop, and even Jyushimatsu paused to glance over at the youngest brother uncomfortably.

"Well... Yeah." Choromatsu replied slowly, an eyebrow raising at whatever reaction this was. "What else would you be expecting?"

Todomatsu seemed to gain control of himself again, realizing the slip of his words, and he looked away sheepishly.

"Forget it." He muttered. "It just sounds like a real racket, that's all. What a way to make a living."

Choromatsu was still trying to assess the meaning of this strange reaction when Jyushimatsu resumed his regular activity, shoveling food into his mouth like he hadn't eaten in days.

"Lil' Slugger is big and strong!" He exclaimed, spitting out bits of food as his voice rang out. Choromatsu rolled his eyes and turned finally turned his attention back to his meal as Jyushimatsu prattled on. "She'll hit that nasty curse right outta the park!"

Todomatsu's eyes darted towards the fifth brother's face, but the expression was no different than usual, covered in misplaced rice and other indistinguishable food bits as if he were a child. Todomatsu looked down at his own food. He had barely started eating, but suddenly what was left in the bowl didn't look too appetizing. He sighed to himself, setting his leftovers on the ground in front of him, and leaving them be.

"She's so small, though." He murmured under his breath, without even thinking of it.

"Hm? Did you say something else?" Choromatsu glanced back up, not hearing his words. Jyushimatsu must not have heard either, because he hadn't been distracted.

Todomatsu could feel his cheeks heat up a bit, and he continued to glare at his unfinished meal. The sight was begining to make his stomach turn, and another breeze rolled past the roof, making him shiver. He replaced the lid back onto the container and shoved it back into his lunch bag.

"It's nothing."

-_-_-_-

"I'm not going."

Karamatsu stopped in the middle of setting one of his textbooks into his book bag, turning to his brother with a pained expression on his face.

"Ichimatsu-"

"I can't go." Ichimatsu repeated tersely. He was hunched over a little shoe box in the corner of the room, which contained the sleeping form of his little white kitten. Karamatsu peered over the edge of the box and could see Nala sleeping soundly inside. He let out a short breath through his nostrils.

"Ichimatsu, I don't want you to miss any more school than you have to." Karamatsu said quietly, standing up to walk over to his little brother. "Mom's been taking great care of her, and-"

"I can't go." Ichimatsu didn't even look at him as he interrupted again. "I need to take care of her."

"Ichimatsu, please," Karamatsu urged gently, kneeling next to him, about to place a hand on his shoulder. "It's Friday. The weekend's almost here, and then you can-"

"No!" Ichimatsu's volume and pitch rose uncharacteristically, and he flinched away slightly as Karamatsu's hand made contact with his arm. The second brother quickly retracted his hand, as if just bitten, and he watched as Ichimatsu seemed to realize what he had done. The fourth brother looked away, hugging himself and curling up even more.

Karamatsu swallowed roughly, trying to compose himself. He had almost forgotten how small Ichimatsu looked when he got like this. He hadn't seen him like this in a while. Not since that time a few months ago. Something that had seemed so previously far away, and yet Karamatsu could replay every moment of it frame-by-frame in sharp, vivid colors and emotions.

"I can't go." Ichimatsu suddenly spoke again, sounding too meek. "She needs me. She's getting worse."

Karamatsu could hear him, but the words weren't really processing. He felt bad about it, but with the taste of bile at the back of his throat, slowly rising up as he remembered things he wished had never happened, he couldn't bother with getting caught up in it. He glanced down at Nala, still sleeping as soundly as before in her little shoe box bed. She looked well enough right now, but it was getting to the point that even Karamatsu could notice the mellow kitten was acting more aloof than usual. She didn't move as much as she used to - which was only just a few days ago. She was still picky with her food. And she was just sleeping so much. But that was good, right? Wasn't that just something someone had to do when they were sick?

Regardless, Karamatsu didn't have the energy, will, or peace of mind to argue with Ichimatsu any further. He stood up without trying to make contact again, exhaling slowly to combat the nausea in the pit of his stomach. After thinking for a moment, he finally extended his hand again, reaching down to gently ruffle Ichimatsu's hair. His fingers lingered, tangled in locks of dark brown, and he slowly let them unravel as he turned towards the bedroom door.

"I'll tell Mom, then."

-_-_-_-

Osomatsu had seemed strangely thoughtful since they had gotten to school, but Choromatsu was still a bit taken aback when a solemn sigh broke through the murmured din of their classroom.

"She's getting worse, huh?" Osomatsu pondered aloud. Choromatsu looked over at him somberly, unsure of how to reply. Osomatsu paused for a moment before continuing. "It seems weird. It's been less than a week since anyone even noticed."

Choromatsu slunk into his seat, setting his textbook down.

"There's not much we can do." The third oldest said quietly. "I mean... we've already taken her in a couple times. And I've been reading a couple things about it, too. But it's all the same answer. When they're that young, anything could happen. We just don't know."

Osomatsu let out a nervous, wry laugh. "It really sucks."

"Yeah," Choromatsu replied. "We just have to hope for the best. For Ichimatsu's sake. I really don't think he can handle something like this."

Osomatsu nodded, uncharacteristically serious. His eyes went slightly out of focus as he stared blankly at the chalkboard at the front of the room.

"Ichimatsu's not the only one." The eldest commented, his words distant.

"Hm?" Choromatsu's brows furrowed, nonplussed, as he glanced back over at his brother. "What do you mean?"

"Mm? You mean you don't know?" Choromatsu would have expected these words to be uttered with smugness, but Osomatsu sounded more genuinely surprised than anything. After a moment, he grinned. "Ah, that's just like you."

"What is?" Choromatsu queried, a bit on guard.

"You're just so obsessed with getting everything right. You're a total perfectionist! It must be exhausting."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting things done properly, but I don't really see what that has to do with anything."

"Well," Osomatsu started, rubbing his nose, "the way I see it, it's the right thing to do to think about Ichimatsu in this situation, right? Of course it is. That's a no-brainer! But there's still other people involved too, you know?"

Choromatsu raised an eyebrow at his older brother.

"I know that," Choromatsu interjected defensively. "Of course I know that. But Ichimatsu's the one that needs us right now."

"He is." Osomatsu nodded in agreement. "But I'm just saying. Maybe it'd do you some good to think about everyone else. Or just yourself, even. I think it's okay to be just a little selfish, sometimes. If you weren't, you'd probably go crazy after a while!"

Choromatsu just stared blankly at his brother, not quite understanding what he meant, or if his words truly had any significant bearing on this situation at all. Beyond that, he wasn't sure if Osomatsu himself truly knew the point he was making. After thinking about it for a moment, Choromatsu just sighed.

"I don't know," he admitted. "It just sounds like it's in pretty poor taste, to me."

"Does it? Maybe you're right." The way Osomatsu casually backed out of his own argument seemed to cement the fact that he didn't really have any forethought to his words. Or maybe he just didn't feel the need to argue. It was difficult for Choromatsu to tell sometimes. "Who knows? I guess I've just been thinking about it lately."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Osomatsu's smile fell only slightly as he rubbed his nose again, their conversation cut short by the teacher finally arriving to start class. As the irrelevant conversations of all their classmates died down, Choromatsu heard him say one last thing, his voice oddly quiet. "It's funny. With us, it doesn't seem like it, but I feel like some of us can be really bad at being selfish sometimes."

-_-_-_-

Ichimatsu held Nala in his arms, petting her back softly, trying not to cringe as his fingers brushed over the obvious ridges of her spine. She was fast asleep, purring as contentedly as she ever had before. But Ichimatsu's heart caught in his throat with each exhale she let out, waiting for the following inhale with bated breath.

She hadn't been too active at all, the past few days. It was a struggle to get food down her. She had become so gaunt and aloof, sometimes it was difficult for Ichimatsu to even look at her.

But he watched over her all the same, kept her there in his arms and didn't leave her side. Maybe if he held her for long enough, everything would turn out fine. She'd bounce back from this without a problem. This would be nothing more than a distant memory, some cruel joke from an unseen source that would be taken back at the very last second.

Maybe, if he concentrated hard enough, he could wake up from this nightmare.

The door to the bedroom suddenly slid open, and Ichimatsu glanced up, expecting his mother, back from the supermarket. When he instead saw Todomatsu standing in the doorway, his breath hitched, and he quickly turned his head back around, staring at the wall beside him. Todomatsu seemed equally as surprised to see him, simply blinking at him from the doorway for a while before his voice rang through the room.

"Oh, I-" Todomatsu stammered. "I didn't think you were home."

"What are you doing here?" Ichimatsu snapped, instinctively curling into himself, pulling Nala tighter into his chest. Why was he home from school this early? Why did it have to be him? Why now, of all times?

"I...." Todomatsu trailed off purposefully. "I... I thought today you were supposed to go to your... doctor's appointment thing."

"I didn't." Ichimatsu replied shortly. "What are you doing home?"

"I-" The youngest brother was uncharacteristically ineloquent, and he stopped for a moment to try to gather his thoughts. "I was just picking something up. And then I was going to.... Um. Please don't tell Mom and Dad."

Ichimatsu's face twitched in annoyance. So he was playing hooky. What an idiot. It wasn't like the school wouldn't eventually realize he was gone and just call their parents themselves. Unless Todomatsu had somehow managed to wriggle out of this situation unscathed, as he always seemed to. Regardless, Ichimatsu couldn't find the energy to even pretend to care.

"Just get out of here." He growled.

"Ichimatsu, I'm serious. Please don't tell Mom and Dad."

Ichimatsu just wanted him to leave. He really did. But he almost couldn't help himself from turning back to his younger brother with a scowl.

"So what if I do?" The fourth brother snarled sarcastically.

"Ichimatsu." Todomatsu grimaced, and his brows knotted together in growing frustration. "Do not tell them."

"Why shouldn't I?"

"I.... I-" Todomatsu's voice caught in his throat, and he gritted his teeth. Ichimatsu glared daggers at him.

"You're such a brat." Ichimatsu finally scoffed, looking back towards Nala. She was still sleeping, and he pet her again, closing his eyes. He just wanted Todomatsu to go. He just wanted to be alone.

"I... I got suspended, okay?"

Ichimatsu opened his eyes again, looking back towards his brother in confusion without thinking about it. Todomatsu was biting the inside of his cheek, and his voice warbled as he spoke.

"I got suspended for a week." Todomatsu snipped, although his normal ferocity was significantly subdued. "And I just wanted to be the one to tell them. I don't want them finding out from anyone else. So please, please don't tell them."

Ichimatsu stared at him blankly for a moment before his gaze drifted.

"I'm not gonna tell them, brat." He grumbled quietly.

Todomatsu breath a small sigh of relief, but he still seemed at a loss for words, mouth hanging open slightly as he made no move to exit the room. Ichimatsu could feel anxiety rising in his chest again, and he only grew more tense. Why couldn't he just leave? Why couldn't he just leave him alone? He didn't want to talk to anyone. He couldn't. He just wanted to be alone with his cat. To try to forget everything else.

"Is she doing okay?" Todomatsu's quiet voice broke through the awkward silence, and Ichimatsu could have choked at the question.

It was only at that moment that he realized how long it had been since he had really spoken to his youngest brother, aside from the unavoidable casual words that had to come from living with someone - the menial requests to pass the salt at the dinner table, or asking for notes from the class they shared. Ichimatsu was sure this was due in part to his other brothers' influence, because Todomatsu had always been too sharp and honest and analytical. He was everything that made Ichimatsu's heart race, made his mind fog with anxiety and self-doubt.

Ichimatsu didn't even think he had ever heard Todomatsu directly talk about Nala ever since he had gotten her. And maybe that was a good thing. But hearing it now did nothing but rattle Ichimatsu, for reasons he couldn't bear to think about. So he didn't.

The fourth brother made sure to look Todomatsu in the eye, giving him a steady, venomous glare.

"What do you care?" He asked, voice low. It took every fiber of his being not to shake as he spoke, not to reveal anything, to fight the despair that stung behind his eyes.

Todomatsu only stared back at him distantly, and Ichimatsu could see the gears turning in his head as he processed his older brother's words. Inevitably, though, his eyebrows knotted in the heated frustration Ichimatsu had been expecting.

"I'm just trying to be nice." Todomatsu snapped defensively. "Whatever though. Just sit here all by yourself, if you want to so bad."

Ichimatsu turned away again, resting his forehead against the wall. Todomatsu lingered for a moment, glaring down at him fiercely before scoffing and turning back out of the room.

"You know," Todomatsu barked over his shoulder, his voice warbling more than Ichimatsu expected it to, "if it weren't for you, I wouldn't have even gotten suspended in the first place."

Ichimatsu froze, hearing the door to their room slide shut roughly. He wasn't sure he fully grasped the true meaning of Todomatsu's words, but the vagueness of it only served to worsen the statement's affect.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed before a small mew broke him out of his catatonic state, and he looked down at the Nala still laying comfortably in his arms.

She looked up at him, eyes tired. Too tired for such a small kitten. But she still purred faintly as she lifted up a single paw and tapped Ichimatsu against his chin.

Ichimatsu actually managed to crack a smile at the gesture, before his breath caught in his throat, building up until a sob rattled out of him.

He was still waiting to wake up.

-_-_-_-

It was the middle of the night, and Ichimatsu hadn't come to bed. Karamatsu hadn't even had the chance to drift off into another restless sleep before the absence of his brother became too much to bear. He got up to search, and eventually found the third youngest huddled in the corner of the bathroom, holding something in his arms. Karamatsu could only watch as the last of his brother's hope crumbled away to dust around him.

By morning, Ichimatsu was still waiting for her to wake up.

-_-_-_-

"I'm not going."

Choromatsu glared up at Todomatsu as the youngest spoke, leaning over the table as he rested his head against his hand.

"You're going," Choromatsu contradicted shortly, but his tone was weary. "I'm too tired to deal with your tantrums right now, so let's just skip it."

"I'm serious." Todomatsu tapped his foot in annoyance, standing a few feet away from where Choromatsu, along with Osomatsu and Jyushimatsu, sat. Every movement he made was rigid and tight, and he refused to make eye contact with any of them. "I'm not going to a funeral for a cat. That's stupid."

Choromatsu opened his mouth to say something, but Osomatsu quickly interjected before he could get the chance to unleash hell.

"Aw, come on, Todomatsu," Osomatsu pleaded, keeping his tone level and easy-going. "Karamatsu says he thinks it'll really help him! Like, it's something about Ichimatsu staying kosher or something...."

"Closure! It's 'having closure'!" Choromatsu snapped quickly in correction. "It'll give him closure! Are you an idiot?"

"Yes!" Jyushimatsu barked suddenly, giving an oddly solemn nod. "That's why Lil' Slugger gets a warrior's send off! A viking's funeral!"

"Do you even know what that is?! We're not doing that!"

"Yeah, so," Osomatsu continued, seemingly ignoring his two other brothers, "Karamatsu said it would mean a lot to Ichimatsu if everyone came!"

"That's just it," Todomatsu spat back, voice bitter. "Karamatsu said that. What does he know? Like Ichimatsu would even want me around in the first place. He probably doesn't even want to do any of this! This is so typical, all this is is Karamatsu sticking his nose in places it doesn't belong. He's not helpful, the only thing he's doing is being pushy!"

"Hey!" Choromatsu sat up straighter, banging his palms against the table and snapping his attention back to Todomatsu, his patience nearly spent. "Karamatsu's just trying to help! It's better than anything you've ever done for Ichimatsu. Or anyone, for that matter!"

"I do plenty!" Todomatsu snapped back. "I just know when to not be a nuisance!"

"Hey, hey," Osomatsu placated with a nervous laugh, raising his hands up in an effort to pacify the two feuding brothers. "Everyone cool off. Todomatsu, why don't you just think about it? You can even meet us there, if you don't want to walk along! We're going to the top of the hill in the park, so you can-"

"I don't need to think about it." Todomatsu cut him off quickly, arms crossed staunchly across his chest as he turned his back to the group like a petulant child. "I'm not going."

Choromatsu gritted his teeth, standing up suddenly, and Jyushimatsu and Osomatsu awkwardly averted their eyes from the conflict. The third oldest whipped his head towards Todomatsu, hands clenched into fists at his sides.

"Listen, you!" He barked tersely, brows furrowed in anger. "We're all sick of your attitude! I don't understand how you think you can act like this! You haven't done a single thing for anyone this whole time!"

Todomatsu didn't reply and didn't turn back, which only succeeded in making Choromatsu's voice raise even further.

"You have one more chance, Todomatsu." Choromatsu growled, glaring daggers at the back of Todomatsu's head. "All you have to do is this one thing. Given everything else, it shouldn't be such a big deal! I don't get what's with you! Just come with us!"

Choromatsu was met with silence for a few excruciating seconds, before Todomatsu spoke again, voice tight and sharp, enunciating every syllable with chilling precision.

"I'm not going."

It took every fiber of the third brother's being not to sail across the room and deck Todomatsu across the head.

"Why the hell not?!" Choromatsu exploded, scowling so hard that his teeth ached. "What makes you think you're so much better than the rest of us?! Why can't you do this?!"

"I just can't, okay?!" Todomatsu shrill reply rang out in stark comparison to what his tone had been previously, and he finally whipped around to face his brother. Choromatsu was in the middle of opening his mouth to reply when he had to stop suddenly, his outrage swept away in a single second.

Todomatsu was probably trying to look angry. His brows were furrowed tightly together, and he flashed his teeth at his brother as if to assert his dominance. He was trying really hard to make it seem like that. But tears stung at the corners of his eyes, a pained grimace was plastered on his face. The fists held down at his sides shook slightly as he stood there.

"What's a stupid funeral gonna do for him?! Nothing!" Todomatsu snapped, the strained distortion of his voice removing any edge from the statement. He voice suddenly got quieter after a short pause, and the words were muffled as his used his sleeve to wipe away his unshed tears. "Why'd the stupid cat have to go and die anyway? It's not fair."

His voice cracked at the last word, and it was only at that moment that he seemed to realize what he was doing, the scene he was making. Without another word, he swept himself away, and his brothers could only watch in stunned silence as he hurriedly shoved his shoes onto his feet.

"I'm going out." Todomatsu said lowly, as if trying to compensate for the high-pitched urgency his voice had taken on. He rushed out the front door before anyone could protest.

After a while, Choromatsu sat back down on the ground silently, keeping his eyes on his feet. Osomatsu looked at him for a moment before his gaze also fluttered to the floor awkwardly.

Jyushimatsu looked at both of them a little blankly, until he let out a slow exhale, his shoulders and head slumping forward in he process. When he spoke, his voice seemed to echo throughout the room, even with how unusually subdued it was.

"Maybe it's better if he doesn't show up after all."

-_-_-_-

"Is it even legal for us to be digging here? It's public property...." Choromatsu mulled, although he continued chipping away at the hole already made in the ground.

"Who knows?" Osomatsu said with a loud sigh, sitting on the grass beside the hole, his back resting against Jyushimatsu's behind him. "This is tough work, though!"

"Yeah, yeah!" Jyushimatsu exclaimed.

"You two haven't even done anything! Get up and help us!"

"Do your best, Choromatsu!" Osomatsu and Jyushimatsu chimed simultaneously, giving him a thumbs up.

Karamatsu took a break from his own shoveling, glancing up at his three brothers and managing to crack a small smile at their antics. It was short-lived, however, and as it fell he looked back to Ichimatsu, standing a few feet away from everyone. The fourth brother was expressionless, clutching a shoe box to his chest carefully as he stared at the ground. Karamatsu's stomach turned. He look back to the hole he and Choromatsu had made.

"This should be enough," the second brother commented somberly. Choromatsu looked up at him and nodded, taking a step back and putting some of his weight into his shovel.

Osomatsu hummed quietly to himself, giving a vague nod towards Jyushimatsu, ushering him to stand up at the same time as himself.

Karamatsu sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose in exhaustion before walking over to Ichimatsu.

"Ichimatsu," he said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. Ichimatsu flinched slightly at the touch, jerked back into the present, but his eyes were still blank as he looked over at his older brother. "Do you want me to...."

Karamatsu trailed off purposefully, making the smallest of gestures towards the shoe box in Ichimatsu's arms, and the fourth brother looked down at it as if only then remembering it was there. He seemed to consider this for a moment, though, before nodding tersely. Despite the silent request, Karamatsu almost had to help him release his grip on the object and what lay inside it, taking it from him gently and turning towards the hasty grave before them. With a heavy heart and quiet sigh, Karamatsu placed the box into the hole with care, stepping back and positioning himself at his brother's right side, putting his hand back on his shoulder.

Ichimatsu no longer seemed to know what to do with his hands, so he simply hugged himself as he looked off to the side. To his left, Jyushimatsu and Osomatsu lined up respectively, while Choromatsu gained an understanding of the second's brother role at this point in time, taking it upon himself to replace the dirt they had dug up.

They were all silent for a few beats, until Karamatsu could feel Ichimatsu twitch suddenly beneath his touch, standing up a little bit straighter. Karamatsu looked over at him.

"What wrong?" He asked quietly. Ichimatsu didn't answer him, but the older brother noticed that although he was still looking off to the side in the same position he had been, his eyes appeared to be focused on something. Karamatsu followed his stare, and what he saw was nearly enough to break him down.

"Todomatsu," Karamatsu croaked quietly, and at the name, the other three brothers whipped their head around to see the youngest trudging up the hill, slumped over with his hands in his pockets. He didn't meet any of their gazes or say anything as he approached, only sat himself in the grass about a yard away from anyone else, glaring ahead stiffly as his rested his chin in his hand.

All they could do was stare at him, and after a while he bristled under the scrutiny, sighing a bit impatiently.

"Are we doing this, or what?" He asked dully.

The others finally looked away from his awkwardly, and Choromatsu grimaced at his brusque phrasing, but didn't press the issue as he continued refilling the hole the rest of the way. After he finished, he stepped back and closed the gap between Osomatsu and Todomatsu, exhaling softly.

The group was silent for a long time.

"Should we say something?" Osomatsu finally asked, a nervous laugh escaping him. "Isn't that what people do at funerals?"

"I don't know," Choromatsu admitted, scratching the back of his head. "I guess we can if Ichimatsu wants to."

They all looked over at the fourth brother then, still numbly staring at his own feet. After a moment, he gave the smallest of nods.

Todomatsu could be heard sniffing quietly, and he shifted his hand slightly to cover his mouth as he stared blankly back to the little grave in front of them. His eyes kept darting to Ichimatsu occasionally. Karamatsu just looked tired as his eyes gradually went out of focus in front of him, and the other three shifted around awkwardly, wondering who would speak first.

Osomatsu ended up breathing in through his nostrils before smiling and speaking up.

"You were a good little kitten!" The eldest brother expressed positively, rubbing his nose. "You always made everyone smile, and you were pretty cool for a cat! Definitely better than a dog. Sorry I ever doubted you! I'm gonna miss all the funny things you used to do, like when you ripped up all of Choromatsu's homework. And when you coughed up a hairball in Choromatsu's shoes. And when you dropped a dead mouse on Choromatsu's pillow while we were sleeping. Also, please forgive me for when I knocked over one of Choromatsu's Nyaa-chan figurines and blamed it on you because I knew he wouldn't get mad! But yeah, we had some pretty good times! I'll really miss that!"

Osomatsu glanced over to Choromatsu, who was raising a brow at him, eye twitching slightly.

"You wanna go next, Choromatsu?" The eldest asked, grinning.

Choromatsu composed himself, taking a a deep breath and looking solemnly back to the grave before him.

"Um.... You were a lot of fun to have around," Choromatsu said awkwardly. He glanced over at Ichimatsu, whose face and demeanor had yet to change, and when he spoke again his voice was strained, finding it difficult not to get choked up. "I was always surprised at how easy-going you were. I don't know a lot of cats that treat everyone else the way they treat Ichimatsu. It was... it was really nice. For everyone. I think you did a lot for the family."

Choromatsu trailed off, unable to say anymore before the lump in his throat became too much to bear. He heard a stifled, shuddering inhale coming from his left, and he looked over at Todomatsu. He was crying.

More silence filled the air, the only sound the occasional muffled hiccup coming from Todomatsu, his own hand keeping the noises from traveling too far.

"Muscle, muscle, hustle, hustle!" Jyushimatsu's sudden cacophonous exclamation made everyone jump slightly, save for Ichimatsu. The fifth brother projected his voice loud and proud, his usual dopey grin on his face. "You were a good kitty, Lil' Slugger! I hope you can hit all the home runs you ever dreamed of now! You're a real MVP! National Hall of Famer! Thank you for your service!"

Choromatsu still felt an urge to ask his younger brother if he knew what he was saying or where he was at, but he couldn't drum up the motivation to follow through with this, only sniffling quietly to himself. He looked back to Todomatsu, who was still struggling to retain some semblance of composure, eyes falling out of focus as tears streamed down his face. After the silence persisted, Osomatsu and Jyushimatsu turned expectantly towards the youngest brother as well.

Todomatsu didn't look up, but he seemed to sense the attention, and he took another few moments to gather himself. He moved his hand away from his face just a bit, enough to reveal his mouth hanging open, having trouble finding his words.

"You-" His voice caught in his throat, raw and trembling, sounding too unappealing to his own ears. His mind scrambled for something, anything, and he looked back to Ichimatsu again. Ichimatsu's face was still unreadable, completely void of any determinable emotion. But he was looking back at Todomatsu. They made eye contact for a moment before Todomatsu had to avert his gaze again.

"You weren't as gross as I thought you'd be." The last word was punctuated with a sob, and Todomatsu quickly covered his mouth again, unable to say anything more or anything better. He curled into himself as the rest of his brothers turned their heads uncomfortably.

Osomatsu sighed to himself. He still smiled, although the expression had fallen considerably, looking faint and a bit forced. He looked over at the last two brothers. Karamatsu still had a hand on Ichimatsu's shoulder, gripping it so tightly it looked as if he was frightened of him blowing away in the breeze. The eldest brother would have expected the second to be the most emotional out of all of them. But Karamatsu only looked tired, his eyes dark and face disconcertingly stoic. Osomatsu raised an eyebrow at him. He didn't even look like he was ready to speak up. But after a while, Karamatsu inhaled through his nose, closing his eyes for a moment.

"Thank you for everything."

At his low, almost dull words, Osomatsu noticed Ichimatsu's own hold on himself tighten. It was the first he had budged in quite a while.

Osomatsu turned his head away from them, sighing thoughtfully.

"Right." He barked suddenly, stretching his arms over his head and letting them hang behind his back. "Jyushimatsu. Choromatsu. Todomatsu. Let's go."

The others all looked over at him in surprise. Choromatsu gave him a questioning stare, wiping away a bit of moisture that had formed in the corner of his eye.

"Huh? But, Osomatsu, what are you-"

"Hey, come on, we'll meet Karamatsu and Ichimatsu at home," Osomatsu interrupted, breaking out of their formation and stepping towards the two brothers in question. He bypassed Ichimatsu initially, giving Karamatsu a clap on the shoulder and a small smile as the younger brother looked up at him in confusion. "Quiet kids need some time alone sometimes. Right, Karamatsu?"

Karamatsu blinked at him a couple times before nodding tersely, and Osomatsu chuckled. He turned back towards Ichimatsu. He ruffled the fourth brother's hair playfully.

"Mom's making your favorite for dinner tonight, so don't be too long, okay?" Osomatsu added, winking at him. Ichimatsu didn't reply, but his posture loosened up a bit. Osomatsu took a step back, nodding at Jyushimatsu and Choromatsu.

Jyushimatsu looked at Ichimatsu for a moment, cocking his head to the side. After a while, his giddy expression finally fell, although he still managed an upturn of his lips as he placed a hand on his older brother's shoulder.

"We love you, Ichimatsu." With that, Jyushimatsu stepped off to the side along with Osomatsu, his hand lingering for a moment before letting himself break the contact. Choromatsu could see his mouth fall into a pout as soon as his back was turned to Ichimatsu. His lip quivered slightly, and he buried his face into his sleeves as he walked away.

Choromatsu still found it difficult to swallow around the lump in his throat, so he turned to Todomatsu first. He held out a hand to the youngest brother, and he sheepishly took it after a pause, letting Choromatsu help pull him up off the ground. After that was done, he looked back to Ichimatsu and Karamatsu. With a heavy heart, he took a shaky breath.

"We'll meet you guys at home." Choromatsu said quietly, turning to join with Osomatsu.

Todomatsu was the last to move, staring at the ground and biting his lip, hands clenched into shaking fists at his sides. He looked at Ichimatsu in consideration, opening his mouth to speak, although no words came out.

It didn't take much longer for the youngest to stride over to Ichimatsu, wrapping his arms around his brother and hugging him tightly to him. Karamatsu released his own hold on Ichimatsu, watching them pensively.

Ichimatsu reacted to the embrace quicker than anyone expected. He unraveled his arms from his own torso, returning Todomatsu's gesture with little hesitation, burying his face into the youngest brother's shoulder. Todomatsu brought a hand to his mouth again as a sob resurfaced in his chest, squeezing him tighter.

"I'm so sorry," Todomatsu sobbed quietly, he himself not entirely sure what the apology specified, or if it would be enough for everything, but knowing that it was due nonetheless. "I love you. I'm so sorry."

Ichimatsu didn't reply, but his hands gripped desperately at the fabric of Todomatsu's jacket.

After a long while, Todomatsu regretfully pulled himself away from Ichimatsu, hiccuping as he grabbed his hands with his own. He gave them a light squeeze and let his touch trail off as he backed up to join the other three, waiting for him a couple yards away. Ichimatsu didn't look too eager to let go, but he didn't turn to watch Todomatsu or any of his other brothers leave.

Karamatsu, however, turned his head and let his eyes follow the four trudging off towards home, his gaze lingering for as long as they remained in sight. Once they were gone, he let out a nervous exhale, his eyes falling to the ground.

He wasn't sure what to say, in this situation. For the first time in his life, he couldn't think of anything positive. He couldn't instill the hope in Ichimatsu that he needed. Although, he wasn't even entirely sure what Ichimatsu needed to begin with.

"Why can't I do anything right?"

The two had been so still and so silent for so long, Karamatsu jumped at the sound of his brother's voice, looking over at him in panic. Feeling the absense of another person's touch, Ichimatsu had gone back to hugging himself, and he was even more hunched over than he had been before. He was just staring wide-eyed at the grave before him. His eyes had finally taken on a glassy sheen.

"I don't understand." Ichimatsu continued heavily, his voice shaking. Tears started to leak from his eyes. "I don't understand why I have to be like this."

Karamatsu grimaced painfully, replacing his hand on his brother's shoulder and trying to get a better look at his face.

"Ichimatsu, you-"

"Why do I have to be like this?" Ichimatsu interrupted, and a sob eventually escaped his throat as he spoke. He nearly doubled over, crouching down and burying his head in his knees while Karamatsu followed him there, just to stay in contact with him. "I can't do anything right. All I do is disappoint everyone, and make their lives harder."

"Ichimatsu, please, I-"

"No!" Ichimatsu shouted, flinching away from his brothers touch slightly, curling into as tight of a ball as he could manage. "I-I can't do anything! I couldn't even help her when she needed it most! I-I knew I should have, but I fucked up. I fucked up so bad.... And-and then she-"

"Ichimatsu-"

"I can't do it anymore," Ichimatsu wept, inconsolable. "I can't do this anymore, Karamatsu. I-I can't."

"Ichimatsu, please," Karamatsu managed to croak, voice strained with emotion, trying futilely to rub his brother's back comfortingly. "Please just calm down."

"You shouldn't have found me that day." Ichimatsu's words cut through Karamatsu like a knife, and he froze. Ichimatsu's shoulders continued the heave underneath his touch. "I don't- I don't deserve to live. I can't do a-anything right. I couldn't even kill myself right. I- I just- I just- I can't-"

Ichimatsu's words became too fragmented and unintelligible to decipher any longer. And as much as Karamatsu didn't want to admit it, he could no longer focus his attention on attempting to understand it.

His mind was wandering again. Flashes of color were coming to him, purples and whites and blues. And reds. The ugly, messy reds. Reds that had stained his hands and the bathroom tiles. Reds on sharp silver.

His mind wandered to memories he wished he didn't have. Moments that he wished had never happened.

But it had happened all the same, hadn't it? It couldn't be taken back. That was just a simple fact.

Karamatsu couldn't do anything but just listen to Ichimatsu cry for the longest time. And maybe it was better that way, anyway. It gave him a chance to mull over his own train of thought. It gave the younger of the two a chance to empty out, spill everything he had been saving up until that moment. As the third youngest's sobs tapered off slowly, Karamatsu forced himself back into the present. He gave a deep breath, steeling himself for what was yet to come.

"Ichimatsu. Sit down." Karamatsu urged gently. Ichimatsu finally looked up at him, a pitiful, woeful expression on his face, but he acquiesced with nothing more than a wet hiccup, crossing his legs on the grass and facing his brother. Karamatsu followed suit, and after a moment, he turned his hands upwards on his lap, offering them to the fourth brother. Ichimatsu gingerly placed his own on top on them, and Karamatsu wrapped his thumbs around his fingers.

He still wasn't sure what to say. He had a better idea, but there were still so many thoughts whirling around in his head, it was hard to distinguish where one ended and another began. He pondered for a moment, staring down at their hands, before speaking up.

"It's hard seeing you like this," Karamatsu admitted quietly. "Especially after how happy you've been."

Ichimatsu sniffled, biting his bottom lip. "I'm sorry."

"You don't need to be sorry." Karamatsu replied. "It's okay to be sad. You can't help it. I just want you to know that it is hard on everyone else. I can't lie about that."

Karamatsu bit the inside of his cheek, making eye contact with his brother.

"But we'd rather be worried about you than have to live without you, you know?" The older brother added, voice cracking at the end. He looked over to the small grave beside them. "I think Nala felt the same way too. She wouldn't have lived as happily as she did if you hadn't been around."

Fresh tears forced their way past Ichimatsu's lashes and rolled down his cheeks. His face started to contort in grief again, and he hung his head.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, struggling to even get the words out. "It's just really hard."

"I know. It's okay," Karamatsu soothed, rubbing little circles into his hands. "I know it's scary. Not knowing what's gonna happen next. And I don't blame you for making mistakes along the way. Because it is really hard."

Karamatsu turned Ichimatsu's hands around gently, until his palms were facing up, and he replaced his own, wrapping them loosely around his clothed wrists. His thumbs ghosted over the fabric of Ichimatsu's jacket, tracing the scars that he couldn't see but knew were there.

"You can't ever give up, though." Karamatsu continued, quiet but firm. His eyes started to water, and he could feel the emotion finally rising up in his breast. "You have to keep trying. I know it's hard, and you're really scared. And that's okay. But you can't give up."

Karamatsu didn't like crying in front of Ichimatsu. It just never seemed like the right thing to to do. But he could control it any longer, a quiet sob escaping him as his hands moved back down Ichimatsu's arm, squeezing the center of his palms.

"I'm really scared too." Karamatsu said, voice shaking. He looked back up at Ichimatsu, and his tears rolled hotly down his cheeks. Ichimatsu was biting his bottom lip so hard Karamatsu was worried he would make himself bleed, and he trembled visibly as he watched his brother speak. "I'm scared of thinking about all of us trying to live without you. I don't want that to happen. I know life is hard, and it makes you really sad. And it's okay if you make mistakes. It's okay if you make us worry sometimes. Just please promise me you won't ever give up again. Because I can't ever give up on you."

Ichimatsu stared back at him, tears flowing freely again, and he shut his eyes tightly. He squeezed Karamatsu's hands like they were the only thing still tethering him to the earth.

"I'm scared I can't keep that promise." Ichimatsu finally sobbed, shaking his head vaguely.

Karamatsu let in a shuddering inhale, trying to regain just a little bit of his composure again. When Ichimatsu opened his eyes, he made sure he was meeting him with an encouraging smile.

"I know you can," Karamatsu reassured him gently. "Because I can promise you something too. I promise everything's going to get better."

Ichimatsu stared back at him forlornly, hiccuping a few times before leaning forward, resting his head against Karamatsu's chest and loosely wrapping his arms around him. Karamatsu wrapped one of his own across Ichimatsu's shoulders, using his free hand to pet his brother's hair soothingly.

"What if it doesn't?" Ichimatsu asked quietly. He sounded so small and so fragile that Karamatsu didn't think he could ever let him go.

The second eldest closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. For reasons he couldn't accurately pinpoint or describe, the longer he cried himself out, the more he could feel a familiar glimmer of hope stir within him. He really had no logical reason to automatically trust in this feeling, the bit of warmth within himself that usually governed every word he spoke and action he took. He didn't know how or why he knew that everything was going to turn out alright, or what words he could use to convince Ichimatsu of his.

He just knew.

Karamatsu continued to run his finger's through Ichimatsu's hair, holding him a little tighter. He found himself glancing over to the little grave sticking up from the grass again. He smiled solemnly. He wished Nala could have been there for longer. But she really did do some amazing things in the time she had. She had brought Ichimatsu's smile back. And now that Karamatsu had seen it, he saw no reason to believe that he couldn't see it again.

"I know it will."

-_-_-_-

"I don't think you should be smoking on grass. Or in a public park."

"It's too late for kids to be out. Who's gonna bust me for it?"

"Well, worst case scenario: the fire department."

Ichimatsu laughed dryly, taking another drag on his cigarette despite the warning. Karamatsu simply sighed at him, taking a sip of the beer in his hand.

To be fair, this part of the park had a lot less grass left compared to back when they were kids. Even just comparig it to back when they were in high school, although it was a little weird to think about just how long it had been since even that time. But coupled with decades worth of tiny feet trampling on the foliage and overall neglect of this particular area, the top of the hill was looking a little barren these days. There was barely a trace left of what any of the brothers had seen or done here when they were young. All that was left were memories, nothing more than a picture of green grass and laughing children, and a small mound in the ground where the soil had once been disturbed.

It was kind of sad to think about. More than anything, though, it just made Karamatsu feel old. He took a more substantial swig of his beer, and it stung his throat a bit. He didn't usually drink that often. But then again, it wasn't often that he and Ichimatsu spent any time alone together, either. It was a special occasion, though. The one thing that Karamatsu could count on every year. The anniversary of a note-worthy day, a bittersweet memory in more ways than one.

"So how long has it been again?" Ichimatsu blurted suddenly, as if reading Karamatsu's mind. Karamatsu looked over at his younger brother curiously. Ichimatsu was staring a little dully at a certain spot on the hill in front of him, cheeks already tinged pink with slight intoxication. The second brother noted that the beer in his hand was already almost gone. "Five years? Six?"

"Seven." Karamatsu corrected, following his gaze.

"Jesus." Ichimatsu scoffed loudly, taking another drag of his cigarette before simply throwing the rest into what remained of his bottle. "Makes you wonder why we still come up here every year."

"Hm." Karamatsu hummed thoughtfully, closing his eyes for a moment. He looked back up at Ichimatsu, giving him an all-knowing smirk and raising his own drink. "To celebrate the life of those who have touched us most, my dear Ichimatsu. Even though the years may come and go, it would be a crime to forget a life well spent."

"That was a rhetorical question, idiot," Ichimatsu sighed in exasperation, but he shifted around a bit to lean back against Karamatsu's shoulder, slumping against him sleepily. "And anyway, that's not why we come up here."

Karamatsu blinked down at him, a little dumbstruck.

"Wait. It's not?"

"No."

"Then what is the reason?" Karamatsu queried, cocking his head to the side.

Ichimatsu was quiet for a moment, and he looked a little wistful. After a moment, he let his head loll backwards so he could get a better look at his brother, a very faint smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

"We're celebrating the one time you were ever right about anything." Ichimatsu said simply. As an afterthought, he chuckled dryly and lifted his head back up, adding, "The first and last time. Enjoy the memory, dumbass."

This made Karamatsu stop, and for a while, he didn't know how to reply to this. He finally smiled to himself though. He could feel the warmth of where his brother's back touched his arm, and he swore it was spreading out to through the rest of his body.

Karamatsu raised his bottle slightly again, glancing down at Ichimatsu warmly.

"To another year, then."

Ichimatsu hummed a little uninterestedly, but eventually he picked up his empty bottle, clinking it against Karamatsu's without looking.

"Another year."